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Handyman Letter - February, 1999


1) Sometimes, youth is wasted on the "almost" old... a message from the Natural Handyman.

2) Hello and thank you to web sites and publications that have recognized the Natural Handyman in the past month!

3) What's new at

4) Q and A with our readers





I love to go to the gym. No, you won't see me bouncing around in the aerobics room... I am an 'earthy' sort of guy. Give me a few dumbbells, a few pieces of simple equipment and I'm happy. And though I don't get to the gym as often as I would like, whenever I do I get a feeling of joy and accomplishment that is hard to rival. Perhaps because my goals are my own, my accomplishments my own, and my disappointments my own.

Anyway, the other day as I ripped off my coveralls to don the customary shorts, tank top, and fingerless black leather workout gloves, I happened to glance at a young fellow changing nearby. Our eyes met briefly... a nod of acknowledgement... we were after all trying to focus on the job looming ahead... sculpting and grunting and sweating. He was probably 25 years my junior and in pretty good shape. It made me reflect briefly on how I was back then... how different my goals were and how differently my life has evolved so differently than those dreams I wove from whole cloth. We finished changing and moved to the gym floor.

I have become a "mature" weight trainer. I have learned where my weaknesses are and have developed methods to keep myself off the disabled list. I remember which body parts can do what, and how to protect myself. My training is very directed... very serious... very careful. Having been disabled to varying degrees by self-inflicted knee, shoulder, and back injuries, I have finally "grown-up" enough to know where not to tread... well, at least in my training. But not this young fellow!

I saw reflections of myself in his movements... his training was obviously effective based on his physique, yet his methods were sloppy and in some cases physically dangerous. He was jerking heavy weights... my back hurt just looking at him! Look out with those bench presses... watch those rotator cuffs! Ouch!

My "mature" workout only lasted about 30 minutes, so I was done about the time he had just finished his warm up. I guessed he would be in the gym for at least another hour. I inwardly shook my head... doesn't he know that long, frequent workouts can lead to overtraining and injuries? I moved back down the long stairway to the basement locker room and began my return to the real world. But as I packed my bag, I suddenly thought once again about the young man... his disregard for the principles I felt were so important... his "gung ho" attitude and his ignorance of danger.

We have been told that children don't have a sense of their own mortality. I have no reason to doubt this... look at the auto insurance rates for young drivers... 'specially us guys! The young do everything with passion and abandon. As adults, we may forsake or even criticize these qualities and opt for the security of constancy... a steady job, long term relationships, patterns and routines. But is that the right way? One of many options? Is youth really wasted on the young?

I don't think so. I may feel envy for the young pain-free body, but also secretly know that even its clock is ticking in closer synchronicity to mine each day. But the truth is that the strength and fire of youth must belong to them. We can't steal their daring... or even borrow it. We must observe it, guide it where we can, but never belittle it or discourage it. Our adult selves come from our personal knowledge and history... the power of youth comes from their energy and curiosity. Could you imagine a world where children actually acted like adults... child-adults without a history of passion from which to draw adult strength.? What well would supply the liquor of vitality and memory that we as adults draw on in moments of doubt and weakness?

Someone has to blaze the trail! Someone has to be willing to take risks! Without the daring... the rock climbers and the sky divers... society withers. Isn't it a rule of life that not moving forward is moving backward? Life is like walking up a down escalator. In youth we effortlessly trot to the top. In adulthood, we keep pace... sometimes gaining and sometimes losing ground. But youthful trail blazers and the risk takers give society a needed shot in the arm, and carry that experience and strength into their adulthood. We need them and they need us. We don't really want them to be like us.

Not yet...




Dear NH,

My doorbell no longer rings. The doorbell button outside the front door is no longer lit (it was when the doorbell was working). There are no breakers tripped in the breaker box. I replaced the doorbell button, but the new one does not light up either - and the doorbell still does not work. Before I go and purchase a new unit I thought I would ask you first. Any thoughts?

CH from Roundrock, Texas


The first thing to do would be to make sure you are receiving electrical power at the doorbell unit. You will have to test the transformer that supplies power to the doorbell. The transformer reduces the 120v AC electrical power down to around 14v AC to operate the doorbell. You can do this test without locating it by simply testing the wiring at the doorbell unit itself.

Take the cover off the doorbell unit and take note of the wiring layout. There should be two or three wires attached to terminals on the doorbell. One will be labeled "T" or Trans for transformer. The other one or two will be labeled either Front or Back, referring to the front and back doorbell buttons.

You should also see a few additional wires attached together. Be aware that sometimes there is not enough room under the doorbell unit cover, so these extra wires may be stuffed into the wall behind the unit, requiring you to take the unit down from the wall to get at them. These are the wires that complete the connection between the doorbell buttons and the transformer, forming a complete wiring circuit. When the doorbell button is pushed, power flows from the transformer, through the button, and through the chime mechanism, activating a solenoid electromagnet which moves a steel rod. The rod strikes the metal chimes, producing the notorious doorbell "ding" or "dong".

Remove the electrical tape and/or wire nut on these (hidden) second wires. (Note that only one of them is connected to the transformer, so keep the bundle together or you will have to probe each of them in the following test.) Using a voltmeter set to the lowest AC setting above 20 volts, touch one probe to the second wire bundle and the other to the wire labeled Trans... you need not disconnect it from the doorbell.

If there is a reading of 10 or more volts, the transformer is OK. To make a final test of the doorbell unit, touch the second wires to the front and/or rear terminals on the doorbell unit. If there is a chime, then you have a problem in the wiring of the button(s).

If there is no power reading, you must locate the transformer and test it directly. This can be a chore... sometimes you can trace the wires back to the transformer from either the doorbell unit or from one of the buttons. The transformer can be attached to the outside of an electrical box or even to the outside of your main electrical panel. You worst nightmare will be that you have a beautifully finished drywall ceiling in the basement... and someone sealed the transformer underneath without leaving an access panel.

Once you locate the transformer, test it again as earlier, but directly on the two terminals. If there is still no reading, replace the transformer with the same voltage level. If there is power at the transformer but no power at the doorbell unit, you may have a broken or disconnected wire. Check all your wiring and connections to be sure there are no loose or mouse-eaten wires.

If you need to replace the transformer, be sure to have the power off to the box to which it is attached. Even though the output from the transformer is not a great shock hazard, the input to it from your homes wiring can pack a deadly punch!



Dear NH,

Our 3 year old hillside home has the lower floor built on a slab. The toilet in the lower part of the home does not flush very nicely. Even if there is no waste in the bowl, it seems to flush "up" (complete with a large air bubble) and then out. This toilet backs up constantly and has overflowed at least 10 times since we have lived here. Seems like only a very minimum amount of waste can be flushed. Do we need a new toilet or extensive pipe repair??

JT from Madison, Alabama

Dear JT,

The first step would be the most conservative. Turn off the water to the toilet, drain the bowl and tank, and unbolt it from the floor. Turn it over and look for obstructions either within the bends of the toilet itself or immediately under it in the drain. Sometimes objects can lodge within these areas, and removing them can solve what appeared to have been a major plumbing blockage. These types of blockages can be deceptive, allowing water to pass by without a whimper, but causing a clog as soon as any paper or other stuff is flushed by them!

If the toilet itself is perfectly clear , you will need to have the pipes snaked out. My advise, if your budget can stand it, its to et a pro handle this one. They are experienced in doing both a thorough and as neat a job as possible. The added benefit to you is that they may also notice other problems that you as an amateur might miss. I have been doing this sort of thing for over 20 years, and I would never auger a main drain pipe myself... one has to know one's limitations!

I had one client who had a toilet backup and asked me to take a look. When I realized that the blockage was between the toilet and the city sewer, I referred her to a great local plumber. When the plumber began to investigate the blockage though one of the main cleanouts, he noticed that the pipe connecting the house to the sewer was partially disconnected just outside the foundation. A do-it-yourselfer would have most likely missed this (though, admittedly, many plumbers may have, too). Eventually, the leaking sewage waste would have made its way into the basement and caused a major calamity. Not that the total repair was inexpensive... my client had to have the front of the house excavated to expose and correct the problem. And then re-landscaped to boot! But at least the ramifications of this sewage leak were limited to the outside.



Dear NH,

In the process of remodeling our kitchen, I have pulled off all the old ceramic tiles and am now facing the old dried cement on the plaster walls. Is there a relatively simple way to remove the cement without destroying the wall plaster so that the new tiles can then be installed? Any help is gratefully appreciated.


Dear PB,

There is a product on the market, made by a company called Jasco, called Jasco Adhesive Remover. This product should do the job. Chemically, it is a cousin to paint remover, with methylene chloride as the main active ingredient, so expect the paint to come off the wall along with the old adhesive. If you can't find the Jasco product, you can try regular paint remover or even a "furniture refinisher" which shares some of the solvent characteristics of paint remover but with less strength.



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