Sunday, November 30, 2008

Progress resumes

I don't know if I'm ready for it, but we're stoking the coals for a final three week push to complete the house. It started last night when my dad arrived from California around 7:30 pm, and he jumped in to help me lay the last few boards of flooring in the master closet. I think he only did it because he knew we weren't setting up the guest bed until it was done. =)

This morning, we turned our attention to the 2nd bathroom. We discovered we never bought the 1/4" trowel way back when, so our day started with a trip to Ace (and the obligatory Starbucks stop). Then we determined our layout, mixed up some thinset and installed the cement board.

The cement board is very difficult to cut. It's not too bad if you're just cutting it to length because it snaps like sheetrock, but making cutouts (especially round ones) is a pain. Screwing it down takes forever, too, because it calls for perimeter screws every 3 inches. We had to recharge the hammer drill battery twice, and I mostly used the powered drill.

Once the cement board was down, we immediately started laying the tiles. Actually, it's not really tile, but rather stones glued to a mesh. The "tiles" are designed to fit together so that you don't notice a pattern after the grout is applied. We'll let everything set up for 24 hours, and probably grout the tiles Tuesday.

Here's a shot I found on one of our cameras. I guess Jen was snapping photos of me shoehorned into the addition attic installing the kitchen can lights. It's a little tight up there.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The kitchen is officially functional

Our stainless hood duct cover is designed in two halves, one inside the other, so that it can telescope to the correct length. However, both halves were too long for our ceiling, so we decided to cut one of them down (and not use the other one).

One place wanted $150 to make the cut, which I considered totally ridiculous. We located a second place much closer to us (Starman Metal Fab), and they cut it down for $45 (1/2-hour labor minimum charge). We cheerfully went home to install the cover and finish up one more job.

Not surprisingly, this seemingly simple task managed to complicate itself. Despite the installation guide's vague assertion that you don't have to use both halves of the cover, it became immediately apparent that you cannot install it in a single piece. So, back to Starman we went (albeit a few weeks later).

This time we had both halves cut down, and installation was a snap.

We also finally ran the electrical to the island and plumbed the dishwasher. There was an existing 12/4 cable under the house that carried two circuits for the disposal and dishwasher. I ran this to a j-box in the crawlspace and connected it to two 12/2 cables in metal conduit running up to a j-box below the sink.

From there, I ran some stranded appliance cable to the disposal (switched) and to the dishwasher (not switched). Generally, you'd put the dishwasher on its own circuit, but I read that it's okay to put the disposal on that circuit, too. It's a 20-amp circuit, and the total load doesn't exceed that. I hope the inspector agrees because I'm reserving the other circuit for the island outlets. Running three circuits to the island just seems excessive, but, then again, so do a lot of the code requirements.

The dishwasher is just sitting in position right now. There's no point in attaching it to the temporary plywood countertops since we'll be building the concrete countertops in the next couple weeks. We've run several loads, though, and everything's working just fine (no leaks!).

My dad is coming back tomorrow for a final three week push to finish everything up. On the one hand, I get satisfaction from doing this stuff myself, but, on the other hand, it takes forever when I can only devote a couple hours a day on it. At this point, we both just want everything done so we can have the house back together.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Our movie experience just got better

I went into Fry's last night to get a pack of rechargeable AAA's for my head lamp, and somehow came out with almost $1800 in home theater equipment. Most of my friends know I don't waste a lot of money on material things, but when I want something, I usually don't waste much time before getting it. =)

We watch a lot of movies, so I splurged about six months ago and bought a 52" Sony Bravia XBR LCD TV to replace our projector. I'm super glad I did, too, because that TV is awesome! However, we never made an investment in audio equipment to complement it.

Our biggest problem is that we don't really have a TV "room." Instead, we have a TV "nook." It's a fairly decent area (about 15' square), but it's wide open on the right side, and the ceiling is vaulted towards the right. Not only does this make it a not-so-optimal listening environment, but there's no obvious place for the surround speakers.

I thought I might get one of the Yamaha sound projectors that try to give you "virtual" 5.1 sound using a bunch of speakers in a single box that goes under or over your TV. There were several drawbacks with this setup, the major showstopper being that it didn't support Dolby TrueHD, one of the new surround standards for HD video. Plus, they cost about $1500, and that's without the subwoofer you'd have to add. On the upside, they get an A+ on the "spouse acceptance factor" because you don't have speakers all over the room.

So, with all this in mind, I visited the Fry's listening room. They had a Polk Audio sound bar there, and the sales guy gladly ran through the demo for us. I knew immediately I wasn't going to buy it because it just didn't sound right. It sounded as though it was using volume to compensate for the lack of rear speakers, and it didn't have the natural spread or timber I was looking for. Even Jen could tell the difference, and she usually only cares what the stuff looks like. =)

Next, we listened to some Polk Audio bookshelf speakers, with some JBL rears. Now we're talking! The fronts had a 5.25" cone, so there was plenty of mid-range to make things sound natural, and the spread was very realistic.

Allow me to digress for a moment...

There has been an unfortunate trend towards HTIB lately (Home Theater in a Box), and these systems typically come with a subwoofer and five speakers (two front, two rear and one center). More often than not, the five speakers are very small, which means their speaker cones are small -- typically 3" or less.

It's pretty much impossible to get natural sound from a setup like this because you have no mid-sized speaker cones to produce mid-range frequencies. Instead, you get a lot of low end (boomy) with a lot of high-end. It's important to have small cones in your setup because they add sparkle, but without any mid-range drivers, you end up with an overall sound that is "tinny" and hard on the ears. I've heard several people's Bose systems, and they all sound very tinny to me.

Okay, so I was pretty happy with the Polks we were listening to, but the sales guy decided to put on some Infinity's, too. These speakers were smaller and, sure enough, the demo soundtrack became noticeably more tinny. "Can I hear the Polks again?" I kindly asked.

You're probably getting tired of this story by now, so I'll cut to the chase. Here's what I bought (and why):

Onkyo TX-SR606 7.1 Receiver
Lots of HDMI, S-Video and composite ins/outs, two optical digital audio ins, and HDMI upscaling. Also, the cheaper models didn't have Dolby TrueHD support.

Polk Audio DSW Pro500 Subwoofer
Polk was running a special that gave us $200 off, so we splurged with a better sub. It ranks high on the spouse-acceptance factor because it fires down, which means you don't see any speakers. It's just a black box in the corner of the room. The bass is quite impressive without sounding boomy.

Polk Audio CS10 Center Channel Speaker
I think this was actually the only center speaker we listened to. It sounded great, and the price wasn't outrageous. I guess I got a little lazy with this speaker.

Polk Audio TSi200 Front Channel Speakers
We were actually sold on the smaller TSi100's, but the only pair they had left were "open box" (i.e. had been returned by someone). You know how I feel about having mid-sized speakers in my system, and the TSi200's have an extra 5.25" cone.

Polk Audio OWM3 Rear Speakers
The JBL's we listened to sounded okay, but the form factor was a little odd. They tapered slightly at the top and bottom, and just looked too tall and skinny. These OWM3's can be mounted in seven different ways, and they look pretty decent.

Here's a shot of everything but the rear speakers. This setup is temporary -- we'll be building a custom wall unit to house everything, so it'll look nice and tidy, eventually (I'm almost embarrassed to post this photo):

Here's a shot of the surrounds. They're sitting on some super stout stands my dad made for me about 15 years ago when I had a small recording studio. We'll most likely mount a couple small shelves on the wall for the surrounds so there's a minimum of clutter (and nothing on the floor to get in the way of vacuuming, according to Jen).

After setting everything up and running the Onkyo through its room calculation routine, we tested the system out by watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This isn't the typical extreme audio movie you'd normally test an audio system with, but it's more like the movies we usually watch. It was also recently recommended to me because of the cinematography.

The bottom-line: I was totally happy with the sound quality. Everything sounded very natural, and I could turn the volume up quite loud without a particular frequency becoming hard on the ears. I pretty much forgot there was an audio system in the room, which I think is the best way to gauge success.

Now, onto that custom wall unit...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Let there be light!

I've gotten a lot of complaints about not updating the blog. Sadly, that's because progress has been painfully slow between doing my "real" job and finding time to dive. We have been working, though, and we finally finished installing the main kitchen lighting.

As is usually the case, I ran into some things that made what should have been a relatively simple job a major pain in the hinder. There was some 2x4 blocking between the trusses that was right where I wanted to put one of the cans, and I ended up having to notch it out without disturbing the sheetrock screwed into it.

When I finally wiggled myself out of the attic, covered in sweat and insulation, I noticed that my two helpers were on break (again):

We were going to put the final ceiling coats on the bedroom and 2nd bathroom last night, but I decided to keep going on the lights and get them done. Here's a shot of the kitchen as it stands:

To finish off the kitchen, we need to:

1) Build the concrete countertops
2) Install the last cabinet over the fridge
3) Get the stainless hood cover cut down and installed
4) Build the wine rack that goes to the left of the oven
5) Install a tile backsplash behind the cooktop
6) Install some island lighting
7) Wire up the island and install the dishwasher

Hmmm, that turned out to be a bigger list than I was expecting, so I better get to work!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cabinet underlighting

Last night, we finished installing the lighting under our wall cabinets. We also ran a new 15A circuit for all the kitchen lighting, including the cabinet lights, main cans and island lighting.

First, we prepared the cabinets. This involved mounting the light pucks and j-box, and then securing the wires:

Then we ran the wires from the attic to the cabinets. We got by with a small hole in the wall behind the right cabinet, but I needed to open the wall up more for the other side. It gets covered by the cabinet, anyhow:

Next, we wired up the switches. Here we have a 3-way dimmer for the main lights and 2 dimmers for the cabinet and island lighting. The push-in connectors make the job a lot easier when you have a ton of wires to connect:

Et voila! We now have dimmable lighting under our cabinets!

Today, we're planning to finish the duct work for the cooktop hood, install some of the main kitchen lighting cans, and probably run the island electrical (since the parts have been sitting on the island for about a week now).