Save money on appliances

If you want to save money on appliances, I have some unconventional advice: Buy used. Yes, really. Here’s how to buy used (or refurbished) appliances and save big money without getting ripped off.

I’ve had a number of friends get hit recently with appliance breakdowns they couldn’t afford, and since I’m a landlord, I’ve probably bought a lifetime’s worth of appliances in the last¬†seven years. A dead appliance doesn’t have to turn into a financial catastrophe.

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Lionel CW-80 vs vintage transformers

Someone asked me recently about the Lionel CW-80 and how it compares vs older transformers. That’s a fair question, and one that tends to stir up a lot of emotions on train forums. So I’ll try to present the pros and cons in a fair manner.

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My garbage disposal adventure

Changing a worn-out garbage disposal can be a 10-minute job–assuming you anticipate everything, use the same brand as the old one, you know what you’re doing, and the person who installed the old one was at least as competent as you.

It didn’t quite work out for me like that the last time.

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Repair a dryer yourself

The other night I had a dryer go out. I had a few surprise expenses this month, so I really didn’t want to replace a dryer on top of the other things, so I looked into how to repair a dryer.

I learned quite a bit, but the most important thing was that I fixed a $200 dryer with $7.50 worth of parts, and it only took a few minutes.

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Fun with multimeters

I’ve been going through A+ training as I have time. Whether I go through with getting the certification will depend on whether my bosses think having someone with an A+ lurking in the corner is useful–by contract I can’t do much more than swap a keyboard or mouse, but in the meantime I’m picking up some stuff I haven’t had to think about in a very long time.

One thing I picked up is the proper use of an ohmmeter or ohm meter.

Testing American Flyer track
Here I’m using a multimeter to test a piece of vintage American Flyer electric train track. I should get infinite resistance between the two rails, so this piece shows symptoms of having a short in it. On a good piece of track, my multimeter would read “1.”

Ohm meters measure resistance. Frequently, you’ll have a tool that does several things, so you flip your multimeter over to ohms or resistance to turn it into an ohm meter. Then, if you need to test a cable, put the red lead on one pin, and the black lead on the corresponding pin on the other side. If you get infinite or higher-than-expected resistance, then the cable is bad.

When you’re testing for continuity, you need to do so with the power off. Testing for continuity on a live system will cause the multimeter to malfunction at best, and at worse, blow a fuse. That’s a tricky bit you have to remember if you’re doing component-level testing on a board–something of a lost art these days. You might be testing voltage on a live system, then when you don’t see what you expect, you might want to test resistance. Be sure to remember to shut the system down when you switch from volts to ohms to avoid damaging your multimeter.

The best band I forgot about?

A couple of days ago I ran across a Material Issue CD at a secondhand store. It was priced at $1, so I couldn’t pass that up. They were a band that was always on my list of CDs to buy, but never moved high enough on the list that I ever got around to it. And of course, in 1995 they just dropped off the radar entirely.

Like most bands I like, it seems, they have a sad story.Material Issue was a Chicago band whose major-label debut sold 300,000 copies, which wasn’t bad for an alternative band in 1990-91. Their songs ranged from power pop ballads to the just plain weird, and I remember hearing their songs “Valerie Loves Me” and “What Girls Want” on Les Aaron’s “New Music Sunday” radio show on 97.1 FM in St. Louis in the early 1990s. That stuff was just too weird to get much play on the right-hand side of the FM dial in those days, and for that matter, I don’t know that even Les Aaron played them every week.

Alternative music became the new big thing (and ceased being alternative, in a lot of ways) in 1992-93, due in large part to Nirvana bursting onto the scene. I remember every station with alternative sympathies in St. Louis and Columbia, Mo. having them in rotation after that, and critics always thought highly of their work, but for some reason their stuff just didn’t catch on.

In 1995, their record label dropped them after their third record sold a mere 50,000 copies. (In 1975, Lou Reed proved that a recording of 60 minutes of guitar feedback could sell 100,000 copies.) A year later, their lead singer/guitarist Jim Ellison was dead, committing suicide about a month after his 32nd birthday.

Ellison and Material Issue really could have been a Cars for the 1990s. Like Cars leader Ric Ocasek, Ellison penned quirky, disturbed lyrics, and he even had a slightly odd look, like Ocasek.

The song I really remember Material Issue for was “Kim the Waitress,” which was pretty much their last hurrah. And it wasn’t even their song, originally. I was vaguely aware that it was a cover, and I dug up the original, by a Seattle band called Green Pajamas, on Youtube. Material Issue’s version is faithful to the original, but still sounds like Material Issue. The original is a bit quirkier still, featuring a sitar, but Ellison sang it with a bit more urgency than the Green Pajamas did. To the Green Pajamas, Kim the Waitress comes off as a crush, whereas Material Issue sounds like they’re head over heels in love with a girl they barely know.

In the early 2000s, Stereo Fuse scored a minor hit covering Material Issue’s ballad “Everything.” Stereo Fuse electrified it (the original was largely acoustic), and in a way Stereo Fuse’s version ended up sounding more like Material Issue than Material Issue did, but Stereo Fuse didn’t capture Jim Ellison’s urgency in the lyrics.

It’s really too bad I didn’t pay more attention to them in the early 1990s. They were the kind of band that any shy, slightly neurotic guy would really relate to.

I guess Material Issue came in with too much emo too soon, and sounded a little too psychedelic too late. If they’d come around 20 years earlier or later than they did, they might have done better. Or, maybe Jim Ellison was just a shade too honest in his songwriting, and people were afraid of what others might think if they admitted to liking his stuff.

Coming soon: Affordable LED lighting

Affordable is relative, of course. LED lights are a long way from costing less than CFLs, and of course, the old-fashioned incandescents are still cheaper. But the Ecosmart LED bulb that Home Depot is about to start selling for $20 costs half as much as competing offerings from GE and Philips.

They use 8-9 watts to provide equivalent light to a 40w incandescent, work in dimmers, are made in the USA, and have an estimated life expectancy of 17 years. So I think I could be persuaded to buy a couple.But speaking of CFLs, I’ve been buying them since at least 2003. They get a bit of a bad rap, but in my experience, not all CFLs are created equal. Some of the first CFLs that I installed 7-8 years ago are still working. I’ve had others only last a few months.

I can think of two possible reasons for this. I bought my first bulbs at Home Depot. Later, I switched to buying bulbs at Kmart. The bulbs I was buying at Kmart were considerably less reliable. A couple of years ago I switched to buying bulbs at Costco. Fed up with replacing CFLs, I started writing the date of purchase on the bulbs and saving my receipts at that point. But so far, none of my dated bulbs have burned out.

So I think changing brands can make a difference. If a bulb burns out before its time, buy a different brand next time. And write the installation date on your bulbs so you can be certain the bulb really did burn out before its time. Given the number of fixtures in most homes, it can be difficult to remember exactly when it was you changed a bulb.

The other thing to check is the fixture itself. The base of the bulb contacts a copper tab inside the fixture. Over time, this tab can get mashed down, causing poor contact, which causes arcing and damages the base of the bulb, leading to decreased bulb life. If you want to fix this, cut off power to the outlet from your breaker box or fuse box, remove the bulb, and bend the tab to about a 20-degree angle. Turn the power back on, turn on the light switch, then start twisting the bulb into the socket. Stop turning just as soon as the bulb lights.

And justice for none.

I don’t understand this. Let me get this straight: You pack your sneakers with military-grade explosives and a fuse, walk onto a plane, try to light up, assault two flight attendants when they try to figure out what you’re doing, and you only face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine?
That makes no sense to me. The plane alone is worth a few million. (I’ll have to ask my buddy Sean, who happens to work in Boeing’s billing department, how much a new airliner will set you back.) Then, of course, there’s the little problem of the people on the plane. There were something like 180 passengers, plus a crew of 12? So why isn’t he facing 192 counts of attempted murder, plus two assault charges, plus whatever the appropriate charge is for endangering a few million dollars’ worth of property belonging to someone else?

We’ve come a long way from the days when stealing horses was a capital offense, haven’t we?

Since this sorry excuse for a human being was (fortunately) dumb enough to get caught and didn’t actually kill anybody, the death penalty is a little harsh, and expensive, since we don’t use cheap methods such as those that involve gallows and ropes or a single bullet anymore. I’m thinking enough consecutive life sentences to ensure he really does die in prison would be good. It saves making a martyr out of this luser and saves some money–money that can be used to foil the next one like him.

Twenty years and a quarter-mil won’t do any good. He’ll get back out, and then he’ll just be torqued off enough to try something else and do it right this time. The money’s too low too. A quarter-mil may be a lot to you and me, but there’s just too much risk that the organization that got him the C4 can also get him the quarter-mil. Any risk of that is too much risk.

Since justice isn’t going to be served, maybe some of the 192 can pursue some kind of a civil case against him, or some organization they can link him to. And then there’s the possibility that maybe 20 years is longer than this guy’s life expectancy once he gets into the penal system…

But one shouldn’t have to count on such things.