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Review of SnapRay Guidelights: The Nightlight reinvented

Full disclosure:  This is a review of the SnapRays Guidelight.  I purchased this product myself and I am not being compensated in any way for providing this review.  However, I am a participant in the affiliate program for SnapPower and if you purchase a product from their website after clicking one of the links on this page, I will receive a commission.  Despite the monetary incentive, I strive to provide you with an unbiased review of this product.

Nightlights are useful things, but a traditional nightlight has a few disadvantages.  It has to be plugged in, and therefore you lose the use of an outlet, and if you need the outlet for something else, the light must be removed. Many traditional nightlights tend to be somewhat bulky making them prone to damage.

The SnapRays Guidelight by SnapPower solves those problems.

The SnapPower Guidelight is available in Duplex or Decor style and is designed to replace a standard cover plate.  It features two prongs that contact the terminal screws of the electric receptacle, providing power for three built-in LED lights.  A light sensor turns the LEDs on in the dark and off in the light.  The company claims the lights will last 25 years and only cost about a dime per year to operate.

snapray
Guidelight in action in our bedroom. Image is an affiliate link.

 

Positives

  • Same dimensions and profile as standard plate covers.  Very inconspicuous when LEDs are off.
  • The quality of light is good.  Light shines in the direction of the ground prong, typically down.
  • No hard wiring necessary.  Very fast installation.  There are similar products on the market that must be hard wired.
  • Both outlets remain open.
  • LEDs are energy efficient.
  • Convenient.  No need to plug in or unplug a nightlight.  Not prone to damage like traditional nightlights.

Negatives

  • LEDs are very bright.  I installed one of the Guidelights in the bedroom, but later uninstalled it because it was in the line of sight from the bed if sleeping on stomach or side.  SWMBO complained that the light was keeping her awake.
  • Not compatible with switches or GFCI outlets.  This limits the usefulness somewhat.  We cannot use the Guidelights in our bathroom, for example.  Competing hard wired products do not have those limitations.
  • There is no way to disable the light.  There may be times that the nightlight is not wanted and it would be nice if there was a small switch to turn it off.
  • While installation is fast and easy, the Guidelight is not portable like a standard plug-in nightlight.
  • The power prongs can be a little fussy to coax into the device box due to their design.

Customer Experience

I received my Guidelights 10 days after placing my order.  The order was placed on Sunday and shipped on Monday.  This was an international order, shipping from Utah to Ontario, Canada.

Unfortunately, I ordered the Decor style and received the Duplex style.  I learned of this error several months after receiving the package because , at some point during a cleaning frenzy, the box got “put away” unopened and was out of sight, out of mind.  Upon discovering the error,  I emailed Customer Service and was immediately sent a correct order, which I received within about two weeks.   The company was unable to provide a shipping label for the return of the other order, but they did not specifically ask me to it back.   The following is an excerpt from their email:

Also just curious do you know how much it would cost to send back the 3 Duplex Guidelights? I’ve tried finding a way to give return labels to our Canadian customers but USPS and Canada Post have been very unhelpful in that area.

So depending on how much it is, we would maybe ask you to send them back, then we would refund the cost from your original order.

I sent back the erroneous order at my own expense but have not pursued a refund.  Considering I allowed almost 6 months to pass, I am willing to eat that cost. The folks at SnapPower already went above and beyond.

Thanks for reaching out to us, we will totally replace the ones that we sent you with the correct style that you ordered. It doesn’t matter to us that it was 6 months ago, you should get what you originally ordered.

All in all, despite the original error, customer service was excellent.

Unboxing and Installing Video

The Verdict

Admittedly, a nightlight isn’t much to get excited about.  But in terms of design and execution and form and function, it’s hard to top the SnapPower Guidelight.  It’s simple, discreet and unobtrusive, looking no different than any other wall plate.  And the automatic night light just works as long as you don’t mind the fact that there is no way to shut it off manually.  Time will tell if the longevity claims are accurate, but whenever the LEDs do reach the end of their useful life, the Guidelight can be replaced in seconds, by either another Guidelight or a standard wall plate.

Recommended.  4/5

SnapPower is currently running a very successful KickStarter campaign for a new product that will be available later this year:  a USB charger that uses the same technology as the Guidelights, with no need for hard wiring, while keeping both outlets free.  Slick!

SnapPower USB Charger
SnapPower USB Charger  (Image is an affiliate link)

A strange source for design inspiration

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a lazy afternoon on the sofa in our family room– the family room that shall be demolished and rebuilt soon.  My wife came in the room and noticed commented, “That’s interesting.  I haven’t seen that before.” Get your mind out of the gutter.  It’s not what you think…

Realizing that I had an opportunity, I asked for her opinion.  “I was thinking about a coffered ceiling similar to that.  Something to add some architectural interest to the room.  What do you think?”

And while I still had her attention, I pointed out a fireplace with a projection television screen over it.  “I’m thinking television over a fireplace, but nothing as big as that projection screen.  Maybe a 50 inch LCD?”

She nodded in agreement.  “And what do you think about some sort of built-in book shelving?” I asked.  “I’m not sure how much I like these, but I like the idea of them.”

Up to now, we hadn’t really sat down to discuss design elements of the new addition, only the general layout.  If we’re investing six figures in this thing, it makes sense to at least be on the same page when it comes to the design.

“You know, we have the option of going a little more modern,” I said.  The style we had been looking at up to that point was a little dated, although it would fit in with the style of our house.  Now I was pointing out a long narrow fireplace in a more open concept house.  “I like the plasma fireplaces.  It’s a clean, modern look and we can still do the TV above it.”

Price: $33.75
Was: $59.99
I know you are wondering what we were looking at.  Was it a magazine?  A home design TV show?  Or was I browsing the internet on my laptop?  Any of these would make sense, but I was actually playing Grand Theft Auto V.

In GTA5, there are three characters, and each has their own “safe house” where they can change clothes (perhaps put on a mask to commit an armed robbery), save the game, and do some other interactive things like watch television or drink some whiskey.

Michael has the dated McMansion in Rockford Hills with the coffered ceilings and built-in bookshelves.

GTA5 Michael's safehouse
Michael’s elegant family room with coffered ceilings and built in shelving units.
GTA5 screenshot
The projection TV over the fireplace in Michael’s house.

Franklin has the modern open concept house in Vinewood Hills.

modern fireplace and tv
The television and fireplace in Franklin’s house.

I wouldn’t mind borrowing design ideas from either of these very different houses.  However,  Trevor’s mobile home in Sandy Shores may be more in line with our budget.

GTA5 screenshot
Trevor’s classy digs.

[These graphics are in-game snapshots]

Where do you get your design inspiration?

Liebster Award nomination

liebster-award1Two weeks ago, my friend John over at AZ DIY Guy nominated me for a Liebster Award.  The award is given by bloggers to bloggers to promote blogs to new audiences and to expose audiences to new blogs.   Here are the rules:

  • Write 11 Facts about Yourself
  • Link back to the person who tagged you
  • Come up with 10 questions to ask your nominees
  • Tag 11 other bloggers with under 200 followers
  • Let the person who tagged you know when you answer their questions
  • Have fun with it, and get to know some new people

11 Facts about me.

1.  Family / Personal:  I was born in 1967.  My wife and I have been married since 1999.  Our daughter was born in 2002.   We have two dogs, a 13 year old Black Lab mix and a 4 year old beagle mix.

2.  My first computer back in 1983 was a Commodore Vic 20 which had a whopping 3.5k RAM.  My first real computer was a Hewlett-Packard running Windows 98, with 48MB RAM and a 4 GB hard drive.

3. Television:  My all-time favorite television show is WKRP in Cincinnati.  Close second is The Simpsons.

4.  My favorite amusement park ride is the roller coaster.  I can’t handle any ride that spins but I can ride roller coasters all day long.

5.  I like my steak medium rare, my catfish blackened, my spare ribs with a dry rub (no sauce), and anything that’s deep-fried.

6.  Completely unrelated to #5 (yeah, right)… a few years ago, through exercise and watching what I ate, I managed to lose between 40 and 50 pounds.  Unfortunately I found them again.

7.  My musical tastes are all over the place, from heavy metal to blues to classic country.

8.  I was editor of my high school newspaper.

9.  I tend to over-think and over-analyze things.  And often I will second-guess myself.  I suffer from “analysis paralysis.”

10.  I have the kind of job that allows me to listen to a lot of podcasts, which has inspired me to do my own.  I just have to motivate myself to be consistent.

11.  My wife and I enjoy browsing for antiques.  I especially like old wood furniture, even though buying it is impractical or unaffordable for us. I do like to collect used postcards (mostly early 1900’s) because they are very inexpensive– usually only a buck or two each– and can be kept in photo albums so they don’t add any clutter.

 

John’s Questions

Why do you blog?

I started my website as a hobby.  It actually started out as a static HTML site.  Remember FrontPage and Dreamweaver?  Those were the tools I used for the first few years.  Then I began using a blog to provide real-time updates on whatever project I was working on, but the main content of the website was still the static pages.  Eventually I moved the entire site to WordPress because I was spending way too much time hand-coding all my content.

Why did I choose to share my content in the first place?  I was a very unlikely do-it-yourselfer and had virtually no handyman skills when I bought my first house.  I figured that by sharing what I learned along the way, I could help other inexperienced homeowners like myself.

What advice to you have for new bloggers?

Don’t obsess over stats.  Whether you have an audience of 100 or 100,000, remember that behind those numbers are actual people.  Of course, I have a small audience so it should be no surprise that I would say that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

What is your favorite social media to support your blog and why?

I’m terrible when it comes to social media.  I know I should have a social media “strategy,” but I don’t.  I need to work on that.  I’m trying to post more often on the Facebook page for my website and I am only just beginning to learn Twitter.  Right now, YouTube is working well for me. despite the fact that my videos really aren’t very good.    If I had to pick a favorite, I guess it would be YouTube, since it has generated some traffic for my website and led to a number of affiliate sales.

What are your favorite tools?

Reciprocating saw and sledgehammer.  I enjoy demolition.

Actually, I’ll keep it simple here.  I love the Picquic multi bit screwdrivers.  If you check out their website, you will see why.

What is the oldest tool you still use?

I bought my first house in 1996, and started amassing my tool collection then, so most of my tools are less than 20 years old.  The first tool in that house?  My parents bought me a Skil circular saw as a housewarming gift which I still have, but rarely use.

What was your biggest DIY success?

The basement in my first house.  Since that renovation is featured on this website, I won’t go into detail here.

What was your biggest DIY failure?

My very first DIY project:  I attempted to paint my first house after I bought it in 1996.  I spent three days painting the kitchen and it looked terrible.  I ended up hiring professional painters to do the job, and they were also kind enough to let me know what I was doing wrong.  I learned that I was over-working the paint– I was rolling it on the walls okay, but I kept rolling over it until I rolled it off again.  I also learned to invest in quality tools.  I was using cheap rollers and brushes that would never give me the results I wanted even if I knew what I was doing.  For the record, my second attempt at painting was much better.

What is(are) your favorite book(s)?

I have a BA in English and a Bachelor of Education degree.  In between those degrees, I started working towards a Masters.  University effectively killed my love of reading so I took a little break for close to 20 years, except for reading Dr. Seuss and Robert Munsch to my daughter when she was young.  In the past couple of years, I’ve enjoyed Last Words by George Carlin and Not Taco Bell Material by Adam Carolla.  I need to get in the habit of reading every day.

Light Sabers, Hobbits, Defense Against the Dark Arts or the fortune and glory of beating the Nazis to supernatural antiquities?

You left out Flux Capacitors.  From this list, though, I have seen all the Harry Potter films (my daughter is a fan), I saw Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in the theater when I was a kid, I remember renting Raiders after my parents bought a VCR in 1983.  I haven’t read or seen anything Hobbit-ish.  My choice would be light sabers, but I’m referring to Blue Harvest, Something Something Something Dark Side, and It’s a Trap.

What are your three favorite movie quotes?

I’m not much of a movie-watcher.  So instead of movie quotes, here are three quotes from television.

“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”  –Mr. Carlson, WKRP in Cincinnati

“So I says, blue M&M, red M&M- they all wind up the same color in the end.”  –Homer Simpson

“It’s bad luck to take advice from insane people.” –Herb Tarlek,  WKRP in Cincinnati

 

My Nominees

This was tough.  The idea is to promote smaller blogs.  Many of the blogs I do follow have larger audiences that do not fit this criteria.  And for the same reasons as John at AZDIYguy, I had difficulty coming up with 5 blogs never mind 10.  Many of the smaller blogs I used to follow have not been updated in a long time and some have gone “poof” from the Internet altogether.  So I went on quest to find more and even some of those new discoveries have been inactive for a while.

Anyway, these are all worth visiting and exploring, even if they haven’t been updated in a while.  And maybe if we leave some comments, we might prompt these bloggers to start writing again.  (Note:  these are all home improvement-related blog).

The “Crazy 30-somethings” at Swanky & Chiang

Kes and Tash at The Dreamhouse Project

Shannon at 8FOOTSIX.com

Aaron at Markson Blog

Summer and Stefan at CA2PR

The questions

1.  If you could hire any contractor from television to work on your house, who would you choose?

2.  What is your LEAST favorite home improvement activity and why?

3.  If you could maintain your current age, explain whether you would prefer to travel 50 years into the past or 50 years into the future.

4.  What unfinished project do you have going on right now?

5.  What is the newest tool added to your collection?

6.  I guess this question has to be asked:  Why do you blog?

7.  And here’s another standard question:  What advice do you have for new bloggers?

8.  You just won $100,000, but you have to spend it within the next year.  You cannot use it to pay off debts or put it into savings or retirement accounts or other investments.  Where does the money go?

9.  What advice do you have for someone who has just bought, or is thinking of buying, their first house?

10.  What are three items on your “bucket” list?

 

I want to again thank John at AZ DIY guy for the nomination.  Writing this post was an interesting process.  I now have a pretty good idea of where I need to focus my energy, both on the website and in “real life.”

Five ways to keep raccoons out of a garbage can

Aftermath of a nocturnal visit by a raccoon.
Aftermath of a nocturnal visit by a raccoon.

It’s a familiar scene that can be a source of great frustration– trash strewn about courtesy of a late-night visit by the local wildlife in search of a meal.  Thanks to a particularly persistent raccoon determined to turn our kitchen scraps into his own personal buffet, I have been looking at a number of possible solutions for pest-proofing our refuse.

Considering that we live next to a large woodlot, it’s surprising that we haven’t more problems with raccoons, especially since the previous owner’s wife used to hand-feed them peanut butter sandwiches– in other words, she encouraged them to come around.  That generation of freeloaders and the several following it never bothered us, but in recent years that truce has been broken.   Every now and then, I am greeted by an overturned container with its entrails spread out.

The raccoon offensive escalated after Christmas this year.  Some time in the wee hours of the morning, a masked intruder had dragged a garage pail off of the porch and rummaged through its contents, despite the fact that the turkey carcass had been disposed of in a Mint X garbage bag, which is supposed to repel raccoons and other pests.  Apparently it was attracted to the turkey more than it was repulsed by the smell of mint.  Mind you, it was a mighty tasty bird, if I do say so myself (and I do say so myself)!

The next night, at about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, the dogs woke us up, agitated by a disturbance on the porch.  This time, I got brave (or stupid) and opened the door, and used my remote key to turn on the headlights of our car, hoping to scare off the raccoon.  This was the first time I actually caught one of these pests in the act.  It had tipped over the container and got the lid off, but had not yet torn into the tied bag inside.  My tactic was successful.  The raccoon scampered off into the woods.

I am fully aware of the risk I was taking.  I never ventured completely outside, so had the pest shown any signs of aggression, all I had to do was shut the door.

About half an hour later it was back and again I managed to scare it off before it actually gained access to the garbage.  The confrontation repeated itself one or two more times that night.

coon2
Caught in the act.

The next night we were graced with a return visit.  This time, I had my cell phone with me, hoping to scare our unwanted company with the flashlight app.  Instead of taking off, it just stood there staring at me.  I took the opportunity to switch to the camera and snap a couple of quick pictures before our visitor slinked off into the woods.  This time, he only waited about five minutes before returning to try again.  After his third attempt, I encircled the 2 garbage cans with our recycle bins, figuring that the bins would prevent the raccoon from tipping over the pail.

That seemed to work, at least in the short term, but it just looks messy.

Let’s take a look at five possible solutions for pest-proofing garbage.  I have included links to products at Amazon, mainly for illustration.  If you make a purchase at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.co.uk after arriving there from one of the links on this page, I will receive a modest affiliate commission. Thank-you.

 

Horizontal shed

One of my neighbors growing up had a horizontal metal shed for storing their garbage cans and protect them from critters, not that we had many critters in our suburban neighborhood.  These days, it appears that this type of shed is only available in vinyl or plastic resin or wood.

Advantages

  • Extra layer of security between the pest and the garbage can.
  • Hides the garbage cans.  Better curb appeal.

Disadvantages

  • Cost:  quality sheds can run several hundred dollars.
  • Quality:  reviews of various sheds online are mixed.  Complaints abound online about panels warping (both wood and plastic), doors popping open allowing, which defeats the purpose, hinges and clasps becoming brittle and breaking and general quality and longevity issues.
  • That extra layer of security becomes an extra layer of hassle for humans that need to access the garbage cans.
  • Trash cans are still vulnerable on collection day when they are removed from the shed for placement at curbside.

Large, Heavy Duty Garbage Cart

Some municipalities require them.  Others recommend them.  These large capacity containers offer benefits for both the homeowner and the trash collector.  The largest containers are virtually pest-proof, assuming that they are too big to knock over, but the smaller containers may still be prone to enemy infiltration.  Check your local big-box store or waste management concern for availability and competitive pricing.

Advantages

  • Large capacity to replace several regular garbage cans.
  • Container has easy mobility for transporting to curbside.
  • Large container is more pest-resistant than smaller containers.
  • Ergonomic for the trash collector who does not have to do any heavy lifting if the collection truck has the automated lifter.  Check with your local waste management.
  • Better curb appeal:  one container replaces several.

Disadvantages

  • May not be available in all areas.
  • Cost:  can be expensive depending on location and availability.

Toter is the brand that seems to be favored by most waste management companies.  Because of the shipping costs involved, it makes more sense to check availability at your local Home Depot or Lowes rather than ordering online as the shipping charge in some cases exceeds the cost of the product.  When comparison shopping, be sure you are comparing same size containers, as these things come in several sizes.

Fenced enclosure

I have contemplated taking a trip to the Home Depot and picking up some lumber to build a fenced enclosure for the trash cans.  It might be enough to prevent the raccoons from toppling the containers and might otherwise make it difficult for them to gain access to them.

Advantages

  • Relatively inexpensive, depending on the lumber or other materials used.
  • Completely customizable to the size and number of trash cans to be enclosed.

Disadvantages

  • DIY projects can be fun, but they are also work.
  • The trash cans are vulnerable when removed from the enclosure and placed at curbside.
  • Cost of the project can escalate if higher end materials are used.

Garbage lid straps

Many homeowners opt for a mechanism that prevents vermin from removing the lid from the garbage pail, usually some sort of strap or bungee cord.  The problem is that the more elaborate the strapping method, the more inconvenient the container becomes for normal use.

The Rubbermaid Animal Stopper trash can uses a combination of locking handles and straps to keep the lid securely in place.  While some reviewers on Amazon claim success in keeping the pests out, other reviewers report that the pests simply ate through the lid or plastic hardware.   Still other reviewers call into question the longevity and durability of this product.

If your existing trash cans are in decent shape, you can simply upgrade them by adding a product like Raccoon Check Garbage Security System, which is a fancy name for a strap with a quick release buckle.  Installation involves attaching the strap to the garbage can using bolts (included).   A similar product, by Raccoon Solutions uses hooks and requires no installation, though it is pricier.

At the time of this writing, the Raccoon Check product has received unanimous 5 star reviews on Amazon, but it has only been reviewed by four customers.  If raccoons and rodents are able to chew through the lid of the Animal Stopper trash can, it stands to reason that they could chew threw this strap.  Still, for the cost of one Animal Stopper trash can, you could secure 4 or more of your existing trash cans.

Mint infused garbage bags

Raccoons and other pests don’t like the smell of mint, or at least that’s the theory behind Mint X garbage bags which claim to repel raccoons and rodents.  According the the Mint X website,  the bags should not be expected to be effective immediately.  It can take a week or more for the animals to learn to stay away from the bags that smell like mint.  Double-bagging is suggested for the first couple of weeks to deter more aggressive pests.   Our early results using Mint X kitchen bags were not promising, as I have already described.  However, I am cautiously optimistic that these bags may be effective in the long term.  Most of the negative online reviews of the product come from people who, like me, expected these bags to be immediately effective.

Advantages

  • Effortless solution.  Simply use Mint X in place of regular trash bags.
  • If the science holds up, this is a long-term solution.
  • Cost is at the higher end but these are not the most expensive bags on the market.
  • EPA approved solution that does not harm the animals.

Disadvantages

  • These bags have a very strong smell that some people may find unpleasant.
  • Mixed reviews as to the effectiveness.

Conclusion

One thing that I have learned in researching possible solutions for our raccoon problem is that there is no single guaranteed solution.  The best bet is to combine several strategies– make it difficult for the raccoon to get into the garbage in the first place, and, if it is ultimately successful in breaching the defenses, make the spoils of victory as unpleasant as possible.  For now, I will be looking for the Raccoon Check straps (they are sold by Home Hardware, but are not on the website) and using the mint infused garbage bags.  Eventually, we will invest in a Toter trash container for the convenience and clutter reduction in addition to pest control.

Update January 11, 2015: We are continuing to use the Mint X kitchen bags and are strategically placing the garbage pails so that the one in current use is difficult for the raccoon to access.  Once a garbage can is full, the liner bag is tied tightly.  We have heard the raccoon on the porch, but he has not disturbed our garbage since the two nights I describe at the beginning of this post.  

Update March 22, 2015:  The raccoon has returned a few times, once removing a Mint X kitchen bag and dragging it over behind the car in the driveway.  The bag had some holes in it, and the raccoon had obviously removed some food, but there was much less mess than in the past.  I’m not sure whether the odor of the bags were a factor or not.  We have had chicken on several occasions, and the garbage has not been disturbed.  Previously, poultry bones in the garbage guaranteed us a nocturnal visit, so I can only guess that the mint odor is stronger than the chicken aroma.  

If you know of any other tactics for dealing with raccoons or other pests, share them in the comments below.

Wolfgang Puck Novo Pro Pressure Oven Review

At the risk of losing my man card, I must confess that I watched The Shopping Channel a few weeks ago.  In the 11 years that we’ve had satellite television, I have never, ever watched The Shopping Channel.  Honest.  I can no longer make that claim.  In my defense, I was channel surfing at the time and had no intention of stopping there but as I scrolled down the channel guide something caught my eye.  Not only did I end up watching the hour-long segment but, after a discussion with SWMBO, I actually made a purchase.

puck oven
The Wolfgang Puck Novo Pro Rapid Bake Pressure Oven

The segment featured Chef Wolfgang Puck hawking his Novo Pro pressure oven.

I often watch a variety of cooking shows with my wife so I am well aware of the time saving advantages of pressure cooking.  And I was certainly intrigued with an oven with that functionality.  As the family cook (notice I don’t go so far as to call myself the family chef) I often feel limited by having only a single oven and have long contemplated purchasing an additional counter top appliance.  Thanks to our kitchen renovation in 2009, we do have enough counter space.

Needless to say, I was an easy sell for old Wolfie.  And so far I have been very happy with this purchase.

The Shopping Channel order processing

I placed the order online at The Shopping Channel website on Friday September 26, 2014.  The advertised price was $300.  All-in cost for the oven, including shipping and Ontario taxes and a $20 pizza pan, was about $400.   The payments for the oven are spread out over 12 monthly installments which was another factor in our decision to make this purchase.  I would have hesitated had this option not been available.  The taxes, shipping charges and the pizza pan had to all be paid with the first installment.  The next 11 payments will amount to about $25 each.

We received the oven at our local post office on Tuesday September 30– 2 business days later!

Packaging

The oven and accessories come with sufficient protective packaging.  The video below shows me unboxing the oven.

Included accessories

The oven comes with the following accessories:

Crumb tray: There was a slight bend in one of the edges that was easily fixed.  The tray is removable for easy cleaning and must be in place when the oven is in use.

Baking rack:  Many reviewers point to the rack as one of the main weaknesses of the oven.  While it is strong enough for a 5 pound roast and potatoes, it flexes too much under the weight of a turkey, which can cause the rack to dislodge and fall.  One of the selling points of this oven is its ability to cook a 14 pound turkey, but I am not sure if the rack can be trusted to support that weight.  The rack needs to be stronger and the supporting ridges inside the oven need to be beefier.

Drip pan / Baking pan: I have not used this pan for baking, only to catch the juices when I cooked a rotisserie chicken.

Broil rack insert: I have not used this item yet, so I cannot accurately comment, yet.  But I can see a couple of broiled steaks in my future….

Roasting Pan:  I’ve used this once, for a beef roast and vegetables.  You can see that in the video as well.  The pan appears to be good quality so far.  The size is just under 10×14.  The maximum size that will fit in the oven is 12×14.  These sizes do not appear to be very common in the lower price ranges, but can be found if you are willing to shop around and spend a few more bucks.  Of course, smaller 9 inch accessories are a little easier to find.

Rotisserie Rod:  I love me some rotisserie chicken and being able to make it fresh at home was a huge selling point for me.  The rod can be used with the rotisserie tines for cooking whole chicken.  I have done this and the result was amazing!  The rod can also be used with the rotisserie basket for air fried french fries, chicken wings or shrimp.  I tried the french fries, but the rotating action of the basket combined with the rod going through the basket resulted in a lot of smaller broken pieces by the time they were ready.  Another minor complaint is the two thumbscrews used to secure either the tines or the basket to the rod.  For the price point of this oven, surely an extra set of thumbscrews could have been included so that it wouldn’t be necessary to keep transferring them from one accessory to the other.

Tools:  Also included are a rack removal tool that can also be used to remove the drip pan / baking pan, and a rotisserie rod removal tool that easily removes the rod from the oven.

Design, fit and finish, etc.

The Wolfgang Puck Novo Pro Pressure Oven somewhat resembles a large microwave oven in appearance.  With a stainless steel finish, it looks like a professional quality appliance, which is what you’d expect at this price point.  There are three large black control knobs– one to set the temperature (up to 450), one to select the function (bake, toast, roast, broil, rotisserie) and one to set the timer (up to 120 minutes, or “stay on”).

Some critics complain that the knobs make the appliance look outdated.  I suppose that is a matter of taste, but personally, I like the simplicity of the old-school design.  Not everything needs to be digital.  Of course, that means you won’t have the accuracy of digital controls but so far that hasn’t affected my results.

The vent release valve on top of the unit can be set to either vent or seal.  With the valve in the vent position and the sealing lever in standard position, the oven can be used like a standard toaster oven.  The magic happens when the valve and the sealing lever are both in the seal position.  That’s what turns the oven into a pressure cooker.

The vent release valve could be marked a little more clearly, so it is more obvious what position it is in.  And the instruction manual could be a little clearer about what to expect in pressure mode.  The valve will hiss as it rises up and down during cooking in order to maintain the proper pressure.  As a newbie, I was caught off guard by the hissing and wasn’t sure whether the valve was properly seated or not.

Safety

The top of the oven and the door get hot enough to cause burns.  Nothing should be set on top of the unit or near the unit while it is in use.   When using the oven in pressure mode, it is imperative that the pressure be released before opening the door.  There is a lot of opportunity for serious injury if the safety precautions are not followed.  Extreme caution needs to be exercised around this oven and every family member needs to be aware of the risks associated with the unit.

Because hot steam is vented through the release valve, I move the oven out from under the cabinets before I use it (and resist the urge to move it back before it cools).  Surprisingly, while the top gets dangerously hot to the touch, not much heat radiates from it.  I don’t notice much heat buildup when the oven is under the cabinets.  My main concern is that the escaping steam will damage the finish.

Performance

At the time of this writing, we have had the oven operational in our kitchen for about a week and have used it three times.

Roast beef and vegetables: A 3 pound roast with potatoes, onions and carrots took less than an hour in pressure mode.  The roast had not completely thawed out before cooking, so it was a little more rare in the middle than I would have liked, but I was able to carve off enough to satisfy my wife who prefers her meat well-done.  The vegetables were done perfectly.

Air fried french fries:  35 minutes in standard mode.  As I pointed out earlier in this article, the rotation of the rotisserie basket resulted in the potatoes breaking as they tumbled against the rotisserie rod.  Despite that, the fries were delicious, though I should have let them cook for another five minutes so they could crisp up more.  Shorter fries might better resist breakage.  Thinner-cut fries would cook faster and crisp up sooner.  This will require more experimentation on my part, but my daughter was a raving fan.

Rotisserie Chicken:  A whole chicken took only 40 minutes in pressure mode.  The result was incredible, golden brown, fall-off-the-bone succulent perfection.  And in only 40 minutes.  Baked chicken breasts take almost that long in a regular oven.

The Novo Pro oven heats up to 450 in about 7 minutes and can cook a meal in a fraction of the time it would take in a regular full-size oven.   So far, I have been thrilled with the results.

Value for money

Toaster ovens run around $150.  Pressure cookers run between $100 and $200 or more.  That adds up to about the cost of the Wolfgang Puck Novo Pro Pressure Oven.

See how easy it is to justify the cost?

Cost aside, the true value comes from how much use the appliance will get.  And this is something I see myself using a few times a week.

It may not be perfect and it may not be capable of doing everything as advertised (I’m talking turkey here, literally), but what it can do, at least for me, more than justifies the purchase.

Update (January 11, 2015) after a few months of ownership:

I have never been completely satisfied with the results when roasting beef under pressure and have returned to roasting them in our conventional oven.

Roast vegetables and roast potatoes are excellent when cooked under pressure.

Where this oven excels over anything else, though, is chicken, especially on the rotisserie.  A rotisserie chicken, under pressure, takes about 40 minutes and tastes amazing.

Given the cost of the oven and the amount of counter top real estate that it occupies, I am not completely convinced that this purchase has been justified.  However, based solely on the rotisserie chicken results, my wife and daughter both insist that the Wolfgang Puck Pressure Oven is here to stay.


 I am including a link to Amazon.com.  The price is comparable to what I paid (on sale on The Shopping Channel) once shipping cost is factored in.  Ya gotta love Amazon’s free shipping!  If you click on my link, I will receive an affiliate commission for your purchase, but it doesn’t cost you any extra.  Thank-you

 

 

 

 

 

A Review of Adam Carolla’s “Catch a Contractor”

We have all heard this story before: homeowner left in mess because of a contractor who was either a crook or simply incompetent.  Let’s face it, there are contractors out there who give contractors a bad name.  Adam Carolla’s new show, Catch a Contractor, which premiered on Spike TV last Sunday focuses on tracking down some of these offenders and holding them accountable for their work.   They are given the opportunity to make things right or face legal consequences.  It makes for entertaining television but it could be so much more.

Each half hour show follows a similar format.  We meet the homeowners and get a brief overview of what the contractor did or did not do.  Private investigator Alison Bedell tracks down the contractor and acts as a potential client to lure him to a “sting” house where he is confronted by Carolla, contractor Skip Bedell and the homeowners.  We are then treated to a montage of the actual repairs and construction with the shady contractor working under the supervision of taskmasters Adam and Skip.  Finally,  the homeowner returns for the reveal of the finished project.

Carolla worked in construction for more than a decade before earning his break in radio.  Fans of his home improvement podcast, Ace on the House know that he has little patience for sloppy workmanship and lack of attention to detail.  He will “tell it like it is, or as he sees it” without regard to political correctness.  His main podcast, The Adam Carolla Show is in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most downloads.  He has a loyal fan base, even if some (or many) people will find his personality abrasive.  On Catch a Contractor, we don’t see as much of that abrasiveness.  Instead we catch a glimpse of his sense of humor and sarcasm which should appeal to a wider audience.

Skip Bedell also has an extensive background in construction, though his past is much less documented than Carolla’s.  He is understandably angry that bad contractors making the whole industry look bad, to the point that he accuses bad contractors of taking the food off his table.  To me this is a bit of an exaggeration.  As Carolla has often pointed out on his podcasts, good contractors will always find work.  I will argue, in fact, that it is because the good ones are so busy that there is room in the market place for the incompetent ones.   On the show, we don’t really see much evidence of Skip Bedell’s level of expertise, mainly because of the pace of the construction / repair montage.  It would be nice if we see more of his work in future episodes.

Alison Bedell, Skip’s wife, is the private investigator on the show.  She is the one who actually tracks down the shady contractor and, posing as a homeowner looking to have work done, lures him to the “sting” house.  The only part of the investigation we see involves Alison sitting in a car with a camera that has a rockin’ telephoto lens.  It would be nice to see more of the investigation, though I suppose there is a danger in revealing trade secrets.

Skip and Alison are no strangers to reality television, having been featured in an episode of Marry Me in NYC.  On that show, from 2011, Alison was identified as a probation officer.  There is no indication when she made the transition from P.O. to P.I., but this feels suspiciously like a case of being cast into a role for TV.  At any rate, Skip and Alison have an interesting back story.  It would be nice to learn more about them.

[Update:  During an episode of The Adam Carolla Show Podcast, it was revealed that the private investigator originally hired for the show was unable to / chose not to participate.  Alison happened to be in the vicinity supporting her husband and, once the producers learned of her backgroung, she was offered the position / role.]

Home improvement junkies may be disappointed that more time isn’t spent showing actual construction and repair work being done.  But that isn’t what this show is about.  If there is any question, just read the show’s title.  It is about the confrontation.  The show aims more to entertain than to educate.  And frankly, that feels like a missed opportunity.  That is not to say that there aren’t a few educational take-aways for the viewer;  there are.  But they are not the primary focus.  Someone on the Spike TV website referred to the show as “justice porn.”  That is an apt description.

The bottom line:  I watched the show with my wife and 12 year old daughter and we all enjoyed it.  Our DVR is set up and we will be watching the remaining episodes.  If you view Catch a Contractor on the merits of what it is trying to be (rather than what it could be) it is worth watching.  7/10

Catch a Contractor airs on Spike TV Sunday night at 10:00 Eastern, 9:00 Central.  Check your local listings.

Update:  April 24, 2014

Recently announced on The Adam Carolla Show podcast:  Catch a Contractor has renewed for a second season of ten, one hour episodes.

Update:  Season 2

With the longer format in Season 2,  additional attention is paid to the confrontation and it seems even less time is spent on the remediation cementing this show as “justice porn.”  It’s entertaining, but don’t expect to learn anything. Season 3 films in March 2015.

Update:  Season 3 (2015)

The third season of CAC focuses some attention on the production crew and the behind-the-scenes setups of the stings.  It’s interesting, but it takes even more attention away from the actual rehabilitation.  Someone nerdier than me could probably break the episodes down more accurately, but I would roughly estimate that the show is 10% backstory, 85% investigation and confrontation and  5% rehabilitation and reveal.  Educational value is negligible.

Skip will berate the bad contractors for giving good contractors a bad reputation.  But the show does nothing to show any contractors in a good light.  The final reveal is pretty, but we don’t see any of the workmanship that goes into it.

But instead of lamenting what the show could be, just watch it for what it is.  It may not “move the needle,” to use one of Carolla’s favorite expressions, but it is an hour of guilty pleasure.    I’m going to keep watching.

What’s new at Thumb and Hammer

Two weeks ago, thumbandhammer.com was quietly relaunched.  And I do mean quietly.  No fanfare.  No announcement email.  No posts on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network.

And thus ended several months of very tedious and repetitive work that took much longer than it should have.

Why a redesign?  Why now?

Back in July, I sat down to write a blog post.  My WordPress admin panel told me that it was time to update to the latest version of WP, so I went through the process– and something went awry.  I could no longer update posts or create new ones.  Parts of the website stopped working properly (like the menu in the sidebar).  It was a mess.  After several failed attempts at re-installing WP, I gave up.

I started a brand new “sandbox” site and began the ordeal of copy and pasting all the content from the existing site to the new one.  It gave me the chance to become reacquainted with my content and make some improvements.

The new, improved(?) thumbandhammer.com

  • Old 35mm photographs have been re-scanned and optimized.
  • All digital photographs have been re-sampled and optimized.
  • Thumbnails are larger.  Full-size photos have a maximum dimension of 800 pixels– this was the best compromise between file size and quality.  All full-size photos are less than 90k, making thumbandhammer.com a very inexpensive website if you are paying for bandwidth.
  • Content has been pruned: I got rid of some outdated stuff.
  • Content has been edited: typos, errors in grammar, dead links have all been corrected.  (I think I got them all).
  • Content has been added.  I added some new information, for example, on metal framing where I try to realistically compare the cost of different framing materials.  You can see that new content here.  There are also a couple of new blog posts that have just been added.
  • The new design is responsive and should look pretty good on all devices.  More importantly, it just works.

A look back

Before I detail my plans for the website going forward, I thought it would be fun to take a look at where it has been, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.  Not all graphics were saved in the archive, and my files for the early sites are long-gone, so even I forget exactly what the site looked like.  But you get the idea.

 

Looking forward:  What to expect from my website, and me

First of all:  no more paid links.  I will not compromise the integrity of this site to make a quick buck (though those quick bucks were nice back in the day).  I am embarrassed that I ever accepted this form of advertising.

Greater focus on how my experiences and the knowledge I’ve gained in my years of home ownership and can help you, whether you are doing your own home improvements, hiring contractors, or just trying to cope with life in a money pit.

In the coming weeks, I will discuss my family’s finances.  I will go into greater detail all the problems that exist in the family room addition of our house, along with the warning signs we should have seen before we bought.  And I will lay out our wish list for the new addition.

We are hoping that we will be able to go ahead with the tear-down and rebuilding of the addition later this year (fall 2014).  We will be consulting with an architect, dealing with our mortgage company, possibly appearing before the building committee to ask for variances, and talking to contractors.  We will be dealing with numbers and our financial reality to make those numbers work.

I will also be starting a podcast soon.  You can read more about this endeavor in the pre-launch preamble.

Click here to subscribe to my mailing list for notification of all blog posts and podcast episodes.  And don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any comments, suggestions or criticisms.

The table leg chronicles

This story spans a couple of months in the summer of 2013.

nightstand
The nightstand in all its assembled glory….

As part of my daughter’s bedroom makeover, we purchased a nightstand at Walmart.  I don’t much care for Walmart for sociopolitical reasons, but that’s beside the point.  Sometimes there just isn’t much choice when shopping on a budget.

In a perfect world, I would have my garage and my workshop and I would have built a nightstand myself.  In fact, I still plan to do just that, eventually.  For now, though, my daughter needed a nightstand and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a “temporary” one.  A hundred bucks was my limit.

We saw one at Walmart.  It was within the budget and my daughter liked it.  It would do the job.

Later, as I was putting it together, I discovered that it had shipped with two left front legs.  Or maybe it was two right front legs.  That’s not important.  I had an extra piece that I didn’t need and I didn’t have a piece that I needed.   Now, with most pieces of furniture, if there are parts missing, the manufacturer instructs you to call them (rather than return the furniture to the store).  So I called the number in the instructions and had the first of several pleasant conversations with Janet from Adeptus Furniture in Virginia.

At first she suggested I exchange the nightstand at Walmart.  I explained that I didn’t know if Walmart had another one in stock or if they would take back something that had already been partially assembled, especially since I had pretty much destroyed the box.  Besides, most companies just ship out the replacement part.  She said that she would see if they had that part at their location.  Otherwise, it would take about a month for them to get the part from the factory.

About a week later, she called back.  They did not have the part but the owner actually went to Walmart himself and purchased a nightstand and they would send me the leg from that.  At that point I offered to take my chances with Walmart, but she insisted that they wanted to go to those lengths for me.  A few days later she touched base once again, to explain that the owner had been out of town but the leg would soon be en route.

Another week passed and I received the package.   If I remember correctly, they paid close to $20 for shipping the leg for a table that I had bought for about $70.

I don’t think they made any money on that deal.  But their customer service was nothing short of exceptional.

So, about two months after finishing my daughter’s room, I finished putting her nightstand together.

Now, there’s a few elements of this story that have altered some of my opinions.

Walmart

I will not go into a lengthy diatribe about everything that is wrong with Walmart here.  But they do have a reputation for selling cheap, throwaway consumer goods, usually made in China where wages are so low, there is no way we can compete with them here in North America.

However this particular nightstand, sold under the Hometrends brand name, is made of solid wood (no particle board) that is sourced from environmentally responsible “pine plantations” where two trees are planted for every one harvested.  By no means is it heirloom quality, but it is better than most other offerings at its price point and should last a very long time.  So I concede that you can find decent quality goods at Walmart if you look for them.

Outsourcing

We have seen many of our manufacturing jobs disappear overseas, driven in large part by big profitable companies that can afford to pay reasonable wages to keep jobs here, but chose instead to pursue higher profits for the CEO’s and shareholders.  So generally speaking, outsourcing is evil.

However, North American workers are not the only ones who are paying the price.  Smaller companies that don’t have the volumes or margins of the larger companies are more or less forced to outsource in order to sustain their business.  Otherwise they wouldn’t exist at all.

Impersonal 800 numbers

It has been my experience that calling an 800 number usually leads to someone in a call center or a cubicle.  That wasn’t the case when I called Adeptus.  Basically, when I talked to Janet, I was speaking with one-third of the company.  And the fact that Janet called back on more than one occasion, well, that was a personal touch that I wasn’t expecting.

All in all, despite the frustration the wrong part preventing me from finishing the assembly of the piece of furniture, dealing with Adeptus was a pleasant experience.  And at the end of the day (if I may use that annoying expression) my daughter is happy with her nightstand.

Just a note:  This episode took place in the summer of 2013.  I am just posting about it now because of issues I had with the old website that prevented me from posting anything.

Bedroom makeover complete


For most people, painting a room might take a weekend.  I allowed myself one day for each coat of paint — two coats on the ceiling and two coats on the walls– expecting to finish the room and put it back together within a week.  Well, after a full four weeks of sleeping in the guest room, our daughter finally moved back into her own room last weekend.

Why so long?

bedroom
Bed and dresser

First of all, I painted during a week’s vacation.  Once back at work, though,  let’s completely forget about doing anything during the week.  Between work schedules and activities, there never seems to be the time to take care of daily chores, never mind bigger projects.

The first weekend, we emptied out the room and I finished the painting that week.

The second weekend, we were waiting for the curtains we ordered online.

By the third weekend, we had the curtains.  but my attention was turned outside to catch up on yard work that had been neglected due to several weeks of poor weather.

Weekend four was devoted to family time.  It had been a while since we enjoyed a day out together as a family doing something besides running errands.  We have to take advantage of these opportunities because time is going by so fast.

That brings us to last weekend.  Weekend number five.  The room makeover is finally complete except for a night stand that was shipped with two left legs.  We just have to wait for the replacement part to be shipped to us so I can finish the assembly.  And the kid still has to put her books and knick knacks back on the shelves.  But that’s something she can take care of herself.

The curtains were ordered from Sew Custom Curtain Corporation in California.  We received them in Ontario, Canada (international shipping) a week and a half after the order was placed.  I highly recommend this company if you are in the market for any animal print accessories.  (This is not an affiliate link, nor am I getting paid for this endorsement….)

ClosetMaid Cubeicals Organizers

We previously had two white 9 cube Cubeicals units in the bedroom.  They provided ideal storage for Barbies and other toys that could be tucked away into the fabric drawers.  But the white laminate shelves and pastel colored drawers did not fit in with the new room colors or our daughter’s current  design aesthetic.  A single 8 cube unit in espresso finish is a more sophisticated choice and fits neatly under the dormer window.

In general, Cubeicals get mixed reviews.  The most common complaint cited by consumers is that the product looks or feels cheap.  While I agree that we are not dealing with fine furniture here, I feel that the quality is on par with what one might reasonably expect from a particle board / laminate shelving unit at the same  price point.  Cubeicals are worth consideration when basic functional organization is needed.

MDL: Mary C’s Love Automatic video deconstructed

Confession:  A few weeks ago, I watched Million Dollar Listing: New York with my wife. The episode (that originally aired in the US in May) featured real estate agent Ryan Serhant taking on a listing for a penthouse unit.  The owner placed some rather unreasonable restrictions on how the property could be marketed, such as no showings or open houses.  The parties barely came to an agreement to allow a video of the property to show prospective buyers.

What followed made for some pretty interesting television (even if it was scripted and staged).  Instead of a traditional property video showcasing the features of the property, the agent and videographer conspired, supposedly without the owner’s knowledge, to film a music video for Mary C and The Stellars in the apartment.  The theory was that the end result would be a win-win.  The musicians had a cool backdrop for their video and  Ryan could use that video to market the property.

The million dollar question, no pun intended, of course, is whether or not the video is an effective tool from a real estate point of view.  Admittedly, you really don’t see much of the property in the video, but the intent is not a room by room tour.  Instead, as they say so often in the Million Dollar Listing franchise, it is the lifestyle that is being marketed.

The role the penthouse plays in the video is subtle, but as a marketing tool it demonstrates a few different lifestyle perspectives that would appeal to potential buyers.

“Spectacular Views”

The video opens with a stunning view of New York. The view is a huge selling point of the property and figures prominently in future scenes.mary c 1

In this scene we see the young male, played by real estate agent Ryan Serhant as he walks past the window. In future scenes we see him sitting at a desk. Can you think of a better home office?

maryc 2

 

Later, we see Mary C sitting by a window with the city as a backdrop.

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“Perfect for entertaining”

The recurring scene throughout the video is the band jamming in the living room. The message here is that it is a great space to throw a party and is large enough for a gathering of friends.

maryc 3

 

Experts agree that kitchens and bathrooms sell homes (or apartments)

We see the couple in what appears to be the bathroom. It could be in the morning getting ready for work, or in the evening getting ready for a night on the town. From a real estate perspective, it shows that the room is large enough for two people to occupy at the same time.

maryc4

And I think when most people look at any property, they try to picture where they would have their morning coffee or tea…

maryc6

“Spacious master bedroom”

The playful snapshot session in the bedroom upset the seller greatly, considering that he did not want anything in the apartment touched. What does it have to do with real estate? At the very least it shows that the bedroom is big enough for a very large bed.

maryc8

Mary C and the Stellars had the added benefit of exposure on Million Dollar Listing New York and the property got exposure on You Tube with a potential audience of millions around the world.  If Mary C’s career takes off, as it should because she is simply an amazing singer, there might even be the cachet of owning the piece of property where the video was shot, which could appeal to some buyers (though at that price-point, one would think this wouldn’t play a huge role in the decision to purchase).

As it turns out, my wife informs me, the property did indeed sell on a later episode and the buyer had first seen it in the video so the overall strategy was a success.  Does this mean everyone should shoot a music video to sell their house?  Probably not.  But a video showing people using the space in a variety of ways might help market the house better than a generic room by room, pan from left to right, property video.