Category: handiwork

Replacing the flammable vapor sensor in your hot water heater

Part of the toils of home ownership is the hassle of repairing appliances and fixtures. In the financial freedom world one could rent or even live like a digital nomad. But that doesn’t work if you plan to enroll your kids in traditional schooling or even hold a professional job. The nomadism comes after financial freedom, unfortunately.

This leads us to today’s DIY review. My five-year old hot water heater decided to act up last week and punished the household with cold water. Fortunately with many modern hot water tanks have a gas control kit installed. This control unit helps maintain the pilot light and allows you to adjust the temperature of the water.  In layperson’s terms, this device keeps the water hot, whether through natural gas or electricity.

The beauty of these controls is that they also provide error codes for troubleshooting. My device has a light that flashes and and chart for reference. Think of it like a diagnostic system in ICU ventilators:

Everything is getting computerized these days.

My control unit produced a sequence of 7 flashes, which indicates that I have a faulty flammable vapor sensor (FVS).

The FVS is a relatively newer’ish invention that consists of a silicone type sensor that detects flammable vapors outside of the hot water tank. If you have a gas leak, you certainly don’t want to have an open flame feeding off that fuel. The downside of the sensor is that it can be trigger by other fumes in the vicinity such as paint fumes.

Check to make sure that you don’t have a gas leak.

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The most critical reason why your gas control valve triggers an FVS error is that it might actually be doing its job. Do you have a gas leak somewhere? Make sure that you don’t smell fumes from natural gas, garage off gasses, or even open paint cans in the vicinity. Vent the area where your water heater is located. Only when you are certain that there is no dangerous situation should you proceed to make changes.

Reset the FVS.

Let’s say that there was a temporary trigger to the sensor. Maybe there was a spider that built a nest right on your water heater. Perhaps your dog had a loose bowel movement. Whatever. You can reset your control panel. Every device is going to be different. The user’s manual should have a section on resetting the device. Or try Google. That’s what I did.

I have a Honeywell type control panel. There is one on-off switch, plus a dial to control the water temperature. To reset my controls, I did the following:

  1. Flip the switch to ‘off’.
  2. Unplug the unit.
  3. Turn the temperature dial to ‘low’.
  4. Plug in the unit.
  5. Flip the switch to ‘on’.
  6. Modulate the temperature dial from ‘low’ to ‘very hot’ about 3-5 cycles.

At some point, you will hear a spark. The pilot light will subsequently light, and you will likely hear a whoosh where the flame ignites underneath the water heater. If your hot water heater stays on, then you’re home free.

You might have a bad vapor sensor.

Unfortunately after I performed a reset on the control unit, my water heater shut off after five minutes. My FVS is situation on the edge of the water heater in a plastic cover.

The sensor looks like a power socket plug.

25VS. The little guy that stands between hot and cold showers.

When the sensor detects a sensitive fume its resistance increases and closes the circuit. On average the working range of these resistors is somewhere between 9-45 kilo-ohms. I was able to test the resistance of my FVS using a multimeter, and mine was somewhere around 196,000 kilo-ohms! (196 mega-ohms). Clearly the FVS had simply gone bad.

Mega amounts of resistance indicates a bad vapor sensor.

One hack to get your hot water heater going in a pinch (DON’T DO THIS) is to install a resistor in the circuit. If you have access to a Radio Shack or electronics store, you can pick up a 15k-ohm resistor. Tie it into your hot water heater, and you will have bypassed the safety mechanism of your hot water heater.

Replace the vapor sensor.

If you have a bad sensor, the fix is easy—get a replacement and install it. Many of the big box chains like Lowe’s and Home Depot will unlikely carry these parts, but a specialized plumbing company might.

You can also find replacement parts on eBay or Amazon. I have a Whirlpool water heater, which is actually made by American Water Heater Company, whose parent company is A.O. Smith.  This is important because many of the replacement parts are interchangeable. Through some detective work, I found out that my flammable vapor sensor was also manufactured by Rheem. The part online was $25 with free shipping.

How much did I save?

Plumbing is a specialized profession (like gastroenterology). It may not be the most challenging line of work, but it can be dirty.  The local plumbing chain charges $150 per visit ($300 on weekends), $150/hr for labor, plus parts. This probably would have been about a $450 job. Plus the agony of calling the plumbing and potentially taking a day (or half day) of work off.

Not a bad trade-off, especially in post-tax dollars.


How much home maintenance do you deal with?

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How much would housekeeping set back your financial plan?

I’ve been thinking about housekeeping services for a while, and have dismissed it every time the discussion has arisen.  But those mailers in the junk mail piles are enticing.

Free estimates!

$50 off first cleaning after you sign up for a subscription!

Obviously having too much house to maintain is a problem that I solely created for myself.  It’s a vicious problem that most Americans have. Land is cheap. Homes are cheap. Utilities are cheap.  Loans are cheap.  This is the perfect formula to become enslaved to your lifestyle.

The problem with home maintenance can be divided into two zones: outdoor and indoor maintenance. Both of these can be incredibly time consuming, expensive, and exasperating.

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Outdoor maintenance.

Subdivisions can be great. They are often somewhat planned communities with shared amenities.  Some neighborhoods have shared swimming pools or organized neighborhood events.  We pay into these associations depending on what amenities are provided.  However, these associations also impose restrictions to each household in order to ensure that its neighborhood is presentable.  This can often mean that your house has to be painted a certain approved color. Your lawn has to be groomed and watered, even if your water bill has to take a hit.  It means that you have to eradicate lawn pests, weeds, and any other element that would otherwise thrive under no supervision.

That’s right. We pay extra to have more land, and more to maintain it. That is the American way.

Indoor maintenance.

The same principles apply indoors.  The more space you have in your house, the more space you have to fill your house with “things”. Do you actually need these “things”? Probably not, but who wants to have an empty house? These “things” in the house get misplaced, disorganized, and dusty too.  I keep my windows open often to circulate the outside air in the house.  This brings in a lot of dust, insects, and various pollen in the house as well. What a mess!

How do I deal with this?

Currently everyone in the family pitches in to organize and clean. Pulling weeds, Mowing the lawn.  Cleaning the bathrooms.  Dusting the windowsills.  I’m suspecting that when all is done and over, I’ll probably have spent a shocking number of months of my life organizing.  Yikes!

Despite the number of hours I spend on cleaning and home maintenance, my home still isn’t spotless by any standard.  I just don’t have time to do all of this.

Will hired housekeeping help lengthen my working career?

Most likely.  I asked around several services, and got baseline yearly quotes on common tasks that I currently complete myself:

Damn housekeeping! No one really likes to clean either.

So I’d probably spend an extra $10k annually on doing most of the things that I am currently doing myself.  Over a decade, I will have saved about $100k, and have it grow through investments.  This isn’t exactly pocket change.

The biggest question that I have yet to quantify is whether the lost hours I spend cleaning the house could be better spent generating income.  Sure, I’d have a higher tax burden, but in theory I should have a much higher hourly earning wage than what hired help should charge even after taxes.  I am still not sure, since most of my maintenance tasks occur on my days off, so it would be challenging for me to be able to bring in extra income without taking on more work.

What do you guys think of doing your own chores?

How to check the engine oil level on a Subaru Impreza

Checking the engine oil level on your car isn’t difficult, but it probably isn’t at the top of everyone’s list.  Most of us simply take our vehicles to the garage get the oil changed every 5,000 miles, or at whatever interval your mechanic has instructed you to follow.  I’ve had colleagues NEVER realize that they had to change the oil in their vehicles, and had gone 20,000 miles! Thanks to the marvel of modern manufacturing, their cars still run.

That’s not recommended, unless you’re the type to get a new car every five years anyway.  For most cars built within the last decade, you really just need to stick with the routine oil maintenance schedule.  There are some people who like to stretch out the oil change interval using fancy filters and synthetic oil, but a regular interval will keep you safe.

However, there are several makes of cars that consume large amounts of oil.  These are more common in flat engine vehicles like Subarus.  Other cars that are known to “burn” oil include Audis, Porsche’s, and some BMW’s.  I remember reading a report years ago that over half of the 2010 Audi A4’s required additional engine oil between oil changes!

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If you own any of these cars, you should learn to check the oil levels.  Don’t wait until the fancy Google-enabled computer system in your Audi A8 to kick on. Just check the oil levels routinely.

This is how I check the oil on my Subaru Impreza:

Pop the hood.

Don’t be scared!  The hood release is usually under the steering wheel close to the driver’s side door of your vehicle. Take a look at the engine:

This is what a 11 year-old engine looks like under the hood!

There is usually a cap that is labeled for engine oil, and a dipstick.

If you want a dipstick in your Audi A8, you’ll have to pay extra!

The dipstick allows you to check the oil levels in the reservoir.  Most dipsticks have a high and low level hatch mark. When you first take out the dipstick, be sure to wipe it dry, place it back into the engine, and then take it out to read. You will be able to get a more accurate reading.  If there is no oil on the dipstick, you are likely short at least 1 qt.

The dipstick on my car has two holes indicating both the low and high levels:

Snatch some hospital gloves if you don’t want to get your hands dirty!

If the engine oil level is low, simply visit your friendly auto store (or Walmart) and pick up a few quarts of engine oil rated for your vehicle.  Use a funnel to prevent spillage, and try to add the oil gradually while checking the dipstick in between.  If you overfill the engine, then you will have to take the car to a garage to have them drain some of it out.

I typically change my engine oil and filter once a year (yes, that is long interval), and I usually end up adding about 2 quarts of oil throughout the year!

Any questions on vehicle maintenance? Sound out below!

Should I put nitrogen in my car’s tires?

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Have you ever noticed that some vehicles have a green valve cap on the tires? Is that some sort of special aftermarket modification? In general, the green caps indicate that the vehicle’s tires are filled with nitrogen instead of air.
Wait a second, doesn’t the bulk of atmospheric air consist of nitrogen? Yes.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css_animation=”” row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” angled_section=”no” text_align=”left” background_image_as_pattern=”without_pattern”][vc_column width=”1/2″][pie_chart separator=”yes” percent=”78″ title=”Percentage of nitrogen in normal air-filled tires.”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][pie_chart separator=”yes” percent=”95″ active_color=”#dd9933″ title=”Percentage of nitrogen in nitrogen-filled tires”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css_animation=”” row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” angled_section=”no” text_align=”left” background_image_as_pattern=”without_pattern”][vc_column][vc_column_text]The last time I was shopping for a car at the dealer, the salesman was heralding nitrogen in the vehicle’s tires as a godsend. This godsend also came with a hefty price tag of $700! What advantages does increased nitrogen in the vehicles confer?

We all [hopefully] have been instructed to make sure our car’s tires are properly inflated. The proper tire pressure for your vehicle is usually indicated inside the driver side door.

Sometimes the numbers are identical for all four tires, but not always the case. My Subaru recommends maintain a pressure of 33psi in the front tires and 30psi in the rear tires. Keeping the the tires properly inflates confers two advantages:

  • Symmetrical wear on tires: Obviously if the tires are overinflated or under inflated for long periods of time, there will be uneven wear on the tires. This is most certainly reduce the longevity of your tires and can result in misalignment with drifting of the car when driving straight.
  • Optimal fuel economy: I remember reading an EPA study showing that there is a 0.3% decrease in fuel economy per 1psi decrease in a tire’s pressure. You can easy have a drop of 25% in tire pressure over a year’s time if you don’t check frequently. For most vehicles, you might lose 1-2 mpg depending on your driving habits.


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Nitrogen supposedly is able to remain in the tire more readily than room air because the molecule is larger. If nitrogen is less apt to escape, then the tire will maintain better wear and fuel economy. Does this work in practice? I certainly have not noticed a difference in the brief period that I’ve had nitrogen.

The third benefit of nitrogen in your tires is decreased wheel corrosion. Oxygen, as we know, is a key component in oxidation. After 8 years in the tough northeastern snowstorms, my alloy wheels became quite corroded and had constant rim leaks no matter how much I scrubbed the rims and put bead sealer to keep the air in. In practice, having oxygen in my tires may have helped delayed the corrosion, but with the amount of winter snow, road salt, and ice I went through, I’m not sure if it would have helped.

What situations will nitrogen help in tires?

I’d imagine that mission critical and high performance situations will require stable tire pressure the most. That would probably be for race cars, airplanes, and spaceships. These vehicles undergo significant temperature changes during operation.

Should I put nitrogen in my car’s tires?

If you’re read this far, you probably realize that I’m not too convinced about the benefits of nitrogen in tires, especially if you have to pay some $700 extra for a vehicle. That being, said, I actually have nitrogen in my car’s tires. It came free when I purchased new tires at Costco. You can always have the tire guys there check the pressure at any time.

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Wasteful Wednesdays – Impractical laundry hookups

I have an unused washer and dryer hookup in my bathroom. I currently use the space as storage for mops and other cleaning supplies. It’s been an eyesore, and I’ve been considering installing a washer and dryer for added convenience. These days, you can find relatively inexpensive washers, especially if you can find a used one. In my space, however, there seemed to be one problem.

The space seemed awfully small.

Can you identify all of the problems in this picture?

That’s right. There are several problems with this picture. Based on the arrangement, it’s clear that the space was designed for stackable units only. The width of the space is only 27.5”, which means that you’d have to stack the units if you wanted a dryer in this picture. Okay, no problem. There are plenty of stackable washer/dryer combinations.

Not so fast buddy.

I should have know that the previous owners of my house had a strange obsession with expensive appliances. I noticed several other problems in the process of washer hunting:

  1. There was no dryer exhaust!
  2. The only power outlet in the corner was a 220v hookup!
  3. There are hardly any washing machines that can fit into a 27.5” space. Like maybe two brands.


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Enter ultra-compact washing machines and dryers. This is a new category of appliances that I previously had absolutely no idea existed. These appliances are geared towards regions where space is an absolute premium. Think New York City, San Francisco, the 8th Arrondissement of Paris, or Hong Kong. These are places where you can expect to pay at least $1000 a square foot and still consider it a steal.

The only problem is that I don’t live in any of these cities.

Asko and Electrolux make compact washers and dryers. They are expensive. Think $2000 per unit. You can get a really nice LG washer that has more than twice the capacity of a compact washer for less than $1000.

Guess what? You have to buy the matching dryer too. As you can see in the picture, there is only a 220v power hookup in my wall. This is intended for a dryer hookups only. The Asko compact washer connects into the compact dryer for its power. The dryer also has a ventless hookup in case you live on the 30th floor of a 60-floor high rise.

At this point, I’ll just keep using this area to store the world’s most expensive Swiffer.

Lesson learned: you can end up spending a lot of money on appliances.

Would you buy a compact washer and dryer?

How to change the cabin air filter in a Mazda 3

I recently took my Mazda 3 to the dealer for a routine oil change (more on this later), and the service attendant reminded me that my cabin air filter was due for replacement. The typical fee is $80+tax, but they have a 10% service discount for the month. I politely declined.

Most people aren’t even aware that their car has a cabin air filter (CAF). The CAF is different from the standard air filter (AF) under the hood. The CAF cycles air entering the passenger cabin. This includes the heat, air conditioning, or fan air that enters the through the car’s vents. The maintenance schedule for the CAF ranges anywhere from 12,000 miles up to 30,000 miles. A dirty CAF can mean more exposure to dust, pollen, and outside particulates every time you turn on your car’s fan.


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What most people don’t know about the CAF is that replacing it is a 5-10 minute job, even faster if you are a car mechanic working at the dealership. It took me less than 5 minutes to replace mine. You can order the filter for the Mazda 3 (2010 – 2013 models) on for less than $15. If it takes 10 minutes to replace the filter at a rate of $65 ($80 dealer charge – $15 retail cost of filter = $65), the labor cost of replacing the CAF is $390/hr! If you are a high income earner taxed at a federal marginal rate of 39.6%, you just saved $609/hr or $101.50 for a 10 minute job!!! I ordered a generic CAF on eBay for $9 and saved even more.

Here’s how to do it:

The CAF in the Mazda 3 (2010-2013 models) can be accessed from the front passenger’s side under the glove compartment. The only tool that you need is a Phillips screwdriver. The first step is to remove the plastic side panel of the center console. There is a gap where you can reach in and pull:


There is also a plastic cover that can be removed by pinching through the plastic pins:


There is a sensor cable connected to the air filter cover. It is held in place with a plastic snap. Depress the snap, and disconnect the cable first:


The cover can be removed by unscrewing TWO of the screws on the panel. You can remove the lower left two screws:


A Phillips head screwdriver is all that you will need. After the cover is removed, you now have access to the CAF . There are actually two filters that are stacked on top of one another. Reach in the pull out the bottom filter. Be sure to note the orientation of the filter as you are sliding the old one out. The longer plastic fin should be pointing to the left (toward the passenger).

The top filter can then be pulled down and taken out the same way. Note that the side with the foam edge should be on top. If you have a shop vacuum, you can remove any of the leaves and debris that have accumulated in the system. Place in a new filter, and reverse the steps! Voila!

Overall, it does not take long to do this replacement. The stakes are relatively low, and you can learn more about your car in the process!

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The most expensive floor mop you can buy – Norwex

norwex the most expensive swifferI recently purchased a home for the first time and have been dealing with the benefits and nightmares of home ownership. More on that in future posts. One aspect of ownership that I’ve come to realize over and over again is that you are more likely to take better care of something you own than something that you’re renting.
So true.
I was cleaning out the garage and came across a dirty floor mop. It looked like a Swiffer, except that the mop end appeared to be a reusable microfiber component. I’ve seen plenty of Swiffer knock-offs, and this one looked no different. In any case, the handle looked pretty sturdy, so I decided to keep it. The name of the company was Norwex. I looked online to see where to buy replacement cloths.
These floor mops are EXPENSIVE.
Expensive like $130 for a starter kit! You can’t even buy it at a store. You have to reach out to a design consultant to purchase it. Crazy. The refills were going for at least $20 for one microfiber cloth!
Is it any better than the average dust buster? We shall see. Have anyone in the audience ever used a Norwex?
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