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Archive for the ‘Free advice’ Category

Why you should use the “9″ button on the microwave all the time

31 Aug

Microwave number pad graphic

I saw a funny XKCD post referencing the phrase “as neglected as the nine button on the microwave.” I was immediately confused because I use the “9″ button almost every day, and I gradually realized that I needed to share my microwave-programming secret with the world. Long ago, I decided on a critical microwave strategy: Use as few buttons as possible.

In my experience, 99 seconds is an excellent length for most microwave ovens to heat a single-serving container of leftovers to a piping-hot temperature. Yes, 99 seconds is the same as one minute and 39 seconds, but 99 seconds involves just one numerical button (the “9,” if you follow) instead of three.

Does this modest lifehack actually save you time? It does if you’re as crazy as me! Whenever I use the microwave to heat food, I use a number that minimizes the number of buttons I need to touch. At first, it’s a silly exercise. Over the long term, it is undoubtedly the most time-efficient way to heat food in a microwave oven. Why waste an extra second splitting hairs to heat your food for 1:00 when 0:55 or 0:66 is practically the same interval?

I don’t expect people to adopt my system universally (EVEN THOUGH THEY SHOULD). Under my system, though, the “9″ button is anything but neglected. My most common cooking time is 99 seconds.

 
 

The rattle inside a can of spray paint? It’s a marble.

01 Mar

Marble from spray paint canI retrieved this marble from an empty can of spray paint. Retrieving it by breaking open the can with the claw end of a dollar-store hammer was an entertaining challenge. Protip: do it outside.

The rattle inside some spray cans is caused by an object inside the can that helps mix the paint (or other payload) with the propellant inside the can. The propellant forces the paint out of the can, but the propellant and the paint tend to separate over time into two distinct layers inside the can. Bouncing a marble up and down inside the can breaks up the boundary between the two substances and mixes the propellant with the paint, making spray paint actually spray PAINT instead of just plain old propellant.

Is this a worthwhile effort? No. Plain glass marbles can be found at any dollar store (such as The Dollar Tree) in large quantities for much less than the cost of a can of spray paint. I think it’s still worthwhile to know what is inside the mechanical devices we use every day. If you enjoy busting open empty spray cans, you will get a marble for your trouble. Enjoy!

Spray paint can and marble

 

Make an airtight diaper pail for less than $5

23 Feb

Homemade, airtight diaper pailsFor me, the benefits of cloth diapers (saving money, avoiding blowouts, and reducing trash output) easily outweigh the inconveniences (washing, stuffing, and storing the diapers). However, storing three days worth of smelly diapers requires several effective diaper pails to keep the house from smelling like a litter box. Diaper pails can be surprisingly expensive, though, so you may want to make your own like I did. Why spend $30 on one bin when you can have a whole fleet of them for less than half that much?

For less than $5, you can make a diaper pail that will easily hold a day’s worth of diapers; I use three of these bins in different locations around the house so we never have to carry a dirty diaper very far. It is a simple matter of buying two identical trash cans and making minor modifications so one trashcan can serve as the lid for the other.

Tools and materials:

  • Two FNISS wastebaskets from IKEA ($1.99 each as of this moment)
  • Cabinet knob
  • Foam pipe insulation
  • Utility knife
  • Drill
  • Duct tape or gaffer’s tape

Read the rest of this entry »

 

Furnace filter + box fan = cheap air filter for allergies

02 Sep

Allergy fan anteriorIf you are allergic to dust, pollen, cat dander, or other respiratory irritants, you may benefit from an air filter to remove these particles from the air you breathe. These can be expensive.

You also may be cheap and/or skeptical like me. Before buying an expensive piece of hardware, I often try out a cheaper version first, both to make sure the technology is worthwhile and to check if the cost of the fancy version is really justified. If the cheap option works, I say stick with it!

If you need an air filter temporarily (such as while visiting a house with a cat) or just like finding the cheapest solution to your problem, you may want to try the simple contraption you see here. In combination with regular doses of Claritin, this slapdash-looking filter has kept the wife happy on trips to dusty or cat-friendly places. My air-filtration system requires only three materials:

  • A common 20″ electric fan (often called a “box fan”): These are available for $20 or less at all kinds of stores.
  • A standard 20″ x 20″ pleated air filter (usually used for household HVAC systems): These can be $3 to $20 apiece depending on the size of the particles it removes. If you have severe allergies, you may want the expensive ones that remove the tiniest particles.
  • Duct tape: Any kind will do.

The construction is simple, but it is not quite as simple as just taping the filter to the fan. Follow these steps for best results:

  1. Place the filter in front of the fan and make sure they are are aligned properly. The filter will have an arrow printed on the edge pointing in the desired direction of airflow. Make sure the fan will blow air against the back of the filter in the direction of the arrow.
  2. Tape every edge of the filter to the fan. You want all of the air blown forward by the fan to go through the filter, so don’t leave any gaps. Multiple layers of tape may help.
  3. On the back of the fan, tape over all four corners of the rear grate to reduce blowback. The filter is square, while the fan’s blades trace a circular pattern. When the fan is running, some of the air pressure will leak out the back of the filter, especially at the corners farthest from the thrust of the fan blades.Covering these areas will increase the fan’s effectiveness by reducing the flow of air back out of the fan and increasing pressure against the filter.
  4. Set the fan to its highest speed to maximize the pressure against the filter. Lower speeds may not result in much airflow due to resistance from the filter. The medium and high speeds are best for providing an effective breeze through the filter.

Allergy fan posterior

If you want to clean the air in a closed bedroom to help you sleep, leave the fan running in the room with the door closed. If you want to avoid allergies in a larger space, aim the fan at yourself for a continuous stream of filtered air.

There are a few maintenance issues. Over time, the filter will become clogged with all the dust it has collected; cut or peel off the tape and install a new filter. Check the taped edges occasionally for tearing or peeling. You should also expect the fan to wear out faster because of the additional stress put on the motor from the pressures generated by blocking the air with a big filter. I suspect this would be seen by a decrease in fan speed, airflow, and electrical efficiency; I’ll have to study that part in the years to come.

 

Cloth diapers: better, cheaper, and a bit more work

07 Feb

Diapers and dinosaur modelIf you have a baby in need of diapers, you might be surprised at how easy cloth diapering can be. I have been using cloth diapers on my daughter for five months and have only good things to report. In my experience, cloth diapers have been better than disposable diapers on nearly all levels. I’ll admit that disposable diapers are simpler and more convenient than their reusable counterparts, but they also seem to have more leaks and blow-outs, too, which is far from convenient. Just as important to me: I’m on track to save hundreds of dollars on diapers this year alone because washing diapers is cheaper than buying disposable ones.

There are lots of brands out there and a lot of choices to make. I’ll explain how I chose these diapers and how to use, wash, and maintain them.

What kind of diapers to get: The diapers shown here are the bumGenius “Cloth Diaper 4.0 One-Size” model. This style of diaper comes in two parts: a sturdy shell with elastic and fasteners to hold it on, and a removable microfiber pad that fits inside to absorb any liquid and keep the shell leak-free. Two-part reusable diapers are common these days, but there are also all-in-one diapers that let you skip the step of stuffing the pad into the shell before you use it. I prefer the two-part variety because I can dry the shell and the pad separately. Line-drying the shells makes their elastic and quick-drying capabilities last longer, while the pads will dry quickly in any dryer with no ill consequences. The pocket style also lets me stuff in an extra pad when desired, such as for overnight or traveling.

Diapers on drying rack Diapers and inserts Pile of diapers

Read the rest of this entry »

 

Spare change is about $10 per pound

04 Mar

One red centAll of our household change goes into a big glass. It takes years to fill this glass at our current rate of coin accumulation. When it finally fills, I usually empty it into a CoinStar machine in exchange for an equal-value Amazon gift certificate (this is a great alternative to rolling coins for the bank). I enjoy the suspense when I go to the store because I have no idea how much they are actually worth. Of course, the CoinStar machine could be cheating me and I’d never know it! As a naturally suspicious person, this won’t do. When the glass filled up this month, I was determined to estimate the value myself first. Plus, it would be a great problem-solving exercise!

Yes, this is how I entertain myself. Thank you for asking.

The simplest way to tackle the problem could be by weight. I weighed myself on my bathroom scale with the full glass in my hand and then weighed myself again with the empty glass in hand. It appears that I have 6.4 pounds of American coinage. How much could that be worth?

I assumed this would be a fairly simple exercise. The standard masses of U.S. coins are readily available. By these figures, quarters and dimes are each worth $20 per pound, while nickels are worth $4.54 per pound and pennies a mere $1.46-$1.81 per pound depending on the mint year (the standard mass of the penny changed in 1982 when the mint replaced most of the copper in new pennies with zinc). That gives us a top and bottom estimate: Change is worth between $1.46 and $20 per pound, depending on the mix of coins.

I needed extra assumptions to refine the estimate for my situation. Here are the scenarios I tried: Read the rest of this entry »

 
 

While you’re at it, try to space your hurricane weather more than a week apart when moving into a new house.

04 Sep
 
 

Don’t move into a new house during a hurricane.

27 Aug
 
 

Save your corks and put them to use

07 Jun

Corks of various sizesI used to save corks for no particular reason. Wine corks and the occasional whiskey cork went straight into a big bowl. Now that the bowl is nearing its maximum capacity, I have finally found that a collection of different-sized corks can actually be useful.

I put my cider in the largest bottles I have in order to reduce the number of bottles to clean (and fill) at bottling time. When opening one of these bottles, I like to have a way to reseal it so I can keep the rest cold and carbonated in the fridge. Lo and behold, my collection of wine and whiskey corks fits allows me to reseal any bottle I want and keep the contents from going flat.

Even though I use the same metal caps on all of my cider bottles, some of my bottles demand stoppers of different sizes. Wine corks are typically a single standard size, so there’s no need to collect too many of them unless you have a bowl to fill. Instead, look for corks from high-end liquor (cheaper booze uses screw-caps; the use of a cork quietly implies that the bottle is handcrafted or antique or otherwise distinguished enough to justify the price). Different liquor brands use corks of different sizes, so having a variety ensures a snug fit for a wide range of bottles.

Is saving every cork that enters your home overkill? Of course, but it’s easy to save one of each size that you encounter so that you’re prepared for any bottle that strolls in the door. Corked bottles can make homemade gifts such as last winter’s homemade vanilla extract a touch classier.

Recorked bottlesBowl of corks

 

Sugar cane: worth the extra cost (and calories)

17 Mar

Real sugar Coke and tonic waterThe debate over corn syrup and cane sugar is a remarkable case of mercantile debates playing out through public policy. Coca-Cola used to be made with real cane sugar, but now it is made with America’s favorite product, corn syrup. Have you had real sugar lately? Just as a real Coke tastes better than a Diet Coke, a Coke made with real sugar tastes better than a typical, corn-syrup Coke. Sugar tastes delicious. Unfortunately for the thrill-seekers out there, cane sugar has been largely dismissed due to the low price of a native agricultural product.

I don’t want to encourage the consumption of empty calories. Then again, soda isn’t healthy to begin with. I believe that sugary sodas have helped make America fatter. I also would assume that the artificial sweeteners in sugar-free, “diet” drinks may have unexpected (if still unknown) long-term health effects. Therefore, the only safe route is to have nothing.

Good luck with that.

Let’s ignore the agricultural politics behind corn syrup’s low price and go straight to flavor. If you love a delicious beverage, you owe it to yourself to try sodas made with cane sugar. They taste better than the corn-syrup alternative. Drink them in moderation, of course, but if you’re going to drink the calories, you might as well have something delicious rather than merely good. Specialty brands like Jones Soda, Izze, and the recent Pepsi Throwbacks have demonstrated the growing market for premium, sugary beverages.

365 tonic water detailMexican Coke detail

Here are my top recommendations:

  • Tonic Water: Whole Foods’ 365 Tonic Water is the most widely-available tonic water that uses real sugar. Highly recommended for gin and tonics, which are raised to a new level compared to the usual stuff. This will make any tonic-based cocktail better. Even if you don’t normally drink tonic water, buy a six-pack and put in the back of your liquor cabinet as a foolproof bubbly mixer.
  • Coca-Cola: The real Coke is available in many parts of the U.S. at Passover (look for yellow caps marking them as Kosher) and is also available imported from Mexico (check Costco or any local Hispanic store). This makes a much better Coke-based drink than the more pedestrian types of Coke. Recommended for rum and Cokes especially. You also get to enjoy the bottles.