Home Improvement
Changing the seasons at your house
By Walter Jowers

Walter's weather forecast: It won't be long before it gets bathwater-hot, followed by hell-hot, with no relief in sight. In a month or two, you'll be able to sweat up a shirt just going outside to get the paper.

Spring & Summer Dos and Don'ts

Do: Stay Cool

At my house, the arrival of sweating weather means air conditioning, and lots of it. We Jowerses don't set our thermostat to 82 and get all smug about not turning on the A/C until June. No sir, we shoot for about 68 degrees, year-round. The key to keeping our A/C units in peak meat-locker form is maintenance. And I know, on this subject, a goodly number of you need a little scolding.

But it's not all your fault. Y'all are victims.

Around here, poor maintenance is the rule, not the exception. For instance, it's legally and socially acceptable here to drive a car with a busted windshield and red notebook paper taped over the busted taillights. More than once, I've wanted to grab somebody in a parking lot and scream, "You're driving on the same roads with my family with those tires!!!"

But let's get back to the A/C. First thing you do, find an HVAC (Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning) contractor that has at least one clean, well-spoken technician. Next thing, make a standing date with this technician for every spring and fall.

Every spring, the tech will come to your house and do some very simple, but very important, things. For instance, he'll clean out the A/C condensate drain. These drain lines often clog up with green crud, and dump water into your attic, closet, or basement. I've seen people spend hundreds of dollars chasing what they thought was a roof leak, only to trace the leak back to a clogged or leaky condensate drain in the attic.

The tech will also clean the two coils - the inside one near the air handler, and the outside one in the condensing unit. Left alone, the inside coil will grown long, green hair. The outside one will get clogged with leaves, twigs, bird droppings, and who knows what else. If the coils get dirty, the A/C system will slowly stop cooling. It'll also overheat, reducing its useful life.

Now, I can hear Bubba thinking, "I ain't calling no air conditioning man. That costs money." Well, let me introduce the simple concept of Total Cost of Ownership, TCO for short. Simply stated, it costs a lot more to neglect a thing than it does to maintain it. Spend now, save later, okay?

Two dirt-cheap things you can do to make your A/C system run cooler and last longer:

(1) Change the filter at least once a month, more often if you kick up a lot of dust and clog it up.

(2) Quit planting bushes around the outside condensing unit (the big outside part of the A/C system.) Those little bushes grow up and block the air flow around the coil, slowly killing your air conditioner. I know, some of you suburban folk are trying to hide those big noisy machines, but they don't need hiding. Leave 'em out there loud and proud. And don't build any silly trellises around 'em either.

Don't: Seal Everything In Sight

I know, I know. Everybody's seen the TV ads. If you'll just put sealant on your deck, it'll look prettier and last longer.

I say different. I say any board - redwood, cedar, cypress, or pressure-treated pine - will eventually rot when it's left outside. Decks, by their very nature, are outside. So they're going to rot. Nothing you can do will slow it down very much.

Now, I'm not saying that sealants aren't good, or that they won't make water bead, just like on TV. What I'm telling you is that in the real world of backyard decks, water gets in and around nail heads, and at the ends of boards, in places where the sealant doesn't go.

A little analogy: To cut down on tooth decay, dentists now seal teeth, much the same way we seal decks. But even with the sealant, you can still get cavities in the nooks and crannies on the sides of your teeth, so you still have to floss.

A deck has more nooks and crannies than your teeth. You can't floss a deck. So, the deck will decay.

Here's the skinny: Sealant marketers are smart, like the people who told you to pour baking soda down your drain. I figure the deck-sealant people hooked up with the face-cream people, and learned that Americans think things look "newer" and "healthier" when they're wet and shiny. So, they developed products that make wood look wet and shiny. It makes for pretty commercials. Out here in the backyard, though, the wood fades, and slowly rots.

If you want an outdoor room that doesn't rot, build a screen porch.

Do: Get Battery-Powered Yard Gear

If you've got a small (half-acre or less) yard, and you cut your grass regularly on Saturdays, ditch your gas lawn mower.

I'm here to tell you: It's a fine, simple pleasure to just grab the mower, push the ON button, and start mowing. No yanking on the start rope, no running out of gas, no changing oil, no fouled spark plugs, no stinky fumes. And, best of all, hardly any noise.

I got a cordless, rechargeable, battery-powered Ryobi Mulchinator a couple of years ago, and I'm here to testify: It has changed my mowing life. I'll never go back to gas. Sure, the battery will die one day, and I probably won't be able to find a replacement. But that's okay. I'll buy a whole new lawn mower.

If you like the lawn mower, you'll love the weed whacker. Pick up one of those, too.

Don't: Get a leaf blower

This one's real easy, unless you live on some giant acre-plus lot.

Consider for just a moment that leaf blowers come with warnings that you should wear ear protection when you operate 'em. Consider that the noise they make is a high-pitched shriek that'll rattle the fillings of neighbors for 300 yards in every direction. Consider that the alternative is a rake.

I say get a bamboo rake, they're the quietest of all.

More About Mowers

My first-ever memory involves learning to walk. When the memory comes, I can see my pudgy little baby feet and feel what it was like to be in my wobbly little baby body. I'm using my left arm to brace against the white metal kitchen cabinets, and I'm toddling across the cool, green-and-black linoleum floor toward my father, Jabo. He's squatting in front of the screen door of our house in South Carolina, and he's saying, "Come on, boy. Come on."

My second-oldest memory got stuck in my head about a year later. In this scene, I'm in our back yard, watching Jabo and my stepbrother Geames, trying to get a lawn mower running. Jabo is holding a piece of paper, wadded up in a cigar-shape. The end of the paper is on fire, and Geames is yanking on the lawn mower's starter rope. Jabo holds the paper up to what I now know to be the mower's spark-plug hole. The machine spits and coughs, but never starts. I guess Jabo was trying to figure out if the mower had a bad spark plug.

I've got a headful of memories of Jabo fighting lawn mowers, including a quick-cut montage of Jabo hurling spark plugs, starter ropes, and mower blades into the swamp behind our house. In another scene, he takes a lawn mower by the handle, spins it around, and slings it across the yard, Olympic hammer-throw style. The mental highlight reel closes with a Viking funeral, in which Jabo douses a lawn mower with gasoline, then flips a match onto it.

In the summer of 1971, just weeks before he died, Jabo bought the fanciest mower of his life. Unlike my uncles, who had gone to Sears and bought real enough garden tractors with headlights and hitches and gadgets galore, Jabo had searched the back alleys of Augusta, Georgia, until he found the cheapest machine that combined blades, a motor, and a seat. I know what sold him: The machine had an automatic pushbutton starter.

A week after Jabo was buried, I had to go out to cut the grass. I pushed the start button on the new, red riding mower, and, sure enough, the engine caught and ran. Then I pulled back on the lever that engaged the blades. I heard a mighty flapping sound under me, then the drive belt flew off to my left, like some scalded airborne snake. Before the belt landed, the whole blade assembly came loose and spun into the ground.

I spent the rest of that day calling every mower shop in three towns, looking for belts and blade-holding parts for the mower. Nobody had heard of such a machine, and nobody had any parts for it. Apparently, Jabo had bought the one sorry-ass mower ever made by that particular company. So, instead of a grass-cutting machine, I had a very slow go-cart.

I abandoned the phone search, walked out to the crippled machine, and pushed the start button one last time. When it fired up, I pointed it toward the swamp, and put a brick on the gas pedal. It sank to its axles, then, inch by inch, over that summer, it disappeared into the mud.

The sinking of the red rider started my decade of mowing hell. There I was, a teenager with my very own house, which was next to a swamp, which meant tall, wet, fast-growing grass, all year long. I played guitar for a living. A decent lawn mower wasn't in the budget.

My brother-in-law, Vann, did his best to help me. For his hobby, Vann went to yard sales and bought broken-down lawn mowers. He was a Briggs-and-Stratton man. He wouldn't even haul off a mower with a Tecumseh engine. And he didn't fool with any Lawn Boys, with their two-stroke engines. "They're fractious," he said.

Vann would buy ten Briggs-and-Stratton lawn mowers, and come up with enough parts to make three of them run. He'd sell two, and bring the third one to me. The one I got might be missing a muffler, or the throttle control might be a coat hanger, but it would still mow. It would cut the tall, wet grass at my house once, maybe twice. Then it would die. Vann would come claim the carcass, and rob it for parts. Before a week had passed, he'd bring me another lawn mower. Bless that boy, he was relentlessly good-hearted.

One thing all these Vann-mowers had in common: They would not start without at least fifteen minutes of yanking on the starter rope. Cranking one of these things was like being in a heavyweight fight. I'd yank full-out for three minutes, sit, rest, cuss, and spit for a minute, then get back up and start all over again.

In 1975, wife Brenda (then girlfriend Brenda) started helping with the grass-cutting duties. One day Vann came by after Brenda had put in fifteen minutes with the starter rope, and the sight of her all sweaty and out of breath was too much for him. The next week, he delivered a mower with a wind-up starter. To make this one go, all you had to do was unfold a handle on top of the engine, wind it up about twelve times, then push a button to release the wound-up energy. This worked exactly once, during Vann's demonstration. The mower never started again. We just let the grass grow the rest of that summer.

As that summer passed, Brenda and I came to know that we'd stay together. During one of our hopes-and-dreams talks, I told her, "If I ever get flush, I'm going to promise myself one thing: A lawn mower that'll by-God start up every time."

The next spring, Brenda bought us a new Lawn Boy mower. It was her way of saying to Vann, "Thanks for all the Briggs-and-Strattons, but we can take it from here."

Four years later, my band broke up, and I was just plain lost, the same as I was the summer Jabo died.

One late summer day, around the anniversary of Jabo's death, I went out to cut the grass. I pushed the Lawn Boy through the tall grass, and right in the middle of our front yard, I ran over a pile of Bassett hound crap. I heard a flapping sound and saw something fly off to my left. The smelling-salts strength smell of the hound poop hit me, and jarred something in my brain. The combination of flashback and disgust gave me an epiphany. Right then and there, I decided: Brenda and I had to leave this podunk cotton-mill town.

When we moved, we bought an old house, which I renovated.

I wrote an article about the renovations, and that got me a job as a magazine editor. A year later, I quit the editing job, and started working as a freelance how-to writer.

Friends and neighbors who read the how-to articles started asking me to check out houses before they bought them, and that caused me to start my home inspection business.

Soon after that, Brenda woke up in the middle of the night, turned to me and said, "I want to have a baby." Ten months later, daughter Jess was born.

Change any part of this story, and who knows how I end up.

But as it is, I feel like the richest man in the world. I've still got Brenda, after all these years. I've got daughter Jess, who delights me every day.

And if we're really careful with our money, I always have a fully functional lawn mower waiting for me in the garage.