Point of Entry

Your front door matters a lot more than you think.

By Mark Stewart

My first job out of college in the early 1980s was a sales position and the first thing I was told by my manager was to buy a decent pair of shoes. A customer, he explained, is most likely to decide what kind of person you are and what kind of product you’re selling by the quality, condition and style of your footwear. My $20 Thom McAns, in other words, weren’t going to cut it. 

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For whatever reason, I didn’t last long in sales—the company happened to be the one Glengarry Glen Ross was based on (second place is steak knives, third place you’re fired) so I count myself fortunate. I’m not sure I ever entirely bought the shoes idea. However, I do believe something similar applies to a home’s front door. The choices you make related to the entrance of your home can say as much or more about you than the cars you drive, the clothes you wear, the school your kids attend or all of the other traditional clues about substance, status and taste.  

Think about the last time you attended a party at a new friend’s house, or went home- or apartment-shopping. Aren’t you guilty of passing judgment on what’s inside based on what’s outside? It really is human nature to judge a book by its cover, despite the idiom that says you can’t. So I’ll say it: Your front door matters

According to the Internet, which as we know is right about everything, the average American will own three homes in his or her lifetime. That means, statistically speaking, if you’re on your first home, then you’ve got two more front-door decisions left. If you’re on your third home, well, you can probably skip to the next story. But wait! You can always shop for a new door—in fact, many people do. Which is kind of the point of this article. It’s a fact, in fact, that not everyone sticks with the front door that “came” with their current abode. As with other parts of a home, there’s always impetus for change or room for improvement

I have owned two homes and was fortunate that each one came with a magnificent and unusual front door that would have cost somewhere in the high four figures to duplicate. Fortunate because my spouse (who as a juror would be more likely to convict on the basis of a cheap, ugly front entry than on the basis of criminal evidence) would not have allowed us to move into or, perhaps, even buy our two homes had the doors not checked all of her boxes. As a side note, I have been endlessly amused when I catch people staring at our doors and wondering what kind of freaks live in our house. I mention this only to underscore how very personal a choice it is that we make when we choose  a front door

If you actually are in the market for a new door, or maybe just considering a different look, you don’t have to drive through too many neighborhoods to realize that there are a dizzying number of sizes, styles, materials, colors and hardware. Sometimes you’ll see a wow-factor entrance on an otherwise ordinary home. Sometimes you’ll see an utterly featureless front door on a really interesting house. Then there’s that door with a splash of color that’s maybe trying a little too hard. And of course, the door that announces to the world that you don’t care and, by the way, mind your own business. Which is also a choice, in its own way,  I suppose

I once talked to a builder who claimed a front door should be like a baseball umpire: you know it’s doing a good job when you don’t notice it at all

High Sierr Custom Door

The basic material choices for a really good-quality front door include metal, fiberglass and old reliable wood.  As wooden doors go, it’s difficult to go wrong with mahogany. It is substantial, durable and resistant to insects and rot. Another wood that is popular in areas where insect life is abundant is cedar, which actually repels wood-eating bugs and is full of natural preservatives. It also has an aroma that most people like. Oak is a popular wood for similar reasons, while cherry is known for its strength, density and ability to hold its finish. That’s why cherry is a popular wood for kitchen cabinetry

Round and Round

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In 1881, a German company introduced the concept of a revolving door, which was meant to solve the problem of winter drafts and summer dust getting into commercial lobby spaces. In 1888, a Philadelphia inventor named Theophilus Van Kannel patented the three-panel revolving door, which made him a wealthy man. He also designed amusement park rides at Coney Island, which is probably why small children love to play in revolving doors…or are utterly terrified by them.

In terms of whether to stain or paint your wooden front door, the argument for staining is that it shows off the natural beauty of the wood. Painting gives you an infinite number of color choices, of course, and also offers added durability. The main argument against staining is that a natural-wood door with a lot of direct sunlight may need a fair amount of maintenance, whereas a painted door is likely to hold up better over the long haul. If you know for sure that you’ll be painting your new wooden front door, you can also get away with a less expensive grade of wood

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Wilt’s Place

When Wilt Chamberlain played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers, he built a glass-walled mansion atop an old WWII anti-aircraft emplacement in Bel Air. The home featured a  14-foot rolling slab of redwood as the front door—supposedly it contained enough wood to frame 17 small homes. He claimed there was no need to lock it because he was the only one strong enough to open it. Gotta love Wilt.

The roller idea was cool, for sure, but also a nod to the realities of gravity. There may not be a side hinge on earth that could bear that weight. The lesson here is that traditional door hinges come with a weight limit, so when choosing hardware, know the weight of your door. An inexpensive door runs just over one pound per square foot, but an oversized oak door could weigh as much as 150 to 200 pounds.

STEPPING INTO THE 

Before we move on to other materials and options,  let’s do a quick dive into the history of the door. Logic suggests that doors have been with us since humans moved from caves into constructed shelters. That’s not entirely accurate, in the sense that for many millennia, the typical front door was really just a couple of layers of animal hides. Hinged or pivoted doors that swing smoothly open and closed (what we all think of as proper doors) are probably less than 5,000 years old. Archaeologists have found evidence of functioning doors in ancient Egyptian tombs and temples throughout the Middle East, as well as paintings of doors at burial sites, which presumably were meant to represent a passageway to the afterlife. These ancient doors were made of wood or stone, depending on their purpose and available materials. It appears that wooden doors were also being used in Europe around this time

Barbara McManus VRoma Project

The Romans took doors to the next level, using various metals, including bronze, and even creating sliding and folding doors. They actually had a God of doors, Janus, who also covered archways—another architectural specialty of the empire—as well as broader symbolic concepts, including beginnings, endings, time and duality. Roman sculptures of Janus often depicted him as having two faces looking in opposite directions.  A small temple, the Janus Germinus, was located at one end of the famous Forum, and was depicted on  a coin minted during the reign of Nero in the first century. At about the same time, during Rome’s occupation of Egypt, a Greek engineer known as Heron of Alexandria, designed an “automatic” door. Heron was quite the inventor. He is credited with developing the first steam-powered engine, the first windmill and the first vending machine

Guillaume Piolle

Doors became especially important after the fall of Rome, when order gave way to chaos (or so we are meant to believe). The Dark Ages actually weren’t as bleak as they sound, but a good, solid door was definitely important—whether you owned a castle or just a modest home. For large structures, such as  forts and cathedrals, Medieval architects favored oak  as a material, joining layered planks together with  metal reinforcement bands and fashioning heavy iron strap-hinges that functioned for centuries before wearing out. The wealthier or more important the home- or castle-owner, the more elaborate the door and doorway were likely to be

During the Renaissance, front doors became canvases for skilled craftsmen and often reflected the artistic traditions of different countries and regions. 

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Michelangelo described the heavily adorned doors  of Tuscany as “gates to paradise.” The entrances made for French cathedrals were perhaps the most elaborately conceived doors and doorways in history. These monumental passages were often left open during the day to let in light and air, and then “locked” at night with a big, wooden or metal bolt that fit into or slid across an iron bracket. Mortice locks (a lock system cut into the door and door jamb) were fairly rare at this time for exterior doors

From a technological stand-point, doors and doorways didn’t change much after this. Windows were incorporated into exterior doors in places where the chances of an attack were remote. In the 1700s and 1800s, interior doors began to find their way into everyday homes. Prior to that, families tended to live in one

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large, partitioned room. Doorknobs, door handles, door latches and other durable “modern” hardware began appearing during the Industrial Revolution, both in the U.S. and abroad. These finished goods were expensive prior to the days of mass production; in modest homes, doors were operated by pulling on a leather strap attached to a wooden drop-latch that was threaded through a hole in the door. In the latter part of the 19th century, during the Victorian Era, ornate hardware such as ceramic, brass or mirrored mercury-glass knobs came into vogue

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One Good Turn

The modern lock-and-key set

Craftmaster

, unveiled by Linus Yale in 1848, is called a pin tumbler (or cylinder) lock. His son, Linus Jr., improved on this design in the 1860s. Since then, door locks have remained essentially the same, while most door keys have looked pretty much like the ones you see hanging on displays at your local hardware store. Here’s the Yales’  little secret: They actually built their empire on a concept originated in the 1780s by Englishman Joseph Bramah, a prolific inventor whose crowning achievement was the hydraulic press, a technology still in use today

Jen-Weld

OTHER MATERIALS 

Okay back to the 21st century. Wooden doors are not for everyone. From a maintenance, security and energy efficiency standpoint, a metal door (below) might be a better choice. The industrial look is very popular now, too, so for certain modern homes, wood doesn’t make a lot of sense. One crucial caveat about a metal door is that it either must fit the existing framing exactly, or you’ll have to rip out the entire front entrance. Hanging a new metal door on an old frame is asking for trouble; remember, you can’t plane down metal if it rubs or sticks somewhere. In terms of durability, metal doors are great but they don’t necessarily last a lifetime. Depending on how they are constructed and the climate conditions they face, even the most expensive steel doors can “peel” over time. They can also be marred or dented, which is difficult to repair and can invite rust. 

Modern Steel Door Co.

So what about fiberglass? Well, a fiberglass front door (above) would be a deal-breaker for my wife, but I wonder if she could honestly tell the difference between painted wood and top-quality painted fiberglass from more than a foot or two away. (I’m sure I’ll find out before she even finishes this story). I’m just saying “wood-grain” fiberglass products can look pretty convincing, if you ask me. The main drawback of this material is that it’s not one of the other two materials. The pros of fiberglass are many. Fiberglass doors have great insulating properties, they are more scratch- and dent-resistant than metal, and they have a similar “feel” opening and closing as wood does.   

If you’re keeping score, here’s where we are: fiberglass is best from an upkeep standpoint, metal (steel) is the best for strength and security, while for most people wood holds the aesthetic advantage.  

Price-wise, there are significant differences. A big, beautiful wood door can run $5,000 or more. Because they do absorb moisture, wood doors also need to be sheltered from the elements, under a porch or portico, so there may be an added expense there. Our current front door is almost four feet wide and nearly eight feet tall. It is magnificent. It is priceless. It is one-of-a-kind. However, on a humid summer day, you need to put your shoulder into it to get it all the way closed.  

A top-of-the-line thick-gauge steel door will run you less than half of a comparable-quality wood door, although it’s not really fair to compare them. As I mentioned earlier, the cost may rise significantly based on what you’re replacing and the condition of the door jamb and surrounding framework. You also need to hire someone who’s done a bunch of them, and done them well. You don’t want some jack-of-all-trades learning on your dime.  

Fiberglass comes in somewhere between steel and wood, even though you’ll see some advertised at bargain prices. Trust me, they are no bargain. You want a door you won’t have to think about for 20 years, and that may run you $2,000 or more installed.    

One final word of advice: Be smart about choosing your installer. If you are undergoing a wallet-ectomy to buy a top-quality manufactured door, regardless of the material, give a lot of thought to who is installing it for you. Most of the top brands have trained or certified contractors to deal specifically with their doors. Really, they do. So even if you have a favorite carpenter or handy-person, you might want to look at a list of recommended installers.     

What about the DIY route? Well, many years ago, I attempted to install a brand-new kitchen door in a very old house. I was young and stupid (in other words, still in my 20s) and figured a rectangle is a rectangle, a tape measure is a tape measure…how hard could this be? That door never closed without emitting the same exasperated groan my wife did the day I announced I could “do it myself.” 

Later, when we were selling the house, I could sense that the prospective buyers were spending a lot of time looking at that door and wondering what else I had “fixed.” I learned my lesson: When it comes to doors, skip the Thom McAns and go for the Ferragamos. It is money well spent.  

Board Report

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Drywall*

*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK

By Jim Sawyer

www.istockphoto.com

Drywall giveth and drywall taketh away. If you’ve ever had to build a new structure, add to one, or repair one that’s old or damaged, you probably understand the myriad advantages of using drywall. Relative to traditional construction and plastering techniques, drywall is inexpensive, light, safe, and requires far less expertise to install. And when it comes time to knocking something down, drywall is just as quick, easy, and inexpensive.

The disadvantages of drywall? It is easily damaged, it can be tricky to repair, it doesn’t do much to baffle sound or to insulate and, if it gets wet, well, there’s that nasty mold issue. In areas of the country (including our own) where floodwaters have inundated homes constructed with drywall, the result is almost always a gut job. Left to mold, a drywall home can quickly turn into a lung-choking teardown. By contrast, older historic homes featuring traditional plaster just need a basic hose-down after a flood; a splash of paint and they are good to go. No mold. No problem.

So it’s a trade-off. But on the construction industry’s big balance sheet—where the speed of construction and demolition can make the difference between a big profit and a razor-thin one—drywall is a no-brainer.

That certainly accounts for the tens of billions of square feet manufactured in North America each year. Say what you will about the ups and downs of the housing market in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, but the population of this continent continues to boom and people need places to live. So until some better material comes along, drywall is here to stay.

WHAT IS IT?

Drywall goes by many names: wallboard, plasterboard, and sheetrock among them. Whatever you call it, there isn’t a whole lot of science to drywall. It typically comes in a 4’ x 8’ sheet, usually 3/8” or 1/2” thick, encased in paper or a paper-pulp material. Thinner sheets are sometimes used to negotiate curved surfaces. Drywall is attached with special screws to wood or metal studs, and sometimes glued as well (especially on ceilings).

The white-gray material sandwiched between the paper is gypsum. Among its many qualities, gypsum is inherently fire-resistant. In addition, some drywall products come impregnated with glass fibers in order to further slow the spread of flames and smoke. Local building codes usually require that this type of board—which is 5/8” thick—be used in furnace rooms and garages, or homes heated by wood stoves.

Structures prone to flooding (either by Mother Nature or from plumbing or roofing mishaps) or in high-humidity areas are often built with mold-resistant or moisture-resistant drywall. Note the use of the word “resistant.” It does not imply mold- or moisture- “proof.” Mold-resistant boards are treated with a special coating and generally do not have paper, which is a favorite home of fungus. Contractors typically use mold-resistant drywall in bathrooms and kitchens. Sometimes this material is called “greenboard,” which technically is incorrect. Greenboard is slightly different (although it can be used in the same situations); it performs best in high-humidity areas of a home, such as a laundry room or damp basement.

What should you do if drywall is no longer dry? Tear it out and replace it. What if you detect mold? Do not dither, especially if someone in your home or workplace is allergic to the spores. The drywall should be replaced and the mold remediated. There are obviously professionals who do this, but an Internet search can show you ways to do it yourself. Proceed with care and caution. As with many dangerous organisms, the mold you see isn’t always the stuff you need to be most concerned about. If moisture has entered the back of a sheet that has been primed and painted, it has already had a lot of time to grow and spread before you start breaking it up. In these situations, trust your nose over your eyes—you’ll be able to smell the mold before you see it. And keep in mind that tearing it out is likely to release spores back into the environment and possibly into places it hadn’t been before, such as your HVAC system.

The British Museum

WHO INVENTED IT?

Now that the basics are out of the way, how about a little history? The use of gypsum as a wall material dates back more than 3,000 years. It is easy to get out of the ground, simple to process, and holds colors really well.

It was quarried for plaster in ancient Egypt in the Old and New Kingdoms—in 2017, archaeologists identified one quarry on the east bank of the Nile that measured three square kilometers. The ancient Egyptians discovered that gypsum could be ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to produce a bright, durable skim coat of plaster that could hold paint extremely well on interior walls in homes, temples, and tombs. Thousands of years later, it still looks great. The mineral owes its name to the ancient Greeks, who used it in much the same way. Gypsos actually means “plaster” in Greek.

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Gypsum or lime were used more or less interchangeably as a component in plaster in the ensuing centuries. One of the most famous sources of plaster was in the Montmartre section of Paris, hence the name Plaster of Paris. The French like to say there is more Montratre in Paris than Paris in Montmartre.

They’re speaking literally in this case—the gypsum and lime deposits there were used in plaster and paint in the city for centuries. In the hands of French artisans, it was made to look like wood, metal, and stonework when those materials were either too cumbersome or expensive, or just unavailable.

US Gypsum

The process by which gypsum becomes plaster has remained relatively unchanged. It is heated to about 300 degrees, until the moisture is released and it becomes a dry powder—which is then reconstituted with water to be applied or shaped as needed. Gypsum being a mineral, it has other uses, too. For example, it was used in colonial America to improve soil quality; Ben Franklin was a huge proponent of this particular use, which reduced runoff and delivered additional nutrition to plants. In the early days of Hollywood, shaved gypsum was sometimes trucked in to mimic snow. Although gypsum is used in the manufacture of Portland cement—making up two or three percent of the mix—it is not what makes sidewalks sparkle (that’s mica). In case you’re wondering, Portland cement gets its name from the Isle of Portland, on the southern coast of England, not from Portland ME or Portland OR.

Getting back to drywall, the world’s first “wallboard” factory actually opened in England, in 1888, in the English town of Rochester, about 30 miles east of London on the River Medway. The Industrial Revolution was shifting into high gear and an alternative to traditional lath-and-plaster construction for interior walls intrigued British homebuilders: Wallboard used far less wood and required limited plastering expertise, and also avoided the weeklong drying process of traditional plastering. In addition, it could be put up in a poorly heated environment, which was a Godsend in England with its cool, damp climate (and historic issues with central heating). By the 1920s, it was the material of choice in most new construction in the UK.

In America, the plasterboard revolution came a bit later, and shifted into high gear during the post-WWII building surge. The first drywall factory in the U.S. dates back to around 1900, in upstate New York. According to the web site gypsum.org, the product was initially favored because of its fire-resistant properties and featured multiple layers of gypsum (which was cheaper and more plentiful than lime plaster) sandwiched between two pieces of wool-felt paper. In 1917, US Gypsum Corp. debuted “Sheetrock,” the now-familiar single, non-layered sheet of gypsum plaster completely encased in paper, which could be joined with smooth, even seams. At the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, several building were constructed almost entirely of Sheetrock, which was a huge marketing coup.

By the Baby Boom years, when more than 20 million new homes were constructed in America, drywall was the cheap and easy workaround for traditional plastering. It has continued on as the material of choice for new homes, renovations, home repair projects—you name it.

FEMA

WHAT IS “CHINESE” DRYWALL?

In the seven decades that drywall has been widely available to homebuilders and homeowners, the domestic supply has had no problem keeping up with the demand, as gypsum is plentiful and easy to process in North America—until the early 2000s, that is. You probably remember the housing boom, but do you also recall that no fewer than nine major hurricanes smashed into Florida in the span of two-plus years, and then Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005? Demand for drywall soared and caught North American manufacturers by surprise. With the supply low and prices high, many builders in the Southeast turned to a new source: China.

Unfortunately, drywall factories on the other side of the Pacific were focused on production and profitability rather than safety, and as a result, countless millions of square feet of defective or contaminated product found its way into American homes. The first sign that something was wrong came in the form of complaints by homeowners that exposed copper surfaces were turning black and “ashy.” Also, new refrigerators and air conditioners (which contain copper coils) were malfunctioning.

New West Gypsum Recycling

This made people wonder what was happening to their copper pipes and wiring—and they were right to wonder. The cheap drywall was giving off volatile gases, including hydrogen sulfide, which corrodes copper and also created health issues that included a range of upper respiratory problems. By the time the problem was identified, the tainted drywall had been used in somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 homes; no one can say for sure because much of the product bore no markings that could be traced back to a specific manufacturer. One manufacturer that did pop up fairly often was Knauf, a Tianjin-based company with a deceptively European-sounding name. Some estimates put the amount of Knauf drywall unloaded in New Orleans and various Florida ports at close to a billion pounds between 2003 and 2009. In the aftermath of this debacle, a New Orleans court ruled that homeowner’s policies had to cover the remediation of contaminated drywall. The IRS also provided tax relief for people who suffered property damage because of the tainted product.

www.istockphoto.com

They Did What?

While the substandard Chinese drywall flooded the market in the mid-2000s, domestic drywall producers—who had been ramping up production since the late-1980s—doubled down and invested heavily to further increase their output. Consequently, the deflation of the housing bubble in 2008–09 devastated the industry. North American drywall companies were suddenly stuck with huge supplies and withering demand. Many were in no shape to wait for the economy to rebound.

All was not lost, however. As the housing market receded, a growing number of builders, flippers, and rehabbers began snapping up cheap properties and foreclosures and demand for drywall began to creep up again. However, contractors noticed a rise in cost on drywall at a time when it should have been bargain-priced. This was accompanied by an inexplicable reluctance on the part of manufacturers to compete on price. Obviously, since the manufacturers could not boost profits by increasing volume, they had to raise their prices.

There is nothing illegal about this…unless they plan to do it together. Which, apparently, they did. The result was a class-action suit against eight companies near the end of 2012 that ended with a nine-figure settlement. It wasn’t the first time drywall companies had been slam-dunked by the courts; price-fixing litigation dates back to the 1920s in North America.

WHERE ARE WE NOW… AND IN THE FUTURE?

We are in good shape. Today, the drywall supply is safe and sound—which is good to know in an era of increasing environmental sensitivity. Unused sheetrock scraps can actually be recycled, keeping thousands of tons out of landfills each year. Also, a steady demand for installation provides jobs for millions of people who do not have traditional construction skills, creating an entry point into an important trade. The retail price in New Jersey for drywall is $10 to $20 for a 4’ x 8” sheet (depending on type and quality) and another $50 or so per sheet to install professionally, including labor, supplies, and equipment.

Since you’ve made it this far, you are probably wondering, “What’s in the future for drywall?”

I’m so glad you asked.

The industry is aware that its product is somewhat problematic in the climate-change picture, in that it does not insulate particularly well. A new material called ThermalCORE, developed by the German chemical company BASF and National Gypsum, a U.S. company formed in the 1920s, could be a game-changer for builders and consumers. The new drywall material is impregnated with tiny wax beads encased in plastic shells. During the day, the wax melts and absorbs heat. At night, the wax hardens, releasing the stored heat.

Builders in Europe have been testing a version of this technology and it has demonstrated an ability to reduce energy bills by as much as 20 percent. The cost of using ThermalCORE in a typical home in New Jersey would probably raise its construction cost by $5,000, which would be recouped in about five years.

Modern Love

Wow factor in Westfield

By Mark Stewart

James and Tina Wissel’s single-story, three-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home is not the only structure in Westfield that fits that general description. However, it is most definitely the only one of its kind. The Wissels designed their modern, single-story structure to take maximum advantage of their wooded, ¾-acre lot—pulling the outside in, and making the interior an open and inviting space for their family, friends and pets. They are living the dream few of us have the courage to pursue: a residence custom-built to accommodate their personal comfort, design sensibilities and family culture. 

The more time one spends in the Wissels’ home, which was completed in 2009, the more apparent it becomes that every detail, from the daring to the mundane, began with an original thought—hardly a shock, as James and Tina make their living as original thinkers. James’ father was a home-builder, and as far back as he can remember he was good at bringing ideas to life with his head and his hands. Tina’s mom and dad were clothing designers; function and form are coded into her DNA. James and Tina designed computer animation and editing systems in the 1990s. Today, they co-own Pure Couture, a thriving ready-to-wear fashion business.  

“We used our expertise and experience in design to create our home on a computer over the course of several months,” James explains. “From those drawings we made 3D scale models, and eventually these were translated into architectural plans.”

Their list of must-haves was extensive, Tina recalls. The majority of the space needed to integrate living areas—the kitchen, living room, dining room and family room—into a long, deep open design. 

“Our goal was to create space we’d use every day,” she says. “We didn’t want to end up with a dining room we use twice a year.”

The Wissels achieved this goal with 11-foot ceilings throughout the home, including three 11’ x 18’ glass walls, floor-to-ceiling mitered corner windows, and a kitchen nook featuring a curved glass window that offers a panoramic view of the oaks, maples and wildlife in their back yard. The kitchen features sleek stainless steel, with a sink and stovetop that can be covered to integrate with the rest of the appliance surfaces. The home’s ambiance is heightened by an interior waterfall that separates the living and bedroom areas, creating a natural sound barrier in the process. An exterior waterfall obscures the massive 42” x 11’ front door and creates a unique little entry alcove.

The home required the extensive use of steel; engineered lumber was used to create a spectacular unsupported 33-foot span.

“From what we first imagined, we achieved 85 to 90 percent of our initial vision,” James estimates, adding that although the goal of a designer is to marry form and function, sometimes one must be sacrificed for the other. “That’s how I come up with 85 to 90. We chose some details that are aesthetically pleasing but not very functional. However, in terms of what we wanted the house to be, we achieved.”

Which choices best met the form and function equation? Tina says the window walls work especially well. 

“They bring you closer to nature,” she explains. “We did a lot of landscaping before we built, and the way the outdoors pours in is breathtaking. I don’t think we fully appreciated the positive effect this would have on our children and pets when we were designing the house. The sunset, the moon, the hummingbirds—they’re out there free for everyone, but in other homes, you don’t always notice them. Here, they are at our fingertips.

Bath & Beyond

A look ahead. 

By Christine Gibbs

Over a lifetime, the average person will probably spend close to 20,000 hours in the bathroom. If you bother doing the math it comes out to almost an hour a day. When weighed against the time spent, say, in bed, it pales in comparison. However, what you do in the bathroom you couldn’t (or hopefully wouldn’t) do anywhere else. Which is why the bathroom gets a lot of attention but not always a lot of respect. In recent years—thanks largely to home buying and home improvement “reality” shows—Americans have started looking at their bathrooms with a more critical and creative eye…and wondering what the future might bring to that most intimate room in the house

First a little history. Humankind has made commendable progress when it comes to taking care of our business.

Black Book Archives

Though some would say we still regard the world as our toilet, the truth is that people have been thinking and rethinking the john for thousands of years. Historians have traced commodes to the Indus Valley civilization some 5,000 years ago, while some experts believe primitive toilets date back 7,000 years earlier than that. Leave it to the ever ingenious and pragmatic Romans to install the first pay toilets in Rome, in 74 AD. The first flush toilet was a royal one, installed for Queen Elizabeth I by Sir John (the original “john”) Harrington, in 1596. And, yes, the modern toilet really was designed by Thomas Crapper (left), in the late 19th century

In the 21st century, the trend has been toward transforming the bathroom from a traditionally functional space into an opulent retreat that more closely resembles a high-end spa than a place for personal hygiene. Indeed, the bathroom label itself may be going the way of quaint terms like powder room, water closet and loo. Today’s bathroom is morphing into a sort of sanctuary that could conceivably rival the kitchen as the most expensive room in the house. Above and beyond the soaring cost of fixtures and finishes, bathrooms today overflow with gym-quality treadmills, touch-screen televisions, surround sound equipment, and other high-tech digital paraphernalia.

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The Cost of Fine Bathing

Whether designing a new bathroom or renovating an old standard, cost is always a bottom-line factor, and the typical bathroom project is never cheap. Why? Five-figure invoices often are a result of the fact that renovating or adding a bathroom involves plumbing, electrical and tile work that needs to be done by talented and experienced professionals. The guy who shows up on a Saturday afternoon to unclog your drain is not necessarily someone you want to trust with a more elaborate project. Furthermore, today’s new bathroom will have more equipment, more appliances, and more leisure-time gadgets per square foot than any other room in the house. An ambitious “reno” or a new build can eat up as much as 10% of a home’s estimated value, especially if you do not budget wisely

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Is it worth the time, money and trouble? US News & World Report actually ran a story a year ago that estimated the return on investment for a gold-standard bathroom. First of all, that should tell you something about who can afford such a project. Second of all, the numbers are good but not great: sellers can expect, on average, to recoup about 70% of their investment upon resale. That’s more than 2 percent higher than the average kitchen remodel. Of course, most experts agree that a high-end kitchen and master bedroom with master bath is almost guaranteed to sell a house faster and at a better price (in some markets, the ROI can be as much as 90 to 100 percent), so it’s not an either/or decision. And updating one bathroom may not be enough.

“Homeowners are seeking a balance among all the bathrooms in the house,” says Elisabeth Woomer, Showroom Manager at General Plumbing Supply in Green Brook, NJ. “Everyone looks to economize, whether it’s a renovation or a new build—economizing more on the family bathroom down the hall, while splurging on the private en suite master bathroom

Costs are often dependent on geographical location and can range from as little as $12,000 to $15,000 in hard costs for a standard hall bathroom (not to include labor) to as much as $50, 000 to $80,000 for an all-out luxury master bath, she adds. “We find out what the client is passionate about and then lead them to the best options that satisfy their passions…without breaking their budgets.”

Although New Jersey tends to be a more expensive state in terms of labor and materials, those numbers are right in line with national averages. The National Kitchen and Bath Association annually publishes its Bathroom Planning Guidelines, developed by a committee of experts who analyze statistics, lifestyles, trends and building codes to present recommendations that “promote the health, safety, and welfare of consumers.” In a recent NKBA survey, 50 percent of responding members confirmed the cost for a bathroom ranged between $10,000 and $29,000, while 31 percent said their average price was higher than $30,000

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To Remodel or Not to Remodel…

That is the question. Given the considerable cost of turning an old bathroom into a modern miracle, when should you finally decide to take the proverbial plunge? First, take a look in the mirror. Is it part of a creaky medicine cabinet over a pedestal sink? Now look down. Is that dingy linoleum or, worse, pastel tile that matches the toilet and sink? You may be able to kid yourself into thinking your bathroom is hip and retro, but you won’t be kidding anyone else. It’s old. 

The mistake some homeowners make at this point is to embrace a bathroom trend that’s already on the way out. A little homework is required here and, needless to say, opinions differ from expert to expert. But a quick look at interior design magazines and web sites can give you a sense of what’s in and what’s out. The Coastal Cottage motif? Out. Clean and contemporary with a touch of traditional is in. Bowl-shaped sinks sitting in the vanity? Out. Under-mounted sinks in leggy cabinets are in. Granite tops?Out. Quartz is the current choice for baths (as well as kitchens). Clean, white tile? Boring. Out. Daring, moody designs are in. That being said, with the current emphasis on clean lines, geometric shapes, and minimalist color schemes, a few small touches can make a big statement:

  • Skip the “pop” of color and limit even accessories like bath towels to white or gray tones.
  • Spring for a freestanding tub that you can strategically place within the bathroom to take full advantage of Feng Shui principles.
  • If space is at a premium, consider placing the tub inside a walk-in, no-threshold shower.
  • Showcase quartz and wood elements (yes, there are waterproof wood tubs).
  • Connect with the great outdoors by bringing in potted plants from your garden and adding a skylight, budget permitting.
  • Create an atmosphere with your lighting—it’s as important as the actual light fixtures you select.
  • Emphasize that geometric feel by hanging framed prints and personal photos.

Gadget Inspector

With the decision to re-do a bathroom comes a dizzying array of technology options. Brooklyn-based Watermark manufactures a Luxury Shower System ($7,000) complete with a full-color digital touchscreen tablet that lets you select from among nine different shower “scenarios” that program water temperature, pressure, volume, lighting and timing. Kohler makes a $299 shower head with an embedded wireless speaker that delivers music, news and sports. For$750 more, you can purchase Kohler’s Underscore VibrAcoustic Bath, which turns your tub into a Bluetooth-enabled system in which music vibrates through the water when the tub is full and fills the entire bathroom with sound when empty. If you’re into New Age chromotherapy, Tubz Hydrotherapy makes a product that turns bathwater into an array of colors that elevates ordinary bathing to holistic ritual. Light also plays a part in Graff’s Ametis faucet (below), which features an LED display that ranges from blue to red, indicating the temperature of the flowing water ($3,528). Hansa’s Canyon faucet ($1,490) works much the same way over the basin. The Airblade tap, from Dyson ($1,800), doubles as a hand dryer.

And it doesn’t stop there. Showers are now programmable. The RainBrain by Hansgrohe ($4,750) (right) takes total shower jet control to a whole new level, creating the equivalent of a stand-up body massage. How about a laser razor? Skarp makes a slick, minimalistic shaver that emits a powerful light to cut off your facial bristles. Its recent launch on Indiegogo (a crowdfunder for startups), raised almost $500,000 and is targeted to be available this year at $289. FitBit devotees will enjoy the Aria scale, which can be synched to a smartphone to record not only poundage, but also body fat percentage, body mass index (BMI), heart rate, and even let you know about the day’s weather forecast

And then there is the centerpiece that no one likes to talk about: the toilet. I’m not sure how this is calculated, but the average person supposedly spends about five years on (or in front of?) the throne over a lifetime. Not surprisingly, just about every major plumbing manufacturer is rethinking, redesigning, and reengineering it. The Kohler Numi (left) is a case in point. It does just about everything except attend to your most personal hygiene. Its seat senses your approach and raises and closes all by itself. It contains heating elements to warm delicate derrieres and doubles as a self-adjusting bidet with vented airflow. Upgrades include Power-Save mode for energy efficiency and emergency flush for power outages. And if that’s not enough to justify the $6,338 price tag, then there is Numi’s tastefully illuminated panels, its powerful yet pleasant deodorizer, its touch-screen remote, and its wireless speakers

In addition to the various technological bells and whistles they offer, manufacturers are also looking at the safety component of bathroom design. One of Jay Leno’s tried-and-true jokes is about how more people die each year in bathroom falls than in plane crashes (the punch line is, “Yeah, but when you fall off the toilet you’re not falling 30,000 feet!”). Still, it’s no laughing matter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter-million people over age 15 visit the ER annually as a result of a bathroom injury; 14 percent require hospitalization. Two-thirds of bathroom injuries are sustained in or near a bathtub or shower. The injury rate for women is 72 percent higher than for men. And, interestingly, you’re more than four times likelier to get hurt getting out of a tub or shower than getting in. Even if you’re not springing for the big bathroom reno, its worth doing a quick safety assessment. Look for poorly fitting shower curtains, slick tile floors, soapy tub or shower beds, antiquated or improperly installed glass shower doors, area rugs without non-slip backing, and space heaters. These are items worth an immediate upgrade.

Finally, there is the issue of ecological soundness. Most people undertaking a bathroom renovation opt for products and technologies that are environmentally friendly. There’s even a word for it now: Greenovating. The focus is on saving water, using fewer paper products, and avoiding dangerous cleaning agents. There are actually a lot of ways to “green up” our bathrooms. From Moen, we have a shortlist of ideas that don’t require much time or money:

  • Install Low-flow Toilets and Showers

Toilets use on average 27 percent of household water consumption; older toilets can use up to about 7 gallons of water per flush. Older model showerhead will use 5 to 8 gallons of water per minute, while a low-flow head can reduce that to 2.5 gallons or less without compromising water pressure.

  • Motion-Sensing Faucets

A mind-boggling amount of water is wasted by leaving the faucet running when washing hands or brushing teeth. A faucet with a built-in motion sensor remembers to shut off running water when you don’t.

  • Change Light Bulbs

An LED bulb consumes 80 percent less energy and lasts 25 percent longer. That can translate into a cost savings of $160 per bulb on your electricity bill over its lifetime.

  • Upgrade Bathroom Fans/Vents

Replace that old bathroom fan with one that is Energy Star-rated; it can provide up to 60 percent in energy savings.

  • Shop for Eco-friendly and Sustainable Products Look for the Certified Organic label on everything from bath towels to toilet paper. Any increased cost is more than offset by a lower environmental footprint.

Open or Closed?

Among the many decisions that must be made in advance of a major bathroom renovation, the one that catches many people by surprise is whether the new loo’s design will lean toward privacy or open space. More and more, the line between the master bedroom and master bath is becoming blurred. Did you ever think someone would ask you whether or not you wanted a door on your bathroom? It’s a personal choice, to be sure, and doorless bathrooms don’t yet qualify as a widespread trend. But don’t be surprised if you start seeing homebuyers on one of those reality shows saying, “We love the bathroom, but the door’s gotta go.”

Whether open or closed, large or small, his, hers or available to the entire family, one thing about the bathroom will never change: It is essential to daily living. 

In fact, all this talk of bathrooms has only made me yearn to retire to my own (rather retro) retreat. There I’ll draw a tepid, non-jet-propelled bath and I will relish the downtime despite the fact that there will be no lights and no music. There is nothing masterful about my bathroom, its shortcomings now only too apparent. But one of these days…  

TRENDS FOR 2016 

According to a National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) study, these are some of the top bathroom trends for 2016:

  • Neutral Color Palette

Earth tones rule the day, with off-white and beige not far behind.

  • Undermount and Trough Sinks

The undermount style continues to be the most popular selection by a wide margin, but the trough type is gaining ground.

  • Free-standing Tubs

Selected as a key trend by 67 percent of NKBA members in 2015 and predicted to increase this year.

  • Shower Accessories

Special lighting, convenient seating and hand-held showerheads top the list.

  • Polished Chrome Finishes

Selected by 80 percent of NKBA members as the most popular finish in 2015. Satin finishes in gunmetal and brass are growing in popularity.

  • Pampering Luxuries

Radiant floor heating, steam showers, smart toilets, and even coffee and wet bars were cited as trends by 25 percent of NKBA members.

  • Aging in Place Amenities

Seniors are focusing on age-friendly safety and other conveniences, including comfort-height toilets and no-threshold showers, in addition to traditional grab bars, taller vanities and lever door handles for easy opening by arthritic hands.

A LITTLE BUDGET CONSCIOUS 

A year ago, the Huffington Post addressed the issue of how to put your money to best use when renovating a small bathroom. 

With $500… 

  • Apply a new coat of paint, preferably in a soothing, neutral earth tone.
  • Take down fluorescent or incandescent lights and put up energy-saving LED bulbs.
  • Buy some fresh, inexpensive accessories such as towels, plants, and prints.
  • Expand storage by installing shelving and hanging racks.
  • Rip up that germy old flooring and replace it with light and bright economical new tile.
  • Consider investing $20 in a Glow Bowl, the motion-activated mechanism that transforms any toilet into a dazzling nightlight.

With $5,000…

  • Reach out to professionals for help in upgrading plumbing and wiring.
  • Optimize space by relocating or buying new fixtures that make you feel like you’ve moved into the 21st century.
  • Invest in top-drawer ceramic or stone tile, and pay someone who knows what they’re doing to install it.
  • Leave enough to get your bathroom repainted.
Where There’s Fire…

Different smokes for different folks

By Mike Cohen

Most New Jerseyans live in “smoke-free” homes. That may change soon, but probably not the way you’d think. While the typical backyard cooking set-up includes a grill and possibly a barbecue, relatively few have incorporated a smoker. Smoked meats are nothing new, of course, but recently they are showing up on the menus of some of the region’s top restaurants. Chefs are paying top dollar for artisanal smoked meat, fish and poultry (and passing that cost along to their patrons); some have even assembled their own smoking operations on-site or nearby.

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So how hard can it be for an average homeowner to add a smoker to the mix? Unlike grills and barbecues, which are fairly simple to operate, smokers can be somewhat counterintuitive. Before burning rubber to Home Depot or Lowe’s to get your new gear, it’s important to understand and respect the process. Unlike grilling (which involves direct, high heat from start to finish) and barbecuing (lower temperature and longer cook time), smoking is essentially the process of “preserving” food with a low temperature while adding salt and smoke. The smoke infuses flavor, while the salt pulls water out of the meat.

HOT VS. COLD

Most of the smokers on the market are “hot” smokers. They operate at a temperature of 160° or higher and are aimed at backyard chefs who want their food done relatively quickly. This type of smoking doesn’t really preserve the meat, as there isn’t enough time for the moisture to be removed. The pros tend to go for “cold” smokers, which involve a little more pre-planning and patience. The results are well worth it.  

Cold smoking typically is a two-step process. Salt is added to remove excess moisture and then the food is subjected to a long, slow smoking process. It involves cooking below 86°F for up to 32 hours. The heat source is kept away from the product and the smoke is pipped in. Some of the newer smokers can be dialed down to work this way. Both methods of smoking brown the meat, as amino acids in the food interact with some reduced sugars to produce the desired color. To create that “smoke ring,” nitric oxide from burning wood combines with the myoglobin in the meat to penetrate a centimeter or so in from the surface. You won’t see a smoke ring if meat is cooked in an oven.

Smoking is more than just heat and smoke. There are essentials to consider, such as sugar and salt for curing and brining, which add just the right combinations of sweet, sour and bitter flavors to your meal.

Curing your protein before smoking helps remove moisture and stop the formation of harmful bacteria (that’s a good thing) and will also enhance the flavor (that’s a better thing).

Brining meat in a mixture of water, salt and perhaps spices and herbs, dramatically impacts the flavor profile. There are many rules about brining, but a simplistic rule is 1 hour of brining for every 2 pounds of product.

For those who have medical concerns about sodium, there is another option. You can salt your meat prior to smoking. A mix of salt and pepper, herbs, sugar and honey can be rubbed over your food anywhere from 2 to 24 hours beforehand (which needs to be removed before it goes in the smoker). The idea is to draw out the moisture without the BP bump. Whichever method you prefer, the purpose of salting is the same: less moisture actually allows for a better absorption of the smoky flavor.

Not to be excluded from the conversation is marinating. Mixing spices, oils, vinegars and even citrus to meals both flavors and tenderizes your final product. Some marinades work best before smoking, while others work best after smoking and right before eating. Meats do particularly well with marinades, which can be as simple as applying Worcestershire sauce just before smoking. Technically, dry rub is a type of marinade. This spice and salt mixture, worked into the food prior to cooking, seals in flavor and softens the texture. This is a tad more subtle and delicate than salting, so get a feel for your particular taste-bud tantalizers before rubbing this all over your Whole Foods purchase. Finally, just for the record, air-drying your meat is another option. This will surely impress your guests, but your neighbors may wonder what the heck you’re up to when they peek over the fence the day before.

KNOW YOUR SMOKER

Not everyone is ready to do battle on a basic-cable barbecue throwdown, so it’s good to know which smoker best suits your lifestyle and circumstance before handing over your credit card or clicking the BUY button. Compact, stainless steel electric smokers, for example, tend to be economical and fairly mobile. Two popular brands are Southern Country Smokers and Masterbuilt (immediate right). They can cook food fairly quickly if that’s a priority—say, if your Thanksgiving guests are waiting for that smoked turkey to hit the table.

Kettle smokers (aka hinged-lid cookers) are the ones you often encounter at home improvement and hardware stores. Weber makes a popular model I see everywhere. This type of smoker (far right) also can double as an oven for larger pieces of meat or poultry. This is your basic charcoal- or gas- fired smoker that uses wood chips to create the smoke. Soaking your chips, or a portion of your chips, prior to burning will produce a longer, slower burn time—a critical component to backyard smoking success. In this variety of smoker, consider placing a water tray alongside your meal to prevent your food from drying out.

One caveat is that kettle smokers are not good for guys I call “Larry the Lifter”—who can’t resist taking periodic peeks at the meat. Every time you open the lid, all the smoke that’s supposed to go into the food goes into the air. It adds about 10 minutes per lift to your cook time.

Cold smokers make up a wide-open category that includes everything from purchased products to funky homemade devices. Their advantage is that it enables you to smoke a large variety of meats at the same time, or accommodate large cuts, and food can be smoked subtly and over a long period of time, which allows the smoke to penetrate without overpowering. The ProQ from Mac’s BBQ (left) is a good model, as it allows you to set up a heat source that can be monitored by way of a built-in temperature gauge. It also doubles as a water smoker. Water smokers are ideal for lean products, such as rabbit or quail, as well as soft and delicate fish.

For those who need to get their smoke on 12 months a year, gas smokers are the way to go. They offer hot and cold smoking with racking and hanging capacity. Easy to move and carry, they can be placed anywhere in the backyard, as long as they are far enough away from objects that you don’t want to sacrifice to the barbecue gods. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation around all sides of the smoker. The propane unit from Camp Chef (above) is a popular example of a gas smoker. Its temperature gauge enables you to switch between hot or cold smoking by dialing in the right temperature. Another benefit is not having to worry about overcooking or drying out the food, as you can control this like an oven.

TOASTING THE CHEF

In the prophetic words of Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, “The smoker you drink, the player you get.” I’m still not sure what he meant, but I can say with some authority that what you pair with smoked meats can dramatically enhance the experience. Chardonnays are quite the standard around backyard get-togethers, which is fine, but consider taking things a little farther. Get some advice on a barrel-aged gem from Napa or Sonoma that will match with the woody undertones of your meal—one that has a little malolactic fermentation will also add some buttery notes to soften the bitters of the smoke. Look for Far Niente, Cakebread, Frank Family and Neyers. Champagne-wise, the Blanc de Blancs are all chardonnay with the best coming from Cote des Blancs.

If you favor reds, resist the temptation to bring out the monster cab; with all the smoke in the air, the rich fruits may clash with your meal. Syrah from the Rhone Valley in France, with its characteristic pepper aroma leading you into the spice corridor is absolutely stunning with smoked meats. Think of JL Chave, Paul Jaboulet or Chapoutier for your selections. Washington State makes killer syrahs, even better than their cabernets, but don’t tell anyone— it’s the sommelier’s secret. Dunham Cellars, Gramercy Cellars, and Reininger come to mind as superb syrahs for your feast.

Zinfandel usually makes an appearance at most barbecue events and for good reason. Sweet raspberry with some spice hits the spot when taking down some smoke. Napa offers some real value, believe it or not. Consider Elyse, Summers and Chase as brands to trust without breaking the bank. Russian River and it’s cool climate seems to me to be the perfect spot for zin. Check out Williams Selyem or Joseph Swan.

Finally, if you have doctored up your smoky creation with a fiery rub and added some chilis to the wood, the great fill here is one of those fabulous sweet German Rieslings. Sugar puts out the fire, alcohol does not—it makes it worse—so do not grab that high alcohol content wine you think will pair power with power. Grab the good stuff from St. Urbans Hof or JJ Prum. 

INTO THE WOOD

Wood chips for the accomplished smoker are available just about everywhere. So too are wood pellets, but do your research as some pellets use binders, which is not good because binders can influence the food in a bad way. A safe way to ensure you are getting the good stuff?Go to your local lumber yard and ask for some sawdust. It’s cheap and effective. If you want to get adventurous:

Alder Wood Delicate and good for smoking fish—pork, poultry and game birds, too

Almond Sweet and nutty taste that goes with all meats

Apple Wood Sweet and fruity taste that works best with poultry, ham, beef and game

Cherry Wood Mild, sweet and very fruity—ideal for poultry, fish and ham

Grape Vines Aromatic and excellent with all meats

Hickory Best known and most widely distributed—very pungent and good for bacon and other dense meat products

Maple Wood Light and sweet taste, best for poultry and ham

Mesquite Expensive and also quite intense, as it burns very hot—best to mix with lighter woods as it can be a little bitter

Oak Strong flavor that’s good for longer smoking times, including brisket and thick cuts of meat

Walnut Heavy smoking wood that can often be mixed with other lighter woods—perfect with stronger red meats and game

SPICE, GIRL

Prepping your meat for smoking almost never requires a special trip to the grocery store. Most of these spices are already in your kitchen cabinet…

Allspice That nutmeg, cinnamon and clove aroma is perfect for brining and also for rubs

Aniseed Sublime with seafood and game meats

Basil Pungent and sweet—reserved for lamb, tomatoes and chicken

Bay Leaf Can be added to your smoking woods Caraway Peppery and perfect when making sausages

Cardamom Lemony and slightly bitter—perfect with salmon and brines

Chervil Fragrant and delicate, so use it with seafood and white meats only

Chili Add to your smoking chips—sparingly

Cilantro Sweet with some sandalwood notes and perfect with brines and rubs

Cumin Strong, so best in marinades

Dill Sharp, fragrant and sweet—where would our salmon be without it?

Fennel Anise flavor that is perfect with chicken and vegetables

Ginger Hot and pungent—works best with chicken and fish

Juniper Sweet and aromatic, ideal for brining veal

Lemongrass Mix it with your wood for seafood and white meats

Mint Refreshing when rubbed or brined with lamb and vegetables

Mustard Seed Use it whole in brines and rubs Oregano Spicy and sweet for seafood and light meats Paprika Sweet and peppery—produces a smoky taste

Rosemary Great to place atop the smoking wood or into brines

Sage Pungent and best with chicken, venison and mushrooms

Tarragon Very flavorful and palate-cleansing to mix with game and strong seafood

Thyme Perfect with lamb, beef, pork and sausage

BEER ME

Sometimes, that big slab of smoking beef deserves nothing less (or more) than a great beer. The rule of thumb is drink what you like, but if you are interested in tracking down some special suds, try Full Sail Session Black beer. Dark but deceptively light, with flavors of chocolate and roasted malts, it cuts through the fat like a hot knife through butter. With Texas-style brisket it is a jammer!

Got a leg of lamb going? Try Ommegang Abbey Ale from across the river in NYC. It’s high in alcohol but you won’t taste it, as the richness of the lamb will dumb it down. For all those fowl folks, a lighter quaff such as Saison Dupont from Belgium works. Its lively citrus and light carbonation with some pepper will clean your palate quite nicely, thank you.

Last but not least is pork, the stock in trade of all smokers and backyard grillers. Go with a smoky porter. Stone Brewery makes Stone Smoked Porter (right). A peat-smoked malt with the backbone you are looking for…along with a little coffee and chocolate!

A Place in the Sun

So what’s the deal with Solar? 

By Erika Kemp and Stephen Smith 

Uncle Mark gets at least five calls a week about free solar. “Hello, are you the homeowner? My name is Chris…I am calling to tell you about a great new program that can dramatically lower your energy bills.” Chris sounds like he’s calling from 10,000 miles away and he probably is. He is reading off a script. And there is no way his name is Chris.    

For better or worse, this is the voice of solar in New Jersey—a state well-marinated in shams, scams and telemarketing schemes. So, needless to say, Chris won’t be selling Uncle Mark any solar today. 

Which is a shame, because New Jersey is a very active solar market with more than 550 firms competing for new business. Indeed, the Garden State was an innovative and early adopter of solar power when it embraced its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy in 2005. As a result, solar power in New Jersey is well understood and the market is mature in terms of cost efficiencies, competition amongst suppliers, and predictable return on investment for homeowners and businesses interested in going solar. 

The state’s Solar Renewable Energy Program (SREC) in particular demonstrates New Jersey’s commitment to solar power. Basically, it says that every megawatt hour of energy produced by a Jersey-based solar system can be bought, sold or traded to another entity in the state for their use in complying with the state RPS, or their own corporate renewable energy goals.

As a result, New Jersey is the fourth-largest solar state market in the country. 

The next time Chris (or one of his fellow telemarketers) interrupts dinner, you and Uncle Mark might want to give him the time of day. The industry is robust, the deals are appealing and the technology is solid. That being said, this is a significant financial decision. So before you go solar in 2016, consider the following 8 questions:

Why do I get so many calls from sketchy telemarketers offering me “free” solar? 

Because “customer acquisition” is now the most expensive part of selling a residential solar system. It is hard to believe that solar firms find cold-calling to be an effective strategy for such a personal and significant investment. They are pushing to make sales with as little upfront investment as possible, hence the seemingly asinine telemarketing approach. Solar power equipment and labor costs have plummeted in the past 10 years; it is now more expensive and takes longer for a solar company to find and close a deal with a client than it is for the company to build the system. As a result, solar companies are pushing hard to source clients as cheaply and efficiently as possible. 

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Is solar worth it? 

It is if you have high electricity rates—and electricity rates in New Jersey are higher than the majority of U.S states. This is one of the most expensive electrical utility markets in the northeast. Going solar helps homes offset high electricity bills by producing your own electricity and, in some cases, you can sell excess electricity generated back to the utility company using a methodology called “net-metering” (see question #7). For a fixed expense, residential solar customers have a predictable amount of electricity at a predictable cost during a time when the price of electricity has the potential to soar.  

Generous state and federal tax credits also come into play. The federal Tax Investment Credit (ITC) that encourages solar and renewable energy investment has contributed massively to the growth of solar across the U.S. It provides a tax credit for homeowners and businesses that equals 30 percent of the total solar-system investment cost.  The ITC was extended by Congress last December and is currently set to expire in 2023. 

There is also a nice mix of state policies and utility incentives available to New Jersey businesses and homeowners. These include the aforementioned New Jersey Renewable Portfolio Standard, which mandates that 1 percent of energy produced in the state of NJ must come from solar power by 2028. This legislation is managed by the New

Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU), which ensures that New Jersey utilities comply by managing the rollout of residential, commercial and utility-scale solar generation programs across the state. Another is the Solar Renewable Energy Credits program, the primary vehicle the state has used to implement its RPS. Homeowners can register to sell the credits they get from owning an operating solar system in New Jersey to companies that aggregate and then sell them off. Finally, check with your local utility for Utility-Specific Incentive Programs being offered current and prospective customers for going solar. 

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Are all solar companies basically the same? 

No. In fact, there are three distinct types—third-party system owners, building contractor firms, and solar installers—and it’s important to understand the pros and cons of working with each. 

Third Party System Owners are larger companies like Verengo, SunRun and SolarCity. They offer people various financing options, including leases and loans (in addition to installation services). The name of this category stems from the fact that you do not own the system on your roof. These are the calls you get when you’re sitting down to dinner. Interestingly, there’s not a state in the U.S. with more third-party party owned systems than New Jersey. The rapid reduction in the price tag of residential solar systems since around 2010 has weakened the appeal of these deals somewhat. However, if you don’t have the cash, this may be the most affordable route to going solar.  

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Building contractor firms are smaller, contractor-based firms specializing in general construction, electrical work or roofing work that now also offer solar installation services. To compete with larger finance firms, building contractors typically partner with a lender to offer options to homeowners who are looking to finance. But they also offer systems for outright purchase. They are typically regionally focused and can offer more personalized customer service than the larger companies. You are unlikely to receive cold calls from these companies—they tend to rely on referrals and traditional advertising. 

Solar installation firms are strictly installers of solar systems. They have similar qualities to building contractors, but are more likely to have the best overall understanding of solar equipment performance. They have connections with established contractors who can handle any roofing or electrical infrastructure needs demanded by a project. The personal service and attention a smaller installer offers is the polar opposite of the cold-call experience. One disadvantage of working with smaller installers, however, is that they may be unable to offer a diversity of brands and equipment because of exclusivity agreements they could have with a manufacturer. 

What are the must-ask questions I need answered by an installer before I sign up for solar?

  • Do you have the electrical license required? Is your contractor license current?
  • Can you demonstrate experience with similar residential solar projects, as well as with the equipment you are proposing for my roof?
  • With whom have you worked locally? A good installer should be able to supply you with a name and phone number…even better, a visit with the homeowner. References matter.
  • Where are your components—specifically your modules and solar inverters—manufactured? Solar power component manufacturing is an international business. Installers offer products from Asia, Europe and the Americas, typically, and there are differences in certain equipment that result in varied pricing. If buying equipment made in the U.S. is important to you, ask the installer what American-made options are available for you.
  • What kind of warranties do you offer for workmanship and for components? Each solar system is different. Solar module warranties should run 20 years at a minimum and most solar inverter warranties are now 10 years. A solar inverter allows the modules to be installed in less-than-optimal (i.e., shady) conditions and still generate plenty of power.
  • Be sure to ask about the equipment and workmanship warranties, as well as whether any planned or unplanned maintenance is included in the contract.
  • Who handles operations and maintenance, how frequently and for how long? Your installer should show you an “O&M” plan, complete with module cleaning and a routine maintenance schedule, along with various service packages for system maintenance. There shouldn’t be much needed, as solar systems essentially have no moving parts. In the case of third-party owned systems, all maintenance is performed by the third party. As with any other investment and/or home improvement, it is important to get multiple bids and compare them before selecting an installer. 

Will this technology become obsolete in a couple of years, like my computer and my cell phone?

No. The product cycle time for solar components is actually quite long, so it’s likely you’re getting up-to-date components. Solar equipment technology has not evolved significantly in the past few years, which is a good thing for consumers because it has allowed banks, system owners, installers and manufacturers to develop a detailed understanding of how systems work and produce energy. This helped a maturing of their perspectives on solar power without the additional need of analyzing significant technological changes at the same time. The development of smaller micro-inverters for the residential market is probably the biggest development for residential and smaller commercial systems in the past five years. Micro-inverter companies are established enough to be well understood by installers, and manufacturers offer warranty terms equaling those of traditional inverter manufacturers.

How are people financing these systems if they can’t afford the cash outlay?

Even though system prices have dropped, solar leases are still popular. Leasing a system is a good option to go solar without any upfront costs, however, be aware that the system is owned by the leasing company—which means it gets the ITC and incentive benefits, not you. Even so, solar financing is big business in New Jersey. Personal loans and home equity loans are always options. Since system costs have declined, you may want to reach out to your bank and price out a loan or home equity line to finance your purchase. That way you receive all the incentives and tax benefits. Or you could put it on plastic. 

Consult your accountant (or Google around) to better understand how to consider the ITC tax benefits relevant to your personal tax situation. And, of course, make sure to ask to see all the financing and contract terms before agreeing to anything. Some companies ask buyers to sign on the dotted line through email or web-based signatures before sharing the financial details. Better to deflect the commitment and make sure you understand the small print beforehand.  

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If I generate more power than I use, how can I sell it?

Net Metering is the general term used to explain how system owners can sell power to utilities. Essentially, signing a net metering contract with your utility means your utility will purchase back the same amount of energy you use, for the same price it sells you that energy. Energy production beyond this amount doesn’t receive any credit from the utility, so it is important to size your system correctly with your installer’s help and guidance.

How do I know I’m getting the best deal for my system?

Hey, this is New Jersey. There’s nothing wrong with squeezing the installer a little! Let the company know you are looking at multiple bids. This may bring the price down, but it also creates an opportunity to explain what is different/better about the products and service the seller is offering. Remember that there are lots of options available to install your solar system, and it’s a long-term investment, so don’t compromise on what you want out of the deal.

It is also helpful to know your average monthly and annual usage before you enter into conversations with installers. This shows them you know what you are doing, and will make them more accountable to you during the entire sales process. Finally, ask about product options and warranty terms when meeting your installer. Showing a little knowledge of the primary system components— modules and inverters, for instance—and asking the installer to explain warranty terms can help you form a good comparison between products and position yourself well for the price and terms negotiations. Knowledge is power in the hands of the solar client.

The take-away here is that, for New Jerseyans, this looks to be a smart time to go solar. This is one of the most mature and healthiest solar markets in the nation. The current prices for solar power—combined with newly renewed federal and state incentives—means the return on investment for a solar system in the Garden State has never been higher. In addition, utilities and permit agencies in New Jersey are very familiar with the regulations and requirements governing solar power installations, which further drives down the non-system costs associated with going solar. And, as mentioned earlier, technological advances are occurring at a stable, consistent rate, allowing financers and installers to thoroughly understand solar power technology. 

So are these telemarketers on the level? 

They almost certainly are. If you hear them out, they are likely to set up a call with someone more skilled and informative. The reason you are not talking to these folks first is just a matter of economics. That being said, a solar system is an expensive and complicated electrical appliance you are attaching to the roof of your home. It would be nice to feel like that first contact was a solar expert but, as Uncle Mark is so painfully aware, it’s not. 

THREE FOR THE MONEY

Third Party System Owners

PROS

  • Responsible for maintenance
  • Low or no upfront capital cost
  • Low risk

CONS

  • Typically higher system pricing for financed systems
  • No ITC
  • Fixed contract
  • Monthly payment
  • Typically not local
  • Less local customer service

Building Contractors

PROS

  • Local focus
  • Good customer service
  • Competitive pricing
  • Experience with solar and roofing

CONS

  • Less competitive financing options
  • Limited product offerings

Solar Installers

PROS

  • High competition, good pricing
  • Lots of solar experience
  • Local focus

CONS

  • Can be tied to specific product or finance partners
  • Less experience with specialized construction needs

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Editor’s Note: Erika Kemp and Stephen Smith are the co-owners of Solvida Energy Group (solvidaenergy.com), a consulting firm that analyzes solar market technical and industry trends. They are also “newly solar” homeowners, having opted to purchase their own system, and are frequent visitors to one of the first solar-powered homes on the Jersey shore. Special thanks to Scott Moscowitz, Director at GTM Research in Boston, who provided valuable insight to the current state of solar in the Garden State. 

Fun Dungeon

Building the Ultimate Game Room 

By Caleb MacLean 

The suburban basement doesn’t get the love it deserves. Finished, unfinished, damp or dry—it is a launching pad for household pests and odd smells, and, in its own taunting way, a monument to unfulfilled potential. How one fills that yawning void is a matter of personal choice, personal taste and personal budget. The most personal solution? An all-out play space: aka the ultimate game room.   

 In newer (and grander old) homes, basements offer a great deal of square footage. Even after allowing for HVAC equipment, storage, water heaters and other appliances, there may still be 200 or more square feet that can be devoted to a fun dungeon. Often much, much more. The first order of business is to ensure the space is clean, dry, well lit, ventilated and climate controlled—in other words, finished. Fortunately, most suburban homeowners already have reasonably civilized basements. 

Next comes a critically important question: What will be the true nature of this space? Presumably, the overarching goal is to promote meaningful interaction with family and friends. Which requires stepping back a bit and looking at the “culture” of your family. 

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Will this space be an extension or celebration of that culture, or is it a way of changing the game, so to speak?For example, if your family tends to gather around a monster flatscreen, then maybe you want an even more monstrous flatscreen downstairs as part of an awesome home theater array. Or maybe, just maybe, you want to change the game…and create a space that promotes some old-school interaction.

The home theater option? You can knock that out in an afternoon at Best Buy. To create a truly extraordinary fun dungeon, however, takes the kind of obsessive, time-consuming effort and financial commitment that, by its very nature, will almost certainly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In a perfect, totally self-indulgent world, the menu must include most, if not all, of the following items:

  • Vintage Pinball Machine
  • Vintage Arcade Game
  • Vintage Jukebox
  • Vintage Vending Machine
  • Carnival Midway Game
  • Foosball or Air Hockey Table
  • Pool or Ping-Pong Table

If you happen to be an inveterate collector or borderline shopaholic, all the better, because this is going to require some legwork, both physical and virtual. If you need some starting points, read on…

FLIPPING FANTASTIC… THE PINBALL MACHINE

Having grown up in the pre-video game age, I hold that humankind has yet to invent an entertainment device that improves on the mechanical pinball machine. It combines the demanding skills of lightning-quick anticipation and hand-eye coordination with the relatively undemanding ability to stand, pull and release a spring-loaded plunger and push buttons every few seconds. Pinball first gained popularity as a gambling device, and was actually outlawed for many years. The “modern” pinball machine, with its rolling scores and rubber bumpers came on the scene in the 1960s. A new, electronic generation of machines hit the arcades in the late 1970s. The arcades themselves went the way of the dinosaur as soon as home video game systems achieved a certain level of sophistication: Why pour quarters into a slot when you can hit the reset button for free? 

But pinball machines survive—even the old ones. They were built well and built simply enough so that they could be maintained and repaired without too much expense or expertise. They are now bought and sold like vintage automobiles, only much less expensive. And “tune-up” kits are available online to keep them clicking.

When purchasing a pinball machine for home use, the first decision to make is whether you want a vintage mechanical ’60s or ’70s model, or one with a computer that runs the show. The machines from the ’80s and ’90s have a lot more bells and whistles, and usually feature multi-ball play. Many of these are licensed after entertainment properties, such as The Addams Family movie franchise, starring Angelica Huston and Raul Julia. The Addams Family pinball machine happens to be the all-time best-selling pinball machine, with more than 20,000 units sold and many (if not most) still available. It was manufactured by Midway and designed by Larry DeMar and Pat Lawlor. 

Lawlor, it’s handy to know, was regarded as the industry’s creative genius. If you go shopping for a machine and see his name attached to it, it’s probably fun to play. Interestingly, for many years the Holy Grail for video game designers was to make a virtual version of The Addams Family pinball. An Addams Family machine in good, working condition will run you around $7,500.

For a test of your flipper skill without all the solid-state electronics, a machine from the 1970s may be the way to go. These were the mainstays in arcades at a time when the most sophisticated video game was Pong. Their price and popularity depends on a number of variables,including the art on the back-painted glass. A challenging machine treasured among silver-ball aficionados is Gottlieb’s Target Alpha, which came out in the mid- 1970s. Its fun and challenging play field was used in several other machines. 

A well-restored example of Target Alpha can cost up to$5,000, but as with most machines of this era, prices vary based on availability and condition. With any pinball machine you purchase, it’s important to understand what’s involved in maintenance and repair. You can do most of it yourself if you have some mechanical acumen. If not, we are fortunate to live in a state where there are a number of people who both sell and service vintage machines. To get a feel for the different options take a drive down to the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park. It was actually featured in our Wendy Williams fashion shoot a few years ago.

HIGH SCORE…  THE ARCADE VIDEO GAME

In the old days, the golden rule of video arcade games was “pay a quarter, die three times.” It cost money to get seriously good at Space Invaders or Pac-Man or Donkey Kong or whatever “your game” happened to be. Space Invaders gobbled up quarters at an astonishing rate. In its day, the game made more money than the first Star Wars movie—by a factor of three times! Its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, became a video game legend. He went on to create Donkey Kong and other hit arcade games for Nintendo before turning his attention to home gaming, and was the driving force behind Wii.

Going out and finding your favorite arcade console is fairly simple. You can track down a refurbished vintage model online, at auction or from a regional dealer. Or you can check out new arcade consoles that offer multiple “classic” games. Though eschewed by purists, they have become movie—by a factor of three times! Its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, became a video game legend. He went on to create Donkey Kong and other hit arcade games for Nintendo before turning his attention to home gaming, and was the driving force behind Wii.

Among collectors, one of the most popular vintage arcade games is a maniacal attack-and-rescue space game called Defender. When it came out in 1981 it was predicted to be a flop because its level of difficulty was so high. It required players to watch four different parts of the screen at the same time and work controls in combinations that took hundreds of quarters to master. Of course, that turned out to be the key to Defender’s success—players became obsessed with annihilating alien spacecraft and rescuing their buddies before they plunged to their deaths. Larry DeMar and fellow pinball programmer Eugene Davis designed the game for Williams, which ended up selling more than 60,000 units. They sell for about $2,500 today.

JUKEBOX HERO… MUSIC MACHINES

Your fun dungeon needs a soundtrack, of course. And what’s more fun than a vintage jukebox? These machines are not for audiophiles; what goes into them is far more important than what comes out of them. That being said, there is a burgeoning market for classic machines that have been converted to play CDs or use Bluetooth. The sound quality may be better and the maintenance simpler, but then you don’t get to track down all those favorite 45s your kid sister scratched up or your mom gave away for pennies at a garage sale. 

Jukeboxes are less pieces of furniture than they are small architectural marvels. Their designs reflect their times. They set the tone for a game room, not just acoustically but visually, as well. Consequently, the choice of a jukebox will almost certainly be the most personal fun-dungeon choice you make. For most people, the model they choose harkens back to a special time or place in their lives. It may be a gleaming, chrome tabletop model like they used to have in truck stops and diners. Or perhaps an eye-popping Rock-Ola or Wurlitzer from the 1940s. The originals have gotten very pricey—often $10,000 and up—but the modern reproductions are quite nice and affordable.

If you must go Old School, then consider a sleek, mid-century Seeburg. What they lacked in color they made up for with functionality and simplicity of design. You can buy a fully restored Seeburg from the 1950s for $5,000 to$7,500. 

ICE COLD…  BEVERAGE DISPENSERS

Beverage availability is a key component in any basement re-do. You can certainly invest a couple of hundred dollars in a small fridge and be done with it. But to stay faithful to the theme of interactivity, it’s worth considering a more traditional delivery system. Soda fountains and beer taps are what most people think of first. The home version of your basic five-flavor countertop soda dispenser—like the one at your neighborhood pizzeria—runs around$1,500. There are a lot of parts to clean and maintain, so homeowners often end up cutting a maintenance deal with the same company that services the one at the pizzeria. 

The less-elegant choice of a vintage vending machine might actually make more sense in the long run. There are lots of refurbished machines on the market that keep soda and beer cans (or bottles) cold until they roll out at the push of a button. They are very simple mechanically—once you buy a restored one, you’re unlikely to have a problem with the vending mechanism. How much is a restored machine?Anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. 

Another choice for beverages is the old-time refrigerated chest. Here you want a reproduction; the originals are wildly inefficient. You open the lid, reach in, and grab a cold one. Big and colorful, they run between $500 and $1,000 depending on size and come emblazoned with your favorite old-time soda logo (especially if your favorite old-time soda is Coke). 

STEP RIGHT UP… CARNIVAL GAMES

The most overlooked piece of the fun-dungeon puzzle has to be the tried-and-true carnival game. You know, the ones that look so easy…and $20 later you realize you’ve been had. Well, what better place to practice for your next visit to the midway than in the comfort of your own home? There are any number of options, some of which you can cobble together yourself if you’re handy. From a space-saving standpoint, however, you’d be wise to a) stick to the vertical ones and b) avoid games with sharp or high-velocity projectiles. Popping the balloons with darts and knocking over the milk bottles with baseballs are not wise choices in an enclosed space.

Actually, your best bet may be the most boring game on the midway, what the carnies call Fat Cats. You know this one: three or four rows of stained cloth felines that seem to be touching each other. But of course most of that is “fur,” which means your soft toss (the ball is usually misshapen or oddly weighted) must hit the cats perfectly to tilt them back. With a little practice in your basement, this is the most winnable game at the carnival—which is why the prizes in that booth are always the worst! A Fat Cat set up will run you $300 to $600. 

HE SHOOTS, HE SCORES…  TABLE GAMES

Feeling good about your hand-eye coordination? Then don’t go anywhere near a foosball or air hockey table. For some reason, the better athlete you are, the less athletic these games make you feel. The odd corollary to this rule is that, the more you drink, the better you get. (Or at least, the better you think you get). Still, what ultimate game room would be complete without at least one of these two classic contraptions?

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A bit of trivia: Although it never appeared in a single episode of Downton Abbey, the tabletop soccer game we call Foosball was very popular in England in the 1920s. It has enjoyed popularity in the colonies since the 1950s, has been a staple of frat-house culture since the 1970s, and was played avidly by Chandler, Joey and Monica in Friends in the 1990s. The Foosball table is designed so that games can be played one-on-one or two-on-two. In 2002, the International Table Soccer Federation was formed with the goal of making it an Olympic sport. There are a lot of cheaply made Foosball tables on the market, so if you feel that yours will be getting a serious workout, best to invest in the ones that start around $400.

Air hockey is one of those infuriating games where kids have just as good a chance of winning as grown-ups. It is almost impossible to “square up” the round puck with the round mallets—the result being all kinds of crazy, counterintuitive caroms. The game was invented by the good people at Brunswick in the early 1970s and was immortalized in the 1976 film The Bad News Bears. Prices vary, but a good 8-foot table starts at about $700. By the way, there is an unwritten rule that the same fun dungeon cannot have both a foosball and air hockey table. Oops, now it’s written.

THE CLASSICS…  POOL & PING-PONG

There is a similar rule about pool tables and ping-pong tables—except that you can find models that combine the two, so it’s not quite the same rule. The differences between pool and ping-pong (aka billiards and table tennis) couldn’t be more obvious. The former rewards a pensive, mathematical approach, while the latter requires quick wrists and even quicker reflexes. Depositing a pool table in a basement takes Hulkish strength and determination. Ping-pong tables fold in half and have wheels. If you have young kids, ping-pong is likely to entertain them for years. Pool certainly has its appeal, but is more of an acquired taste.

Buying a pool table is not a simple process. You definitely want quality and should be willing to pay for it. The problem is, you can pay for quality and not get it. Reviews and ratings of pool tables on the ’net sound suspiciously like they were written and planted by people in the industry, so to get the best value it’s worth doing your homework.

According to Bruce Sanderson, buyer and store manager for Pelican Sport Center in Morris Plains, the best strategy is to arm yourself with a checklist of bottom-line goals. For instance, the frame, top and cabinet of a pool table should be made of solid wood, with no veneers or laminates. Also don’t settle for anything less than a one-inch slate. And avoid cheap rubber bumpers, which produce poor rebounds. “Ken-66 rubber is what you’re looking for,” he says.

There are other telltale signs of inferior quality. The diamond sites along the sides should be actual inlays, not painted on. Pockets should be leather, not vinyl. And demand felt that incorporates a Teflon coating, which makes spills easier to clean and resists pilling. A good quality felt, says Sanderson, should be 75% wool content and 25% nylon blend, between 19 and 20 ounces per yard.

Bottom line? Be prepared to spend $2,000 to $3,500 for a table built to last. Price points can soar into the five digits for fancy designs, but keep in mind that these tables play the same; you’re paying for looks. Brunswick and Olhausen are the big brand names in the market. However, Imperial features the same construction at a slightly lower price—and the company is located right here in New Jersey.

Online reviews and ratings for ping-pong tables feel a bit more honest, perhaps because there is relatively little money at stake. The most durable tables combine a strong frame and substantial playing surface. You can easily spend over $1,000 on a top-of-the-line Kettler, but very good ones are available for $500 to $600. If you start with a pool table and decide you want ping-pong, too, you can purchase a two-piece conversion top with padding underneath for$200 to $300, depending on the finish. 

Year In Year Out

A Pitch for Perennials 

By Sarah Rossbach

When I moved into our present home, we had no garden—and two small children. I hired a sympathetic landscaper who, seeing me juggle (not literally) my baby and toddler, designed a small, manageable garden. She planted perennial flowers that reminded me of special people and places in my life: peonies for China, my area of study, camellia bushes for my Southern mother, and agapanthus for the South of France.  My children are all grown and the garden has evolved. Every year, the camellias and (now prize-winning) peonies re-bloomed with no help from me, while the agapanthus, unaccustomed to cold New Jersey winters, behaved as an annual, never to reappear. Which may lead one to wonder: Why purchase and plant annual flowers each year, when perennials—as their name suggests—are a “forever” investment in time, toil and money?

Sarah Rossbach

As plants die and lie fallow, fall and winter are excellent times to plan gardening improvements to make in the spring. In fact, you can start planting late into the fall. For example, deer-resistant daffodil bulbs are available at your local plant nursery or in flower catalogues and, once planted, will delight you this spring and future springs with their colorful, fragrant blooms. The best way to learn about perennials is to peruse perennial books, visit your local plant nursery or locate a nearby garden club. When planning my first front yard garden, my landscaper and I first selected some evergreen bushes to create the bones of the garden. That way there was color all year round.

Sarah Rossbach

According to Liz Richart, the perennial expert at The Farm at Green Village in Morris County, there are several basic considerations when planning a perennial garden. How much sun does the planting area receive and is it morning, afternoon, or all-day sun? Can the area be irrigated? Are there deer in your neighborhood? How much maintenance time will you be able to devote to your garden? She recommends checking out reliable, unbiased websites for local (Zones 5 and 6) botanical gardens and research universities. 

“Bulbs can extend the bloom time of the garden,” Richart says. “Snow drops bloom very early in the year and can emerge through light snow cover. Other reliable spring bulbs include squill and daffodils. Plant spring bulbs in November in clumps with the pointed end up for beautiful spring flowers. They usually require well-drained soil and full sun during their growing season. The depth of the bulbs should be about three times the length of the bulb.” 

I was relieved when she didn’t suggest tulips. From my tortured experience, the tulip bulbs that hungry squirrels don’t abscond with right after I plant them survive only to be early spring morsels devoured by deer just before they fully bloom. I can vouch for daffodils’ fortitude and longevity, as they re-bloom and proliferate every spring. I have ordered mine online from various catalogues.

Richart adds that perennial gardeners also should cultivate patience to fully enjoy the fruits of their labors. “Plants can take two to three years to fully reach their stride,” she maintains. “There is an old garden adage referring to establishing plants in the garden: Sleep, Creep, Leap is basically what a gardener can expect in the first few years.”  In terms of fertilizing the plants, amending the garden soil is a key to helping them mature to full capacity. Adding a planting mix of compost and peat moss will greatly improve the performance of perennials. “The roots need a good base to fully develop in order to grow a fully mature and healthy plant,” Richart explains. 

Dave Williams of Williams Nursery in Westfield advises using a base of established plants—such as rhododendrons, evergreen azaleas and boxwoods—as a backdrop for planting perennials. Selecting the plants then becomes all the fun.

For early interest, he recommends planting hellebores. “They bloom in February and last for months,” Williams says. “They have the huge advantage of being deer-resistant and now come in a large variety of colors—white, pink and reds.” 

Thinking about easy-to-care-for perennials, Williams suggests mountain pinks phlox. “They are no-brainers,” he says. “No one ever kills them. You can plant them as three-to four-inch ground cover and they grow; you can just forget about it.” 

Williams also says a recently introduced type of lavender called Phenomenal grows amazingly well with little upkeep, and you can cut the flowers to provide a lovely scent and visual interest. While any nursery owner could go on forever about flowers, two other perennials he mentioned as not only easy to grow, but which help pollinators (such as birds, bees and butterflies that help plants reproduce) were coneflowers and milkweed. 

Williams, whose hobby is salsa dancing, recommends the Sombrero Series of coneflower. “Salsa Red in the Sombrero Series is a compact coneflower that attracts butterflies like crazy,” he says. “And milkweed is getting a lot of press. Before I planted milkweed, I had limited monarch butterflies, which are endangered. With milkweed this year, I had monarchs in the garden daily for three weeks.”

A final note on this plug for perennials, aka the gift(s) that keep giving. I am by no means dissing annuals. A landscape designer friend, who gives an August cocktail party themed around her stunning Casa Blanca white lilies, always fills in the visual holes in her beautiful garden by planting huge pots of impatiens. Annuals such as stock, zinnias, angelonia, sunflowers and sweet pea create great cutting gardens that provide beautiful material for floral arrangements all summer long. 

Alas, that’s a story for another day. 

Wikipedia Japan

PERENNIAL PRO

While most perennial planting is (or can be) a do-it-yourself project, some things are best left to the professionals. According to Paul Martoccia of Martoccia Landscape Services in Watchung, once you get into trees and shrubs, that’s a good time to bring in a pro. 

“Something that’s very important to understand when you get into more significant plantings is the role a landscape professional can play,” he says. “A lot of people are tempted to buy cheap plants in big box stores, and are unhappy down the road with the results. We only deal with long-established wholesale nurseries that have quality material. I’ll actually hand-select the plants, especially with specimen plants, and even bring the client along with me.”

Martoccia says that people thinking about perennials often overlook shrubs with all-year interest, which extend the garden’s appeal through the winter. For instance, ornamental grasses such as miscanthus (below) grow to four feet tall and four feet wide in a season or two. Martoccia also likes red twig and yellow twig dogwood: “Their colorful stems get brighter in late winter going into spring.”

“Crepe myrtle offer exceptional bang for the buck,” he adds. “They come in many different varieties and colors, and bloom into fall. They offer a lot of winter interest and the overall structure of the plant is great to look at all year.”

Sarah Rossbach

BANG FOR THE BUCK

These perennials deliver great color and interest year in and year out:

  • Salvia
  • Coneflowers
  • Sedum
  • Daylilly
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Hosta
  • Heuchera
  • Coreopsis
  • Hellebore
  • Catmint
  • Knock Out Rose
  • Drift Rose

 

Hey, Big Spender

Extreme Gifting: Home Edition

By Christine Gibbs

‘Tis the season synonymous with giving and receiving. Gifting rituals extend around the globe and back through history. Greek and Roman mythology celebrated heroic figures such as Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and presented it to mankind, and Dionysus, who was the first to bring a bottle of wine to an orgy. All major religions honor the tradition of gift giving, in many different ways. Christianity annually reveres the gifts of the three wise men in Bethlehem. Channukah extends the gifting ritual to eight days. Kwanzaa focuses on the seventh day. In Islam, giving gifts is one of the beneficent acts recommended by the Prophet Mohammed.   

Gift giving may be universal, but it tends to be culturally unique. Thank you cards are not expected in Israel, but birthday breakfast in bed is expected in Sweden, while a gift should be wrapped in red for good luck in China. Of course, here and in Western Europe, the mere mention of Christmas to children of all ages conjures up some iteration of Santa Claus—aka Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Père Noel, or St. Nicholas, to mention a few.

While gift giving is more or less obligatory in North American culture (holiday, birthday, housewarming, wedding, baby shower, etc.), there are no hard-and-fast rules about how much to spend or, more to the point, how “personal” a gift should be. What might strike one person as being thoughtful could very well appear presumptuous to another. Then are those who take the act of giving to a whole new level…something I like to call extreme gift giving. I use that word the way millennial athletes use it when they talk about “extreme sports”—as an all or nothing, death-defying, adrenaline-pumping pastime. 

We’re not talking about an expensive bottle of wine or a fancy orchid; we’re going way outside the (gift) box. In these pages are ideas, examples and how-to’s for splurging on a lifestyle-altering gift for a friend, family member or colleague. Welcome to Extreme Gifting: Home Edition. 

UNDER $1,000 

TABLE TOPPER

Hand-blown decanters from the cross-discipline studio of Anna Karlin add a whimsical touch to the dinner table. They’re topped with a delicate matte rose-quartz stopper. $320 at annakarlin.com.

INTO LEATHER

Elvis & Kresse uses reclaimed remnants of fine leather along with recycled fire hose and silk parachutes to make a unique, earth-friendly leather rug.

$300 at ahalife.com. 

BE SEATED

The Dress Chair from the ThisLexik design studio applies a thermosetting technique using epoxy resin to transform a pair of recycled jeans into whimsical yet surprisingly durable furniture.$450 at thislexik.com.

$1,000 to $5,000

 

 

BUY GEORG

You might go broke collecting Georg Jensen, but as an extreme gift-giver you’ll never go wrong. The less-is-more company makes an ultra-contemporary five-piece flatware service for 12 in an understated matte stainless steel finish. $1,250 at 1stdibs.com.  

 

SHELF LIFE

Muller Van Severen’s multi-marbled shelf is perhaps the ultimate outside-the-box home décor gift. $3,165 at mullervanseveren.be.  

FRONT AND CENTER

For the tech-obsessed family that stores its life in the cloud, the Richard Clarkson Studio has come up with the Smart Cloud, which mimics the look and sound of a thunderstorm whenever someone enters the room. $3,360 at richardclarkson.com. 

SMELL OF SUCCESS

Marie-Helene de Tallac’s blue chalcedony incense burner is trimmed in 22k gold. It’s a tribute to financial acumen and the ongoing pursuit of relaxation and tranquility.$3,500 at modaoperandi.com. 

BED TIME

Frette’s Mia throw blanket is exquisitely crafted in soft cashmere and trimmed with coordinating Rex fur for unsurpassed warmth and luxury. $3,500.00 at harrods.com.

 

OUT OF THIS WORLD Secondome’s hand-blown glass and gold-tone brass

Mod.Sky stellar-map globe is part of an interactive behavioral experiment called the COEXIST Project. It’s designed by Italian artist Gio Tirotto. $4,000 at barneys.com. 

SKY’S (NOT) THE LIMIT

It may not be a gift that keeps giving (although it may give your financial adviser a permanent ulcer), but if you want to take this extreme-giving exercise outdoors, a trip to the stratosphere in a Bloon is hard to top. The Bloon rises 22 miles using a non-combustible fuel for a gentle, noiseless voyage with no impact on the environment. We won’t give away the price, but if you’re curious, log onto inbloon.com.

Editor’s Note: Chris Gibbs has been EDGE’s “It’s A Gift” editor since 2009. 

 

Lookin’ Like A Million

Elevate your home theater binge-watch with a curated movie theme. 

By Mariah Morgan

The binge-watching phenomenon has given TV junkies a new appreciation for their pricey home theaters. Unfortunately, the couch potato in all of us seems content to pick a television series and just burn through all the episodes. Why not curate your own viewing schedule with a hand-picked queue of themed releases? Love dopey Hugh Grant rom-coms? Gritty Charlize Theron dramas? Crazy Ben Stiller vehicles? Don’t be shy. Make yourself a Top 10 list, sit back and enjoy! In honor of EDGE’s “Million To One” issue theme, here is my Top 10 list of movies featuring a “Million” theme…

Upper Case Editorial

1 • Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Starring Dev Patel & Irrfan Kahn Patel plays teenager Jamal, a street urchin who rises from the slums of Mumbai to win fame and fortune on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The film introduced some of India’s most celebrated actors to mainstream movie audiences and won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Directed by Danny Boyle. 

Warner Bros. Pictures

2 • Million Dollar Baby (2004) Starring Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood & Morgan Freeman Swank stars as a waitress-turned-boxer who enlists the help of old-timers Eastwood and Freeman, who reluctantly guide her toward a $1 million title fight. Million Dollar Baby won four Oscars, including Best Picture. Many consider this the best-ever boxing flick. Directed by Clint Eastwood. 

Upper Case Editorial

3 • Million Dollar Legs (1932) Starring W.C. Fields, Jack Oakie & Susan Fleming Oakie and Fields conspire to assemble a team for the Los Angeles Olympics to reverse the fortunes of the bankrupt country of Klopstokia. They lead a cast of slapstick veterans that includes Ben Turpin and Andy Clyde in a comedy so completely untethered that it verges on the avant garde. The Marx Brothers reportedly turned down Million Dollar Legs because it was too crazy. Directed by Edward Cline. 

Upper Case Editorial

4 • How To Marry A Millionaire (1953) Starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable & Lauren Bacall A trio of gold-diggers conspires to land millionaire husbands by renting a Manhattan penthouse and posing as high-class New Yorkers. It’s kind of a frivolous story given the talent involved, but it has endured as a classic. Few fans have actually seen it as it was shot— How To Marry A Millionaire was one of the first CinemaScope films, and it is impossible to fit on a standard television screen. Directed by Jean Negulesco.

Upper Case Editorial

5 • If I Had A Million (1932) Starring Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton & George Raft Fans of the old TV series The Millionaire should find If I Had A Million intriguing, as the show was based on this imaginative movie. A dying tycoon, played by Richard Bennett, leaves his fortune to eight total strangers, picked at random out of phone book. Seven different directors—including Hollywood legends Ernst Lubitsch and Norman McLeod—were enlisted to tell the eight stories.

Upper Case Editorial

6 • One In A Million (1936) Starring Sonja Henie, Don Ameche, Adolph Menjou & The Ritz Brothers Sonja Henie made this film—her first of many—shortly after winning her third consecutive Olympic figure skating gold medal at the 1936 Winter Games in Germany. The magnetic Henie became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars after playing a Swiss innkeeper’s daughter who becomes an international skating sensation. Directed by Sidney Lanford. 

Walt Disney Studios

7 • Million Dollar Arm (2014) Starring John Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton & Alan Arkin Disney’s very watchable baseball film follows down and-out scout J.B. Bernstein as he discovers a pair of young pitchers in India. Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm co-stars Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal— familiar faces from Slumdog Millionaire. Directed by Craig Gillespie.

Upper Case Editorial

8 • One Million Years B.C. (1966) Starring Raquel Welch This movie is definitely in the running for the all-time guilty pleasure award. Besides Raquel Welch’s iconic cavewoman bikini, it features the work of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen and fairly good overall production values for a dino-drama. Nine minutes were cut out of the U.S. theatrical version because of violence and a suggestive dance scene. Directed by Don Chaffey. 

Upper Case Editorial

9 • Le Million (1931) Starring Annabella & Rene Lefevre This French musical comedy is a favorite of film school professors. Le Million marked a true breakthrough in talking pictures. The director detested the quality of sound films of the era and singlehandedly propelled the technology forward. He was hailed as a master after its release. Directed by Rene Clair.

Upper Case Editorial

10 •The Boy Who Stole A Million (1960) Starring Maurice Reyna Paco, a 12-year-old bank messenger, “borrows” a million pesetas from an open vault to help his father repair his taxi. He is pursued through the streets of Valencia, Spain by cops and criminals hoping to get their hands on the money. Shot on location with a talented English-speaking cast, The Boy Who Stole A Million is a sweet, well-made film that is family-friendly without being sappy or syrupy. Directed by Charles Crichton. 

Honorable Mention 

Upper Case Editorial

Million Dollar Legs (1939) Starring Betty Grable & Jackie Coogan This was the movie that catapulted Betty Grable into the pin-up stratosphere. It co-starred her then-husband Jackie Coogan, a former child star who was a celebrated bandleader at the time. Coogan later played Uncle Fester on The Addams Family. The movie had plenty of star power—including Donald O’Connor, Buster Crabbe and William Holden—but it doesn’t hold up particularly well 80 years later. 

Horrible Mention 

Brewster’s Millions (1985) How a movie featuring Richard Pryor, John Candy and Rick Moranis can have so few laughs remains one of Hollywood’s great mysteries. 

Next on the List

15 Home Gift ideas people will actually use…and probably love.

 

Been to any yard sales lately? They are basically graveyards for failed gift ideas. While online shopping has sent brick-and-mortar retail hurtling toward extinction, the American consumer’s insatiable need to accumulate pointless junk has only grown. It’s one thing to impulse buy or drunk shop for yourself, but when it comes to purchasing gifts for friends, family, and co-workers, shouldn’t we be exercising a bit more thought and consideration? Before you toss that holiday gift into your (real-life or virtual) shopping cart, think about whether the intended recipient actually has a need for it. Or the space for it. Or the aptitude to use it. Or the desire to clean it. Chances are if you check all these boxes, that person is going to love it. The perfect holiday gift does not have to be expensive or even fun. If it addresses a need or solves a problem or just makes life easier or more interesting, then you’ve hit a home run.

The EDGE staff has combed store shelves and web sites to identify 15 items that a homeowner or apartment dweller will find useful and appealing. They range in price from a little to a lot. If you’re stuck for a great idea and the clock is ticking, we think you’ll find something in the following pages that will be right on the money…

 

CARROT SHARPENER

Carrot Sharpener

The Monkey Business Karoto Vegetable Peeler ($10) looks like it came out of your old grade-school pencil box, but the shavings it produces are healthy and edible. It creates ribbons and slices for salads and garnishes, and comes with a second blade that produces vegetable “pasta.” It works best on root vegetables, but can also be used on potatoes and fruit. And it’s safe for kids, making it a fun way to get them involved in meal preparation.

 

Homey Product Taco Holders

HOLDING PATTERN

 

Taco Night always sounds better than it is, in large part because making and serving the crunchy shells ends up being a hard lesson in gravity. Homey Product Taco Holders ($12) solve both issues by combining smooth, smart design and functionality. Tacos stay put in the colorful, BPA-free stands, which are microwave safe and work equally well for hard or soft shells. The holders come in sets of 12.

 

Hot Hand

HOT HAND

Few things are more annoying than struggling with that hard-as-rock Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s pint when you have to have a bowl or cone of ice cream now. It’s a wrist injury waiting to happen or, worse, a sudden slip of the scoop could send a chunk of Chunky Monkey flying across the kitchen. The Heat Conducting Scoop ($20) from UncommonGoods uses the magic of thermodynamics to transfer heat from the hand, through a conducting liquid in the handle, to the scoop’s ring. No dipping in hot water, no waiting for the thaw. 

Dreamfarm Clongs

LIFT OFF

 

Sure, everyone has a spoon holder for the stove or countertop, but what the heck are you supposed to do with gooey, greasy, sauce-covered tongs? Dreamfarm Clongs ($25) are an elegant answer. The stainless steel click-lock tongs feature a subtle bend in the handles that enables them to lay flat without the silicone tips touching surfaces and making a mess—or to rest on the edge of a pan. The clongs are dishwasher-safe and resistant to high heat, so they can double as a barbecue accessory.

WEIGHT OF THE WORLD

We’re betting the foodie on your gift list doesn’t have the Perfect Portions Digital Nutrition Food Scale ($40). It weighs and measures 2,000 items and ingredients while displaying their nutritional information on a built-in screen. It’s cool for the curious and essential for calorie counters and folks on a restricted diet. Bakers will wonder how they ever lived without it. You can also use it for weighing other items, too (is that a one-stamp envelope or a two stamper?).

Keyport Slide 3.0CHAIN REACTION

 

Keychains and fobs can do a lot of interesting things nowadays, but no keychain is more interesting than the Keyport Slide 3.0 ($40), the “Swiss Army Knife of Keychains.” Smaller than a box of Tic-Tacs, the 3.0 houses six different tools of the owner’s choice. Options include a pen, bottle opener, mini-light, and 32GB USB flash drive. It also accommodates standard, high-security, and transponder-chipped keys for unforeseen emergencies and a “reward-if-found” program from the company.

 

Burnt Impressions Selfie Toaster

BURNT OFFERING

How many people brag about their toasters? Why would anyone brag about their toaster? The Burnt Impressions Selfie Toaster ($50) certainly answers the second question. It turns toast into a work of art thanks to a pair of customizable stainless steel stencils that can burn almost any two-tone image (including the owner’s own headshot) into a slice of white bread. The lucky recipient (or thoughtful giver) of the Selfie Toaster uploads an image, which the company turns into the aforementioned stencils. The outside of the toaster can be customized, too. The toaster is manufactured in China but the stencils are fabricated in Vermont.

TileLOST AND FOUND

 

Admit it…most of the people you know are constantly misplacing their keys, wallet, handbag, phone, et cetera. The Tile Mate Item Tracker ($50 for a 2-pack) enables the “loser” in your life to locate nearby items by sound and anything else (within a 200-foot radius) on a map display. There is even a wider community of users that can help locate items that are lost out in the big, bad world.

Bissell Pet Stain Eraser

LIKE IT NEVER HAPPENED

Cleaning up after sloppy, unhealthy or inconsiderate pets is one of life’s great miseries, even for those who adore their animals. If you haven’t had the pleasure, well, it’s a process. Thanks to the Bissell Pet Stain Eraser ($70), that process is quicker and simpler than ever. The cordless handheld device sprays, scrubs and suctions away all manner of deposits left on rugs, floors and upholstery—at home or in the car. The special cleaning formula is stored inside the machine, and the dirty water compartment empties easily. Pssst. You didn’t hear it here, but this doubles as a clean-up machine for messy kids.

PetChatz PawCall

HANG ON, MY DOG IS CALLING

Not every pet owner can stay on a tight, consistent schedule. Not every pet owner can go more than a few hours without worrying about their cat or dog. The PetChatz PawCall ($90) solves these problems and does a whole lot more. The video system allows a pet to contact its owner (seriously) by stepping on a call button and also play light- and touch-puzzle games (seriously) that dispense a treat. Owner and animal stay in touch via smartphone or tablet apps, and the device dispenses calming aromatherapy oils during thunderstorms or other loud outside noises.

ThinkGeek Thor Hammer Tool Set

 

ThinkGeek Thor Hammer Tool SetHAMMER TIME

 

This is a keep-it-in-the-closet gift for the closet Marvel Universe fanatic in your life. The ThinkGeek Thor Hammer Tool Set ($100) is an officially licensed replica of the God of Thunder’s Mjolnir (his hammer), which opens to reveal a 44-piece high-quality toolset. Clever, right? Includes a screwdriver, wrench, ratchet set, utility knife, level, tape measure and some other stuff that’s handy for everyday household repairs. No truth to the rumor that Loki stole the power drill.

GROOVY

From the Everything Old Is New Again Department, the world has rediscovered classic vinyl LPs and 45s. As they emerge from basements by the milk-crate-full, it turns out that our old turntables haven’t held up all that well. Enter the Audio-Technica Wireless Stereo Turntable ($150), which brings out all those wonderful cracks and pops and connects wirelessly with any Bluetooth speakers or home entertainment system. It can also connect old-school style, with the included output cables. A diecast aluminum turntable minimizes vibration, while a dual magnet phono cartridge and diamond stylus coaxes the best out of the old records.

 

LOOKING SHARP

According to superstition,  giving a knife to a friend will sever that friendship. Not to worry with the 8” classic Shun Chef’s Knife ($150), which you can give to a family member instead! But honestly, who would dump you after such an extravagant gift? The top-of-the-line slicing, chopping and dicing utensil is clad with 32 layers of high-carbon Damascus stainless steel and features a comfortable, D-shaped Pakka wood handle. If you’re the superstitious type remember to just tape a penny to the knife and your friendship will be unbreakable.

 

Cinemood Portable Movie Theater

MOVIE NIGHT

Few holiday gifts can legitimately be shared by adults and kids. The Cinemood Portable Movie Theater ($350) is most definitely one of them. “Portable” here is something of an understatement, as the wireless 7-ounce, 3-inch cube can literally fit in the palm of your hand. It comes preloaded with Disney content and can project Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and other streaming content on any surface, big or small (up to 12 feet). Needless to say, it can go places you probably wouldn’t or couldn’t take a pricey laptop.

 

June Intelligent Oven

CHEF OF THE FUTURE

So much junk is advertised in cooking infomercials these days that most people have become conditioned to ignore any “new” and “revolutionary” countertop appliance. Well, the June Intelligent Oven ($600) is the exception that proves the rule. It won’t do all the cooking for you, but it comes tantalizingly close (and it should at this price). Sophisticated software enables the next generation toaster-oven to recognize the food being inserted and prepares it to near perfection, especially after the user tweaks it to taste. It’s big enough for a casserole or whole chicken, but also does toast (but not selfie toast). The oven can be controlled with a smartphone app, as well as through an Alexa smart speaker.

EDGE EDITOR’S NOTE: Except where indicated, the items on this list are widely available online and in stores. If you don’t see anything that connects with your holiday gift list, we suggest a visit to the Crazy Russian Hacker YouTube channel, where many items you see on TV are tested. You may not find anything there, either, but it’s kind of hypnotic.

 

Patient, Heal Thyself

Will your house become a virtual doctor’s office?

by Caleb MaClean

In November 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved Abilify MyCite, the first “digital” pill. The pill, made of silicon, magnesium, and copper, contains a sensor no bigger than a grain of sand. It communicates with a patch worn by the patient, which then trans its medical data to a smartphone app, which in turn uploads it to a database that’s accessible to a patient’s doctor (and also family members). The sensor is activated when it interacts with stomach acid and transmits the time the pill is taken, as well as the dosage.

Abilify is a medication that treats bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia, all of which demand that a patient stay on schedule with medication. The digital pill makes for easy monitoring by a third party. Although there are some inherent privacy issues that will probably need to be worked out, the big picture for healthcare is big indeed: By some estimates, the improper or unnecessary use of medication costs the industry $200 billion annually. To wrap your head around that number, consider that the total amount of property taxes paid by New Jersey homeowners in 2018 will probably be about $30 billion. With that much money on the table, you’d better believe a flood of digital pills is on the horizon.

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This is just the beginning of a revolution that will move more and more elements of traditional medicine into the home—to the point where, one day, more doctoring will be done through digital housecalls than in medical practices. Which is why, in 2017, the FDA created a new unit devoted entirely to digital health.

It is being staffed with engineers well-versed in software development and artificial intelligence, who are able to deal with the steadily growing flow of medical technologies that require FDA approval. While certain parts of the federal government maneuver at a snail’s pace, the FDA is changing its culture to deal with the day in the not-too-distant future when machines will be monitoring and regulating a huge part of the healthcare industry. The FDA has long considered medical “apps” outside of its purview and thus the vast majority are currently unregulated. As more and more traditional medicine moves out of the doctor’s office and into our bedrooms and living rooms, that will need to change. And soon, for all of our sakes. 

The digital pill is, in its own way, a forerunner of how our homes will become part of the pharmaceutical industry  Within a few years, 3-D printers will be integrated into millions of American homes, plugged right into our smartphones and laptops. At the moment they are novelty items, but the capability to “print” pills on an as-needed basis may make them as common as home-testing machines for blood glucose or coagulation levels. Besides the cost savings and the convenience factor, this technology could also create pill shapes that release medications at different rates. For patients who need medications “tweaked” regularly, 3-D printers would be a godsend.

DOCTOR, DOCTOR

The digital housecall will be commonplace years before the printed pill. Ask people who work in the tech industry and they’ll tell you it can’t come soon enough. Besides the new FDA unit, there is already a trade organization promoting digital medical consultations, the American Telemedicine Association. Several insurance carriers either cover, or say they plan to cover, webcam exams and consultations. At the moment, digital housecalls are being conducted primarily in rural areas, via smartphone and Skype. The visual component is key; according to health insurance giant Aetna, the error rate is one-fifth that of voice-only doctor consultations.

Actually, the digital housecall is nothing new. It’s around 10 years 

The initial driver was distance. In places like Maine, where a single hospital may cover hundreds (or even thousands) of square miles, keeping patients off the road is a huge priority. Maine, in fact, was one of the proving grounds for telemedicine. Doctors there used telemedicine in a wide range of situations, including burn and trauma cases, where victims had to be helicoptered in for emergency treatment. They found they could begin “treating” those patients en route or, in some cases, on the scene.

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Going forward, the driver of telemedicine will be cost (or more to the point cost savings). A doctor can see more patients digitally than in an office, which creates money saving— and money-making—efficiencies. Patients, on the other hand, benefit financially, too. They save time and money by staying at home or at work during a medical consultation. The necessity of hands-on contact is certainly an issue, but as more “connected” monitors and diagnostic devices come online, the need for doctors and/or medical staff to be in the same physical space as their patients will decline. Right now, insurers estimate that only about 20 percent of visits to a GP actually require a GP. Think about your last visit to the doctor’s office: How much physical contact did you have with your doctor? How much of your check-up was off-loaded to a nurse of staff member? Much of what a doctor does is ask a series of questions and listen carefully to your answers—which can be done on a screen.

So how exactly will this work?

Based on what already works in the places that telemedicine has a track record, it’s not difficult to paint a realistic picture. Patients will register online with the primary care physician or medical group that currently serves them, or possibly with a hospital center such as Trinitas. Though the particulars are likely to vary somewhat from insurance plan to insurance plan, patients will make appointments to interact with doctors (or other healthcare workers) in a space in their house or apartment where they can see and hear each other, and where the patients have access to biometric devices that plug into a smartphone or computer. Given that most of the equipment in a doctor’s office—and for that matter in a hospital—already “talks” to computers, there is no reason why simpler, cheaper home versions couldn’t be made available to patients with chronic illnesses or other conditions that require periodic monitoring. Right now, people with artificial heart valves already test their own blood weekly in order to tweak their Warfarin dosage (a famously moving target) and report PT/INR levels to their cardiologists. Five years ago, the home equipment was expensive and cumbersome; most patients had to drive to a lab to get their blood drawn and tested. Now the device is the size of a Game Boy. Five years from now, or perhaps much sooner, the next generation of these monitors will feed data directly into the cardiologist’s computer.

As hospitals cross the digital divide, they are likely to find telemedicine a force-multiplier, as well as a profit center— especially if they offer distinct specialties. For example, there are patients who travel many hours multiple times a week from surrounding states to see the wound-healing specialists at Trinitas. Not all of those trips are related to procedures performed on-site; a fair number are progress-checks and dressing changes that could conceivably be conducted without a patient leaving the home.

DIGITAL DOC-IN-A-BOX

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If you think about it, the reduced need to physically visit a doctor’s office cuts both ways—if the patient can stay at home, why not the doctor? Your digital housecall may be conducted by a physician working remotely, too—perhaps from his or her own home or home-office. There are, in fact, thousands of doctors who already work this way. Many are part of existing telemedicine groups. These companies treat hundreds of thousands of patients and are constantly tweaking how their platforms deliver healthcare to under-served or isolated communities.

At the moment they are kind of like virtual “Doc-in-a- Boxes,” bringing basic diagnostic services into homes. But make no mistake about it…they have their sights set on a bigger piece of the pie.

MDLive, which began offering digital housecalls almost a decade ago, recently added dermatology to its roster of services. It did so by partnering with an existing company called Iagnosis, an online skincare company that developed a platform called DermatologistOnCall. “Teledermatology” (they need to work on that name, by the way) makes sense on a lot of levels. 

First, it is a very visual branch of medicine, from training to practice, so it lends itself to a camera and screen. Second, how long do you have to wait to see a dermatologist on your current insurance plan? California-based SnapMD, a relative newcomer to the industry, just launched an app that enables Spanish-speaking patients to communicate with doctors who don’t speak Spanish, and vice-versa. Wall Street is watching companies like these very carefully, trying to divine where the “tipping point” is for the industry. Some believe it is coming in the next year or two.

HOME, SMART HOME

Homebuilders also are paying close attention to this space. They are already partnering with tech innovators on ways to make their homes “smarter” and recognize that, as Baby Boomers age, telemedicine will become a part of their lives. Some builders, in fact, may be thinking really big: Not only will future housing units double as doctors’ offices, by incorporating medical hardware and software, they may double as “doctors,” 

The first group to break ground on this idea was a research team at the University of Rochester. Back in the early 2000’s, they initiated a project called the Smart Medical Home. Its goal was to develop interactive technology for home healthcare. It brought together doctors and engineers from the university, Rochester Medical Center and the Center for Future Health. Over the next few years they designed living spaces that actively assisted patients with dementia and Parkinson’s. A Personal Medical Monitor was built into one of the walls. It featured an avatar that interacted with residents and answered questions about medication and symptoms of illness. Sensors located around the structure were designed to monitor the resident and could alert his or her doctor if it detected a change in vital signs.

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The home-as-doctor concept has continued to pick up steam in the ensuing years, as computing power and artificial intelligence have doubled, doubled again and doubled again. In 2015, a story in Healthcare IT News on smart medical homes reviewed a number of machine-tomachine (M2M) health devices in development for home use, including monitors built into footwear that can detect a limp or shuffle that may be a symptom of a more serious illness—and transmit this information through the home. In 2017, the same Center for Future Health in Rochester received funding for the development of tiny, wearable health monitors that transmit data to a base station in the home. The monitor incorporates “predictive” health software that can spot developing health issues, manage daily routines and intervene in the case of an emergency. The system constantly evaluates activities, motion, breathing, the sound of the wearer’s voice and how they all intersect.

It is not just the home and health industries that are working toward this goal. At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, CNET held a forum entitled The Invisible Doctor. A panel of tech, medical and insurance industry experts explained how everyday items—from smartphones to home appliances—could potentially be part of a health-monitoring network keeping us connected to our doctors through our smart homes.

Some things, however, simply must be done in a doctor’s office or hospital setting. So the digital housecall will never replace brick-and-mortar medicine. That’s not the idea, anyway. The goal is to make the “front line” of healthcare more time- and cost-efficient and to make doctors more accessible to more people in more places.

Just as important is the byproduct of that goal: To give doctors access to patients before small problems become big ones.

NATURAL DISASTERS

Telemedicine has the potential to play a major role in disaster relief efforts. One of the first things that happens in stricken areas is the collapse of the healthcare infrastructure. Hospitals may keep their doors open and restore power during a crisis—they are built to do this— but are unlikely to be able to cope with the ensuing spike in demand from scores of the sick and injured. In these cases, access to virtual doctors and diagnostic services would prove invaluable in coping with the patient surge at brick-and-mortal hospitals. Down the road, these relationships could conceivably extend to remote surgical procedures, performed by surgeons in daVinci pods like the ones at Trinitas, working on patients in OR’s thousands of miles away.

OLD SCHOOL

One of the great debates around digital doctor visits is how easily older patients will take to the new paradigm. The implication is that individuals over a certain age are intimidated by technology, or are total Luddites. That may be, but balanced against the comfort level of seeing your own doctor in your own home, it may be less of an issue than critics claim. As home/medical technology advances it will, by definition, become simpler to use, with fewer buttons to push and procedures to follow. You can already get a TV remote you can talk to…biometric devices that follow voice commands can’t be too far behind.

TELEMEDICINE HURDLES

For digital medicine to become fully integrated into the healthcare system, two major challenges will have to be continually addressed. While the hardware end of the business will become faster, better and cheaper, the software may struggle to keep up—and not just the software that runs diagnostic tools. As is currently the case with in-office visits, everything a doctor does will have to be coded and entered into a database used for billing, coverage eligibility, deductibles, referrals, and reimbursements. If you’ve ever peeked behind your doctor’s reception desk at the wall of paper files, you know how much information is kept on patients. Which bring us to the second major hurdle: With all that information digitized for digital doctor visits, just how safe will it be? Federal HIPAA laws create high standards for record-keeping, but can HIPAA regulations anticipate the legal and technical loopholes that digital medicine will almost certainly create?

2028

Four innovations that will transform the way you live a decade from now. 

By Luke Sacher

Two generations ago, yesterday’s vision of the future was showcased at the New York World’s Fair, Expo 67 and Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland. It was all about big things, produced by venerable Dow Jones conglomerates: moon rockets from Grumman and Lockheed/Martin, jumbo jets from Boeing, prefabricated housing made of “miracle materials” from Monsanto and DuPont,

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monorails from AMF, communications satellites from Bell Laboratories, copying machines from Xerox. Today, a used smartphone has more processing power than all of NASA’s computers combined had for the moon landings; a lowly iPhone 6 is 32,600 times faster than the Apollo-era IBM Model 360, which was as big as a car.

The iPhone just celebrated its 10th birthday silver-lined only a handful of technical wizards and scholastic futurists dared to predict the impact that mobile supercomputers would have on the lives of billions, and only a few got it right. Smartphones have forever changed the way we interact with our material world, and with one another. Answers to questions simple and complex are now always at our fingertips. If you have Siri or Alexa, you don’t even need to use your fingers. One could say that we’ve become simultaneously smarter and dumber, but for better or worse, the fact is that the world will never go back to what it was a decade ago.

So what’s coming down the pike right now that holds the same game-changing potential? Here are four of the most promising new inventions, clouds that truly seem to be 100 percent silver-lined.

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MEMORIES STICK 

DNA STORAGE

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, predicted that the number of transistors that could be printed onto microprocessor chips would double every year, and chip performance/speed would double every 18 months. His prediction became known as “Moore’s Law.” What Moore may not have foreseen is that every five years, the amount of digital data worldwide increases roughly tenfold. Microprocessor chips and most data storage devices are made of silicon, hence the name Silicon Valley. Computers store and process data on silicon chips as binary digits (zeros and ones) via tiny electrical charges. The problem is that the physical limit of microchips as a medium for data storage and processing is fast being reached. Which means that instead of computers getting smaller and smaller, they will soon have to get bigger and bigger to manage all that data. Engineers and manufacturers simply can’t squeeze any more circuits onto microchips beyond a gap of a few atoms, and so can no longer build them fast and dense enough to keep pace with demand.

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So what’s the alternative? Leonardo DaVinci said that the best solutions to most scientific problems were to be found in Nature and, in this case, it turns out he may have been right on the money. Over billions of years of biological evolution, Nature has generated the most advanced information storage medium currently known: DNA.“Oh, sure,” you’re saying, “I already know that DNA holds all the genetic data for building every living thing on Earth, but what can it do for me?” How about everything from saving your vacation photos to curing cancer?  

The theory of storing digital data in DNA was conceptualized decades ago, but recent progress in applied biophysical technology is making it both possible and practical, perhaps sooner than anyone might think. DNA is much denser than silicon/nonorganic based media. The data for hundreds of thousands of DVDs (hundreds of terabytes) could fit on a thumbnail-sized quantity of DNA. It is also much more durable and, as we know, lasts virtually indefinitely. In comparison, nonorganic media may last only years or decades, and their formats and connection standards become obsolete even faster. DNA? Nope.

Traditional media such as hard drives, thumb drives and DVDs store data as sequences of binary code (0s and 1s) by modulating their electromagnetic and optical properties. DNA molecules store data as sequences of four component molecules called nucleotides: adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine (A, C, T and G). The trick is to translate binary code to the quaternary code of DNA: 00 = A, 01 = C, 10 = T and 11 = G. For example, let’s say that a JPEG file’s first eight bits are 01111000. Break them into pairs (01 11 10 00), and translate those pairs to C-G-T-A. After determining what order the letters should go in, series of DNA strands are synthesized letter by letter, using an apparatus that takes bottles of As, Cs, Gs and Ts and mixes them in a liquid solution with “control” chemicals, which direct the reactions for their sequencing. By default, the process yields a secondary benefit of DNA storage: backup copies. Rather than making one strand at a time, it makes many identical strands at once before proceeding to the next strand in the series. Once the DNA strands are created, they must be protected against damage by drying them out and sealing them in containers that keep them cold and block water and light.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of DNA over electronic circuits is that it can interact with a biochemical environment like the human body. Computing with molecules involves recognizing the presence (or absence) of certain molecules, so a natural application of DNA computing is in the realm of bio-sensing and delivering medicines inside living organisms. DNA programs have already been put to medical uses, including diagnosing tuberculosis. Ehud Shapiro of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has proposed a “nano-biological doctor in the cell” that targets cancer molecules. DNA can also be used to control motion, which introduces the possibility of creating DNA-based “nano-robots” to carry and deliver molecular cargo (therapeutic drugs) to precise disease targets inside humans. Remember the 1960s movie Fantastic Voyage? Imagine a miniaturized submarine made of DNA and Raquel Welch as a therapeutic drug!

DNA computation has enormous future potential. Its huge storage capacity, low energy cost, ease of manufacturing (which exploits the power of self-assembly and affinity with the natural world) are a gateway to nanoscale computing, using designs incorporating both molecular and electronic components. There remain many challenges to be addressed for the technology to move forward, but almost 100 years of traditional computer science techniques that have revolutionized silicon circuit design are now being applied to DNA-based computing. Progress so far has been steady and rapid. Onward and Inward!

GOING UP?  

SIDEWAYS ELEVATORS

Over the past 50 years, many of the advanced fictional technological devices featured in the original Star Trek television series have been born into reality—flip phones, flat-panel video displays, and voice-activated computers to name three. Now add another one to the list: the Turbo Lift.

Paramount Television/CBS Television Distribution

German industrial and engineering conglomerate ThyssenKrupp (the same Krupp that forged the steel and built the armaments that turned Europe into a mass grave moonscape twice in the 20th Century) has created the MULTI, the world’s first vertical/horizontal elevator system. This past October, ThyssenKrupp premiered a fully functional “proof of concept” MULTI in its 800-foot test tower in Rottweil, Germany. The test tower has horizontal shafts only at its top and bottom, but OVG Real Estate’s East Side Tower in Berlin has contracted with the company to be the first actual building to install a complete “lattice grid” MULTI system later this year. The MULTI uses MAGLEV (magnetic levitation) propulsion technology, and “exchangers” at junctions of its X and Y axis tracks

“When we decided to take this type of exchanger, which was one in about twenty different concepts,” explains Markus Jetter, ThyssenKrupp’s head of product development for systems and components, “we found that this would also allow not only the change from vertical to horizontal but also to maybe any other angle in between.” 

Conventional elevators are raised and lowered on counterweighted cables. They’re not very efficient. A lot of energy is used lifting the cables. MULTI is more energy-efficient than traditional cable/counterweight systems and, by running multiple cabins moving in a “loop” at up to 15 feet per second, the system can carry 50 percent more people—while also reducing wait times to between 15 and 30 seconds.

“Old School” elevators can only move along the Y-axis, and under the Newtonian Laws of fluid mechanics/inertia, can only rise to about 1,650 feet (500 meters). Sky-scrapers taller than that require multiple elevators and shafts, sometimes stacked on top of each other, in order to reach from the ground to top floors. The MULTI system’s “cable-free” design eliminates shaft height limits, releasing that constraint in skyscraper designs and allowing for far taller buildings to be economically feasible.

Shafts of cable elevators also take up a significant share of building floor space—as much as 40 percent in large skyscrapers. MULTI elevator cabins use common X and Y-axis shafts, thus significantly increasing a building’s occupied area. Their shafts are also roughly half the size of cable elevator shafts, which translates to more room for developers to install even more elevators. The MULTI design not only substantially increases the amount of occupancy space in single buildings, it could revolutionize metropolitan infrastructure and transportation, both for passengers and freight, since its elevators could travel between buildings, and not just up and down one. This is an architect’s dream come true

Might it be time to start thinking about preparing our farewells to taxicabs and subways and maybe even sidewalks?

Photo Courtesy of Toto

GAME OF THRONES  

THE SMART TOILET

I suppose it makes perfect sense that Japan, the most hygiene-obsessed and robot-friendly nation on earth—with a swelling population of senior citizens—would also be the leader in “Smart

Toilet” research and development. The world’s largest toilet manufacturer, Toto, has partnered with medical technology company Daiwa to create Flowsky.

Flowsky is fitted with a sensor that measures a user’s urine flow-rate and volume, while a tiny self-cleaning receptacle inside the bowl is used to collect 5cc of urine for comprehensive measurement of glucose, albumin and hormone concentrations, as well as detection of inflammation indicators like leucocytes and antibody proteins. Blood pressure, heart rate, weight and body mass index (BMI) are recorded via a blood pressure monitor located within arm’s reach of the toilet and a floor scale in front of the basin. Data is then sent by a built-in smartphone to the user’s primary care physician.

Flowsky is presently only available in Japan, and only in medical facilities, but most likely not for much longer. Nursing homes in Japan are filled to capacity, and the number of older people is increasing rapidly. Flowsky promises to reduce skyrocketing medical costs, as well as eliminate the laborious and time-consuming standard procedure of acquiring lab results. Future Flowsky models will be equipped to detect pregnancy and blood alcohol content, PSA, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and to diagnose bacterial infections

“In Japan, most people see a doctor after they become ill,” explains Toto engineer Hironori Yamazaki. “With an eye to our demographic change, we are setting out to make the toilet a space for the early discovery of disease

Ten years from now, our toilets may well be the front line of healthcare, catching problems at the microscopic level long before symptoms manifest themselves. Personally, I can see a downside to this development. Right now, the toilet is the most trustworthy appliance in my house. I’m not sure I want the day to come where I ask myself, “Do I really trust my toilet?”

Will it only alert me to a looming medical issue, or is it going to it nag me about not going to the gym or remind me that I could be doing something smarter than vegging out on the couch scarfing down pork rinds? And then rat me out to my insurance carrier? In 2028, there may be no secrets we can keep from Son of Flowsky…or the iPot

CLEAR ENERGY 

SOLAR WINDOWS

Everyone loves the sun, and always has—Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Mayans, Japanese, Californians. Seems like any time in the last 10,000 years, you couldn’t swing a stick without hitting a sun worshipper. The ancients realized something we too easily overlook: the indisputably mind-blowing scientific fact that all forms of energy on our planet (kinetic, thermal, electromagnetic, nuclear) originate from our great big yellow fusion reactor in the sky. And all of the fuels used by humanity to generate usable heat and electricity—wind, water, wood, coal, petroleum, methane, plutonium, etc.—are indirect, inefficient storage media for solar energy. The ultimate objective of energy technology is to bypass all of those indirect media and find a way to tap “directly” into the sun.

By the best current (no pun intended) estimates, total global electrical energy demand could be satisfied using solar energy. The problem is that it would require covering 1 to 2 percent of the Earth’s flat landmass with collector cells yielding 10 percent efficiency. However, think of megacities all over the globe, from New York to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Dubai to London, chock full of super skyscrapers with lots of vertical surface area. What covers that surface area? Windows. Yes, you might say, but windows of existing buildings can’t all be swapped out for solar panels. Solar panels are opaque and heavy and can only be installed on rooftops. And who would want to live or work in a windowless building? We’d all go mad as March Hares.

What if someone could invent a transparent (yes, transparent) film like window tinting in your car—made of abundant and inexpensive low environmental-impact materials—that could be laminated to every existing window in every city, capturing solar energy in the infrared and ultraviolet portions of the spectrum and converting it efficiently to electricity, while allowing the complete visible spectrum to pass through?

Courtesy of MIT

Trick question. It’s already happened. The two scientific rock stars leading the team that recently created this technology both earned their doctorates at Princeton University. Their résumés are as follows: Dr. Vladimir Bulovi ´ c, (left) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Associate Dean for Innovation at MIT, previously launched a number of technology companies including Kateeva and QD Vision—and is an inventor of over 50 patents in the field of

MIT

organic optoelectronics. Dr. Richard Lunt (right) of Michigan State University received his doctorate in chemical engineering from Princeton while working as a researcher there with Dr. Jay B. Benziger, and also with Dr. Stephen Forrest at the University of Michigan. While building his lab at MSU, he worked as a postdoctoral associate at MIT with Dr. Bulovic´. He has won numerous awards for his innovative research and has invented over 15 patents, most of which have been licensed. 

In 2011, Bulovic´and Lunt founded their company, Ubiquitous Energy, in Redwood City, CA. This past autumn, they debuted their first practical transparent photovoltaic film prototype, called ClearView Power. ClearView Power transmits up to 90% of visible light, absorbing only ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. It’s efficient: over 10% conversion to electricity is achievable and independent of its visible spectrum transparency. It’s economical: fabricated using low cost, non-toxic materials, and existing equipment. It’s thin and low-mass: the film is less than 1/1000th of a millimeter thick. And it does indeed have ubiquitous applications, generating electricity on any transparent surface without any aesthetic sacrifice.

This is what the beginning of the end of energy scarcity looks like, ladies and gentlemen. In my humble opinion, in 2028, we might be calling this the greatest technological achievement since the lever or the wheel.

www.istockphoto.com

FASTER! FASTER!

At present, DNA data storage is only experimental. Before it can be introduced to the marketplace, the processes of writing and reading DNA must be improved. Both are prone to error and relatively slow. Today’s DNA synthesis writes a few hundred bytes per second; a modern hard drive writes hundreds of megabytes per second. An average JPEG photo (like the one on the right) takes several hours to store in DNA, while it takes less than a second to save on the phone or transfer to a computer.

www.istockphoto.com

3-D ELEVATOR TRAVEL

With horizontal/vertical elevators coming online this year, the next holy grail for the elevator industry is three-dimensional (X-Y-Z axis) travel—a true Turbo Lift is not beyond the realm of present possibility, but still far from actuality. Currently, the drawbacks include cost. MULTI system elevators are five times as expensive as conventional ones. They won’t be adopted other than as a novelty until the return on investment (of increased throughput and reallocation of space) offsets their installation and maintenance costs. Another possible hurdle is shielding elevator occupants from the strong electromagnetic fields that propel them.

Hell’s Kitchen

How a dream renovation became a nightmare… and how you can keep it from happening to you.

By Mark Stewart

No home renovation project goes exactly as planned, regardless of how meticulously you’ve planned in advance. Deep down, most homeowners understand this. However, when a “home reno” jumps the tracks, it produces the kind of gnawing, roiling anger that can throw your entire life out of whack. I speak from experience. Last summer, with the kids out of college, out of the house and out in the world being solid (and self-sufficient) citizens, we decided to pop for an entirely new kitchen.

The time was right. Although we had inherited a perfectly functional kitchen from a previous owner, it was what my wife liked to call “dated” the day we moved in. Two decades later, as the cupboard doors were falling off their hinges, she usually inserted an expletive in front of “dated.” Those hinges, by the way, were stamped Made in West Germany, so yeah, they were [expletive] dated. The upside of waiting so long was that we completely agreed on the optimal layout. We knew what we needed and didn’t need, and set a budget that reflected all of these sensible choices

www.istockphoto.com

The final bill was about $40,000, which is about what we budgeted. There was a fair amount of custom work and carpentry involved, but it’s not a huge space so we thought the price was reasonable. The cabinets and countertops were first-rate and we could not have been happier with the results. My wife really put a lot of research and legwork into these choices and was unflustered when the stone place sold our first counters out from under us by mistake. She didn’t even freak out when our kitchen contractor failed to count the number of cabinets until a couple of weeks after they had been delivered, only to find out that the manufacturer had forgotten to build one.

www.istockphoto.com

Less than 10 percent of our budget was dedicated to flooring. As luck would have it, flooring turned out to be 100 percent of the problem. We picked an installer who had an impeccable reputation. It was a family business that had been around for decades. The beloved father had given way to his daughter, who exuded the class and confidence you like to see in these situations. Her salesman came to the house and suggested a high-tech linoleum product that would give us the unusual floor design we wanted. It sounds icky, I know, but it was really cool (and not inexpensive).

We live in a century-old house on the side of a hill, so nothing is exactly straight. The kitchen floor has a bend to it that reflects 100-plus years of settling. The previous owner, a roofing company executive whom we knew to be meticulous, had solved this problem when he re-did the kitchen during the Bush I administration. The cabinets may have been disintegrating in 2017, but the floor looked as good as the day it went in. We just weren’t crazy about the look. As the salesman assured us that we had made a brilliant choice, I began to question whether he was thinking in two dimensions or three. Or whether he just said Yes to anything, collected his commission and then dumped the job on the workmen. No, he responded, this is a “floating” floor, so with some leveling in a couple of spots, it is actually an ideal choice.

www.istockphoto.com

The renovation timeline, from demolition to completion, was four weeks. We aren’t stupid. We knew it would take longer. But our contractor and his carpentry crew, who did exceptional work, kept telling us this was a relatively simple, straightforward job. So of course, 24 hours after the flooring was installed, we knew something wasn’t quite right. In several places, the seams that were supposed to fit snugly together were curling upward to such a degree that you could almost trip on them. Needless to say, the cabinets couldn’t go in until this issue was addressed. Despite several conversations with the owner of the flooring company, she did not send anyone to look at the problem, nor did she make the 20-minute drive from her office to our house to evaluate the problem for herself—for more than six weeks from the day we first alerted her that something was obviously wrong.

As anyone who has lived through a kitchen reno knows, there is no part of your family routine that isn’t completely disrupted during construction. We had a second refrigerator in the basement, which was great, but our only cooking appliances were a toaster and a microwave, which we moved into the library. (Full disclosure, the “library” isn’t as fancy as it sounds—it’s a room with two bookshelves and we couldn’t think of a better name for it). Meanwhile, a fine layer of dust settled on everything we owned.

Finally, the flooring company owner showed up. She rattled off a series of theories and excuses for why the material failed. Most of them sounded like they were our fault or the fault of someone who no longer worked for her. We countered each with the same question: Why didn’t you come the day after we told you there was a problem? Her answer was that she had worked with this product for years and never had a problem. As the words crossed her lips, I could tell she wanted them all back. If that was the case, then you should have been here an hour after  we called, not six weeks later. She sent in a crew to fix the problem but it was really too late

The cabinets had been installed around the trouble spots in the flooring, and within a few weeks of their “fix” the seams began to separate. There is no way to fix this and there is no way they will ever see the balance of the invoice they sent me after they walked out the door (without so much as an apology).

This was not our first brush with an unprofessional home improvement professional. We hired a local guy to do some much-needed re-shingling and lay a new roof over a large enclosed porch. This was in the fall of 2012. He disappeared after Sandy, the shingling unfinished and within a year, the incomplete roofing job began leaking into our family room. Oh, and by “disappeared,” I mean he began working for my across-the-road neighbor, who had deeper pockets and more appealing indoor projects. Back in the mid-1990s, when we owned a house overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, we sprang for an addition in anticipation of our second baby. The contractor did fine work except for one thing: He was 5’2” and I am 6’2”. I still have marks on my head where I constantly banged it on the bay window he installed exactly 6’1” above the back entrance to the home. 

I’ve had my issues with contractors on smaller jobs, including one who pocketed the money and then disappeared into the wind. And we’ve had some great people work for us, too. Each time we hire someone, I hop on the web and read about renovation nightmares and how to avoid them. Over the years, I’ve made my own list of do’s and don’t’s, which I am always willing to share and continuously update. They are as follows…

  • www.istockphoto.com

    If you use a referral service like HomeAdvisor.com, be aware that they send the job out to tradespeople within a huge radius of your home. You may be inundated with calls and have to explain your job more times to more people than it’s worth. We recently had a tricky gutter repair (our roof has an unusual design) and I was shocked at how many people were willing to drive 90 minutes or more from all over the state for what was probably a $500 job. What does that tell you? Either they are going to overcharge you to cover their travel time or, worse, they will “find” something more expensive to work on while they are there. Once when we lived in Hudson County, our local car repair place was caught on camera poking holes in engine hoses to create big problems where only little ones existed. My radar was up when the first guy said he’d drive down from Hackensack to Monmouth County to fix my gutter. Of course, he never showed. The next HomeAdvisor gutter guy came from Warren, couldn’t solve the problem, did a temporary repair and asked to be paid in cash. I assume that was to avoid paying HomeAdvisor.com their cut. No more internet fix-it adventures for me!

  • Make sure your contractor is licensed and insured. This sounds like a no-brainer but I’ve had people work for me who it turned out were not. This information should be on the estimate they give you. It should also be on the ad you first saw and even on their vehicle. If you use someone who is unlicensed, no one is going to help you go after them if something goes wrong. If you use someone who is uninsured, or who uses workers that are either off the books or undocumented, have a chat with your home insurance company to find out if you are covered should someone get hurt. Every contractor in New Jersey, by the way, is licensed in Trenton, so it’s easy enough to check. It’s also a good idea to run your contractors past the Better Business Bureau. If you are planning a big five- or six-figure job, it’s not a bad idea to contact your attorney’s office and ask if they can do a search for any lawsuits once you’ve narrowed your contractor choice to one or two.
  • As a job evolves and the to-do list grows or changes, make sure everything new is written down and agreed to. A misunderstanding (or worse) resulting from a verbal agreement can be difficult to resolve. This is especially true when the contractor or project manager speaks English as a second language. Some of the most skilled and affordable tradespeople you’ll ever meet have mastered their craft but not the native tongue. If you ask for something specific and get a nod or a Yes, don’t assume you’ve communicated clearly. We brought in a company for a big interior painting job and they did spectacular work. The only problem was that the person with whom I was dealing was Portuguese. So when we agreed on a price that included painting “all the woodwork,” I was surprised when I was handed an extra bill for the six doors they painted. The doors are wood. Are they not woodwork? 
  • You set the payment schedule. Make it crystal clear that there will be “benchmarks” throughout the job where you’ll be writing out checks, agree on what those are, and then say something like, “We’ll get along great until you start asking us for money on things you haven’t completed.” If you feel you need to explain further, just say, “Sorry, but you are paying for the sins of the last guy who worked here. I hope you understand.” Believe me, the contractor will understand. On a six-figure job, there should actually be some kind of language in the contract stating that a portion of advance money will be placed in escrow.
  • Although I’ve never done this, consider offering a “completion bonus.” A friend of mine promised 5 percent extra if the job was 100 percent complete and the workers were out of the house by a certain date— I think it was two weeks after the estimated finish date—and it worked! He said it was the best money he ever spent.
  • Finally, don’t assume the “smallest” part of a renovation job won’t cause the biggest headache. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way.

 

AS SEEN ON TV

HGTV

Home renovation shows come in all shapes, sizes, and formats. As a group, they represent the most popular and profitable genre of television programming. HGTV leads the way in this category, airing Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, Ellen’s Design Challenge, Brother vs. Brother, and Property Brothers—with a total of 15 million viewers. According to HGTV’s on-air talent, these are five of the most common (and costly) home renovation mistakes:

  • Buying the cheapest materials
  • Building a small bathroom
  • Narrow hallways, doors, and staircases
  • Forgetting to upgrade electrical
  • Hiring the wrong contractor

 

What’s in the Box?

Whether you use them or not, having the right tools for any job is a key to being a responsible homeowner.

By Caleb MacLean 

One day this past spring an unfamiliar urge swept over me as I glanced up at the side of my old, wood-shingled home. One of the two local woodpecker kabbalahs (I think it was the smaller downy woodpecker) had taken a shine to our siding and punched a series of perfectly round holes above our second-story bedroom window. Presumably the birds were hearing something on the other side of the shingles that they assumed were bugs. Since I often experienced their pecking while watching Morning Joe before work, I think what they were hearing was Mika Brzezinski stressing out about President Trump.

Anyway, on this particular day I decided enough was enough…I was going to yank out the damaged shingles and replace them myself. I would not call a professional. 

I mean, how hard could it be?

It was hard. 

I knew having the right tools was important, although I wasn’t sure exactly which tools this job required. I dug out our toolbox and searched the Internet for some instructional clips on replacing damaged shingles. The tools in my box looked enough like what the guys in the videos were using. Next, I needed a good ladder. 

About a week later my ladder arrived via UPS—nothing like striking while the iron is hot, right?

I had ordered one of those Little Giant contraptions you see advertised on late-night TV.  It did so many jobs and, even though none of those jobs were ones I was likely to perform, I’m all about versatility. So 200-plus dollars later   I unboxed my new ladder, read the instructions carefully and then came within a half-inch of losing my pinkie trying to unfold it. I re-read the instructions (oh, okay, I see) and did it correctly this time. With my toolbox at the ready, I maneuvered the ladder under the first hole, tilted it up against the house…and realized that it was five feet short of what I needed.

Starlings soon moved into the woodpecker holes, raised their noisy children, and defecated all over the side of the house. I think some kind of bees are in there now.

This is not a story about buying the wrong ladder. I can (and may very well) write a book on the subject if I manage to keep all 10 fingers intact. It’s about the things every man—handy or, like me, un-handy—needs in his toolbox. I am being gender-specific here not out of laziness or chauvinism, but because the women I know would already have found a better version of this article and assembled a great toolbox. Or called a professional long before the wildlife assault had transitioned into an infestation. 

What do you absolutely, positively need in a toolbox? As an amateur repairman with a hard emphasis on amateur, I have managed over the better part of four decades to assemble a pretty good one. If you’ve covered the basics with quality equipment, you should be able to tackle almost any project that doesn’t involve water or electricity. So let’s take a peek inside and see what you’ve got, and what you might still need…

SCREWDRIVERS

There are four basic types of screwdrivers: slotted, Phillips, square drive and precision. You should have a variety of sizes, including a couple with extra-long shafts. The market is flooded with inexpensive sets made of poor-quality metal and, speaking from experience, I’ll just say that you get what you pay for. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many screwdrivers I have dulled or destroyed wrestling with uncooperative screws. Sometimes the screws are made of inferior metal, which is even more infuriating. 

If you do feel like buying a cheap screwdriver, grab one of those 4-in-1 jobs you often see in the impulse-purchase section of your local hardware store for $5. You know the ones I’m talking about: they have two flat-heads and two Phillips heads, and you can pop them out of the handle and spin the shaft around to get the head you need. Go ahead and buy three because a) a little bit of torque can render them useless and b) like scissors and socks, they tend to vanish. I also like to have a couple of sets of those L-shaped Allen wrenches in my box. I keep them on a keychain. I know they are called wrenches, but to me they are screwdrivers. Technically, they are called hex keys.

I’ve always wondered which came first—the Phillips screw or the Phillips head screwdriver. This may be more of a philosophical debate than a technical one. I imagine they were equal parts of the same burst of inspiration. What I do know is that the Phillips screw is favored by manufacturers because it is self-centering. And I recently learned that neither the screw nor the screwdriver was invented by Phillips. John P. Thompson came up with the idea during the Depression and sold it to Henry F. Phillips, who added a couple of tweaks and then convinced GM to use his screws in its Cadillac production line. Next I’m sure you’re wondering, did Allen invent the Allen wrench? Yes! Just over a century ago, the Allen Manufacturing Company came up with a recessed “safety” screw that required its special wrench to tighten and untighten. Allen sold the patent to a company called Apex Tool Group. Apparently, Apex is slowly being driven mad by the fact that people won’t stop calling their tool by another company’s name. 

HAMMERS

If you ask my wife, who does all the picture-hanging in our home, my recommendation for hammers would be a wide assortment of sizes and weights with rusty heads and deteriorating wooden handles. That is because I’ve been hiding the good ones from her. And by good ones I mean the $20 beauty I purchased after my Chinese-made, fiberglass-handled hammer literally broke in half while I was prying a long nail our of an old table.  So here is what I have to say about hammers: Buy one made from a single piece of steel, not too light, not too heavy—about a pound give or take an ounce—with a curved claw for basic nail removal. A $20 to $30 hammer should also have a fairly ergonomic grip and will feel balanced in your hand. Balance is the key to good aim, i.e. hitting the nail on the head and not your thumb. The striking surface should be about an inch wide.

Some jobs (like my shingle experiment) may require different types and weights of hammer. Most people add them as they go. Eventually, you’ll probably want to have a club hammer and a pin hammer. A club hammer has a short handle and heavy head. It’s good for demolition projects and is also good for tapping a chisel. A light pin hammer can be used for small carpentry jobs and things like repairing picture frames. Two hammers you probably recognize, but are unlikely to need, are a ball peen hammer and a roofing hammer. Ball peen hammers (the “peen” is the non-striking side of the head) are a throwback to when regular people worked with metal. That’s no longer a thing. A roofing hammer is shaped to do a couple of jobs you’ll only need to do on a roof. It has a “spiked peen.” I hear there’s a pill for that now.

TAPE MEASURE

Like a good hammer, a high-quality tape measure will run you between 20 and 30 bucks. For most folks, a 25-footer will do. Of course, whatever length you buy, you’ll soon need to measure something two feet longer, but that’s a life problem, not a tool problem. Most contractors like a tape measure that locks and unlocks easily, and “stands out” at least six feet—meaning it won’t collapse down when held straight out in the air. If you can find one with a magnetic hook, that’s a plus since you’ll probably be working alone. Obviously, you want to make sure your tape measure has easily read feet, inches, centimeters and meters. It should be shockproof and heavy-duty because you will drop it again and again and again. Look for some kind of replacement guarantee from the manufacturer.  

DRILLS

We used to own a drill that worked beautifully up to a point. It was fine for boring the myriad holes a homeowner requires, even through old lathework and knots in wood. Where it sometimes fell short was when we were using it to screw or unscrew something. It was just too big and too heavy. It was difficult to keep on a consistent 90-degree angle, and when it encountered a stubborn screw it torqued my arthritic wrist and elbow violently. I am no expert with a drill, but I can say that the next one I buy will be lighter and more compact without sacrificing power. I suggest you do the same.

As we near that day, I’ll also have to decide between corded or cordless. Cordless seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a little tricky figuring out how much work you can do on a single charge. I would check ratings and comments from previous customers and testing services. Also, in my case, I am congenitally incapable of remembering which little converter goes with which small appliance. Fortunately, we have no end of grounded outlets inside and outside our home (thank you, obsessive former owner) so I’ve felt no pressing need to cut the cord. As for drill bits, buy two sets (one high-quality, the other inexpensive) because you’ll probably lose the one bit you desperately need on a Sunday evening when everything is closed. 

PLIERS

There are three basic types of pliers everyone should have in their toolbox: vise-grips, needle-nose and old reliable adjustables. Vise-grip (aka locking) pliers are ideal for multiple tasks. Because the adjustment mechanism is identical on all brands, the main point of differentiation being is the ease with which the pliers lock and, more importantly, unlock. Don’t be afraid to test them out and you’ll see the difference. Needle-nose pliers are ideal for twisting tasks or grabbing hold of things your fingers can’t. They also double as wire-cutters. Pick a pair that open and close smoothly, and that feel comfortable in your hand. A good pair will run you $10 to $20. Definitely spend the money for a great pair of adjustable pliers. You’re looking for quality, durability, comfort and ease of use. Go with a push-button model if you can find one and avoid pliers that are over 10 inches long. 

OTHER STUFF

You should definitely have a utility knife in your toolbox. Not a box-cutter, but a multifunction utility knife. It should feel good and safe in your hand. If a sliding blade makes you nervous, you can buy ones that fold up like a pocketknife, and vice-versa. Changing blades after a couple of jobs is a must, so make sure that you have a good supply and that swapping them out is simple. Just as important is a high-quality pry-bar. Besides pulling out nails, tacks and other items, it can help un-stick doors, windows and anything else that’s been painted over.

I recently installed a wall mount for a 46-inch flatscreen without a stud finder. That’s because the stud was me!

Of course, I might just as easily have destroyed the wall, the TV and the Stickley bookcase underneath it—all because I lacked a $5 gadget. A stud finder uses a magnet to locate the screws used to fasten the sheetrock to the vertical studs. I used the old tap-tap-tap method. Use the stud finder because there is a fine line between stud and moron.

I did use a level for the TV project. Unfortunately, it was one of those free apps you download onto your iPhone. We reside in an older home that’s not exactly plumb, so I feel as if I didn’t get the wall mount exactly straight. Fortunately, the manufacturer included an adjustment screw on the mount itself. In my defense, my only other option was to use a level that was over a foot long and just too cumbersome. For my next project I think I will either add a laser level, which I’ve used with success as a volunteer outside my home, or a standard torpedo level.

Like most homeowners, I’ve got a hodgepodge of other items in my toolbox. Mostly weird things I’ve purchased on impulse or in anticipation of some project I’ll never get to. To many, buying a specialized tool for a specific project is half the fun. For me it’s half the battle. My feeling is why not fight the other half of the battle later (or never)?

THE BOX 

Finally, just as there is always a right tool for the job, there is a right toolbox for the tools you own. Car guys have those great big red rolling carts. Masons, carpenters and electricians certainly have their own specialized equipment carriers. For Joe Homeowner, there are some basic rules to follow.

First, don’t buy anything plastic. These toolboxes are usually priced to sell and often look like a reject from the Transformers movies. After a certain amount of abuse, they just don’t hold up well. Also, if you want to be truly serious about home repair, by all means avoid the pre-packed, ready-to-go tool kits that come in their own snap-shut carrying case.  If buying every tool you’ll ever need for $50 or $75 seems too good to be true, trust your judgment. It is. Unless you’re just starting adult life or are living in a dorm or studio apartment, bite the bullet and make a modest investment. A good, metal toolbox filled with the basic high-quality products required to do the bulk of home fix-it projects, is likely to run between $300 and $500. 

As for me, I’ve probably invested somewhere in between those two figures and except for the 22-foot ladder that needed to be 27 feet, I feel adequately equipped to go to war with anything between my roof and my basement. There are some wrenches in my toolbox, so I can even do some minor plumbing.

Regarding the woodpecker issue, however, I decided to call a professional to plug my holes and repair my shingling. I’m not sure which creature in the nearby woods is eyeing these openings as a potential domicile, but I have no interest in finding out. For the record, I do plan to get my money’s worth out of the Little Giant. When the shingle guy gets here, I will configure the ladder so that I can use it as a bench. Which I will use to watch someone qualified fix my house. 

WHAT’S IN MY BOX?

Dennis Corcoran • HG Edwards

  1. Which tool is worth spending the extra money on for the very best quality?
  2. We work with replacement windows and doors, so for us it’s the Multi Master Oscillating Saw. The saw vibrates and oscillates, allowing for precise cuts that are not feasible with traditional circular saws.
  3. What’s the one tool you’d never leave home without?
  4. A sturdy tape measure, like a Stanley Powerlock 16′. Windows are typically made to order, and are not returnable. When ordering windows, the first step—getting accurate dimensions—is the most important. Measure twice, cut once…because you can’t cut the window!
  5. What tool is most dangerous in the hands of an amateur?
  6. Circular hand and table saws. They need to be used with caution, and should not be used at all without the safety shields and guards provided. Proper training is essential, but many accidents still happen among experienced installers and carpenters due to carelessness. Many a finger has been lost to circular saws due to laziness or carelessness. Think before each cut.

 

HG Edwards sells, installs and repairs doors and windows. The company has been in business since the 1950s and will be relocating from Summit to a new expanded showroom this October, at 1280 Springfield Ave. in New Providence. (908) 273–3224 • hgedwards.com

SEE HERE

It never hurts to have a good pair of safety goggles in your toolbox—no pun intended. They range in price from a couple of bucks for cheap dust and splash goggles to $20 and up for models with mouth shields. For jobs involving mist or dust or chemicals that might damage your eyes, look for goggles that form a “gasket” where they contact your face. 

Unless everyone in your home has perfect vision, you’ll want at least one pair that fits over eyeglasses. You’ll also want to have sizes to fit any children in the house, in case they want to “help” mommy or daddy on a project.

No Place Like Dome

Building a Backyard Observatory

By Christine Gibbs

On August 21, 2017, millions of New Jerseyans turned their collective attention toward the heavens to sneak a peek at a dramatic partial eclipse. For 160 seconds, they experienced the thrill and wonder that the state’s amateur astronomers feel every night. Over the last 20 years, this legion of stargazers has fueled a growing movement to reconnect with the universe through backyard observatories. Thanks to the publicity surrounding the summer eclipse, their numbers should rise sharply between now and the next significant eclipse in the U.S., which is due in 2024. What these newbies will quickly discover is that a backyard observatory offers more than just a window into the heavens. It is a unique way to unplug from the sensory barrage that has become our everyday life.      

Photo courtesy of Opoterser

Perhaps the first thing to know is that backyard astronomy has taken a giant leap since the $50 telescopes of our youth. Today’s entry-level devices are far stronger and more sophisticated. And just to be clear, when you talk about the power of a telescope, understand that you are talking about its ability to gather light. It’s not a giant magnifying glass.

Before opening your wallet, it’s a good idea to walk before you run. If you already have some knowledge of the night sky, or at least a healthy curiosity, that’s great. Can you identify a constellation other than the Big Dipper? Can you tell a planet from a star? If not, train your naked eye (with the help of binoculars) to recognize these things before you train a telescope on them. Next, locate an astronomy club near you. There are more than a dozen in the state. Start with the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey (uacnj.org), which will point you in the right direction. The organization also has an observatory set-up in Warren County you can visit. You don’t have to join a club right off—most are happy to let you dip a toe before coughing up dues. “Star parties” are a good opportunity to learn what kind of equipment is right for you, and to quiz others who have invested in a home observatory. Finally, spring for a subscription to Sky & Telescope magazine—either online or hardcopy—to get a feel for what others in the hobby are talking about, and also to peruse the ads. 

CHOICES, CHOICES

At this point, you will have become acquainted with three different types of telescopes: Newtonian Reflector, SCT and Refractor. Refractors are what most people picture when they think of a telescope. Light enters through a lens at one end and is focused by the eyepiece at the other end. Top-of-the-line refractors are fantastic, but can be extremely expensive. Newtonian Reflectors (yes, Isaac Newton is credited as the inventor) collect light at the bottom end of the tube and reflects it back toward the eyepiece at the top, using a large parabolic mirror and a second, smaller mirror. Newtonian telescopes offer great bang for the buck, tend to be bulky as they get more powerful, and also require frequent realignment of the mirrors. SCT (which stands for Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescopes) models combine lenses and mirrors, which enables the telescopes to be fairly compact. Another appealing feature of SCT’s is that they can be manipulated through a laptop. The downside is that the sharpness of the images you’ll see may fall a bit short of the other two types. A very good entry-level telescope will run you $500 and up, depending on the type. 

Also, for many amateur astronomers, size really does matter. Lugging around a huge telescope—even from your garage to your patio—gets old fast for most people. Which is why, when it comes time to invest in a really good telescope, the conversation (and budget) includes construction of a backyard observatory.

What kind of observatory would work for you? There is a profusion of examples out there, ranging from the rudimentary to the monumental. It all depends on the degree of investment you’re willing to make—physically and financially. Most experienced astro aficianados agree that an important early decision is to select between a roll-back roof model or a more sturdy wind-proof dome. Other considerations involve the size and location of viewing windows and rotation capabilities. To move ahead with your project, you must also honestly assess how much of your well-tended earthly garden you are willing to sacrifice for a better view of what lies above.    

Most amateur astronomers take their initial plunge with a simple structure that is really no more than a shed with a retractable roof. Thumb through astronomy magazines a century old and you’ll find how-to designs for this type of observational platform. If you’ve got the time, the lumber and the skills, you can easily build one yourself. There are also a number of vented, climate-controlled structures commercially available, including the aptly named Astrocloset (left), which looks a bit like an aluminum meat smoker. All are simpler, less-expensive alternatives to full-scale backyard observatories that can be set on a deck, patio or basic concrete slab. Typically they are no bigger than 5’ x 5’. They start in price around$2,000, plus shipping costs, and most require more than a little assembly.

Traditional domed observatories range from small, budget models to sky’s-the-limit structures that can run $100,000 or more. The main advantage of a dome (beside the fact that it looks cool) is its ability to rotate its opening to follow the stars as they move across the sky, shielding the telescope from stray light and wind. The size of the dome correlates to the size of the telescope and the size of the astronomer. Most are motorized. Decent, entry-level domed observatories (from companies such as NexDome, Skyshed and ExploraDome) are made of lightweight materials and come shipped in modular pieces. They run $3,000 to $5,000 plus construction cost and accessories. There are less expensive options, but the cheaper the price tag, the less sturdy and more problematic they tend to be. 

Photo courtesy of NexDome

WE ARE NOT ALONE

For those interested in building their own backyard observatories, there is a community of do-it-yourselfers and legitimate engineers offering online advice and instructions. Some, like rocketroberts.com, actually document the project from start to finish. Regardless of the scope of the decision to build, there is widespread agreement on the factors to consider before taking that big step forward. One such astro neophyte was Tim Hunter, who—through painful personal experience—compiled a list of 8 Backyard Observatory Mistakes to Avoid:

Location, Location, Location

The observatory can never be too close to your back door if convenience was the inspiration in the first place.

Hot Topics

Beware of concrete, bricks, asphalt walkways and black-top paved parking lots that absorb and radiate heat that interferes with telescopic performance.

Money Matters

You can depend on cost overruns, so prepare your budget “realistically”…and then double or triple it!

Follow the Rules

Be sure to check out local zoning and permitting regulations related to construction sites, lighting ordinances, etc., to avoid fines and, in extreme cases, having to dismantle.

Power Play

Outlets, outlets everywhere and then some extra. You can never have enough well-placed electrical wiring to conveniently service all your valuable equipment. 

Peace of Mind

Make security a priority. Think high fences, high-tech motion detectors, and the like, and then sign up for a backup insurance policy just in case.

Unwelcome Visitors

Your observatory can be quickly compromised by a host of invaders of the vermin variety to include wasps, rats, squirrels and others. Regular inspections can help to avoid serious damage to equipment and the structure itself.

What else is new?

It is only a matter of time that practically everything in your observatory will be updated, upgraded, or destined for the Smithsonian. Make sure an ongoing budget is prepared for the inevitable. 

www.istockphoto.com

FAMILY MATTERS

For most parents, getting their kids (and, yes, themselves) unplugged and together in a group activity is a constant challenge. Backyard astronomy is a great way to get everyone out of the house, enjoying science and sharing the spirit of discovery. It’s also a wonderful way to engage with history. Written records of astronomical observers date back to 1600 B.C. in Babylonia, but prehistoric sites such as Stonehenge—which functioned as an enormous celestial/lunar tracking device—tell us that families have been pondering the mysteries of the skies for countless millennia.  

LOOK! UP IN THE SKY!

According to SeasSky.org, these are some of the celestial highlights for New Jersey backyard astronomers in 2018:

 

January 3-4 January 31

Quadrantids Meteor Shower.

Full moon, blue moon and supermoon

May 9

Jupiter closest to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun.

June 27

Saturn closest to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun.

July 27

Mars closest to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun.

August 17

Best view of Venus—low in the western sky right after sunset.

September 7

Neptune closest to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun.

October 23

Uranus closest to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun.

November 6

Best view of Mercury—low in the western sky right after sunset

December 13-14

Geminids Meteor Shower—the best of the year.

 

Power to the People

The Energy Star program turns 25.

By Caleb MacLean

As 25th anniversaries go, the milestone celebrated by the EPA and DOE for its Energy Star program in 2017 doesn’t rate particularly high on the thrill meter. The same year the program was launched (1992), Cartoon Network went on the air, the Mall of America opened in Minnesota, John Gotti was sentenced to life in prison, and Vice President Dan Quayle gave his famous Murphy Brown speech. No one cracked out the champagne for any of those events either. And yet, all these years later, we encounter Energy Star stickers almost every time we enter a store (brick and mortar, as well as online) that sells computers, TVs and appliances.

Which got me wondering…what the heck is Energy Star and do I even know what that rating means? 

Like 88 percent of Americans, I am aware of the Energy Star “brand” and can bluff my way through a fairly good explanation of why it’s important. But just for the record, the Energy Star program was created by our federal government—jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy—during the Bush I administration. Initially, it was aimed at the power-sucking computer industry, as more and more Americans were purchasing desktops in their homes. The Internet was barely a thing back then; one wonders whether the Energy Star architects saw it coming. 

The chief architect, in case you were wondering, was John Hoffman, one of the first federal officials to seriously study climate change. In the 1980s, he convinced Ronald Reagan to back an international effort to protect the ozone layer. Hoffman then moved on to conceiving Energy Star, which was his clever way of reducing power plant emissions that produce greenhouse gases, without actually going after the power plants. Hoffman got the idea while looking around his Washington office at all the humming CPUs and monitors, and wondering if there was some way for manufacturers to create a “sleep” or “low-energy” mode. The program, which was voluntary, soon spread beyond computing to other appliances, and was implemented during the Clinton administration by Brian Johnson and Cathy Zoi, who guided the president’s energy policy

Today, the Energy Star program saves tens of billions of dollars a year in energy, and has been adopted by the European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan and several other first-world countries. To earn an Energy Star designation, a product must demonstrate that it uses at least 20 percent less energy than required by standards set by the EPA or DOE. That number depends on the product. A dishwasher must prove a 41 percent savings. Fluorescent lights must use 75 percent less energy and last 10 times longer than a standard-issue light bulb. TV’s have to come in at 30 percent. Newly constructed homes can also qualify for an Energy Star rating; they must use 15% less energy than homes built in 2003. In all, more than 50,000 different products are now part of the program. About half of American households purchase at least one Energy Star–rated product a year.

Of course, there were some bumps and bruises along the way. Many companies found loopholes enabling them to qualify inefficient products for the Energy Star program. Between 2006 and 2011, critics pointed out other major flaws, including the fact that some companies were allowed to test their own products, and then submit the results. You can imagine how that worked out. In 2011, the EPA slammed the lid on this type of fraud by demanding that all products sold in the U.S. be tested and certified by an EPA-recognized third-party laboratory. Part of the EPA budget cuts proposed by the Trump Administration in 2017 would reportedly eliminate this safeguard, so stay tuned.

Another criticism leveled at the program is that, for certain appliances, a sexy Energy Star rating may have a downside. For instance, an energy-efficient fridge may use a smaller compressor, have more insulation and employ a computer to regulate temperature. That either means less room inside or more space taken up outside (because of added insulation), and also that a buyer might have to service or replace a compressor or computer that fails. If that fridge turns out to be too much of a headache, it will end up in a landfill long before its intended lifespan, where it could damage the environment. 

For now, at least, those bright yellow tags do mean something. That’s important to understand because, generally speaking, the better the performance, the more expensive the purchase price will be. The idea is that, over time, the products with the highest ratings will actually be “cheaper” thanks to lower energy costs. 

The first thing to look for when shopping is the Energy Star logo, which is usually located in a corner of the label. Next, under the words Energy Guide (where the bottom of the Y is an arrow), you’ll find a dollar amount. That represents a rough estimate of what the appliance will cost to run over a year. Under the dollar amount is a number that represents the kilowatt hours of electricity the appliance is likely to consume. Both numbers are handy for doing side-by-side comparisons. If you have an electric bill handy, you can actually multiply the cost per KwH listed on your statement by this number and see if it will cost more or less to run in your area.

www.istockphoto.com

The administrators of the Energy Star program will be the first to admit that its numbers are only a guideline. Also, they are far more impactful in some categories than in others. And as technology changes so do the program’s standards. The numbers of the past quarter-century, however, definitely speak for themselves. Buying and building within the Energy Star spectrum has saved the world a half-trillion dollars in energy costs…and helped us all breathe a bit easier. 

Editor’s Note: Many Energy Star appliances pay off with tax credits, too. Typically these credits can be applied to your state tax bill, not your federal return. To better understand how rebates work, visit energystar.gov and type in your zip code.

 

Lessons From a Happy Homeowner

One man’s journey to self-realization and home construction.

By Michael Jacobsen

How hard could it be? You watch a few YouTube videos, make a couple of trips to Home Depot and get to work. In a few weeks, you proudly show off your Do It Yourself (DIY) project—maybe a finished basement or a paver patio–to friends and family, who marvel at your resemblance to Bob Vila, or at least to Tim the Tool Man.   

Reality, alas—as I look back on my “DIY or die” project (as it came to be known around our household)—is so much different. At least I lived to tell about it, although my marriage very nearly did not survive. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I have to tell the painting story, because it sets the tone for the entire project.

www.istockphoto.com

You see, it was near the end of DIY or DIE that my newlywed wife and I were ready to put the finishing touches on a basement renovation. She hadn’t been too involved in the project other than some color and design advice. But painting was right up her alley…until the paint job found me happily slapping on the Mojave Sand and it all went wrong. As I bent down to reload my roller I caught my wife painting directly over where I had just finished

“You leave too many streaks,” she explained. 

At which point DIY became YDI—you do it—and I left to take a nap. But back to the beginning.

DIY vs. DIFM

There actually is a term for having others handle the job: DIFM, which stands for Do It For Me. In the real world it can complement the real Do It Yourselfer. The trick is knowing where one stops and the need for help from others begins.

DIYers fall into two camps. Many do it just to save money, hating to pay the premium that skilled laborers charge. Often the cost of labor doubles the cost of the entire project. And then there are those who, like me, relish the challenge of doing it myself—regardless of whether it actually saves money or even looks very good at the end. The pleasure and pride of looking around and realizing that my hands touched every piece of a project is what drives many of us. Sometimes in the right direction, sometimes off a cliff.

Every list of pros and cons of DIY versus DIFM starts with the price equation, then moves onto the skill level and, finally, adds in equal doses of available time and quality of the finished job. 

“When it comes to price, DIY has the professional beat hands down, but there is more to the story than that,” points out a blog post on the Rhode Island-based Hebert Design/Build website. “Before you consider taking on a home improvement project, take a good, hard look at your skills and experience.”

Another point to consider: If a home improvement project is not done correctly, who will you call to fix it? If you hired a professional, he should stand behind his work. If you did the work yourself, you may still end up calling the same guy to fix the job. Last but not least, according to the pros at the aforementioned Hebert Design/Build, a DIY home improvement project can have a fantastic outcome, but there is likely to be some “significant stress” along the way. Oh, if only I had read that before I started out with my modest basement refinishing. In reality, “significant” turned into “overwhelming.”

Knowing Your Limits

I write magazine articles for a living, so what do I know about DIY home renovation projects? Turns out, enough to get myself in trouble, but also enough to get myself out of it. 

Let’s set the scene: A growing family in a typical suburban New Jersey 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch with a nice backyard and an unfinished basement. Big enough for now, too small for the next decade. What to do, short of moving to a larger home with a larger mortgage? Wait. Did someone say unfinished basement?The space—all gray cinderblock walls, exposed beams and cement floor—is ripe for an aspiring DIYer such as myself with more time than money, more energy than brains and certainly more enthusiasm than expertise. Whatever. Let’s head to Home Depot.

Those guys are great. Many of them are ex-contractors felled by a soft New Jersey housing market, looking to make ends meet while sharing what they know with people like me. Want to know how many 2x4s you’re going to need? What type of ceiling to put in? How many linear feet of this and that? They actually know! And they are kind enough not to snicker right to my face as I ask stupid questions. Also, before hammering my first nail, I spent an afternoon with my good buddy Mikey G., perhaps the most ambitious DIYer I know. Now semi-retired, he was busy gutting and redoing his entire house, for God’s sake, so he must be some sort of expert at everything.

Turns out, he was an expert at finding experts. His mantra: Know when you are getting in over your head. 

“When you are not sure about the outcome of what you are about to do next, when you are not sure if it is the red or black wire you should be touching, then it is time to call an electrician,” he says.

Mikey G. is fond of YouTube videos. There are instructional videos for everything and he makes sure he watches a few—whether it is for pouring concrete or hanging a ceiling light—before he is comfortable enough to dive in. If he never gets to that comfort level, he turns to a pro: “Electrical work and plumbing are not rocket science, but one mistake can be very hurtful, either to yourself or to your wallet.”

His solution is a combination of DIY and DIFM. 

“I had to know what I could handle and when I see an opportunity to do it myself I do it,” Mikey G. says, pointing out that the contractors he is working with are more than willing to take a few bucks off the invoice if he handles some of the labor. That was to become my blueprint, especially after consulting with Big Joe, who I was told was the best handyman in northern New Jersey. Having learned the trade from his father (whose father before him taught him), surely this Joe of all Trades would have some sage advice.

“Yea, don’t be an idiot and try it yourself,” was his immediate response. “I wouldn’t try to write one of your boring articles, why you gonna try to do my job?”

Smart, insightful guy for a builder. But apparently he and his ilk get quite a kick out of DIY fails. In fact, they have a word for them: Happy Homeowners. As in “I had to go in and fix a Happy Homeowner job. Charged them a little extra.” Therein lies one of the pitfalls of trying (and failing) to do it yourself. If you come up short, you have to call guys like Big Joe and his friends, who will fix it for you, but at a price that may be more than it would have been had you called him first.

“Homeowners have to know what they can do and then stop there,” he says. It’s worth pointing out that Big Joe knows his limitations: “I never touch electric or plumbing because I know I don’t know how to do it. That way I know that when I flush the toilet the lights won’t shut off.” His advice: Let the pros do it. They have the knowledge and expertise and, just as importantly, the right tools. And when they see you are in trouble and can’t do it yourself, dollar signs start flashing in their eyes.

“I can’t tell you the number of times a Happy Homeowner gets halfway done and then I get a phone call to finish the job,” he says. More often than not he has to start from scratch because the initial work just doesn’t work. His favorite story? A Happy Homeowner tried to sheetrock and spackle a room but did such a bad job that before calling for the cavalry, he tore the whole thing down instead of admitting he screwed up. That one cost him a lot.

Identifying My Limits

At the end of the workday, I can honestly say I accomplished a lot of the basic stuff myself: nailing 2x4s to the frame, figuring out a grid for the drop ceiling, even pouring some concrete in one corner to level the floor. My rule of thumb turned out to be DIY on things you can’t see and leave the visible stuff to the pros.

So my experience came down to three pieces of advice about three things you don’t want to do yourself:

  1. Electrical. One of the first books I purchased had a title something like How To Do Electrical Work and Live To Tell About It. Sort of a precursor to Electricity for Dummies. Well, turns out I’m no dummy, and I really don’t know my red wire from my black, so the first expert I called was a local electrician. Well worth any extra cost and I lived to write about it.
  2. Plumbing. Speaking of not cheap, the one item that floated my budget down the river was plumbing work. Not much more than moving some pipes and routing the heating baseboards. The last thing I wanted was a flood of Biblical proportions ruining all of my hard work because I didn’t solder something completely.
  3. Finish Work. You can’t cover everything with a coat of paint, so it is a good idea to have someone detail-oriented to handle things like spackling, trim, mitering the molding and hanging the doors. Nothing ruins a nice project like a crooked door that won’t close.

In the end, it turns out my two best tools were my hammer (I got pretty good at pounding away at things) and my cell phone. 

It’s amazing how many contractors are out there looking for work.

5 REASONS I’D DIY AGAIN

Price • You know the saying Will work for food? That’s me, plus maybe a cold beer. Either way, as long as I didn’t screw up too badly, there’s no doubt I saved plenty by not paying the mark-up of a skilled contractor.

Challenge • I’ve always liked to tackle new things. As long as they don’t tackle me back, it’s all good.

No Complaints • My father always had a saying when we were working on

something together: “Suits me and I’m fussy.” It was tongue-in-cheek and usually went along with “That’s good enough for government work.” Translation: Hey, it’s done and no one is complaining, so on to the next thing.

Satisfaction • There’s nothing like sitting back with a cool beverage and looking around at work that I did. Myself.

New Skills • This stuff isn’t rocket science and anyone with a little intelligence and drive can learn the basics. Home improvement can also be personal improvement.

5 REASONS FOR DIFM

Stress • Did I tighten that pipe enough? Did I use the right nails? Did I get enough materials? Worry can take years off of your life and add weeks to a project.

Quality • Be honest. Are you really going to be able to produce work to a standard of quality that matches a professional? 

Danger • Unless you really, really know electricity, don’t try to wire anything. Same goes for plumbing. And maybe climbing on a roof.

Warranty • If you screw up, who you gonna call to fix it? But if a contractor did the work in the first place and something is wrong, you (hopefully) have someone to make it right.

Time • Lots of us have better things to do, like real jobs, spouses, kids, sleep. Do you really want to spend your free time hanging sheetrock?

TALES FROM THE FRONT LINES

It didn’t take many conversations with contractors to come up with some of their favorite Happy Homeowner stories. Here are three of them.

Jumping the Gun 

After spending three days framing and sheet-rocking a room and after finishing with two coats of spackle on Friday, this contractor planned to come back on Monday to finish the job with a third and final coat to perfect the job, as is SOP. But when he showed up on the job Monday at 8 a.m., he found the homeowner had already painted the room. “I guess it looked good enough to him and he thought it was finished.”

Door No. 1 

One DIYer neglected to ask his Home Depot guy what the standard size of a door was. So he framed in a closet for his washer and dryer and figured, hmmmm, a door this random size was would look nice. So he slapped a few 2-by-4s up into an opening that looked about the right size. Trouble was, when the contractor came to hang the door the opening bore no relationship to reality. It took him a half-day to resize the opening and then hang the door. Obviously, there was no cost savings there.

Not My Fault

Thinking he would help out a cousin, a contractor agreed to do some finish work on the walls and leave the rest to his Happy Homeowner relative. He didn’t see the outcome until about two years later, when he stopped by for a visit and his cousin pointed out how bad everything looked and blamed it on his finish work. But, our pro pointed out, it was actually the terrible paint job done by his 80-year-old father that left the job looking amateurish — all streaks and drops and missed spots. Turns out his cousin had been blaming him for a bad job for two years. Who says every good deed doesn’t go unpunished?

Editor’s Note: Mike Jacobsen is a frequent contributor to consumer and trade magazines and an aspiring DIYer. That means his words are mostly spelled correctly, but his house has a lot of unusual angles, mismatched tiles and paint drops on the floor.  

I Now Pronounce You Roomba & Wife

What happened to the domestic robot revolution?

By Mark Stewart 

A decade ago, Bill Gates made a bold prediction to readers of Scientific American. The visionary billionaire heralded the coming of a revolution in domestic robotics, writing that they could have “just as profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and entertain ourselves” as the PC. Some time in the relatively near future, he believed, the typical American household would feature robots that clean the home, prepare food, do the laundry, dispense medicine, mow the lawn, provide security and drive the family car.     

Fast-forward to 2017. The future of robotic “home helpers” is moving at a Roomba-like pace.  

iRobot

Ah, Roomba. Admit it, back when the autonomous vacuum cleaner debuted in the early 2000s, you envisioned a not-too-distant future populated by droids that relieved your family of the dreaded Three D’s: dull, dirty and dangerous. You know, the stuff you’re already willing to pay someone else to do. Americans did buy something like 10 million Roombas and, over the years, new models became smarter and more reliable. But honestly, is this where we thought we’d be at this point?  

The main obstacle to the long-promised domestic robot revolution has been money. The developers who should be creating game-changing household helpers have been focusing their talents on industrial and military applications. Why? Because that’s who’s paying good money for the technology. These are customers that have calculated a return on investment and given robot manufacturers lucrative contracts that guarantee a high degree of economic certainty. 

20th Century Fox

How much would you pay to have a gleaming, capable, intelligent, articulate C3PO shuffle into your life? What would your neighbor pay? What would your mom or dad pay? This is the problem; no one can really answer these questions yet. Right now, the job of creating a truly functional I Robot-style household helper is too big, too complicated and too expensive. Churning these units out in sufficient numbers to make them affordable would seem unfeasible for decades to come. For that to happen, robots would have to get a lot more effective when it comes to relating to humans, and someone would have to make a huge investment to accelerate this process.

ENTER ELON

Neither point, it turns out, is a deal-killer. Futurists and technology experts agree that performing mundane household chores happens to be a great proving ground for the next generation of robots, not just domestic ones. For example, an ironing robot recently developed at

Columbia University had to overcome two obstacles: understand how much pressure to apply to a garment and recognize wrinkles. Both tasks relied on extremely advanced scanning and sensing technologies—the kind that would absolutely have to be a part of any household robot. These technologies, in turn, would be needed in the development of robots that would one day replace highly skilled, highly paid workers who do exhausting or dangerous jobs. So the incentive is there to chase after the domestic market as a sort of stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Steve Jevetson

These types of advances ultimately rely on the great leaps in artificial intelligence (AI). For visionaries like Elon Musk (above), those leaps can’t come soon enough. The man behind Tesla, SpaceX and other high-profile ventures is now devoting his considerable resources to accelerating artificial intelligence in ways that will push the robot revolution forward. He is one of several tech giants bankrolling a non-profit company called OpenAI (openai.com), which has established the near-term goal of making a domestic robot. 

According to the company’s web site, OpenAI is “working to enable a physical robot (off-the-shelf; not manufactured by OpenAI) to perform basic housework. There are existing techniques for specific tasks, but we believe that learning algorithms can eventually be made reliable enough to create a general-purpose robot. More generally, robotics is a good test bed for many challenges in AI.” Musk sees robots as instruments of positive change that will benefit humanity rather than harm it. This, he believes, can be accomplished by freely collaborating with other institutions and developers, and making its patents and its research open to the public

So, you ask, when will my Roomba masseuse be ready to lay its robotic hands on me?

Not so fast. Giving robots the level of AI required to administer a deep-tissue massage is not something we should do without considering the possible consequences. Stephen Hawking, for one, believes that bestowing the ability to learn on machines will lead to the ability to re-design themselves. That ability, he maintains, poses an existential threat to humanity, because this will happen at an ever-increasing rate until robots decide that humans are an unnecessary annoyance. Imagine a worldwide web of domestic robots that suddenly decide we’re not worth keeping alive anymore. Musk and his co-investors happen to share this apocalyptic vision of robots gone wrong. They believe that the openness of OpenAI is the best safeguard at this point

ON THE MARKET

What’s out there now? The fact is, a typical household could conceivably own a half-dozen or more robots right now. The Roomba is one of a number of devices that do things as well (or almost as well) as an unskilled human. In this EDGE issue, in fact, we feature two in our gift pages: a robot gutter cleaner and a robot kitty litter cleaner. The advantages of the litter cleaner should be obvious to anyone with a cat. It senses when a feline is finished and scoops its waste into a drawer in the base with a carbon filter to cut down on the odor. It’s a robot in a very basic sense, in that it relieves humans of sifting and scooping. The gutter cleaner is a more specialized item that still requires its owner to climb a ladder in order to turn it loose. It then buzzes along, dislodging and ejecting leaves and debris. Anyone who owns these items almost instantly realizes what the truly ”robotic” versions might one day do: deposit the cat waste

RoboMow

in the garbage, and levitate in and out of gutters without the use of a ladder. The AI involved in these advances is formidable, to say the least.

Right now the household robots that enjoy the most success tend to be outside-the-home devices, such as robotic pool cleaners and lawn mowers. Pool-cleaning robots work like relentless miniature tanks, crawling along the pool bottom and sides, power-washing and suctioning. Solar-powered robotic pool skimmers have also become popular. The same companies that produced “automatic” pool cleaners have all added AI to their units, jumping on the robotic bandwagon. 

Several companies now make robotic lawnmowers. They operate cordlessly, much as a Roomba would. Most models run automatically, on a schedule the owner determines. There is an advantage here because two or three “touch-ups” instead of a big cut allows the trimmings to work their way back into the soil instead of turning brown under the sun. The mowers require an invisible dog fence-like wire to be installed around the perimeter of your property, but after that it’s pretty much a set-it/forget-it operation. If they miss a few spots (which they almost invariably do) a few whacks with a string trimmer and you’re done. A good robo-mower will run you upwards of $1,000 and possibly upwards of $2,000. That’s the one-season cost for a good lawn service, so these machines do pay for themselves.

INSIDE JOB

For most people, the first foray into household robotics tends to be an exterior product—a pool cleaner or lawnmower, for example. Is it because we want robots to “prove themselves” on the other side of a thick wall before we invite them into our homes? Certainly, the issue of human trust is a key component of the domestic robot revolution, and at the moment we don’t really trust them enough to invite them into a more intimate relationship. That may change soon, because AI is all around us—monitoring our likes and dislikes, anticipating our interests and desires, and creating a comfort level that will serve as a gateway to human-robot partnerships inside our kitchens, bathrooms, and wherever else we want to save time and avoid drudgery.

What are the folks behind the domestic robot revolution doing to get us to that point?

First and foremost, they are focused on interaction. Domestic robots need an interface that is both engaging and comfortable. Some important groundwork has been laid by Apple with Siri and Amazon with Echo, its intelligent personal assistant. As much as humans like to think that we are “teaching” these technologies to work with us, we really are the ones being taught. The other piece of the interaction puzzle is the development of AI with which we don’t have to interact. The more household devices learn about who we are, what we’d like them to do—and how and when we’d like them to do it—the better. No one enjoys having to remind a spouse or housemate to do something over and over again. We’ll be even less enthusiastic if we have to tell a machine the same thing more than once or twice. We’ll want our domestic robots to be subservient and respectful of our precious time.

In terms of a domestic robot’s appearance, the jury seems to be out. Do we want to share our living space with a humanoid machine? Those who say yes are probably looking for an element of companionship in a robot. Which is absolutely okay. Those who say no recognize that a domestic robot in a human package would likely encounter a number of physical obstacles and be a lot more expensive that something more utilitarian. One that looks more like an “appliance” and less like a person will be just fine. I believe that household robots are more likely to take the form of beloved droids in popular culture—maybe Rosie

www.istockphoto.com

on The Jetsons or R2D2 from Star Wars or Sonny in the aforementioned I Robot

If and when we do develop the technology to give our robots human bodies—both inside and out—it strikes me that they would quickly become a lot more than mere domestic workers. Think about it. They would look and sound like humans. They would be smarter, kinder and more intuitive than people, too. If they cook, clean, shop, drive and do home repairs well, doesn’t that make them domestic partners? If my wife found someone who could do and be all those things, she’d leave me at the nearest jughandle. I pity the fellows who’ll have to compete with robot suitors a couple of generations from now.

There is a final consideration where humanoid domestic robots are concerned. 

Should we actually get to the point where our robotic helpers do look and function like Sonny, why would we keep them cooped up in the house? We’d want to show them off, right? In fact, assuming they were intelligent enough and mobile enough, wouldn’t we expect them to function as our surrogates, doing all the boring stuff we don’t want to do? Perhaps even our jobs? 

You can see why futurists believe there is a slippery slope to fully autonomous androids. At some point, household robots would just find us to be a nuisance. And instead of us hitting the power-down button on them, they might be pulling the plug on us

US Deparment of Defense

UNTETHERED

Not surprisingly, the good people at the U.S. Department of Defense are keeping an eye on the domestic robot revolution. As a matter of fact, they have also gotten in on the fun. In 2015, the Defense Department held a Robot Challenge with a $2 million first prize. Twenty-three companies entered the competition, which required an “untethered” robot to complete eight tasks that mimicked activities of the first responders to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A Korean robot won. It was one of only two to complete all eight tasks, including walking across rubble, climbing steps, opening a door and driving a car. 

 

Notes From the Deep End

How to get your dream pool…without getting in over your head.

By Caleb MacLean 

March is swimming pool season. As winter recedes, our thoughts turn to summer fun. This is when New Jersey pool-builders get busy, pressured to complete their projects by Memorial Day. Or sooner. If you’re just now getting ready to pull the trigger on a pool project, might I make a suggestion: Rather than rushing into things, consider taking the summer to educate yourself. Ask friends and co-workers what they would change about their pool, and what they wouldn’t. Find out what they might do differently if they could have a do-over.   

In the world of backyard swimming pools, you don’t want to learn from your mistakes. Better to learn from someone else’s.  

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Before meeting with a salesperson or a construction outfit, there are some basic decisions to be made. First and foremost, a family must be clear on how a pool will be used, and by whom. Is it primarily for kids to splash around in? Is it for exercise or, down the road, might it need to fulfill a hydrotherapy function? Do you envision the pool area as an entertainment space? Is it part of an overall landscaping makeover? The more succinct your vision is, the better your chances of getting the pool you want/need instead of the pool someone is trying to sell you.

Many people find it helpful to think about the poolside experiences they’ve had at the homes of family, friends and neighbors. What worked and what didn’t?  What things might work for you and what might not? Rank those pools in your head and do a deep dive into pool number one: How close is it to the one you envision in your own back yard? Remember not to develop “pool envy.” That’s a real thing. Just because you had a blast at someone else’s house, doesn’t mean that their excellent water slide and multimedia tiki bar are a good fit for your circumstances. Or budget.

THE B WORD

Ah, yes. Budget. Once you have a sense of what you want in a pool, you can then ask yourself the big question: How much can we afford to devote to the project? This number must take into account every expense, down to furniture and accessories, as well as seasonal upkeep and general maintenance. 

For most people at this point a reality check is required. Because your pool budget has to cover the actual cost of the finished project, you’ll need to know what the finished cost will be. There are two numbers to calculate: the cost of a fully realized recreational and entertainment “oasis” and the cost of a nice backyard pool. 

Why price out both? Because you are likely to end up somewhere in between. No one gets absolutely everything they want in life; the same is true of pools.

The good news is that, to a certain extent, a major pool project can be accomplished in stages. If your ultimate aim is to surround your pool with a gourmet kitchen, sports bar, deluxe pool house and cutting-edge outdoor AV array, it will be more cost-effective to run the utilities out to the site while the ground is open than to do so after the fact. You can add those neat things down the line. Needless to say, the high and low numbers you end up with will have a significant spread. While a basic pool installation may run you $25,000 (that figure comes courtesy of Angie’s List), your future wish-list pool could come in at 10 times that number, or more.  

So what is a really nice pool going to cost you? The principal contributing factors are likely to be its size and shape, systems, materials and finishes, and those must-have extras. 

POOL SIZE

Ha-ha. Yes, it does matter. If anyone in your family is intent on swimming laps, you’ll want something in the 35- to 40-foot range. Otherwise, a 24-foot pool should be adequate for a typical family. Most pool builders like dealing with rectangular configurations in “off-the-rack” dimensions of 10’ x 20’ or 15’ x 30’ or 20’ x 40’ with an average depth between five and six feet, and a deep end around eight feet. A good builder can execute any size, shape and depth, of course. A big pool is tempting, but a small pool has two major advantages: It costs less to maintain and leaves more room at poolside (and also in your yard) to do other things. 

MATERIALS

For in-ground pools, there are three basic choices when it comes to liners: concrete, fiberglass or vinyl. A concrete (aka Gunite) pool can be any size or shape or depth you can imagine. If you can draw it on a piece of paper, a builder can make it happen. It takes longer to install than vinyl or fiberglass and will probably have to be totally renovated in 15 years or so. Concrete pools also require more chemicals to maintain and should be cleaned more often, so your pool service bill will be higher.

Pools using vinyl liners cost less to construct and are good for kids because there are no abrasive surfaces. Vinyl is also less likely to harbor algae growth. The downside of vinyl is water loss. A small puncture can drive you crazy and cost a lot to repair. Also, liners rarely last more than 10 years before you need to think about replacing them. However, the replacement cost is about a third of redoing a concrete pool.

Fiberglass pools are pre-fabricated (kind of like giant bath tubs), trucked to your site and can be fully installed within three weeks. Their initial cost is about the same as concrete. In terms of having to be resurfaced, that’s not something you’ll ever have to worry about—you’ll be long dead before the liner wears out. There is a savings on chemicals, and also on accessories such as steps and ladders, because they are incorporated into the design. The issues that many people have with fiberglass pools include the meager selection of sizes and shapes, and the fact that they cannot be more than 16 feet wide, because of trucking limitations.

The construction cost of an average concrete pool is slightly north of $100 a square foot. It’s about the same for fiberglass. So for a nice 15’ x 30’ pool, you’re looking at$40,000 to $50,000. That includes a high-quality pump and heater, nice-looking tiles and other finishes, some basic lighting, a few feet of perimeter surfacing, safety fencing and a motorized cover. The same size pool with a vinyl liner might run 20% less. 

BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE!

A kidney-shaped pool that fits the same footprint runs a bit higher. More customized shapes will nudge the per-foot cost ever upward. If you’re planning something really unique, it might be wise to consult with an engineer—likewise if your pool or decking requires a retaining wall. Incidentally, here’s a good rule of thumb in that regard: If a pool builder says you “might” need a retaining wall or if you yourself think you might need one…you will need a retaining wall. Also, unless you’ve got a strong back and a green thumb, you’ll easily get into four figures on landscaping and plantings. And you’ll probably want some cool lighting to highlight the landscaping, in addition to lights for nighttime safety.

Another cost that catches prospective pool owners by surprise is the surface around the pool. Most quotes include three or four feet of concrete and that’s it. If you need more than that, or if you desire special materials or finishes, such as slate or fancy tiles, you’ll be paying through the nose (and by the square foot). Other “hidden” costs in pool construction include removal of the dirt, as well as driveway repairs. Demand that dirt and debris removal be included in the price quoted and in the contract. In terms of your driveway, the heavy equipment required to dig a pool will almost certainly mess it up. That cost is on you

Finally, there is the question of including a spa or jacuzzi or hot tub in your pool plans. Building one after the fact can run $8,000 to $10,000. If you fold it into your original design, it can share the same plumbing and heating, which translates to a huge savings. Still, expect to add an additional $5,000 for a first-rate spa.

DEEP DIVE

Anyone with a pool will tell you that one of the first questions posed to them when negotiating a new homeowners insurance policy is Do you have a diving board? That is because diving boards are inherently dangerous. A pool with a diving board needs to be significantly wider than a pool without; many towns actually have ordinances that dictate minimum sizes now. The reason should be obvious: Anytime you or a guest goes airborne, swimmers within 10 feet are potential insurance claims. Children do stupid things on diving boards, yes, but it’s the grown-up reliving a childhood moment who is the real idiot. At three or four times the body mass of a child, an adult becomes a deadly projectile—especially if there’s a kid on the receiving end of a flip or belly-flop. Depending on your carrier and policy, expect a diving board to increase the liability portion of your insurance by at least 50 percent

If, after weighing the pros and cons of a diving board, you decide it’s right for you, then there are two basic types to consider. Jump boards offer varying degrees of flexibility and spring action, while dive boards are fixed and relatively stiff. Some people get them mixed up because their names kind of describe each other. Jump boards are what we used to call “springboards”—the ones that literally had visible springs coiled at the base. Today’s jump board assemblies look more like the curved leaf springs you see under a truck.

Other details you should be aware of before purchasing a board include durability, weather sensitivity and weight capacity. If you know 350-pound Uncle Willie or Aunt Wilma will be demonstrating their famous jack-knife dive, make sure the board you buy can accommodate them. There are also industry standards about the ratio between the length and height of a diving board and the depth of the pool. As a rule of thumb, figure at least an eight-foot depth below the point of entry for a typical dive. 

THREE MORE THINGS TO THINK ABOUT 

As with any addition to your property, there is a question of aesthetics involved. Everyone wants a nice-looking pool, but do you want it to be an extension of your home’s architecture or existing outdoor elements? If you live in a funky old Victorian house, you may have trouble finding someone to build a funky old Victorian pool. However, it’s not impossible. Every architectural style has a pool design to match, or at least to complement it. On the other hand, you may want your pool area to offer a completely different environment from your home—especially if you own a large property. In this case, consider the creation of a transitional area between the house and pool. That will add some design and landscaping costs to your budget, but it will be worth the extra expense.

Most towns in New Jersey have a specific set of ordinances covering pool installation and operation. Make sure you know what they are, because there is no guarantee your pool builder will. In some cases, zoning and building laws may determine the size and location of your pool. For instance, where rainwater drainage is a concern, many municipalities want to know what percentage of your yard will no longer be grass, and how a new pool might change runoff patterns. Also, some towns require notification of neighbors prior to construction, so there may be some surprises there. Another surprise may be a bump in your property tax assessment.

What if you want that dream pool now but haven’t tucked away nearly enough cash to complete it? There is always the financing option. Many pool builders can arrange this for you through a third-party lender. These loans are typically short-term (three years or less) at a reasonable interest rate (usually in the neighborhood of 5%). If your credit and income check out, pool loans can be unsecured so as not to tie up equity in your home, as a traditional second mortgage or home equity line of credit might. Some people do take loans out against their homes to finance a pool project (as there may be some tax advantages). 

One last word…be aware that a swimming pool is not an investment. You can’t count on recouping this cost. It is purely for your family’s enjoyment. Keep that in mind and you will get the pool you want and keep your head above water.  

WHAT LIES BENEATH

Not every property is suitable for every type of pool. Some of the conditions that can add significantly to the expense of an in-ground pool are loose, sandy soil or soil that contains numerous large rocks and boulders. Also, depending on where you live, it may be worth checking how the land was used before a house was constructed on it. Someone is living on top of the 1890 town dump, right? Is it you? A surprise like that could add $10,000 or more (a lot more, actually) to the price tag of pool construction. Professional soil testing is a smart first step.

Editor’s Note: Caleb MacLean “inherited” a previous owner’s swimming pool when he bought his current home. It was not kid friendly (nor adult friendly, for that matter) and when it came time to re-line it, he chose to make it into the biggest goldfish pond in the county instead.