Author Archives: Toby Fernsler

About Toby Fernsler

Mathematician, scientist, algorithm and software engineer, commercial fisherman, handyman, family man. Working on adding sheriff to the list.

Shifting Codes of Conduct

The job of a tradesman and home service provider (HSP) is one that requires a somewhat elevated level of trust; where a client can be comfortable with an unfamiliar person working in their home, around their pets and families, in their most private sanctuaries. To that end I have developed a personal code of conduct, one that I exhibit but haven’t really articulated before. The short version is “Primum Non Nocere”, the long version goes something like this:

  1. Show Up Clean. That’s kind of a sliding scale, since I’ll be wearing work clothes and getting dirty. However it’s important to be washed, shaved, brushed and tucked.
  2. Wear Slippers. Especially on a first visit, I’m always prepared to kick off my shoes. Unlike in my childhood, shoe-free homes have become commonplace.
  3. Greet Everyone. It’s important to know who is in the house, and that they know who I am and what I’ll be doing there. This includes pets, children and visitors. I’ll take a moment to genuinely meet them, and become aware of their nature and needs.
  4. Don’t Pry. All of my work is a private contract agreement. Personal information outside the scope of my work is ignored and forgotten.
  5. Watch the Door. Some dogs and all cats love to sneak out out when a HSP is working. Occasionally one sneaks in. There’s also drafts, insects, dust, and noise to consider. I do my best to minimize such things.
  6. Primum Non Nocere. “First, do no harm”. I look for breakables around the work area, and take necessary precautions. Dropcloths, dustshields, etc. are considered and deployed before any work begins.
  7. Communicate Clearly.Timelines, milestones, budget changes, plan changes, etc. should all be communicated succinctly and frequently.
  8. Leave Clean. The work area should be clean and tidy at the end of every workday, regardless of whether it will be in use by residents. Trash and debris is hauled, floors swept, pictures back on the wall. This is especially true at week’s end.

While staying healthy and protecting the health of one’s clients is always a priority, the advent of corona virus pandemic makes clear the need for an expanded list.

  1. Show Up Healthy. I don’t work when I’m sick, and my clients usually warn me off if they’re not well. However at this time it’s something to be particularly open and aware of.
  2. Wash Your Hands On Arrival. I’m finding some people would like to see it happen, rather than just know my hands were clean when I set out to meet them.
  3. Don’t Offer to Shake Hands. While many of my agreements are done on a handshake, that’s become figurative for the foreseeable future.
  4. Avoid Touching Items in a Client’s House Unnecessarily. This sort of falls under “Don’t Pry”.
  5. Maintain a Respectful Distance. Conduct discussions beyond arm’s reach.
  6. Primum Non Nocere. Assess the work environment and takes steps to protect against infectious diseases prior to beginning work.
  7. Communicate Clearly. Let the clients know what you’re doing to protect their health and that it is a priority.
  8. Leave Clean. Disinfect contacted surfaces that might transmit infectious diseases.

So that’s what I’ve got. If you have further suggestions or comments either as a home service provider or as someone who has employed one please share below.

+Toby Fernsler (,


Probiotic Homes

Probiotic Homes is a new service and information center I am developing here in Boulder Colorado, aimed at assessing and remediating household toxins such as asbestos, mold, volatile organic compounds, electromagnetic radiation, unhealthy lighting, sound, etc. Multiple studies have shown that chronic exposure to environmental toxins can lead to chronic diseases such as insomnia, alzheimers, thyroid disease,  heart disease, multiple schlerosis, inflammation, and many others. Nearly every aspect of North American construction is potentially harmful to one’s health, and alternatives and solutions are readily available. As with exposure to peanuts, some people are more sensitive to these toxins. If you wish to know more please visit Probiotic Homes, which will be updated irregularly with information and offerings for healthy home solutions.

Cold Weather Preperations

Cold Weather Preperations

Hello Boulder,
We’ve got some cold nights coming up, so here’s a friendly reminder to make sure your home is ready for it. A few tips:
• disconnect the garden hoses. leaving them connected is the most common way to break an exterior spigot. I’ll replace a few faucets this Spring, same as every year.
• shut off the sprinker water line, should be next to the main water shutoff.
• if leaving for a long trip, close the main water shutoff.
• radio playing talk radio at low volume will scare off raccoon, bears, thieves, and some rats. I’ve played one Rush Limbaugh show for raccoons, they left and never came back. Traps, animal handlers, etc. are not needed, this works great.

Have a wonderful Winter!
Boulder County, Colorado

P.S. I’m looking to add a couple kitchen/bath remodels to my Winter schedule, please pass my contact on to those interested. Estimates are always free, and my advice is honest.

Bathroom Remodel Done Right

When I build something the first question I ask is not style, or color, or layout, or even what materials to use.

It is, “what is the function, what is its purpose?”.

Bathrooms are a place where shit gets done. Literally. They are a workroom for the body; for cleansing, self-care, private self-reflection. Done right they become a temple to the self; body and soul.

Done wrong they become a constant, unavoidable nuisance; leaky, impractical, unwelcoming. This is what prompts most calls I get about doing a bathroom remodel. There are many ways to do a bathroom wrong, and I’ve seen lots (doesn’t seem to be a limit on creative errors). Bathrooms are the densest room for a builder to work on. Remodels can involve rebuilding walls, floors, plumbing, tile, lighting, windows, electricity, venting and heating. All in the space of a large closet.

Here’s how to do it right:

Color and Style: There are many wonderful, very different styles for a bathroom. Rustic, gothic, modern, victorian, etc. The key is to pick one and be consistent. Bathrooms are small spaces with a lot going on, so clashing styles and colors really stand out.

Structure: The unseen elements of the bathroom are for me the most important. Done right they are never noticed. Moisture is ever-present in bathrooms, and failing to anticipate that leads to mold and costly repairs. Without a firm foundation everything built on top of it is lost and must be redone; tile, paint, fixtures, etc.

Walls should be of cement-board (Hardie) or moisture-resistant drywall. The bathroom should have a ceiling vent even if there is a window. Shower tile should Ideally have a layer of red-guard (rubber paint) between it and the wall as extra moisture control and crack prevention.

Modern american toilets are designed poorly, secured by two bolts on a flange around the drain (older and european have four). The flange commonly has a thin edge of plywood to screw into, which gets repeated moisture exposure. My solution is to build extra braces around the drain beneath the subflooring for extra stability and durability.

Plumbing can be unsightly, and nobody wants a leak. So plumbing is tucked away in walls and cabinets, which can make the problem of leaks much worse. Leaks from hidden plumbing are not noticed until long after they start, and are harder repair. Mold and structural damage are common discoveries when beginning a remodel. I recommend access panels where possible at common points of failure (drains and faucets), which will facilitate diagnosis and repair, as well as vent minor leaks. Plastic PEX plumbing is growing in popularity because it is cheaper and easier to work with than copper. I don’t recommend this in Colorado, where the dry high altitude air gives plastic a short life. In my experience juncture leaks are also more common with PEX, and it can cause electrical grounding problems as many homes are grounded through their copper supply lines.

Lighting makes a world of difference in a bathroom, and there should be at least these three types.
1) Natural Lighting from a window or solar tube makes the bathroom open and inviting, and also helps keep it sterile.
2) Vanity Lighting on either side of the bathroom mirror facilitates grooming by eliminating shadows and providing a bright and nearby light source.
3) Mood Lighting, adjustable light, or even a simple nightlight makes nocturnal visits pleasant and baths luxurious.

Storage: When my realtors are preparing to sell a house they often call me to remove the vanity and install a free-standing sink, which is supposed to help sell the home. After sale the buyer calls me to install a vanity, often the same one, because there’s no space for an extra roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. It’s ridiculous.

Also, those off-the-shelf vanity cabinets that come from Home Depot usually have a particle board base, which can’t handle the inevitable minor under-counter leaks. A higher-end cabinet will be made of wood/high-grade plywood and sealed, making it more durable and easier to clean.

Bottom Line: Do it once, do it right.

I Work With You

Handyman work is something I did as a young man, and came back to in the last few years (my grandmother would still call me a young man..). Back in the day I would work as an assistant to other handymen and occasionally temp with a larger crew, where I observed many approaches to business and construction. It is a business full of unexpected obstacles and delays, which can be maddening to a customer and fatal to a business.

There is a great deal of tension between the need to complete a job, do it well, in a timely fashion and for a reasonable price, while still providing oneself with a reasonable income and safe working environment. I’ve been tweaking the standard handyman model to try and meet those needs, without explaining it much better than what’s on my business card.

This last year has been fairly good to me, and I’m a bit more confident and clear on what I’m doing, so I’ll try and explain some of those practices here.

  • Do it once, do it right. That’s my motto and guiding principle. While I still occassionally fall on my face, having this objective saves both me and my customer from many common troubles. My goal here isn’t to get things perfect, but fix a thing so it stays fixed. I prescribe stitches over bandages, and when I don’t know what to do I don’t do it. This can cause delays, but on the other hand sometimes being on schedule is more right than lasting a couple extra years, so then that’s what I do. It’s a broad principle, and most of this post can be derived from it.
  • Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). It works for doctors and it works for me. Something I am very mindful of when working in people’s homes is to not break anything new. So I clear a sufficient work space, make sure pets are out of the way, pack work slippers, and generally take a little time to identify and prepare for the mess I’ll make.
  • I work. The name of my business is HandymanToby, and that’s who you get. I live in the neighborhood I serve, and do the work I bid on. When I bring in an assistant I’ll inform ahead of time, and I know and trust the people I hire. I’ve seen it go other ways; named businesses where you never meet the owner and can’t speak with the labor, or generically named businesses (Around the Clog LLC) owned and operated by Doug 😉
  • I work with you, by which I mean you hold one end, and I’ll hold the other. It’s not always efficient to work with the homeowner, but I’m always willing to try. Sometimes they’re looking to cut costs, other times get some experience. I’ve worked alongside very competent clients who still appreciated the added help of my strength, experience, and tools. I’m usually solo on a job, but can work well with novices or among a crew of contractors too.
  • free estimates.  This tends to work out well for everyone; the client gets an idea of what should be done and what it will cost without committing, and I get the jobs I want. By serving my immediate neighborhood this takes up very little of my time, and I get most of the bids I make.
  • equitable billing. To be fair to myself I charge time and costs. To be fair to the customer I cap how much time I’ll charge, and charge less if it takes less time. For small jobs it’s a verbal agreement paid when I’m done. For longer jobs I’ll write a bid which estimates the material costs and places an upper limit on labor costs, collect something (about half) up front and deliver an exact bill when I’m done. My various jobs leaves me with a good collection of scraps and parts, which I don’t bill to use. This saves me time and saves the client money. I request cash or checks, but occasionally accept credit through paypal or similar services. Invoices are usually sent by email, along with photos if it’s a rental or the owners are out of town.

Ok, that looks like a right list, but I’ll probably edit later 😉

Quantity vs Quality

fyi, I am running for sheriff of Boulder County this November 4, 2014 as a write-in candidate, under my name “Toby Fernsler”.

Sheriff of Love

Fernsler Family Pumpkin Carving

With the November 4th, 2014 election approaching, my low-key campaign for Boulder County Sheriff continues. As a write-in candidate registered as Toby Fernsler, my name does not appear on the ballot and has been omitted from local news candidate lists. The Boulder Weekly went so far as to say incumbant Joe Pelle is the only candidate running, but did run my letter the next week pointing out that to be a write-in candidate requires registering a year in advance, filing regular timely paperwork, and submitting fingerprints for an FBI background check.

When the final vote is tallied one thing that may not be reflected is the quality of the votes. I have been gladdened by those people who not only went out of their way to discover my name, but then took the time to call me and let me know they wrote it in. As a mathematician practicing…

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A Gentle and Strong Tree Fort

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As a child I built several tree forts, which had the problems most tree forts face:

  • fasteners. Nails and bolts can injure the tree, and their rigid nature causes them to weaken and loosen if the structure moves in relation to the tree. Exposed fasteners present a danger to climbers. Bolted metal cables are stronger and more flexible, but are hard on the tree bark and can easily cut off circulation to the limb they rest on.
  • rigid structure. A wooden platform cannot bend or sway with the tree, and will either be weakened by the tree’s movement and growth, or will weaken the tree.
  • weight. Wooden platforms can create a great deal of weight upon the tree, which makes them difficult to maintain and can damage the tree. Larger structures must rely on additional pillars driven into the ground, and some tree houses are simply elevated structures built around the tree, and not resting upon it at all.
  • handholds. Wooden platforms provide little in the way of hand- or foot-holds, which must be explicitly planned and built in.

I thought for some time on how I might build a tree fort for my daughter, before it finally occurred to me to apply my experiences as a commercial fisherman and build nets between the branches. This provides a structure with a number of advantages:

  • fasteners. I use rolled nylon webbing to attach the net at key locations, making sure not to constrict the limb. Where available I will simply run the net’s lead-line (frame) through a fork. This allows the bark to grow and function, and the connection points to adjust with the tree’s movement and growth.
  • flexible structure. A net platform moves with the tree, and can change its shape or be adjusted easily as the tree grows. There is redundancy in the design of the nets, and the fishing-net design is meant to hold thousands of pounds with no single point of failure.
  • weight. The fort pictured above uses 30-40 pounds of rope and webbing. It is much lighter than a wooden structure, and there is almost no stress on the tree when not in use.
  • handholds. The entire net structure is handholds. It is easy and safe to climb. If at any time one feels unstable they can simply hang into the net and be held lightly.
  • material. I use three-strand twisted nylon. It weathers and handles abrasion better than natural materials, is reasonably soft and doesn’t get scratchy like polypropylene. Knots hold better and it is less expensive than braids or core/sheath rope, it can be spliced easily and it provides a firmer grip than a smooth sheathed line.
  • knots. The lead-line of the net is made with a loop of larger rope with a small eye-splice on one end, the other end is attached there with a double sheet bend. This is secure, easily untied and adjusted, and strong. The net is tied using cow- or clove hitches to the lead-line, and a fisherman’s net-knot (basically a sheet bend) on the interior. All lines are ended with extra material and a larger eye-splice, which the children use in creative ways, and allows for later adjustments to the net.

I built the structure pictured above for Sage Hamilton’s program, which my daughter Tesla attends. It took about $400 in materials and a little over twenty hours of my time. Sage was very instrumental in the design, as was the tree, and I continue to collect feedback from the children.

How To Flood-Proof Your Basement

Table Stack

The First Law of Basements is “Basements Flood”.
The Second Law of Basements is “Basements Flood”.
I think the Third Law says something about spiders.

I learned the trade of home-improvement around Washington D.C., where flooding is much more common. Here in Boulder Colorado I’ve worked in many basements, which pretty much all of them were unprepared for a flood. Pointing this out, I am told that they never had flooding in their basement, and they’re not concerned about it. If the house has any age at all, there are old stains and water-damage which say otherwise. And of course, it’s a basement (see above).

Any basement can be flood-proofed, although that may not be what one thinks it is. Floods will still happen, but with less damage and a quick recovery.

Basement Rule of Thumb: Live like at any time there can be 1/2 inch of water on the basement floor for 24 hours.

BRoT Method: Look around, see what would be ruined, and throw it out. Because it might as well be trash already.

If you can follow that rule of thumb to its logical conclusions, there is no need to read the rest of this post. Also I probably miss some things below, so you should consult the rule of thumb anyway.

There are four aspects to flood-proofing (interior construction, habits, plumbing, and exterior construction), follow them and your next flood will be a minor inconvenience:

  1. Interior Construction. Floors: No painted concrete, wood, carpet or linoleum. They all get ruined by persistent moisture. Use porcelain tile, which is cheaper and easier to maintain than stone tile. You could use stone, which can be prettier, but it’s a freakin’ basement. And it’s gonna flood.
    Walls have more options. Stucco is ideal. Drywall is usually fine, if it is done right. There must be a gap between the drywall and the floor. This prevents the paper-lining of the drywall from wicking moisture off the floor and allows water to drain down the wall and evaporate in the air at the suspended bottom. It is best to use water-resistant drywall, and the woods studs should be treated or better yet aluminum-frame studs. Trim should be real wood not particle board, which is destroyed by moisture. Trim covers the gap, keeps pests out, makes it pretty. Concerning repairs, moldy drywall needs to be replaced, but mold on wood can be sanded off and painted over with Killz or other anti-microbial base paint. I attach trim with counter-sunk deck screws so they won’t rust and the trim can easily be removed and reattached to let the walls dry out. Brad-nails look better, but it’s a freakin’ basement. And it’s gonna flood.
  2. Habits: (furniture, lifestyle and storage) When placing items on the floor of your basement, imagine you are placing them in half an inch of water. Maybe you don’t want to do that. Maybe you want to build shelves, or buy plastic tubs. Perhaps what you’re saving is worth saving right.
    Furniture should be solid wood or metal, and cloth coverings should be well above the floor. Again, no particle board should be present in the basement. Papers and books should not be placed on the floor, put them on a shelf or in plastic totes. Clothing can go on the floor since it can be washed, if you get to it soon enough after flooding. Rugs are a good way to warm up your cold tile floors. If they are expensive spend a couple hundred to have them dry-cleaned after a flood, and if they are cheap spend a couple hundred to replace them.
  3. Plumbing: Municipal water enters the house through pressurized pipes, and is the cause of most minor basement flooding. In Boulder the water pressure runs high, over 100psi to every house I’ve checked, and is subject to pressure spikes (especially over holidays and when you’re on vacation). Consider shutting the water off when on vacation. Most pressurized plumbing components(copper pipes, faucets, toilet fill valve) are designed for about 40-60psi, and will fail at a much higher rate when the pressure is consistently over 80psi. A pressure regulator at the input will take care of that, unless it is old and worn out, in which case it isn’t working and should be repaired or replaced. A pressure regulator will also make your pipes less noisy.
    Sewer lines are not under pressure, are gravity-driven, and require air intake vents (those pipes on your roof) for proper drainage. U-joints exist at every drain to prevent sewer gases from backing into the house (the gas goes out the air-intakes). Most sewage back-ups are caused by blocked drainage lines rather than pressure from the street. Common causes of blockage are roots getting in the ceramic junction between the house line and the street line, cooking oil poured down the drain, children’s activities, tampons, powdered detergent, or all of the above. As in all things, prevention is the best cure. Roots can sometimes be prevented by pouring rootkill (copper sulfate) down the line in the Fall when tree roots are most active. Enzye/microbe solutions will help break down debris in the sewer line. Not flushing debris is also a good way to prevent debris. Draino is useful for killing microbes and melting holes in the pipes.
    The basement floor drain has an anti-siphon (floating plastic ball) which will prevent sewer backups as long as it is clean and in good working order. When is the last time you cleaned your basement floor drain?
    Remodels which added a bathroom to the basement also added new points of sewer back-up which lack an anti-siphon (toilet and shower). A backflow preventer (flap) or manual shutoff can prevent sewer back-ups from the street.
    A sump pump is a great all-purpose last-ditch defense against basement flooding. Most installs I’ve seen drain right outside the house and back in the window. Don’t do that. I would suggest sending the (buried) drain line all the way to the street.
  4. Exterior Construction: (gutters, roofing and landscaping) The purpose of gutters is to direct water away from the house. Without them the water just drips off the roof and surrounds the house in a moat which seeps into the basement. Gutters don’t work if they’re full of debris, but you knew that. When mine are blocked I just go clear them in the rain. There’s probably a safer, more convenient time to do that. If the water makes it to the downspout, it still is at the base of the house and draining into the basement. That water needs to be directed away from the house, which can be done with plastic tubing (can get plugged with gutter leaves), or my favorite solution: gravel-filled ditches. The gravel will prevent roots from filling in the ditch, and a heavy rain will wash out the dirt that settled in.
    The roof requires the least maintenance in this list. Regular roof repairs will greatly postpone the need to replace the whole thing, which is expensive. Boulder County experiences 100F temperatures in the Summer, 100mph winds, and daily thawing and freezing in the Winter. Architectural asphalt shingles are the most popular, durable and cost-effective roofing material used here.
    Landscaping does require some maintenance, as it shifts over time. The ground needs to slope away from the house (especially basement window) and allow water to drain around and past the base of the house. You don’t want water pooling near your house, or soon enough it will be coming in through the foundation.
    One big lesson from the Boulder flood of 2013 was that while primary creeks and runoffs were well-maintained, they were under-utilized because secondary community ditches were blocked. This led to excessive urban flooding. So landscaping concerns may need to be addressed beyond your property line.