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.

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 😉

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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. If I were to bill for something similar the total cost would be around $1300. Sage was very instrumental in the design, 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.

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