When The Bough Breaks…

All of the weather forecasters were clear and unequivocal: We were getting an ice storm, and it wasn’t going to be pretty.

This was, in our view, moderately problematic. Dianne and I had arranged to have a potluck dinner with friends in Toronto. Dishes were being made, wines were being paired, and excitement was brewing. All we had to do was get to Toronto. And all our friends had to do was navigate the City to where we were all assembling. Really, how hard could that be?

The ice storm cometh...

The ice storm cometh…

Based upon the weather forecasts, it might be very hard indeed. We were already at the point where, if we went, we would be taking the train. My car was still downtown after finally getting winter tires installed, so there wouldn’t be a problem travelling home. We just had to get there from here. Of course, trains are relatively straightforward; it would also depend upon whether or not our friends could travel as well. That might be a different challenge.

We left it with an advisory that we were ‘monitoring the situation’ and would make a call in the morning. And so all at Boo Manor went to sleep as winter’s icy tendrils clenched much of Ontario in their frigid clutches.

Waking the next morning, I tried to figure out what was going on. You would think that would be easy in this day of universal internet connectivity, but not so much. For starters, our internet was down; not a good initial sign. And it was Sunday, and the media outlets weren’t jumping on the situation to let everyone know where things stood. It vacillated between ‘might be OK’ and ‘looking pretty tenuous out there’, with no really definitive suggestion of what to do. Finally, with reports coming in of streetcars in Toronto pulled off the roads and downed trees in the city, I figured that discretion was the better part of valour.

An ominous looking break. What damage would be revealed on closer inspection?

An ominous looking break. What damage would be revealed on closer inspection?

I had only just pressed [send] on an email, suggesting that we postpone our dinner, while delighting in how well Boo Manor had weathered the storm, when I heard an almighty ‘whumph’. My initial thought was that a load of snow had slid off the roof with all of the rain. Looking out the kitchen window, however, revealed a much more immediate cause of concern: our giant spruce had lost a massive limb. Apparently it had succumbed to the weight of the ice, and had simply snapped.

That is one massive tree branch. Thousands of pounds and close to 40 feet long.

That is one massive tree branch. Thousands of pounds and close to 40 feet long.

The ‘humph’ was loud enough to wake Dianne. We both were concerned about the house and the tree, so I quickly pulled on jacket and boots to head out and inspect the damage. My first look was not pretty; the limb that fell off was about two feet across at the base, and nearly forty feet long. It had basically fallen in the direction of the kitchen, home to a number of Boo Manor’s essential services.

Incredibly, for what it looks like, nothing was damaged. Falling by design.

Incredibly, for what it looks like, nothing was damaged. Falling by design.

Incredibly, though, the tree—in deciding where to drop its forlorn limb—managed to choose a location that, by mere inches, avoided any real damage. Thousands of pounds of wood plunged to earth, and yet left the kitchen, the dining room porch, the main porch, the driveway, the wellhead and a decorative polar bear surprisingly unscathed.

A bit of snow scraped off the roof, a bent eavestrough, and some inappropriately placed sprigs of spruce.

A bit of snow scraped off the roof, a bent eavestrough, and some inappropriately placed sprigs of spruce.

The branches had struck three roofs on the way down, but each appeared to have only experienced a glancing blow. The eavestrough on one roof was bent, and was twisted on another. Pine boughs stuck out at odd angles from the eaves, and snow was scraped off. But apart from a rebuild of one eavestrough, and the need to inspect the shakes on the roofs that were hit, the rest of the house was untouched. You couldn’t drop that branch any better if you had planned it.

Given that we were no longer going anywhere, there was nothing for it but to settle in for a cozy day in the country. I lit a fire in the hearth, made my second coffee, and settled in for a protracted read. Calls were out to contractors, I had already talked to our landscaper about getting an arborist in, and there was nothing else to be done but let Mother Nature take her course.

I didn't really want to do any washing today, anyway.

I didn’t really want to do any washing today, anyway.

And a fine thing that we did. One friend’s front door is frozen shut, and the chain has come off the garage door opener. Another friend has been without power since approximately 2am, their potluck contribution of fish now of questionable ingestability. More than 250,000 houses in Toronto are currently without power, and some may not be restored until Christmas day.

Boo Manor channelling 'The Shining' a little too closely... "You're not going anywhere."

Boo Manor channelling ‘The Shining’ a little too closely… “You’re not going anywhere.”

In this particular instance, Mother Nature’s hint is not overly subtle: stay home.

Whining About Wine

Boo Manor will have a wine room. This is pretty much a given with any of our houses, of course. In our last house in Edmonton, we went through two different rooms before we were done. We started with a smaller room, built into the north-west corner, that was only controlled by being built into a concrete corner of an underground room in a city in a cold climate. In other words, the temperature varied considerably, which wine doesn’t necessarily like. And our collection grew enough that we eventually started shoving cases in, shutting the door, and pretending that we were organized.

This led us to turning our storage room into our wine room, our wine room into our storage room, and using the storage room as the exhaust point for an actual climate control system. In doing so, we learned a lot about the dynamics of controlling temperature in wine rooms, and how climate control systems work (and don’t work). This subsequently led to us excavating a six-inch duct in our newly poured foundation, and hooking up an exhaust system from the climate control unit to the outside (as all we had done prior to that was turn the ‘storage’ room into a sauna, while cooling the wines not at all).

Building Boo Manor, therefore, we are determined to do it right. This involves finding an appropriate control system to incorporate into a basement that won’t support our previous system, and finding shelving that will work for our new collection. Prior to this, we’ve used Gorm shelving from Ikea, which used to come with shelves that were specifically designed to hold wine bottles. Our previous cellar, which held close to 1,000 bottles, cost all of $400 for the shelving. Now, you need to buy normal Gorm shelves at $5 a pop, and then spend an additional $3.50 on a metal rack that goes on top of the shelf. While this will still get you there from here, it’s starting to drive the costs up considerably.

At the same time, custom-built wine cellars generally scale into the thousands-of-dollars, and I have no interest in going there. I am far less fussed about what my wine cellar looks like than the wine going in it, and if I’m going to spend a few thousand dollars then it’s going to be on wine, not on the shelving. This means that it is necessary to look at some different options, and cost out what makes sense.

I had already selected a vendor for the cooling unit, Rosehill Wine Cellars of Toronto. They had provided the previous cooling unit when we were in Edmonton, and now that we are in Ontario they even count as a local vendor. They also stock any number of other bits of paraphernalia for the wine connoisseur, from wine glasses and decanters (definitely overpriced) to shelving (which ranges from the spectacularly expensive to the surprisingly-not-bad). While talking to them about our plans for a new cooling unit for Boo Manor’s cellar, Dianne noticed that their display racking was configured to hold 700+ bottles in what still constituted a reasonably priced arrangement. And so we think we have found a solution.

The great thing about the shelving in question in that it is infinitely configurable. It is designed to hold normal bottles, small bottles and slightly-larger-than-normal burgundy and champagne bottles (which otherwise defiantly refuse to be stored in any reasonable quantity). Even better, it more efficiently uses space than the Ikea shelving that we have used in the past, meaning that we can get the numbers of bottles we have previously stored into a much smaller space, and (given that our cellar is larger) ultimately have the capacity for a much, much larger number of bottles down the road (which is also no bad thing).

What remains now is to measure and plot, and to figure out a configuration that will work for now and provide expansion possibilities into the future. This also means that Ikea has lost one of its last footholds into our house. After the wine shelving, there is only Billy bookshelves left. And they had better not stop making those. If they do, there will be hell to pay.

Knobs & Tubes & Angst. Oh My.

As mentioned in the post about our house inspection, our lovely new home has a minor infestation of knob and tube wiring. Very minor. Hardly noticeable. Negligible, in fact.

Sadly, however, the words ‘knob and tube’ strike fear into an insurer’s heart faster than almost any other words on the planet, save, perhaps “bayou”, “levee”, “Brownie” and “it’s a little breezy today, don’t you think?”

To put what we are dealing with in context. As we’ve already established, we are buying a very old house. Old enough that Canada wasn’t even a country in short pants when it was built. And old enough that electricity was yet a twinkle in Thomas Edison’s eye (or whatever other bodypart first got the twinkle and buzz). So wiring wasn’t something that was ever even considered.

Around the turn of the century, however, it was fashionable to install this new-fangled electric-light-thingy that everyone was going on about. And so plaster was fussed with, wires were run, switches were installed, and people got very stern warnings about what to plug into where. (Even a few decades on, for example, guests of the Empress Hotel in Victoria were encouraged to let the building electrician plug in their hairdryer for them. Honest).

The wiring that was installed was called ‘knob and tube’. Mostly because the wires (copper insulated wires, I might add) were periodically wrapped around ceramic knobs when strung for long distances, and when they had to pass through a beam a ceramic tube was first inserted in the hole and the wire then passed through it. A few other odd conventions were occasionally employed, like fusing the hot and the ground wires, which meant that a blown fuse didn’t mean there wasn’t power to the circuit. But these were early days, and people were still experimenting. As people will do. So we shall forgive them their youthful transgressions.

Of course, back when this wiring was originally installed, people didn’t normally have computers, multiple cell phones, bread makers, fridges and hairdryers all vying for the juice. People eased into their addiction to all things electrical with just a few lights at first. But then, of course, they upped their demands. In time, more and more things with plugs entered the house. And eventually people discovered that if you plug too many things into one circuit then bad things can happen. And so we evolved to our current state of 200 amp panels, plugs every six feet and a well-populated double row of circuit breakers.

Find an old house, however, and chances are there is still some old wiring in it somewhere. And so there is in ours. In one room. On one circuit. We know, because we checked. The light in the dining room is fed by knob and tube wiring. It eventually merges in a junction box in the basement to modern wiring, connected to a shiny new circuit breaker, in an impressively immaculate panel. But that one stretch of the dining room wall and ceiling? Yup. Knob and tube.

Looking at where the switch of the dining room is installed, it is easy to understand why this wasn’t replaced when the rest of the house was rewired. Below the wall in question is the stone foundation of the house, so there is no way into the wall from below. The only way to replace the wiring would be to rip through the plaster of the dining room wall and ceiling, which is not something that is easy to do without the subsequent repairs to the plaster being blindingly obvious. At which point, a small problem would become a very, very large mess indeed. Far easier to just leave that one stretch of wire safely where it is.

So the previous owner clearly thought. So we thought. So the home inspector thought, when it came to that. Our insurer? Our insurer, when we mentioned the fact, had other ideas. Now, you could argue that it would have been better to shut up about the whole thing. But failing to disclose material information can lead to a whole world of other issues I would have preferred to avoid. So yes, we told them. Their first, and least helpful, suggestion was to disconnect the light. And the discussion just proceeded from there.

To provide some perspective, knob and tube wiring is safe. At least, it is not inherently unsafe, provided certain basic (and really rather common sense) provisions are adhered to. In fact, a quick search of the internet reveals that Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority, whose business it is to fuss about these sorts of things, is quite comfortable about the whole issue of knob and tube wiring. In fact, they’ve gone to some effort to publish a position paper on knob and tube wiring that not only provides clear reassurance that such installations are safe, but also that they meet current code and “…may still be installed to this day.”

So armed, I was fairly confident in negotiating with the insurance company. I had facts and knowledge on my side, and the Electrical Safety Authority at my back. What I didn’t count on, however, was the obstinancy of actuaries armed with large underwriting rule books. Despite my broker putting up a strong and sustained argument on our behalf (for which I am grateful), the closest we got to a compromise was an offer to accept the installation if we promised not to add any more switches or outlets on the line, and we got an inspection from the ESA verifying the installation was safe.

This was a victory of sorts, I suppose, but still required more work on our part (not to mention another day of my time, arranging another inspection with the vendor and a payout of about $266). All to inspect something that is already safe, and that the insurer would probably still get uppity about if there ever was a problem down the road.

And so how did we solve this little challenge? Well, in this particular instance, we simply took the high road and found another insurer. One familiar with rural properties, comfortable with the fact that older homes do have instances of knob and tube and happy to still insure the home in its current state. And, in fact, one who was already insuring the property.

Several weeks on, we finally have insurance. In another five days, the transaction will close. And then, we’ll own a house again. All rather exciting, really.