Sunday, February 26, 2017

7 easy household hacks for the bathroom

Brian and I have a disagreement about the word "hack"—specifically, its use to mean a handy shortcut for everyday life. Brian objects to it on the ground that it's overused, sometimes even in contexts where it really doesn't apply at all (such as these kitchen tips from XKCD.) But personally, I like it. To me, it conjures up images of Alexander cutting through the Gordian knot—a quick, direct solution to a complicated problem. Even the shortness of the word feels appropriate for a short, simple workaround.

Over the past few months, I've noticed that we seem to have come up with a lot of household hacks specifically for use in the bathroom. Some are for cleaning, some for grooming, and some for repairs, but all of them are specifically bath-related. So I thought I'd sum them all up in one post, as a sort of tribute to the Spirit of Hacking.

Hack #1: Clean hair from the sink drain with a plastic bag tie
Every so often, the drain in our sink gets a little sluggish. That's a sure sign that it's clogged up with hair (and usually bits of nasty grime that are clinging to the hair), and it won't run smoothly again until it's cleaned. We have a special tool for this purpose, known as a Zip-It: a long, flexible plastic shaft with little barbs on both sides. You feed this thing carefully down into the drain, and the barbs catch on the hairs so you can pull them back out. The Zip-It emerges from the drain trailing long strands of hair and associated gunk like seaweed off a lobster trap, which is disgusting, but effective.

The Zip-It is only $2.50 at Home Depot, and it both easier and safer than those vile chemical drain cleaners, which eat through the hair with caustic chemicals that can damage your plumbing (and possibly you, if you splash any on yourself). But if you don't happen to have one on hand when a clog pops up, you can achieve similar results with a plastic garbage bag tie (the kind with rows of little jagged teeth on it, like this). Feed it down into the drain, and you can pull up the hairs from the top few inches of the pipe. It won't penetrate the pipe as deeply as the Zip-It, but it's easy to do, and it should clear away enough of the clog to get the drain running again.

Hack #2: Clean the tub with a dish wand
I used to drive myself crazy trying to get our bathtub clean. My go-to ecofrugal cleaners, vinegar and baking soda, seemed to have no impact at all on the film that clung to the base of the tub. I moved on to various commercial cleaners, including sprays, liquids, and powders; I experimented with different tools, going at the scum with a rag, a sponge, a scrubby pad, a brush, and even a special "shower scrubber" tool with an extendable handle and pivoting head, designed specifically for cleaning the tub from a standing position. (This was worse than useless, as every time I put any real pressure behind it, the head would just flip over.) No matter what I used or how vigorously I scrubbed, I could never get the tub completely clean. All I had to do was scrape my fingernails along the edge, and they'd come away with that whitish film under them.

I turned for help to my pals at the Dollar Stretcher forums. One of them enthusiastically recommended "Ajax grapefruit scented dish soap," applied with a long-handled brush while the tub and tiles are wet, and another suggested a mixture of Palmolive and sudsy ammonia in a spray bottle. Not having either of those brands on hand, I decided to try grabbing an old dish-scrubbing wand filled with generic dish soap and applying that to the wet tub right after my shower. This worked much better than anything else I'd tried. At first, I followed up with a vinegar-and-water spray to rinse all the soap residue off, but eventually I got the idea to add equal parts dish soap and water to the scrubbing brush and apply everything all in one go, then rinse it off.

This is now my regular weekly routine for cleaning the tub. I keep the dishwand hanging at the ready on the towel bar, so once a week, I can just grab it right after I turn off the shower and give everything a quick scrub before rinsing it. That way I don't have to mess around getting into grubby clothes specially for cleaning. I have since seen blog posts saying this vinegar-and-dish-soap concoction works in spray form as well, which might be even easier...but since it took me so long to find a method that worked, I'm not inclined to mess with it.

Hack #3: Remove stains from porcelain with oxygen laundry booster
A few years ago, we switched to a walnut-based cat litter from Blue Buffalo. In most ways, we love it: it clumps firmly, doesn't track as much as the wheat stuff, and controls odor so well that we have never had to change the litter once since we started using it. We just keep scooping out the clumps and adding more litter, and the box keeps not stinking. This makes it a much better value than any other brand we've tried, despite its high cost per pound, because none of it goes to waste.

There's only one problem with it: the walnut fragments tend to leave a darkish stain on the inside of the toilet bowl. My usual cleaning method—vinegar-water spray and a quick scrub with the brush—had no effect. Once again, I tried upgrading to stronger cleaners, including some with chlorine bleach, but to no avail. Brian tried going at the stains with steel wool and was able to get them out temporarily—but that just ended up scratching the porcelain, so fresh stains soaked in faster than ever.

So when I got a coupon for a free carton of OxiClean, I figured it couldn't hurt to try that too. Cleaning bathrooms wasn't one of the listed uses for this product, so my hopes weren't high. But to my amazement, after I'd sprinkled it on and let it sit for a while before brushing and flushing, the stains had faded to near-invisibility. I now repeat this routine once a week, and the porcelain remains in a state of near-pristine whiteness. And I've discovered, after some experimentation, that cheaper brands of oxygen-based laundry booster, such as All, do the job just as well.

Hack #4: Strop your razor on your forearm to maintain its edge
I've mentioned this hack before in my Saving on Shaving post. As this post at Tools for Woodworking explains, stropping a blade isn't quite the same thing as sharpening it on a stone; it's more like smoothing a surface with sandpaper, gently abrading away nicks and scratches. I've seen tips on how to prolong the life of your razor blade by stropping it on a leather belt, a leather-soled show, or even an old pair of blue jeans—but the simplest method of all is this one, which I discovered on LifeHacker. You simply give the blade several backwards strokes against the bottom of your own forearm, which you can do right in the shower before you shave.

This method, combined with regular drying and lubrication of the blade, worked well enough for me to keep the cartridges on my old Rite Aid razor going for months on end. Sadly, that razor gave up the ghost last year, and I've yet to find a really satisfactory replacement. I tried samples from both Dollar Shave Club and Harry's, and their fancy four-or-five-blade razors just didn't give me as smooth a shave as my old, obsolete three-blade razor (not to mention that the one from Harry's literally fell apart on its third use). So for now, I'm using an el cheapo MicroTouch razor, which claims to be able to go a month on a single blade without any special interventions. I'm continuing to dry and hone the blade regularly, and while I can't exactly claim to be impressed with the results it's giving me, it is at least holding up pretty well.

Hack #5: Fix a running toilet with a drinking straw
I discovered this trick back in 2013, when we had a problem with our toilet. Basically, the flapper kept getting stuck open because the chain would either get stuck underneath it or snag on it so it couldn't close. Shortening the chain didn't work (it ended up too short, so the flapper couldn't close at all), so I adopted a trick from Wikihow: I detached the chain, fed it through a soda straw, and reattached it. This worked only partially; the rigid chain-and-straw unit was now forcing the flapper closed too quickly, before the bowl had fully filled. So Brian adapted the hack by cutting the straw in half at the middle, allowing the chain to bend. This fix worked so well that even after we eventually replaced the flapper, we reinstated the straw on the chain to keep it from snagging again.

Hack #6: Adapt your toothbrush holder with coat hanger wire 
Brian devised this toothbrush hack back in 2014, when I was trying a new brand of toothbrush that wouldn't fit in our old-fashioned toothbrush holder. This toothbrush holder dates from a simpler time when all toothbrushes had straight, smooth handles, and today's chunky, molded hand-grips just won't fit through the holes. And since it's built into the wall, replacing it isn't really an option, and leaving it unused seems like a waste.

So I hit on the idea that the way to make the toothbrush fit in the holder would be to add on some kind of construct that would allow it to slide in from the side. After a little trial and error, Brian managed to achieve this by bending a piece of coat-hander wire to make a loop that would fit around the handle, then threading the ends of it through the hole in the front, under the bottom, and out on the other side. As built, this dingus can only accommodate one bulky toothbrush, but you could modify it to add a second loop on the other side if you wanted to hold two at once. Or you could just run a second set of wires through a different hole.

Hack #7: Fix a trash can that won't close with a felt pad
Ever since we adopted our two mischievous kitties back in 2015, we've kept finding new things around the house that need to be cat-proofed. Our cat-safe vase is the most notable example, but we've also had to replace a couple of wastebaskets because the cats would either chew on the wicker basket itself or fish things out of it. The worst culprit was the bathroom wastebasket, which contained enticing strands of dental floss that the cats viewed as wonderful toys. We, on the other hand, viewed them as potential garottes for unsuspecting feline throats, and we were determined to keep them out of the kitties' paws. So we bought a small covered waste bin, the kind with a lid that you can open by stepping on a pedal.

This sort of worked, but there was a problem: sometimes the lid would get stuck in the open position, allowing the kitties to go Dumpster diving for dental floss. We tried shimming the can up in the back so it would naturally tilt forward and force the lid closed when you weren't actively stepping on the pedal, but that didn't seem to be enough. So Brian tackled the problem from the other direction; instead of forcing the lid down, he decided to force the foot pedal up.

His repair is simplicity itself. He cut a couple of strips from a felt pad, the kind you put on the bottoms of chair legs to keep them from scratching the floor, and stuck them to the lip of the trash can underneath the pedal. Now, when you step on the pedal, it lowers enough to open the lid, but it doesn't go all the way to the floor, and as soon as you remove your foot, it pops back up again, closing the lid.

This hack went through a couple of iterations before he got it to work. First he tried one layer of felt, but that wasn't enough to push the pedal back up, so he had to add a second layer on top. And he initially tried sticking the felt pads on with just their own adhesive, but they didn't stay put, so he ended up pulling out the big guns and sticking them on with epoxy. Now those pads aren't going anywhere, and those kitties aren't getting their paws on any more dental floss.

So there you are: seven simple hacks for the smallest room in the house. If you know of any more ecofrugal hacks for the bathroom that you think deserve a wider audience, please feel free to share them below; I'm always looking for more ideas.
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