Sunday, July 31, 2016

Frugal frustration

Sometimes, it seems like the whole universe is just conspiring against all my efforts to live an ecofrugal life. This weekend, I've found myself thwarted on three different fronts:

1. The Pointless Plumbing Call

Two weeks ago, I noted how our attempts to replace the anode rod in our water heater—a move that both Popular Mechanics and Family Handyman claim can greatly extend or even double its life—had been frustrated because the thing was so tightly secured that we couldn't get it loose. But I figured a professional plumber would probably have access to tools that we don't, and even with the cost of his (or her) labor, replacing the rod would surely be cheaper than replacing a whole water heater that was, so far as we knew, in perfectly fine condition.

My initial calls to plumbing companies weren't encouraging. The people I talked to didn't seem to know what an anode rod does, and one of them said she'd have to check with the boss to see whether replacing it was even a job they could do. (They never got back to me.) The other company agreed to have someone come out and do it, but when they called back to confirm my appointment, they said it was for "a quote on a new water heater," which wasn't what I'd asked for at all. So I put them straight on what I wanted, but I wasn't optimistic.

Sure enough, when the plumber showed up on Saturday morning, he took one look at our water heater and declared that replacing the anode rod (which he kept calling an "annoyed rod") wouldn't be cost-effective. It would cost us at least $400 for the job, he explained, and the water heater was nearing the end of its life anyway. When I timidly explained that I thought the point of replacing the rod was to extend its life, he said it was too late for that; it might have been worth doing five years ago, but by now the rod would be shot and the tank on its last legs. Yet when I asked whether, if we had replaced the rod five years ago, we would be able to put off replacing the heater now, he said no to that as well.

Basically, his view was that replacing the rod is a job that simply isn't worth doing under any circumstances. In 13 years as a plumber, he said, he'd never done it once. (I couldn't help suspecting that this was because most users don't even know replacing the rod is a job you can do, and the ones who are savvy enough to know it are mostly inclined to do it themselves, but it was clear at that point there was no use arguing with him.) His recommendation was to hold on to the heater until it hit the 10-year mark, and then start shopping for a replacement. It might last a little longer, he said, but with any heater over 10 years old, we'd basically be "playing Russian roulette." (Since then, I have done a little searching online, and most sites claim a water tank should last at least 10 years; there are several reports of water heaters lasting 30 years or more. Many plumbers say they never recommend replacing a water heater due solely to age.)

So basically, we ended up paying $50 for a guy to come out here and do nothing. The one piece of useful info he offered us was that it's possible to buy an inexpensive "water alarm" that can sense moisture and put it on the floor next to the tank. That way, if ever starts to leak, the alarm will go off and alert us so we can shut off the water and drain the tank before it does too much damage. So we grabbed one of those for $11 at Home Depot, and we plan to set that up and also continue to monitor and maintain the tank as before—checking for rust around the fittings, flushing it once a year, and so on. Our position is, if it ain't broke, we ain't fixing it. Brian says if plumbers start haranguing us about it when they come out for our yearly boiler tune-up, we can just change the date on the heater to make it look like we've bought a new one.

2. The Razor Replacement Dilemma

For the past ten years or so, I've been shaving with a store-brand, three-blade cartridge razor that I bought at Rite Aid way back when three blades were state of the art. Recently, however, I discovered that I was down to my last cartridge, and that Rite Aid no longer sold refills for it. So I knew I'd have to find a replacement soon. Fortunately, I can make a single cartridge last quite a long time; by rinsing, drying, and oiling it after each use, and stropping it as needed, I can keep it going for a month easily. So I figured I'd have plenty of time to shop around and make sure I'd found the best possible replacement before committing myself to it for the next ten years.

Unfortunately, the universe had other plans. Yesterday, in mid-shave, my venerable razor simply split down the middle. The piece that holds the cartridge fell out, and the handle gaped wide open, revealing ten years' worth of accumulated soap scum. And thus I discovered that I was going to need a new razor, not just soon, but now.

I had already done some research on razor options, but it had just left me more confused than ever. Some sources say more blades definitely add up to a closer shave, while others claim that there's no advantage to having more than three. Some insist that an odd number of blades is pointless, because blades are work in pairs, one to lift and one to cut; others claim that each blade serves both to lift and to cut, and so the more you have the more of the hair you can tease out and shear off. Some say that women should never shave with a men's razor, because body hair is so fundamentally different from facial hair, while others argue that there's no earthly reason women should have to pay extra for a razor that isn't as tough and has a stupid pink or purple paint job.

So I concluded that probably, my best bet was to go to a store with a fairly wide selection and just pick out the most basic model I could find. But that turned out to be a taller order than I'd expected. At Target, there were no razors for men or women with fewer than five blades, aside from disposables (the least ecofrugal kind). When I checked the pharmacy section at Shop-Rite, I found a couple of fairly straightforward men's razors for about $6—but when I tried to check the price of the refill cartridges, I couldn't find any for either one. There were also some store-brand cartridges available that looked like a pretty good deal—but they only worked with the store-brand razor, which wasn't available. So I could (a) get a razor with no refills, or (b) get refills with no razor, or (c) buy something fussy and overdesigned that would keep me coming back for overpriced cartridges for years.

In the end, I walked out of both stores empty-handed. I'm making do, for now, with an old disposable razor I had in my travel bag, in the hope that, with a little more time for research, I'll be able to find something I can live with. I've considered the Dollar Shave Club, which offers a four-blade razor that gets good reviews from both men and women for just $1.50 per cartridge—but the catch is, you have to buy four of them every month, or at least every other month, and I just don't go through them that fast. And Dorco, while it offers good prices on blades, costs extra for shipping (plus they don't do that well in tests at at The Sweethome). I'm actually wondering whether the most ecofrugal move would be to go back to an old-school safety razor. The blades are cheap and the handle lasts pretty much forever, but there's the increased risk of nicks and cuts (especially if I drop it on my foot in the shower).

Of course, I could always kick it Bryn Mawr style and leave my legs unshaven, but I've tried that before and found that, even when I went razor-free for a whole winter, my leg hair never grew out long enough to get soft. It always felt prickly. So I'm nixing that option.

3. Return of the Rat

Three years ago, we had a problem with a rat getting into our garden and gnawing on our veggies. We found that deterring it wasn't feasible, and trapping it was a lot trickier than it looked; it consistently found ways to steal the bait without springing the traps. Eventually, with the help of an old-fashioned snap trap (enclosed in a cage of chicken wire to keep it from trapping innocent birds), we managed to take it out, but it was a long and grueling battle.

So this spring, when Brian went to clean out the shed and discovered that a rat had evidently been making its home there over the winter, his first hope was that maybe it had already moved on and we wouldn't have to deal with it. He cleared away the droppings it had left, blocked up the holes it had made in the wall with cinderblocks, and crossed his fingers.

So this weekend, he was far from gruntled to open the shed door and find another small pile of turds (and a small pool of urine, which he had to soak up with cat litter) and a brand-new hole in the floor just past the cinder-block obstruction. Clearly, simply blocking this critter's access to the shed wasn't an option.

So he bought a new snap trap at Home Depot, baited it and the old one with peanut butter, and set them temptingly out in the shed (where at least we wouldn't have to worry about any birds falling victim to them). And this morning, he came in to report that the bait was gone from both traps, but neither one had been sprung. Rat 2, ecofrugal gardeners 0.

So in the space of just two days, we've had three ecofrugal moves fall flat. The plumbing industry is trying to make us junk our water heater before its time, the grooming industry is trying to force me to remove hair with a costly and wasteful five-blade razor, and Mother Nature herself is apparently trying to persuade me to call out an exterminator to deal with one lousy rat. Gaaaah!
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