27 April 2012

Water Can Cause Stress

Some weeks ago, the national water company, known by their initials, AyA, put in the water connection and new water meter for our house. Just a few weeks prior to that, a real genius truck driver had cut the corner to our property “a little short” and had taken out two of three water services at our corner. Now our new service sat within this same corner area, vulnerable to the same type of dopey driving. “I’ll fix this,” I said.

At the corner, between the driving lane and the water meters, I dug a deep hole with a borrowed rock bar, dropped a heavy-wall 4x4 steel tube 3 feet into the hole, left it protruding 6 feet up into the air and filled the hole with concrete. Just for good measure, I filled the tube with concrete. The next dump truck to run short across this corner might take my tube out, but not without significant body damage to his truck.

Admiring my work, our contractor sent a couple of guys to the new water meter and built a massive concrete vault and support platform for the meter and its associated piping. Now any errant driver would have to smash down my pole AND break through a foot of concrete.

Today, as we prepared to head out to the farmer’s market for fresh fruits & veggies, I noticed three hombres down by the water meters, smashing away with a sledge hammer and a digging bar. One of them pulled a monstrous chunk of concrete free, rolled it across the road and down into the soccer pitch [Yeah, who cares if there is now a bunch of scrap concrete right where the kids will run out of bounds and bash themselves up on it. No skin off of this worker’s knees.]

I hurried translator, Patricia, down to the workers for an investigation.

In her excellent Spanish, she asked them, politely, what was happening (as I was asking them in my mind, “What the f*** are you stupid a***oles doing?!?”) They were smashing up the (underground) ragged edges of the meter vault our contractor had built.

“Oh, no, we’re not going to harm the vault,” Pat translated for me, “We’re just removing the rough edges and we’re going to make it nice and smooth.”

Huh? Before these geniuses started digging, nobody could even see the danged rough edges.

With an uneasy feeling, I drove us off to the farmer’s market.

Forty minutes later, we’re driving up to our corner and water is shooting out from the area where the meters sit, all the way across the street. And our meter vault is completely gone. And our meter is now resting on a rotten piece of wood and a concrete block (which looks suspiciously new and clean, as if it was borrowed from the nearest pile of construction materials -- our house.)

Son of a ....

I let Pat out at the house and walked back up the road to see how bad this was really going to be; and, if these geniuses were backfeeding from my water storage tank, out into the street (not too thrilled about already paying for 2,500 liters of water and having them blow it down the street.)

Good news and bad news and bad news and bad news and, “OMG.”

The good news was that the blow was coming from the AyA water main connection, not from my tank. But, there was nothing left at all of our nice concrete work; this, was not actually an AyA crew (they were an independent sub-contractor); they had almost no tools to work with; and, apparently (the OMG part), they had no way to shut off the water.

I’ve grown to appreciate the creativity of the Costa Rican field workers as they make do with just about nothing. I think they could probably make an airplane out of the ubiquitous galvanized sheet metal, baling wire and “stuff” that they find lying around. But this wasn’t going to be one of those days.

In case you haven’t seen me discuss (with disgust) the AyA water “system” being totally constructed of small-bore PVC pipe, here it is – our water main, water main connection, meter piping and 100 meter feed to our tank is all PVC. All ½” size, except for the feed to our tank because I popped to buy the HUGE (!) 1” size (hoping not to lose all water pressure running that far with dinky ½” pipe.)

So, as I rolled up on their scene, it appeared that during their “trimming” of our concrete vault, they must have broken off the feed pipe going to our meter. Why this required breaking out the entire vault isn’t clear but caca happens here in the land of Pura Vida. The skilled craftsmen were just finishing up gluing together the elbows and stubs to line back up for a reconnect to the water main riser, which was still blowing.

Long Aside: I might take this time to point out that not one beating heart in Costa Rica has ever connected PVC pipe: With PVC primer; or,
With squarely cut pipe ends; or,
With deburred pipe ends; or,
With the requisite twisting motion as the pipe is thrust into the glue and socket; or,
With the recommended hold time (to keep the pipe from rebounding away from the socket stop; or,
With the requisite waiting time for the glue to harden up enough before turning the water back on.

I tried, hard, to acquire primer for the construction of our new house, even contacting the biggest manufacturer of PVC glue and primer in the USA. They assured me that their master distributor in CR had PLENTY of primer in their warehouse here. No they didn’t. They never even heard of primer. So, “Primer? We don’t need no stinkin’ primer. This is Costa Rica and our glue is magic. Pffft. Primer. Stupid gringo.” Back to the story.

So, I watched with dropped jaw and bugged out eyes as one worker crammed his glue dobber up into the downward facing elbow socket coming off my meter and then, using a rusty hack saw blade, proceeded to cut apart the blowing (live) riser to proper length to meet up with the elbow. Immediately, he was drenched, the little hole he was working in filled with water (submerging the elbow socket and riser ends in a sea of mud). In the next second, he shoved the newly goobered up elbow over the newly raggedly cut end of the underwater riser, held it for 5 seconds, then stood up. I was struck dumb.

The same guy dipped some muddy water out and tried to clean away the sight glass of our meter, I’m assuming so that he could verify that the slug of mud he had just introduced into MY water piping was gurgling happily down my water line to my storage tank where it could contaminate the entire water supply.

POP! The new meter elbow blew off of the riser. Now the water was shooting straight up in the air. I backed out of range. Then I walked away. Why get any more worked up. I’m retired, damn it.

Two hours later, I go back out to see how things are going and the crew is gone. The blow is no longer erupting into the sky and two of the four meters (both mine) are encased in new concrete. See the photo. Notice the great workmanship of the concrete and the cute little step they formed into the side of the new vault. I have no idea what the little step does for them but it does nothing for me. Notice the Tico pride which they must have poured into this “repair,” as they ensured that the two meters were cockeyed with respect to each other, before they secured this example of their master craftsmanship for all the ages amidst the setting concrete. Notice the blob of free-poured concrete on the front of the vault WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT (they said) THEY HAD BEEN SENT OUT TO REMOVE FROM MY CONTRACTOR’S VAULT WORK.

I wonder how long before their pipe joints blow apart

Think they’re going to send me a bill for screwing up their system with my sub-standard concrete work and costing them all of this labor and water loss?

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26 April 2012

Typical Product Packaging in Costa Rica

Ketchup, Mustard, Mayo, Sour Cream & Refried Beans
We've been meaning to blog about the product packaging you find here in Costa Rica compared to the methods used in North America.  Back at H.E.B, our favorite grocery store in Houston, the top three products in this photo would be in either glass or plastic bottles.  The sour cream would be in a plastic tub and you'd find the beans in a metal can.

These Costa Rican packaging choices may have happened because they didn't have the USA's huge glass jar and metal can infrastructure in place but whatever the reason, this way of doing things is simply sensible.

The sour cream is the real stuff (not full of guar gum and thickeners -- it almost pours) and we simply snip off the edge of the recyclable polyethylene bag and squeeze the contents into our own little tub.  Either the empty is off to be recycled or it is very low profile land fill.  We're talking "sandwich bag" vs., plastic tub, plastic lid, and foil safety liner.

The other products in the picture are all squeeze pouches.  Not only do they recycle, take up less room on the shelf and reseal like magic but think about never again digging around in the bottom of the Hellman's jar while your knuckles get smeared with mayo; or never shaking that danged Heinz ketchup bottle; or, don't go get a knife dirty -- lay down a perfect bead of mustard on your bratwurst.

Another great aspect of this is if you're any kind of a refried bean fan.  In the USA, what do you do with the rest of the can after you open it up and only want to use a few tablespoons?  Scoop it into Tupperware?  Then it either gets pushed to the back of the refrigerator and turns into a "strange biological growths" science project, or you take it out a few days later and it has that nasty crust all over it.  With the CR packaging, we just unscrew the little cap, squeeze out a dollop, or ten, and stand it back up in the refer door.  Better yet, we can have a pouch of regular refried black beans; some with jalapeños; some with Salsa Lizano; some red bean; and, oh, the flavors go on and on.

Almost everything that is a watery liquid comes in refill-size poly bags.  Lysol in a bag?  Weird.  Floor polish?  Windex?  Hand soap?  Weird, weird, weird.  It's a recycle thing again and an efficiency benefit.  One quickly gets used to it.

Pump bottles and sprays:  Here, if you're smart, you get a good pump or spray bottle and keep it forever (with a smile.)  Almost everything is sold as a refill, rather than with the pump every time.

We were a little unprepared for the laundry detergent powder to come in a giant, floppy poly bag until we realized that they're sized to fit neatly into a snap-on-lid 5-gallon bucket.  Way-hey-hey-hey more convenient than those big cardboard boxes and in this climate, no clumping.

A few things need a little work here in the CR packaging industry.  Although aseptic packaging puts myriad tropical fruit juices at our fingertips, the pouring spouts are awfully splashy unless you pour awfully slowly.  Aseptic boxed milk is ultra convenient (and we try to always keep some, "just in case") but they still haven't figured out how to get it to taste as great as the fresh stuff.  

Now the downside.  Coffee is all in form-fill-seal bags.  No cans.  What the heck am I supposed to use for nuts, bolts and shop junk?!?  These barbarians.

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23 April 2012

Just another Casa update

Every week, since we started construction on the Casa, we have monitored our expenses to make sure we stay on budget. As of today, it looks like we are going to finish the job right on track. Our actual cost per square foot is going to be just under $50 USD. That's not bad considering the house we sold in Houston, just before we moved here, went for $91 per square foot, and it was almost 40 years old.

Today, the boys have been busy on clean-up details and small projects. Two of them leveled the dirt in the yard so we can put St. Augustine sod down in the next couple of weeks. Mario, the tile master, started the tile work in the master bath today and it's looking great. Eliécer hired a dump truck and a backhoe to haul away all the left over dirt, broken concrete and general debris. The folks that play in the sports plaza across from us should be pleased when they see our unsightly mess is now gone.

I.C.E. (see last week's post) actually showed up on Saturday and set the new electricity poles. I talked to the jefe from I.C.E. and asked him if I could submit our application for service today and he said we should give him a week to get the cable strung so the guys from the office don't whine about putting in a meter when the cable isn't installed.

The technician responsible for the L.P. gas lines came today to hook-up the lines for the water heater, dryer and gas range. As soon as we have electricity, we will have a tech out to hook up the mini-split A/C unit we are installing in our bedroom. I wonder how often we will actually use it considering the affects of our insulated clay tile roof. We have an A/C unit in the casita, that only gets used once or twice a month. I must admit, it is a nice luxury to have when you need it.

There has been another delay on the concrete pavers we ordered for the driveway and walkways. We ordered them back in March and were told they couldn't get them until after Easter. Now they are saying is looks like it will be at least another week.

This past Saturday, we went shopping again and found a small shop in a town very close to us that carry some really nice kitchen, bath and lighting fixtures . To top it off, the sales clerk spoke perfect English, making it so much easier for John. We found some nice pendant lights for the master bath and some for the front and back entry ways. They had to order them for us, but the sales clerk told us they should be in tomorrow or Wednesday. The last thing we need to buy now, which will round out everything, is wood for the baseboards. That will be our next, and hopefully the last, shopping trip for the Casa.

I'll post plenty of photos when everything is closer to completion.

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20 April 2012

Casa Update, Shopping Sprees & Electricity

We are both so ready to move out of our 300 square foot casita. We’ve been in cramped quarters for more than 9 months and the new Casa is really starting to look like a home. All of our tile floors are in, with the exception of 8 trim pieces that are still back ordered from Columbia. We picked up all that was available back in February and were told rest of our order would be filled within 30 days. Still waiting, but the vendor “promises” they will be here by the 2nd week of May. I’m not holding my breath on this one and if we have to move in without the tile trim, so be it.

The glass bricks have been installed in both showers and they look beautiful. Mario, our tile expert, is working in the master bath and it should be finished in the next couple of days.

We overestimated the amount of tile we needed for the house and wound up purchasing too much. Rather than return it for a credit, Mario went ahead and laid tile on the floor of John’s Mirador (observatory deck) and inside the storage room under the Mirador stairs.

Mario’s brother, Enrique, had been busy painting the interior. It’s amazing to see this “construction project” actually turn into a “home” as each room gets a coat of paint. Enrique will start painting the Casa’s exterior next week.

We went on another shopping spree this week to select lighting for the house. We were able to find most of what we needed to keep the electricians busy installing light fixtures and fans all over the place. Cali, our head electrician, attached all the wires to the main breaker box, and the rest of his crew installed all the switch plates and electrical outlets. I estimate they are now about half way through with all the electrical work. They still have 4 more lights to install inside and none of the outside lighting has been started.

Yesterday, we went into the big city of San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica) to meet William, our cabinet maker, to pick out cabinet hardware and accessories. I was astounded at all the choice there are for interior cabinet organization. I saw some nice stuff when we remodeled our Houston kitchen back in 2008, but I never saw some of the choices that are available here. Most of this stuff is imported from Europe and Australia. We picked out a 2-tiered, stainless steel, lazy-susan, stainless steel racks for the pots and pans drawers, stainless steel pull outs for spices, and this amazing stainless steel pull out for a corner cabinet that actually lets you use that corner dead space for storage. I’ll have to post a picture of it when it’s installed.

After we finished shopping with William, we went looking for more lighting fixtures. We found most of what we needed. We still have to find 2 pendant lights for the master bath and 3 outside pendants for the front and back porches.

Ronald, our window guy, came back today to install the last two windows and then he installed all the window screens and weather stripping. The windows look great and as soon as we get the doors installed we will be able to secure the Casa and start moving stuff in. Before that can happen, we’ll have to make another shopping trip to buy door hinges and locks.

We are finally down to a short list of things that have to be done before we can move in:
• Pick out the counter tops for the kitchen and bathroom.
• Install toilets, sinks and plumbing fixtures
• Install mini-split A/C in master bedroom (already purchased)
• Install on-demand gas water heater (already purchased)
• Install brick pavers in carport, terraza and walkways
• Install wrought iron gate (scheduled for Tuesday)
• Install wrought iron window trim
• Install electrical meter and hook up electric grid

We have had sort of a waiting game going on between us and I.C.E. (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (the national power company)) to see who would give in first. Our property line parallels a “servidumbre,” or “right of way,” that gives access to several properties below us. On the other side of the “servidumbre” is a sports plaza owned by the city. The power company will only install electric meters on public streets, not “servidumbres.” Guess what, our new Casa is almost 100 meters from the public street. That’s a lot of high voltage wire we would have to buy just to tap into the power company’s meter. Lucky for us, Minor, our Civil Engineer/Architect, heard a rumor from a reliable source, that our “servidumbre” is about to be declared a public street. So we’ve been in a holding pattern to see what I.C.E. is planning to do and we haven’t solicited electrical service yet. Two months ago, I.C.E. showed up with a big truck and dropped two concrete power poles along side of the sports plaza. The poles have just been lying on the ground all this time. Today a small truck from I.C.E. pulled up right in front of our new Casa and 3 guys got out, started measuring and setting some ground stakes. I asked one of them if they were there to bring in electricity and he said yes, the poles will be set tomorrow. Yea, we win! We will not have to pay for 100 meters of cable!! Now, I do realize that setting poles doesn’t mean that power cables will also be strung, but it’s a start. Monday morning I plan to go to I.C.E. office in town and officially request electrical service for the Casa. If they start in again with that tale about “servidumbres” and how power meters can only be installed on public streets, I’ll show them photos of THEIR newly installed power poles.

We’ll folks, that’s all the news for now.

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06 April 2012

Passive Cooling

It's raining to beat the band.  As I sit here in the rancho, looking out over the house and its new tile roof, one can see how the passive cooling system works.

It started pouring rain HARD as soon as this storm hit.  Almost immediately, rivulets of runoff began shooting off of the rancho's metal pseudo-tile roof (the rancho has no gutters.)  Yes, there is an immediate temperature drop as the sun-heated steel roof quits radiating infrared down onto my head.  But, as soon as the rain quits and the sun hits it again, the temperature will rebound to it previous roasting temperature.

Over on the house, with the real tiles, they aren't turning shiny with rain.  I can see the quarter-sized raindrops smacking into them all over the place ... and then the drops disappear.  For at least 10 minutes, not a dribble comes out of the downspouts of the house roof gutters.  Those tiles are sponging up a third of their weight in water.

Ever use one of those clay tile wine bottle coolers?  Soak it in water ... stick the wine bottle into it ... wait a half hour ... voila, cool wine.

That's what is going on here.  For hours (or in this case, after an overnight, tomorrow morning) the wet tile will not heat up in the tropical sun.  It will slowly give back the water to evaporation and will actually be cool to the touch.

Oh, yes, I cheated a little and laid a shiny radiant barrier between the roofing beams and the tile supports but most of the reason for the cool is that tile effect.

Temperature in the rancho at the peak of sunlight today?  98F.

Temperature in the house at the same time?  80F.

Guess where I sat to read my book?

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03 April 2012

Construction halted for Semana Santa

Costa Rica is predominately a Catholic country, and as a result everything comes to a screeching halt for Semana Santa (Holy Week.) Our construction crew just left for a few days of reverence for Holy Week and Easter Sunday. They will be back from their mini-vacation next Monday.

The boys really got a jump on a number of things in just 2 days and I love seeing some of the finishing touches being applied to the Casa. Here we have a photo of the outdoor housing for the LP gas tanks. Since we had clay roofing tiles left over, they decided an awning would look really great and tie in nicely with the roof.

Mario got started on the tile for the shower in the guest bathroom.

We will be installing glass blocks with a water bubble pattern above the wall on the left and we think it will be gorgeous when it's all finished.

John and I spent this morning pouring over paint chips and we've now decided on all the paint colors we're going to use for the exterior and interior of the house. Lucky for us, one of our suppliers is having a sale that ends tomorrow, on Sherwin Williams paint. They have agreed to honor the sales price for us, even though they can't get all the paint ready for pick up tomorrow, due to Semana Santa.

As we mentioned a couple of days ago, John has come up with a great wrought iron design for our new driveway gate, windows and stairway railing. Eliécer and Rodolfo reviewed it with us today and plan to start work on all of it offsite, where they have a workshop setup for iron work. That keeps the welder out of our carport so they can get started on the concrete pavers next week.

Next week we should have a lot happening and we'll be able to post more photos showing our progress.

Happy Easter Everyone!

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01 April 2012

264: Casa Construction Update

We are finally finished with the clay tile roof. The crew did a beautiful job as you can see here. The white platform is the top of the carport and John's mirador/observatory deck.
We still need a railing around the deck and a bannister on the stairway. This will be built out of wrought iron at the same time they build the entry gate and window coverings. It should be a beautiful finishing touch for the casa. I'll post pictures of John's wrought iron design work soon.


Here is a view of the front porch taken from the driveway. The driveway and all the walkways will be multi-color concrete pavers. Most of the prep work for the underlying foundation for the pavers is finished. Last week the team set the concrete bricks to form a curb on either side of the driveway.

We now have a pair of built-in twin beds that are built out of concrete blocks in the nook/office. The plan is to use the inside box for storage, cover the opening with ¾" plywood and top each of them with a twin mattress. I'm going to try to find someone that can make a couple of slip covers and bolsters out of upholstery material. I want some thick bolsters and over-sized pillows to line the walls and make these into super comfortable day beds for reading. When we have guests, we can use this space as an additional bedroom.

This photo is a picture of our view from the master bedroom.

In other news, the construction crew finished the installation of the septic tank and all the dirt has been replaced over the drain fields. After all the construction debris is cleared out, we will have our gardener, Mario, re-sod the lawn and help us do some landscaping. We have lost several trees to the construction efforts and we really need to replace some of the shade trees.

We finally have some decent water pressure! We installed a 2500 liter tank on stilts behind the bodega and contracted with a local company to install a 60 liter pressure tank with a 1 hp water pump. We then connected a valve to the casita's water line, so we can take advantage of the improved water supply before we actually move into the casa. Now, instead of taking an hour do do a load of laundry, it taking between 20-30 minutes for a full cycle. The 2500 liter storage tank will be more than sufficient to keep us supplied when the water from the municipalidad is unavailable.

We received some bids on windows this week. One guy gave us the "gringo" price and the other guy gave us a real price. They both brought us the same samples of their work and the 2nd guy is charging us half of what the 1st guy bid, for exactly the same thing. Turns out these two guys used to work together a couple of years ago and decided to go their separate ways. Ronald, the guy we contracted with, will start on the windows tomorrow and promised they will be finished in a week.

We also met with a cabinet maker and a door maker this past week and we are waiting on their bids. Once the doors are in place we will have a way to secure the casa and we will be able to install all the plumbing and electrical fixtures.

John and I went shopping again this week and finally decided on the tile for the two bathrooms. We've decided on white marble countertops and white cabinets to offset our beautiful Talavera pottery sinks. Both of the sinks have cobalt blue and white in their patterns, so we also decided the inside shower walls should be white tile with an accent band of cobalt blue with glass bricks above it. The team expect to start on the tile work this coming week. I'll post pictures when they are finished.

It has been really hot this past week with temperatures reaching into the 90's. The casa seems to be at least 15°F cooler all the time. We can see the clouds beginning to build every afternoon and sometimes we hear thunder. I think it is just a question of days before the rainy season begins. We are both ready for the season to change, even though we know we will be looking forward to the dry season when the October rains return.

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