Home & Garden Columns
I don’t know about you but my eyes are often bigger than my stomach. It’s a constant problem. Well my column last week suffered for this malady and left so much unaddressed that I just have to devote another page to these worthy issues.
Let’s take a look at heating. As houses progressed through the 20th century much changed. The earliest houses had coal burners in each room, although this was more common in 19th century houses. Aside from generating copious volumes of carbon monoxide and killing more than a few people, this was sooty and just plain hard work since one had to build and maintain coal fires 24/7 to keep body and soul in warmth. These coal burners can still be seen in the dining rooms of many of our earliest houses in the East Bay and are often mistaken for very small fire places.
Coal gave way to natural gas or methane, the same flammable gas produced by all us mammals. At first natural gas was used without any oderant added and quite a few explosions resulted (and a few asphyxiations). A nasty odor was added to make us aware of it’s presence and a version of this is still in use today. Yes, that funny smell is added. Methane, like carbon monoxide is odorless.
The first gas heaters (both central and floor mounted) had no pilot safety devices and relied upon the pilot to stay lit. If the pilot got shut off and one did not check prior to operation, a burner could fill a space with gas and….Kaboom. No more Victorian. By the time we move from our old Vicky to our 1930 Albany house we find a pilot safety device that would turn off the burner when the flame of the pilot blew out and would not operate until the device had been re-lit. Stoves from the 40’s also gained this feature as did early central furnaces.
By the time the first El Cerrito houses were being built, forced air heating had arrived and floor furnaces began to slowly disappear. Richmond houses of the 50 ‘s and 60’s had smaller more efficient furnaces as well as wall heaters for the little houses. All of these were somewhat safer but all were and are vulnerable to cracked heat exchangers (the metal container that transfers heat from the noxious hot atmosphere above the burner to the clean interior atmosphere we breath). Today we have much more sophisticated heaters in the form of high efficiency “condensing” furnaces and the wondrous but rarely seen hydronic units that heat water and warm floors.
Plumbing has advanced in a few ways over the last hundred years but, surprisingly, is largely the same. The major difference is in the piping material. Galvanized steel was used prior to 1900 and stood fast for at least 40 years. Around the beginning of the second world war, copper began to appear for hot pipes alone! We see this in El Cerrito houses and it’s a funny thing. Why would anyone use two kinds of piping in a house, two sets of methods, two sets of purchases. Very odd. The reason is that copper does not fill in with sediment, as steel is quite apt to do and hot pipes fill in much quicker than cold ones. So by 1940 the difference was well observed and some clever gal or guy suggested using that new (and surely expensive) copper pipe for the hot pipes.
I’m certain that once a constituency of plumbers had learned the secrets of soldering pipe, it became evident that this was not only superior in terms of avoiding the corrosion and mineral infill that kills water flow but that this was substantially simpler and quicker to install. This is surely the reason that within a matter of just a few years, nearly all plumbing systems were solely copper. But if you keep your eyes peeled in E.C., you might just catch sight of one of these goofy systems.
Many “galvy” systems had partial upgrades installed using copper and it’s always important that the two metals be kept apart because they form a battery that robs electrons from steel, the less noble metal (no offense intended). This effect can cause a great deal of corrosion resulting in a loss of pressure as well as leaks. This is commonly seen and cause for some attention, though nobody every died from an impoverished shower (and only Austin Powers dies from plumbing leaks).
Berkeley and Oakland houses up through the thirties share these trials but by the time those World War II, El Cerrito tracts were going in, copper was used nearly everywhere. Richmond homes are also nearly all cupric and nary a one has a bad shower.
CPVC (a stronger and more flexible version of the commonly seen sprinkler piping) is in use for water piping in many areas now and has just been approved for general use by California. Though we don’t see it around here now, we’ll be seeing a lot of it soon.
Waste piping also makes a journey though the decades starting with cast-iron “bell & spigot” piping. The bell and spigot is the part where one end is swollen and the other end fits inside. The joint was packed with Oakum (a tarred fiber often made from hemp. Don’t even THINK about smoking this stuff) and filled with molten lead. Installing this proved so toxic to plumbers that by the 1960s the practice was eliminated in favor of “hubless” cast-iron, joined with a rubber and metal fitting. Just imagine breathing lead fumes all day. My liver hurts just thinking about it.
Cast-iron systems began using steel threaded fittings for the small branches pretty early on but gave way to copper for small branches during those El Cerrito years. These may be the best systems in existence since cast-iron is very durable and copper is almost corrosion proof. Sadly, copper was too expensive and systems after 1960 began moving back to cast-iron and steel. But wait, Benjamin, I have one word for you. Plastics! (name that movie!) ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) piping arrived in the 1960’s and quickly ended the debate. ABS was so cheap and easy to install that nearly every house build after 1970 contains it (except where local authorities said no). Nearly every Richmond house has ABS and a few have defective piping due some bad batches made in the mid-’80s.
I’ll finish with a brief climb to the roof. If you own a house from before 1920, it probably had one of two kinds of roofing. If the roof had a slight slope (often called a flat roof) it was almost certainly a tar and gravel roof. If the roof had a handsome slope, it was sure to be finished in wooden shingle. While tar and gravel is still in use, its days are sorely numbered having been confronted with a serious contender in the form of Modified Bitumen, which is sheet material that gets welded together and can last three decades.
Wood shingle is no longer allowed here, or in many areas, due to its tendency to burn your house to the ground (one burning limb on your roof and it’s 1923 (or 1991) all over again).
Composition or Asphalt shingles came along in the 1940s and were designed for use alone or as a covering over old wooden shingle. As a result it is not uncommon to see houses from the 1930 and earlier covered with two or more (I’ve seen four!) layers of asphalt shingle. This practice is undesirable as it adds a great deal of weight and will surely have an unpleasant “impact” when the big one hits.
Well, once again, I’ve emitted a large volume of an inert non-combustible gas and left many subject untouched. Remember that we live in a history museum stretching from Oakland to Richmond (and out in all directions). Don’t forget to check out our lovely exhibits. The tours are free.