March 12, 2009

Interesting times in the Monash home

The set-up

I work from my house, as does my wife Linda Barlow. That makes it an interesting place right there, as Linda has published 15 novels, served two terms as a director of the Author’s Guild, testified as an expert witness on HTML technology in Federal court and, for variety, taught neurobiology at a local college. She is also a much better MMO player than I am.

Monday night, however, things got interesting in another way. On the whole, I’m not apt to be particularly celebrity-struck. I grew up in Beverly Hills; worked with bunches of politicians, Nobel Laureates and Fields Medalists at Harvard; talk for hours with some of the tech industry’s biggest names; and have met some extremely popular authors through Linda. Still, I thought it was cool to be Twittering back and forth with LeVar Burton, of Roots and Star Trek fame, especially when he sent a direct message that read, in its entirety, “Exactly!!! Well said.” But unfortunately, that wasn’t the most interesting part either.

The flare-up

While I was tweeting away in the middle of the night, I heard a shout from Linda. It turned out that we had a fire on our 49-year-old electric stove. (A burner had failed to turn off, a plastic cutting board had fallen onto it, and flames had started.)

Some lessons from that should be obvious.

We fumbled ineffectively with the fire extinguishers.

Lessons learned:

Make sure you know how to USE your safety equipment. Also, at least try for workarounds on the fly. I should have carried the fire extinguisher outdoors to safety and then worked hard on figuring it out; the fire was small enough I could have still gone back in and extinguished it. Indeed, it was eventually extinguished by a policeman using a similar device, before the fire department ever arrived.

Not doing anything useful with the fire extinguishers, I tried throwing a small amount of water on the fire, just in case what we’d heard about water not helping w/ kitchen fires was wrong. But it turned out to be correct. Perhaps if I’d wetted the cabinets in the line of fire — as it were — the flames’ climb would have been slowed, but I didn’t try that.

Ultimately, all that was destroyed by the flames was the stove itself, some adjacent cabinets, and some contents of same. The real damage from fire turns out to be caused by smoke. Disgusting fire extinguisher powder added greatly to the perceived mess, but probably didn’t actually wreck very many incremental items.

The clean-up

The fire left a small part of our house destroyed, a large part uninhabitable, and the rest uncomfortable. The insurance company happily feels obligated to set things to rights.

The most interesting aspect, I think, is the business process. There is a master contractor called Belfor for restoration, aka remediation, with dozens of offices nationwide. Its employees — who arrived the first afternoon after the fire — do the actual multi-week demolition and clean-up. They subcontract as needed, e.g. for a quick visit by an electrician. Another firm handles all clothes cleaning. A third handles rugs, carpets, and upholstery. All had paid us their first visit by the day after the fire. The insurance adjuster himself arrived the morning of the second day.

There’s a bit of a trend in the auto insurance industry too to move to in-kind services. Auto glass is, I think, commonly handled that way, on a no-fault basis. And some auto insurers, such as Plymouth Rock, handle all repairs themselves.

The benefit to our insurer, Liberty Mutual, is obvious — repeated purchases from specialized suppliers it knows and trusts. Meanwhile, we’re being served by a large and knowledgeable firm, Belfor, that is accountable to another large firm, Liberty Mutual. Not everything is perfect, but the competence/accountability/BS frontier is in a whole different place than I’ve commonly experienced in home contracting scenarios. This is much more of a B2B relationship than it is classical consumer schmooze-and-abuse.

A little bit of cool (or hot) technology

A lot of what’s being done involves saws, sponges, and trash bags. But occasionally an interesting big of electronics pokes through. The most important one was right up front. The fire department has infrared cameras or detectors they use after a fire is apparently out, to confirm that nothing more is smoldering in the walls. This is a huge improvement over the prior technology, which is an ax they used to smash the walls and see for themselves.

I am told that a more advanced version of this is used on water damage sites. How do you detect the source of a leak, which almost always is in a wall, under a floor, or underground? Well, what you’re really trying to detect is an abundance of water. So if there’s any reason for the water to be hotter or cooler than the surrounding structure, an infrared temperature detector may uncover the leak.

Infrared gets mentioned once again in tape-measure-replacement tech. Supposedly, the device is accurate to 1/16th of an inch. My first search engine hit looking for something similar turned up a combo infrared and sonic tool, for $149, advertised at 1/4″ accuracy. Hmm. Cool toy, but I think I have other gadget priorities first.

We also have some heavy-duty air cleaners going, with charcoal adsorption as the core technology. This has already gotten a nod of approval from Linda’s ex-husband, who happens to be an international expert on indoor air pollution.

And yet more

For once, I’m using Twitter the “official” way — briefly updating followers on the state of my life, good and bad alike. I imagine I’ll scale that back soon, for my followers’ sake as well as my own. But for now, I’m giving a bit of a fire-survival play-by-play.


14 Responses to “Interesting times in the Monash home”

  1. Daniel Weinreb on March 13th, 2009 8:38 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about the accident and its consequences. Thanks for publishing this! My fire extinguisher is way past its shelf life. I must get a new one, and, as you say, try it at least once.

    I have a tool that measures heat using infrared, at a point. It’s gun-shaped and you aim it using a little laser that it emits. I got it at the hardware store, and I think it was pretty cheap. I was interested in why my house was colder that it should have been. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the ideal tool for the job.

  2. Curt Monash on March 13th, 2009 9:02 am

    I think the one big public-service message of this post is just the one you glommed onto — make sure that you can use your fire extinguisher. We are losing weeks off of our life for not having done that — figuratively for sure, and quite possibly literally given all the extra carcinogenic gunk we’re breathing.

  3. Lori Roets on March 13th, 2009 9:26 am

    And when you replace your fire extinguisher, take the old expired one out in the backyard and discharge it to make sure all family members know how to use one. Using one in a non-pressure situation will make it that much easier to handle if a true emergency comes.

    Sorry to hear of your ordeal Curt – hope you are back to the status quo soon.

  4. Curt Monash on March 13th, 2009 9:43 am

    Good thoughts. Keep ’em coming, please!

    By email, it was pointed out to me that one can also smother a fire with a blanket or whatever. In the kitchen, I doubt this would often prove practical. But should a fire for some reason start in, say, a bedroom or family room (sofa cushions would work too), and a fire extinguisher not be to hand, that could be a house-saving gambit.

  5. Steve Graves on March 13th, 2009 11:46 am

    Sorry to hear about your ordeal, Curt.

    I don’t know about the current state of fire extinguishers, but it used to be that if you discharged them even a little, they had to be completely recharged. The powder would prevent the valve from sealing completely and the remaining pressure would dissipate shortly. So unless you’re sure, don’t go buy one, try it to make sure you know how to use it, then put it in a cabinet. It may not work when you need it to.

  6. Curt Monash on March 13th, 2009 12:00 pm

    Ack, Steve. Fire extinguishers are much too complicated and/or under-documented. When things calm down, I’ll research them a bit and post the results.

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  8. Dan Conway on March 24th, 2009 1:30 pm

    I can feel your pain. I lost a house in the 2003 Cedar brush fire that destroyed 3,000+ homes in San Diego County.

    Just, the rebuilding process involving the paperwork is stagering.

    Good luck to you and your wife.


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  10. Curt Monash on March 26th, 2009 7:28 pm


    That must have been terrible!!

    Our situation is much more mild. We only spent 3 nights in a hotel. Not the same thing at all …

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