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The Constants of Old House Restoration – Of Nature and Traitors – And a Simplified Life

Daily, Dwelling, Home | July 11th, 2010 No comments

(I hope that Madam Editor-in-Chief will indulge me and allow me to include at the beginning of this column a few of my personal beliefs as a lead-in to this week’s discussion.)

The Beliefs 

I believe that flying through the air at three-quarters the speed of sound for hour-after-hour is an act that runs contrary to human nature. Upon landing, for example, one immediately encounters the un-natural sensation known as jet lag. Here we have finally arrived at Seoul, and our body tells us it’s Monday morning, but the clocks and the darkness say it’s already Monday night. (However, many of us have travelled to Europe and Asia frequently, and we recognize the need for international travel for commerce and recreation.)

I feel that forcing heat to flow from a lower temperature source to a higher temperature is likewise a phenomenon that is not natural. (But fundamental education in the field of thermodynamics quickly demonstrates how this can be made to occur. And I have likewise enjoyed the comfort of an air-conditioned environment when outside temperatures would have made life quite uncomfortable.)

I am convinced that a growing dependence on prescription and OTC medications serves to un-naturally and unnecessarily weaken us and to continuously increase our overall need for more and more pharmaceuticals. (However, although I am fortunate to not have needed any prescription medicines up to my present age, I have used antibiotics and have occasionally resorted to OTC pain relievers. And I do understand that the use of medications is absolutely necessary to sustain life in many cases – I’m only referring to their excessive and frivolous use.)

I believe that the chance of contact with alien life forms is so infinitesimally minute that we can confidently declare its impossibility. On top of the enormous distances and travel times that would be involved, and the requirement for another world able to support intelligent and advanced life somewhere out there, the timing requirement is likewise extremely unlikely. For example, if the entire history of our planet to date were to be compressed into a period of, say, five days, the time during which mankind has been (1) in existence, and (2) civilized enough to comprehend such a contact – generously, the last ten thousand years – would occupy only the final one second of those five days. Both worlds would have to align perfectly during that single equivalent second in time. Nope, the chances of an actual Roswell contact are as close to impossible as can be imagined.


And finally, for our discussion of old house restoration, I feel that in the chemical world, forcing halogens and hydrocarbons to combine into certain new compounds, many of which never appear spontaneously, also runs contrary to a natural world. I call a number of these halogenated hydrocarbon compounds Traitors – we created them to aid us in many activities, including residential construction and restoration, and they performed their jobs in an outstanding fashion, just as designed. Only later did they eventually begin to defect to the enemy and attack either the environment or, even worse, their users, or both.

Traitors are the subject of today’s column. Let’s look at a few halogen + hydrocarbon examples:

Carbon Tetrachloride – Easily formed in the laboratory by combining chlorine and methane. What a great liquid solvent. A cleaner, a rust remover, an overall workhorse chemical. As high schoolers we used this compound by the gallon. Too bad it has also been found to be carcinogenic, and a world-class pollutant.

Polychlorinated biphenyls – This is a family of chemicals. They had many uses in industry. One of their primary applications was as a dielectric (a liquid insulating medium) in electrical transformers. PCBs insulated the different electrical phases from each other quite well, and were (still are) extremely stable chemicals. They were eventually determined to create environmental contamination as well. And, their stability was so great that, once found to be a pollutant, they were quite difficult to destroy. Often, sustained incineration at very high temperatures is the only reliable means of destruction. Under certain conditions, PCBs are also carcinogenic. PCBs can be found in numerous locations in the electrical systems in old houses. In addition, they were occasionally combined with – gulp – asbestos as a thermal insulating material.

Methylene Chloride– Oh yes – the working ingredient in traditional paint strippers. CH2Cl2 is a tiny, round, slippery molecule. Anyone who has used it knows how slippery it is. It will loosen and soften most early coatings in a matter of a few minutes, but will not attack wood, metal, or glass. In previous times, the only practical paint removal alternative to methylene chloride was a caustic soda bath, but the high pH and other characteristics of Sodium Hydroxide cause it to dissolve glue in joints (in, for example, doors and furniture), and to stain wood. So, many of us steered clear of the caustic method. Of course methylene chloride was also eventually determined to be harmful to man and environment. Today there are a number of more benign chemical strippers available for our use.

Chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants– no, we don’t use them directly in restoration, but here is an example of another family of man-made halogen + hydrocarbon chemicals, some of which are now known to destroy the Ozone layer in our atmosphere – our world’s natural line of defense between certain characteristics of solar radiation and ourselves. Most of us probably know that Ozone is actually Oxygen atoms that have decided to exist in trios instead of couples. Any of us who enjoyed electric trains when we were kids remember the smell of Ozone very well. The arcing of the traction motors on our beautiful 4-6-4 Chesapeake and Ohio model steam locomotive created a generous (but temporary) supply of Ozone. Too bad Ozone down here near the surface of the Earth doesn’t help protect us from the sun’s damaging radiation very much – we would have had an environmentally excusable reason to keep playing with our Lionels.

Fortunately the life history of many of the halogen + hydrocarbon Traitors will be found to be short-lived, and we can now move forward with more natural materials that help us accomplish our restoration goals without harm to ourselves or our Earth.

Oneness and Simplicity

I do not mean to sound radical by stating some of my beliefs at the beginning of this column. (I imagine that they may sound somewhat unorthodox.) And I am not suggesting that any of us discontinue flying, or using air conditioning, or medications, or dreaming of alien space contact, or even using chemical aids in our restoration efforts. But I do feel that one of the blessings of the restoration of an old house is a certain oneness with its original owners.

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century people, for example, normally led very hard-working, but less complicated lives, and as we complete the restoration of their beautiful homes and reside where they once lived, perhaps our own lives can become more natural and less complicated as well.

M. Cunningham

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