July 2001: Volume 43, Number 7
When You Want Something Done Right -- Do-It-Yourself with the Help of the Net
by Ronald Y. Pérez, WC&P Senior Editor
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Perhaps no two words haunt us in the summer months more than "home improvement." It's safe to say that, like 99.9 percent of the population, a project you promised yourself or your significant other would do "once the weather warms up" still lies undone. Of course, when you made the pledge, it was 30 degrees outside and rainy. You were saved of a guilty conscience or glare from across the room. Recent sightings of pool activities, barbecues and sunscreen leave us, however, with no excuses.
Like you, your customers also may be thinking of such do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. They may be taking a free class at Home Depot or Lowe's to install that reverse osmosis system. Or they may even be darting around the Internet for installation tips. It's a good idea for you to check on what they may be reading, if only to be more aware when they come to you later -- as some inevitably will -- with a fouled up project due to some of the advice they got or their interpretation of it. That's not to say some of these sites don't have very good information to offer. You may even find them handy for your own "Honey, do…" or "Things I gotta do…" list for your home.
Let's go with the most recognizable site first. Some commercial sites are more popular than this one, but we'll try to walk the impartial line here. Besides, if we mention one, we would have to mention all in the spirit of fairness. Equipped with a very busy home page, five areas of general interest are mentioned -- Build/Remodel, Repair/Fix-It, Decorate, Outdoors, Finance and Living. The DIY aficionado will gravitate toward the first two categories.
Under Repair/Fix-It, a listing for "Plumbing" appears. Clicking on this button takes you on a journey of all kinds of potential projects. Some you probably have never thought of before. The more familiar ones are adding a new bathroom or installing a kitchen sink or water filter. There's even a section on plumbing codes. If you own an older home like myself, you have probably learned first hand how far plumbing codes have come over the years.
"Water Tips and Projects" contain many topics that may be of use to you. There's information on faucet-mounted water filter systems, iron and nitrates in water, water treatments, distillation, RO and water softening. At random -- and because it's the first listing -- I click on "faucet-mounted water filter system." I'm greeted with a paragraph on how RO water can be a money-saving alternative to bottled water. Where have we heard this debate before? Then I see where the verbiage comes courtesy of a national hardware chain (think John Madden) with a hyperlink. The only thing missing is a company logo. Further down the page, a tag line announces, "Don't have time to do it yourself?" It goes on to offer up to four free estimates from "prescreened and insured contractors." So much for promoting DIY; the idea was DOA at this point.
On the surface, there's much to like about this site. Plenty of categories. Promises of "how to" tips. Ultimately, however, it concedes to commercialism and an overview approach that describes the process of each subject but doesn't give enough background and useful steps in solving an existing problem. It also doesn't help that you are occasionally greeted with a flash page to sign up for a free magazine issue.
If ever you were looking for a site that was too busy for its own good, you've reached your destination. OK, so the title of the site isn't exactly PC, for those who care about such things, but that's the least of Mister Fixit's problems. First, there is absolutely no indication the site even pertains to DIY at all. Plus, there's no distinction of a home page. A printout reveals 10 pages of assorted vignettes from donating to charities to cable channel promos. For automobile repair enthusiasts, a separate section has been dedicated to you.
After scrolling down twice from the first page, you'e greeted with a potpourri of DIY topics from electronics to roofing (something I am sure we all think about in the summer swelter). Plumbing is included as well so I proceed from there.
The first thing that catches my eye are the various hyperlinks. One link is attached to the "Water Softener Saga." This has all the makings of a very slanted view on water softeners. Curious, I continue. A story is told about a water softener bought from a national retail chain (rhymes with "beers") and how it needed replacement. Without going into detail, it's rather flattering toward the water treatment dealer. The downside -- the story is apparently penned by a "Brother Bob" (one of which I eerily have, by the way).
Other areas of interest here are tips on how to approach wet basements, soldering cooper pipes and tub drains. As stated before, each potential problem is attached to a hyperlink.
Judging from the name, I thought I might be sent to a hip-hop site. No dice. Oh well, it probably wouldn't have worked here anyway. Instead, this rather unassuming site has plenty of information about numerous devices to "prepare your water . . .Included are many Do-It-Yourself ideas." Bingo! This section is broken down into three different headings -- Water Preparation, Tank Filters: Descriptions, Reviews and Debates. As expected, every area under each heading has a hyperlink containing a short article-like review of one person's approach to identifying the problem and how they rectified it.
This is good, but I want to cut right to the chase and scroll down to the DIY portion. In all, 21 categories are provided. The range goes from the self-explanatory (check valves and float switches) to the more obscure (Archimedes screw pump) "so your plankton don't get planked." Those plumbers can be a hilarious group.
Here's a warning: If you're looking to get quick and easy information during, let's say, your lunch break, forget it. The amount of sources and references runs page after page. Still, the quality is too good to pass up. Any project should be addressed within the massive undertaking known as "the krib." It's worth mentioning some of the other topics. These include filter media, air pumps and blowers and water changers. If you still don't find your area of interest, then you're invited to take a stab at "miscellaneous plumbing." Best yet, each first-person account has contact information usually in the form of a telephone number or a website. What more could you ask for?
Here's hoping that you have a better idea now of the task your more proactive customers faced in learning what you've learned in 5, 10 or 20 years in an hour or two. Oddly You may even have already emailed the website about corrections or clarifications to the information presented. Too bad none have a bulletin board or chatroom for the give and take of more practical advice.
www.doityourself.com: Tries to be all things to all people. Lots of good info, but a lot gets lost along the way. Here's an idea -- reduce the number of overlapping categories and devote more space to actual hands-on solutions.
www.misterfixit.com: This cumbersome, circa 1995 site should be for patient people only. If navigating aimlessly is a pet peeve, don't bother coming to Mister Fixit. It's a shame because much of the plumbing information is quite useful. A note to Brother Bob: How about a search function?
www.thekrib.com/Filters: Vastly underrated. A whole section dedicated to DIY makes this site valuable. Topics are clear and there's no fluff to dodge. A big plus is the water-industry specific areas that are presented. A definite DIY bookmarker.
FYI -- More DIY Options Online
And for "Home Improvement" TV show fans:
EXTRA: Weight (and measure) of the matter
Without fail, a DIY project will involve some numbers crunching, which may mean translating weights and measure units. For those curious to know how they translate internationally, here are a few websites suggested by a Keck & Co. newsletter and recommended by Chris Rand, editor of Engineering Talk magazine:
* Constants, Units and Uncertainty at NIST (USA):
* Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (French):
* On-Line Converters: