December 2011

by George Taniwaki

I’ve just finished the first room in our complete home remodel project. OK, it’s not a real room, it’s a 3-foot by 7-foot laundry room. And I haven’t really finished it yet. But it’s more finished than any other room in the house, so I’m satisfied with my progress.

The house already had a laundry room, but we demolished it and the wall between it and a guest bedroom. The combined rooms will become the new master suite bath. (Yes it will be a large bathroom.)

Meanwhile, we demolished the old master bathroom. Most of it will be converted into a walk-in closet. (Yes, that’s a large walk-in closet. And we’re combining the two reach-in closets in the master bedroom and the guest bedroom to make another walk-in closet. So we will have a pair of walk-in closets, a hers and hers set.)

The end of the old master bathroom, where the bathtub was, will be walled off and converted into the laundry room.

The before and after floor plans are shown below.

CD FloorPlanUpper

Figure 1a. Original floor plan with old laundry room and master bathroom highlighted. Image by original architect


Figure 1b. Remodel floor plan with new smaller laundry room and larger master bathroom highlighted. Image by Soderstrom Architects


The first step in creating the laundry room was removing the old bathtub. It is cast iron and really heavy. It took four guys to move it down the stairs into the new dining room until I make room for it in the basement (where we will be adding a full bathroom).

At this point, we discovered a problem. The gasket between the shower faucet handle and the tub surround wasn’t sealed properly and one or two drops of water would land on the subfloor every day. In Seattle that means the subfloor would stay wet and was rotted. Also, when the plumber originally installed the drain for the tub, he cut through the joist. Now the floor was sagging. So we had to rip out the ceiling on the first floor underneath the tub, sister the existing joist with a new 2×10” and replace a section of the subfloor.


You will notice that the new laundry room has a bi-fold door where a wall in the old bathroom was. This is a load bearing wall, so it needed to be replaced with a beam and two columns. Normally, when you do this, you install temporary “crib” walls on both sides of the load bearing wall before removing it. But I cheated. Instead, I used the existing hallway wall as one support and built the new wall for the back of the laundry room and used that as the other temporary support. Then I removed the load bearing wall and installed two 4×4’” columns and a 2.75”x9.75”x7’ glulam beam. (Actually, I hired a framing contractor to do this since it’s too heavy to lift alone.)


The next step was to complete the plumbing, mechanical, and electrical work. The new plumbing includes a hot and cold water outlet box with single handle shut-off valve and  a pair of anti-hammer arresters, washer drain line and trap, and a floor drain and trap with drip valve (to prevent the floor trap from drying out and creating a stink). The mechanical work includes a 1/2” gas line, an in-wall dryer exhaust that vents through the roof, and a room exhaust fan that vents through the roof. This last item was not my choice, it’s required by building code. Electrical work includes two GFCI circuits (one each for washer and dryer), two IC recessed lights, the exhaust fan, and a wall switch.


Once all rough-in inspections were passed, I filled the wall with R-13 glass fiber insulation for sound control and covered it with 5/8” green wall board held with ceramic coated screws. I followed that with tape, mud, three coats of plaster, primer, and paint.


Figure 2. Laundry room getting a coat of primer


The laundry room has a tile floor. First, I cut a piece of 4×4” pressure-treated lumber to build a curb. I originally wanted to put the curb entirely inside the laundry room so that it would not be visible from the hall. But that would not leave enough room for the dryer and its duct. So I cut notches in the lumber and fit it around the opening. (Note to self, next time make the laundry room at least 35” deep.)

Because the washer and dryer will vibrate a lot, I wanted to add a water-proof isolation membrane between the underlayment and the tile. I used Schluter Ditra and Kerdi-Band. Since the laundry room will rarely (hopefully, never) have running water on the floor, I decided not to slope the floor toward the drain. This also allows me to use larger tile on the floor.

Here’s where I learned (the hard way) that there are several different kinds of mortar. Mortar used to lay bricks tends to have coarse sand in it. Mortar for tile has fine sand. Mortar for tile also contains a small amount of acrylic latex to make it smoother. This is called thin-set mortar. If you add even more acrylic latex (rather than water) when mixing the mortar, it then is called modified thin-set mortar.

You use modified thin-set mortar to apply the membrane to the floor. You use unmodified thin-set mortar to apply the tile to the membrane. (Don’t confuse brick mortar with unmodified thin-set mortar.) You need to use unmodified thin-set mortar because latex-modified mortar requires air to cure and since the membrane and tile are both nonporous, there won’t be enough air contact for the mortar to cure properly.


Figure 3. Laundry room with waterproof membrane

After waiting an hour for the membrane mortar to set, it’s time to lay the tiles. In the picture below, notice the arrangement of tiles around the floor drain. Normally, you want to the tiles to intersect over the hole so that you can use a tile saw to cut a series of notches and nibble away to the edge of the hole. However, that wasn’t possible in the small laundry room. The hole had to be in the center of the tile.

Cutting a large hole in a floor tile is difficult. It requires enormous patience and arm strength if you cut it by hand using a rod saw. I gave up and took the tile to Tile For Less and they cut it for me for $35 using a heavy-duty handheld angle saw. This is another reason (besides fitting the slope) for using small tiles in a shower stall. All of the other tiles in the laundry room have straight cuts or bevel cuts and I was able to make them using my inexpensive ($39 on sale from Harbor Freight Tools) 4”wet tile saw.

When installing tile, always use the little cross-shaped rubber tile spacers. You’ll never get the tiles aligned nicely by eye. Also use the right sized notched trowel when applying the mortar, bigger notches for bigger tiles. And back butter large tiles (like the 12×12 tiles in this project) to ensure good adhesion. Finally, use a dead blow hammer to tap the edges of the tiles to get them all to the same height.


Figure 4. Laundry room with tile. Notice the tile spacers, notched trowel, and dead blow hammer

After waiting 20 minutes, I washed the tiles with a sponge to get the stray mortar off. Then I waited a day and applied grout. The local Home Depot carries two kinds of grout, sanded (for use with tiles spaced 1/4” or wider) and unsanded (softer but can fill smaller gaps, used for tiles set under 1/4” apart). All of the grout is pigmented. There are 30 different colors, all with cryptic names like sandstone, fawn, and bone. I didn’t have a tile with me, so I called my wife and asked her to pick up a spare tile from the laundry room and open a web browser compare it to the color swatches on the Home Depot website.

Being an expert on color theory, Windows GDI, LCD display technology, and color management didn’t give me any confidence that this would work. But the alternative would be to compare a tile to the colors printed on the bags of grout. Neither seemed ideal. She picked haystack, a grout color that seemed darker than the darkest color in the tile and I bought a bag of the sanded grout. I mixed it up and used a plastic mud knife and a hard foam pad to apply it.

If you are doing this, wait twenty minutes, then wash off the excess using a scrubbing sponge. Afterwards, a thin haze will appear. Don’t worry. Wait two hours until it hardens, then use a polishing sponge to wipe it off. Wait three days, then seal the tile and grout with a liquid sealant. Touch up the wall paint and you are done.

It turns out the grout color is lighter than we expected. However, it is exactly the same color as the body of the tiles. This made it blend in around the walls and the curb which is actually even better than planned.




Figure 5a, 5b, 5c. Laundry room with wet grout (top), with a coat of haze after washing excess grout (middle), and the finished floor after polishing, sealing, and touch-up painting of walls (bottom)


The final step is installing shelving, a clothes rod, and connecting the appliances. The shelf brackets are designed for wire shelves. I snipped off the little hooks that hold the wire shelves so that I could use solid shelves. The shelves are made from 3/4” MDF with white melamine laminate. I cut notches in each shelf to fit around the vertical posts. The clothes rod is hollow and sounded cheap when a hanger would click against it. So I filled the rod with polyurethane spray foam insulation to deaden the sound.

When connecting the dryer vent to the exhaust, use plenty of metal foil tape (not duct tape) to seal the connections. This will keep lint out of the laundry room and reduce the amount of carbon monoxide (assuming you have a gas dryer) released into the house.



Figure 6. Mostly finished laundry room

In total, this project took me over 100 hours to complete (everything described above except heavy framing and plumbing) and probably cost over $3,000 in labor (split between the framing team and plumber) and $1,000 in materials. And it still isn’t done. I still need to add tile and grout to the exterior of the curb and I need to build and install custom bi-fold doors. Neither project can be done until I install the floor in the hall. And that project is in the distant future.

For more ideas on home remodeling projects see the Home Remodeling Guide.

All photos by George Taniwaki unless otherwise noted

by George Taniwaki

A Dec 2011 article in The Fiscal Times purports to show that eating at restaurants is cheaper than cooking at home. It’s an intriguing idea that has appeared in many articles in the past. However, the analysis presented in The Fiscal Times article is flawed and the conclusions are not supportable.

Before going into the specifics of the errors in The Fiscal Times article, let’s consider how one could compare whether cooking at home is more expensive than eating at restaurants. The typical cost-benefit analysis for eating in versus dining out goes something like as follows. Cooking a meal at home isn’t free. From a classical economic point of view one should include the opportunity cost of the time needed to buy groceries , drive it home, store it,  prepare a meal, and clean up afterwards. Further, one should include the implicit rental value of the automobile used to transport the groceries and the kitchen and dining room used to prepare and serve the meal.

However, shopping, cooking, and cleaning are not just chores that one is required to do. They are a form of entertainment, social interaction, and a way to share your skills with others as Nathan Myhrvold insightfully states in this Dec 2011 Slate interview. The cook receives utility from hosting a meal, even if it is a regular daily event. Naturally, if one hates to shop, cook, or clean, then there can be disutility as well. When deciding whether to eat at home or dine out, a person will want to maximize the expected utility from the decision.

Examining the wrong factors

The Fiscal Times article briefly mentions some of the above factors, but then totally ignores them when doing the price comparisons. Instead, it mentions differing inflation rates between in-home meals and restaurant meals. Relative inflation rates should be irrelevant to the decision to eat at home or dine out. The author also throws in a few additional factors that also seem to be irrelevant in comparing costs,

“We also didn’t factor in whether one meal or another would be healthier, or friendlier to the environment. But that’s part of the point: Eating right and finding the extra savings that could be had by comparison shopping comes with a time trade-off that many families can’t afford to make these days.”

Hard to interpret charts

The Fiscal Times article has two time series charts which I will reproduce below. Some of the problems I found in the first chart:

  1. For some reason the first chart is labeled Chart 2 and the second is labeled Chart 1.
  2. Chart 2 (the first chart) has two different scales (left scale has a range of 1.4% while the right scale has a range of 0.4%) even though both display values from the same dataset (percent share of consumption). This means the data using the right scale will appear to be more variable
  3. The black arrows both point toward the right scale, though “Grocers” (what’s with the quotation marks?) says it is set to the left hand scale (LHS)
  4. Neither scale shows the 0% origin point or the 100% end point (Note that if the scale did go from 0 to 100%, then there would be no need for two different scales.
  5. Assuming the left scale applies to “Grocers” and the right scale to “Restaurants”, then “Grocers share is always above “Restaurants”. It does not cross as the chart shows
  6. There is no source attribution for the data so no way to judge how valid it is or to review the original data


The second chart (entitled Chart 1) also has several flaws.

  1. The color code has been reversed. Dining out share was shown in the blue line in the first chart, while inflation is shown in gold. Similarly, eat at home share was shown in gold in the first chart, while inflation is in blue
  2. The label for each line has changed. “Restaurants” in the first chart is now called Food away from home while “Grocers” is now Food at home
  3. The use of different labels makes one wonder if the same assumptions, data sets, and cost allocations are used in the two charts and whether the same analysts produced both charts. My guess is no, which means the two charts cannot be used together
  4. As mentioned above, relative inflation rate should not directly impact the consumer’s choice to eat at home or at a restaurant, so this chart isn’t very useful


Nonequivalent price comparisons

The Fiscal Times article includes a slideshow that compares the cost of selected meals at restaurants with the cost of preparing the meal at home. In five out of six cases, the restaurant meal is cheaper.

If you only consider the price of store-bought food to the price of a cooked meal at a restaurant, there is probably no way the prices of food ingredients in a competitively priced retail store could exceed the price in a non-subsidized restaurant. Certain restaurants can serve meals at lower than expected prices because of subsidized food (school lunch programs), volunteer labor (homeless shelters or church meal programs), or subsidized rent (canteen stores or cafeterias in office buildings).

So how did The Fiscal Times get these unlikely results? I think the following errors were made:

  1. The restaurant meal prices are for a single serving while the grocery store prices are for full cans, boxes, or other package. This will provide much more food than the restaurant meal
  2. The grocery store prices are for FreshDirect, a grocery delivery service in New York. Delivery groceries are more expensive than self-serve and NYC is the most expensive city in the U.S.
  3. The restaurant meal prices exclude the tip
  4. The grocery store prices include some prepared deli foods. Grocery store deli food can be more expensive than restaurant food since it is an impulse buy

*An orangery is a British term for a greenhouse. They were mostly used to grow citrus fruit (hence the term orangery). Now most citrus fruit in Great Britain is imported. One of the most famous orangeries is located in the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. It is now used as a restaurant where people dine out, not a greenhouse used to grow oranges that people eat at home.

[Update: Expanded the footnote to make clear the irony of an orangery being used as a restaurant.

For a clearer explanation why differing inflation rates should not affect the choice between eating in and going to a restaurant, see this Sep 2013 blog post.]