Saturday, January 29, 2011

Crime Watch 2 - Community Organizer

One lesson I learned through the crime watch program is that it is not easy to be a community organizer, it takes a lot of time and energy, even though I did not need to mobilize the community. I also learned how to conduct limited background check, communicating to large number of people in email efficiently, and crowd control.

1. Initiation of community activities

Most of the time, it is hard to motivate a lot of people to get involved in community activities, as simple as attending HOA annual meetings. The most difficult part of organizing community activities is to motivate residents.

This time, the spate of break-ins motivated residents to get involved. I had nearly 50 residents attended the crime prevention seminar, about 100 residents attended the crime watch star-up, 40 of them volunteered to be block captains.

2. Checking volunteer background

I knew only a handful of persons among the 40+ volunteer block captains.

At the very beginning, I was determined to check every volunteer's residence within our community of ~ 1000 households. Most volunteers' address and/or email were verified via HOA address book.

A few volunteers' information is unlisted. Verification of their information needed some extra efforts: check their name/address against county property tax records. But one volunteer's information was not there either. I was alerted and excited at the same time - did I catch someone who tried to sneak into our crime watch program? - I walked to the street of the provided address, there was a house there at the address! I got the final verification by typing the address into county record.

3. Email communications

Email is the most efficient and effective communication method for the large crime watch program we have.

I collected about 100 emails at the meetings. On top of back ground check, typing email address into computer was a lot of work. It took me a total of 12 hours to compile the email list + background check - basically one and half days of the weekend after crime watch start up meeting.

Initially I used email list on my personal email account. Quickly I was identified as potential spamer after sending 4 emails to my list in a day! So I created a yahoo group email for the crime watch program - currently I only have block captains on the group email. I will need to take time to put the rest of the emails on my crime watch list to the group email.

4. Crowd control during community meeting

Despite a good pre-meeting preparation, the crime watch start up meeting was sort of out of control during general discussions. Speakers interrupted each other, loudest speakers got chance to speak and the discussion subject was out of the meeting's objectives. I was too nice to stop speakers.

The second meeting "meet the board " went much more smoothly since I set the ground rules first and stick to the agenda.

5. Crime watch sign placements

Initially many residents wanted the signs placed in their streets.

I surveyed the community again on bike and found that there were 5 signs at several major locations already. Many people did not realize their existence until I pointed out that they were there! To save money, and to prevent visual fatigue (or desensitizing by too many sign), I proposed to add 7 more signs at major entrances to the community.

It took me another week before I drew illustrations for police to show where and which direction we want the signs to be placed. The payment and application of sign placement were sent to crime prevention unit of city police at the end of the year.

I was really pleased to see that the signs were installed during the second week of January.

6. Keep the community involved

It is good to have a crime watch program, it might be helpful to have crime watch signs installed at major intersections, the real impact of the crime watch program, however, is from residents' involvement: know their neighbors, report suspicious activities to police.

For me, the organizer, the challenge ahead is to keep the community engaged and involved in crime watch and other community related activities when memory of crisis fades away.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crime Watch 1

As HOA board secretary, my specific responsibilities include taking board meeting minutes, social committee and HOA website, in addition to general board functions. The first thing I did at this capacity was to request the management company to update HOA website information on crime watch and board member contact information.

After the update, I took a quick look at the website to check on the information, even though I noticed that there were a few break-ins, I thought that they happened in surrounding communities and did not think too much about it. Then during a casual conversation on HOA work in September, I told Lily about the crime watch bulletin, she read the bulletin, and was alarmed that that there were three break-ins in our community and actually in streets near to ours! I was alarmed as well, and quickly alerted the board. Shortly afterwards, another break-in happened!

I requested the board to act. My initial proposals to the board included: 1. board and concerned residents have a meeting with city police department, 2. invite police crime prevention unit to make a presentation. For a few weeks, I acted as messenger between the board and concerned residents while trying to organize the meeting with city police department. Many suggestions were made: crime prevention training, crime watch, security patrol, surveillance camera, community vehicle sticker, speed bumps in streets and alley ways, increasing street lights, notification of the community about what had happened .....

In this period more break-ins occurred in the community. Many residents who knew the situation were on the edge, while many other were not aware of what had been happening at all. I pushed for action again! - more specific proposals per comments I heard from residents. While many of the suggestions required deliberations and board decisions, I decided to move ahead with what could be done right away: to educate the community about crime prevention and to mobilize the community for a crime watch program.

Crime Prevention Education

The crime prevention seminar took place in early November, six weeks after my initial proposal! This was primarily due to the slow action from the management company which was to make the appointment with the presenting officer.

Despite the fact that Crime prevention seminar was held at a library 4 miles away from the community, 50 ~ 60 people showed up at the meeting - most ever I had ever seen in our HOA meeting!! Three police officers attended the presentation, two were officers from crime prevention unit, one was the burglar detective.

The meeting went well. The police presentation emphasized

1) Seek help from police first in case of criminal activities.

2) Residents need to report suspicious person/cars/activities to police by calling 911 or non emergency police number.
3) Home security: reinforcement to the door, usage of peep hole, alarm system

"When good guys stand up, bad guys leave; when people hide in their corners, bad guys will take over".

Police detective talked about what city police had done and what the situations are in our community. The city increased police patrol and added under cover patrol in the community.

Crime Watch Program

Of all the techniques and methods, community crime watch has been proven to be the most effective crime prevention method. The basic principle of crime watch is

"Know your neighbors, Report Suspicious Activities to Police".

Our crime watch start-up meeting was held at a library near our community.

The agenda:

1. Go through the general guidelines for Crime Watch
2. Discussions on how we can do the crime watch well
3. Sign-up block captains
4. adjourn

About 100 residents attended the meeting! Another record for our HOA meeting. 40+ residents volunteered to be block captains for 20+ streets in our community.

Quickly our block captains were in action - contact their neighbors, have block meetings to inform and to make neighbors get to know each other, form block email lists, ....One block went a step further - started their own citizen patrol for crime prevention!!

The direct impact of the crime watch program is that our community is mobilized, energized and organized to prevent crimes. Many residents got to know their next door neighbors for the first time. The feeling of belonging to a community is on the rise!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tankless Water Heater

Tankless water heater has many advantages over traditional tank water heater, such as energy efficiency, no worry of tank leak, and space saving. The most important motivation for us to replace tank water heaters with tankless was, however, the loud noise from water tanks after showers, and thus the fear of tank leak from the bubble explosions

Noise from Attic

The first time I heard loud noise from attic direction was on an independence day, I thought that it was the sound of firecrackers! Continuing banging or popping sound from attic after showers made me to investigate the source of the noise. It was the (gas fired) water heaters in our attic!

A literature search quickly revealed the cause of the noise:

1) No maintenance of the water heater for long time leads to the buildup of hard water sediment, or mineral scales (primarily composed of calcium and magnesium carbonate), forming a hard skin on the bottom of the heater, interfering with heat transfer.

2) After extensive use of hot water, e.g. after the whole family had showers in a short time span, cold water filled the tank, the water heater starts to heat the water tank. For a gas fired water heater, the gas fire heat the water tank from below. Due to the poor heat transfer of the scale, the water between the scale and the bottom of the tank heats up much faster than water above the scale, leading to cavitation - explosion of water bubble - thus the banging or popping sound.

This loud noise is not only a nuance, it is also an indication of upcoming more serious problems - higher gas bill due to poor heat transfer, tank leak due to the mini explosions (which cause the popping sound) that weakens the bottom of water heater. On rare occasion, the water tank can become a "rocket" during its failure process.

One way to eliminate the scales, and thus the noise from the water heater, is to flush the water tanks regularly. We flushed our water tanks several times with limited success at reducing the nosies - though we actually saw lot sediments flushed out.

Note: tank water heater manufactures typically recommend be drained, flushed and cleaned regularly (e.g every 6 months) to remove sediment which may build-up during operation.

Tankless Water Heater

Due to limited success from flushing water tanks, we decided to replace the water tanks instead of hiring professional plumbers to clean them. So the questions became: tank or tankless water heater?

We went out to seeks bids from several plumbing services for both tankless and tank water heaters in summer of 2009. Here were two quotes we got: (tank (2x50 Gallon), tankless (for 4 showers)

  • plumber 1 $2220.00 (tanks); $3680 (+ $750 gas upgrade) (tankless)

  • plumber 2 $2400 (tanks); $3100 (tankless)
  • Both plumbers provided quotes on the exactly the same brand tanks (American) and tankless (Rinnai) water heaters. Tankless water heater is much more expensive than tank water heater - 50% more (compared to two water tanks - our case), but the no worry about leak was a big plus for us. Plus, with the huge TAX credit for energy efficient appliances at the time (2009-2010), the final expense for the tankless water heater would be about the same as the tanks.

    Plumber 2 had clear price advantage over plumber 1, but we were hesitant to buy Rinnai from him. The reasons were: plumber 1 claimed a need for gas upgrade for our installations as well as the need to acquire a permit from city; plumber 2 said that there were no need for either. We wondered if plumber 2 was eager to sell and thus omit necessary work. I did additional research on gas pipe sizing, and went back to ask plumber 1 specifically on the two issues. I was assured that there was no need for gas upgrade, and acquiring permit or not was up to us.

    We had not made up our mind yet on the installation of Rinnai from plumber 2 at the end of the year. Then we got an email from the plumber offering a huge promotional discount for Rinnai tankless water heater, the price dropped from $3100 to $2500 for a December installation! Adding his reassurance of no need of gas upgrade for proper operation and purchasing installation permit for us, we had the tankless water heater installed on December 28, 2009.

    Note: it turned out that city inspection was superficial. A city inspector came to our house after installation. He made a quick visual inspection of the water heater and vent in less than 2 minutes. The quality of the installation is essentially dependent of the plumber's craftsmanship and homeowner's diligence in checking on the installation.

    Tankless Needs Maintenance as well

    The Rinnai Tankless water heater worked as advertised - quick supply of hot water, no more noise from attic, no more worry of tank leak. After a year's use, I compared 3 month gas bills between summer 2010 and 2009, the gas usage in the three months (6,7,8) in 2010 was about half or less of that in 2009 - validated the manufactures claim of 40% more energy efficiency. We had more gains in efficiency because of heavy scale buildup in our old water tanks.

    We were told at the installation, that the water heater needed an annual flush to maintain its efficiency. So we contacted the plumber for the annual maintenance in the last week of 2010. His employee came to flush the tankless unit on January 3, 2011. It took 45 minutes to flush the unit with descaler solution (vinegar), and then 15 - 20 minutes to flush the unit with water. The price for the flush was $199! Expensive!

    With foresight, I observed the whole maintenance process, asked the service technician many questions related to the flush. I also wrote down the name/brand of the kit he used "Whitlam Flow-Aide System Descaler Kit". The detailed descaling procedure is available at the manufacturer's website. The kit costs about $150, the solution $20.

    I will buy a descaler kit, flush the tankless annually and try to keep it running efficiently for a long time.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    New Year's Resolution

    My New Year's resolution is "Have 8 hour sleep daily"

    In 2010, especially the first 6 months, my workload was very heavy. I had to work overtime at home daily to finish projects for internal customers. This combined with early rise in the morning to beat traffic jam caused sleep 'deprivation'. I usually had only 6 hour or less sleep a day, felt sleepy around 3 - 4 pm frequently.

    In addition, my desire to exceed customer expectations and to complete as many projects as possible, caused a lot of stress. I did realize that sleep deprivation, stress and fatigue, eventually would lead less efficiency, not more. They could also minimize my immune system's capacity to protect my body. I tried many things to relax and rest, such as taking a 60 - 90 minute nap on one weekend afternoon each week, working in the yard instead of on the computer, exercise regularly, taking breaks to jog on every work day when possible ..... Despite all these efforts, sustained sleep deprivation and stress eventually caught up with me. In the4th quarter of the year, I made quite a few trivial mistakes, which led to longer time for completion of several projects, adding more stress on me.

    This is why I made "Have 8 hour sleep daily" as one of my new year's resolutions.

    Good sleeps should benefit my body, my family, my work - my life.

    Saturday, January 1, 2011

    Custom Calendars

    Note: All pictures shown in this post were artistically rendered by Justin.

    Our family tradition of creating custom calendars started in November 2006.

    The custom calendar for a new year is made from the best photos we took the previous year. Looking back at old calendars is like watching the highlight reels of our door activities in the years past.

    The 2007 Calendar being the first we made, included photos from 2006 as well as 2004 and 2005: The January page is a picture of our snow covered house - the first snow we had in Texas in 2004. The photo in February page is the Cheetahs' first team picture in 2006. Then there were: Lily cooking barbecue in the backyard (May), a spectacular sunset at Plano on 12/31/2005 - picture taken in front our house (June), kayaking in Lake Murray in 2005(August) - the beautiful sight of a yellow kayak paddled forward by me made Lily want to kayak as well, Nicholas in a home-made Halloween costume at a community Halloween costume contest in 2004 (October) - which won Nicholas his first ever award of $15, and our 2nd skiing at Taos (December). The rest of the months were from the pictures taken during our 2006 Big Bend trip. 2008 calendar had a similar format as 2007's, a chronicle of the 2007 outdoor events. 2009 calendar focused on our Yellowstone trip, and 2010 calendar was all about our 2009 Alaska trip.

    Over the years the format of our custom calendar has evolved. Now we have two versions of the custom calendar: one is nature centered for use at offices, the other is people centered for use at home. We also let Justin to try his Multimedia techniques to create one calendar for his own room.

    2011 Nature version

    January Snow in North Texas
    February A Bird in the Front Yard
    March Lake Millwood
    April Wild Flowers in Spring
    May A Northern Mocking Bird on our roof
    June Double Rainbows
    July Summer Palace in Beijing
    August A White Headed Bird at Lake Ray Roberts
    September A Butterfly
    October A Dragonfly
    November Lake Mineral Wells
    December A Red Bird

    2011 People version

    January Camping at Millwood
    February Skiing at Taos
    March Lily and Allan at Meyerson
    April Gershwin Concert
    May Kayaking at Lake Mineral Wells
    June Justin and Mom at Meyerson
    July Nicholas paddling on Lake Millwood
    August On a Hiking Trail
    September Sisters at the "Egg" (Chinese National Gallery of Performing Arts )
    October Siblings in China
    November Rowing a Canoe
    December Towering Trees

    Note: We use - for cutom calendars. We are satified with its service so far