World Pangolin Day

World Pangolin Day

Today is World Pangolin Day. If you’re not sure what that means, I’ll give you an ultra brief rundown. This is a pangolin:

This is a pangolin. Super cute. Photo courtesy of http://savepangolins.org

This is a pangolin. Super cute. Photo courtesy of http://savepangolins.org

 

According to Wikipedia, a pangolin is a mammal that has large keratin scales covering its skin, and is the only known mammal with this adaptation. It is found naturally in tropical regions throughout Africa and Asia. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up”. It is the most trafficked mammal in the world.

People in Southeast Asia love harvesting these little guys, often illegally, and selling all their bits , often illegally, to people in China primarily, as well as other countries. At the rate their habitat is being destroyed, and they are being killed, the pangolin will be extinct in just a few years. Which means while we’ve been able to enjoy their existence and the cool diversity they bring to our world, our kid’s world will be distinctly lacking in diversity cause they won’t have pangolins. Personally I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have cool animals, such as the pangolin, in it.

So to raise awareness we celebrate World Pangolin Day today!

Click here for 7 ways to celebrate World Pangolin Day today, and every day really.

And you can use these cool hashtags to raise awareness:

Please take the time to appreciate these awesome critters, and everything they offer in terms of wonder and diversity to our cool world. Think of ways that you and your family can help save these and other endangered plants and animals.

Basement Fireproof Caulking

When not trying to save the world, I’m trying to improve the comfort and performance of our house. Today I checked off a chore that had been on my list for a while.

Plumbers, electricians and HVAC installers in my opinion are nice guys but generally can be horrific when it comes to “whole system thinking”. What happens is the electrician comes in and runs wires, or the HVAC guy runs ducts. Then another trade comes in and does their thing. Well in doing their thing, they may inexplicably mess up the work of another trade and in the end you have a bunch of little issues that need to be addressed. For example, there is support blocking that was removed when air ducts went in, or random hole attempts in the foundation, or holes in air ducts where wires go through.

Just like the foam I had to replace / supplement last week, today I had to deal with some air flow issues. There is a large air duct that was created between two first floor joists. Fairly common, the HVAC team tacks up some corrugated like silver board to seal up the space between two joists and “Presto!”, instant air duct. The problem is either before or after someone ran electrical wires through the two joists. So the air duct, which works most efficiently when it’s air tight, has a bunch of holes that allow air to escape. By time the air goes from the furnace to the vent upstairs, it’s lost a lot of its “gusto” which makes the furnace work harder. In fact you want to keep wires out of the ducts altogether because they are an unnecessary obstruction to air flow.

To seal up these holes, finally, I used some fire barrier caulk. Because they’re electrical wires, you have to use fire caulk. The grey gooey stuff was easy to work with and came off of my hands easily when it was clean up time. I ended up using my finger to apply it because it was difficult to reach the holes with the caulk gun; too many pipes and wires in the way.

I even caulked up some gaps at the end of the vent for good measure.

Tip: do all this caulking during construction when you have better access, or ask your tradesmen to do it for you.

Basement

Framing is complete in the basement. So now we’re ready for inspections and then electrical. It’s really exciting to see the rooms formed and ready for the next step. I think we have around $750-$1,000 worth of materials into the project so far. My labor is free.

And I noticed my spray foam job did the trick on the exterior penetrations. I got one more can to touch up one little gap, but otherwise we should be pretty air tight in the basement now. Will see if these sealing chores impact our electric bill in the coming year.

 

Spray Foam For -15 Days

Winter is kicking the crap out of us. And it’s everything our energy-efficient house can do to keep up. School is cancelled tomorrow because the high is supposed to be around 4 degrees, and lows around -15 degrees.

A weak in our super insulated house that I noticed recently is down in the basement. There are a series of penetrations in the rim joist where various mechanical systems go outside. These include holes for a spigot, the fresh air energy exchanger and what I think is the septic tank.

When they built the house nearly three years ago, the insulation was sprayed first, then the plumber and HVAC guys came in to set up their systems. Well when they did their job, they cut away the insulation but never bothered to spray foam around the pipes. Thus creating a kink in our insulating armor.

Recently when we had the spigot replaced (twice), due to leakage, more foam was removed from that particular hole and not replaced.

When I was finishing off the basement shelves this winter, I noticed I could see cobwebs near the holes blowing in the wind. Air was rushing into the house through the uninsulated penetrations. Because the house is super tight (or is supposed to be), any air penetration is exaggerated. So it was like little jet streams of air pouring in, and recently 0 degree air.

I was going to wait until the weather warmed up to spray some foam into the openings. I’m not sure if the cold air will affect the curing of the foam, as it hardens into an air tight barrier. But with -15 facing us tomorrow I figured I’d better spray today.

I used one can, and sprayed around all the openings. The foam takes a while to expand and harden, so I’ll check progress in the morning, and likely pick up another can to spray. There were a couple other little areas, like where a HVAC register is smack dab against the rim joist, that could use some foam.

When spraying, take your time. These areas are really tight to access, and a flashlight is necessary to be able to see. And don’t be like me: wear gloves. I got the nasty stuff on my hands and in the fur on my arms. It does not come off!

Overall the house has been holding up to winter in terms of keeping us warm. My office area is fairly cold and I’ve taken to plugging in a space heater. I’m also getting old and can’t seem to shake the cold anymore. We’ve been using the pellet fireplace a lot more this winter too. It works like a dream. One other note, the passive solar part of our home building equation definitely works. The kitchen, dining, family room area gets unto 75+ degrees on sunlight alone, which presumably takes some load off of the HVAC system.

I hope you’re all staying as warm as you can. I’m really depressed with the weather we’re having and can not wait for spring to get here as soon as possible.

Here are today’s pics. Peace.

Spray foam comes in a can. It's one time use, so use the whole can.

Spray foam comes in a can. It’s one time use, so use the whole can.

Pipes for the geothermal or septic system. Really tight access to where they penetrate the rim joist.

Pipes for the geothermal or septic system. Really tight access to where they penetrate the rim joist.

The input or output, I forget, for the fresh air heat exchanger. Fairly good access. Note, the laundry room HVAC vent in the adjacent bay is right against the rim joist, and could benefit from some spray foam.

The input or output, I forget, for the fresh air heat exchanger. Fairly good access. Note, the laundry room HVAC vent in the adjacent bay is right against the rim joist, and could benefit from some spray foam.

spray-foam-around-house-penetrations

Basement Project – Insulation

In the past basement insulation was often overlooked. Typically basement walls were cinder blocks and that was it. Now there are so many options from a construction standpoint, you really need to do your homework to see what suits your home building situation. Layer on top of that all the options there are for insulating your basement, and you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Insulating your basement goes a long way to reducing your energy bills, and increasing the comfort of the occupants living inside the home. Even if your basement is a storage catch-all, or a place to sequester unruly family members, there is great value in making your basement warm through the use of insulation.

The main advantage basements have, compared to the rest of the house, is it’s surrounded by soil. And the deeper you go, the more the temperature of the soil levels off around 50-60 degrees. Even at 4′, the temperature starts to hold its own verses air temperature above.

Here is a cross-section of our basement, provided by the wonderful peeps at Ferut Architecture:

Basement wall section courtesy of Ferut Architects. copyright 2014

Basement wall section courtesy of Ferut Architects. copyright 2014

So, taking a look at the diagram, you can see our awesome Superior walls make up our foundation. They’re awesome because they are prefabricated cement and include R-15 of rigid insulation right from the factory. Check out  this post to see how they were installed. It was amazing.

The plan was to add 3″ of sprayed 2 pound insulation to the inside of the Superior walls; adding R-20 to our R-15 walls for a phenomenal R-35 insulation rating to our basement walls. Also note we already have R-20 (4″ of rigid) under the cement floor. The basement would be warm snuggly nest once we were done.

Basement before insulation.

Basement before insulation.

Well turns out due to cost restraints we needed to dial it back a bit. What we did was in all of the areas that were getting drywalled, we had our friends at R-Tek Insulation in sunny Barberton, Ohio, spray 1.5 inches of insulation on just the top 4′ of the 10′ walls. This gives that area an added R-10 of insulation, for a total of R-25. This is better than most foundations, and worlds apart from traditional uninsulated cinder block walls.

The spray foam provides an air tight and presumably water tight, or at least water-resistant seal on the walls. Once the drywall is on, our basement should prove to be more air tight. The combination of air tightness and increased insulation should lower our HERS rating from its current level at 41. I’m not sure if I’ll get the house tested again. Maybe down the road after I do a few other things (to be determined).

By the way, spray insulation must be covered with sheet rock (drywall) as I do think there are fire concerns with the material when it’s simply exposed. We limited our spray only to those areas where there would be drywall. The storage rooms did not get any additional insulation at this time.

For reference on a scale from 0-150 the average home has a HERS rating of 130. New homes have to have a 100 rating. A zero energy house (which we hope to be someday) is 0. Our house is about 59% more efficient than your typical new house.

The cost for our additional insulation was $2,000. To do the entire top to bottom at R-20 would have likely been $8,000 or more.

Basement after insulation.

Basement after insulation.

The white colored spray foam expands as it dries. It also creates a air tight, water tight barrier.

The white colored spray foam expands as it dries. It also creates a air tight, water tight barrier.

The top 4' are insulated with 1.5" of 2lb. spray insulation (R-10).

The top 4′ are insulated with 1.5″ of 2lb. spray insulation (R-10).

Another option instead of spray insulation would be adding more polystyrene rigid insulation. Check out the Superior website here, for more information. You simply cut and install the rigid, bonding it to the existing rigid in the walls using liquid nails or other non-foam attacking adhesive. In fact this is what I will do for the storage rooms where we won’t have drywall. Because the spray insulation needs to be covered, per code, putting rigid in the storage rooms is my only option really. So strangely enough we will likely get a full R-20 floor to ceiling in the storage rooms because I just have to pay for material. It’s a super simple DIY job that I can do myself – free labor! Actually in hind sight, I should have likely done this everywhere from the get go, but I already had the insulation guys lined up. No worries, I like the spray insulation. And down the road if we really want to I’m sure we can go back in to the exterior walls and spray more (would have to replace drywall though).

One other note, I don’t think you ever want spray paper based insulation in your basement. With all the potential natural moisture issues, like the potential for flooding, in a basement, paper based insulation (like we have upstairs) is a bad idea.

There you have it. Now onto finishing framing and building some storage shelves.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments below.

Garden Sage

I took the weekend off from work to try and get some things done around the house. Saturday I finally grabbed the gallon of ‘Garden Sage’ colored paint from beneath my studio table and set out to paint our other son’s bedroom. The color is off of our Sherwin Williams / HGTV ‘Global Spice’ palette.  Garden Sage’ SW 7736 is a great neutral greenish color. We are huge fans of the color “sage”. We selected for our carpet throughout the second floor in this house, as well as our last house. Using the color on the walls of the bedroom makes for a really warm, soothing feel.

SW 7736 Garden Sage walls in the bedroom.

SW 7736 Garden Sage walls in the bedroom.

The sage walls go nicely with the sage carpet upstairs. Very warm, earthy and natural.

The sage walls go nicely with the sage carpet upstairs. Very warm, earthy and natural.

We’ve now used ten (10) colors off the ‘Global Spice‘ palette in our home. Each one is a knockout and in concert with each other it makes for a natural, visually warm, interesting yet calming experience.

Today I finally took a look at our Aprilaire 5000 Whole-House Electronic Air Cleaner. The little indicator on top has been flashing for a while, begging me to clean the unit inside. The  wife guided me through the maintenance directions she received quite a while ago from the HVAC guy. I guess life gets busy and we forget we have to take care of stuff. I opened the unit up and a few feathers fell out. I have no idea. I pulled out the filter core and it looks like there are about three main elements – 1) a expanded metal screen which was dusty, 2) super thin wires I’m not sure what they are for, but two were broken and all were dusty, and 3) a big fan fold filter which was filthy. Well I messed around with the whole ordeal, and the wife meticulously washed the metal screen, but other than that I’m not sure….I can order a new filter media thingy but you know what, realistically an HVAC guy should come out her and check to make sure the entire system is looking and working good. Also two of the thin wires are broke and I have no idea how those get fixed (or even what they do, other than they should be cleaned monthly).

The Aprilaire Model 5000 Whole House Electronic Air Cleaner opened up.

The Aprilaire Model 5000 Whole House Electronic Air Cleaner opened up.

The back side of the air cleaner.

The back side of the air cleaner.

Point is all this stuff requires maintenance that is nearly impossible for me to remember to do. We need to keep a calendar or something. Quite frankly my head isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be to do “normal” house stuff. I worry about where our next meal is going to come from, so doing mundane home maintenance and chores is the last thing I care about.

But with this weekend being my self imposed chance to do some chores, I set the air cleaner project back on the “to do” list and instead I did one other easy one: I cleaned the  Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV). It’s a fairly simple chore; not sure when I did it last. You just unplug it, open it up, pull out two mesh screens and clean those. Then you pull out the diamond shaped filter out and vacuum that. I also vacuumed all the cavities inside the unit to get rid of spider webs and debris. Once the screens are dry, everything goes back together. It’s about a 15 minute job. Oh, for reference you’re supposed to spray some goo on the metal screens (and clean them every 6 months) but I am goo-less; will have to get some and spray it on at a later date.

Aprilaire Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) with the cover off. Core filter on left, intakes on the right.

Aprilaire Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) with the cover off. Core filter on left, intakes on the right.

That’s about it for this weekend. It was nice to get away from the computer and work and do stuff “normal” people do, again. Painting the bedroom was relatively relaxing and meditative. In a complex world, mundane tasks are king. Our son likes the color of his new room and hopefully it will be better for him compared to stark white walls. Now that his room is painted, I can only think of 2-3 rooms that need painting. I have one un-colored gallon that we bought on sale a while ago, so technically I can paint one of those rooms for “free”. We just need to pick a room and a color. Each room left is small so one gallon outta do it.

-Chris

Random House Repair

Sunday found me tackling a three items on my “honey do” list. Here is how things went or are going:

Repair The Coat Hook Rack In The Foyer

As you may remember, my sister-in-law ripped the coat rack off the wall in a drunken fit of rage on Thanksgiving (okay not really but that sounds better than “my wife and kids overloaded the coat rack, and my sister-in-law’s coat was the last straw”). Well anyway, the coat rack ripped clean out of the wall. My fix is to install a 1×8 poplar board, between the trim of the studio and front doors. I’m actually a huge fan of horizontal trim boards on walls. I think they add a “farm-y” or “craftsman” look to the interior and they are extremely practical, especially for coat racks, shelves or garment pegs. They also add some visual interest as well as make the wall color pop, if the trim is of a contrasting color such as white. If I was a designer, I would put them all over the place.

As of today, I’ve got the poplar trim board installed and painted. I’m trying to decide how best to install the coat rack. I’m leery to just screw it to the board, as I don’t want the screws to rip out of the poplar board. No worries about the board coming off the wall, it’s fastened with eight (8) SPAX screws so the board is going nowhere; just that the coat rack may still pull off under load if I don’t attach it properly.

Here’s the progress so far:

The coat rack ripped right out of the wall under load.

The coat rack ripped right out of the wall under load.

I cut away the damaged drywall.

I cut away the damaged drywall.

I spackled / mudded over the holes to repair them.

I spackled / mudded over the holes to repair them.

I pinned the 1x8 poplar board in place using my nail gun and small trim nails.

I pinned the 1×8 poplar board in place using my nail gun and small trim nails.

I used awesome 2-1/2" SPAX wood screws to attach the board to the studs, countersinking the heads.

I used awesome 2-1/2″ SPAX wood screws to attach the board to the studs, countersinking the heads.

I used spackle to cover up the nail holes. I then painted the trim generic white.

I used spackle to cover up the nail holes. I then painted the trim generic white.

Therma-Tru Door Corner Pads

For 18 months now I’ve needed to install the little “L” shaped pads in the lower corners of our Therma-Tru doors. We could see daylight in the corners which means we were leaking warm air outside all winter. I simply followed the directions that were included with the pads. It was super easy.

  1. adjust the threshold plate so the seal under the door fits snuggly
  2. caulk the seam where the plate meets the door frame
  3. install the wedge-shaped pads in the lower corners, tucking the “L” part behind the vertical seal on the door frame. I put the “L” part up. I think that was right.
You can see daylight before the pads were installed.

You can see daylight before the pads were installed.

Here are the parts and directions from Therma-Tru for the corner pads. They sent these to me for free after I sobbed that I didn't have any and could see daylight in the corners of my exterior doors.

Here are the parts and directions from Therma-Tru for the corner pads. They sent these to me for free after I sobbed that I didn’t have any and could see daylight in the corners of my exterior doors.

I caulked the plate after adjusting it vertically to fit snugly against the door's lower seal.

I caulked the plate after adjusting it vertically to fit snugly against the door’s lower seal.

The pad installed. Now we can't see daylight. Not sure if the house is any warmer.

The pad installed. Now we can’t see daylight. Not sure if the house is any warmer.

Laundry Room Drywall Repair

When we moved the water hook ups for the washer and dryer the plumber left a huge hole in the wall of our Laundry Room.  With two new cats exploring, the last thing I need is a cat, or kid, winding up behind the drywall meowing (yes my kids meow too, on occasion).

While the Cleveland Browns were blowing yet another football game I was in my studio cutting drywall. I attempted to cut it out of one piece and install it as such, which I was fairly successful at doing. The problem I ran into was for whatever reason the planes of the new drywall and old drywall already on the wall, didn’t really match up. Well let’s just say I didn’t let that dissuade me from making a mockery of the art of drywalling.  I proceeded to slather mud on the wall and squish tape into the joints. I pretty much hate drywalling.

Most “handy” people would look at something a homeowner does and give them pointers….”do this” or “try that“.  They would encourage and empower that person to do it themselves. They’d even make you feel bad if you called an electrician or plumber. ‘Cause after all, we’re all innately born with the ability to do simple house repair.

If a handyman saw how I do drywall they would say “You really should have hired someone to do that for you.

To say the drywall repair behind the washer and dryer is bad, is a gross understatement. It’s so bad, I CAN’T EVEN THINK OF A SNARKY ANALOGY! Just be glad I don’t make airplanes, condoms or lentil soup.

I put the second coat of mud on today. I’m thinking 32 more coats and everything should be evened out. The tape over some of the joints wasn’t sticking so I pulled it off and just slathered mud over those joints. It’ll be fine (no it won’t).  In the end, aren’t we just gonna tile over it all anyway?

The hole in the wall; a result of moving the water connection up in the Laundry Room.

The hole in the wall; a result of moving the water connection up in the Laundry Room.

On the right I screwed a piece of particle board in place so I'd have something to screw the drywall to.

On the right I screwed a piece of particle board in place so I’d have something to screw the drywall to.

This is where is started to go wrong. Once in place none of the drywall was on the same plane. Instead of fixing I figured mud could cover everything up. Frankly I'm not sure how I woulda fixed it anyway. What the hell, just "do it" baby!

This is where is started to go wrong. Once in place none of the drywall was on the same plane. Instead of fixing I figured mud could cover everything up. Frankly I’m not sure how I woulda fixed it anyway. What the hell, just “do it” baby!

After the first coat of mud.  Eeek!

After the first coat of mud. Eeek!

After the second coat of mud.  Looks better, kind of like having beer goggles on, and drinking your second beer.

After the second coat of mud. Looks better, kind of like having beer goggles on, and drinking your second beer.

I leave you with a picture of our new cats. Both of whom are driving me insane. They have to be sequestered in my studio indefinitely and cabin fever is forcing them to go insane to. I may have kitten fur mittens by Christmas.

cats-in-studio

A Cursory Glance At Solar Electric For Green Living

We enter week two of new cats.  I took them to the vet and they checked out alright. No major diseases. The do have fleas and worms  but all of that can hopefully be cleared up in the coming weeks. Keeping them segregated from our original cat, Daphne is a pain, but this to shall pass and we’ll be one big happy family in no time.  I’ve got all the Christmas lights and various trees up to, and we even got our first holiday card in the mail. Most of our shopping is done, so we’re all ready for the 25th.

Out of curiosity I took a few minutes today to look at Dovetail Solar & Wind’s website. I wanted to see where the prices were at for renewable energy systems. An article on EcoWatch reminded me of my interest in someday having our estate work off of the grid.

Here is a sample overview Dovetail regarding the cost and size of a typical solar electric system:

SOLAR PV Residential Price Sheet 10-7-2013af.xlsx

If we put in a system, I would want a roof based array, that had battery back up. I abhor the thought of a power outage; we’ve had three in the last three weeks and I hate worrying about the sump pump, water pump, septic and refrigerator. In fact I’d go so far as to consider a bit of redundancy and install a natural gas generator as well. We’d have quite the outpost for the zombie apocalypse.

I took a look at the September ‘Home Energy Report’ that Ohio Edison provided us and it said we used 1,266 kWh which is “good” according to them. Apparently my “efficient” neighbors only used 748 kWh in September, and “all” neighbors used an average of 1,376 kWh. Despite our house being an electricity hog, the advantage of having a virtually all-electric house (we use gas for cooking and heat backup on our hybrid furnace) is that we can, in theory, switch to all solar electric and get off the grid, which is our ultimate goal….especially once the zombies start coming and take out the coal-fired electric plants along the Ohio River.

Let’s say we use 1,250 kWh per month. First we’d want to reduce our usage to a bare minimum – switch all the lights to LED’s, teach my family not to leave lights on, etc. That’s the first rule of being sustainable, get as efficient as you can, but efficiency follows the rule of diminishing returns, so just being efficient isn’t enough; especially if we’re looking to get off the grid. Other areas I need to attack include finding the damn Therma-tru door corner pads to block out the daylight I still see on my exterior door corners (I lost the damn yellow envelope they sent me during studio decorating!!!), and working on the fan board in the crawl spaces, as well as finishing off the basement with insulation on the top 4′ of the Superior Walls. I list these things if for no other reason than to keep reminding myself they need to be done.

Okay, math time.  Let’s say our efficiency measures get us down to 1,000 kWh per month. 1kW of solar capacity = 100 kWh per month, so we’d need a 10kW system to live off the grid. Well looking at the above chart, that’s not really realistic, or at least it’s not on the chart so lets also look at the roof space we have. If vanity rules then we’d just cover the south-facing garage roof so as not to mar the beauty of Joe’s masterpiece [my word], then we have 576 sq. ft to work with (32’x18′). Looking at the chart above this equals a 6.1kW system. Okay, not bad. We’re still on the grid but it’s a great start. We can either drive down our usage or drive up capacity down the road. Cost? $20K after tax credit, about the cost of a new small car. Not bad at all. Over 25 years (after that I’m dead or in Florida) we save $40K, reduce our carbon footprint, and are no longer at the mercy of Big Energy and their random Autumn blackouts at 12am on a Sunday. Remember, I hate power outages…probably as much as I hate being at the mercy of “the man”.  I have serious control issues, you have no idea, but I digress.

The battery back up is a nice feature because without it, a grid tied system won’t work when the lights go out.  With this system, or a non-backed up system, you can actually “sell” electricity back to the grid if the power company allows it. That way the surplus you might generate doesn’t go to waste, and you can power your “efficient” neighbors with clean solar power. The natural gas generator would come into play if, after 3-5 days without power it was so cloudy that the batteries were drained.

Another cool system that we can get is a solar thermal system that provides our hot water needs. Here’s the Dovetail example chart for that:

SOLAR THERMAL Residential Price Sheet.xls

They also mention solar thermal air heating, which I know nothing about…between our pellet fireplace and hybrid furnace I think we’re all set on that front for the time being.  I do like the solar thermal for the water, and who knows, maybe that’s the system we should experiment with first; would reduce our electrical load in preparation for out solar electric system.  Looks like about $10K for a thermal system, which typically is a series of black tubes on the roof our water runs through and is heated for use inside the house. I’m over simplifying here but you get the idea.

All of this is just speculative, but it’s good to do the homework now, and keep an eye on the prices, as they are coming down and are reasonable for any budget in my opinion; essentially a car payment. In fact one could argue that since we both work from home and don’t have a commute that maybe we should allocate a car payment to this type of system in the future when funds become available. Also, these systems are do-able on any home. don’t feel like you need a special house. I know I’d greatly love to experiment with one or more of these systems.

You know, control issues and all.

Studio Shelf Update

All is quiet on the home front. We pushed back the final day of studio shelf installation to next Monday but I did get a photo of the last studio shelf and it looks great.

The last studio shelf.

The last studio shelf.

Studio bookshelf design.

Studio bookshelf design.

I can’t wait to get the studio done and move back in.  In other news I finally bit the bullet and turned on the furnace. As I sit at my desk freezing to death I felt it was time. The thermostat said the house was at ~67-68 degrees but all I know is I’m freezing in my office so on goes the furnace set at a balmy 70 degrees.  I can hear the fireplace going in the family room, set to an even warmer 73 degrees (which it does accomplish in that space.

I know I have to install some sealing bits on the Thermatru exterior doors, but alas I forget where I put the padded envelop I got from Thermatru in my haste to clean out my studio.  I know you can see daylight at the bottom of a couple of the doors. Hopefully I can fix that.  Well back to work. I just wanted to show off the newest bookcase waiting to be installed.

-Chris

Case Study: Annual Energy Usage In An Energy Efficient Home

[editor’s note: I changed the title to ‘energy efficient home’ from ‘passive solar’ – this post doesn’t talk about passive solar that much, I can delve into that at another post]

Wow that’s a pretty boring title for a blog post.  I figured “Murdering Fewer Mountains and Trees So I Could Play My XBox” would be a bit to melodramatic for a Saturday night.  My new year’s resolution, which I decided upon last night was I wasn’t going to spend the day on the computer.  Well I made it ’til dinner time before I just had to hop on and fire up an Excel spreadsheet, and for your benefit, a blog post.

I spent the last hour or two pulling all of our utility bills for the last year or so, and entering them into my spreadsheet.  Also I cracked open a bottle of 2010 Joel Gott California Cabernet…it’s pretty good.  Whoever brought it over, thank you.  You’re welcome back here any time. [editor’s note: my sister said she got me the wine so I wouldn’t have to drink Yellowtail.  Thanks sis.]

2010 Joel Gott 815 California Cabernet Savignon makes everything better.

2010 Joel Gott 815 California Cabernet Sauvignon makes everything better.

So I looked at the energy costs from 2009 at our old house.  This was the last year I have complete records for on a previous spreadsheet.  The records I pulled for this new house span from March last year when we were still finishing the house through this month’s bills.

The old house was a cookie cutter colonial, about 2,700 sq. feet.  In 2009 there were just 2 of us and a baby.  Heating was natural gas, electric everything else including cooling.  The furnace had a humidifier too. We had city water and sewer at the old place.  Why this is important is for two reasons: city water and sewer means water magically shows up and leaves the house and we pay a bill to the utility to make that happen.  This also means we’re not really expending any electricity to get that water and send it back, as far as I know.  The old house also had about half the number of light bulbs compared to our over the top new house and it’s hundred or so light sources.  Cooking was natural gas predominantly.  Washer and dryer were electric just like in new house (we have the same appliances in the new place).  Most of the light bulbs were incandescent but many were CFL’s and a few halogen bulbs; no LED’s. Finally we had a gas fireplace but we never really used that.

The new house is about 3,000 sq. ft. and there are 4 of us in here living.  Heating and cooling comes by way of our hybrid system employing geothermal and natural gas. Our fancy system also had an air exchanger and full house air filtration system.  Water and sewer is handled by our cistern and septic systems.  Both of these run off of electricity to pump water in, filter it and send it back out after our bodies filter it a little more.  The new place also has a sump pump which runs all the time basically to keep us from going under water during wet periods.  Cooking is handled by duel fuel range, and electric appliances.  As I said the new place has a ton of light sources, i.e. bulbs, so that alone is a huge load.  Only 4 of the bulbs are LED’s (not including the range hood’s 4 LED bulbs). The rest are all incandescent light bulbs.  The fireplace is our handy-dandy pellet burning unit, and we’ve barely made a dent in our free ton of pellets we got from Northfield Fireplace. It’ll be 2014 before I have to buy pellets.  We run the fireplace every few nights when hanging out in the family room.

Usage and lifestyle are about the same in both homes, for example in terms of watching tv and play video games.  The new place does not have any electric garage door openers though, not that it matters a whole lot.  I’ve just been too cheap / broke to put them in yet.

R Family Company, LLC estimated we’d use $2,413 annually on gas and electric when they did our Energy Start rating last year.  The engineer and architect estimated the usage to be around $1,500 – $2,000 a year just for HVAC…I think.  I’d have to delve into the paper work a bit more to confirm that.  In reality we’re pretty darn close to those numbers, after considering a few things.  I added up utility costs across the four major utilities most of us pay: electric (E), natural gas (G), water (W) and sewer (S).  Other utilities are lifestyle like phone, cable and internet so they’re not important in my calculations.  So adding up EGWS we’re at about $3,080 for the year 3/12 to 2/13.  Our 2009 total in the old house was $3,129.  So actually a little LESS in the new place.  Now there are some expenses not added into the new house such as septic service like getting it pumped out or fixed if it broke.  Same for the water system and sump pump in terms of repairs.  I did include bleach and filters for the water purification system.  HVAC filters would be an added cost in the new home too (the old place had a washable filter).  There is one bill for electric in March of last year that was $800 when we had the resistance heater in place I believe.  That throws our new house total off a bit.  If you take most of that out of the equation then we’re spot on with the $2,400 estimate Bob gave us from Energy Star.

Here's what we paid in 2009 and what we paid in our first year in the new house (most of the year at least)

Here’s what we paid in 2009 and what we paid in our first year in the new house (most of the year at least)

Our Natural Gas (G) usage plummeted off the face of the earth.  Dropping a whopping 90%, I don’t even think the gas furnace kicks in all.  You can see it rises in the winter, so some heat usage and probably more cooking usage as well.  Most of what we pay for gas is fees, taxes and the privilege of having access to gas.  The geothermal heating is just fine for us.  It’s not too cold or clammy like some people claimed it to be.  The fireplace is offsetting some of this too, so figure if we had to buy pellets (a $100-$250 a year maybe?) our heating cost would go up.

Electrical (E) usage is way over the top at nearly 3x the usage of the old house.  But consider: that wild March bill last year, the septic, sump and cistern all running off electric, electric oven and the biggest culprit all the light bulbs…all add up to higher (E) usage and costs.

Water (W) and Sewer (S) costs are a fraction of what they were but once I have to maintain the systems it’ll be a wash I bet….think about replacing the septic tank, field and cistern and there isn’t enough wine in the world to make that not be a major bummer, man.

First Energy now has this cool energy usage graph that customers can utilize to see where they are spending money on electricity

First Energy now has this cool energy usage graph that customers can utilize to see where they are spending money on electricity

Here's another First Energy  graph that highlights electric usage

Here’s another First Energy graph that highlights electric usage

I logged onto First Energy’s site and they have a new energy summary that will show you how much energy you’re using and where at.  It looks pretty good though it works off of a lot of assumptions, I’m not sure you should get too hung up on the exact numbers.  I filled in all kinds of info about my appliances and house.  I like all the color coded graphs and bars.  It even compares my house to the average house.  For electricity we barely beat out an average house ($27 per month) but for overall energy we win by a large margin ($700 annually). It’s actually embarrassing see our costs pegged all the way to the left on the little cost graph……not.  Granted these numbers are just one month’s were of data I think.  I’d have to delve into it deeper to see what a year would really save us.  Also I need to go back and look at our Energy Star docs and engineering docs to see what they estimated and where we landed.  For instance I think the engineer said about $1,000 annual saving on HVAC alone.

By the way, we keep the house at about 70 degrees throughout the year.  The fireplace thermostat gets set at 75 degrees in the evenings just in the family room area.  Personally I need to be in a certain thermal band to be comfortable so I’m not one to dial the temp up or down to far, even to save cost and planet.

I wish someone invented a smart meter, that my utility companies would support and use, that would do all this monitoring for me and just output a report on my computer or phone. Maybe I should design one.

We can save costs in the coming year a couple of ways.  Convert more bulbs to LED’s, especially the bulbs we use the most.  I plan on insulating the hot water tank. I did that in the old house.  We can insulate the basement walls even more, insulating the top 4′ that are at or above grade.  There are some air holes at the corners of some of the exterior doors that I need to close up as well.

One note, when we go to install a solar power system, having this historical electrical usage will be helpful in sizing the system. Right now it’d be difficult to go zero energy (use as much or less than we produce) because we’re at about 17,250 KWH per year.  Let’s say we had 15,000 KWH per year…that translates to a 15 KW solar system.  That would take up about 1,500 square feet of space….our garage roof is probably about 600 square feet (the part that faces southwest).  So we’d have to cover the house bits up too with solar panels.  Cost would be somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000 to install.  Not too bad considering there’s a Jeep I’d love to have that costs $40,000.  Savings over 20 years could be as high as $20,000 to $40,000 (including tax breaks and factoring in the cost of the system i.e. above and beyond).  The system would save between 400 and 800 thousand lbs of CO2 as well.  These are just wild ass guess numbers I gleaned from Dove Solar & Wind’s website while drinking my wine.  Our system would ultimately be smaller; we’d reduce our usage quite a bit and employ other goodies like solar water heating and LED’s everywhere.

Also today we went to the zoo.  They had a cool exhibit talking about collecting rain water and rain gardens.  Around this building there were two rain gardens with a “bio swale” connecting the two.  This inspired me.  We’ve got this surface water problem in the front yard that I’m going to tackle this Spring.  It’s late so I’ll talk more about it in a future episode.  For now you can look at a  couple pictures of the front yard and our temporary pond so to speak.  Night kids.

This is the little pond we get between the lawn and front bed, every time it rains or the snow melts.

This is the little pond we get between the lawn and front bed, every time it rains or the snow melts.

Spring project will be to address the surface water issue by reworking the topography by hand to get the water to drain.

Spring project will be to address the surface water issue by reworking the topography by hand to get the water to drain.

Air Exchange Ventilator

Okay it doesn’t sound as sexy as “passive solar” or “LED light bulb” but today we’re going to talk about our home’s “air exchange ventilator”.  I had to clean it out yesterday so I took some pics.  What is it you ask?  Let me tell you.

As you should know our house is super tight.  So air doesn’t or shouldn’t get in or out easily if all the doors and windows are closed.  Like an exclusive club downtown, we have a bouncer that determines who gets into our club.  It most houses, maybe even yours, air molecules run willy nilly all over like they own the place.  They come and go as they please.  And air molecules, typically in the heat of summer or cold of winter, are really awful critters.  See they sit on their lazy asses outside all day and night, and when they get too hot or cold the come into your house.  Did you invite them in?  Well yes cause they provide you with “oxygen” but I’ll tell you what if it wasn’t for that you probably wouldn’t want them cause like I said they come and go all the time.  Which is fine, we all have relatives like that, but let’s say it’s winter (it is by the way).  Where it gets annoying is the air molecules do very little to warm themselves up.  Look outside, see them all out on your lawn?  Yeah a couple are overachievers letting the sun warm them up but if there’s no sun and the wind is blowing….they say “screw this” and head for your house.  They come in through the cracks in your doors, around your windows, your roof, hell they come through your bathroom vents.  Anywhere you have a hole in your house.  Once inside they sit on your couch, hang out in your pantry, they even snuggle up with you in bed.  And they are super cold.  Cold feet in the morning? It’s the cold ass air molecules, I told you so.

So you try like hell to appease them by cranking up the thermostat, figuring if it’s warm they’ll stop bothering you and your family.  But like any pest this only makes things worse.  See, they come in, you get them warmed up, they drink your beer and then leave basically.  And they tell ALL their friends.  Next thing you know your thermostat’s up to 72 degrees and the wife bitchin’ at you to fire up the wood stove.  Meanwhile all those air molecules are inviting their cousins from Alberta to come down to your place and get warmed up.  Next thing you know you’re essentially operating a welfare state for lazy air molecules.

I’ll be damned if I run a welfare operation for air molecules.  So what we’ve done is first off, made our house super tight.  Now it’s not as tight as it could be but it tighter than probably 95% of other homes out there.  In a perfect world it’d be 100% tight. But then we’d suffocate so as I look out at all the sad, cold air molecules kicking stones in my front drive, pouting cause I won’t let them in, I’m forced to acquiesce and let them in since after all they have the oxygen we so desperately need.  But before I let any of them in there are some ground rules…just like the bouncer at the door to a hot new club.

Outside a big pipe in the side of the house all the air molecules line up, smiles on their faces cause they know I have a warm couch, XBox and beer.  We let them in and they enter the air exchanger.  And they love it ’cause the first thing we do is warm up their little molecule bodies, clean them up and comb their hair.   Then it’s off to the inside of the house, sporting their little fur coats of warmth, leaving the coldness behind outside.  Oh joy, they are so happy you can almost hear them as they run all over the house.  And the furnace easily keeps everyone comfortable ’cause our guests came in warmed up to start with.

Well after a while, you know how it goes, they can’t stay for ever.  They’ve unloaded their oxygen, picked up some CO2 and other foreign air born whatnot….and they’re getting lazy again, except this time it’s on my couch, or my bed or worse yet the bathroom.  Well, “time to go little guys” and the ventilator sucks them all out of the house.  Oh, one thing though, we take their little fur coats before we kick the air molecules to the curb.  There is only so much heat in the world and we can’t afford to have air molecules running around outside with our hard-earned heat.  Wouldn’t look good with the neighbors, people would talk.  And we’re not running a charity here. So the little guys go through the big heat exchanging core again and reluctantly hand off their warm little coats to the new air molecules coming in.  Thus the “exchange” part.  We keep all the heat inside the house…sucking it out of the air leaving and giving it to the air coming in.

Then we dump the stale air molecule asses through a big pipe to the harsh realities of the outside world.  From there we’re more than happy to welcome them back in, but only if they pick up some oxygen first.

I try not to look out the back window lest I see all of the now freezing air molecules looking longingly through the glass into our home.

In the Summer it’s just the opposite, we cool them off before inviting them inside.

Our air exchange ventilator is an 8100 model from Aprilaire.  I just have to clean the filter’s every 6 months and the core every 12 months.  It was a super easy job that took about a half hour.  I just used a shop vac to clean the filters, core (use a brush attachment) and the cavities.  The filters should be oiled as well.  All the directions are right there on the core so there’s no confusion.  Here’s a snippet from their website explaining the advantages:

Is the air your family breathes as fresh and healthy as it can be? An Aprilaire Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) is among the most efficient means of exchanging the air inside your home with fresh outdoor air. In winter months, the exclusive EnergyMax® Transfer Core uses the heat of indoor air to warm the incoming cold fresh air, recovering approximately 77% of the energy.

How Does It Work?
In the summer, warm fresh air passes near outgoing conditioned air, cooling it down. At no time do the stale and fresh air streams mix, instead they pass each other separated by thin walls that allow only the air’s energy to transfer, cutting your heating and cooling bills. The heart of the ERV is the EnergyMax Transfer Core which uses enthalphic technology enabling the transfer of moisture as well as heat into and out of your home.

The Aprilaire Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) provides a comfortable, healthy, noise-free, and safe means of exchanging stale, polluted indoor air with fresh outdoor air in your entire home year round.

Features 
There are numerous benefits to installing an Aprilaire Energy Recovery Ventilator in your home:

  • Installs as part of any central heating and cooling system
  • Provides a constant, controlled supply of fresh air to your home year round
  • Reduces excess indoor humidity levels
  • Reduces unhealthy indoor air pollutants such as formaldehyde, <ahref=”index.php?znfaction=iaqproblems&category=health&problemid=12″>volatile organic compounds (VOCs), radon, carbon dioxide, smoke, odors, dust, bacteria and viruses and more
  • Saves energy by effectively retaining and utilizing the energy value from your indoor air
  • Ventilates homes up to 3,600 sq. ft. in size”

Unless you like throwing money away, or you feel guilty and feel all air molecules in the world should have access to affordable heat coverage, you should seriously look into getting your house sealed up super tight and adding an air exchange ventilator.

Framing Walls (and Installing a Sink !!!)

I spent this weekend working on my office cabinet project.  The goal was to frame the two walls so that I could call the plumber and get the sink pipes extended.  All went well I can safely report tonight.  I even got a bonus project done with my free time on Sunday.  Before I go into the play by play, I’ll share something with you; throughout the process of building the house it seems a lot wasn’t going as well as planned.  As I work on each subsequent project, I have found that if I take my time, think things through and remain calm these projects are going easier.  And they don’t seem to take much longer (compared to just barreling through them), so there is value in taking my time.  Knock on wood of course.

The walls I’m building are add-ons so the first order of business is to get some solid nailing blocks in the existing exterior wall.  If I was smart I’d have had a “pocket” framed into the wall when we were rough framing the house, before the drywall went in, but realistically I wouldn’t have been able to devise where the pocket should be so the chances of getting it right back then are slim.  I spent some time marking out the location of my wall, taking into consideration my already made countertops, cabinets and even factoring in the existing steps in my studio.  Once I was comfortable with my marks on the wall I used my oscillating tool to remove the drywall and create two horizontal openings.  I devised my game plan on the fly and am fairly happy with it, looking back on my handy work.  The plan was to install two 2×6 blocks, anchored between two existing wall studs, to provide  a solid anchoring for my perpendicular wall.  After the drywall was off I scraped away the insulation inside.  Our insulation is made from recycled newspaper that was “damp” blown into the wall cavities.  Suffice to say I had to “scrape” some off to make room for the 2×6 blocks.  I then inserted the blocks and worked them down behind the drywall.  See the pics for my trick on getting a grip on the blocks.  I came up with that after scratching my head trying to figure out how to get the block into position.  The insulation, drywall and studs had a firm grip on my block so snaking it into place was tough, but the trick made it do able.  Once in place I mounted a 1/2″ block which I’d eventually mount the new wall stud to.  Finally I replaced the drywall pieces I’d cut out earlier.  Ha, after about two hours everything looked basically like it did when I had started.  But I knew I could now start building my walls.

I cut a couple treated 2×4’s, covered their underside with adhesive caulk, and fastened them to the studio’s cool cement floor with blue colored masonry screws that I picked up at Lowes.  I then cut all my studs, to about 98″ and mounted the first one to the exterior wall, screwing into the 1/2″ blocks and ultimately the 2×6 blocks I’d hidden behind the wall hours previously.  I used screws and a drill for the entire project.  I don’t have a nail gun and hand nailing is fairly quick but laborious.  Screws seemed to work just fine and I had a lot left over from other projects that I could use on this job.  Once that first stud was up I continued putting up the rest of the studs and finally the top plates.   The design I came up with meant that both walls would stop about a foot or two from the ceiling.  I capped the wall design off at the top of the upper cabinets.  This created that open air space above the  cabinets which will help keep the art studio feeling airy.  One bad thing with the design is that the walls are only attached to the floor and the one exterior wall so they’re prone to wiggling.  I nailed a filler board down low at the end of the one wall, where it meets the steps, and this helped stiffen and level the wall.  Putting in the new floor framing extension would stiffen the walls more.  Finally the drywall, cabinets and shelving should stiffen everything up as well.

One pesky task that I decided to tackle during this project was the “hidden air vent” buried under the office platform.  I knew it was there ’cause I had photos.  From what I remember it was there and no one ever hooked it up during construction.  They just built the platform over the top.  I’m not sure why.  I’m sure it sat there untouched, with some blue foam stuffed in it from when they poured the concrete floor (the foam kept the cement out during pouring). My concern was that the blue foam may have been pushed down into the air duct and was causing blockage, or maybe conditioned air was leaking into the cavity under my office.  Either way I wanted to fix it and possibly route the vent into the floor of my office and finish it off.  I started by prying off the drywall that capped the platform.  The platform is only about 14″ off the ground which meant that the 2×6 joists left only like 9″ of vertical space underneath the platform.  Ugh.  After finding a real flashlight (my boys seemingly steal all of the working flashlights and hoard them in somewhere secret) I peered under to find a mountain of insulation.  I guess when they blew the insulation in the wall cavities a  lot of it exited out down here until the cavities were full.  I chickened out a few times before talking myself into getting under there.  It was the right thing to do.

I crafted a cardboard insulation pusher on a stick and did just that, started pushing the insulation to the far side of the space under the platform.  Based on the pic I shared the other day I thought the vent was way in there.  I glance up at the exposed wall studs and decided to check my photo again; so I’d know how much insulation I’d have to push away. I was pleasantly surprised my sense of scale was off and it turned out the vent was about three feet in instead of eight feet in.  This was great news cause being under there was like being in a coffin.  And I was breathing heavy with the prospect of having to go way back into there.  So I brushed away the insulation and sure enough, there was my vent.

There was no way around it, I had to get in there.  My head barely fit and then my fat gut and waist did not fit.  Talk about hyperventilating…but with a twist I was in.  The wife handed me tools and the vacuum hose like a hygienist helping a dentist.  I pounded away at the cement overhanging the vent and carved away at the blue foam blocks inside.  Pulling the last one out of the metal vent shoot I reached in….and much to my dismay….I found…..all was for nothing.  They never cut the 8″ green air duct open at that vent.  They must have never planned on finishing that vent.  I could have just left it; I didn’t have to get all freaked out by the claustrophobic space, eat insulation or fish around for the vent.  Oh well, knowing that nothing was wrong from an air flow standpoint outweighed any frustration I would have felt going through all these theatrics. Back to the work at hand then.

I wrapped up the framing at this point by roughing in the “floor” extension.  I just used 2×4’s and set it up for a 1/2″ piece of OSB board to cap it off.  This area will just hold up the cabinets and should be plenty strong enough.  I’ll install the OSB and some 1/2″ flooring once the plumber is done extending the pipes.  So that’s it for that project for now.

With an hour to spare I decided to get the sink in Christine’s studio installed so the plumber could hook that up too when he comes out.  We bought a small stainless steel bar sink, that included a faucet and drain for only $109 at Lowes.  It was easy to install. See pics below for step by step.

Ok, I’m exhausted and need my beauty sleep.  Stay tuned, hopefully next weekend I’ll be doing some drywall.