Friday, August 23, 2013

And a weather station is active.

This week we added a Davis Vantage Pro2 weather station with a Weatherbridge so we can upload weather to the web.  I want to be able to track not only temps but RH, rain rates/total rainfall, wind speed and direction and use that to help with not only gardening but with the house performance.  If you'd like to see what it's like at the house, go to, click on the 'maps and radarl' tab and enter Sanford NC or zip code 27330.  We're just North of Sanford on 15/501 (Rte 87), technically in Pittsboro (part of Chatham County) but the USPS zones us as Sanford.  Our weather station ID is KNCSANFO8

One reason we installed this station was to help track the rainfall and see if we're in a micro-climate here.  It appears that when areas around us have been getting 1/4" to 1/2" of rain, we get upwards of 2, sometimes 3 inches of rain in a very short period of time.  Recently I took a snapshot of the weather radar showing "maximum recordable" rainfall rates in a small section that was centered around our area.

The good news is that we haven't had to worry much about watering the veggie or flower gardens but the bad news is that the rain has reduced our tomato output to near-nill and some of our landscape shrubs had died of overwater.  I am learning the fine art of sculpting the grading in fine increments to steer water away from some areas and into others.  It's slowly developing into a working site and we hope to have a rain garden growing in the coming months.

Hummingbird activity has been unbelievable this year.  At times I can count over 20 hummers flitting about, sometimes 4 feeding from a single feeder with 2 more queueing up for the first open slot.   There are so many that we refill the feeders every day (total of 4 feeders, 32 ounces of water and 1 cup of sugar for a day's fill).

I'll try to post some of the pics we've managed to take recently of the activity though they move so quickly some are simply blurs on the screen.

In addition to hummers, we have a number of deer, a raccoon or two, a possum, one or two field mice, and several owls that inhabit the woods around the house.  Some days we have to escape inside to avoid the symphony of noises....

Updating the utility costs, this month's electric bill was $107 and the refill of our 120 gal propane tank (which is at 31% after 16 months of range/grill use) was $160.  Overall utility costs are quite low - though we are still working on the desuperheater function.  Neighbors supply all their hot water from the desuperheaters while ours is not changing the temp of the storage tank noticeably at all.  We believe there is a "plumbing" problem that is leading to either thermal syphoning or other loops that are bleeding the heated water into the house vice into the storage tank.  We're considering installing a check-valve but there may be other plumbing related issues that are causing this.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

PHIUS Certification in hand! Punchlist? Rainwater collection upgrade, Energy consumption update

We finally received our certificate and plaque for the house from PHIUS.  We can now say we're certified to their standard.  The curious thing is that in the month or so since we received the plaque and certificate, the house has not yet been added to the PHIUS list of certified houses on their website.  Pictures to follow when I get the plaque mounted on the house.

  We're still waiting for the punchlist to be completed - "nail pops," paint, bathtub scratches, and a few other things.  We have done a lot of work around the house since my last post - we'll publish photos in the coming days to update the blog.  Landscaping has been a big part of the work and soon we'll turn to indoor work with the heat and humidity become unbearable (yesterday was 78 degrees and about 95% humidity so it was pretty unbearable for any outside physical work).

  As an update on the energy consumption, our latest electric bill was $80 and our HVAC hasn't been running much since that bill so I expect the next bill to be lower.

We upgraded the rainwater collection system to a total of 1350 gallons, 550 of which is filtered so we don't get rotting-pollen-scented water.  For the record 1/2" of rain produces about 100 gallons of filtered water (due to slower flow rate of sand/gravel biofilter) and several hundred gallons unfiltered.  We had 1 1/2" of rain over the weekend so have about 1200 gallons stored at the moment.  No need to use it yet because we're getting sufficient rainfall but in a month or so the veggies and newly planted bermuda/zoysia grass and flower gardens will appreciate the water.  I'll try to document the "first flush" and biofilter setup and experiences we had in making it all work.  Rainchains are nice but they're a bit messy where they collect all the oak seed pods pine needles and leaf bits. Blocks the drainage and causes water to spray off the chains instead of flow smoothly down the chains.  We plan to install gutter guards this spring so that will alleviate the majority of that debris and rainwater collection will be cleaner.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

PHIUS - Certification still in an endless loop, punchlist hanging chad

Still no certificate - we received a note from the current consultant asking for additional information.  They wanted elevation pictures, pictures of the window reveals, overhangs, and measurements of the lengths of the ERV supply and return as well as the hot water pipes in the house.  We've gotten most of that information to them so hopefully before the first of the year we'll have a certificate.  This has been a bit of a disappointment since we decided to invest the extra money to get the certification.  At this point it is not critical that we have the certificate but the longer we wait the harder it may be to finally get it certification.

We're also still waiting to get the punch-list items fixed - the plumbers are claiming we owe them over $1000 for "moving" a hot water heater. The interesting part of this discussion is they never installed the resistance heater because we saw it was the worst performing model in the Energy Ratings.  We opted to self-procure the heat-pump water heater and when they came back to work some punch-list items we had them install that heater as well as relocate the storage tank for the GSHP desuperheater.  This was important because the two needed to be connected and the HPWH would not fit in the space originally allocated for the water heater (too tall, drain pan needed would not fit).  One issue they did encounter when installing the water heater was the supply point was over the top of the GSHP so they had to do a bit of gymnastics to get the supply lines connected.    The two plumbers did not bring along a drain pan so we supplied that and overall they spent a total of about 4 hours on the job site to install the heater.  During the installation of our master bath tub the plumbers managed to ding the surface of the tub around the drain - we have complained to the GC about this numerous times and the plumbing company is now saying they won't fix the tub until we pay them their claimed charges for "moving the water heater."  I have repeatedly asked for detailed billing for the work but they have failed to provide anything other than a single-line charge for the total job.  This comes on top of the $1800 charge for the basement lift station which they failed to include in their original estimate claiming they always assumed there would be a gravity system for all the house fixtures.  From the start this house had a walk-out basement and the septic system was slightly lower than the main level but definitely not below the basement level.  

One additional problem with the plumbing we're seeing is the under-cabinet air vents they installed seem to be emitting odors.  We had installed make-up air for the range hood but had not done the same for the clothes dryer which made me wonder if that was pulling air through those vents.  Upon further investigation it appears that the current sensing relay for the make-up air had failed in the open position.  To repair that I had to pull off the cover and at that time I decided to relocate the sensor to amore accessible location.  I installed an electrical box in the refrigerator cubby so that should the relay fail again I can access it more easily.  In addition, I installed a current sensor for the dryer so that when either of the two appliances are running, there is a supply of fresh air provided to the house.  One of the risks of an ultra-tight house is you need that make-up air.  I also believe the dryer will be more efficient since it is not having to fight to pull air out of the house.  The next step in this process is to install air filters in the make-up air supply line and then to install a dryer "lint collection" system in the exhaust line.  We've seen these on home improvement shows and it seems like a great idea - the dryer exhaust transits the basement space so there is easy access to install it and that may alleviate having to crawl under the deck to pull the lint build-up off the screen at the exhaust.

Energy Bill Update, gutter guards necessary, ERV

Well, it has been 8 months since we moved in and I figured it was time to let folks know how our energy bills are going.  We have not paid more than $110 for a month of electricity.  That was during the hottest month of the year when the AC ran a bit more than it normally does.  We keep the house at 77 degrees during the day and drop it to 73 at night during the summer.  During the winter months we're keeping it at 70 during the day and setting it to 66 at night.  The temp in the house has not dropped below 69 degrees yet even though we have had nights in the 20's and low 30's.

We have decided that investing in gutter guards is going to be a necessity.  They're not very inexpensive for the gutter profile we've installed which is the 6" half-round gutter.  The fact that the leaves slide down the metal roof easily means the gutters fill up quickly with leaves and pine needles. The interesting thing about that is the nearest trees are about 40 feet from the house but they do tower over the roof so the wind easily deposits them on the roof.

The rainwater collection system continues to work well.  Collecting off about 1/6th of the roof easily keeps the two 275-gallon IBCs full.  Even in the hottest and driest periods we did not get below about 1/2 on both tanks.  I am also using the water from the 3 60-gallon pickle barrels to water the veggie garden and those plants that need water.  I have contemplated adding a 3rd and maybe a 4th IBC to the system for those times when we are getting lower rainfall.  The one thing I need to work on is how to keep the pollen from collecting in the barrels - There are systems that allow the first flush of the system to bybass the collection system so all that flotsam and jetsam doesn't pollute the barrels.  Last year we found that the pollen was prolific and actually started to smell pretty bad as it decomposed in the barrels.  I spent an afternoon powerwashing all the barrels and would like to avoid making that a regular habit if possible.

Recently the ERV started making a bit more noise than normal and it turned out one of the motors was the culprit.  I contacted UltimateAir and they were very quick to respond by sending a new unit out as soon as possible.  It arrived about 4 days later and I installed it while shipping the original unit back to them at their expense.  Frankly this has been a great company to deal with since they've been very responsive to our problems.  I do think one thing we are going to pursue is to install occupancy sensors in the bathrooms so they ERV boosts the speed for those periods when there is additional humidity (and odor) in the air.  Fortunately I have access to overhead spaces in the upstairs bathrooms and the side wall in the downstairs bath so installing the sensors should not be a huge deal.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

PHIUS Update - No Certificate yet

Well, we've been in the house 3 months now and we're still not certified to PHIUS standards. The delay appears to be a lack of information and a "failure to communicate" - so the PHUS folks are waiting for some specifics on things like our appliances and the possibility to remove additional trees on the south of the house.  Apparently there is concern about heating needs during the winter months which drove that request.  Due to homeowner association restrictions we are not able to remove more trees (nor would we want to) so we're waiting to see what that does for the certificate.  In addition there are apparently differences of opinion on the efficiency of our GSHP and the construction methods used so unless those get resolved we may be waiting a long time for  the certificate.  I will say that with the recent heat wave our GSHP has been operating more than normal but nothing that I would consider excessive - today the outside temp reached 105 and the unit was cycling a bit to keep the temp at 76 inside.

  The ambient humidity means that we're pumping over 10 gallons of water out of the house each day which I am presently collecting in 5 gallon buckets and transferring to our rainwater collection system for garden watering.  The eventual plan is to feed that into a larger tank which feeds into the other storage system so we have a large amount of storage.  Right now we have about 850 gallons of storage but if the heatwave continues without any rain, we might start depleting that rather quickly.

Speaking of water - our veggies are coming along fine.  We have been getting about 5 cucumbers each day so today was our first experiment with dill pickles.  I can't 5 quarts of spears and the jars appear to have sealed well so we'll try the pickles in about 2 weeks to see how they taste. The neighbor who gave us the cucumber plants ripped his out due to bitterness of the cukes but we have not found that to be the case.  In addition we have 3 heirloom tomato plants as well as one cherry tomato.  The cherry is already producing (I ate the first three yesterday) and the Cherokee Purple are starting to turn yellow which means I should be harvesting them within a week.  I think our problem might be that we have too many tomatoes but we'll donate to our neighbors if that ends up being the case.  I've heard the wildlife around here has developed a taste for tomatoes so we may have to install an electric fence or similar to deter them from destroying our crop.

Our two fig bushes haven't grown huge amounts but each is currently bearing two figs.  We planted a couple of brown turkey figs so those will become my fruit of choice for the morning yogurt.  We also picked up 4 blueberry plants and intend to plant blackberries so that will provide a good source of fruit in the future.

Does cable type matter for TV reception? You bet it does.

Bottom line is it is important to spend the money up front for good cable - and to ensure your installers don't skimp on you either.  Due to our rural location we cannot receive cable TV so we opted for Dish TV.  When the Dish installer came to set up the system he noted that the electricians had used differing types of cable for different parts of the house (e.g. RG 59U for some rooms, RG-6 for other parts).  Due to that they had to install the "Hopper" unit (their master unit) in a room downstairs while they installed the Joey (a slave to the master) in our family room which is where we typically spend most of our time.  The main unit requires a better signal so it requires RG-6 cable while the RG-59 cable will suffice for the Joey.  Over the last couple of months we've been having issues with the Dish TV dropping signal so I replaced the RG-59U cable feeding that family room.  Unfortunately I replaced it with cable we had purchased from a reuse store and I installed "easy on" connectors.  Unsure which was causing the problem today was he "replace all the cable and connectors" day - I bought a 100' length of high quality RG-6 cable with connectors attached and ran it from the distribution point to the TV. Voila! Things appear to be working much better than earlier in the day when the slave kept saying "trying to find the Hopper" and never was able to sync.  I ran a test by putting the Joey on a shorter cable near the distribution point and it synced up quickly. that told me the cable was the problem.

The lesson that I would pass along is to ensure when your electricians (or whomever does the install of the cable TV throughout the house) use high quality cable - e.g. at least RG-6 which is suited for satellite TV use.  Needless to say we were a bit disappointed in our electricians on a number of fronts and this just continued to highlight the fact they were not someone who is on my "hire these guys again" list!

As a side note - I did disconnect the surge suppressor from the cable TV lines to ensure it wasn't causing the problems.  The signal strength on the receiver didn't change at all from the before to the after so it was clear this wasn't causing the dropouts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Lessons from a nearby lightning strike

We had long discussions over the failure of the ERV during the nearby lightning strike - the ERV engineers have apparently only seen this type of catastrophic failure on their system one time before and that was due to a direct strike by lightning.  The suggestion was to claim this on our homeowner's insurance but the deductible was nearly the cost of the repairs so that option did not make much sense.

In our research regarding lightning strikes I discovered thatsurge suppressors on the market today that I could find carried guaranteed protection for power line surges but carried strong caveats that they were not for direct lightning strikes.  I did manage to find a couple of lightning suppressors on the market that are designed specifically for lighting.  One other caveat that was on a number of the surge suppressors was that they only protected the electrical and if another "line" (e.g. telephone, network, cable) was connected but not through their surge protector their warranty was not in effect.  In one case the warranty clearly stated that their device must have failed for the warranty to be valid.  Several had time limits on their warranty but some had limited lifetime warranties and others had lifetime warranties.

Our solution is a two-fold approach.  I've purchased whole-house surge suppression (Eaton Whole House SurgeTrap) for the electrical panel as well as the TV and telephone service entrances which state they are good for surges and lightning.  In addition I've purchased a panel-mounted lightning arrestor (Delta LA206R) that is sacrificial - basically it acts like a fuse and blows when there is a lightning strike.  In addition to the whole-house surge suppressor and lightning arrestor we are purchasing new point-of-use surge suppressors for all our electronics (computers, TV, satellite equip, refrigerator, stereo, ERV).  The one issue that remains is the heat-pump water heater and ground source heat pump which are both directly connected to the panel so those plug-in units won't work (plus they are operating at 240v, not 120v as are the house outlets) so I have to make sure the whole-house units provide sufficient coverage for these expensive units.

We did consider putting in a whole-house surge arrestor offered by the power company but that too carried the "does not protect against lightning" and it also did not provide coverage for electronic circuits.  The ONLY protection it provided was for the motors and compressors in household appliances.

The suppressors carry warranties for connected equipment anywhere from $10,000 up to $50,000 and range from 2 years up to limited lifetime.  Of course you have to prove that the damaged equipment was properly connected through the protection device and meet all other conditions but at least there is some change of recovering the costs in the event of a catastrophic lightning strike.

One point that I may not have mentioned is that our utilities are all underground - and there are the mandatory two ground rods separated by 8' installed and connected to all the service entrances (tv, telephone, power).

Friday, June 1, 2012


Well, today we received word that the ERV that died a few weeks back needs a complete overhaul - the claim is that all the motors and electronics are cooked so the repair costs are about $500.  The interesting part of this is the day this unit decided to die we had a lightning storm and a bolt struck in the woods about 50 feet from the house. It wasn't a direct strike on the house and our power is underground.

 The only issue we initially noticed was that the internet had died so I went to check the fuse panel at which point I found the ERV wasn't working.  The fuse was OK and the unit was humming but nothing was working.  We were headed out of town the next day so when we returned we shipped the unit back to the manufacturer for repair/replacement.

 From what we are being told all the electronics boards in the unit are "fried" as are the 3 motors. Other things that should have had similar failures would seem to be the Ground-source heat pump, computers, televisions, DVD players, the refrigerator, our microwave speed oven, and the DISH TV system.  Nothing else died except a power supply on the internet modem (which is on a different circuit than the ERV) and a 10 year old wireless telephone.

It is now time to figure out how best to approach this - repair the current unit and hope it's not a trend or replace it with another manufacturer's unit.  One thing that I also have to figure out is if there should be a surge suppressor installed on this unit.  One of our service technicians for another system said "we don't use those because the cause problems" which is the first I've heard.  I'm tempted to buy one of the suppressors that has a high dollar value replacement warranty and put it on that.

My other concern becomes things like the GSHP which is much more costly and is direct-connect 220v so putting one of those smaller surge suppressors on it isn't as easy.  I may have to spend time and money to get a whole-house surge suppressor installed. The local power company will install one with a "motors only" repair policy meaning that if there is a surge, the only covered items are motors in washers, dryers, refrigerators and HVAC units.  No electronics are covered.

More research necessary on this one is clearly warranted.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Final" Blower door test and SolarPathfinder pictures

Today we conducted the post-construction blower door test for the PHIUS certification.  We did the test using the same doorway we had used in the past and found a reasonable .57 ACH at 50Pa for pressurization and an amazing .28 ACH at 50Pa for depressurization.  Because there was a significant difference in the two measurements we moved to another door (we thought there might be leakage around the blower door at the strike-plate) and did some additional sealing of the ERV and make-up air ducts.  In the end the results were nearly identical with a .56 for pressurization and .28 for depressurization.  Averaging the two out that provides an overall .42 ACH which equates to about 352.5 CFM of leakage which when reverse calculated gives you the CFM leakage.  You do this by multiplying .42 (leakage in air changes per hour) by 50,348 (PHIUS calculated volume) and dividing by /60(min/hr)=352.436 cfm.  Our last test yielded .50 ACH or about 421 CFM of leakage.  I seem to remember some discussion about the average house in America being on the order of 20 to 50 times higher on the leakage front.  Regardless, we're happy to have the figures showing that indeed our house is very tightly built.

The SolarPathfinder photographs are used to calculate the percentage of available sunlight hitting the house as well as calculating the angle of inclination to the "horizon" created by the surrounding trees.  My understanding is this informatino is used in the calculations of heat and cooling loads that will be required for the house.  Below are a couple of the SolarPathfinder photos.  Typically this device is used to determine suitability, placement and slope of solar collection panels - it can also through some calculations be used to determine where trees may need to be pruned to increase the amount or duration of sun hitting the solar collection panels.  When doing that you use a different template that shows solar clock and different months (I've attached an example photo using this alternate template).
  One of the cautions when using the SolarPathfinder is, like all compasses, it is influenced by ferrous metal in any nearby structures.  I found that the house (reinforced concrete) had such an effect so I had to move away from the house to set the magnetic declination and align the unit properly.  For the purposes of the PHIUS, we only needed the inclination to the horizon so the compass orientation wasn't quite as crucial but we worked to get it correct for future reference.  As you can see there is quite a bit of deciduous cover around our house and with the overhangs not too much sunlight is directly entering the house - especially in the summer months when we don't want the added heat in the house.  Basement floors will clearly get a bit more since the overhangs don't cover them.

North Wall Solar Pathfinder Inclination to horizaon - reflection of the trees shows angle to the "horizon" which can be used to calculate height of the trees relative to the distance from the house.
East Wall inclination on Solar Pathfinder - on top of retaining wall at same level as main floor
West Wall inclination - decking boards at the height of the main floor.  You can see the overhang is intersecting the treetops so no direct sunlight hits this wall of the house.
South Wall inclination - note I'm on a step ladder to approximate level of main floor (at the floor).  

Though a bit hard to read - the idea here is you find where the sky intersects the treeline, add the numbers in the "opening" for a specific month and determine percent of available sun that is hitting.  For instance if you can see the "apr" line, you add 6+6+7+7+7+7+7+7 to get 55 which is the amount of available hours of sunlight that will hit that spot. I beliee if you look at the "open" areas from 9:30 until 1:30 that would indicate 4 hours of sunlight in April - but then you have to factor in the deciduous nature of the trees based on the time of year.