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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Post move-in update

Well, we moved into the house two weeks ago.  We've been working on small projects since then like organizing the basement storage area, installing the pantry shelving units, landscaping, and various other tasks.

  We have noted that the Heat-Pump Water Heater we installed is definitely on the higher noise levels - there's a compressor that runs (in high-efficiency mode) for about an hour to bring the water back up to temperature.  The added benefits it provides by cooling and dehumidifying the mechanical and storage areas is huge.  On several days when the outside temps were in the high 80s, the temperature in the walk-out basement stayed at 70 degrees while the upstairs did manage to reach 74.  The geothermal system (ground-source heat pump) and heat-pump water heater are doing wonders at maintaining the humidity throughout the house - we're constantly sitting between 45 and 60% humidity levels. On days of high humidity and moderate temps we sometimes have to set the system to cool the house slightly to dehumidify it a bit.   We have not turned the GSHP on to heat or cool the house but about 10% of the days at most - usually that's to reduce the humidity a bit.  Yesterday and today when the inside temp was approaching 75 degrees with humidity in the 65% range we turned it to cool the house to 72 or 73 degrees which dropped the humidity to the acceptable range (sitting at about 55% at the moment).

We are running the ERV at medium speed for the moment and it seems to be doing the job (along with the HPWH and GSHP) of maintaining temperature, humidity, and indoor air quality.

I will confess the HPWH is a bit louder than we anticipated - it's in a room that is not sound-proofed in the basement and when it is running, you can hear it upstairs.  We plan on soundproofing that room in the near future which will also insulate it a bit.  Our HVAC contractor is contemplating stealing the cooling effect of the HPWH by adding a louver that we can open in the summer and close off in the winter when we don't need the additional cooling.

Other things that we've been up to include finishing (nearly so) the retaining wall and the associated grading behind it.  We then planted some 58 different perennials to provide continuous color to that area.  I also added a couple of legs of drainage to clear standing water in the "herb garden" at the center of the driveway as well as in the center of the front garden where it was pooling against the walk a bit.

Rain.  We had another 1/2" of rain last night and we've pretty much decided that we need gutter-guards.  The oak 'seed pods' and other debris that piles up in the gutters is pretty amazing. One thing we've found is that the downspouts clear themselves quite well of debris - this morning there were piles at the outlets of the 3 pipes comprised of leaves, oak seed pods and pine needles.  Unfortunately the rain chains aren't so good at clearing themselves of debris and on a couple of occasions the gutters have overflowed due to clogged outlets.  One point of note - the underground pipe installed by our grading contractor is the smooth-core variety, not the corrugated type you can by at Lowes or Home Depot.  It's rigid, has a corrugated outer shell but the inside of the pipe is very smooth.  It's a stronger version and doesn't catch all the dirt and other debris that otherwise clogs those corrugated wall pipes.  Very much worth the slight added costs.  One other point that our grading contractor made as to use the external connectors when joining two pieces of the pipe - they work much better than those interior connectors.

  On the subject of drainage - we have not finished the rainwater collection system but we have noted that it does a great job at collecting large amounts of pine pollen.  That stuff is pretty nasty when it sits and ferments in the barrels so we're going to do a bit more research on how best to eliminate that "feature."  Until then we've been draining off the tanks and cleaning them in prep for the "clean" rains that are soon to come.  I also purchased a transfer pump at Lowes that we're going to use to water all that landscaping that we just planted.  Plan is to connect the pump to garden hoses and feed it directly from the base of the two 275-gallon IBC tanks.

More pictures later but I wanted to provide a little update on our progress.

An for the person who asked - we used Sherwin-Williams Latex paint on the interior and elastomeric on the exterior.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Certificate of Occupancy and Answer to Garage Door question

This week was a good week - we raced to get things set for the final inspection like making sure the deck railing was complete (cable installed and tight) and installing the inside handrail for the stairs as well as a couple minor electrical tweaks.  On Wednesday the county inspector came in the afternoon and did his final inspection. The comments he made were "this should be easy" and "schedule the moving trucks." We had him visit the site any time we had questions regarding code requirements and that helped make sure we were ready for the inspection. Bottom line is he issued the certificate of occupancy so we are not scrambling to get our rental house packed up and moved while finishing some of the last details on the house

  We were a bit concerned with the inside stair railing because it wasn't as sturdy as we would like - the upper section and lower section are not currently connected due to some problems with the Indital components (the plastic cap and articulating joint don't fit together tightly enough to rely on them for stability) so we're going to order one more articulating joint and explain the situation to the folks at Indital to see if they can help..  The rail does work as a handrail but trying to use it as a "guard rail" isn't a good idea since the lateral stability of the railing is questionable in my mind, especially at the landing.  The look is great and goes well with the contemporary style of the house so we're going to work hard to get it stabilized.  I guess the telling story would be that when I spoke with the president of Indital USA he said they should have never sold me the components they did for a wood installation; it is designed for professional installation on concrete flooring...

We also got the Liquid Propane tank installed and filled - the plan was to install it under the deck but due to code restrictions we were unable to do that.  I poured a small pad using Sakrete quick-setting concrete but unfortunately it will now be a pad for some other use.  Steve, the delivery person installed the tank and connected the lines to the house as well as hooking up our Weber grill to the tank. Right now we're probably one of the few folks in the US that has a 120 gallon propane tank only supplying gas to their deck grill!  The good news is on Monday we will move the Thermador range into it's final place and connect it to the lines - so we'll be able to move in AND have hot meals as planned by the end of the coming week.

I cut the grass for the second time yesterday - with all the rain that has been coming down and the warm sunny weather, the grass has been thriving. The one problem is it's too hot so the winter rye is starting to show stress and browning up a bit.  Today the rain came down again and we collected about 100 gallons - I'd emptied one tank in preparation for construction of a better pad for the two 275-gallon IBC containers.  One interesting observation was that the 60 gallon barrel that did not have a drainage port on it had become a mosquito breeding ground - there were tons of larvae squiggling about in the water, some even under the screen (which means the eggs settled through the screen.  I dumped some of the water off but today's rains refilled the barrel and I'm sure washed a few of the larvae into the drainage system and then into the woods below the house.

Today we did the final install on the range hood cover and worked on the pantry shelving system - the glass for the range hood won't go in until the painters and cleaners have finished their work.  We have the painters coming back on Monday/Tuesday and the cleaners (house and window-specific cleaners) coming on Wednesday.  Once all that is done, we'll move the large stuff from our rental house and by this time next weekend hope to be living in our new house.

There was a question posted on the Blog regarding use of the garage door for a living space and the tightness of the seal.  We haven't really worried about how tight the door is since we have a breezeway concept (and the Carolina Wrens have moved in to raise their family) but the seal of the weatherstripping and the joints on the door seems quite tight.  We have the tempered glass for our door and it has performed quite well - today the rain beat against the door pretty severely but it stayed dry. I might not use it for a habitable room in the current configuration but we are very happy with it in our application.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Plumbing and electrical top out, water heater selection, cable rail, HVAC and more

This week saw the HVAC, plumbing and electrical trades complete their top-out in preparation for the certificate of occupancy.  We also uncovered the floors for the first time in months so they could get their final two coats of Bona High Traffic finish.  The stair railing components have now been cut to size and fitted so once the floors have hardened sufficiently we will install the final railing for the inside.  We strung the cable rail on all but the stairs for the deck as well - it was actually not too difficult but it did take time.  We drilled the holes in all the 6x6 posts and then constructed the 2x4 pressure treated upright 'spreaders' for the cable. After that we stained all the critical parts and then installed them.  The process we used was to cut the spreaders to length (high and low versions are required to prevent the cables from hitting at the corner posts) and then we strung the cables, tightened them, and after checking for plumb and centering we attached the uprights to the rail and the deck using screws.  We have not yet cut the cables off so that if we need to make adjustments we can still do that.  The tool that allows the quick-clamp to be released from the cable is only long enough to use if the cable is not inserted in the post so we would have to remove the threaded end of the cable assembly, release the quick-clamp, and then make the necessary adjustments.

  A couple weeks ago we were in a debate over what type of water heater to use.  We originally had a tankless LP unit in the plans but when the "dry hole" of a well appeared on the scene, we switched to a ground-source heat pump including a desuperheater (hot water by-product of heating and cooling) and a resistance water heater.  The water heater that we had initially delivered was very affordable but the annual costs of the unit were at the top of the category for their size ($520 for a 50 gallon heating tank) - which in actuality is a pretty small range.  We again went into the debate about tankless (which we were leaning to), resistance (typical water heater) or one of the new hybrid units.  After a bit more research on the tankless whole-house unit we found that the lag-time before getting hot water in the bathrooms would be unacceptable and the cost of operation was HIGHER than the resistance unit (200 gallons of LP a year, current rate is $2.79 per gallon) so we started researching the Hybrid heaters.  We read all the reviews and settled on an AO Smith Voltex heat-pump water heater.  The cost of the unit was slightly more than our budget line of the tankless whole-house system but the expected annual energy consumption was less than half of the estimated cost for the resistance unit and about 40% of that for the tankless.  The HPWP was delivered and due to the size we reconfigured the mechanical room a bit - the small 40 gallon tank for the desuperheater was moved over to the opposite of the room and the HPWH was placed next to it.  This provided a single drain solution for the pans and condensate pump (required for the HPWH).  Another condensate pump was installed for the ground-source heat pump since it generates a fair amount of water as it cools.  Rather than dump all that water into the septic system we installed two Little Giant condensate pumps that run the water out to the South West corner of the house - where they will be in our rainwater harvesting tanks so that in the rainless months we can continue to add to our tanks.  Pictures of the reconfigured mech room to be posted at a later date.  Oh, and the heat-pump water heater is a great air conditioner for the mechanical room - it cools and dehumidifies the air which our HVAC engineer plans to harness with a manual diverter to allow the cool/dry air to enter the living spaces in the summer months.  One other side note about the HPWH, when it's in hybrid or economy mode the condenser and fan can make a fair amount of noise so we plan to sound-proof the mech room (which we need for the ground-source heat pump and other mechanicals) in the near future.

  Here are pictures of the house in near-final stages.

No, that bird is NOT on the outside.  She decided that the open door was a good place to fly - she was in the garage (collecting next materials I think) and we managed to get her out by opening the french doors and then the clerestory window.  using the long pole scared her down and she miraculously flew out the door.

Convection/Microwave installed (and tested on pizza).

Workout room with paper removed from the floor - still a bit dusty but that will be remedied in the coming days.

downstairs bath - the hint of a reflection you see is the Optiplex (plexiglass) splash guard we installed over the knee-wall.

Lower stairs with stain and the first coat of finish on them.  you can also see the stairway light with the cover painted the same color as the walls.

It's all coming together - the range hood and duct cover are installed but the protective plastic is still on and the glass hasn't been installed yet.

Another view of the kitchen from teh family room - the soapstone looks much bluer here than it does in reality.

And here's the money shot - the only thing missing at this point is the railing but we're waiting to install that until flooring is finished.

Bedroom hallway in near-final state.  

The "relaxation room" with a view.

View from the niche end of the main hall upstairs

Living room doors - closed and yes, they still have the plastic protective film on them

Looking towards the west - the cable rail is installed at this point - hard to see in the small version but it is indeed there.

View looking from west to east - the very green section is where we  put down 50/50 compost/soil mixture and the less green section is the soil left after excavation (e.g. not the topsoil)

Here you can see the tails of the cable waiting to be cut and capped off

This is the other end of the cable system - a threaded rod which allows you to tighten the cable once the quick-clamp is in place and tightened by pulling the cable as tight as possible.

West ent of the deck, looking toward he south.

View of the deck from the Southeast corner of the clearing.

A bit wider angle

And looking due west - you should be able to tell what time this photo was taken by the shadows if you have ever used a sundial. We're thinking about putting a mariner's compass on the deck boards but maybe a sundial would be more appropriate!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Electrical and Plumbing, countertops, slat ceiling, closet system grass

A long time between posts again - Been pretty busy (I think yesterday was the first day I have not visited the site in about 3 weeks).
Snow happens!  We got a light snowfall and when I arrived the next morning the roof proved it was well insulated.  The house was set at 62 degrees overnight warming to 67 starting at 7:00.  This picture was at about 7:30.
Someone has been visiting while we're not there! Cat? Raccoon back? ...
 Since my last posting we have made significant progress including nearly completing top-out of the electrical and plumbing.  Electrician has a few fixtures to install and the Almond outlets - which is a story in itself.  The sub ordered Almond outlets to match the covers and began installing them on Thursday. It turns out they received Light Almond instead of Almond which are quite different in color.  Now here's the rub, the product ID for the Almond and Light Almond outlets are the same - they only difference is the use of AL for almond and LA for light almond.  Easy to figure out which is which isn't it?  It sure is nice to have electric light other than the florescent drop light we've been using when we need light!

The plumbers finished all of their top-out except one hand-shower bar and the hot water heater.  The shower bar requires drilling through that Italian tile which is very time consuming to say the least and it's nerve wracking so nothing cracks.  Installing the tub in the master bath also proved to be a bit of a challenge since it wasn't sitting on the floor.  When the granite installers set the tub deck, they did not set it high enough so we had to remove the mortar bed and redo that - but the worst part was the overflow vent needed to be dropped and it's very difficult to access.  After about 15 test-fits we finally got it into place.  It looks great and is going to be a wonderful place for a hot soak after a long day at work or long bicycle ride.  For the hot water heater we had originally budgeted for a tankless gas unit but with the installation of the geothermal, we had "downgraded" that to a standard electric.

  When the mid-grade resistance water heater arrived it was pretty enlightening to note that the energy rating label noted that of the class, this particular unit was at the top end of energy use for the year at $520.  That generated some healthy discussions regarding the cycle time of the ground source heat pump, the need for HVAC in the "shoulder seasons" and the amount of real hot water it will provide.  In the discussion we were heading towards getting that tankless whole-house unit again until we did a bit more research on the Heat Pump Water Heaters (a.k.a. Hybrid water heaters).  These units use a heat-pump to convert heat in the air to heat in the water and as side benefits they dehumidify the air and cool it.  We gathered all the information we could find and decided to go with the heat-pump water heater by AO Smith.  It gets good reviews and has a good warranty program.  We've read reviews of other manufacturer's heaters that have significant problems and they don't cost much less.  The attraction here was that we don't have to pay for LP to heat water (which is currently $2.79 a gallon and the estimated use is 200 gallons a year - or at current prices $558.00) and the side benefits might pay off.  Since the water heater is in the basement spaces and at present it will only cool the storage area and mechanical room, it seems like a good compromise.  Estimated energy use of this tank (which by the way is 60 gallons instead of the 50 gallon resistance heater unit) is about $250.  The unit does cost about 4 times as much as the resistance unit but that's only a 3-year payback period with a 12 year warranty so we feel confident in this decision.

One thing we did discover during our hot water heater investigation is it appears the larger hot water supply line for the house is now buried above the GSHP unit so we'll have to reroute it before the plumbers can connect the water heater.  We have a significant mechanical room with most of the mechanicals on one side of the room.  The one exception is the Energy Recovery Ventilator unit.  We also have found the GSHP transmits a significant amount of noise to the house which we believe is due to the unit being in contact with the floor joists above it - due in large part to the isolation blocks placed under the unit.

We ordered Soapstone for the kitchen counters from a supplier in NJ and had it delivered to our fabricator. The soapstone is "monsoon wave" and it isn't your high-school lab soapstone color or texture.  They fabricated it with a honed finish and brought it to the site to install a week ago Saturday.  The one glitch here was they had edge-finished two sides of the piece that goes between the range and the refrigerator.  The problem being that only the front was supposed to be edge finished while the sides and back were to be square cut.  The fabricator is still on the hunt for a local supplier for the soapstone but we believe they will end up going to our source to replace that one 25 1/2 x 27 piece.  When the soapstone is "dry" and not oiled it has a blue coloration but after oiling it turns deeper in color and takes on a deep green coloration.

Soapstone installed and oiled - but the bar top has not been installed nor have the fixtures.

View of the island sink up close - olied

Lengthwise shot of the island
This is the soapstone after a week of no oil - the tile was an experiment for the backsplash that doesn't work for us since it's too busy

The cabinet makers returned after the countertops were installed to install the bar top in the kitchen, the master closet shelving units, and the "DIY-install" pantry components.  We chose a solid cherry bar top for the kitchen which really sets off the cabinets and soapstone.  Both the bar top and countertops need to be treated the same with mineral oil.  Today I applied another coat to both and to show the difference between oiled and non-oiled I did half of the island soapstone and took the following picture.
Left half is "dry" and right half is oiled with straight mineral oil.  As you can see, this is after the plumbers have installed the faucet and soap dispenser. This picture was taken with the flash.

Here's a similar view without the flash - note the blue that this brings out...

Looking down at the half oiled surface.

Cherry bar top installed - the range hood cover is still a project in the works 
Some great looking cherry - and it is 2" thick.  The top is through-bolted to the island wall so it's sturdy (though we're still not letting anyone stand on it to do their work!)
View from the entry hall into the kitchen/family room

Grass is coming up - and it makes a real difference when approaching from the street. The house looks finished.

Garage at daybreak - lights on inside are only the garage door lights and not the florescent light.

View of the slatted ceiling from entry hall towards bedroom end of the house.

Same view with the lights turned on.  The ceiling is 3 1/2" hickory boards spaced just under 1/2" apart to fit the beam-to-beam space.  If you remember there is drywall painted black. The slats (with the light fixtures installed through the 2 center slats) are suspended about 9" below.  The design is meant to allow the panels to be lifted should any access be required in the future - though none is expected.

"the Money Shot"

Front entry hall - living room doors still have protective plastic on the glass and paper still on all the floors.

Living room door and hallway leading to bedrooms.

Looking down the hall from the niche end.

Master bedroom - this is a "Fan-away" where acrylic blades retract when the fan is off and spin out when it is running

View of the kitchen from the family room end.  

A bit of rain fell this weekend (about 1 1/4").  We now have 730 gallons of stored rainwater (+/-) and there was much more than that  that traversed the drainage system.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Let it Rain! Drainage design working as planned.

Today was the first real rain we've had since the final grading and installation of the drainage system.  The initial rain was soft and by about 10:00 we had collected over 50 gallons of water in one of the 275 gallon IBCs and all the 60 gallon pickle barrels were full.  The barrel by the front door was performing the fountain duties quite well - water from the overflow was spilling directly into the catch basin and going around via the drainage.  The west side barrel on the front was overflowing into the PVC pipe and filling that IBC in the back (only one is currently connected to the system).  The rear barrel was overflowing but due to settling of the dirt and lack of an installed overflow tube it was simply overflowing onto the ground.  Clearly the IBC would have been filled if this one were to be connected into the system.  That's a project for later this week.

Here's the barrel by the front door - rain chain is working well and the overflow is hitting the catch-basin.  That water collected in front is from when the overflow was removed as a test - after this the puddle went away and all the water ran into the drainage system, around the front of the garage and down to the back outlet which leads into the stream.

A view of the top of the barrel - the chain is currently resting on the window screen 'filter' that keeps the debris from entering the rain barrel.  On the other front barrel I used the grate that was included with the pickle barrel as a large-debris filter.  it's effective but the water splashes out more so we'll refine it a bit.  The screen in this case is under the threaded seal at the top of the barrel which is a very good solution.  The water is actually about 2" below the screen - what you see here is the screen and splashing water due to the downpour.  The are right - water really does race off metal roofs!

Here's the water overflowing from the front barrel to the catch basin.  That puddle in front is due to the settling of the dirt and a test where the extension was removed from the overflow.  

Here's a view of the lot during a particularly heavy downpour.  That puddle in front of the surface pipe is because the dirt settled  causing the end of the pipe to flex upward about 5" above ground level.  We'll tackle fixing that when it dries out a bit.  Clearly this drainage system is sufficient - once the grass seed sprouts and takes hold we shouldn't see the localized puddling (like all those footprints across the newly seeded area).

This shows (albeit a bit hard to see) the flow down the East side of the driveway and around the house.
You can see the drainage working as planned - water flowing down the valley to the left of this picture, over the hill and into the natural ravine.