Monday, December 24, 2007

Catch up

Just a few things I've been up to lately. Last week I went with a couple friends to the Carnegie Center for the Arts in Three Rivers for a quilt and art show. The quilts ranged quite a bit from one that I would embarassed to have as a dog bed to excellent. I was so involved in looking at them that I forgot to take pictures. Sorry! But I did snap one of the fun someone had with radiators outside:
Can you get much cuter? Actually I can top that. I made a hat for my niece last fall. Well, my other sister got jealous and quite insisted that I make one for her daughter too. Here's what she's getting:

(I warned you it was cute.) I've been on a big knitting kick lately.

And what about the big storm that came through? We've actually had two. We got a lot of snow dumped on us last weekend. And then we had a big windstorm come through this weekend. Wind speeds in the mid 50 mph. We woke at 5 am to a big thump, and Troy guessed it right: we lost part of our chimney. (The one Troy just put up last year.) The "hat" on top came off and the top section of pipe. The stove is still operational (thankfully) so this may wait until Troy's arm is healed. (Most of you know, but for those who don't, Troy had shoulder surgery last Friday to correct some defects. He's doing great.)

The view out my living room window.

And speaking of the living room window, I finally got the big insulated blind DONE and HUNG today. I am so happy about that! Troy currently reports that it feels much less drafty. (No pictures--sorry.)

Tomorrow we will enjoy a quiet Christmas where will pack for the trip and finish up other projects around the house.

Merry Christmas!


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Our first heat with methyl esters, aka biodiesel.

So, our new heating device is an oil stove made by a company called Kuma. Ours is the plain utility model that costs approx. $1,400. They have a number of different stoves, from plain to fancy. Here's a website if you're curious:

I was all gung ho to do radiant heat for both the main floor and the upstairs (and the shop actually). Several things have swayed me to reconsider. First, I'm not getting this done fast enough to suit me, and radiant is much more complex to install. Second, radiant cost more. Third, radiant is harder to get code approval if your building inspector is a pickle head. Fourth, I'm not totally confident I could service an oil fired boiler myself. They take special equipment, yada yada. Fifth, one of the advantages of radiant in a conventional house is the nice even temperatures you typically get. But this is not going to be a conventional house. Once insulation levels exceed about r-40, cold spots and cold rooms effectively dissappear. So a complex heat distribution system becomes unneccesary. Lastly, radiant heat has to have electricity, which can fail at the most akward times. The oil stove doesn't.

Of course, there are some down sides. You have to light it with a match. It doesn't have a true thermostat, just low-med-high. There's no provision for a setback thermostat. But it's totally engineered for biodiesel and it's very simple to operate. No moving parts unless you count the float in the carburator.

Our finished installation will not involve a red plastic gas can, but a big tank in the basement with a smaller tank on the main floor in a closet. But this was a quick way to assess the utility of this system.

So far, it's a champ!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My New Best Friend

So who's my new best friend?? It's the oil burning stove Troy installed in our kitchen. (Which makes Troy one of my new best friends too.)
Now instead of a kitchen SOO cold and a floor you can't stand on without your feet getting frostbite, the kitchen is warm enough to almost be cozy! It's so nice.

The red oil can holds the oil which is gravity fed into the stove. It is also built to burn biodiesel so that's a real plus.
When he uncovered the chimney in order to install the stovepipe, Troy discovered that there was a huge hole that had previously been simply covered up with the drywall. Not a good solution. You can see he has nicely filled it in with concrete and sealed it up like it ought to be.

And just for fun, I discovered this moth fluttering in our window trying to warm up. It had a very hairy back, and check out its tongue--creepy!

All for now. Enjoy the snow!


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Warm fuzzies

Just wanted to share a pic of our rabbit, Red, in her latest favourite haunt.

I thought rabbits would prefer it kind of cool/cold since they're so furry, but apparently even Red finds it cold in our house. She is now quite demanding about getting out of her cage (scratching and biting and rattling the cage door whenever we come into the room), and then as soon as she gets out, she makes a beeline for the back of the woodstove and reclines there. This is quite different from previous behaviour where she would either stay in her cage, or "sneak" out only to lay in a dark corner under the shelving.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Aerobic weight lifting, or, "Honey, I just picked the house up."

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Our building inspector is really turning out to be not so cooperative, to put it in the most polite terms possible. He has now totally forbidden me to install a foundation like I want, and like I have (had?) approved plans for. Apparently, my plans have been officially unapproved. This will set me back 4-6 months and cost thousands of extra dollars to attain nothing except make him feel superior. After exploring various legal options, I'm just going to do it his way, I think. God will fix this minor injustice one way or another, and I feel sorry for Mr. Building Inspector when that happens. Of course, from God's point of view, both of us are hideously bad sinners. It's just that I have admitted it and accepted God's help, and he hasn't yet. I have grave concerns about the disposition of his soul and am praying that he get right with God.

OK, on to lighter fare.

Since the weather has pretty much shut down further progress on the shop, I have switched to remedial work on the house. Before I can do any serious work upstairs, I have to jack up various parts of the main floor that have sagged over the last hundred years or so. Since I had no obvious place to start, I just picked the worst example and tore into it.

The dining room floor sags 2+ inches in 8 feet. This is because the outside foundation seems to be holding up fine, but the wall in the basement that is supposed to hold up the living room floor isn't doing its job very well. When I tore off the plaster (Sorry Mr. Garbage man, I know those bags are heavy! ) and the lathe (fantastic kindling for the wood stove!) I found out why the wall wasn't doing a very good job. The bottoms of all the studs had rotted right off and the top plate (horizontal framing member that goes between the vertical studs the floor above) had been reduced to dust by termites.

Ordinarily, when you replace a structural member like this basement wall, you put shoring up to support the house before you remove the bad parts. In my case, I noticed that the studs were literally flapping in the breeze and not even holding up their own weight, never mind a substantial part of the house.

Once I got all the rotten yucky stuff torn out, then I put five screw jacks in place. Ahh, the wonders of leverage. I can only hope that Archimedes makes it to Heaven so that I may congratulate him on his fine understanding and proclamation of mechanical principles. Then comes the grunt work. There's a big screw at the base of each metal pole. One uses a big wrench to twist the screw, and pick the house back up to where it belongs. A screw, which is really an inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder, gives one amazing mechanical advantage. I actually physically picked up the house, just using my muscles.

You work your way back and forth, cranking each screw half a turn so you don't put undo strain on the framing. Pant, pant, pant. Picking up a house is hard work, and in fact it can be aerobic exercise. Within ten minutes, my heart rate was up in the cardio range. Who needs jogging? Then you let it sit for a few hours or overnight, and then you do it again. If you are careful and patient, you can jack a house up without cracking the drywall. Since our drywall/plaster is all crap right now anyway, I have no need to be that careful. There are a few rare advantages to having a house that needs everything replaced on the inside.

Have a fine thanksgiving and be mindful of the many, many blessings we have been given.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Cold day in h?ll?

Something you never thought you'd see:

But remember, it was just Halloween!


Self indulgence

Allow me a little indulgence. I took some pics this morning of our first frost. So pretty. (So chilly.)

Morning sun on first frost.

Chilly sunflower.

Petunia margarita!

All for now. Troy can share his own news about the building inspector. (And it's not good.)


Sunday, September 30, 2007

More on patching & painting

Hello. Happy Sunday. Just wanted to give a quick pictorial update of my painting. This job will just go on and on so I promise I won’t bore you with all the details. But please allow me to show you Troy’s proficient patch/replacement of shingles:

And after it’s painted:

Here’s an updated larger view of the east side. You can see the new color is brighter than the old and the tone of blue is updated. The new color is a little brighter than expected, but I take what I get after I’m done picking the paint chip. It certainly will perk up the house!

I allowed myself to buy some new paint brushes (Wooster brand for outdoor painting), and I don’t know if it’s the brushes, the primer, or the paint, but it just glides on like butter. Greased butter. It’s wonderful to paint with. Thank goodness for small mercies because I’ve got a lot of hand painting to do! Bought myself a little hand bucket for the paint that straps onto my left hand (since I won’t be carrying around the 5 gallon bucket) and it’s pretty handy too. Eventually the strap feels too tight and makes my fingers numb, but other than that it works great. I just take the numbness as a sign that it’s time to take a break.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Homer moment -- Doh!

So Troy gets up early this morning, like he often does, to play on his tractor while I am sleeping some more. But this morning, when he comes back into the house, instead of being proud of the work he has accomplished before even going to work in the morning, he is muttering loudly and berating himself. What is it? Well, he got the last inspection on the trench so he got all fired up to fill it in. It has, after all, been open for a couple months now. Only after filling in a good portion of it did he remember that he was planning to insulate the sewer pipe because it is quite shallow. Doh!! He has decided to dig it back up and try again...

I, meanwhile, got started on a job I've been moaning about for too long: the painting of the shingles on the side of the house. (I think they're shingles; I don't know what else to call them.) Of course, painting doesn't start with painting. So first I put wheels on the section of scaffolding (yes I have scaffolding--aren't I spoiled?) and moved it to the right place. This took more time than you would think it should. And I am not as strong as maybe I could be... Then I built a platform to stand on. Then I got a scraper and started scraping off the loose paint. This is when I discover that this will be a lot more than painting. (Is anyone surprised?) First, there are a lot of missing shingles which the last people ignored, but which I don't think I can. And second, a lot of the shingles that are there, are there because the paint is holding them there. It's not pretty.

Anyway, I got the scraping all done before the sun moved over to that side of the house and I decided I was done. Thankfully it's in the shade until about 1:30, so that's is a good chunk of time to work in the shade.

Here is what I'm dealing with:

This is only a little portion of what needs to be done, but I think it's one of the worst. Knock on wood. (Other sections are closer to the roof and vertical so they get less rain damage.) Not a lot of paint left, is there? There aren't a lot of nails holding the shingles left either. I wonder if it used to all be rounded shingles. The ones with the corners cut off at an angle do not look as well done as the rounded ones (and they would be a lot easier), and the square cut ones on the bottom two rows don't match at all. But I don't know. There's a variety of cuts on the sections above, so they may not have all matched.

This is the worst section:

I will have Troy look at it and render judgment and I hope we don't have to replace anything under the shingles. It did, however, feel pretty spongey.

I've been working on the west side which I don't have a picture of. But very similar to it is the east side, seen here on the right:

So I've been working on the little piece of "roof" over the window, but the plans are to repaint all the sections that are blue a very similar blue. If you look closely at the upper section you can see that some rows are rounded and some are squared off, but the even the diamond shapes don't match the window portion. I'm thinking it was a quick repair. And do I see hearts on the lowest row of rounded shingles? On my house--hearts!? Ah!! What am I going to do about that!

Other than that, the only news is that we worked together (imagine that!) and got the TV antennae in the attic. It is nice to no longer have it suspended from the precarious living room ceiling, and our reception has improved dramatically. I can almost get ABC now. (The rest are good.)

Ta ta,


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Rain, rain, go away, and why is the Federal Reserve telling big fat lies about inflation?

It has been wet here at Maple Leaf Gardens for the last couple of weeks. This is the tail end of the hurricane watering our grass for us. The water falling on us was recently the Gulf of Mexico.

All this water makes it not so much fun to dig my trench to run the utilities out to the shop. The bottom of the trench has turned into a morass. Well really, it's more between a morass and quicksand. It has ripped my boot off a couple of times and makes the most peculiar sucking noises as I slog around in there. Maybe I'm just lazy, or perhaps the conditions have legitimately dampened my enthusiasm. It's hard to get motivated and excited about working in the cold wet, or hot wet mud, depending on the day. Plus, the constant moisture has produced a bumper crop of voracious mosquitos which adds considerably to the work place ambience.

Despite the hindrance, we continue to make slow progress. I got to chisel a hole in my basement wall for the electric and water lines using my new jack-hammer. What guy wouldn't want to play with a jack hammer? I purchased a 250' roll of 3/4" PEX piping(cross linked polyethylene. Same stuff as plastic milk jugs, but 100 times stronger and more durable) to run water out to the shop. PEX is becoming very popular these days since copper has become the new precious metal. In the last three years, copper has gone from $2,700 per metric ton, to about $8,000 per MT. That small part of my brain that believes in an eminent catastrophic shortage of numerous basic resources like petroleum and metals thinks, "Mmmmmm, ominous." Basic commodity prices should not triple in three years.

An equally exciting explanation for the phenomenon could be an artificially high price induced by the grossly irresponsible actions of the Federal Reserve over the last 30 years. They have watered the U.S. dollar down so far through the magic of the printing press, that prices are getting silly on a lot of things. Oh, they regulate the process so it happens slow enough that not too many people get too alarmed all at once. And the official inflation rate sounds downright tame. Inflation was so "under control" a year or two ago that they were "worried" about deflation. This is all poppycock. The official inflation rate gets laughed at by most people that know anything about how they calculate this number.

I know this is somewhat off topic, but hey, it's my blog so you'll just have to put up with my didactic tendencies. It might save you from eating Alpo in your retirement though...

Back in the day, the Fed (as they are so affectionately known) did a fairly honest assessment of inflation. They took a sample of numerous representative items, from ketchup to gasoline to real estate, and measured how much the price went up over time. They used the same list over and over, so they were literally comparing apples to apples. Pretty simple right? The difficulty was that petroleum was getting pretty expensive pretty fast. This also made food go up really fast, since agriculture is heavily petroleum dependent. The resultant high inflation rate made the sitting administration look, well, bad. It also cost the government a humongous pile of money, since many government pensions and entitlement programs were(and are) tied to the official inflation rate.

What to do, what to do? They came up with a clever, if nefarious plan. It was a language trick. They produced a new inflation indicator, which they named the "Core Inflation Rate". Well, the "Core", that has to be the most important part right? The core inflation rate really means the regular inflation rate, but with petroleum and food taken out because they were too "volatile".

Volatile my ass! Excuse my vulgarity, but this dishonesty amounts to theft on the part of government. Every time you hear that term "core inflation rate" on the news, you may know with certainty that they are lying to you.

Let's say you get a cost of living raise of 2% to "keep up" with "inflation". But the real inflation rate is considerably higher than that. Gee, too bad for you. Your CD's (certificates of deposit) may pay 2.2% interest, which almost keeps up with the official rate of 2.5% inflation, but in fact is losing money since the real inflation rate may be double or triple that.

If you were planning on having $500,000 tucked away for retirement, you now know it won't be nearly enough. Whatever you thought was enough, you should plan on double or treble that amount. That's assuming that you will actually need food and gasoline, and all the other things affected by petroleum.

They also do many other creative and amusing parlour tricks to make inflation look better than it really is. It would be downright funny in a novel about how the clever government pulled the financial wool over the entire population for decades. Well, funny if you were the government.

But I am not a professional economist. I could just be some crackpot who doesn't entirely trust the Gub'ment. Allow me to introduce you to a guy name Jim Puplava.

He does this for a living. He is a very smart guy, and he is unbiased in the sense that telling the truth won't cost him billions of dollars like the Federal Government. Please read his article concerning the real inflation rate. Jim does an excellent job of conveying the Alice-in-wonderland methods currently used to compute the inflation rate. I dare you to read it and not be irate at the end.

I suppose Jim could just be a professional crackpot too. There are certainly enough of those out there. If you don't find Jim convincing, do a google search for "real inflation rate" and do an hour's worth of reading.

Aside from being interesting in it's own right, true inflation could easily and quietly suck your retirement resources dry without you being aware of it. For you Christians out there, this is a stewardship issue that we all need to be aware of. For Christian and non-Christian alike, this story is almost exactly like, "The King Has No Clothes". If enough people realize what amazing/stupid/dangerous stunts the government and the Fed are doing, we might get some rational fiscal policy out of Washington.

I am SUCH an optimist.

By the way, did you know that the Federal Reserve is not a governmental agency at all, Federal or otherwise? It is a private and independent corporate entity of the banking industry.

Finest regards,


Monday, August 13, 2007

Sign of the end times?

So last night as we were preparing for bed, Troy looked out the window and exclaimed, "Is that a frog?" Sure enough, there was a frog clinging to the outside of our bedroom window. On the second story.

Is this a sign of the end times? Of plagues and tribulations that are to come? Or are just Troy and I in for it?

And how did Mr. Frog get there? Can frogs climb aluminum siding?

Let me tell you, I flipped back the sheets before climbing into bed,


ps: and if you know more about the climbing habits of small frogs, please enlighten me.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Had to share

Well, we've been gone for a week to Missouri to visit family. I won't bore you with family pictures or scenery shots (we didn't take many anyway), but I did get some shots of an amazing site. Troy's dad was out one morning, and noticed this coneflower which had grown up and through a leaf of the bush growing next to it:

Before he picked the coneflower, both it and the leaf were still alive and growing. Amazing.

BTW, Troy got his tractor part with little trouble and neglible cost. Then the backhoe crapped out on him. The hydraulic place couldn't fit him in for months, so he took a look at it. Well, when it was assembled, a valve was inserted backwards. Makes a big difference! So, the morning we were to leave for Missouri, Troy was out early playing on the tractor to make sure it was all fixed and working. It was. (Yeah!)

All for now,

Friday, July 13, 2007

We have a building permit!

As noted in the title, we are now permitted to build our super insulated shop building. FULL SPEED AHEAD. For you star trek fans, full speed for me is about 1/4 impulse power. But at least the state isn't holding us up. We are thankful to our benevolent and loving God for facilitating this.

Of course, we still have to pass the actual inspections, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

On an almost unrelated note, I have almost solved a knotty problem with my tractor. For inscrutable Chinese reasons, they designed the thing to use an obscure, rare oil filter for the engine. I have looked at five places that sell lots of oil filters, and got skunked. The last two places, Isaac and I finally resorted to removing every oil filter from the box and measuring the size of the hole and threads where the filter attaches. Nothing, nada, zilch, zero, again. The solution that finally presented itself was to stop looking for the unobtanium filter, and change the filter mount. That will involve making a little threaded pipe adapter that's metric on the tractor end, and english on the filter end. If I had my lathe set up, this would be 30-45 minutes of pleasant work for a no-cost, permament and elegant solution.

Since my lathe is not set up, I'm trying to get another machinest to make it for 20-25 bucks. He doesn't seem to be answering the phone the last couple of days, so I might have to scrounge through boxes and find all the parts to make my lathe operational again. I suppose even machinests are allowed to go on vacation from time to time.

If it's not one thing, it's two others.

Have a lovely day,


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The need to help (impose?) balance on "nature".

There is a saying that Nature abhors a vacuum. It's often invoked when you try to eradicate some pest or weed, only to discover that it has been replaced by something else, often even worse.

Humans love to change their environment. I mean environment in the broader sense. It covers everything from your tidying up your desk drawer to cleaning your kitchen to mowing and weeding your yard, to remodelling your house, to as big as you have control/influence over. We want to make it better, though it is an entire other discussion as to how we perceive and define "better".

Everybody does it. Some are good at it. Some do it the absolute minimum they can get away with. Some take it too far and get obsessed with cleaness or organization. But it's essentially universal expression among people makes me think that this is a very deep and fundamental part of our being or soul. I think this drive is an expression of our little version of God's involvement and care for His environment (all of creation).

We desire harmony and balance and beauty in the things around us. Farmers hate it when their cows get sick and try to help them. Gardeners despise weeds choking out their veggie plants or flowers. They don't belong there. So, we all have a plan or a world view about how things are supposed to work, just like God has a plan. Clearly, we are not overly successful at totally fixing what is wrong with the planet. But still, in our own little corner, we do not easily give up and allow chaos to win.

I often speculate what the garden of Eden was like. How much did Adam and Eve have to "work" to keep things ship-shape prior to the fall? Surely, they were not overrun with too many squirrels and chipmunks such that they had to kill the buggers at every opportunity.

Clive Staples Lewis wrote a fascinating scene in the third part of his science fiction trilogy. In the book, That Hideous Strength, the protagonist (a man named Ransom) is giving us a little vignette of what life could look like when man and nature both embrace the correct and larger plan from God. Ransom, and a woman who is considering joining this dovoted religious community are discussing how different the community really is. Ransom uses a peculiar illustration to drive home the point.

I'll paraphrase it for a moment. (You will excuse me if I get some of the details wrong. It's been years since I read it.) They have just finished a light snack in the sitting room.

Ransom: Are you afraid of mice?

Woman: Well, I don't like them, but I am not especially afraid of mice.

Ransom: Then I would like you to sit very still and just observe for a few minutes. Don't be startled or make a sudden noise.

He then proceeds to take their plates, which are covered with the typical crumbs and remnants from their light meal, and brushes the mess right onto the floor. He then rings a small bell and sits back, expectantly. Nothing happens for a few moments. Then, three small mice appear from the other side of the room from behind the furniture and cautiously make their way across the floor to the crumbs. They delicately clean up the mess until the floor is spotless. Then they sit up and groom themselves with obvious satisfaction before scampering off and dissappearing.

Ransom: You see, there has been centuries of needless conflict between humans and mice. Humans are messy eaters, which produces a modest supply of crumbs and whatnot. Mice need a modest supply of crumbs and whatnot, and would happily remove them from our premises. So long as there is an understanding and a balance between the two parties, there is no conflict.

I firmly believe that our lack of balance and harmonious coexistance with all species is a direct consequence of original sin. Until that fundamental rift in the fabric of existence is repaired, we will have to make do as best we can.

Until the mice and the squirrels and the chipmunks start playing by the grand playbook, I will continue to encourage balance and harmony by killing them using every available means and opportunity.

While we are under the burden of original sin, do you think God has enabled us to actually enjoy hunting our fellow creatures to preserve some semblance of balance and order, or am I just perverted? Or perhaps hunting pre-dates the fall and "dumb" creatures without souls always needed a bit of killing to keep them in line with the greater plan???


Sunday, July 08, 2007

So what did you do on the fourth of July?

Troy is excited to announce that he actually started digging the foundations last Wednesday. A friend volunteered his services for the day, and Troy, he and Isaac got to work! The first part was moving Troy's approximately placed corner markers so that they marked a square rectangle. That took some time from where I was watching (at the wood splitter...I wasn't just lazing around!)

Once square, they marked the boundaries for the foundations with paint...and started digging: Troy with the backhoe and Joel and Isaac with shovels after him.

By the end of the very humid day, they had one long side done! Troy has sinced finished a short side, and yesterday he and Isaac just started the other long side.

Today is too hot to work, quite frankly. I think Troy was out for a while, but currently they are playing video games!

Troy has seen the zoning guy, and got the thumbs up. He has an appointment with the building inspector this coming Thursday (13th).

All for now!

Friday, June 29, 2007

The next step, or, why I have fear and trepidation about the building inspector.

Christina's most recent post was lovely, and the addition of photos really adds a lot!

She reminded me of, the next step. Yes, what is next?

The next thing that has to happen is we cross the threshold and get a building permit.

I suppose I should have done this weeks, or even months ago. I haven't because, well, I'm different. The National Building Code, and the generally nice folk who administer and enforce it, really likes things done in cookie cutter fashion. In all fairness, that makes it easy to decide if any particular building or part therof is built "properly" and according to code.

The real rub here, is that I wish to surpass the code minimums by such an extraordinary margin, that my shop suddenly looks nothing like an ordinary home shop or pole barn or metal building, or anything else "normal". My concern is that the code enforcement people just won't know what to make of it all, and will default to, "Well, that's not how you build it. It has to be such and so." Alternatively, I could hire an engineer to make the plans and put his/her seal of approval on it. The code folks generally respect that, since it takes them off the hook in terms of liability. If the building falls down, or catches on fire, it's now the responsibility of the engineer, not the code department. The down side, is that hiring the engineer for this unorthadox building would likely double the total cost.

My last experience with the code guy went swimmingly well. Once I convinced him I really intended to exceed the code by the margin that I described, he would pretty much let me do whatever I wanted.

On the other hand, stories about code problems and do-it-yourself people abound. Oh yeah. We could also hit some unforseen zoning snag and they could just say that I can't build a shop, sorry. That would defeat the entire purpose of the purchase of a new house/property and the gigantic nuisance of moving.

Your prayers and petitions are both neccessary and appreciated.

I still sleep well every night.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tanks, excavation and the three stooges

Let’s see…time for another update from Christina. First, the propane tank has been successfully moved with the help and supervision of our propane company. It’s been a week and Troy’s line has worked flawlessly. (“Of course” he would add in the background, if he were here.) It’s not pretty sitting right beside the driveway and main entrance, but we did not have any choice. Besides when I sew and knit I know the best creations sometimes come from the worst constraints, so I will look at this as a landscaping opportunity.

Speaking of landscaping, we have added a little dirt from the shop excavation around the house in key areas where the roof overflow was soaking into the basement. Once the dirt angled away from the house instead of toward it, it was covered with plastic about 4-5 feet wide, and then covered with mulch for the sake of prettiness (and to hold the plastic in place).
Troy reports the basement is noticeable drier after it rains, and with the dehumidifiers running, he actually has the humidity below 50%, for probably the first time ever. (Ok maybe that’s not fair since it looks like they did have gutters on the house before the last re-roofing.) But certainly since we’ve been here. And I have to add that I’m sure it helps that we have not had a good rain in weeks and everything is dry! In any case, we will continue surrounding the house with dirt sloped to give our basement the best chance of staying dry and will have the added bonus of evening out the look of the landscaping around the house. We have enough mulch from all the trees to mulch the whole yard if we wanted so that is not a problem.

Troy is calling the excavation done for the shop. He has figured that it is level within 4 inches. He can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it took him about 2 weeks. He is so happy to move on to the next step which is…sorry but I have no idea. I wasn’t listening well enough when he was talking to David yesterday. (Oops.)

We have also continued to work on the wood cut down by the professionals…and the walnut trees cut down by Curly, Larry and Moe. I had the “good fortune” of being home last time they came. It was an adventure just to watch them work. After the professionalism of the crew that took down the maple trees (everyone seemed to have a job to do, they stayed out of other people’s way when they had a job to do, and the job got done well and efficiently without the thought that everyone’s life was in imminent risk), the stooges were a real change. Apparently it was the job of anyone that wasn’t running the forklift, truck or other machinery to constantly yell, “HEY HEY HEY” at the guy driving the equipment. I guess in case he forgot he was driving a big piece of destruction (when handled improperly) and needed constant reminders about the overhead wires, other vehicles in the area, the garage, etc. While trying to load a big piece of trunk onto the truck, two of them had a discussion about whether it would fit that went like: “It’s not going to fit.” “Yes it will.” “no it won’t” “yes it will” “no it won’t” “yes it will”…and ended with the Yes Man trying to load it into the truck and having it fall back down onto the driveway. Yes Man then agreed with No Man and they decided to bring it back to the woods with the other last few pieces. Which means, yes, they’re coming back one more time to get the rest. Can’t wait…

And the last thing we’re spending a lot of energy on is trying to get grass to grow. Troy’s is starting to come in where he dug the trench. The area I reseeded where a maple once stood is pretty thin and patchy. Troy figures the birds got the seeds. And in the front where I tried to fill in some really bare patches, they have completely filled in with very happy looking crabgrass. I think it was just waiting to take advantage of the extra watering I was trying to give the new grass seed. I feel like we’re living a parable. (And what grass seed will you be? Or maybe you prefer to ask what soil will you be???)

I'll leave you with a couple pics of my long dead alliums. But they look so interesting I can't cut them down. Hope you agree and enjoy.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Propane lines and pansies

So my husband has proven himself a loving and wonderful husband this week by…not only digging the trench for the propane line by hand (so as not to run his tractor over my yard again causing great trenches and bumpiness on the riding mower), but also filling it in beautifully today. Eschewing the plugs of grass he carefully saved while digging the trench, which had dried up pathetically, he faithfully cut new plugs from the lawn where the shop is going. The lawn over the filled in trench looks better than the area surrounding it!* How many times do you dig a ditch and end up with a better looking lawn? What a man I have found.

*Although now that I think about it, the lawn only looked so bad because he dug a trench with the backhoe last fall for the drain pipe for the one gutter that got on the house and didn’t “dress” the lawn up afterward. Hmmm.

Other news…on a car energy stand point, it has finally reached the point where it makes more sense for Troy and I to drive the truck and his Jetta (both diesels) and park my efficient yet still gas-guzzling Corolla (mpg to and from work has been running in the high 30s). I miss my car, but I am enjoying the power windows and CD player for all my audio books that the Jetta affords me.

Troy also wants you all to know that he has broken ground for the shop. This is why the propane line was being dug. The tank is scheduled to be moved next week, and then ground breaking will continue. The summer is flying by already (and it’s barely started!) and we are anxious for progress to be made.
I should also add that all the trees are down. By all, I mean seven that were on the lawn proper. The company did an amazing job in two days: there is nothing left of these massive trees but some patches of wood chips on the lawn and huge pieces of trunk neatly stacked at the back of the property. (Thanks to friends and family who have already come by to help us chop them up! The wood piles are growing nicely.) Some of the trunk pieces laying on their side were almost as tall as Troy. They were also amazingly rotten. Troy tested the hardness of one piece by poking at it with his knife: it sank easily right up to the handle. Two days after the trees were down, we had high winds and good possibility of tornadoes in the area. We were happy to be able to feel relieved instead of scared for our house, garage, and vehicles. (Oh btw, Troy got someone to tow away the car that was tree-smashed last fall too! Good things are happening.)

I will finish this brief update with some pics I took last weekend, on Troy's urging and conviction that you will enjoy them.

Someone once told me there was something wrong with me because I didn't want to have any kids. Since then, I've tried not to make those judgments on others. But really, David, there is something wrong with you for actively not liking gazanias! They are an amazing flower. (When the sun's shining.)
All for now!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The great white whale, or, how to remove stumps.

Now that the weather has taken a turn for the better, we have rushed headlong into building a shop. My goal is to have the shop totally weather proof by Christmas.

I think this is a reasonable and attainable goal.

Unfortunately, I also have a longstanding (and scary accurate) rule of thumb about time estimates for task completion. Many years ago, I observed that if I made a very sophisticated guess about how long it would take to complete any give task, accounting for all the things that could go wrong, head scratching, running to town for parts, etc etc etc, I was still always wrong. In fact, I was always overly optimistic. However, if I took that best estimate, doubled it and added ten percent, that was often pretty close to the mark. Feel free to use Troy’s patented time to completion methods to aid in your own forecasting efforts. Royalty payments may be made to my secret Swiss numbered bank account.

If I have substantially improved my forecasting ability, it will be weather tight and totally closed in by Christmas. And why shouldn’t I be more accurate? I am older, wiser, more experienced, and I have a lot more money to make things happen faster. Of course, if my rule still magically works, instead of taking 9 months, it will take 18+, perish the thought…

The actual “progress” on the shop is on two fronts, planning and physical work. On the one hand, there was a tree in the way and it has to go away. Cutting it down went exactly as planned. Then there was the stump to deal with. The stump has become my great white whale, and if my heart were a cannon ball, I might have shot it out of my own chest to kill the monster.

There are any number of methods to remove stumps, each with their strengths and weaknesses.

1. You can let it rot all by itself. Microbes are everywhere, and some of them can digest wood. If you have a couple of decades to wait, this works reliably and required no effort on your part, other than mowing around the stump for twenty or thirty years. I do not have the time luxury for this method.

2. Back in the day, farmers often used dynamite. It was not uncommon to have a stick or two laying around because it’s such handy stuff. If they didn’t have any, they probably new a guy down the road that would have a stick or two. This method is both reliable and fast. Since this activity generally occurred in a sparsely populated area, nobody really cared, even the law enforcement folks. When your distant neighbors heard the boom(s) they would probably comment to the spouse that George had been talking about blowing those stumps out on his back forty, end of conversation.

For better or for worse, times have changed. Dynamite is somewhat harder to procure. The nice law enforcement folks take a much dimmer view of the widespread use of high explosives by amateurs. The countryside is much more densely populated, and your neighbors would probably have more than a passing comment if they hear explosions over at your house. Then there’s that whole 9/11 terrorist event and its aftereffects. We may, with some sadness, discard method 2.

3. Use a stump grinder. Vermeer makes a nice machine with a powerful engine that drives a rotary grinder on a carriage. The grinder looks like a steel drum about a foot wide and about the same in diameter. It is covered with wicked looking “fingers”, each of which is tipped with a sharp carbide tooth. They run this baby back and forth over the stump, something like eating corn on the cob, and it is magically turned into mulch. I’m just making up numbers here, but I think Vermeer’s starter model runs something over thirty thousand dollars. I’m just not that rich, and even hiring a tree service with a stump grinder runs into real money pretty fast.

4. Farmers and pioneer types who had to clear the land could use a patented stump puller. There were several companies that produced these heavy, large, strong, heavy tripod devices, typically ten or twelve feet high. The working principle is a huge screw, which is really an inclined plane wound around a long thin cylinder. The screw, which was about as big around as a man’s forearm, had a big wooden lever on the top, to be hitched to the plow horse or horses. So you set the tripod up over the stump, chained the stump to the bottom of the screw, hitched the horse up to the long wooden drive lever, and walked the horse around in circles.

While this was going on, several helpers would be digging around the roots and chopping at them with axes. Mind your fingers. This was an all day affair for several people and a horse or two. Hard work for everybody involved and not terrifically successful on big stumps. Plus, since I don’t have a draft horse, I will have to pass on this method. It does give me enormous respect for those early pioneers!

5. Really big machinery. If you have a big enough back hoe, or better yet, a track hoe, you can just rip it out of the ground, roots and all. By big, I mean really freaking huge, and correspondingly expensive. I, of course, have a teeny little backhoe attachment for my teeny little Chinese tractor. I did use the backhoe to scrape away most of the dirt from the roots, just to see what I was up against. It didn’t even pretend to do any ripping of roots or stumps.

6. You can burn them. This was also suggested by our good friend David, who knows a lot about a lot, and has some first hand experience. The traditional method is to drill a bunch of holes in the stump, approximately one inch in diameter, as deep as you can go. Dump in your favorite flammable liquid and light it up baby! It’s supposed to burn and smoke and smolder for a week, after which you sort of cave in the remnant shell and you’re done. While this may work flawlessly on an older, deader and dryer stump, I can tell you that it was an amazing failure on my new living green stump.

I drilled my holes, dumped in my gas and torched that baby! It made pretty flames and an ominous hissing sound for a couple of hours. Imagine my surprise when I examined the end result the next day. 32 flawless holes in a perfectly sound stump. There was a tiny little ring around each hole that had charred and blackened a bit, but experimentation suggested that the damage was about as deep as a sheet or two of ordinary paper. For a few moments, I had delusions of wealth and grandeur, having discovered fire proof wood.

Then I took the Tim Allen approach, you know, if ten units of power don’t work, try 150. I have built several large, scorching, searing, nuclear bonfires over/around this stump, and have successfully destroyed/removed approximately the top two inches. I do think that we are getting the stump dried out. If nothing else, we are gradually tiring it out. I can be a persistent bugger and will overcome the stump somehow, stay tuned.

7. You can build around them. This was also suggested to me, I think in jest. As I think about it, I have seen a couple of houses on some “Fancy House” tv show, that incorporate a tree into the construction somehow. At the time, I assumed this was some artsy/enviro/hippie thing (not that there is anything wrong with that!). In reality, they must have realized that the minor inconvenience of having a tree stuck in the middle of the kitchen floor is nothing compared to removing the offending stump. That teaches me once again to be cautious about making assumptions.

The other activity involving the shop, is the planning stage. I am finalizing the size, which I think will be 28' x 70', or maybe 30' x 70'. It has certainly grown a lot since I first picked a number out of a hat at 24' x 50' a few months ago. Then I measure the garage, which is 24' x 22', and really not that big. A few days ago, I used stakes and a long tape measure to approximately lay out the building and it looked pretty good in the larger format. I have also been reading up like crazy about in-floor radiant heat and oil fired boilers, since the time for pouring cement rapidly approaches. Well, you know, rapidly for me.

Finest regards,


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Emergency management in the old house.

The last few weeks have been exciting on several levels, most of them bad.

Our first class premier emergency was when the boiler (furnace) was incapacitated. Of course, it was a really really cold week for that to happen. Ironically, the heating system failed because one of the "hot water" baseboard radiators FROZE. When it froze, it split the pipe and leaked water all over the kitchen floor.

For those who have never seen one, a hot water baseboard is just a copper pipe with a bunch of aluminum fins pressed on to increase surface area.

Of course, the great irony is that part of my heating system actually froze. It did this because the kitchen in general is poorly insulated, and the kitchen addition is even worse. When we first moved in, we discovered that the kitchen used to be much smaller. They remodelled by chopping out the wall that separated the kitchen from the porch, and then closing in the porch.

This produced a very unsatifactory end result from an energy standpoint. The old porch was a huge monolithic block of cement about 8 feet wide and 16 feet long. This now serves as the floor in the kitchen addition (just below the vinyl and plywood). The problem is, cement is about the worst imaginable insulator. So, if I were to measure the floor temperature over that part of the kitchen today, when outside temperatures hover around the freezing mark, the floor will probably measure less than 40F. When I came home the other day, there was a big scrap of foam insulation laying on the floor over by the sink.

Perhaps I left this out and just didn't remember. I really missed out on the "neat and tidy" genes, so this is a real possibility. When I queried my wife, she said she put it down so her feet wouldn't freeze off doing the dishes. That seemed completely legitimate, so we just leave it there now. I was also relieved that it wasn't just me being messy again.

That huge cold slab of cement is also what killed the copper pipe/radiator. The boiler only runs intermittently, based on if the thermostat is happy or not. When the weather got well below freezing, and even below zero Farenheit for a time, the cold cement block froze the radiator during a long off cycle.

To repair it, I turned the water on again (briefly) to that circuit and water gushed out indicating precisely where the leak was. I turned the water off, removed the cover and stripped off enough aluminum fins to get access to the split in the pipe. This is where I made two critical and incorrect assumptions. First, I assumed that the place where the water gushed out was the only leak. Second, I assumed that the radiator was made out of garden variety 3/4" copper pipe. It turns out that it's slightly bigger than regular 3/4 inch copper pipe, and it was only through heroic and creative measures that I successfully soldered a patch into the pipe. McGuyver would have been proud I'm sure.

The big and fatal assumption was that there was only one leak. Once I really filled the pipe and pressurized it, it leaked at several places, and I also discovered that it had been patched before. At that point I threw in the towel and just turned the kitchen branch off permanently. Hey, the kitchen was freezing cold before, and it's freezing cold now but it doesn't leak. It's all getting replaced, so I didn't want to invest any more effort than necessary.

Once we could run the boiler without flooding the kitchen, life hummed along without interuption for almost a week. Then the electric water heater conked out. The overtemperature reset button kept tripping. I would reset it, we would have hot water for half a day, or a day, and then trip again. Replacing the overtemp device with a new one produced exactly the same result. This took several days of fiddling around to diagnose the problem and rewire the water heater. Since my wife showers before I do in the morning, she took the brunt of the cold showers, since I could reset the button and it would work again for my shower. Did I mention my wife is a saint?

About the same time the water heater failed, the potential buyers of our city house asked us to fix 8 piddly silly things, two of which were non-existant problems. Christina did make a few grumbly noises about working on the other house when we barely had a furnace and questionable hot water, but all of those issues were eventually resolved. The absence of hot showers in the winter time makes me grumpy too. We signed the papers today and officially sold the other house house. Now we can dump all that equity onto our debt and get closer to having NO payments. Won't that be strange? We're not there yet, but we can see it from here.

The last emergency was the lack of firewood. Specifically, the lack of cut, split and dried firewood. We had a substantial amount of wood completely prepared for the wood stove. But because of the very cold weather and the very poor insulation, we went through the wood at a furious pace. I kept waiting for a break in the weather, since it's not that sexy to be cutting, splitting and hauling firewood around when it's sleeting and snowing. Eventually, the weather won out. I had to shovel a path to the log pile, shovel a foot of snow off the log, hit the log a few times with a sledge hammer since they were all firmly frozen to the ground, roll it over to the splitter, do the hydraulic magic, throw it in the trailer, then stack it on the porch. None of that is as much fun when the weather is crapola.

While it is fun to use the word emergency to make it more dramatic, these events were really more like minor inconveniences. Yes, the boiler quit. But we still had a wood stove, a way to cook, and lots of friends that would have taken us in until it was fixed. We had lots of skills and resources to deal with the problem. If nothing else, we could have thrown money at it until it worked again. Yes, the water heater went out, but we still had running water and other means to make hot water if really needed.

Much of the world lacks even basic resources. I read a fascinating article about a guy who developed a simple solar oven for use in third world countries to reduce the need for fire wood and the ensuing deforestation. His design used "low cost", locally available materials, or so he thought. It's based on two cardboard boxes, one larger than the other so they nest, some plastic or recycled window glass, some aluminum foil and poof, you have an oven that can boil water. The space between the two boxes is stuffed with scrap newspaper, or straw to provide insulation. But in one of the classes where he teaches people to build and use these ovens, a woman appologized for not bringing materials, saying that she would have to save up all her disposable income for at least a month to acquire two cardboard boxes in good shape and some aluminum foil. Next time you see a cardboard box, be thankful for what you have.

Those of us with lots of resources have a God given obligation to be generous in every way that we can to share with those who have less. We also bear a huge responsibility to not waste these very finite resources, even if they are easily affordable to us at this moment.

That's stewardship.

Finest regards,


Friday, February 02, 2007

We have a woodstove! And we finish the list of weak spots in conventional house construction.

We have successfully installed our new efficient EPA rated wood stove in the farm house. To use a medical analogy, the house was hemorrhaging to death from heat loss. The wood stove, while not stopping the bleeding, has infused a lot of new blood (heat) and now we rarely see our breath while walking around the house. Did I mention my wife is a saint to put up with this “lifestyle”?

Just for fun, here’s a brief primer on wood stoves, since wood heat will get very very popular when conventional fuels double and triple in price.

There are basically two categories of wood stoves, EPA rated, and non-EPA rated. They are easy to tell apart once you know the secret. An EPA rated stove has passed exhaustive and expensive testing to certify that the stove meets efficiency and pollution standards. A typical EPA rated stove will be approximately 65-70% efficient and will emit almost no visible smoke once it is nicely heated up.

When the EPA instituted these standards, the number of wood stove manufacturers dropped by about 95% (S.W.A.G.) because it is very tricky business to engineer a stove to be that efficient without spending half a million dollars on R&D. You may be assured that if a stove meets EPA ratings, they will PROUDLY tell you. If you don’t see a prominent EPA rating of some kind, you can rest assured it does not meet those standards.

Non-EPA stoves still exist because of some loophole or another. The other big tip off is that a few states have banned the use of non-EPA rated stoves due to the pollution issue. If the stove says it is not for sale in California and a couple other states, it’s cheap and inefficient. Typical efficiency of non-rated stoves varies between 10-50% at the very best. This is true even if they make claims that their stove is “efficient”. Price is often a giveaway also.

There are also wood boilers that are installed outside the house, with plumbing to transport the heat to the house. These are billed as safe and efficient. Safe, yes. Efficient, very much not so. Some are better than others, but the very best will likely deliver less than 25% overall efficiency, and many are worse than that. Most of them are also big polluters that smoke like crazy, making you very unpopular with the neighbors. Approach with caution, and be certain to talk to somebody that has actually owned and operated one that you are interested in. Ask them about smoke too. Ask them how much wood they burn in a year.

EPA rated stoves produce, on average, 90% less particulate emissions (that’s smoke/pollution) than non-rated stoves.

These people are handy if you want a real education about woodstoves:

Now we will finish off our list of weak spots in conventional new house construction.

Here’s the summary list. We dealt with 1-3 in our last installment.

1. Orientation
2. House shape and geometry
3. Airtightness/penetrations
4. Heat loss below ground
5. Heat loss through the band joist
6. Properly insulating the attic, even over the exterior walls
7. Movable insulation for windows

4. Most basements are not insulated at all, or minimally. This is especially true of basement floors. Don’t you like a cold floor in January? Me neither.

As a minimum, you need 2 inches of blue Styrofoam insulation under the floor, and 4 is better. This is especially true if you intend to use your basement for anything other than storage. The basement walls can be insulated with foam on the outside, or foam on the inside, or both. Fiberglass is not recommended, as there is always the possibility of moisture issues, which can rapidly reduce the r-value by 50-100%. Blown in cellulose would also not be our first choice due to moisture issues.

Blue and pink Styrofoam are more or less immune to water damage. White Styrofoam is less moisture resistant, and has considerably less r-value per inch. There is a reason the white stuff is cheaper. Brown foam (polyisocyanurate, or urethane foam board) would also be entirely appropriate. There are some specialty rigid fiberglass sheet products that are designed for use below grade and are moisture resistant, but they have much less r-factor per inch.

5. At the end of every floor joist, along the outside wall, there is a board called the band joist. You can generally see the band joist if you have an unfinished basement. If you walk along the outside wall and look at where all the floor joists are attached, that’s the band joist. This is sometimes completely uninsulated, or insulated badly with little rectangles of fiberglass wadded up and/or stuffed in each bay between the floor joists. This is mildly effective at best.

Once again, the preferred method is to use the high r-value rigid foam products. Carefully cut a block of foam to tightly fill the space between the joists, and cover up the exposed band joist. 4 inches of foam will do. That generally means 2 layers of 2” foam. Once you’re done, caulk the edges to limit air exchange and moisture migration into the band joist. According to the national building code, exposed foam is a no-no, so to be completely safe, you would cut a nice fitting piece of drywall and put that over the exposed surface of the foam, and then caulk that into place. Just for comparison, the 3.5” wadded up fiberglass batt method gives you a real world r-value of about r-5 due to air infiltration losses. 4” of blue Styrofoam with caulked drywall gives you at least r-20.

6. Insulating the attic, all of it. Traditionally, there is a problem with insulating ALL of the attic. Way out on the periphery, where the rafters or the roof trusses sit on the exterior walls, there is physically not a lot of room for insulation. If you picture in your mind the classic triangle roof shape, the vertices where the roof meets the walls come to a point. Likewise in real life, the rafter or truss sits right on the top of the wall. If we install good proper superinsulation levels in the attic, that means r-40 to r-50. Blown in cellulose has about r-4 per inch, so that mean 10-13 inches of cellulose.

In the typical attic, we don’t have 13 inches of space between the roof/rafter and the exterior wall/floor of the attic. Even worse, we can’t even fill the space that is available since most attic ventilation occurs at this intersection as well.

What to do, what to do. The answer is to raise the roof. There is a thing called a superinsulation truss, or a raised truss. It does exactly what it sounds like. It raises the roof by a foot or so to provide room for everything, insulation, ventilation space, etc. They just cost a bit more, and that’s ok. For remodelers, we’ll deal with that in a later discussion. In 1985, they’d barely heard of such a thing and I had to build my own trusses. Tedium upon tedium. These days, they are a standard item.

You may have to fight the contractor to get 13 inches of cellulose for your attic. They will argue that it is uneconomical to go past 8 or 10 inches at the most. In the long run, they are wrong. Just persevere. Tell them you know with certainty that your house is going to end up with r-50 in the attic. You are not so sure which contractor is going to build that attic. Hey, it’s your money, and your house, and your future energy costs that are at stake here.

7. Windows. They are a blessing and a curse. Old single pane windows (one piece of glass) are only slightly better than having a gaping hole in the wall for the winter to come howling in. Glass has abhorrently bad insulating properties. Anti-insulation you might say. One layer of glass has about r-1 insulating power. Since we are shooting for r-30 to r-40 in the walls, r-1 is completely unacceptable.

Alternatively, we could buy state of the art, double or triple glazed, argon filled, low-E (E stands for emissivity), thermally insulated frame “super” windows. These are unquestionably better, but still only manage r-3.5 to r-6 maybe. Compared to our walls, that’s still pretty bad. There are alternate measures to work around this…

First, don’t have huge amounts of glass in your house. Many houses with lots of glass have them covered with drapes or blinds 99% of the time anyway. Majorly dumb. Lots of glass will cause overheating in the summer and high heating and cooling bills all year ‘round. A nice rule of thumb is to have about 10% of your floor space in windows. If you have a 2,000 sq. ft. home, you should have about 200 sq. ft of windows. Put them, as far as possible, on the south wall where you will get some solar/heat benefit from them. Next, east and west windows, and least desirable are north windows. They are the energy black holes of windowdom.

Second, consider some kind of insulating window coverings to be closed at night and on cold cloudy days. Some drapes are available with extra layers that slow heat loss somewhat. If you want a traditional look, they are better than nothing. The problems is, they don’t seal the window off from the air in the room. Then the space between the drapes and the window starts to function like a chimney. The air in there gets cold from the window. Cold air is more dense than hot air, so it falls. This sucks in more room air at the top of the drapes, and you set up a nice little convection loop that pumps cold air from the window into the room.

There are other ways to beat this, called movable window insulation. Some products are extremely expensive, and no matter how much energy you save, would never pay back over your lifetime. But careful shopping will find some reasonable compromise. There are roller shades, whose edges run in tracks, so that when closed, the window is truly sealed. This can easily double the r-value of the window and dramatically cut down on drafts and convection currents.

If you are handy, you can make your own. The library and the internet will yield a number of do-it-yourself solutions. Search for moveable window insulation. You can carefully cut extruded polystyrene (blue board or pink board from the hardware store) to fit inside the window frame and glue thin plywood (luan) or poster board to cover the foam. Bolt a couple of nice handles or knobs on for easy handling and you’re in business. There are laminated fabrics available that incorporate a radiant barrier and an insulation barrier that is geared to the do-it-yourselfer.

This can be friction fit, or there are magnetic products to make it stay on the window. You could also build “shutters” that look nice and are easy to operate. While some have difficulty with the aesthetics of a window covering like this, others use this creatively. Mount a quilt top, or put a copy of a Monet watercolor, etc etc etc. There is no reason for them to be unattractive.

This covers the major flaws in conventional new house design. We will deal with the problem areas faced by the remodeler as we overhaul our own house.

Finest regards,


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hooray! Our other house is done and on the market. That means I now have loads of time to work on the farm house. Well… a few hours per week.

When we bought the farm house, I anticipated that it would not be very energy efficient. Sometimes, there are disadvantages to being right. I also hoped that we could document the before/after energy use. So far, the “before” looks pretty bleak. We burned an entire tank of propane (approx replacement cost $700) by the 1st of December.

This, at a time when we are having one of the most mild winters in decades. On top of that, we keep the thermostat set at 60F when we are in the house doing stuff, and 55F when we are sleeping or absent. It could easily have been double the propane cost if winter had been colder than average, and we set the thermostat at normal comfortable levels.

Oh well, this will make our amazing tremendously efficient outcome all the more impressive and convincing.

Our main topic for this installment is weak spots in conventional house construction and how to avoid this energy inefficient trend. (Thank you David H. for the timely reminder. Accountability rocks!)

There is a right way, and a wrong way to add insulation to your house. As mentioned in a previous entry, the conventional approach is to use 2x6” studs (rather than 2x4” studs) and call it a day. This would moderately increase insulation and reduce energy use, but ignore the big picture.

If you’re going to build a house from scratch, you need to consider some other issues:

1. Orientation
2. House shape and geometry
3. Airtightness/penetrations
4. Heat loss below ground
5. Heat loss through the band joist
6. Properly insulating the attic, even over the exterior walls
7. Movable insulation for windows

1. Orientation matters. In a conventional house, the insulation is so poor, you need a big capacity furnace to heat it, and the sun coming in through the south windows and the heat given off by the people, cats, appliances, lights, etc, cannot really make a significant contribution to heat. But once you attain superinsulation levels, all these sources really do matter. They all work automatically to help heat your house, except for the solar heat contribution from your windows.

In order for the windows to contribute the maximum solar heat gain possible, they have to face south more or less. Most houses are not perfectly square. If it’s a rectangle, you really want to put the long dimension East/West. That puts the longest wall facing south, and will allow for the best use of the normal windows as solar collectors. It doesn’t have to be exactly south, but should be within +- 20 degrees or so. You can certainly have too much glass. This will cause overheating during the day, and lots of heat loss at night.

In fact, for many climates, even a south window may be a net energy loser. It leaks more heat out overnight than you can collect from the sun during the day. Better windows lose less heat. Movable window insulation turns them from a liability to a big asset. There are various ways to accomplish that. Even a “good” window will only have r-5 or 6 at most. Compared to the wall at r-40, this is a gaping hole in the insulation. Old fashioned single pane windows and crappy double pane windows provide r-1 to r-2 insulating “power”.

Insulated window panels can easily bring that up by an additional r-7 to r-21. This can have a disproportionately large effect on perceived comfort. The actual energy savings may be moderate, but the room is suddenly far more comfortable and magically lacks drafts. The improved comfort and lack of drafts may allow you to turn the thermostat down and still feel comfortable.

A google search for movable window insulation will be profitable for everyone who dislikes cold feet and large heat bills. This can be as simple as a slab of 2” blue Styrofoam cut for a snug fit in the window frame. Glue a pretty fabric on both sides, or a reproduction of a nice Monet watercolor. Nobody says they have to be ugly. Handyfolk can build shutters based on this idea. We will expand on this at a later date.

As far as total window area, there is a rule of thumb. Shoot for around 10-15% of floor area as window space. Put as much of that as you can on the south wall. Windows with north exposure are a bottomless pit of energy loss forever and are to be avoided or downsized at every opportunity.

2. Size really does matter, and so does shape. Remember how you told your math teacher in high school that you would never use this stuff in real life? You were wrong.

All other things being equal, a big house takes less energy to heat PER CUBIC FOOT, than a small house. Further, a squarish/blockish house shape takes less energy to heat than a long skinny house. Both of these facts derive from the relationship of surface area to volume. Let’s consider some examples:

Compare two houses of exactly the same shape, but one being twice the size and several times the volume of the other:

House 1 is 20’ x 40’ x 8’. Let’s call it the cabin. Simple geometry tells us that:

Surface area is: 2,560 sq. ft. That counts all six surfaces, since they all lose heat.

Volume is: 6,400 cubic ft.

Volume to area ratio is: 6,400/2,560 = 2.5 cubic feet per square foot surface area

House 2 is twice as big in every dimension. Let’s call it the castle.

40’ x 80’ x 16’

Surface area is: 10, 240 sq. ft.

Volume is: 51,200 cubic ft.

Volume to area ratio is: 5 cubic feet per square foot surface area

The take home message is that we increased the volume by a factor of 8, but only increased the area by a factor of 4. The castle will require half the energy to heat, PER CUBIC FOOT, compared to the cabin. Despite this little geometric oddity, we still want a house that is no bigger than needed. In absolute terms, the bigger house always takes more energy to heat.

This is one of the reasons malls are so ubiquitous. They are inherently easier to heat and cool than all of those stores built as stand alone buildings. This is also why really big people are often hot and really small people are often cold. The small person has more surface area PER POUND. This is also why big cyclists have a slight advantage on the long flat legs of the Tour de France, while the little wiry riders tend to have a slight advantage in the mountains. The big guy has less surface area (per pound of course) to create wind resistance.

One way to take advantage of this effect without building a house the size of a mall is to build a duplex. You get the inherent thermal efficiency gain of a big house, without having to pay for the entire “mansion”. Effectively, your neighbor (or mother-in-law) helps reduce your heat bill since you have one exterior wall you don’t have to heat. This physics stuff about heat loss pops up in all sorts of places. In big apartment buildings, you generally don’t have to pay the heat bill. That’s because they are relatively efficient due to size.

Now, about shape…

A long skinny house has more surface area per enclosed volume than a blocky cubic two story house. Of course, the best possible shape in the world at reducing surface area per enclosed volume is the sphere. I was very close to building a dome house, which can reduce energy use by 1/3 simply due to reduced surface area. But we will press on and ignore the dome and look at three houses of identical volume, but very different shape:

House 1 is long and skinny, like a mobile home.

16 x 70 x 8’

Square feet: 1,120
Surface area: 3,616 ft2
Volume: 8,960 ft3
Vol/area: 8960/3616 = 2.48 ft3/ft2 surf. area

House 2 is a more “normal” one story house of exactly the same square footage (1,120) and volume. But the surface area has changed.

32 x 35 x 8’

Square Feet: 1,120
Surf. Area: 3,312 ft2
Vol 8,960 ft3
V/A 2.71 ft3/ft2 surf area

Thus changing from a long skinny house to a squarish one story reduces the surface area about ten percent. This would reduce your heating/cooling costs ten percent or so, and it would do so forever.

House 3 is a cube shaped two story with the same square footage and volume, but with further reductions in surface area.

23.66 x 23.66 x 16’

Square feet: 1,120
Surf. Area: 2634.516
Vol: 8960
V/A 3.40

This more “cubic” house has 1000 ft2 less surface area to enclose the same square footage and volume as the “skinny” house. This represents a 28% reduction in surface area to enclose the same volume. This is a free reduction in heating and cooling costs for the life of the building. Coincidently, this suggests that the classic long, skinny, one story ranch floor plan has average to crummy geometry as far as energy use is concerned. Long skinny mobile homes are even worse.

3. Airtightness

All the insulation in the world won’t fix a house that leaks like a sieve. Today, we have lots of technology to improve airtightness in construction. In some early superinsulated houses, airtightness went too far and a few people even got sick because of air quality problems. Air quality problems are easy to avoid though, as we shall see.

You should aim to attain a perfect polyethylene vapor barrier on the inside. This requires a few simple techniques. Seams can be overlapped by one stud bay. Seams should also be sealed with acoustic sealant, a non-hardening gooey nasty stuff dispensed from a caulk gun.

Of course, right after you do this perfect job, you intentionally cut a bunch of holes in it at every outlet. There are electrical boxes that are designed for energy efficiency. Some have flanges or lips to allow for sealing goop on the vapor barrier. Some have rubber gaskets that seal around the wire as it is pushed through the hole. The next windy day, go stick your hand up in front of an outlet on an outside wall, or a lit candle, to check for drafts.

Air pollution can be much worse in your house than it is in your back yard. The traditional fix was automatic, aka, a leaky house. Older homes can leak air at a fantastic rate. Clever people have devised various ways to measure this. A drafty non-insulated farm house might have 10 air changes per hour (ACPH) if it’s windy. That means, ten times per hour, all of the air inside the house is exchanged for outside (cold) air. You can recognize this house easily. The curtains move (inside…) when it’s windy (outside). They are also fairly to exquisitely uncomfortable in the winter. They are virtually the definition of a drafty house.

A more “modern” insulated house with average construction will cut that number to 2 or 3 air changes per hour. This is a dramatic improvement of course, but not where we would like to be. Current thinking/research suggests that you need approximately 0.25 ACPH (Air Changes Per Hour) to keep the air in your house fresh and healthy, without wasting too much energy. It takes exceptional care to build a house tighter than 0.25 ACPH.

Once you get your new house sealed tighter than a drum, then you fix the indoor air pollution problem. The first step is to not bring/make pollution inside your house. Don’t smoke! Don’t fry stuff so that it makes the oil smoke. Don’t store pesticides, herbicides, gasoline cans, and so on inside the house. Then, buy an air to air heat exchanger. This runs 24/7 and does just what it says.

It acts as an exhaust fan for the whole house. It removes stale air, and brings in fresh air to replace it. It does this at the perfect rate, so that you don’t have too much fresh air (aka energy waste) nor too little air (stale air, or worse yet, sick building syndrome.) Further, it recovers about 2/3 of the heat in the outgoing stale air and uses it to heat the incoming cold fresh air. It sometimes goes by the name HRV, for Heat Recovery Ventilation.

These are not shockingly expensive, and with installation, ductwork, etc, run less than a thousand dollars. Here’s the first one I found on Google, and it is pretty typical. They are not too difficult to install if you are a little bit handy.

These are only worthwhile if your house is really really airtight or you are sensitive to even small amounts of indoor air pollution. They can be added later as well.

The construction techniques that give us airtightness are threefold.

First, we need a vapor barrier, specifically 6 mil polyethylene sheeting. After the framing is up, and the house is roofed, sheathed, insulated, wired and plumbed, we are ready for the vapor barrier. The plastic is installed on the warm/moist side of the wall, just under the drywall. It prevents warm humid air from escaping into/through the walls/ceilings.

This saves energy of course, but also prevents that moist air from causing moisture problems inside the walls. This can cause mold issues, rotting, funny smells and gross increases in heat loss. One of the (many) disadvantages of fiberglass insulation is that it loses 70-100% of its insulating power if it get moist/wet.

Every seam of the plastic sheeting is overlapped onto the next sheet and sealed with acoustic sealant. Every penetration by wiring, junction box or pipe is sealed with caulk or expanding foam. Then the drywall crew does their magic. It is good to inspect the vapor barrier prior to drywalling, as drywall hides a multitude of sins.

Second, we need an air barrier. This is generally known as housewrap, and the most common brand is Tyvek. It is resistant to air exchange and liquid water intrusion to prevent “outside” moisture from damaging the wall, but allows water vapor to pass out of the house. It is installed on the outside, just under the brick or siding. It does not have to be totally sealed like vapor barrier, just overlapped.

Third, we need good workmanship. Both the Tyvek and the poly vapor barrier need to be installed neatly, thoughtfully, and sealed/stapled/caulked where appropriate. A sloppy job here will negate half or more of the value of these products.

I am out of time at the moment and will finish up the list next time.

Finest regards,


Blog Archive