Countertop fitting

Despite the awkward angles, our two open couner top bases fit right into place. I put it down to the cardboard templates we used, and which will come in handy again.

We also put the sink base and island back into place and started cutting and fitting the ¾ inch plywood support. It sits on top of the cabinet or open bases, and under the ½ inch solid surface counter top [LINK]. The plywood adds extra stability and is the medium to which we glue the counter top.

Cutting and fitting the solid surface counter top material took a little research. The recommended method we came across was using a circular saw with a triple chip saw blade. And that indeed gave us smooth and chip-free cuts. To cut the sink opening, we used the jigsaw with a metal blade.

Our cardboard template proved to be indispensable when it came to cutting the counter top for the two open bases. It allowed us to get the angles right and a square connection to the sink base and island.

We ended the day by glueing down the sink base counter top and backsplash. That would allow us to get started on the tile back splash the next day.

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Open counter top base fabrication

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Kitchen island installation

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Open counter top base fabrication

L-shaped kitchens are nice, but I find U-shaped ones to be even more functional. And the basement kitchen space has U-shape written all over it. One could sort of detect the beginnings of it when we moved into the garden unit.

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We had two functional plywood counter top spaces. But to complete the U-shape, we need counter tops left and right of the stove. And this is where it gets unconventional, due to my favorite topic: moisture management.

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Maximizing air flow

I did not want to use base cabinets left and right of the stove. I am concerned that they would restrict air flow across our exposed limestone foundation wall. If so, that section of the foundation wall may have a difficulty drying out. And that in turn increased the potential for indoor air quality (IAQ) issues and mold.

Instead, I had planned for an open counter top base and wire shelves, thus maximizing the potential air movement across the foundation wall. That means I have to test my carpentry skills and fabricate an open base, which is nothing more than a table without the table top. Well, there is the awkward angle shape on the ends…

Resource efficiency

“Cradle to cradle” comes to mind. Years ago, when we deconstructed the basement, I saved all the old growth lumber because I had been told it is good material for furniture making. Now I can clean up those studs, de-nail them, and mill them into the needed shape. The de-nailing part is somewhat tedious, because it has to be done very diligently, or it will dull our saw blades during milling.

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Building the base

Drew found a simple table base template online that suggested to use a combination of wooden dowels and screws. We cut and fabricated the legs and horizontal connectors and used a cardboard template to make sure the base was assembled correctly and at the right angles.

We had a little difficulty getting started, but ended up cranking out two bases in no time. They turned out to be a surprisingly sturdy construction. Next step: taking them into the basement kitchen to see if they fit.

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Counter top fabrication

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Back to the basement

When we moved into the garden unit in early 2011, we did so in a hurry. I managed to get the kitchen functional with a stove, a sink and a few kitchen cabinets.

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But I didn’t get to install a counter top or a back splash. Instead I put down ¾” plywood to tide us over.

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In order to rent the garden apartment, the plywood must go. And timing was on my side. Someone had dropped off two crates of solid surface counter top sheets at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Addison. Most of them had hideous colors or patterns, but I found a few sheets that were rather nice and would nicely fit into the garden unit.

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This made me rather happy as it did not only fit our budget, but also our philosophy of relying on salvaged, reused or repurposed materials. Plus, the solid surface counter top is relatively easy to cut, fit and work with. I could fabricate the solid surface material myself, unlike the limestone we used for the 1st floor kitchen.

With the material on hand, it was time to put the finishing touches on the kitchen. Our first step was to remove the sink base and extend the cement board upwards to accommodate a tiled back splash, similar to what we have on the 1st floor kitchen.

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Before we got to play with the new counter top, I had to think about layout and test my furniture making skills. More on that in the next post.

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A set of fresh eyes

Most of my posts and certainly most of the imagery I use is of a rather technical or documentary nature. And for a good reason. I try to explain, and to share the knowledge.

That leaves us, however, with a documentary focused on a rather narrow-angled view of our deep energy retrofit. But I have a friend, David Pierini, who has a nice wide-angle lense. He is an excellent photographer and recently shadowed Drew and me while we were framing on the 2nd floor.

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His images surprised me. It was like looking at someone else’s project. His focus and what caught his eye was very different from the things I notice and pay attention to. I enjoyed his visual narrative so much that I would like to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it, too.

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Multi tasking

I’ve concluded the last post contemplating the real world issue of two different trades (carpenter and insulation installer) working on an insulation assembly at the same time.

How about bringing a third trade into the picture: The plumber.

The outdoor cooking concept

The last room to insulate is the 2nd floor kitchen. Back in the day, I had roughed-in the gas line for the stove, knowing that I need to fine tune this connection once we start framing and insulating.

To add resilience to our design, we plan on extending the gas line to the back porch, which would allow for outdoor cooking during the dog days of summer. Shifting the cooking onto the back porch keeps the unwanted cooking heat out of the conditioned and hopefully cooler building interior.

Task layering

Installing the the interior perimeter wall framing with the rock wool insulation has become almost routine. Integrating the gas line into the assembly would typically be the last step, similar to what we did on the 1st floor.

However, aligning and drilling the holes through the already installed studs filled with rock wool batts and then fitting in the gas line is like a puzzle you don’t really want to put together. I always wondered if there is an easier way. My friend Drew and I decided to give it a try and represent three trades at once: carpenter, insulation installer and plumber.

Rather than installing the gas line last, we drilled the holes into the studs and fitted sections of the gas line while we were assembling the framing with the insulation.

I am not sure if this was a faster method. But it was easier and more precise with less puzzling. Pre-drilling the studs while we put the framing together made a big difference because it allowed us to perfectly align the holes.

I’ve learned that you have to be on your toes and constantly think and rethink the task sequencing, because layering three trades into one task is, let’s say, unconventional.

The bump-out

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The rethinking of sequencing was further complicated by the chimney bump out on the west facing wall. I did not want the framing to follow the bump out. That would make for complicated drywall installation and even more complicated kitchen cabinet fitting.

Instead, we opted to hide the bump out behind the framing. Yet we still had to fit the two layers of rock wool insulation.

Our solution was to frame the wall left and right of the bump-out with two by six lumber. That gave us the three and a half inches to fit the first rook wool layer between the framing and closed cell foam. We framed the chimney bump-out with regular two by four studs with one layer of rock wool. This gave us a continuous wall plane.

I would like to thank our friends Drew and Rubani for their help with the multi-tasking and for putting their minds into this job and keeping me out of trouble!

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Framing, insulation, and the real world

Now that I have picked up my last load of rock wool, it’s time throw it into the wall.

We have the perimeter walls in the front (or north two-thirds) of the building already framed and insulated. The back (or south third) is a slightly different beast, because I have no ceiling joists to which I can attach the perimeter wall framing. I had removed the ceiling joists to have enough room to fit the attic insulation.

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I worked around this problem by anchoring the top plate of the perimeter wall framing into the masonry wall, and in that process carefully minimized any thermal bridging.

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Other than that, the process was similar to what we did in the front of the building: We offset the framing by 3 ½ inches to fit the first layer of rock wool between the back of the studs and closed cell foam. Once the rock wool was in place behind the studs, we set the framing plumb and anchored the top plate to the wall. Last but not least, we installed the second layer of rock wool in between the studs.

This gives us an uninterrupted layer of closed cell foam and rock wool insulation, which greatly improves the thermal envelope because we practically eliminated all thermal bridges.

A real world issue

This worked out really well, because I did the framing and rock wool installation myself. In the real world, however, you probably have contractors doing this work. And this is where it gets tricky.

A carpenter doesn’t necessarily want to deal with insulation, and an insulation installer may not know much about carpentry. Yet both trades are needed at the same time to put this kind of insulation assembly together.

This scenario, where an installation tasks spreads across trades, is not an exception in an energy retrofit. Nor is the fact that contractors find themselves in the situation where they have to think outside the box, such as with the pipe insulation.

There are plenty of contractors out there. But finding the one who brings the right level of attention to detail, who can think on the spot, who is willing to schedule with you and other trades, and who exhibits some level of coordination skills, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

If you are a contractor looking for a way to future-proof your business, turn renaissance and turn on your critical thinking skills. I am pretty sure you won’t run short on projects.

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Last rock wool pick up

We had started to frame out the perimeter walls on the second floor, and at the same time insulate them with rock wool.

Well, the time had come to make one last trip to pick up the last batch of rock wool. If I measured and calculated correctly, this last batch should allow us to complete the 2nd floor insulation. I may need another bag for an odd job here or there. But the big task – the insulation of the building envelope – was about to be completed!

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This felt like another milestone. The numbers are certainly impressive:

To insulate our building envelope I purchased 194 bundles (or bags) of rock wool.

That took care of the basement and 1st floor2nd floorand attic.

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We unpacked, handled, fitted, and installed a total of 2,328 rock wool batts, each measuring 15 ¼ inches wide, 47 inches long and 3 ½ inches in depth (stud depth). At 4.975 square feet per batt, we installed a total of 11,581.80 square feet.

The total material cost added up to $6,348.37, including taxes. That translates into $0.55 per square foot of 3 ½ inch batts, or $0.16 per board foot (one board foot is one inch over one square foot).

That leaves us with a nice, comfortable, and quiet building interior. That’s right! The rock wool does not just provide thermal insulation, but also sound insulation.

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DWHR follow up

As I said in the last post, the primary benefit of running the DWHR performance test was the discovery that it wasn’t operating as intended. It gave me a chance to fix the problem and have the heat exchange and heat recovery process run at its full potential, which I measured at 46.7%.

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That in turn should help me save some money, which is important to make this investment pay off. There is a lot of copper in the DWHR, and it doesn’t come cheap. We bought ours for $617.00 a few years back.

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To sweeten the investment, Renewability provides an energy savings calculator on their website, to give the consumer an idea what level of savings could be expected.

Our DWHR (the R2-60 PowerPipe) serves the first floor and second floor bathroom showers. I assumed an average occupancy of 3 people per apartment, 0.75 showers per person per day and a shower time of five minutes. According to the energy savings calculator, we could expect annual savings of

  • 388,605 Btu (or 4.1 gigajoules),

which would translate into

  • $67.36 savings per year.

If I increase the shower time to 10 minutes, the expected annual savings increase to

  • 767,732 Btu (or 8.1 gigajoules),

which would translate into

  • $132.96 savings per year.

I guess the savings will lie somewhere in between the five and 10 minute shower time scenarios, and so will be the payback time for the DWHR, which would fall somewhere between four and a half to nine years.

That “M” word!

Using the calculator is not as straight forward as you may think – as I found out. First, it appeared to be down quite a lot, displaying an error message. This may just be a temporary issue, or so I hope.

Secondly, using the calculator, I was reminded that it is us (or should I say US) against the rest of the world. I think we must be the only culture left that doesn’t use the metric system. Canada does use the metric system (bless the Canadians!), and Renewability, the manufacturer of the DWHR, is a Canadian company.

The use of the metric system becomes relevant in the energy calculator if your fuel type is natural gas. The input field ‘Cost of Fuel’ uses the unit $/cubic meters natural gas – and not therms! A subtle detail that makes a difference in the calculator output.

How do you determine the cost of fuel?

And I am not talking about unit conversion – yet. Should I just use the cost per therm and ignore all the delivery charges and other add-ons?

I opted for what would I call the true cost. I added up the total volume of cubic feet of natural gas delivered over the past 12 months and converted it into cubic meters. I also added up the bill totals for the past 12 months and divided it by the total cubic meter volume. That gave me an average fuel cost of $0.55 per cubic meter of natural gas.

Closing comments

The $0.55 fuel cost is a snapshot. It is on a sliding scale depending on the occupancy of the building and natural gas prices.

I also have to take the calculator output at face value. I have not cross-checked the results through my own calculations. The fact that the advertised effectiveness of the DWHR was right on par with my own test results gives me some confidence into the energy savings calculator results.

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DWHR performance test – good data

Although I would have liked a heat recovery rate of close to 90% for our drain water heat recovery (DWHR) unit, I knew that I couldn’t trust that number. Some good troubleshooting led us to the problem, thanks to some expert advice.

The pressure differential between the supply line to the domestic hot water tank and pre-heated water line from the DWHR prevented the setup from working properly, as did our less than perfect plumbing layout. Fortunately, we were able to resolve the issue with a quarter turn on a shut-off valve.

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Another test

It’s time to run the performance test once more to see if I could get some credible readings. I attached the temperature probes again to the three data points on the DWHR:

  • Cold potable water in (Tci)
  • Pre-heated potable water out (Tco)
  • Hot drain water in (Thi)

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As before, I took readings every 20 seconds while Cathy was taking a shower upstairs. Once I punched the readings into the spreadsheet, I saw some good data emerging.

The data

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The heat recovery rate for our PowerPipe R2-60 maxes out at 46.7%, which is a smidgen above the published performance rating of 46.1% by the manufacturer Renewability. Still, this took me by surprise.

I am somewhat suspicious of the performance ratings you find in product literature. Maybe the performance is inflated to help in selling the product. Maybe the laboratory test set up is so removed from the real world that test results don’t translate.

Yet, the DWHR results were right on the mark, as were the results for the ERV testing. Maybe I need to adjust my attitude?

The real value of the DWHR performance test was the discovery that the setup didn’t work as intended. I would have had pre-heated water sitting in the DWHR, doing a whole lot of nothing, whereas it should have fed into the domestic hot water storage tank. That could have gotten expensive, because next to no heat recovery translates into next to no savings!

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Troubleshooting test results

I ran a first performance test on our drain water heat recovery (DWHR) system, and got readings that were too good to be true.

Because I was at a loss about what could have caused the wonky readings, I picked up the phone and called the manufacturer of our DWHR. Joel, the technical manager, volunteered to look at my test data and look over the plumbing diagram. That led to some very helpful troubleshooting.

Reversed hot water flow?

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My close to 90% heat recovery readings could be caused by hot water flowing from the domestic hot water storage tank towards the DWHR, and not the other way around. This is a very unlikely scenario, but still worth testing.

I attached the temperature probes along the pre-heated return line to the domestic hot water storage tank and started running the shower. I could trace the hot water flowing from the DWHR toward the domestic hot water tank through the readings on the temperature probes.

Good! It was flowing into the right direction. But – it was flowing very, very, very slowly!

The pressure issue

Joel from Renewability reminded me that there is a certain pressure loss associated with the DWHR. The copper spiral around the outside of the DWHR creates a flow resistance that causes some amount of pressure loss. To be precise, the rated pressure loss for our R2-60 DHWR module is 1.4 psi at a flow rate of 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm).

To manage the pressure loss and maximize the heat recovery of the DWHR, Renewability recommends a certain plumbing set up, called the equal flow configuration. A diagram of that setup is provided with the installation instructions.

And because our DWHR installation was half an afterthought, our plumbing set up doesn’t comply with the equal flow configuration. Bingo!

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It’s all in the plumbing, baby!

Our domestic hot water storage tank has a cold water supply that feeds into the bottom of the tank. The pre-heated water line from the DWHR is connected into that cold water supply line.

The pressure in the cold water supply line is greater than the pressure in the pre-heated water line (remember the pressure loss issue?). That pressure differential slows the flow in the pre-heated water line almost to a halt. I basically have water sitting in the pre-heated water line and DWHR spiral, rather than flowing. And that is the reason why that water was picking up all that heat from the inner tube of the DWHR.

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To balance the flow, Joel recommended to shut off the existing cold water supply into the tank, and instead force all the supply water to the domestic hot water storage tank through the DWHR. And I have just the right valve in the right spot to do that.

Let’s see if that will yield more realistic test results. Can you wait ‘til the next post?

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