Utility room pipe insulation

August 25th, 2014
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We have diligently insulated the pipes in our plumbing system, including all hot and cold water pipes. If you want to know why, you can read up on the rationales in the blog post [LINK] “Plumbing – energy conservation (part 1)” and “Pipe insulation.” And, I shouldn’t say “we,” because Cathy did all the insulating.

We did the same thing for the PEX tubing feeding our hydronic heating system – or more simply put – the baseboard radiators.


This should help with our energy saving efforts and assures we get the precious hot water where we want and need it: At the point of use, such as the faucet or the radiator, instead of losing it along the way to the delivery point.

But one key area has not received any pipe insulation yet – the source of the hot water, the utility room. All of the piping running from our boiler to the hot water buffer tank, to the domestic hot water storage tank, and to the heating system manifolds, are still sitting there naked without their winter coats.

And this really matters, particularly when you have large hot water storage tanks like we do.

An argument against hot water storage tanks you may have come across is about “standby loss.” That’s the thermal energy that should arrive at your faucet or radiator, leaking from the storage tanks and heating up the utility room.

The hot water storage tanks come insulated, which reduces the standby loss. But the various plumbing connections to or from the tank (a minimum of four) are not. They effectively siphon the heat out of the tank along the metal plumbing lines. Just put your hand on one of those connections at your hot water tank – but be careful not to get burned!

Cathy came to the rescue to control that thermal energy bleeding. She put her skills to task and insulated the entire plumbing system in the utility room with closed cell pipe insulation.

Not an easy job, considering that some of the tubing was hidden behind the tanks and in very awkward corners. Plus, the connections at the storage tanks were rarely a uniform pipe size, but tend to step down, which required a lot of puzzling with the corresponding pipe insulation sizes.


Does this stop the heat bleeding? No. But it minimizes it and slows down the heat loss, whether through standby or the delivery process. That in turn allows for more hot water to be delivered where we need and want it – at the point of use.

Related posts:

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Pipe insulation

Plumbing – energy conservation (part 1)

Wrestling the unruly

Radiator déjà vu


Plumbing inspection

August 21st, 2014
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Today, we had the final plumbing inspection for the garden unit and 1st floor. And as usual, I was wondering what kind of inspector I would get, what mood he or she would be in, and what things that could throw up a read flag.

Will the dual flush toilets be a problem? Particularly the one in the garden unit with the little hand wash basin atop?


Will I get questions about why I have plumbing stubs for a bath tub in the basement, but no tub installed? What about the grey water rough-in, which just sits there, connected to nothing, because the current code doesn’t allow graywater use? Will that raise eyebrows … or worse?

Everything installed is compliant with the Chicago plumbing code. Yet, there is no shortage of anecdotes about inspections gone wrong and rumors about notoriously difficult to deal with inspectors.

It turned out that I was overthinking it. The inspector took a look at how the first floor toilet and sinks were connected. Down in the garden unit he barely looked under the sinks.

To my surprise, he asked about the water heater. I took him back to the utility room, explaining that we don’t have a water heater but a hybrid system.


I turned the lights on and heard him say: “Oh – you have zones.” I do indeed, and proceeded to brag about our mechanical system – but he was more interested in getting to the next job.

Why do I feel the urge to share this? Because I have not yet had a bad experience during an inspection or with an inspector. I don’t know where the rumors are coming from or why the inspectors have such a bad reputation. Maybe the root of those anecdotes lie in projects where someone tried to cut corners – and got caught.

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Wasteful low flow

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About quarts and kilowatt hours

August 3rd, 2014
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I have mentioned this a few times: I plan to insulate the the basement foundation wall from the outside and at the same time damp-proof it.

Because I still haven’t gotten around to it, we need to run a dehumidifier on occasions in the garden apartment. So far I have been able to borrow dehumidifiers from friends and return them at the end of the summer.

I noticed that some of the dehumidifiers dumped a lot of heat in the garden apartment, something you don’t want during the summer months. And all of them made our electrical meter spin pretty good. In other words, dehumidifiers can be real energy hogs.


That was confirmed when I recently measured the electricity consumption of another borrowed dehumidifier, using the Kill A Watt by P3. Within a couple of days, the Kill A Watt had clocked over 50 kilowatt hours (kWh).

That gave me pause, and I went back researching more efficient options, such as Energy Star rated dehumidifiers.

Small, portable, Energy Star dehumidifiers run at least 15% more efficiently than their conventional counterparts. The required energy factor for units with a capacity of less than 75 pints per day is a minimum of 1.85 liters of water removed per kWh (1.85 L/kWh – or 1.95 quart/kWh) – under test conditions. Some more research revealed that a small portable dehumidifier with a capacity of 30 pints per day would be more than enough for the 1000sf garden apartment.

I found a Energy Star rated unit with that capacity, which promised to run rather quietly for under $200 and ordered it.


Because I still had the borrowed dehumidifier, I could now run a side-by-side test, measuring the performance with the Kill A Watt and a large measuring cup from the kitchen. I ran both units for two hours exactly, and here is what I got:

The borrowed dehumidifier clocked in at 1.75 kWh and 1.13 quarts in the tank. That converts to an energy factor of 0.66 quart/kWh (0.63 L/kWh).

The new, Energy Star rated dehumidifier clocked in at 0.70 kWh and also 1.13 quart in the tank. That converts to an energy factor of 1.64 quart/kWh (1.56 L/kWh).

The new units runs more than twice as efficiently as the borrowed unit! Plus it seems to dump less heat, which is another big plus.

Bottom line: I feel good about the investment and gladly return the borrowed dehumidifier.


A timid start

July 14th, 2014
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Prior to this summer, we haven’t been doing much in the way of gardening. We had a few tomato plants last year but they were in awkward places and it’s a miracle they survived at all.

There are a few reasons for our lack of gardening. First, our garden will likely be on the south side of the building … right in the path of our eventual back porch reconstruction. We couldn’t bear to start working on a garden and then have to remove it!

Second, last summer we were still in the process of trying to buy the vacant lot on the east side of our building. It was very tempting to start a garden there, but we felt like we may be tempting fate if we began using the lot before we received the deed.

This spring, deed in hand, we took our first baby step toward a garden and built a raised bed. With the help of two very enthusiastic neighbor kids, we got the frame built and settled into the earth. We added a narrow plastic liner around the interior of the frame to protect the wood from damage caused by constant moisture, and our helpers did a great job tapping any crooked staples into place.

We have big plans for this vacant lot. Anyone who has seen the earlier project at 168 Elm Ave. may have an idea of what’s to come. Over the next year, we’ll re-do the porch and resolve some grading issues. We’ll need to talk about what portion of the property is for prairie, and what portion is for food. We also need to figure out if we need a garage.

Ultimately much of our garden will be on the roof. But that’s a long way down the road.

For now, we’ll enjoy the fruits of our small garden.



A patriotic piece of equipment

July 5th, 2014
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I am talking about our energy recovery ventilator (ERV).


Patriotic because it has been engineered and is largely manufactured Ohio? That too – but I really had something else on my mind:

So far this summer the nights have been nice and cool, allowing us to open the windows and let the apartment cool down over night. That wasn’t an option last night, the night of July 4th. The fireworks kept going well past midnight, keeping us up … and even more so, the dog.

Fortunately, we have new triple glazed windows. Once they were shut, the thunderous fireworks turned into nothing more than white noise.

But how would we use the cool night time temperature to cool the place down? That is where the ERV has its great entrance with its EconoCool option.


EconoCool gets activated by flipping a small lever switch. A sensor in the ERV’s fresh air supply stream gauges the temperature, and if it measures between 55 to 70 degree Fahrenheit, the enthalpy wheel (heat exchange wheel) turns off. That stops the heat exchange process and brings the fresh, cool night time air into the apartment, even with all the windows closed.

We managed to drop our indoor temperature by four degrees Fahrenheit, from 73 at midnight to 69 this morning. That makes for a happy 5th of July!

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Trimming nostalgia

June 30th, 2014
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Salvaging, reusing, and repurposing materials can be hard work. That holds true for our effort in saving the 100+ year old original quarter sawn oak trim, restoring it to its natural beauty, and putting it back up.

But the moment when you step back and look at the finished product, you know it was worth it. Not only because we were resource efficient, or because you couldn’t buy that quality of trim anymore, but also because it adds a unique character to the building. This Victorian style trim fits this 1902 building like a glove. This trim has seen history—112 years of history. And it carries it proudly.

With that said, I felt a little bit of melancholy when Drew and I got ready to put up the last restored pieces we had saved for the half bath and kitchen back door.

Because the kitchen back door is an exterior door, we had to recreate the interior door buck, which came into existence with the added interior insulation. We also added some steel reinforcement around the strike plate. That will make it very difficult to break the door in.

That concludes our adventure around salvaging and restoring trim – for the 1st floor. And right now I would like to enjoy the fruit of this labor of love, and not think about the 2nd floor trim that is waiting for us.

Related posts:

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Window trim installation

Bathroom door trim

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Paint removal – Part 8: Sustained sanding

Paint removal – Part 7: Vertical trim

Paint removal – Part 5: Battling baseboards

Salvaging casings and trims

An expensive gap – or not?

Insulation update


Rolling mechanism

June 11th, 2014
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I alluded to the almost happy ending of the pocket door installation. Almost, because we had difficulties to get the roller mechanism to run smoothly. In other words, the pocket doors had a tendency to get stuck.

I was aware of it when we started installing the pocket doors, and attributed the problem to the roller mechanism itself.


There were a lot of metal on metal moving parts and my hope was that greasing the bunch would solve the problem – which it didn’t. It turned out that the metal components had nothing to do with it, and the issue was the wooden rails on which the wheels run.

Framing is not an exact science, and although it looked like the left and right rail were at the same elevations, they were not. If one rail is a fraction lower than the other, the whole wheel mechanism is tilted to one side.


Because the structural two by ten headers sit right next to the rails, the tilted wheel mechanism was scraping along the lumber to the point where the pocket door felt stuck.

Once Drew and I identified the problem, we fit a thin piece of oak onto the lower rail. It brought it up to the same elevation as the other rail, et voilà, no more tilting of the roller mechanism.


And the result was no more pocket doors that get stuck.

We have to see how long this success will last. Framing lumber has the tendency to move with the seasons and humidity. What was level in April may not be level anymore in July.

In any case, we now have refinished, fitting and functioning pocket doors. May be one day, we can afford to replace the plain glass with stained glass.

Pocket-doors-11 Pocket-doors-20

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Patching pocket doors

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Power around pocket doors

May 18th, 2014
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Shortly after I published the last blog entry about the pocket door installation, Rob posted a question in the comment section:

“Until now we’ve ruled out installing pocket doors for our house because we thought light switches would get in the way. Have you had to deal with light switches here?”

This is great material for another blog post! And the answer to Rob’s question is:

Pocket-doors-15 Pocket-doors-14

… yes, we had to deal with light switches (and outlets), on both sides of the pocket doors. But neither the light switches nor the outlets were really in the way. And that may have to do with the depth of the pocket door wall.


I did not reinvent the wheel, nor did I really think about this. When I rebuilt the framing for the pocket doors, I kept the original wall depth, which was seven and a half inches from stud to stud (or eight and three quarter inches if you count the five eighths drywall on either side).


The seven and a half inches wasn’t enough space to accommodate the depth of the studs. I had to turn them sideways. But it was enough space to accommodate the one and a half inch deep electrical boxes. We also made sure to run the electrical conduit right behind the drywall so that it wouldn’t get in the way of the doors.


The only challenge emerged around the pocket door header, which also holds the rolling mechanism. We knew we couldn’t run the conduit inside the header, where it would interfere with the doors. To solve this problem, we did some planning ahead and offset the header three quarters of an inch into the wall. That gave us the room we needed to again run the conduit right behind the drywall and thus avoid any interference.


Once we were above the header, we kicked the conduit back to have enough room to make the 90 degree turn into the ceiling. Problem solved – and I hope questions answered.

Related posts:

Putting up pocket doors

Patching pocket doors

Pondering the pocket doors

Framing pocket doors

Stripping pocket doors

Picking pocket… doors

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Anne Alt, Drew Schmitt liked this post

Putting up pocket doors

May 14th, 2014
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We had taken care of the basic pocket door preparations a while back: the framing. We have the intimidating task behind us: adding the extensions to the pocket doors. All that is left now is the heavy lifting: Installing the pocket doors.

And the heavy lifting is meant literally, because those suckers weigh a pound or two.

The doors came with the original roller mechanism, and I built the new framing with an oak rail to match it.

Pocket-doors-08 Pocket-doors-09

Right in the middle of door opening is a 12 inch section of oak rail that can be removed.


That is where we lifted to doors into place, attached the rollers, and slid them onto the rails.
Once both doors were put up, we re-attached the 12 inch removable section, and thus closed the gap in the oak rails.

We also had to install a door stop, which prevents the pocket doors from sliding past the framing. It’s a small piece of oak, a little wider than the doors, that catches on the back of the door buck.


The trim that goes around the door had been restored and lacquered for a while. Now was the time to put it up, delivering the finishing touch.

That’s a happy ending, right? Except that we had difficulties to get the roller mechanism moving smoothly. That prompted Drew to comment: “This is why people threw their pocket doors out. They always got stuck!”

More about the un-stucking in the next post…

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Framing pocket doors

Stripping pocket doors

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Rediscovering our living room – Part 1


Patching pocket doors

May 4th, 2014
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I finally got around facing the intimidating task of adding extensions to the bottom and top of our replacement pocket doors. And because our friend Drew plays the enabler, there was no starting the job without him.


The pocket doors were exactly seven and a half inches too short. I had purchased some half inch oak stock that would allow me to add four inches to the bottom and three and a half inches to the top of the door.

The half inch oak stock wasn’t enough by itself to extend the two and a quarter thick doors. We took a piece of solid southern yellow pine framing lumber and ripped it down to one and three eighths inch. The yellow pine served as the core with the half inch oak stock as the veneer on both sides.

The top extension holds the rolling mechanism and has the rest of the door hanging on it. And those doors are heavy! To prevent the them separating from the extensions, we had to rely on some sturdy hardware and a fair amount of wood glue.

We also made sure that the extensions were a tiny notch wider than the door. That allowed us to sand them down and have a perfectly smooth transition between the old and new.

The finishing touches were followed by lacquering the doors. Of course we used a water based and VOC free product (Acrylacq by AFM Safecoat). While the lacquer was curing, we could start thinking about hanging the doors and getting the rolling mechanism to work.

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