Checking on casement corners

February 26th, 2015
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After a couple more spray foam cans, I thought I had taken care of unwanted air infiltration around our 1st floor replacement windows. Not so! Take the bathroom, for example. We began to notice unpleasant cold drafts!

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After some more probing, I traced the drafts back to the window. Not from around the window, where we sealed with foam, but from the operable casement. It appears that the gaskets in the corners don’t properly seal between the casement and window frame.

On a day with temperatures well below freezing and the wind blowing, we can be three feet from the window and feel the uncomfortable draft. This represents a major breach in what should be an almost air tight building envelope and almost air tight windows.

Air leakage spec recap

We bought these rather nice casement windows from Newtec because they came with an excellent National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRCair leakage rating  of 0.02 cfm/sf (cubic feet per minute per square foot).

The bathroom window has a surface of almost 10 square feet. That translates into an air leakage of no more than 0.2 cfm – or 1.5 gallons per minute. This air leakage rate is tied to a pressure differential of 75 pascal between the inside and outside. (see also NFRC-400 test protocol)

Think back to our blower door test, where the building was depressurized by 50 pascal. The window testing protocol kicks it up a small notch with 75 pascal.

In other words, on relatively calm days, the pressure differential between the inside and outside of the window would be lower than 75 pascal. That would also mean that the air leakage for the bathroom window should be below 0.2 cfm. A document published by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation states that only up to 25% of the seasonal air exchange rate is caused by wind.

It appears that the bathroom window does not meet the promised air leakage rate. And its not just a problem in the bathroom. It appears that all five casement windows on the 1st floor have gaskets that don’t seal in the corners and thus cause unwanted drafts.

Related posts:

Breeze hunting

1st floor replacement windows

The world of windows

Blower door test – after insulation

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1st floor window cladding – or cluster

February 22nd, 2015
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With the window shims foamed in, I was on a mission this past October to get our 100+ year old wooden window bucks cladded in aluminum before winter arrived.

By looking at and tinkering with the old cladding I figured that forming the profiles should be pretty straightforward job with the right equipment. But I don’t have the right equipment – an aluminum brake to bend the sheet metal into the right profile. Nor have I ever shaped or installed aluminum cladding from scratch.

To save time and money, I figured this was a job better left for a professional. So I found myself an installer with the right expertise and equipment.

Before too long the window bucks were nicely enclosed in aluminum, which was caulked along the edges to prevent bulk water from reaching the wood structure. And everybody lived happily ever after…

If only!

The dominant window style today is double hung windows, like the ones we used in the basement. Our 1st floor awning over fixed casement windows are somewhat of an exception. They certainly were for our installer.

For some reason, he was rather generous with his measurements. The aluminum that should have met the window frame in a perpendicular fashion ended up leaning into the window.

window-24 window-25

That may not be a problem with double hung windows. But it is with awnings, because they open outwards and the cladding now blocks the operable part of the window. One half of the 1st floor windows were finished and blocked the awnings. They all had to be re-done so that the windows actually opened.

The right equipment was on site. No so the expertise. I realized that it was time to move on and decided to take on the job myself after all.

To get the other half of the first floor windows cladded, I rented an aluminum brake with a really nice cutter for a weekend.

With that experience under my belt, I now can say with confidence that it came down to using the tape measure correctly, which isn’t that hard! If I measure 2 ¼ inch I should bend 2 ¼ inch and not 2 ½ inch. That is, if you will, the secret to success when it comes to window cladding.

Related posts:

Breeze hunting

1st floor replacement windows

Basement windows

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Breeze hunting

February 15th, 2015
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When we give tours of our deep energy retrofit and I am asked about our insulation methods, I always point out that the insulation is only as good as the building is air tight. And I am only repeating what is being preached in the weatherization, energy retrofit and green building community.

Take a day like yesterday, with freezing temperatures and a wind chill factor as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine yourself all bundled up in a very warm down coat, except your front zipper doesn’t quite work for six inches and leaves a small gap. If you go and walk into the wind, you will be chilled by the cold air blowing through the faulty zipper. That little gap completely negates the warming factor you would expect from the coat.

It’s sort of the same with insulation. If I have air blowing through my insulation, I have spend a lot of money (on insulating), but won’t get the performance that would have justified the investment.

Needless to say that I was rather alarmed when I detected some drafts at our newly installed 1st floor windows. To make sure the drafts were real, I had our friend John Bergman help me trace them with a smoke pen, and mark them with a piece of blue tape.

It turns out that the idiom “The devil is in the details” is not just a saying.

A number of the leak locations coincided with the shims we used during the window installation. We were very careful to foam around the newly installed windows, but some of the shims were not foamed in.

window-20 window-22

window-23 window-21

Luckily, this took only a step ladder and a can of spray foam to correct.

I thought I was pedantic about the window installation and air sealing, but it looks like I haven’t been pedantic enough.

Related posts:

1st floor replacement windows

1st layer – closed cell insulation

Finishing the job

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Purging the pump paranoia

February 4th, 2015
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On the hunt for a rational explanation for boiler lockout, I sunk my teeth into the pumps – believing that the system (main) pump for the hydronic heating system wasn’t running.

utility-room-014

The pump status indicator on the Trinity LX 150 boiler touch screen didn’t correspond to what pumps were actually running. Even the pump diagnostic test only got one pump fired up, the boiler pump. I was convinced that I was onto something and called my ever patient installer, Mariusz.

He gave me a very simple task: “Look at how the pumps are wired.”

  1. The pump for the domestic hot water (DHW) loop was wired into a switch relay.
  2. The boiler pump was wired into the boiler.
  3. The system (or main) pump for the hydronic heating system also was wired into the switch relay.

“That is why you only have one pump [the boiler pump] running when you execute the pump diagnostic test, because that is the only pump controlled by the boiler”.

Mariusz asked me to bridge the zone wires, which is equivalent to the zone thermostat coming on. He said that at the same time, I should check the system pump load wire for current. I detected current and was able to conclude that the system pump was running just fine.

Last but not least, I checked the DHW pump, which was a lot simpler. We just let the hot water in the bathroom run. Once the temperature in the DHW tank started dropping, the DHW pump came on to reheat the tank.

In short, there was nothing wrong with the pumps.

The boiler has been running fine since the lockout. No further error messages. May be its time to lock out my own self – no more access to the boiler room, or at least the boiler touch screen.

Related posts:

Pump paranoia

Mechanical system explained

Breaking a cold sweat

Utility room installation

The heat is on

Wrestling the unruly…

Connecting the unruly…

Baseboard radiators delivery

Radiator connection preps

Radiator installation

Peak stress

Radiator déjà vu

Radiator start up

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Pump paranoia

January 30th, 2015
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I am still obsessing about the boiler shut down. And now, after I have explained the heating system setup, I can share the development of my pump paranoia without making it too abstract.

The error message (“174 Lockout safety relay feedback incorrect”) on our Trinity LX 150 indicated that something in the pre-ignition testing went wrong.

I cleaned the flame sensor rod and electrical spark ignition – both standard maintenance items. But neither of them showed much oxidation and both were pretty clean to begin with. The condensate drain, which could also be part of the problem, was clean and free flowing.

In search for a rational explanation, my mind wandered over to the pumps. As shown in the previous post I have three pumps:

  • The domestic hot water pump

utility-room-016

  • The boiler pump

utility-room-011

  • The main pump (system pump) for the hydronic heating system

utility-room-014

In addition to that I have three pumps, each feeding one of the heating zones:

  1. The basement
  2. The first floor
  3. The second floor

I was under the impression that the main pump (system pump) for the hydronic heating wasn’t running and as such may have contributed to the boiler lockout.

Maybe I had been playing a little too much with the touch screen on the boiler, which showed the status of the three main pumps. But whenever the boiler was running, the pump status on the touch screen didn’t correspond to which pump was actually active.

With a little more research, I discovered that I can run a diagnostic test on the pumps.

Only one out of three pumps passed the test! Time for panic?

Well, it turned out I was barking up the wrong tree – and that I have an installer, Mariusz, that puts up with my nerdiness.

Related posts:

Mechanical system explained

Breaking a cold sweat

Utility room installation

The heat is on!

Wrestling the unruly…

Connecting the unruly…

Baseboard radiators delivery

Radiator connection preps

Radiator installation

Peak stress

Radiator déjà vu

Radiator start up

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Mechanical system explained

January 27th, 2015
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While writing the last post about our boiler going into lockout mode, I realized that after all these years I never fully explained our mechanical system.

I have posted a time lapse showing the utility room setup and described the PEX and radiator installation, including the difficulties we encountered along the way, but I have yet to show the components of the mechanical system in the utility room and how they work together.

utility-room-003

The diagram above does exactly that, except most of us will have some level of difficulty deciphering it. Let me try to put it into a format that is easier to follow, starting with a list of the main components (I won’t list all to keep it reasonably simple):

Boiler (Trinity LX 150)

utility-room-010

This pieces of equipment is basically heating the water for the hydronic heating system (radiators and radiant floor slab) as well as indirectly heating the domestic hot water (DHW).

Boiler pump

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This pump is moving the water through the boiler into the buffer tank while the boiler is firing.

80 gallon buffer tank (insulated)

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This tank is feeding the hydronic heating and also (indirectly) heating the domestic hot water system. The tank temperature is set to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Due to our low energy load on the space heating and DHW side, we run the risk of short cycling the boiler. The buffer tank prevents that by providing the initial thermal energy. In that process, the temperature in the tank drops and is elevated again through hot water supplied by the boiler. But at this point the energy load is large enough for the boiler to run efficiently and without short cycling.

Main manifold

utility-room-013

This is a three zone manifold supplying hot water to (1) the radiant floor slab in the basement, (2) the radiators on the first floor, and (3) the radiators on the second floor.

Zone pumps

In the manifold are three zone pumps, supplying hot water to each zone once the thermostat of that zone turns on.

Mixing valves

Also in the manifold are mixing valves for each zone. The mixing valves reduces the temperature from 140 degrees Fahrenheit to the supply temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

System pump

utility-room-014

Whereas the zone pumps push the hot water into the hydronic heating system, the system pump sits right under the manifold and pushes the water from the system back into the buffer tank. This pump is activated whenever there is a heating signal from any of the three zones.

120 gallon domestic hot water storage tank (insulated)

utility-room-015

This tank supplies domestic hot water to the kitchens and bathrooms throughout the building. The tank is heated with hot water from the buffer tank that flows through a double walled heat exchanger. This way, the non-potable water from the hydronic heating system does not mix with the potable DHW. Because the tank has no gas or electrical powered heating element, it is also referred to as an indirect water heater.

DHW mixing valve

The temperature in the DHW tank can also get up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is dangerously hot. To prevent scalding, the temperature is mixed down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is also the supply temperature to the various faucets and showers.

DHW pump

utility-room-016

This pump is feeding the water from the buffer tank through the heat exchanger in the DHW tank whenever there is sufficient hot water demand.

To make things a little easier to follow, I put a simplified diagram together that is animated and shows how the system is working. I hope this will do the trick.

Related posts:

Utility room installation

The heat is on

Wrestling the unruly…

Connecting the unruly…

Baseboard radiators delivery

Radiator connection preps

Radiator installation

Peak stress

Radiator déjà vu

Radiator start up

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Breaking a cold sweat!

January 18th, 2015
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A week and a half ago, during the nice, crisp cold snap, I woke up in the morning and felt like something wasn’t right. Still half asleep, I touched the bedroom radiator, which was barely warm. I found my way from room to room touching radiators – all barely warm.

Some kind of subconscious decision making process led me to the thermostat, which showed that the heat was on.

That woke me right up, plus I broke a cold sweat! Something wrong with the heating system in this weather is bad news – well insulated building or not. I skipped the first cup of coffee and instead found my way into the utility room.

I heard a couple of pumps humming, but the boiler (Trinity LX 150) was dead silent. The temperature gauge at the buffer tank that feeds the hydronic heating system (the radiators) registered a mere 90 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas it should have been close to 140. That explained the barely warm radiators.

The small touch screen on the boiler had a message for me: “174 Lockout safety relay feedback incorrect.” Great! If I only knew what that was supposed to mean – other than that something in the pre-ignition testing went wrong.

I don’t know why, but “The IT Crowd” came to mind. So, before making any panicked phone calls, I decided to turn the boiler off and on again. Et voila – once it booted all the way back up, it also fired up and I again had hot water running through our radiators.

That is where the story usually ends – but not so in the world of nerds. Why did I have a safety lockout with a code # 174? What could have failed in the pre-ignition test? Now was the time for phone calls.

Boiler-01

My installer pointed me to the two items that usually cause the boiler to shut down. The flame sensor rod and the electrical spark ignition. Both of these components need regular cleaning and he recommended that I check the oxidation levels on the rods and polish them with fine sandpaper.

There wasn’t much oxidation on either the flame sensor nor the electrical spark ignition. I have the nagging feeling that something else may have caused the lockout.

Related posts:

Utility room pipe insulation

Tracking the unruly…

Connecting the unruly…

Wrestling the unruly…

Utility room installation

Utility room preps

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Major milestone

January 10th, 2015
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Today was a big day. After five years, Cathy and I feel that we finally got a big step closer to one of our goals: Getting information about our project and information about energy retrofits into the hands and minds of our neighbors in North Lawndale.

This was a long road, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Yes, we had a number of open houses, with the last one (open house #4) being the best attended event. Visitors came from all over the city of Chicago and suburbs, which was also the case for the preceding open house. But almost no one from our community attended.

Yes, there is this blog. I have fun writing and publishing it and I am always amazed when I run into people who recognize me because they’ve read it. I am still surprised by how popular it is. But it doesn’t necessarily reach the demographic I want to reach most – the North Lawndale community.

And yes, our adventures have been published and featured elsewhere, such as on Chicago Public Radio. Did that help us connect with our community? Not in a noticeable way.

We have reached out to local community organizations whose missions clearly overlap with our deep energy retrofit goals, focusing on indoor air quality, material reuse and repurposing…you name it. Nothing panned out, despite numerous follow-ups.

It was only in the past couple of months that I came across a group right here in North Lawndale calling themselves “Men Making a Difference.” One of their goals is to help young adults from our community to enter into trade training programs.

That generated the spark through which we connected, and we organized a tour of our deep energy retrofit made up completely of local residents!

tour-006

Five years in the making! I have to say that this felt like one of the most relevant events we’ve had to date. And I hope we have a lot more of this coming!

Related posts:

Open house #4 – as much Q&A as we could handle

On Air with Worldview

Project featured in Medill Reports Chicago

Open house #3…

1st Open house

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Salvaging graystone treasures

January 4th, 2015
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Don’t let the blog post title fool you! I am still thinking and talking about our yard and vacant lot.

We have a yard, but you can’t call it a garden – yet. So what do we use it for? In the early days, during the deconstruction process, we staged the dumpsters in the yard.

dumpster-02

 

Some yard space was repurposed into a material storage depot – which brings me to the graystone treasures.

We lost two vacant graystone buildings on our block in a massive fire during Thanksgiving night 2010. We didn’t live in our building at the time. But I stopped at the house to take care of a couple of tasks the day after Thanksgiving and was shocked by sight of two burned out building shells.

The good news is that no one was hurt and the nearest occupied building was evacuated and saved.

The burned out building shells were declared dangerous and emergency demolition started within one and a half days. With the demo crew came a team of brick salvagers. Rather than having the Chicago common brick dumped into a landfill, the salvagers pick the bricks out of the piles, clean the mortar off and stack them onto pallets. That is the kind of brick I can then buy for masonry repairs.

common-brick-01

What nobody was interested in, to my surprise, was all the graystone from the building facade. It didn’t matter whether they were window sills, steps, plain graystone, carved graystone, columns, or ornaments.

The demo crew was happy to let me pick out those pieces. Less weight for them to haul off, and with that less tipping fees.

One of the buildings had beautiful carved front porch columns that, despite being knocked over, remained intact.

graystone-salvaging-01

But boy, were those suckers heavy! At first, Cathy and I attempted to wrestle them with a dolly. Needless to say that we decided otherwise before either of us or the dolly got crushed.

I decided to replace the dolly with the truck and recruit as many strong help hands as we could reasonably fit around the big columns. Even with the amount of muscle, it was still a daunting task. To move the columns, we had to set them upright and swivel them inch by inch towards the truck.

graystone-salvaging-02

Two columns and a sill was all the truck could take in one load. Each column must have weighed about 800 pounds.

Back in the yard, sliding the monsters off the truck and laying them down was a little easier than loading them.

We plan on using some of the pieces on the house, like the steps and some of the facade stone. Other pieces will probably become part of the garden, like those big columns. I am just happy that I was able to score those treasures, and safely transport them into our “material storage depot.”

graystone-salvaging-03

The big question is – for how long will it remain a material storage depot?

Related posts:

From wish list to reality

Deconstruction (or rückbau)

Rebuilding the parapet

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From wish list to reality

December 29th, 2014
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Back in 2008 and 2009, when we were house hunting, we had set a high bar: A house with good solar access, and a vacant city-owned lot to the south. Despite the flush housing market in 2008 and 2009, reality set in and that high bar quickly moved down a notch. Our focus turned to finding the right building, first and foremost.

We did, and in the process held on to the option of a vacant lot for extra garden space. Our house has a vacant lot to the east and west.

The lot to the west is owned by our neighbors. With most of our windows facing east, the eastern lot was the one of interest to us. But it was more of a mystery.

Lot-size-east

Our attempt to buy it from the developer who owned it didn’t work out. He actually disappeared at one point, resulting in another lot with an absentee property owner. Because we didn’t want the lot to turn into a dump, we kept it clean and maintained it for the next few years.

To our delight, we discovered in 2012 that the property taxes on the vacant lot hadn’t been paid. That’s when Cathy did a lot of research and stepped into action. Long story short, last winter her due diligence and excellent work got us the deed to the vacant lot through a tax sale.

Although we had to pay all the back taxes that were owed, the late fees and penalties that had accumulated, and attorney fees, we feel that we got a very good deal. We ended paying about 1/4 of the developer’s asking price from a few years back.

The dream of an adjacent vacant lot for extra garden space has graduated from the wish list to reality. Except that it doesn’t resemble a garden space at all – at least, not yet.

Related posts:

Dream home wish list

No vacant city lot

Here is what we bought…

Separating fiction from the fact

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