Sump-thing pretty heavy

September 16th, 2014
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Yes to a new sump pit. No to a small and cheap plastic, fiberglass or structural foam pit. We very much prefer a sump pit that lasts for evah, like a concrete manhole structure, 36 inch in diameter and 42 inches deep.

That sucker would weigh a ton – or probably more than that, and would require some heavy lifting. As it turns out, the real problem is not the weight but the size. There is no way to get a 36 by 42 inch concrete manhole into the enclosed back porch.

What to do when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? You start munching on smaller pieces, right?


That is exactly what we did here. We installed the new sump pit in pieces … Three, 12-inch tall reinforced concrete rings with one 18-inch tall cone on the top. The concrete rings weigh around 525 pounds each and the cone between 700 and 800. That’s still a lot of heavy lifting, but the bottom line is that we were able to fit (roll) each piece through the back porch door and down the stairs.

Because I didn’t eat all of my breakfast, I didn’t quite manage the heavy lifting by myself, but instead got some help. And even though I say “heavy lifting,” a more descriptive expression would be “heavy sliding followed by carefully dropping.”

Nevertheless, we got the new sump pit structure into place, set to the right elevation and leveled.

Now I need a plan – a plumbing plan. What, how, and where do I connect to the sump pit?

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Digging for sump-thing

September 12th, 2014
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I have to decide what that sump-thing will be.

There are your inexpensive plastic, fiberglass or structural foam sump pits, typically measuring 18 inches in diameter and up to 30 inches in depth – just large enough to accommodate a sump pump. Even the existing grease trap, which we repurposed into a temporary sump pit is larger.

I wasn’t convinced that these plastic pits would be structurally sound enough. That said, it’s hard to find horror stories about collapsed sump pits. But there is another issue that bothers me.

These small pits will fill up quickly but will also be emptied in no time, once the pump comes on. It will cause the sump pump to short-cycle a lot during wet weather. That can’t be good for the longevity of the pump.

I decided to go big and dig deep! I opted to install a manhole size sump pit, 36 inches in diameter and 42 inches in depth, made out of concrete.

Hmm, that is the interior size of the pit. To fit the structure I need a 48 inch wide hole that is at least 42 inches deep. I needed an excavator and promptly found one.


The next challenge was to convince Cathy that it was worth fueling the excavator. She pointed out that, to her knowledge, this kind of excavator runs pretty well on homemade tacos. Well, let’s see if that worked out.

I guess it did.

May be I should consider a career change. How about grave digger?

Now that I dug myself into a hole, it’s time to think about some heavy lifting.

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Terminating the temporary

September 7th, 2014
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I mentioned the old grease trap in the back porch. It was a hot mess back in 2010 when I cleaned it up. The intent at the time was to temporarily re-purpose it as a sump pit.

grease-trap-03 grease-trap-04


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Back then, I connected the interior perimeter drains to it. We also terminated and stubbed the new sewer lines, which allowed me to install and connect a sump pump.

This temporary band-aid has lasted long enough. With the old back porch being torn down sometime soon, I had a sense of urgency to demo the old grease trap. Before I could do that, I had to install a new and proper sump pit. And before I got to that, I had to rip out the old concrete floor.

That put me back into recycling mode. We threw the concrete chunks into the back of my truck and hauled them to the recycling company down the street at Kedzie and I55.

Next step: Getting the excavator and starting to dig.

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The back porch project

September 4th, 2014
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And a project it is!


We knew pretty much from the beginning that the back porch would need to be replaced. It may look sort of OK from the outside, but the bones are rather ailing.

Because it was an enclosed porch, we had planned to rebuild it as an enclosed porch. That got us into a whole lot of trouble, starting with zoning. Not only did we have to apply for an administrative adjustment because our building set backs weren’t right, but we also found out that the currently existing enclosed porch was never permitted. Setting this right rested on our shoulders. The good news is that another administrative adjustment and a $250 fee got us a permit for a new enclosed porch.


Nice porch, isn’t it? And expensive, too, as we quickly found out. We knew that we didn’t want to spend that kind of money, but still tip-toed around the issue for a couple of years. Then, our neighbors got their back porch replaced – a typical open, Chicago-style back porch. That made us realize that an enclosed back porch is more a “want” than a “need.”

We already have 1,500 square feet of living space on the 1st and 2nd floor – which is a lot for an old building like ours. Adding another 250 square feet of conditioned space seemed too much of a luxury, certainly at that price tag.

Changing plans

So, we decided to instead build an open porch, with the exception of the basement level where we can have a workshop and tool and bicycle storage. We also decided to keep the roof access to our future vegetable garden, the PV, and the Solar Hot Water panels.


We also decided to keep our options open. If we want to turn the back porch into a three season room or sleeping porch at one point, we should be able to do so. That would require us to waterproof each porch floor, but we can plan for that.

The building permit we currently have includes the porch … except that the porch we now plan on building is different from the porch on the permit plans. I hate to admit it, but we need to pull another building permit, just for the porch.

This time around I won’t have to do it, but rather we will have our porch contractor take care of it. It’s nice to have that task delegated, except that the contractor isn’t a great communicator. Let’s see where that will take us…

While we wait for the plans and permit, I have some serious prep work to do, like that old grease trap, which we temporarily turned into a sump pit.

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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.

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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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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.

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