Day 175: Drywall, pt. 2

2014-03-07 11.40.10Hanging drywall is kind of a long, tedious process in the cold.  At the end of the day, we put up roughly 50 sheets of 8’x4′ half inch drywall.  Hanging is a lot of back and forth.  You measure your space and cut down a piece to fit it.  Then hold that piece in place while you sink some screws.  Measure, walk to the other room, cut, walk to the other room, hang, measure, etc etc etc.  The process is called scribing.  Since drywall is just plaster between to pieces of paper, cutting it is pretty easy.  You measure your length and score a line with a razorblades.  You then snap the piece along the line and cut the back paper.  The whole schabang takes about a minute.  But you have to do it again and again and again.  After you’ve got your pieces cut, you’ll have to make openings for each of your electrical boxes (switches, outlets, and lights).  The best way to go about this is by using a spiral saw (like a Drummel tool).  You can plunge into the drywall sheet and then easily cut in any direction.  Ideally, you know right where to cut.  Either you’ve measured it out, or even easier, you hang the sheet and partially screw it in, then can cut through from the back side of your wall.  In any case, your electrical holes should be as tight as possible.  The perfect cut will fit exactly with no extra space around the box.  If you cut too large of a hole, you’ll have to go back in and fill the gap later as your switch plate won’t cover it.

2014-03-10 12.13.01Your natural impulse is probably to hang a rectangular sheet tall-ways on a wall.  Though it’s awkward and heavy, it’s actually better to hang sheets horizontally.  There’s two reasons for this.  First, the long sides of a sheet of drywall are tapered.  When you put two side by side, it forms a little gully.  This gully is incredibly easy to mud and sand flat.  You want to maximize these gullies.  The second reason is you want to avoid as much mudding as possible.  Each seam has to be taped and sealed.  By hanging your drywall horizontally, you can reduce your taped edges by up to 25%.  This saves a ton of time and materials.  It does involve hoisting up the drywall, but it’s worth the trade off.  And speaking of hoisting, the second tip is that you should always hang from the top down.  Start by hanging your ceilings, then move to the walls.  Start your walls by shoving the panels up to the ceiling and build down, leaving a small gap at the floor.  You can nail or screw drywall, though my personal preference is to screw it in.  You should sink your screws until they’re just below the surface of the drywall.  The ideal sink is such that it doesn’t rip the paper, but puts a small divit in the surface.  That way you can come back and add a little mud to hide the screw head, while still getting a nice tight fix.  Some people advocate using adhesive on the studs, but I think this is overkill for drywall.  Cement board is another story though.

Once you’ve hung all the drywall, it’s time to put up your corner bead and tape.  Corner bead is a plastic or metal bracket that you nail to exposed exterior corners or funny transitions, like where your drywall meets a different kind of wall (brick for example).  You could just tape your exterior corner, but it’s really worth the extra cost and effort to use a corner bead.  It provides for a much stronger corner that will stand up to being bumped or knocked around.  It also holds your sheets of drywall tight to each other, so you won’t get splits in your exterior corners.  Don’t forget that even though it’s heavy and hard, drywall is really very fragile stuff.  It’s not meant to support weight or do much more than be a wall covering.  Inside corner bead does exist, but I’ve never used it.  I don’t see the point as inside corners aren’t really in danger of being knocked around and if you’re framing is correct, the   wood should be holding your drywall sheets against each other.2014-03-17 10.02.02

At each of your seams and corners that you’re going to be mudding in the next step, you need to add tape.  Drywall tape comes in two varieties with some extra flavors: traditional paper and nylon mesh.  The traditional method for taping is to lay down a bit of jointing compound, and then push your paper tape into the seam using a drywall knife.  I prefer to use nylon mesh with an adhesive backing.  This functions a lot more like tape you’re familiar with.  You cut the lengths you need and just stick it on.  It saves a step of mudding and the related wait time for drying.


Day 172: Ventilation

2014-03-17 16.03.20In the continuing adventure of our vent hood, now that we’ve started closing up walls, it’s time to install the hood.  The ventilation system is one of the most built-in appliances in the kitchen.  In a restaurant kitchen, the vent system is incredibly complicated and functionally a large portion of the structure above a kitchen.  In our kitchen, the story is only marginally different.  I don’t know if I’ve posted this before, but there was no preexisting ventilation system in the kitchen.  Directly above the kitchen is a bedroom, so it wasn’t very realistic to run a vent line up to the roof.  The solution was to run a line horizontally to an exterior wall.  The good news is that with all the construction, it was real easy to build a soffit into the new wall I was putting up so I didn’t need to cut into joists or anything crazy.

The complicated part of this particular project is that the design of our kitchen is a little at odds with itself.  The vent hood is suspended above the open bar area, but the vent line runs horizontal to the hood.  This is tricky because the hood needs to be supported structurally from above, but the ductwork needs to run out of the back of the system.  The world of residential hood systems is roughly divided into island units and wall units.  Island units are suspended from the ceiling and the ductwork goes straight up.  Wall units are affixed to the wall and the duct work goes out of the back.  You can see my predicament.  The solution was to find a vent hood whose structural design would allow the right modification.  Specifically, I needed to be able to cut a hole in the back of an island vent.

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Pressure switch for the make-up air damper.

Luckily, the hood we ended up with worked out just right.  The motor housing sits on top of the stainless steal fume hood.  It attaches to a flexible duct that connects to the metal duct work I installed.  It’s supported by a bracket that is shaped like an upside down “L”.  The top of the L screws into structural wood while the bottom of the L mounts directly to the motor housing.  Normally all of this is enclosed in a stainless steal chimney.  For my mod, I cut a hole in the back of this chimney and ran the flexible duct out of the back.  I also partially built the chimney into the soffit to conceal the mod.  In the end, I think it has a cool built in look, though it’s going to be near impossible to remove/replace without tearing out some walls.

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Make-up air damper.

Another add-on project for installing this hood was a make-up air damper.  A few years ago, Ohio adopted a code that requires any home ventilation unit that pulls more than 400 cubic feet of air per minute to include a system for replacing lost air.  The idea is that in new construction that utilizes air-tight building techniques, if you have a vent that is pulling a large volume of air out of the building, you could potentially depressurize the structure.  The result is you get a backdraft through your other vents that could cause CO from your hot water heater or furnace to be pulled into the house.  Now, something like that isn’t a real concern for us.  Our hundred year old house probably leaks air like a swiss cheese balloon.  But code is code.  My choice for a make up air system was to install a motorized damper and a vent line running to an outside wall cap.  The damper system is really neat.  It’s a simple motor attached to a pressure switch I installed in the duct attached to the fume hood.  When the hood is turned on, it blows air down the duct and the air pressure triggers the switch.  The switch opens the damper door in the new vent line in the basement.  That vent line is plugged into the cold air return for the furnace.  Outside air can then be pulled into the furnace and duct system for the whole house.

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Another hole in our house.

The make-up air return system was a bit tricky to install.  We were lucky in that there was a short run, maybe 5″, from the cold air return trunk and an exterior wall.  So it wasn’t a lot of new duct work to install.  But it did mean cutting into the rim joist, just above the foundation wall.  5′ of very old lumber takes a long time to cut through.  Once I had a hole, the second problem to tackle was the wall cap issue.  The wall cap I bought only had a 5″ neck.  Normally this is fine, but in this case, I couldn’t attach the duct to it from the inside.  Instead, I had to assemble the duct and feed it through the outside of the house.  There were a lot of trips in and out as I’d push the duct in a few inches then have to run down into the basement to adjust the angle.  In the end, it took about half a day to install, but it works and I even learned a few things about low voltage wiring.

Day 162: Drywall

2014-03-10 12.12.29Now that the inspections are over, it’s time to start closing up walls and that means drywall.  Drywall is known by a lot of names: sheet rock, gypsum board, plaster board, wall board, etc etc etc.  It’s a contemporary replacement in American building for plaster over lath board.  It’s essentially just a light weight plaster pressed between sheets of paper.  It’s easier, cheaper, cleaner, and faster to install than plaster.  Compared to some of the other tradework, the process for hanging drywall is pretty straightforward.  By contrast, it demands more of an artistic eye and creativity.  Sheets of drywall are cut to size and then nailed or screwed to the studs of the wall framing.  The fasteners  and seams are then filled in with jointing compound (a creamy mixture similar to plaster that dries hard) that is feathered away from the indentation.  Finally, the jointing compound is sanded smooth and the entire wall is sealed with a primer.

Carpenters spend a lot of their mental energy ensuring structures conform to a grid.  Boards should be installed level and plumb (straight up and down).  Framework should be straight and warped wood should be avoided.  Drywall is the first step in finishing where blemishes really become apparent.  A standard sheet of drywall is 4′ x 8′.  If you’re hanging drywall and your walls and ceiling are exactly (or even very close to) perpendicular to each other, then it’s a relatively simple job to hoist the sheet up and screw it in.  However, if one or more of your structures drifts at an angle, even one that isn’t visually obvious, you’ll know immediately when you dry to fit in your rectangle.  You might have gaps at one end and not that other.  Or worse, your rectangle might not fit at all and need one side shaved down.  When cutting drywall, the process is pretty easy.  You measure your line and score the paper with a utility knife.  Then you brace the panel near the score and whack it to snap the plaster.  The plaster will 99 times out of a 100 break right along your score line.  Then you cut the paper on the back and you have a new, differently sized rectangle.  However, while it’s easy to cut a bit of drywall that’s 3 or more inches thick, when you have to make alterations at less than 1 inch, it’s near impossible to score and break the board.  Instead you have to go through a laborious process of cutting.  Drywall is very brittle and cutting across small sections, whether you do it by hand or with a mechanical saw, usually results in a lot of crumbling and fracturing around your cut.  So, while the perfectly squared room gets it’s paper hung in a few minutes, the poor drywaller who gets the crooked room has to spend hours hand cutting odd angles to get everything to fit together.

As you can imagine, we started with a crooked house.  The age of the house has see to all manner of settling, shifting, and shrinking.  Add to that the combination of old 2014-03-10 12.11.43world framing techniques and the subsequent decades of alterations, improvements, replacements, and grafting new technology on to old.  Sprinkle in some help from termites and foundation issues.  And you get a crookie house.  On top of that, I’m not an experienced carpenter.  I know a little bit, but it’s far more academic than hands on.  While there might not be any single damning mistake, a thousand little mistakes add up to some sloppy work.  Hanging drywall reminds me of each and every little mistake and choice I’ve had to make along the way.  For example, the framing of the ceiling joists doesn’t match between the main house and the addition.  The builder’s solution way back when was to shim up the last 3 joists so they would meet the main house.  My response in framing a new wall was to create a set of shims above my top plate so my plates were level.  Unfortunately, in order to not have a ceiling with an obvious bow in it, this means I need to shim the entire length of the joists where my drywall is going to hang from it.

Finishing work is also a blessing.  Even though it takes time to cut wonky bits of drywall, it’s very forgiving.  If you get a space mostly filled with panel, when you come back through with compound, you’ll be able to smooth out all of those seams.  This is where the artistry comes into play.  If done well, post painting, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the problems were to begin with.  And unless the framing is so poor that things are glaringly askew, a finished and painted room, even if slightly off, won’t be notable to anything short of taking a level and a square to each corner.  Of course, that is until you start installing your molding.

Invention is the mother of Creation

At the outset of the project, we created a budget.  In that budget is a section for appliances.  Being renters up to this point, we don’t own any major appliances.  We needed to buy:  Washer and Dryer, Fridge, stove (or range and oven(s)), kitchen fume hood, and a dish washer.  Having spent more than a decade working in commercial kitchens, I’m pretty opinionated about consumer appliances.  Mostly my opinions amount to those of the old man next door, carefully evaluating that latest nerf ball the neighboring kids have deposited on his lawn.  In the end, this means I value simplicity and reliability over all else.  The closer my fridge can be to a wooden box with a giant lump of ice in it, the better.  This provides the added benefit of my most desirable appliances also existing on the cheaper end of the appliance spectrum.  So our appliance budget was modest at the beginning.

For the first time in my life, I shopped on Black Friday.  We were able to take advantage of sales on appliances and purchase a washer/dryer set, and a fridge.  The washer dryer set is super fancy and high tech.  Emily was in charge of picking those as my understanding of how to do laundry ends after “jam all your clothes in and press the go button”.  We went slightly over budget, but were able to get something far beyond what we were expecting.  She seems quite happy with the choice and that’s good enough for me.  The fridge is actually the exact one that we have in our rental right now.  It’s your straight forward top freezer model.  No water, no complicated multiclimate features, no crazy buttons.  Just a fridge.  It’ll do the job.  I will admit though that we might end up getting a drop freezer somewhere along the line now that we actually have space for it.  Emily has waged a silent war for bulk purchasing foodstuffs for most of our relationship and my primary defense has been that we just don’t have the room to store half a cow.  The dish washer we have picked out, we just have yet to order it.  We did invest in a subscription to Consumer Reports online and it’s been really helpful in evaluating appliances.  This is how we knew how much better of a deal the washer/dryer pick up was over what we were going to buy.  And CR is why we’ll end up with a GE dishwasher even though it’s slightly more expensive than the other contenders.  The saga of the fume hood was chronicled in another post, but we have one now and it sits in the garage waiting to be installed in the finished kitchen.

The last thing to buy is our stove.  We have a gas line running into the kitchen.  This is important as I’m firmly against electric cooktops and would have run a new gas line if I needed to.  We toyed with the idea of doing a separate cook top and oven, but physically it just didn’t make sense in our space.  As of writing this we haven’t picked out our stove yet.  The design of the kitchen is going to be a mostly built-in look and towards that end, we’re going to get a slide in range.  A slide in range is meant to be flush with the countertop without a big gap.  It also doesn’t have a back gaurd and often the sides are unfinished.  Slide-ins tend to be a little more expensive than traditional stoves and there are less options at the cheaper levels but it’s not outside of our budget to do.

Part of Em’s contract with GE includes an incentive bonus for patent generation.  The idea is that if you invest something and the company pursues a patent on it, even if it doesn’t end up getting patented, the company will kick you a $1000 bonus.  GE of course owns exclusive rights to anything you invent while working for The General, so I imagine this system is far more beneficial to the company than the employee.  Still, even the most minute detail of a design could potentially be patented and some engineers are quite aggressive in racking up the bonuses.  Em earned her first patent when she was working in HID and it involves a chemical thing far more complicated than I understand.  She just recently filed for a her second patent.  Actually getting a patent takes a couple years of going back and forth with the government, but her bonus will show up next paycheck.  She graciously decided to put it towards the stove budget, effectively doubling what we were looking to spend.  While I may want a wooden fridge, I’m supremely happy with a very complicated, well designed cooking appliance.  Multiple, high output burners, convection oven, digital thermostat with precise temperature control are important to me.  Now that we’re in a different buying class of stoves, we have to do more research and figure out the best candidate.  My prediction is we end up with the high end GE model.  Em gets a nice employee discount buying direct from the company and the very high-end series of GE appliances get stellar ratings with CR.  But I’ll try to kick the tires on a few other models before we end up going that route.

Post in which I complain about the weather

This has been the wost winter in NE Ohio in like 10 years.  It’s been bitterly cold and we’ve had endless snow.  Like most of my posts, this one is being published on a different day than I’m writing it.  So let me fess up.  I’m writing it on the first real spring-like day we’ve had.  It’s March 7th today and we hit 50 degrees.  The last snow pack has started to melt and I worked with the windows open today.  We started construction last October and the bulk of the project has been at the mercy of Winter due to the fact that the furnace wasn’t getting installed till the end.  I’m not sure how much help having a working furnace would have been as I would have needed to tape all the ductwork shut.  Still, it probably would have been a much more comfortable experience not working in a sub-zero environment.  I like the cold.  I moved to the north from central Florida and I don’t miss the climate for one second.  I like the change of seasons.  I like the snow.  And most of the time, I don’t mind working in the cold.  This winter has worn me out.  I don’t think going into it we had any idea how hard it was going to be dealing with the weather.  By contrast, last year we had the most mild winter recorded in a decade.  There were entire weeks of 50 degree weather and by late February it was all over.  This year we had freezes so hard that they froze pipes in exterior walls.  Plumbers in Cleveland literally had a 2 week waiting list to come fix your burst pipes.  Our heating bills have been the highest we’ve seen since moving here.

I don’t think I realized until today how exhausted I am of the cold.  For the first three months or so it was kind of like an adventure.  When it was constantly single digits, I’d double up my socks and add long johns (which I kind of hate wearing) to my repertoire.  I felt like a pioneer.  Braving the bitter elements to build up the homestead.  Now the cold makes me tired and achy.  The idea of trudging through snow to get from the house to the garage makes me not want to get out of bed.  I hope winter is over for the season.  It’s almost mid-March and I deserve some nice days to work.

Here’s a list of ways in which the cold has impacted our project:

  • Pipes, even the water main in the basement concrete freeze, so we have to be very careful what has water in it and what doesn’t.  It was a hassle even getting the water company to turn water on in the first place.
  • Water left on site froze over night.  This meant drinking water or water used for the project such as to mix cement needed to transported to the site the day it was going to be used.  For most of the season, I’ve had gallon jugs of water filling the trunk of my car.
  • A lot of chemicals don’t work or work less well.  Silicone can’t set below about 35 degrees, so no sealing or chalking.  Flashing tape doesn’t stick at less than 20 degrees.  Forget about using polyurethane in the cold.  In order to install the foam insulation the guys had to run a giant propane heater in the bedroom blasting the roof deck to get it warm enough to install.  Also no installing tile.  And you need to get special kinds of cement and mortar that will set properly in the cold.  Our chimney was tucked using a fast set, high strength mortar for this reason.
  • On that note, you need to worry about water-based chemicals freezing before they cure.  Jointing compound for drywall will ice over.  Paint can turn out splotchy.  Tubes of water-based sealants such as duct sealer left on site will freeze and then be useless.
  • Similarly, things move slower.  Emily’s Pex system involves stretching plastic tubes over each other and allowing them to contract to clamp down.  Usually this should take a few seconds, but in the extreme cold, it would take up to a minute for it to fully contract.  Hydrostatic cement, used to plug leaking foundational cracks, should set up in less than 5 minutes.  In very cold temps this ends up taking hours.
  • In really cold temperatures, you can’t work long without gloves.  I have a well destroyed pair of winter gloves now that I’ve been working in for months.  Some jobs are a lot harder to do with a gloved hand.  Mostly nailing and driving screws, but also wiring.
  • Just so you don’t think it’s all bad, crawling around the basement was probably better in winter.  I would fire up some halogen work lights and in about 20 minutes, the crawl space would get pretty warm.  Laying in the tight, warm space tooling around with pipes, wires, or whatever was pretty soothing.
  • Likewise, it was a very good time to water seal the basement.  The sealer took a lot longer to cure, but was able to be applied in freezing temperatures.  With the ground frozen solid in all directions, there was nothing pushing on the sealer while it was setting up.  As it warms up, and the foundation expands, the sealer will crack, but I’ll be able to go back and fill those with a second coat this summer.
  • Hammering is great in the cold.  Aerobic exercise warms you up and after ten minutes of building walls with hammer and nails, you don’t even remember it’s cold outside.  The added benefit is you throw out a lot of heat.  If the room is closed up, you’ll notice it’s warmer than the other rooms or outside after a few hours of work.
  • I’ve come to learn about micro-climates in the greater Cleveland area due to the lake effect.  Our current place is probably 8 or 9 miles from the lake as the crow flies and on an elevation.  Cleveland sits in a basin surrounded by bluffs.  While it’s not as noticeable now that everything has been urbanized and suburbanised, there some pretty steep hills between me and downtown.  It’s why many of the suburbs are called “_______ Heights”.  Here in Cleveland Heights, we would get 6 or 8 inches of snow overnight while at the project house, which is maybe a mile from the lake, if that, it would barely get a dusting.  Conversely, the wind is worse and bitterly cold at the project house.
  • Machines are cranky in the cold.  A lot of my tools ran harder and sounded differently in the extreme cold.  The spring loaded hand guard on my chop saw stopped working altogether.  It now just goes where ever you move it to.
  • For he first time ever, I wore a tight knit hat.  I spent most of the winter working in a hat rather than my preferred tied bandana.  It kept the tips of my ears warm and I like the way it hugs my head.
  • Another good thing about the cold, you can sweep up snow and ice when it can’t melt.  I was way less worried about damaging untreated subflooring and underlayment given the ability to just sweep the snow up.
  • Lastly, forced snow days.  There were days this winter when it was impossible to leave the house or it was so cold that it would be dangerous or useless to go try and work.  There were more days like this than I would have liked, that’s for sure.  And the weather has set us back more than I would prefer.  Still, there is something comforting about a day when you know there’s nothing you can do other than settle in with a cup of cocoa and play video games for six hours.

Day 159: Insulation

2014-03-05 15.43.51In the master bedroom we decided to vault the ceiling.  Part of that decision involved contracting a company to install spray foam insulation.  When it comes to insulation, there generally three* categories of interior insulation:  foam, blown in, or rolled fiberglass.  Rolled fiberglass is the most commonly encountered insulation.  It’s the big rolls of pick fluff generally sporting the pink panther on it.  These are sold in any home improvement store and are incredibly easy to install yourself.  Blown in insulation comes in a variety of different materials usually divided into organic or non-organic substances.  You can rent machinery to blown in your own insulation, or higher a company to do it.  In either case, it involves literally blowing stuffing into your walls and attic spaces.  For the walls, this usually involves cutting holes in the exterior of your house, hooking up a machine similar to those stuffing machines at the build-a-bear stores in the mall, and filling your spaces with a densely packed material that will then expand a little bit and fluff up.  Essentially you’re turning your house shell into a big pillow.  The final type of insulation is foam.  Foam typically comes as a two part formula.  When the two chemicals mix together, they create an exothermic reaction that forms a high volume foam that quickly hardens as it cools.  For small jobs, like filling cracks or insulating around doors and windows, you can buy cans of foam from a company called Great Stuff (again, available in any hardware store).  For big jobs, like your attic or walls, you’ll usually higher a company.  There are DIY kits available now, but they’re relatively new and I’m not sure if they’re legal to access in every state.  In any case, the big version works just like the small version.  A two part chemical is mixed and sprayed.  It foams up and hardens.  The difference is that the big version uses a lot more chemical and you need specialized equipment to propel and mix the foam.

Each of these different kinds of insulation has trade-offs and I won’t go into a detailed evaluation of each.  A contemporary theory in residential design is focusing on controlling air movement in and through a space.  You might have heard of “air sealing” or “air tight” homes.  The essential idea is that if air is coming into or exiting the home through the walls or seams, then your heating and cooling efficiencies are being negatively effected.  Imagine how hard your fridge would have to work if you just left the door permanently opened.  Fridges have magnets and gaskets in order to seal in the cold air.  In the same way, builders today design houses to seal in as much air as possible.  The way in which you insulate your home then matters a great deal to how air moves through it.  This swings us back to foam.  Foam is the preferred material for air sealing a home.  It isn’t impermeable, but depending on the mixture, it can come pretty close.  When you start researching foam, you’ll quickly encounter two general types: open cell and closed cell.  The history is actually pretty interesting.  Foam insulation was originally used in industrial applications and there was only one type.  It was very dense and nearly water proof.  As people started to expand it into residential and commercial applications, chemists started tinkering with the formula in order to introduce bigger pockets of space within the foam.  If you can manage to create larger pockets, then the same volume of chemical will cover more area and therefore it’ll be cheaper to use.  Industry doesn’t care about $20,000 of insulation, but the average home owner does.  “Open-cell” then, is a family of foams that have much larger and non-uniform air pockets.  It’s much cheaper than the original “closed foam”.  These terms are kind of a misnomer though.  It’s better to think about the chemical composition on a sliding scale.  A company that specializes in foam applications will either offer several options on this scale or have a custom blend they prefer.  The trade off is that the open cell end of the spectrum is much cheaper, but also doesn’t insulate as well.  For example, water can pass through those foams that are sold as Open Cell.  This is a really important consideration for trying to achieve an air tight home.

2014-03-05 15.44.08When it comes to our project in the master bedroom, we wanted to reclaim as much of the attic space into head room as possible.  In that part of the house it wouldn’t be possible to finish the attic into a usable room.  There just isn’t space.  The important decision is how to protect the roof.  One of the old building ideas is that houses have to “breath”.  They were designed to purposefully allow air to circulate between the interior of the house and the exterior.  This is why roofs are vented.  When it comes to roofs, this idea is very important because it allows moisture to escape.  The exterior of your roof is covered in a water proof layer of tar or some other sealer.  No water is going in from the top unless you have a hole.  But the interior of your roof is just raw wood.  If you trap moisture against that raw wood, it’ll cause rot.  Once the wood rots out, the roof has to be completely torn off and rebuilt.  Not to mention in the mean time you create the perfect environment for mold growth.  This kind of thing happens a lot with bathrooms that have fans that just vent up into the attic instead of outside or poor circulation in your attic space.  So, having air freely moving prevents water from rotting out your roof from the inside.  However, in the age of air sealing a home, the same problem is addressed differently.  By creating a water tight seal on the underside of your roof sheathing, you stop an possibility of roof rot.  Here is where foam really shines.  You can fill the space directly under the roof sheathing with an impenetrable foam and never have to worry about venting.  Then you can finish right on top of the foam.  The alternative method would involve creating channels of air across your roof by installing what are essentially plastic gullies that connect to vents in the overhang of your roof.  Then you can install traditional insulation on top of these and finish on top of that.  It works fine if done properly, but the entire package is going to take up much more space than foam.  To give you an idea, from shingle to drywall, our roof area over the master bedroom will be about 10″ thick.  The traditional method would have been closer to 18″ thick.  If you buy into this air sealing concept (which I do as there is building data and research to support it), the added energy efficiency of foam over traditional insulation is going to reflect in your heating and cooling bills as well.

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Sealing the rim joists in your basement closes one of the leakiest parts of your entire house.

In case anyone in the Cleveland area is interested, we used a company called Pure Seal.  They’re a family operation the the guy who runs it is incredibly knowledgeable.  They use a proprietary blend that the owner explains as “semi-closed cell”.  They did our master bedroom and all of the rim joists in the basement.  Our house has a thick layer of blown in cellulose insulation in the attic and walls, so unless we’re gutting an area, it doesn’t make sense to tool with our insulation too much.  But if it comes up again, we’ll certainly use this same company.  In any case, while it’s not the most sexy of home improvements, proper insulation, especially in very cold or very hot climates, is one of the best investments you can make in a property.

* There are a few other types of insulation out there including polystyrene sheeting, geo construction (using earth and mud), reclaimed materials, and whatnot but the three I mentioned are what you’ll commonly encounter.  The world of insulation is actually pretty fascinating and everyone seems to have a host of logic, numbers, and propaganda about why their way is the best way.

Electrical Box

Our electric service panel is relatively new.  The wiring was updated about ten years ago or so and this box was put in.  All but one of the 20 circuits in the box were being used when we got the house.  The one that didn’t go anywhere was attached to a wire that was cut out when the basement was looted.  It likely went to the outlet that ran the sump in the other corner.  Even though all the wires do something, it doesn’t mean that they do something useful.  In a common residential home, you’ll find a couple of different amperage’s on circuit breakers.  I won’t go into the nitty gritty of what that means or how it works, it’s easy enough to just say that a circuit can carry only so much electricity and your amp limit is a numerical value of how much you can carry.  The general rule of thumb is that your lights and outlets are on a 15amp circuit.  Your major appliances are on a 20amp circuit.  And something like an electric dryer or electric oven is going to be on a double circuit.  After that you get into very specialized situations.  The basic idea of your service panel is you have a big wire bringing all your electricity into the house.  It goes into your main shut off at the top of the box.  Below that, it splits into some number of individual “circuits” or paths and snakes through your entire house.  Each circuit is on it’s own breaker.  A breaker is a switch in your box that’s designed to flip off if the circuit is overloaded.  This happens when you try to draw too much power through the circuit or there’s a short somewhere in the line.  If you’ve ever had your lights shut off because you were vacuuming, watching tv, and running your computer in the same room, then you’ve probably tripped a breaker.  The idea is that this fail safe keeps the wires from overheating and burning your house down.  Besides the threat of being electrocuted, it’s fire that is the next biggest danger when it comes to your home electrical system.  Wires can get really hot.  Think about your electric oven or toast.  Those are just hot wires in there.  So in your service panel, you have a series of circuits, each one governed by it’s own breaker.  The breakers are labeled with the amperage that it will handle.  Your lights are probably on 15amp breakers, while your fridge is probably on a 20amp.  Your main is likely in an increment of 50 (100amp, 150amp, 200amp, etc).  The main is just a really big breaker that functions in the same way as the smaller breakers in your box.

For our project, we reorganized the way our electrical system worked.  With the exception of the parts we gutted, most of the wiring we found, we kept.  But because we were doing things like bringing in a modern kitchen, we needed to take the basic wiring layout and augment it.  For example, code requires a few things: 2 dedicated 20amp circuits to run your counter top  appliances, 1 dedicated 20amp circuit just for your fridge, a dedicated 240 for your electric oven.  But we wanted to add things like a dishwasher, a fume hood, tons of lighting options, maybe a garbage disposal, and additional circuits to run lots of appliances.  In order to do this we remapped our current layout.  In some places, we pulled circuits together.  By that, I mean we took the lights off of one circuit and put them on another, then took the freed up circuit and ran it elsewhere.  In the case of the free slot, we actually pulled wire in the basement through the conduit (the metal pipes the wire runs through), put in a new junction box and line, and brought it into the kitchen.  In other cases, our changes weren’t so deliberate.  There were lines that ran between floors that for one reason or another needed to be moved.  It’s really tough to tell what you’re cutting when you don’t know the beginning or the end of the wire.  And when there are there of them, it’s easy to make them work again, but when you do, your electric box suddenly doesn’t match it’s labeling anymore.  As the final run down when testing the electric system, I turned everything on, remapped all the circuits, and relabeled the box for our new electrical usage.  I’m not sure I could completely replace a box on my own, but as part of this project I’ve pulled wire, replaced breakers, and designed new circuit runs so I feel pretty good about my skill level.  Several professionals have commented on how nice everything looks.  I like that even though a lot of these things are hidden away behind walls, inspectors and trades people care about how tidy and uniform the job is.2014-02-12 16.48.512014-02-12 16.49.01