20 November, 2011

Passive House (PassivHaus Institut)

If you haven't heard of the "Passive House" movement or you just haven't heard what it means, I'll try to explain it best I can.  Concerns over the effects of housing heat exhaust to the climate and pollution brought about the desire to eliminate as much energy/fuel use as possible. 

The PassivHaus movement began in Germany during the mid-1990's and it is the fastest growing energy performance standard in the world with over 30,000 buildings built to date.  The PassivHaus ideal is simple; build a house that has excellent thermal performance (super-insulated), exceptional airtightness coupled with mechanical ventilation.  The building is heated by solar gain from windows and doors along with internal heat gain from people and electrical appliances. The summer cooling load is controlled by low-e coatings in the glass, window orientation and shading.  Any remaining heating or cooling demands are covered by a small heating source. Think of it as creating a livable thermos bottle, what is warm stays warm without using a heat source most of the time.  As Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com says; "Forget Energy Star and LEED, green building is PassivHaus".

Graphics courtesy of PassivHaus Institit.
This approach to building design allows the architect to minimize the heating demand of  buildings, and may specify only a heated towel rail or small electric baseboard heater as the source of conventional heating. A mechanical Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) unit reduces indoor air pollution, by supplying fresh air which is filtered and heated by the warm exhaust passing through the HRV unit.  Triple pane windows and insulated doors, both with multiple weatherstripping sets are also required to bring the building into the standard.

A PassHaus buliding to the right and a conventional structure across the street. 

While it's much easier to build a new structure to this standard than try to bring an existing building into it, there are folks out there trying to do it.   Basically the insulation required to come near PassivHaus standard is R50 walls and floor (yes, floors), R70 ceiling or roof.  One method would have the interior of the house gutted before new inner walls can be constructed to provide ten-to-twelve inches of blown-in insulation space.  At a green building seminar I attended last year, one Cleveland manufacturer showed off a custom six-inch thick XPS (extruded polystyrene) panel with molded-in steel studs for fast setup.
A representative comes out and does measurements, wall panels are shop-constructed and brought to the site with electrical boxes mounted.  The existing wall gets blown-in insulation, the XPS panel is mounted over that. Spray foam makes the airseal at any joints.  Drywall is screwed to the embedded steel studs.

Getting the house airtight enough seems the hardest thing to do, but finding the doors and windows that meet the performance requirement is still difficult in the US.  Read 'limited availability' as much higher cost.  I estimate that to bring my 1925 Colonial-style (1400 sq-ft) home to near PassivHaus standards, would cost approximately 55-to-70 thousand USD.  Though I'm sure that as more houses are brought into the PassivHaus standard, the prices of materials and services will drop.

03 September, 2011

A Shocking Surge--When lightning stikes

 I’ve had a long history of dodging lightning, I sometimes have a feeling that someone up there is using me for target practice. One instance back in the mid-70’s, I was sitting in my car at a gas station in Tampa, FL, a iron post about twenty feet from my front bumper was struck by lightning. I was so surprised that I jerked violently, bent the steering wheel, and rocked the whole car. The pump-jockey laughed and said, “Ya best get used to that around here, man.” That was not the first – and certainly not the last – close call I’ve had with lightning.

During a storm about a few years ago, lightning struck the service pole at the end of my property. Because my electrical service box is connected to two 8 foot-long grounding rods in the earth outside the house, the surge did not affect the house wiring or appliances. But unfortunately, there was an ineffective connection (a corroded clamp on an outdoor hose spigot) to the ground for the phone system. Because of that, the lightning was able to enter my house by way of the phone line, taking out the computer modem, answering machine, and three telephones.

Because electrical, TV cable, and phone services in my area all come in on overhead wires, they can act as an antenna for lightning. Even buried wires can be affected if the strike is near them. So, it's important to have adequate grounding capacity to dissipate the surge into the earth. If you have had a new electrical service panel installed in the past ten years, you should have one or more grounding rods installed outside. My local electrical inspector insists upon a minimum of two rods. Older panels may only be grounded by one rod – or have no outside rod at all – so you may want to add additional rods for protection.

Inside the telephone interface box, there is a lightning arrestor on the company access side. To protect your phone lines, connect a 10-gauge wire from the arrestor to the ground rods for your electrical service panel. (You may have to contact your phone provider to get into that side of the box.)
And, while you’re at it, install a coax grounding connector on the TV cable on the outside of the house, route a wire to the ground rods and clamp the wire to them. If you have outdoor TV or radio antennas, you can ground them with a coax grounding connector as well.  The whole idea here is to divert any surges directly to the earth instead of allowing them to come into the house.

Finally, you might consider a whole-house surge suppression unit that mounts onto the service panel. They are designed to protect all of your household appliances and electronics from all voltage spikes besides lightning. Some surge suppressors are one-time use ($80-100), others are resettable and retail for $120-150. Not a bad idea to get one, considering what it could cost to replace all your major electric appliances.

03 August, 2011

Home By The Numbers

Uh-yup, I’m just another one of those aging baby boomers and my eyes ain’t what they used to be.  Of course, I blame my failing eyesight on my son and daughter.  Each time they have given me a new grandchild, (I have four) my eyes have taken a dive.  I didn’t have to wear glasses before the first one was born, now I can’t find my way around the house without the specs. I guess I'm descending into geezerhood.

So I’m out looking for this house a few weeks ago and after driving by three times, burning up expensive gas--I still can’t find the address I was given.  One house had three numbers nailed to a tree but it was a neighborhood with four-number addresses and next two houses had no numbers visible on the entry.  By looking at the addresses across the street, I made a deduction at which house I had my appointment.  When I pulled up to the house I finally saw the address plaque under the bushes next to the driveway.  The numbers were about 2 inches high on a rusted black background that blended well into the shadows and while I might be due for a new prescription for glasses, it was mighty hard to see that plaque from the street in daylight.

Now think for a moment about emergency responders (Fire-EMS-Police) trying to find that house address in the dark, if the numbers hard are to find—it can cause delays.  I’ve decided to display my address in a couple of places. The original set (3 inches tall) is still right next to my front door near the doorbell button.  The new set (6 inches tall) is at the end of my porch roof under a light.  It’s well illuminated at night when I turn on the porch light and the pizza delivery guy said he really likes that.  In my hometown, the city code (see it below) doesn’t say the address has be right at the front door, it should be near by.
Another thing that I see a lot is the house numbers that have been painted over with the siding color.  Once the sun goes down, they just blend into the wall and are invisible. 

     Every dwelling structure shall have the correct street number of such dwelling prominently displayed so that it is clearly visible at all times from the street in front of the property.  The numbers shall be numerals, not in script, and they must be at least three (3) inches high and in contrasting colors.  Such numbers shall be placed in close proximity to the main front entrance to the building.  (Cleveland Heights OH Ord. 67-1971)

Many communities will ticket a homeowner for not having an address on the house and the Post Office can refuse to deliver the mail when the address is missing.  If you don't have a roadside mailbox and the house sits back a long way from the street or is hidden from view by plantings or terrain, a post with the address should used at the end of the driveway. So just maybe, this old geezer will be able to find your house.

11 July, 2011

My Summer Reading List

Just a quick note; I've discovered today that the Texas Tiny House website is back online. It's a shame they were offline, because I really like their designs and the fact that they used as much recycled material as possible. I've placed the link back on my link list and hope to see more of them in the future.
For some new small-living lifestyle ideas, check out; Smalltopia: A Practical Guide to Working for Yourself by Tammy Strobel. You can preview the first chapter of her book at the bottom of her page.
I added The Kneeslider blog to my link list which has absolutely nothing to do with housing, but I know that many folks (even an old cuss like me) are motorcycle maniacs. It's well written by Paul Crowe, formerly of Cycle World magazine. He covers all brands of motorcycles (foreign and domestic), news and tech development.
Finally, for all you tech-weenies and garbage gadget-teers out there (we know who we are), the two sites that I love most are; the MIT Technology Review and Instructables I get the MIT newsletter every weekday and the Instructables newsletter weekly, so be sure to sign up.

26 June, 2011

Hanging Stuff 0n Plaster Walls

Lath-and-plaster walls are common in houses constructed from the late 18th Century until the early 1950’s when drywall became the common building technique.  Whether it’s that oil portrait of Great-great Aunt Sadie or kitchen cabinets, hanging things onto older lath-and-plaster walls can present a bit of a dilemma.  So, if you don’t want to see old Sadie crashing down onto the piano in the parlor, you’ll need to learn how to attach things to the walls. 

First, let’s describe how lath-and-plaster walls are constructed.  Once the house was framed (generally with the studs at 16” on centers); the exterior sheathing, siding completed, and the doors, windows and mechanicals (plumbing, heating, electrical) installed, the plasterers would start covering the walls with wood strips called ‘lath’.  The lath would be about 3/8” thick, 1-1/2” wide and 48” long with a gap of 3/8” between them.  A thick layer of gypsum-based coarse plaster (gray or brown colored) was troweled onto the lath until it oozed through forming ‘keys’ that held the plaster to the lath.  A thin layer of white finish plaster was applied once the coarse layer had cured.

To attach lightweight items to the walls, drive a nail or screw into the wall.  If the nail goes through easily, pull it out and go up or down a 1/2” and try again to get into the lath.  But the hard, fast rule of hanging anything on a plaster wall--if it's more than a pound-or-so, find a stud and screw or nail your item to that.  Also, it’s best to attach switch and outlet workboxes directly to the studs so they won’t become loose and move about as you try to use them.  That all said, how do you find the studs?  Well, some of the old-timers used a powerful magnet to locate the lath nails (My grandfather kept a small horse-shoe shaped magnet inside the lid of his metal tool box just for that job).  Gramp would wrap a piece of wax paper around the magnet to keep it from marring the wall finish.  He would sweep the magnet horizontally across the wall until he felt the tug on the magnet over the nail. Then he would slide it vertically to see he could tell if there were more nails indicating the stud.
Many years ago, tool manufacturers came up with a swiveling magnetic stud finder in a clear plastic vial. This finder locates the lath nail in the plaster. Keeping with my family tradition, I keep some powerful rare-earth magnets inside the lid of my tool box that a friend had salvaged from some old computer hard-drives. 

In this our semiconductor era, someone had invented an electronic stud finder.  They have been on the market for quite a long time and they usually work well on drywall, though sometimes, they have a problem locating a stud in a plaster wall. I have a few different brands, but all of them measure the density of the wall to locate the stud. The uneven distribution of plaster behind the lath can give you false readings. So, I continue use my magnet (as Gramp did) to find the nails.

26 May, 2011

Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL)

 I just hate coming home to a dark house, and I don’t want new lumps on my shins from smacking into the cabinets by the back door or tripping over the dogs.  So, to prevent all that excitement from happening, I have a lamp on a timer in the kitchen and on the back porch there is a fixture with a photo-eye switch so I can find the lock on the door.  I use low-wattage compact fluorescent lamps in those lights

A compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is a miniaturized fluorescent tube packaged into an integral ballast screw base that can be installed into nearly any table lamp or lighting fixture.  A common style is a spring shaped tube but some others have a long u-shaped tube.  Also, there are floodlight bulbs for exterior use or for recessed ceiling fixtures.  Some u-shaped fluorescents are of the "modular" type, having bulbs and ballasts that can be separated and replaced separately.

CFLs are being promoted as energy savings alternatives to incandescent lamps.  Some CFLs are guaranteed for 8,000-to-10,000 hours. (Incandescent bulbs typically last 800-1000 hours.)  CFLs use about four times less electricity. For example, a 13-watt CFL produces the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb (approximately 850 lumens) and remains much cooler.  But many folks didn’t want to pay the higher cost for the fluorescents which was typically about $6-to-$10.  The prices have been coming down and the big-box homecenters are selling a six-pack of 13-watt bulbs for about $10 (about $1.67 each).  So, besides saving money on the electric bill, it also helps to reduce pollution created by the generating plant

As well as the good, there are some not-so-good things about CFLs.  Many companies use a tiny amount of mercury in the manufacturing process, so care should be exercised in handling or disposing of  them. 
Talk to your city waste management department to if they have a recycling program for CFLs.  Compact fluorescent lamps usually do not produce full light output until they warm up for a minute.  In an outdoor fixture in cold weather, the CFL may need about several minutes to fully warm up and will produce as little as 25 percent of its light output when first started.  The light produced is not the same color quality as incandescent bulbs, and this can distort color rendering of walls and furnishings, but the newest models have come close to eliminating this issue.  

Compact fluorescent lamps, to work well, need to be used in lamps with polarized plugs.  The large prong on the plug is the neutral, and is wired to the threaded shell of the bulb socket.  The smaller prong on the plug is the hot, and is wired to the brass tab in the bottom of the bulb socket.  This design allows the bulb to light reliably during its entire service life.  Most CFLs won’t work with an ordinary dimmer switch, you will need to purchase bulbs rated for dimmer use.  Lastly, they are often physically larger than incandescent bulbs they replace and simply may not fit the lamp or fixture at all.

15 February, 2011

Radiant Floor Heating

At this time of year I get a lot of questions about heating systems and most recently several questions about Radiant Floor Heating retrofits.  While I’m the first to tell you that I’m not a heating guy, efficient heating has long been an interest of mine.  So I went to the Department of Energy website and others find some information for you.

There are radiant heating systems can supply heat directly to the floor or to panels in the wall or ceiling of a house.  The delivery of heat directly from the hot surface to the people and objects in the room via the radiation of heat is known as infrared radiation.  If you ever walked along a brick wall just after the sun sets, the stored-up warmth you feel is infrared radiation. 
Radiant heating is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually much more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through the ductwork.  The lack of moving air can also be advantageous to people with severe allergies as dust and pet dander or germs are not lofted into every room.  Forced air systems also tend to dehumidify the air more than radiant systems and dry out our skin and noses.  Hydronic (liquid-based) systems generally use high-efficiency boilers that burn less gas than forced air furnaces and steam boilers.  The hydronic systems can also be heated with a variety of energy sources, including gas-or-oil-fired boilers, wood-fired boilers, solar water heaters, or a combination of these sources. 
There are radiant air floors (air is the heat-carrying medium); electric radiant floors; and hot water (hydronic) radiant floors. Air does not hold large amounts of heat, radiant air floors are not cost-effective in most applications, and are rarely installed.  Because of the relatively high cost of electricity, electric radiant floors are usually found locally in bathrooms, systems that feature mats of electrically conductive plastic and are mounted onto the subfloor below a tile floor covering. The majority of radiant systems I have seen in this region are floors heated by gas-fired hydronic (hot water) boiler setups.
Hydronic (liquid) systems use less gas than furnaces or steam to warm the house. Hydronic radiant floor systems pump heated water from a boiler through tubing laid in a pattern underneath the floor.  Systems installed in the 1940’s to the ‘70’s used copper piping, in the 1980’s plastic piping such as PEX became commonly used.  In some systems, the temperature in each room is controlled by regulating the flow of hot water through each tubing loop. This is done by a system of zoning valves or pumps and thermostats. The cost of installing a hydronic radiant floor varies by geographical location and also depends on the size of the home, the type of installation, the floor covering, remoteness of the site, and the cost of labor.
A "wet" installation embeds the tubing within a concrete floor slab (commonly used in "slab" ranch houses that don't have basements) and is the oldest form of modern radiant floor systems. The tubing can be embedded in a thin layer of lightweight gypsum concrete, or other material installed on top of a wood subfloor. If concrete is used and the new floor is not on solid earth, additional floor structure may be necessary because of the added weight.  A structural engineer should be consulted to determine the floor's load-carrying capacity.
"Dry" floors, in which the tubing run beneath a wood floor, have been gaining in popularity, mainly because a dry floor is faster and less expensive to build.  But because dry floors involve heating some air space, the radiant heating system may need to operate at a higher temperature.  A common retrofit installation involves suspending the tubing underneath the subfloor between the joists. This method usually requires the basement ceiling removed and drilling holes through the floor joists in order to install the tubing.  Reflective insulation is installed under the tubes to direct the heat upward.  In new construction, the tubing can be installed from above the subfloor, between the subfloor and finish flooring.  In these instances, the tubing is often fitted into aluminum diffusers that spread the water's heat across the floor in order to heat the floor more evenly. The tubing and heat diffusers are secured between furring strips (sleepers), which carry the weight of the new subfloor and finished floor surface.
Several companies now make a plywood subfloor material manufactured with tubing tracks and aluminum heat diffuser plates built into them. The manufacturers state that this product makes a radiant floor system (for new construction) considerably less expensive to install and faster to react to room temperature changes.
Ceramic and stone tiles are common and effective floor coverings for a concrete slab radiant floor, as it conducts heat well from the floor and adds thermal storage because of its high heat capacity.  One building I’ve seen recently had a color-stained, polished concrete floor, which I found the thought of being barefoot on warm concrete in February as intriguing.  Common floor coverings like vinyl and linoleum sheet goods, carpeting, or wood can also be used, but any covering that helps to insulate the floor from the room will decrease the efficiency of the system.
Most of the sites that I’ve read make these statements, if you want carpeting, use a thin carpet with dense padding and install as little carpeting as possible.  Wood flooring should be laminated wood flooring instead of solid wood. This reduces the possibility of the wood shrinking and cracking from the drying effects of the heat.  

07 January, 2011

Smoke Detectors

In the course of my work, I am in a lot of houses.  I’ve seen some poor housekeeping, bad wiring and many other serious things that would ordinarily cause a building to be condemned.  But, in households with small children; what especially scares me are non-functioning smoke detectors. The common cause for the malfunction that the batteries are dead or missing.

According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) research; more than half of all residential fire fatalities occur at night while people are sleeping.  Smoke detectors cut the risk of fatalities in a home fire almost in half.  Ensure that your smoke detectors are working, test it monthly by pushing the test button. The only real maintenance needed to keep your smoke detector in proper working order is to install new batteries twice a year.  Many folks change batteries when they change their clocks for daylight savings time.  While you have the cover open, a quick vacuuming would finish the job.

Placing Smoke Detectors
To ensure that a smoke detector will work as it was designed, read the manufacturer's instructions for installation.  Usually, the proper placement is on the ceiling. However, if a wall is be used, install the smoke detector(s) at a distance of 4”-to-6" from the ceiling.  
Smoke detectors should be installed on every level of your home, including the basement and attic.  Install one smoke detector outside each sleeping area in your home.  Place smoke detectors away from the kitchen so cooking vapors will not cause nuisance alarms.   
Note: Smoke detectors should be replaced every 5-to-10 years.  If you have just moved in to a house and the detectors look old, just change them immediately.

Create a plan for when an alarm sounds.  Every second is critical, make sure your family has an escape plan in case an alarm sounds.  Have a fire drill so that everyone understands where to go.  Remember to stay low under smoke where the air is fresher, cooler and easier to breathe.

These are the essentials of a good plan to follow.

Plan two ways out of every room.

Make sure you can open doors and windows in every room.

Designate a family meeting place outside the home.

Once outside, call 911. Do not re-enter the home.
Operation Save-a-Life, a program of the American Red Cross and the Cleveland Heights Fire Department, provides FREE smoke alarms and batteries to Cleveland Heights residents.  Smoke alarms are distributed by Cleveland Heights firefighters at no cost to residents.  To apply for a free smoke alarm (verification of residency required), visit the Fire Chief's Office, located at Cleveland Heights City Hall, 40 Severance Circle.

For those of you outside of Cleveland Heights, try calling your local chapter of the American Red Cross or fire department to see if they have a similar program.