It should not be that big of a deal to acid stain a concrete slab like this one, but being new at it complicated things for me. There are many videos on YouTube about concrete acid stain. Also there are water-based stains, but I didn’t even consider them because I wanted something that would last.
Freshly cured concrete takes a stain the best, which is what I was dealing with. In simplest terms, all you have to do is clean the surface, protect the surrounding areas, and spray the stain. They recommend using a pump sprayer just for acid but those cost around $75 so I went with the garden variety one I already had. I figured it would all be over in a few minutes- how bad could it get?
I bought a commercial grade acid stain (they all are) from a masonry supply place. Brickform, Blush-Tone Acid Stain in olive. It cost about $80 for a gallon. Their olive color is a light green, I wanted dark green but I could not find it anywhere. Applying a second or third stain would make it darker.
The first side of the slab went well, then I had to stop and pump up the sprayer and things started to get weird. Towards the end of the slab, blotches of rust brown started to dribble out, discoloring the slab. When it was done I thought, “Oh well. I wanted it to have a mottled look and I got that.” In some places the stain looked great.
I did not neutralize the acid and let it go for a week trying to figure out if I needed to apply a second coat. You do not want to neutralize if you are going to reapply acid stain. The rust color was becoming more prevalent as the sun worked on it. Then I discovered light scrubbing with a wire brush would remove the rust color, revealing aquamarine blue underneath. The blue looked cool but this wasn’t a swimming pool. I realized I needed some advice so I called the manufacturer.
At Rafco Products you have to leave a message for technical support and the guy calls you back. I think he was some kind of a consultant because it sounded like he was on a work site doing a job. Anyway he was concerned about the results I got with the rust blotches and said he thought I had some kind of contamination in the concrete finish. He said I needed to use a floor maintainer and a red brush to buff the slab and then reapply the acid stain. I had a vague idea what he was talking about and said thanks. I wondered if the brown tarp I used to cover the slab for a week while it cured was causing this rust contamination. Or maybe it was just old acid stain. The manufacture says the product should be no older than a year. This jug looked like it had been sitting around in a warehouse for sometime – I don’t know.
Following his advice, I went to the Home Depot rental department and picked-up a floor maintainer and bought 3 brushes- black the harshest, red is medium and white is the lightest. In the meantime I decided against buying more of the old product and went with Home Depot’s, Eagle, Jade, Acid Stain, available online only. It was $20 cheaper and I liked the green color a little better. I also did more research about acid stain and learned two very important tricks- the concrete should be damp before you spray and you can broom the stain around as it puddles and dries, working it in. You think it is acid and should stay the hell away from it but do not let it intimidate you- work it in!
I started the prep work on the slab with a red pad and plenty of water, then went to the black pad because I liked what the floor maintainer was doing to the cement. Take caution if you ever use one of these things: when I first turned on the floor maintainer it almost took my arm off doing a 360 degree turn and sucking up the power cord. What I learned is this: tip it forward and it goes one way, back it goes the other, find a happy medium and it stays in place.
The buffing took all the rust color off and muted the green way down, (the concrete was only four weeks old so I was removing the surface.) That was done in the evening and the next morning I made the concrete damp, sprayed on a gallon of the Eagle Jade Acid Stain, broomed in the puddles, and let it dry for 5 hours. I think the floor maintainer, damp concrete and broom made a big difference in the consistency of the color. My job was 185sq. ft. and one gallon was perfect.
This application dried a much darker green and I was not thrilled with the color but they always tell you not to judge the color until the acid has been neutralized and rinsed off. It was a rusty medium green but consistent throughout.
Before I neutralized the acid I waited as long as I could for the stain to work but I needed to get the floor maintainer back for my 24-hour rental. I mixed 16 ounces of ammonia with 5 gallons of water and poured it around. Since I had the floor maintainer, I decided to use the lightest, white pad and buff the neutralizers around. I flood rinsed this off and mixed another batch of neutralizer, repeating the process. It looked great. A nice, mottled, medium green. The rust look was gone.
The crazy thing about this stuff is that, as the concrete surface dries, you get a different intensity of color- lighter as it dries. You need to pay attention to this because the 2 types of sealer you can choose from will make it look different also. Acrylic or water-based sealer will make the concrete look a similar color as when the surface is damp and the high gloss, oil-based sealer will leave it with a color similar to when the concrete is wet. I went with Home Depot’s, Eagle, Armor Seal, for $36 a gallon online. It is an acrylic based sealer that was easy to use and could be reapplied years later.
Now that I’ve done this, I would definitely do it again on an outside project. It is a great look. But because of all the flooding with water for rinsing, I decided against doing it inside the house on my kitchen and dining area’s thin, hydronic, concrete slab.
While I work on indoor projects over the winter, there is plenty of time to think about what I’m going to do when the weather breaks. Last year in the Spring of 2013 I did a lot of landscaping. This year, I decided the outside of the house was in serious need of transformation. Paint and porch were two words that would define this year’s transformation.
Neither of the two houses had been painted because my wife and I could not agree on a color. I wanted State Park dark brown and Deb wanted light to medium brown. As a compromise we went with Olympic, clear wood preservative. By now this look was pretty forlorn. In some places it looked disgusting, in my opinion.
So this time around, we ended up going with the color I preferred from the beginning–which is called slate and looks almost black. I pulled off this agreement on color by stealth mode. First I built a 5’x16’ wood shed and, without consulting Deb, I painted it slate. Then I built a 20’ x 30’ garage and painted it the same dark slate color. By this time Deb got used to the look and agreed (or gave in- I do not know for sure) that the slate color would look nice and give our “town” a cohesive, harmonious look.
The raw, rough-sawn, white pine happily soaked up the Behr Premium solid color wood stain. I used a 7” rough surface roller working it back and forth with force to get good penetration into all the knots and checks that occurred with age. I am very pleased with this product and would recommend it to anyone for use on bare wood. It obviously does not need a primer and is supposed to last 20 years. One of the reasons I promoted this color to Deb was that we should never have to repaint in our lifetime. It should look good as it ages, not peel, and maybe lighten some, which is fine by me. It also completely covered all blemishes in the wood.
One final thing about the color: a friend, seeing our newly painted place, said to me, “So, you painted your house black?” I have seen this color and similar very dark colors used many times around the country in State and Federal Parks on their buildings and in cabins or homes in the woods. The concept about the color is this- black or slate does not intrude on the natural surroundings. It does not make a statement that says “Look at me.” It celebrates the natural colors surrounding the house. Judge for yourself. I would some day like to paint the fascias, eaves and window trim a dark blue or dark green but I have too much to do now to worry about that.
After painting the small guesthouse in the spring, towards the end of May I moved on to make this year’s transformations on the main house. I didn’t start painting because, first, the house was in need of a porch as well as a second story deck roof. Scaffolding would be required to paint and also build the deck roof so the painting would wait.
To start I needed to build a foundation for the cement slab porch deck. I wanted to get the excavation done and slab poured before summer–this way I would have a clean area in which to work around the house. For the porch, a cement slab deck was the way to go. Although it was much more work- it was low maintenance, permanent and I was excited about using a green acid color stain on the cement. This project took longer than I had anticipated–over 6 weeks, including time off to make a living.
First I needed to get the old rock terrace removed, which I had built 10 years ago. Then, install drainage tile and build a foundation wall of gravel and rock to support the cement slab. This was a wrap-around porch on a slope, which complicated things. Luckily, the Max- my mason dump truck–was back in operation after being out of service since the previous fall. I had spent four days over the winter playing mechanic getting it to run good. I like excavation using a dump truck because it makes the work site more manageable. I could put rocks, boulders, and gravel where they could easily be retrieved and move the spoils where I wanted, without causing were and tear on my backhoe, and the backhoe needed a new left front king pin.
Snakes, I noticed, had always loved this ten-year-old rock terrace because of its southern exposure and landscaped cover. They could stay warm, yet hide quickly if a predator approached. I knew the backhoe would crush them if I wasn’t careful. So after lifting up the small rocks by hand or the big ones with the backhoe, I would quickly grab the hiding serpents and carry them off to a sunny rock pile on the adjoining property. These reptiles were 6” to 30” long, including common garter snakes and small black ones with a light-colored ring around the base of their head. I removed so many snakes I got kind of skeeved out by it. I didn’t realize there were so many. The ones that I didn’t manage to rescue died of course, and since I couldn’t find them, they stank for about a week.
One thing for sure is that, when it comes time to pour cement, finding someone to help is always a problem. Because of the shape this slab was going to be, I needed someone other than Deb. It was to be 6’ wide, 13’ long on one side and 12’ on the other, with a wedge in between. The college kids I hired last fall for my indoor, thin slab pour were not available. The pitch I used for getting someone to help was this- $100 cash for one hour of work, then boom- you go home. Just get here ½ hour before the cement truck is to arrive. I did this because you need to entice people and make sure they show up. Once the cement is on it’s way there is no turning back. $100 for an hour of work is worth it to many people. Last fall- of the three college kids I hired, only two of them showed up for the $100. They had sweaty smiles on their faces when they left.
Luckily, I had a load of gravel delivered a few days before the pour and I asked the driver if he knew anyone who would be interested in the deal. Quickly he said he would do it and had a friend who would help also. They both had some experience with slab pours and this was a huge relief to me. They did a great job and made the pour much less stressful than usual.
Because I was going to acid stain the concrete, I was concerned about the proper finish of the cement. On past slab pours, it hadn’t been an issue– float and broom finish or just a nice smooth float. But because it was a porch and I wanted to use an acid stain, I needed something better. The research I came up with finishing concrete for acid staining was not what they call a hard finish but just a smooth finish. I went with an aluminum float about one hour after the big float. So as not to screw up the concrete cure, you need to wait to start the finish. The problem was, I waited too long and had to work like hell with my aluminum float. One end of the slab did not come out as well as I wanted. It wasn’t perfect, but it was OK.
The spring of 2013 started with some long-awaited landscaping to the roadside frontage of our property. The time was right because of what Hurricane Sandy did in the Fall of 2012. Let me explain.
In front of the house, an acre or so of land stretches out to the road in a beautiful carpet of ferns and forest. It stops abruptly at this roadside ditch drop off of 12 feet. In previous years I had cut down two huge, old, dying trees there and just left the stumps. It was ugly. The plan was to excavate this drop-off, and slope it nicely to the ditch. I started to do this in 2012– before Sandy. I knew from that experience my backhoe really wasn’t big enough for the job- the boom didn’t have a long enough reach. It was a bank almost 150’ long and I had only graded about 15’ of it when I tore the drive shaft out of my dump truck moving the dirt away. The truck had to be partially in the ditch for the backhoe to reach it and the stress was too much for the drive train. I didn’t know how I was going to finish the job.
Then along comes Hurricane Sandy and raises hell. Up road, the heavy rains caused the creek to jump the crossing culvert and rush down, ripping 2 large gashes into the road shoulder opposite my property. I knew these ravines would have to be filled, so I suggested to the town road crew supervisor that they use my two stumps for fill. Stumps can make excellent creek side buffers against erosion. He said to mark the stumps and he would consider it when they got to my part of the road. After being in the city for a couple of weeks I came back to discover they had removed the stumps and more. I was thrilled with the job they did, removing my stumps and grading the whole bank, sloping it nicely to the road. They needed the stumps, dirt and all, to fill the opposite roadside destruction. It pays to be friendly and cooperative with the road maintenance people.
So, with this nicely-graded road frontage, it was time to do some landscaping. I planted rhododendron, blue globe spruce, and built some rock wall surrounds. Further down the frontage, past this area, I cut down a lot of small, annoying beech trees, as well as some overpopulated soft maple trees. This was all to make way for a line of Norway Spruce, and a few Austrian Pines. I had been nursing these pines from seedlings for a few years in a plot out back, and they were due to be transplanted. The project took too long, over 2 months, and it is not much to look at now but in 10 years this should make a nice roadside presentation to the property.
So it was not until July that I got going on my new house-building project for 2013. The transformation of the guesthouse into the main house was behind schedule. I needed to convert what was the garage entryway into the new dining area. Not so fast- -this area had no foundation, a 6” cement slab covering it, a vertical beam which supported the whole front corner of the second floor, and the new room would need a roof that would have to be slipped in under the deck above. OK?
The way I have learned to deal with overwhelming odds is to take things one-step at a time. First, I carefully removed the cement slab. I removed the slab whole to save time and to reuse it elsewhere. Removing it whole caused some scary moments, as I did not want to send the beam off kilter since it was holding up the second floor. I used my hammer drill to loosen the tight spots and, after some serious pressure by the backhoe, it slid free. The backhoe did not like doing this because the slab weight was so great and it was in there tight. But it came out eventually and the beam stayed put.
Second, I had to cut a large 18”x18” hole through the existing basement wall. This hole was to accommodate a large pipe that was going to be buried beneath the new foundation. The pipe was for future use to allow an insulated heating pipe from an outside wood-burning boiler to enter my basement. The problem was that the steel-reinforced concrete was almost 12” thick in that area. Cutting through the concrete took over a day with my new ½ Bosch Hammer Drill. I really broke that baby in. I felt sorry for the tool when I was done, but it still works well. Go Bosch! The job was done using a combination of two bits- drill and chisel. A sawzall was used to cut through the rebar.
Further complicating all this was the need to run an insulated heating pipe from this house that had the new oil fired boiler, to the other house. I only wanted one boiler to heat both houses. Also the outside wood boiler would send heat under my new dining area foundation, into the basement heating system and then onto the other house through this pipe I needed to run. Do you follow? (More on that subject- Installing a Hot Water Boiler).
After the hole was cut in the basement wall, I took the opportunity to run this “Grand Scheme of Things,” heating pipe. It was a flexible, insulated, 6” pipe, with 2 one-inch pipes inside of it, a feed and return. I already had run an 8” pipe between the two house years ago just for this purpose. I didn’t want to try and snake this 65’ long pipe through the door, down the basement stairs, wind it past the oil tank, into the 8” basement hole and then try and pull it through to the other house. That would severely aggravate my old hernia. The pipe was flexible but not that flexible. I also failed to mention that, along with this pipe, I was running a RG6 coax cable for TV and 2, just in case, CAT5 cables for Internet.
Now was the time to do this, “pain in the ass project.” I imagined I could lay the whole damn 65’ of pipe straight out and run it through this new hole I had cut in the basement wall, then straight into the little 8” hole at the bottom of the basement wall. Problem was, my pull rope kept snapping off from a snafu in the previously buried pipe between the houses. Each time this snafu caused me to pull the pipe back out, fish the pull rope back through, reattach it and start over. I did this about three times. Talk about aggravation- unfortunately, Deb got snarled at a couple of times during all this. “Sorry Deb.” Finally I succumbed to the realization that I had to dig up the existing pipe where the snafu was and fix it.
After that, the pipe pulled through with ease as planned. It took over a day of fits and starts but I got it done. Glad that is over and I hope the heating system all works as planned. Will not know for sure until I hook everything up, which probably will not be until 2015 or beyond.
It wasn’t until the middle of July that I started building the forms for the foundation concrete pour and the first week of August before we actually did the pour. I say we meaning Deb and I. By now she had done three major concrete pours with me. Not many women on this planet have done that nor would want too. She knows the strengths and stamina required, the urgency of setting concrete. She tolerates my steady, firm commands. In the TV business where I work, some new kids are taken aback when they hear me go into that mode, and are offended by it. I guess most of them never played sports or had a job and, if they did, it wasn’t paving blacktop or pouring concrete. I digress.
After the pour, there is always a euphoric sense of relief and excitement for the building of walls. It doesn’t last long, as you get bogged down with details like removing the beam that holds up the house and slipping in the roof under the 2nd floor deck. And it had to be done by the end of September.
What was the urgency? I had to run radiant floor tubing in the kitchen and dining area, and then pour a thin, 2” slab of concrete over the tubing before winter. Why before winter? Because I wouldn’t be able to get a concrete truck up to the house in winter. If I didn’t get the thin slab poured in the fall that would screw up all my plans for winter.
As the cold weather started to blow in, and the heartburn flared up, I started to get careless. I made a last minute angle adjustment to a board I was about to nail up and almost cut my left index finger off with a circular saw. To make matters worse, a couple weeks later, I cut off the fingernail of my right middle finger in the table saw. Whoa!!! Slow down you moron!! The index finger is permanently damaged. I didn’t go to a hand surgeon as my doctor recommended because I was afraid of what it would cost and the actual benefit of the surgery was questionable. But mostly I want it to remain a reminder of how stupid I was.
This sense of urgency in the fall is a reoccurring theme. Deb says, “There is always something that needs to be done.” You have to ask yourself why do I do this? Why not just watch sports on TV? Or play golf? Or go to parties and hang out with friends and family? Instead, it has been an endless stream of challenges, accomplishments, satisfactions and then onto the next challenge. The winter is usually the time when I do not push myself as hard. But even then I do not allow myself the time to cross country ski as much as I should. When it gets late in the winter afternoons I keep pushing to get some task done and then it is dark. I usually try to ski just before sunset and finish in the dark with a headlamp but as the years slip by I do it less, knowing time is running out. Why is time running out? Well as I have discussed before, when I retire there will not be any extra money to build dreams.
In October I attempted to do something that I have lost some sleep over in the past few years, not a lot of sleep but thinking about it has kept me awake at times. The plan was to move the wood stove to the new dining area on the other side of the chimney. That means cutting another hole in the existing chimney. This can be tricky for someone who has never done it before- like me. You do not want to damage the structural integrity of the chimney for a couple of reasons: the chimney could fall down or, worse yet, you could burn the house down if you compromise the clay tile liner inside. I put up dust control tarps and go at it with my Bosch, 4” diamond blade cutter. It gets done without a hitch. What is that poem- “only I remain and the fear is gone” or something like that.
Now that I successfully cut a new hole in the chimney, the wall between the two rooms needed to be torn down and replaced with a cement block wall. I want the woodstove to sit safely in front of a masonry wall, not a wood wall. No more fires- please. So I jacked-up the adjacent upper floors and ripped the old wall out.
For some reason, I decided not to lay the block wall myself. I wanted it to look good and get done fast, so I hired a local guy, who gave me a reasonable price. Getting him to the job site wasn’t easy but ounce he showed up, it was done in a day. It was worth the hassle to hire someone for the job.
After the block wall was up, it was time to put down 2” rigid foam insulation on the floor of the kitchen and dining area. The original concrete slab was not insulated so this should do the trick. I have read different ideas about how much insulation to use in this situation but this is the solution I went with. Could there be more insulation? Of course there always could be more, but the theory is that this R10 insulation is of much greater resistance to heat flow than the ceramic tiles and the thin slab. Therefore, the radiant floor heat will radiate up into the living area and not go down into the ground.
On top of the rigid foam, I ran 3 independent loops of ½” pex tubing for the radiant floor heat. Not an easy task to do alone but I made my own homemade tubing dispenser and it went fairly well. The tubing is attached to 3/8” rebar from Lowe’s, spaced at 8” intervals. On top of all the rebar and tubing I placed wire mesh. The closets, cabinet, stove and refrigerator areas have no tubing runs because I have read that radiant floor heat is a waste in those areas and can cause problems.
The next big issue would be pouring the concrete thin slab. There was no way I wanted this to be done by just Deb and I. In fact I didn’t want to put Deb in this situation at all. It was a tough job that needed to be done perfectly because on top of this thin slab would be ceramic tiles. The concrete could not just be poured out of the truck chute onto the floor- it needed to be wheeled in via a wheelbarrow. I needed at least 2 other guys along with me, and 4 people total would have been even better. I had no luck finding anyone at first and even started to call some cement contractors- I was that desperate. It was the middle of November and we already had several snow accumulation events, although none was on the ground at the moment. The contractors I called were not available for my timeframe but finally a guy gave me the name of a college kid who was taking the semester off. I called him and he was game and said he had 2 friends who would also be interested. Great, we set the date for the next week, Thanksgiving week.
As usual, I didn’t sleep well the night before the pour. After I finally went to sleep, I woke up to a beautiful winter wonderland. There was about 2” of snow on the ground and it was still snowing. The 3.5 yards of concrete was coming at 9:30AM. I went out at 8AM and started brooming the snow off the work area and some of the driveway. The driveway was over 200’ long so- so much for that.
The first 2 guys showed up late at 9:15. One of them lived about 20 miles away and he said the roads were terrible, especially the ones near here. Neither of them had ever poured concrete before and there wasn’t much time left for a lesson but I did the best I could. The kid who did have experience did not show up. I heard the big cement truck pull up out front and ran out to greet him. Recognizing the driver from a previous pour, I jumped up on the running board and passed him a twenty saying, “I got two rookie guys helping me out so keep an eye on them.” He smiled and nodded, putting away the $20. I guided him as he backed up the long, winding, snow covered driveway. The wheels didn’t slide until he turned at the top. He quickly controlled the slide. A sigh of relief went through me as he jumped out of the truck and started to put on his cement chute.
At this point I felt almost like I was in a dream and things were moving along out of my control. A cement pour is always a very sobering event because the concrete is going to harden quickly and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The cement was going to get poured in the house with the guys I had and there was no turning back. For some reason I wasn’t nervous or anxious, but a more Zen- like feeling had come over me. Maybe it was the effect of the sleeping pills or the snow-covered winter wonder world. I do not know, but things were going forward.
After the second wheelbarrow was dumped, I was totally in the here and now, heart pumping, wooden hand float pushing wet mud, screed working and calm instructions being given to the rookies. Pouring concrete inside was different in that I didn’t have to shout instructions over the noise of the truck engine. Never having poured concrete, the kid working the other end of my screed needed constant guidance. He went to college for PhysEd but was a little portly; beads of sweat were popping on his forehead. There was a commotion outside where the wheelbarrow was being filled. The driver stopped paying attention and overflowed my rookie’s wheelbarrow, dumping cement in the snow. The driver jumped out and helped shovel up the mess. Both of the young men worked hard, but I realized towards the end I should have had them switch positions. One kid got the concept of add more or less concrete when leveling and the other didn’t.
In the end it was my fault that things didn’t turn out perfect. I had a homemade 10’ screed that I put together last spring for the previous pour with Deb. I never checked it for true and, being wood, it had warped convex on me while out in the sun over the past months. The screed is what you use to level the concrete by working it back and forth, pulling and pushing the concrete. The convex screed created a ¾” low spot in the large dining room center. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I was going to use 12×12” ceramic tiles but I wanted to use the trendy large tiles and they don’t take to well to not being level. A week later I had to rent a heavy-duty concrete grinder and smooth off the side ridges. I had used one years ago on a summer construction job back when I was in college, so I knew what to do. $350 later and a day- now it should be fine.
My nephew, sister and her husband were coming for Thanksgiving the next day and when they arrived I was still cleaning up the mess from the pour. They were going to be sleeping in the finished upstairs apartment. Always moving forward, in the down time between libation and feasting, I took advantage of Dylan and Ken to help me set a 3”x12”x13’ hard maple beam. This beam was to help support the new dining room roof and a ceiling pitch transition. I wanted a tight fit and doing it alone would not have been fun. It went in easier than we thought and I used a hydraulic bottle jack to force it the final inches home. Just in time for turkey dinner.
The next day, nephew Dylan, who was a hair stylist by trade, said he wanted to learn carpentry. So I put him to work studding up the opening I had left in the wall to bring in the concrete. A large 3.5×5’ window was going in the opening and I wanted the boys to help me put it in place. They were leaving the next morning so we had to get after it. I put Ken to work varnishing the unseen inner wood frame of the window. I always do this to help stabilize it. Once we finally got the window in place, in my excitement to nail the window in and get out of the cold, I forgot to check for final level. I knew the windowsill plate was perfectly level but once the window was in place, it tilted down 5/8” because of the factory mull job, (factory joining of 3 different windows). Once you chalk the window flange and drive in 2” galvanized nails all around, you do not want to turn back. Ken and I discussed it and decided the discrepancy could be hidden with the interior trim and outside siding. This turned out to be true because when you look at it now, all finished—you would wonder what all the fuss was about.
The holiday was a success and I could now move forward with my winter plans no matter what happened with the weather. I love this time of year because it is the only period when I can ease up on the pressure I place on myself. If I have heartburn, it goes away then. That winter there was a slight hiccup in that “The Max”, my 4-wheel drive dump truck with plow, would not start. So I had to go to plan B and put my ‘86 Chevy plow truck back in action. That piece of shit, nasty truck always starts. It’s nasty because when the thing idles it either roars or barely putters in an ornery manner. The transmission is sloppy and mice run throughout its rust holes. When you shut it off after plowing, it usually backfires like hell.
I thought when I bought the diesel mason dump truck I could get rid of that thing; glad I didn’t because it saved my ass that winter. The winter of 2014 was the coldest winter in years in the North East and that piece of shit ‘86 Chevy started every single time.
So in the end, the year all went well. Maybe I am living the dream? My body tells me the dream is ending because that fall my legs started to go numb again every now and then. As the fall progressed they went numb more and more often. I did not know why and looming ahead of me was some terrible consequence I was sure. “Why don’t you get it checked out?” people asked me. Well, I did just two years ago and it cost me $2000 out of pocket to find out that my B vitamin level was low. What I needed were B vitamin injections to calm my pinched nerve. They didn’t know I had a pinched nerve because the expensive big time neurologist was too occupied with other things to pay attention to my description of a classic problem. Well, now the injections of B vitamin were not doing the trick and the numbness was becoming more frequent. I did not have a lot of confidence in the medical system in this country so I avoided it- thinking time heals all, literally.
Anyway, I, for the most part love this business of building, building and more building. Deb has gotten used to it and buys into it. We have a town to build–so let’s get ‘er done!
Get it done by 2017 or bust!
The country town I am building, (that is what I now jokingly call it because there are 3 large size buildings) has always been deficient in one area for it to be inhabited full time. Each of my 2 houses was in need of a heating system. One house had a wood stove and the other had a wood furnace, which had been fine for now but, as a rental or to live there over longer periods of time, would not be.
I had always planned on putting in a boiler and using baseboard heat. The icing on the cake would be an oil-fired boiler in the basement that heated both houses and an outside wood boiler that could override the oil-fired boiler in the winter. When I built the guesthouse I had run an 8-inch pipe underground between the two houses dreaming of someday running heat piping through it, connecting them with one furnace.
So this was on my mind as I approached the plumbing supply company for a heating design plan.
Not many people are interested in taking on the complexity of installing a boiler and heating system, part of the job maybe, but not the whole thing. Back early on I had read in my construction bible, Do-It-Yourself Housebuilding by George Nash, that most people who build their own houses do not usually install their heating system, but the author said there is no reason why they couldn’t, as long as they had experience with other forms of household plumbing. He gave a brief overview of what was necessary. First off, he recommended having a heat loss study done on the dwelling. He said most plumbing contractors do not do this but their plumbing supply company does it for them. The companies will design the overall system for a client based on the type of system he or she wanted, and the amount of heat loss.
The kind of system I wanted was pretty straightforward until a co-worker started to put a bug in my ear about going with radiant floor heat. Bill said he had it in his house and loved it. I knew it was great and all the rage but I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t construct the house for radiant floor heat to start with. Bill showed me some pictures off the Internet of how to install radiant floor heat over and under existing floors. That got me excited to think it wasn’t too late for the guesthouse as the ground floors were not finished and the second floor, floor joists bays were open. So I started to think about radiant heat instead of baseboard.
I didn’t see Bill for about a month and when I did we didn’t talk about it. I did talk to some local people up in the mountains and was told by one person that I would never get my money back in heat savings to pay for the installation. I started to think of everything I had to do and was concerned about the time and pain of installing all that radiant tubing. So it was decision time, and with all the stress of my birthday party preparations, I took the easy way out. I made up my mind to go back to the original idea and use baseboard heat throughout. I even went so far as to install my first baseboard heater in the new downstairs bathroom I was building because I needed to put the pipes in before I closed up walls.
I was working with Bill again in the fall and one day he looks me in the eye and said, “So JD, are you putting in the radiant floor heat yet”? I sheepishly told him I decided to go with baseboard. He lit into me at that point. “You have to do it, you will love it, now is the time before you put the floors in and it’s no big deal.” Bill kept after me and showing me things on the Internet and talking about how much his wife and he loved the radiant floor heat. He even called his brother-in-law, a plumber and made me talk to him. Bill got through to me. It wasn’t like I didn’t like the idea; I just didn’t want all the complication. From then on it was full steam ahead with hydronic radiant floor heat.
The next part was to get a heat loss study and a plan. It was time to approach the manager of my local plumbing supply company. When I called Luke and told him I wanted to have an oil-fired boiler in the basement, radiant heat on the first floor, baseboard heat on the second floor, pipe heat underground to a guest house and have an outdoor wood boiler combination, he was OK with that. Then I told him I wanted to do it all myself…. there was silence, like a long silence. I explained to him that I had done all the other plumbing in the house and bought a lot of products from him. He reluctantly said, “ OK.” I said, “I need a heat loss study done and that other supply houses do that and will your company do that for me?” He said, “We have a guy who does that but he is semi-retired, only works till noon and is very busy.” I said “OK, I am not in a hurry now because it is a winter project”–to which he snickered out right. I got the message: it was probably going to be more than just a winter project.
From that point on I started to do research about Hydronic Heating. I combed the Internet for information and found there is not a lot because the work is almost always done by the trade, not the homeowner. In fact you can find derogatory posts from plumbers about people who do not know what they are doing and shouldn’t be messing around with it in the first place. One guy mentioned a book by Dan Holohan called “Pumping Away and other really cool piping options for hydronic systems.” I found it on Amazon and bought it for $25. It was a short, easy to read book that talked about modern hydronic principles, with formulas and simple drawings. It was by no means all the information I needed but just enough information to figure out the direction I needed to go in.
A month later I called the plumbing supply place and asked to talk to Charlie, the heat loss guy, and told him of my ambitious plans. Charlie gave me the same reaction as Luke, when I told him I was going to do it myself–silence. Then I went on to tell Charlie what I wanted to do- using what is called primary and secondary piping and use an outside temperature-reset controller, things gleaned from Dan Holohan’s book. Apparently that impressed him enough to want to work with me, even though he made it clear he didn’t hold people’s hands and didn’t usually work with amateurs. But I must have said the right things because I finally heard his “OK.” He said he would talk to Luke and we scheduled a time for me to come in with floor plans.
A heat loss plan is exactly what it says it is. There are formulas for which you put in the room dimensions, windows and location, ceiling height and the R-value of the insulation, things like that. It is best to work off architectural drawings from your house but in my case I didn’t have those so I found a free software program from Taco called FloPro Designer. The program allowed me to draw simple floor plans with window and door locations and the other relevant information. Then the software gave me the number of BTU’s required to heat a specific room to 72 degrees on the average coldest winter day in my geographic location. The latter part is what I wanted Charlie to do but I gave him a printout of the FloPro calculations anyway just for reference. (By the way, FloPro came up with usually smaller BTU numbers than Charlie did but they asked me some questions I didn’t understand and with open floor plans there is always need for human interpretation.)
I went in to see Charlie and gave him my floor plans created with the Taco, FloPro Design software. We talk about it for awhile and then Charlie took me downstairs to their training room where they have workshops for the trade and a real, working display of a radiant floor heat manifold and piping. He also talked to me about modern 3 pass boilers and European style low temperature radiators.
By bringing in a professional floor plan, including the heat loss numbers made Charlie realize I was for real and more eager to help me. It goes without saying he wanted to sell me the boiler, piping and controls. He just didn’t want the annoying phone calls about how tight to make a fitting, where a wire should connect or what to do next.
In a week Charlie called and told me to come in because my heat loss study was done. The study showed a total heat demand of 100,800 BTU’s at –20F. That was 42,000 BTU’s for the downstairs radiant floor heat and 18,800 for the upstairs low temperature radiators. He ballparked 40,000 BTU’s for the 900 sq. ft. Guesthouse. The price for all this was $13,500. That included two Biasi boilers, with the most expensive one being a wood burner, the pumps, pex tubing, and 5 low temperature radiators for the second floor, manifolds and controls. The guesthouse radiators were left out as directed by me excepting for the ballpark BTU’s required.
He sold me on the idea of a very simple system. The plan called for a boiler to supply hot water at up to 180 degrees and then it is mixed down to around 100 degrees or less or whatever it would take to make the house 72 degrees. The design aimed at a floor temperature of 85 degrees, not to go over 95 degrees. Most boilers are not made for low temperature operation; in fact they go to hell if they are operated too low too often. They like to operate around 140 to 180 degrees. Because of this, a mixing strategy is necessary to produce the low temperature hot water needed for radiant floor heat. You want to stand on a warm floor not a hot one. Low temperature water runs through radiant floor heat because you couldn’t stand on the floor if it was over 120 degrees. The temperature of this water is determined in my case by a control devise talking to a single indoor room thermostat and the outside reset controller in combination. If the temperature is dropping outside the house the control devise anticipates more of a demand for heat, raising the water temperature to satisfy the indoor thermostat and conversely. This way the room temperature is more even, the comfort level is improved and you do not waste as much fuel. What is being mixed is the cooler return water with the 140-degree or above boiler water going in. At times, no hot water may be mixed in because the temperature is rising outside. The way the boiler stays happy is with what is called primary and secondary piping. The primary, continuous loop constantly circulates hot boiler water, while the secondary loop draws off the primary loop, mixing in cooler return water and then sending it to the floors.
I knew about these ideas when I walked in to talk to Charlie and get the quote, but upon leaving I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I thought he might give me a piping plan for the primary and secondary loops too, or that the plan would be in the quote somehow. Unfortunately, the quote created more questions than answers in its cryptic product descriptions. He gave me a simple schematic of how the wood boiler was to be piped, supplied by the manufacturer, Biasi. In the end that schematic turned out to be only partially relevant.
Before the meeting I had been doing more research and on Amazon I stumbled across this $200 textbook called Modern Hydronic Heating by John Siegenthaler. I was hesitant to order the book because it cost so much and not sure of the value to me. So I held off ordering the book till I met with Charlie and studied his paperwork. I ordered the book soon after the meeting because I was worried going forward about asking a lot of stupid questions and I still did not have a piping plan.
The book was a lifesaver. The important thing was, it had beautiful piping diagrams for all kinds of situations and photos of all the products I would need from fittings to air-eliminators. It was now the middle of November. I had the quote and heat loss study in hand, but didn’t want to buy anything yet. First of all, I wasn’t sure about so many things, and secondly, I was still finishing up insulating and sub-flooring the living room.
The answer to my piping configuration problem was many times made perfectly clear by reading Siegenthaler’s book, only to have it vanish later with my own contradictions and a doubt. So I called Charlie in a couple of weeks and said I had some questions. When I went in he said he didn’t have much time because he was working on a large heat loss plan that needed to be done yesterday. He spent most of our precious time talking about this large expensive project for this million dollar home. I soon came to realize he did not have the answers I was looking for and that was part of the reason he stalled the conversation. He finally said, “That is a question for Luke.”
He took me on a hunt for Luke to no avail and had me sit down in a conference room. Luke soon came in with a large poster of the low temperature mixing valve piping arrangement I needed from the supplier, Heatlink, a Canadian company that supplies a lot of products to the radiant floor heat trade.
The hot and cool water pipe mixing question was answered but not my two-boiler piping plan with secondary and primary loops and pumps. I took pictures of what he showed me and then he took me back to the workshop room with the radiant floor heat manifold and there I took pictures also. After that I brought out the quote and pointed out to him some things I didn’t understand. He said, “You have to talk to Charlie about that.” Say what? Not wanting to push the issue I left and did not feel good. What the hell is going on? Why can’t they just tell me? Was this just a way for them to force me to do more research and thoroughly understand the job or did they not know everything? At first I thought it was the former but in time I discovered it was the latter. They sell the stuff- they don’t put it together; they understand the concepts, not the details of every situation.
Based on what Luke gave me, the schematic Biasi provided, and from Siegenthaler’s book I was able to come up with a plan. I scanned many of Siegenthaler’s diagrams, put them into my computer along with the Heatlink mixing diagram and using photo editing software, Photoshop, I cobbled together a piping plan that made sense for my particular needs.
In another week I went in and asked for Luke directly showing him my piping plan. He thought my plan was very well done from a graphical point of view and we talked briefly about some key things that needed to be changed. At that moment his suggestions made things crystal clear and I scribbled down a few notes. When I went back to my computer a few days later to work out the changes, I realized something was wrong with my interpretation of what Luke had said. This was particular to how the two individual boilers would connect into the primary loop. Usually the primary loop is also the boiler loop, but in my case I had two boilers and the goal was not to waste energy running hot water through a boiler that was not running. The second wood boiler was going to be outside, about 50 feet away and in an unheated shed, so I didn’t want oil heating that.
I went back to Dan Holohan’s book, Siegenthaler’s book and a new Biasi diagram Luke gave me. The answer was there all the time; I just didn’t see it.
The concept is about using closely spaced copper tees, close by mere inches, one to feed hot water and one that returns cool water, to create hydronic separation within a loop and individual pumps for each loops.
I ended up with five pumps, two boiler loops, a primary loop that each boiler feeds into and two secondary loops. Everything is connected to the primary loop with closely spaced tees.
For good measure I emailed Luke my final plan hoping for his blessing. He didn’t respond the first day and I was wondering if he didn’t like it or he didn’t get it, but I was in an anxious state at that point. The next day I get an email from Luke with an attached PDF from the Biasi boiler manufacturer people saying my plan looked good. All Luke wrote was “Nice looking plan.” Whew! What a relief!
I admit, many things about building my house I figured out as I went along, but this was not one of them. There was no way I was going to start my boiler install without a proper accepted plan. Now I could start soldering some pipe.
I knew early in December I was going to use and install 5 low temperature radiators on the second floor so I went ahead and ordered them. I also bought a couple of pumps to get familiar with them and read the manuals. The boiler, copper pipe and other items I didn’t buy till I had my plan. So everything was delivered on New Year’s Eve day 2012.
The first thing I did was install my 5 low temperature radiators on the second floor. Low temperature radiators are fairly new in the USA but have been used in Europe for some time. These radiators can be run at 140 degrees, but in my case, Charlie sized them to run at the same temperature as my radiant floor heat. Low temperature is more efficient because there is inherently less heat loss from low temperature heat emitting devices. These radiators will run off the same loop as my radiant floor heat at whatever temperature is called for by the downstairs thermostat. Each radiator has a home run pex pipe to a centrally located manifold that can be individually flow controlled. The higher the flow rate, the more heat. You can set up these systems for more individual control with multiple thermostats and valves but Charlie kept it simple for me as a novice installer and to keep the cost down, which was fine with me. The radiators were a breeze to install with two ¾ inch holes drilled next to each other one-inch from the baseboard, two brackets screwed into the wall studs, and the radiator snapped into the brackets.
It was January and I was not looking forward to going down into that cramped, cold basement to work on my boiler installation. Fortunately I was able to solder my pipe plan into sections up in my heated workshop, making sure everything fit together properly on the floor and getting myself familiar with the Biasi boiler.
When I was satisfied, I took the pipe sections down into the basement and attached them to the wood sleepers I had screwed into the cement basement wall. After I soldered it all together I air pressure tested the system and fixed a few leaks.
From my experience, solder joints rarely leak but threaded fittings do. Fitting leaks are a real pain in the butt because you have to cut the copper pipe, retape the fitting, screw it back together, solder in a copper repair sleeve and hope it doesn’t leak. I took great care in putting this together and was very disappointed in the few leaks I did get.
After the primary loop was finished I started on the boiler loop, using cast iron black pipe and copper pipe. I got it all together and when I pressure-tested the loop I got leaks on most of the threaded fittings.
This made me mad and I’ve come to learn the answer to this problem cannot be found anywhere! I have talked to plumbers about avoiding leaks in threaded fittings and they just say, “I use 5 or 6 Teflon tape wraps and tighten the heck out of it.” Well I did that, and have been down this road before with black gas pipe but with the care I took, I didn’t think I would have the failure rate I did. I’m not talking about big leaks; I am talking about very tiny leaks, leaks that you can barely see the soap bubbles- but a leak is a leak.
With a hydronic system you do not want any leaks, no matter how small. Very small, tiny drinking water system leaks for the most part stop after a few weeks. I didn’t want to screw around with a hydronic heating system leak. I couldn’t cry about it too long, I just had to jump in and do it over.
So I took the boiler piping apart. Now with each threaded fitting, I brushed on a layer of strong pipe dope, then wrapped a thin piece of cotton thread around the pipe threads, pushing the thread into the pipe dope, then wrapped this all with 6 wraps of teflon tape and then “tightened the heck out” of the cast iron or copper fitting using a cheater pipe. I didn’t get any leaks after that.
The next part of this equation was an oil tank. I put a new 250-gallon oil tank in the basement when I built the house about 8 years earlier but the piping to fill it wasn’t done.
The proper way to do it is to run 2 two-inch cast iron pipes out the basement wall and then 3 feet above ground. Mind you, this was the end of February so after I hammer-drilled two holes through the 10-inch concrete wall and cut out some rebar, I had to dig through about a foot of frost on top of the ground. I tried to do it by hand but gave up after about a half hour and then was forced to take the time to coax my backhoe to start. The machine made short work of the frost because I had broken a nice hole into it by hand.
After hooking up the feed and vent pipe, I needed to get the tank to boiler oil line in place. I was in a quandary about just how to do this and again didn’t want to bother Luke about it.
I did know I did not want to use flexible copper tubbing because of the location of the pipe run, (right across the bottom of the basement stairs) and I don’t like flared cooper connections, as I’ve had bad luck with them. I wanted to use ½ inch, black, cast iron pipe. I knew I needed a shut off valve at the tank but didn’t know I needed a firomatic valve between the oil filter and the boiler. I found this out incidentally from an oil delivery guy.
When I went to get the firomatic valve at the plumbing supply place the guy at the counter brought one out to me. I had never looked at one before and my first impression was that it didn’t work, so I asked for another one. The guy brought out a couple of them and they all seemed very wonky. The counter guy like me thought there was something wrong with all of them. So I went to a box store and looked at what they had- same thing. So I bought one and went home to research it on the Internet.
A firomatic valve, (AKA OSV valve or fusible link valve) is a valve that shuts off the flow of oil if a fire is present or around 165 degrees according to InspectAPedia.com You can manually shut off the oil with this valve also. Turns out, when they look closed they are open and vise versa. They have a fusible link like lead that melts and shuts off the flow of oil when they reach a certain temperature caused by a fire or other problem. So you do not want them too close to your boiler but not too far either.
After I got the fuel lines all hooked up I flushed out the boiler and piping with fresh hot water and then filled the system with cold water, adding a pint of acid neutralizer to prevent rust and four gallons of hydronic heat system antifreeze (I need to add more antifreeze, it didn’t test as low as I need).
After the system had been filled it was safe to start the pumps but I needed the controls attached to do that. This was the area I knew least about. The only devise I had purchased at that point was the aquastat that came with the boiler package, which by itself could run a standard baseboard one or two zone system. But I needed a control devise that would talk to the outside reset control, (which was basically a thermometer), the indoor thermostat and sense the temperature of the water going to the radiant floor heat tubing. This device would most importantly control the mixing of the hot and cooler return water.
What threw me off to begin with was Charlie included a $180 control box I didn’t need for my simple type of system. The good thing was that it caused me to study the manual and understand what it was used for and how it was wired. It was a box used to control multiple zones and their zone valves which I didn’t have. Once again I was in need of a solution that wasn’t easy to find. I had e-mailed Luke about this and he agreed I didn’t need the box but ignored my question about what I did need. I took a whole day downloading and then printing out schematics from Heat Link’s web site. You could get different views (schematics) at different locations on their site of the same product. I needed to see all the alternatives laid out in black and white in front of me. I needed to touch them and mark them up, pushing things off to the side that didn’t work; it was all new to me. At the end of the day I saw only one possible option with the controller I was going to buy. I kept coming across this option in my research but it didn’t have my name on it, I kept telling myself that it had to be mine. It was. Simply put the Heat Link controller would tell the Biasi boiler to fire but not to start pumping. The boiler’s aquastat would control the boiler loop pump, turning it on when the water was hot enough and protect itself. All the other pumps and devices would be regulated by the HeatLink controller. I called HeatLink’s help line and the guy confirmed that this was the way to do it. I had to call him back when I was actually attaching the wires because it does get confusing and the schematic does not show my situation. Whew again!
I was almost ready to start the system, but there was one big problem for me now. I was dreading this part- getting a qualified plumber to come in and set-up my boiler. They use specialized electronic probes to make sure the boiler is working safely and efficiently. This must be done and I wasn’t qualified to do it. I didn’t want a plumber to come to my house with a chip on his shoulder because of what he would think of a know-it-all like me that was crazy enough to install his own boiler.
First I needed fuel oil so I looked in the yellow pages and found a delivery company a couple towns over that had boiler techs also. I called them up, explaining my situation and the owner was more than happy to deliver 200 gallons of fuel oil and then a boiler tech. I called Luke to check on their reliability and he said they were a first rate company- that was all I needed to hear.
The oil was delivered in two days. They needed me there for the first fill up in case there were any issues. When the delivery guy started to fill the tank I was down in the basement to check for any problems. The guy let her rip and I was amazed at the sound of that oil flowing into my tank. It sounded like a typhoon coming into the basement. After I got over the sound and checked for leaks, a sense of relief washed over me.
This is was a big deal for me- I actually had oil in my tank and was ready to heat. Ended up the delivery guy was also a boiler tech and he came down with his instruments to spec out the boiler.
He bled the fuel lines and in a flash fired up my boiler. What a rush it was to hear the boiler fire after all that anxiety and work. The tech told me everything was fine and he thought I had a good set-up. I felt good after hearing that from a professional.
No, during that unusually mild winter, on a day that was cold but sunny, I had an epiphany, one that would solve a series of dilemmas and concerns that had begun to trouble me.
I had been working on the property since 1996. How was it all going to end? Was there a finish or was I just going to keep hammering, digging and designing until I was too old to do it any more? It seemed to me that everything I’d done up to that point had been somewhat reactionary: first an idea, then a modification based on at unexpected consequence or act of fate or even a marriage. Behind me was an unfurled road of ideas that had been born one after another, comprising a plan that was always expanding and changing. I wanted that to end, and to reach the destination.
In the spring of 2011 I had finished the upstairs of the guesthouse into a one-bedroom apartment to be used as a source of rental revenue. But what was I going to do with the downstairs? Currently it was being used as I had intended as a workshop and storage. It seemed like a waste for that because there was too much space and the views were too nice. In the past fall I had just put the finishing touches on a large garage that I fully insulated- R16, sheet rocked, spackled and painted. It was heated with a wood furnace, big enough for a workshop and a plow-truck. Why have two workshops? So in reaction to this situation I decided to make another guest bedroom in the front storage room of the former garage and now guesthouse. Sound confusing? It has been to me also.
As I was working away throughout the months of January and February on this guest bedroom, it really started to bother me that I wouldn’t be able to begin on my expansion plans for the main house for a couple of years. The main house wasn’t a “real house” in my mind–only a partial house. Its kitchen was only fashioned in a temporary way because I never planned on it staying that small- eight feet by ten feet. The upstairs bedroom was also 8’x10’ with a ½ bath and that was too small as the queen size bed was pushed up against the wall and there was no room for dressers. That’s no dream, that was a reaction to a fire! So, since the beginning, I had always planned to expand the main house by adding a two story addition with a full kitchen, eating area, living room area and adding another full bedroom and bathroom, in addition to putting in a full basement under the expansion.
There was one big problem: that plan called for 4 bedrooms total on the property including the guest house, and my sewer system was only rated for 3 bedrooms. That would be the kind of issue that keeps you up at night when you go to sell.
I was 59 years old and my aches and pains were not getting any less. For the last 10 years, winters have always been a struggle for me physically. Pain throughout the workday was usually present in some way.
For a lot of reasons, I really started to get bothered about the idea of having two houses and neither of them finished. For Pete’s sake I had been at this for about 15 years, except for taking off one year to gut and renovate our apartment in the city. When was it going to end?
And as I was aging and getting close to a retirement age, I had to look at the money situation. Competition in the freelance TV camera world was getting fiercer. Younger, smarter and healthier people were pounding at the door. I began to speculate that my camera work that supported me was going to fall off and eventually end.
For a long time it was my belief that working on my house in the country had helped me stay physically competitive in my camera job in the city. The variety of bending, lifting, stretching and long workdays of building had helped me stay strong, fit and competitive in the freelance TV camera pool. That was true but now I was starting to worry about the wear and tear I was noticing as I got older. Along with joint pain, stiffness has really starting to set in.
Some of my camera work jobs are very physically demanding. I get these “run and gun” type jobs as we call them. They require holding a heavy 25-lb. camera on your shoulder at some kind of an event–sporting, news or other type–while you run around shooting things all day long. Some times you are lucky and get to use a lightweight camera, but the best cameras are the heavy ones, for good reason. This running and gunning type shooting is something I have a good reputation at, so when the jobs come around I am likely to be someone who gets the call (for now). On the down side, they now can cause me physical pain throughout the day and I began to wonder how much longer I would be able to do them or want to do them. The consequences of that were obvious: If I didn’t do these jobs, then I wouldn’t make enough money to pay for my dream in the mountains.
To pull off something like building your own home you have to stay focused and keep your eye on the prize, which is finishing the house, living in it and, long term, being sure that it’s an investment that will take care of you when it’s time to sell. I had always prided myself in knowing I had kept that focus.
But, unlike my wife, I never noticed too much that I was always building. I did recognize that our social life was sacrificed, because, up in the mountains at the end of the day, I was beat and didn’t want to go anywhere. I always told Deb, “I work with new and different people every day in the city- that is socializing enough for me.” Also, socializing made me drink more and I didn’t want that going on either.
But was my life becoming lopsided with this approach? Over the years, my brother and other people had questioned the constant building, which made me question it also- but not for too long. I didn’t question it very long because I had the answer–I loved doing it and couldn’t think of a more rewarding way to use my spare time. It was healthy play. I was lucky because, as a freelancer, I had more unscheduled time, and like all freelancers, I needed to make good use of that time.
And there was another thing that was gnawing at me. As I traveled around our mountainous vacation area, occasionally I would see the remains of unfinished dreams. Dreams belonging to others who probably had started out with as much zeal as I had. I saw places that had been discarded because they were never built well enough to stand being neglected for too much time, or they were built without proper consideration about who would want to buy them in the future. I saw kookie places, places that no one would want unless they were sold cheap. These Unfinished Dream Homes were constant cautionary tales: I didn’t want my creation to end up the same. I had worked way too hard and had more belief in myself to let that happen.
But my own dream was revealing its own kookieness: it was basically two houses just steps away from one another on a 32-acre lot. Wait. What? Why? Who would buy that?
These were the thoughts that were starting to turn over in my brain as I worked.
But the answer was slowly working its way up to the surface. I would be working on the new bedroom in the guesthouse and every time I’d stop to pause and look outside, I would be filled with peace–the view outside the guesthouse was gorgeous, almost Zen-like. I was looking out at the graceful, vertical lines of a tall stand of maples, a row of young Norway spruce trees, and glimpsed between them the front road with the rare vehicle traveling by. Beyond all that, the forest ascended.
This guesthouse was already twice as big as the main house, and finally it hit me: the guesthouse should be the main house. Its location on the property was superior in that it was higher by a few feet, had better views all around, and already had a small basement. The idea took hold and the new vision unfolded: I would turn the bedroom I was working on into a living room, make the former workshop area into a kitchen with a bathroom and shower behind that, enclose the area under the overhanging deck for an eating area with views of the mountains and add a bedroom on the north side of the ground floor. No big addition needed on the main house! Wow. For the (former) main house, keep it to 1 bedroom, only expand the kitchen to include an eating area and expand the upstairs bedroom over that so it would be more comfortable. That would make for a sweet, small guest house and it would keep it’s charm.
This would keep the sewer system within its designed, legal capacity to three total bedrooms! It’s a five year plan with a finish line, and I will be 65 in five years.
Voila! My dilemma was over and what a relief! That night I called Deb and told her my new idea, she totally agreed. OK dreamer, now get back to work!
Making the change
Yes, changing horses in midstream meant some more modifications!
The front room I was working on in the guesthouse felt too small and cramped to be the living area, so I immediately extended the north wall by six feet (with an insulated frost wall and slab foundation).
I put on a new, metal, pitch-change roof and added a much-needed north facing picture window, which has a white spruce knocking right outside. I visualized this spruce drooping under the weight of heavy snow in winter as I sit in my cozy, warm living room watching TV or reading a book and drinking whiskey at the end of the day.
The kitchen and bathroom posed more complicated challenges. First and foremost, the place I wanted to put them was over a cement slab foundation. The good thing was the main sewer stack was nearby. Even with the stack close by getting the needed pitch for all the new drains was going to be difficult! I decided I would put down 3 inches of rigid foam insulation over the concrete, then 1-¼ inches of plywood sub-flooring and ceramic tile on top of that. This would give me 4 inches of possible pitch for drains.
Problem solved? In one way, but I was in denial about how difficult it would be to get the drain pitch. When summer rolled around and I dug in, I could see the problem more clearly: a three-inch toilet drain is almost 4 inches of outside diameter so there would be no room for pitch and no room for a closet bend, (the fitting that connects the toilet bottom to the drain pipe). Turned out I needed seven total inches of pitch for the toilet!
Additionally, the kitchen sink drain was going to Y into a 2-inch shower drain, so for that drain distance I needed to be 2 inches below the concrete where it meets the main sewer stack.
There was no getting around it: time to break up the concrete. Ugh! Naturally, I had used the stuff that would last a lifetime: this was 4,000 lbs. test concrete, well stratified with ½ inch re-bar. I tried using my ½ inch hammer drill for about two hours then I gave up on that. Stubbornly I rented a big time hammer drill and got the job done in less than three hours.
There was a price to pay for all that hammer drilling- my hands got numb. It has been four months since then and I only feel an occasionally tingling now – but still…. It makes me wonder about the age clock.
There was a reason for this burst of activity- my age clock really was ticking. That summer I turned 60 and my wife Deb had invited all of her family to our place in the mountains for their annual summer gathering. With some members from my part of the family, that added up to 21 people over three days. All but 5 of these people had never been to our country place and only one had been there recent enough to know what it was all about. So it was very important for me to show it in the best possible light. The legendary building project that occupied Deb’s husband needed to look good! And in a practical sense, I wanted to give them some shelter: so I knew I needed to enclose the new living room addition and I wanted a downstairs toilet to accommodate everyone. I also figured a shower should be installed–our only two other bathrooms had cast-iron tubs, not convenient for a big crowd.
This was a big deal for me because it was not just a personal milestone but also a kind of grand opening of our place in the country. It seemed that Deb and I had never done any entertaining–we always benefited from other people’s hospitality and would pitch in however we could, but we’d never had to take on the responsibility of pulling it all together.
In my mind it was pay back time to everyone who had hosted us, and I wanted it to be good. By good I mean well-planned, good food and a good presentation. Well Deb did not see it that way for this reason- she is a spendthrift to the degree that surpasses even me! She does not like to spend money even on herself. I admire this about her and I give her credit because it is partially the reason for our financial stability. But for this occasion, I saw things differently: I wasn’t going to go cheap.
Deb believed everyone could bring dishes to pass, while I wanted to feed everyone three quality meals a day. I wanted to present a feast for the Saturday night birthday dinner, when all 21 people would be present: we would grill a whole salmon over the fire. This was the direction I was going and Deb was following me skeptically. Remember, we do not host parties; we’ve never even hosted a kid’s birthday party because we have no kids! And in our 14 years together, we had only put on one large dinner party at our apartment in the city. We were infants in this regard.
The months of June and July were very good months for me work-wise but not good months for getting things done in the mountains. A friend of mine, Mike Drexler, whom I work with often, volunteered to help me put the living room roof on over the July 4th holiday weekend. He was a huge help and although we didn’t get done all I had hoped in the 2 days he was there, it is safe to say I got twice as much done with his help.
Once the roof was on and the living room extension was enclosed with plywood sheathing and covered in house wrap, I switched my focus to the downstairs bathroom.
This was when the stress started to build. During the middle of July things reached the breaking point between Deb and I. We started planning for the party two months out. The plan included everything from a house rental nearby for the guest overflow, 20’x20’ tent, table and chairs, dinnerware, cooking pots and pans and lastly the quantity and types of food for the three days.
The closer it got to the date of the party the more Deb and I seemed to disagree about things. I wanted real tablecloths; Deb was thinking plastic. I wanted individual shell steaks for everyone; Deb was thinking hamburgers. It went on and on, we were going in two different directions and I was getting stressed about finishing the bathroom.
So four weeks out, after one of these confrontational back and forth, I blew up and told Deb to cancel the party. I quit! We can’t pull this off! We are not up to this! I told Deb to call her family and let them know we called it off. It was just too much for me trying to work at my job, finish the bathroom before the party and deal with the planning. The planning was becoming a war between the planners.
Deb said OK and we dropped it there. After cooling off for 24 hours, I brought it up again and explained to Deb my reason for wanting to make a quality party. She gave in and to prove it I asked her to agree on nice candles for the evening’s dinner table and no paper plates. She agreed and we never looked back. It was full steam ahead at that point. We were a new team!
The next weekend I went to work up in the country; Deb stayed home in the city because of work conflicts. The plumbing drains were all in and the plywood sub floor installed. When I cemented in the shower pan I realized there was an issue with my measurements because of something the instructions failed to mention. There was a ¼ inch gap between the shower pan back wall and the green board sheetrock. This would be perfect if I was going to use ceramic tile for my shower walls but I wasn’t. I had bought acrylic walls and glass doors. The shower pan needed to be flush against the green board for these glass doors to work properly.
The cement had well set by the time I realized this. To rip that out and do it over would mean buying a new $300 shower pan. That night I called Deb up and told her I realized trying to finish the shower instillation before the party was a mistake and I was stopping work on it for now. I knew the solution for the gap and I knew the cause of the problem. The directions were indeed deficient but I needed to SLOW DOWN! This shower job was too important to screw up. It was more important to have a toilet, four bathroom walls and a door than a working shower stall. To give an example of how close to the wire things were- I was putting in the bathroom door the day people started showing up. Eventually I wanted to cut a hole in the outside bathroom wall and put in a window- the glass shower enclosure would just be in the way and maybe the glass would get broken so stop already- things will be fine.
And they were. We had a terrific 3-day gathering and everyone was full of praise. Sad to see everyone go but, hopefully, they will return. Maybe next time we’ll just have the plastic tablecloth though.
This little extension was originally a storage building that was dragged here about ten years ago from another location on the property, (where the garage is now). It is a prime spot on the property and needs to utilized.
The first thing I had to do was sort through 15 years of dust covered stuff and get rid of the crap. This photo was actually taken after the sort. Then I had to put in a ceiling which required installing 2×6″ joist, attic vent holes, running electric for lights, two layers of insulation, (totaling R5o), a vapor barrier of 6mil plastic, and hanging 5/8, fire code sheet rock.
After getting the ceiling in I had to determine the widow size that would best suit the room. Like I said before this is a beautiful spot on the property and I wanted the windows as big as possible but not overwhelming inside or out. Using cardboard cut-outs is a great way to do this for existing construction. I wanted awning windows, (windows that crank out from the bottom to open), so I could leave them open in the rain. When a summer thunderstorm quickly rolls in, running to close all the widows is a big pain in the butt. It is also nice to go away and leave your windows open a crack to allow ventilation and not worry about rain or break-ins. With awning windows you have size/shape limitations. I was able to come up with a combination the worked for me and had them mulled together at the factory. The window on the right is 4’x6′ and I actually put it in alone. I don’t recommend that.
When putting in the new ceiling I found this damaged electric cable eaten by mice. This is a good reason to chalk all your electric run wire holes with fireproof chalk. I believe if the mouse couldn’t sense air penetration through that hole they never would of tried to eat through it. They eat holes to create pathways to get somewhere. Notice they ate the neutral and not the hot wire.
This is the back of the garage. The garage is decent size, 20′ x 30′ but not big enough for a wood furnace, my plow truck and work shop area. I also wanted a outside southern sun exposed area to sand, cut wood and make dust without messing up the garage. The deck will have a corrugated clear plexiglass roof eventually. This is a beautiful spot to work from with the large maple tree, forest and fern covered leach field not visible where I am standing for the photo. I wanted to try and save the large maple tree so I cantilevered out the deck. The southern exposure will allow me to work on the deck in cold weather.
The back edge of the garage is about 8′ above ground level on the left corner. When I built the foundation for the garage I was concerned about the rock wall shifting because of it’s height- so I added a second tier projecting about 4 feet out from the base for support as shone here. When I needed to add on the deck I just fortified this projection and added the cement piers. In addition I wanted to give the wood furnace room more support so I built up that part of the foundation to garage grade with a rock wall and gravel as shown.
For my other 2 buildings on the property I have cement block chimney’s with clay flue tiles. They are very labor intensive to build and require a good foundation. These stainless steel chimneys have been around for some time. They are relatively light, have a stainless steel inner liner sandwiched with one inch of insulation and a stainless steel outer shell. The stainless steel is to protect the steel from the very corrosive effects of fuel gasses. In fact most chimney’s now day’s are built with this pipe and then a box is built around them to look like a traditional chimney. The metalbestos pipe is not cheap. This package costs around $600 for 12′ including pipe, roof support package, braces and round top.
A couple of things I learned about installing these things. The roof support package is designed to attache to the top of your roof rafters and is adjustable to different pitched roofs. My metal roof was already completed and I just thought I would cut a hole and put this thing through it. There was no way I was going to cut a big hole and attach the brackets to the top of the rafters. I lucked out because of the 2×4″ furring strips I had on top of the rafters for attaching the metal roofing. You can see in the photo what I did. I couldn’t screw the supports brackets in but they weren’t going anywhere because of their location against the furring strips.
The red thing flashing the pipe is called a hot boot and the silver metal strip around the outside is very flexible to allow bending around the roof ribs. It worked like a charm even in cold weather. Not very good looking- I was told that is so the inspector can tell it is a hot boot.
I was surprised how hot the pipe actually gets. When the fire is jumping you can not leave your hand on the pipe. It doesn’t flash burn your hand like a naked black stove pipe but it would in short time. So follow the manufacturers warning and keep everything at least 2 inches away. This whole job took about 4 hours working alone.