House energy retrofit project 01

It was time to un-lame and stop hunkering over the computer and actually get up and do some real work around the place, and start photo-documenting the whole process along with. I also realized that I had no idea what a lot of the building materials I'd been reading about were like in real life, and hit the local lumberyard to just wander around and *look* at their stock for a while. I spent a couple of afternoons on that, in fact, because I just hadn't examined this stuff with a particularly critical eye before. I learned what VersaLam and other "engineered" beams are like, how the Huber ZipSystem sheathing panels go together, the several types of ridge-vent filter material, the numerous shapes and sizes of Azek cellular-PVC trim products, and of course all the different types of rigid foam insulating panels available. They had a fairly complete line of Timberlok and Headlok fasteners including the monster 14" long self-drilling screws, any number of StrongTie joist hangers and hurricane ties and post anchors, and long shelves of flashing material in aluminum, steel, and that classic old-school sheet lead. Wow, so much *stuff*. Hopefully by subjecting the reader to a long boring list of these things I've given the barest tiny taste of just how many different building materials there are to know about, let alone the right ways to use them. We've come a long way from piling rocks on top of each other.

[Click any image for a larger version.]

    Work to facilitate more work

Simple and very compact attic pseudo-ladder I would need to get into the attic much more frequently than before, and while I can pull myself up from standing on a milk crate underneath the hatch and transition to the "tricep dip" for the remainder, it was a suboptimal way to get up there and made moving objects up or down that much more difficult. So a very early pre-project was improved attic access. I came home from said lumberyard with a couple of 2x3s and a vague design in mind, and as I studied the problem and where the studs sat in the walls and considered the overall requirements this crystallized as the optimal solution that would take up the least floor footprint. It's attached with good exterior-grade screws, not wimpy drywall screws that break. The vertical blocks prevent the horizontal boards from bending their screws down when stepped on, and the big grab handle up top makes the first step up easy and leaves the other hand free to move aside the hatch cover before proceeding. It's sort of like a little climbing wall, but with really good holds.

Mold in the attic I also tacked down some spare plywood across the attic-floor joists to make it easier to move around up there; I figured contractors would want to at least have a look at the interior of the roof, and not having to crawl carefully over joist edges makes that much easier.

After getting that done and rigging some temporary lighting up there, I could more closely study what I only semi-laughingly called the PhD mycology lab. Recent years had brought a history of small roof leaks, and a quick-n-dirty patch job with some roll-roofing and a bucket of tar a couple of years back had fixed the worst of it but I knew that wouldn't really last. As things degraded a little more there were patches inside that stayed moist enough to start sprouting some insidious yellow mold. I could tell that the ancient excuse for insulation was harboring its own share of moisture too, but probably more mold-resistant due to the flame-retardant salts the paper had been impregnated with. Basically I was way overdue for a new roof; I already knew that. Fortunately, most of the old-school tongue-and-groove plank decking still appeared to be in good shape, at least when viewed from below; we would find out the real story later after everything on top was stripped off.

    A tear-off opportunity seized

Temporary cover rolled up Several of the window frames and sills were clearly decayed as well, the bathroom window being one of the worst with the sill piece completely gone. As noted in the contractor overview, I decided that I was going to eliminate this window entirely and fill it in as a wall so the whole thing was largely expendable. Time to start ripping it apart to determine the extent of the damage, where the rough opening was, etc. A warm March lent itself to doing this early on, but with more winter probably on the way at some point it would still need protection against weather. Thus, a cover of plastic sheet got fastened in at the top to shield the whole area when I wasn't playing with it.

Less sill-area rot than originally suspected With that in place, I started attacking the trim and prying pieces away to see how the whole mess was constructed -- I really had no idea. And was pleased to discover that the rot at the corner wasn't as bad or as deep as I feared. The sheathing and old building paper underneath seemed to be in relatively fine shape, as did the rough-opening framing behind that, even if the window parts themselves were in worse shape. This was promising, but I was still undecided about what to do with the windows in general. Newer storms over the old sashes? Replacement windows inside the old boxes if they were intact? Completely new window units? I had no idea yet, but it wasn't looking so good for salvaging the existing stuff.

Temporary cover over bathroom window When I wasn't tearing pieces off the window and poking around in there with a screwdriver, the temporary cover got rolled down and battened against wind. The siding was all going to go, so at this point I had no qualms about running screws into it.

I also did minor exploration behind the indoor trim of another window upstairs, in fact the one right below "yellow mold central" which had definitely seen its share of water issues too, and found that the rough opening under the trim and water-warped paneling was just fine. This was all rather reassuring, that the house probably had "good bones" as they put it and that any needed rot repair would be at a few vulnerable surface areas. Well, I wasn't 100% sure about parts of the main foundation sill, either, but would leave discovery in that area to the professionals.

It was amusing to find that the windows were basically held in by the casing trim on either side -- no fasteners to speak of around the frames themselves. Meaning as soon as the rest of the outer trim was pulled, the window would basically be ready to fall out of the house.

    The DER concept

At this point the green-builder folks and all my research had me pretty convinced -- my decision to seize the re-roof/re-side opportunity and go the energy-retrofit route was becoming clear, even if I wasn't sure about the windows yet. Maybe not as "deep" for me as some of the more extreme studies, but the benefits of doing the external insulation had become quite evident. I began referring to it among friends as wrapping the whole house in a giant foam beer-cooler. In working toward that I had been talking fairly extensively with Synergy and Boston Green Building both of which heartily endorsed the idea; the latter was also a candidate for a while but had to drop out later because they were so overloaded with several of the National Grid program projects. [Or maybe it was because I had too many questions for them, it was kind of hard to tell but they did bail rather suddenly.] Synergy had suggested that I go visit one of their job sites in progress to get an idea of what happens during these things, which I thought was an excellent idea; you can only get just so much info from pictures in case-study PDFs and it would be nice to see the real thing.

Energy retrofit going on in Carlisle They pointed me to a large one going on out in Carlisle, so I hopped out one afternoon for a quick visit. The house was right at the foamed-and-furred state before the siding would start going on; this project had been running since about October and it was a *big* place, three full stories and sort of a large wing's worth of garage. The guys working there were very cordial and their foreman was happy to tour me around the place looking at some of the features and fitment headaches they'd been tackling.

The homeowners had apparently mentioned to him a little before I arrived that their furnace hadn't run all day, even though it was kind of chilly outside.

Quick diagram of sill detail He scribbled me a little diagram of the polyiso foam mounting and flashing detail at the sill and basement-wall area; drew it right onto the foil-face of the wall we were standing next to. They flash from the bottom of the sheathing out under the foam and bring a piece of bug mesh along with which covers all the rain-screen openings at the bottom, because otherwise every wasp for miles around would want to build a nest in there. Sealing at the top of the basement wall also helps with the whole air-sealing picture in that traditionally leaky area.

The other thing we see here is how a shallow relief pit is drilled into the strapping to accomodate the HeadLok screw holding it on; this maintains a uniform flush surface for the siding with no funny bumps underneath. Nice attention to detail. The Building Science guys had done some stress studies of furring-over-foam assemblies, and found that the foam has plenty of compressive strength such that even through four inches into the original studs, a wall like this can easily hold up heavy claddings like brickface and stucco long-term. Hanging vinyl siding on it is thus absolutely no problem, but a lot of townie building inspectors don't understand how or why this works yet.


That was all good fun, but I had to turn my attention back to my own set of tasks.

Renovation invariably implies an opportunity and likely a need for some cleanup, and some areas had collected various middens of Things. There's a delicate balance between that frugal New England "save everything because it might come in handy later" mentality, and flat-out hoarding. If any aversion therapy is needed, there are plenty of those fairly horrifying "buried alive" hoarder videos up on Youtube. I'm not nearly that bad and also understand the need to throw things out, it's just too easy to be lazy about getting it done sometimes.

And as my own prep work got under way, I discovered many fortunate little coincidences where something I had saved turned out to be the perfect fit for some different application. Even a few bits of stuff left over from the previous owner of the place came in handy, in an almost magical way at times, for constructing new things. So saving some quantity of potentially useful items isn't all bad, it just needs a little discretion and decently organized storage.

Clutter is like snow: you never think a few more tiny flakes landing on top of the pile are going to matter, but before you know it there are several inches covering what used to be a nice clear surface.

Too many bicycles But for one good example of things I *didn't* need: Far too many old bicycle parts taking up room in the basement. The original intent to build a couple of working bikes out of this and get rid of the rest had long since been lost under other projects, and all this crap was doing now was collecting dust and rust. Along with the drum from a washer ostensibly in the process of being rebuilt, said process having also been frozen in time. And all festooned with a generous covering of spiderwebs by now.

Prius full of bicycle parts Fortunately, I know some folks who routinely take big loads of collected material to Bikes Not Bombs, and I managed to cram *all* of the bicycles and fragments thereof into a groaning Prius-blivet of parts and ship it to a certain backyard staging area down in town. Well, minus the one I actually ride, of course.

This was just the first of several cargo-Tetris games in the interest of getting stuff *outa* the house. I also became aware of the awesome "launch power" of the local Craigslist free-stuff section, where people eager to take my offerings would respond within about ten minutes of the posting. As I looked around I started spotting more and more junk I just plain didn't need, was never going to get around to fixing or playing with or breaking down into parts or whatever, and now it all had to just plain *go* whether I could find good homes for it or not. Anti-hoarding!

    Coal mining

Coal bin When I took ownership of the place I found that the previous owner had a coal stove in the basement. Its flue had been taken apart and the extra hole into the chimney repaired to meet fire code, but the stove was still there and so was this big ugly particle-board storage bin occupying one corner. I had never gotten around to taking that apart or even delving into its depths; it was mostly empty and was basically waste space all that time. So storage of various other crap tended to pile up in a mess around it.

It was also pretty clear that the window above had been the means of coal delivery from the driveway outside. The whole setup, in fact, seemed similar to the description in this PDF.

An appropriate tag I knew the coal-storage bin had to go *sometime* and had even randomly tacked this little piece of paper to the side of it at some point to reflect that. The paper had been there for upwards of ten years.... With the idea of doing spray-foam around the inside of the sill as part of the retrofit and therefore needing access to the whole area above this mess, now was the time.

Coal stove The coal stove itself had originally been situated under sort of a sheet-metal funnel into the heating ductwork, and I had horsed it into a corner where it sat [with more random junk piled on top] for years. It doesn't really look like much, but being mostly iron construction with a layer of firebricks around the inside it's *fknheavy*. Here I was finally cleaning it out and preparing it to move, because ...

Lack of coal stove ... a local fellow in the neighborhood gleefully offered to take it away! Poof, gone! Said someone in his family could use it in a vacation cottage or something. So one afternoon we grunted and huffed the thing into his car, and off it went. In return for my contribution, and because he's done many similar jobs elsewhere, he came over later and installed an extra reinforcement pipe hangar on the toilet stack which is iron all the way up the chase to the roof, and with that height and all the junctions into it must weigh hundreds of pounds and appeared to be held up by very little otherwise. What he added is the clamp and threaded rods visible here, just in front of the water heater. Same type of rig they support fire standpipes with at each floor up through taller buildings.
The stink-pipe changes to PVC just below the iron because that's what they installed on the Title 5 septic-tank replacement just before I bought the place; there was no way *that* alone was going to hold up the rest of the pipe if it ever decided to slip. On the bright side, the iron/PVC transition gave me an idea about what to do at the other end where it penetrates the roof, i.e. do the same in reverse before going through the roof deck to reduce thermal bridging past the insulation. I floated this concept to the Synergy guys, and they thought it was a great idea.

Inside the coal bin So, back to the coal-bin itself. I moved stuff away from in front of it and had the first real close look inside. I knew there were some stray bits of coal still laying around inside but as I began clearing out what I could reach at the front and worked farther in, I wound up mining about ten pounds out of there.

[... and then thought, WTF am I going to do with 10 pounds of coal??]

Parts that got me thinkin' But then there was another distraction, one of many that made the coal-bin project stretch over a couple of weeks. Here I found that not *all* of its parts were hopelessly moldy, and set aside some of the bits of wood after cleaning them up a little and treating them with some antifungal stuff. One of the pieces that had been over the opening was some sort of box structure that looked like it had parts of an old ping-pong table or something, but it got me thinking.

HRV table in progress I thought of constructing some sort of low table for the heat-recovery ventilator [HRV] that would eventually arrive, as I didn't want to chain it up to the joists in the typical way they get installed. This piece was about the size I was thinking of and I'd just recovered a small handful of 2x4s of some rather dense wood. They'd make fine legs for something like this. So in the bit of space cleared in front of the coal mess I started throwing together the HRV table, which after the addition of a couple of diagonal braces later worked out perfectly and fit exactly where I ultimately intended it to go. That way any HRV fan vibration would be coupled to the basement slab rather than the floor above, and wouldn't transmit noise into the house structure.

    Small stuff

Sizing overhang from a photo The builders had mentioned the idea of cutting the front-door portico away from the main roof to insert insulation in between and then re-joining it. Seemed like a bunch of work for a relatively useless feature that only made the roofline more complex. How about eliminating it entirely and just bringing a wider overhang off the whole front of the roof? So I got up on the stepladder to take a shot from off the end of the eave at the right height, threw it into GIMP and started overlaying where the new, thicker roof and wall would sit and how much clearance would still be needed for the screen door to open and people to pass underneath. Conclusion: it would be doable with a fairly generous overhang, making the entire front half of the roof a single, simple unbroken surface.

Okay, not exactly computer-aided architecture, but served the purpose.

TP holder, a small token gesture This was a little token but symbolic fix: to actually buy and install a TP holder after 20 years of keeping the roll on the tank or the edge of the tub. In the usual manner of needing to take everything apart and fix it somehow before I consider it usable, I had to take the insides of the bracket apart to reverse the direction of the hook and lube the pivot a little to stop it from screeching when swung, which I don't think the makers of the thing ever intended the end consumer to do. But that's how I view most products that are sold to me -- there's usually some annoyance that needs to be fixed or worked around before I can use it.

    HVAC study

The interest in heat pumps of various sorts had kicked off a fairly deep bit of research into HVAC in general, both on the theory side and what heating and air-conditioning techs deal with day to day. Moving to a heat-pump for heat and cooling meant determining the correct size and capacity for a system that would be appropriate for the house *post-retrofit*, which was a target way off in the handwave-y future and I needed at least a few ballpark numbers to start from. I found myself a decent psychrometric chart, which helps describe the relationships between temperature, humidity, and energy of air. It looks like a crazy, meaningless tangle of lines, but once you learn how to read it many aspects of the environments we find ourselves living in are explained. It shows why "winter air" gets so dry -- we let it infiltrate from the outside with some nominal moisture content, and as it gets warmed up the *relative* humidity goes way down. We can see how cold we have to chill hot, humid summer air to reach the dewpoint line when the moisture starts raining out of it. We can eyeball-calculate the BTUs needed to heat or cool a given volume of air over some temperature delta, and then convert that into gallons or therms or watt-hours or pounds of coal or whatever. And because our buildings are always trying to equalize inside vs. outside heat via loss or gain across the envelope, we have to keep cranking energy in the opposite direction to keep ourselves comfortable. How much energy depends almost entirely on how good that envelope is at resisting heat flow, both in direct transmission [e.g. insulation R-value] and air exchange in and out [tightness of construction details].

I also discovered that the residential HVAC industry is plagued by a lot of guesswork and flat-out bullshit, particularly where setting up and tuning a system is concerned. A lot of "technicians" don't even understand how the refrigeration cycle works, they just know a couple of numbers they need to see on some test gear and if the evaporator gets "beer-can cold" then they're packed up and in the truck and heading to the next job. The science of filling a system with the right amount of refrigerant is imprecise at best when half the required conditions for measurement are ignored, and the pictures and videos of improper duct installation are numerous. Personal accountability is generally evaded and the consumers are left pick up the cost of that careless laxity with poorly-operating systems and higher energy costs.

Well, maybe it's not all that bad but there's no doubt that certain levels of misunderstanding exist even on successful installations and repairs. I found one or two really bright spots in this otherwise somewhat gloomy picture, such as UDarrell's HVAC stuff, which is a little confusingly enthusiastic in its style but packed with good clue and tons of references and war-stories. HVAC can be non-intuitive at times and many of its field workers do things by rote without completely understanding what's happening inside. Fortunately, the newer super-efficient systems have eliminated a lot of the guesswork with better sensor feedback and computer control -- subcooling and superheat, ambient temps, capacity turndown, variable airflow, all automatically handled -- some of them even manage their own refrigerant-filling, simply taking the appropriate measurements and informing the technician when they're done. And some of the blame for poorly-performing systems does rightly rest on the consumer who never remembers to change filters and clean coils and muck out the slime in evaporator pans or do any of the other basic end-user maintenance that A/C and heat pump systems should receive. But at this point in my study I was quite aware of all of that and prepared to deal -- it would still certainly be a task less onerous than scraping oily soot out of the rusty little convolutions inside the furnace.

All fine and dandy, but what would my specific needs be? I had two major sources of data to work with, both of which would be viewed with skepticism by the guys over at the HVAC-talk forum. One was the fact that my little 5,000 BTU air conditioner for the basement could keep things quite a bit drier both down there and to a surprising extent in the rest of the house. The other was the burn rate on the oil furnace, whose efficiency I soon determined to be on the order of 60-something percent in terms of heat delivered vs. amount of oil consumed.

Now, the by-the-book way to do load calculations is through a thing called Manual J. A few years ago a bright HVAC engineer named Hank Rutkowski got tired enough of seeing all the different ways that installers would take guesses at needed capacity and get it wrong so often, that he decided to try and codify it across the industry. By trying to pull in *all* the possible factors affecting a residential building -- climate zone and degree-days, insulation, window types and which way they face, roof and siding colors, shading, square feet, where the equipment gets located, number of occupants and their behavior, appliances, pets, plants, and everything else -- he came up with an inordinately complex method to go room-by-room and add up all the anticipated loads for both heating and cooling. But evidently those who ground their way through the process were pleased enough with the results that it was adopted as gospel by the industry. By the time Manual J reached its eighth edition nobody did any of this by hand anymore as there are any number of computer programs to plunk numbers into, but even with these tools there's still a lot that the human driving them can get wrong. How, for example, does anyone determine the *net* insulative value of a wall *assembly* after thermal bridging, hidden construction shoddiness, and largely unknowable parameters for various components are taken into account? Simple: you can't. While a formal load calculation can certainly help ballpark what to expect, especially in well-managed new construction where routine inspections can keep things reasonably uniform, it is not the be-all and end-all answer to how many tons you need. Real life is not that kind. Unfortunately the industry has clung tightly to the idea and I read rhetoric from several high-horse purists who try to maintain that an HVAC tech who does *not* jump through the hoops of the various ACCA Manuals is some sort of lowlife who doesn't deserve to be making a living at the trade.

My bullshit meter was more than tickling by now, and I already had at my fingertips a perfectly reasonable method to measure the real-life heat loss of *my* entire assembly which would shortcut this largely theoretical game. As I sat at the computer downloading yet more case studies and condenser-repair videos I could easily hear the furnace kick on and shut down a little later, and note down times. I had been able to ballpark its 60,000 btu/h output in three different ways all of which agreed closely with each other, and could even throw in the relatively down-in-the-noise addition from the output of the space heater in my bedroom. I'll skip a *whole* lot more specifics in here, but with the house in its pre-retrofit condition I was clocking on the order of 300 BTU/hr per degree F of temperature difference, for a net whole-house R-value of about 7 or 8 including the infiltration factor. With the entire upstairs closed off and unheated by anything other than leakage, I could reduce the loss by almost a third -- that coupled with arguably frigid *indoor* temps and hermiting mostly in one warmer room with the space heater is how I could cheat and get through most prior winters on less than 100 gallons of oil.

Heat loss follows nicely linear relationships with the temperature delta and insulation value, and I could already see that increasing the average envelope to over R20 plus way better air-sealing was going to easily cut the whole-house energy needed by two-thirds or more. And that doesn't even meet what some of the researchers consider "superinsulated" -- still, on a "design day" as the industry calls it, or rather some of our coldest winter *nights* of perhaps 0F around here, it seemed entirely likely that I would still be able to heat the place post-retrofit with the proverbial hair dryer and a couple of cats. I call that "goodenoughinsulated" for now.

Thermal conductivity studies My new obsession with HVAC science and its thermodynamic aspects began bordering on the silly, as I tried to absorb the related theory and at least a bit of vicarious practice from the field reports and advice that others posted on their forums. How well would various construction materials perform under differential heat loads? Here I was trying to figure some of it out -- testing thermal conductivity of various items. Azek, wood, steel, and XPS, with one end of each atop my space heater and taking readings at the other with my new toy: an infrared-gun thermometer, more properly called a pyrometer. I figured having one of those would come in handy for this sort of thing.

This really just amounted to a little entertaining make-work, as the thermal properties of numerous materials are freely detailed at Engineering Toolbox.

Attempted Q&D manometer Another important aspect of HVAC is the "V" part, meaning ductwork. I'll get into this more a little later, but part of evaluating the existing forced-air furnace performance was trying to quantify its air delivery characteristics -- CFM and pressure. At first I had no idea of either as applied to my setup, and attempted to construct a quick-n-dirty manometer out of scrap tubing taped to the back of a chair. Unfortunately this very imprecise instrument could tell me almost nothing about static pressure in the ducts.

Attempted flow hood Along with the infrared gun I had also bought a tiny little anemometer, as Amazon seemed to be offering the pair as a package. In fact I went initially to look for the anemometer, as various methods were described for using one to measuring airflow. Not wholly satisfied with the "average speed over opening" method, I tried to throw together a flow hood with a calibrated opening with the idea that it could make heating register airflow uniform across that and enable a single measurement to work.
There were two theoretical ways to do this. One would be an opening a foot on each side, where the flow in feet per minute past a square foot multiplies up to cubic feet per minute. The anemometer is a weather instrument, and reads in miles per hour. MPH * 88 converts that to feet per minute, so the calculation can still be done. But making a smaller calibrated opening could enable a more direct translation -- the same air volume would have to flow faster through a smaller opening. Making it 11 and a quarter inches on a side would make it 126.6 square inches instead of 144, allowing an easily-read correspondence of 100 CFM per MPH of measured speed. That's what I was trying for here, in a festival of cardboard-slicing and duct tape. It even had crossed tension wires in the throat to keep it square.

Unfortunately it didn't even come close to working, because the flow was quite unbalanced across the opening mostly due to the bend before it. Maybe if the final tube was ten feet long with straightening vanes inside it would work ... so I went back to the averaging method, which is actually pretty easy as the anemometer has an average speed function that resets on power-up. I found that with careful movement to scan evenly over an entire opening right after turning the unit on, I could get reasonably accurate MPH and thus FPM figures -- times the measured opening area would yield a sufficient CFM ballpark for my purposes.

HVAC heavily iced up Another one of the local home-shows came along and one of the candidate HVAC suppliers I had been talking to was going to have a booth there, so I figured I'd stop in and eyeball some units and ask more questions. A common problem on evaporators and other HVAC components is icing, usually due to poor airflow, miscalibrated valves, or incorrect refrigerant quantity. So after reading a bunch of these problem reports and reasons I was amused to see this bit of HVAC science gone wrong: a badly iced-up refrigeration pipe at a compressor outside the building where the show was. Now, this particular one might be for a commercial kitchen fridge or freezer, whose running parameters are a little different from an air conditioner ... but obviously something wasn't insulated right here, as this shouldn't happen in the first place.
I was intrigued by the little hutch someone had built around this installation, as I was thinking of doing much the same to whatever outdoor unit I'd wind up with. Keep the rain and rodents out of the works, I figured, and everything would last longer.

I had said HVAC dealer out for a site visit a few days later, who despite having initially expressed interest in my project was visibly dubious about a> my seat-of-the-pants load calculations and b> finding a one-ton *ducted* system that wasn't one of the single-point mini-splits. My own research had indicated that at least a couple of manufacturers either had the type of ducted air-handlers designed for typical furnace replacement or were about to offer then within another month or two -- it was becoming clear that my needs were just slightly ahead of what the market was waking up to providing. The guy apparently didn't believe it and was obviously a bit of an old-school sort himself, and probably decided that I was some kind of freakazoid who didn't know what he was talking about because a couple of days later I received the "Royal fuck-you" letter which was actually phrased as "this is not our area of expertise, good luck on your project". But that was nonetheless a bit of a slap in the face. Between that and possibly having gotten myself just a little burnt out on the HVAC thing in general by now, it was time to turn my attention back to other pressing issues.


Shifting coal bin wreckage out of the corner I finally got serious about the coal bin. It was likely a primary source of the basement's musty smells, and I needed it OUT of there. It was one of the more gross jobs in this sequence, but it was actually sort of fun to wade in there with a wrecking bar and a big-ass hammer and bust the thing apart. Believe it or not, I wore shoes for this one.

Junk scattered in backyard The moldy, coal-dust-stained parts were unceremoniously flung out in the backyard, pending the future arrival of a big dumpster. This was the beginning of a fairly substantial junk pile arrayed around the tree.

Coal-bin corner empty! The substantial reward was having a large never-before-seen corner of my basement freed up! As I swept up coal dust and cleaned the area it was clear that some number of rodents had been partying pretty hard under there.
The basement walls are white because they're all covered with an inch of EPS, aka plain old white styrofoam. It was there when I moved in; evidently the previous owner had read in Popular Science or something back in the seventies that this was a good way to save energy, and covered the whole foundation wall in 2 x 8 sheets simply glued to the cinderblock. It actually does help keep some of the chill from the soil at bay, as concrete is a lousy insulator. So way before this project was even at the pipedream level, the house had already benefitted from rigid foam insulation.

The interesting thing was, no effort was ever made to "waterproof" the inside of the basement walls and that was probably a good thing. Many efforts to put vapor barriers inside foundations have gone horribly wrong sometimes, with moisture collecting behind various types of finished basement walls and rotting them from the inside. Moisture drive is always from the soil toward the inside and concrete is quite permeable, which is one reason even "dry" basements tend to have higher humidity than the upstairs -- the other reason, particularly in summer, is warm humid air infiltrating through the sill/foundation junction and hitting the cooler basement walls. So the previous owner got really lucky here and probably didn't even realize at the time that he had avoided creating a water trap: since beaded EPS is highly vapor-permeable, the layer he installed can easily dry toward the inside and keep the cinderblock underneath from collecting moisture.

I'm fortunate to have a reasonably-draining lot and sandy soil that soaks water away quickly, and to be well out of the floodplain. I'm guessing that the dampproofing on the outside of the block walls is still in fairly good shape, and that there isn't a whole lot of inward hydrostatic pressure to begin with. So there aren't any bulk-water issues in the basement and it always *looks* relatively dry even if summers generally did have it more humid down there. That was likely to be far less of an issue post-retrofit.

Huge load of dead electronics The years had brought an excess of electronic boat-anchors from hamfests and computer-upgrade giveaways and trashpicks, and there was clearly a lot of it I'd never use, fix, or part out. So it was pretty easy to just look around and form a big pile of stuff to go, and the early result was Prius blivet # 2: saggin' close to the suspension bump-stops on my first big run down to CRTR in Brockton. They take almost anything, including old air conditioners that still have old-skool R12 freon in them. I even got close to $50 just for the non-stripped copper electrical cable at the metal scrapyard right next door, which I didn't expect but they said "we *have* to give you money" and weighed my wire in and that more than paid for the small fee the recyling folks wanted to take the larger CRTs. No wonder copper plumbing is getting stolen out of peoples' basements -- the stuff fetches about a buck a pound as scrap.

    Fun with doors and windows

Fitting threshold parts The basement door out to the bulkhead was a known air-leak point, as it was in somewhat shoddy shape with little attention ever given to how it closed and a huge gap underneath. Trying to stop the bulk of air infiltration with a spare piece of the styrofoam wedged up against the bottom and weighted down wasn't entirely satisfactory, but as I looked at things more closely I decided that the basement door was salvageable with a little bit of fixup.

It mainly needed a threshold across the bottom to seal against, with the sealing point over an inch off the floor. One of the pieces of wood recovered from the coal bin was *exactly* the 35 inches needed to fit across, and was even oddly beveled on two edges sort of like a typical door sill anyway. Another one of those magical little moments where surplus junk became a solution! But remember that bit about concrete and moisture? I needed something other than wood to be in contact with the floor here, so a strip of Azek became an impermeable backing board to raise the sill to the right height to then weatherstrip against the door. It also needed something to attach to the original jamb to hold it all down, thus the two pre-fit side pieces to screw firmly into the frame. A little extra tail of the Azek also needed to stick out and tuck under where some of the jamb had rotted away; that part got chipped back to solid wood and treated with wood plasticizer before I committed to it.

Threshold in place at basement door This all dropped into place beautifully, getting caulked in and screwed down in the process to permanently hold everything in place. The large gaps around the sides and bottom of the jambs got foamed to block the remaining holes, and the rest of the door perimeter got the good closed-cell type weatherstripping applied. It turned out a little ugly, but c'mon, it's a *basement* door and thus a low-traffic application -- much more important to keep the air, bugs, mice, whatever out than to look pretty, and that close to the first step up it's not even a trip hazard. Besides, as far as ugly goes I was far from done yet.

Compression bar to close basement door For weatherstripping to work, it has to be compressed between two mating surfaces. This method of door closure accomplishes that: a little assembly of yet more scrap wood bears against the metal cable-clamp in one direction and the door in the other, secured by an adjustable loop of tie-line slipped over the other end. The vertical part of the bar helps spread the load over a wide area on the thicker part of the door, for less tendency to twist. No more air leaks, period.

Superinsulated basement door On my wanderings around the lumberyard I noted that the very lightweight XPS "blueboard" panels are stored outside and tend to get blown around sometimes, with the result that they've got a few broken pieces in the pile. Turns out they'll let a few of those go for free since they can't really sell them as whole panels, so I came home with a small load of slightly ratty rigid foam which would be perfect for the intended application. A little bit of work later, I had a superinsulated basement door. Closes like a bank vault now!

The main idea was to cover the thin panels in the original door since the quarter-inch of plywood or whatever they are is a lousy insulator. With heavier ply applied over some of the gaps and the whole assembly glued together with low-expansion spray foam, not to mention the R-10 worth of XPS filling the entire doorway like a big blue plug-block when closed, it had gone a little farther than I had originally planned but I was really proud of the result. IR-shooting the door panels on some subsequent cold nights showed them at *exactly* the same temperature as the basement wall next to the door.

Vinyl window cross-section General retrofit planning was moving along, and I was still trying to decide about windows. While framing around the various decay points might be good the windows and sills themselves had issues, at almost every one of them, so the right answer was looking more and more like new complete windows all around. And that meant *new windows*, as in the ones designed for new construction as opposed to fitting inside old jamb boxes, as we would clearly need to get down to the rough opening and build back up from there.

So I wanted to research window types, and visited a couple of local fenestration specialists. They've got cutaway cross-section samples, from which it's possible to see various dimensions and how the frames [called "lineals" in the trade] are put together. Here we see that a nailing flange, a common feature of more modern window units designed to attach to the sheathing, doesn't sit exactly at the outer face but tends to offset the whole unit outward and requires some interior jamb extensions to match up to the indoor trim.

Serious window cross-section After reading about the various downfalls of wood and vinyl frames, one clear winner emerged as the desireable choice material: fiberglass. Pultruded fiberglass, which is a type of extrusion but with better structural characteristics. One maker of fiberglass-frame products geared toward the energy-efficiency market is Serious Windows. Great name, and apparently a highly favored product for deep retrofits and "zero energy" homes. [The line has recently been sold back to its original parent company Alpen, so the "seriouswindows" site may cease to exist at some point. Still the same product line, though, and making some new and interesting developments. Read this post for a much deeper view into that story.] The frames are filled with closed-cell foam, and it's dual glazing with a low-E membrane suspended in the middle and various types of inert-gas fill. Their line starts at R-5 or better and goes up from there, which is generally far better than most dual-pane units on the market. The real advantage of fiberglass is expansion ratio -- it is, after all, glass, and the frames expand and contract at exactly the same rate as the glazing itself meaning that the seals joining the two are likely to last far longer.

Adapting Unican access-control With such a good trend going in re-use of old trashpicked parts, there was one little hack I had wanted to do for years and with the side door of the house slated for replacement, now was my only chance. Years ago I had pulled this big ol' Simplex/Unican 1000 pushbutton combination lock and some extra parts out of some building being demoed. In its heyday before electronic access control, this unit went for well over $300 and still isn't cheap these days -- massively built for the industrial/commercial market. They're still used where a shared combination is acceptable and/or the facility people don't want to worry about changing batteries in an electronic system.

However, the latch that came with it is a big long-throw commercial grade type with a 2-3/4" backset, and I needed to do a bit of internal machining to adapt this to my weenie little 2-3/8" residential setup. And the little wire I'm holding is for an additional fun hack.

External combo-change hack As long as I had the thing on the bench, I wanted to be able to change the combination from the *outside*. I wasn't going to mount this in the usual way with a keyed back plate as that would have meant putting another big hole through the door. Usually the backplate must be removed to access the combination-change bar. Instead, I drilled a tiny hole near the top button up through the weather shield, through which a correctly shaped piece of wire can be inserted and wiggled around to come down on the changer slide and push it in. Not only is this obscure as heck, it's not a "security issue" because the right button presses have to be entered before the thing will slide in the first place.

Simplex combo chamber What's especially ironic about me having one of these locks on my door is that *way* back in the day I wrote one of the seminal text-files [backup copy here] on how to manipulate them open using differential pressure techniques. It even works if the lock has been programmed with the special "mil-spec" trick that requires holding a button halfway in during the open cycle. Simplex didn't tell everyone about setting combinations like that, but it's pretty obvious once you start studying the rather cleverly designed innards. Here's part of an article on them from Locksmith Ledger.
I finally got the thing installed and working on the side door, and it got a quick and fugly bit of weather-flashing with Tyvek tape. I figured at the very least it could be an easy way to provide contractor access as long as this door was still in place -- give them a combination and change it once they're gone instead of worrying about managing keys.

Second electronics-recycling run A second run of electronics down to CRTR formed Prius blivet # 3, and had me dredging fairly deep at this point but still coming up with plenty of items likely having negative value by now. Big ol' Sun workstations and their monitors, 386-class computers, a bunch of thick-ethernet AUI gear, laserdisc-player innards, and a *Beta* video deck. Who even remembers those and the great Beta-vs-VHS debate? Now it's all about Blu-ray versus high-def DVDs, and in a while none of that will matter anymore either as video will simply be files delivered over networks or on flash memory. Still, if the Beta deck hadn't gone and snapped all its internal rubber belts the last time I'd tried to power it up, I would be tempted to keep it.

Next section   (02)

_H*   120509