RF Cafe's Greener Man-Cave
"It's Not Easy Being Green." That is the title of a song sung by
Frog of Muppets fame. The word "green" has been hijacked by environmentalists
to be applied to every process that relates to their idea of a perfect world where
mankind has an utterly benign presence. Unfortunately, as with many good causes,
extremists taint the process to the extent that many people who would otherwise
get onboard are repulsed to where they do not even want to be associated with the
concept. Anyone who has been around RF Cafe for a while or otherwise knows me is
aware that I have long been an advocate of responsible Earth resource management
without requiring that insufferable actions be taken to coerce compliance with radicals'
demands. In an ideal world, everyone would exercise a reasonable level of personal
responsibility by not wantonly wasting or exploiting natural resources, especially
to the extent that their actions demonstrably cause harm to others. Contrary to
Kermit's claim, however, it really is not so hard to be at least some shade of green.
From a purely technical perspective,
you would expect anyone who is not a
Society member would eagerly adopt methods and technologies that are less wasteful
of natural resources and respectful of the physical appearance of the world around
him†. Given the choice between a more polluting option and a less polluting option
for, say, interior wall paint, why would you choose the former over the latter?
Many times the more environmentally preferable option is much more expensive. If
that is the case and you simply cannot afford the price difference, then I do not
hold the decision to use the more polluting option against anyone. Some people do
mind. Those are the ones I have a problem abiding because those same unforgiving
people are usually hypocrites themselves. You know the kind.
Along with reading many engineering and science magazines, I also peruse the
home improvement magazines like Workbench. They are filled each month with product reviews of
some très cool new building materials, tools, machines, production processes, and
other worthwhile items that push the environmental responsibility frontier a little
farther forward. For instance, a couple months ago, there was an article that did
a great job of explaining the difference between high and low
(volatile organic compounds) paints. Henceforth, I will seek out low VOC finishes
for my projects. Abandoning the older heavy metals battery chemistries (NiMH, NiCad)
in favor of the more eco-friendly Lithium models is an area where the benefits of
newer technology (Li-Ion and Li-Polymer) outperforms the old, with only a modest
increase in cost. I have learned a lot of similarly easy to adopt and effective
Still, as mentioned, not everybody can afford to own the highest efficiency equipment
and practice a totally environmentally optimal lifestyle. That is a key contention
point in contemporary arguments over whether coercive mandates by all-powerful government
bodies are fair. Extremists exist on both sides of the argument. Some say we should
all ride bicycles, eat plant roots, and wear human-powered-loom-woven wool clothes,
while their antipodes assert that if you can afford to pay for something, you are
entitled to as much of it as you want, and can do with it whatever you please. The
former are often hypocrites; the later, while maybe contemptible, are at least honest.
My personal motivation for conservation is two-fold. First, there is an innate
feeling of wrongdoing and remorse when I do something that is knowingly wasteful,
like running a lawnmower engine that is spewing blue smoke into the air, emptying
a can of old paint back in the woods where nobody will see it, or throwing a soda
can into the garbage when I have a recycle bin for it. Therefore, I try not to do
such things. The second motivation is financial. With exceptions, well-functioning
machines and systems run at higher efficiencies, and are therefore cheaper to operate.
A personal cost-benefit tradeoff calculation is needed when deciding on the acquisition
of a higher efficiency system.
All this leads into my real topic - the whole-house rehabilitation Melanie and
I recently completed (well, almost completed) on our home in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Both of our children, Philip and Sally, graduated from college and moved out on
their own a couple years ago, so we have the proverbial "empty nest" situation now.
We decided that we would buy a small house and make it as efficient as possible
using reasonable measures.
In May of last year (2008), we purchased a 1950s era, single-story, 940 ft2
(87 m2) house a mile from Lake Erie. It has three smallish bedrooms,
one bathroom, a single car garage, an unfinished basement, and sits on about 0.7
acres in a working class neighborhood. No major upgrades had been done to it - original
windows, doors and siding, original cabinets and flooring, original electrical fixtures
and plumbing. There was no insulation in the walls, and flattened 2" thick fiberglass
insulation in the attic. Oh, the roof had recently been replaced by the previous
owner because a tree fell on it a year ago, and the overhead garage door was new.
The place was in solid fundamental shape, but just old.
Almost no part of the house has gone unimproved.
Four major energy-saving changes were implemented. First, the 60-year-old gas
furnace was replaced with a top-of-the-line, 93% efficiency
Trane gas model. Second, all of
the original single-pane, wood framed windows were replaced with
(low-e) thermopane double hung windows. Third, the empty wall cavities were filled
with an injected, high-tech material called Air Krete (~R-14 in a 2x4 stud wall). Fourth, fiberglass insulation
totaling R-49 was installed in the attic.
Insulation: R-19 Under R-30, w/Gable End Fan
Because both gas and electricity prices have risen since last year, a 1:1 comparison
is difficult. The utilities will not provide detailed information, but we were able
to get actual CCF (hundreds of cubic feet) for a couple months in early 2008. Thus
far, usage has been around half of last year's values. We replaced the old electric
oven/stove top with a gas model, which means our gas usage is even lower comparatively.
The programmable thermostat is set for 69°F during the day, and 62°F at night for
heating, and at 74°F for air conditioning.
New values versus old values of kWh consumption are less mainly because of the
absence of the electric oven. However, there is a dehumidifier in the basement now
which is set for 70% RH; it does not run at all during the heating season. The exhaust
motor for the radon evacuation system is now on a timer where it runs at intervals
for about 60% of the day (I conducted two radon tests to verify sufficiency). All
of the light fixtures have been replaced and the bulbs are all the CFL type (compact
fluorescent light). I used to be bothered by CFL light quality, but even in the
last year they have gotten noticeably better. After being on for about 5 minutes,
the light is very acceptable. Still, having to have the HazMat suit in the closet
in case one ever breaks is a bit troubling.
BTW, as I write this, there is a foot of snow on the ground (and on the roof
for that matter). Erie is on track for its snowiest winter on record, with 131.8
inches thus far.
We moved into the house on May 28, 2008, and the next week Erie had one of its
hottest weeks in history (the entire rest of the summer was very nice). The house
had no air conditioning, so it was not a hard decision to include an AC compressor
along with the new gas-fired furnace. A top-of-the-line HVAC system was installed
that has a rated efficiency of 93%. The old system might have topped out at 30-40%
according to the technicians that installed the new one. A very visible indication
of the difference is the exhaust pipes. The old system used a metal flue whereas
the new system's exhaust temperature is so low that a PVC pipe is sufficient. That
is pretty amazing. This is the system I recently wrote about that caused
on the AM radio. Also, a whole-house humidifier was installed, which not only allows
a lower temperature to feel warmer, but not once this winter have I gotten a shock
when touching a doorknob (triboelectric
charging). Installed price: $5,700.
The hot water heater is of 2004 vintage. Newer models are not a whole lot more
efficient, so we elected to keep the existing model and wrap it in an insulating
blanket, and install pipe insulation on the 20 feet of hot and cold water supply
nearest the unit. Price: $30.
Original Furnace + Hot Water Heater
New Furnace + HWH Insulation Blanket
Next came window and siding replacement. The original windows were single pane
models with leaky wooden frames. Triple track aluminum storm windows had been installed,
but they were ill-fitting and just plain ugly. The new windows are about as efficient
as can be found, and incorporate the low-e glass with argon gas between the panes.
Even in high winds, there is absolutely no air infiltration around the perimeters.
Weather stripping on these windows is very high quality. As a side note, the windows
in the newly built house we owned in north Carolina were crapola by comparison.
Installed price: $3,000.
Original Single Pane, Wood Frame Windows
Siding was the original aluminum (aluminium for those of you across the pond),
as was the soffit material. House wrapping cloth had not been invented when this
place was built in the late 1950s, and there was no Styrofoam sheeting behind the
siding. When combined with no insulation in the walls, the overall inside-to-outside
R-value might have been a whopping 2 or 3 in good spots. As part of the new vinyl
siding installation, large panels of Styrofoam were applied under the siding so
that they provided not just a couples Rs of insulation benefit, but also created
an air infiltration barrier. From a recycling perspective, the only scrap was the
aluminum, which the installers graciously offered to cart off for me (they probably
made a couple hundred dollars from selling it to a reclamation center). If I had
not traded in my SUV for a fuel-efficient Chevy Cobalt, I could have carted it away
myself and saved some money. Installed price: $6,000 (siding, soffit, & wrapping).
Replacement Windows, Styrofoam House Wrap Under Siding
Completed Siding and Replacement Windows
I replaced both outside doors myself. Originals were hollow panel wood with no
insulation inside. Of course they were leaky. The new doors are insulated metal
construction with thermopane glass, and good seals. The old aluminum storm doors,
like the storm windows, were leaky and all the rubber seals had disintegrated. All
three storm doors, which includes those on the garage, are high quality with excellent
seals all around the perimeter. Price: $800.
One of the coolest aspects of the renovation was having a high-tech blown-in
foam insulation installed in the walls. Tearing off the inside of outside walls
to insert fiberglass mat insulation was never even an option as far as I was concerned.
I briefly considered a do-it-yourself injectable foam system that is applied from
the inside by drilling 1/2" holes between the wall studs and squirting it in through
a nozzle that mixes the 2-part chemical cocktail as it injects. The new foam formulations
do not have the killer urea formaldehyde like the nefarious stuff used back in the
1970s, but the cost would have been around $4,500 to completely fill all the outside
walls. Besides, the expansion properties presented problems with bulging and cracking
walls. I also did not fancy the thought of having to patch a hundred holes in the
wall. The advertised R-value for that stuff for a 3.5" wall is about R-20, which
is extremely good when considering that standard fiberglass is only R-13.
After a little more research on the Internet, I hit upon a relatively new material
called Air Krete. Unlike the
other compounds, Air Krete does not expand while curing and it emits no volatile
gases. Its R-value is not quite as good as the polyurethane type insulation, but
it beats R-0. Here are the specifications for AirKrete:
• Density: 2.07 lbs/cu ft +/- 6%
• R-value: 3.9 per inch of thickness as measured
by ASTM C518-76 @ 75F
• Environmentally safe and non-toxic insulation
thermal efficiency over time
• Fire-proof and sound-absorbing
• 100% Fireproof
• 100% Mold Proof
• 100% Non-Toxic, Free
of CFC's & Formaldehyde
• No loss of R-value over time
• Excellent Soundproofing
• Non-Shrink††, Non-Settling
• Non-Hazardous as waste
• Bug and Rodent Proof
An advantage that all of the cavity filling, injectable systems is that they
create a solid volume which does not support convection currents. Convection in
the wall is responsible for the majority of heat loss since, in the same manner
that blowing air over a hot surface cools it more effectively. Air convection still
occurs with fiberglass batting both because it is not close-celled, and because
sloppy installation usually means coverage is not complete.
1-¼" holes for injecting the Air Krete (walls are hollow)
Fortunately, there is a contractor that handles the Air Krete material right
here in Erie (Bauer Specialty), so I gave him a call. About three weeks later
the crew showed up to get the job done. With our house being so small, the entire
process took only about 6 hours. I built a test wall cavity with an electrical box
in it to examine how well the system worked. The guy operating the injection nozzle
filled it for me, and also did not mind that I made a short video of the filling
process in the house wall.
Empty Test Wall Section
Filled Test Wall Section
Test Wall Section - note shrinkage
†† There is obvious evidence of shrinkage (~4%) where
the Air Krete has pulled away from all four sides, even though the specifications
claim otherwise. Cavity fill overall looks good, and appears to completely encapsulate
the electrical box; which eliminates the need for installing those thin foam gaskets
under wall plates. I will be contacting the Air Krete company about shrinkage. Installed
price: $2,200 (all four outside walls). Update:
AirKrete contacted me and after watching the video I made, determined that the installer,
Bauer Specialties, both mixed the brew incorrectly and installed it improperly.
Bauer Specialties is supposed to look into it, but has not done so yet.
The fourth main energy saving improvement was adding fiberglass insulation in
the attic. We laid R-19 paper-faced insulation in-between the 2x6 ceiling joists
(front to back of house), and then laid un-faced R-30 insulation perpendicular over
the R-19. Care was taken to allow "breathing" space at the soffit overhangs. Additionally,
sections of R-19 insulation was installed in the basement against the outside walls
in-between the floor joists. A thermostatically controlled vent fan was installed
in the gable end of the house, and in the garage gable end. I think they are set
to turn somewhere around 110°F. Price: $650.
All of the replacement appliances are Energy Star rated (refrigerator, dish washer,
range). As usual, we seem to always miss the tax rebates. All of those energy efficiency
improvement programs had ended by 2008. However, if I sell the house and make a
profit, the reprobates in Government will see to it that they benefit from my labor
by charging me capital gains tax. Total for improvements related to energy efficiency
Although not necessarily concerning to improvements in energy efficiency, you
might be interested in seeing some photos of other aspects of the renovation. Many
of you have suffered through similar projects. We figure the total investment in
the renovation is about $28-30k, so our house has cost - not including a lot of
sweat equity - about $135k. That is pretty good for a home which is pretty close
to being as efficient as it can reasonably be. The cost of living in this house
is now very low compared to just about anything else in Erie - even newly built
homes in planned developments.
Not a single wall, ceiling, or piece of trim molding has escaped repair and painting.
The only wallpaper used was for the top half of the kitchen. Every light fixture,
wall switch, and receptacle (along with their cover plates) has been replaced, both
inside and outside. Several new overhead light fixtures were installed where none
existed, including new switches. A few receptacles were added as well. The garage
and basement originally had only one receptacle each, and sported simple porcelain
light fixtures pull chain switches. That has been rectified. Drywall was hung on
the garage walls to give it that new house look. Closet doors were replaced with
paneled bifold doors that do not take up as much room when fully opened. Every hinge
and doorknob was replaced. The warped solid pine closet shelves were replaced with
the plastic-coated open wire type. Melanie and I did all that work ourselves.
Outside, we removed a very large, overgrown hedge row of yews that lined the
front of the property. We thinned out and manicured a patch of trees to the north
and another one in the back yard. An old well casing got covered over, and about
a hundred wheelbarrows full of dirt was relocated to fix an area of ground that
drained toward the house. Once the snow melts and the ground thaws in a couple months,
we will tackle the flower beds and put in a front pathway from the driveway to the
front door. That will be nothing compared to all the other work that has been done.
There is a lot more to the story. If you are ever in Erie and want to stop by
to say hello, let me know and I will be glad to give you a guided tour. I promise
not to show home movies.
Large Yew Hedge Row
Not apparent is how overgrown this hedge row is. The tops are about 6 feet high.
The trunks and branches were so thick that trimming would be impossible. So, out
came the chain saw. Cutting and disposing of about 25 of them is something I do
not care to ever do again.
Hedge Row Removed
Stumps have been cut below the surface and seeded since this photo was taken.
You would never know they were there. the neighbors are very happy to have that
hedge row gone.
Original Dining Room
The dining room is technically separate, but it is small. Ugly Linoleum was on
the floor. The sliding glass patio door is only a couple years old. All the overhead
fans were replaced with regular light fixtures since the auto-switchover digital
thermostat calls for heat or AC, and the windows and doors are rarely open.
Renovated Dining Room
Carpet installed with oak trim separating the kitchen from the dining room.
The bathroom had been renovated in the early 1990s.
We removed the wallpaper, painted the top 2/3, and installed wainscot with a
ledge on the bottom 1/3. A new vanity top and nice faucet set were used with the
rehabilitated vanity base and medicine cabinet. All new bath/shower fixtures were
installed. The warped pine linen closet shelves were replaced with the plastic covered
wire metal type, and the closet door replaced with a bi-fold that did not take up
as much room to open. New heavy floor tile was installed.
Original Living Room
It is impossible to tell from the photos, but the oak flooring was in awful condition.
Rather than going to the mess and trouble of refinishing it, we installed carpeting
throughout the house (everywhere except kitchen and bathroom). It involved removing
all the baseboard trim to raise it for carpeting to go under. The trim's old nail
holes were filled and the trim painted prior to re-installation.
Renovated Living Room
Two overhead light fixtures were added. This room had the least done to it (other
than replacing the front entrance door and storm door). That is Melanie sitting
in her office.
All of the dangling extensions cords, telephone extension cables, and coaxial
cable were removed and replaced with permanent installations. The ill-planned wall
sections and shelves were removed (those sold via
CraigsList too). Melanie and
our agent are there. The basement has remained 100% free of any traces of water.
Insulation Between Floor Joists
Original Front of the House
The house and yard were in sound shape and served as a good basis for improvements
without having to deal nasty old stuff - I've done enough of that over the years.
That is our agent, Gerry Seelinger, with Melanie.
New Vinyl Siding, soffit, Windows, & Doors
Everything original was replaced, and even the door was shifted to the left to
make room for the cabinets. The garage is on the other side of the door. I sold
a lot of stuff on CraigsList,
including getting $350 for the cabinets.
Laser Level for Aligning Cabinets
The laser level was a very nice tool to have on hand. A
π-shaped support was built to hold the wall cabinets in place during installation.
Mounting holes were pre-drilled and threaded so that Melanie could quickly put in
the first couple screws while I struggled to hold the L-section in place.
RF Cafe Webmaster Doing the Man-Work
Joining Cabinets the Right Way
These cabinets are off-the-shelf, hickory wood units from
Lowe's. Really high quality versions cost 2x or 3x as much. The
refrigerator/freezer is only 18.4 ft3, but that is plenty for a house
this size. The range is gas fueled - my first foray into installing gas pipe. It
has not blown up yet. Many new receptacles and overhead lights/switches were added
throughout the house.
A total of four sections of countertop are used, including the homemade L section
here. The original kitchen had no dishwasher. The sink is a nice Kohler single-holer
with a good grade faucet set. New floor underlayment and heavy tile installed.
If you buy a standard cookie cutter house in a development, it is unlikely that
the cabinet installers will bother to properly joint the units to each other. Here
you can see the cabinet units clamped in near perfect alignment, and I am drilling
pilot holes with countersinks for screws. This assures that the cabinet fronts remain
in alignment regardless of how the frames might shift over time.
Renovated Master Bedroom
The room is small by today's standards, but it is big enough.
Renovated Bedroom #2
This is the designated hobby room, exercise room, and sewing room.
Renovated Bedroom #3
Not shown is the 30" bi-fold door that separates BR#2 and BR#3. It allows the
two rooms to effectively be combined.
† The grammatically correct matching of quantities is practiced on RF Cafe, regardless
if it is politically insensitive or mildly offensive. E.g., the words "anyone" and
"anybody" are each singular indefinite pronoun forms that commonly reference
a singular personal pronoun such as "his" or 'her." Common practice has
been to use plural personal pronouns like "them" and "their" in place of
the proper singular personal pronoun. Saying, "Everyone made up their minds," is
equivalent to saying, "The one person made up their minds." See this
Boston Globe article.
Posted February 11, 2009