Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hot Water

In an earlier post, I discussed a number of options to provide space heating and cooling.  One of those options was an integrated system that provided both space heating and hot water.  Having not chosen that system, I needed to select a hot water heater.  This choice has several aspects: what fuel to use, storage tank or tankless, whether or not to circulate the water, and whether to include heat recovery.  The criteria include: initial cost, operating cost, and likelihood of running out of hot water.


The realistic choices are electricity or natural gas.  When natural gas is available, oil or propane offer no advantages.  Electric water heaters tend to be cheaper to install but more expensive to operate.  Since natural gas involves combustion, provisions must be made to supply combustion air and to vent the exhaust. The cheapest type to install is an atmospherically vented model.  These draw combustion air from the room and rely on the temperature of the exhaust gas to draw the exhaust up a chimney.  This type is not compatible with a high degree of air sealing.  In a well-sealed house, the kitchen fan or dryer can lower the pressure in the house enough to reverse the flow in the chimney and draw exhaust into the house.  The next step up the expense scale is a power vented water heater.  An electric motor driven fan propels the exhaust products out of the house.   Inside air is still used for combustion.  The most expensive type is a powered direct vent which draws outside air for combustion and sends the exhaust outside.

Storage or Tankless

Storage type water heaters heat a tank full of water up to a setpoint temperature and keeps it hot.  Some heat is continuously lost from the storage tank.  If too many people take showers in a row, the water heater cannot keep up and will eventually deliver cold water.  The usual solution to that is to increase the size, say from 50 gallons to 80 gallons.  Larger units cost more to install and have higher storage losses.

Tankless water heaters, on the other hand, heat the water as it is drawn.  Tankless water heaters must have larger btu/hr capacities in order to keep up with the maximum water flow rate.  Sometimes, that requires upgraded natural gas or electric service from the utility.  They never run out of hot water no matter how many people shower in a row.  Tankless heaters have been known to have trouble regulating the water temperature when the flow rate is low.


When you turn on the hot water, the water that had been sitting in the pipe comes out.  If it has been there awhile, it is cold.  You have to wait for hot water to start flowing.  One solution to this problem is to circulate the hot water so that the hot water pipe is constantly full of hot water.  Of course, that hot water in the pipes is constantly losing heat, increasing how much the water heater needs to do.  This can be alleviated somewhat by only periodically circulating the water, such as when someone turns a light switch on in a bathroom.

Heat Recovery

Drain water heat recovery (DWHR) systems, such as Power-Pipe or GFX, are heat exchangers that recover some of the heat that is left in the drain water.  They are most effective for showering.  The recovered heat pre-heats the cold water entering the water heater and the cold water feed to a shower.  In addition to reducing energy use, these systems increase the number of showers before a storage type water heater runs cold.  These systems are installed in a vertical drain pipe.

My Decision

After much debate, I decided on a 50 gallon GE Geospring heat pump water heater.  This unit uses an electric heat pump to transfer heat from the interior air into the water.  It operates with a coefficient of performance of about 3, meaning that it only uses one watt of electric power for every three watts of heat that goes into the water.  The other two watts come out of the interior air.  In the winter, that increases the natural gas consumption of the furnace.  In the summer, it reduces the electricity use of the air conditioner.  Although it costs much less to operate than a regular electric water heater, it still costs a little more to operate than a gas water heater at current prices.  My major motivation for this choice was to avoid having another combustion appliance in the house.  Some people have complained that heat pump water pumps are noisy and take too long to recover.  I decided that I was willing to take those risks.

Having finally made this decision, I arrived at the house one day and found the plumbing sub-contractor busily installing a power vented natural gas water heater.  I didn't expect water heater installation for several more weeks.  After a few phone calls, things were straightened out.

I decided against any kind of circulation system.  The only fixtures that are very far from the water heater are in the guest bathroom, which I expect will be rarely used.

Although the drain for the master bathroom is suitable for DWHR, drains from the other two showers are not suitable.  (The shower in the basement does not have a vertical section.  The shower in the guest room is used too infrequently to justify DWHR.)  I am pretty sure that the plumbers had never encountered a DWHR system (they had never seen a heat pump water heater).  I decided that this was not the occasion to make the builders do something else completely new to them.  The drain for the master bedroom is in an accessible location in the utility room, so the option remains open if I decide to take it on as a DIY project at some point.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Shortly after we started construction, Julie and I attended a home show in Novi, MI.  One of the decisions we made there was to install a retractable awning from Marygrove Awnings.  A couple days after we placed the order, they called to schedule installation.  "Sorry," I told them, "you have to wait until we have walls to install it on."  Even after the exterior was almost complete, our builder didn't want it installed too early for fear that it would get damaged during installation of something else.  The awning was finally installed in the middle of October, after we were living in the house.

With 2" of rigid foam on the exterior, I was concerned about having sufficiently firm support.  So, before the siding went on, I decided where each bracket would go and had the framers take out a little section of foam and replace it with solid wood.
The framers, who also did the siding and trim, installed some additional trim in the bracket locations.  (Over the sliding door, there would have been trim there anyway.)  The awning installers needed to get extra long lag bolts that would go through the trim, the siding, the furring strips, the rigid foam, the sheathing, and a proper distance into the studs.
Once five brackets were firmly bolted to the house structure, the crew lifted the awning into place and attached it to the brackets.
The awning plugs into a regular outdoor outlet with a conventional 110V plug.  When the rough electrical was done, we planned for the awning by specifying an outlet in a convenient location.
The finished product in the retracted position.
Given the time of year, we haven't had many opportunities yet to sit on the patio under the awning.  However, we have really enjoyed having it on sunny weekend mornings.  Without the awning, it would be hard to find a spot in the family room that is not in the sun's glare.  We can put the awning out as far as needed to create a comfortable spot to sit and have coffee without impeding our view of any airplanes that come and go.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Landscaping I - Lawn

We didn't get started on landscaping until after construction was complete and we moved in.  We had hopes that our lawn would soon be green like our neighbors' lawns.  Looking at the calendar, it seems more likely that our lawn won't look like the neighbors' until all of them are white.

The soil on our lot is clay.  After the finish grading and stone removal, several truck loads of topsoil were delivered and spread.
We decided to have underground sprinklers installed right away.  Installing the sprinkler system required running a 1" pipe to the outdoors.  It would have been much easier to do that while doing the rough plumbing.  Once the drywall ceiling was installed in the basement, it was much more difficult.  The fact that we extended the patio further than originally planned made it impossible to simply go straight out from the back of the workshop.  Also, since we have two driveways, it was necessary to bore under one of them.  It would have been much easier if we had buried some plastic tubing before doing the concrete driveway.

This shows the landscape contractor pulling the pipes for the irrigation system with a trencher. 
After the irrigation system was installed, the landscape contractor applied hydro-seed.
The hydro-seed was not applied until a couple days before Halloween.  We had an unusually warm November, but that was not enough for the lawn to come in.  As of early December, there is grass if you look close, but that doesn't count as a lawn.  The contractor says that the seed will go dormant during the winter like grass does and will come in strong next spring.

We get a big puddle at the back of the patio every time it rains.  This takes days to dry up.  Hopefully, once we have grass, the grass will absorb it faster.  If not, I need to come up with some other plan.
In the spring, we plan to put in a handful of small bushes and spread wood chips around most of the perimeter of the house.  We are aiming for low maintenance.

Monday, October 24, 2016


We purchased our appliances from Home Depot when they were having a sale, which was several months before they were needed in the house.  We selected them online, which worked great.  There are more choices online than in the store, it is easier to sort out which models have which features, and we found the customer reviews to be very helpful.  We went into the store to place the order, which also worked great.  The salesperson at Home Depot was extremely helpful.  We got a significant discount for buying multiple GE appliances at one time.

Arranging for delivery got complicated.  The builder wanted the dishwasher and microwave delivered early enough for the appropriate subcontractors to install them and wanted the range and fridge delivered at the very end so they wouldn't be in the way and at risk of damage.  Home Depot wanted to deliver all of the appliances at once.  After a little negotiation, the builder agreed to have them all delivered at once.  I took some time off work to be at the house when the delivery came.  The fridge, range, and microwave came off the truck as expected, but the dishwasher somehow got dropped from the order.  So, we had two large appliances in the way and lacked one that we needed to install.  After a few calls and another morning off work a week later, all the appliances were present.

We chose an induction range.  The range creates a magnetic field that induces current in the pan to heat up the pan.  That cuts the electricity use substantially compared to a resistance range, but we would need a century for the utility bill savings to justify the extra cost.  The main justification is that it improves cooking.  It responds to setting changes immediately.  It also cooks fast.  Maybe we will make up the cost by eating out less often.  We had to buy new pots and pans, but Julie didn't consider that a drawback.  The oven can be used as a conventional oven or as a convection oven.  I really appreciate that, unlike our previous oven, when my daughter makes cookies the bottoms don't burn before the rest gets baked.

The induction range
We followed the advice of our kitchen designer and chose a counter-depth refrigerator.  You would think less depth would be cheaper, but the opposite is true.  It costs more to get one that is smaller in that dimension.  It still has plenty of capacity for us and it is nice that it doesn't stick out as far.

The refrigerator has a connector on top that would allow us to connect it to the internet if we buy an extra part.  We haven't done that.  We are waiting for some occasion when we really wish we could check the status remotely.  So far, we haven't figured out why we might want to do that.
The best thing about the new dishwasher is that it does a much better job than our old one of getting the dishes clean, so we don't have to get them almost clean when we put them in.  It runs for about four hours, but that hasn't been a problem.

We bought a new washer and dryer when we moved into the apartment during construction.  We had to move and install those ourselves.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


One of our favorite features in the house is the balcony off the master bedroom.  This gives us an elevated spot to watch airplanes.  That is especially nice when they are landing from the West since that end of the runway is difficult to see from ground level.  Additionally, it provides shade for the office window when the sun is high in the summer.  When the sun is low in the winter, the office window is mostly exposed to the sun providing a little solar heating.

I was surprised at the sequence of construction.  The roof over the balcony was built right along with the rest of the roof.  However, all of the structure that supports the roof was not built until much later in the process - around the time that the siding was installed.  In the meantime, the roof was supported with temporary poles.  The Trex boards and railing weren't installed until the house was almost finished.

The roof over the balcony-to-be.
The structure of the balcony was added later.  Concrete was poured to support the posts.
This shows the structure looking out from the master bedroom.
The finished product providing a great view to the far end of the runway.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blower Door Test

One of our goals during construction of the house was to make it air tight.  Of course, no house is ever completely air tight.  Some houses leak a little and other houses leak a lot.  The standard way of measuring air tightness of houses is a blower door test.  A fan is installed into the front door opening to blow air out.  An equal amount of air comes in through whatever leakage paths are in the house.  The technician adjusts the fan speed while measuring the pressure difference between the inside of the house and the outside of the house.  The technician determines the rate of airflow required to establish a 50 Pascal pressure difference.  That air flow rate is compared to the volume of the house to calculate the number of air changes per hour, called ACH50.

A low ACH50 is good.  We had a blower door test performed on our previous house, which was built in the early 1990s.  The ACH50 was about 10.  That house had many of the symptoms of poor air sealing, like rooms that were uncomfortably cold whenever it was windy in the winter.  Modern new constructions houses usually have an ACH50 of 3.0 - 4.0. To be certified under the very rigorous Passive House standard, a house needs an ACH50 of less than 0.6.  Builders of Passive Houses go to great lengths to get to that level.  When I calculated the heating and cooling load for the house, I used 1.5, although I hoped for better.

The floorplan of our house is not ideal for air sealing.  The fact only some of the house has a second story and the ceiling in the hangar is midway up the second story meant that we had more wall/ceiling intersections to seal.  We did a number of things to improve the air tightness.  The worst areas in most houses are the ceilings and the rim joist.  To reduce air leakage through the ceilings, we:
  • located the attic accesses either in the garage or in the gable ends to avoid leakage around attic access doors
  • avoided recessed can lights
  • used spray foam around the intersection of the walls and ceilings
To reduce air leakage around the rim joists, we:
  • applied a peel and stick membrane on the exterior extending from the foundation concrete to the wall sheathing 
  • used spray foam on the interior
To reduce air leakage through the walls, we:
  • taped the joints of the OSB sheathing
  • caulked around the framing on the interior side
  • selected high quality casement windows
So, did these things work?  Yes, they did.  Our blower door test result of 0.82 ACH50 proves it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Choosing flooring proved to be a stressful experience.  The flooring supplier had a huge selection, but had a rather small showroom that was only open on weekdays, so we had to take vacation to make our selections.  It was hard to visualize a room from the small samples, especially for types of flooring that have intentional variation.  In the end, we were thrilled with the result, if not the process.

Some people advised us that we should look into something called luxury vinyl plank (LVP) which is vinyl designed to look like hardwood but to cost less and wear much better.  We were nervous about how it would look, so we didn't want to commit to using it throughout all of the areas we had planned to use wood.  We didn't find any samples that excited us, so we passed on that option.

We selected an engineered wood floor (often called wood laminate) for most of the house.  That selection was made several months before the time to order the materials.  When it was time for the flooring company to order the materials, they found that the pattern and texture we selected wasn't actually offered as engineered floor.  We had to decide whether to change to a hand-scraped texture, change to hardwood at substantial extra cost, or start over and select something completely different.  We didn't like the hand-scraped texture.  We spend a little time looking for other options and considered changing to bamboo flooring, but the flooring supplier said he hadn't had good results with that.  We ended up changing to hardwood and changing some areas to carpet in order to reduce the cost impact.

Throughout these changes, it was a challenge to make sure that what got ordered matched our latest decision.  It was also difficult to keep up with the budget implications.  During the process, we believed that we were staying near our allowance.  When the final bills came in, we found that we had substantially overspent.

This is the hardwood that is used through most of the main floor and the upstairs.
We used carpet throughout most of the basement and on the stairways.  The utility room and workshop have bare concrete floor.
I was surprised one day to find that the master bedroom was carpeted, since we had selected hardwood for that room.  Fortunately, the flooring installer agreed that it was a mistake and returned to install the correct flooring.
In the laundry room and two of the bathrooms, we used luxury vinyl tile (LVT) which is designed to look like tile at a fraction of the cost.  As mentioned in a previous post, the master bathroom is tiled.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


I am behind on posting about progress on the house.  My policy has been to wait until some particular aspect is finished to post about it.  As the house neared completion in late September, there were many aspects that were almost, but not quite, finished.  Then, the house was completed, we moved in, and life has been too hectic to do blog posts.

We probably changed our minds more about the fireplace than any other single element.  From the beginning, we planned for a direct vent natural gas fireplace, which draws all combustion air from outdoors.  Initially, we selected a pretty traditional unit that attempts to look like a wood fire.  Then, we changed our minds and decided on a wider, more contemporary unit.  Of course, like most other design changes, that added some cost.

During framing, an area is framed for the fireplace.
The fireplace unit is installed and vent pipe is installed to the chimney.  The vent pipe is actually a pipe within a pipe.  The exhaust goes up through the inner pipe.  Combustion air comes in through the outer pipe.
This shows the unit from behind.  In addition to the air intake and exhaust, the installers hooked up a natural gas line and electrical controls.  The electrical controls were later moved because they were in the way of the HVAC ductwork.

After drywall and installation of  a mantle, it is starting to look much more like a fireplace.  A TV will be mounted to the wall above the mantle.  We would have preferred to have the mantle lower so the TV wouldn't be so high, but the fireplace documentation sets a minimum separation.
We changed our minds repeatedly regarding how to finish the wall around the fireplace.  We talked about stacked stone, but didn't want to go that far over the budget.  Eventually, we decided on a 6" border using the same tile that we used for the backsplash in the kitchen.  
Here is the end product in operation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


When it was time to shop for light fixtures, we found that the easiest way was to shop online at Home Depot.  The number of choices is astounding.  We changed our minds about a few of them based on the posted customer reviews which wouldn't have been available in store.  We had plenty of time, so a delay of a few weeks for shipping was no problem.
Once the boxes of lights arrived, we lost a corner of our apartment for awhile.
Since we are trying to make the house as air tight as possible, I resisted using recessed light fixtures in rooms that have attic above.  Although modern recessed fixtures are much better than old ones, they are still a source of air leakage through the ceiling.  The electrician talked me into a few mini-cans in the kitchen.  (Now that we are living in the house, I find that I prefer the lighting provided by the pendant fixtures.)  We used recessed can lights in many areas of the basement and in the office and rear entryway that are under conditioned space.

We also had to buy light bulbs.  For normal people, that would be a simple matter.  We have decided to try out Hue from Phillip.  Many of the light bulbs can adjust color temperature and intensity.  A couple can even change to different colors.  We will be able to control them from cell phones if we want to, but I am not sure how useful that will turn out to be in practice.

A few of the light fixtures don't show up well in pictures, like the under-cabinet lights in the kitchen and the kick-plate nightlights in the bathrooms.

One of the pendant lights in the kitchen got broken during installation.  It is repaired now.
This is the light fixture over the dining room table.  We were looking for something more modern than a traditional chandelier that would match the pendant lights in the kitchen.
We have ceiling fans with lights in the family room, guest bedroom, and master bedroom.
The sconce in the master bathroom.

The scone in the stairway
We ended up buying a few more bulbs than we needed to because we didn't realize that the outdoor lights have built in LED bulbs.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


The builder asked us to mark out the outline of the back patio with flags.  We were in a creative mood that day, so we used curved borders and more area than initially planned.  Add that to the list of cost overruns.
Forms were placed for the patio and a sidewalk to the walkway.
More forms for the driveway and sidewalk.
Yet more forms for the front porch.  A temporary post is installed to support the roof over the porch.
And then forms for the taxiway.  The stakes in the middle mark the finished height.
The crew on pouring day seemed pretty large, although I didn't count.  Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do.
Pouring the front porch.  The crew has to be prepared to step in it.
One way to trowel hard to reach places is to use kneeboards.
The other way to trowel hard to reach places is to use a long pole.
The second truck is leaving as the third one arrives.
A broom is used to rough up the surface slightly.
The finished back patio.
The finished front porch.
The finished taxiway.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


While we were designing the house, we met with Colleen from Dream Kitchens to help us design our kitchen.  One of her suggestions was to move the sink to the island and move the stove to the wall.  We met with her again when it was time to order specific cabinets.  There are a lot of possibilities that we didn't know existed.  For example, several of our base cabinets have deep drawers as opposed to doors, which should make it easier to reach pots and pans.

The cabinets are here!! The cabinets are here!!
Installation of the kitchen cabinets went quickly once it started.
This shows the seating area of the island before installation of the countertop.  It seems to be the best place to check the house plans but still not a very good place.
Since we selected relatively dark cabinets and floors, we went with white quartz for the countertops in the kitchen for contrast.  We thought it would be easy to find a backsplash that would tie in our countertop color, our cabinet color, and our wall color.  To our surprise, that proved to be one of the most difficult materials selections of the whole process.

This is the island with the countertop and sink installed.  We selected white quartz for the kitchen countertops.  There is a seam in the island countertop, but you have to look very close to find it.
The backsplash proved to be one of our most difficult selections.  The wire hanging from the wall cabinet on the left will eventually power an under-cabinet light.
We decided to go with granite countertops in the bathrooms.
This is the master bathroom vanity.  One thing that bothered us in our previous house was having only one electrical outlet in the bathroom, so we specified outlets on both sides of the vanities.
This is the guest bathroom vanity.
This is the vanity in the basement bathroom.
Having exceeded our budget with a couple rooms left to go, we decided to get off-the-shelf countertops from Home Depot for the laundry room.  The half bath will get a furniture-style vanity from Lowes.
This is the laundry room.  The clothes chute in the ceiling connects to the master closet.