Addition Progress
(No, it’s not done. Sigh.)

The weather got quite warm earlier this week (Over 80°! In mid-February!) so I took advantage of it to work on the addition baseboard. I am very happy with my shop layout — just open up the overhead door and roll the table saw out onto the lawn.

My baseboard design is an attempt to emulate what’s in the 1835 portion of the house without looking fussy. The jig in the photo above is for cutting the offset at the top of the baseboard where it overlaps the wallboard. This step comes after routing the groove and round-over.

The taper at the bottom makes it easier to fit around the rough concrete that accrued at the edges of floor. The electrical outlets are in the baseboard rather than the wall so they blend in better (white outlet on white baseboard).

End of a productive couple of days:

This sawdust is what’s left from cutting the taper in 13 1×8 poplar boards (8' each) and the offset/overlap notch in 8 of them — enough to complete the loft. Note the outlines of the roller stands and the drip-line from the bow window above the shop door, which lets me open the door for sawdust control even in a light rain. Once the loft closet baseboard is done I can get to wiring my loft network closet and commence with the reconfiguring and repositioning of my various and very sundry computers & routers & wifi/routers & DSL modem & telephone answering base station & UPS & NAS.

I am multitasking by also working on the pocket doors on the main floor. They are hung, but need adjustments, then paint and trim. Pics when they are done. Also, too, still working on the loft bathroom fixtures.

Piano Deconstruction

Perhaps this could be a new cottage industry – carefully dismantling pianos.

My Mom bought this Yamaha spinet piano in the 1970’s, and it has served two generations. It underwent an expensive major overhaul a few years ago, but that did not last very long — the strings that connect the keys to the hammers weren’t up to the semi-controlled climate in this old house. I wasn’t up for another.

With the advent of self-tuning and excellent-sounding electronic pianos, it is hard to justify maintaining the old-fashioned kind. I have heard of people throwing them off of buildings to hear their death knell. I have heard of people burning them. I have even seen Harpo Marx pound on the keys until the piano falls apart and he has a harp to play.

We chose dismantlement.

There were many screws. Many, many screws, most numbered to match the key/hammer number.

I kept its harp, its sounding board, and its keys. They are things of beauty.

Still, I have fond and funny memories of this piano.

[Update 15 Jan 2018: Just noticed the serial number in the upper right corner of the harp: Yamaha piano serial number 859939 was made in Hamamatsu, Japan in 1969.

Addition Update, Dog Days Edition

In late July I was able to get back to work on the addition trim-out after an unplanned 2-month hiatus while my thumb healed. Yesterday I finished the guardrail for the entrance ramp (still needs a final coat of paint, though):

It is our own design. We were pleased that we were finally able to make use of the two newel posts that were originally used on the front porch of the main house (we did, though, have to make liberal use of Bondo in refurbishing them). We were also able to make use of some railing parts left over from our 2011 veranda replacement project — a lower rail plus a two-part upper rail that minimize nail/screw head exposure, made of mahogany to last:

Measuring and scribing the rail ends was a pain. You see the curve here in this pic of the pocket I made on the underside of the bottom rail to attach it to the fiberglass support post with a toggle bolt:

Each of the three panels is made up of six PVC 1x8s. After cutting them to approximate length I ran them four at a time through the table saw to cut the half-diamonds. Next, I cut them to exact length at an angle to match the bottom rail. (BTW, it was during this step that I cut my thumb.) Then a coat of primer and a coat of white gloss. Next, still down in the shop, I screwed the bottom rail to the boards using GRK trim screws (love ’em!):

Blocks and clamps assisted with attaching the top rail and final placement.

Pool Noodles for Head Safety! (However…)

One consequence of our having poured a concrete floor in our old basement is that the old, rusty I-beam (that was added at some point to help stabilize the bounciness of the upstairs floor) is now 5′ 9″ off the floor. I am taller than that. So I had this idea to buy pool noodles, cut a slit lengthwise, and, voilà! Head safety.


When I first bought the noodles at the local Family Dollar, I only bought enough for the main basement. When I went back to get some for the smaller cellar, they were sold out. Not to worry, I went to the Dollar General a minute away on the edge of town. They had them. And now, a PSA for those of you in the market for dollar store pool noodles: Family Dollar pool noodles are superior to Dollar General pool noodles in every possible way: they are thicker, denser, longer, and made in the USA (DG’s are from Canada). Same price, of course: $1.

On a less lighthearted note, it turns out that head safety was the least of my worries. (In the journalism business they call this burying the lede.) Yesterday, while using my table saw to cut pieces for our addition ramp guardrail, my hand slipped and the tip of my thumb grazed the blade. In over 35 years of woodworking this was my first trip to the ER. I will spare you the gruesome details, suffice it to say that my left thumb is now a wee bit shorter and sans thumbnail. It took two hours and nine stitches. The pharmaceuticals are doing their job so it does not feel too bad at the moment. The official diagnosis, on the other hand, sounds rather dire:
2017 ICD-10-CM Diagnosis Code S68.022A
Mr. Google tells me that this is diagnosis code S68.022A in the current, and quite comprehensive, ICD-10.

Addition Solar Heating Update

Well, it’s been 3 weeks since we got our solar water heating system up and running in our new addition. First off, it definitely works — Yay! But it is also definitely a complicated setup.

I have been testing and tweaking the various controller settings. The system manual, as so many are, is very poorly written. Here is a fine example, as no doubt translated from the original Chinese:

If hot water in tank isn’t used for long time, then the capacity that solar system absorbs solar energy reduces, when tank temperature rises to its preset maximal temperature, solar circuit pump is ceased compulsively even the temperature difference is satisfied. then when more solar irradiation shines in, as a result collector temperature will rise continuously, temperature of collector maybe rise up to the evaporated temperature of heat fluid, this phenomenon names collector – overheat, it should be avoided.

And I have, indeed, and as I suspected, had this “phenomenon” happen. With the recent warm and sunny weather, the heat wasn’t going on. The big 211 gallon tank reached it’s max (145°F) by noontime so the pump “ceased compulsively” and the collectors overheated — I saw it at 303°F; that’s why it uses stainless steel pipe, not pex — and the 50/50 glycol/water mix evaporated into the pressure tank as designed. This is OK once in a while, but having it happen on a regular basis causes the fluid to acidify over time. So, yes, “it should be avoided”.

Bumping the tank max up to 160°F helped a little, but not enough. I could go up 175°F, but that would not likely solve the problem and is also a bit too close to the 180°F rating of the pex piping. After sorting through the various system settings and the creative prose in the manual, I have settled on a solution of using the “BYPR Bypass function (high temperature)” to trigger a solenoid valve to dump hot water when the collectors are near overheating until the system cools down a bit. We are fortunately blessed with an over-abundance of well water, and we put in an extra conduit running down to the spring house during construction so we can use that for the cool-down dump. I ordered the parts I need — the last ones are arriving today — this includes the solenoid valve and another mixing valve (since I really do not want to run 160+°F into my floor). Meanwhile, I have been manually dumping hot water, as well as running the heat on whatever cool nights I can. We have some cool and rainy weather coming in a couple of days, that will be a good time for me to drain the big tank and readjust the plumbing with the new parts. I am using SharkBite push-to-fit connectors, which are a breeze to remove and reposition, so it should go pretty smoothly (he says, inviting the wrath of the easily-irked Gods of Plumbing).

Here is the updated system schematic; not really all that complicated, right? Right?


Click to embiggen [Updated 20 May2017 to reflect final as-built]

Solar at Last

After literally years (I bought the major components in May of 2015!), we finally have an operational solar hot water heating system. Let’s start in the basement utility room.


The collection part of the system

Here is the 800L (211 gallons) solar hot water storage tank. I choose this size on the highly scientific principle that it was the largest one that would fit under the 7½’ ceiling. The grey box on the wall is solar pump/controller. When the rooftop panel temp is higher than the storage tank temp (and the tank is less than 145 160 °F [Updated June 1st 2017 after system fine-tuning]) it starts pumping. The insulated pipe coming out the top of the box goes to the rooftop panels where the heat is collected and comes down though the right-hand pipe, through a heat exchange coil in the tank, then back up to the box. The red thing is an expansion tank. This system is a closed loop that has a 50/50 water/propylene-glycol mix (good down to minus 39 degrees).


The heat distribution part of the system

On the opposite wall we have the underfloor heating pump and controls. The green box on the right is the control module. When a thermostat calls for heat in any of the 3 zones, it sends a signal to the appropriate thermal actuator (the small white cylinders atop the manifold in the center of the picture. Once the actuators are open (visually you can see a blue ring at the top) the controller starts the circulator pump (on the left — it is a delta-T variable speed pump that reacts to individual zones opening and closing to maintain a constant temperature differential between the inlet and outlet). This part of the system is a open loop — it uses the water directly from the big storage tank (which also provides pre-heated water into our small electric DHW heater.


The collector frames

Last week I completed the assembly of the three rooftop solar panel frames. Each of the three frames will hold 30 evacuated/vacuum collector tubes. Together the three frames are about 23 feet long. At the top of each frame is a manifold — this is the only part that has water running in it, to capture the heat from the tubes.

Installation begins

Monday, the contractors arrived, two guys with two ladders. The frames are unwieldy but fairly light. After some discussion we decided to take off the relative heavy manifolds and take them up separately. Here is the first frame getting fastened to the roof; rather than put any holes in our shiny new standing roof I choose specialized clamps.[/caption]

Here is the second frame being carried up the two ladders. I am working the safety rope from underneath.


Day one done

By the close of the first day’s installation, the contractors had completed the plumbing hookup to the frames; meanwhile I got the hookups done in the utility room. I pressurized the system with 30 psi of air and left it overnight to test for leaks. It failed the test. When the contractors got here at 8am on the day two, I put them to installing the column and posts for the ramp railing (see a few pictures down), while I hooked up the submersible pump to flush the solar system and pinpoint leaks. I had two in the utility room — both cheap-ass fittings I got at the Capon Valley Market yesterday since I ended up short. I managed to crank one down enough to stop it, and for then other I had found the proper fitting and got that in. Meanwhile, since water was dripping off of the roof the contractors went up and tightened the leaking compression fittings up there.

Leaks fixed, they started in on putting aluminum tape over the rooftop foam pipe insulation to protect it from the sun, while I drained the flush water from the system and re-pressurized it with a 50% polypropylene glycol mixture. I turned on the pump controller, and we started installing the 90 heat tubes. I was on the upper veranda unpacking the tubes from the shipping boxes, smearing thermal paste on the copper condenser tips, handing each tube up to guy one who was on the ladder, who then handed them to guy two to insert in the frames. Six of the tubes were broken, but the manufacturer was pretty generous by sending 30 spare tubes (but just the tubes, I had to remove the sealed copper tube inserts and aluminum heat-collection fins from the broken tubes).


The finished product from the front (south side)


And from the back (north side). To the right you can see the newly-installed posts; the shorter two are original to the house, they were part of a handrail on the front porch. I’ve been saving them for lo these 18 years — glad to have finally found a use for them!

The system seems to be working fine, the 211-gallon solar water storage tank went from 59 degrees 96 by the end of the day. Was still at 93 this morning. (I ultimately want to get the tank to 145 160 °F [Updated June 1st 2017 after system fine-tuning].) This morning I turned on the underfloor heat in the addition, we’ll see how it does getting the room from 65 to 68. Also interested in whether the rooftop unit can glean heat on a cloudy day.

It feels very good to have this project done! (Well, except for some more pipe insulation in the utility room.)

And, as a bonus, I discovered that my Moto phone had made a highlight reel (complete with cheesy music!) of the photos and videos I took yesterday late afternoon. It was a gorgeous day to review the completed project from the vantage point of the pasture and spring run. And our livestock guardian dog Satie enjoyed it as well.

(The Last?) Concrete Pour

Apparently we are gluttons for punishment, because this week we called back our concrete contractors. No offence to them, but we sincerely hope this will be the last time we ever see them! This time, it was to pour a floor for the main basement of our old house.

When we moved in to this c.1834 house in 1998, the basement had a dirt floor, which occasionally did double-duty as, um, an ephemeral creek bed. We traced (most of) the water to a poorly-installed-and-therefore-clogged diversion drain that had been installed when the septic system went in the late 1980’s to get the leach field to perk. After we dealt with that, back in the early aughts we had the mud-laid foundation stones mortared in place to direct any remaining water down low to the floor. We then put in a French drain system to drain both cellars out back down the hill.


This is the only pic I could find of the basement trenching project. It comes from a time when my hair — and beard — still had some color.

The trench drain worked, mostly. In ’05 we hired some guys to dig out 8 inches or so of the dirt (Atkins Silt Loam, to be precise) floor. We then had them put in 5 inches or so of gravel. This has served as our basement floor ever since.


This is what the basement floor looked like before we had it dug out and graveled. You can barely see the stone hearth under the mud (more on the hearth in a bit). Also, in the interim we have relocated the water heater into the new addition.

Fast forward to last summer, when we decided to go ahead and have a concrete slab poured, to complete the conversion into a fully usable space. We spent some time removing and leveling the gravel down so the 3-4″ of concrete would come up to the pre-existing level of the old dirt floor.

The task of leveling the gravel was made much easier by using the optical level with tripod that I bought when I was designing the new addition. You can see the concrete footers for the jack posts (that apparently were installed in the late 80s) that mark the level of the soon-to-be poured concrete.

As always seems to be the case, it took some months to schedule the contractors, but over last weekend we confirmed a pour for Wednesday. Tuesday saw the final preparations.


The old wood threshold we removed. The top certainly looked worn, but that was nothing compared to the rotten bottom.


I cut off the bottom of the door frame sides so the concrete will flow up to the stone wall. The door frames have a lot of rot (I was shocked — Shocked! — to discover this).


Prep work done.

Wednesday dawned to the sound of contractors banging, yelling (*always* with the yelling, these contractors), and engines delivering and pumping the concrete.


This equipment is very noisy; the cat stayed under our bed for the duration of the day.

After several days of curing, the finished floor is now walkable. A far cry from where we found it 18 years ago.


Our new (non-rotted) concrete threshold.


In this view you can see the full-width stone hearth across the north end of the basement. Once the concrete is fully cured (28 days)we will have the hearth pointed up with mortar.
On the wall you can see the outlines of the original 1800’s cooking fireplace. We presume that this was closed off c.1900 when an addition was added and the flue was re-purposed for a wood stove to heat the addition.
The two posts on the hearth are there to support the stone kitchen hearth that we put in during the summer of 2006.

Addition Omnibus Progress Late Winter 2017 [Video]

Forgive me, for I have sinned: It has been almost a year since my last post.

We made good progress on our (seemingly interminable) addition project over last spring and summer. I took a lot of pictures with many blog posts in mind, but, well, «insert aphorism about the surface of a road to a bad place here», so I decided to do an omnibus video covering everything that we got done. Progress faltered, for various reasons (*cough* Trump *cough*), as summer faded into autumn. We did not meet our major goal of having the underfloor solar heat working — which would have let me continue with the trim-out over the winter — so I basically hibernated over the winter as far as the addition was concerned.

A 15-minute tour:

[Update 5 Mar 17] Fun Fact: the (will-eventually-be-) heated great room / under-loft floor has ~40 yd3 of concrete — that’s 160,000 pounds of thermal-mass goodness!

Addition Early-Spring Progress


I took advantage of the early-March warm-up and got the addition concrete floor sealed. I used Eagle Armor Seal, a glossy, low-VOC, water-based urethane on everything but the shower, which got Eagle Natural Seal, a waterborne penetrating water repellent that keeps the anti-slip texture of the sponge-finished concrete. I used my infrared digital thermometer to verify that the slab was at least 50°F per the instructions. It ranged from 53 to 57 throughout the 7-day process: 1 day to shop-vac and wet-mop, 2 days to dry, 1 day to do the shower floor, and 3 days to lay down 3 coats. I used an 18” roller which made pretty fast work of it.


The finished product after two weeks of curing — we are quite pleased with the results. This was also a major bottle neck to moving forward with the baseboards, galley cabinets, and loft flooring. (The flip side is that I am now the major bottleneck!)

‘Crete at Last!

The concrete finishers arrived at 7 am this morning, and the pump lady showed up shortly thereafter. The first of two concrete trucks (this pour is about 17 cubic yards) rolled in around 7:30.

Here is a short time-lapse view of the end of the first truck’s worth of concrete being poured.

One question that has come up is how long it will take for the concrete to set/cure/dry. “Setting” is the process of the concrete hardening to the point of being able to be floated to a smooth finish; generally speaking this takes several hours, more or less. “Curing” is the chemical process of the concrete fully hardening; after a week or so the concrete is around 70% cured and can safely be walked on, but it takes a month to reach 100%. It is still not “dry”, however, as that process takes, by rule of thumb, one month for each inch of thickness. So this slab won’t be fully dry until spring.

I intend to stay off this slab for at least a week. I am not yet sure whether I need to wait a month or 5 months before putting the sealant on it, more research is needed.

The Concrete is a-Coming

After a number of delays, we have been told that our final concrete pour for our addition (the finished great room floor) will finally be happening tomorrow. Here is a (probably boring) walk-through showing our prep work.

Addition Ready for Final Concrete Pour

Well, almost, still have to do the final cleanup. We are trying to arrange the final concrete pour, but with winter on the way the concrete tradesmen are very busy trying to get their outdoor pours done.

This pour is about 1068 square feet and will be 4½ – 5 inches thick. It is being poured on top of a suspended concrete slab subfloor. We want to add mica flakes at the end of the pour to add a bit of sparkle. From what we understand, this means trowel-finishing the entire floor.


Here is the floor plan of the two slabs to be poured. Click to embiggen.


Our lower driveway will let the concrete truck back right up to addition entryway.


The concrete pump hoses will enter the addition via the exterior door at the top of the ramp. In this and subsequent pics you will see tools and supplies that will all be gone shortly.


The vestibule, being closest to the door, will be the last space poured. The concrete will be poured to the top of the 4-1/2″ triple sole plate. The wallboard is already up and painted so we used blue tape and rosin paper to protect it. The space for the yet-to-be-installed 1×8 baseboard provides a space of bare studs to ease with the concrete finishing.


Just inside the great room from the vestibule there is a staircase to the walk-out basement. The concrete finishers can use this for access as needed.


The great room and under-loft rooms have 5/8″ pex heat tubing attached to the subfloor. At the upper right is the bow windows and at the upper left is the loft staircase the the concrete will need to flow under.


A better view of the loft staircase corners where the concrete will go under it.


Looking towards the loft. On the left you can see the stone chimney and the dumbwaiter enclosure.


The galley kitchenette. Except for the bathroom toilet and shower drain, all drain pipes are in the wall.


The view in the bedroom of one of the two closets. You can see more detail of the heat tubing — it is the zip-tied to poultry netting that is stapled to the sole plates. Tapcon screws and various brackets have also been used to help anchor everything down so the tubing does not float up. To the left you can see in the bathroom where the tubing goes through the subfloor to connect with the manifold in the basement.


The curbless walk-in L-shaped shower. This will get troweled to a semi-rough surface to avoid slipping in the shower (sponge finish?). It will flow under and up against the granite walls and slope down to the drain at the end of the ell (not shown).


The water closet.

Addition Update, Day 434 (Ouch!)

As I said in an earlier post, we got delayed in our construction over the summer. We got a six-month extension on our building permit, so mid-December is our new target for completion. Still lots to do, but now that the hot weather has broken I am able to get more done. My #1 priority is to get the heat tubing in place so we can schedule the final concrete pour(s). (#2 priority is to get the rooftop solar collection tubes up.)


Here is the 1000′ roll of 5/8″ Uponor AquaPEX tublng I am putting down. The make-shift support of sawhorses, pipe clamp, and 4″ PVC pipe is working OK, though at first it took two people to unreel since the roll weighed in at 86 lbs.


The first step was to put rosin paper up to protect the painted walls from concrete splash when the final pour is done. Next was stretching out poultry netting that I will attach the tubing to with zip ties — not really sure about this method but I read about on the Internet so it has to work well, right? Right?? I started with the trickiest of the three 300′ tubing loops, the one under the loft. Among other challenges was the fact that we had to thread the loop through the wall between the bedroom and galley kitchen.


It took 4 days but the first heating loop is now complete. (FYI, I HIGHLY recommend that you not wait until you are in your late 50’s before undertaking something like this!) The only hitch was that I had miscalculated the layout and end up with some left-over footage that I had to get a little creative with around the bedroom closets. (Besides from the one time I kinked the tubing, but that is exactly why I chose PEX-a rather than -b or -c: you can fix a kink with a heat gun or hair dryer).

About Time!

Yes, it’s been awhile since I last posted. The addition construction ground to a halt over, of all things, the paint on the great room ceiling. When I went to put up the ceiling fan I noticed that the drywall seams were showing through the paint. Turns out the contractor put two coats of premium primer but no top coat on it, said that was “as good or better” than primer plus top coat. I begged to differ! Long story short, we ended up putting two coats of eggshell (one rolled one sprayed) then one coat of matte before it looked correct. Then I had a couple of minor medical issues, so it took me awhile to pick up on my addition work. But I did finally get the ceiling fan up, looks good, don’t you think?


Minka Aire White 60″ Aviator Ceiling Fan

Interesting “insulation”

More renovation fun as we have the old house re-sided. We are having the west and south sides of the old house redone. These walls are wood framed (4½”) with interior wood lath and plaster, and exterior clapboards right on the studs. No sheathing, no insulation (well, almost, see below). We are adding fiberglass batts, then OSB sheathing, house wrap, and the same HardiePlank siding we used on the addition. So we are going from R-1 to R-12+ in insulation.

The north side is covered by the new addition, and the east side has the verandas on it and the wide horizontal exterior boards are in good shape so we are leaving those alone.


As we suspected — since I encountered them when I ran new phone wire 15 years ago — some of the walls in the old house were packed with soft, unfired clay bricks. Brick Nogging is what it is called.


Only half the house had bricks, no reason why that I can think of. We also decided to remove the old window trim — it had some architectural interest but was in pretty tough shape. Besides, the same trim is on the inside of the house where we get to look at it.


Bricks out. You can see a little fiberglass under the kitchen window; this and the new wood were part of a repair by a previous owner of the house.


Interesting craftsmanship in the wood-pegged, half-dado corner bracing. They also alternated hefty and thin wall studs (and floor joists as well). The horizontal wood strip under the windows is the back of the chair rail that runs around all the rooms.