Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tedious assembly

For the past couple of nights we've been working on the mechanics side of the heat system. This really hasn't been much fun, though I suspect that we'll be getting to the fun part soon enough. But until then, it's a lot of planning.

The other thing that frustrates is not having the correct elbow fitting, reducer, threaded brass adapter, or whatever else comes up as we build this system. The radiant package and the furnace package both supply the bulk of what we need, but we have to come up with everything else based on how we choose to route and connect all of this. Not having one adapter (or the right size wrench) can stop our progress for the night. That's one hard thing about our after-hours renovation schedule.

Do plumbers ever walk on to a job like this and sit there for several hours, scratching their head about where to begin mounting hardware, or do they just fly by the seat of their pants? I'm guessing that they understand the flexibilities and limitations of the hardware and know what to concern themselves with and what not to.

I can't even think of any way to make what we're doing at this stage sound interesting. Things will get more interesting when we break out the torch and our network of copper and brass starts to take form. Until then, here's a picture of what we got done over the past two nights. And yes, it took a great amount of measuring and planning just to come up with the placement of the plywood and 2x4 mounting panels and shelves.

- John

The circulation pump for the furnace will mount to the bottom shelf. The heat exchanger is sittng there on the second shelf. A horizontal assembly of gauges and valves will mount to the plate at the top, and then tubing will run to the wall and round the corner on the right. That's where our mixing valve, radiant pumps, and copper manifolds will be mounted.

Monday, September 24, 2007

We put the fear back in blogosphere

Sunday! Up and at 'em!

Before I was fully awake Dad already had the new chainsaw running and was doing some practice cuts on the end of one beam. The Husqvarna looked, in fact, just like a hot knife going through butter! A good sign. And indeed he was able to make nice square cuts to get the beam down to size--10 feet, 9 inches, I believe. Looking at the cut ends, I realized that the beam is from the heart of the tree, the strongest part. Sniffed at the fresh cuts to learn the smell of oak.

Around this time, from inside the house, I heard John say "hooray!" I hoped that meant that our friend Alex was coming over. And he was! Hooray!

Until then, there were joints to make. Dad had given us a few options for the design of the joints and we'd settled on a simple, square tab on each post that would fit into a notch in the beam. For each chunk we needed to remove from a post or beam, he made a series of circular-saw cuts a quarter-inch or so apart, leaving thin slices that could be chiseled away. He and John settled into this task and, realizing I had some time to kill, I decided to paint the trim on the kitchen window, which I've been trying to get to since July. As I was setting up the ladder I noticed a dead bird on the ground. Oh dear. I identified it as a wood thrush--one of my favorite birds because of its lazy, melancholy song usually heard far back into the woods. What was it doing flying around our house?

As all this was going on, Alex showed up and kept us entertained with tales of his recent adventures. Finally, around 1 or so, the joints were finished. Then I went into the crawlspace and pulled heating tubes out of the way so John could drill a small hole through the floor where the tool room post would sit. This would be a marker for John to look at from underneath while sliding in a 4x4 support to rest on the footer, since that post fell between two floor joists. (The bathroom one, as luck would have sit, sat right on a double joist.) At this point, Dad gave me a crazy-eye look and said "We're getting dangerously close..." I think that's when my heartrate first climbed—not to descend to normal again for a couple of hours.

Dad explained the plan. We would carry the beam inside and set it down between the two temporary walls. Then he, John and Alex would lift it overhead so that I could screw cleats (basically, short lengths of 2x4) into the framing on either end as temporary supports.

We put some blocks in place to set the beam down, about a foot and a half tall. Then got in line for the big haul. Have we mentioned that we estimate the weight of the beam at 350 pounds? We got it inside pretty smoothly, though, some banging around in doorways notwithstanding. Set it on the supports. Dad announced a change of plans. "We're not going to bench-press this thing, guys, are we?" he said. The backup: They would raise the beam one end at a time, one foot at a time, like a seesaw. I'd still screw in cleats, just more of them.

We started on the bathroom side. The strong men lifted the beam a foot or so and I squirreled under with the screwdriver and put in the cleat. Over to the tool room side. Now, whereas on the bathroom side I was screwing into the new lumber we'd used to build those walls, on the tool room side the lumber was the old original hard stuff. This cleat didn't work out too well. Top screw didn't go in at all, and the bottom two pulled the cleat out toward their heads instead of pushing it in. It held the beam, but not in a way that made anybody feel very good. I always find the bit on a power screwdriver to be a site of some anxiety (all that force and pressure concentrated on a tiny point that wants to slip) and this was some major force and pressure, with three guys straining to hold this massive hunk of wood right over me as I put the cleats in.

We decided that it would be wise to use longer screws, so John took off to get those from the hardware store. And we decided that, at least on the tool room side, we could just slide successively longer 2x4s (4 feet, 5 feet, 6 feet, 7 feet) under the beam as it went up, rather than relying on screws to hold a cleat. So we cut those to size and added reinforcement at the top of each one.

O.K. Ready for the attack. We started on the tool room side. While Alex stabilized the bathroom end, Dad and John lifted, I unscrewed the old cleat as fast as I could and got the 4-foot support underneath. Then we switched sides. Dad and Alex lifted, John stabilized and I put a new cleat in just over the old one. As I did this the lifters made some rather frightening sounds. Heavy breathing and grunting. Oh jeez. After that they started putting a short 2x4 under the beam, like a handle, and lifting that way instead of trying to get their arms around the beam.

We were at 4 feet. Back to the tool room side. Dad and John lifted, I kicked out the 4-foot support and slid in the 5-foot one. Same on the bathroom side. Back and forth two more times. The last lift--from 6 to 7 feet--seemed really crazy, just going by sounds.

Now the bottom of the beam was 7 feet off the floor. That put the top within a couple of inches of the ceiling joists, where it would ultimately rest. Dad put some long steel clamps on the beam, holding it to the joists and rafters overhead in strategic spots. Then we moved a spare 6x6 post under the middle of the beam to be a base for the small hydraulic jack. As soon as Dad raised the jack a little bit, John let out a gasp. The beam was wobbling around in a most menacing fashion.

Another change of plans! We would put the jack on one end instead of in the center. From where I was standing--that is, in a corner with my hands covering most of my face--it looked like the 350-pound monster was basically being held up by these clamps, which were hooked over the joists, which in turn rested on our temporary walls. How could this actually be working? Why is my dad standing UNDER the beam, poking around at the jack which is resting on a not-very-plumb 6x6?

Every muscle in my body was tensed, but jacking the beam at the ends worked fine. We got it up to its full height and clamped it well. Time to bring in the posts, tool room end first. A little too tall. We took it out on the porch and Dad trimmed the bottom end. Brought it back in, hit it into place with a mallet. Same procedure with the bathroom-side post.

And there it was!


We took out the temporary walls in the blink of an eye, carried all the extras outside, and cleared out the whole space under and around our brand new posts-and-beam. There you go! Suddenly what used to be the edges of two rooms was the center of one big room, and where we'd been used to ducking between old studs we could prance around under our big beam!

It looks awesome.

Both Dad and Alex had to leave shortly after we got done--we did have a little time to sit and admire it, beers in hand (though unfortunately not Alex, who's participating in a blood-pressure study and can eat only what he's given, which on that day was 57.6 grams of pretzels and two packs of Lorna Doones) but then it was just me and John again.

It was only about 3:30 and we spent the rest of the day wandering around in some sort of dream state. Not only do we have this major change in the structure of our house, but it was yet another experience of having angelic helpers descend on us and make huge things happen. Alex really made it possible for us to lift that thing into place (not the first time he's done that!). And Dad brought so much knowledge and confidence and strength to this whole project--not to mention a crucial dose of complete insanity.

Truly a grand gift!

- Erika



The action is go!

Friday afternoon, our posts (well, three out of four) and our beams were ready for pick up at the mill. It was official: we'd be installing them this weekend. So, Friday night, we returned to light demo work in preparation. Erika removed door trim and drywall from the door frames by the kitchen and basement while I reconfigured and rerouted the light switches, sockets, and fixtures that passed through those sections of framing. We had just swept up the debris when Erika's dad arrived, 'round 10.

Here are your "before" shots of where the beam will go and what it will replace:

And here are some photos of the tear down from Friday night:

Saturday morning, crystal clear. Strong coffee and strong eggs. We hopped in the pick up and headed for the mill. My jaw dropped when I first laid eyes on those beams. They were much larger than I had imagined...drawing a 6x10 profile on a piece of paper is a lot different than looking a the actual profile of a 6x10 red oak beam. They were 12' and 14' long. Huge. Fresh. Heavy.

The three of us grabbed an end and lifted it up onto the tailgate of the truck. Then we lifted the other end and and swung it around. Marty and I got up on the truck bed to lift and pull and Erika pushed. We positioned both beams up on the cab of the truck and used some rope back down the other end to keep them from sliding back and strapped 'em down. The posts were tossed into the bed and we were on our way.

We stopped off at the hardware store just before getting back to the house, and those guys were like "hey nice sticks!" They were eager to share their tales of close calls and cheating death while installing beams. We picked up some new blades and other random hardware, and also grabbed a treated 4x4 to use for under-floor supports.

Back at the house, we unloaded one of the beams, then went inside to formulate our plan of action. First step was to build some support frames - temporary walls, if you will. This was far less involved than I imagined. We didn't have to frame out complete walls. Marty assured (and re-assured) us that we only really need a few 2x4s to make this work, and they don't even have to be nailed together, or to the floor. We looked at how the ceiling joists and rafters were configured, and decided to make just three little support walls. We made each one by clamping a top plate of 2x4s to the joists in question, measuring down to the floor and cutting a couple of studs, and then just wedging them underneath, tightened up with some shims.

Erika and I agreed that it felt great to be framing again. Saturday, midday, out on the back porch with the work bench, the circular saw, and the framing hammer. We had those walls up in no time.

With the new frames holding the ceiling and roof up, Marty picked up the sledge hammer and began to whack the studs out. Erika worked out other members of the frame with the crow bar. I carried the lumber out to the re-use pile. Studs and door frames officially gone.

I made a few cuts to the existing top plate (the existing "beam," just two 2x4s sandwiched together) with the sawzall. I got up on the ladder with the sledge hammer and pounded down on it, occasionally accepting the crow bar from Erika and using it to pry the top plate off. Through many a dinner have I sat at the table, looking up at the rafters and joists all nailed to this plate thinking, "it's going to be a lot of work just to separate all of that." Well, it only took about 20 minutes to accomplish. Switched out the blades and cut all the nails that were left pointing down into empty space. Now we were all cleaned up and ready for a beam.

Meanwhile, Dad was inspecting the beam, measuring for length, and planning the approach to cutting this thing up. Originally, he planned to do this all by hand. But after a handful of strokes of the saw, he made the executive decision: we need a chain saw. We checked with the guys down the road to see if they sold them, but they don't. However, our friend the owner generously offered to lend us his. Unfortunately, we found out very quickly that it's old blade wasn't going to give us the precise cut that we needed. This was the day that we would be lovingly gifted a sweet new saw. When Marty told us that we'd have this forever, I could appreciate it. I have so many fond memories of my dad's Homelite, a saw that I've seen him use and repair and depend on for my entire life. Where would we be in this without our family's help in so many ways?

By early evening, well before dusk, we were in good shape. We had a plan. We had support walls in place and on the job. Our joists and rafters were all cleaned up and the old top plate and studs were out. So we took the rest of the night to hang out, sit on a boulder, take some walks, and build a fire.

- John

Thursday, September 20, 2007

We conduit!

Step 1. Snake something through the second conduit (the one that was missing a rope, thanks to the rat, probably) so we could get a new rope in to use to pull the rest of our tubing through.

So I bought this tool called a sewer rod. It's 50 feet of 1/2" wide steel strip wrapped inside a wheel of four spokes. It's got a round metal roller on the leading end. I chose this tool instead of the common auger snake, which is basically a long tight spring with a fatter spring tip. It just seemed like the roller tip would give us less trouble feeding it through the corrugated conduit.

We added a little bit of grease to the surface of the roller, and started feeding the sewer rod into the abandoned conduit from the basement end. This went off almost without a hitch. There's this V-shaped handle on the steel strip that you can use to clamp down and grip with, in case your really trying to work out a clog. You're supposed to keep this handle with you while you feed the strip, but I forgot and the handle ended up about 6 feet into the conduit before I noticed. And we couldn't pull it back out because the handle's open V end was getting caught on the conduit's corrugated ribs. We figured we could leave it in then, and it should come out the other side. Aside from that, the sewer rod snaked through the conduit and out into the furnace with very little effort. This was good. So we tied our nice new rope onto the sewer rod (basement end, since the handle was still in there) and pulled it through. Success!

Step 2. Wrap the two remaining tubes together with insulation and duct tape.

Now there's something we've done a few times on the side lawn by now. We made relatively short work of this step. Man, can we wrap and tape! Seriously. I was pretty psyched with how tight, neat, and efficient our wrap job was. Looked like a 60' burrito. And not those Virginia burritos.

Once it was wrapped, we fed it back into the basement through the window and tied our rope on.

Step 3. Push/Pull.

Erika pushed, I pulled, and right on through she sailed. We now have all 4 water lines running from the furnace to the house. Hooray!

So on to stage whatever of the heating. Let's just call it the next stage. I don't want to keep count anymore. The next stage is another somewhat daunting one which promises to be tedious. We've got to assemble the PMP (plumbing mechanical package). Pumps, copper pipes, brass fittings, valves, gauges, mounting, soldering. We moved the boxes of parts into the dining room and started to take inventory and identify the parts. For the 50th time, I read over the assembly/installation instructions. I drew sketches, started a list of questions. With every time I read this stuff, I understand it a little better, so that's good. The tough part now is figuring out where to jump in.

We came to a couple of realizations:

1. We were probably supposed to install ball valves at the beginning and end of every circuit of pex we had run. Took a look at what this would entail, and it's really not so bad. Couple of hours or less, probably.

2. (unrelated) Hey, if we're going to be installing the beam this weekend, we need to do some demolishing and rerouting of electrical tomorrow.

And with that, we decided we'd better eat some dinner. It was almost 11 o'clock.

- John

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The 90 Day Challenge

Tuesday we had an mid-afternoon appointment at the house with our ever helpful and encouraging draw inspector/renovation consultant. I got the reaction I was hoping for when he came into the house and looked up at the radiant tubes and plates...pretty much a "holy cow, that's a lot of tubing and plates." Yes, yes it is.

He gave us some tips on how we might get the 3-tubed snake fed through the conduit. First, he suggested staggering the tips about 1 foot down, so that rather than a 3-tubed blunt end, you'd be leading with a single tube. He snipped a couple of the tubes and we re-tied and taped the end and got ready to help us try to push/pull this thing through. We got a little further, but not much. So he left his winch with us to use until the next time we see him.

Oh yeah, and we've got 90 days to complete the project.

The official deadline for the bank-sponsored renovation - what we call Phase 1 - is October 1. We filed for an extension and apparently the max is 90 days. "The 90 Day Challenge," Erika joked.

After our wonderful renovation consultant left, we gave his winch a shot. Secured one end to a tree and the other to the lead rope. After several cranks we had a very taut rope and had only advanced the tubes by about one foot. I was nervous about damaging the frame of the furnace, given the way the rope had to come up over it like a pully.

A winch wasn't going to do it. We weighed our options for getting this tube run. and decided that we would unwrap the insulation and tape from the 60 feet of tubing that was hanging us up and re-wrap just one of them and try to get it fed. Then, we figure we can buy a snake (the tool) and feed that through the abandoned conduit and attempt to reclaim it for use by getting a rope in there again.

We dragged the tethered tubes back out of the basement window onto the side yard and started slicing away the insulation wrap and duct tape and separated one of the 1" tubes from the bundle. Then we wrapped just that single tube. Our wrapping and taping job was way better this time. Nice and tight, and we found that you get further if you use narrower strips of wrap because you can wrap the tube on a greater angle and have less of an overlap.

While we were casing the tube, Erika noticed something on a tree near our compost pile: an apple! Hooray, we've got an apple tree! Not much fruit on it - we found one red apple which was decomposing, two red apples which were slightly scarred but definitely edible, and one that is still green. We bit into one of the red ones - crisp, tart, and early evening autumn in temperature. So exciting! We picked the other ripe one and decided it would go very well with the potato pancakes that we planned to cook later. We even picked up a couple of black walnuts off the lawn to go with.

Back to the wrappin'.

We fed the single pipe back into the basement, tied the lead on, taped it to reduce the friction, and assumed our positions - Erika in the basement pushing while I wrapped the rope around my hand to pull behind the furnace.

We got it! And it wasn't so bad.

So now we've got two more to feed. We plan to wrap them together and attempt to run them through the second conduit, as long as we can snake a rope down there tonight.

- John

(pic taken the following morning)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A small victory is no defeat

The stakes were high on Monday night. We bought a thick nylon rope at Lowe's and squeezed in some grocery shopping with the utmost efficiency, then hightailed it for home. Threw on our work clothes, disposed of Le Rat, ready to rumble.

Preparations: Replace clothesline lead with new rope. Uncover silver snake where it lay on the lawn and feed it into the basement, its head ready to enter the conduit and its tail still sticking out the opposite basement window into the flowerbeds. Retie crochet knot and retape the bottle-top tip. Slather with vegetable oil for lubrication.

John took up his station at the boiler and I put on my gloves and got ready to push the snake into the conduit from the basement. He pulled up the slack, I stuck the tip into the conduit, and we commenced to pull and push. Got about 7 or 8 feet in, then stuck. All my weight thrown forward and it wouldn't budge. We rested, tried again. Nothing.

O.K. Maybe the tip of the plastic bottle, the part you screw the cap onto, is getting hung up on the ridges inside the conduit. We cut it off, added another bottle top for strength, and retaped this new dome shape. Should travel more smoothly past any obstacles now. Battle stations! Push! Pull! Got about 7 or 8 feet in, then stuck. No better.

O.K. We pulled the thing out for a second time, the insulation already pretty beat up from moving backward through conduit and the ragged concrete hole in the foundation. Maybe the fit is just too tight? We decided to take off the fourth line, the one outside the insulation, and deal with that one later. John once again deconstructed the bottle top device while I moved down the snake cutting the tape away that held the fourth line onto the other three. Retie, retape. Downsized now, the snake looked ready to glide. We took up our positions. Started off okay, then stuck. "Are we any further than we were before?" John asked. "We're not even that far," I said.

He came down to the basement and we paced around. Oh man. We might have to rent the backhoe again and redig our trench. Maybe there's a collapse in the conduit somewhere under the earth. Maybe the way the trench bends is just too tough to get this thing past. I asked if John wanted to try pushing. He did; no luck. I got next to him and we put our four hands on it. Suddenly it moved! It moved and moved and moved! We were getting it! I saw the tail end come crashing into the basement! We were laughing and laughing, shoving the snake through the ground! Yes! We've buried it! It must be almost to the boiler by now! Margaritas! Margaritas!

John looked out the window and gasped. The silver snake was looped just outside the basement, sticking up from the conduit in weird curves.

It hadn't been moving through the conduit at all. It had only popped up and looped outward in the space between the conduit and the foundation.

You can imagine that we spent some time being disappointed at this point in the evening. Then it took some time just to feed the snake back into the basement.

What to do?

I suggested that maybe, now that we had the fourth line separated anyway, we should try just feeding that by itself. If we get it through or if we don't, I reasoned, it would give us some information about what's going on in there. So we retaped, retied. Fed it right through, no problem.

This means we SHOULD be able to get the other lines through as long as we take them one at a time. We'll have to kill our big mama snake, though--unwrap the insulation, most of which is pretty torn up by now anyway, and rewrap each line by itself. And we'll have to think of some clever way to get a lead back through that second conduit, the one where the rat chewed through the rope.

- Erika

The snake comes in from the side yard...

Enters through the basement window...

And should feed through that hole in the foundation into the conduit...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rats! And a silver snake.

Sunday: another clear-as-a-bell, cool fall day. When did it get to be fall? All of a sudden, the nights are downright chilly, which we agreed this weekend feels more threatening this year than any other time in our lives. After all, we're still putting in the heat system. Apparently time grows short.

It's so great to be done with the stapling now. Although, actually, there was STILL a little more stapling to be done Sunday morning. First we had to do the rest of the crimping along the manifold downstairs, which John handled like a pro with me as the dental-style assistant, and there were a few plates to staple that we'd waited on until after the manifold was in place. So I stapled those and nailed tubing hangers to the joists where the return manifold runs across the basement wall. There: nice and neat! Looks like a finished system now--a good feeling.

As I did that, John attacked what had become a royal mess on the side of the basement where our water lines will enter and the "plumbing package"--a series of valves, pumps and pressure tank--will reside. We'll be doing lots of work over here and were already more than tired of stepping over pex scraps, tools and boxes of wood, all drifting on a sea of wood chips from drilling holes into the joists. Ahh: much better.

This brought us to a new and scary phase of the heat system project. Naturally, we put it off a little further by making yet another trip into Nellysford to buy bread, a tomato and two more coffees. Then lunch on the grass.

OK, no more stalling. Next thing was to run the supply and return lines between the basement and the outside boiler--through the three-foot trench we dug, then filled in, back in July. First we had to get the lines stretched out from the all-too-familiar coils they came in. These are 1" and 3/4" lines--mighty stiff, not at all interested in relaxing out of their tight circles. We spread them out on the grass and put rocks in strategic places. Then we started bundling three of the four together with duct tape.

Once that was done, we broke into the big roll of reflective silver insulation that we needed to wrap 'round our tube bundle. Decided to cut narrow strips from the 4-foot roll, then wrap diagonally. Tons of duct tape. We worked our way from one end of the 60-foot tubing to the other on our knees: John wrapped the insulation and I was constantly breaking off duct tape and wrapping it tightly around the bundle. Now we had a thick silver snake.

Over to the boiler to suss out the openings where we'd have to feed in the tubing. A couple bugs greeted us, the same grasshopper/cockroach weirdos that we know too well from the crawlspace. John says they can teleport!

John asked me to stand here and pull on one of the strings running through the two lengths of black conduit we'd laid in the trench before filling it. These strings were to act as our "leads". I was pulling and didn't feel too much resistance even though he was holding onto the other end near the house. Hmm. Is there really that much slack? Nope: here comes a broken end.


Literally: looked like it had been chewed through by our friend the rat, who may well have been using this conduit as an underground highway. For us it meant that unless we could get another lead through that conduit, we'd have to get all four tubes--the three in our insulated bundle, plus a fourth cold line--into one conduit.

We determined it should in fact fit, so we bundled the cold line onto our big silver snake. Tension was running pretty high. There was a weird pile of entrails on the ground near the boiler--what the heck?--and I thought of how people used to read the future in animal intestines. I positioned myself inside the basement, wearing gloves, to pull on the lead string. John tied the other end to the silver snake, using the top of a plastic bottle for an aerodynamic tip and employing a super-amazing crochet knot his dad taught him. (The elder John learned it in the Navy and would use it to secure a bundle of mop handles, which he'd then drag undersea off the aircraft carrier to clean the mopheads! This is one hefty knot.)

And, well, we got about a foot and a half of that snake fed through before giving up.

A, the string we have as a lead--cotton clothesline--is going to break as soon as I really lean on it. B, the silver snake has a mind of its own. C, we should go from the basement end, not the boiler end.

We laid out the snake on the grass again with more stones and a bunch of blankets to keep the sun off. Hopefully 24 hours of this treatment will straighten it out and make it more cooperative. And we'll pick up something better than clothesline to use as a lead.

Wish us luck.

We also set a rat trap in the basement. Hey rat, want some all-natural peanut butter? Uh-huh. This morning we had ourselves a dead rat. Sorry, dude.

- Erika