29 November 2012

Plumbing inspection: PASSED!

Well I can finally let out that breath I've been holding in for the last... month. The Boise City Plumbing Code inspector signed off on our total-gut-and-replumb of our supply pipes this afternoon, after a surprisingly brief inspection. My custom recirculating hot water pump configuration didn't even phase him.

So, now I can finally sleep at night without the nightmares of the inspector shaking his head sadly and telling us it all has to come out again. Phew! Good job Certified Amateur Plumber Lemontree!!

10 November 2012

Installing a swamp cooler in the snow

Yep it snowed yesterday and there I was, up on the roof installing a swamp cooler in the middle of November. I was lucky to even get the swamp cooler, actually. Home Depot and Lowes stopped carrying them in their summer seasonal section long before our roof was put on, so I had to order it online and have it drop shipped. And the roof jack (the duct for the air) and leg kits were available from one, just one website on the whole internet after summer was over. Lucky they still had some in stock!

I also had a hard time finding 1/2" pipe jacks. (Those are the things that let pipes stick up through the roof without letting water leak in around the pipe.) Most jacks are designed for plumbing vents and are thus way too huge for a little electrical conduit and an even smaller water pipe. Finally I found "solar" jacks (for installing photovoltaic solar cells, presumably) that were the right size, and they were actually local.

Last night I got the roof jack leveled and the base pan attached, then ran out of daylight (shakes fist at the US Congress for their Daylight "Savings" shenanigans). Then this morning Tiffany and I braved the frosty roof and she helped me assemble the corners and top.

The cooler is currently empty inside. The blower assembly that normally goes in the middle will be stored in the garage this winter -- it's too cold to rig up ropes and things to haul it up onto the roof right now. We'll finish in the spring.

And there it is, up there on the back of the house. Yeah, not the most attractive thing but I think it's better to be up there than stuck on the side of the house where it's right in your face. Traditional A/C condensers are just as ugly, and are also louder than a swamp cooler, so this is actually better in my opinion.

Oh and below is a slightly better shot of the roof now that it's daytime. We finally finished patching siding and painting everything (just one coat in many places, so we'll need a second coat in the spring) too, so the house looks pretty darn presentable now if I do say so myself! I included a "before" shot for comparison:



By the way, on the 19th and 20th of November we get new windows. The window installers are adding green trim (to match the fascia) around the windows, so the appearance will change yet again, shortly.

Also, here's the finished water heater install. Plumbing may not be sexy but I think it turned out pretty well, for a rank newbie.

09 November 2012

The roof is done!

Madison Roofing did a good job on our roof. (Of course they had better, considering what we paid.) We also liked talking with Madison's project manager Hans Weikl, with his cool German accent -- we joke that we chose Madison's bid more for the accent than for the quality of roofing. (We certainly didn't go by price alone, as Madison was not the lowest bidder: a roof is not a place to cheap out.)

There was some debate on shingle color selection, I don't think either Lemontree or I got the color we really wanted but it looks ok. It's actually somewhat close to the old faded cedar shake roof in color. And let me say, I love the high-profile ridgeline. See, most roofs around here have a plain ridge and "mushroom" or "turtle" vents spaced every 3-4 feet near the ridge. Those are stone-age technology, as far as I'm concerned. I did my homework and found that a continuous ridge vent offers superior ventilation with only a slight increase in cost -- and now that we have one on our roof, I have to admit it looks sharp too. Makes for a really nice architectural detail.  Ok, it may not work for all styles of homes but for a ranch with a low-pitch hip roof and Dutch gables like ours... oh, yes.

The only downside now is I have to buy a leaf blower to clean the leaves off the roof so they don't collect and rot (can't sweep asphalt with a broom like you would shakes). Wait, what downside? I love buying new power tools! :)

Sorry, all I have right now is this crummy picture taken in the fast-fading daylight. It doesn't even show the awesome ridgeline very well. :( Click the pic to make it bigger:

07 November 2012

And the Golden Crimpers Award goes to...

And the Golden Crimpers Award goes to... Lemontree!! (The Golden Pipe Wrench just isn't appropriate in this day and age of modern plumbing materials, as the Pex crimpers are now a plumber's primary weapon.)

So, Monday we started cutting out our old plumbing and hooking up the new. By Monday night we were tired and dirty and had no water for showers, because we had a nagging leak at the well pressure tank. It started out as a small leak in one location, so I tightened the threaded pipe a little, which started a new leak somewhere else. Tightened that, and the leak got worse. That's odd, I thought, and tightened it a bit more... leaks even faster. Uh-oh. Yep, I cracked the complicated cast iron manifold that has a bunch of ports in it for the well pressure switch and pressure gauge and relief valve and things. No showers for us!

Concurrent with all this, we had also decommissioned the old water heater and had a licensed plumber move the exhaust flue/chimney to the garage for the new water heater. Scheduling was almost a disaster, because the plumber showed up late just as the roofers were leaving for the day. Fortunately, the roofing foreman and the plumber were able to put their heads together and come up with a plan for moving the water heater chimney that both parties agreed with. Poor plumbers were there until like 9pm... but they got the job done. They also tore out the old gas piping that ran along the back patio. It was ugly, rusty, and in violation of code (it had too little clearance from grade, and it had NO hangers for support -- it was just resting on a couple of wood blocks. Worse, it went across the threshold for the back door, so you'd step on the unsupported pipe if you weren't careful). (The new gas pipe runs in the garage attic, protected from weather and neatly out of sight.)

So -- next day, Lemontree buys a new manifold to replace one I cracked. I tried to transfer the old relief valve to the new, but it snapped off because the threads were welded into the old fitting. Hil-freakin-arious. So off Lemontree goes to get a new relief valve too.

That finally installed, the original leak at the well tank came back. Being careful not to crack any more fittings this time, I tighten... and tighten... and tighten it until I run out of strength on my biggest pipe wrench. Still leaks. We think rust flakes and sand (which the old well tank was apparently half full of) contaminated the threaded connection, so no amount of cleaning with a toothbrush could ever remove all the grit from the joint. So, off to Lowe's for a new pressure tank. $250 later we had a leak-free connection and could finally wash our dirty hands and hair and flush the toilets. You know, I used to hate showering in that nasty 70's puke-green bathtub with 41 years of hard water stains... but last night it seemed like the lap of luxury

So, the long and short of it was, Lemontree's dozens of crimped Pex connections has shown no leaks so far, while it was my ham-fisted recklessness that caused all our headaches. So Lemontree deserves the award.

I also discovered that copper compression fittings have to be ridiculously tight. At each of our stub-outs for the two bathroom sinks, kitchen sink, and toilets, we used shutoff valves ("stops") that use a compression connection to the copper stub. (Should a stop malfunction, this will make them easier to replace than if they were soldered on.) I thought I had installed them all pretty tight, but 6 out of the 9* seeped water out the joints. It took several rounds of tightening with my biggest crescent wrench until they made groaning noises and finally stopped leaking. So, too tight and you crack cast iron fittings, too loose and copper fittings leak. Sheesh, I can't win.

As an aside, it seems we needed a new well pressure tank anyway. The well pump used to short-cycle twice for a single toilet flush, probably because the old tank was clogged with sand at the bottom -- becoming effectively a 0-gallon tank instead of a 30-gallon. This is our first house with a well, so we had assumed such behavior was normal. Apparently, it's not! Now, we can get several flushes without the pump cycling, so pump should last longer now. I also upgraded the system with an added tank-shutoff-valve (so we can service the plumbing in the future without draining the tank and wasting 30 gallons of water) and an added union on the pump pressure switch so it can be removed without disconnecting the 240-volt wiring. I don't know why it was installed in the first place without a shutoff and a union, but then, there are a lot of things about this house like that.

By the way, I'm pretty sure the old water heater is also full of sand, because it too used to short cycle. And the day we moved in, we tried to flush it, but never got more than a trickle out of the bottom. So that's gonna be fun to drain and get it out of the house. Rest assured we will be regularly flushing the new water heater to prevent a recurrence, although I'm hoping the sand issue only occurred because previous owners ran the well dry by watering the lawn with well water (at least, that's what our neighbors tell us). Since we won't be doing that, I'm hoping the sand will not be as bad from now on.

In other news, our old roof has been torn off and new decking and tar paper laid down as of Tuesday evening. Our attic smells nice now -- all that new OSB smells like perfume. Today the roofers start shingling.

* 9 stops: 2 toilets, two each for 2 bathroom sinks, and 3 for under the kitchen sink -- code requires the dishwasher have a dedicated stop.

02 November 2012

Corwin, the plumber

To be fair, Lemontree spent a lot more hours (worming around in the nasty dirt in the crawlspace, no less), but I'm the one writing this so I get to choose the title.

After finding that plumbers want money in the amount rivaling a college education before they will replumb a house, we decided to treat ourselves with the pleasure of doing it ourselves. Lemontree used PEX in the crawlspace and I did copper anywhere the piping is exposed to the living space. I achieved a 90% success rate soldering, which means I ended up trashing a few fittings but even with re-buying a few mutilated fittings we still came out way ahead.

The experience did reaffirm to me that I MUCH prefer machining metal over joining it though. Soldering (and brazing, and welding) seems to be more of an art than a science... and I guess I'm not an artist.

Anyhoo, the complex arrangement you see in the pic is for the recirculating hot water pump. There is a check valve to ensure hot water drawn at taps comes only from the water heater hot line, and not from the recirc return line (which would result in lukewarm instead of hot water). And there is a faucet to bleed air from the line (since the pump would burn out if it tried pump air).

The pump itself will not be at the water heater; by placing it in the laundry room -- closer to the furthest fixture from the water heater -- our thermostatic pump will be more energy efficient. If it were at the water heater, it would have to pull hot water all the way through 70' of return line before sensing the hot water and turning off. By putting it as far away from the water heater as possible, it only has to pull hot water through about 12' of return before it shuts down. It's not so much the electricity we're saving (the pump only uses 11W, less than a compact fluorescent light bulb), it's the 58' of water we want to avoid heating and re-heating all day long.