Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Soy foam in a can!

In a fit of early spring cleaning, I recently decided to clear out the basement utility room, and rearranging our old kitchen cabinets and fridge. These had really just been haphazardly thrown in place when we gutted the old Humphrey House kitchen last fall. Maybe it was a winter fit, but the fact that the fridge blocked a window and most of the natural light in the room had become too much for me.

One item on the cleaning list was to visit various hardware stores and take back the assorted excess building materials we had accumulated during our fall frenzy of remodeling. I realized it was quite pathetic and time to take action when my "to be returned" pile started needing overflow storage bins.

One of the return visits involved a trip to Home Depot. I've dreaded the return process here after learning they restrict the number of times you can return items without a receipt in a given year. I found out the hard way after returning a plumbing coupling for a measly $1.31 a few years ago, and being told I couldn't return anything for a year. Fortunately, this time I actually had more receipts than I expected, and the returns went painlessly. But, since some items were purchased so long ago, they gave me in-store credit instead of a refund.

I somehow fought off a strangely magnetic pull to wander the store and spend my newly found "in store credit" and headed for the exits. I know that once the thaws come, we will be making plenty of trips as the growing season begins.

On my way past the checkout aisles, I glanced at one of the end-aisle displays for Great Stuff. Ever since I've become more energy-conscious (and air-draft dodging), I've found that it's always good to have a can of this around (bonus: it's an adhesive better than duct tape!) As I glanced at the sale prices, my eye was suddenly drawn to a new item in the display next to my trusty red and yellow cans: Soy seal. I had to do a double-take from my surprise.

Apparently, the manufacturers of the same soy foam we have in our walls, now make it available in canned spray form for do-it-yourself use in sealing cracks and holes. I think the Soy Seal was like $1.50 more expensive per can than Great Stuff was (both were on "sale" on the end aisle display). And, they carried both "Gaps and Cracks" as well as "Windows and Doors" versions of the foam. I was surprised to see the low-expanding Windows and Doors can was actually closed-cell foam, and not open-celled foam (yes, I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to this stuff).

Since I already have a few cans of Great Stuff waiting to be used, I did not any, but it was certainly shocking to see Soy seal foam in my local big-box retailer.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Slow heating ovens have ignition problems

As Jen mentioned last year, we at Humphrey House enjoy the art of salvaging relics from other homes. Sometimes you find neat vintage doors with excellent hardware - other times something like a nearly new kitchen appliance can be found at bargain prices. Take for instance, our Dacor PGR30 oven.

The homeowner we purchased this from had recently moved into a nice River Forest home and had issues with the oven not fitting her countertops perfectly (it is a slide-in oven, not freestanding). The oven also tended to take a bit too long to heat up, so she said, "Enough! I'll try out this new-fangled thing I hear about called Craigslist!" Upon seeing the oven listed, Jen expertly maneuvered her way into purchasing this high-end appliance at a bargain rate.

After hooking it up, we did indeed see that the oven took a bit long to heat up. 20 minutes to get to 375 degrees. Hmm. Well, we let this slide as we didn't use it too often, and we had more urgent projects to attend to. Like finishing the rest of the kitchen.

As the kitchen punchlist dwindled (Yes folks, it CAN happen!), we returned our attention to the Dacor. We learned the problem of taking too long to heat could be the result of a faulty ignitor, as the glow bar lost its luster. I ordered a spare ignitor online to be prepared for the eventual outage.

Fast forward several months. After all the holidays hosting we had done, one day right after Christmas, the oven finally quit. Turning on the oven resulted in a token temperature rise. And, more alarmingly, we noticed the distinct smell of natural gas.

So the next weekend, I took apart the oven, removing the back panel of the Dacor PGR30 to access the ignitor. Only to find out the hard way that this particular model actually has two ignitors! One on top (for the broil setting) accessed from the back, and another one underneath the bottom of the oven (for regular baking). Needless to say, I became quite adept at appliance dis-assembly and re-assembly. I also like to think my creativity with profanity increased during this 6-hour ordeal as well.

Several hours later, the ignitor was successfully replaced, and believe it or not, the oven actually heats up in mere minutes! Much better than the pedestrian pace it used to take. So yes, if your oven takes to long to heat, it could be the ignitor. I guess all that wasted fuel we spent waiting for the oven to heat up offsets the savings from our tankless hot water heater. Yet another lesson learned at the school of Humphrey House. So, now that the oven is fully functioning, anyone care for a brownie?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Poor Man's route to Solar Energy

You can tell it is the dead of winter and not much is happening at Humphrey House. However, this gives us a chance to give an update on some of the projects we never got around to mentioning last fall when we were too busy working. One of these is the addition of a tubular skylight into our dining room.

This is a bit of unique installation because we really have taken advantage of every nook and cranny on the second floor, which may make you wonder how we managed to squeeze what effectively is a 10-inch HVAC duct through the space to connect the dining room ceiling and the roof. Well, we really got to take advantage of some of the existing architecture, which makes the suntunnel appear as if it goes right through the second floor living space, when it fact, it does not.

I cut in the suntunnel from the attic chase area behind the knee-wall in our laundry room upstairs, as close to the knee wall as possible. This was about 4 feet from where the exterior wall would normally be. But, as you can see in the photo, the suntunnell spills into the room a good six feet from the outside wall. How? By taking advantage of the bay window that juts out of the dining room. This makes the suntunnel appear close to the chandelier light fixture towards the center of the room, and yet the tube does not pass through any living space in our converted attic.

You would think with the windows in the bay that the dining room would receive plenty of light and not need additional daylight. However, if you look through the window in the photo above, you can see the house next door is quite close to us. And worse, it's a full two-story house with a steep roof, which ends up blocking out all direct sunlight to our first floor for 7 months out of the year. With the winter months being dark to begin with, I wanted to brighten up the space naturally as much as possible. And a $150 suntunnel was an ideal solution.

When we were on the green home tour in September, I described this as the poor-man's solar energy. I got quite a few puzzled looks, and Jen pointed out that is a bit misleading as it isn't really power. However, the tubular skylight does replace the need for us to turn the lights on during daylight hours. Just look at how bright it is After, compared to Before (and note the chandelier is not turned on).

During the day, the tubular skylight channels the sun into the dining room, located at the center of our home, making it brighter and feel warmer. So the suntunnel is our small leap into what is a form of solar power - passive solar (no moving parts). Speaking of which, our friend Jim is teaching a free seminar on passive solar and architecture at the Chicago Center for Green Technology in a few weeks on March 12. If you live in the area, want to learn more, and get some great ideas, it will be well worth your time.

As for now, I think I'll take advantage of this sunny day and go read by the daylight flooding into our dining room.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Extra Insulation the Natural Way

I read in today in the Chicago Tribune that the area has had snow cover since January 5 - nearly a month now! It reminded me of something I did a few weeks ago when the temperatures dropped below freezing and stayed that way for several days.

We had recently rearranged our basement, and as a result, I finally have a room of my own to call an office. But it has been a cold office. Very cold. So I wondered how I could help retain some of the heat in there. I recalled stories of eskimos using the natural insulation of snow in their igloos, and wondered how that would work to help keep in the heat for above-ground concrete foundation walls.
A bit of googling turned up confirmations that yes, you can indeed pack snow up against a foundation wall. However, there is a very important consideration: When temps get above freezing, you must shovel it away or deal with potential water in the basement!

Fair enough. I figured it was worth a shot, so before the deep freeze in January, I packed in snow from a recent storm up against the concrete foundation. I think it has helped somewhat. Especially from the howling winds and air infiltration that can come rushing in from the north and west. In comparing the basement's comfort during the recent deep freeze to the artic blast right we had right before Christmas (on the solstice in fact), I think our basement was equally as comfortable. In other words, it was not any colder with much colder outside temps.

Three weeks later, I'm happy to report that the snow is still packed in up against the wall. Although with a warm-up coming soon, it looks like I'll have to have the snow shovel at the ready.