Monday, September 28, 2009

Restoring Siding and Building a Trap Door

The front of our house looked so good after removing the crappy white vinyl siding last September, that Jen and I have been talking ever since about restoring the original siding back a little bit further. We considered going "all the way" down the sides, but that idea was quickly eliminated, as it would require (a) lots of work to repair the original wood siding, and (b) lots of paint (and $).

So, a happy compromise was to take the siding off just along the front porch part of the home and restoring that original wood siding. This allows us to stay within a reasonable budget (1 gal of paint) and we also don't lose the (marginal) value of the foam board insulation under the vinyl that covers the heated living area. Best of all, the house looks good from the street instead of having the wood siding in front oddly transition to white vinyl at the corner, as shown below.

The timing to do this project is now, after the blower door test revealed that our access door connecting the basement to the front porch crawlspace was a major source of air leakage. Really not too surprising, considering how cold that part of the basement can get in winter. We decided to seal off this door permanently, and realized we could still access this storage space from the outside if we built a new door into the siding. This would actually make the front porch crawl space more usable and be a great space to store gardening pots, landscape supplies, etc.

As with many of the finer carpentry projects at Humphrey House, Kenny came up for a weekend to help with this project. Removing the siding went quite quickly, and we even found someone on Craigslist to take it away for free. During siding removal, we found the wood underneath was in really good shape,especially on the North wall. The south wall was a bit worse, but was still quite salvageable.

We then cut an access hole for a new door to the crawl space on the south wall. The bottom piece of lumber (touching the ground) was quite dry rotted, which is really no suprise given that it was original pine, untreated and left in contact with the soil. We had to replace this board, and also "sister" brace the studs as some of them had rotted at the bottom few inches. To avoid future damage, I also dug out a trench and filled it with two layers of old 16 x 8 concrete pavers and sand before we replaced the bottom board with a pressure-treated 2x8.

It was interesting to see the porch framing was really a "skirt" in which the studs came down from above, but were tied with a cross-beam to the main part of the house, and a support column at the corner. Of course, we had to reinforce this when we cut out the crossbeam for an access door. We put in a LVL header (leftover from the LVLs we sistered to the second floor floor joists), and beefed up the framing with supporting studs underneath this header.

Anyway, we debated how this new door should open, to the left or the right? To avoid future landscaping damage and any threshold issues, we decided that it would be best to try and get this new access door to swing UP, and we could attach it with a chain / hook to an eyelet in the wall.

We also wanted to make this look unobtrusive, so we used low profile 1x4's as the trim edges, and reused the siding cut out as the finish of the door, working to line up the lines so they would match the existing siding. This was more difficult than it sounds because there were some really bad pieces of wood in this particular part of the wall. With a few pieces of old kitchen wall lathe (we don't toss anything!) as a bit of a standoff, we ended up mounting the siding on a piece of plywood and the lines matched up pretty well. A few hinges completed the job, and we now have a nice little trap door to the front porch!

Once the wood siding is repaired with some wood filler and then primed, we will paint the door the same Roycraft Bronze Green as the surrounding wall so it all blends together. Then it will be a like a secret trap door to a hidden passageway! Where one can behold bags of potting soil! Exciting, right? Well, we'll see once it's all painted.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Interested in Solar Energy? Mark 10/3 on your Calendar

The national American Solar Energy Society (ASES) is holding their annual solar tour on the first Saturday in October. On this day, homeowners and businesses with solar energy systems will open their doors allowing the general public to come in and take an up-close look at how these systems power their home, heat their water, and climate-control their buildings. It's a great chance to ask questions and hear first-hand from a homeowner how their systems have worked for them. If you already have plans that day, you can always learn about solar online.

The solar tours are often coordinated by local chapters of ASES, such as the IL Solar Energy Association. Here in Oak Park, there are several homes participating on the tour. I'll actually be volunteering for the day at my friend Jim's house, who has helped us out a lot here at HH. His home is a "super site" on the tour where you also can learn about worm composting, and his Jetta converted to run on waste veggie oil (a grease car), among other things. Jim is also an energy auditor and instructor for the ISEA and Wilbur Wright College, so you're bound to learn something if you show up! There's no cost, and the tour will be going on from 10 am - 3 pm.

I was proud to see the OP well-represented with four houses on the solar tour. While you're out, visitors to the area interested in historic preservation as well as green energy can also check out the Pleasant Home bungalow tour, where you can view the variety, craftsmanship and interior design of the best examples of bungalow architectural style, also on Oct 3. It should be a fun day!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Great Paint Exchange

Twice a year, our city's public works department holds an event called the Great Paint Exchange. This basically is an event for people to dispose of unused paint, as well as for others to go and obtain free paint. It takes place in the first public works building in the country to earn a LEED Gold rating.

It's really a simple idea. In the morning, people are invited to come turn in all those partially-filled paint cans sitting in their garage or basement. Since latex paint in liquid form can pose environmental contamination issues if thrown into a landfill, this gives people a way to responsibly get rid of their old paint. It's also an excuse for people like me who have far too much paint "collected" from too many projects.

After the 2-hour drop-off window closes, the Public Works people go through all the cans and decide which paint is salvageable. They then reopen the doors in the afternoon allowing anyone to come by and pick up cans of paint - for free!

This is a great example of something that has triple bottom line benefits - helping people, the planet (by diverting waste), and profit (free paint). I wish every city was this proactive and offered these kind of services. Maybe you can talk your city into hosting one! As for me personally, I was happy to be donating 9 cans of paint to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it. And it was a great excuse to carve out some shelf space in the basement.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Discovering Where our Energy Dollars Go

We've taken the summer off of blogging, but things are starting to pick up again here at Humphrey House. Sorry for the delay, but life happens sometimes. Anyway, I recently borrowed my friend Jim's blower door as a sort of DIY energy audit, looking at the overall "tightness" of our home.

Blower Door Test www.humphrey-house.comFor those unfamiliar, a blower door is basically a high-powered fan that sits in a tarped-ff doorway. You close all the windows in the building and turn this sucker on High. This will suck the air out of the house, and then start pulling air in from outside the home through any cracks and crevices. The fan is attached to an air pressure gauge monitoring both indoor and outdoor pressure, to ensure the home is depressurized to around 50 Pascals (Pa). At this level, noticeable drafts occur. [More info]

Once I had this setup and running in our kitchen doorway, I went around the home looking for obvious air drafts. Our house is now littered with pieces of blue masking tap indicating all the leaks and drafty spots in the house that should be sealed up before winter comes along. Most interesting finding: the older windows did not leak around the window sashes so much as they leaked around the frame. For example, more air moved from a gap underneath the window stool (interior window sill) between that and the piece of trim below the window (the window apron).

The really cool techie thing about the blower door test is the fact that with the gauge, you can tell just how leaky a building is. Despite consciously remodeling with energy efficiency in mind, I knew that I'd be in for some surprises. After all, we're living in a home built 100-years ago, when there was likely no insulation, and air barriers were really more like "hair barriers".

So, the air pressure gauge measures the volume of air moved out of the home. As you may recall from high school, volume is usually measured in cubic terms. In this case, we're looking at cubic feet of air, but we want to know that over time. So the gauge tells at a certain air pressure (50 pascals) how much air is moved in a minute (CFM)? Well, in our 1.5-story home, it's around 4400 CFM.

What does this number mean in real terms of how leaky the house is? Well there's a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation that can make this more meaningful. (Math Warning!)

We need the volume of air in the house. Given the average 8-foot ceiling height and 3500 sq ft of living area (2135 above ground + 1365 finished basement), we have about 28,000 cubic feet of air in the home. (Humphrey House air volume = 3500sf x 8ft = 28,000 cubic feet).

We can find out how many times the air in the house turns over per hour by taking the air pressure gauge measurement, 4400 CFM, multiply by 60 minutes to convert to hours, and then divide by the air volume in the home: (4400 CFM x 60 M) / 28,000 cubic feet = 9.4 air changes each hour (ACH).

You might be tempted to say, "That's one leaky house!" but remember, this is at a high pressure of 50 pascals. We can "normalize" that number by using a factor for a well-shielded home in an urban area to find the natural air changes (ACHn). For simplification purposes, we'll use a factor of 16.7 (this is derived from LBL empirical data). So we divide our 9.4 ACH by 16.7 to arrive at a normalized air exchange of 0.56 ACHn.

This means roughly 1/2 of the air in the house is changed over every hour. For comparison, the 1989 standard for air exchanges recommends 0.35 ACHn. So, in other words, despite soy foam in part of the house and other energy efficiency efforts, we're still pretty leaky.

We have a lot to do to air seal the home, but thankfully the blower door helped us find all the little holes where our energy dollars were flying out the house. Next step is to work on fixing them. If you're interested in getting a detailed analysis like this of your home, follow the directions on, or find a professional energy auditor at or If you're in Chicago, look at any of these.