Thursday, June 14, 2018

Construction - Interior Framing, Air Sealing and More

The temporary protection for the shell of the building, as described in detail in a prior postgave me the opportunity to proceed with the interior partitioning before the roof was in place.  I was able to get almost all of it done when it was too inclement to work outside -- cold during the winter months and wet during the spring -- and before having finally to postpone inside work in favor of the dirt work and landscaping described in the several posts preceding this one. 

(The original pictures below can be enlarged merely by clicking on them but, unfortunately, the downloaded pictures are not enlargeable.)
T-wall with door opening.  Single 2 x 4
header (blue); blocking to support T-wall
(red); carefully fitted OSB behind T-wall
stud for gluing drywall for a tight air seal.

Interior Partitions
While the exterior walls are anything but typical, the interior walls are more conventional.  What makes them somewhat different is the use of as much advanced framing as possible and building most of them in place in order to fit the slope of the cathedral ceilings more accurately. Advanced framing, as opposed to traditional framing saves material (and its embodied energy) without compromising structural integrity. I was able to use it to support T-walls with horizontal blocking and single 2 x 4s for headers above doors in non-bearing walls.  Anticipating the need for more rigidity to carry heavy 36" solid oak doors, I did however stay with tradition by using jack studs at door openings.  Even at that, the open floor design with its fewer doors required only 12 additional door-height 2 x 4s for the jacks.

Exterior Partitions
By contrast, the truss-built exterior walls required twice as much lumber as traditional 2 x 4 walls but I can easily live with it since all of the lumber was recycled and the energy savings from the thick
walls will soon compensate for any higher inputs.  In retrospect, I would probably have used the advanced framing technique of metal plating to join single top plates rather than using overlapping double top plates, particularly since there are two courses or tandem 2 x 6 double top plates on top of walls that were already so wide as to stand unsupported when raised.  Using half as many top plates not only would have saved lumber but would have made the wall marginally more energy efficient by removing half of the potential for thermal bridging through the top plates.  I say, "marginally" because the tandem top plates will be separated by 4 1/2" of insulation as a thermal break.

Advanced framing for outside corners in 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 exterior walls have just two studs instead of the traditional four (see drawings). The abbreviated design not only saves material but also accomodates more insulation in the corner. 
Our truss walls carry the latter concept 
A single 2 x 4 in an outside corner; also notice the
rough window units to the left before being covered
 over with sheathing and boxed in as described below
to a new level -- there is only one stud in the corner and the cavity for the insulation continues around the corner totally uninterrupted.

Wall-Roof Interface
Without raised heels, the rafters would be resting directly
 on the double top plates; the heels raise the rafters out
 of the way so the insulation can be piled higher
The nearby photo shows raised heel trusses for a conventional ceiling whereby the rafters are a good distance above the top plates in order to provide space for insulation that is only slightly shallower near the exterior sheathing than at the drywall side of the wall.  Raised heels that rest on the inside top plates are especially beneficial for our cathedral ceilings.  The arrangement means that the space for the insulation is at least the same thickness on top of the wall as it is throughout the entire truss bay.  Another advantage is that the wall sheathing continues upward onto the trusses to help brace and anchor them. 
View from within a truss bay.  Raised heels (red) resting
 on double top plates (blue);  blocking to support the
junction between wall and roof sheathing (yellow);  
"L" shaped blocking (between the heels) for gluing the
 wall and ceiling drywall for optimal air sealing

The top cords for our roof trusses did not extend past the plane of the wall and therefore did not help form the soffet (overhang) as shown in the photo above for a traditional roof.  A previous post on the ventilated cathedral ceiling describes how the junction between the wall sheathing and the roof sheathing was blocked on the inside and taped on the outside for maximum  air sealing, then a "mini-attic" or "cool roof" was built on top of the first layer of sheathing,  In the process, the rafters for the secondary roof extended outward to form a soffet with a 2' overhang.

Blocking for Air Sealing
The junction between the wall drywall and the ceiling drywall throughout the house is backed up by blocking so that the edges of the drywall can be glued or at least caulked (presently I can't decide which is best) to give a better air seal than is typically possible with conventional construction.  Also, as shown in the top photo, OSB blocking behind the T-wall studs makes sure that the vertical edges of the drywall on the exterior walls are also
Example of "L" shaped blocking
that was cut from a 2 x 4
(depicted by the green arrow in
 the photo above and the left
red arrow below)
 sealable.  The goal for air sealing is to have the edges of all drywall lining the envelope of the building backed up so they are not only positively fastened with screws but are either glued or caulked as well.

Window and Door "Framing"
I am using this section to describe the unique construction of the window openings in the walls.  But, since the windows will be deeply recessed, I am also veering away from construction long enough to discuss the role of the recessed window design in enhancing thermal performance. 

The "framing" for the doors and windows in the thick exterior walls was a time-consuming challenge.  (The quotes around framing acknowledge 
that the process was more about using OSB to create a box within the wall to house a window or door than using dimension lumber to "frame" the opening in a typical fashion.)

As covered in a prior post, the dimension lumber part of the framing the for windows was done in jigs many months ahead of time then the pre-built units were set into the walls as they were raised.  Each pre-made window unit had horizontal supports under the window, spanning the width of the 
Continuation of air seal blocking around the corner of the
ceiling (red arrows); wall trusses (yellow); roof trusses
(blue); tandem double top plates (green)
wall, that positioned the window 3 1/4" closer to the inside surface of the wall than to the outside surface.  The outside sheathing and the inside drywall plus the decorative framing around the window on both the sides of the wall will make the total wall thickness around the window about 18".

With the window offset 3 1/4" towards the inside, the jam on the outside of the window will be about 8' wide plus another 1 1/2" for the frame.  Consequently, the surface of the glass will be recessed by almost 10" from exterior plane of the wall which, from an energy standpoint, has two advantages .  

First, the shadow box effect will block the summer sun in the early morning and in the late afternoon when it is low enough to shine under the overhang above the windows.  This configuration will be especially advantageous in September and early October when the sun's trajectory moves sufficiently southward to shine under the overhang a little longer each day. Blocking sunshine at this time of year is a plus because it is not yet needed for passive solar heating and could make the temperature in the house uncomfortable.  
Boxing in the second floor clerestory window openings. 
The raw pre-built window units are in the foreground and
 the boxed-in units appear in the distance.  The mullion for
 the partially boxed middle pair of windows has been 
insulated with EPS around the two horizontal 2 x 4s that 
support the sides of the windows 

Wind Washing
Another advantage to the shadow box configuration for the windows is that it ameliorates "wind washing". In one of its iterations, the term describes the movement of heat through window glass in cold weather.  The story goes like this.  Heat seeks cold so it conducts through the glass.  The conducted heat 
Windows installed with nailing flanges are nearly flush
with the plane of the wall
warms the air next to the glass such that the heated air lingers on the surface of the glass and slows the transfer of more heat through the glass.  The ability of the warm air to linger and "insulate" the glass depends on wind action.  On windy days, the heated layer lingers less.  The faster it "washes" away, the faster heat is lost through the glass.  New construction windows with nailing flanges have the thermal advantage of excellent air sealing between the rough opening and the installed window but are more susceptible to wind washing because the plane of the glass is virtually flush with the plane of the wall.  O
ur shadow box windows will not only reduce wind washing per se but, by facing south, will also be in better position to shield the glass from the north and west winter winds.

Mullion Insulation 
In most instances, our windows are to be paired but, instead of ordering the mullions between the windows factory-installed by Pella, I requested individual windows so they would be easier to handle while working alone.  Doing so meant that a mullion the width of a 2 x 4 had to be built into the window units initially.  Then, when boxing in the window openings, I added 3 horizontal 2 x 4s to the mullions for secure fastening of the sides of the windows.  As shown in the photo above, this arrangement created compartments in the mullion that would be inaccessible when the rest of the wall was insulated with rice hulls that I filled with rigid Styrofoam board.  As a result, the mullions should be warmer than would have been the case with factory mullions.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Construction - The Last Major Section of the Insulation/Watershed Umbrella

For once Mother Nature cooperated despite it is the rainy season.  With help from a few volunteers we were just able to carry the installation of the umbrella behind the house near enough to completion that a pair of spring rains did not affect it.  A few days later, we completed it and moved on to final backfilling, grading and planting.  (Reminder:  clicking on any picture enlarges it for better viewing.)

Water Control
There are two considerations for water control behind the house -- surface water and water that soaks through the soil to reach the level of the umbrella.  The former would comprise most of the water from rainfall were the grade sloped enough to encourage quick runoff.  But the fall of the final grade northward from the house will be only 2 - 3' over a distance of about 100' -- a very gradual slope that will nicely handle runoff without erosion but one that will give the runoff more time to soak into the soil.  At a distance from the house, the quicker soak time will be less consequential but, over the umbrella, it means that the surface of the umbrella will handle more water.

Hiat's Design
The umbrella in front of the house sloped much less than 
the one behind the house. The rain that soaks through the soil overlying it slowly finds its way off the umbrella and down the hill away from the house.  By contrast, the rain that will soak through the soil covering the umbrella in back of the house needed to be handled by a French drain so as to direct it down-slope around the east and west sides of the house instead of flowing northward away from the house where it might pivot and undermine the umbrella.  Therefore, the umbrella slopes more severely and has a French drain at its periphery as Hiat describes in his book, Passive Annual Heat Storage.*  The idea is get the water away from the house before it can soak into the soil beyond the umbrella and flow back under the umbrella (which was its natural tendency before the lot was excavated).

As for the composition of the umbrella, it is exactly the same as described in a prior post for the front umbrella except that it was complicated by the conduits for the AGS system sticking out of the ground.  As in previous sections of the umbrella, the extruded polystyrene foam board insulation is thicker near the house and thinner towards the periphery of the umbrella.  For the first 8' from the house, the thickness is 4" (R-20); for the next 4' the thickness is 3" (R-15) and for the last 8' it is 2" (R-10).

The umbrella is bracketed on the east and west sides by
West retaining wall underway thanks to several volunteers
substantial retaining walls made from recycled limestone foundation stones.  The east wall was installed last fall; the west wall had to be done before work on the umbrella behind the house could begin. 

In addition to the layer of insulation, there were three layers of 6 mil plastic sheeting.  Our initial experience with the first layer and the foam board over it taught us that both the sheeting and foam board slid away from the house as we worked.  So, special precautions were necessary to anchor all layers until anchored with backfill.  We used a couple of dozen of 12" galvanized spike nails driven through the foam and into the ground in
First layer of plastic and the insulation in place with layers
of sand to serve as a drainage plane in case water leaks
through the top two layers of sheet plastic
locations to hold the insulation tight against the house.  Of course, this meant poking holes in the plastic sheeting under the foam but, since it will be protected by two additional layers of plastic, the holes were a good trade-off for stable and tight insulation.  

In order to keep the two top sheets of plastic from creeping down-slope during installation, we turned their edges upwards at the wall and attached them to the bottom edge of the wall sheathing using batten boards.  Also we spread a layer of sand between the sheets so it served as a counterweight against the wind for the first sheet until the second
Recycled carpet in place; sand had not yet been added
to the edges of all of the carpets (as seen in the
background for some)
sheet could be 
installed and more sand on top of it held it down until the recycled carpet could be laid over it.  The primary reason for the sand, however, was to provide a drainage plane for any water that makes its way into the lower layers of the umbrella.  Despite all of the effort, varying amounts of space existed between the horizontal foam and the wall that we discovered after it was too late to fix.  If I were to do it over again, I would anchor the foam boards with twice as many spikes before covering them with plastic rather than after the sheeting had been attached to house then bunched up against the house to get it out of the way of anchoring the foam after the fact. The plastic prevented us from knowing for sure that the foam was tight against the wall when spiked.

Sealing the Pipe Holes
We had to cut holes through all three layers
of plastic sheeting and through the 2" thick portion of the insulation to fit around the conduits.  Those in the sheeting were invariably stretched when the plastic was lifted and slid down over the pipes, such that they did not even come close to sealing out water.  So, just before installation of the carpet, each conduit was fitted with a thermoplastic roof vent flashing for 4" pipes.  The space under each flashing was made as smooth and clean as possible so that the weight of the backfill would press the rubber-like flashing tight against the sheeting to keep out water.  The holes in the carpet were cut with a hole saw turning backwards on a cutting board that had a hole in it to accommodate the centering twist drill. 

French Drain
The depression for the French drain at the northern periphery of the umbrella was a V-shaped ditch that drained both ways from the
Final grade for the umbrella including the ditch for the
French drain
center, i.e., it was deeper at the ends than in the middle.  The bottom layer of sheet plastic completely lined the ditch and its loose edge was pinned to the soil beyond the ditch so that water will be confined in it until it can find and escape via the drain.  
Unfortunately, the ditch undermined the last course of foam board to varying degrees.

The design of the French drain itself was similar to that described in a prior post on French drain fabrication for the drains we installed early on 10' below the floor of the house.  Luckily, I still had a roll of the geotextile material used for the original drains, one that is unique in filtering out the kind of fine
Perforated pipe laying on geotextile material and partially
embedded in sand ready for closure
silt characteristic of  the wind-blown loess here in the bluffs of the Mississippi River.  We rolled it out along the length of the ditch and laid a 4" perforated drain pipe on top of it.  We then shoveled sand alongside the pipe, pulled the edges of the fabric together, rolled them three times and clipped them together with hog rings as described in detail in a prior post. In doing so, we made sure that the pipe was tight against the ground side of the fabric and the sand loosely filled the space on either side and on top of the pipe.

Since the last course of foam board partially bridged over the ditch, it had to be supported somehow before it could be covered.  Accordingly, we filled the ditch with
French drain closed with hog rings
sand to the level necessary to support the foam's cantilevered edges, which, at the same time, improved the permeability of the medium around the fabric-covered French drain.  With the foam supported, we could extend the sheet plastic over the insulation, add the carpet and begin backfilling in earnest.  In order to be sure any water coming off the umbrella found the sand around the drain before it could be dammed or slowed down by the backfill soil, we made sure the edges of both the plastic sheeting and the recycled carpet (that forms the top layer of the umbrella) were amply covered with sand.

Unique Insulation Design
The prior to the AGS concept, insulation for earth contact homes was fastened to the concrete wall.  Hiat was the first to suggest taking it off of the wall and laying it horizontally in order to create a much bigger conditioned thermal mass for the house.  He was a purist to the extend that the roof of the house would be earth sheltered and the umbrella would be merely an outward extension of the insulation on the roof.  In our instance, the roof is conventional so the relationship of the wall insulation and the umbrella had be handled differently.

Accordingly, as detailed in a prior post, the top 30" of the concrete wall situated under the stick-built portion of the wall is insulated to an R-14.  (In time, the top 30" inside will be similarly insulated.)  The insulation in the umbrella (R-20) butts up against the wall insulation (eventually R-28) at about midway of the latter's vertical dimension, such that about half of the wall insulation lies above the umbrella and about half lies below. 

Ideally perhaps, the umbrella insulation should 
Spreading topsoil
be R-30 near the wall instead of R-20 but I accepted Hiat's word that any additional loss of heat through the umbrella next to the wall will be offset by the heat saved by extending the umbrella a full 20' out from the wall. 

 As soon as the final grading was done for the large area north of the house, topsoil was distributed and planted with grass seed as a means of controlling erosion in the short run. The original intention was to plant several dozen bare-rooted hardwood tree seedlings in the newly graded area but the subsoil under the topsoil ended up being largely hardpan (glacial till) in which trees do not grow well.  The turf grass will control erosion until it can be replaced with native prairie species that are not at all picky about soil quality.  Gradually the turf over most of the rest of the property will also be natively landscaped in the manner that Doug Tallemy crusades for in his book, Bringing Nature Home; How You Can Sustain Nature with Native Plants, which I referenced in an earlier post on native gardening.  
*  Hiat's book is out of print but a few copies are still available on online.  For an understanding of his design for the umbrella, go to my prior post that discusses it in detail.  The same post is part of the trilogy on Annualized GeoSolar conditioning that can also be accessed indirectly by clicking on the "Featured Post" in the left column above.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Odds 'N Ends - Building a House As An Octogenarian

This post is an outgrowth of endless comments and questions (and probably quite a few snickers) about house-building at my, let's say, "mature" age.  At the time of this writing, I am 84 and expect to be at least 86 before the project is fully completed.

On the one hand, any thing I have to say about staying active in the golden years does nothing to advance sustainability but, on the other hand, as a former health professional, it's hard to pass up any opportunity to promote healthy living even though I may not be the most perfect example.  So, after debating with myself for several years, I've decided to do it.  But let me admit upfront that I have spent way more time on this post than any other for fear it would be interpreted in the wrong way -- not as a pitch for healthy living, but as some sort of me-ism.

When my access to the health professional literature for 40+ years and my personal experience is coupled with what science is telling us now, I can see dividing this discussion into three topics: work history (wear and tear on one's body); physiological (the medical stuff); and mental (the psychological stuff).


The good news is that it is quite unlikely that I would be building a house at my age had I been doing this kind of work all of my life. I know many in the trades that eagerly anticipate(d) retirement because of the wear and tear on their bodies.  So probably the biggest reason for my able-ness now is that I began strenuous work after "retirement age" but before I suffered enough age-related muscle loss to have made the project too difficult or impossible.  

The bad news is that leaning over dental patients and a lab bench for so many years left me with forward-head posture and acquired scoliosis that have resulted in nagging neuro-muscular problems -- shoulder pain, lower back soreness and sciatica -- that slow me down.  They would be seriously disabling were it not for regular visits to a SOT (Sacral-Occipital-Technique) chiropractor, one prolonged episode with physical therapy and thrice daily stretching of the muscles that overwork (splinting) to compensate for structural imbalances, mainly, the lower back region in response to forward head posture.

 "I have good genes and I take care of them"
Some of us more than others manage to pick parents with good genes.  I chose well -- no history of cardiovascular disease, no diabetes, no mental illness, no debilitating arthritis, no liver or kidney disease, no autoimmune diseases, no serious allergies and normal body weight. My mother died early during corrective surgery for a one-off congenital heart valve problem.  But a black cloud -- prostate cancer --  hung over my Dad's side of the family.  So, knowing that my Dad and most of his brothers died of prostate cancer and my younger brother had already had surgery for it, I was hyper-vigilant and caught it in time many years ago.  I picked healthy grandparents as well.  Most were hard-working farmers that lived well into their 90's.  

Much is known today about the role of nutrition in the prevention of chronic disease but most people seem to lack interest in nutrition which, I suspect, is because its science is fairly technical and constantly evolving, making it easier to be indifferent. The media are no help when they sensationalize nutrition "news", often before peer-reviewed science actually signs off on it, as a way of winning subscriptions and viewers.  And, until recently, the medical profession can be accused of neglecting preventive nutrition for healthy patients (as opposed to dietary counseling for sick patients).

I was an outlier.  In parallel with my pioneering effort in preventive dentistry 60 years ago, nutrition science was emerging and I enjoyed following it, mostly with a dental bias in the beginning.  Then I attended a lecture in 1964 by perhaps the most widely recognized expert in the field at the time, Dr. Emanuel Cheraskin, who had established one of the first departments of nutrition in the US at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.  He was widely published in the scientific literature and had written several lay books on nutrition.  As Dr Cheraskin was summing up at the end of the day-long lecture, he said something like this......
"The surest advice that I can leave you is that your single best chance of staying healthy is to avoid refined carbohydrates for the rest of your life."

Research now shows how right he was.  Refined carbohydrates are increasingly implicated in heart disease, Type II diabetes and other chronic diseases for both the obese and the non-obese.  After the lecture, I gradually, as best as I could, steered my family and patients away from foods high in refined carbohydrates such as sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup and grains that are not whole. And I personally have steadfastly avoided refined carbohydrates for over 50 years and earnestly believe that it is the best thing I could have done to take care of the fortunate genes I inherited.  How rare it must be at my age to have normal blood pressure and pulse rate, normal cholesterol/triglycerides, normal glucose and no prescription medicines? 

But refined carbohydrates are not the whole picture.  After losing our spouses, Dorothy and I met and married late in life.  It has been largely through her that we have followed the so-called Mediterranean diet almost entirely for the twenty years we have known each other.  Except for mild age-related minor problems, she is ever bit as healthy and active as I.  And, I should give credit to my late dental-hygienist wife, JoAnn, for cooking healthy foods for the family, if not quite to the Mediterranean level, to the level understood as optimal in those days.

As for nutritional supplements, I think, if taken intelligently based on the available research, they might provide a leg up -- for example, Vitamin D for my age group, particularly, those of us who cover against sunlight, and Vitamin B-12 for those of us who do not eat red meat.  And a good source of reliable information for making choices about nutrition, including supplementation and healthy living in general, is the Nutrition Action Health Newsletter published monthly online and in hard copy by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest.  

Aerobic Excercise
Except for a few sporadic years of jogging during mid-life and brisk walking for a few years in my '60s and '70s, I have not allocated time for routine aerobic exercise but I have never hesitated to undertake strenuous weekend projects and activities.  As a consequence, my physical stamina seemed always to have been nearly on a par with most of those who did.  During South Dakota pheasant hunts, guess who jogged back to get our vehicle after we hunted away from it, sometimes as much as a mile away?  Guess who keeps on shoveling after the others have stopped to rest?  Guess who keeps going after fellow mushroom hunters head for camp?  But now age-related muscle loss is taking a toll on my legs, which is frustrating, especially for heavy lifting.  But my upper body and arm strength still seem to be okay.  Curiously, my hands are as steady as they were during practice days but my dexterity has diminished due probably to dry skin and fading fingerprints, both of which provide friction for the fingers.

I have never smoked or used recreational drugs.  I have been a drinker since graduating from college -- sometimes more so than I should at social occasions but typically within the "recommended daily allowances" otherwise.

Unknown Factors
I have been talking about numerous health practices that may have paid off in later life.  But the story might be more intriguing -- there could be other, more obscure, contributing factors.  Like a lot of country kids, I was constantly in contact with the soil and the manure from chickens to horses with pigs and cattle in between.  For the twenty-some years before I began wearing masks, I worked within a few inches of the upper end of the alimentary canal and respiratory tree of thousands of patients that teemed with many billions of micro-flora.  With that history, was I exposed to enough potential pathogens to give me immunity without actually making me sick?  As a result, is my own gut microcosm healthier than if I had been raised in a sterile urban environment or had something like rheumatic fever that required so many prophylactic antibiotics as to disrupt and permanently degrade my gut biome?  Who knows?  Recent therapy with fecal capsules for patients with antibiotic-resistant microorganisms seems to validate the importance of a healthy biome.  

A lot has been written about happiness and its impact on health and, while I do not profess to be an authority, I am convinced it has a lot to do with my longevity and and late life fitness.

With the exception of one misspent decade in the business world, I consider myself lucky. Happiness was with me in large measure when I was growing up in a family business in small town USA.  I had a blissful marriage and leveraged it by working side-by-side everyday with my wife for nearly four decades before cancer got her.  Happiness was with me when I chose a profession that I enjoyed beyond words.  Happiness is with me now as Dottie and I forge a life together. And happiness is definitely with me as I check off the most cherished item on my bucket-list -- DIYing a passive solar house!

In a nutshell, my life experiences have made me an optimist and I think optimism and happiness go hand-in-hand.

Risk Taking
For what its worth, I think most movers and shakers in our society are risk-takers.  My entrepreneurial Dad, whom I admired greatly, used to say, "There ain't no such thing as cain't".  His risk-taking rubbed off on me early on and influenced my approach to dentistry, to the short sojourn into the business world and now with the green building project.  It was manifested when we were one of the first white families to live in integrated public housing in St Louis (while in dental school), buying a home in the first St Louis suburb to pass a fair housing ordinance and adopting Annualized GeoSolar conditioning to the complete exclusion of conventional HVAC as part of our passive solar build.  As a result of life-long risk-taking, a philosophy has evolved that goes something like this: 

If everyone else is doing it, suspect that it may be wrong.  Be confident in your own ability to reason things through and to act on your conclusions.  Yes, there may be more stress this way but, self-induced stress, as long as it is monitored, can be healthy. 

As a risk-taker,  I have embraced change and, with the exception of a decade or so when JoAnn was dying and I gave up dentistry for the business world, I have successfully regulated the rate at which change passes through my life so as to be proactive in coping with it and not get overwhelmed and over-stressed by it.  Successful risk-taking builds self-worth/esteem that contributes hugely to happiness, at least in my experience.

Science has shown that self-imposed stress is less damaging and, in moderation, may actually be healthy while externally-imposed stress is more apt to be harmful.  I strongly believe that having been self-employed throughout life has allowed me to regulate the amount of stress I allow myself whereas, if I had been an employee, my health would have been compromised by stress from circumstances beyond my control.

Think Time
I should think DIY construction would be impossible without setting aside dedicated time to think.  By "dedicated time" I mean no distractions -- no talk radio, no background music, no TV, no visitors, no distractions, just alone with ones thoughts. In a project like ours, there are so many critical details to keep track of -- in the present, in the immediate future and in the distant future -- that need a lot of unencumbered mind-space.  Drive time can be think time but the best time for me is while literally staring off into space. 

My schedule has always included think time going back to my early days of practice.  What seemed to others like reckless risk-taking on my part had been well-vetted during think time.  Some of the best ideas conceived and mistakes avoided came about during think time.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that our world is so noisy now that most folks fail to allow themselves the luxury of productive think time

A Journey
A common question I hear regarding our undertaking goes something like this:  "How do you stay interested for all of the years the project requires?"  To me, undertaking a big project is like going to college.  Completion is the goal but the focus has to be on day-to-day minutia -- classes, labs, study time and exams.  One becomes so immersed in the process as to render the endeavor a journey, not a destination. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Design - Rain Harvesting for Toilet Flushing

We looked for almost five years for a suitable location for our energy-neutral passive solar home. Our search was confined to rural areas because it never dawned on us that we would find the perfect site eight blocks from Main Street in sight of the St Louis Gateway Arch (that is, if there were no trees or houses blocking our sight-line). In those early days, I researched water conservation, including recycling graywater and harvesting rainwater, for the day when we would have well water and a septic tank.  (I am still the proud owner of  the book, The Septic System Owner's Manual, which wasn't exactly on the New York Times Bestseller List).   I even researched composting toilets.

Once we found the Collinsville site with its access to cheap "city" water and sewer, I lost interest in all but the usual water conservation practices such as low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets, a front-loading washing machine and landscaping with native plants that do not need watering.  After all, there is not a lot of incentive for water conservation here in the Mississippi River bluffs, eight miles from the mighty river and only a few miles below its confluence with two other major rivers -- the Illinois and the Missouri.  As a matter of fact, our regional problem is too much water from major floods, never too little. 

An Awakening
Michael Webber's recent book, Thirst For Power -- Energy, Water, and Human Survival, has radically changed my thinking.  He makes the point, for example, that the amount of energy required to provide water and sewer service to the average household exceeds the energy the household uses from the grid for lighting, heating and operating stuff plugged into receptacles.  Here's why.  

It takes energy to pump our water from a deep well on the Mississippi River floodplain to the purification plant.  It takes energy to purify the water and lift it to our homes on the hills above the floodplain. This says nothing about the energy embodied in the manufacture of the materials that go into building a purification plant, the chemicals used for purification, and the maintenance of and upgrades to the treatment plant and the aging water pipes.

Energy inputs do not stop with potable water.  After it goes down the drain, it takes energy to treat it at the waste treatment plant before it is released back into the environment and for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades to our century-old sewer system.

So, thanks to Webber, I  now equate water with energy.  Flushing our toilets with rainwater would be on a par with having a photo-voltaic array. Unfortunately, the Collinsville Public Works Director didn't see it that way; when our design was sketched to him, he disallowed it but said he would kick it upstairs to Illinois State officials and we have heard nothing since.  Rather than pursuing the issue, we are keeping it on hold as an easy future add-on if circumstances permit.  

Meanwhile, I would like to share our design in case there are viewers who are researching  rain harvesting or haven't yet considered it.  Perhaps there is something in it that might be helpful.

System Design
Rainwater Catchment
Fortunately, the 1,400 sq ft roof area of the second story section of the house tilts 
Side view of the second story roof tilted northward

northward towards the concrete back wall that has a short stick-built wall on top of it. I had planned to locate an indoor cistern high inside the storage area (that we sometimes call our "vertical basement") located at the back of the house adjacent to the wall.  The run-off from the roof would be collected by the gutter and directed through the stick-built top portion of the wall into the cistern. A couple of websites provided what I needed to be sure that such a catchment system would yield enough water to flush two toilets year-round. 

The first helpful website was the Texas A & M site, which not only provides generic information on rainwater harvesting but also links to a handy calculator.  The calculator uses the average monthly rainfall, the size of the catchment area and the average monthly water consumption to calculate the size of the storage tank (cistern) necessary to meet demand.  All I needed then was the average monthly water consumption for flushing.

The second website provided a handy water use calculator for estimating the amount of water a household consumes per function -- such as showering, dishwashing and lawn irrigating.  With it, I was able to determine that the amount of water we would need for flushing, as a percentage of our total water consumption, would be 27% or 10,000 gal/year or +/-800 gal/mo.  Plugging this figure into the A & M calculator told me that, because our rainfall is fairly consistent month-to-month (varying only between 2.14" in January to 4.11" May), a +/-500 gal cistern should meet demand well enough that supplementation by city water would be necessary only under special circumstances such as the drought we had in 2012. 

Click on the image for better visualization of the storage area
against the back (north) wall of the house
The cistern would comprise a heavy gauge translucent plastic tank that can be found online and at local farm and home stores for around $500.  We would need a rectangular model that will be narrow enough to pass through our 36" doors.  It would need to have fittings for 4" intake and overflow pipes.  Mounting the cistern high (+/- 12') in the storage area would offer the option of directing any overflow back outside to a swale rather than dumping it into the sewer.

In order to avoid any possibility of cross-contamination between potable water and the water in the tank when city water was added, I would use a dedicated cold water pipe that did not attach directly to the tank -- it would be suspended a safe distance above the tank.  When turned on back at the cold water manifold, the water would drop through a large funnel DIYed into the tank top.  Alternatively, I could wait until the need for supplementation occurred then send water through the gutter using an exterior sillcock and garden hose.  An upgrade to the interior approach could follow if necessary.

The cistern would be plenty high to gravity-feed the toilets between flushes but undoubtedly slower than would a connection to pressurized potable water, which for us would be only a minor inconvenience if any.

The water coming off of the roof would need some filtration although less for our metal roof than for shingled roofs that shed the stone granules found in gutters. Debris from trees should not be a big problem because there will be no trees close by at least for quite a few years (as I will be documenting in a couple of months, we are reforesting the land behind the house with over a hundred bare-rooted seedling trees).  So, at least until the trees mature, a pool-type of inline filter between the gutter and the tank, perhaps preceded by a screen, should suffice. (I would have to flesh out the requirements for filtration as the time for installing the system approached.)  In drier climates with long intervals between rains, a "First Flush" approach is used whereby the first rain of the season or the first rain after a dry spell is used to clean the catchment surface before harvesting begins (as I learned from The Greywater Action site). Our rains are frequent enough that first flushing would probably be unnecessary.

Our toilets would have to be on dedicated supply lines or on one dedicated line supplying both toilets.  Otherwise, there would be no way to send rainwater to them without contaminating the potable water system.  As described in prior post, I installed all of the hot and cold water lines for the entire house as home runs, meaning all faucets, all appliances and both toilets have dedicated lines with individual manifold-level cut-offs on the storage room wall next to the water line from the street and the water heater. Without a home-run system, a rainwater system as a later add-on would be impractical.  In our case, it would be a simple matter to dedicate to toilet flushing one small manifold with two lines.  If future residents wished to deactivate the rainwater system, the toilet lines could be disconnected from the manifold, decontaminated and connected to a potable water manifold.  In a worst case scenario, the contaminated lines could be retrieved and replaced since they are encased in PVC conduits (prior post).

Return on Investment
A rainwater system would cost approximately $500 for the tank plus some change for PVC pipes, say, a total of $600.  If toilet flushing represents 27% of our water withdrawals or 27% of our yearly water bill, we would save approximately $54 per year. At that rate, the return on investment will take +/-10 years which we feel is no big deal one way or the other when compared to the golden opportunity to strike an easy blow for sustainability indefinitely.

Thermal Mass
The Annualized GeoSolar system for conditioning our house, that has been covered extensively in dozens of prior posts and quickly accessed by clicking on "Featured Post" in the left column above, depends on the thermal mass of the earth under and around the house and, to a lesser extent, the concrete floor and earth contact concrete walls. Since water is an even better heat sink than earth and concrete, a cistern full of water inside the house would somewhat augment the passive solar conditioning.

Potential Problems
If the water in the tank was much colder than room temperature, the tank would sweat. This might happen after cold rains, during snow-melts or in the unlikely event the cistern is supplemented with a large amount of ground temperature city water.  At this early stage of planning, I would be content to wait and see if the problem exists then install sheet plastic to catch the condensation and a plastic tube to carry it to a nearby floor drain.

Another potential problem might be algae buildup that is common for stagnant water exposed to the environment.  However, the tank would reside in a space without windows and without artificial lighting most of the time so photosynthesis may be minimal if not impossible.  In a worst case scenario, it might be necessary to add vinegar to the tank occasionally.  While a dark-colored tank controls algae outdoors, it would be redundant in the dark storage room; a translucent tank would be better at revealing any buildup.

Still another potential problem is mosquito breeding. The rain barrel on our current house has no openings to the outside similar to the one in the nearby photo; the water from the downspout goes directly into the tank and mosquitoes do not negotiate the downspout in order to breed in the tank.  Our rain harvesting gutter would have a downspout located in the middle of the roof to drain both halves equally then it would extend horizontally quite a ways to reach the cistern located in the storage space near the east wall of the house. The long horizontal pipe would be sloped excessively to eliminate any chance of any puddling so that its length and lack of standing water would discourage mosquitoes.

Zoning Issues
Plumbing codes for graywater, especially graywater for reuse indoors, are ambiguous and inconsistent.  According to Webber, the International Plumbing Code allows toilet flushing with graywater from showers and bathtubs but the Uniform Plumbing Code that is used more widely in the US does not.  Yet the The Greywater Action site shows the inconsistency of regulation between states and says the International code is even less helpful than the Uniform code.  So go figure.

When it comes to rainwater harvesting, regulation seems to be much more lax even with regard to using rainwater inside a dwelling.  The Greywater Action site on rainwater harvesting provides a link to Laws, Rules and Codes for each individual state.  Of the three items listed for Illinois, one leads to the full text of  HB1585 that merely defines rainwater harvesting and specifies that systems must be constructed in accordance with the Illinois Plumbing Code.   Our Director therefore seems to have a lot of discretion but remains cautious by not allowing for now toilet flushing with rainwater in Collinsville. 

An additional issue that came up in discourse with the Director was that the sewer fee the city collects is pegged to the water meter readings.  He was afraid that the reduction in water consumption due to rainwater flushing would automatically under-report our discharge into the sewer.  He did, however, seem open-minded about our continuing to pay the same sewer fee as we were before rainwater harvesting, or some other amount, that arbitrarily compensated for the discrepancy.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Construction - The Last Major Dirt Work (Cont'd some more) - Rain Gardens

Anal retention alert:  "Rain gardens" are not exactly on the minds of most people so the detailed information about rain gardens here and in the previous post will undoubtedly test most folks' indulgence.  But I am basing the need for information on my own ignorance about the important sustainability role that rain gardens play.  Despite building into the side of a hill, they were never part of our original design.  It wasn't until a few years ago that our membership in the Wild Ones organization made me realize that our property would be the quintessential beta site for rain gardens.  And, since my green thumbed wife, Dorothy, and I were both hopelessly uninformed, I am assuming that most page-viewers here, despite their interest in sustainability, could be uninformed as well.

When people ask, "Why rain gardens?", I say that our intention is that every drop of rain that falls on our property leaves it underground and purified rather than on the surface carrying silt and pollutants.  What follows is the description of the initial dirt work involved with realizing this goal.

The treatment of rain gardens in the last post was of a generic nature.  The discussion here is about the five rain gardens that we need to control runoff from our hilly property, where the grade falls at least 30' from the highest elevation behind the house to the lowest elevation in front of the house.  At the time of this writing, the gardens were roughed in for a trial run before final contouring and topping off with the rain garden mix in time for planting with native plants next spring.  Out of the five gardens roughed in, two of the berms (dams) failed at the first torrential rain and had to be reconfigured.  

(Remember: the pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.)
Encircled are the two highest rain gardens next to the
house in which we live

Rain Garden Siting For Our Project
The next highest is beside the garage of the new house
and is one of two that failed
The rain gardens at the highest elevation are on the property where we live east of the building site. They are modest and intended primarily to catch the runoff from impervious surfaces -- house and garage roofs and driveway --  before it can erode the hill sloping down towards the building site.  The next highest is alongside the new house garage but down-slope enough not to threaten the AGS system*. Its perc rate was a non-issue because it lies directly over and is drained by the east-most gravel-filled French drain that catches any deep water flowing towards the AGS conduits.  However, initially the garden failed -- it did not have the intended capacity and had to be dug deeper and wider and the dam raised.  At the time of this writing, it had not yet been challenged by another heavy rain.  Eventually, though, it will have to handle less water (see the caption for the last photo below) and will be reconfigured accordingly.

The two largest rain gardens lie further down-slope. 
The garden in the foreground is the one discussed in the
next section and the second one to fail;  encircled
is the berm that separates it from the street;encircled
 in the distance is the former retention pond
One, with the help of a continuous berm paralleling the street, catches all of the runoff from both properties on the east side of the new driveway. It, too,
 failed, perhaps due to the excess water from the other failed garden above.  It was modified and awaits further testing.  The overflow from it passes through the driveway culvert into last garden that is merely a shallower version of the retention pond that was intentionally maintained during construction.  The pond can be seen in the Google Earth photo in the previous post.  Any water the last rain garden cannot handle leaves the property as it did before construction began -- through a culvert under the street and into the neighbor's lake.

The overflow channels for all of the gardens will be
rip-rapped to control flow rates and to add interest;
large river gravel/stones would be more attractive but
are beyond our budget

Rain Garden Construction and a Battle with Glacial Till (an anecdote) 
Unfortunately, rain gardens for our property were not as simple of scooping out a shallow depression then adding a berm and overflow 
Over-excavation for a rain garden (4-5' deep); the
 big chunks to the right are glacial till
outlet on the downhill side.  I already knew going in that the gardens were likely to lie over the same glacial till (hardpan) that we had encountered throughout construction and during final grading.  Sure enough, hardpan was situated immediately below the topsoil at the most critical site.  Knowing that the hardpan layer would be only a few feet thick, I continued digging with the trackloader until I was below the layer.  The length of the ramp that was necessary for safe digging with the loader, coupled with a reasonably sized flat bottom in the hole, created a long, wide and deep cavity.  In the bottom, I dug perc test holes but an overnight rain rendered them moot.  The deepest part of the excavation filled with a foot of water that had drained away the next time I looked at it, a few hours later.  The water from an inch and a quarter rain a week later was gone reasonably fast as well.

So now the issue became how best to fill 
Same cavity after addition of a truckload of sand
the cavity back to rain garden depth without compromising percolation.  Thanks to input from friend Charlie Pitts, a Certified Naturalist, who had helped us lay out the gardens in the first place, we arrived at a solution for such an atypical situation.  We filled the excavation with a tandem truckload of sand to within +/- 3' of the original grade and plan eventually to top it off with a "Rain Garden Mix", i.e., a special soil formulated from topsoil, sand and compost that is available in bulk from a local supplier.  The remaining question is whether the distribution of the plants as described in the previous post will survive in a rain garden filled this deep with sand.  Maybe a different choice of plants will be necessary.  

The rain garden mix will be added to all of the gardens as soon as we know (a) that the gardens are functioning as planned, (b) the cover crop of grass on the denuded hillsides is holding the soil in place and (c) whether siltration from hillsides occurring before the grass is a factor has either filled the gardens to the proper depth or overfilled them to the extent that partial re-digging is necessary. 

Heavy Rainfall
The garden beside the garage was one of two that that
Rain gardens are not designed to catch all of the runoff from "frog strangler" rains.  Heavy downpours or worst yet, a series of downpours in a short period of time, produce more water than the rain gardens can handle so an overflow must be incorporated into the downhill berm.  Thanks to Charlie, we learned that the overflow does not have to be especially wide or deep because the water passing over it is typically more like that from a gutter downspout than through a roadside ditch.  Accordingly, after the berms were finalized, we sculpted shallow troughs through them which we covered with weed barrier fabric which will control erosion in the short term and weeds later.  At the time of this writing, we had not yet covered the fabric with fist-sized stones (rip-rap) that will slow the flow and prevent erosion downhill.  

Another Month of Dirt Work Should Finish the Job
In the St Louis area, January and February are the two months with the least amount of precipitation.  Our warmer winters with less
The berm has been reconfigured for another test run
frozen ground seem to allow more dirt work but winter cloudiness and what freezing and thawing we do get cause muddy conditions that complicate things. Nevertheless, my goal is to finish the dirt work behind the house in time to plant grass seed in March or April before the spring rains.

The garden beside the garage presently drains half of the
 area north of the house because the 
insulation/watershedumbrella has yet to be installed
 behind the house; after it is in place the final grade
 will direct runoff to the north instead of curling 
around toward the south and into the garden
The remaining dirt work involves mostly the insulation/watershed umbrella and final contouring of the grade north of the house. The goal of the grading is to force as much drainage as possible northward towards a creek valley instead around the ends of the house where it could continue to overload the rain gardens in front of the house. 
The passive solar system for the house is called Annualized GeoSolar.  For information, click on "Featured Post" in the column to the left.