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So, we’ve been living quite comfortably in the our new house since May 2013. There are still a handful of incomplete projects we’ve yet to fix, though.

  1. The front door was installed crooked and out-of-square. It works but we have to push hard to make it close on all corners.
  2. The electric windows over the back patio-door do not work. One of the controllers was damaged by the sub-contractor who applied the drywall texture; they sprayed texture onto the electronics.
  3. The door to our music room doesn’t close properly because the top hinge is stripped on the frame-side. The problem is that the wall is hollow (the soundproofing) so there’s no more ‘material’ for the screw to grab onto.
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One unexpected ‘problem’ with our remodel is the new bathroom fans.  I didn’t mind that the original fans were noisy as that just provides privacy to people, right?  But I did mind that they lacked back-flow dampers and so cold air was seeping into the house through the vents.  I also figured that this was the best time (when the walls were all open anyways) to replace the fans, lest one fail in the near-future.

Lutron Maestro timerThe new fans are ‘silent’ Broan models and they work great.  They include a backflow damper where the fan mechanism connects to the ductwork, plus they include a simple backflow cover for the exterior vent.

But they’re so quiet we leave them running all day by accident!  So my suggestion to would-be upgraders would be to also install fan timers such as the Lutron Maestro.  These allow occupants to click the fan ‘on’ for 5-minute increments, up to 30 minutes at a time.

After spending so much time and energy (and money) on upgrading the insulation, I really wanted to know how well it worked. The original contractor was selected based on their advertising as an energy-upgrade specialist. They talked me through all the available California rebates for different types of upgrades and I basically did all of them.

The key decision I made was to sign-over my rebates to the contractor. This meant that they were responsible for ‘proving’ the upgrades worked in order to receive the rebates. (They also should have discounted their work in return but I don’t think they really did; their bids and invoices were all very vague.)

Pressure testing

At the beginning of the process they did a pressure test on the entire house.  For a house our size (2500 SF) the current standard for leakage in NEW-construction is 2800 CFM; our un-remodeled house leaked 4500 CFM.  After all the upgrades and sealing — much of which I did myself because the contractor took shortcuts — the house leakage was reduced to 3100 CFM.  So I can now brag that my 40 year-old house is nearly as ‘tight’ as a brand-new modern-standards house!

They also tested the ductwork but it failed; see the detailed ‘Second mistake’ below.

We made two big mistakes in insulating

First, when all the old attic insulation was removed, we didn’t seal all the wall penetrations with expanding foam sealant.  The contractor mistakenly said that the blown-in cellulose insulation would seal these openings (e.g. where electrical wiring entered the top of the walls).  We compensated by foam-sealing the outlets and light switches as best we could.

Second, we replaced all the attic ductwork but didn’t touch the downstairs ducts or returns.  When the contractor tried to pressure-test they couldn’t even get the ducts to hold pressure!  So I am SUPER GLAD we had those rebates requiring the tests, else we would never have known.  (Needless to say, at this point my low opinion of the contractor was permanently cemented.)  They spent an entire day trying to seal the leaking ducts and made a huge improvement, but it still failed the testing.  Again, this was something I had specifically asked them to do while the walls were open and they brushed-aside my concerns.  I actually thought they had done the sealing since I’d mentioned it, but clearly they weren’t that organized (nor was I, apparently).  In the end, they did a follow-up test which demonstrated that the duct leakage was inside the house, i.e., when we run the heater, the hot air isn’t leaking out side the house, and that was sufficient for them to earn the rebate money.

Infra-red Testing

After all the sealing and pressure-testing was done, I wanted a ‘visual’ confirmation that there weren’t any bald spots in the insulation.  I hired a home inspector who had an infra-red camera.  He took IR photos of all my walls and ceilings, which demonstrated that there were no significant gaps in the insulation.  His report cost $300 but I think that was money well spent, i.e., I have been able to sleep well, knowing that all that money was spent correctly.

Final Suggestions

First, don’t attempt so many simultaneous projects that you can’t spend the appropriate time on planning and follow-up.  Even just one project can be a full-time endeavor!  By the end of our remodel I was handling just 3 or 4 simultaneous projects whereas the beginning of the remodel involved about 8 or 10.

Second, if you’re going to have an IR test, pre-heat the house at least 12 hours beforehand.  I wasn’t living in the house yet and tried to pre-heat it the morning of the test.  By the time he arrived the house was only 5 degrees warmer than the outside air.  Worse, the walls themselves were still warming-up and so his photos clearly showed the latent heat of the wood framing.  Ideally, the walls would have been the same temperature as the inside air, so that the only IR pattern would have been the heat-loss through the insulation.

More things to request/specify in your contract:

  • no cigarette butts (or other trash) left in the yard
  • windows to be cleaned before final payment
  • new ‘surfaces’ will be square, level, and consistent

The cigarette butts should be self-evident but apparently it’s not.  I hate making contractors come back out to pick-up a handful of trash but what’s the alternative?  Maybe insist on a “home-owner’s clean-up fee” of $50 per-item you find afterwards?  One recent example, the contractor hadn’t received their check yet so they came back to both clean-up and get paid; this was ideal from my perspective.

The windows is a particular issue for me. Every contractor who came out insisted that there was no point in cleaning the windows until the whole project was done. Now that it’s (almost) done I tried to clean the back patio-door and discovered that it was covered with a fine mist of construction glue or something. Windex and even Goop-Be-Gone couldn’t remove it. I was forced to take a razor blade to it. An hour later, I think it got it all but I also accidentally left a dozen scratches on the door. Who was responsible for the glue? Impossible to say, now.

I used the generic term ‘surfaces’ to refer to things like drywall and tile, as well as backsplashes.  Our new foyer entrance was built from scratch but ended-up very un-square.  Our floor installer and tile installer had to debate the merits of sacrificing the floor versus the tiles, to make everything fit.  They ended-up splitting the difference and cutting the wood floor out-of-square about half an inch while the tile was turned to be slightly out-of-square with one of the walls.  That particular wall was also built from scratch and had nearly an inch of variation in it.  Finally, we just got our glass backsplash installed in the kitchen and some of the pieces don’t line-up exactly.  There really was no excuse for it not being perfect, i.e., even if the drywall behind was ‘off’ they should have compensated before permanently attaching the glass.

I forgot to mention — we finally FINALLY FINALLY moved-in two weeks ago.  Unfortunately we had to move-in without a working kitchen, only one usable bathroom, incomplete flooring and incomplete stairs.  But there’s been continual improvements since we moved-in.  The kitchen is mostly done, the floors are mostly done, and the yard is finally fenced-in.  Still no stairs but we’re inching forward on the bathrooms.

After a decade of planning, and countless twists and turns, we finally have our own house.

Now, if we could just get rid of all these contractors?!  ha ha

The previous owner had remodeled the bathrooms himself and made a common mistake. He installed grout along the joint between the tile and the tub and it had all cracked. For a joint like this you need something flexible, i.e., caulking. It seemed like a simple fix so I decided to do it myself.

hand-sawFirst I asked the experts for advice — the workers for the Kitchen/Bath remodeler who were installing our new kitchen! The first guy suggested I use a plastic putty knife so as not to scratch the tub. But I didn’t see how I could remove the hard grout with something made of plastic. The second guy told me to buy the proper tool, then tape-off the tub to protect it. I did some online searches and found lots of conflicting advice about which tool to use.  Finally, I went into Home Depot and selected a metal hand-saw that was specifically designed for grout removal and which seemed straightforward to use.

Several hours later, I had removed about 70% of the unwanted grout on the first tub. My arms were exhausted and the tool was worn blunt.  Now that I had some hands-on experience I started thinking about what power tool I could use for the rest of the project.  One Youtube video showed the use of a Dremel high-speed drill and I had just purchased one for fixing my bent/crooked bathroom light fixtures.  But when I tried using it I had trouble getting it into the gap.  Maybe for ‘open’ grout lines but with the tub extending perpendicular to the tile I needed something longer.  Also, I didn’t like the way it was cutting — more like burning the grout!

ryobi-multi-use

Finally I ended-up buying a new ‘multi-use’ oscillating tool.  My father-in-law had told me about his $20 corded model but I bought a $70 cordless one; hopefully I’ll have more future uses for it.  The purchase also worked-out well because I bought a Ryobi model which worked with the pair of Ryobi 18V batteries I had recently ‘inherited’ from my brother-in-law (when he upgraded to newer tools).  I also bought a proper ‘grout’ attachment.  I appreciated how the blade extended-out a couple of inches, as well as the ventilation openings.  (From my initial manual labor I had observed the blade getting super hot)

Dremel-grout

I also discovered that the oscillating tool didn’t scratch the tub!  Despite my best efforts with tape I had scratched the edge of the tub repeatedly.  Now, without any protective measures, the multi-use tool cut through the grout with almost no effort and made no visible damage to the tub.

I found a cache of reminder emails I’d sent to myself. Here are more items I would want to require in any future remodel project:

  • Penalties for failure to clean-up. Not sure how this would be worded or enforced, but without it I think most contractors make just a token effort.
  • During demolition, debris will be removed from all exposed surfaces — including inside walls and ceilings. Again, I think contractors tend to think, “Out of sight, Out of mind.” And that’s true, until someone else changes the light and all the leftovers inside the ceiling rain down on them.
  • New windows will open/close easily, be cleaned inside the track and on the glass, and have no visible manufacturing defects, e.g. burrs along joints
  • New doors will close flush (not hitting one corner first), the jams will all be square (no corners sticking-out), and the door lock will be centered in the jam (not just barely clearing)