I thought we were done with this. When we moved into the basement, we were finally using the new plumbing exclusively. The old galvanized pipe was completely disconnected and I assumed that meant our random plumbing issues were behind us. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case, and the cause was one we’ve become quite familiar with: freezing. All our pipes are in the basement, which is heated, so here again, I thought our frozen pipe problems were in the past as well. Of course, there’s an exception: the washer and dryer are on the unheated first floor. Our original plan was to fit them into the basement while we are living down here, but we didn’t have much room and we opted instead for our dishwasher.

The plumbing lines that goes up the first floor is new copper, and it has a quarter-turn valve about 18 inches above the floor level in the wet wall. We’ve been shutting off that valve and draining the water past it when it gets really cold so we don’t break our washing machine (again). We noticed water dripping in the mechanical room and investigation revealed that the valve itself had failed, with water dripping from a seam in the valve body. Presumably this is due to freezing.

I went to Home Depot and of course they were out of stock, so I went to Menards and picked up the replacement valve and some sundry other supplies. Then I discovered I was out of flux, so I went back to Home Depot for that, so in other words it was a typical project. I managed to solder in the new valve with a length of pipe and a male adapter so I could connect our temporary PEX washer pipes. I also capped the hot water line, which I’d been meaning to do for a while. Finally, I wrapped all the pipes in the heating cable and covered it in pipe insulation that we had lying around from previous frozen plumbing escapades.

Water is no longer dripping in the mechanical room and hopefully we won’t have any further plumbing mishaps. I’m starting to work through how all the new drain and vent will be run, since I need to remove the remaining old stuff, and we obviously need a functional vent to the roof. I also pulled out the rest of the old supply plumbing from the second floor, so we officially have no more galvanized pipe in the house!

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We’ve jumped into winter with a dump of snow and a drop in temperatures, and this is our first winter since we moved down to the basement. The radiant heated floors are a big plus, and having warm feet and 72° indoor temperatures is a welcome change from the upstairs, where our temporary radiators were not up to the task of heating our drafty house, even when supplemented by electric heaters. We had a bit of a problem earlier in the season, mostly because I wasn’t paying attention to a critical detail of our new heating system. In addition to the thermostat and the boiler temperature, there is a dial that controls how warm the basement floor loops can get. Lester, our radiant installer, had left it at a reasonable 80°, but since our brick exterior walls aren’t insulated (yet) and there’s nothing between our heads and the unheated upstairs but a layer of OSB, that wasn’t cutting it for keeping our air temperature where we wanted it. Once I discovered the dial (and Sarah pointed out that she had told me about it after Lester told her), we cranked it up and now the basement is staying warm, mostly.

Window caulking and foam

I say mostly because there was a pretty big exception. Even before the dramatic temperature drop of this week (-7° last night), the kids’ bedroom was cold and our bedroom wasn’t much better. I tried feeling with my hand, using a laser thermometer, and blowing out a candle to watch the smoke, but I couldn’t isolate where the cold air was coming in. I found a few spots around one of the windows in the bay and I caulked it, but it didn’t make much of a difference. We finally broke down and bought a tiny thermal camera that plugs into a smart phone. It’s a lot cheaper than a full size thermal camera, and it actually does a pretty decent job. In the image below, you can see the spectrum temperature range on the left side, from black to white.

Bay window thermal image

I took it into the kids’ room and started finding cold spots (and thus leaks) right away. Most of this was centered on the bay windows, so I spent a fair amount of time caulking and spray-foaming all around, switching back to the camera to get new readings on the heat in various spots. I found a lot of the cold air was coming from the top of the brick walls along the front, and I filled those cavities with “big gap” Great Stuff.

Rob installs rigid foam

After this work, we were still not satisfied with how cold it was, and the camera started pointing us to the sides of the house where the floor joists above rest on the top of the brick wall, notched into a 6×8 rim board. We plan to fill all of these floor joist cavities at the outside wall with proper closed-cell spray foam, but not until all the mechanicals are in and we can do the rest of the exterior walls upstairs at the same time. Given that, we didn’t want to try and fill these all with Great Stuff, and Roxul mineral wool batts wouldn’t do much to stop the air flow. Instead, Rob, Mike, and David came down to help and we cut pieces of leftover 2″ rigid foam (originally for under the basement slab) and fit them between each joist for the length of the kids’ bedroom. The effect was dramatic: the room went from 10° colder than the living room to 3°. The next evening I followed up with our bedroom, but I ran out of extra foam before I could fill all of the joist bays. Even so, it was a noticeable improvement. I went back and found some more cold spots with the camera that I added some spray foam to and all-in-all it’s a lot more comfortable. Of course, now Sarah is saying the kitchen is cold, so I may still have some more work in front of me, but the camera is proving invaluable. Plus, I can lend it to friends so they can use it on their own houses. Thanks to Mike, Rob, and David for their assistance!

Original panels

We finally have no old electrical in our house! When we bought the house, there were two panels for separate electrical service between the two floors. The whole thing was spliced and festooned with a mixture of wiring from various electrical epochs, like the strata of some ancient city. Much of the house was run with cloth-wrapped cable inside the flexible, coiled “BX” metal conduit. Our house inspector, and later our insurance inspector called it out as a risk. We knew from the start that we’d have to replace it all, but it’s been a long, gradual process. This process started with the basement demo, where I removed all manner of fire hazards. It continued with the first floor demo, then went back to the basement when we started our structural work, and jumped ahead with our new electrical service. It didn’t make a lot of progress for quite a while, but finally early last year we put in new electrical in the basement, got rid of more of the old stuff when we did the back porch demo, and most recently when we started on the second floor.

New panel and old panel

I disconnected the second floor electrical before we did demo, pulled out the majority of the BX cabling during demo, and finished shortly afterward, but there was still more to do. There were three BX cables and one conduit running up to the second floor, including two that ran up the back of the house (on the outside), requiring me to use the extension ladder to get them down. I had also left one BX cable with one outlet in place to service the first floor, but since that was fed off the old electrical panel box, it had to go too. There are now three separate extension cords running into the first floor from separate circuits, servicing the freezer, washer and dryer, as well as lighting/surge strip outlets.

New panel alone

This past weekend I got everything removed but the old electrical panel itself, which included several random junction boxes mounted around the panel and short lengths of BX cable connecting them all. The old electrical panel was itself only functioning as a junction box, since Percy had moved all the breakers to the new panel when he put it in, but that meant I still needed to pull out all the breakers from the circuits I’d removed. Saturday morning I shut off the power on the main breaker and moved quickly to get the remaining wires disconnected, the old breakers out, the remaining breakers consolidated at the top of the panel, and the old panel finally pulled off. The old electrical is finally, officially, gone! I printed some nice new labels to replace the masking tape and sharpie that had served to date. I still need to put some blanks in to cover up the removed breakers (there’s always got to be some little remaining task), and I want to remove the boards that the old panel was mounted on, but I’m still happy that, at least with the electrical, everything we have is new. I’ll be able to say the same about the plumbing just as soon as we get the rest of the old stack replaced.

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Our demo party filled the first dumpster, so we swapped it for another one the same size and we filled it up too. In addition to all of the remaining plaster and lath debris, of which there was plenty, we took up the flooring down to the subfloor. This was an involved process, mostly because there wasn’t anywhere that had only one layer of flooring. The living room and dining room had a floated Pergo-style laminted pressboard floor that looked like hardwood. It, like most of the work done to the house shortly before we bought it, was cheap and installed badly. Despite being less than ten years old, it was in bad shape and we pitched it. Under that was peel-and-stick tiles, under that was a thin veneer hardwood, under that was the original hardwood floors, and under that was an inch-thick layer of plaster, mud, and general crud from when the house was built.

Under-floor Crud

As with the first floor, we didn’t save the hardwood floors. For one, there wasn’t enough of it. We’re completely changing the floor plan which would complicate any effort to save it, we’re installing radiant heated floors, and they were in really rough shape from all of the nails.

Bathroom floor removal in progress

Living room done, dining room in progress

Because our subfloor is planks that are spaced apart by a quarter inch or more, we couldn’t use a broom to sweep up all the debris without pushing cascades of crud through the cracks and down into the first floor where all of our stuff is in storage. Now granted, we covered everything with tarps and it’s all pretty dirty already anyway from the dust of the demo party and unavoidable debris that comes down anyway, including through various holes in the floors and walls. Even so, we wanted to do what we could to prevent it from being any worse than it had to be. Sarah spent several hours a day over the better part of two weeks sucking up all the crap with the shopvac. We hauled out about eight contractor bags of the stuff and filled our toters a few times, since the dumpster was gone.

Of course, then I went around de-nailing studs and joists and leaving nails and random other bits of crud all over the floors she had just vacuumed, but this is kind of how it goes. I’ll get it cleaned up again after we’ve pulled out the rest of the interior walls and the plumbing and are ready to start putting things back together. It’s already starting to look like the kind of space we can start building things in, but it will really start looking promising once we get the whole floor completely cleared out.

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For the third and final time, we held a demo party. Saturday, with the help of a great many friends and family members, the entire second floor was demolished. We managed to fill the 30 yard dumpster and we still have a fair amount of debris waiting its turn to go down the chute and fill the next one, which arrived Tuesday. Everything that’s left should fit into this second one, and at that point the gutting of the interior will be complete. We were so bent on wrecking things that we didn’t get in-progress photos, but we did get before and after!

I didn’t get the ceiling demo done until Saturday morning because I spent some time improving the chute by adding a wider hopper and putting a ramp upstairs to enable full wheelbarrows to be emptied. I wasn’t able to put the top of the chute at floor level because the downspout cuts across the door, but using a chunk of the ramp I built for the basement dig-out solved the problem.

Part of the demo crew

Part of the demo crew

Friday evening, Sarah dropped off the kids at her parents and picked up two of her nephews, Colin and David, and two of their friends, Dylan and Dustin. I picked up Will, in from Iowa City, and they spent the night. Saturday morning they were joined by Dean and Siobhan and Matt B. We got to work and Sarah’s brother, Matt, and his girlfriend, Amy, joined us in the afternoon.

Prybars, sledgehammers, 2x4s, regular hammers, shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows were put into action and the second floor came apart quickly. The plaster and lath, drywall and lath, random fiberglass insulation, and old trim all got ripped down, loaded into wheelbarrows or simply carried to the back, and chucked down the chute, while a rotating dumpster crew with shovels and rakes moved debris to the far end of the dumpster. Dust masks, goggles, gloves, boots, coveralls, bandanas, and hard hats all proved their worth and those cases where people didn’t avail themselves of them demonstrated their importance.

When she wasn’t doing demo herself, Sarah kept everyone going with sandwiches, water, Gatorade, Coca-cola, coffee, beer, and cider, and when we finished there was lasagna, shepherd’s pie, more beer and cider, wine, and scotch. Sarah’s also been working on clearing out the remaining debris this week into the second dumpster and we’re hoping to wrap that up and get the flooring out this weekend. A huge thanks from Sarah and I go out to everyone that made it!

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