At some point I guess we should just expect unexpected plumbing to happen. However, I can say with certainty that we didn’t expect a loud thud followed by a cascading shower of water from the mechanical room ceiling one fine Saturday evening. We’d just gotten the kids into bed and Sarah was doing dishes when it happened. I came running from the living room (one of us has to sit watch so the kids stay in bed and go to sleep) and she was already pointing me out the back door and upstairs.

Cast iron pipe dropped

When we got upstairs we saw what had happened: one of the three cast iron soil and vent stacks in the wet wall had basically fallen straight down about two feet. The straps holding it in place were both snapped, the top of the stack was in the attic instead of sticking through the roof, and most critically, the PVC pipe it connected to at the bottom (where the washing machine drains) had cracked at the main stack and the waste water from the washing machine had poured out of the broken pipe end into the basement from above.

Broken fitting

The good news is that there wasn’t any serious damage. The 2″ cast iron pipe was already slated to be removed, nothing in the mechanical room that got wet was harmed, and the PVC section connecting the washer was temporary. We turned off the washer and went to bed, leaving the problem for the next day.

Vent stack dropped out of roof

Sunday morning I started by removing the cast iron pipe. This drain used to be used by the kitchen drains from the first and second floors. Apparently, it had been supported by the plaster and lath of the walls, and with only the straps (and the PVC pipe underneath) holding it up, it simply gave way. The bad news was that the PVC had cracked at a fitting, right before it went into the main stack, so I had two options: use a heat gun, some pliers and about an hour to pry the remains of the fitting out and try to re-use the Tee, or cut out the 4″ PVC stack section and put in a new one. That seemed easier, so I ran to the store and got some supplies, including a 10′ section of 4″ pipe.

Pipe removed

I managed some Three-Stooges-level incompetence when it came to removing the old PVC pipe section, spilling the remaining water inside at several opportunities before finally getting the rest into a bucket and the pipe out of the wall…before knocking over the bucket on the floor. I did my best to clean up the new mess on the subfloor and Sarah put down even more towels in the mechanical room below. I put together a new branch for the washing machine and glued it together with minimal fuss.

Roof penetration

The final step was to patch the hole in the roof. When I got up on a ladder in the second floor and took a look, I found the expected congealed tar, but also some bent aluminum flashing. Because I didn’t want to get onto the roof and do a more extensive repair, I simply put some flashing tape over the aluminum cylinder from within.The roof (and walls) already leak, so it doesn’t need to be perfect at this point. We’ll be putting on a new roof in the not-too-distant future and it’s Good Enough™ for now.

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The North side of our house is very close to the neighbors house. Like us, they have a sidewalk down the South side of their house, but unlike us they have a bay wall on the side of their house that’s cantilevered over the basement on both the first and second floors, similar to our second-floor-only bump-out. That means in places their house is less than two feet away from ours. Given that, when we drew up our plans, I eliminated all of the windows on the North side. While they bring in some indirect sunlight, the view wasn’t anything to get excited about and removing them simplified things like the stair landings and potential furniture arrangements. Plus, windows have lower insulation values than a wall assembly, so we’ll lose less heat.

We removed the windows on the first floor a few years ago. Ha! looking back at that post I was still hoping we could partially spray foam. As it turns out, they use a fire protective coating on the spray foam that additional spray foam won’t bond to. As a result, you put it all in at one time or you don’t put in any. But I digress. Removing windows on the second floor when there isn’t even room to put a ladder up outside added to the complexity of the project. Instead, I worked out a way to close them up entirely from the inside. Fortunately, the first window was the small pantry window that had been buried in the wall. It actually has vinyl siding over it on the outside, so if I wasn’t planning on doing it from the inside before, I certainly was now.

The pantry window (buried in the wall) covered by siding

Because our house is balloon framed, the windows don’t have jack and king studs with a header. Instead, they simply cut a hole in the framed exterior wall, added a partial stud on either side of the opening, and called it a day. To close these in, we just sistered to the studs on the sides of the hole, with replacement framing for the vertical studs that had been cut. Sarah’s dad, Mike, helped me pick up the five sheets of ¾” plywood for sheathing.

Doing this from the inside meant that after I removed the existing window, I needed to completely frame the replacement studs and sheathing, along with house wrap stapled to the exterior. Then I fit the assembled framing into the hole from the inside. The downside of this approach was getting the house wrap tucked to the outside so it would cover the gap between the old sheathing and the new and create a proper drainage plane. However, the house wrap will likely all get redone when we replace the siding. For the time being, it’s mostly to protect the sheathing in the absence of siding.

I ran into an extra challenge with the window over the stairs, and had to build scaffolding from boards, plywood scraps, and a ladder. This wasn’t the safest work environment, particularly when lifting the heavy pre-assembled framing into the hole and then finding it didn’t completely fit on the first try. In order to reach the top so I could screw things in and trim one of the studs, I didn’t really want to put a stepladder on top of the scaffolding, so instead I climbed up into the attic and reached down from above. I managed to complete everything without accident.

The last window I did was above the landing, near the top of the stairs. It required a smaller makeshift scaffold than the one over the stairs, but I saved it for last because I noticed the sheathing above and to one side of the window was rotted, as well as the stud adjacent to the window. I cut out the rotted sections and put in the new stud and sheathing above the window opening first, since I could slide it in behind the remaining siding. With that done, I then put in the pre-assembled framing for the window opening from the inside, just as I had for the others. Fortunately, the rest of the sheathing and studs in the house are in pretty good shape, despite innumerable leaks in the siding, soffits, roof, gutters, windows, and trim. My next job will be removing the second floor back door, which currently opens to about a twenty-foot drop.

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I was back upstairs this week, removing the interior walls. I left the center wall for the time being. It’s not really a bearing wall, but it probably helps stabilize things and we’re not ready to start on the structure yet. I’ve got some ideas on how I’m going to tackle subfloor leveling as well as the attic floor upgrade, since it’s all 2x6s right now.

South wall, looking East

I’ve also been working on de-nailing all of the exterior walls, which is a tedious bit of business. I’ve made it about 25% around the perimeter. I was able to remove the remainder of the old gas lines for lighting and the last bits of old supply plumbing, plus a portion of the old drain and vent pipe, but there’s still some work to be done to get the rest out, which means the wet wall can’t be removed quite yet.

North wall, looking East

I’ve accumulated a rather sizeable pile of both lumber to be saved and scrap to be pitched. The lumber, much like the outside walls, needs to be de-nailed. I’m also planning out the next steps, which include closing up the windows on the North wall as well as the back door, and putting in the new drain and vent stack. That requires some forethought to get all of the proper junctions and fittings in place for the eventual toilets, sinks, and tubs that will connect to it.

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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!