Saturday, October 22, 2016

Insulation sandwich

My walls are now an insulation sandwich!

When I was in college and participating in the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, we tried to make an Earth sandwich.  You have to get two people on opposite sides of the earth to put a slice of bread on the ground, thereby creating a sandwich filled with the entire Earth.  We kind of succeeded.  Someone in Australia did one half, and someone asked someone's TA from Spain to see if one of his friends back home could do it, but the obliging friend didn't quite understand and, instead of putting the bread on the ground, sent us a photo of a slice of bread artistically arranged on the railing of some bridge in Barcelona.  I think we got points for it anyway.

But this post isn't really about sandwiches or silly things I did in college.  It's about my grown-up life and how I got my walls insulated.

A while ago when I had a not-very-helpful home energy audit, I was told that insulating the walls would probably be the most effective thing I could do to improve comfort and energy efficiency in my house (since easier things have already been done).  Since my walls already exist, the only practical way to insulate them is to cut small holes in them and blow in loose insulation material.  However, after some back-and-forth with me, the company that did the audit told me they couldn't insulate my walls because the cellulose material used for blown-in insulation has problems with moisture and mold in old houses like mine that don't have a vapor barrier to keep moisture out of the walls, as described here.

So, for a while, I wrote off the possibility of wall insulation, even though I really wanted it.  On one of our hot Southern California summer days, I could put my hand on the interior wall, and it would feel like an oven.  In the winter, it's immediately freezing again inside as soon as the heat cycles off because the cold walls just suck it right up.

One lovely 120-degree day, I started researching wall insulation again, and I found some other resources describing different materials.  The consensus seemed to be that cellulose has moisture problems, and its fire-retardant treatment breaks down after 20 years or so.  On the other hand, fiberglass, while not as environmentally friendly to manufacture, doesn't burn, isn't attractive to pests, and doesn't grow mold if it gets wet.  So, blown-in fiberglass insulation started to sound like an option.

To do blown-in wall insulation, you have to cut a small hole in the walls every 16 inches or so (between each stud), usually one high in the wall and one low if there's a horizontal beam blocking the cavity.  You use a big blower device that shoots loose material into the wall cavity until it's full, and then you patch the holes.

Since the energy audit company didn't seem to know anything about fiberglass, I had to look elsewhere for an insulation contractor.  Searching on Yelp, I was really surprised to find that there were very few in this area, none in my town at all.  I would think there would be a lot more demand for this kind of service.

I got three quotes.  Guy #1 was super professional and willing to answer all my questions patiently, and he was willing to blow the insulation in from the outside and patch the holes when he was done.  Guy #2 didn't seem to know what lath and plaster wall construction was, didn't seem to really take measurements, and kept teasing me about all the questions I was asking, so he was immediately out (Apple Valley Insulation - avoid them).  Guy #3 seemed polite and conscientious but was difficult to schedule with, and he wasn't willing to blow it in from the outside, only the inside, and he would leave the holes for me to patch myself.

I started watching some videos and decided I really didn't want to do it from the inside.  It would have been a complete mess, the kind of thing you only do if you aren't actively living in a place.  Plus, cutting into lath and plaster is always a mess because it crumbles.  Cutting into the wood siding would be much easier.  So, even though Guy #1's price was a good bit above Guy #3, it was totally worth it to have it done from the outside and to have him patch the holes for me.  So I hired Guy #1, Superior Insulation & Acoustics out of Murrieta.  I felt like I was spending a lot of money, but I calculated it out later: three guys working for a day and a half and driving over an hour to get here, plus materials...they definitely aren't getting rich off this business.  It seemed like a fair price.

They did some exploratory drilling and determined that the newer add-on in the back was already insulated, as was the ceiling in the older add-on/laundry room.  So they did the remaining exterior walls, and they very neatly cut up some foam blocks and pieced them into the weird refrigerator alcove in the laundry room which is basically just a plywood box that sticks out of the wall.  All that was left for me to do was to paint the patches!

The weather's been too nice lately to tell if the insulation has made a difference.  Perhaps I'll post again in a year's time with a before-and-after analysis of my energy usage.

They drilled lots of holes in the exterior siding
They blew it in with a hose

The walls were empty, just siding, air, and lath & plaster.

Full of insulation
Wood plug

Patched holes ready for painting

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Beat-up old Venetian blinds
My house came with old beat-up Venetian blinds on most of the windows.  They're not in great shape, they don't keep out the light (and heat) particularly well, and the raising/lowering mechanisms on a lot of them are broken.  The summer heat and intense sunlight has convinced me that I should replace them with something that keeps the sun out better.

My parents have vinyl pull shades that have lasted over 25 years.  This seems like a pretty good advertisement for vinyl pull shades, so I did a little looking. had exactly what I wanted for the right price, so I ordered 13 shades, one for each of my inward-swinging casement windows.

When I received my new shades, they didn't fit.  The fabric was too narrow by quite a bit.  What went wrong?

In the world of interaction design (a way of designing software user interfaces focused on how people interact with it), there is a distinction between a mistake and a slip.  A slip is when the user does something by accident like makes a typo or puts the wrong number in a box or clicks a button without intending to.  A mistake is when the user does something intentionally and purposefully that turns out to be incorrect because they at some point made an incorrect assumption about what they needed to do or how something worked.  For example, maybe they used the wrong formula to calculate a number in Excel because they misunderstood the mathematical operation of the formula.

When I ordered my blinds, I did not make any slips.  I read my tape measure correctly, entered all the numbers and other information correctly into the website, and clicked all the right buttons.  The factory fulfilled my order exactly as I specified, so they did not make any slips either.

Why didn't they fit?  It's because I made a mistake.  I measured my windows and determined that the shade should be 21 inches wide to cover the glass, so I requested shades of 21 inches.  However, as it turns out, the width measurement reflects the width of the entire assembly, including not only the fabric of the shade but also an inch an a half or so of mounting hardware on the sides.  So when you order a shade that is 21 inches wide, the fabric itself is less than 20 inches wide.  In retrospect, this makes total sense because this is the measurement that matters if you're mounting the blinds on the inside of a window frame.  But I didn't think of this because my windows swing inward, so I will be mounting the shade to the window itself and not the frame (so the shade will swing inward along with the window).  I was not really thinking about constraints on the location of the mounting hardware because I'll just screw it right into the window.

I looked at the website again, and I finally did find, in fine print, the information about how to measure correctly.  It would have been much more helpful if it included some diagrams and an explicit statement of how much of the total measurement was fabric vs. mounting stuff.  I suppose this is a design flaw on their part.  Good design prevents users from making mistakes.

But, has a special "SureFit" guarantee and offers to replace your custom blinds if they don't fit, even if the reason they don't fit is that you made a mistake in measuring your windows.  Their customer service was extremely helpful, and although I had to be bumped up the food chain to more senior-level people a few times because of the size of my order, they honored their guarantee and offered to replace all 13 shades with the correct size at no cost to me.

Oversized mounting bracket - Bang!
However, there was one other problem with the shades besides the width.  The mounting brackets were very large and clunky.  This means that the shade itself would hang quite far from the window glass, so a lot of light would leak around the sides of the shades.  Also, because the brackets stuck out so far from the window frame, when I opened the window wide, the bracket would bang into the window frame before the window was fully open.  This made me concerned over whether the concept of these roller shades would work at all, even if I did get them in the correct width.

I asked the helpful lady at if they had any smaller mounting brackets, but after checking with the factory, she said no, these were the standard ones the factory sends out, and there were no other choices.  I searched the internet a little bit for other options, but most websites either didn't give any dimensions for the mounting brackets, or the dimensions they gave were the size of the packaging they come in, which is totally useless for pretty much anybody (another mistake-generating website design flaw).  Finally, I went in person to Home Depot, and they had exactly what I was looking for, smaller outside-mount roller shade mounting brackets for 98 cents each.  That will do.

If I learned anything from this experience, it's that one should always order ONE of something as a test case before committing to a larger order.  This type of prototyping is a basic technique in interaction design and something I'm well familiar with in my professional life, so shame on me for not transferring those principles to the everyday world.  I feel bad about wasting's time and money and felt pretty dumb about the mistake in general.  So, after re-measuring my windows and researching the mounting hardware, I had send me one replacement shade in the correct size, as a test case.

The new shade was perfect, exactly what I wanted and exactly the right size.  The Home Depot mounting hardware worked just fine.  So, I ordered the other 12.  I told them they didn't need to send me their mounting hardware, but apparently the factory is incapable of not sending it along with the shades, so I got it anyway.  I put up all the new shades, and I donated the wrong-sized shades and the extra mounting hardware to Habitat for Humanity.

All in all, this was a frustrating experience that turned out fine in the end.  Note to self: Don't forget that most skills transfer from one aspect of life to another.  Skills used in software design are pretty useful for a lot of other things.
New roller shades

Saturday, July 30, 2016

water heater sludge

My hot water heater is full of sludge.  Yay!

My water heater makes banging and popping noises when it refills and heats fresh water.  I read online, and a plumber confirmed for me, that this noise is caused by mineral build-up inside the tank.  We have pretty hard water here, so it makes sense that minerals would build up over time.

Water containing high concentrations of calcium and magnesium ions is considered "hard".  Soap doesn't lather as well in hard water.  Hard water doesn't feel slimy like soft water does.  The hardness of the water is determined by the type of rock the water flows through on its way into your municipal water system.  If your aquifer is high in calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate, your water is going to be hard.

So, apparently if you live in an area with hard water, you're supposed to empty your hot water heater tank once every year or two to prevent mineral build-up and flush out the sediments.

Right.  I'm sure everybody does that. <eyes roll>

I thought it was worth a try, though.  Using the process described on this website, I tried to flush my water heater tank.  It did not go well.

After letting the tank cool down for a while, I hooked up a hose to the water outlet, but the water only came out as a trickle.  After a while, it stopped.  I unhooked the hose, put a bucket under the spout, and let the water heater drain into the bucket.  Out came a trickle of muddy brown water and some sludge, and then it stopped.  I banged on the tank, and a little more came out with some more sludge, but then it stopped again.

Following more advice I found online, I tried backflushing the valve.  Using a female-to-female hose coupling, I hooked up a hose from a faucet and send the water into the water heater tank to loosen up whatever was blocking the valve.  This worked temporarily.  I got some more muddy brown water out of the tank, but that eventually trickled to a stop.  I tried this a few times, but I think the amount of water I was backflushing in wasn't significantly less than came out each time.

So, the entire exercise was fruitless, and I've determined that my water heater is unflushable.  Oh well.  Despite the banging, it still works fine.  It's probably just not as efficient as it was when it was new due to the sediments.  It's 10 years old already, so it's not worth worrying about it further.  If it needs replacement at some point, I'll consider a tankless hot water heater.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Windows (More about weather sealing)

I read somewhere that the reason Medieval cities were laid out with such twisty roads in a seemingly disorganized fashion (rather than, say, a grid system) was so that the buildings would act as a wind buffer.  The cold wind would get dampened a bit when all the buildings were in an irregular clump, which was no doubt something of a comfort to the tenants whose windows had wood shutters but no glass.  Brrr!

My city is laid out in a grid system, but my windows thankfully have glass in them.  Nevertheless, my house is drafty, thanks in large part to the cracks around the edges of the windows, and I'm just naturally cold all the time.  I probably would have been a frozen corpsicle back in Medieval days.

To reduce the draftiness problem, a while back, I weather sealed my weird old-fashioned inward-swinging casement windows using compressible bulb seal weather stripping.  This project was highly successful, and I really couldn't have been happier with the results.

BUT, I was only able to seal the top and sides of the windows.  I couldn't install the compressible bulb seal the same way along the bottom because of some decorative trim and awkward geometry.

The window swings shut against a thin stop, and the exterior side is curvy.  There was just no way to put the compressible bulb seal flange on the outside in a way that would fit.

Window bottom from the outside.
The crack along the top of the stop is very thin, and it's also uneven because of settling and the dry rot repairs I had to do to the bottom of the windows.  This makes it hard to fit any type of weather sealing product into the crack.  Furthermore, because the windows swing inward, whatever weather sealing product gets put in there has to hold up with the window sliding over the top and yanking on it.

I tried a bunch of different things, and nothing worked.  First, I tried nail-on bulb seal.  It was hard to install, and sometimes it didn't fit in the crack under the window, so my windows wouldn't shut.  Additionally, it didn't actually seal that well.  I could feel air still leaking around it.  So that was a failed attempt.
Unsuccessful nail-on seal

Looks good, but didn't work.
Then I decided I needed something thinner.  I bought some stick-on squishable silicone wedge-shaped stuff from Home Depot, but that still wasn't thin enough.  I bought some even thinner stuff from Amazon, and this seemed to work.  It was about as thin as possible when compressed, so it mostly fit in the tiny crack under the windows and seemed to make a good seal.  I was happy enough with the test window that I did it for all the windows.
Very thin squishable seal that almost worked but didn't.
BUT, after a couple of months, it was all unsticking from the windows, and some of it was tearing where the window bottoms rubbed over it too hard when opening and shutting.  In short, it didn't work after all.

I finally came up with an idea that I think WILL work in the long(er) term.  I've installed some more of my favorite compressible bulb seal weather stripping with the aluminum flange, but this time on the inside of the window.  It compresses against the window sill when the window is shut, and the bulb slides gently over the window sill when the window opens.

Successful (hopefully) weather seal installed on the inside
It's kind of like a door sweep.  Actually, I thought about installing door sweeps, but door sweeps are meant to drape over a raised threshold in order to get a good seal, which I don't have on my windows.  So instead, I'm trying this instead.

This really isn't the intended use of the product, and I don't know how long it will hold up with continued opening and shutting of the windows, which cause the silicone bulb to rub against the sill.   But, the bulb part is easily replaceable without even removing the flange, so maybe it doesn't matter if I have to get new bulbs every few years.

I tested the seal by placing a box fan right outside the window and blowing air right at it.  I couldn't feel the artificial draft from the inside, so I think it's working.  We shall see.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Doors

The Doors was a 1960s rock band.  I don't think I'd ever consciously listened to any of their music until sitting here writing this, but whatever.  Not my genre of choice.  Apparently the dumb-sounding band name was a reference to the title of an Aldous Huxley book which was in turn a reference to some nonsensical William Blake quote.  This weird chain of reference kind of fits the theme of my house blog in a weird sort of way.

Hmm, I wonder if anyone has listened to The Doors in my house before?  This doesn't seem like the kind of place where teenagers would have rocked out in the 60s.  But perhaps some elderly housecestor of mine was a fan of The Doors and turned on her record player really loud when she was cleaning the bathroom (because cleaning a bathroom with music > cleaning a bathroom).

Anyway, don't you hate it when you get halfway into a project and wish you'd never started it, but it's too late to retreat?  Yeah... Note to self, for future reference: refinishing old wood doors is a miserable activity.

When I moved into my house, there was an old wood door sitting in the laundry room not attached to anything.  I think it was formerly one of the exterior doors to the house.

There was no door between my kitchen and my bedroom, but there were hinge cutouts, and the old exterior door very nearly fit the space, so I hung it there.  It was a little weird because it has a window in it, but it worked.  I even had a handyman plane it down to make it fit in the space exactly.

The door had about 500 layers of paint on it and lots of dings and scratches, and the top layers were peeling off the lower ones, so of course I thought to myself, "wouldn't it be a really fun project to strip this door down and refinish it!?"  Yeah, so I thought

I took the door out to the garage to strip the paint off.  I had been led to believe that chemical paint stripper would make this job easy., not really.

Chemical paint stripper has the consistency of jelly, and you brush it on and let it sit for about 15 minutes.  It makes the paint all bubbly, and then you scrape it off with a scraper, theoretically.  In reality, the paint gets all bubbly and sticky and gooey, and you scrape really hard, and some of it comes off, and it makes a huge sticky gooey mess.

I discovered the hard way that it's definitely worth paying attention to the recommended temperature range.  The first day I tried it, it was too warm, and the paint kept re-drying and just didn't want to come off.  It worked noticeably better when it was cooler.

The upper latex paint layers came off reasonably well once I had gotten the trick of it.  The lower layers, which I presume are oil-based primer and top coats, didn't really want to come off.  I didn't worry too much about those, since they seemed stuck fast.

Once I was done scraping, I washed down the door with dish soap and a course brush because I didn't really know what else to do.  Then I hosed it down and wiped it dry.  This seemed to work okay, but it was really messy.  All of it was horrendously messy.  Eew.  But at least the hard part was over, mostly.

Once the door was good and dry, I used my power sander to smooth it out really nicely.  This was the only enjoyable part.  I love power sanding.  Rawr!

I then spent an excruciating amount of time chipping the remaining paint out of the decorative curvy parts and little cracks and then carefully hand sanding those parts smooth.  This was horrible, but it turned out pretty nicely.

A coat of primer and two top coats (using a paint roller, yay!), a neighbor to help me take it back inside and hang it up.  In went the beautiful glass doorknob by dad found in a junk shop in Mississippi somewhere.  And yes, the doorknob plate thingie still has paint on it.  A project for another time.


This was a really annoying job, and while I was doing it, I was really sorry I had taken it on at all.  But I'm very happy with the results!

I'm never doing that again.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Rigor mortis kitty

Most days, homeownership is pretty great.  Then there are the days when you discover a dead cat in your crawl space...

I noticed one day that my house didn't smell too good.  It smelled faintly of dead animal or rotting fruit, but I couldn't locate a source, and it wasn't very strong.  The smell got worse over the next few days, until it became distinctly "some animal is definitely dead" and "it's definitely dead somewhere over here near the back of the house".

I looked around inside the house and found nothing, thankfully.  I figured whatever it was must be in the walls or outside, but it didn't really smell outside.  Finally, I walked around the side of the house, and lo and behold, the crawl space access panel was lying on the ground, leaving the crawl space open.  A look inside with a flashlight revealed a very stiff and bloated dead cat.

I knew which cat it was, too.  I really like cats, in general, but this particular specimen, even when not dead, was not a likable one.  It was a feral cat with nasty matted long hair and a blind eye that lurked around my yard and gave me dirty looks.  It, or the local raccoons, must have managed to claw the the crawl space access panel out, and then feral kitty went under the house to expire in private.  Poor kitty.

So I now knew the source of the dead animal smell, but not what to do with it.  I called the City's animal control department, and they said they could pick up dead animals in the yard but not if they were in, under, or on top of a house.  They gave me the number for a wildlife specialist (Lowell's Wildlife Removal), who I called to come take care of the cat.

Lowell put on his tyvec suit and dust mask, wriggled around in the crawl space, and bagged and extracted the cat.  It was stiff with rigor mortis, and very bloated, but not yet oozing.  No maggots.  No under-house soil removal was necessary.  Eew.

No photos today.  I'm sparing you the photos.

Oh yeah, and the crawl space access panel is now screwed shut.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A non-imperial energy audit

Lois McMaster Bujold's sci-fi/space opera book series The Vorkosigan Saga is at the very top of my list of favorite works of fiction ever.  Each book is a combination of a sort of whodunnit related to intergalactic political intrigue and intense personal reflection on the part of the main character.  Bujold is a master of both.  Miles Vorkosigan, the main character for most of the series, is sharp as a tack.  He runs circles around everyone else while simultaneously learning life's hard lessons and overcoming a series of physical disabilities.  I really like Miles; Bujold is so good at writing characters that you actually know him well enough to really like him and to know how he thinks.
From Wikipedia

My favorite of the series is the book Memory, in which Miles, at age 30, is forced to make a sudden and unexpected career change.  Things seem to be going pretty badly for him, but they suddenly swing in a much more positive direction when he is appointed by the emperor of Barrayar to be an "imperial auditor". The imperial auditors are a small and elite group of highly trusted people with varied expertise who investigate things on behalf of the emperor and have the authority to speak with the emperor's voice in situations where consulting the emperor would take too long (like when he's halfway across the galaxy).

The title invokes instant respect and some amount of nervousness from any Barrayaran familiar with the position, but most outsiders have no idea what Miles actually does (which can work to his advantage).  For example, in Cryoburn, a young friend of Miles mistakenly assumes he is some kind of insurance claims adjuster.  It sounds kind of boring, but it isn't (nothing Miles does is boring).  It typically involves narrowly saving the future Barrayar (or the entire galaxy) from assured destruction or uncovering and tidily dealing with some outrageous plot that was spiraling out of control.

Unfortunately, most real-life auditors do things far more mundane.  Financial auditing must be one of the most boring jobs ever.  Energy auditing seems a tad more glamorous, particularly if you get to investigate a lot of old houses like mine.  You never know what you're going to find.  I recently got a whole-house energy audit (by Home Performance Matters out of Upland, CA), which, although interesting, proved to be rather less exciting than anything Miles Vorkosigan would have audited. (He would have delegated my audit to a competent underling and gone off to do something more interesting or accidentally destructive.)

Energy audits can be done with varying levels of detail.  My energy audit was a quick, general audit to measure the energy efficiency of my house and to identify ways to improve it.  For example, they measured the rate of air turnover in the house by doing a blower door test, but they did not use an infrared camera to identify exactly where the air leaks were (which, in retrospect, would have been more useful).  They also inspected all the duct work and measured the amount of airflow coming from the ducts.

They broke down potential improvements into three categories, in the order in which they recommend addressing them:

  1. Air sealing to reduce drafts
  2. Insulation to reduce heat loss (or gain) from outside
  3. Efficiency improvements to the HVAC system

After the on-site audit, they followed up with an hour-long phone consultation to go over the results and make recommendations.  They were very helpful in explaining everything and very good about answering questions.

For item 1, they noted that the house was less drafty than most of similar age (perhaps due to my window weathersealing?), but they did not have specific suggestions except replacing windows altogether and getting one of their guys to crawl around in the crawl space and caulk things.  I really wish they had identified specific places where the air leaks were coming from (besides the obvious places I know about, like the window bottoms) because then I would know exactly where to focus my efforts.  Ah well.  If nothing else, I'm inspired to try again to figure out how to seal the bottoms of the windows, and I might consider replacing the kitchen and bathroom windows, which are kind of horrible and not original anyway.

For item 2, they investigated the possibility of adding blown-in wall insulation but determined that it is not possible for my house.  Although the first hurdle (knob and tube wiring, a fire hazard) has been dealt with, they cannot do blown-in cellulose insulation because lath and plaster walls do not have a vapor barrier, and moisture from inside and outside the house is free to enter the wall cavity and will cause the cellulose to bunch up and grow grossness.  This page explains the problem pretty well.  This is a real bummer because wall insulation would make a huge difference in my comfort level.  When it's cold outside, my walls are cold.  When it's hot outside and the sun is beating down, as it so often is here in SoCal, my walls feel like an oven.  Hmm, time to plant some shade bushes.  But then I'd have to water them...

For item 3, they noted that the air intake for the HVAC system is undersized.  They also found that there was some leakage in the duct work and that the air wasn’t distributed optimally.  They would be happy to re-do all the ducting for $4000.  Uh, no thanks.  It’s not worth it given what I pay in utilities (practically nothing).  I will ask my HVAC people to check the duct sealing next time they come to service my equipment, though.

Ultimately, I don’t think this audit really told me much I didn’t know already.  I already knew the house was drafty and poorly insulated.  Now I have specific numbers to back it up, and I also have some possibly-useful information about the exact age and models of my HVAC equipment and a more accurate square-footage measurement of my house.

Blahhhhh.  Maybe I should give up on this old house and take up residence on a space station somewhere (preferably not a drafty one).