The Stuff No One Sees

click to magnify The new utility room.

I think working on the "mechanical" part of the home renovation project is the stuff I find the most satisfying. No one seems to care about it, and no one will ever see most of it, however if it's not done right the rest of the renovation is just eye candy. When we purchased the house, all of the mechanical systems were in extremely poor condition...

The barge rafter the overhead service lines were connected to was completely rotted, and bits of wood would fall off during high winds as the wires whipped around. The house service was a 50 year old 60 amp service panel with 4, 110v 15 amp screw-in glass fuses, and 1, 220v 20 amp cartridge fuse block for the dryer (it used to be for the well pump). There was no power available in the old screen porch, other than a single receptacle and overhead bulb socket in the utility room. The wiring was all vintage 50's stuff - cloth covered 12 ga. romex with an 18 ga. ground wire. None of the receptacles were grounded. All the electrical boxes were metal (but at least the boxes were grounded). The way the house was wired sort of made sense I guess: Each room had at least one wall receptacle and perhaps an overhead light that was part of one of the four fused circuits. That way when a fuse blew, only the receptacle or light would lose power and not the entire room. Trying to figure out what receptacles and lights were on what circuit was nearly impossible. Every electrical box had 3 or 4 hunks of romex coming out of it, connected to huge spider webs of wire and junction boxes in the attic and crawl space. There were no three-way light switches, and most rooms only had 1 or 2 wall receptacles, yet there was wire running everywhere so no room would be without some power when a fuse blew. Unbelievable.

The septic system had failed completely (which is why we were able to buy the house in the first place). Many of the water supply lines were leaking under the house due to repeated freezing and thawing over the years. The water supply lines were routed in some sort of half-assed maze under the house, since the water supply line ran to the old utility room for the meter, then back to the front corner of the house to connect to the old line from the well. Kitchen lines were mounted inside the cabinets (to prevent them from freezing, I suspect), but bathroom lines ran under the house and froze almost every winter. All the plumbing under the house was wrapped with pipe heat tape, and the plugs had been cut off all but one of the lengths of heat tape so the lengths could be connected together (twisted and taped, naturally). The one piece that had a plug was plugged into an ungrounded receptacle under the house that had rotted due to moisture and had no power. There were gate valves and tee connections all over the place in the plumbing under the house as well, connected to straight down drops with a screw plug at the end so the lines could be drained. None of the valves worked, and none of the plugs could be removed without bending the pipe. A deep well casing was in the front yard, with the controls and pressure tank under the house - all corroded beyond recognition. The well was supposedly disconnected when municipal water was made available, so it had never worked during time I lived here. The cast iron waste lines were solid, but there were leaks where the copper and galvy drains from the shower and kitchen connected to the cast iron.

The original heating system actually worked very well. It was an 32,500 btu Empire Gravity Floor Furnace. Yeah, I'd never heard of one either. Basically it's a big metal burner in a plenum that's mounted in a 2' x 3' metal box in the floor with a grate over it. Just under the grate is a thermalcouple on a hinged plate that tells the millivolt thermostat when to turn the thing on and off. Flip the plate one way for normal heat, flip it the other way for the inferno setting. The great thing about it was it had no blower so it didn't need electricity to operate - nice during winter power outages, and completely silent. If you were chilly you could literally stand on the grate and get toasty. The floor furnace ran on propane, and there was a huge propane tank in the back yard to supply fuel. After I'd been living here as a renter for a few years we enjoyed a little spring flooding one season - the yard had about 8" of water in it, and the bottom of the furnace filled with water. The gas man looked at the furnace and said it couldn't be repaired (I don't think he'd ever heard of one either). The landlord had a couple friends of the family (Larry, Daryll and his other brother Daryll) install a new direct-vent wall furnace in the middle of the living room. It sounded like someone was starting a WWI bi-plane's radial engine whenever the blower came on. We didn't use it much. We put a wood stove in the fireplace as our main heat source.

The attic had 3-1/2 inches of fiberglass rolled insulation, but was so poorly ventilated the insulation had compressed to about 1" due to the winter moisture. The bedroom and bathroom also had 3-1/2 fiberglass insulation / rodent nesting material in the walls. The rest of the house had foil-faced tar paper on the interior side of the walls, with tar-paper and foil-faced craft paper on the exterior side of the walls, but no insulation. There was no insulation in the crawl space.

Fixing the Mess

So when we bought the house, I knew we were going to have to replace all of the existing mechanical systems. We were going to have to replace pretty much everything else on the house too, but it was the mechanicals that had been bothering me for years as a renter. I was lucky to have a neighbor that's a skilled plumber, and we'd chit-chat at length about the latest and greatest plumbing and heating goodies that I might incorporate into the house renovation. This was by no means going to be simple, and since everything needed to be replaced, it took a while to plan the pecking order of what parts to do when. We put off starting anything for over a year while we got the septic system installed and played around with the landscaping, and then finally jumped in when my neighbor knocked down the chimney to get things rolling.

The renovation started with the old screen porch re-build, and that included re-building the utility room so we'd have some place to install a new boiler. We also installed the electrical service entrance in the old screen porch (the original service panel was in the living room). In order to build the roof I had to have the overhead wires moved, so the electrical service went in while working on the old porch area too. We decided to install radiant floor heat, and since I couldn't install the boiler myself (building codes prohibit the homeowner from fiddling with gas lines), the plumber directed me to get all the radiant tubing into the floor, then he'd make the final connections. I also designed and installed all of the new wiring, slowly migrating new circuits the new service panel. I took a similar approach to the plumbing by doing as much of the work as I could, although I wasn't going to mess with the cast-iron drain lines. I installed all of the new supply lines to make things a little easier for the plumber to finish up (he really didn't want to go under the house, so the more work I could get done under there, the better).

It's been a slow process, but most of the mechanical work has been completed between 2006 and 2008. All the remains is some work in the attic to install the rest of the heat recovery ventilator ductwork, and insulate the ceiling. For more information and photos regarding upgrading the mechanical systems of the house, please see the specific sections available through the menu.