How we came to purchase our home.

WPA Photo

A Works Progress Administration photo offers a glimpse of our home's past.

Reproduction Windsor Chair

Finally, a dining room set.

No Power, No Heat.

Our first snow storm and it's aftermath, October, 2011.

Lead Poisoning

Updates to our son's lead levels.

Bit By Bit

My wife's blog on being pregnant, giving birth and raising our first child with all the complications, hardships and joys that life throws our way.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Vent Fan Up and Running

Mix a bunch of humidity in a confined space with no where for that moist air to go and you get mold... lots of it.  In a previous post, I mentioned that my lovely wife just loves her hot showers.  With no ventilation, mold builds quickly, especially when I have the window covered with a plastic seal to stop any drafts.

Several months ago, I researched out the best vent fan for the bathroom.  Overwhelmingly, I found that Panasonic was the brand to go after.  Beyond venting the bathroom, I also wanted to improve the lighting and add heat.  The undersized baseboard is just not large enough to heat our bathroom.  So the top-of-the-line Panasonic FV-11VHL2 was the fan to go after.  With a retail price at $502, it is not cheap but I'll rarely settle for retail pricing.  Searching online found the best price, namely, Amazon.com (pricing may vary).  For $251.00 with free shipping (of course) this rather large bathroom vent fan was in my home.

Installing it was a bit difficult only because of my inexperience and it's an old house.  There are two options for installation, both of which required cutting a hole in either my siding or my roof.  With no ladder (yet), I needed to enlist the help of a co-worker who moonlights as a handyman (for a fee).  As I have a mild fear of heights, I thought it best to have him aide me with the roof installation.  The roof install was our chosen method since I wanted to minimize any changes to the home's exterior looks, as a roof install would not be seen from the street.  Not only did he aide me with the roof install, he also took over the entire instillation.

Side Note:
It's not always a good idea to get "hired help" from a co-worker/friend.  I wanted to replace an existing smaller lamp in the bathroom with this much larger unit.  In order to do this, we needed to make the ceiling opening larger.  My co-worker friend decided to get the job done with a power tool.  Not thinking, I fetched it for him.  He used his "sawzall" from the attic side down to cut apart my 250 year old plaster ceiling.  For those of you not familiar, a "Sawzall" is a reciprocating saw that shakes the crap out of what ever is near it.  I have to admit, I was pretty upset by the sight of a one square foot piece of plaster crumble and fall to the bathroom floor.  Being a co-worker and a friend, I didn't have the heart to verbally beat him up for it.  He did take the blame for it and, over the course of a few months (yikes!), patched it.  The work started November 20, 2011, and ended this past Friday night, February 17, 2012.  Of course, most of the work was completed on November 20th.  The remainder of the time was spent juggling schedules, cancellations, etc. while waiting for my co-worker friend to come back and apply the plaster patch in three layers.

The following are photos during the installation of November 20, 2011.

Now that the vent fan is in place, its time to route power and the exhaust duct to the roof.

A little insulation around the exhaust helps to avoid condensation during use.

While walking through the attic, we noticed that there was a junction box labeled "extra".  Inside were four free lines.  We had hoped to connect the heater to one of those lines since it required a dedicated line straight from the electrical panel.  My friend connected a breaker-finder tool to the wire and went to the electrical box to find which breaker the line went to.  No breaker was found.  The conclusion at that time was that the wire may have terminated in another junction box.  

With perhaps the 10th hour that we've been working approaching, my friend needed to get on with life.  We called it quits after making a temporary connection to the existing lighting.  When the light switch was turned on,  so did the fan and the lights.  No heat since I wouldn't want to set off the breaker making everything useless.

Over the next couple of weekends I dedicated my time to tracing the wires in the bathroom.  I turned off the breaker to the bathroom and took off the decorative switch plate revealing the wiring inside.

What a mess... I tried to organize the wiring into the individual conductors.  On the left is one line (one hot, one ground and one neutral).  In the center, pointing downwards is another line (one hot, one ground and one negative).  Pointing to the right is the third line (two hot, one ground, one neutral).

I then connected a tracer to each line and used the included probe to literally trace the connected wire back to the panel (or wherever it may lead).  The tracer was purchased from Amazon.com for a little under $80.
As it turns out, the left line went to a GFCI outlet, the middle one was from the panel and the right line went to the lighting.  The switches were wired in the most annoying fashion.  The left two switches controlled the GFCI outlet, why two I do not know.  It was more of an annoyance when my wife would plug in her hair dryer and it wouldn't work.  We would have to play with the two switches to get the outlet to work.

I straightened the wiring out removing what was originally installed.  I purchased two new 15 amp switches and one timer switch.  Identifying the source line, I hard wired the GFCI plug to be always on as opposed to on/off with a switch.  From that same line, I also feed the lighting and the new fan through a switch and timer, respectively.  In the photo below, the switch on the left is a dummy switch since the big name home improvement store did not have any blank plugs for the three switch plate.
Now, the heater.  This was perhaps the hardest part.  The heating element required a dedicated 20 amp breaker.  Using the tracer, I was able to locate where the extra line in the attic terminated.  It ended up in the panel in the basement, just not connected to a breaker which would explain why my friend's breaker tracer couldn't find it (no breaker, no trace).  I purchased a 20 amp breaker for my GE panel (the name brand matters) and installed it in one of the empty slots.  At the same time I purchased wire mold chases and a switch box.  I also got a timer rated for the 20 amp circuit.

There's so much more to describe, and by the time I finish giving the details of everything, boredom would have passed and the point lost.

So what is the point?  Well, I bought a vent fan to remove the possibility of mold build up and to also help heat the bathroom on our cold winter nights.  After many months, it was finally done!

Update 02/08/15:  After having the vent fan installed and used for almost 3 years, the vent fan has not been the perfect unit as researched.  I have gone through one set of CFL bulbs (yes, they do eventually go out, but after only 18 months of use?) and the heater had stopped working.  I called into Panasonic to get a solution and was told that the unit is under warranty still (with 30 days left) and a new heating element will be mailed.  FOUR MONTHS LATER (must be on purpose).... the heater came in, I installed it and.... I still have no heat in the bathroom.  Damn thing still doesn't work even though there is power going to the unit.  This is another issue that I have to sort out in time, since I'm no longer under warranty.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Reference Book: Antique Houses: Their Construction and Restoration

I am always on the lookout for educational books regarding historical homes and their restoration.  I did a quick search on Amazon and found an out-of-print book with a horrible blurry photo.  The book is called Antique Houses:  Their Construction and Restoration.

A reviewer (the only one) wrote: 
I lived through the making of this book, demolished portions, moved and restored many of the homes depicted herein and even handled aspects of the legal to get this book publised.  My father is/was the author and lived a passionate life completely devoted to the 18th Century.  He even wore a tricorn hat!  I could write a book on that subject alone.  This book was originally slated for release in 1976 the Bi-Centennial year and contained current pricing - it was conceived as a DYI to empower others to save these old structures and preserve them properly - kind of the "This Old House" of its day.  Sadly, due to politics in publishing (which I won't rant about here) the project was shelved for over a decade.  Very few realize how visionary and purist Edward P. Friedland was regarding historic preservation and teh techniques and techicalities of moving and restoring 18th century houses.  It was a privilege to be part of this process.
With only one review, and a horrible photo of the book, I didn't think it was worth going after.  I learned that my local library had a copy and after checking it out, I was very impressed.  So impressed that I purchased the copy from Amazon.com!  The price was right around $30 plus shipping with other prices available from $8 to over $100 depending seller/condition. 

The book is not very large but is impressively filled with details going over different types of antique homes, their various non-secret construction (pun from a previous post:  Structural Repairs, Part II) as well as hints and suggestions from the author who rebuilt many antique homes like mine.  The author also cites anecdotes relating to discoveries he made while deconstructing and reconstructing these homes.

One of these stories in particular relates to the fireplace.  In our old kitchen fireplace, there's a small rectangular opening.  The previous owner placed bricks in it for what I can assume was to thwart her cats from climbing into it.  The opening is still there, the bricks are removable but for the life of me I could not figure out why it was built into the fireplace.  That is until I read this book.

From Pages 37 and 39 of Antique Houses:  Their Construction and Restoration:
In the base of many a chimney stack is a hole about 1 1/2 feet square leading into a large chamber within the base itself.  There is no door on this hole and no evidence of ashes at the bottom of the cavity.  On close examination, it will be found that there is a small flue  (about 8" x 8") leading from the top of the cavity and coming out in the back wall of the kitchen fireplace.  Often the small hole in the rear of the fireplace has been sealed by brick or stone, but originally it had a wood or sheet-iron slip-in door that could be removed.  What was the purpose of this elaborate system?  Almost invariably I have heard people talk of their ashpit.  But never an ash at the bottom can  be found.  Actually, I stumbled on the answer one cold day.  The three fireplaces of the John Palmer house had been restored and were ready to be tested for how well they drew the smoke.  All the doors and windows in the house were closed  when I lit all three fireplaces and the bake over.  I was astonished that in a few minutes all the fires began to throw smoke into the rooms - the chimneys were just not drawing at all.  I thought that the mason had done something wrong, although he had followed to the letter the original dimensions.
In the rear of the kitchen fireplace, about halfway up to the lintel height, I had noticed a small piece of charred wood, which upon opening had led to a small flue.  At the time of discovery I had made a note of the opening and had replaced the door, thinking that surely this was an ashpit of some sort.  Now, coughing and with eyes watering from the room full of smoke, I remembered the strange little door and opened it, not knowing what else to do to stop the billowing smoke.  As soon as the door had been removed, the fire sprang to life and smoke stopped pouring into the room.  The fires in the other rooms began to burn better almost at once.
In the winter, when the windows are closed and the fireplace is lit, there is not enough air in the home to sustain all the fireplaces.  That opening allows the large fireplace to draw air from the basement!  I'd hate to sound juvenile, but that's just awesome!

This book will find its way to my bookshelf, with information that I can constantly refer to over the years.  I recommend this book for the beginner, to learn how these homes were constructed and how they can be restored.  Though it is more of a general covering of every component of the home, it does cover everything.    Meaning, the information that you need to know to get started is there along with little details that make reading it worth while.