Reader Feedback: Issue 192, December 2007/January 2008
Two takes on green-building coverage
I want to let you know why after many years I will be dropping my subscription. I am tired of being preached to about green building. I understand that we need to protect our natural resources and be responsible stewards of our environment, but I will not pay the going rate of your magazine to have less and less fine home building and more and more green building.
—Matt Miller, Tremont, Ill.
I really appreciate your recent focus on green building and how to address this critical issue. I know you steer away from becoming the “builders’ conscience,” but someone must get this information to the guys on the front line.
—Sandy Coyman, Berlin, Md.
I read with interest the story “Thrifty Solutions for an Outdated Kitchen” in your last issue (FHB #190). While I applaud the homeowners’ discipline in controlling costs, I would like to comment on a couple of points.
Making design decisions based on the fact that (for instance) moving plumbing will cost X dollars is a pretty shortsighted view. Amortized over 20 to 30 years, that figure isn’t very much. I always tell my clients I don’t want them walking into their kitchen for the rest of their lives thinking, “For just a few dollars more, I could have had what I wanted.” Often in my area, codes have changed enough to force a new rough-in even if the sink is staying put, so moving it is not a big deal. Bottom line: Don’t limit the project’s scope based on some arbitrarily round budget figure. It should be emphasized that the homeowners were very lucky that the foundation under their existing porch was adequate to support living space. That’s not common.
I also have a couple of comments about the refrigerator. Counter-depth units do, indeed, have fewer cubic feet than deeper ones, but my direct experience is that the space you give up is for the science experiments and other things that get lost in the back and shouldn’t be in your fridge at all. We replaced our big barn of a fridge and haven’t regretted the decision at all. As for recessing the refrigerator into an exterior wall, perhaps it’s not a problem in Marin County, but it probably wouldn’t work here in the Midwest.
No mention was made of the doors leading to the new deck, but the drawing indicates French doors. When space is at a premium (and any time homeowners bring up French doors), I recommend a fixed/active combo where one door is fixed and the other hinges from the center, swinging back on the fixed unit. This allows for a sliding screen and doesn’t take up precious interior space with door swings. It also is more energy efficient and secure.
—Kevin Theilen, Saint Charles, Ill.
Is faulty HVAC the rule or the exception?
Bruce Harley’s article “Home Remedies for Energy Nosebleeds” (FHB #190) was insulting to HVAC professionals. His comment that the HVAC trades “rarely follow the widely published minimum industry standard for their work” is outrageous. While I admit I have seen my share of horrors done by unqualified HVAC contractors, they are by far the minority. I have seen just as many examples of poor carpentry, electrical, plumbing, etc. Readers should take Mr. Harley’s comments with a grain of salt and remember that he is perhaps exposed to a greater number of poorly done HVAC installations simply because his company is in the business of remediating poorly built houses.
I have spent the past 20 years continually pushing the envelope to give my clients greater comfort and efficiency. Mr. Harley should look higher up the design chain if he wants to lay blame. Architects and designers rarely incorporate the space requirements needed for a duct system into the layout of a building. When it comes time to install the system, we HVAC contractors face a chorus of “I don’t want a bulkhead there” or “Can’t you put the furnace under the stairs?” from builders and homeowners. Fine Homebuilding has even been guilty in this regard. Two years ago, you published an article on estimating the cost of building a home (FHB #171), and there was no reference to HVAC. That article was written by an architect.
—Pat Hodgson, Nelson, B.C., Canada
Author Bruce Harley replies: I didn’t mean to offend anyone or to question the integrity of HVAC installers in general. But my comments are based on experience, my own and that of others, and are backed up by research. For example, field studies show that more than 60% of brand-new installations have incorrect refrigerant charge, and airflow averages only 80% of manufacturers’ recommendations. (Existing systems are much worse.) Duct leakage in residential systems typically amounts to 20% to 40% of the conditioned air that is supposed to be delivered through the ductwork. One national HVAC training director estimates that 70% to 75% of technicians in the field fail to use the recommended evacuation methods, confirm the correct airflows, or use the manufacturer-recommended charging methods, all of which lead to decreased performance and efficiency. Hats off to you and anyone else who is “pushing the envelope,” but I still believe you are by far the exception and not the rule.
Most HVAC problems are not due to ill intent but to a combination of cost pressures and a lack of understanding. Yes, constraints imposed by clients and designers are another major barrier, but improved design is only part of the answer. Better training with in-field support systems that encourage correct practices, along with performance testing of completed systems in the field (in other words, quality assurance), would go a long way toward reducing installation problems. My hope is that increased pressures on both energy costs and carbon emissions will drive utilities and public policy to support such practices so that we can all get better performance from HVAC systems.
Turn off the water heater
Daniel S. Morrison missed a potentially important step in his “Q&A” advice on “Eliminating water hammer” (FHB #190). If you have an electric water heater, the first step before you drain any water from the system is to turn off the water heater. Otherwise, the heating element can melt if it turns on in an empty tank—a lesson I embarrassingly learned from experience many years ago.
—Ed Reeder, Granite Bay, Calif.
Thanks for another great issue. I especially liked Tucker Windover’s “A Sweeping Handrail for a Centerpiece Stair” (FHB #190). Any chance I could get the actual dimensions of Tucker’s deadman stands? They look like a great addition to any carpenter’s inventory.
—Daniel Gordon, via email
Author Tucker Windover replies: Everything is made from 3/4-in. birch plywood. The base measures 11 in. by 11 in., which keeps it stable on the tread. The stand is 42 in. tall, making it high enough for any balcony rail I might need to install. And the handrail rest (the little piece that the handrail clamps to) measures 2 3/4 in. by 2 3/4 in. The handrail rest has a 3-in. T-bolt running through it and slides up and down the slotted aluminum track (available from www.rockler.com). The black knob is threaded to receive the 3-in. bolt and tightens to hold the handrail rest in place.
Easing vs. Easement
Regarding “A Sweeping Handrail for a Centerpiece Stair” by Tucker Windover (FHB #190), I just wanted to make a correction. When referring to handrail components, the author used the word easement. Actually, the name for these parts is easing. Easement is a real-estate term. It is usually a reference to some sort of right of way, giving nonowners some right to use the property containing the easement.
—Mike K., Arlington, Va.
The editor replies: I suspect you’re right. George Ellis’s Modern Practical Joinery, first published in 1902, and the Mowats’ A Treatise on Stairbuilding and Handrailing, published in 1900, both use the term easing. Most stair-part manufacturers use that term as well.
But I have three construction dictionaries on my desk that all say easement is the correct term for a “curve formed at the juncture of two members which otherwise would intersect at an angle.” That definition comes from Means Illustrated Construction Dictionary, which goes on to define easing as “excavation that allows an allotted space to accommodate a foreign piece or part.” Huh? Sounds like a grave to me, which is where issues such as this one are prematurely sending me.
There’s no such thing as a “smoke detector”
At last, someone has addressed smoke-alarm placement and installation. In his article “9 Common Wiring Mistakes and Code Violations” (FHB #190), Joseph Fratello states that builders pay no attention to this code regarding space from an air register. Actually, the Uniform Building Code is vague. Section 310.9 states, “Detectors shall be installed in accordance with the approved manufacturer’s instructions.” And in the National Electrical Code, there is no reference to smoke alarms. Every smoke-alarm manufacturer recommends placement 3 ft. or more from air registers and ceiling fans. Also, smoke alarms should be within 12 in. of the ceiling. Finally, about the term “smoke detector”: There is no such thing, only smoke alarms.
—Joe Nernberg, certified building inspector Agoura Hills, Calif.
Thanks for the tip
After 30 years of climbing deep into the back of my pickup to get a tool (often for someone else who didn’t have what they needed to do their job) and all the while reminding myself to be grateful that I have the tools to look for, I was saved by Brad Moritz and his tip, “The Big Drawer” (FHB #189). I copied his design and have used it for a couple of weeks. I love it more every day, especially the price when compared with a commercial unit. So a big thank-you to Brad for the design and to Fine Homebuilding for sharing it with readers.
—Allan McPherson, Perth, Ont., Canada
Hats off to Brad Moritz for his tip, “The Big Drawer.” I built one for my full-size Chevy pickup according to his directions. It works great, never tips, and has really simplified my working life.
—Bill Cane, via email
Minimizing foam particles when cutting
In the “Letters” column of the August/September issue (FHB #189), there was discussion on the challenges of containing foamboard particles when making cuts. With respect to cutting foamboard, I have found that using a diamond-bit masonry blade in my circular saw all but eliminates the chips and particles that come about from using other types of blades typically designed for cutting wood.
—Murray Wotherspoon, Prince Albert, Sask., Canada
Don’t take chances with deck hardware
Rob Yagid noted in “Cross Section” (FHB #188) that the new wood-preservative lumber treatments are all “OK to use with standard joist hangers and aluminum flashings.” While that’s true, we have to keep in mind that corrosion of metal deck hardware and flashings was, is, and will continue to be an issue. The ACQ- and CA-treated lumber merely brought it to light.
Simpson Strong-Tie and USP have taken a good step forward by introducing connectors with better corrosion resistance (ZMAX, Triple Zinc, Gold Coat), and they have stepped up their education efforts to help builders make the best choices for corrosion protection, including the use of stainlesssteel hardware.
Likewise, many new flashing products and isolation membranes have come on the market to replace or work in conjunction with aluminum flashing.
We’ve taken big steps toward creating durable, safe decks by addressing corrosion. I hope we don’t take a step backward now that new “less corrosive” treated lumbers are available.
—Mike Guertin, East Greenwich, R.I.