Monthly Archives: August 2009

Foundation insulation pics part II

Alas, yesterday didn’t see a lot of progress what with trying to get some hours in at my paying work and Gil learning to operate the excavator – he’s good but there is a learning curve. Today will be my turn as Gil is in class all day. Luckily, we are on a week rate, where it’s no cheaper to finish Friday vs yesterday (Week rate is cheaper than 5 days at day rate). I just hope we are done with the heavy work by Friday, because I’d rather not go in to the next week. We are only supposed to operate it 8 hours a day, probably to guard against excess wear and tear and to earn the rental guys more money, but yesterday we only managed 6 before it was time for bed and we were exhausted (at 8 pm). Here are some photos, but I’m a day behind, so they are actually from Monday night:

W. side of house all done and backfilled - driveway passable.

W. side of house all done and backfilled - driveway passable.


N. side of house almost all opened up, porch ripped off, partly insulated.

N. side of house almost all opened up, porch ripped off, partly insulated.


Some of the huge concrete blocks we excavated, in the mayhem of the front yard (front porch, dirt mounds, ripped out lilac tree...)

Some of the huge concrete blocks we excavated, in the mayhem of the front yard (front porch, dirt mounds, ripped out lilac tree...)


A gratuitous picture of Osh and meager garden produce for the day!

A gratuitous picture of Osh and meager garden produce for the day!

In case you are wondering, I have saved two manageable clumps of the huge front lilac to replant in a better place. And it is lucky I wanted to replace my lawn with permaculture-style forest gardens anyway, because the lawn is toast! Since these pictures I have only put up an additional 2 sheets of blueboard, and we have backfilled around half of the north side, we still need to dig out the last bit of this side, insulate, and refill to be on track, since I wanted to be on the east side of the house today to be on target. At least my body gets a break while I do my desk work!

Pictures of the foundation insulation

OK, forget about the horse poop (for now), I have, literally, ground-breaking pictures of the foundation insulation progress…now in its 4th day (we started Saturday, but things have slowed down a bit for the week)

Almost $5000 worth of blueboard

Almost $5000 worth of blueboard


PL300 Foamboard adhesive - it takes about 1 tube per 2 8'x4' foamboards

PL300 Foamboard adhesive - it takes about 1 tube per 2 8'x4' foamboards


Caulking adhesive to a pre-cut board, Sy operating excavator

Caulking adhesive to a pre-cut board, Sy operating excavator


one method of bracing a glued board, while Sy operates & Jesus shovels

one method of bracing a glued board, while Sy operates & Jesus shovels


smarter bracing, me shoveling

smarter bracing, me shoveling


Gil shoveling dirt back in the pit

Gil shoveling dirt back in the pit


Massive rainstorm as soon as we quit!

Massive rainstorm as soon as we quit!

I’ll continue the photo-essay soon, these only get us through Sunday night. I hired the next door neighbor, Jesus, to help over the weekend. Gil helped Sunday, Sy operated the excavator Saturday through Monday. I did what I could. So far we have dug the SW corner around the gas pipe, and the west and south sides of the house. We have insulated and backfilled the gas corner and the west side, the south side is half insulated. Digging the south side involved exposing and undercutting the posts on concrete sonotubes that hold up the porch roof, for some reason they haven’t caved in, even without bracing them (as I wanted to do). Right after we quit Sunday, the heavens opened up and it roared down a massive downpour – monsoon style. It doesn’t do that here. What we call rain is a sprinkle, what we call a sprinkle is a mist. This was a deluge. It did leave a big puddle in the bottom of some of the unprotected open pits, but luckily no leaks into the house, no collapsed roof or pits, and it drained away by next morning (I have some clayey silt at about 4′, but mostly slightly silty sands with some gravel – not too bad draining). Today Gil will operate the excavator and I will insulate. I hope to finish by friday, working when we can!

First day of first grade

As a break from landlording (soon I will write about the beautiful pile of horse poop in my parking area!), Oceano just started first grade. Hot off the presses, here are the photos:

Oceano's desk

Oceano's desk


His very own, first, desk! Front row…they’ve already got this kid pegged!

Graduating - again

Graduating - again

They already graduated last spring, but this morning they again joined the kindergarten teacher and circled and sang, before walking across the wooden bridge to the first grade teacher, who handed them a tulip. Then they filed into the classroom, sans parents, to begin the day. Note the beautiful weather (we had a pleasant bike to school), and the lovely living willow fedges around the school yard (this is Winterberry Charter School – a Waldorf styled public school in downtown Anchorage).

Oceano and Max

Oceano and Max


Osh and one of his tight school buddies, Max, are all ready to test the mettle of their new teacher. I noticed that their desks are as far as possible from each other – smart teacher!

Economics of energy efficiency

I’ve been thinking a lot about the economics of insulating my foundation exterior, see the post before last for a discussion of what I’m doing, the costs involved and the economics of it. I should update that my energy audit report claims that if I do it their way I will save $383, since I’m doing more I have calculated that my savings roughly scale up to about $500/yr. We’ll see if that is true. That would give me a bit over a 7% return on my investment, which is above my minimum attractive rate of return of 7%, set by the interest on my land payment (I am a conservative investor, and no other way I invest my money does better than this). This does not include the state’s rebate, which should bring me to 16%. So the economics are looking better than at first blush.

But what could a person do to make it better – say, without the state rebate or with a higher minimum rate of return to beat? Well, you could dig it all by hand yourself, which could save almost a couple of thousand dollars on excavator and friendly labor – which is a big percentage of the total costs. I would do this if I didn’t have a kid to play with and a full time job that pays me well, etc. If you are in the lower 48, you could get reclaimed foam board, which would likely be cheaper than new if you need enough of it and the shipping isn’t insane. I might be able to do this too, and it does seem like a much greener option, but I fear the cost of trucking it up here, or the logistics of getting it barged. Lowe’s takes care of that for me with the new stuff, and I am ashamed to say I take advantage of that ease. We also have locally made foam board, but it is not blue board, so has, if I have my facts straight, a smaller R-value per inch, greater permeability to water, and doesn’t seem to be a huge price break.

OK, what about the costs and benefits that are uncertain? Exterior insulation may prevent further water pipe breakage. This hadn’t happened, to my knowledge, in the place before, but last winter was harsh and pipes broke all over town, including in my basement. The clean up/etc cost over $2000. It could have been worse if no-one was home and the basement had flooded. It could have been better if I had rented my own fans and dried it out myself instead of naively calling in the carpet restorers. So lets say I prevent one pipe breakage of that magnitude every 20 years? So another $100 a year saved? (Yes, real economists, look the other way as I ignore the time value of money and other important things for my rough analysis). Then there is the certain increase in the price of gas, which could be extreme in my area, which currently has about the lowest gas prices in the US, but is losing that advantage. Exterior insulation could also prevent seepage of extreme amounts of melt water or rain water into the basement from the foundation walls. It could allow me to install a much smaller boiler when mine eventually goes. It might mean that the tenants use much less electricity for supplemental space heating in the nooks and crannies not well served by the baseboards. It could mean that the boiler isn’t on as much, heating the upstairs efficiencies which are right next to the hot exhaust chimney, causing those tenants to open windows and waste heat in the winter. Finally, I can attract tenants and perhaps nudge rent up a bit because my building is green – the greener the better. And insulating the foundation gives me more ‘green’ points than paying off my mortgage sooner (is this image building actually ‘green washing’? I don’t want to do it just to make more money, I really do want to promote and attract others to live more sustainably and to learn from my experiments, and insulating the foundation is a real thing I am doing to reduce carbon emmisions)

And then there are other reasons for me to insulate the foundation first. I have been holding off planting tender perennial trees against the foundation because I know it is all going to be dug up someday. If I get it done, I can plant my sweet cherry, grapes, and warmth loving kitchen gardens against the south side of the house and reap benefits in food cost saving and good nutrition sooner.

One thing I have found, though, is that calculations of the economic benefits of an efficiency measure are highly variable and individual, depending a whole lot on incentives, local prices, what you can and are willing to do yourself, individual house conditions, location, size, etc.

I think, given that I’ve done most of the easier, higher return things (CFLs, behavior, low flows, etc, etc), that insulating the basement is the next best thing I can do economically, and my new analysis indicates that it is a good deal. Next summer my dad and I will do the same treatment to the above grade walls, and the economics are probably only a little worse for that. Still good because of the rebate program. After this, I’m guessing (educatedly) that my next move should be to pay off my land, with its 7% interest. Paying off my mortgage faster, with 6% interest, is probably a close follow up, but there is a big emotional pull to put solar hot water on my roof first, instead of waiting until my mortgage is paid off: even if I put the $17,000 toward the mortgage instead of toward the solar hot water that only pays me off about 4 years faster. Oh yah, and that brings up federal tax incentives for all of these things, which I have ignored to this point!!

For any one who has managed to make it to this point awake, I welcome refinements to my thoughts and ideas of other, more economic, energy saving improvements!

Breaking all the rules with kombucha – and getting away with it

I love harnessing micro-organisms to make my food. I’m usually pretty lucky with it too, mostly because you can be fairly fast and loose with a lot of it, as long as you are willing to tinker. My 100% whole wheat bread is, with the exception of when I had some dead yeast, never a door-stop. My sour-dough starter is happy, until I accidentally mix in something I shouldn’t and throw it all out. My yogurt is less solid than storebought, but quite yummy. My elderberry wine tastes a bit like Boones Farm, but gets you drunk and I circumvented the capitalist machine by saving/freezing my dregs from the year before instead of buying new wine yeast.

My latest foray is kombucha, that my whole family has suddenly developed an unquenchable thirst for. Various online sites (kombuchakamp.blogspot.com is a good one) have instructions and recipes, but like most cooking, you can bend the rules and still be ok. Pressure canning low acid foods is about the only time I don’t bend the rules a bit. Here are some of the rules I have not followed, to still end up with an excellent, store-bought tasting finished product:

Rule 1: Start with a ‘mushroom’ (SCOBY, etc) or grow one from some raw kombucha dregs before you make your first batch. Use a whole bottle of kombucha to start the new SCOBY.

My method: Drink all but the last dregs of 2 store-bought bottles of raw kombucha, let sit out in the car overnight while camping. Next day, boil 1/2 gallon water, add black tea leaves and lots of sweetener, let cool to room temp. Strain half of sweetened tea into each of 2 quart jars and add dregs of kombucha to each. Cover with a cloth, and let sit for over 5 days – forming a SCOBY and your first batch of kombucha at the same time.

Rule 2: don’t use flavored kombucha to start a new SCOBY.

My method: That was the only kind the store had at the time, so I used Kombucha with strawberry juice and one with Mango puree to start. The resultant scobies are miscolored and ugly, but perfectly fine and make great tasting kombucha.

Rule 3: Use sugar for the initial fermentation, honey makes it too sour.

My method: I used 100% honey and it turned out great. Well, one of my two jars of the first batch was pretty vinegary, so I thought I had run afoul of this, but the other was beautiful, and my second batch was amazing. I ran my first batch a bit long (about 10 days), the second I ran 5 days in primary fermentation which seemed perfect.

I do a secondary fermentation for flavor and fizz, it seems to work best to add just a touch of fruit juice (about an inch or so in the bottom of an old kombucha bottle) or honey, bottle it tight with about an inch space at the top, and for my conditions, let it sit for about 3 days on the shelf before refrigeration.

Here are 3 finished bottles on the fridge shelf, the half-gone one was the one I added spirulina to – successfully matching the flavor and ingredients in the ‘green’ storebought one:

homebrew kombucha

homebrew kombucha

And now that I’ve got the timing perfect for my quart jars, I’m mixing it up and trying to brew in a larger sun-tea jar to do continuous brewing. It is taking longer than 5 days, of course. When a sample tastes right, I will tap some off into jars with a bit of juice to do the secondary brew and add more sweet tea to the main jar to keep the precess going.

Continuous kombucha brewing in the pantry

Continuous kombucha brewing in the pantry

Insulating the foundation

the pit

the pit

There is now a big pit against my foundation where the gas pipe heads under ground. This has been hand dug in advance of the mini-excavator, which will show up in 2.5 weeks and will finish digging the pit around my foundation. This part had to be dug by hand, because believe-you-me – hitting a gas pipe with an excavator is a big deal! It wasn’t too hard to dig – I’m pretty good with a shovel and Gil and Osh both put in a couple of hours too. For a pit about 4 feet deep by 8 feet long by 4 feet wide, I figure it was about 8 (wo)man-hours of work. The big thing is motivation – so much easier to kick back with a lemonade than start, though pretty hard to quit once you are going, too. I am loathe to do any more by hand, though, since I know the excavator is coming. Actually the big pain is all the big concrete blocks thrown in when they backfilled originally.

But that is the pit, what’s the whole story here? I’ve been planning external insulation of the foundation since I bought the place. It was built in the days when you didn’t insulate the slab or basement, except on the inside when you finished it for living, and that lets lots of heat out through the floor and walls of the basement. Not too bad, since the earth helps keep temperature swings smaller – the deep ground temperature in Anchorage is about 36 F year round, instead of -20F to 80F outside air temp, but bad enough. I like external insulation on a foundation wall for a number of reasons, the main being that it keeps the masonry inside the insulation layer, letting it serve as thermal mass in the heated building. My favorite technique is passive annual heat storage, but I can’t really do that full blown here.

So in May I finally got my home energy audit for the state’s rebate program, and not surprisingly, foundation insulation is by far the most cost effective measure I can take to save heating energy at home – more than insulating the upper walls and attic more, WAY more than replacing doors or windows. My computer-printed recommendations include adding R-14 to the basement walls, then going out 2 feet around the perimeter of the slab. I am doing a slightly buffer version of this – I am going down 4 feet below grade and also doing the 3 feet of concrete block wall above grade, then going out with the insulation 4 feet once I am down 4 feet. I am using 4 inches of blueboard for approximately R-20 added. This should trap quite a bit of the heat of the basement in. The state program’s computer printout indicated that the installed materials cost should be about $2300, partly because they have me covering less square footage with less R-value insulation, but also I think they have underestimated. The break-even point is calculated at $7000, and that is about what it is going to cost me – ~$4700 for 102 sheets of 2″x4’x8′ Dow blueboard (extruded polystyrene) delivered from Lowes, a bit over $1000 for excavator rental, ~$700 for hired friends’ labor, and misc. for adhesive, stucco, flashing, waterproofing membrane/tar if needed, etc (probably a bit more than $7000 in the end), but I will have achieved a higher insulation value than that assumed in the end too. I will get money back from the state program for this. That amount is dependent on how many energy points I go up for all the work I do in the next year or so (18 months from my first energy audit), how much I spend, and is capped – no more than $10,000 total, but quite likely less. My auditor said I am at a cusp and it will be fairly easy to recover $4000 for anything I do.
I did a quick calculation given the heating degree days in Anchorage, an assumed current insulation value of about R-10 on the basement walls, an upgrade to R-30, the local cost of gas (grossly about a buck a therm), a boiler efficiency of 82% – and got a payback of about 35 years, or a savings of about 2.5% of the installed cost every year in gas bills. I may have made some errors, as it really should be more than this I believe. One obvious error is assuming that the cost of gas is not going to go up. I’ll try to ferret that out a bit better, but the real test will be real utility bills. The interplay of thermal mass and thermal resistance of the ground messes with the straight-forwardness of an R-value thermal conductance static problem.

Cost of efficiency measures

Cost of efficiency measures


This graphic (unreadable – I know) came from Grist.org today and was from a report on efficiency being likely underestimated as a negative cost (i.e. it pays you) way to achieve meaningful carbon cuts. Basement insulation is on there – about smack dab in the middle.

Entry

Entry

Drunken Tiramisu

Drunken Tiramisu


Other recent endeavors have included painting the entry door and area and making drunken tiramisu (‘drunken’ describing both the human state while making it, and the alcohol content of the final dish – probably interrelated) at a wonderful impromptu dinner party at Dallas’.