Monday, April 14, 2008

Finding Ways to Spend Money

Here is an ode to the vagaries of remodeling. Re-using existing structures is generally better for the environment than building something new (embodied energy). It also generally allows one to save money, as foundations, walls and finishes are already installed. However, working within an existing house can often be difficult - finding ways to snake piping, wiring, ductwork and the likes through walls, joists and other elements isn't always easy and often leads to solutions that wouldn't be required in new construction. Sometimes those solutions are brilliantly achieved, graceful things. Sometimes they're not. And sometimes, they cost more than you'd like - especially when they are unexpected. It's the opposite of finding a jam jar full of money hidden in the wall. (You know, that just doesn't happen often enough, does it?)

First of all, let me say this to all the Code Officials and Building Inspectors out there in the world. "I love you. I love you all". I do. I promise. The work you do is important and keeps the rest of us from doing stupid things to our houses - making sure that they are safe and well constructed. The construction industry would be a far sight poorer without your presence and conscientious work.

We had several inspections last week - one for general framing and construction, one for electrical, one for plumbing and one for insulation. As a result of our framing inspection, we need to replace the glass in two windows (one new, one existing) with tempered glass. Tempered glass is stronger than regular glass. The existing window is too close to the new door and so would be better if it were tempered glass - to keep it from shattering when our kids turn teenagers and slam the door on their way out of the house after an argument about the clothes they're wearing (the code isn't quite that descriptive). The new window needing replacing is a 2'x2' window about four and a half feet above the floor. It also happens to be above a bathtub. This is a bathtub only and not a shower. The code requires that any glazing less than 60" above the bottom of a tub be tempered glass. The idea (and it makes sense) is that it is possible that while one is having the odd shower, one might slip on the soap and careen into the glass, shattering it with one's elbow - necessitating a visit to the emergency room (37 stitches) in the middle of a blizzard - the tub filling up with ice and snow, the sub-zero temps funneling through the now open window causing the pipes to burst because one is in the emergency room rather than fixing the window. Later, you fall off the ladder fixing the same window - requiring another trip to the emergency room and a back brace. Sounds bad.

We didn't originally have a tub in that particular bathroom so there was no issue when we placed the window order. We later added the bathtub (no shower) and forgot to consider the code regarding glazing above tubs. Our fault. The fact that the tub is a tub and the window will be above our heads as we won't be standing while bathing does not matter. Tempered it is. It's our mistake and we'll pay the few hundred dollars it will take to order new sashes with tempered glass.

A view of some plumbing done right with the window in question in the background.
You can see the framing for the tub if you look hard enough.

Less enjoyable are the changes we needed to make to most of the existing plumbing in the house. The previous plumbing in the recently remodeled downstairs bath and the sump pump - did not meet code. (The 1 1/2" vent pipe wasn't a 2" vent pipe, the 3" soil stack wasn't a 4" pipe and the sump pump can't be connected to the waste lines inside the house) So, our plumber had to re-plumb the bath supply, shower pressure balancing valve, venting and connections to the sump pump. The existing water heater (installed just a few years ago) vents into an unlined chimney (apparently, venting hot combustion air from a water heater into a chimney is more of a fire hazard than burning wood in the fireplace) and so we need to either power vent to the exterior or replace it with a sealed combustion unit. We're looking at pricing now, and determining how best to coordinate this with our solar hot water storage tank, but we are considerably less happy spending this money - correcting deficiencies in the existing work. We'd rather spend it elsewhere, like furniture, window treatment or planting a money tree. Oh well.


Colin said...

Too bad that plumbing done right is PVC, some of the nastiest chemical compounds in the industry try ABS next time ecodeep man.

Kevin & Roxanne said...

Thank you for your comment. You bring up a hotly contested debate within the green community. ABS is indeed an acceptable alternative to PVC and other piping materials. But it isn't without its criticims either. In our research, we found that there isn't a clear choice.

PVC is comprised of chlorine, carbon, and hydrogen.
PVC resin is 57% chlorine by weight. The rest is hydrogen and carbon, which are derived from fossil fuels: primarily natural gas and petroleum. PVC isn't easily recycled, but it contributes far less to the solid waste stream in the US than do plastic bottles containing water and soda. Compared with many other applications, the PVC compound used in pipes and fittings is relatively pure: 70% to 95% PVC resin by weight, according to the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association. By far the most common additive (up to 20% of the PVC compound) is a simple filler, usually calcium carbonate, that reduces manufacturing cost, stiffens the melt and can provide various strength properties. Other common additives, comprising a fraction of a percent up to 1% or 2%, include heat stabilizers, UV screens, pigments, impact modifiers, and lubricants. Because the pipe needs to be rigid, plasticizers—the most significant additives in many other PVC products—are not added.

So how does PVC compare with other piping materials in use today? That depends on whom you talk to. The PVC industry will tell you that nothing is better. Indeed, PVC’s light weight, high strength-to-weight ratio, corrosion resistance, durability, low cost, and easy installation are hard to ignore. But PVC is not the only game in town, and for certain uses, other pipe materials have some definite advantages over PVC. Other common materials used for pipe manufacturing are compared with PVC below.
ABS. Widely used for waste-drain-vent pipe in houses, ABS or acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene offers few if any advantages over PVC. ABS resin is lighter than PVC but energy-intensive to produce and more than twice as expensive (as a resin). ABS also has nearly twice the thermal expansion of PVC, and its chemical components, while perhaps not as damaging to the environment as PVC’s, are hardly innocent bystanders, either.

Because ABS pipe must be cost-competitive with PVC even though the resin is a lot more expensive, profit margins in ABS pipe manufacturing are smaller. This leads to cost-cutting shortcuts and material substitutions by manufacturers—sometimes with terrible results. Substitution of low-grade recycled ABS resin for virgin resin by a handful of ABS pipe manufacturers on the West Coast during the 1980s is resulting in catastrophic failure of piping in thousands if not hundreds of thousands of houses.

Other choices such as polyethelyne, cast iron and vitrified clay all have their pros and cons as well, either due to process of manufacture, embodied energy or availability.

If interested, you can read more at Environmental Building Newsletter January, 1994 available at Building Green.

-Kevin (EcoDEEP man)