Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Tag: Utility

The Coolest Kids On The Block

Q: How do you become the coolest kids on the block?

A: By installing the best and the newest central AC!

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LOL I know, this is lame. But I am apparently very excited about the new central AC and you can definitely tell by how my voice raised in this house tour when I mentioned the condenser!  There were tons of decisions we had to make during the installation process, and I am looking forward to sharing them with you today. We learned so much during the process about the house and ourselves, I think it is worth to memorize the whole process here since this blog is more or less a renovation dairy.

1. Do we really need an AC, NOW?

The first decision we needed to make was whether or not to install central AC this summer. We knew that adding a central AC would make our house more valuable, and we definitely planned to do it as some point. But we also knew that we would likely have to replace the furnace when we install the AC, and we have a handy one-year insurance on our furnace. So it is more economical to wait until the furnace fail, which will probably happen in the next year or two.

Then this historical heat wave hit us in July, just a couple weeks after we moved in. We thought it would not be a big deal – it is 5280 feet at where we live, and there is always cool breeze at night from the mountains. We also have a basement that is at least 5 degree cooler than the main floor. It actually worked for me, since I am comfortable in 80 degree range. But for Slav, this heat wave was a nightmare. It was literally a “night”mare because this guy just could not get a good night sleep. Even though he hid in the coolest room in the basement with a mattress on the floor, the night temperature was just a few degrees above what he needed to sleep soundly.

We all knew it was just a few weeks and he could probably be fine after that. But I still brought up the topic on getting it done THIS SUMMER – why wait another year if we could make Slav more comfortable now? After all, we did not buy our house to slave for it. We bought it to ENJOY it. So our (including the pups’) happiness and comfort should always be the first priority in all the renovation decisions we make.

2. Decision on choosing a local installer

We researched all the big box stores and found that they actually do not have their own tech team, so all the installation and future services would be done by local contractors. Then why not being local companies to begin with? City of Arvada actually gives rebates for installing high-efficiency units, and a few local companies are listed as trusted installers. So I made calls to four local companies for free estimates. They all came in within a few days and we picked one appearing to be the most knowledgeable, the most detail orientated, the most customizable, and with the best customer reviews – Go Green heating and air conditioning. They are not the one with the lowest quote, but they provide high efficiency units which are worth the price.

We also picked this company for the spectrum of their services – they  not only install central AC, but also furnace and water heaters. Since these three units are very much connected and compacted in a small space, we would like to have one company to replace/service them all.

3. Picking the features of the central AC

One other thing that made us feel better about the company we went with, was that they performed a load calculation during the free estimate visit. I know that our house is simple and a lot of people probably can tell what size of AC we need based on experience, but seeing a load calculation done made us feel that these guys were thorough.

Apparently, per Square footage has very little relevance with what size furnace or air conditioner you need. The relevant factors are your attic, wall insulation, the quality/size of your windows, the orientation of windows and doors and the whole house, and how many appliances you have in your home that give off heat. The ceiling height also matters, which indicates the overall volume of your home in “cubic” feet. Equipped with information in the load calculations, we felt much more confidence to go with a 2-ton AC with specific features that would benefit our size/type of house the most. At the end, we went with a 2 ton, 1600 seer, high efficiency TXV indoor coil AC, paired with a 60000 BTU, 95% AFUE, single stage furnace but with ECM motor. We think it is a good balance for our small house with limited amount of people, and it is the most efficient and environmental friendly combo that we could afford.

4. Decision on replacing our furnace at the same time

Our furnace is about 17 years old and it is on its last legs. During house inspection, we were notified that it needs a cleaning/tone-up, which will cost us a few hundred bucks. Even through it could handle a central AC unit we wanted to install, we still decided to take the opportunity to replace our furnace at the same time. It does not only give us the peace of mind about our furnace, but also insures that our central AC is properly powered and performs as it should be. Changing both of them also saves us money on the service time, since replacing a furnace with an existing central AC on top of it would require much more work than replacing a standing-along furnace itself.

5. Location, location, location.

During the free estimate, we were asked where we would like the AC condenser unit to be, and whether we wished to relocate the furnace/AC. We totally choked – did not think we had the choice of either!  Apparently, we can locate the condenser unit anywhere around the house – it is just a matter of running a longer refrigerant line. Same thing for the furnace and AC cooling unit, it is just a matter of adding duct and connect to the gas line.

We tossed lots of ideas around, and decided that we are fine with where the furnace was. As I’ve shown you in the basement tour, the furnace, water heater, washer and drier are all side by side along one basement wall, so it is very easy to enclose all into a utility closet down the road. Remaining the furnace at its original location also saved us a lot of duct work (and money!).

But for the location of the condenser, Slav has a very clear demand – it has to be out of sight from our back patio. All the AC estimate guys told us that we could just put it under the kitchen window (which is ON our back patio) to save money, but Slav insists to have it on the side of the house. Fortunately, the distance is just under the limit for additional charge, so it did not cost more money. The unit we chose is also pretty quite. So even it is just on the other side of our bedroom wall, we hardly noticed it.

Here are the biggest five decisions we made before the installation started. Did you have to make these decisions? I will come back to show you the demo and installation process. At meanwhile, Roxie and Charlie are enjoying this:

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Lucky pups!

We Got a New Panel!

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We have known since the inspection day that we needed a new electrical panel. In fact, the ranch house’s electrical system is so outdated that it needs a complete overhaul. Here are a few major problems we have, just to name it:

1. We have the famously terrible Federal Pacific Stab Lok breakers. They have been known to be problematic for a long time. It has been reported that some of them failed to trip when needed, which could be a potential safety hazard. There was even a class action suit in New Jersey on this product. Recommendation: replacement.

2. Our panel is full to the brim. There is no space to hook up anything else. Since we plan to install a HVAC soon, the panel has to be upgraded.

3. Our house is not properly grounded. Out of the three grounds that required by city code – concealed, ground rod, water main – we only have the “concealed”, which comes from the electrical pole.

As a consequence, none of our outlets is grounded (!). As shown in the picture below, our existing outlets do not have ground wires coming in (left). These outlets have nonetheless been upgraded to a modern grounded type, as shown on the right, but the ground wires are still missing. This is not uncommon in older homes. The problem is that some plug-in electrical devices need this ground connection for their built-in safety features, which will not work if the outlet is not properly grounded.

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4. Reverse polarity outlets

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As shown above, the two different size of the slots on an electrical outlet, and the different-sized blades on a plug, designate their respective polarization. Some of our outlets has the polarity reversed, which means the wires were connected wrong. What is the problem? Allow me to give you an example. A light-bulb socket has exposed threads, and polarized socket threads are attached to the neutral wire. If our lights are plugged in a reversed polarity outlet, the exposed threads would be connected to the “hot” wire, which brings a risk getting a shock when changing light bulbs.

5. None of our receptacles is GFCI, which is required for bathrooms, kitchen and garage.

It would be great if we could correct these issues all at once, but limited by budget and time, we decide to upgrade our panel first. We will be rewiring and ground outlets as we go around and renovate each room.

The old and outdated

Here are our old braker inside the garage, and the old meter box outside:

Inspection report

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The grey-ish box to the left is the Comcast internet cable box, which needs to be grounded as well. See how it was done? It was grounded by a naked wire (no insulation) to the metal pipe that hold all the electrical wires above the meter box. A big code violation.

Taking the dry wall down in the garage

We have decided to take down the drywall on the entire garage back wall before the electrician started his job. Changing the panel and adding more outlets in the garage (Slav’s request) requires some dry wall being taken down. And doing it ourselves will save the electrician’s time and consequently cost us less. In addition, our inspector suggested us to take down the dry wall in the garage to check if there is potential water damage (due to our roof conditions). So it made a lot of sense to take down the entire wall before our electrical work.

Cleaning the garage

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Taking down the wall-mount shelves

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Dry wall was down!

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We were surprised to find insulation behind the exterior walls. After probing around, it seemed like that both exterior wall are insulated with R11 fiberglass (with gaps on top and bottom though). This is a nice surprise because we were planning to insulate the garage so we can work in it during winter time. However, the wall between garage and the house is not insulated. So in summer, when there is a lot of heat trapped in the south-facing garage, the heat will be transferred to the kitchen and add our cooling cost. So we will be insulating this wall soon. However, it is a lot cheaper to insulate one wall then three! So we are definitely happy with the discovery.

Upgrade 1 – a brand new 200 AMP breaker

Next morning, our electrician got to work. All the wires from the breaker went into the attic above the garage, then went into the house through the main attic. Some of them were not even insulated! To extend the wires and adding proper insulation, our electrician worked inside the attic:

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New junction box were installed:

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And new wires were put into place!

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These wired eventually all came out to the new breaker, which located outside of the house by city code.

Next, our electrician moved to the outside to set up the new panel.

Planning phase

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The old setup

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You can see the new panel on the ground! We are happy that this new panel stays outside – it definitely offers a cleaner look being one unit, and we can always use wall space in the garage! The new panel is 200 AMP (our old is 150 AMP), since there is not much price difference between installing a new 150 AMP box and a 200 one.

Notice that the new panel is a lot taller than the old one. Because that it has to be installed at a certain height by code, our electrician had to raise the incoming electrical wire pole (above the meter box) three feet higher. This was a nice surprise for us because the electrical wires coming into the house were hanging pretty low across the yard. When we move a ladder around the yard, we had to be really careful not to hit it. It might be because that our wires are coming from a midpoint between two street poles, which made the starting point a lot lower. So raising the incoming wires from the house’s end by 3 feet is definitely a win in our book.

Our electrician unhooked the wires coming from the street poles, and took the pipe off. It looked like that some squirrel had too much fun with the wires…

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Can you believe that the whole house’s electricity was relying on these two poorly insulated wires? Crazy stuff.

Our electrician put the new panel up, threaded the new pipe through the roof, and connected them together:

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Things started taking shape!

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All the wires from the garage side were brought out of the wall to the new panel. The new wires were bolted to the studs so we can put in new insulation, and the old breaker box became a junction box.

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Upgrade 2 – adding an outdoor outlet

We did not have any outdoor outlet before. When we needed to use electrical tools in the backyard, we had to pop the backdoor open to pass the wire through. Taking advantage of the breaker box being outside, we asked our electrician to put in a new outdoor outlet:

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As you could see, the internet cable box was grounded properly to the breaker box in a small box below. Just look at that whole package – the new panel, new outdoor outlet, and new connection between the cable box and panel – aren’t they beautiful? We are VERY excited.

Upgrade 3  – ground to the ground

One of the biggest problem about our electrical wiring system is the lack of proper ground. Only ground through concealed wire is not enough. By code, we have to have two other types of ground: ground copper pipe and a connection to the main water line, both connecting to the panel with copper wires.

By code, the “ground to the ground” system has to have two interconnected copper pipes deep into the soil, and 6 feet apart. Here is the first one:

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And the copper wire runs away 6 feet to connect with the second one:

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The “water main” system means that there should be a copper wire coming from the breaker box, and connecting to the main water pipe. Like most of the houses, our main water pipe is located in our basement. Our electrician ran the ground wire above the ceiling of the garage, the brought it down all the way into the basement:

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This copper pipe was connected to the main water pipe behind the paneling:

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Upgrade 4 – adding GFCI outlets in the garage

We had three outlets in the garage before, and none of them was GFCI outlets. By code, all the outlets in the kitchen, bathroom, and garage have to be on GFCI circuit. Since Slav plans to add a long work bench in the garage along the back wall, we decided to put in a bunch of outlets right above the height of the work bench. Our electrician put in a few and spaced them evenly, 2 feet apart:

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Look at them. Just breathtaking. I love this kind of stuff.

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We marked on the floor with painter’s tape where the work bench will be. A 9 feet x 3 ft beast! With six outlets above it! Slav’s better work like a horse in here.

Upgrade 5 – wiring for HVAC

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We are getting a HVAC and by code we need to have a dedicated outlet for the condenser unit outside, on the same wall where the unit sits. We are also required to put in an exterior outlet nearby, in case the unit needs to be serviced. Our electrician ran the wires through the attic and brought down to where the condenser will be (between the window well and the corner of the house). He installed the exterior outlet using the wires from an outlet we had in our bedroom.

Here you have it! Five big electrical upgrades in two days! We learned a bunch and are very happy with all the upgrades. It is hard not to step outside to admire our new panel…

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Now our “electrical” to-do list becomes:

1. Replace the old Federal Pacific Stab Lok breakers.
2. Upgrade our electrical panel to code
3. Properly ground our house
4. Adding an outdoor outlet
5. Adding an outdoor HVAC connection
6. Install GFCI outlets in garage
7. Upgrade kitchen and bathroom outlets to GFCIs when renovating
8. Fix the ground and reverse polarity issue on our interior outlets, room by room
9. Redo garage overhead lighting

 

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