So let me tell you about my tower #13: Heat and running water

IMG_0145

Air conditioning — Mobius Fan by Westinghouse, no longer made

Looking for a project?  Upgrade your heat and plumbing and fuss over your septic system and drainage.  Then you can casually mention to friends and neighbors the tens of thousands of dollars you have spent on the hidden mechanicals in your home.  They will admire your attention to detail and potential problems, envy your ability to spend grand sums on the highest quality of unseen pipes and tubing, or they will think you have lost your mind – maybe they will do all three.

IMG_0138

Shower tile work

I replaced the furnace in 2008.  Four feet of water flooded the basement during a freak rainstorm.  A frantic neighbor called me up in New Hampshire to report that water was pouring through the retaining walls on my land, gushing down the sloping lawn, and funneling through the 1870 stone foundation under the front porch. I listened but refused to react because she had called me once before to tell me that the electricity had been out for three days and the days were 20 degrees or less.  That time I panicked, asked the neighborhood handy guy to install a generator and lost my refrigerator, cd changer, microwave, phone, modem, and television to mishaps in connecting it up.

It was still raining when I arrived at my house two days later.  The cascading fountains on the front lawn rivaled those of Las Vegas and the roar heard from the basement stairs brought to mind Niagara Falls.  I could see nothing.  The electricity was out and the flashlights were dead.  I sheepishly closed the door and went to a friend’s house to wait out the storm.

IMG_0123

Lee’s “Female Form” & Biasi panel radiator

That little event cost me well over $6000 and a lot of tears.  The plumber drained the boiler and disassembled the exhaust and intake.   He cut the heat lines, removed and replaced the circulators.  He replaced the Peerless Pinnacle LP gas stainless steel efficiency sealed combustion boiler with a new one, and then reassembled the exhaust and intake, reinstalled the heat lines, rewired and started the boiler and did an efficiency test, at least that’s what the invoice says.  My neighbors installed a sump pump for me.

Water, heat, electricity & phone/internet cable going underground from the cottage to the tower.

Water, heat, electricity, phone & internet lines going underground from the cottage to the tower.

The town and neighbors were great during the crisis.  The fire department pumped  the water.  They did it for a lot of people.  Some neighbors thought the water pumped from one of the homes higher on the hill found its way to my basement.  The highway department regraded the road.  Friends helped throw out a lot of the unsalvageables.

That didn’t solve all the water problems in the basement.  Rebuilding the French drains helped a bit as did redirecting downspouts, but the basement still is not reliable storage space.

During construction we discovered that the pipe leading from the septic tank to the dry well had shifted and now flowed in the wrong direction.  Just a few more thousand on my bill.

20120518_193642

Radiant heat tubing

We were pleased that the new tower and the regrading of the front yard diverted the water that used to flow straight towards the house,  and the basement stayed relatively dry during heavy rain.

This summer however we had a house full of happy young folk and noticed that the toilets were all gurgling.  When everybody left we called in the plumber.   He had us try this and that and dig up this and that and we discovered that our dry well was filling up with ground water from a day or two of soaking rains and was back filling our septic tank.  So we had our favorite excavator come in and dig up the yard one more time to install a French drain to draw off water.   He told us after he did the work that he didn’t understand where the water came from because the ground was bone dry.

IMG_0131

Shower tile work

Whoa.  I just did a search to see how that Pinnacle boiler ranked in price and customer satisfaction and was shocked to see how many people have had very unhappy experiences with it.  The positive comments come from plumbers who say you have to know what your are doing or forget it.

WizardofOzThe oil company service man said the same thing about the Buderus oil burner in my b&b in New Hampshire.   He had no clue.  It was much more impressive than my little Pinnacle.  I would stand in front of this blue machine with six circulators blinking at me as they went on and off  and recall a field trip through the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston. What if even just one of those couplings came loose. The thought was horrifying.  Obviously the engineers in the plant knew what they were doing.  I could find no images of the inside of Deer Island online. It looked like a cross between what lay behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain but 1000 times as large, and what one would imagine a nuclear power plant looked like.  It’s probably top secret.

IMG_0561

Brain-like soy-based foam to keep the heat in.

But I digress.  Heat and plumbing are essential, and Sean did a great job making our home cozy and comfortable, but I resented spending the money.  Lee and his man Derrick installed all the bath fixtures so I was able to save there.

Electricians also are unbelievably expensive and the bulk of that work is also hidden in the walls.  Our town does not require a licensed electrician so Lee did the electrical work.  It was frustrating for him at times and he had to call in Scott as reinforcement towards the end.  But at least he didn’t have to hear me complain about paying the bill!

IMG_0141

Concrete sink, bluestone countertop

Let me just sum up.  We’ve now got five circulators coming off the burner, two for the cottage, two for the tower and one to the hot water heater.  The previous owners put in Burnham cast iron baseboard heating which is sort of classy, but just like inexpensive baseboard the end pieces fall off and furniture can’t be placed against the wall.  Papers are constantly falling off the back of my desk getting lost in the dust bunnies.

We’ve installed radiant in the first floor of the tower – it’s WONDERFUL.   We’ve got cool (I don’t mean temperature) Biasi panels on the second floor – not as classy as Runtals, but much more economical if you can call any of this economical, and a perfect fit out-of- production Hearthstone Tudor gas stove on the top floor.  We installed bare baseboard on the bridge and Lee built a bench around it for plants.

2014-01-13 02.59.44

More shower tile work

The fun purchase was a concrete sink we found in the horse-traders barn at Williams Hardware.  It came complete with a fancy-shmancy never-would-I-pay-full price-for Kohler faucet that lists for over $1000.  It wouldn’t be my first choice, but why complain since it  came as a bonus with the sink all for $200?   Of course since it was the floor model it didn’t have any of the hidden parts. Our shower is an earthy earthly paradise.  Lee created sea and sky murals with hand made tiles from his pottery period.

IMG_0143

The Tudor

Last week when the temperatures were down to minus 9 and the gusts were recorded at 28 miles per hour (much higher along the river)  I was delighted with the heat generated by my Pinnacle and cute Tudor.   And I’m walking on air having just watched my loyal sump pump keep the basement free of water during the downpour the past day and a half.

We’ve got that generator as back up when the power goes out, six ceiling fans to keep us cool in the summer, and a gas fireplace in the living room.

Please no more surprises.

So let me tell you about my tower #7: The Foundation & the Stories it Dug Up

Looking up the slope and over the shed.

It is fitting that my first tower post after Sandy is about its foundation. The house is perched 20? feet above the Hudson River.  I’ve always worried about the slope giving way.  Now I can also worry about the Hudson rising and sweeping the house down to the city.

Some say the world will end in fire
Others say in ice. . .

Water will also suffice.

Please, please, please:  may all those who admonish me for worrying about “worst-possibles” be the smart ones, and let me be the dummy.

*

Dave started to dig, but I didn’t watch.  Probably petrified.  Up until now the project could be put in a box and stored in the lower yard shed.

I had done that before – designed a new home and then put it in a box that now actually does sit in the lower yard shed.  It was a very happy time for me, one of those times when I was glowing.  Clark and I were starting a new chapter in our lives.

Building a new home was not even a fleeting thought until our neighbor told us he was selling his lot across the stream behind our house.  We lived in a small town with two dairy farms, on a quiet street near a pond with a stream that separated us from a beautiful large lot that belonged to the Davises.  We loved where we lived.

Every now and then the bridge over the stream would cave in and we were at the end of a dead end – that was best.  The boys in the neighborhood (and there were many) used to climb down to the stream and do good old fashioned outside play.

The lot intrigued us.  We were thinking of closing Book Nooks & Krannies.   Morgan and Alex were growing out of children’s books, Clark had actually gone back to high tech so that we could have health care, and without the family all involved, the store was not as much fun for me.  I would be able to devote my time and energy to the house.

The lot begged for a barn. We agreed on a price for the lot, and went up to spend a night at the Yankee Barn show home in Grantham, New Hampshire.  The boys were still sleeping and Clark and I were downstairs in the kitchen having our coffee and talking about how much we liked the casual, comfortable look and feel of the barn home.  All of a sudden a moose walked by.  It’s amazing what influences my decisions.

We spent several months designing our home, studying the sun and views and the slopes and the wetlands.

The timing was unbelievable.  We had already closed the store and were going to pass papers on the land in a day or two, right after the perc test.  But during all this, unbeknownst to me, Clark was dealing with another issue.  His father had just died, and he must have been thinking about his own mortality, because the week before the perc test he went to the doctor to have a swelling checked out.  He had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  We decided not to do the house.

It was a very sad time for me and a terrifying one for Clark.  We had already closed the store, and I actually had taken a new job – librarian at Lowell National Historical Park. In fact, I started the job the day he received his diagnosis.  I cried a lot in private and in public.  It was Rosh Hashanah and the boys and I always met our neighbors at the temple.  Tears ran down my checks the entire service.

Life went on.

*

The front yard of my home slopes down from the street.  Dave thought if we went with the foundation as originally planned we would need to put in a retaining wall.  He asked if we wanted to raise the foundation slightly.  It would require a step at the door, but that rise would be offset elsewhere.  I can’t remember the details, but it seemed logical.

Nick came and built the forms and poured the foundation and then Sean laid sleeves between the cottage and the tower for the plumbing and heating, and Dave did the same for the electricity. When connecting the waste water pipes from the tower to those of the house we hit a snag.

Besides my obsession about the slope giving way, I also have a thing about septic systems.  This constant worry grew from having to build a new leach field when Clark and I were selling the house mentioned above because ours failed Title 5 in Massachusetts.

Considering all the hassle and money Clark and I spent to replace that leach field I never felt comfortable with the fact that no one could provide me with a plan of the septic system when I was buying my current house.  The county health department needed the date the work was done.   My realtor looked at me funny when I asked who did septic inspections. All I learned was that the septic tank was under the stone that pointed north in the walkway leading to the house.

If one worries long enough about something happening, it will happen.

Sean was connecting the waste water pipes from the tower to those that led to the septic tank and found a mess.  We had pumped the tank about a month before we started construction, so when we now found it full we knew there was a problem.  The 3-inch pipe that led out from the tank ran uphill.   Sean put in a bigger pipe, adjusted the pitch, and now I know all I want to know about the septic system.

A load of stone for the foundation arrived on May sixteenth.   Lee and Derrick spread that and laid insulation, and then Sean came in to lay the tubing for the radiant heat. We weren’t home when Sean was doing this work, but he told us later that our neighbor came down on his tractor to tell him that he was uncoiling the tubing on his land.  About a week later this neighbor installed a green plastic fence at the property line.

Then we had to decide if we wanted a polished concrete or painted concrete floor on the first floor, or did we not want a concrete floor at all.  Research on the subject proved inconsistent,  but it seemed like a cumbersome, expensive process, with lots of possibilities for disaster.

We unfortunately had lots of time to decide.  For the next month or more, rain was forecast at least every other day.  Nick, our excavator, was wary of having the cement mixer sink into a muddy front yard, so he held off until sunny skies were the norm.

We chose to forgo the smooth, slick look of concrete.  It wasn’t until we actually were going to buy flooring that we learned that outside of carpet or laminate there were very few “affordable” options.  We did, however, find a very good looking and well made laminate, and are happy.

By early June the slab was poured and we could move about on the first floor. In the meantime Dave had been building the tower and pondering the bridge.