The Next Big Thing, Update

We settled on some floor plans for the addition.

This happened months ago, but we’re finally getting close to having a construction contract, so let’s discuss. Originally, we wanted to keep the existing footprint of the house and add a “cozy” (some would say “cramped”) master bedroom and bathroom on top of the kitchen. We mentioned to the designers that we’d be open to expanding the footprint into the back yard by a couple feet if that would make things fit better. Our back yard is not big, so if the house grows, there’s a real impact on the yard – which is why we weren’t interested in an option presented by another designer to simply build a one-story master suite in the back yard, past the kitchen.

We ended up with about a 6-foot extension into the yard. To allow for a king bed? No. For a nice airy bathroom? Nope. Closets? Nah. The extra space will help with those elements, but the reason the design grew so much was: stairs.

We had originally asked for a spiral staircase from the new kitchen to the new basement, thinking that it would save space. While that thinking was correct, our architect was also correct in pointing out that spiral stairs aren’t as functional as standard stairs. The addition will remove our existing side entrance, stoop, and steps to the back yard, and until we get a deck (a future phase), the basement exit will be our only exterior door other than the front door. Which means we might need the stairs to the basement to be full-width. We looked at several stair layout options and eventually settled on a design with two 90-degree turns that allowed for a nice refrigerator/pantry nook in the kitchen and for our new half-bath to be tastefully tucked away. To get enough vertical clearance for the stairs, the house had to grow into the back yard a little.

There are plenty of other details of the plans that we could discuss. The ones we are most excited about are:

  • Replacing the wall between the kitchen and dining room with a three-seat bar
  • Having more storage in the kitchen
  • Gaining a better view of the back yard
  • Using the new basement room as a home office, for “funny-looking train” layouts, storage, a workshop, etc.
  • Not having to put the laundry basket in the hallway in order to stand in the laundry room.
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Actually, Jonah can stand in the laundry room when the laundry basket is in there. But he can’t reach the washing machine.

Having a master suite will be particularly nice. No more walking down the hallway past the boys’ room to use the bathroom or take a shower in the morning. A closet that is wide enough for most of our clothes and deep enough for a standard clothes hanger. Endless possibilities (separate rooms for the boys, or a guest room, or an office, or a playroom…). A better view toward downtown. A view of the backyard from the second floor. Amanda made about a dozen of her own sketches of different layouts for the space, and in the end, we switched from the layout we had been using during most of the design process to a different one that allows for windows on three sides of the room.

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Amanda’s sketchy sketches.

 

We expect to sign a construction contract for the shell in a couple weeks: demolition, digging out the basement, masonry and concrete, framing of the new addition, windows, and siding. That should start in October, when we’ll enjoy the bounty of local restaurants (and leftovers) because we’ll have no kitchen. When that’s finished in a couple months, we’ll chip away at wiring, plumbing, drywall, floors, etc. with help from Amanda’s dad (and occasional help from a professional). Our plan is to have a second contract with the same company at the end for kitchen cabinets and interior trim.

We decided to do the middle part of the project ourselves to save money. We knew we wanted to do some parts ourselves but realized that in order to pay for the entire project, we would have to do as much by ourselves as we could. As a result, we will technically be our own contractor for those parts. We might hire people, but we’ll save the 20% management fee a contractor would charge for overseeing subcontractors.

This has all taken waaaaaaay. longer. than we thought. We took a trip to Baltimore in late July; we had originally planned for that trip to be the first week of June, by which time we had thought we’d be without a kitchen and could avoid being here for part of it. We pushed it back to July, but by the time it was clear that construction would still not be underway by the end of the summer, we just went ahead and took the vacation. Part of the delay was because the scope of the project expanded a lot beyond the original idea of just adding a third bedroom. Another reason for the delay was that every step we went through with the designer and contractor took longer than they said it would, and those delays added up quickly.

The ultimate test of whether the delays led to a perfect design should come in a year (or two, or three, depending on how we perform as a contractor), when we get to test out the finished product by living in it for years to come.

We Were Probably Overdue for a Leaky Pipe

You know it’s going to be a fun morning when your husband leaves for work, but comes back inside a minute later saying “I don’t think I’m going to work today. We have a situation in the cellar.” I imagined a couple of different possibilities before he told me what was actually happening. He said there was water leaking all over the cellar. This was obviously bad, but better than the scenarios I had quickly imagined. He took a video of the leak before shutting our water off.

Last year, when Peter and my dad were putting in plumbing for the half bathroom, they added a new water shutoff, right near the entrance to the cellar. It shuts off all the water to the house except for the cold water in the upstairs full bathroom. This came in very handy yesterday when Peter needed to shut the water off quickly. It saved him from crawling through the cellar to one of the farthest corners of the house where the main shutoff is. After shutting the water off, Peter was able to determine that the leak was coming from a tiny hole in a piece of Qest* water pipe. The pipe was coming out of the water heater and feeding the house with hot water. There was already an existing piece of Pex pipe in this segment that suggests this section of Qest has leaked and been repaired in the past.

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We’re not positive how long the leak had been there. Peter thinks he went in the cellar on Sunday afternoon. He discovered the problem on Tuesday morning, but we think it may have started Monday evening. While in the kitchen Monday evening, I kept thinking I was hearing dripping water, but it wasn’t raining. I would turn around and look at some of our leaks in the ceiling expecting to see them dripping, but they weren’t. Overnight on Monday, Peter thought he was hearing rain, but it wasn’t raining. When I stepped into the dining room Tuesday morning and got close to the part that is directly above the water heater, I thought the floor seemed rather warm. We now know this was because hot water was spraying out several inches below there, and the water heater was probably running continuously to keep up with the constant demand for hot water. I called my parents seeking suggestions for how we should fix it. My dad happened to be home and didn’t have to go to work until the afternoon. He said he was literally about to leave to go to Lowe’s anyway and could pick up some parts and then come by and fix it. Yes, please.

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Thanks, Daddy!

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Peter helped.

As it turned out, he used none of the couplings he had bought and also none of the tools he brought, except his pocketknife. He just used a wrench to loosen the existing coupling, Peter’s Dremel to cut off the leaking half-inch of pipe (good thing I had just given Peter some heavy-duty cutting blades for his Dremel on our anniversary and that I was able to find them, since they weren’t with the tool), his knife to smooth the cut, and then he stuck the same old pipe back in the coupling and turned the water on. No more leak.

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Good as new (old?).

It will certainly leak again, but hopefully not before we replace the water heater and all the Qest piping in a couple months. And the wet insulation and potentially rusty ductwork will all be removed with the big construction project. We are still running the dehumidifier in the cellar, trying to dry it out. All in all though, things could have been a lot worse/wet than they were. Also, thank goodness almost all of our plumbing is easily accessible in the cellar.

*Qest pipe (also known as polybutylene plumbing) has been the subject of several class-action lawsuits over the years because of its frequent leaking. Our home inspector was not kidding when he told us that it was leak-prone and that we should budget to replace it.

The shed she’d said she shed

Boring version of the title: Building a Shed, Part 2. (Part one can be found here.)

Let us begin with a story about an eye injury (thankfully, unrelated to the building of the shed).

We had set aside an entire Saturday to build the shed, and hoped to have it completed by the end of the day. Technically, it was at the very beginning of that day (like 1 AM) when Amanda somehow scratched her eyeball. She was already awake and her eye started hurting. Unable to find the eyelash she assumed was causing the excruciating pain, she had me come take a look. Nothing. She determined that if she held her eyelid up off of her eyeball, it didn’t hurt. If she kept her eye closed, the pain was tolerable, but if she blinked it was pretty bad. (Note to self: You don’t realize how often you blink until it feels like someone is stabbing your eye every time you do it.) She managed to go back to sleep and deal with the pain.

When it was still hurting at 6 AM, we figured she probably needed to be seen by a doctor. Luckily, we found an eye doctor with a 24-hour on-call doctor and Saturday hours. We talked to the doctor around 7, and she said if we could be there before they opened at 9, they could probably squeeze Amanda in. We did so, and they had us out of there before 10. I had a lovely time reading “The Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain Bears” to Jonah and Micah in the waiting room while a woman across the room tried to pretend she wasn’t listening. The doctor said it was a corneal abrasion. She numbed it, prescribed some drops, and put a bandaid contact on it. Seriously. A bandaid contact. Who even knew such a thing existed?! Amanda’s eye was dilated the rest of the day, and she couldn’t wear her regular contacts for almost a week, but she was fine other than that.

We had been afraid that all of this would cause us to miss out on our shed-building day, but thankfully, we were still able to work on it and weren’t delayed too much by the emergency eye appointment. In fact, Grandma and Grandpa were waiting for us when we got home from the doctor. They got to spend time with the boys, and we got to have several relatively uninterrupted hours to piece together the giant Lego project.

We started, as the instructions suggested, by dutifully laying out all the pieces and making sure everything was there. This is not a big shed (7×7), but the parts covered almost our entire yard.

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Speaking of instructions, I think we made the right move by downloading them ahead of time and reading them in advance. If we had just pulled them out of the box, it would have been hard to summon the self-control needed to get through them before building the platform, let alone assembling the shed. (And if we hadn’t noticed the parts where you need a ladder outside the back wall, we might have placed it too close to the fence to get a ladder back there.) Also, Amanda’s slightly compromised vision made her less helpful at reading instructions than she would have been otherwise.

Assembly was pretty logical: floor, then walls, then doors, then roof. Then about a million screws. OK, maybe it was more like 112. By the time we had the plastic floor screwed together (and realized we didn’t have anything to anchor it to the platform with, meaning it might get blown off if we get heavy winds), it was time for a lunch break.

a floor, a fool, and poison ivy

a floor, a fool, and poison ivy

Probably due to screaming babies, I came back outside before Amanda did, and in what seemed like no time at all, I had several wall sections in place. They don’t quite snap together like Legos, but it’s close: once two adjacent sections are seated in the floor, you drop four pins through preformed holes to connect them. It was good that Amanda made it outside when she did, because some of the sections were starting to fall over before I got them secured. (Note: Best not to attempt assembly of a plastic shed when it’s windy outside.)

A room with a view (because there are no doors and there is no roof)

A room with a view (because there are no doors and there is no roof)

An even better view now that it has a gable window.

An even better view now that it has a gable window.

We summoned my dad as another helper when it was time to attach the roof beams. Made of Actual Metal rather than plastic, they are a little heavy. What’s worse is that because the rest of the shed is plastic, the walls tend to bend as you get a beam seated in its notch, which causes the beam to fall back out and hit you on the head. Hence the need for three people: two to hold the assembly in place and one to screw it together so it won’t keep falling apart.

Beam me up!

Beam me up!

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This is serious work.

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It is also work that made me smile for some reason, even though I didn’t know Amanda was taking this picture through the roof pieces.

We had seen in some online reviews and heard from a (rather large and presumably strong) employee at Lowe’s that the top piece of the roof was difficult to fold. This proved true. But I guess that’s the trade-off for a lightweight, waterproof design that fits in the box.

Ever try to shut your wallet with a piece of sheet metal inside? No? Well, that's what it was like to fold this roof. I'd imagine.

Ever try to shut your wallet with a gold bar inside? No? Well, that’s what it was like to fold this roof. I’d imagine.

All the pre-folding didn’t seem to matter much once we got it on top of the gables – it sprang back to its flat shape. To fix that, we had to really work to wrestle the eight roof pins into place. This might have been the most frustrating moment for me… while trying to hold the roof down, I was straining to slide this specialized pin into the roof to lock it, but the pin would either pop back out or tear the plastic or both. (Rubbermaid: This would be a great place to start if you improve the design.)

Wait, didn't I fold that thing?

Wait, didn’t I already fold that thing?

If you can't beat 'em, peer out through their roof slits, or something.

If you can’t beat ‘em, peer out through their roof slits, or something.

With all the pieces in place, the only remaining task was to attach an unholy amount of screws (seriously, the thing came with over 200 screws) to keep it all from coming apart at the slightest touch. I only ended up short two screws (plus my normal condition of having a screw loose), which isn’t bad when you consider how much brush was around for me to lose them in.

Jonah adds the finishing touch: a padlock.

First (and maybe hopefully only?) burglary attempt.

We built a shed! We’ve already put some stuff in it and will probably have it almost completely full during our big construction project. Now we just need to devise a better step situation, as it is currently a big step into it.

Photo credit: Jonah

Photo credit: Jonah

Building a Shed, Part 1

We got a shed. We “gave” it to ourselves a year ago for our anniversary, and it only took us 360 days to make good on our gift.

We had been talking about whether to get a shed for a while. I argued that we would need one to store stuff in during our upcoming major construction project. Amanda said that once construction is done, we wouldn’t need a shed, because we’ll have more and better storage space. So is it worth having it, just for these months? We’ll see. (I say yes.)

The compromise was to buy a relatively cheap plastic shed that, while maybe not the pinnacle of architectural achievement, would be relatively easy to disassemble if we decide we don’t need it. That’s also why we went with a wooden frame for the base rather than a concrete pad. With a 0.08-acre lot, every square inch is precious.

After months of discussion, the stars suddenly aligned for us to get this done. For one thing, our construction period was rapidly approaching. We had gone to look at sheds at Lowe’s and settled on what we wanted. But most immediately, Amanda and her parents (and their truck) were both going to be near Lowe’s on a Saturday. Jonah ended up being sick that day, so I stayed home with him. Around the time when we’d normally be getting him ready for bed, the truck showed up and had to park catawampus in the street to unload, thanks to some fool who had just parked in front of our house.

The trouble was that the shed box was 350 pounds and had been loaded onto the truck with a forklift. Sadly, no forklift was available on our end. (Seriously, what do these manufacturers expect you to do when you get these products to your house?) We were able to push it off the truck and onto the sidewalk, but then we had to strategize. Thanks to some boy scoutery by Amanda’s dad involving two ropes and all the 2×4’s we had bought for the frame, we were able to slowly drag it to the back yard, using the 2×4’s as skids. In an amazing act of mercy from the home improvement gods, it fit (barely) through the narrow opening on the side of our house.

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Let’s just leave it here, yes? Sidewalk, shmidewalk.

Soaking my poor itchy arms in a hospital bedpan filled with oatmeal bath on my child's placemat.

Soaking my poor itchy arms in a hospital bedpan filled with oatmeal bath on my child’s placemat.

Building the platform was next. Clearing out brush and trying to level the site led to several discoveries:

  1. Yes, I do react quite noticeably to poison ivy.
  2. It was silly to observe that there was poison ivy before beginning and to don long pants and gloves but not long sleeves.
  3. Someone who lived at the Pink House in the past installed a brick-lined flower bed right where we wanted to put the shed. Long enough ago that the bricks were firmly rooted in place.

I let Amanda do the math, and I did the sawing. We both worked on attaching when kids weren’t screaming for her. (If she had been able to stay for the whole platform process, it might have actually come out square instead of slightly rhombusy.) One triumph was when we realized that we should put all the screws halfway into the outside 2×4’s before turning them sideways to finish attaching them to the perpendicular ones.

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Later, we placed concrete blocks and a tiny bit of gravel (which was stolen from the basement) to support the platform.

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As expected, this was the trickiest part of the whole shed – there was a lot of checking, adding dirt or gravel, and rechecking – but it miraculously ended up pretty close to level, and we only had to excavate a few more half-buried bricks that were in the way.

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Yeah, we were surprised too.

Next time: Assembling the shed itself. But by the numbers, here’s what we spent. The shed itself was on sale for $549. By ordering online for in-store pick-up, Amanda was able to use a 10% off coupon. She shopped through Ebates, earning $10.98 back, and tax was $26.19. Supplies for the base (plywood, 2x4s, screws, and concrete blocks) came to $125.27. Total spent: $634.58. Happy (2013) anniversary to us.

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[It should be noted that Amanda vetoed my awesome title suggestion: She Said She'd Shed a Shed.]

The Foyer

This is a rare occasion: I am actually posting about something I just completed! About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to spruce up the foyer. It was fine, just bland. And I wanted a different coat rack. We bought ours about 8 years ago, and it’s become a little unsteady in the last two years.

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Right after I took the above picture, Jonah put his head under the green coat and started to walk away with it wrapped around his head. The entire coat rack came crashing to the floor, nearly missing him. Another reason to replace it. I decided that I wanted to mount hooks on the wall, instead of getting another freestanding rack. I figured that if I was ever going to paint the foyer, I might as well do it before I put a bunch of holes in the wall, so that I wouldn’t have to patch them before painting later down the road. I had no idea what color I wanted to paint it, so I went to Lowes and picked up an array of paint chips.

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We didn’t really need to match any other colors, so I was open to any of the above color families. We used a paint visualizer to upload a picture of the space and see what the colors would look like. Jonah had a great time playing with that, and it helped eliminate a couple of choices that I had thought I liked. In the end, I went with a blue that is similar to one pictured above. It’s very close to the blue I picked out for the boys’ bedroom a year ago.

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This was a relatively quick project, compared to a lot of our others. We bought the paint on Saturday, two weeks ago, and I got all the painting done on Saturday and Sunday. I figured it would take me a week to get it all done, in lots of little chunks of time, but once you’ve got all the supplies out, it’s easier to just get it all done.

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I was pleased with how it turned out overall, except the painter’s tape pulled some of the white paint off of the ceiling. Then the project sat for two weeks, waiting for hooks.

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After much searching, I ended up ordering some from Amazon. They arrived this past Saturday and we mounted them on Sunday. There was lots of figuring over how high to mount them and how far to space them out.

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I decided to get some silver “grown-up” ones and some colorful “kid” ones. I wanted to have two rows of hooks, obviously with the kids’ on the bottom row. I didn’t want the kids’ hooks to go all the way across, because I wanted to leave room for long items to hang down past the lower hooks. The kids’ hooks are double hooks, so each row has 8 hooks.

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The key hooks were already there.

I’m really happy with how it turned out! Total cost: about $50 for the paint and hooks. I think the new hooks make the foyer feel more open than the old coat rack did. Jonah is really excited about hanging his coat and backpack on the orange hook, which he has deemed his own.

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Craft Area

It has been almost one year since we bought the Pink House. I decided that it would probably be a good time to start catching up on old posts that we never got around to writing, about projects that were done a while ago. The craft area is one of those projects.

When we were looking for a house, one of the things I wanted was an area right off of the kitchen that I could turn into a play area, so that I could see the kids playing while I make dinner. The Pink House actually had that (the “funny room,” as we called it), but we quickly turned that into the half bathroom. There is a nook in the dining room that seemed to be the next best option. It’s not actually visible from the kitchen, but if I poke my head around and look through the doorway into the dining room, this nook is straight ahead.

Preparing to paint

Preparing to paint

I knew that I wanted to use some chalkboard paint so that the boys could write on the walls. The kind I chose from Lowe’s comes in several different colors and I went with a red (Micah is still learning that we only write on the red wall). It was a small area, so I figured a single quart of paint would be sufficient. I had to do four coats of paint before it stopped looking blotchy, and I ended up using almost every drop of paint in that quart. I got the area painted in July and ordered some white metal strips to put around the top of the area so that the boys could hang pictures and such with magnets. I also got some baskets with magnets on them, so that I could store chalk and other supplies within the boys’ reach. I looked and looked for the perfect small table to put in the area. There were several that I liked, but they cost a lot more than I wanted to pay for a table that was probably going to get colored/painted all over by two little boys. In the end, I ordered a table and chairs from Ikea. The price was right and it works really well in the space.

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In January, I was ordering something from the Container Store and needed a little bit more in order to get free shipping. I decided that we could put some shelves up above the craft area, and gain a lot of storage in a space that wasn’t going to be used anyway, at least not until the boys are taller (by which point that table won’t work so well either). I ordered the hardware from the Container Store and then went to Lowe’s to buy the shelves. The lower two shelves are not as deep as the upper two, so that small humans will be less likely to bang their heads into them.

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How do you work when you have a clingy baby? Wear him!

Peter helped, and we were able to get the shelves mounted without too much difficulty. Luckily, I had given Peter a circular saw for his birthday a few weeks earlier and I had just bought myself some sawhorses, so we were able to cut the shelves without needing to borrow tools.

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We quickly filled the shelves with craft supplies and stuff that was still in cardboard boxes, waiting for a home in the Pink House. We have added even more stuff since the picture below. I love the added storage space! When we tear off the kitchen, I will pack the games back up and use the shelves to store some of our “homeless” kitchen supplies. Jonah has loved having this space in which to color and work on projects. A couple months ago, Micah learned to climb up on the chairs, so he’s starting to like it too.

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Working hard in the chalk-wall/craft/storage nook

It’s Getting Hot in Here (Part 2)

Part 1 of the heat pump installation can be found here.

The thermostat (item 4) had a couple hiccups as well. These old walls aren’t the easiest things to fish wire through, and I had quite a time trying to get the thermostat wire down from the attic at a place where we could cut a hole in the wall and pull it out. When the thermostat was finally installed, we realized that the battery was still taped to the back, so we had to remove the whole thing to put the battery in.

We picked a programmable thermostat with wi-fi. We wanted the Nest, but it was a little pricey. The one we got still allows us to turn on the heat or a/c from anywhere we have an internet connection, which is fun. The main drawback of our thermostat, as with most thermostats, is that it doesn’t have a simple way to disable the auxiliary heat, which is basically a big toaster in the blower that turns on when the thermostat thinks you want the system to heat up the house faster than it could with the heat pump alone. (The aux heat also comes on when the heat pump defrosts itself so that the system doesn’t blow frigid air resulting from the defrosting process into the house). The big toaster uses an enormous amount of electricity, and the only way to avoid it is to raise the temperature setting a degree at a time–or to manually disable it (such as by disconnecting the wire). With the Nest, on the other hand, you can set a sensitivity level so that the aux heat only comes on if, say, your setting is three degrees higher than the actual temperature rather than one degree.

A few weeks ago, there was an ad in the Sunday newspaper for a new research study about thermostats and energy efficiency. It involves each participant receiving a free Nest Thermostat. We signed up! The thermostat was installed last week. We are still getting used to it, but are excited about using it in the winter when we can better control the aux heat. We aren’t sure the Nest will really save us money, because we keep it fairly warm (77-78) in the summer and fairly cool (66-67) in the winter. Plus, we tweak the setting several times throughout the day and don’t always follow the same schedule, so even if it “learns” our habits, our habits vary. Amanda’s home a lot of the day, so we do condition our home most of the day, but we’re pretty careful not to let it run when we aren’t upstairs (since it only heats/cools upstairs).

Stock photo of the Nest...so pretty.

Stock photo of the Nest…so pretty.

Connecting things (Item 5) was a process that started at the beginning and lasted several months. Yep, months. One of my first tasks was to run the wiring, which was relatively fun compared to the stress of figuring out ductwork. Starting from the panel box, a special big old wire assembly had to make it up to the attic for the blower, and a second big wire had to go from the panel box to the compressor outside. Speaking of the panel box, one project we paid someone to do was to upgrade the house’s electric service to 200 amps. This meant getting a new panel box (mostly because the existing one was full) and getting Dominion to come out and attach a bigger power line to the side of the house.

Anyway, the first big wire went down into the cellar, then up to the attic through two closets. I got to drill holes in the floor and ceiling of each closet, which was when we discovered that whoever put the ceiling in the first-floor closet didn’t do it at full height. In addition to cutting our storage space, this made it somewhat difficult to hit the hole with the wire. While I was at it, I ran two standard electric wires along with the big one so that we can replace the knob-and-tube wiring in the attic more easily when we have time. The second big wire went down into the cellar, then out the side of the house. I was worried about whether the hole would need to be patched, but the exterior shutoff box went right over it, so there was no need.

We also ran the refrigerant lines down the side of the house from the attic to the compressor. We managed to get a hole drilled in the soffit so that we didn’t have to go through the siding. It wasn’t pretty, and we failed to line the hole before unrolling the coil and pushing it through the hole. The result was that the splintered wood tore up the foam insulation on the main line, making it look less than perfect. That wasn’t the big problem, though: at one point, the pushing and pulling got out of sync and we ended up with a 90-degree kink in the line. It had to be fixed later when the guy came to connect and pressurize the system.

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The final connections, the A/C drain lines, came several months after we started using the new heat – just in time to start using the A/C. Miraculously, these only took a couple hours. The hardest part was figuring out where we would come out when drilling through the outside wall from the attic. At one point, I was standing on the ground talking to Amanda’s dad on the phone. I could hear the drill coming through the wall but couldn’t see it, no matter how I craned my neck. Turns out the hole was hidden above the soffit, so we had to put in a couple angles to get around that. We didn’t end up with the secondary drain above a window (which is the best practice so you’ll be sure to notice any drips, which mean that your primary line is clogged), but we have a float in the drain pan that shuts off the system if there is a clog, so hopefully we’ll be OK.

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Bonus: we pulled the insulation out of some leftover ductwork, used it to insulate the square trunk line, and Jonah got a tunnel with the plastic that remained! (We didn’t let him use it too much in case there were bits of insulation left on it.)