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Structure + Systems

Saving for a snowy day: Our interview with OFB

By on August 17, 2015


Hey there! Remember that time our furnace died in the middle of an extreme winter, and we had to scramble to find, buy and install a new HVAC system before we turned into human icicles? We recently talked to Johnny and Joanna over at Our Freaking Budget about how having an emergency fund helped us get through that unexpected crisis with a lot less stress and worry. Read our interview with them here.

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Thanks to Johnny and Joanna for featuring us (and this very important financial advice for homeowners)!

August 17, 2015

category: Structure + Systems  • 

Choosing an energy efficient furnace for an old house

By on February 4, 2015


While we’re finalizing our project plans for 2015, we thought we’d post an update to our dramatic furnace breakdown story from last winter. Remember how we were on the hunt for a new energy efficient furnace? Spoiler alert: There’s a happy ending!

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

In case you missed it, here’s a quick background. When we bought our house in the spring of 2013, the home inspector noted the advanced age and condition of our 25-year-old furnace, and recommended we replace it as soon as possible. Since we were taking on so many other updates to the house at that time, we opted to see if the furnace could get through at least one more winter. Well, one freezing polar vortex night last February, it drew its last shuddering breath and died. So we left this story off last time as we were getting estimates for a new heating and cooling system.

The Night our Furnace Died | Rather Square

Despite the immediacy of the situation, John met with multiple HVAC specialists to get a clear long-term view of what would work best for our house. Since we knew this would be a big purchase, we wanted to make the most informed decision possible. John ended up being really impressed with one particular installer who walked around the entire house with him and inspected the layout of the rooms, our insulation (or lack thereof) situation, and our overall energy needs. He then gave us a system recommendation – including size, power, and efficiency rating – based on these findings. His attention to detail helped us feel pretty confident about going forward, so we went ahead and signed a contract with him.

Then, over the next few days, the old furnace was removed…

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

…and the new energy efficient furnace – an American Standard two-stage high efficiency model – was installed. It’s 97% energy efficient and uses a variable speed fan for the two stages. Not only does this help deliver consistent heating with fewer temperature swings, but it means it’s much quieter than our old furnace.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

In addition, the installers re-routed the exhaust pipes – previously, the exhaust vented out alongside the walkway we use every day and it was damaging the exterior stucco, so we had them move the pipe outlets to the other side of the house. They drilled through the outside wall and put an unobtrusive cover over the pipe openings that blends into the color of our stucco.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

They also carefully detached our whole-house humidifier from the old furnace (which we had originally installed ourselves) and re-connected it to the new one.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Our new HVAC system includes an air conditioner as well. It’s an American Standard multi-stage model, with a rating of up to 18 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) which means it’s incredibly energy efficient. As you can see, we put Toddler E in charge of supervising its delivery.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

It was installed along with the furnace in February, but we had to wait for warmer weather before it could be fully charged. So the HVAC guys came back later in the spring to do that and get it operational in time for summer.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Once the fancy new energy efficient furnace was up and running, we were so happy to have a warm, livable house again! With our often-extreme Midwest winters and summers, a functioning heating and cooling system is not optional – it’s a necessity. So even though our bank account was several thousand dollars lighter after this unexpected expense, we felt that the money was well spent. And even more glad that we’d had enough in our emergency fund to pay for it without going into debt. Plus, we received $1,000 in energy efficiency rebates from our utility companies toward this purchase – quite a nice bonus!

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

So, now that we’ve had our new HVAC system for almost a year, how has it held up through the long drawn-out end of last winter, our pretty typical Chicago summer, and now halfway through this not-as-freezing-as-last-year-but-still-pretty-cold winter?

We’re happy to report that it’s been working really well! During cold weather, it’s nice and toasty inside our house, and in hot weather we’re cool as cucumbers.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

The temperature inside our home feels great, but we’ve been able to go even further and gather some hard data to support this. John’s been programming our Ecobee smart thermostat to better customize our heating and cooling cycles, and this allows us to easily track how the new energy efficient furnace responds to our old drafty house. It’s interesting to see the two stages and their usage patterns during outside temperature fluctuations. The furnace runs at the lower speed most of the time (therefore saving us energy and money) and only kicks into high gear during extreme temperature spikes.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

And we can also see if anything seems off. Recently John noticed that the house wasn’t as warm as it should be, compared to how he had programmed the thermostat’s settings. He called our service contractor and was able to show him actual quantifiable data to help figure out the problem. Luckily, it turned out that all we needed was a new filter – an easy $30 fix.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

We love our new furnace. And we’ve definitely noticed improvements in our utility costs – for example, our gas bill from last month was $100 less than the same month a year ago (when we still had our old furnace). Yay!

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

But… this fancy piece of machinery doesn’t entirely solve all our home’s energy efficiency issues. In our choice of HVAC system, we also had to consider the way our house holds all the heating and cooling that the furnace and air conditioner generate. We’re still dealing with largely un-insulated exterior walls, some old windows and doors, and an attic with deteriorated insulation that probably isn’t working very well… all of which allows a lot of our carefully heated and cooled air to escape to the outside. Even though our new furnace is sized properly for our home, it’s only part of our overall energy strategy, and it won’t work up to its full potential until we address the other things on our list.

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

We touched on some ideas briefly in our Insulation and Icicles post, but it’s a complicated process with both short-term and long-term fixes (and costs!) that we haven’t quite worked out yet. Our next step is to explore how to get more insulation in the exterior walls. But for now, we’re grateful to have our new furnace to keep us warm during these long cold days of winter.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

If you’re interested in learning more about tax credits, rebates and other financial incentives for upgrading your home’s energy systems, check out Energy.gov to see what programs are available in your state and nationwide.

How has your home held up to the freezing winter temperatures of recent years?

P.S. This is our milestone 100th post on Rather Square! Can you believe it? We can’t – my typing fingers get tired just thinking about it. But seriously, we’re excited to have come this far. Here’s to the next 100 posts!

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February 4, 2015

Our budget bathroom update: Let there be light (part 1)

By on July 17, 2014


Sometimes during DIY renovation projects, the initial plans and ideas you have for fixing up a space snowball into something bigger. That’s kind of what happened with our budget bathroom update when we added a new light fixture into our list of improvements.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

When we initially thought about making several small updates in our main bathroom, we hadn’t planned on touching the big ugly light fixture above our vanity mirror. It seemed like something that could wait until our larger full-on renovation down the road. But in the course of painting the bathroom, we ended up getting up close and personal with the light as we painted around it, and decided that we just couldn’t live with it any longer. Here it is in all its aged glory.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

It looked like something you’d find in a 1960s medical exam room – not exactly the ambiance we’d like for our main bathroom. And it cast a harsh yellow glow on the white walls and gray tiles, making everything seem kind of dingy and ancient.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

We also felt that the existing fixture was too big for our not-so-big bathroom, and it seemed like a better use of funds to just invest in a new and smaller modern fixture altogether. Fortunately, the light isn’t attached to the giant vanity mirror/medicine cabinet, so we could deal with it separately. (We’d definitely like to do something different with the mirror – like the light, it’s too large for this bathroom – but that’s a more extensive project that we’ll deal with in the future reno.)

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

So we started shopping around for a new fixture. We looked for something large enough to light the space effectively, but not as large as the old fixture, which stretched the full length of the mirror. Something with modern clean lines, but not too industrial or utilitarian-looking. We also considered how many bulbs we’d need to light this space, maybe between 3 and 6 (the old light used 6). And finally, we wanted a fixture with a brushed metal finish, since that’s the finish we are going for with other bathroom elements like the cabinet hardware and the door hook.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

We found a few good contenders at some of the big box stores, and brought them home to try out in the space. In some cases, the design of the fixtures and shades didn’t fit the bathroom quite right. Other options were just too big or too small. We even thought about installing two identical 3-bulb fixtures side by side. But that seemed like overkill when I tried them out in the space.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

In the end, the winner was this guy – a 4-light fixture with gently flaring frosted white shades and a mix of brushed and shiny metal parts.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

We’d already painted the bathroom walls, but I knew that installing this new light fixture would involve some additional painting and wall repair. Not just because it had a smaller footprint than the old light (so more of the wall behind the old light would be exposed), but also because that exposed wall looked like this.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

Lots of heat damage to the various paint layers (at one point this bathroom had apparently been green!), so that would all have to be smoothed out somehow. In addition, I realized that the original electric line for the bathroom lighting had been placed off-center. Since the new light plate needed to be connected to the electrical source in the center, and we wanted to center the entire fixture over the mirror, I’d need to do some extra electrical work and put a new junction box where we needed it to be.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

Which meant I’d also have to cut a new hole in the plaster-and-lath wall for the junction box, and then re-plaster any leftover openings in the wall, including what was around the original electric line. And then paint over it all. See what I mean about snowballing?

So I got to work. After turning off the power and removing the old light, I cut a hole in the plaster of the wall where I wanted to relocate the junction box. I used my oscillating saw with the grout/plaster cutting blade.

Using an Oscillating Saw to Cut Through Plaster Walls | Rather Square

Using an Oscillating Saw to Cut Through Plaster Walls | Rather Square

Then I went back and cut into the lath with the same saw using the wood cutting blade. I made a hole that was larger than the junction box – I needed to allow some working room to move the electrical lines around. And I made sure to cut the lath in between the studs, so that I could re-attach it around the box when I was done. The oscillating saw made this part really fast and easy.

Using an Oscillating Saw to Cut Through Plaster Walls | Rather Square

Using an Oscillating Saw to Cut Through Plaster Walls | Rather Square

Next I needed to re-route the electrical wire over to the new location, and attach it to the junction box. I figured I’d have to drill a hole in the studs to move the wire over, but luckily, this wall is thicker because of the plumbing pipes and has two sets of studs with a space between them. So I was able to snake the wires between these double studs. I also added a two-by-four scrap piece of wood as a brace for mounting the box and making it flush with the plaster. This gave the light fixture a solid base for installation.

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 1) | Rather Square

With the junction box in place and all the gaps reinforced, the wall structure was ready to support the new light fixture. But before I could install it, I’d have to plaster over this big hole and repaint the sad looking wall to match the paint job we did during the first step of this budget bathroom update.

In our next post, I’ll cover that process, including the materials and tools I used… and a final reveal of the new light fixture! (Update: read Part 2 of this lighting fixture project here!)

Missed part of this budget bathroom project? Read our previous posts on:
Our budget bathroom update: Painting
Our budget bathroom update: Four fixes for under $20

(linked at Remodelaholic)

Links may contain affiliates.

July 17, 2014

Switching to green energy

By on May 12, 2014


We just enrolled in our village’s electrical aggregation program, and we chose the all-green energy option.

Switching to Green Energy | Rather Square

What does “green energy” mean anyway? According to the provider selected by our village board:

“We supply our residential customers in select electric distribution company service areas with renewable wind energy. This renewable wind power is generated by wind turbines, located on wind farms within specific control areas.”
(read more here)

Switching to green energy will actually save us money in the end. The rates offered by the aggregation program (for all options) are lower than what we are currently paying for electricity. Even though we chose the most sustainable aggregation option (which will cost a bit more per kilowatt hour than the base aggregation option), we will still be paying less than what our current provider charges.

More importantly, this switch fits in with our overall plan to increase the efficiency of the energy we use for our home. In the past year, we’ve blogged about several things we’ve already done to help our old house function better in the modern world. For example, we installed a new smart thermostat (the Ecobee Smart Si):

Installing a Thermostat | Rather Square

We replaced our 25-year-old furnace and air conditioner with new models (this became an urgent necessity when the old furnace died on us one cold night last winter):

How We Pay for Surprise Home Costs | Rather Square

We’ve started gradually trading out our older household appliances with new energy-efficient ones, like our refrigerator and dishwasher:

Installing our New Refrigerator | Rather Square

Kitchen Dishwasher

And last summer, John caulked cracks in our exterior stucco:

Repairing Stucco Cracks | Rather Square

Even though energy efficiency can pay off in the long run with lower utility bills, it can also cost a significant amount of cash upfront to set things up (especially in an old house like ours). So we’ve got more updates we plan to make in the future once our budget allows, such as rerouting some ductwork to under-served rooms in the house for more even heating and cooling distribution, putting ceiling fans in the toddler’s bedroom and the spare bedroom, and insulating our exterior walls and attic.

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

For now, it will be interesting to see if we notice any change – good or bad – in our electric bill going forward.

What kind of energy options are available in your area? Do you have options at all? Or is your city/town served by a single provider and/or program?

May 12, 2014

The new refrigerator: Installing the water line

By on March 24, 2014


Today we’re sharing a DIY plumbing fix I made to complete the installation of our new refrigerator!

How to Install a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

In our last post, I talked about the delivery and installation of our new stainless-steel refrigerator, which includes an ice and water dispenser – something we didn’t have with our old refrigerator.

Installing our New Refrigerator | Rather Square

The professional installers were supposed to hook up a water line for the new fridge, but once they saw our kitchen setup, they realized that it wouldn’t work for connecting the refrigerator’s water line to the sink pipe (which was the only method they were authorized to use). The sink and refrigerator would have to be on the same side of the room, and ours are not.

Installing our New Refrigerator | Rather Square

When we originally ordered the new refrigerator, we’d paid an extra $135 for water line installation labor. After I learned the installers wouldn’t be doing this work, I was luckily able to get this charge removed from our total purchase/installation cost. But that still left me with the problem of our non-working ice and water dispenser.

I wanted a solution that would preferably not involve tearing up our kitchen floor to run a pipe underneath, or any other similarly-major DIY construction effort. So I decided not to connect the refrigerator water line to the sink across the kitchen, but instead to go down through the kitchen floor and connect to the main water pipe in the basement. And here’s how I did it:

I still had the 1/4-inch copper water line that I purchased for the humidifier last year, but had never used. It ended up fitting perfectly into the hole in the floor behind the fridge space that had been made for a no-longer-used TV cable (why had there once been a TV cable behind the refrigerator? No idea!). So I put some tape on the end of the water line and threaded it down through the floor to the basement.

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

Then I had to somehow hook the water line into our 90+ year-old galvanized steel water pipe (which fortunately is located just under the kitchen, so I didn’t have to run the water line too far to reach it). The connection would need some kind of valve to both seal and allow water to flow into the refrigerator line as needed, like a saddle valve. And I just happened to have a leftover saddle valve that came with our humidifier parts. The valve came with some written instructions which were helpful… but I wanted to watch someone actually using it to make sure I understood how it worked. Fortunately, I found a few instructional videos online, and it looked pretty straightforward and relatively easy to install.

I started by turning off the main water valve, and opened a faucet in the basement to drain water out and relieve any pressure. After the water slowed to a drip, I got ready to drill into the pipe. It is important to know where on a pipe to drill for a saddle valve installation. Making a hole on the bottom of a horizontal pipe will cause any sediment in the pipe to collect in the valve and can cause a blockage, so I made sure to drill into the top of the pipe. I used a 3/16-inch metal cutting drill bit that the saddle valve instructions called for.

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

Then I installed the saddle valve. The valve simply wraps around the pipe like a saddle (hence the name), and as you tighten the screws, the rubber gasket inside the valve creates a water-tight seal against the pipe at the point of the valve tap hole.

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

With the saddle valve installed on the water pipe, it was time to attach the 1/4-inch copper line for the refrigerator that I had previously pulled down through the basement ceiling from the kitchen. I inserted the water line into the opening of the valve’s brass compression fitting and tightened it with a crescent wrench.

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

Then I headed back up to the kitchen to finish installing the water line. There’s an identical compression fitting on the back of the refrigerator, but before I connected the line to the refrigerator, I needed to cut it to the correct length. It’s important to keep in mind that the refrigerator may need to be pulled out again in the future, so you want to leave enough slack in the line to allow for this! I marked where I wanted to make my cut, grabbed my pipe cutter, cut through the metal and cleaned off the burrs. Finally, I connected it to the fridge with my crescent wrench in the same way I had done with the saddle valve.

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

I went back down to the basement, turned the main water connection back on and checked the saddle valve. No leaks! So I opened the valve to send the water to the fridge, then headed back up to the kitchen to check the fitting on the back of the refrigerator. Again, no leaks!

So I pushed the fridge back against the wall, grabbed a glass and tried out the new dispenser.

Installing a Refrigerator Water Line | Rather Square

Hey, we have water! And ice! It worked! And as you might imagine after all that hard work, my celebratory glass of filtered ice water tasted quite refreshing and delicious.

We love the new refrigerator, and the only maintenance we’ll have to do from now on is change the filter every six months.

What kind of DIY projects have you been taking on lately?

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March 24, 2014