Let’s start with a little background. A dip tube is simply a pipe inside of a water heater tank, which delivers cold water from the connection on top down towards the bottom. Hot water floats on top of cold water; that’s called stratification. If a dip tube cracks or breaks off, cold water can mix with the hot, higher up in the tank, de-stratifying (mixing) the tank, so that you get a luke-warm shower, or worse! Keeping cold separated from hot is the dip tubes’ main function. It allows 70 to 75% of the water in the tank to be used as undiluted hot water. The reason most heaters have dip tubes instead of simply hooking up the cold inlet at the bottom is that it's safer (and easier to install). What makes it safer is that if the main water supply line breaks, a bottom connected tank could empty, making for a dangerous situation when the tank starts reheating. A properly working dip tube will leave the tank mostly full of water because there is a small hole drilled into the upper end of the tube that breaks a vacuum, by letting air in, eliminating the potential for trouble. You really don’t want your heater firing up with little or no water in it! In best case, it will ruin the tank, worst case could be an explosion!
Non-metallic (or plastic) dip tubes are used in modern heaters in part because they withstand corrosion and do not accelerate rusting of the steel tank. There have been problems in the past with plastic dip tubes failing, but there days, they hold up pretty well. Modern dip tubes are colored blue, to differentiate them from the prior generation of dip tubes which were white.
Dip tubes also come in a variety of configurations. They may mix water in different ways or create a swirl at the bottom of the tank to stir up sediment. My favorite approach is to use a curved dip tube along with a full port ball valve as the drain on the tank. When you open the drain, water rushes down the curved dip tube, and stirs up sediment, helping it to be flushed out of the drain.
Strange things can happen regarding dip tubes. Sometimes the plumber hooks up the hot and cold lines backwards. When this happens, you get a lot of warm water, but it never gets hot enough to be useful. Rarely, the dip tube is installed in the wrong port on top of the heater. This creates the same problem. Sometimes, the dip tube is just missing. When that happens, you get only a little hot water, and then it cools down, making for a quick and unpleasant shower! All this is reason to look at any heater closely before hooking it up, to make sure things are where they should be.
I’ve dealt with lots of complaints of insufficient hot water, but there are multiple causes for the complaint. It can be a crossover in the plumbing, where cold water can get into the hot side, or the recirculation line doesn’t have a working check valve, or the dip tube might be damaged, creating the problem. Sometimes a couple of things go wrong at the same time making the diagnosis and fix more interesting! A really simple way of determining if it’s a dip tube problem is to just feel (carefully) the hot water pipe leaving the tank. Say you’re getting a cool shower. When it happens, have someone feel the hot outlet pipe to see if it’s hot or only warm. If it’s hot, the water heater is working as it should and cold water is mixing in somewhere downstream. If it’s just warm after only a few minutes of running, you know there is a problem with the water heater and the first thing to look at is the dip tube.
And this brings us full circle. You want to know the dip tube is in place and in good condition so that you get that long, satisfying shower. If you’re not getting it, domestic tranquility is at risk, which won’t do! So, the takeaway is that a good dip tube contributes to peace in the house!
This is a question that never seems to get answered. I’ve only had to deal with it for about forty years, but it’s a far older question. It really has been around since water heaters first became automated around 1868, when an Englishman, Benjamin Maughan invented the first tankless water heater.
To start, I think we’ve been asking the wrong question. What we really want is the service of hot water in the most affordable, and easy to live with way. So, the question shouldn’t be about what technology is superior, but what technology meets my needs best. And the water heater is just one small part of the hot water system. The system itself affects the decision of what’s the best heater to use.
Most water heaters get replaced on an emergency basis. Heaters just love failing on holidays and when you have company. That’s the wrong time to figure out how to change things for the better, so most of the time a similar heater is slapped in place and promptly forgotten for another ten years.
I like the idea of having in mind all the things that would make your hot water system simply fabulous! It would give you hot water very fast, it would waste very little water, it would be silent yet provide good flow. And it would be inexpensive, durable, and simple to maintain. Okay, knowing those things, we know we want efficient fixtures and low volume plumbing. These things can save water and give fast hot water delivery, while making water scrub the lines to keep bugs and biofilms from growing in the system. Modern piping materials like PEX and lead-free fixtures will add very little contaminant to the water. Placing the water heater close to the rooms that use hot water will shorten plumbing runs for faster hot water delivery. Checking to see what fixtures even need hot water could simplify the hot water system as you discover that the clothes washer and dish washer might be able to heat their own water. Maybe some sinks don’t need hot water either as hand washing with room temperature water isn’t a big deal. Then point of use heaters can be considered for fixtures far from the main heater.
All of this matters because it allows you to modify the system as needed over time to make it easier to live with, while performing better. It gives you a plan moving forward. Maybe when you must replace your heater, you’ll discover that just by installing low flow showerheads, you can install a smaller water heater. And when you decide to do that remodel of the kitchen, you’ll know that you’re going to install smaller diameter PEX tubing to get better performance, and maybe skip that hot line to the dishwasher.
These things all make it easier to know what sort of heater you want to have. Tankless heaters offer endless hot water but the only place where I know we need endless hot water is with some industrial processes. In homes we use hot water not that many minutes of the 24-hour day. In homes, what we need is enough hot water. Tankless offers greater energy efficiency. Well, that depends on what technology it’s being compared to. Well insulated, condensing gas, or heat pump tank-type water heaters are hard to beat. Older, poorly insulated, atmospheric draft heaters are easy to beat, but still, they have little to maintain, unlike tankless heaters, so can wind up costing no more to own than tankless.
I like to match technology to the people who live there. An engineer might enjoy tinkering with the system, but a busy mom, not so much. Historically, we do not maintain water heaters or equipment in the home, even though we are told to do so, and warranties sometimes depend on our doing it. Complex equipment, like a tankless heater is more delicate with so many ways to fail. And the design of some equipment just baffles me. Have you ever seen the electronics of a modern heater placed under water connections? This way when there is a leak, it lands on the electronics, killing them. Why do they do dat?
Tankless does have a place. Glass lined tank-type heaters can give you smelly water if they sit unused for too long. Churches, vacation homes and any other places that have intermittent use are more prone to having the odor problem. Tankless units help you to avoid this problem as they don’t have much stored, stagnant water. A single faucet, far from other hot water uses can be a good place for a tankless heater. A big tub is a great place to consider tankless as it means you can use a normal sized heater for the rest of the house and still have the capacity to fill or reheat that tub for occasional use.
Oversold is a term usually used around stocks, but it can also apply to tankless water heaters. We are told about benefits that we don’t need, like endless hot water and how efficient the units are, compared to what…? We aren’t told about the high cost of yearly maintenance or the limited warranties, or that getting hot water in winter might be more difficult because of lower groundwater temperatures. My point in this is to point out how important self-education is in making sure you wind up with the right system for your needs. Ask good questions. Look at your own needs and wants. Make a plan that fits. And don’t be swayed much by other people’s enthusiasm for what fits their needs, for their needs and yours are probably not identical. I have no doubt that good ol’ Ben Maughan would not be displeased with your decisions even if it meant you didn’t use on of his heaters.
This is the story of some troubleshooting I was called to do. A tenant had complained to the local health department about his landlord. I was asked to investigate and then write up a report for the health department. Following is the essence of what I wrote up. It’s not quite a murder mystery, but getting there.
On October 20 I received a call from the Landlord to investigate water problems in his rental downstairs. In my work, I troubleshoot plumbing problems. Also, I occasionally teach classes that include how to troubleshoot. On arriving and talking to the tenant, I was told the sewer had backed up and flooded part of his apartment. What I discovered on investigation, however, suggested a fresh water leak.
The only suspect source of sewage would be from a floor drain in a utility area next to and lower than the apartment floor. In this area is a gas fired water heater. For sewage to flow into the living area it would have needed to rise high enough to soak the insulation in the heater and extinguish the pilot light. Neither of these things happened. There was also no odor or discoloration as one would find with a recently backed up sewer. There clearly had been a quantity of water in the apartment. The toilet flush lever had been snapped off. To operate the toilet, people had been reaching into the tank to lift the flapper. The lid to the tank was in a trash can rather than on the tank. Also, a string had been temporarily tied to the flapper to lift it, but had come loose. I found the base of the fill valve was wrapped in green electrical tape and the valve was not straight as it should be in the tank, but tilting off to the side. Additionally, a hairline crack was found in the base of the valve. Directly above the fill valve, a hole roughly a foot and a half in diameter was in the plaster ceiling. This hole was under a toilet upstairs, but I found no evidence of that toilet leaking recently and learned that the upstairs was unoccupied and locked during the time of this incident. It was found by looking at the water meter, that substantially more water had been used for the billing period than would be normal. Taking into account that the Landlord had been gone much of that time, the usage should have been less.
Putting all these pieces together I’ll suggest that what really happened is this: The plastic toilet flush lever was snapped off. The tenant, or a friend of his rigged up a string to operate the toilet. Either in working with that string or in reaching down to the flapper once the string had let go, the tenant or a friend cracked or otherwise damaged the fill valve. It let go and sprayed a jet of water up into the ceiling of the bathroom until someone noticed and shut off the water. Excess water flowed to the drain in the utility area. The fill valve was then “repaired” with green electrical tape.
It is outside of my expertise to speculate on why I was told this was a sewer leak when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise, but I hope this helps you to reach a just conclusion.
I later learned that the tenant had not paid rent for some time and had attempted, in various ways to get local government to find fault with the Landlord for improper maintenance of the property, claiming it to be unsafe. Ultimately, no fault was attributed to the landlord, but this experience caused him to stop renting the apartment in an area that has long had a housing shortage. The only moral to this story that comes to mind is to perform a very thorough background check on anyone before handing the keys over to your rental. I suppose you could add that “facts speak louder than words”.
...who just loves to call me when there is some strange hot water problem to troubleshoot. Fortunately, we always seem to find answers. Sometimes troubleshooting involves finding what isn’t there, because simply noting what is there doesn’t really give you enough clues about what’s wrong. Sherlock would be proud!
That’s sort of what one of his jobs was like a while back. Sometimes the pump moved water. Other times it didn’t. Was it in the controls, or out in the piping, or? It looked like an air trap, so we fixed the piping to eliminate that… no luck. We tried bypassing controls… no change. We took things apart and flushed out all the piping, one piece at a time. It seemed to work and then it didn’t! The final bit of work gave us a useful clue. It worked fine with cold water, but when it got hot, it quit. Ahhh! It must be a thermostatic element in the piping. Close, but not quite right. It turned out the wrong type of element had been installed for this particular use.
They didn’t even have all these different types of thermostatic elements when I was out there every day, putting this stuff in. But things change. That’s a given. What was demonstrated on this job was when you eliminate all other possibilities, the problem is left there alone in the lineup, staring back at you. It had looked like some soft rubber had gotten into the line because when the pump didn’t work, water could still flow under street pressure, but the small pressure the pump created couldn’t move water. Flushing the pipes was the only way to be sure that wasn’t the case, or if it was, the rubber or whatever would have been flushed out.
This story reminds me why I’m a fan of simplicity, who is our friend. Complexity is not our friend when it comes to plumbing or buildings! It confounds and confuses us. It uses its tricks to deceive, and we don’t know what all of those tricks are. It seems to take pleasure in doing these things at the worst possible times, so they’ll cause the greatest disruption.
Just to be clear, the number of possible interactions increases as the square of the number of parts. One part = one action. Two parts = four. Three parts = nine interactions and so on. Then throw in time for corrosion and wear to happen, water hardness, user mistreatment or neglect, someone turning a wrench who should have been in a completely different line of work, and you begin to get a picture of why I like simple. Elegant simplicity is even better, but harder to reach.
My friend keeps me on my toes, and I’m grateful for that, even if I have to get out the oilcan and lube my brain occasionally.
Well, it’s not really the plumbing that needs to stay healthy, but rather the people who use the plumbing. It’s not a bad idea to keep the plumbing in good shape too. To me, healthy plumbing is a system that delivers enough water at the temperature you want, whether hot cold. It delivers clean water, without bacteria, viruses, metals, sand, or other stuff. It delivers hot water fast, without much energy or water waste, and gives you cold water quickly as well.
The piping system shouldn’t cause other problems, like expansion noise in the walls, or velocity sounds. It’s good if it doesn’t sweat, dripping water down onto sheetrock ceilings. It should be installed so it is safe from rodents and does not give them passageways to travel around the structure of the home.
So, let’s have a look at this list and see what to keep in mind:
Having enough water. This is a function of pressure and the sort of fixtures you have. Normally, pressures between 40 and 60 psi are what we want. Anything much lower can cause insufficient flow and too high can stress the plumbing system, or make water hammer a problem. Check pressure with a gauge that screws onto a hose bibb. I like to use a 0-200 psi gauge, and measure when no water is being used. It’s not much fun when you’re in the shower and somebody flushing a toilet causes the temperature to change quickly! Using “pressure compensating” showerheads and aerators will go a long way towards keeping flow the same, even with varying water pressures.
Pipe size matters too. If the pipe is too small or became too small by filling up with rust or scale, you won’t get adequate flow. Generally however, codes have made us put in pipes that are far too big for the ever-reducing flows we have in our homes. We used to have much higher water use fixtures than we do now, so flow rates continue to drop, but plumbing code hasn’t kept up. At present, they’re about sixty years behind reality.
The right temperature. This is a tricky one as hot water temperatures that are comfortable for people are also good for growing bugs like legionella in the plumbing. Temperatures that kill off the bugs will scald people pretty fast. For people not too old or young, and in good health, 130 degrees F is usually a good place to set the heater to, as it doesn’t promote bacterial growth and doesn’t burn people that quickly. Modern, pressure balanced shower valves are absolutely worth putting in as they help prevent rapid temperature changes in the shower. Another approach that’s becoming common is to install a tempering valve downstream of the heater, so you mix down hotter water to a safe 120 degrees or so. Even this approach could let bugs grow in the piping, however. As I said, this is a tricky problem! Having cold water stay cold and not sweat and drip condensation is a concern for humid areas. It may seem counterintuitive, but insulating the cold lines is a good way to prevent problems here. Pretty simple! Of course, all the hot lines should be insulated too.
Clean water. This one matters! Think of Flint, Michigan. We don’t want bugs, metals, chemicals, or other bad things in our drinking water. Pipes that are too big, or have unused portions called “dead legs” in them are the perfect breeding grounds for nasty bugs. Sizing the pipes so you get at least one foot per second of water flow through them helps scour the pipes, preventing bugs from having a place to hang out. This flow also keeps sediment from being able to settle in the lines so much.
About metals, we need water that is not corrosive to the piping material, and we need materials that don’t contribute to the problem. With older faucets, it’s common to have way too much lead in the first flush of water in the morning. Particularly if the water is acidic or over-softened. Older faucets had lead in them to make machining the brass easier. We’ve learned a little since then! Lead was often used in the supply system to connect branch lines because it could flex. There are better ways to fix that problem now. Debris can simply be flakes of rust from steel piping or silt from wells, or other stuff. Fortunately, it’s not hard to filter this gunk out, but be sure to keep the filter clean and out of the sun or it could become another source of bugs and algae!
Energy and water waste. This one gets taken care of with good piping layout and sizing. Recirculation lines that run 24 hours can triple your water heating bill… and they damage piping. The basic idea is to put in pipes that are only big enough to give you enough water and no bigger. They should be kept as short as can be done. This all creates low volume plumbing, so less water must be flushed out to get hot or cold water. Interestingly, if you have a gallon in the lines between the heater and tap, you’ll have to waste between one and a half, to two and a half gallons before getting hot water. That can be a significant waste of water, energy, and your time! So, see if the water heater can be put close to the fixtures to shorten the piping runs and then keep the pipes as small as you can.
Other problems. I’ve covered sweating pipes, but not touched any rodents! Plumbers sometimes seem to enjoy drilling rather large holes in the framing to run their pipes through. The mice like this! It gives them easy access from crawl space to attic. Sometimes you can hear them behind your headboard at night, partying! Rodents don’t use toilets, so things get a bit unsanitary. The hantavirus is not something you want the critters to give to you. Rats are smart. They know water is in those lines. If you’re using plastic lines, like PEX, that rat just might chew through the line to get a drink. I’ve seen it happen and it’s not something you’ll discover right away. The wood framing that’s getting sprayed could rot and need to be replaced and then there is that big water bill. This problem can be avoided by running small plastic lines in bigger conduit, when going through crawl spaces or other places rodents can’t readily be kept from. It’s a bit of a pain to do, but far easier than dealing with the problems that come of not taking that precaution.
Expansion, water hammer, and velocity sounds are the last things I’d like to touch on. Metals expand a little when heated and plastics expand a lot more. When installing copper pipe, it’s good to use plastic bushings when going through wood, so there is a way for the pipe to move quietly, rather than rubbing hard on the wood and making creaking or popping sounds. Soft plastics like PEX can be installed so that they can bow out a bit when heated by the hot water inside. PEX tube expands and contracts one and one tenths of an inch per 100 feet, per 10 degrees F change in temperature. So, if it goes from 50F in your crawlspace to 130F with hot water, that’s an expansion of 8.8 inches per 100 feet. Where’s that extra pipe gonna go? It’s a good thing for the plumber to keep in mind.
Velocity noise happens when water is moving too fast through the lines or fixtures. This could be the result of a reduction in size caused by corrosion where different metals meet. For example, where copper and steel meet, the steel rusts, reducing the path for water flow. Valves may get hard water build-up inside and hiss when running water. Good clean water, good piping design, pressure control, and pipe sizing will go a long ways towards quieting these things down.
Water hammer is what happens when water is moving fast down the line and is made to stop quickly, by closing a valve too fast. It’s more of a problem with the combination of too high a pressure combined with fast closing automatic valves, like you find in washing machines or dishwashers. If simply controlling water pressure doesn’t fix it, then water hammer arresters can be put just in front of the valves that are causing the problem, and that gives a cushion for the water to hit, rather than a brick wall, as the valve closes.
I’ve only touched briefly on some of these things… a book could be written, but hopefully you see how each part affects other parts of the system. The human component is the most variable one, and sometimes doesn’t obey the laws of physics like the rest of the system does, but we adapt 😉
Although I don’t go as far back with solar water heating as Day and Night Solar, I am one of the old guys in the field having built my first system in 1978. I installed new solar right up to the end of tax credits in 1986. Then 90% of the solar companies in my area vanished and I took on keeping all those local orphan systems running.
What I saw taught me a lot about how not to do solar. People had installed copper coils in galvanized tanks. This caused the tanks to leak within a year or two. Some installed the solar tank downstream of the electric “backup” tank, so electric was heating the solar tanks. Just imagine that meter spinning! Drainback systems were put in so they couldn’t really drain back, and pipes froze. The wrong insulation was used and would melt off the pipes, or no insulation was used at all, or was sloppily installed, so it didn’t really work. Pumps would come on during freezing weather, so pipes that would have been fine, burst because of controls poorly set up………
I saw systems so complex that it took a longish time to figure out what the installer might have had in mind. Systems like these reminded me of being inside of an older style diesel submarine with pipes running everywhere. Perhaps the installers were proud of these systems because it was common that they had no insulation… probably to show off all the shiny copper piping! If you’re going to have a system like that, you need to build a separate bedroom for the installer as he or she will be spending a LOT of time at your place. At least put a cot in the mechanical room!
So, I got to learn a few things. First is Elegant Simplicity. This matters because the more complex something is, the more ways it has to misbehave. Just think of the interactions between parts. If there were only two parts, that’s two interaction. Three parts means six interactions. Four parts means twelve interactions, and so on. Keeping things simple, by actually putting the properties of the materials to use, is a great way to build a durable system. The only problem is that it requires thoughtful design. I had the pleasure of working with Steve Baer, of Zomeworks in New Mexico. He was a champion for the practical application of elegant simplicity, and he wrote a lot of good things too. The book: “Sunspots” is likely his best-known work. If you want durable and efficient systems, elegant simplicity is THE way to go.
It’s also useful to study the history of solar, so that you understand the ideas that have come before. See if you can find a copy of “A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology”. It’s a fun and useful read! It also makes sense to design systems that are a good match for the people living there. A very complex system might be fine for the plumber or engineer who likes to tinker, but not so good for the busy professional who works primarily with their mind, rather than their hands. I learned that most people ignore maintenance, so it becomes important to design systems that may only need to be seriously looked at about every five years. That’s hard to do. Also, they need to be designed to fail in a safe way, rather than failing so water leaks out or steam from stagnant collectors fills the garage!
One of the most common systems around the world is the thermosyphon type. It places the storage tank above the collectors so warmed water flows by convection from the collectors up into the tank. Having no controls or pump to fail is simpler! Even so, that type of system doesn’t do well in cold climates, but there is no need to have only one system type to cover all areas. There might be places where photovoltaics should power a heat pump, just because any outdoor plumbing is risky.
Leaving the past for a bit, I’ve more recently built systems that come pretty close to being simple and perform far better than conventional solar, along with costing about half as much. The key to doing this is to not look for the most efficient collector, but rather, an inefficient collector! By having more square feet of inefficient collector area, you get more BTUs and eliminate the risks and design challenges of overheating. By using the right type of plastic collector, you nearly eliminate the risk of freeze damage. Also, the collectors cost less and are even something that a handy person could make themselves. Add to this, using a well-insulated plastic storage tank and “too much” insulation on the lines allows this system to take care of 90% of the user’s hot water needs! Also, there is very little to maintain. Not bad! A normal “good” system can do 70 or 75% and many do far less. Throw in a little efficiency in the plumbing distribution and fixtures and you will be able to take long, luxurious showers and still be efficient!
I’ve only skimmed over the topics of history, design, and efficiency. Still, I hope you understand now that solar thermal can be done well and cost effectively. It does not need to be relegated to the dust bin of history. But, it must be done thoughtfully to work well, long term.
Sometimes the best way to show ideas is with a picture. Below is what’s called a mind map. It’s a form of outline that’s not linear, so it allows for more spontaneity and brainstorming. These are useful things when we feel a need to get out our crystal balls and peer into the future, or make plans for how we want our future to be.
If you look closely at the map above, you’ll see or be led to questions about what can be. That’s fine, as asking good questions is a great start to understanding. So, just have a look and think about the choices we have and actions we can take to have durable, plentiful, and very efficient hot water.
I’ve been asking myself that question for a long time. For me, it’s been a good question to ask. As a young person, I had a lot of “No, you can’t do that!” and “That’s not how to do it!” told to me, but I have a stubborn streak. Grownups are supposed to know better, so I listened, but as I got more experience in the world, I questioned the old beliefs, rules and dogmas. The title question helped a lot in sorting out what rules made sense and which ones really didn’t apply. One of the ones that didn’t pass the test was “statement made to me”, followed by “Because I say so!” In my mind that translated into “I don’t really know why I’m telling you to do this and I’m not going to put effort into figuring it out and explaining it to you. Just do it, because.”
One lesson I learned came of this conversation I had with my father as a pre-teen… Dad asked me if I would “like to” wash the car. I answered his question honestly, no. He blew up and went on a tirade about how he paid all the bills, and I should be grateful… and so on. If he had simply told me to wash the car, I would have done that with no problem. He tried a mind game on me, and it didn’t work. I was raised at a time when the father went out to earn money and the mom stayed home and tried to not be driven crazy by the kids. Dad clearly hadn’t learned the nuances of being around kids. My lesson from this was that parents don’t really have any training in parenting. They wing it! Grandparents are the ones who have been through it and can more reliably do a good job of parenting. This event helped lead me to questioning all the rules.
Asking “what’s the worst that could happen” is an exercise in thinking something through and really attempting to understand it. It’s a fact-based way of looking at things. This question has allowed me to make progress when others would have had me give up. It’s also a way of looking at things as if they were new, with no assumptions or history cluttering up the decision-making process. It is not a get out of jail free card. If I felt like going down a dirt road fast on my bicycle, asking a good question isn’t going to keep me from sliding off the road at that sharp turn and getting all scraped and banged up! That’s called learning the hard way.
Asking the question in the title lets you see what really could go badly and take precautions to prevent that from happening. It actually increases your chances of success. There is no magical thinking here, it’s just a tool for better understanding how things can go, so you can plan better and be more successful in getting the things done that you want to do.
This was more philosophy than plumbing, but it’s a new year! Heck!
I’m a contractor who grew up with an uncle who was an architect, and a brother who is architect. So, I’ve been exposed to what’s out there in the built world, both good and not so much, and I’ve gotten to peer into the thinking of what homes should be able to provide for their occupants.
So much of how we build homes is tradition driven. Our predecessors developed ways of doing things when the building landscape was vastly different than it is now. Also, there is an ongoing crisis in housing in that it’s become unaffordable for many people.
Sadly, there are architects out there who design for magazine covers. This means they are doing showy work, with the hope of gaining some celebrity status. All fine except it might mean they aren’t really working to do the best job for the clients and their needs. Then there are the contractors who compete to get the job through the usual bidding process. This forces them to leave little margin for error or when things change, so they work fast and cheap, cutting off any corner they can find. Don’t forget that building to code is a minimum standard. Bragging that you build to code is like saying proudly that you do D- work. Then there are the owners, who want a good job, but are really not educated in all the nuances of getting a building built and don’t even know what questions to ask. That can be where unhappy surprises come from. I haven’t mentioned the planning and building departments, where rules seem to be made at a whim, change often, are seldom explained well, and then they are not enforced evenly. Inspectors sometimes act like demigods and interpret the codes however they seem to feel like that moment.
Throw all these competing and conflicting interests together and it’s no wonder why building is usually one of the most stressful and expensive experiences a homeowner ever goes through. With each category above, there are the good exceptions, where professionals actually act professionally and are helpful, but that is certainly and sadly, not the rule.
There are ways around much of the mess described above. Two ways are to buy a really run-down house and do a major remodel, sometimes called a gut rehab to the house. I’ve heard of these where the owner had everything but the front door torn down, so the word “remodel” is sort of a joke. When building departments are really difficult to deal with, this approach may be easier than starting from scratch.
Another approach is to use manufactured housing to build with. This puts the construction under federal guidelines and removes much of it from the jurisdiction of local authorities. If you go this way, it’s important to really do your shopping. Manufactured housing suffers from cost cutting, or “cheapifying” in a big way. You want something that will hold up and perform well for many decades if not hundreds of years, and that will take some exploration to discover.
Thinking just of the cost of energy; why not build so your home will still be considered efficient fifty years from now? Where is the joy in building something that will be obsolete in five or ten years? Also, manufactured housing is looked down on by many in the trades because of that cheap reputation and usually lower resale value than standard stick-built housing. I once saw a video of what it would look like to build a car in the middle of a muddy field versus building it on a production line in a factory. That video drove home the point that houses would be far better off being built under controlled conditions, where templates and jigs were all set up for accomplishing precision work in a dry, flat and clean environment. It could be a smart way to get quality housing for a lot less money, time and frustration.
I chose a middle ground in building my house. I used SIPS, which stands for structural insulated panel system. You give the manufacturer a plan and they cut panels for you to assemble. You pour your foundation and assemble the panels on site. It’s a far faster and more precise way to build, and you get a much more energy efficient shell for the house going this way. In my experience, although the materials cost a little more, they save in labor costs, so ultimately you get a better home for no more money. As I did much of the labor on my home myself, my costs were far below the going rate for new construction at the time… on the order of $100 per foot versus $250 per foot. Savings added up pretty fast! Also, I got to put in far more insulation than was thought to be sane at the time. It allowed me to put in a tiny power system and now nobody is telling me how silly my thick insulation is.
There are other things to consider in building that often get overlooked, mostly because of tradition and habit. We commonly build homes with crawl spaces and attics. These are wonderful places for rodents, bugs, and energy loss in various ways. They are useless as living space, which is what people build homes. We build these spaces anyway so that there are places to put mechanical systems and plumbing, but with a little thought, we can do better! If we insulate under concrete slabs, that concrete becomes thermal mass for the house, keeping temperatures more even. Plumbing that must go under the concrete may be put in conduit, so it is protected from damp soil and is simpler to replace if needed. Electrical can be done the same way. If the shell of the house is well insulated and air-tight, the heating and cooling load will be far smaller and simpler to meet with much less equipment. I remember reading that a ½” water line can carry as many BTUs as an 8” air duct. It’s a lot easier to fit a small line into a building, and if the loads are kept down, you won’t even need much of that small line. So, making the building efficient both in terms of energy and space, contributes to needing a smaller and simpler heating system. The concept of “Passive House” takes this farther, suggesting that with a good enough shell, a heating system isn’t needed at all.
Another way in which homes could be built to take care of their occupants needs better would be to design them with the natural surroundings taken into account. Where does the sun rise and set? What are the prevailing winds? When might cooling be needed? Understanding things like these allows the building to be more comfortable and energy efficient at the same time. The purpose of a home isn’t to ignore and disconnect us from the environment surrounding us. Done well, it should help us reconnect, but most modern homes are oriented to make it easier for the car to come and go, rather than for the people to easily relate to and benefit from their surroundings.
My point with all this isn’t to go off on a rant but to suggest thinking a bit differently. This way, we can get greater benefit, and at lower cost, both financially and emotionally from our homes. Would you rather have an OK place to live, or a wonderful home to live in? It really is your choice!
I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to tools. The right tools let me do things that most tradespeople shy away from. Part of my “luck” in knowing about the right tools is that I enjoy looking into the past. Our forefathers came up with some wonderful tools, but we seem now to have forgotten about them, or never learned.
Interestingly, a similar thing applies when it comes to materials. We have so many materials to play with now that it’s fun to imagine what Leonardo DaVinci would come up with, if given the full range of things we have to build with. His helicopter might actually fly if built with the right lightweight modern materials, and with stronger motors!
One goal is simply to understand the properties of all common materials. The other goal is to see how things can be used effectively for something other than their intended use. With these understandings, it becomes possible to use things “wrong” and get away with it! In building my house, I used coat-hooks instead of standard knobs on the cabinets. Why? To start, they are easy to use with only one finger. Over the years, I’ve seen how the finish around cabinet knobs has deteriorated from the oils on our hands. Using a coat-hook prevents touching the wood finish, so the cabinets will need to be refinished less often. Mine show no signs of damage after about fifteen years. Coat hooks cost less than knobs. And lastly, I can hang things on them!
Understanding that you’re not (usually) breaking any laws by using things in a way they were not designed to be used, teamed up with an understanding of materials can really open up the choices you have for problem solving and designing things. I used roofing materials on the exterior walls of my house. There is no code saying you cannot use more durable materials than is normal. I understand why gold plumbing is rare, but in the right circumstances, roofing material can be less expensive, more durable and fire resistant than conventional siding. Done well, it’s also far less upkeep. One final example of using things wrong is that I was looking for a way of getting heat into my house, radiantly, through the walls. I thought about the finned copper tubes that you see in solar collectors. They collect heat from the sun and put it into the water. Why can’t this process be reversed? I use warm water flowing through the tubes to put heat into the copper fins and into the house. Just because it was designed to have heat flow one way, doesn’t mean it can’t flow backwards. Understanding material properties lets you re-envision how things can be used, successfully!
A bit more about misusing tools… Those old tools our predecessors made are generally made of better steel than what you can buy now. That means you can work them harder. I’ve collected lots of old pipe wrenches and many were designed to encourage you to put a “cheater” on them. A cheater is usually just a length of pipe that fits over the handle of the wrench. If you do that with some modern tools, you’ll break the jaw at the head of the wrench. How do you think I know this 😉? Old tools can withstand much greater force without damage. Old tools came in a variety of patterns not seen today and this allowed you to easily get the tools into places a modern wrench wouldn’t fit. A good example would be tight quarters where the normal wide jaws of a modern wrench simply don’t fit, like in between screwed fittings. You get around this problem using a smaller old pipe wrench and a cheater. The higher quality steel in the old wrench lets it take the force needed and the cheater lets you exert the force without undue strain on your body. Knowing the properties of materials lets you do this successfully.
I really enjoy ideas. Ideas can come from the past. They can come from different fields of experience; like how plumbing helps inform medicine and visa-versa. Ideas come from using different perspectives than is normal. An example of this is building your home for what energy will cost towards the end of the home’s life. Energy seldom gets cheaper, so what will it cost fifty or one hundred years from now when your home is in middle or old age? Thinking about these things will likely encourage you to install much more insulation than you would have done just to meet code. Insulation is cheap, yet people find excuses to use as little of it as they can get away with. This makes places more expensive to heat and less comfortable to live in. It also tips the scales towards needing to rehab the place sooner than later.
Ideas are surprisingly easy to collect, sift through and put to use in ways that can make life nicer in all sorts of ways. Misusing tools and materials in creative and effective ways is just one way of putting some unusual ideas to work. It only requires understanding the material properties and getting into the habit of asking “What if …”.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.