Here is a water heater that was made in 1895. That makes it about 123 years old. Certainly, we have much more efficient equipment now, right? Well, only perhaps. This is a condensing heater. It’s also a “contact” heater. That means flames/hot flue gasses mingle directly with the water being heated. Similar heaters when actually measured, showed an efficiency of 92%. Your standard modern gas heater is more like 60%. Another interesting thing about this heater is that it has only three moving parts. There just isn’t much to fail, and if it does, it’s easy to fix. Also, as you can see, it’s copper. As long as water is not acidic or aggressive in some other way, this heater won’t fail from corrosion. It’s a demand heater with no electrical use and no standing pilot, so has no standby energy losses either. All those ideas from one heater, called the Ewart’s Royal Geyser!
I collect old heaters and have over 70 of them. Each one presents ideas. Some are good, like this one I’ve been discussing, and some demonstrate ideas that are surprisingly unsafe or uninformed.
Here’s an example of a scary heater. It’s electric, but as you can see with only two prongs, there is no ground. It’s designed to strap to the spout on the kitchen faucet. You turn on the tap, then plug it in and you get a little stream of hot water from it. That was much better/faster than heating water on the stove. A plus to this sort of heater is there are no heat losses in the plumbing. It’s a point-of-use heater and very efficient. The problems however are in managing it correctly… first water flow, then power, or it melts down! But the main problem is the lack of a ground. If you put one hand in the water and your other hand on a metal sink, guess what… you become the ground path. That’s why you don’t see these anymore, because they seemed to like electrocuting children!
But, have a look at this heater: It’s got the same heating element, which is Nichrome wire, exposed directly to the water, but it also has two other things, a ground and a flow switch. This way, it can remain plugged in and can’t use a person as a ground path. It’s actually a heater used for showering. The showerhead mounts directly to the unit, so you get to shower with this device. How exciting can a shower be?! With this, you still have no line or standby losses. Not bad for an old idea.
Old heaters offer up a treasure trove of ideas to consider. Here’s a diagram of one such interesting design: See how the flue inside of it heads up to the top and then turns 180* and heads back down to near the bottom before it exits out the side? Then you’ll see the draft hood down towards the base of the tank. The benefit of this is it greatly reduces the standby loss from the tank as the flue is no longer acting like a chimney and sucking air through the heater, stealing heat all the time. This essentially is a heat trap for the flue, so it only flows when the main burner comes on. It saves lots of energy and has no moving parts. Also it doubles the heat transfer area of the flue for more efficient utilization of heat in the flue gasses.
When electric water heaters were first made, they didn’t seem to perform all that well as the electric supply to homes was small by today’s standards and the heating element might be only 600 or 1000 watts. Today the common element size is 4500 watts. The manufacturers got around this with the idea of a tempering tank: The basic idea was to place the uninsulated tank in a warm place, like boiler room, sunny place or wherever there was “waste” heat available. By doing this, it certainly made the slow electric heater more capable of meeting the demand, and probably reduced complaints to the manufacturer. I see no reason why we can’t do the same thing now and put some waste heat to use.
Using old ideas, it would not be difficult to build a heater that is far more efficient than most modern heaters, one that will last a VERY long time, (think the life of the house it’s installed in) and likely cost little more than a conventional heater to buy. Also, if we keep it very simple, the likelihood of it needing much upkeep is significantly reduced. Think of the savings this imaginary heater will give over its long life. Lastly, if we got used to thinking of life-cycle-cost instead of first cost, we’d be willing to spend a bit more for this heater that should never need replacing. Anyway, food for thought!
I like tools! They make life so much easier if you have the right ones. They make it so there is essentially no job you cannot deal with because of difficult to deal with piping. They make my ageing arms stronger. Pictured is a pipe wrench from 1922. It was made by the Hoe Corporation in New York and it’s my first choice of pipe wrenches when I need one. Why? For starters, it’s automatic. There is no need to turn an adjusting nut. It simply slips over the pipe or fitting and away you go. One benefit of this wrench is that it doesn’t care if what you’re wrenching on is round. Hex or square are fine too as it adjusts automatically. It doesn’t need to grip the pipe at 90 degrees. This wrench can be crooked on the pipe, which lets you work in difficult places with ease compared to the standard Stillson wrench.
This is what’s commonly sold these days, and it just doesn’t have the range of use that older wrenches offer. Imagine trying to play with a pipe that’s in a corner with this tool. It won’t be easy! The Hoe wrench has less trouble in a tight corner and there are other tools that are designed specifically for tight places. I’ve looked for years at garage sale wrenches, but now that we have the internet and specifically the worlds biggest garage sale, Ebay, it’s easier to find nice old tools for fair prices.
I take a two pronged approach when looking for tools. Searching the internet is good, but knowing what I want to be looking for is good too. I’ve found that there are some nice books on old wrenches. Here are two of them. There are more books, but this is a start. Finding the books can be tricky as well, but I’ve found a nifty site: www.addall.com, where they search all the book sites on the web. It’s one stop shopping! Once you’ve perused the books, you ‘ll have a better idea what’s out there that fits your needs and you can be a bit more precise in hunting down these tools. Unlike modern tools, some of the old ones are so well made with high carbon steel (too hard to file), that it’s a real pleasure to find one, clean it up and sharpen it with a grinder (think Dremel) so the teeth can grab the most recalcitrant pipe.
Some tools are just fun. How about this one? Any other plumber that sees it is gonna be a bit jealous! Squeeze the lever and the jaw opens. And note that the handle seems to be designed to put a cheater on. That was not uncommon with the older tools. Thing is, the more different types of tools you carry, the more able you will be to deal with whatever the jobsite is challenging you with. The word “can’t” is something I try to keep out of my vocabulary.
Here’s one more old tool for your consideration. It’s called an Eifel Plierench.
Look at what it can do. It has parallel, geared jaws. This gives you a lot of force. It’s easy to flatten copper pipe with these… Try that with normal pliers! The jaws are adjustable and replaceable with other attachments, like pipe jaws or even a cutter wheel for tubing. It has wire cutters, screwdriver and pry bar built in. Anyway, you get my point, that adding some good old tools to your collection can only help you do your job better and more easily.
New tools have their place as well, but I prefer them for different reasons. For example, I recently got a FLIR One. This is an infra-red device that attaches to your smart phone and lets you see heat or coolth. It can be quite useful in diagnosing a problem or simply being able to “see” things a bit differently.
Here’s an example of three hands. The young, energetic guy who exercises a lot is in the center. The older woman is on the left and her spouse on the right. When looking at buildings, it can show you poor electrical connections, water intrusion, air leakage, or heat loss from pipes and ducts. It can also make you wonder about what we “know” to be true.
For fun, here’s a photo of a lizard sitting on a log. They are supposed to be cold blooded … right?
There are other modern tools for “sniffing” out power in wires without needing to touch them; testers that tell you the condition of the wiring to outlets; line locators that make tracing underground pipes and wires much easier and another favorite is the gas sniffer that works better than my nose for detecting gas leaks. It’s even better than soap for finding leaks. Soap bubbles don’t form if the leak is too fast. For finding tiny leaks in gas or water lines an ultrasonic leak detector is the thing. It hears what we can’t, so saves a lot of time hunting down tricky problems.
The world of tools is big and having the right ones, makes life better. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for looking into the wide world of tools.
That’s exactly what the guy said when I picked up the phone. I intelligently said “huh?”. He explained that he had called the gas company (who has a policy of not referring contractors) and they referred me, as no other plumber was doing water heater maintenance. Then he called the water company… same story. Finally he called his plumber who also told him to call me. No doubt he wondered how much I’d spent to pay off everybody :~)
I did nothing but work diligently to understand exactly how water heaters do and don’t work and then used that know-how to help clients. I sought out the most knowledgeable hot water people in North America and shared information. Early in my career, I was a generalist… trying to do everything that might ever need doing around a home. That’s a great way to know only a little about a lot of topics, and spend a lot of unpaid time researching info and hunting for parts. A truck is not made big enough that can carry ALL the stuff, (tools and parts) you’ll need if you try to do it all. It’s good and useful to have the generalist’s understanding of things, but understanding a topic in depth makes you the go to person in that field. And a good reputation means you don’t need to worry about whether or not the phone will ring.
Long ago in my area, the plumbers tried to make themselves look good by dissing other plumbers. It’s nothing unusual, but it is unfortunate as it just makes the entire group look untrustworthy. As I was transitioning from generalist to hot water guy, I started asking around, learning what each other plumber liked to do best. When I got calls about doing plumbing other than hot water, I began to refer the work to the plumber who really liked that sort of work. A couple of interesting things happened. I started getting hot water referrals back, and slowly, the plumbers stopped bad-mouthing other plumbers. The latter might just be co-incidence, but it made the local world of plumbing much nicer! The bar was raised.
You may remember a little book called “50 Simple Things You Can do to Save the Earth” (now updated and in print!) by John Javna. My work on hot water was one of the 50 things. That caused thousands of letters to arrive in my mailbox from all over the world. School teachers particularly seemed to use it as a class outline. I needed to buy lots of stamps as this was before the internet took hold, and I got a lot of questions to answer. This became the drive for writing “The Water Heater Workbook” as I got asked the same questions over and over again and began to understand people couldn’t readily find good, truthful answers.
Being considered an expert comes with responsibility. It means you cannot stop learning… you need to stay informed so that you give the best answers possible to those who choose to trust you. As long as I’m putting out thoughts on business and philosophy, there is one more thing I can say with certainty, though I still don’t really understand how it works. If you take care of others, you will be taken care of. Once, I sat down and did the math… In a period of ten years, I had a total of just under two weeks of slow work. That’s pretty good! Additionally, when trouble comes to visit, invariably, good arrives to help me deal with the trouble. Every single time. This always being the case, I’ve learned that worry has no place to stand and bother me from. Worry must find me frustrating!
My point in writing this is not to toot any horns, but rather to share what has worked for me and might work for you, regardless of your field.
I wrote this a few years ago, and it appeared in Home Energy Magazine. Much of it is still true. Enjoy!
We hear in the news about all the foreclosed, abandoned, vacant or otherwise lost homes. We hear about the army of house flippers and people buying and fixing these homes to make an income from them, whether it’s by reselling or renting them out. Now we’re also hearing about rising sales prices and lack of inventory. How does an energy conscious person fit into this arena? Why should one even bother?
Lots of money is being poured into getting and fixing these lost homes, certainly because money can be made by doing so. Memphis Invest www.memphisinvest.com commissioned a study last September which found that private investors put 9.2 billion dollars a year into fixing up their real estate purchases. The average is $7500 per home/unit, though 16% spend over $30,000. The study found real estate investors are spending over four times what the Federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program is spending to rehab housing. Eleven percent of all Americans own real estate. Three percent of all Americans (or about seven million people) think of themselves as real estate investors.
So, ponder for a bit what might happen if energy conscious people decided to jump into the fray and become investors. First, although housing prices are beginning to rise, there has been no better period in most of our lifetimes to take control of properties to make them durable and efficient. The Great Depression might have been the last such opportunity. The best time to rehab a place is when nobody is living in it. Cellulose insulation and drywall dust just aren't appetizing. Also, working by the hour has its limits. Finding a way to create an income that happens even if you take a day off has some appeal. This could be called rentals, or becoming an energy efficient landlord. Appreciation of property is something to hope for but not count on. Perhaps appreciation is best thought of as retirement income. Real estate is also a relatively safe investment. It seems the FDIC has funds to cover only ¼ of one percent of deposits and securities in banks http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1lX-ZkbUIA and only Who knows where the emotion driven stock market is headed! Additionally, many of the well-to-do people in the world got that way with real estate. It's got a proven record and has intrinsic value, unlike paper money.
Now if energy aware people get involved in housing and replace the lipstick flippers, the opportunity to make a difference really grows because homes aren't often available for being given an energy make over during their lifetimes. They remain occupied, often for decades. Sometimes the flippers aren’t all that good at fixing up houses, http://activerain.com/blogsview/2019273/mr-jay-s-neighborhood-meet-flipper and all that lipstick will keep the house stuck together and unavailable for real repairs for a while!
Appraisers are ever so gradually moving towards recognizing the value of energy improvements, so loans may be able to take these improvements into account some day. Another thing that happens when we replace the lipstickers, is we have steadier work as energy aware, RE investors because we control the job. No more need to try to make prospective clients see the light, because we ARE that client. Additionally, if we get “scary” homes; those cheap ones that look like a lot of work, we can save them from simply being demolished and sent to the dump. That can add up to some serious embodied energy savings. Many benefits can come from our involvement.
What do these homes look like; where are they and how do you find them? We are used to thinking of bank foreclosed homes coming up for sale on the local multiple listing service (MLS). Foreclosures range from multi-million dollar mansions to hovels that sell for a few thousand or less and they are in every state. They are in run down war zones in the bigger cities and in quiet countryside, way out of town. As a rule of thumb, if you’re on the coast go inland a bit and the deals will begin to appear. Sadly, MLS is no longer a good or reliable source of deals. There simply is too much competition. I've found that tax deed sales can be a good way to find and obtain neglected properties. These appear online at places like Bid 4 Assets, http://www.bid4assets.com or in person at the local county seats. Roughly half of the states in the US are “deed states”. A good source of information on tax deeds and more is at Tax Sale Resources. http://www.taxsaleresources.com HUD Homes can be another source, http://www.hudhomestore.com . Even writing letters to the owners of dilapidated properties can bring results. Also, it just might be a good time to locate a Real Estate Investment Club in your area http://www.reiclub.com/real-estate-clubs.php and attend a few meetings. Perhaps we can infiltrate the clubs and convert its’ members into energy aware people!
There is a lot to the business of real estate, with many, many flavors. There is a lot to learn. How does one get involved? Where is funding? What rules exist for keeping out of trouble? One of the better sites to get this sort of know-how for free is Bigger Pockets, http://www.biggerpockets.com Much information is shared there. It comes from “brand new to real estate” types on up to those who have been involved thirty years or more. There are lots of good real estate books as well and using “info per dollar” as a yardstick, books are a dramatically better deal than the gurus! There is one very good example of “bringing wow and green to foreclosed homes” with Dave Robinson’s “Green Earth Equities” http://greenearthequities.com. He sets a good example for what I’m talking about and offers up a lot of information useful to the energy conscious person, with a nice mix of science and practicality.
Once you’re looking at specific properties, websites like City Data, http://www.city-data.com will give you lots of detail about any given area and Crime Reports, https://www.crimereports.com or the like will tell you if it’s a war zone and you should be looking elsewhere. Also there is much that can be learned by going to public records, http://publicrecords.onlinesearches.com and browsing through the official information or simply contacting the officials themselves, whether they are in the building department, recorder’s office or with the tax collector.
I’ve focused on internet information so far, but ultimately, nothing beats actually looking at a property. The vast internet can’t tell you if the house that looks so nice on Google Earth has just burned down, so always go look. The neighbors might be willing to share some of the history of the property as well.
Once you have a specific property in mind, how do you determine if it’s worthwhile? One old landlording rule of thumb is that you want to get 1% per month. This means as a gross number you want rent to be at least 1% of the total money you have put into a place. For example, if you bought a house for $150,000 and put $50,000 into repairs you would want $2000 per month in rent. This assumes you will be doing the property management. Otherwise you want to get more like 2% per month as managers usually charge around 10% of rents. Another thing to keep in mind as energy minded rehabbers, is we need to know beforehand how much can be spent on improvements and still have a cash-flowing property. It’s going to be hard to justify turning all your rentals into passive-houses.
Becoming a landlord is scary to many people, but that comes from lack of good information on just how to do it. I can suggest a good book called “Landlording” by Leigh Robinson. It’s in its 11th edition and has saved me countless troubles.
To close, I hope I’ve created a bit of interest in real estate. Putting energy conscious people together with distressed homes can create that authentic win-win and moves us forward in a positive way.
If only we would listen, water heaters would have a lot to tell us, their owners. Water heaters sorta like people, don’t appreciate not being heard. So, why do you think heaters fail on holidays and weekends? They just want attention! Most folks only pay attention when the heater has failed and they need a new one on Christmas morning, or some other inconvenient time. If you want to avoid that unhappy predicament, there are a few things you can do.
First, just have an admiring glance at the heater periodically. Has anything changed? Is there rust or moisture someplace? If it’s gas, is the vent pipe still hooked up? Is there a drain line from the temperature and pressure relief valve and is it piped to a safe location? Is it dry at the end of that pipe? Is anything stored on top or right next to your gas heater? I’ve seen the fire caused by a broom to close to the combustion chamber. It’s good to keep heaters from killing us with carbon monoxide, fire, or by blowing up. Some heaters CLEARLY don’t like not being paid attention to!
Next, it pays to understand why heaters die. The main neglect is the sacrificial anode has been used up and there is no longer any rust protection for the steel tank. It may be difficult to remove an old stubborn anode, but it’s far less work than replacing the heater. This is one clue you need to dig a bit to find. You might want to have a look at www.waterheaterrescue.com (WHR) for a lot more info on replacing anodes… and most anything else about water heaters! By the way, heaters just love having new anodes! The next heater killer is pressure. If water pressure is too high or if it fluctuates rapidly, this can cause the glass lining to crack and flake off, leaving bare steel to rust. Ideally, you want water pressure to be in the 40-60 psi range. Get an inexpensive 0-200 psi gauge and measure it. The heater’s drain valve is a good place to measure from. Also, watch the gauge when water is heating and no water is running. There is a gauge made that has a little red pointer, which shows you the highest pressure the gauge has seen. If it creeps up higher than the static pressure (static is when no water is being used) you know that thermal expansion, from heating the water is raising the water pressure in the entire house. This is common with homes that have pressure reducers or back-flow preventers. Sometimes there is a check valve in the water meter. A clue the heater may give you is the relief valve dripping periodically. Most open at 150 psi, so periodic dripping tells you the heater is suffering from too much pressure. Just because a relief valve doesn’t drip, doesn’t mean things are all good. In my area roughly one out of forty relief valves is plugged solid with hardness from the water. It’s like capping the line and gives you no protection at all. One in forty seems a bit too close to Russian roulette to me. You’ll see at WHR just how to test a relief valve so you know it’s working.
Sediment build-up in a tank also is not a good thing. In gas heaters, it slows heat transfer, causing overheating at the bottom and causing the glass lining to dissolve. Also, with gas heaters a rumbling noise can happen as water trapped in the sediment boils. In electric heaters, it can bury and burn out the lower element and be a cozy breeding ground for bacteria. Imagine just how bloated you would feel if you had all that sediment in you! WHR has flushing parts you can install (in your heater) to help reduce the problem.
Gas fired heaters can also give clues about how they are venting or not. On top of the heater is a “draft hood”. This exhausts combustion byproducts via a vent pipe to the outside. Sometimes if air pressures are wonky, you’ll see discoloration on the pipe nipples that live on both sides of the draft hood. If these nipples are rusty on one side or if insulation on them is melted, you know there is a venting issue. Additionally, if you see evidence of overheating towards the bottom of the heater, in front under the control valve, it’s more reason to check out the venting. Heaters like to breathe too! Having a carbon monoxide detector in the house just might not be a bad idea.
Another thing heaters sometimes do is provide less hot water. This could be a simple thermostat adjustment… thermostats do drift with time, but it could be a damaged dip tube. This is a plastic pipe inside of the tank, which delivers cold water to the bottom, so it doesn’t mix with the hot water. These dip tubes can get brittle with age and crack or just fall off. Or, the problem may have nothing at all to do with the heater. A cross connection in the plumbing can make it look like the heater is ill or in a bad mood. By mixing cold into the hot water, a cross connection can fool people into looking in the wrong place. If you shut off the water to your heater and open a hot tap, it should stop running in a few seconds. If it keeps running, there is a plumbing problem and the heater can remain happily blameless.
There is a lot more to discuss, but these are the main things that go wrong, along with their telltale clues… May your water heater get the attention it wants, so it can live a long and contented life, giving you hot water whenever you wish! It really would much rather live this way than having to think murderous or leaky thoughts! If you listen carefully to that heater you just maintained, you might even hear it say “Tanks!”.
I just finished up a week of teaching for California State Parks maintenance folks. I know some teachers and they are a bit jealous. It’s because I get the best students! My students have to compete to get into the class, they really want to learn, and they bring their own experience to class for others to learn from. “Real” teachers usually have to deal with reluctant students, crowd control and administrative headaches. I just get to share what I’ve learned and teach, which I’ve been doing for Parks now for 25 years. They have basic, intermediate, and advanced classes in plumbing and also a number of other fields. This was a basic plumbing class, with students ranging from newbie to a few that were talented enough, they could have been the teacher.
If you step back and look at what people choose to do with their working careers these days, you’ll see that working in the trades is low on the list. People seem to want white collar jobs or something to do with information technology and computers. Across the trades, contractors are having a harder and harder time finding decent help. Yet, there is work to do. Plumbing still misbehaves, buildings still need upkeep and we still have an ever growing number of people needing a place to live and the service of all the infrastructure that living in a first world country seems to require. Who’s gonna keep it all running? Plumbers and electricians where I live often charge over $100 per hour. If you become a member of one of the trade unions, you can get a good wage, decent benefits, and continuing education. We really need to rethink our push in the US towards getting all students into college while forgetting about the trades. Perhaps when plumbers can charge as much as lawyers, more people will be interested in doing plumbing for a living :~) And plumbing is a lot less messy!
I used to feel nothing but awkward when getting up in front of any crowd… unless it was a small crowd and I could talk about something I really knew and liked, like hot water. Nobody has asked me to give a talk on cats yet, so I discuss plumbing! Years ago, I ran across a book written by Dan Holohan, of heatinghelp.com. The book is called “How to Teach Technicians”. Technicians are more visual and tactile than “regular” people. They want and need to touch things to understand them. I understand this rather well as I R one. I recently went looking for the book and found it’s out of print, but the good news is that it has been updated and will be available again soon, likely this winter. The book walks you through the entire process of teaching, from knowing your audience, your material, and the room you’ll be teaching in, to stories about the many ways teaching can get disrupted by things like dogs, crows and very hot lightbulbs! Dan makes it clear how important humor and connecting with your audience are for getting good results.
I know his approach works. Some years ago I was asked to give a talk on hot water at an AWWA conference. I brought along a cut-out water heater as my main visual aid. Every other speaker seemed to be reading from their power point presentation, so when I came up with this heater and other real things to pass around the room, people got excited. I noticed people in the audience calling their friends and telling them to “Get over here, you must see this presentation!” That much excitement over hot water feels rather good.
I got to finish up the Parks class by showing off what a plumber can do with copper. Liking cats, I made a copper “Cat in the Hat” from two inch down to ¼ inch copper pipe and tube. It demonstrates what you can do with silver solder and only a little imagination. The message was that playing can be fun and education can (and should) involve playing. I made a point of bringing in things every day that the students may not have run across and that could help with story-telling. I took in a water heater from 1895 that still works, and is more energy efficient than most heaters made today. Another day, I brought in a bunch of old wrenches that, in concert allow the plumber to work fearlessly on ANY pipe. I took in old water heater salesman’s samples, demonstrating how differently we used to think about hot water. We all had fun while learning! I don’t know how learning and teaching can get much better.
Rather a long time ago, I was telling my Mom that I was going to “do ceramics”. I really liked it so thought it should be my career. She didn’t answer with “you idiot” or anything along those lines. She was after all, an art major herself in college. She just replied with a question; “Will you make enough to live on?” Well, I didn’t know, so I started to research it. It became clear that only a very few people ever are able to support themselves by doing art and the pieces of art that get the big bucks usually have creators that are long dead. It looked like it would take five to ten years to make it work… if I were actually good at it! Ultimately I found that I was good at fixing things and that was a much more marketable skill. My Mom had asked a very good, life altering question.
The questions we ask, and assumptions we make, in part dictate the responses we’ll get. If most plumbers walk up to a ten year old water heater, they will likely say, “It’s ten years old and could leak any time. Better replace it before it does any damage”. When I walk up to that heater, I say, “Let’s check out the heater and see if it has any life left in it”. Maintenance can easily give you five times the normal life of a water heater, so the yearly cost is one fifth of what it would have been.
Another example is the solar salesman, selling photovoltaic systems. If he just asks “How much power do you use?” The solar system will be sized according to your present power consumption. If he asks “How efficient can we make your home first?” Then you might only need a solar system 20% as big as it would have been. That’s a big savings, but not really in the interests of the salesman who likely is making a commission on sales.
Asking good questions feels like an art form, difficult to pin down just what goes into creating those good ones. Two ideas come to mind for doing it right. First is to be looking out for the well-being of the person you’re asking. Say you know someone who gets emotional and he or she wants to cut someone off at the knees for doing something thoughtless. A question to ask them, “Will that be useful?” Yes they’ll miss the short term pleasure of revenge, but not miss wishing they could control their temper! Second is to remove yourself emotionally from the situation, so you can give a clear and balanced perspective. Imagine some longstanding discomfort between a parent and their child. That’s a difficult one to deal with as the ruts have become so deep. But, asking how either side might behave differently if it were a friend and not a relative they were talking to, might open the way towards a kinder, more fruitful dialogue. It’s sometimes easier to be nice to someone you’ve never met than a blood relative. It’s hard to come up with that different perspective if you’re entangled in swirling emotions and habits.
Good communication takes practice and effort. It takes putting yourself firmly in the other’s shoes. A quick text or email has it’s place, but research has shown that the amount of info communicated these ways is roughly one tenth of the info we get from a face to face conversation. Just imagine the difference between getting a marriage proposal in person or by text! If the message is important, delivering it in person will give you the best chance of getting it across clearly. Asking good questions truly is an important part of good communication.
That’s a pretty silly title isn’t it? Well, you look at a house and you see, um, a house. It may be a pretty one, or a beat up one, or it may have awful colors, but what is there to really see? It all depends on your perspective. Perspective colors how we see things and what we really do see. If you have a growing family, you’ll notice how many bed and bathrooms it has, and possibly note whether there is room for expansion. If you’re an electrician, you’ll see the service coming into the house, the main breaker panel and wiring type, and a bunch of other details about the condition and capability of the electrical system.
But for the purposes of this discussion, we’re looking at the house as an investment… not a lipstick flipper sort of investment, where you do cosmetic repairs only, but the sorts of repairs/upgrades that make the home safe, durable, efficient and a pleasure to live in. And the work needs to be done based on your “exit strategy”, ie: rent out or sell, and your desire not to lose money in fixing it up.
Real estate investors refer to bad areas or neighborhoods as “war zones”. This is the sort of place that has homes for cheap, but you might also get shot. Perhaps you want to go for deals in war zones if you already drive a tank and wear bullet proof clothing! I prefer to find the worst home on the block, in a decent neighborhood. Neighbors appreciate that run down eyesore of a house being put right.
So, how does this contractor look at a home? I start (in a decent neighborhood) from the street. Look at the roof line. Is there any sagging? Are the walls actually vertical? If things are crooked, you know there will be a lot of structural work to straighten things. It may involve foundation work, termite work, or both. Or maybe the house was built before codes and doesn’t even have stud walls. If a house has “good bones” it means (to me) that the home is straight and true, is made with adequate materials, has a good foundation and no extensive rot or bug problem. Plumbing, heating / cooling, insulation, windows and electrical are all things that can be fixed or upgraded, but don’t really affect the bones of a house. If the bones are bad, the home will cost so much to fix, (if even possible) that it can’t be a good investment. That said, I look for homes that scare other investors off. I need to see through the bad stuff to know if the bones are decent.
The next thing I do when looking at a house is to get inside and look up. Are there water marks on the ceiling? Has the ceiling fallen in?!? Water is a home’s single biggest enemy. It can cause rot, invite bugs, undermine the foundation, and create the perfect place for mold. If you want to know a LOT more about water and buildings, go to www.buildingscience.com. It’s a big topic! But if we walked into the building and found good bones and no real water damage, that’s great.
Next is to look into the attic and crawl space, if they exist and see what’s there. These are places where the mechanical bits of a home live. Duct-work, wiring and plumbing are likely to be visible there. Crawling around under a house is sort of a time bender. You’ll see evidence of leaks that may have been fixed decades ago… or not at all. You may see old generations of plumbing that weren’t removed when new plumbing was installed. You’ll get a feel for how many different hands have worked on the place and how skilled those hands were… or weren’t!
Don’t forget to look at the roof and get an idea of how much life it has left. A new roof is usually the single biggest repair cost a home has. Composition roofing is far and away the most common type. If there are gutters, have a look in them for that fine gravel from the roofing. Is there a lot? If so, that suggests the composition roofing is getting old. Also look for broken tabs in the shingles, exposed felt in the shingles, evidence of repairs, rotted rafter tails and of course, evidence of leaks inside.
There is a lot more that could be said about inspecting a home, but good bones, meaning a solid foundation to work from is the most important thing. If this isn’t something you know how to do, hire an experienced contractor to tour the house with you and take notes. You’ll learn!
I’m a big fan of making things efficient. It’s a powerful tool for improving one’s life, yet seems to be poorly understood. It’s common that once some basic efficiency measures have been taken, the thinking is, “I’ve already done that… nothing more to do”. For example, thinking about electrical usage for a bit; if we take measures that save 25% of our bill, that feels quite nice, and then we turn our attention elsewhere. But, we can do far better. I have a friend who recently cut his electrical usage by 70%, just by looking at lighting and refrigeration. Fortunately, he’s still looking at other ways of cutting consumption. I’m helping as I can.
Have you looked at your electric bill recently? A large percentage of the bill is for stuff you don’t directly benefit from, like surcharges and taxes for some or other program you probably don’t qualify for. Even if you used no electricity, just being hooked up has a cost. I’ll posit that it’s possible (and hard!) to get a 90% reduction in energy usage. This requires some different thinking… like considering money spent on upgrades as an investment rather than focusing on first cost. Looked at this way, you can figure out how this investment compares to others and also compare safety of the investments. “Life cycle cost” is another way of thinking about efficiency investments. This approach compares ALL costs over time and allows you to “race” one technology with another to see which performs better in the long term. Sometimes the most energy efficient equipment costs more than the less efficient stuff because of increased maintenance. Who knew?
But imagine what happens when you do get to such a large reduction in your energy usage. Filling in the remaining 10% or so becomes something that’s pretty simple to do by generating the power yourself. This allows you to consider disconnecting from the grid, saving all those surcharges. It does mean you need to be responsible for your system, which usually means spending a few minutes a week checking on things.
With electricity, the place to start is with your bills. Gather up a year’s worth and see how it goes up and down from season to season. If you look at summer bills, there should be little or no heating cost. In winter, your AC unit likely isn’t running. In the shoulder seasons, when heating and cooling are not used much is the best time to see just what your baseline load is. That’s the energy you use when nearly everything is turned off. I’ve paid attention to this in my house and it’s under fifteen watts. In many homes it’s over 300 watts! That’s a cost that gives you little in return and it’s one of the best places to look when starting to trim your energy usage. I’ve found that a Kill-O-Watt meter (at around $28) is a great investment. It lets you get accurate energy usage numbers for your appliances, so you know which are really using up your power. Measure your TV when it’s on and also when it’s off. You will likely find it uses more energy over the time it’s off then when you’re watching it! Now if you simply put it on a power strip, you can eliminate that waste.
The concept is simple: Measure your usage and keep track of where power is going. From there, more efficient equipment, power strips, eliminating unnecessary electric draws and even supplementing with solar become good alternatives. For example, using a simple solar preheat for your electric water heater can have a big impact on your bill. For a LOT more thinking on this concept, I’ll suggest visiting this site: http://www.thousandhomechallenge.com/ Here, you’ll find case studies on how people made their homes far more efficient… often using a lot of creativity, which can be very inexpensive! You’ll even see that my home was the 13th one to meet the challenge. :~)
So far I’ve just been talking electricity, but the concept of efficiency works in many other fields; like water, gas, trash, transportation, home size and even money!
“Knowledge is power.” Francis Bacon
This is the basic premise and purpose of this website, to share knowledge. Francis Bacon, who may have gone by the pen name of Shakespeare, was clearly an intelligent person. The quote above remains true in both big and small scales. In my little way, by sharing what I’ve learned over many years, I hope to enable readers to gain more control over their lives, which translates into any number of good things and outcomes. Just looking at one field; plumbing. Knowledge of this will help you make things safer, healthier, more comfortable, more satisfying, less expensive and less time consuming.
Here is an example: You may see this photo elsewhere on the site, but think safety for a moment. What is unsafe about this? Three things jump out. First, notice that cap on the relief valve line? That’s a good way to encourage the heater to blow up! A 30 gallon heater can explode with the force of two sticks of dynamite. This is a 40 gallon tank, under a house. If it went kablooie, the house would be so damaged, it might not be worth rebuilding. And, what happens to the people inside? How about that plumber's tape acting as earthquake strapping? It’s actually worse than nothing as it pretends it will help, but in a quake, it simply doesn’t have the ability to hold the tank, which weighs over 400 pounds when full of water. When it falls in a quake, the gas line will likely get broken, flooding the house with gas… causing an explosion and fire. Not good! Next, look at the vent pipe. See how it’s close to floor joists and not connected to a vent pipe that leads outside? Which is worse; the possibility of causing a fire, killing the occupants or killing the occupants with carbon monoxide? All these things did get fixed, but without the know-how, someone might just look at the heater and say how nice and efficient it is because of the blanket!
In future posts, I’ll share other stories and observations that I hope you’ll find useful and entertaining. Of course, feedback is welcome!
Looking back over my working life of nearly 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.