December 31, 2008

Massachusetts Super Insulation Blog

December 23, 2008
After 2-1/2 months the project turns a the front. Actual work (excluding windows) is finally visible from the street. The front sunrooms are being prepared for the electrician to shift service around to the front wall.

Another Dumpster pickup, and another unfortunate weather situation. The lawn and driveway are frozen solid and therefore safe, it's just that the truck can't get up the icy driveway without all hands on deck.

December 18, 2008
The contractors arrived at 6:30AM to get the basement ceiling stripped in time for Anderson Insulation's 8:00AM arrival. A new wave of banging, ripping and crashes and a new wave of dust rises to meet us while we attempt to drink our coffee.

The Anderson Insulation truck arrives at 8:30AM. After a tour of the attic, the basement, the entrance way and two smaller outside overhangs, the Anderson guys head to the attic and start removing the insulation. What followed were 30 full contractor bags chucked from the 3rd floor windows.

With Anderson fully engaged in the attic, the contractors continued in the basement, hauling the wreckage to the dumpster, while one man ripped out the ceiling over the front entrance way in a blizzard of cellulose snow and two additional men climbed up the ladder to change out windows.

Anderson then started to spray the Icynene foam one crawl space after another. A second Anderson truck pulled up after lunch and pitched in spraying urethane foam in the (3) small outside areas. At 4:30PM, after the contractors had left for the day, the Anderson folks started into the basement, wrapping the walls with plastic and spraying the ceiling and rim joists. Though I was confident that work would not be completed in one day.......there they were, done and packing up at 6:00PM.....proof positive that "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel" is required reading at Anderson Insulation.

With a second layer of plaster dust, add clumps of cellulose and the stray bit of fiberglass tracked in, then mix in the urethane smell of drying icynene foam. More than enough to rate a night in a hotel. But the odor passed too quickly to pack, and the 2nd floor office was a comfy place to end the day.

December 17, 2008
Demolition of the Basement Ceiling and Evacuation of the 3rd Floor and Attic
"Most" everything is out of the basement except for (2) new entryway doors, 6 old chairs, 5 old doors, 4 old door frames, 3 tables, a rug, 6 major appliances, the contractor's hardware, 2 lawn mowers, 2 oil tanks, 2 oil-fed steam boilers, 1 instant hot water heater, 80 years of live and dead electric and telephone lines, water lines, steam lines and gas lines.

The contractors removed what they could and then tore into the basement ceiling with hammers and pry-bars ripping out the 80 year old horse hair plaster on lathe. Horsehair plaster has the weight of cement, is noticeably unpleasant when it falls on your head, and breaks into chunks and microscopic dust on impact. The Anderson Insulation trucks are scheduled to arrive 8:00AM December 18 so there is an urgency to the work. Our 2 guys with hammers aren't optimistic that they will finish in time, and of course they were right.

Photo 1: Electrical Service room: demolition
Photo 2: Electrical service room: Demolished
Photo 3: Electrical Service room: Wrapped for foaming (Sept day)
Photo 4: Electrical Service room: Fully Foamed (Sept day)

The basement space took on all the aspects of a collapsed coal mine, and our intrepid workers played the unfortunate victims of the collapse, frequently exiting the mine to spit out dust and to fill their lungs with fresh air filtered through a cigarette.

The dust rose from the basement through every crack and crevice into the living spaces and landed on every surface on every floor on every thing.

While a hell on earth is unfolding in the catacombs at the bottom, it is only slightly better at the top. In preparation for removal of fiberglass and foaming in the attic, 4 crawl spaces needed to be emptied of 15 years of hmmmmm stuff we couldn't possibly live without AND every bedroom adjoining a crawl space was boxed up and tarped. To seal the knee wall connection of the roof to the walls, the attic floors were cut to allow foaming access.
For Unit 2 all this disruption and chaos meant 4 people sleeping in a second floor office.

December 15 - 16, 2008
A ventilating window is added where one was not. More foam is added to the walls.

December 10 - 12, 2008
Week lost to acts of God.
Biblical levels of rain shuts down the project in Eastern Mass, while Central Mass is hit with the worst ice storm in forever, knocking out power to 300,000 people, 6 of whom are our contractors. One of the contractors is unable to extricate himself from the arboreal wreckage draped across his driveway.
With their own homes and families at risk, the contractors still demonstrated their dedication by scheduling a pick up for the full dumpster. This was one accomplishment we could have done without. The truck extruded a 3 foot width of water drenched lawn from between its tires.

December 8, 2008
Just look at this attention to detail. Panels carved to fit perfectly around every rafter tail. Sure they could be in Italy carving marble, but where's the satisfaction in that?

December 7, 2008
Spying on the Neighbors
The neighborhood is full of scientists who are experimenting with one thing or another so there was no difficulty convincing two neighbors in similarly constructed homes to each take on one of the Onset data loggers. We promised that it ONLY recorded temperature and humidity and they promised not to soon update their homes with a state-of-the-art insulation system. Today they were put into place and started collecting data.
These two families will take one of the most important, yet most thankless jobs in all of science; they are the control group.....and it will be their jobs to make us look great.

Now to find (2) control families to go the whole winter with no heat all. No one said science was easy.

Insulating the Basement: The Dilemma
It was decided to blow an expanding foam into the basement ceiling to insulate the basement from the living spaces. The consultants had recommended a different path.

The consultant's written report recommended that the walls of the basement be insulated and that the entire basement space become a part of the home's thermal envelope. As part of that recommendation, the (2) oil boilers would need to be sealed and upgraded with a power venting system bringing in air for combustion, and the (2) oil tanks would need to be moved inward to make room for a framed and insulated wall with fire resistant covering (like drywall).

Q: What drove the consultant's recommendation that the basement be in the home's envelope?
A: To keep the residual heat of the basement boilers in the living space

Q: What drove the consultant's recommendation for the direct vent system?
A: To eliminate the risk of carbon monoxide being pulled down the chimney into the basement and then back into the living spaces when running the bathroom or kitchen vents.

The consultants do not believe that the basement can be entirely sealed from the living space even with expanding foam in the ceiling, and even if it could, some future repair work might break the seal. If vents in Unit 1 or Unit 2 create a negative pressure system in the living spaces, it may suck in air from the basement........which may result in CO and other boiler combustion products coming back down the chimney and up into the living spaces. This would be a rather negative result that you might read about in the paper.

Q: Why did we insulate the ceiling and not follow the consultant's recommendations?
A: Less expensive, less intrusive, less heated space, less mold and moisture risk. We also felt that in the event that there was a problem, we could always decide to more closely follow the consultant's recommendations. We discussed this issue with other experts and it was their feeling that our path was low risk

Based on the consultant's concerns we will upgrade the (2) inside basement access doors with exterior-type insulated metal doors with weather seals. An additional CO sensor will be installed in the basement, and two of the new basement windows will be permanently gapped for pressure equalization. When the post-project blower-door test is done we will be ready in the basement with smoke wand and spray foam to attack each and every leak with the gusto of a Ghurka.

December 7, 2008
First Comfirmation of Roofing Performance
Pre-Insulation Roof Shot: January 9, 2001.
A myriad of melted snow areas, matching up with sealed uninsulated spaces, mindless fiberglass stuffing, goofs and gaps.

Post-Insulated Roof Shot: December 7, 2008
Ahhh. What a relief. The insulation insulates. No awkward explanations necessary.

The new insulated roof next to a less insulated neighbor

December 7, 2008
Finishing the Doors
The two Lemieux solid oak entryway doors came from the Canada factory via the local distributor Bridgewater Mill Works, pre-hung on a solid oak frame. These are heavy-duty doors, custom made to fit our unusual 34" width. Why settle for a stock door from Home Depot when you can choose from a myriad of styles, window designs and wood species custom crafted for the same price? We stained cherry and followed with 3 coats of spar urethane. Although we were wholly incompetent, we rose to meet the challenge, made and fixed our mistakes (as far as you know), and the doors came out marvelously.

December 6, 2008
With the deck reattached, the team zooms through the back wall, insulating to the roof line of the back wall. In the process they create a 26' x 24' foil faced reflective surface visible from space.

December 3, 2008
Amputating the Back Deck
These contractors are completely anally retentive......and this is good when the goal is blocking any possible escape of our hard earned heat. For example, the back deck was bolted directly to the house with a 2x12 plank. Unless dealt with, heat will just spill out through the plank and the bolts that fasten it to the house. The decision is made to amputate the deck from the house, create an unbroken insulation barrier, cut down the width of the deck to make room for the insulation, and re-attach it........while standing on the deck to do all this. Since I was pretty sure that the deck was going to accordian, killing the contractors and flattening my beloved BBQ; I couldn't watch.

The deck is bolted to the house through the foam insulation, and just under the new life changing sliding door. The BBQ is not squished, and the contractors live to hammer again. Good news all around I say.

December 1, 2008
New Sliding Doors on the Second Floor
Is it wrong to get emotional about a new sliding door?
There was an old sliding door before this new one, and what was, not to like about that one?

  • it slowed the wind just a bit on its way into the kitchen.
  • the mis-aligned wheels ground the track into a metal dust.
  • the bug screen flew off its tracks whenever the kids used it.
  • lacking a privacy shade our cooking was somewhat....hmmm....self-conscious.

Not anymore. The Pella Designer triple-pane sliding door now fully installed is simply AWESOME. It is a pardigm shift in the art of deck-access door design. A game changer. An engineering marvel with privacy shades between the glass. Between the glass!!
See, even YOU are tearing up a little.

November 20, 2008
Cold, cold, cold. Contractors pick up the pace stripping shingles and applying Dow rigid foam. Though they will complete the wall started with Steve Thomas, the plan is to revert to normal procedure of insulating everything before siding anything, a practice only broken for the Hollywood folks. It's a huge challenge adjusting the firring strip depth to correct for problems in the under-lying wall. Great swaths of old siding are stipped away. The contractors don't get all the house wrap up before closing for the weekend. Finishing the wrap might have been nice since the winds were fierce and temperatures hit 19F during the weekend.

Bullet-Proof Window Flashing
Whether new windows were included or not, the super-insulation strategy recommended by the contractors required that every window be removed, reflashed, and re-installed.
Windows are removed. Flashing is attached to the bottom sill with a wee bit extra to go up each jamb to keep the water moving out of the house. Fiberglass is stuffed into the voids, and weight pocket. More flashing is pressed into the side jambs and folded over the front casing, and then the top. Attention paid to be sure that ALL water that falls in will flow out. A bead is applied of high end sealer with acrylic and silicone before pressing the windows into place.

Windows are installed and fastened with screws. More flashing on the outside, and more acrylic sealant inside between the window and the stops. Windows are then ready for application of the house wrap as the final layer. For a more in-depth review of the bullet-proof window flashing here.

November 19, 2008
The contractors cannot believe their luck. Cameras are gone. Home owners are gone. Finally they can get some work done.
Two custom oak entryway doors arrive from Lemieux Doors and Bridgewater Millworks and are hauled back to the garage. Getting colder.

November 18, 2008
Instant hot water heater.
The current hot water system runs by pumping water through a heat exchange in the same oil boiler which heats the house. The unit keeps 5-10 gallons of water in storage, and the boiler fires every time hot water is drawn OR the 5-10 gallons of water drop below the "set" temperature. It's unknown exactly how much oil is used all year to heat water, but >200 gallons of oil are used between heating seasons, from spring through Halloween and all of that oil is for water heating. A gas fired instant hot water system is tankless, and fires ONLY when there is demand for hot water. No standby losses, no firing to keep the stored water warm or while we are off working or away for a weekend. It fires only when hot water is needed. Of all the retrofits, the consultants promise that this has the fastest payback.

We didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the installation as we were busy shooting "Renovation Nation", but there were 3 people in the basement all day assembling the system. The unit is a big 200,000 BTU whole house unit and required an upgrade to a larger gas line in the basement. As long as the plumber was plumbing, we asked the plumber to add a 'T' fitting to allow for a future upgrade to a gas boiler.

Two Weeks Later
We have not been disappointed with the changeover, though it does require a little more time to get the hot water to the faucet. Savings? No idea, and we may not know until we shut off the heat for the summer.

November 18, 2008
The day is spent organizing a more perfect reality for the reality television people from the Planet Green Channel's show, Renovation Nation with Steve Thomas, and the visit by Massachusetts Secretary of Energy Ian Bowles.
For the contractors, unfortunately, it's a lost day. It is bloody cold.

November 17, 2008
Contractors kick it into high gear to prepare several stages of work on 3 sections of wall for Planet Green's return on the 18th when the nation's most famous contractor, Steve Thomas, will dig into the project. The contractors strip off another section of siding while installing two Pella windows + flashing, extension jams, house wrap, Dow foam and tape. The house is as ready as it's going to be for filming.

November 14, 2008
Performance Evaluation
Sure we could go on and on about roofs and walls all day, who couldn't, but there's more to this project than polyiso rigid foam and double-pane windows. Other energy saving upgrades are critical to the project, like water heating, basement and attic foaming, and data collection for performance confirmation. We are selfishly partial to the ventilation upgrades and carbon monoxide sensors for comfort and occupant life extension.

Onset Computer: Data Loggers

We searched everywhere for a residential temperature and humidity sensor that could log the temperature and humidity measurements. Everybody and Radio Shack sells a 2 piece wireless system which displays inside and outside weather, but they only display current readings and only record the highest and lowest data point since reset. We needed all the data recorded. Enter Pocasset, Massachusetts' own Onset Computer with a catalog which included some of the coolest data loggers and measurements toys anywhere.

We received 7 Temperature and Humidity data loggers.
Four for installation on each floor. Two would be located in adjacent homes with similar construction as a control. One special exterior unit was screwed to a porch column to track the outside temperature conditions.

VisiTank: Remote Tank Level Monitoring
Seemed a shame to rig the house with the best insulation known to man, but yet have no idea how much energy the house was using or saving. No idea, that is, other than the bill which came with each intermittent oil delivery. Certainly there are many better ways to track oil usage as it is being used. Well it turns out there's actually only one: VisiTank.

The VisiTank technology was designed to help home heating oil delivery companies manage their delivery assets (trucks and truck drivers). As luck would have it, VisiTank collects exactly the data we required to understand the performance of our insulation retrofit.

VisiTank works by using a rocket shaped sensor affixed to an access port on a home's oil tank, and uses sound waves to measure the distance to the oil surface. As oil is used the distance increases. The readings are wirelessly transmitted to a modem which stores the data for the once per day call-in to the oil company, in this case the Fawcett Oil Company of Cambridge, MA. Fawcett Oil uses the technology to reduce deliveries, reduce costs and improve service. This data will be analyzed with interior and exterior temperature measurements to understand how spectacularly successful the project will undoubtedly become.

November 14, 2008
Rain day, so no contractors on site. The Planet Green crew sans Steve Thomas set up shop to videotape interviews with the contractors, the consultants, and the home owners. One minute of broadcast time takes 3 hours of taping, delayed by the noise of 8 garbage trucks, a UPS delivery, and several waves of middle school escapees. With evening there is a change of venue to a rockclimbing gym where I'm pretty sure Planet Green is hoping to catch us breaking our necks on camera. Why are we rock climbing and not insulating? I am not qualified to answer, but we did have fun.

November 13, 2008
President of NuCedar comes to train the team on the finer points of installing the planet's most advanced engineered siding.
Planet Green Channel wants more going on and endless construction excitement so I secure a committment from the plumbers to install the instant hot water system on the 18th.
The contractors start installing the first windows, and learn that the one window I measured on my own, I screwed up. The contractors make it work.

November 12, 2008
The NuCedar truck arrives, and it is clear that yesterday's idea of hand unloading and going without Dan the fork truck pilot would have been partially insane. The partially sane part won the day and made sure Dan was called and did his business. With a yard populated by dumpsters, a stocked garage, foam up the wazoo, and a driveway stacked with siding, we were at the project's maximum inventory. Contractors start stripping off the old siding.

November 11, 2008
The Pella truck arrives exactly on schedule and the windows are hauled to the garage. 1/2 the garage was emptied of insulation and piled under the trees to make room for the windows.

November 10, 2008
Can't start the walls while the roof work continues. The flotsam and jetsam will bang up the new siding and windows.
Can't start the walls until the Pella windows arrive, since the windows and window flashing are the critical step.
Can't really show people around when the only work is the roof, since it's not safe and nearly impossible to see work get done on the roof.
At least since October 22 we've known that the Planet Green Channel was interested and planned to film us on November 14 and 17, and since November 10th we've known that someone from Governor Deval Patrick's administration would be coming to meet with Planet Green, but as of November 10 no wall work had started.
Antacids just don't seem strong enough.

OCT 4 - 30, 2008
Rain throughout October made a dent in the roofing schedule, but the walls wouldn't start until the Pella windows arrived at their appointed time November really, why rush? We also took this opportunity in the front to correct a confusing roof line and a lack of window overhang.


Notice that the roof leans much more towards "white" than the roof it replaces. It was the whitest shade available to us. If we could have chosen a much whiter roof, as white as the color of new snow, we would have. A white roof is a gift that keeps on giving. It dramatically and directly reduces shingle and roof temperature extending the life of a roof. A white roof also reflects heat back into space, cooling the neighborhood, and cooling the planet. Obviously a single roof is a level of cooling too inconsequential to discuss. If, on the other hand, the "white roof", and the "white street" were part of a global initiative it would have a measureable effect on global temperatures. Staying ahead of the curve is what this project is all about.
Some background info:
ASHRAE Journal 2002: Venting of Attics & Cathedral Ceilings
Times of India January 17, 2008: Painting the town white could reduce global warming

-(2) Skylights removed during roofing to be replaced as soon as they arrive.
-The front 2x6 rafters, that hang from the roof and support nothing will be rip-cut to reduce the height of the roof. In fact the roof will look no thicker than it did before the retrofit.
-Soffits will be enclosed and gutters attached after the walls are completed

OCT 3, 2008: Roofing Begins
Tearing, ripping, stripping...Repeat.
What can one say, when 4 words say it all?
A super insulated roof seems easy enough to understand.
A) 2 layers of foam, seams taped and staggered.
B) 1 layer new plywood sheathing
C) 10" screws through the sheathing, through the 6" foam, through the old sheathing, leaving 2" of screw left to get into the rafters.
D) Roofing membrane
E) The shingles
Well it's easier said than done.
After clearing off the old roofing in the area to be worked, panels of 3" Dow Thermax foam, carved to fit jigsaw puzzle-like were laid down and taped to adjacent panels. Then a second layer of 3" Thermax was laid upon the first, seams staggered from the first layer, and those seams were then taped. The contractors did mention how much they enjoyed applying foil faced foam under a glaring sun.

The (2) layers of foam were followed by the application of the plywood sheathing which was then fastened to the underlying house using 10" screws. How does one find a roof rafter blind with a 10" screw through 8" of material? Once found, how do you get those screws to drive home?

In the beginning it was a slow slog of roofer unhappiness, what with the jammed screws, sheared screws, and the colorful language from one and all. But as you know, every problem is simply an excuse to buy a new tool, and this was no exception. Armed with a set of new impact drills and the benefit of a little pre-drilling, relatively quick work was made of the rest of the installation.

The final steps are the same the world over. Roofing membrane and roofing shingles.

SEPT 30, 2008
Atlas Roofing joined the project as a supplier of the roofing and roofing membrane. Atlas specified a striking shingle design in their Storm Master line. We specified the Chalkstone Slate color for maximum reflectivity, and we're in business.
Another flat bed with shingles arrived from Ohio by way of New Jersey, but this time we were surprised when it pulled up. No one was on site to assist in the off-loading. After 90 minutes of lugging roofing shingles the 75 feet from the street to the garage it all become very clear why I didn't get into the roofing arts. Another question answered.

The roof wrap, Atlas Weathermaster Polyseal, is manufactured in nearby New Hampshire, so when asked "Will Call?", sure no problem, we'll pick it up. Imagine our surprise when we discover that 11 rolls of the stuff hits the max cargo capacity of our little runabout. That stuff is like lead?

SEPT 24, 2008
Another 20 wheel 60 ft monster flatbed from Pennsylvania, another visit by our pal Dan the fork truck driver with his 40 ft flat bed. The Dow Thermax arrives, is stacked neatly in front of the garage, and is tarp covered. The weather report is 3" - 5" of rain over the coming days, so the contractor canceled work until after the weekend.

SEPT 21, 2008

The foam to be used for the walls arrived first from the Dow factory in Pennsylvania. Delivery was moved from Monday to Sunday as it is the best day for hired gun Dan the fork truck operator with his 40 ft flat bed + 14,000 lb fork truck, and Bob, the world's most polite truck driver with his 10 wheel 60 ft monster flatbed. The wall foam took up 1/2 of the truck. Half of that truck was coming here...WHERE HERE? Dan and Bob, unloaded pallet after pallet after pallet, and gingerly shoe horned them into the garage with inches to spare in every direction, until 95% of the garage volume was foam. In some end of world scenarios, the garage's buoyancy would have come in handy.
(Photo: Garage 1/2 filled by 1/4 of truck)

SEPT 20, 2008
The consultants recommended 2 layers of 4" foil faced polyisocyanurate rigid insulation with a value of R6.5/inch for both the walls and roof.

Dow Chemical, makers of all sorts of building insulation products, was quick to join the project and agreed to supply all of the rigid foam used. We chose 2-layers of Dow's 2" foil-faced Tuff-R-brand polyisocyanurate for the walls but after deep consideration of the total incompetence displayed in the the last attempt to insulate the roof 20 years ago, it was decided that thicker would be better. We went with 2-layers of 3" foil-faced polyisocyanurate foam on the roof. Polyiso of this thickness was only available from the commercial division under the Thermax brand.

Anonymous said...
Wow, that's one serious Residential Roofing job
December 23, 2008 3:42 AM

Anonymous said...
I'm suprised you didn't do a ventilated roof system. After the foil foam, you could have laid down 1 inch furring strips. Then fasten the plywood above the strips. Then you leave adequate vents in the soffits. The air flow under the shingles will extend their life in the hot summer months.
December 27, 2008 8:04 PM

home owner said...
I wondered that as well but the consultant felt a vented roof was un-necessary and referred me to this study which shows shingle color to be many times more important than venting when discussing shingle temperature. therefore chose the lightest shingle color available.Because the shingles are not vented, the warranty is void.
December 27, 2008 11:27 PM

Anonymous said...
there is a material called cedar breather which is a brillo like mesh that you put on under wood shingles to keep them cool here on Martha's vineyard.. does not need any special venting conditions at edges. that should do the trick if you are worried about venting the shingles.Jamie WeismanTerrain Architects
January 8, 2009 5:26 PM


See the project goals and project backers: Introduction to our Project