Thursday, August 25, 2011

Heat: a Minnesota necessity

The monstrosity of a heating system in the basement was a barely-functioning forced-air unit in our home.  Not only that, but the whole unit and its ducting were covered in asbestos.  We were warned of this fact before the final sale.  No matter; Mark already had made the decision that he'd like to install radiant heating on the main level.  We'd forgo heating the half story upstairs to start because we had plans to expand the upper level.

Contractors are notoriously challenging to work with.  We invested in a subscription to Angie's List to help us identify those that were highly rated by satisfied customers and avoid those with many complaints.  In spite of our best screening efforts, we still ended up with a few contractors over the last several years that we wish we had avoided.  Our heating contractor made the list of those we should have avoided.

We interviewed a couple companies who installed Wirsbo/Uponor radiant heating systems, and chose the one that would be open to having Mark do some of the work himself.  The installation of our new system was a major undertaking.  Because we didn't want to pull up our existing hardwood floors, the contractors installed our water pipes beneath the floor joists.  This method is less efficient than installing above the subfloor, but is still workable if you can place insulation throughout the floor joists.

The first task on the list for our contractors:  asbestos abatement.  We were happy to let someone else complete this task.  They had to remove the ducts, being careful with the asbestos tape around the ducts, and remove the actual heating unit that was completely covered in asbestos - caked on like plaster of paris.  The suits they had to wear reminded us of astronauts aboard the space shuttle.

As is often the case with projects, our heating system installation took longer than we expected.  There were days that the guys didn't show up, days when the necessary materials weren't delivered, and mistakes that had to be corrected.

Mark has high expectations for quality work and was disappointed that the guys drilled more holes in our floor joists to run the pipes than were necessary.  Whenever a hole is drilled in a floor joist, its strength is compromised.  Mark wanted to make sure that the joists could withstand a second-story addition.  He also emphasized to our contractors that  our new boiler needed enough BTUs to accommodate our possible expansion.  Our hope was to finish our basement and maximize the height of our ceilings and the use of the square footage, which Mark thought he had stressed as a priority with our contractors.  However, some of the end pipes were run under the floor joists instead of through them, which would require an eventual ceiling to have a soffit to cover the piping.  This suggestion was not acceptable to Mark.  The pipes needed to be rerun.  Also, the fresh air intake ducting for the boiler that led to the outside was placed on the wrong side of the steel I-beam that ran through the center of the house.  This placement made it challenging to eventually maximize the use of the space in our basement.  Mark's primary frustration with this issue is that he was just upstairs at the time and the workers could easily have asked him where he'd like the ducting placed before they installed it, if they were uncertain.  Once the hole was drilled through the external wall, little could be done to change it.

The stainless steel exhaust duct to vent the gas outside was on backorder, which also held up the progress of this project.  The contractors insisted that all the other pieces of the system were installed, but they had to wait for this part to ensure that the fumes from the natural gas that heated the water running through the pipes would be vented outside.  In the meantime, they didn't anticipate the next issue:  that there was no electrical outlet in close proximity to power the boiler.

We were headed into Fall when we would need to start using our heating system.  I recall one week in October when the overnight temperatures dipped into the range when most homes would have their heaters running to keep their occupants warm.  Lucky for Mark, this particular week had him traveling to a customer site for work and staying in a nice warm hotel room.  Unlucky for me, I was home in a house with no heat, trying to stay warm with warm blankets and extra layers.  The argument we had over this situation wouldn't be the last regarding house projects.  Until writing this blog entry, I didn't know that Mark, in solidarity, turned off the heater in his cozy hotel room and opened the windows so that he, too, could feel the pain of an October night without heat.

In an effort to get our system working despite the lack of an electrical outlet, our contractor agreed to use an extension cord to connect our system on a temporary basis until we could get a proper electrical outlet installed.  This temporary fix probably wouldn't have won the approval of the city inspectors, but it met the need for heat until an outlet could be installed.

Soon after, our system was working and we were enjoying warm hardwood floors and a comfortable room temperature, something that most people in the US and the developed world take for granted.  Radiant heating systems are complicated and challenging to install, but the benefits of warm floors, less noise and lower heating costs are worth it to us.

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