HVAC Ducts Reinsulating vs. Replacing

December 13, 2016

duct_sealing1If you have read any of my last articles on HVAC ducts you recognize that, like the HVAC units, the duct network is a system as well. In the past I was an advocate of reinsulating the existing ducts over replacing them because of the cost. However, I am changing my tune as I continue to see more and more duct systems that were either so poorly installed from the get go or they have been patched, damaged or added to (incorrectly)  they weren’t worth saving.

On my most recent project, I found the return air plenum was sucking return air right off the dirt floor in the crawl space. Some people might say “it just smells like an old house”; trust me, even an old house shouldn’t smell musty if the system is in good condition.

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For the most part, properly installed ridged system can be superior, but if not, they stink. One of the biggest problems with ridged duct systems are: They are ridged! Just like the biggest problem with flexible ducts are; they are flexible!  As with any house construction there are lots of obstructions that have to be dealt with. The flexible ducts are great for these applications as they can be easily routed around structural beams. However, all turns and bends should be gradual and smooth. No kinks or sharp turns.

One of the most disappointing things I see in residential construction is what I call “the lack of trade respect”. Think of it like fighting siblings, the older brother is always going to pick on the younger brother, just cause he can.  Time and time again, I find shoddy work that is caused by a sibling trade.  In a  recent remodel project, we found that the HVAC contractor purposely removed several supporting beams because: they were in his way. In turn, it was left that way and didn’t show up until the roof was replaced some 40 years later. The roofers couldn’t re-deck the roof because of 6 split rafters, in other words, the roof was caving in. Admittedly, the workers are long gone but the negative effect of their work lives own.  The rafters had to be rebuilt and purlins had to be replaced. Though our investigation, it was obvious that the HVAC tech removed them so he could have a straight path for his ridged duct.  Negatively impact the integrity of the house was trumped by his laziness or willingness to cut corners. As with most attic or crawl space work, there is no one checking their work.

newhvac-duct

New Duct system installed using flexible ducting

Its not uncommon to find a 50 year old house that has had new HVAC units installed multiple times but the ducting is still 50 years old. Granted, when an HVAC unit fails to work, the problem is the units not the ducting. As the homeowner it is easy to just have the units replaced and leave the ducting as is since the new ducting can be as expensive as the unit itself. Unfortunately you can easily be giving up some of the  efficiency gained by replacing the units. To learn more about “Improving the Efficiency of Your Duct System“, I have attached a link to a paper written for the US Department of Energy by Brookhaven National Laboratory. After reading the article and you realize it is time to replace the ducting, look to schedule the work in off-peak months. You will probably get a little better deal and a lot better job.


Seasonal Reminder-Power Outages: Part 1

November 19, 2016

By human nature; we do not appreciate certain things until they are gone.

The blizzard conditions in the central west area this week reminded me of being prepared for the weather as it begins to change. Hopefully you have not already been effected by these conditions. But, it serves as a reminder that good preparation can ease the difficulty. The items mentioned don’t even come close for those that might be caught in the direct path of devastating weather conditions, but can help the rest of us that may be near the areas.

If you have suffered issues of direct impact, look at  the Disaster Safety site mentioned below as well as the Red Cross for assistance as well as a way to pitch in and help.

Regardless of the weather condition, it most common for it to impact the power grid.  Many times, these conditions can be related to tornado’s, hurricanes, thunderstorms, snow, ice and the list goes on. Several of these type disasters can be devastating especially if you experience a direct impact. Look at the Disaster Safety site for concerns of direct impact. Statistically, secondary effect outages has a broader impact but is typically resolved in a short time frame. A loss of power will impact your life immediately, and you do not have a lot of control on the time or day it will occur.  According to the IEEE standard 1366-1998, the median outage in North America is 1.36 hours per year per household.  In other words, half the households in the U.S. will experience  power outages totaling 1.36 hours or greater. That could be in small segments or one event.   For the purpose of this article I will break down preparedness by duration of loss, 1) 8 hours or less, 2) 72 hours or less,  3) 7 days or less, and 4) Long term. Granted, knowing how long the event will last is the biggest question that none of us really know. However, shorter outages are usually related to severe storms. The greater the coverage of the storm will impact the length of time for restoration. More severe conditions such as hurricanes, tornadoes and long duration storms will all impact the length of restoration.

8 hours or less: An outage of 8 hours can pass pretty quick but having a few essentials will smooth out most issues.

  1. Where is my flashlight? I have dozens of normal flashlights (the kind with no batteries) and one large rechargeable unit. But if an outage were to go beyond a couple of hours I might be in trouble. Use candles for stationary locations throughout the house and save your flashlight for moving around or going outside but keep candles away for other combustible items (curtains, cloth, paper, etc.)  As for flashlights, there has been a recent revolution in small lighting. It’s the LED bulb. The LED uses less than a 1/10 the power of a normal resistance (incandescent) type bulb.   Due to the low power requirements of LED bulbs they can be powered by different sources such as wind up flywheels, super capacitors or rechargeable batteries. radiolightchargerThe American Red Cross has endorsed several, but I like the RF150  that combines an LED Flashlight, radio and cell phone charger. It’s a bit pricey at $30 and up but it is truly an emergency tool that will last for years with little maintenance. This one unit will cover item #1, 4 and 5  all in one unit allowing you to find it quickly or lose everything all at one time. Pretty cool, wind it for a minute and get an hour of service. There are several other choice on the market that cover the requirement.  If you have one or plan to get one, storing it near a window with lots of sun will keep it well charged. Look for my review of this product under techy things.
  2.  Where is the phone number to the Utility?  This sounds simple, but if you don’t have number 1 covered it makes #2 that much harder. If you live in a state where electricity and natural gas  is deregulated, knowing the name or number of your utility companies could be a 15 minute discussion. Locate your phone bill, electricity bill, gas bill, and etc. they should have a number posted; “In case of an outage call this number“.  Make a label, sticker or note and place it on your new emergency flashlight. TIP: You need to call them and report the outage even if you know your neighbor has already reported it. Utilities will increase the severity of the condition by the number of reports (phone calls) logged against the outage. Most utilities can provide you a reasonable status of the condition. The smaller the problem, the easier it is for them to estimate the length of the outage. If you know the outage is wide spread and they continue to be vague on how long, you may need to prepare for a longer outage than 8 hours. Also, continue to check the news on the radio.
  3. I need heat!! In the winter this can be critical, not only for you but your house.  If you have forced air central heating, you’re screwed as you will need both electricity and natural gas  to make the system work. Having a fire-place, oven or bathroom heater  with natural gas will get you through an 8 hour period unless you live in the northern climates.  These little camp heaters have hit the mainstream. With a small propane bottle, you can get about 6 hours of heat on the low setting. For longer duration, with an added hose, you can adapt the propane tank off your gas grill. These units are clean, safe, don’t smell and can be stored for a very long time.  portable-heaterTIP: In the winter, crack open the water faucets to a slow drip in the kitchen and bathrooms (especially those based on the exterior walls) to ensure they do not freeze. Also make sure you have a source of fresh air when using these heating devices as they can consume the oxygen. Even with these devices, the house is going to be cold, so the likelihood of freezing a pipe is greater.
  4. My phone does not work! If you still have a traditional telephone (land line) plugged in the wall it should still work assuming your phone does not require power from a wall outlet, this includes cordless phones. TIP: Always have at least one telephone that is like the one your mother had. Just plugged in the wall, no features,  lights, caller id, just a phone (aka POTS, plain old telephone set). The phone company does a great job of ensuring traditional dial tone, but this does not include Internet service, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) or any other non-traditional, non-regulated services.
  5. Where is my cell phone? Cell phone service is becoming more reliable as the consumer is becoming more dependent on it.  In many cases, the cell phone has taken the place of the POTS.  For the most part, if you use your cell phone sparingly, you can make 8 hours. Besides the unit mentioned in item 1, there are many solar phone chargers on the market, or you can use your car for short duration’s as well assuming you have a car adapter. Since most people keep their phone nearby, you can use a flashlight app to find your flashlight when you first loose power. Don’t use the phone long term for light as it will quickly kill the battery.
  6. Do I have a radio that works? Probably not other than the car. Mine has a battery that will protect the memory of stations and time setting but that’s about it.  You will need a radio like a flash light that does not require an electric cord. Weather specific radios are great, but some music sure passes the time. The radio (news) will help you gauge your needs beyond 8 hours. See item 1.
  7. We have no hot water! Maybe, maybe not. If you have an 1)electric water heater, 2)gas-fired tank-less water heater or 3) some pilotless gas water heaters, you could have limited or no hot water. I have a tank-less water heater so for me its a big NO for hot water. However, I have a gas stove so I can cover the small requirements. With an 8 hour failure, a 50 gallon water heater can cover your immediate needs.

You probably already recognized some items are missing. The list is based on an 8 hour or less outage. For longer outages look at my post for Electrical Power Outages Part II, as  things start to get more interesting as time goes on.


Seasonal Reminder Summer 2016

August 1, 2016

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Sorry for the delay in the Summer reminder posts. I tend to forget the official 1st day of summer, but start remembering it once we start getting full weeks of 100 degree days. Up to that point, I continue to bask in the spring. So, summer is formally if not officially already here!   This seasonal reminder is more about making sure everything continues to work well through the stress and strain of the summer months more than anything. If you live near me, getting these things done before 10 AM in the morning is the best time of the day, otherwise you may wait till after 6 PM or so (stay hydrated; regardless).  If you need details on what to look for or what to do, click on the link (if there is one) and it will take you to the post that was written on the subject and provide more detail.

  1. Heating/Cooling-Air Filters: If you live in a dusty area and/or have been using your air conditioner a lot, inspect you filter and change it if it has noticeable build up from your spring change out.
  2. 100_0233HVAC Outdoor Unit: We did this in the spring and it’s good to do it again as vegetation has been growing through the spring months. Get your garden trimmers out and trim away any vines or growth away from the  outside condenser. You should have 18″ to 2 feet of clearance around the unit. Airborne particles generated by the blooming of trees and flowers can easily show up around the air conditioning condenser. Take your water hose and wash down the outside coils. Check the condensation drain that comes from the air handler in the house. Ensure that it is clear of obstacles or debris by pouring water through it.
  3. Water Leaks: Check all water fixtures and toilets for leaks. Inspect fixture drains for water puddles or loose joints in the traps.
  4. Water Heaters: Make a visual inspection of the water heater. Look for dripping water and rust stains. Look at the exhaust flue to ensure it is still sealed. If its time to drain the tank or replace the anode, check the link for more details.
  5. Lawn Sprinklers: Even though we performed this maintenance during the spring, yard work and vegetation growth can cause some additional sprinkler maintenance. Exercise the system (again). Look for excessive water traveling down the driveway or sidewalks. Inspect the sprinkler heads, look for blow-by, odd spray patterns, missing heads, pooling water and brown spots.  Replace or repair the heads. Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks is the first of the series and covers the inspection, leak detection, repairs and tips in more detail.
  6. 100_0503Exterior Inspection:  Walk round the house, look for bird and wasp nests, as well as locations that rodents might be using to get in the house. Use caulk to re-seal  any breaches in structure that may be an entry point for rodents or bugs.  They are all looking for cool locations and possible water. If you are not opposed to using perimeter bug spray, this is a good time.
  7. Interior Inspection: Flush kitchen and bathroom sinks with scalding hot water for approximately 3-5 minutes to clear out any build up. “Water Leaks”, cover this item too.
  8. Appliances: Use a hand-held vacuum cleaner to clear the dust bunnies from around all appliances such as washers, dryers and  dish washers. Pull you refrigerator out from the wall and do the same. If it’s within your skill set, turn off the unit, pull the back cover off,  and vacuum out the condenser coils and all the dirt around the fan.
  9. 100_0206Surface Water Drainage: Gutters, culverts, waterways and landscape drainage systems should be cleared of debris and overgrowth that has occurred.
  10. Electrical Service: Inspect the Entrance, Mast and Weather-head. With tree limbs heavy with leaves, seed pods, fruits and nuts, you may have some limbs that are drooping on your electrical service lines.
  11. Electrical Service-Smoke Detectors: Clean your smoke detectors of cob webs and change the battery.
  12. Test your security system: Work with monitoring service to validate all the door, window, glass break, and motion sensors operate properly.
  1. Heating/Cooling-Air Filters: If you live in a dusty area and/or have been using your air conditioner a lot, inspect you filter and change it if it has noticeable build up from your spring change out.
  2. 100_0233HVAC Outdoor Unit: We did this in the spring and it’s good to do it again as vegetation has been growing through the spring months. Get your garden trimmers out and trim away any vines or growth away from the  outside condenser. You should have 18″ to 2 feet of clearance around the unit. Airborne particles generated by the blooming of trees and flowers can easily show up around the air conditioning condenser. Take your water hose and wash down the outside coils. Check the condensation drain that comes from the air handler in the house. Ensure that it is clear of obstacles or debris by pouring water through it.
  3. Water Leaks: Check all water fixtures and toilets for leaks. Inspect fixture drains for water puddles or loose joints in the traps.
  4. Water Heaters: Make a visual inspection of the water heater. Look for dripping water and rust stains. Look at the exhaust flue to ensure it is still sealed. If its time to drain the tank or replace the anode, check the link for more details.
  5. Lawn Sprinklers: Even though we performed this maintenance during the spring, yard work and vegetation growth can cause some additional sprinkler maintenance. Exercise the system (again). Look for excessive water traveling down the driveway or sidewalks. Inspect the sprinkler heads, look for blow-by, odd spray patterns, missing heads, pooling water and brown spots.  Replace or repair the heads. Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks is the first of the series and covers the inspection, leak detection, repairs and tips in more detail.
  6. 100_0503Exterior Inspection:  Walk round the house, look for bird and wasp nests, as well as locations that rodents might be using to get in the house. Use caulk to re-seal  any breaches in structure that may be an entry point for rodents or bugs.  They are all looking for cool locations and possible water. If you are not opposed to using perimeter bug spray, this is a good time.
  7. Interior Inspection: Flush kitchen and bathroom sinks with scalding hot water for approximately 3-5 minutes to clear out any build up. “Water Leaks”, cover this item too.
  8. Appliances: Use a hand-held vacuum cleaner to clear the dust bunnies from around all appliances such as washers, dryers and  dish washers. Pull you refrigerator out from the wall and do the same. If it’s within your skill set, turn off the unit, pull the back cover off,  and vacuum out the condenser coils and all the dirt around the fan.
  9. 100_0206Surface Water Drainage: Gutters, culverts, waterways and landscape drainage systems should be cleared of debris and overgrowth that has occurred.
  10. Electrical Service: Inspect the Entrance, Mast and Weather-head. With tree limbs heavy with leaves, seed pods, fruits and nuts, you may have some limbs that are drooping on your electrical service lines.
  11. Electrical Service-Smoke Detectors: Clean your smoke detectors of cob webs and change the battery.
  12. Test your security system: Work with monitoring service to validate all the door, window, glass break, and motion sensors operate properly.

Lamp and Light Fixture Inspections: Is it Safe?

April 29, 2016

With all the Restoration, Repurpose and Reclamation programs on TV, its easy to get inspired to pick up an old fixture and bring it home. However, buying used fixtures/lamps that appear to be working correctly might still have hidden problems. I thought it might be a good idea to devote an article to inspecting a lamp/light fixture.  As with any of my projects, safety is number 1, and with any electrical appliance, lamp or light fixture, insuring it remains compliant with the  electric code and the original UL listing  is very important.

pre purchaseWe recently picked up the swag lamp pictured to the side. The picture is from the location we bought it. As you can see it was working. So why would I want to take it apart? Just to check it out!  So, I disassembled it to clean, inspect, repaint the metal surfaces and total rewire if required. As with most any hanging type fixture with the bulb below the socket, there is a natural tendency for the rising heat to make an impact on the above wiring. As expected, I found brittle and decayed wiring above the socket. After seeing the condition of the wiring  I wondered why the fixture was working at all! Overheated wiring is the sleeping giant of lamp and light problems.  Most wiring is rated at 105C (or 221F), and in most correct applications will be fine, however when a bulb wattage is greater than the lamp rating is used, the wiring will be the first component to suffer.  You may never know it until the wiring is disturbed. Once disturbed, the insulation can disintegrate and potentially cause the wires to touch each other. You know where the story bad wiregoes from here. Always follow the bulb ratings requirements as listed on the fixture.

Without knowing the history on a light fixture, it never hurts to confirm that it is in good working order before you use it. Here is my basic check list: 

  1. Physical Review of the Lamp: Is it relatively clean, does it appear to have been stored inside or outside? Fixtures left outside can rust as well as rodents can get to places unseen to chew on the plastic wire insulation.
  2. Manufactured or Custom: In general, lamps that were manufactured in mass generally were designed and built to a specification. Typically they use standard lamp parts and overall meet the design criteria necessary for long term use. Custom lamps can be made from most anything (bowling balls, table legs, vases, etc.). Good custom manufacturers follow the same criteria. On the other hand, I regularly run across lamps that were hand built, but failed to ensure proper safety for long term usage. Many of them I can fix, but for various reasons a bad design can cause premature failure, in turn, it may not be a good lamp. The two most important items with custom lamps is 1)quality of workmanship and 2) proper heat dissipation.
  3. good bad wire comparoWiring terminations: Most failed wiring is at the terminations. Frayed/broken wires, premature insulation failure, loose connection can all impact the safety and performance of the light. In this picture the bottom wire has decayed insulation and has turned black in color due to excessive heat. The one on top is in good condition.
  4. Polarity: In a simply lighting circuit there is a “line or hot” side and a “neutral”. Those terminations should be consistent from the plug to the socket to ensure the hot termination is in the base of the socket not the shell. This is tested with a VOM meter.
  5. Polarized Plug: Similar to #4. The larger prong on the plug goes in the larger hole in the wall socket, which is the neutral side, maintaining the polarity through the entire circuit. If it is a lamp and has a plug on the cord and it is not polarized, it is a good idea to change it out.
  6. Wiring Size: Not usually a problem with US manufactured lights, but most lamps/lights originally designed to work in a different country could have undersized wiring for use in the US. After determining the wire gauge, this can be addressed in multiple ways including, 1)rewiring the lamp or 2)simply lowering the wattage of the light bulb to be used.
  7. Bulb Sockets: Sockets show wear for various reasons, including the cardboard insulator and the metal contact surfaces. Regardless of the reason; noticeable wear in the socket should be resolved by replacing it.
  8. Grounding circuit: Lamps have polarized plugs, but light fixtures require a grounding circuit. This could be a green wire, or a small bare wire, or even a black wire with green tape that is attached to the body of the light fixture. With a VOM meter, continuity between the conductor and the bare metal surface of the fixture can be confirmed.
  9. Switches: Most switches tell you when they are bad and there is little indication they are going bad; not a lot of  in-between. They can be good today, and bad tomorrow. If you have taken the lamp apart, changing the switch/socket is cheap insurance.
  10. Dimmers: Many times dimmers start to act up before total failure. Inspect for 1)free movement between clicks, 2)ambient temperature to touch, 3) full range of light from the bottom to the top of the dimmer movement. If it is just dead, some large dimmers have internal fuses that can go open.
  11. Physical Integrity: Most all manufactured lamps include metal parts. Many of them are soft metals such as brass or pot metal which can be fairly easy to bend or break. With that said it is not uncommon to have to occasionally tighten up some of the parts to keep everything in alignment. Do not over tighten the parts, the soft metal can break and be difficult to repair. FYI: Pot metal can be difficult to fix, so if you are thinking of buying a  lamp that is physically broken, you might think twice.
  12. Top capVentilation: As you can see in this picture of the top cap of the same swag lamp; there is virtually no ventilation for the heat to escape. Just for safety sake, I added some ventilation holes in the top cover.
  13. Light it up: The final test is to power it up and let if run. Depending on the type of lamp, I may let them run for 30 minutes or so with the highest rated bulb. Mainly looking for heat problems with components and if it smells.

Here is the finished lamp.  You can see the small holes I added to the top section for heat dissipation. Since heat is a major issue in this style fixture,  I used an LED bulb and it drastically cut down the amount of heat. LED bulbs have become a game changer for multiple reasons; look for a later post on LED bulbs.

Finished LampFinished Lamp 2

This article was originally published in my other blog found at DallasLampandLight.com

 


Seasonal Reminder: Spring 2016

April 21, 2016

Bee hiveYes, that is me in the bee suit. Spring is not a great time to do bee remediation, but you will find them swarming this time of year.  Yes I knew they were there and had decided to let them do their thing, but the situation changed and I had to ask them to leave. They were not happy with my request. We did our best to save the hive.

 I attempted to relocated about 20k bees that were under my shed the spring of 2015. The picture was a reminder to me to re inspect the shed. The good news is they have found a new home somewhere. I have not seen them this spring.

This seasonal reminder  provides a list of items you need to review before the summer months set in. If you need details on what to look for or what to do, click on the link (if there is one) and it will take you to the post that was written on the subject and provide more detail.

  1. Heating/Cooling-Air Filters: Assuming you have a forced air system, change the filter prior to the heavy air conditioning months.
  2. Roofing-Looking For Leaks:  Spring rains are approaching so inspect your roof for leaks, trim away any tree limbs and clean debris off the roof. Look for raised nails and any breaches in the roof surface.
  3. HVAC Outdoor Unit: Get your garden trimmers out and trim away any vines or growth away from the  outside condenser. You should have 18″ to 2 100_0233feet clearance around the unit. Also take your water hose and wash down the outside coils  that may have accumulated dirt. Check the condensation drain that comes from the air handler in the house. Ensure that it is clear of obstacles or debris by pouring water through it.
  4. Water Leaks: Check all water fixtures and toilets for leaks. Inspect fixture drains for water puddles or loose joints in the traps.
  5. Lawn Sprinklers: Exercise the system. Look for excessive water traveling down the driveway or sidewalks. Inspect the sprinkler heads, look for blow-by and odd spray patterns. Replace or repair the heads. If you need more help on this item, click the “lawn sprinklers” tab to see multiple subjects on locating lost heads, valves as well as tune-up recommendations.
  6. Exterior Inspection:  Walk around the house, look for rotted wood, peeling paint and other exposed surfaces. Use caulk to re-seal cracks and touch up paint to reseal the surfaces. Replace rotten wood as necessary.
  7. Interior Inspection: Winter dry-out will have caused some surface cracks around doorways and windows. Also  re-caulk/grout any cracks that may have surfaced in the bathroom and kitchen, especially around the tub and shower. These two areas experience the most use and require the most maintenance.  Replace or clean water filters, faucet strainers and vent-a-hood filters in the kitchen. Flush kitchen and bathroom sinks with scalding hot water for approximately 3-5 minutes.
  8. Water Heaters: Tank type water heaters should have their pressure release valve tested (opened and closed). This will also validate the drain pipe is clear and open.
  9. Gutters and Downspouts: Clean you gutters of leaves and debris. Flush them with water to ensure they flow freely.
  10. 100_0206Surface Water Drainage: Culverts, waterways, landscape drainage systems should be cleared of debris and overgrowth that may have occurred.
  11. Windows and doors: Look at the edges where the windows and doors connect to the house. Ensure the caulk is in good shape and add caulk as necessary, indoors and outdoors.
  12. Electrical Service: Inspect the Entrance, Mast and Weather-head. Look for any damage that may have occurred over the winter. Look for tree limbs that may be contacting the entrance cable.
  13. Electrical Service-Smoke Detectors: Clean your smoke detectors of cob webs and change the battery.
  14. Test your security system: Work with monitoring service to validate all the door, window, glass break, and motion sensors operate properly.
  15. Test Smoke Detectors:  It’s a good time to clean off the cob webs and change the battery.

If you are needing some additional information on one of the topics that I have not written about, let me know and I will put it higher on the list of articles to write. Email to


Seasonal Reminder – Lawn Sprinker Tuneup

April 5, 2016

If you are a follower of this blog, lawn sprinklers seems to be a regular topic. I get more hits on this one subject than all the rest. After reviewing  the current articles I found that I lacked a straight up, “seasonal tune up” article. So, for this weeks post I am going to walk through a methodical process of checking your sprinkler system. Generally speaking this is about a system that is designed correctly and  working properly.  I typically do this at the beginning of the watering season then again in mid-summer.

Material/Tools Needed:

  1. Spare sprinkler bodies: You should normally keep some extra sprinkler bodies that resemble the product that was installed with your system. Having identical sprinkler bodies will keep replacement and repairs simple.
  2. A handful of various sprinkler nozzles: Even though there may be several types of sprinkler heads (pop up, rotary or impact), it is important to have extra copies of the same nozzle that are being used in the various zones. Even though many home centers prefer to sell you the sprinkler body with the nozzle, having them as separate items will save you time and money.
  3.  Sharpshooter Shovel:  This particular shovel works well when working on sprinklers as you can dig around a sprinkler without disturbing too much dirt. Dirt and dirty water  is the enemy when it comes to working on sprinkler systems.
  4.  Sprinkler flags: You will probably have to buy these in a pack of 100, but it will be less than $10. You will use these to mark sprinkler heads that require attention.
  5. Screwdrivers: 1 small screw driver, 1 medium screw driver (flat and Phillips head style). These will be used to disassemble nozzles and some heads.
  6. Dental tool: Something like this link will work; these can also be found at the Orange Box store. It is very common for sprinkler nozzles to capture small pebbles that will lodge in the nozzle disrupting the sprinkler spray pattern. You will want to pick out the debris without damaging the plastic.
  7. 1 pair of medium-sized Channel Lock pliers: These can be used to adjust, tighten and loosen the body of the sprinkler head especially if your hands are wet.
  8. 1 pair of medium-sized vise grips: Used as a way to extract nozzles from pop-up heads by lightly holding the nozzle riser exposed. Never use a lot of pressure as you can easily damage the sprinkler head.
  9. WD 40 Lubricant Spray: Used to lubricate various parts that are supposed to move or react to the water pressure. WD40 is a fish oil based product and should not damage the grass.

SPRINKLER TESTING PROCEDURE:

  1. Activate the test sequence in the Sprinkler Controller: Most controllers have a test function that allows you to run the system in short intervals. If you can choose the time limit, set it to two minutes. If your controller does not have this function, you can have a friend turn the sections on one by one. TIP: If you have to do this manually, find some walkie-talkies to communicate with your partner. Its also worth noting that many new controller that connect to your phone via an app, is a great upgrade as you can start and stop without having to run back to the controller.
  2. Find the first zone that is running:  Carrying your sprinkler flags, walk around and through the zone that is running, looking for the six items mentioned below. Use the flag to identify problems. However, try to realign the heads in this first sequence while the zone is running. Use the Channel Lock to grab the body to make adjustments.
  3. Repeat #2 for all the zones: I find the sprinkler flags really help, cause you can go directly back to each problem once you have made it through the entire system.
  4. Repair, replace  or adjust the heads as required: One of the most  important elements of sprinkler repair is to avoid introducing dirty water into the system. The dirt will make its way to all the downstream head and clog them up. If you find a broken head or pipe within your inspection, you may have to clean all the nozzles (see #2 below) in that zone.
  5. Run the test sequence again: As a final step, run the system one last time to ensure that everything is operating to your expectations.

Common Problems and Solutions:

  1. Misaligned Heads: Heads that are used around the perimeter of a property typically use patterns less than “full circle”. These heads will require occasional realignment to keep them from spraying on a sidewalk, fence or house. You can  adjust  either the nozzle, neck or sprinkler body. Try adjusting to the right (righty tighty, lefty loosie). If you have to turn it to the left, try not to turn it more than a 1/4 or 1/2 turn. Turning the head too much to the left may cause the nozzle or head to disconnect itself (while under pressure), this may cause a guiser of water and will get you real wet.
  2. Dirty Nozzles:  If the pattern seems uneven or broken up. The nozzle is dirty. With the water off, grab the sprinkler stem and raise it as if it were spraying water. Use your vise grips to LIGHTLY hold the stem up. Remove the nozzle and pull the filter (with the dental tool or your finger tip). Blow through the filter and nozzle. If this doesn’t remove all the debris, use the dental tools or water to clean further. You may have to disassemble the nozzle completely to get the dirt out. If the filter was completely stopped up, turn the sprinkler zone on/off very quickly to flush the line at this point (with the vice grips in place). Reassemble the nozzle to the head and release the vise grips to let the stem return to the body. NOTE: The purpose of keeping the stem extended through this process is to avoid the opportunity for dirty water to enter the system.  
  3. Broken/Damaged  head: Besides the nozzle mentioned above, the sprinkler body can leak as well. This could be out the bottom, side or top. Sometime the heads can be rebuilt, but at this stage its best to just swap out the head with an identical body and nozzle. If it’s not muddy around the head, attempt to unscrew the complete body out of the ground. Without disturbing the dirt, re-insert the replacement head. If you have to dig it up, use the sharp shooter shovel to expose the  head down to where it connects to the next pipe. It’s best to dig the hole a bit deeper than the head. If water comes out, you do not want the dirty water to reenter the system as mentioned above.  Replace the head and the surrounding dirt.  This sprinkler repair  link has a video included that might be of help.
  4. Sprinkler heads do not recess into the ground after spraying: This is a very common occurrence caused by small dirt particles surrounding the elevated riser at the wiper seal of the sprinkler head after the water is turned off. Grab the head by the tip and spray WD-40 on the riser. Work the shaft until it moves freely. If that doesn’t clear it, replace the head  and rebuild the old one in the sink to get all the dirt out of it.
  5.  Heavy Running or Pooling Water: This could be associated with #3 or it could be a damaged pipe.  With your shovel, LIGHTLY remove the wet dirt, you do not want to cause anymore damage. Dig below the pipe or area to be repaired. Use a coffee can to remove as much of the water and dirt as possible. Make the repair as necessary.
  6. Weeping heads:  Occurs when system is off. Typically you will notice this on days the sprinklers are not running, or you find constant moist spots. Typically, you must disassemble the sprinkler valve and clean it.  Rebuilding the valve may be required as well.
  7. Draining sprinkler head: similar to #6, but usually happens with a head that is located lower that other heads in the zone. This is fairly normal and can be left alone. If it happens in a bad spot and you really don’t like it, you can add a lateral line drain to disperse the water.

 For more detailed information, take a look at these other articles I have written on the subject: Lawn Sprinkler Efficiency Part II, Lawn Sprinkler Efficiency Part I ,  Searching for Lawn Sprinkler Valves, Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks; Finding Sprinkler Valves and Common Problems,Lawn Sprinkler Efficiency Upgrades Part II,  .



Watering your Foundation – Its a Texas Thing Part III

March 23, 2016

Texas-Drought-2011As mentioned in my last post on watering your foundation; Here in North Texas it is essential.  Since this is not a one time event but a regular requirement, you might as well look at a relative permanent approach to the solution. I identified several ways to do this in my last posts on the subject but I wanted to share a bit more permanent method. The concept is the same, but its a bit more work, and you may want to hire an irrigation specialist to do it.

The biggest difference in this solution is capitalizing on the fact that you may already have a permanent in-ground sprinkler system. With this system, you operate it as any other section to your irrigation system profile and its no longer a separate system to take care of.

Criteria of existing lawn sprinkler system: For this to work, you need an automatic lawn sprinkler system and a couple more conditions to make it work.

  1. sprinkler controllerElectronic Irrigation controller: The irrigation controller will be the source of the schedule to water the foundation.
    1. Spare Zone: Most controllers come in 4, 6, 8, 12 (and so on) zones. You will need at least one vacant zone position for this to work. You can query the controller by stepping through the zones. When you select the zone with the controller, look for statements in the readout that could say things like; vacant, not-wired, turned off, etc. It that doesn’t work, open the back half of the controller and look at the incoming wiring. Each position that has a number on it represents a zone. If you find a number with no wire, you should have a vacant zone. If you don’t have any vacant zones, your forward path from this point would be to replace the controller with more zones. This may exceed your budgetary limitations
    2. Spare Wire: In many cases during the initial installation, the cable with the zone wires in it, may exceed the number of connected zones. So look for some coiled up wires in the base of the controller.  If that is the case, you are in luck and can use one of the spare wires. If you have no spare wires but a spare zone on the controller, you would have to add a pair for the new zone. (a colored wire and a common (white) wire).
  2. sprinkler-valveAdding a New Valve: At this point, you have a 1)zone position in the controller, 2) a spare wire for the new zone. Now, locate all the existing valves in the yard. Specifically ones that are close to the house.
    1. In that valve box, look for the same color wire you identified in the controller, if it is not there, check the other valves. Worst case, you may have to bring a new wire to your chosen location.
    2. Dig up around the existing valve and identify which pipe is under pressure all the time. Once identified, turn the main water supply off that feeds the sprinkler system (probably near the water meter), you will cut into the pipe and add a new valve. You may have to run a short piece of wire from the existing valve to the new one to hook it up. The connection will be one colored wire and one “Common”.
    3. When you buy the new valve, make sure it has (low) flow control, and or is designed to work with zones that don’t use a lot of water pressure. The drip lines you use have a low GPM (gallon per minute) rating as well as low pressure.
  3.  Polypipe: Depending on where you locate the new valve, you may need a section of polypipe to get you to the foundation.  You can cut the hose to length and use the polypipe fittings to make up the ends. Make sure the polypipe and fittings are the same dimensions. Since all these connections are on the low pressure side of the system, these fittings are just simple resistance (chinese finger) snap in connectors.
  4. Drip Lines:  From the poly pipe, use the same fitting to transition to the Drip Line. These hoses are designed with drip emitters in the hose every 12 inches.  Run it around the house keeping it about 6 inches from the foundation.  You can bury them a couple of inches or hide them with mulch. Staking them with landscape stakes will help keep them in place as this product does not like to lay flat to the ground. You can purchase the hose in bulk from the Orange Box store of Sprinkler Warehouse. You will need to also purchase inter-hose connectors as well as a way to connect to your water. If you have to make a sharp turn it is better to use a fitting than bending the pipe. You do not want to crimp the hose. Splitting the line with a Tee is totally acceptable, and it will also allow a little better flow control if the go half way around the house with one feed and half with the other.

 

So here is what it looks like in dollars. Admittedly, you can probably do this a little cheaper, but I used high quality components, so this should last for years to come.

DripSys for house

Related articles:https://homeownerbob.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/watering-your-foundation-its-a-texas-thing/

https://homeownerbob.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/watering-your-foundation-getting-ready-for-the-summer/

 


Internet TV Options Part 5 – Cutting the Cord

March 10, 2016

BirdsAntennaIf you read the previous 4 parts of this series, you will remember my quest to cut the cord (disconnect traditional cable TV). The plan was to imulate as closes as possible a solution that included a 1) broadcast antenna for local service, 2) Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu (currently the big players in this space) and 3) Simular to #2, in that it includes streaming video, but from sources such as You Tube, and other individual content providers such as CMT, CNBC, MSNBC and 4) some sort of DVR to allow for time shifted viewing (something the cable companies got us to like). So here we are, over 4 years later and I still hadn’t done it cause  I  just wasn’t happy with my solution as well as it didn’t pass the wife test. Until now!!!  I had tried one brand of OTA DVR, but it just didn’t have the response, nor did it have a good 14 day schedule. So after much deliberation, I purchased the TiVo Bolt. For three reasons, 1) it had all the time tested feature sets that TiVo has refined over many years, 2) the Bolt will be their premiere product as they phase out the Roamio, so all their development will go toward their newest product and 3) it had enhanced feature that recognize streaming video sources  more than the Roamio:

So lets look at how TiVo Bolt answered my questions/problems identified in my previous post. 

  1. Broadcast Antenna: vs.  UVerse. Hands down, assuming you have good OTA (over the air) reception, the broadcast antenna provides a superior picture quality. With the Bolt connected to my antenna, I can not see any service degradation between the straight antenna connection vs going through the Bolt box.  After watching this for a couple of days, I keep thinking I bought a new TV. If you have CATV, satellite or a fiber based service provider, it will probably not be that noticeable, but if you have a provider such as AT&T that originally provided their content over copper, the difference is quite noticeable. Note: In the recent months AT&T has announced with the purchase of DirecTV, they will be moving their customer base from UVerse to DirecTV (copper vs. satellite based solution).
  2. Antenna Reception: As noted in my earlier entries, having a good antenna and good broadcast antenna service will be paramount to support your OTA TiVo receiver. This is the core of your off cable, non streaming service. If you have poor reception, pixeling, or blocking you will get quite frustrated with the service. If your antenna service is marginal on a good day, it will be poor on a bad day. Wind, rain, tree’s with large leaves in the summer will all negatively impact the reception. If you are old enough to remember, depending on a TV antenna for all of your broadcast television, you will remember fuzzy, scratchy and intermittent service. Its still the same but different. Even though having an antenna on a 10 ft. mast may work for many urban dwellers, antenna masts of greater proportion may be required. In my case, I have struggled with getting adequate reception of the NBC affiliate (and I live in the city).  I have continued to tweak my arrangement and after several months of refinement, I have it to a manageable level. In bad weather it is usually the first station to start acting up. 
  3. No or limited on-screen TV Guide for Broadcast TV:  So far, the Bolt has got this covered. The user programing for identifying shows, show series, and movies from both traditional OTA providers but also non-traditional services such as Amazon and Hulu, create an almost seamless transition from CATV type solutions. Setting down with my non-tech wife (aka; NTW) to provide some training, showed me how smooth the transition would go, as she picked up on it very quickly. The Bolt remote is very intuitive to most all the activities we all have come accustom to with other remotes.
  4. DVR: To bring OTA  broadcast TV up to speed with CATV, a DVR is nearly a must. The folks at TiVo understand that time-shift viewing is taking over traditional viewing habits and have simplified the process quite well. Whether you want to record a series or just some specific events, the recording process is very simple. The Bolt comes with 500g but you can easily add an outboard larger hard drive storage.
  5. Netflix:  Over the last 4 years Netflix has become the elephant in the room by embracing our new viewing habits. Add in Amazon Prime and Hulu (just to name a few), and you can fill in many of the blanks left by leaving CATV. Call it ala carte or pay per view, TiVo has integrated these services into the box as just another part of the viewing spectrum.
  6. Roku Box: I was probably an early adopter to this service and it kind of reminded me of when we first got FM radio. Needing a special tuner to get there. Whether it be Smart TV’s, DVD players, game boxes, or TiVo receivers. Gaining access to streaming services has come mainstream. The Roku served me well, but I really don’t need it since the streaming services are now nearly everywhere on most all connected devices.
  7. Multiple TV’s: Again, TiVo has this covered as well. With the TiVo Mini, you can watch the same TV programs  that show up on your primary TV.
  8. Sports: There is still a hole here and if they had a good fix for it, we would already have it. Typically Sports are viewed in real time, not recorded (as much). And the most acceptable way to watch live sports is through a CATV provider as they have access to all locally broadcast events. If you just want local sports, you can probably make it work, but if you live in a far away place from your favorite, you still have a problem.. However, there are some establishments that will broadcast far away game for you at their business. Granted, it might cost you the price of a couple of beers, but hey; its an option.  For me, its not a deal breaker as I really don’t watch sports.

Next time we will look at the costs and payback

Image courtesy of [Vlado] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Smoke Detectors For Your Safety

October 24, 2015

smoke_detectorAs we (finally) start rolling into the cooler months, its worth talking about smoke detectors again. The NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency) recommend  that every home have a smoke detector outside each sleeping area (inside as well if household members sleep with the door closed) and on every level of the home, including basements. Floors without bedrooms should have detectors in or near living areas, such as dens, living rooms or family rooms. TIP: Even though we may believe the kitchen and bathrooms should have detectors, in fact these rooms can be a source of numerous false alarms. Depending on the age of the house, smoke alarms may have been installed as part of a security system, or they may be stand-alone. Depending on the brand and style they may be receiving power from the security system, so there may not be a battery at the unit. If this is the case, the battery at the security system may last for several years and should be replaced based on that required interval. TIP: Most security systems will provide a battery alert when they require changing.  Testing smoke alarms associated with a security system may be more involved and you may have to coordinate your test with the security system monitoring/surveillance center. TIP: Smoke or fire alarm routed through the security system are typically an “automatic dispatch” with no confirmation required so consult with your provider. Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Visually inspect the detector
  2. Clean off cob webs from the cover without removing the cover. You can get a can of “air” used to clean electronics  from a computer store that will work
  3. Replace the battery yearly or earlier if the chirp indicator has been active. (Locally powered 9V type batteries)
  4. If you find corrosion (green powdery substance) on the battery terminals, replacement is recommended. TIP: If the corrosion is minimal, try using a Q-Tip dipped in a liquid mix of baking soda/water or Coca Cola to clean the battery contacts.  You must remove all the corrosion and avoid getting the solution(s) on anything but the effected area. After cleaning put a light film of dielectric grease  on the connectors to slow down the opportunity for corrosion to re-appear.
  5. The NFPA recommends the detector(s) be tested monthly. Press the test button which should briefly activate the audible horn. It should reset itself shortly.

Residential grade smoke alarm/detectors are not repairable, if they fail to operate properly through testing, they should be replaced. Limited long-term test data exists, but manufacturers and trade associations indicate the product should remain properly functional for 10-12 years under normal conditions.


Is Your Air Conditioner Running Efficiently?

August 11, 2015

AC unit Here in the Southwestern part of the country air conditioning is a requirement. With temperatures running above 100 degree’s for weeks at a time, these systems can struggle to perform as necessary to keep you and your family cool. Besides filters, there are a few other things that are worth mentioning. If you think you may have a problem, it will probably be showing up in your electric bill as either you or your system is having to compensate for its inability to perform as required.  Canvas your neighbors about their electricity usage as a comparison. Talk to folks that have simular houses and life styles for a good comparison. Square footage, thermostat settings and occupancy times are all important. Differences of more than 20% can be a clue there may be an issue. Also, use energy numbers or kwh as listed on the electric bill not the actual dollars spent. Here in Texas, the electricity is deregulated and there could be 2 to 5 cents of difference in kwh per hour charges.

If your system has operated properly in the past, these inspection and preventative maintenance items will ensure optium performance.  However, if your system has never worked properly or struggeled to keep the house cool, you may have design or service conditions that may warrant a call to a professional. Either way, by inspecting and maintaining the obvious you are  isolating the issue allowing the trained technician more time to fix the problem less time to find it.

Inspection and Maintenance Items:

  • Clean air filters: Replace the air filter 2 to 4 times a year. See my complete article for details.  Heating/Cooling Air Filters.
  • Air Returns:Keep these vents clean from dust debris and any obstruction. Depending on the design, the return air vent(s) may be close to the floor or in the ceiling. If the air return is near the floor, remove the metal grid and use a vacuum cleaner to remove all the dust and debris. If you have an air filter located here, replace it as necessary. In some cases you may have a filter here as well as at the unit. If so, this filter should be replaced on the same schedule as your normal filter.
  • Room Temperature: A well designed central air conditioning system should provide balanced air flow and temperatures of no more than about 3 degrees in difference from one room to the next. Large windows and doors will impact that number to some degree.
  • Air Flow: With air registers in each room, the air must circulate from the room to the return air location. For this reason, the air must be able to exit the room with the door closed. Either the door will (should) be undercut or there may be a pass-through return vent into a hallway or another room. If doors slam themselves shut (when the system is running), you may have a return air issue. TIP: If you recently added new carpet to your house, and you are now having air conditioning problems, the new carpet may not be adequately allowing the air to return under the doors. 
  • System Temperature Differential: This test is similar to checking your blood pressure as variables can effect the results. Most professionals set the thermostat low enough to require the system to run constantly (8 to 10 degrees below ambient) for at least 30 minutes (run it longer if you can). Use a digital thermostat to validate the air temperature exiting the register. Do not go by the temperature of the register itself. Its the air temperature you need. Do the same at the make-up or input air. You should have a temperature differential of 14 to 20 degrees in difference.   Too high or too low is a symptom of a larger problem. High numbers indicates a 1) dirty filter, 2) improper/inadequate duct-work, 3) a fan not spinning fast enough or undersized.  A low number indicates 1) refrigerant loss, 2) a dirty coil, 3) overworked compressor, 4)over-sized fan, or 5) deficient/blocked  return air system. Check the obvious, then contact an HVAC specialist.
  • HVAC drainWater Pan and Condensate Drains: In the process of the cooling the house, the evaporator coil inside the air handler unit (located in a closet, attic or basement) can pull humidity out of the house envelope. In doing so, that water collected by the system has to be expelled. By design, a drain is connected to the unit and released outside. This drain tube must stay clean of debris, otherwise it can back up and cause water to drain into the house causing damage to Sheetrock and overtime to the building structure. They don’t drain all the time so just visually seeing water dripping is not a good enough inspection. Once you locate the drain, use a Wet/Dry vacuum cleaner to attach to the pipe (at the end, outside the house). Seal it as best as possible and run the vacuum for a couple of minutes. This should pull any bugs, lint, dust or debris out of the pipe. This is a better method than pouring water through the system, and a lot less messy. Perform this function at least once a year.
  • Outdoor Compressor: Ensure plant material is clear of the compressor (18″ to 2′), remove leaves, grass, vines by hand. Use your water hose to spray down the coils to remove lint dust and dirt. This is probably one of the most important quick solution to a system that is under performing.
  • 100_0529Outdoor Compressor Connections: There should be two copper pipes and one maybe two electrical conduits. The larger of the two (suction pipe) copper pipes  should be properly insulated (all the way to the air handler/evaporator coils in the house. This pipe is delivering the cold freon used to cool the house. The longer it can stay cold, the better. Also look at the electrical connections to ensure they are sealed (sealtite  type conduit) and secure. There will also be a small low voltage wire  that may or may not be in a conduit, make sure it is not cut chafed or deteriorated.
  • Air Ducts: This item deserves an article on its own. Independent studies have shown up to 35% loss in cooling capacity due to poor duct insulation, leaky ducts, leaking air vents and duct splicing.  Inspect for air leaks  throughout the entire system. All of these components that make up the delivery system should be sealed with the highest degree.  Use Aluminum faced tape or mastic paint rated for UL 181 applications to seal any holes. DO NOT USE FABRIC BASED “DUCT” TAPE. TIP: If you are considering replacing your HVAC system look seriously at replacing the duct work as well. Poorly insulated ducts can reduce your SEER rating by 50%.
  • Set Back Thermostat: If you don’t have one, you need one. This is one of the most effective ways in managing your heating and air conditioning requirements and costs. Basically, you program it to change the temperature automatically to meet your lifestyle needs by adjusting the temperature for periods when the house is not occupied. Regarding the maintenance? Most are battery equipped and you should change it once a year.
  • Attic Insulation: Inadequate attic insulation can also effect the performance of your system. Use this US Gov link to determine if you have enough insulation for your region. Use a straight edge or yard stick to measure the insulation in various places. Avoid compacting it or stepping on it any more than you have to. Use a rake to re-spread and  fluff the insulation.

Key Inspection Points Action Items:

  1. Replace air filters
  2. Inspect and clean all air grills
  3. Clean and inspect outdoor compressor unit
  4. Clean condensate drain
  5. Inspect ducts for leaks
  6. Change battery in thermostat
  7. Check level of attic insulation