Some Thoughts About Having A Truck

This past weekend I needed a 4×8 sheet of plywood, and because I have a Prius instead of a truck, I had to do the good old Home Depot truck rental. Not really a bad deal, but I paid $12.00 for the material and $20.00 to rent the truck. On the surface, that may seem like a waste of money to pay more for “shipping” than for the actual product, but in the long term, owning a truck costs a lot more. My wife and I discussed this early on because I figure with a remodeling project, it sure could be handy having a truck whenever you need it. Plus it seemed like it would be a nice toy. But the numbers prove otherwise. Here is the run-down:

$10,000 for a used truck in reasonable condition (i.e., I’m not going to buy a $6,000 truck and have to put $4,000 worth of repairs into it).

$1,000 for insurance and registration ($500 per year for the two years of the remodeling project).

$2,500 for gas (5000 miles per year / 15 miles per gallon x $4.00 per gallon times two years).

$500 for maintenance

Total: $14,000

-$8,000 when I sell the truck after two years

$6,000 total ownership cost.

For $6,000 I can rent the Home Depot truck 300 times! That’s like every other day. I figure the max I’ll ever use that rental truck will be once a month, so $20.00 x 24 months = $480. That means I save $5,500 if I just rent the darned truck. That’s my new A/C system right there! (Or at least a good down payment on it.)

That being said, there are always a few complications such as somebody else has the truck when you need it. However, this is easily overcome by some planning and shopping strategy. Most DIYs get their stuff on Saturdays and Sundays, so try to avoid those times, and if you do need the truck, get there when the place opens and reserve it right away. Then do your shopping and get in and out.

Hey, trucks are cool.  Nothing wrong with having a truck if that’s what you like to drive. But unless you’re going to a jobsite every day and really using it, it just isn’t economical for a DIYer, so don’t kid yourself that you’re saving any money. It’s much less expensive, and more convenient, to have the suppliers deliver to the jobsite and on those rare occasions when you need to, just rent a truck for the specific need. Even if it is only $12.00 worth of materials. (OK, just this one time.) Besides, my Prius can hold a lot when it comes down to it. Just not 4×8 sheets of plywood!

Today Was A Banner Day!

Today, I picked up my building permit! I had to sign a bunch of stuff acknowledging the responsibilities and liabilities of an owner-builder, but I had done some research, so I have a pretty good idea of what I was signing up for.

California law allows for an exemption for homeowners who want to build on their own property. Basically, they are exempt from the requirements of the California Business and Professions Code, meaning that you DON’T have to have a license to build on your own property. That being said, there are a number of restrictions, most of which have to do with who has liability. All good stuff to know because understanding these details will help you avoid unpleasant legal actions should something go wrong. While there is a lot of legal gobbledygook involved, it boils down to some simple stuff.

(1) If you do you your own work, then you are responsible for the quality of that work, and if you sell the property, the buyers could conceivably come back after you if your work was shoddy. Unlikely in my case because I will be working under approved plans which will be inspected by the building department. Plus, I don’t do shoddy work as I will have to live with it. AND I don’t plan on selling the house. It will likely be inherited by my children (and THEY will have to deal with it).

(2) If I hire work to be done, then the work must be done by a licensed contractor OR I assume the responsibility of acting as a business and therefore have to pay for all of the liability insurance and taxes. Simple solution: Only hire licensed contractors. (And check them out ahead of time.) Yes, it may cost a little more up front, but it’s pennies on the dollar compared with an undocumented immigrant falling off your roof and permanently injuring his back. The immigrant may not do anything, but you can bet that the health care system will track you down and make you pay! This happened to an acquaintance of mine, and I felt very bad for him. But that was a big lapse in judgment on his part.

(3) There are some restrictions on selling the property or working on many properties at once. This is to discourage flippers. You have to own the property for a period of time and you can’t do it to many properties at once. Again, pretty much N/A in my case as this is really my home and not some quick-turn investment get-rich-quick scheme.

The other thing that happened to me today was that my car turned over  100K on the odometer. So I got the extra digit on the screen. It happened moments after I drove out of the civic center parking lot after getting my building permit. Coincidence? Yes,but a happy one. At least it put me in a good mood!

Energy Conservation and California Title 24

California is known for being, among other things, a “progressive” state. I won’t get into the nuances of exactly what that means other than to point out that California has some fairly stringent energy conservation laws and regulations. One of them is the Title 24 energy requirements, and the law focuses on the twin aspects of energy efficient design regulations, and compliance regulations. Energy efficiency is always a design objective for any home or remodeling project, not only to minimize the ongoing cost of utilities, but also because there is great concern about reducing our collective energy “footprint” due to the impact on climate and the environment. There is always a trade-off between the extra expense that has to be incurred up front to make a home energy efficient, and the expense one saves in utility bills which amortize this up front cost. Hey, if you spend so much making your home super efficient, but it takes 100 years to recover the expense, maybe that’s not such a bright idea.

In California, some of the guesswork about this has been regulated away. However, the way the state has done it is pretty cool (IMHO). Instead of prescribing how much insulation or what kind of roof you can put on your house, you design using a performance based approached. The state has a free computer program that will calculate the energy efficiency of your house, and you can make tradeoffs between energy efficient windows, reflective “cool roof” shingles, radiant barriers, insulation, etc.. to get within requirements. These requirements are specific to your geographic location and take into account the orientation of your house, the historical weather conditions, the length of daylight, elevation of the sun, and calculate your energy usage over an entire year in 15 minute increments (that’s  34,560 iterations). The reason I think this is cool is because I’m a geek at heart and this computer based modeling interests me. Fortunately, because I modeled my house, it was easy for me to get all of the measurements (surface areas). California also has a simulation for commercial buildings and, check this out, it uses a SketchUp plug-in called Open Studio, which is made by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

OK, enough of the geek stuff. The output of the program shows you how much energy you’ll be using, and it ALSO gives you an idea of what your heating and air conditioning requirements will be.  So, for me, I now can approach an HVAC contractor armed with some knowledge and make sure that they are sizing the units correctly.

As I mentioned above, another thing the program was useful for was to do some design tradeoffs. I had originally planned to replace all of my windows with vinyl high efficiency window. One thing that I noticed was that (a) these things are darned expensive to have installed (figure minimum $500 per window), and (b) it’s pretty difficult to get the right materials. Replacement windows are DIFFERENT from new construction windows, and while you can work your window opening to accept a new construction window, it’s difficult and expensive to do. None of the retail outlets sell replacement windows. I did some serious research and the only thing I came up with was to find some contractor who could buy the windows for you, and maybe you pay him a little bit and he puts your windows on an order he’s doing for somebody else. I swear, there must be some sort of conspiracy! So I had resigned myself to get a contractor to come in and do the stinkin’ windows. In the course of finalizing my plans, I had a professional inspector come in and give me the low down on the condition of my home because I didn’t want any big surprises (more on that later). He asked me about the windows, and when I told him I planned on replacing them, he strongly advised against it. Although I have single pane aluminum sliding windows, he said that all they needed was a good refurbishment, and that the energy savings were minuscule because of climate we live in. In addition, vinyl windows started to exhibit problems in as little as 5 years (in his experience). So, I went back to the energy simulation program, put back in my original windows, and darned if he was right. Hardly ANY change in energy efficiency. THAT saved me about $8000!

I won’t get into California Title 24 lighting requirements too much. I will only mention two things. (1) Incandescent lighting is an EXTREME wast of energy! An incandescent light should be re-named a light emitting electric heater, because that’s what it is. Go with high efficacy lights such as LEDs or Compact Flourescent (CFL). (2) California Title 24 requires that you have special fixtures that accept a specific light base (GU 24) for all permanent lighting (like all of those recessed ceiling lights I want to put in). This is because the regulators wanted to make sure that the owners wouldn’t just go out and buy typical screw-in lights when the “fancy ones” burned out. Unfortunately, the market for these special light bases and fixtures is limited (to new construction in California), so the industry has responded by making a whole BUNCH of high efficacy lights with the screw base (Edison). Now, I don’t have much of a choice in lights because of this response to the code by industry. It turns out that the new requirements for 2018 will allow screw in high-efficacy lights. BUT, I’m being permitted under 2010 requirements, so I’m stuck. My plan is to get a bunch of really cheap GU-24 CFLs to put into my lighting and have the inspector sign off, then when he’s gone, buy a bunch of GU-24 to Edison adapters and get the screw-in lights I really want.

So, to conclude, if you have a “geek streak” and are interested in learning about energy efficiency,you might want to consider one of the computer models that give you an accurate picture of what your energy improvements, and savings, might be. It makes it easy to compare energy upgrade costs versus utility savings, and it can give you some really good information when it comes time to discuss options with contractors. Since it’s a requirement in California, you’re either going to have to DIY, or pay somebody to do it. For me it was worth the effort to DIY, and I now have a good plan for making meaningful energy efficient improvements for my project.

Architectural Design — The Addition, and Fixing The Roof Leak

One of the major reasons I started this project was the fact that I had an annoying leak from the roof that was making a big stain on the ceiling in my living room. The leak really comes from a second floor balcony which is adjacent to the master bedroom. The design is poor because water accumulates from the roof and concentrates in the balcony, and there is no easy way for the water to run off. So it stays in the balcony and ultimately leaks onto the porch, the garage, and the living room. I tried three different ways to fix the floor of the balcony (tile, flat roofing, and rubber membrane), and none of them worked. In looking around the rest of the neighborhood with houses of similar design, I noted that they also had the same problem.

 

BALCONY DESIGN_2

ORIGINAL BALCONY DESIGN

So another approach was necessary. Fortunately, a few of the houses had a modification that put a valley roof directly above the porch. I asked the owners if that helped and they all said that it completely solved the leakage problem.

ROOF OVER FRONT PORCH-1

ROOF OVER FRONT PORCH 2

That being said, the balcony itself was just wasted space. It was hot in the afternoon because it faces South West, and it has an expansive view of the garages of my neighbors across the street. Not exactly a place where I’d hang out and relax. So, to make more out of the space, I decided to see what it took to completely eliminate the balcony and expand the master bedroom.  There were some homes in the neighborhood that had done that, but I didn’t like the outcome because they didn’t fix the leakage problem. Plus, I wanted to reconfigure the windows to provide better air flow and noise mitigation, and I wanted to rearrange the master bathroom and closet to provide a more open floor plan.

EXPANDED MASTER BEDROOM

EXPANDED MASTER BEDROOM

 

So, I looked at my original floor plan, and went back to the type of functionality we wanted. We decided to utilize the new space in an open manner, swap the location of the toilet and lavatory, make a small “room” for the toilet area with folding doors, and enable a natural flow from the bathroom to the dressing area. The dressing area would be open, yet private, and have some nice light coming in from the new windows. We also have some room for a sitting area and our desks. Simple and straightforward, but it looks pretty nice. At least from the plans!  I think it meets our requirements for making the most out of wasted space and provides a permanent fix for the roof leak.

Here are the plans:

 

ARCHITECTURAL

ELEVATIONS

 

 

 

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

EXISTING 2ND FLOOR

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

NEW 2ND FLOOR

Electrical Design

As with any other design, electrical design begins with your requirements. Lighting requirements, which I discussed in a previous post, will dictate the locations and types of switches and circuits. But one also must consider the other electrical needs of the house. This includes electrical outlets,  appliances, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning), and specialty circuits such as an electric car charger or a stair elevator. When considering the electrical requirements of my remodel, I also wanted some room for future expansion to take care of needs that aren’t yet specified. In an older home, this typically means that you’ll have to upgrade the service going into the house. More on that in a bit. Here is the list of requirements that I came up with for my remodel.

  1. Significantly expanded permanent lighting to be controlled with switches from convenient places.
  2. Additional outlets for the den (entertainment center) and kitchen.
  3. Dual electric car chargers.
  4. Air conditioning system.
  5. Additional outlets in garage to support a smart home wiring closet

Now at this point of the design, we start to get on thin ice when it comes to a DIY job. You will have to start making design decisions and tradeoffs which are going to be influenced by code requirements, and unless you have some background and experience with electrical design and code requirements, it might be a good idea to enlist the help of a professional. In my case, I have an engineering degree, so I have a good handle on basic electrical design and circuits. In addition, I have several years of experience from the Navy as an electrical officer and engineer officer, so I have a lot of practical experience with electrical systems including power generation, distribution, control, and most importantly: SAFETY!! This is why I caution anybody who does NOT have experience with electrical systems to get professional help sooner rather than later. Electricity can kill you and can burn your house down, so you’d better be sure you know what you’re doing. With this in mind, I started with a focused study of the California Electrical Code, which is basically a reprint of the National Electrical Code (NEC). There are also a lot of “how-to’s” on the Internet, and there are a lot of forums where you can pick up some good tips that help demystify the arcane language of the NEC. One site, which is particularly geared to the DIY enthusiast, is Wire Your Own House. The guy who writes this is a professional electrician, and his website is chock full of good information. Turns out that there are a lot of professional tradespersons who freely share their techniques and knowledge. If you really want an education on how to do things like a professional, YouTube is a great resource. Consider it your apprenticeship program! Now, armed with knowledge, I was ready for the next step. As in every other remodeling project, the first place to start is figuring out what you’ve got. So I went to my service panel and methodically turned off one circuit after another and with multimeter in hand, recorded every switch, receptacle, and appliance, and matched all of those to my the individual breakers in the service panel. Needless to say, I found some problems.

  1. The service panel was woefully inadequate for what I had planned. It was a 100A service and it was maxed out. I knew I needed more than that. Wasn’t sure how much yet because I hadn’t completed the design, but I knew there was no room for expansion.
  2. Some circuits were not per code. I had a massive amount of lights and receptacles on one circuit, and it looked like it was messed with by the previous owner of the house. My adding some “extensions” to the circuit didn’t help much.
  3. I didn’t know what I was doing. What did I say before? If you’re not in the business then be VERY CAREFUL. Turns out that I made several code mistakes, like powering kitchen lights with dedicated small appliance circuits (a no-no) and extending lighting circuits with junction boxes buried under drywall (safety hazard — and not per code). However now that I know the code better, I’m going to right these wrongs. Plus, my design has to get approved by the building department, so they will provide an independent check. PLUS — I’m going to hire a consultant to check any work I end up doing myself. I may be smart, but I don’t know everything, and an independent look is well worth it.

Sidebar: a couple of months after I accomplished the “as installed” conditions, I had an electrical fire. No kidding! The dryer breaker fried. So I pulled apart the dryer to make sure that the heating element was OK, and it was fine. I then went back into the distribution panel, and lo and behold, the 240V wiring from the dryer in the panel had shorted out. You know, the one with the red insulation on it? Upon further inspection, I found out that there were knife cuts in the insulation, probably from stripping the outer plastic sheathing on the Romex during the original assembly. So, I put some heat shrink on the offending conductors, and clipped the blasted out wire so that I had a good solid wire to work with, and put in a new dryer breaker, the original one being a slag heap. Moral of the story: Even the professionals get it wrong on occasion! If I needed another reason to get a new distribution panel, this was a good one.

Now that I had the “as installed” configuration, I could start to work on the remodel. I went back to my design requirements and placed all of the lights, receptacles, and switches where I wanted them on the plan, and then mapped those to the existing circuits, making new circuits where necessary. Also, to be code compliant, I had to consider not only the numbers and types of circuits, but also which ones were Ground Fault Circuit Interruption (GFCI), but also Arc Fault Circuit Interruption (AFCI). AFCI is used to help prevent fires by detecting the spark (arc fault) that occurs between two conductors that short out (such as with a faulty lamp cord). Those are required in living areas such as living rooms, dens, and bedrooms. Basically, if you want to be up to code, you’re either going to have a GFCI or an AFCI breaker in your distribution panel. Not so many “standard” breakers anymore! Lastly, now that the circuit design was done, I had to calculate the loads to figure out what service I needed. The code can be pretty arcane when it comes to figuring out what you really need. Fortunately, there are some great resources on the Internet, the best one was from a website (“Electrical Knowhow“) where you can find a handy-dandy spreadsheet(ResidentialLoadCalculations) where you put in your numbers and it figures out what you need based on the code. BUT…you REALLY need to understand what goes into that spreadsheet and why it produces the numbers that it does! I referred back to the code at every step to make sure that I was putting in the correct numbers and that the results were code compliant. To sum up my diatribe on electrical design, allow me to leave you with these thoughts:

  1. Approach the design with the same top-down method that all designers use. Start with your requirements and work down, making sure that the design meets those requirements as you get increasingly detailed.
  2. Use the DIY approach to detail the design within the limits of your knowledge and experience. It’s OK to stretch a bit as long as you’re willing to invest the time and effort to self-educate. Even if you never get to the point where you finish the design, or do any of the work, the time you spend in learning the details will pay off when you hire a professional.
  3. Have humility. Don’t pretend to know-it-all and, if you’re doing this as DIY all the way, at least have the common sense to hire a consultant to check your work. The stakes are too high.
Electrical Plan_1

ELECTRICAL DESIGN FIRST FLOOR

Electrical Plan_2

ELECTRICAL DESIGN SECOND FLOOR

Here is my final electrical design.