Happy New Year! Reflecting on 2014 and Looking Forward to 2015

The turn of the year is always a good time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next. It’s a common demarcation point, and it occurs when we’re collectively given the time to reflect and plan, according to our nature. I know what you’re saying” “If you’re in retail, or emergency services, or in the military on deployment, the maybe I’m not given the time.” However, I think because of the time of year, everybody is doing it, and you can’t help yourself. Actually, serving your customers, community, or country can have special meaning at this time of year.

OK, well maybe not so much in retail.  As they say, anybody who says there are “No stupid questions!” has NEVER worked in customer service. You know, retail is a dang hard job, and I truly appreciate everybody who helps me when I’m shopping.With a smile and a kind word, you will always get superior customer service! All you have to do is to distinguish yourself from the a**hole who decided to take out their frustrations on some poor, underpaid retail associate who is constantly bombarded by yet another a**hole! But you have to remember to take the time to take the survey and say nice things. If you REALLY want to reward good customer service, then have the presence of mind to remember the name of the person who helped you, and then take the time to make a positive comment  on the survey, or the website. These people get promotions and monetary rewards for this kind of stuff. So, the lesson is: Be nice, and when you get good service, make sure you tell the boss!

Where was I?

Reflections on 2014: I had been planning my remodel since 2012, when my lovely wife and I started discussing concepts and the things that we really wanted out of  life, and how our home would reflect that. At the beginning of 2014, I had finished detailed planning and had drawings that I thought were good enough to submit to the city building department for approval. 8 months later, after 3 revisions, I finally got the building permit! Actually, I didn’t wait to get the building permit do start work. I knew that I needed to take out my patio in back, and I wanted to save the bricks and sand. That was a major undertaking which filled the dead time in between the review of the latest plan revision, and answering the comments for the next plan revision. Once I got the building permit, I started in earnest, with site demolition, excavation, and installation of underground services.

What I learned:

  1. If you don’t follow the prescribed approach in the codes, then you will have to have a licensed engineer sign off on your plans. For a small job, it’s not worth it (and they were kind enough to tell me that). Learn the codes and follow the prescriptive approach.
  2. Take each “rejection” as an opportunity to improve your design. I can say that my plans have been significantly improved by having reworked them for the building department.
  3. Detailed planning helps you build faster. My plans have speeded up my work (thus far) in ways that I could not have imagined before.
  4. Detailed planning does not account for everything. Inevitably, you run into unexpected obstacles. The fittings don’t fit like you expected. You need to change the routing of the conduit to account for other buried services. Remain flexible and adapt. “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” (Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke.)
  5. Know when to quit for the day. Something my dad taught me.  This is a big project and you have to know your limits. If you push too hard, then quality suffers. It’s OK to have goals, but sometimes (OK , frequently), the goals are too optimistic. There are only so many hours in the day, and you need to take care of yourself. So know when to quit for the day, and make sure that you leave enough time for clean up!

Goals for 2105:

  1. Don’t get injured. Building can be dangerous if you’re not careful!
  2. Keep my job. Don’t get too involved in the remodeling at the expense of the day job. Yes, I still have to pay for all of this somehow.
  3. Go to Smithfield, VA for my  wife’s 50th high school reunion.
  4. Finish the site work. I’m optimistic this will be done by March. But who knows?
  5. Move out of the master bedroom, and do the demo.
  6. Build the addition and close in. I’m hoping by July-August. Before the rains come in any case.
  7. Install A/C. That will be contracted out.
  8. Install a new roof. Also contracted out.
  9. Re-stucco the front. Yet more contract work.
  10. Paint the house. Did I mention contract work?
  11. Install new electrical service. This will be all me. Wish me luck!
  12. Don’t take the remodeling too seriously. Yes, it’s important to have goals and to work hard to achieve them, but in the end, this is supposed to be rewarding and it’s important to take pride in one’s accomplishments. Otherwise, I’d be hiring somebody to do all of this!

I wish all of you a very happy New Year, and I hope that you continue to follow my blog. I’m working on an epic post for digging ditches!  Stay tuned……

A Home Remodeling Christmas

In my last post, I mentioned all of the “Christmas” shopping I did in getting all of the parts for my buried services. I’m deep into digging (more on that later), and I actually am looking forward to spending some dedicated time over the Christmas and New Years holiday to make some really good progress.

As usual after Thanksgiving, our neighbors decorated their homes with lights, and it really makes the street look nice. We would always participate, putting up some tasteful white lights and some garlands. In fact, my remodeling plans call for an exterior plug, controlled by a switch, that will be installed expressly for Christmas lights.

But that is in the future, and for now, I felt I had to come up with something that was appropriate for the season, yet fit our “decor” of a torn up yard, complete with piles of dirt and trenches. Honestly, the exterior of the house and property will look no worse than it does at the moment. What a friggin’ mess! Then, in a flash of insight, I had the answer!

My lovely wife always encourages me to “use what I have”. I think this comes from her Scottish heritage, and I appreciate and admire her way of making elegance out of frugality. In rising to that challenge, I took a look at these traffic barriers that I had, and it gave me an idea. I was required to buy traffic barriers with flashing lights for the dumpster(s) that I needed to put on the street, marking where the dumpster was, lest an errant driver not see it and run into it at night. I swear that the drivers around here are so fu#&*@’n dumb that they don’t need any assistance from alcohol to run into a dumpster in broad daylight. And swear I do. Profusely. When I’m driving.

Back to the point. These traffic barriers have flashing lights. And, I have my strings of Martha Stewart LED outdoor Christmas lights. AND I have a bunch of “CAUTION” tape. What a great combination! So, I placed the traffic barriers in a tasteful manner across the front of my yard, strung my Martha Stewart lights tastefully between them, secured the assembly with tasteful CAUTION tape, and put the lights on a timer that I had from my (now defunct) pond. This arrangement has the added advantage of discouraging errant people on the adjacent sidewalk from stumbling onto my property and breaking their legs when they trip into one of the many trenches that await their drunken follies. (OK, they have to be drunk, but that is not outside the realm of possibilities.)

Although I try to elicit visual pictures with my writing, this video is worth 454 words.  Good thing this blog has a word counter, otherwise I’d be guilty of false representation! (OK that’s 472 words).

Everyone have a wonderful holiday season, and I promise I’ll have more posts in the near future.

Home Fire Sprinklers — Why I Did It

When I was fiddling around in my “research” phase of what it would take to make my home compliant with contemporary standards, I stumbled across the requirement (in California at least) to have new construction homes be equipped with a fire sprinkler system. Being a veteran of the Navy, where there is a fetish about fire protection and safety — think about it, you’re surrounded volatile fuels and explosives in the middle of nowhere — it, needless to say, piqued my interest. I found out that IF you are involved in a fire (unlikely because I have been careful about minimizing the root causes of fire), then the statistics show that protection with a residential sprinkler system increases your survival rate by 80% and decreases your property damage by 70%. How could I not continue? Did I mention a fetish?

It turns out that installation of a residential fire sprinkler system is within the DIY realm. If you’re trying to go with a “modern” plumbing system, which has all sorts of headers and networks and PEX pipes, then it’s probably not DIY. If you don’t know what PEX or a networked plumbing system means, then it’s DEFINITELY NOT DIY. However, if it’s just a retrofit or a new construction, you can install a simple “tree-branch” design.

A “tree-branch” design is simply a source of water that has runs and branches to distribute the water to the individual sprinklers. The basic design mimics the design of a standard plumbing system. The source of the water needs to come from the main water supply to the house, and then branches off before the supply to the rest of the domestic water system. The sprinklers can be thought of as a “complimentary” plumbing system. So, if you can install plumbing using CPVC (Chlorinated Poly Vinyl Chloride) pipe, you’re GTG with a DIY installation. Except…..

There is a pesky requirement called a “hydraulic calculation” which involves a litany of limitations and specifications which, if followed, will ensure that your sprinkler system will spray the correct amount water over the area that it is designed to cover. There are a lot of variables, and the interaction of these variables (e.g., pressure, flowrate, pipe diameter, K-factor) can be intimidating if not fully understood.

FORTUNATELY (for me), this is right up my alley. My studies in chemical engineering involved fluid flow, so I had a good background in what the calculations were all about. I dug back into the recesses of my tiny brain, and , with the help of Wikipedia, reconstructed the seldom used  neural synapses to come up with a spreadsheet which helped me figure out the required water pressure at the street main, and the required water pressure of my design. So I called the water authority to get the pressure at my residence (105 psi) and I went merrily to work. I submitted my design, and got told that it was F/U.

First, the assumed pressure was wrong. I had to submit a request for the available water pressure at worst case conditions. It turns out that the fire department and water authority have this dance figured out. I was just not invited to it. Bottom line is that I had to request a “residual” pressure base on worst case conditions. Once I received that, I was back to ground zero. Second, I was not properly accounting for the pressure at the “second” sprinkler. Code requires that whenever you have two or more sprinklers in the same room (compartment), then you must use the most limiting flowrate from two of those sprinklers. I had to lick my wounds and remember the lessons that I learned (and apparently forgot) in my sophomore fluids flow class, and revise my handy-dandy spreadsheet to make it reflect reality.

With the new available pressure, and the right methodology with my spreadsheet, I had to re-do the entire design. In the end though, I actually was able to make the design easier and less expensive to install. The key was to make the k-factors similar. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then maybe you shouldn’t be designing a residential fire sprinkler system.

The upshot is that my sprinkler design was approved today. I’m actually quite proud of it because the majority of designers plug their designs into a computer program which tells them whether they are right or not. I did the calculations by hand, so I know that the design will work because I understand the underlying principles. OK, I used a spreadsheet, but I had to put the Hazen-Williams formulas in. I’m sure that if you contract a designer to provide a sprinkler plan for you, that it will be correct and will work just fine. It’s just that the designer won’t know exactly why. Let’s just keep that as our personal secret.

Here is my advice (for what it’s worth):

  • Get a residential fire sprinkler system. The cost is more than worth the peace of mind and the protection it offers your family and your home.
  • If you’re DIY, but perhaps not so interested in the nuances of hydraulic calculations, then try to hire a designer who will give you plans. Having said that, you’d better understand some of the nuances of fire sprinkler installation. There are very specific requirements for the mounting of the supply lines and sprinklers so that they don’t jump around when they get activated.
  • If you’re interested in the design, here are some references:

Residential Fire Sprinklers

Fire_Sprinkler-Installation_Instructions-English

ResidentialSprinklerInstallationGuide

Here are my plans:1370 BFD Fire Supression R 2.5

And the spreadsheet for the hydraulic calcs: 1370 BFD Hydraulic Calculation Worksheet CPVC

OK, I know I’m a geek at heart. I really do love to design and to manifest my ideas, in terms of numbers and letters (in the correct sequence) so that they can be created in the physical world. This is what I’m all about, and this is what I hope you can see as I take my next steps on the DIY highway.

 

P.S.  Did you notice that “Why I Did It” contains DIY backwards?

🙂

Staking Out Your Territory — How To Survey And Set The Grade

One of the challenges that any builder has is to transfer what is on the plans to the physical reality of what you happen to be working on. If you’re building a birdhouse, then you have to take the written dimensions on the plan and transfer them to the wood. Remember to subtract the width of the saw kerf! (My woodworker friends will appreciate this bit of free advice.) If you’re building a structure on a piece of land, you have to transfer those dimensions to the land. This is not a trivial endeavor,  because land is not necessarily level, square, or plumb. That’s construction terminology for orthogonal axes in a cartesian coordinate system, depending on your point of reference. But I digress.

The bottom line is that you first have to establish reference points, relative to your plans, to measure and mark your material. With wood, this pretty easy because typically  the raw material has reasonably straight and square edges. With land, you are on your own. The first priority is to establish a reference point. In the world of land surveyors, this comes down from edicts issued from backroom deals made among the wealthy and powerful who claimed the land and established certain boundaries, which may or may not have had any bearing on the indigenous people who currently occupied the land. So, because the rich and famous had guns and cannons. they displaced the indigenous occupants who had no concept of land ownership, and established the boundaries that you and I obey.   Again, I digress. Maybe this is a sign of old age.

So, if you follow the legal thread, you own property, which is documented precisely in the county records. Your deed specifies the plat (the drawing) that is the official and legal record of the land that you own. That plat has specifications which detail the dimensions of your land, as well as the precise locations of the corners of your property. If you are adventurous, you can probably take the data from the  records, and locate the surveyor’s marks on your property. If you are a city dweller, then you may see them as little nails in the sidewalk.

The builder of the house will transfer the dimensions of the corners of the property to the footprint of the house. There, the builder will begin excavation, pour the foundation, and build the house. All per the plans submitted to the city (or “building official”) and approved. It is with this thread that I start my measurements. My assumption was that the house was situated correctly on the property, and since my objective was to obtain proper drainage via a proper grade away from the house, I would use the corners of the house as the reference points.

But the problem remained: how to accurately locate the level of the land when the raw material was dimensionally random. For this, I had to learn a little bit about surveying. The basic geometry is middle school math, but the application is a bit more nuanced. How do you measure a level over a long distance? How do you mark the reference and set the other marks precisely relative to this reference? Professional surveyors use high-tech tools like laser levels and differential GPS theodolites. The equipment costs thousands and rents for hundreds. Was there a DIY solution? Well, yes. There is ALWAYS a DIY solution!

The first step was to take inventory of what I had. I had a laser measuring “tape” (I bought it when I needed to take the dimensions of the “as built” house for my plans.), a tripod, and an iPad. I checked out the apps that were available for the iPad and. lo and behold, somebody had developed a theodolite app. A theodolite is an instrument which will tell you the precise azimuth, elevation, and level from a given reference point. (If you don’t understand this terminology and how to convert polar coordinates into cartesian coordinates, then maybe surveying isn’t your thing.) The theodolite app was the ticket. All I had to do was to build a “surveyor stick”.

To explain: Surveyors need to measure changes in elevation over long distances. To do this, they set their measuring device (transit, theodolite) over a designated reference point, and then focus on a “stick” that is held by an assistant at the point they want to measure. That stick is essentially a ruler, which if the transit/theodolite is level, will measure the vertical distance between the observer and the stick.  If you combine this information with the azimuth (i.e., the angle from true North), you will have an EXACT location of that point on the earth. So, I needed a surveyor stick that was self-supporting because I couldn’t assume that I would have an assistant. I designed one, and the plans are here.SURVEYOR’S STICK. Once I was able to measure the difference in elevation, all I needed to do was to establish the grade, i.e., the slope, to allow the proper drainage. The slope is 2% away from the house, and 1% from front to back. So using my handy-dandy laser rangefinder, I simply multiplied my measured distance by the % slope to get the final elevation at the measured point.

All I had to do now was to research a bit of jargon with respect to grading and how to actually mark the property. The first thing I learned was that surveyors will mark the land using squat little stakes called “hubs” which are pounded level into the ground where you’re making your measurement. The vertical distance of the hubs are then measured between the hub and the reference (theodolite). You then take that difference and compare that to the plan. If the measured vertical distance is greater than the required distance, you need to fill (raise) the level of the land at that point. If it is less, then you need to cut (lower) the level. If you do this at several points, you can establish the contour (grade) that the plans specify. So at each hub, I would put a grade stake, with a mark that indicated a cut “C” or a fill “F” of a given dimension. Professional surveyors use 1/100 of a ft., but since my measuring devices were calibrated in inches, I used that standard. Whatever works.

The cool thing about all of this was that after all of the staking, I began to see the real outline of the plan manifested on my actual property. It was, perhaps, a turning point in the project because it represented a change in direction from demolition to construction. In my mind’s eye, I now have a glimpse of how the finished product will look like.

Here are some pictures:

Grade Stakes. Don't you like the colors?

Grade Stakes. Don’t you like the colors?

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

 

Irrigation — And How A Project Expands

This past week, I’ve been working on gutting my landscape. The reason for this is because the first order of business is to install a site drainage system. The reason this is first on the list is because I have to excavate in order to install my upgraded electrical power line from the power head on the street. I then have to cover it up and pour concrete because that is where I am going to place the temporary storage box for all the household crap I have to move in order to vacate my master bedroom to build out the addition. A real Chinese puzzle.  But I digress. So, if I’m going to excavate and break up concrete and hardscape, I better do this once. That means that I have to plan for ALL underground utilities, being it 12V lighting, drainage, or irrigation.

When I started looking into irrigation, I wanted to make sure that I was making a very conservative plan as water, especially for irrigation, is a scarce resource here in Southern California. My studies revealed that the two approaches which made most sense were drip irrigation with a xeriscape, and use of grey water from the laundry. First the xeriscape.

The idea of a xeriscape is not new. There are several high quality example gardens in our area, and we have visited them on more than one occasion. The idea is that you provide some drip irrigation to start the plants out, and as they mature, they require less and less water. Plus, drip irrigation is very efficient as it waters the roots directly, as opposed to spraying water all over the place and having the excess run down the storm drain. Let’s face it: if you live in Southern California, or any other place which is subject to drought, then you should be ashamed of yourself if you have spray irrigation. Especially if you have a lawn. If you like the expanse of green, then get artificial turf. The modern and smart way to landscape is with drip irrigation and water conservative plants.

The best reference I was able to come up with was a website called irrigationtutorials.com.  The person who writes this is a professional landscape architect, and his information is very detailed and practical. Regardless of what irrigation system you choose, you would do well to visit this site and to peruse, if not read thoroughly, what he has to say. I learned a TON about what to do, but more importantly, what NOT to do. Pay particular attention to the section on backflow prevention. This is serious stuff, especially if you don’t want your drinking water contaminated with whatever happens to be on or near your drippers. After all, animals, both domestic and wild, have to do their business somewhere!

The other thing I discovered, and I am STOKED about this, is the use of grey water for irrigation. Grey water is waste water from your house that is not sewage, e.g., not from your toilets. So, anything from your sinks, showers, dishwasher, or laundry, is considered grey water. Now, if you’re ultra conservative, you could set up a system that uses ALL of your grey water for irrigation purposes. But some of this requires permits and professional design. However, there is a low-cost DIY approach: using the effluent of your washing machine. Your washing machine uses a lot of water per load. If you have a top loader, then it’s 40 gallons per load (20 gal wash and 20 gal rinse). Even the high-efficiency front-loaders are 20 gallons per load. So, why not put all of that water to use in irrigating your property? The answer is that it’s pretty simple and definitely within the realm of a DIY project. First, there’s typically no permit required. Second, it’s relatively cheap. All you need is a 3-way valve, a vacuum breaker, some PVC pipe and fittings, some materials to make a bunch of mini-dry wells (perforated pipe, gravel, and circular pavers), and some inexpensive valves to regulate the flow such that you have an even distribution of water. There are some regulations that you have to be aware of, such as property line setbacks and having sufficient surface area to distribute water so that it doesn’t pool or overflow, but these requirements are spelled out very succinctly in a number of on-line articles. The best one is a manual that was produced by the city of San Francisco, CA (San Francisco Grey Water Design Manual) that is a very comprehensive guide. It includes detailed instructions for installation of a DIY laundry effluent grey water system. In my jurisdiction, Chula Vista, CA, the city took (plagiarized) elements of this manual for local guidance. So, if you care about water conservation and are in an area where drought is a concern, this something very simple and do-able for the average DIY.

The San Diego County Water Authority published a good guidebook on how to design a “water-smart” landscape (here). Additionally, the City of Chula Vista posted some professionally designed xeriscapes. Here is the link, but for some reason, it’s not working at the moment I’m writing this, so I’ve posted one of the plans here: wildlifefriendly-irrigationplanwildlifefriendly-planwildlifefriendly-plantimageswildlifefriendly-concept,

So, this was an expansion to the original project, but for several reasons, I think this is the way to go. I’ll have more details about my site plan in future posts.

Detailed Design — How To Design A Structure

After the architectural design was complete, the next step was to actually figure out how to construct it. My plans needed to be detailed enough for the city building department to approve them. At first blush, one might think that pushing out a bedroom by seven feet is no big deal. Throw together a few trusses, use the existing flooring, build some walls with holes in them for windows, and you’re done.

Well, not really. The short story is that building codes have advanced, and when you build an addition, you are actually going to build a carefully engineered structure. If you’re really not a die hard DIY and/or don’t have any background or training in structural engineering or construction, then your best bet is to hire a designer to do the work. They aren’t cheap (I got a quote for $7,500 minimum), but it may be worth it, depending on the complexity of your project. Having said that, you don NOT have to be a structural engineer to design an addition , or any other structure for that matter. All you have to do is follow the prescriptive  methods contained in the applicable codes. This is essentially a “cookbook” method of designing a structure that includes a number of safety factors such that a design using these methods will withstand loads and stresses (people, wind, earthquake, etc.) that are expected for a residential home in a specific location. Here is where you can benefit from my experience. DO NOT try to get all fancy and design something that is not clearly specified in the codes and deviates from the “cookbook recipe”, then you will have to get a sign-off by a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.). Again, this is expensive, and probably not worth it for a smaller project. So if you’re willing to spend some study time (and maybe even learn something!), a DIY solution awaits!

The best place to start is the building code that is applicable to your jurisdiction. The California Residential Code is actually reasonably easy to follow, but I found the American Wood Council Wood Frame Construction Manual (WFCM) a better resource for my purposes. Since the California Residential Code allows it, that is what I used. What really made a difference and put it all together for me was the WFCM Workbook, which has an example home design that steps you through the process. You will also have to determine the environmental conditions that your structure will need to withstand. This includes maximum wind conditions, seismic design category, whether or not you’re in a flood zone, maximum and minimum temperatures, termite infestation likelihood, and other factors. These are usually spelled out in the code and it makes sense to put together a little table for yourself so that you can refer to it when bouncing back and forth between the various parts of the code to get your numbers.

The approach that I used, which was taken directly from the WFCM workbook, was to start at the top and work my way down from the roof to the foundation. At each step you not only have to specify the materials (trusses, roof underlayment, studs, joists, etc.), but you ALSO need to show how these elements are connected. The code gives a table of fasteners (mainly nails) for fastening framing and sheathing, but when it comes to connecting major assemblies to each other, you typically have to use engineered specialty connectors (for example, roof truss to wall top plate). You have to be able to show, step by step, that the loads from each element are transferred through successive elements all the way to the foundation. So, roof to wall, wall to floor, floor to wall, wall to foundation.

A quick word about fasteners. The common nail is a very nuanced component. There are many types of many materials, and it is IMPORTANT that you use the right nail for the right purpose. The tables in the code tell you what to do, but therein are requirements for not only nail type, but spacing, and orientation, e.g., toe nail vs. face nail. Bigger and more is not necessarily better because you risk splitting the underlying wood member. So follow the instructions! In general, nails are better than screws, especially for framing. This is because they have significantly higher shear strength, and have some ductility which means that they will “give” a bit in a storm or an earthquake whereas screws tend to be brittle. Not that screws are bad. Just don’t use them for framing or shear walls. An exception to this are structural wood screws (SWS). These are larger screws made of heat treated steels that have higher quality control than your run-of-the-mill screw. The manufacturers of these screws have data sheets which detail their application. I used them in some places, a ledger board for example, but in general, I stuck with nails when I could.

One thing that was scary for me at the last was trying to figure out how to retrofit concrete anchors to bring the addition into compliance with seismic requirements. Fortunately, the folks who make these connectors also provide a method of anchoring these connectors with special epoxy into existing concrete. The only “downside” is that I have to have a certified inspector sign off on the installation. Well, maybe not a downside as it really has to be right. Just additional expense.

Although I spent many months getting to this point, and went down a few “rabbit holes”, I can definitely say that the effort was worth it, especially as a DIY’er. The process of designing showed me how to build it with all of the right materials, methods, and references. It’s going to be really pro!

Here is a link to my detailed construction plans.

1370 BFD Detail Views

 

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.