One of our longtime dreams has been to provide our own energy. We’d really like to produce as much as we use, and between heating the place with the masonry heater, using wood we cut ourselves, and our new solar panels, this is likely to be the case.
Early last summer (Summer 2014), we decided we’d better get moving on the solar array. There is currently a 30% federal tax credit (not a deduction, a credit) for many types of solar systems. In addition, there are net metering laws in Michigan that make it worthwhile to tie to the electrical grid – basically, we bank credits during the long, sunny days of summer, and use those credits during the short, gray winter days. As solar becomes more common in the U.S., there also seems to be political backlash against it (apparently not everyone loves the sun!), so it seemed prudent to take advantage of the incentives while they are available.
In the interest of saving time, especially since I was out of commission for months following my foot surgery, we decided to contract out the solar electric work. A local outfit, Blue Terra Energy, has done a number of installs and had a good reputation, so we asked the owner, Dave Camps, to give us a quote. We had done a lot of research and know pretty much what we wanted – two pole-mounted arrays even with the front of the house, between the house and the fenced garden. This area has great sun exposure and a little too much slope to use as garden. Also, it’s close to the house, particularly the utility room, which makes running the electrical cabling a lot easier.
Dave Camps’ crew started by digging a couple of holes below the frostline, putting massive sonotubes in each, and putting concrete reinforcement bar (rebar) inside the tubes. Next, they lowered the poles (8″ diameter!) into the tubes, staking them so they stayed level:
Next, concrete. Those tubes are 42 inches in diameter. You can imagine how much wind those arrays catch, so this did not seem like overkill.
Since we designed our house for passive solar gain, there is very little south-facing roof. Because of this, pole-mounted arrays made more sense, even though they are more expensive due to the foundation work. The next step was the racking and the modules (aka panels):
Finally, the Blue Terra crew installed the inverters and the wiring from the array to the main panel in the house. Inverters convert the DC voltage from the modules into AC that your house wiring uses. For many years, all of the modules would be connected to a single large inverter, but over the last five or ten years, micro-inverters have become available (and popular). They allow a system to be more flexible and allow for easier growth. They also make it possible to monitor each module individually, making troubleshooting easier. Below, you can see an inverter mounted underneath each module:
The system went live September 9, 2014. We tried to size the array to provide approximately the same amount of electricity in the course of a year as Nerdwood uses. Since net metering does not require the power company to pay us for any electricity we produce in excess of what we use, it does not make sense to overproduce, at least from a narrow economic perspective. As of late May, 2015, it looks like we’ll be right on target.
It’s a blast to check the metering system and see the power flowing to the grid on a sunny day. Since we live in a northerly climate, many folks around here don’t realize that solar power is more than viable, and as the price of electricity continues to climb, it seems more and more silly not to take advantage of it.
As work has progressed at Nerdwood, there have been times when something didn’t quite turn out right, or didn’t look or function as we expected. These missteps have resulted in having to do things over, which, considering how long this house is taking us to build, can be a bit deflating. I can’t really say I’m surprised this happens; it seems to happen to professionals as well, and we are anything but. Still, these lessons are a bit heartbreaking.
In this post, I’m going to share two instances requiring re-work that occurred this year, one a bit bigger than previous instances, and the other a whole lot bigger. Hopefully the lessons we learned will help others avoid the same mistakes.
The first mistake has been bugging me for nearly two years. When I put in the chimney, as noted in Wood Light/Wood Heat, I struggled with the proper way to flash the chimney. There was not a lot of information available about properly flashing a chimney coming out of a metal roof. Reluctant to cut into our lovely metal roof, I tried a silicone flashing boot designed for bolting on top of the existing roof, and I bolted a metal flashing cone on top of that for good measure.
Unfortunately, when spring came, so did the water, drip-drip-dripping from the ceiling box the chimney goes into. Not a torrent by any means, just a small drip every time there was a decent rain. Argh! Clearly, I would have to figure out a way to lap the metal roofing over the flashing, just like you would with a shingle roof.
With the many tasks last year, I just didn’t find the time to take care of the chimney issue. Finally, this past July, I got up on the roof to see what was going on. In the last post, I mentioned the crazy hard winter we, and much of the country, experienced this past year. When I got up top, I saw that the cricket (snow diverter) I had built was woefully inadequate:
It did it’s best, but clearly we need a much taller cricket to protect the full height of the chimney, and avoid this happening again:
So, first things first, I had to stop the dripping; we could worry about putting up a new diverter later. First, we purchased another sheet of the same roofing we used originally. Good thing it’s still made! Then, I spent an afternoon with thin cardboard and a pair of scissors, figuring out how to cut and overlap everything so the water would decide to run down the roof instead of into the chimney box. You can’t fight water, but you can persuade it. Another day on the roof with the new sheet of roofing and a bucket o’ tools, and the job was done. Interesting to see how the color of the existing roof has changed over six years.
As I write this in October, there has been nary a drop in the house since July, so I believe this did the trick. I also noticed that when I removed the old roofing panel, much to my relief, the decking underneath was in good shape. Not enough water had gotten in to rot out any of the framing or decking. We still need to get that cricket installed before the snow flies.
A week or so after fixing the chimney, we were heading out of town so I could have surgery done on my bum foot. On the way out, we stopped at Nerdwood to have a look at things. When I went inside, I admired our new ceiling, as I had done every time over the past few weeks. As you walk in, you see the living room ceiling first, and today it looked great as always. When I looked at the second-floor ceiling, nothing unusual registered at first. Then a feeling of… wrongness came over me.
I suddenly had a disorienting feeling of being in a dream. I realized I was looking at OSB sheeting on the ceiling, as I had been for the previous three years. As in a dream, I knew that the ceiling was done, but what I saw said that it wasn’t. I fought the cognitive dissonance as I ascended the ladder. Something terrible had happened.
When we put up the ceiling, we used a brad nailer, shooting 18-ga. brads through the tongue of the paneling, into the OSB sheeting. Where there were roof rafters behind the OSB, I made sure to put a brad as well, so it would go through the OSB and into the rafter. The paneling was very tight against the OSB with this method, and it seemed like nothing could dislodge it. I was very wrong about that. The last course, at the apex of the ceiling in the front of the house, had come loose, and row by row, the paneling simply peeled off the OSB like a roll-top desk. About two-thirds of the way down the second-floor portion of the ceiling, several temporary braces had stopped the peeling of the ceiling, leaving one-third left and the rest of the paneling in a jumbled heap on the second floor.
That was weeks worth of work, undone in what probably took a few seconds. What’s even worse, we ordered the paneling pre-finished, and many of the fallen boards have unsightly gouges, dents and scrapes on them. They all have useless brads sticking out of them, which will have to be removed in order to re-use the good ones.
Argh! I did not know that I should have secured the last, highest row by driving proper screws into the boards, through the OSB and into the roof rafters. I knew this coming winter we would be framing above the cordwood, and this framing would secure the top row of paneling into the ceiling, but I also knew the brads would surely hold until then. Well, you can quit calling me Shirley.
One thing that made this less bad than it could have been was that it was the second-floor ceiling that came down, rather than the living room ceiling. Although it’s bigger in area, it was much easier to put up due to the lower ceiling height and the lack of large beams in the way of the scaffolding.
We delayed our trip for an hour or so while I secured what was left of the second-floor ceiling using screws, then secured the top row of the living room ceiling using screws as well. I am not looking forward to de-nailing, sorting and re-installing those boards.
This guy was mightily amused by the drama:
As spring continues to be sprung, we continue work on the ceiling. By the end of April, we finished the larger of the two sections, the area over the second floor:
At this point, things get a little trickier. The outer edges of the second floor ceiling will eventually have walls built up to them. You can see where those walls will go in the photo above, between the top of the cordwood walls and the ceiling. Because of this, we didn’t have to worry about keeping a straight edge when we got to the end of a row of paneling; the edges will be covered so we could leave it a bit ragged.
The ceiling in the living room not only has to butt up against the top of the existing cordwood wall, but there are a whole bunch of crazy angles where it does so.
In addition, it’s much higher above the first floor than the section we just finished was above the second floor. This makes for some slow going.
In the meantime, the snow slowly melts from our over-eager winter (340″ of snow at the Big Snow Thermometer, a bit less at Nerdwood). Large bergs of snow calve from the glacier on the roof:
By May, we’ve made pretty good progress on the living room ceiling:
No snow on the ground means it’s also time to work on the garden. This year, we are inoculating shiitake mushroom logs. The spawn comes in little plugs:
Lightly coppicing a single cluster of maple trees yielded plenty of logs to drill.
Holes drilled and plugs inserted, all we do now is keep them moist in the woods all summer. Then next spring, lotsa tasty ‘shrooms for the next three or four years.
Finally, in mid-July, we nailed in the last ceiling board.
Some time during the longest February in all of recorded human history, a month in which each weekend was punctuated with an apocalyptic blizzard that made driving out to work on the house a foolhardy proposition, we received a shipment of 1000 square feet of tongue and groove aspen paneling from Keweenaw Specialty Woods. Aspen isn’t considered the most desirable type of tree to harvest around here, but we think it looks pretty good.
It very soon became apparent that this lovely stuff was not going to levitate 20 feet in the air and attach itself to the ceiling, so we had no choice but to get to work. We began on the second floor. First came a painstaking process of measuring and marking on the floor, then transferring the marks to the ceiling with the use of a laser level.
Once that was complete, any remaining gaps in the ceiling insulation were filled in with spray foam. We were then ready to lay up the first course of paneling.
The planks are nailed into the OSB with a battery-powered finish nailer, a product with the rather alarming and belligerent moniker “Airstrike.” It’s extremely convenient to work with, compared to the type of nail gun powered by a hose attached to a noisy air compressor. After carefully putting up the first course as straight as possible, it was just a matter of pounding each consecutive row into place with a big rubber mallet (affectionately referred to as the BRM) and nailing it up.
There are a few details in the ceiling, such as the chimney, which require some individual shaping of the paneling with a hand saw.
Greg filled in the seams in the OSB with spackle to create a vapor barrier between the insulation in the roof and the warm air inside the house.
The aspen planks are in a variety of lengths, so we are creating a pattern of randomly alternating length, not unlike the “random rubble style” of the log ends in the cordwood walls. Before too long, it’s looking pretty sharp.
After a few mild winters here in the Copper Country, the snow is back and it’s not kidding around this time. It started snowing in earnest a few days before Thanksgiving and barely let up for over a month. Fortunately, the tractor has a snow blower attachment, making it a lot easier to get to the house even with 3+ feet of snow on the ground. If only I had gotten around to removing the mower deck and putting the blower on before it got cold!
Fortunately we made a bunch of lime putty and dried a mini-beach worth of sand before the snow started, so once the Fall outdoor chores (including cutting up still more logs!) were no longer possible, we picked up cordwooding again. We’re now completely into the second floor loft; this wall on the west side of the house is partly over the open area and partly in the loft:
It was a bit tricky getting to the top, but with some scaffolding and homebrew planking, we were able to finish it up.
Over on the east side, Clare finished up her head-of-the-stairs bottle feature. This was in progress in the post My Autumn’s Done Come
We’ve used up the lime putty and sand, just in time for the tongue-and-groove aspen for the ceiling to be delivered. Looks like I’d better fire up the snow blower to clear a path for it!
Our cordwood construction workshop on September 21 was quite a success. Matt’s promotional skills drew in seven intrepid participants who made the journey out to Nerdwood to try their hands at mortaring up a few logs. They were a great group of people; all already had done a fair amount of research on cordwood and all had very interesting and varied backgrounds. They asked a lot of intelligent questions and worked hard. I hope they had half as much fun participating as we had hosting.
We started out with Matt giving an introduction, and on to Greg giving a talk about the house and our progress so far.
And then on to a tour of the interior of the house and some discussion of the masonry heater and some of the other features.
Greg gave a spiel about lime putty mortar and demonstrated mixing up a batch in the mixer.
We were then all set for the main event: building some cordwood walls. Off to the garden shed. I gave a brief demonstration of getting a wall started, and everyone quickly got down to business.
As you can see, these folks were naturals. By the end of the session, we had three panels halfway done. I did a little pointing demo and we wrapped up the workshop. Greg and I are looking forward to seeing some of the new cordwood projects our workshoppers are planning!
This visitor to the workshop had to be sent on his way back to the woods. Someone identified him as a Copper-bellied Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta), but after a bit of research it turns out that he was in fact a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata).
Ah, September in beautiful downtown Tapiola. The hay has been baled up, the vegetable garden harvest is in full swing, berry-picking season is winding down, apple picking is in the offing, and talk has begun to turn to the topic of shooting things. The weather is cool, the bugs dying off, and it’s an ideal time for a cordwood construction workshop.
The workshop is scheduled for Saturday, September 21. If participating in a hands on cordwood construction workshop sounds like something you would like to do, head right over to our good friend Matt Manders’ spiffy new website, superiorskills.net for information on how to sign up. Matt is putting it all together, Greg will be doing most of the instruction, and I will be on hand to heckle them and maybe help out. We’ll be working on the garden shed, and we hope to cover mortar mixing, wall construction, pointing, bottle ends, and cordwood best practices. If you can’t make it to this workshop, it looks like Matt has a bunch of other cool stuff coming up, so definitely check out his site if you are in or plan to be in the area this fall.
So what has been going on at Nerdwood? I realize it has been a painfully long time since I last posted. Much of what goes on is, frankly repetitious, but I will try to cover some of the salient points on future posts. We’re making good progress on the second floor interior walls.
Most of the living room is finished, and we are working our way into the second floor loft.
We hope to finish the interior walls this fall, and we’re enjoying the excellent weather while it lasts.
So here we are, Fall 2012, and although we’ve had the masonry heater in since December 2010, we haven’t been able to fire it up – no chimney! I was determined that this fall we would be able to set fires inside the house (and not have to call the Otter Lake Volunteer Fire Department).
Eric from Solid Rock Masonry had built up a brick chimney to just below the second floor. We thought it would look kind of neat (and be easiest) to switch to metal chimney from the top of the brick chimney all the way through the ceiling and the roof. The first step was a transition plate from masonry to Class A chimney pipe:
Class A chimney is double-walled with an insulating blanket between the walls. It’s safer and requires less distance from flammable materials than single-wall stove pipe. Another reason we went with metal pipe is that the chimney goes through the floor joists holding up the second floor, then through the roof rafters, and these two things are not quite lined up at Nerdwood (it’s rustic, OK?). Thus, we had to put a bit of an offset in the chimney to move it over about four inches.
Here’s how the inside looks. Just ignore the cross-braces that we’re leaving in until we put up the railing.
So far, so good. Now, Clare’s favorite part, “Greg monkeys around on the roof.” It was kind of sickening to cut a big hole in our nice metal roof, but it beats having the house fill with smoke.
This part was a little bit nerve-wracking, since it was late November and at any time it could start snowing and not stop for a month or two. I worked as fast as I could, adding the rest of the chimney sections, then using a form-fitting rubber boot as the first level of flashing.
After caulking and screwing this down, and letting the caulk cure, I added a second flashing, this one metal. Notice the minor amount of snow that fell in the intervening few days:
Finally, to protect the chimney from a freight train of snow sliding down the metal roof, I used some extra roofing, plywood, lumber and rubber flashing to build a “cricket” to divert the snow:
A day or two after this, it did in fact snow quite a bit. But, as you can see from the first picture, we were too busy enjoying our first Nerdwood fire to worry about that.
So there we were, merrily whiling away the summer stacking logs and mortar, carefully aligning bottle ends, and neatly pointing the mortar. Slowly, week after week the walls went up. There was so much to do—mix putty, split and clean logs, look after the garden, mow the grass—but I couldn’t escape this nagging sensation in the back of my mind that I was forgetting something important.
It was not until over six months had passed that it dawned upon me that I was supposed to have been blogging about all this the entire time! Once again it is January, and I am woefully behind on posts. Enough with the chit-chat, let’s review our progress.
The better part of the summer and fall was devoted to finishing up the first floor. This included a panel surrounding the front door:
A panel at the very back of the house:
A panel surrounding the french doors:
Two very large panels (“devil walls”) in the northeast corner:
And a small panel in the utility room:
Whew, that was a lot of panels. A crucial part of the process was to have several going at once, at various heights, to minimize the discomfort of having to work in the same position all day whenever possible.
By September, we were all done with the first floor. Time to cultivate a second floor mentality.