The Straw House Blog


Noxious Fumes Redux

We had a great day today. I caulked the outside windows. Dad and I put the second pane of glass in the front door. Dad is building a little hut for the generator so that it can sit outside and be locked up safely. We’ve been charging the batteries with the generator over a fairly thick 100’ extension cord. By putting the generator outside of the battery room we can use a shorter length of #10 wire. So what? Well there was a 10 volt drop across the 100’ cord and we could only charge at 15 amps. With the #10 cable we get no voltage drop and can charge at 25 amps. That makes a big difference when you are charging the batteries.

Mom and I worked most of the day on cleaning up the floor in preparation for sealing the remaining area. We finished the remaining three back bays, the kitchen, dining/living rooms and the gallery. So the whole slab has been sealed. I expected that we would only get half done today and we’d do the rest on Sunday. This means that we can start drywalling in the bathroom.

Monday we’re heading up to see Pete and Tina to see about the finish coat of stucco for the inside. Pete’s got some samples where he’s added marble dust to the stucco. Sounds very cool.



More dead stuff

Nothing takes the edge off a really really crappy week like working with incredibly noxious chemicals. You betcha. We started sealing the concrete slab this weekend. This is the first chance that we’ve had to get it done, we had to wait for the heat to be working to apply the sealer. So now the fun starts. There’s months of marks on the floor as well as all kinds of stucco that spilled on the floor from the straw bale. So we vacuum, scrape the floor, sand and brush off any marks, vacuum again, and run over the floor with slightly damp towels. Then we apply the sealer. Only two of us can work because we only have two good masks, so Dad and I take care of the sealer and Jo and my Mom take the dogs for a walk. We do the sealer last, right before we leave, the fumes really are that bad.

We seem to have brokered a detente between the radiant system and the inverter. The radiant system is on a timer and is only allowed to come on every other hour. This saves us around 50% of the power but doesn’t seem to affect the heat. The catch is that we have to leave the inverter ON. Normally you leave the inverter in search mode, but unfortunately the relay in the timer requires line voltage to trip and the search pulse isn’t sufficient. We need to find a timer that is 100% battery controlled, one must exist, every timer we’ve found so far requires line voltage to trip the relay - or keep time.

The inspector stopped by on Saturday to check out the insulation, vapour barrier and our progress in general. He was happy with everything he saw. We had another neighbour show up this weekend as well, an older fellow, he and his wife moved to the farm about 6 lots east in 1945. He told us that he has kitchen cabinets in his house made from two Butternut trees off of our land. He invited us by to check them out. We rarely have a weekend go by without somebody popping in to check things out. Apparently we’re known in town as “The Straw House”. I’m sure we’ll be known that way for years and years. “Those city people with the straw house.” I’m looking forward to that.

The winter carnage continued this weekend. We found an owl by the side of the house, it looks like he might have flown into the big side window. It was a nice looking bird, I’ve never seen an owl up close before. So naturally, in our currently morbid fashion, I took a picture.



I See Dead Porcupines

House wise, today was much like yesterday. Mom kept sealing up the vapour barrier and Dad and I did a bunch of odd jobs around the house. We labelled all of the circuit breakers and tested that they all had power. We sealed some of the front windows and worked at removing the ends of the window shims that are still exposed. I vacuumed up the gallery area, and finally got around to cutting off the extra window gasket. Periodically we’d go to the utility room and stare in a perplexed manner at the inverter or boiler. Something’s going on between those two, and I don’t like it.

My parents left around 3:30 and I took the dogs out for a walk, or rather they walked, I snowshoed. There’s a couple of feet of snow in some spots, more in drifts. With the freezing rain we got last week there’s a hard crust and then powder underneath. This is not the best walking terrain for the dogs. They tend to punch through the crust but then because the powder is so deep they get sort of ‘hung-up’ with all four paws down and their chests against the crust. I feel bad for Gator when the snow’s this deep, as a certain part of his anatomy tends to carve its own groove through the snow. That cannot be comfortable. Gator spent most of this walk following in the path of my snowshoes, stepping on the tail of one now and again just to keep me alert. Ceara just wanders around looking for new kinds of shit to eat.

Today we walked the southern boundary of the property and up the east side into the coniferous bush. It’s neat walking around this time of year since you can cruise over the swampy areas that are impassible most of the year.

I saw a deer, or at least the ass end of a deer, it’s hard to be stealthy in snowshoes. I think I found where the turkeys live, or at least where they spend a lot of time. And I came across a dead porcupine. I think the poor fella froze to death out in the fields a couple of weeks ago. In Peterborough it was getting down below -30 at night, and doing anything let alone foraging for food is dangerous at that temperature.

Yup, pictures. WARNING!! There is a picture of the dead porcupine, if you’re squeemish cover your eyes before clicking on the link!



The Problem with Three-Ways

So the fun with wiring continues. Dad and I keep disagreeing on how to wire up three-way switches. Dad thought there was a problem with a switch and re-wired it but while it worked, it wasn’t right. This morning we set out together and we re-wired every single light and three way switch in the house. We now have working lights in the back rooms, and the mud-room, plus proper switched power to the front and back door exterior lights. Paul (the architect) lent us a book about the electrical code and we just wired everything up with the book open in front of us, saved arguing, and everything works. We’ll hook up the other lights as we acquire them.

The heat is lovely, we leave it set at about 17 degrees, and even though we’re having some troubles with the inverter, the house can stay warm through the night with no heat. Which is good since both Dad and I have walked into the house in the morning and found the inverter off and displaying an unknown error. However, after a quick look through the manual (RTFM ya’ know), Dad discovered that there is a way to display the type of error that has occurred. So maybe tomorrow, if there’s a problem again, we’ll be able to figure out what’s going on. Now wouldn’t that be exciting?

We’re just working on small stuff around the house these days, for a whole variety of reasons we’ve sort of slowed down while we get a grip on things. We’re nearing the end of the project and there’s not quite as much money left as we’d hoped, and we feel like we’ve been on a runaway train with rushing to get everything done. Now that we have heat we can slow down, take stock, and get all of the last stuff done right.

So Mom’s been taping the seams in the vapour barrier, Dad and I are working on electrical, caulking, the bathroom, and figuring out how all of of new high-tech systems work.

The next goals are sealing the concrete floor, doing the final coat of stucco on the inside, and running the conduit around the perimeter. Then we have to finish the plumbing, finish the inside the bathroom, and then the kitchen. After all that, maybe, just maybe, we move in. It doesn’t seem that far away now…


Sometimes when you do it yourself…

We have heat. In the end the whole problem with the boiler was caused by the plug for the boiler being wired out of phase. Apparently the boiler is really picky about that sort of thing.

I wired that plug.

There aren’t enough expletives in the English language for how I feel right now.



The Restorative Powers of Soup

The insulation is pretty much done so the house is no longer hemorrhaging hot air. Dad guessed within 6 bags how much insulation we needed, a pretty impressive feat. He’s buying the rest on Monday. He’ll also be trying to coordinate the propane guys and Dan Peel to get the gas hooked up to the boiler so that we can start heating the place. (You’ve all been chanting right? ‘Cause it does seem to be working….)

The sun made an appearance just after lunch and a whole bunch of cool things happened. First the temperature inside the house rose to nearly zero. All the insulation seems to be working. I went up on the roof and brushed last nights snow off of the panels and the batteries are (we think) fully charged.

There’s about 12” of snow in some places on the roof but near the back windows (north side of the cupola) there’s nothing. I don’t think that it’s just because of the overhang. Paul said that he thought that the wind would cause a sort of vortex as it blew under the overhang and above the roof. It would appear that Paul was right. Hey, don’t look at me, I’m as surprised as anyone. (Hi Paul!) 

I’ll explain about the soup later, but today, it was chicken noodle. Yesterday it was potato bacon, my personal favorite.



No Heat, plenty of Cold

I’m pleased to report that the passive solar design and the windows seem to be working. It was bitterly cold out today: -18C in the sun, -30C with the wind chill. You couldn’t take your gloves off outside for more than a few seconds. But inside the house the temperature climbed up to -3C, and that was without a good deal of the ceiling insulation. If we cold hold that heat in we’d be doing great. I took a picture of the thermometer after lunch. The windows certainly generate heat, they’re very warm when you stand near them, but until we get the house sealed up we won’t know how well they hold it in.

As for getting the heat turned on, too many things went wrong today. The propane guys came this morning and hooked up the vent, and they were supposed to come back this afternoon to hook the propane up to the boiler, but they didn’t. They did deliver and install the propane tank, and it is big! 1000 gallons. Given what it costs to fill I sure hope that lasts us a while. Hopefully they’ll be back tomorrow.

Dan Peel was there with a helper and they hooked up the manifolds and piping and connected all of that to the hot water exchanger and propane water boiler. Dan’s a great guy, and really knows his stuff. Unfortunately the boiler had a loose part inside and when they pressurized the system it leaked Glycol/Water all over the place. Dan had also slightly misjudged the amount of Glycol he’d need so they could only fill one of the two manifolds. They weren’t done until 3:30, and the propane guys weren’t back so they left. They’ll be back tomorrow.

Dad came around 1pm and we took off to Monaghan’s to collect our three interior doors. They’re made by Madawaska Doors and they’re Western Red Cedar. Dad and I did a bit of work on the electrical and insulation in the back room. Dad and Rene will be back tomorrow.

Simon got most of the electrical system hooked up yesterday but there were some problems with the charger that prevented us from using the generator to get the batteries charged up - they’re a little low from sitting in storage. Plus the panels still have to be put on the roof and there’s some plumbing and stuff for the hot water system. When I talked to Simon he said he’d be back tomorrow.

It’s going to be busy around there tomorrow. So one last time everyone, “Heat on Thursday, heat on Thursday.”


Working towards another milestone

If things go right, if we can maintain our kharmic alignment (or something like that) we will have heat on Wednesday. Given that they’re calling for a low of -25C on Wednesday that would be a good thing. The gas fitters are supposed to be in tomorrow, hooking up the tank (1000 gallons) and running the gas lines to the boiler and kitchen stove. The guys from Generation Solar might have been there today, and will be there tomorrow finishing up the electrical install. So we’ll have electricity and gas, all we’ll need are the various manifolds etc for the radiant heat system. Dan Peel has assured me that he will be there on Wednesday to hook it all up and sometime that afternoon we will flick the switch and have heat. If you hear a faint “Yippee” from the north, that will be me, in case you haven’t been following along it has been DAMN cold for the last little while.

On Sunday Brian came up installed our electrical service panel for us. He also installed some of the conduit and left us his bender so that we could install the rest. That was a huge help for us and really saved us some time. So a big thanks goes out to Brian, it was very cold in that back room, all the diner had was chicken-noodle soup (not his favorite - more on the soup later), and out heaters were inadequate to say the least, but he was ever cheerful and stayed to make sure that everything was done right. 

After that I took the dogs for a walk to warm them up a bit and give them a run. While the land in some senses is paradise on earth for the dogs (it’s a scat buffet!), when we’re working they don’t get to do much. Gator will amuse himself and has taken to disappearing for short periods of time (no that doesn’t worry me at all… no sir, not at all…) but Ceara insists on sticking near me, and as a result she often gets quite cold. It is a deeply unsettling thing to watch a dog as large as Ceara shuddering from the cold, when that happens she gets put in the truck with the heaters on full blast, or if possible, taken for a good brisk walk to get her blood flowing. She got both on Sunday, and I resumed my brief sojourn into the realms of amateur digital photography.

And when you go to bed tonight, repeat after me, “Heat on Wednesday, heat on Wednesday.” Do it for Ceara kids, it’s cold out there.



Wildlife, more snow, and… sunlight?

Ever since the farmers took the corn harvest off we’ve had all sorts of critters out eating what’s left. The porcupine’s been out a bunch, we see deer, rabbit, and coyote tracks all the time, but the most interesting animals (for us) have to be the wild turkeys. They usually travel in a flock of about 30-40 birds, they really do gobble if you get too close, and they are BIG. The big males are taller and wider than Gator. If they’re across the road when you drive in they’ll run along ahead of you for quite a distance before peeling off into the field, and if you split the flock on either side of the road the birds to the south will get very very agitated trying to get back with their friends. Their tracks are really cool, they look exactly like giant chicken tracks, so all you can think when you come across them in the bush is that Foghorn Leghorn is going to step out from behind a tree. The turkeys were out this morning.

We had another busy day, Mom and Rene continued with insulation, Dad finished the battery box, Joanne sanded and I continued with the wiring. The insulation and vapour barrier should be done next week. I got almost all of the wiring done, there’s just one small circuit left, and Dad can take care of that. With any luck we’ll have the water and propane hooked up next week, and the week after we’ll have electricity and radiant heat. Now that would be exciting!

Today was the first sunny day that we’ve had in a very long time and it was wonderful, the thermometer only showed it as 1.5 degrees warmer inside than out but if you were working near the windows it was a lot warmer than that. The sun penetrates the house almost to the back wall. We laid out some old carpets to try and catch some of the snow that inevitably gets tracked in, Ceara spent most of the day curled up in the sun in front of the windows, she didn’t get too cold today.

It was a good day.



Snowy Day, Busy People

Here’s what happened today: Dad built the battery box. Mom and Rene worked on the insulation. Ian strung wire from the back room lights to the posts for future switches. Joanne sanded posts. I worked on completing the wiring for the various rooms, connecting the wires with Marettes and stringing wires for switches. We’ve moved a few things around, the clothes washer is moving out of the kitchen and into the back room next to the dog bath, we’ve added wall sconces to the bathrooms along with the pot lights in the ceiling. We’re also putting some lights in the top of the bathroom that will shine up and illuminate the ceiling providing some ambient light.

Tomorrow Dave’s coming back to fix up our front doors, maybe he’ll even get to our open bits at the top ends of the gallery. We’ll all be back tomorrow, hopefully I’ll even get my wiring done.

We went for a walk late in the afternoon and saw our friend the porcupine, so I took his picture.