Monday, March 26, 2012

Spray foam insulation? JUST SAY NO!

There has been an interesting question I've been hearing from more than one customer: "We want our new vinyl windows to be insulated with spray foam insulation. Could you do that for us?"
My answer, as much as I hate to say this word to any customer, is sometimes "NO".
Now, before everyone who has been reading up about ways to "build green" beats me up with their geothermal heaters, let me explain from the informed perspective of a contractor who has installed THOUSANDS of windows.
     There are many styles, shapes and varieties of windows. Vinyl windows, whether they are replacement or new construction, are different from conventional wooden windows in a few ways. One of the most obvious is that the jamb of a vinyl window isn't as rigid. What that translates to is, in a standard double-hung, vinyl window with both sashes operable (meaning they both go up and down) the jambs will have a tendancy to bow outward away from the sashes. They don't bow inward becuase the sashes prevent that when they are closed and locked. To this end, most manufacturers equip their windows with what is known as a "jamb set screw".

     The purpose of a set screw is to put pressure from the window jamb out against the framing of the rough opening to keep the jamb from spreading outward. Typically over a few seasons, the windows will expand and contract with temperature as vinyl is known to do. These screws are meant to be accessible so that adjustments may be made to the window over time to ensure continued, proper function. Now here's the part some installers don't like to admit to: Spray foam insulation (polyurethane foam) destroys the ability to adjust a vinyl window and completely disables the function of the manufacturers jamb set screw. Not only that, but due to the nature of the foam's expansion qualities (it more than quadruples in size), it can actually press the jamb inward towards the sashes and after it dries.... Presto! your window is permanently locked in maladjusted position with the sashes binding against the jamb as you try to raise and lower them.

     The reason the we at Focalpoint Renovations will only use fiberglass or non-rigid insulation is simple, we'd like the windows we install to actually perform the way they were intended to. A window installed and insulated properly WITHOUT spray foam insulation will readily pass LEED green air leak tests. In fact, using a spray foam insulation in some cases actually VOIDS the manufacturers warranty!
     In our quest to make our homes as efficient and draft free as possible, sometimes we need to make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease. Polyurethane spray foam insulation has many usefull applications in the world of construction but, for vinyl window insulation? JUST SAY NO.

Sometimes bad is good

   On one of our recent projects we installed a rough timber mantle into a cultured stone fireplace. The mantle was a rough sawn 6" x 8" x 8' timber that was hewn down 1/4" on all surfaces. The homeowner had watched us deliver the mantle, prep the fireplace, install the mantle and then finish by troweling a mortar joint to surround the mantle.

     The timing of this install completed the project on the same day that the homeowner and his family flew out on a week long vacation. Upon their return, I recieved an urgent email from him explaining that there was a "pretty significant problem" with the mantle and that it would need to be replaced. The "problem" was that the raw timber had begun to check and crack (a normal part of the drying process). My problem was that I hadn't made sure the customer knew exactly what he was in for when he asked for a hewn beam.
     After assuring the customer that I would be out the following day to inspect, he took some time to gain some perspective on the mantle. It was only then that he realized that the checking and cracking were actually features he WANTED! I recieved a follow-up email apologizing for his sudden reaction and explaining that he liked how it all came together.
Here is the actual photo he sent me to show what he described as the mantle "...essentially splitting apart in a sever way".
 Renovations, Remodeling, Home Improvement 
     In the end, everything worked out as it should have. The mantle has the antiqued look he wanted and we have another satisfied customer.  The lesson I learned was to ensure future customers know exactly what to expect during a project even if they seem convinced that they already know. In this case, It was just a matter of it being hard to see the forest for the trees (or "piece of tree").

Here We Go Again!

Rising fuel prices.
     It makes my brain hurt just to say those words. It was only a matter of time before we were right back here again. The projected average fuel price for this season is about $3.92 per gallon according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That translates to an increase in cost for everyone from the supply houses to the contractors and ultimately... the customer.
     There is no great way to offset increased fuel costs. Sometimes I wish I could break through the glass of my dashboard and just hold the fuel needle to stop it from dropping to "E". I haven't had to sit and come up with a strategy of how to incorporate these costs into my pricing and I hate the thought of doing so. It's hard enough to compete without having to raise my rates to accommodate my thirsty trucks.
     If we do sit around the $4.00 mark this season, I expect I will have to add upwards of 10% to all of my estimates just to cover costs and make the same money as last season. Most people hate to see fuel get more expensive but when you're in our line of work, it hurts even more. Take my Chevy 3500 Express Van for example. It averages 8 miles to the gallon and it has a 35 gallon tank. That means I can get 280 miles out of a full tank at a cost of $140.00 to fill the tank if prices hit the $4.00 mark. 50 cents a mile..... ouch.
     I average 400-600 miles a week depending on the service area. So, I usually tend to fill my tank in that truck twice a week at a cost of $280.00/week or $1,120.00/month. That feels more like a mortgage payment than a gas budget... and that's only one truck. I even try all the tricks like finding the cheapest stations and only using them, signing up for Irving gas cards so I can save 10 cents a gallon every few stops (subject to their silly limitations).
     I hate to say it but something will have to change and seeing that the gas station attendant doesn't seem to respond when I try to haggle his prices down no matter how much I bat my eyes, it looks like my prices will be going up as well.

Tomorrow's little builders

One of things I like to do with my son on the weekends is attend some of the free building workshops that are available locally. If you haven't checked any of these out, I highly recommend you give them a shot.
     Lowe's and Home Depot both offer kids workshop clinics. They usually hold them on Saturday mornings and they take about 15 minutes but it's a great excuse to get some of your shopping done and give your kids something to enjoy and bring home with them. You can usually just walk into the Home Depot clinics, Lowe's limits the number of participants so it's best to sign up online beforehand to ensure your child has a spot.
     Most of the projects involve simple wood, glue, nails and screws to assemble anything from firetrucks to bird houses. They tend to be relevant to each season and both stores provide a list of upcoming clinics so your kids can choose the ones they want to attend. They even give the kids a little apron and either badges or pins for each clinic they successfully complete.
Here are the links:

Lowe's build & grow

Home Depot kids workshop
Sometimes it's the simple things in life!

Home Inspections, Houston... we have a problem!

      I know that I have made a few purchases in my day that I wish someone could have warned me about beforehand. Houses are a little easier for me because I know enough about them to be able to spot potential problems but, who does a customer call when they are looking at a house to purchase and they need advice or perspective?


     That's usually the first words that come to mind but, do they have the kind of background necessary to give customers an honest assessment of a home they may be looking to purchase or invest in? The reason I mention this is that I recently took a trip up to Maine to look at a summer home that one of my repeat customers was interested in. Their offer was accepted and they had a home inspector scheduled that day to review and write a report.

The inspection:

     I arrived, introductions were made and I started to circle the property one way as he went the other. We passed each other a few times swapping short comments about things we were noticing. He seemed to be focused on code issues such as the smoke detectors that needed to be updated to smoke/carbon monoxide detectors. The customer actually found an exposed heat loop in the garage and a half exposed drain line that needed to be enclosed.

What I found: 

     The house had been cut open in the middle to allow for a mid-waist "L" shaped addition. Basically, the house used to be a three floor box: Finished basement with entry, 2nd floor kitchen/living space, third floor bedrooms. The main floor (the 2nd floor) had been opened and pushed out to allow for a kitchen/living area expansion.
     The more I looked at the crumbling, undersized exterior footings and the exposed underside framing of the extension, the more I could see that the entire addition was sinking into the ground. The customer said he actually felt it while walking the third floor and pointed out cracking in the main floor ceiling where the sagging addition met the original ceiling line. When I shared all of this with the home inspector, he said "Well, it's been like this for ten years, I'm sure it will be fine for the next 30 or so".....

Really?..... REALLY??  THAT'S the answer you're going with?
So, those smoke detectors that were in code a few years back are a huge issue for you now but portions of the house sinking into the ground.... that's okay?

     I tried my best to explain the severity of the situation. I even took a level out of my truck to show that the addition was out of level almost 1/2 inch in four feet. If the floor line was consistent, that would leave the entire 16 foot run of addition having dropped almost 2 inches across its span since it was built! The evidence was all there but it was a hard sell to get him to even acknowledge that there was something going on.

A few days afterwards, I received an email from the customers and it looks like the purchase may go through with price concessions made for supporting, jacking, and re-footing of the the addition.

     I mention all of  this for one reason: Those of you who utilize home inspectors, make sure they have a background in construction, not just in code enforcement.  Make sure they've actually spent time either building or renovating homes. Anyone can stick a receptacle tester in an outlet and read the pretty light configuration that tells you that the circuit is properly wired, or look in an attic to see if it's been properly vented but without real first-hand knowledge of how things are built it's difficult to understand how they may be IMPROPERLY built.
     It never hurts to have more than one opinion before making a major purchase. Don't be afraid to ask your contractor to come out and give you his opinion as well as a home inspector. I say "your contractor" because I feel any contractor who you've done business with should treat you as "their customer" and be willing to respond to requests that you make. If you have an electrician, or plumber or general contractor who you've established a relationship with, never be afraid to do exactly what my customer did and ask for advice.  A good contractor will do their best to accommodate you.