Back in the day when Teman and I were still young and spent most of our time goofing off–an activity elsewhere called “being homeschooled”–we spent a good share of our time browsing through old copies of Fine Homebuilding magazine. Well, I would browse, look at the pictures, and read the funny disaster story column in the back. Teman probably read them cover-to-cover like he read encyclopedias. They were a legacy of our father, a subscription probably started around the time he was in trade school and likely stopped when he finally reconciled himself to the fact that life was taking him down a different path. Anyhow, it was here in the pages of these magazines–some of which were printed before we were born–that we penniless paupers dreamed of the houses we would someday build.
I think Teman was a little more systematic in his dreaming and planing. Me, I looked at pictures. Today, we are much older. I still spend probably too much time looking a pictures, a bit more time reading and maybe not enough time writing. I’m still the penniless pauper. Teman has a decent paying job working in a power plant at a local state facility. Neither of us can yet afford to build our dream house, but I’d say Teman has a better shot at it some day. But before that day one has to start with small dreams. And one small dream Teman had was radiant floor heat.
We first saw radiant floor hearting in one of those old Fine Homebuilding magazines. For those of you who didn’t spend part of your youth drooling over old construction trade magazines, I will explain. In the original radiant heating, steam or hot water is piped through radiators along the wall. This was more heat efficient than forced hot air, and more healthy (no dust blown around). However, radiant heat was more expensive to install than forced hot air. New radiant floor heat takes everything to the next level. The radiators are built directly into the floor, a grid of tubing underneath all the floor. The method of installation depends on the type of floor–in concrete the tubing which holds the water is buried directly into the concrete pour, in wood construction the method is different and varied but the end result is the radiant heat is between the sub-floor and the finished flooring. Radiant floor heat is more expensive to install than the old radiator heating, but since the heat is evenly distributed throughout the floor it is more efficient and makes a more comfortable environment. It is considered one of the ultimate (if not the ultimate) method of residential heating.
Way back when radiant floor heating first came out it was only designed for new construction. It was Teman’s dream to have this in the house he built. Sometime not too many years after radiant floor heating was invented they started designing methods to retrofit an installation in old construction. Basically, clips are used to attach the pipe to the bottom of the sub-flooring and the pipes are run between the joists. It isn’t quite as efficient as the new construction design, but it is still good.
When our family moved into the old farmhouse in Oxford, Teman saw the opportunity to install radiant floor heat. If anyone asked, it was all about the oil forced hot air furnace being old, and the oil fired hot water heater, and how between the two of them they cost quite a lot in the oil heating bill. So in the long run it would be cheaper to install radiant floor heat. All true. But I remember the boy who was dreaming of using radiant floor heat.
So, over the last several weeks we have been running the lines for the new radiant floor heat. The disaster column was my favorite part of the Fine Homebuilding magazines, and I suppose it is thus fitting that my construction life often resembles those columns in some measure. I helped pull two of the lines, but my job has mostly been to drill the holes necessary for running the heating lines while other siblings followed behind and pulled the plastic pipe throughthe holes. My job required a minimum of two holes in every joist, and some required double that number of holes depending on how many zones were passing through. In other words, a lot of holes needed drilling.
Teman had borrowed a powerful right-angle drill and bought an expensive one and a half inch spade bit so most of the holes were easy to drill. But there were a few problem areas. The first problem was drilling through the main center beam under the house. The house is an old post and beam construction so the center beam is a good twelve inches of solid wood. Back in the day when we lived in the old house in Triangle and I was but a youth, Dad had to drill through just such a beam and I remembered the experience well. Let’s just say that one or two broken spade bits later Dad use a chain saw to make the hole he needed. I was looking to avoid that conclusion this time.
I had a better spade bit than Dad used all those years ago, and I tried to take it slow to keep the bit from binding, but it was still hard on the bits. The drill could take the work fine–it had enough torque to snap the bits without trying–and that was the problem. By the time the drill gave any hint that there was a problem it was too late. I had to estimate when I had to back out and clean away the saw dust, and if I mis-guessed at the bit bound up in the hole I could have a broken or bent spade bit.
By the end of the project I had snapped the base off two bits, bent one bit, bent one extender, and snapped the head off another extender. This wasn’t all on one hole–there were several holes that gave me trouble. But these were expensive bits, and extenders. I was lucky to have brothers who could afford to purchase replacements as needed. I wouldn’t be suprised if all combined north of fifty dollars were spent on bits and extenders. But, on the plus side, we got all the holes drilled without resort to a chainsaw.
The second difficult point was when I had to drill holes over the old cistern in the basement. It is empty of water, but the original joists over cistern were so rotted that a previous owner had sistered boards on both sides of several original joist. This made a much thicker piece of wood I had to drill through, and in several places it didn’t even leave me enough room to get a good angle when I started my drilling. It was a frustrating and cramped place to work. But a kinda cool and creepy holding cell for any naughty children.
The final difficulty–and this was the most difficult–was when we ran the line out to the gym. Technically this is the attached garage that we finished and made into a living space, and which holds two spare freezers and a spare refrigerator, along with a computer, and exercise equipment. Also, technically it isn’t going to be radiant floor heat out there because the floor is a concrete pad so there will be a transition to wall radiators.
The concrete pad was a big obstacle because we faced the hurdle of trying to drill a hole through the concrete to get the line out of the basement and into the gym. We were saved from attempting this (and in hindsight surely failing short of using a jack-hammer) when I lit upon the idea of feeding the line through the tiny space under the attached bathroom and out through the floor of the bathroom and under the sink in the gym. It was as convoluted a path as it sounds, but it was a path that didn’t appear to need a jackhammer to use.
There was no possibility of crawling up in the tiny space under the bathroom floor and drilling out through the sill plate into the gym, so I had to drill into the crawl space from under the sink that was in the gym. I was painfully aware that I was drilling blind with a very sharp bit into a tight space filled with plumbing. The bit could easily puncture one of the copper water lines and start a spraying wet disaster in a space that would require us ripping up the entire bathroom floor in order to reach and fix. It was the sort of situation where everything could suddenly go south, very fast.
Cue the disaster music.
The first hole I drilled hit some metal object. It was either a stud plate or some lag or re-bar attaching the sill plate to the concrete. After giving up on the hole I moved to a slightly different location under the sink and drilled again. This time I got through, and hit the PVC drain line that served the sink in the bathroom. I took a chunk out of the pipe as big as the end of my finger nail before I pulled the drill bit back. This wasn’t as bad as hitting a pressurized water line, but it was still a problem. Any time the sink was used water would leak out the hole. Under normal circumstances this would have been an easy fix–but I hit this drain line right where it butted up against concrete and stud in a wall underneath a sink. There was no space to access the line and properly patch it.
This is where a simple job gets really complicated. The sawzall entered the picture and I cut away as much wood and sheet rock under the sink as I could. Then I got out the stone chisels and the short-handled sledge hammer and began widening a hole in the concrete block. All this work had to be done under a sink, which meant either lying painfully on my side on top of the cabinet frame, or else effectively standing on my head whilst trying to work. I alternated. The former made my side heart, and it was nearly impossible to breath when I was trying to do something in that position. The latter position of standing on my head was more comfortable and allowed free breathing, but that position gave me a headache.
Picture tools and debries scattered everywhere.
To make a very short story out of a lot of work, I managed to clamp a piece of rubber gasket over the hole in the drain line which fixed the leak. This looks incredibly stupid, but cutting out the damaged section and patching the line properly really would have required tearing up the entire bathroom floor, so this alternative was gladly accepted. After that I slightly widened my hole through the concrete block sill and then we pulled the first line up through the the narrow space using a wire drain snake.
It all sounds rather mundane and easy, but I am most proud of the trick we managed to pull off getting the radiator line into the gym. I’d have been happier if we had avoided the whole hitting-the-drain-line incident but that little mistake aside it was a rather clever, and difficult, feat to manage to pull the line up the way we did and was by fair the most technically difficult part of the project that we did ourselves.
Today I am helping Teman with the last bits of radiant line that needs to be run. It should be pretty easy. The only problem is that we need to keep ahead of the man Teman hired to set up the actual boiler who is hooking everything up and check for leaks. If you want to see real fancy work, you’d have to see what that man did setting up the boiler and zone controls. The zone controls have enough valves and levers and pipes to satisfy the imaginations of boys reading through old Fine Homebuilding magazines. That, at least, is state-of-the-art and a job done right.
Sometimes childhood dreams become a reality, after a fashion.
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