Construction Journal Entry Week of 11/21/10

11/22-24/10 I went up to Camp Serendipity for 3 days: Monday through Wednesday. That way I could get my three days in and still be home for Thanksgiving.

There was a big winter storm that covered most of the western half of the country so when I left home, there was about two inches of snow on the ground in Seattle. I had to use 4wd just to get up to Greenwood Ave. I left the 4wd on all the way to Camp Serendipity. On the way, I ran into blizzards and whiteouts. I probably averaged 40 mph all the way.

I arrived at 2:05. There was only about 2 or 3 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was 20 degrees. I went up to the cabin and was pleased to find that the temperature inside was a pleasant 55 degrees. All the thermostats were still set at 50 degrees, so the heaters were performing as they should. I checked the pex pipes in the crawlspace and was happy to discover that they were not frozen. I built a fire in the wood stove and swept off both porches and staircases. There must have been quite a wind when the snow had fallen because both porches had about an inch of snow on them.

Then I went down to the trailer and had my lunch. It was only 55 degrees in there in spite of the little heater running continuously. After lunch, I went to work and soldered the copper pipe assembly together. Then I took it down to the crawlspace and tried it out.

Just getting the thing threaded into the holes in the joists to get it in position was like a Chinese puzzle. It wasn't easy, but I finally got it. Then I tried to mate the two ends to the two pipes in the floor joists. They were aligned pretty well, but it was going to be difficult to get both of the pipes seated all the way into the couplers. I could see that it was going to be a challenge.

I quit for the day and took a nice hot shower. Then I went down to the cold trailer for dinner. The weather was supposed to turn much colder in the next couple days, so I was really concerned about the pex pipes in the crawlspace. The temperature outside got down to 16 degrees that night and inside the trailer it stayed at 55 degrees. I put on all the covers I had in the trailer and was still a little chilly during the night. I didn't have the presence of mind to bring in one of the two emergency sleeping bags I carry in the truck so I could be a little warmer.

On Tuesday morning, it was still 55 in the trailer and 16 outside. I went up to the cabin, where it was again a pleasant 55 degrees, and started a fire in the stove. That really warms the place up almost immediately. As soon as the loft warms up, the fan kicks on and warm air blows up through the register in the bedroom, just as the plan calls for.

My new family doctor had told me recently how she carries a bag of kitty litter in her car to help her get out in case she gets stuck in the snow. That caused me to remember that the bucket of sand I usually carry in the truck for the same purpose had spilled and it was now empty. I decided that now that winter was here, I better fill it back up.

I took a shovel out to the old sand and gravel bins and scraped off a bunch of leaf and needle debris and got down to quite a bit of nice clean mortar sand. I filled a bucket with it but the sand was pretty damp. I figured that it might freeze in a lump so I decided to dry it out.

I took the steel mortar box upstairs, set it on top of the wood stove, and dumped the four gallons, or so, of wet sand into it. I figured that would dry the sand out.

With the sand heating up, I went to work and connected the pipe assembly to the two pipes in the floor joists. This took a little ingenuity. One of the pipes mated sooner than the other one, so the problem was to pull that second pipe all the way into the coupler that was soldered to the end of the pipe in the assembly.

Before I started, though, I cleaned the surfaces of the pipes and couplers with the standard wire-brush cleaning tools. Then I gooped the surfaces with flux. I figured that the flux might be enough of a lubricant to make the pipes easy to slide together. The flux helped, but it was still a hard job to join the pipes together.

I used three tricks in a combination that eventually worked. First I tied a short 1/4" rope across the open joint with a clove hitch around each pipe. Then I tightened the rope by sliding the clove hitches as far apart as possible. This stretched the rope snugly along the pipes. Then, by pulling on the rope, it drew the pipes together with quite a bit of force.

This was enough to get the first joint engaged nearly all the way, and the second joint engaged about a quarter of an inch, which is a quarter of the inch it needed to go.

The next trick was to push on the long pipe from the other end. To do that, I clamped the pipe with a vise-grip at the far end and then used a bar clamp between the vise-grip and a floor joist to push the pipe toward the joint. Then by alternately tightening the clamp, and pulling on my rope, I moved the pipe another half inch into the coupler.

When I couldn't make any more progress that way, I went to my third trick. I clamped a vise-grip onto the long pipe near the joint, and used a second bar clamp between the vise-grip and a loop of rope that went around the end of the pipe assembly. This did the trick. By tightening the bar clamp, both pipes were snugly drawn into their respective couplers.

Then it was a simple matter to run some metal flashing up around the pipes to protect the floor and the joists from the heat, and then to sweat the pipes together in the normal way. I was happy with how they looked. I use a small dental mirror and a trouble light to inspect the joints all the way around to make sure that the solder flowed completely through the joints. Both joints looked good.

In fact, they looked so good that I got the camera and took a couple pictures of the finished work. I also took a picture of me holding the #4 copper wire template that I had used to bend the pipes into the right shapes.

The copper plumbing in the floor joists was now complete. What remained was to connect the pex pipe to the top of it, and to connect the other ends to the existing loop of copper pipes that currently has water running through it. To do either of these jobs, the water from the spring will have to be shut off. I didn't want that water to be shut off for any longer than it had to, so I decided to postpone the rest of the plumbing work until next week. I was afraid that if I had any problems trying to do it this week, I would have to leave before the job was done and the plumbing run would then be vulnerable to freezing up.

The plan for the pex plumbing is to use two Shark Bite couplers that I had bought, to connect the pipes without the need for the specialized tools normally used to connect pex pipes. I will cut out a valve the plumbers had installed in the pex feeder pipe leaving an inch on each side of the valve for the Shark Bites. Then I'll unscrew the pex-to-copper adapter that taps into my copper water line and cut the pex pipe an inch away from the adapter. Then I'll screw the adapter into my newly-installed copper assembly. Next I'll cut the pex pipe near where I accidentally damaged it with the hole saw. I'll use the two Shark Bites to connect that damaged pipe to the valve and the valve to the adapter to the copper pipes. Finally, I'll plug the fitting where I took the adapter out.

I measured the distances involved and found that I have 8 1/2 inches to work with, and the combination of fittings adds up to 8 inches exactly. So theoretically it will work. I still need one inch of slack so that I can engage the last Shark Bite and then push the whole thing together the last inch. I should be able to get this inch by a combination of flexing the pex pipes and moving the two copper pipes along their runs. It will be tricky, but it is doable. That will be a job for next week.

The whole point of having this extended run of copper pipe is to deliver water to the pex system way up in the floor joists where it will be safe from freezing. The water in the copper pipes is continually flowing so it won't freeze. But the water in the pex pipes flows only if a fixture upstairs is turned on. So when I am gone, the pex pipes are subject to freezing. The most vulnerable is the run up against the crawlspace wall from where it connects to the existing copper loop. Since this won't be replaced until next week, and since some severely cold weather is due tomorrow, I needed to protect this pipe. The plan for that was to temporarily plug up all the crawlspace vents with Styrofoam insulation. There should be enough ground heat from the bedrock below, and the heat from the floor above now that the cabin will always be heated, to keep the pipes from freezing. We'll see.

During lunch, I came up with what turned out to be a pretty dumb idea. Usually before I go to bed on a cold night, I will set the teakettle, partly full of boiling water, under the covers in the corner where my feet go. After sitting there for a half-hour or so, it warms up the bed where my feet go real cozy. When I get into bed with cold feet, it warms them up and that warms up my whole body.

What I really need is a hot water bottle, and I used to have one. But somehow I had lent it out, or given it away, or something. I looked for it but I couldn't find it. So I decided to use an empty two quart plastic juice bottle I happened to have. I filled it with boiling water and laid it under the covers at the foot of my bed and then I ate my lunch.

After lunch I decided to check on my hot water bottle, and to my horror I found that it had leaked. The lid was made of some sort of plastic that couldn't stand the heat. It had become soft and the threads that held it in place had let go. Fortunately it didn't come all the way off, but it had leaked a puddle about 8 inches across in the bottom sheet and the mattress pad. The top sheet, fortunately was not wet. But if I couldn't get those spots dried out, I would have ice in my bed pretty soon.

I pulled the corners of the lower sheet and mattress pad out and was able to drape the wet spots over the heater below. I used strings to suspend them in a safe clearance, and then I pushed the wastebasket in front of the heater to deflect the warm, or sort-of-warm, air from the heater up into the sheets. I hoped they would be dry by the time I came back in for the night.

I went up to the cabin, revived the fire in the stove, stirred the sand, which was drying nicely, and then went to work and made the six Styrofoam plugs for the vent holes. There was a really cold draft coming in the vent holes, so when I plugged each one I was pretty convinced that this was going to make a big difference. I also realized that the draft was probably caused by the draw from the wood stove and that I better supply combustion air from an open window upstairs until I get the combustion/replacement air duct installed. I opened the small window in the utility room for this reason.

In only a short time after installing the last Styrofoam block, the temperature in the crawl space went up to 38 degrees, in spite of the 16 degree temperature outside.

While I was working in the crawl space, the water heater started making that hissing noise again. I found a phone number for Whirlpool, the manufacturer, on the heater. I called them and asked whether the noise indicated a problem. They told me that if the noise stopped when I turned off the power to the water heater, that it was harmless and caused by sediment accumulated around the element. I tried turning off the power, the noise stopped, so I quit worrying about it.

After taking my shower and heading in for the night, I heard a pack of coyotes really yelping it up. They sounded like they were right in the next property to the East of me. Pretty soon I could hear Bert and Ernie barking and bellowing at them. It was quite a duel of sounds. I felt a little nervous walking down the dark roadway between the cabin and the trailer, but I was probably pretty safe from a coyote attack.

I was happy to discover that my bedding was nice and dry when I went in for dinner. It was a cold night, though. The temperature outside got down to 3 degrees and inside the trailer it was about 45 degrees. This was going to be a good test for the pipes.

On Wednesday morning it was still 3 degrees outside. The cabin was still a nice cozy 55 degrees and the crawlspace was about 33 degrees. The pipes were safe. I was relieved and happy.

I got a call from Ellen shortly after I had my breakfast. She said that the furnace at home wasn't working right and that she had spent a cold night. I could relate to that. I told her that I would pack up and leave right away to come home and deal with it. I loaded the dry sand into the bucket, put a lid on it, and put it in the truck. I locked up, packed up, and left for home at 10:00 feeling pretty good about the plumbing progress and the pipe protection.

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