It’s been a long, cold, snowy winter. That much is expected and part of Maine’s charm. The long sequence of major snowfalls we had from mid-January to the end of March also revealed some important problems with the old house. Because of renovation decisions made in the early 70’s, the roof insulation is totally inadequate, and it will be very difficult to ever improve the situation.

First, the photographic evidence.



Ice accumulation represents lost heat through the roof. We’ve always had periods of icicles hanging from the front, but this is the worst we’ve seen it too date. Normally, this south facing side develops some ice and then the sun melts everything before the next storm. The closely spaced storms and extremely cold weather never allowed the ice to melt. And yes, there were ice dams. We have never had leakage before but this year water got in behind the second floor windows and ran down inside the wall, reappearing in the just finished living room ceiling. Bummer. We’re used to getting ice dams in the back of the house. The back (north side) is easily accessible from the ground so I rake the roof after storms and knock off developing ice at the edge. Unfortunately, I never took a picture of the north side ice dams – pretty impressive.

Adding to the roof insulation will be challenging because of the way the third floor was renovated. There was decision to have a cathedral ceiling and exposed beams. Beautiful and we love the space, but it means there’s only about 3-4 inches of space left for insulation. The space is currently filled with fiberglass batting. Our choices would be to lose the exposed beams and lower the ceiling, or to raise the roof. Maybe a roof on top of the roof. The latter is the most likely direction, but not for some years.


Third floor with exposed beams

Meanwhile, a couple more fun winter pictures.

The Mini was starting to disappear below the snow

The Mini was starting to disappear below the snow

Those doors won't be opening for a while

Those doors won’t be opening for a while


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Living Room Ceiling Repair

We’ve lived with a stained, cracked, and sagging ceiling in the living room since we bought the place. We’ve speculated that that may have been water damage at some point when the house was empty, even though there is a bedroom above. One day a visitor that worked in restoration described a possible repair approach. The approach used lots of plaster washers and wood screws, followed by a fiberglass mesh covered by a plaster skim coat. The plaster in my case was standard drywall joint compound. The time was right because our antique piano is out of the house being restored, so I got very brave and just dove in. The brave part comes from never having done a large area of plaster before. I had to learn some techniques to get a decent surface, and my old shoulders can’t handle much above-the-head work at a time. The job took over 6 weeks to complete. This includes a complete repainting of the room, but the ceiling took the majority of the time. I’m pleased with the final result, but I’ll admit that the effort was greater than I had anticipated.

Unfortunately, I didn’t document the starting condition very well. A rough idea of the ceiling state is given in the shoot below.

Ceiling, showing some of the cracks and sagging.

Ceiling, showing some of the cracks and sagging.

The washers have to be placed fairly close together. In a couple of locations, the plaster had sagged enough that the screws couldn’t draw it back into place and broke through instead. This happened in the foreground of the picture below, and I’ve already started to roughly fill new plaster backing into the resulting hole. Basically, I followed an existing cracks with screws on either side of the crack. There were additional screws in any areas were I could feel some motion if I pushed up on the plaster.

Plaster washers screwed into lathing.

Plaster washers screwed into lathing. Initial bit of fresh skin-coat visible to far right.


Washers from opposite side of room

Another cluster of washers was installed at the fireplace end of the room. In the end, I used 200 washers. There are no pictures of the plaster job in progress. Hard and messy is all I can say. I used a roll of 24 in wide fiberglass mesh to cover the entire ceiling to help prevent further cracking. The mesh is tacky enough to stick to the ceiling while you put on the first coat of plaster. I worked with 4-ft lengths at a time to keep things under control.  I was not able to get a good enough surface working with the wet plaster alone, so there was a lot of sanding after the second coat.

The final result is shown below. It’s hard to get a picture of a smooth white surface that shows much, but I think the result is acceptable. There is still a “bump” across the ceiling, going from left-to-right in the picture. Along this line, the plaster was keyed into a timber beam instead of lathing. The key had fallen too much to be able to push it completely back into place. Instead of demolishing the whole area, I declared it “good enough”.

I was never able to determine the age of the old plaster. It did not look like the oldest wall plaster I’ve seen in other places in the house, but it was not a modern product either.

More on wall repairs and the room paint job later.


Finished. Two coats of plaster. Two coats of paint, plus freshly painted walls.


Posted in Repair, Restoration | 2 Comments

Failure to check the easy stuff

Time for my confession of unintended energy waste. The house has eight fireplaces. When I first moved in, we had the chimneys and dampers professionally checked. All the fireplaces are functional, and they all had reasonably tight fitting dampers. The heavily used fireplaces involve much damper management, and I occasionally check the handles of less used fireplaces to make sure that the dampers are closed. Around March this year, after the majority of a bitterly cold winter, I happened to stick my head into one of the second floor fireplaces and discovered that the damper plate was askew, make a 1-2 inch air gap. I had no idea how long it had been that way. Concerned, I checked all the rarely used second floor fireplaces and found three out of the four dampers had some problem that was allowing warm air to go up the chimney. All trivial to fix but a bit late. More disturbing was the memory that while walking up the hill behind the house on a cold day in January, I noticed the shimmer of turbulent warm air coming out of a chimney that was not connected to the furnace. I simply thought it odd there would be visible heat loss from the presumed closed flues (four flues to a chimney), but I didn’t think any more of it or do anything. It would be hard to estimate how much oil heat went up the chimneys because of the negligence, but it could be substantial.

Using the fireplaces is questionable in terms of energy use. Many sources on the internet quote the energy efficiency of a fireplace as very low or even negative. We don’t regularly have any of the fireplaces burning. They are mostly for occasional ambiance. However, there are a couple of examples were I think that have a positive value (besides aesthetics). I practice music in a second floor room that can be quite cool (58F) in the morning. Rather than start up the second floor heating zone, I regularly light a small fire. The radiant heat keeps me comfortable for the couple of hours that I practice. Since I practice in the morning, I can shut the damper later in the day before the heat loss becomes important in the evening. Comfort in the fall and late spring are further examples of how we use the fireplaces. June in coastal Maine can be very cool and damp. Again, rather than starting up the oil heat, we frequently light a fire in the evening to stay comfortable.

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2013-2014 Oil Report Card

Well, it was a cold winter but I went in with high hopes that I had moved the needle downward on oil use. Alas, the results are not good.

First, let’s talk weather. Everyone around here felt like it was an exceptionally cold winter. In fact, there were long periods of negative temperatures at night, a couple of -22F readings on my thermometer, and a couple days that never got above zero. People that heat with wood were running out of wood for the first time in memory. Despite all that, the heating degree-day calculation shows that the winter was only about 20% colder than the previous year. Specifically, 6522 F-days for 2012-2012, and 7849 F-days for 2013-2014, using a 65F reference temperature. A plot of local temperature for the last five years is revealing.

Weekly Mean Temperature (F) over 5 Years for Alna Maine

Weekly Mean Temperature (F) over 5 Years for Alna Maine

The plot shows that this last winter had a longer spell of low temperatures compared to previous years, and a couple of extreme spikes.

I can’t hide the bad news any longer. Our oil use for the 2013-2014 year was 1560 gallons. Using the degree-day calculation, that gives a k-factor of 5.03, which is lower than for the previous couple of years (5.26 and 5.76).  I don’t try to estimate the amount of oil left in the tank that will go into next year; the total number is simply the amount of oil purchased during the heating season. So depending on when the last delivery is made, the total oil use value can be more the 10% off, a significant source of error. For reference, we’re heating about 3900 sq-ft of space, and water is heated by oil. There were a couple of major mistakes made during the winter that I think impacted our efficiency. I’ll write those tells of woe in a latter posting.




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Christmas Lights

We had some warm days this week that enabled me to take down the Christmas lights. Winter solstice in Maine can be pretty dark and gray, so a few lights brighten up the village. But how much energy is involved? I put a watt meter on my display just before taking it down. The outdoor display comes in at 140W, and the indoor tree adds another 70W. These are the tiny incandescent bulbs. We use a timer on the outdoor display that keeps the lights on for 6 hours a night. The display is up for about 4 weeks, so that all comes out to 35 kW-hr for the season. At our marginal rate of 11.5 cents a kilowatt hour, that’s $4 of extra electricity.


I’d love to switch to LED lights, and bought a couple of strings for the indoor tree this year. Five watts a string is great. The only problem is that the colors, directionality, and excess brightness all made the tree awful to look at. I ended up removing the strings and replacing with the ancient incandescents. There are probably acceptable LED lights out there, and I’ll just have to do some more careful shopping next year.

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Rainwater Drains

The battle to move rainwater away from the old house never ends. This fall I hand-dug 115 ft worth of trenches to bury 4-in drainage pipe. One of those projects I’ve been putting off because I imagined it would be awful, but it really didn’t take that many hours. There were two issues I needed to deal with. First, there was the roof drip line in front of the house. A couple of years ago I had the front gutter removed because it was constantly dumping water on the corner of the foundation. It was just too high up to keep clean and repaired, plus many old houses in Maine don’t use gutters because of the ice and snow issues. I had hoped the more distributed water coming off the house would drain harmlessly away, but no such luck. The cellar walls quickly became wet in rainy weather and there was additional water flowing through the cellar. The fix was to bury slotted pipe along the drip line and the pipe the water well away from the house. The trenches in way of the slotted put were lined with plastic and filled with gravel. Shredded mulch was placed over everything to hide the gravel and excess plastic. On one side of the house, the water goes under the drive and empties onto a steep part of the yard. On the other side, the pipes lead to an existing rock pit that already captures water off the patio. The pit, in turn, already had a pipe to the street.

Drip-line drain. Here, I'm started to refill the trench with gravel.

Drip-line drain. Here, I’m started to refill the trench with gravel.

Carrying the water away to an existing stone water capture pit. Path involved going under a brick walkway.

Carrying the water away to an existing stone water capture pit. Path involved going under a brick walkway.

Along the way I found an older buried drain for the downspout. It was not in use when we bought the house – there was just an above-ground downspout extension (which never worked). The old drain wouldn’t accept much water before backing up. I tried to follow where it went by digging. It plunged under some large slabs of rock a few feet from the house, and then continued – to somewhere.  The other end does not reappear on the surface. It may have just gone to a French drain somewhere in the yard, but it must be clogged or it never worked. I gave up and abandoned the old pipes and continued with my plan.

The other issue we fixed was dealing with the water coming from the back of the house and the carriage house. Some time ago, we added a system of pipes that brought the water all the way around the carriage house and out to the corner. OK for keeping the structures dry but the large flow of water was running down my driveway and washing out the gravel on the steep parts. Plus, the water would freeze in the winter making the drive a little more challenging. The fix was to continue the pipes underground and take the water all the way to the front wall. The pipe comes out of the wall just a few feet from a culvert under the road.

It took about 60 ft of flexible pipe to reach the stone wall.

It took about 60 ft of flexible pipe to reach the stone wall.


A lot of water flows out the pipe even in a light rain

Before. It didn’t take much rain to form a good size stream running down the drive.

It’s been an exceptionally dry October, so I haven’t gotten to see my new systems in action during a heavy rain. We had a couple of days of light rain and I got to see water coming out of all the appropriate exits. And most importantly, the cellar walls stayed perfectly dry.

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Finally done with the carriage house floor insulation

Early this summer I started a major project to insulate the floor of the carriage house rooms using 3-in foam-board. I finished the foam board part in June but still needed to seal the edges of the boards with spray foam. House painters came, the garden grew, and I put off finishing until recently. Now, the job is complete, but the final stages were no fun.

When I started the project people would ask me about creepy-crawlies in the crawl space. In May, it was not an issue – I really didn’t notice much living under there. Whole different story in September. All the spiders have grown up big and strong and are protecting their egg cases. I’m not too squeamish about spiders, but I also don’t know which ones can make at least an itchy bite. To make matters worse, with the foam board in place, I had 3 less inches to work in than when I was installing foam-boards. Some spots are now impossibly tight to crawl under. Finally, there’s working with spray foam while lying on one’s back in a tight space. I could mostly avoid getting dripped on, but the stuff gets on the ground and then you crawl over it. During the first session, I lost my hat and my hair got into the foam on the ground. Nothing to do but cut out large hunks of my hair. Before going under again, I bought full coveralls with a hood, but I still managed to get a couple of drips in the hair. I’m not sure about the dangers of the volatiles involved. The sides of the crawl space are all open, but I still tried to keep my face away from where I was applying the foam. If I could smell anything, that was assumed to be bad and I moved on quickly. It’s also disappointing that the project now looks kind of messy. The boards where all nice and neatly fitted in. Now, there are foam stalactites all over the place. Not that anyone will ever see it.

The foam board had been cut to fit between the joists. That means should be a bead of foam along the edges of each joist, and at the ends. The idea is to prevent cold air from getting behind the foam in spots where it is not tight against the floor. A quick calculation gives 572 ft of seams. It took 7 cans of high-expansion foam to do the job. That includes some foundation gaps I generously filled, and some complicated bits around the fireplace support. Just counting the seams, that gives 82-ft of coverage per can, which goes a lot further than I would have guessed. In fact, I’m left with 4 cans of foam. I’m sure I can find someplace to use them.

Costs for the project

  • Foam board $754
  • Adhesive $52
  • Screws and washers $33
  • Spray foam 7 x 8.49 – $59
  • Total $898

I started to keep a log of time spent, but it may not be entirely accurate. It added up to something like 30 hours, not counting time tracking down supplies. I have great hopes for a significant impact on the heating bill. Otherwise, I’m going to be pissed.

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