Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Fireplace Dilemma

I love a fireplace in the winter, but who doesn't.  It sets a romantic mood--the flames dancing, the crackling sound, it's mesmerizing.   I remember as a child coming in from playing in the snow at my grandfather's house, we'd stand in front of the roaring fire.  It felt so good, then we'd bend our legs, so the denim would sear into our legs.  Ouch! But then we'd do it again.

The problem was, you pretty much had to stand right in front of the fireplace.  If you had a big fire, you could feel it across the room, but you were burning alot of wood and most of the heat was going straight up the chimney.  All that air going up the chimney has to be backfilled from somewhere, and usually that was a leaky door, window, or electrical socket.  As the room with the fireplace got warmer, the other rooms got colder, and thus the dilemma.

How could you justify having one in an energy efficient home?  I scoured the internet, and every answer said it's just not possible.  So, what are the alternatives? 

The first thing I was let to was the masonry heater.  These things originate in the "old country".  A couple of good websites I found were, makers of the Temp-Cast 2000, and, which has way more information, including numerous customized plans and step by step installation instructions.  Basically the heated air goes through a maze of masonry, down, and then back up, so that most of the heat is absorbed by the masonry. This stores the heat and radiates it into the room. 
The cores cost around $5,000, but then you have to wrap the whole thing with about 4" of real stone.  This means a real mason--not the cultured stone masons.  No offense to the guys who do cultured stone, but it's not the same.  I'm told it would cost $15-20k, but I couldn't even find anyone that would give us a quote.  Seems no one has the skills to do this around here.

The second option was a wood stove (also recommended by and Southland Custom Homes).  Now, I wasn't thrilled with this idea at first, because I like the look of a traditional fireplace more.  The ones I remember being around were the cast iron models that got really hot, then shortly after the fire was out, they stopped giving off heat.  Then my father-in-law asked if we had looked into soapstone wood stoves.  These stoves combine cast iron with stone to allow for more heat storage and thus, more heat release after the fire is out.  I did some searching and came across the Equinox from Hearthstone.  It gives off heat for about 4 hours after the fire is out,  is rated at 82% efficient, and qualifies for a $300 tax rebate if purchased in 2011.

We got some quotes from Peachtree Comfort Gallery (yes, in Georgia, almost everything is named after the peach), and I think we've found our wood stove!  We'll be installing a flue to the basement during the build to make it possible to add another wood stove (albeit smaller) in the basement.

The Equinox will be set into an arched, cultured stone alcove, based on my design.  The stairs to the basement are on the left and the flue to from the basement is enclosed on the right:

That's all for now.  We finalized our plans last week (well, aside from some minor changes), and we are just waiting to hear back from Southland Custom Homes on the total cost.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Erosion Control: Learning the hard way.

We installed erosion controls this weekend to keep all the dirt from washing away and running into the streams and water supply.  Along the driveway we covered the exposed dirt with straw (about 17 bales).  For the home site hillside, which is a gentle slope, we  installed silt fence along the uphill side of the driveway, then up the west side of the clearing to form a "U" or "V" shape to catch anything that's washed down the hill.  Since we really aren't in the rainy season yet, we'll hold off on spreading more straw and get the the basement is excavated.  This was the recommendation of the grader, as the basement excavation would just remove all the straw, and we'd have to do it again. 

To install the silt fence, which needs to be buried about 6 inches, we chose to rent a small loader/trencher (Boxer 320) from Home Depot.  It rents for about $105 for 4 hrs or $150/day.   It's important to note that the one we rented was equipped with a loader, but also had a trencher attachment that we'd need to connect once with got to the property.

I took Friday off, as we had an appointment with Rhonda over at Southland Custom Homes at 1pm to get all our "Red Line" changes into drafting and our contract, and I knew that would take a while.  That meant, we only had about 4 hrs to keep the trencher in order to be able to get cleaned up and over to Southland Custom Homes.   The rental guy ran over how to run it while on the rental clock: choke, throttle, how to steer, how to make it go fast/slow, how to engage the trencher.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Rabbit means fast, turtle means slow.  I got it.   We're on the clock!  We get over to the property, unload the Boxer, unhook the bucket, then attach the trencher and the hydraulic hoses.  Easy enough.  Here it is in all of it's glory:

In our haste, we were not properly informed by the rental guy at Home Depot, that the "Rabbit" only means fast driving speed--NOT fast trenching speed.  Look how slow that thing runs.  We were also hitting rocks and roots.  A root would get jammed about ever 10 minutes and stop the trencher blade.  The trencher "on" lever did not appear to have a reverse, so it took some serious work to get the roots unwedged.

After 3 hrs of slow trenching, we had trenched about 150ft of the 300ft needed.  That's when I accidentally discovered "fast" trenching mode, when I forgot to set the speed to "Rabbit" and left it on "Turtle".   In "Turtle" mode, that trencher really flew!  Sorry, no video of it working properly, but I laid 50 ft of trench in 20 minutes, then we had to pack it up to get it back to Home Depot by noon (our 4 hr cutoff).  I was convinced that they had the stickers installed backwards on the machine.  It all made more sense, when I returned it and a different guy was running the rental desk.  He explained that the wheels are also driven by hydraulic fluid and "Rabbit" mode only meant that the wheels went fast (diverting most of the hydraulic pressure to the wheels for driving, rather than the trencher for trenching.  Not really something you need to know, if you are only using the bucket.  They said they'd cut me a deal on the next day's rental, since they failed to explain this--hey, I'll take it.

The next day (Saturday), we got up bright and early and brought little Max along to help.  Since it was sprinkling and threatening more rain, we went directly to the property, where we already had about 200 ft of trench, to start laying out the silt fence.  After unrolling the 80lb rolls of 100' of DOT approved (lasts longer) silt fence ($38/roll from Robert Hood and Sons off of exit 13 on Hwy 400) and explaining how it needed to be installed, I left Dylan to it, while Max and I went to pick up the trencher.  When I got back, Dylan had almost 100' of silt fence hammered into our hard, compacted ground (remember the 38,000 lb loader?).  He looked pretty worn out, so I gave him a break, and I hammered in the last 2 stakes of that run.  I told him to take a break from hammering and start filling in the trench with dirt, while I trenched the last 100 foot run.  Finish the remaining trenching in about 30 minutes, I left Max to help out and ran the trencher back to Home Depot and get my $30 "discount"...grumble, grumble.  Here's Max setting the silt fence in the trench to get it ready for the hammering.

Dylan's walked about 30 feet and Max already setting the next post:

Max really wanted to give the 3lb mini sledge a try, so we let him:

Here's the wind up:

Perfect connection!

With Dylan on the big sledge, and Max on the mini-sledge, these guys were in perfect sync, like you see in those "Chain Gang" movies, where two guys are hammering the same spike:

Backfilling the silt fence:

All done.  300ft of silt fence: $114.  Trencher could have been $105, but ended up costing me $180 for two days.  20 bales of wheat straw: $90 at Home Depot.  Labor for Dylan: $80, Max: $5.  Total cost: $469.  Not bad, considering $85 stayed in the family.  We'll need some more wheat straw later, but I'm sure it will be less than the $800-1000 estimated to have someone else do it (and that was just an allowance, so overages would apply).  Besides, it feels good to feel like you have a part in building your own home. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

4th of July Steam Engine Parade

We took a break today to enjoy something you don't get to see often--a steam engine parade! No, these are not train engines, they are tractors that run on wood burning steam engines.   If you've not been to one of these, the next 4th of July, go to this morning parade in downtown Cumming, GA

They come in all sizes, even tiny tricycle size:

Bring your earplugs, because when these steam engines need to let off steam, they do it through a whistle, and it is LOUD. 

We forgot our earplugs, but about halfway through the parade (and hearing loss), they handed out free earplugs!  Even with the earplugs, Isabel had enough.  ;)

Monday, July 4, 2011

House Plans and Site Plan

Thanks to Mr Steve Beagle of Southland Custom Homes, we have permission to post our houseplans, which is our adaptation of the Windy Corner from  We bought the CAD plans from with copyright release for modifications and a single home build.  Thanks to Architect Debra Rucker Coleman of Sun Plans Inc for also giving us permission to post the floorplans.

Preliminary Draft from Southland Custom Homes.  Some tweaks not shown are: All windows are casement, with prairie grids.  Basement level windows are all grouped in three's.  First floor powder room is altered to be slightly larger.  Front door will be a double door, 3/4 glazed, with prairie grids.  The fireplace is up for debate.  Electrical will be modified quite a bit.  Click on the pictures to view a larger version.

First Floor:

Second Floor and Tower:


Front Elevation:

Left Elevation (what you see as you follow the driveway around to the front):

Right and Rear Elevations:

We staked out the house this morning to get a feel of how it fits in the clearing.  Now that it's staked out, it doesn't fee like we overdid the clearing of the site. 

Looking West:
Looking Southwest:

Looking East from behind the garage:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

All Cleared Out

Brandon Waters Grading pushed all the limbs, branches, and debris outside of the driveway line, as requested. We wanted to keep as much of the branches on-site to turn into woodchips for mulching. No need to burn diesel (and money) hauling them somewhere else.

We ended up with a couple HUGE piles of tangled branches.

We needed to separate the piles into firewood sized logs and chipper sized branches.  Unfortunately, it was pretty hard to separate by hand, as the big stuff weighed down the pile and held everything together.  Then I had an idea.  We'd take my tow strap, tie it to a log in entwined in the pile, hook it to my Xterra Offroad 4x4 and pull it out.  This worked well and loosened up the pile.  This is about a 8" log:

Wide Open Spaces

Wow, when you clear out the trees, it looks a LOT bigger. By day two, Brandon (of Brandon Waters Grading) had all the clears down and by day three, all the root balls hauled off.  I was hoping for the driveway to be cut and graveled, so I could put down silt fence this weekend, but I guess the root balls had to be hauled further than expected.  Still, this went WAY faster than expected.  Here's some "end of day two" pictures.  Our driveway is the dirt part. The nice gravel part is our neighbor's (our easement).

From the above driveway cut, looking into the property:

From the house site, looking down at the driveway entrance:

This is where the garage will be: