Monday, March 29, 2004

The Chicken House Effect

Anyone out there who is or someday may be faced with the prospect of retrofitting insulation into an old house ought to be aware of a phenomenon I have dubbed "The Chicken House Effect" (to distinguish if from the better known Greenhouse Effect, of course). I noted this principle when I was insulating the little chicken house I built to brood the chicks early this spring. I had a constant heat source (250 watt heat lamp) and a thermometer in the house. I insulated it in sections, slipping in rigid styrofoam panels. The insulation was having almost no effect on the temperature inside the house, until I put in the very last panel and there was a sudden quantum leap. I found this curious, so I pondered on it, and realized the principle: When you are progressively insulating a house, there will be frustratingly little effect until you get down to the final bits, then it will seem like all the insulation suddenly starts working simultaneously.

Two lessons I have taken from this:

(1) Take heart, even though it seems like all that nasty filthy irritating work you are doing isn't making a damn bit of difference, just have patience. As you get closer to the end of the job, it will all pay off.

(2) Those last little really difficult and costly bits (the storm windows that each have to be individually custom fit to those damn antique windows; those few square feet between the chimney and the window that you have to insulate by stuffing tiny handfuls of loose fill through a narrow crack; crawling in the dirt under the floor amongst spiders and three generations of defunct wiring and plumbing) are very important, and worth the effort and expense.

My own (full size) house has only recently started to experience the Chicken House Effect, after insulating it in stages over a year and a half and wondering why it was still so damn cold.

When I thought about it, the reasons for The Chicken House Effect were in fact very simple... It follows naturally from the way that R-values average reciprocally. The basic concept, though, is that like water, heat finds the easy way out. If you have a leaky bucket you really have to plug all the leaks before it will hold water. Same for heat leaking out of the house. For R-values, let's say that in a house like mine the uninsulated walls (no sheathing, clapboard you can see daylight through, leaky single pane windows) have an effective R-value of 1, and the insulated walls have an effective R-value of 10 (allowing for windows, studs, etc.). You might think that in a house where half the walls are insulated and half aren't, the effective whole house R-value would be the average of 10 and 1, i.e. 5.5. But it don't work that way, dudes. You gotta turn everything upside down, average that, then turn the average upside down. So, the effective R-value of that whole house is really:

R= 1/{(1/1 + 1/10)/2} = 1.8

So you are still freezing. Picture a barn with only two walls and half a roof; how warm will that be? You don't get up to an R-value of 3 until you are 75% done with the job.. and then you might start to notice a little benefit. When the job is 90% done you have your R-value up to 5... halfway there. So that final 10% of the job will give you as much extra warmth as the first 90% of the work did!

Friday, March 19, 2004


That's the number of pots and flats in the greenhouse and on the windowsills, holding future seedlings for this year.

On another note, Peggy just received this notice concerning a change to our health insurance:

"Your husband has now been changed to male. So very sorry about that."

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Old paint peeling...

...the rats are squealing, the well's gone dry as a bone.
(Mike Cross)

OK, there's no rats and no well here...

Nothing fancy going on lately. Built a 2'x 4'x 2' covered pen (the "back porch") on the brooder house so the chicks can have their first look at the big wide world, and so the hound can have her first good look at the chicks. None of them quite seem to know what to make of these new revelations just yet.

Made the first steps into what will be a massive job: painting the house exterior. It's funny how even when 75% of the old paint flakes off if you look at it cross-eyed, the remaining 25% still requires a heat gun and weeks of elbow grease to remove it. If I were gonna do it in true hillbilly style I'd just give it a pressure wash (filling the walls up with water no doubt) and then power spray right over all the old alligatored paint. The philosphy of hillbilly engineering is "Why do it right the first time when you can do a half assed job and then spend the rest of yer life fucking around with it every few weeks?" But for better or for worse, that's not my style. Or my stigma.

A prime example of hillbilly engineering:

This house had no bathroom when it was first built (in 1886) of course. Sometime during the mid 20th century when it got indoor plumbing and a bathroom, they decided that the best place for the bathroom was right in the middle of the house, practically just inside the front door and at the base of the stairs to the second floor. So they cobbled together a bathroom from sink toilet and tub that were intended for mobile home use (i.e. tiny). They never properly caulked or sealed the shower surround, so it evidently was a mass of leaks. Of course, eventually, the floor rots. So they put a new floor on it... without bothering to fix the leaky shower. This new floor rots out quickly enough, and by then the joists are also rotten and sagging, which makes room for them to put down a third floor, on top of the two previous ones. Still the leaks were never fixed, cycle repeats...

When I bought the house none of the existing plumbing was in working order nor was there any water supply system to connect it to anyway, so I began my plumbing job by ripping out the old bathroom. And discovered the geological strata of rotted floors, each layed down on top of the others over the eons:

Linoleum (Pleistocene)
Particle board (Pliocene)
Linoleum (Triassic)
Particle board (Jurassic)
Linoleum (Cretaceous)
Plywood (Cambrian)

And finally, the Precambrian foundation floor:
3/4" Tongue and grove oak
1" Tulip Poplar planking
2x10 Poplar joists

All crumbling, not enough strength in the whole assemblage to support my weight. There was little left for me to do but rip out that whole section of floor down to the dirt and rebuild it from the ground up. So this I did, new joists, new subloor, and (someday soon) new oak. All the while thinking to myself "Why didn't they just fix the DAMN LEAKS???"

The congregations of frogs began singing a couple of weeks ago and the nightly roar from the pond has reached full development. Species list of frogs:

Spring peeper (thousands!)
Copes Gray Treefrog
Western Chorus Frog
Southern Leopard Frog

Finally spotted one of the local bobcats running across the road yesterday afternoon. Bobcat's aren't rare around here but they are damn hard to lay eyes on.

And the first native wildflower of the season sprang into bloom today: Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

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