Author Archives: Benjamin Hardy

Low-Flow Toilets 101

Save money and conserve water with energy low-flow toilets.

Low-Flow Toilets


The EPA declares that an estimated 4.8 billion gallons of water are flushed down the toilet every day. According to the American Water Works Association, the average household uses 20 to 28 gallons per day just to flush the toilet. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 took a step in reducing water waste by mandating that all new toilets produced for residential conform to a 1.6-gallon-per-flush (gpf) standard, moving away from conventional 3.5-gpf to 5-gpf models.

To encourage homeowners to replace conventional toilets with low-flush models, some states and municipalities offer tax incentives, rebates, and vouchers.

San Diego’s Water Conservation Program, for example, offers vouchers for commercial and residential replacement of 3.5 gpf or higher toilets with water-conserving models. Residents can save as much as $165 by using a voucher when replacing an old water-hogging toilet with a water-conscious version. A $165 voucher used on a $250 water-efficient toilet can mean payback in as little as two years, depending on the region. A homeowner should check into local or state incentives for toilet replacement.

Improved Performance
The first low-flush (1.6 gpf) models had trouble clearing the bowl, often requiring more than one flush, which defeats the purpose of a low-flush toilet. To counter these complaints, ultra-low-flush toilets (ULFTs) soon appeared on the market with improved flushing-mechanisms and design improvements. Modified tanks, elongated bowls, and increased flushing velocity ensured improved performance using less water. “It was essentially a change in bowl shape, water flow, and trap design,” says Rob Zimmerman, Kohler’s Senior Staff Engineer of Water Conservation Initiatives.

Like conventional toilets, ULFTs come in gravity-fed and pressurized versions. Pressurized models are criticized for excessive flushing noise, prompting industry manufacturers to take notice. “Our Highline Pressure Lite model is a pressurized toilet that uses 1.1 gallons per flush,” says Zimmerman. “Improvements in the hydraulic system have resulted in a quieter flush. It’s still louder than a gravity-fed toilet, but it doesn’t sound like an airplane taking off.”

High-Efficiency and Dual-Flush Options
The toilet industry’s leaders in water conservation are the high-efficiency toilets (HET) and dual-flush toilets. The industry defines an HET as a toilet that uses 20 percent less than the 1.6-gpf low-flush or ultra-low-flush models, or 1.28 gallons of water per flush.

With the introduction of HETs, some municipal and community water-saving incentive programs have updated their incentive offers. In San Diego, an HET replacement can be worth up to $165 per toilet, while a 1.6-gpf ULFT earns $75 per fixture. HETs are one of the highlighted categories under the EPA’s new WaterSense program, which approves, promotes, and labels water-efficient products just as the Energy Star program certifies energy-efficient products.

LEED Green Building Certification for Homes

Until recently, residential customers who wanted a greener home worked without a certification, researching and specifying building materials for their new homes and remodels. Now LEED for Homes (LEED-H) can guarantee that green building materials are use


LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program, has long been the only standard for environmentally designed commercial buildings. Until recently, residential customers who wanted a greener home worked without a certification, researching and specifying building materials for their new homes and remodels. The challenge for many has been finding builders or contractors who can understand and build to a green model.

Now LEED for Homes (LEED-H) can guarantee that green building materials are used during construction, energy-efficiency standards are maintained, and indoor air quality is assured for the homeowners.

What It Means to Be Green
Much like LEED certification for commercial buildings, schools, and retail stores, LEED-H certification requires that the home meet prerequisites and earn points in different categories. The total number of points determines if a certificate will be awarded and at what level. Qualified homes can be Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum, with Platinum requiring a home to earn 90-128 points of a possible 129.

Homes are graded and awarded points for Innovation and Design Process, Location and Linkages, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environment Quality, and Awareness and Education. Builders who apply to receive LEED-H certification strive to achieve the maximum number of points per category.

“Some categories are hard to get points in, simply because of where we live,” says Peter Taggart of Taggart Construction in Freeport, ME. Taggart has been involved in two pilot house projects for the LEED-H program, one of which received a silver rating, the other a gold.

The requirements for LEED-H certification are demanding, and grading is done on every aspect of homebuilding, from design, and site management during construction to educating the homeowner on living in a green home. “The program requires a team effort by all the parties involved in the homebuilding process,” Taggart says. “There’s no cutting corners.” The evaluation process takes place over the course of construction by contracted service providers on state and regional levels.

If the LEED for Homes certification program sounds familiar, it should. Energy Star, the Environmental Protection Agency’s energy-efficiency program, has its own certification for new homes. An “Energy Star qualified” new home must meet standards, much like an LEED-H-rated home. Criteria include insulation, window performance, tight construction, and, of course, efficient products. The Energy Star Home Program limits its qualification criteria to energy-related improvements in the building model, however. To be truly “green,” one has to account for more than simply saving money on utilities.

Why Build LEED Certified?
The benefits of living in a LEED-certified home are numerous. According to Taggart, “homeowner pride” is the primary reason for deciding on a LEED-certified home. “The home speaks to the values of the homeowner,” he says.

A LEED home represents a commitment to energy-efficient living by virtue of added insulation, low-e windows, and Energy Star-rated appliances. The Indoor Environment Quality standard ensures that a family living in a LEED-certified house will breathe much cleaner indoor air through the use of low- or non-VOC paints and adhesives, in addition to the integration of an effective air exchange or ventilation system. These practices have been employed in commercial LEED buildings for years, and findings suggest that improved indoor air quality has led to increased worker productivity, higher attendance, and better morale.

Building a LEED-certified home may sound like an expensive undertaking, but market demand for energy-efficient products has added to availability while keeping prices reasonable. An increase in green building practices will drive the market to offer more energy-efficient and environmentally responsible products at competitive prices.

Building a LEED home actually lowers building costs to consumers by encouraging builders to use less material and produce less waste. Living in an energy-efficient home also saves on utility costs, while incorporating renewable energy technologies like solar heating and thermal storage that help homeowners produce their own energy as they reduce their dependency on carbon-producing technology. “The energy aspect has become the most compelling for homeowners,” Taggart says.

Finding a LEED-H Builder
The LEED-H program encourages homebuilders nationwide to apply for certification of the homes they build. Potential homeowners who are looking to build a LEED-H certified home can search for experienced builders through local and regional directories. Currently, the USGBC web site lists contacts for the local chapters of LEED and recognizes builders who practice sustainable building and have successfully constructed LEED-H homes. The goal of the program is to produce a registry that home buyers can access when looking for regional and local LEED-H certified homes and builders.

Using Glass Tile for a Handcrafted Look

Epoxy grout ensures a durable installation of glass tile.

Glass Tile

Photo: Richard Bubnowski Design

Glass tile is gaining in popularity over ceramic tile as the surface of choice in home tiling projects. Although typically more expensive than ceramic tile, glass tile adds a handcrafted, artistic quality that is easily worth the cost.

Unique Appearance
Glass tile comes in a variety of forms and colors, which depend on the process used to create them. Some tiles are cut and cold-cooled while others are melted, cast, and cooled. “In cold-manufacturing, there is no heat, just cutting of the glass,” says Grace Kalina of Boyce & Bean, a glass and clay manufacturing company in California. “On the other hand, cast glass involves mixing sands and chemicals and melting them in a tank, which is then dropped into trays for cooling.”

The end result can vary by color, thickness, size, and shape. Some glass tiles contain tiny bubbles within each tile, which create a “still wet” look and makes for individual tiles that, like snowflakes, are one-of-a-kind. The varieties of glass tile allow for endless customization options, and its versatility opens the door to indoor and outdoor projects alike.

Glass is not always associated with durability, but in truth glass tile can be just as strong and long lasting as ceramic tile. By nature, glass tile retains certain properties that make it more resilient than ceramic tile. “Glass tile is not porous,” Kalina says, “so it does not absorb moisture.” Moisture penetration is the enemy of any tile project since it can spell mold and mildew. There is no such worry with glass tile as long as it is properly installed.

Glass Tile Installation
Most tile installers will tell you there’s not much difference between installing ceramic tile and installing glass tile. “Installing glass tile is pretty straightforward,” says Thomas Hubbard, a tile installer in Burlington, Vermont. “Some installers get hung-up on the cutting of the glass, but in all it’s not that difficult to install.” Hubbard typically sees glass tile used as an accent, but it can be used for larger projects, including entire walls, or shower ceilings.

Like ceramic tile, installing glass tile involves setting the glass onto the work surface. Since glass tile is translucent, the thin-set is usually white; so as to maintain a clear background that doesn’t affect the glass color. “With glass tile, which is see-through, the thin-set or subsurface must be perfect,” says Kalina. “If the tile is used in the bottom of a swimming pool, for example, the thin-set must be smoothed out or it will show.”

Grout for Long-Lasting Beauty
Grout will also impact the durability and look of the glass tile installation. Epoxy grouts are becoming popular for use with glass tile because of their longevity, strength, and relationship with the glass. Grouts like SpectraLOCK or Kerapoxy have a chemical composition that resists stains and breakdown. They are also non-porous and non-absorbent.

When mixed with antimicrobial products such as Microban, epoxy grouts also inhibit the growth of mold or mildew, a common occurrence with regular cement grout. “Cement-based grouts absorb moisture, so you have to seal the grout every two years,” Hubbard says.

Non-absorbent epoxy grouts require little maintenance, so while they may cost more than cement grout up front, they more than make up for it over time. The rubbery plastic-like characteristics of epoxy grouts make for a more challenging application, and a stronger finished product. “It takes a lot of elbow grease,” says Hubbard: “It also takes a lot of washing after. I’ll go over it several times with a light vinegar and water mix.”

Epoxy grouts come in a variety of colors, can be mixed with additives to adjust hue or create sparkles, and will not fade or change color over time. Set times for epoxy grouts are comparable to their cement counterparts.  “I usually recommend staying off it for 24 hours,” Hubbard advises.

The Internet-Enabled Home

Learn more about technology for security, entertainment, and comfort.

Wireless Security, Wireless Entertainment


It’s hard to imagine a house without the Internet, which is being leveraged in more ways by the home’s subsystems, appliances, and plugged-in products to enable remote access, integrated automation, smart energy savings, and whole-home entertainment.

The U.S. leads the world in the number of broadband Internet subscribers, coming in at over 70 million, or nearly a quarter of the population. Median download speeds are up to 2.3 Mbps (megabits per second), and fiber roll-outs by companies like Verizon FiOS are bringing fiber-to-the-premise service to thousands more customers every year. With up 50 Mbps download speeds, FiOS customers enjoy blink-of-the-eye movie downloads and abundant bandwidth to meet their Internet-specific needs.

In addition to fiber, homeowners can get the Internet through a cable or phone line, via satellite, or wirelessly. Once in the home, advanced wireless routers using the latest 802.11g and 802.11n wireless technologies can bring greater range, reliability, and performance than ever.

Safe and Sound 
Today’s homeowner wants to know that the home is always secure. Older security systems featured 24-hour monitoring centers that could respond to a tripped alarm like a smashed window or broken-down front door. Such crisis events are still of concern, but what of non-emergency situations, like the activities of the kids home alone after school or an elderly parent now living with you, a guest at the front door, or the comings and goings of a hired contractor? New systems enable secure remote access via the Internet, allowing homeowners to monitor activity in the home, grant temporary access for one-time guests, and check in on live feeds from security cameras set up inside and outside the house.

Yesterday’s home security system put a homeowner’s security in the hands of a 24-hour monitoring center. Today’s systems put the power back into the hands of the homeowner. Sure, the authorities will still be notified when an alarm trips, but all the non-emergency concerns of the absent homeowner can now be addressed remotely and affordably.

Smarter security systems understand the homeowner’s schedule, can send SMS (text message) alerts when the kids arrive home, and assume additional responsibilities, such as home control and energy savings. Home Automation, Inc.’s automated HVAC devices integrate with the home’s security system, and can respond to a fire by switching off electricity to keep smoke from spreading. New moisture and water sensors can detect leaks and automatically turn off the water to save homeowners on thousands in water damage.

That’s Entertainment
The end of analog broadcast TV underlines an accepted reality: It’s a digital world, and the home is the frontline of the revolution. Slimmer, higher-resolution television sets, powerful receivers and wireless surround sound, and easy-to-install whole-home audio packages bring entertainment solutions to every room of the house.

For viewing pleasure, wafer-thin, flat-panel plasma HDTVs can be wall-mounted and offer industry-leading 1080-pixel resolution at an affordable price. Deeper blacks, greater color accuracy, and effective video processing are just a few of the technological gains made in the modern television.

The audio/video receiver is charged with connecting and powering a host of entertainment devices, including the television, speakers, satellite radio, and iPods. The list of essential tasks performed by these black boxes grows even as the unit itself remains compact.

Want that movie to come alive? Fill the room with surround sound speakers. For the wire-phobic homeowner, there are wireless options for those rear speakers that can reduce clutter and eliminate long wiring runs. For whole-home audio in existing homes, wireless solutions put speakers and a wireless bridge in any room, connecting back to source devices — a CD player, iPod, or digital library, for example — all controlled by a color-screen wireless remote.

The 100-disc changer is yesterday’s toy. Today’s music libraries are digital and usually stored on a PC or laptop. The wireless music networking device bridges the gap between the home stereo receiver and the music library. Products like Logitech’s Squeezebox uses 802.11g wireless technology to access the digitally stored music from the laptop, PC, or storage device and send it directly to the audio/video receiver.

The media server has also taken a center-stage role in the home’s entertainment dance, bringing massive storage space (think terabytes, not gigabytes), DVD burning and DVR functionality for recording, storing and archiving HD programs. (For more on wireless home entertainment, see the article “Creating Your Ideal Home Theater.”)

Automation for All
From simple remotely controlled dimmers and light switches to the fully integrated, remotely monitored and accessed “smart home,” new automation devices and products promise convenience, control, and important energy savings to the savvy homeowner.

Wireless “mesh network” solutions by Z-Wave Alliance and ZigBee Alliance member companies bring two-way wireless communication and interoperability to all of a home’s subsystems, including the lighting, heating and cooling, ventilation, and security systems. Easily installed plug-and-play starter kits allow the curious to affordably start implementing home automation solutions by replacing a few light switches and outlets with remotely controlled dimmers and devices for immediate lighting control. By staying within an Alliance family of products, the homeowner can just as easily expand the system incrementally, according to budget and needs.

New initiatives by utility companies, telephone companies, and MSOs (multisystem operators) enable integration of home automation into the standard cable/phone/Internet “triple play” bundle, providing no-hassle installation of home control devices and easy monthly billing for the access and services provided.

Easy Energy Management
Energy costs and energy savings are primary concerns for homeowners. Adoption of remotely accessed and controllable technology in the home allows homeowners to adjust energy-consuming systems, shut off lights and, monitor energy usage (and cost) in real time.

Smart metering systems are being integrated into the home, part of a number of pilot programs undertaken by utility companies and energy-related organizations to permit two-way communication between the utility and the home itself. As energy costs fluctuate throughout the day, the utility company can send a message to the home’s smart meter to alert the homeowner — and the home — that energy costs are peaking. That alert can prompt the homeowner to make adjustments to the AC, heating, and lighting systems to cut back on usage. Widespread implementation of smart meters will reduce the load on a grid, prevent brownouts, and ultimately save each household on its energy bills.

Taken one step further, the integration of the smart meter into the home’s automation system will enable homeowners to program the house to take action on its own. When an alert comes in from the utility company, the house goes into action, resetting the thermostat, dropping the shades, and sending a message to the homeowner’s cell phone.

Automation for the Smart Home

The key to selecting the right approach to home automation is to understand what you want it to do, how it can be wired, and how much you can spend.

Home Automation

Like any system, home automation is available on a variety of levels—from the simple to the complex, the ready-to-install to the professionally configured, the inexpensive to the extravagant. The key to selecting the right approach to home automation is to understand what you want it to do, how it can be wired, and how much you can spend.

Creating a Home Automation Plan
Designing and implementing a home automation system should follow the same steps as almost any home remodel. In order to meet home automation needs, a designer will need to know a little bit about the home and how family members live and function within it. The needs and lifestyles of the family members then drive the design and function of the system, just as they would with any new space. Take the time before you shop to assess your needs and priorities, what you must have and what you can give up.

Safety and Security
Start with safety and security needs. Integrating a security system with the home’s other features can make a home safer and more secure from fire or break-ins. Vice President of Sales and Business Development Ken Fairbanks of SmartLabs, the company that oversees the production of INSTEON home-automation products, describes a fully automated scenario where the smoke detector does its job and sounds the alarm, the lighting system jumps to life and goes into a pre-set “fire” mode and emergency lights illuminate a pathway from the home’s bedrooms to the nearest escape point. “By tying the lighting system to the smoke alarm and creating a fire scene, homeowners enhance the safety and security of the home,” Fairbanks says.

Efficiency and Conservation
Look at how home automation can lower the home’s utility bills. As a first step, thermostats can be programmed to talk to motorized blinds and fans, initiating them as the interior temperature rises—a far less costly solution than running the air conditioning. “Gas and electric bills are increasing, and utilities are all heading north on the price side of things,” says Mike Einstein, a spokesperson for the Z-Wave Alliance, a growing group of companies developing wireless home-automation products and systems. “Controls that conserve energy will be of greater and greater interest in the home.”

Water conservation is foremost on the minds of homeowners living in drought-threatened areas of the country. Special automated wind and rain sensors can communicate with the sprinkler system, turning it off when it’s not needed or when conditions are poor. “Most homeowners just don’t know what is possible, and how easy it is to include these devices and systems in the home,” Fairbanks says.

Convenience and Entertainment
Home automation can also make life easier and more enjoyable. You can pre-set the “movie mode” on your remote to dim lights for movie watching or light focal areas for parties and gatherings. The setting of these scenes or “macros” is just one of the ways in which home automation makes our lives easier. Time-activated nighttime scenes can automatically adjust the thermostat, turn off interior or exterior lights. and set the security system.

As more companies look to manufacture products that can integrate with an automated home, the homeowner is given more control and options. X10, the leader in Power Line Carrier (PLC)-enabled home-automation products, already has products in more than five million U.S. homes, spanning security, lighting, HVAC, entertainment. and media.

Automation Options for Every Home
New construction options make home automation simple through structured, or bundled, wiring solutions that bring full media, entertainment, and home-control communication to every room of the house. Retrofitting an existing home to become automated can be as easy as plugging modules into outlets or replacing light switches with automated dimmers and switches. There are home automation devices—Powerline Carrier or PLC devices—that use the existing electrical wires in the home to communicate. Plug-in devices use wireless radio frequency (RF) technology to communicate and activate automated appliances.

From the professional installation to the DIY project, home automation can be brought into the home in a variety of ways, depending on budget and desired outcome. Whole-home structured wiring solutions sit on the high end of the price scale, but many companies sell plug-in starter kits for under $100. These kits usually include a control device or remote and plug-in modules that connect lamps and lighting systems. “Homeowners can start small and take on one project at a time,” Fairbanks says. “Maybe a desktop controller to turn on all the exterior lights when there’s a noise outside. From there the system can be added to and grown.”

Home Automation Alliances

Home Automation Alliances


Home automation systems must talk to one another, but how they do it can vary from company to company and product to product. On the most basic level, communications are relayed via wiring or radio waves. Structured wiring is an option, as is powerline carrier (PLC) technology, which uses the home’s existing electrical wiring, or radio frequency (RF) technology.

RF and PLC manufacturers and providers are forming alliances in an attempt to become the standard within the home automation industry. Their goal is to convince consumers to buy into their technology and purchase their products. Since the RF side of home automation is still fairly young, their alliances are hoping to capture the market. Homeowners looking to automate their homes should understand alliances and how they affect products and services before deciding to purchase.

How Alliances Impact Homeowners
An alliance is a group of companies that have agreed to support a particular technology or standard with their services and products. The three big alliances in the home-automation industry are ZigBee, INSTEON, and Z-Wave. Each alliance features a particular technology or chip that functions as the common denominator for the RF- or PLC-enabled products they choose to offer. Just as computer software is compatible with other software that uses the same operating system, compatible alliance products are integrated into a home-automation system and can interface with one another. Lighting controls can talk to thermostat controls from another company because they all share the same operating system and language. This makes a total home-automation system possible.

Without a link to bind products together, an automated home would be a series of appliances, each needing its own programming. Z-Wave, a technology originally developed by the chip developer Zensys, has an alliance with 160 members all using the same interface. The benefits to the consumer are obvious: greater product selection and a guaranteed interface.

But homeowners should always verify that every product offered by an alliance member is compatible with their existing system and products from other member companies. Honeywell is part of the ZigBee Alliance, for example, but not all Honeywell products are compatible with those of the other alliance members. Compatibility is usually designated by an alliance logo on the product package or in the literature.

Do Your Homework
Z-Wave, INSTEON, and ZigBee all offer member companies three different levels of participation or investment in the alliance. Each level carries different costs and benefits.

A company can join and become an alliance member without offering any products that use the alliance technology. Homeowners should check to see how many compatible products are available within an alliance before opting for their technology over another.

Make a Smart Automation Investment
Home automation starter kits that can be added onto later can cost under $100. Many RF-enabled devices. like light switches, dimmers, and HVAC controls, can be easily installed and included in a home’s expanding automated network. Just remember that an alliance purchase means non-participating companies and products cannot be added later—alliance products only speak to fellow alliance products. Starting small is great, but homeowners must be prepared for limited expansion opportunities depending on the alliance they select.

RF-enabled devices with low price points and easy installation make for attractive home-automation solutions. Nonetheless, a homeowner would be wise to thoroughly research the options, to know just how many products and systems from an alliance can be included in the home’s automated network, and to find out what other homeowners are saying about the products.

Gutters 101

Avoid water intrusion in your home with the right storm drainage system.

Gutters 101


When shopping for a gutter system, a homeowner will have to choose among a variety of materials, including aluminum, galvanized steel, vinyl, copper, and wood. Installers price gutter systems per linear foot, but this price should include all the necessary components for a gutter system, including the gutters, downspouts (the vertical section), corner joints, end caps, and hanging brackets.

Gutter Materials and Pricing
Aluminum is the most popular gutter on the market, as it is relatively inexpensive, durable, and easy to work with. Unlike steel, aluminum will not rust over time, and is available in a wide range of colors. Gutter installers will often quote a price (which includes installation) at a “per linear foot” price; although costs for an aluminum system will vary, homeowners may expect somewhere around $3-6 per linear foot.

Steel gutter systems are usually galvanized, although stainless steel options exist as well. Galvanized steel gutters will eventually rust after 20-25 years, but steel is strong and durable, making it a popular option for regions that experience extreme weather, heavy rains, and snow. Steel is slightly more expensive than aluminum; with prices averaging around $8-10 per linear foot. Stainless steel, which doesn’t rust, sells for upwards of $20 per linear foot.

Copper is also one of the more durable gutter options. Copper brings a certain aesthetic to a home’s facade, appealing to property owners looking to customize their home. “Copper is one of the strongest metals,” says Mike Milliman, a partner with the RainTrade Corporation. “It is suitable for any region.” Copper sits at the high-end of the gutter market, selling for anywhere from $12-25 per linear foot. Homeowners who are interested in a copper gutter system should consider the “patina” aspect of copper, which gradually ages and changes color with exposure to the elements. “A copper gutter system will only stay shiny for the first month or two,” Milliman says. “It will turn brown, dark brown, purple, and eventually a greenish color. Homeowners need to expect these changes.”

Vinyl is one of the least-expensive gutter options on the market, and is also very easy to cut and work with, making these gutters suitable for DIY installations. Vinyl gutter systems are prominent in home stores because of the easy of assembly and availability of component parts. At around $3-5 per linear foot, vinyl is most affordable option for gutter installations. Vinyl tends to become brittle and break in colder climates. It is also not as sturdy or durable as metal counterparts.

Shape, Size, Seamless
Homeowners will have two main gutter shapes to choose from: half-round and K-style. A smaller K-style gutter will drain the same amount of water as a larger half-round gutter. Half-round (also called U-shape) gutters are typically considered a traditional shape, as this was the original gutter shape dating back to the early 1900′s. K-style gutters didn’t emerge as an option until around the 1950s. Downspouts generally come in round or rectangular shapes.

When it comes to size, a homeowner will have to choose from gutter size (the measurement of the top opening), downspout size (length and width or diameter), and thickness. The most common gutter sizes are 5 inches and 6 inches, although 4 inches is available as well. Downspouts are commonly 2 x 3 inches and 3 x 4 inches in size or 3 or 4 inches in diameter.

When determining the size of a home’s gutter system, a homeowner should consider the area’s rainfall density. Such facts can usually be found on gutter supply websites. A home that sees a lot of rain or has a steep roof pitch should have a larger gutter system. Similarly, a home surrounded by tall trees will need a larger system to accommodate falling leaves without clogging.

Thickness is rated differently, depending on the material used. A thicker gutter system will be sturdier, more durable, and more expensive. Aluminum systems range from .019 to .032 inches in thickness. Copper is usually rated in weight, with a heavier weight indicating greater thickness. It is common to see 16-ounce and 20-ounce options for copper systems. Steel may be rated in inch-thickness or gauge.

Finally, a homeowner will have to decide between a sectional or seamless system. Traditionally, gutters came in sections that had to be pieced together, leaving seams. Today’s aluminum sectional systems require gutter sealant at the seams to prevent leakage. This sealant usually has to be re-applied as regular maintenance. Sectional copper or steel systems are actually soldered together at the seams, eliminating the need for a sealant. Proper installation of a sectional copper or steel system should include soldering, although some installers will use a metal sealant. Seamless systems are growing in popularity, and require professional installers. In a seamless system, an installer will use a special machine on-site to form long stretches of gutter (usually copper or aluminum) that will run the length of the roofline without a seam.

Proper Pitch
Gutter installation should follow a couple basic rules. Gutters must be pitched so water will flow to the downspouts. The rule of thumb for this slope is a vertical 1/2 inch for every 10 feet of horizontal run. If the run is more than 35 feet long, some specialists recommend installing the high point of the system in the middle and sloping the gutter downward in both directions to downspouts on both ends of the run. Water exiting the downspout must always be directed away from the foundation.

Gutter Add-Ons
The gutter industry has seen an explosion in the accessory side of the business. Screens, barriers, and other devices used to keep foreign objects out of the gutter are literally everywhere. When considering such accessories, homeowners will want to evaluate the types of debris that may land on or in their gutter. “Homeowners will want to consider everything from the number of trees to the types of leaves,” says Milliman. “Will there be whirlybirds, or pine needles?”

Hybrid products that combine solid hoods with screens exist, as do the more recent gutter foam products like Gutter Stuff and GutterFill. These foam products actually fill the length of the gutter, allowing water to run through and drain while keeping solid objects out. Additionally, homeowners may look into splash blocks on the ground that guide water away from the foundation or “rain chains” that replace traditional downspouts with Japanese-themed decorative links or chains. Rain chains are aesthetically pleasing, and come in a number of design options.

Garage Workshop Foundation and Slab

Before starting on your garage foundation, check soil, permits, and structure upfront.

Garage Foundation, Garage Slab


As with any structure, a new garage foundation plays a crucial role in the integrity of the building above: A quality foundation will last many years, but a poorly laid one can cause many headaches down the road.

Rarely considered a do-it-yourself project, laying the foundation for a garage workshop requires good planning, adherence to local code, and careful consideration of future uses for the finished space. Amenities like a filtered drainage system and radiant floor heating need to be installed during the foundation phase of the garage. Plan on inspections along the way, as well.

Garage Foundation Basics
A garage foundation is typically constructed of concrete block or a poured concrete wall. First the site is cleared or scraped and footing trenches are dug below grade according to code. “In our region we’re looking for at least 48 inches of frost protection from finished grade to the bottom of the footing,” says Jack Farrell of J.P. Farrell Construction in Ashland, Mass.

Farrell digs footings that are 2 feet wide, with an additional 2 feet on either side for room to work, resulting in a 6-foot-wide trench. He uses 2×10 foot boards as footing forms that are stripped once the concrete is set. He then marks a center wall line on the footing to mark where wall forms will go.

The height of the concrete foundation wall is usually determined by the size of the structure above. “For a single-story garage we look for an 8-inch foundation wall,” says Farrell. “A two-story structure would require at least a 10 inch foundation wall.”

Steel reinforcing helps the foundation wall bear stress while mechanical vibration consolidates the concrete to eliminate voids and air bubbles that might weaken the concrete. Anchor bolts are installed in the concrete foundation to secure the garage walls to the foundation. The location and frequency of anchor bolts on the foundation wall is determined by local code. Farrell often uses insulation on the inside perimeter of the wall.

Once the footings and foundation walls are in place, a concrete slab is poured and formed inside the foundation frame. Depending on the region and the garage plans, this slab can be poured on a compacted subgrade, which can include sand or gravel. A vapor barrier and insulation are often positioned upon the subgrade, with wire mesh and steel bars for reinforcement. Any drainage pipes or radiant heat tubes are placed and fastened to the wire mesh prior to the slab pour. “You want the slab to be pitched from the rear to the door of the garage to allow for drainage,” says Farrell.

Foundation Extras—Drains and Radiant Heating
Some garage workshop amenities aren’t meant to be added later. Features such as drains and radiant heating are designed to be installed with—or more specifically, within—the foundation.

Radiant heat is ideal for a garage workshop because it provides heat with no blowing or moving air, keeping engine and body work more dust and particle-free. Radiant heat also emanates up from the floor, so the garage owner spending time on his or her back is assured a comfortable surface to lie on. Nothing saps strength like a cold cement floor.

A proper drain is another foundation amenity worth the extra work. Most garage drainage systems employ drywell drainage, which is little more than a dug hole with course stone into which the drained water empties. Drainage piping is laid on the foundation bed and the drain is positioned prior to the concrete pour.

Local codes are strict about what can and cannot be dumped down a garage drain; installing a drain with filters is the only way to deal with substances worse than dirt, soap, and water.

Foundation Sealers
Air and water infiltration from outside can be a headache for the garage owner. Two types of sealers—sill sealers and floor sealers—can be installed or applied during construction as preventive measures to keep the garage warm and dry.

Sill sealers are an adhesive foam application that sits between the top of the foundation and the sill plate, forming a waterproof barrier. Since concrete shrinks as it cures, a sill sealer conforms to the foundation surface and prevents gaps or cracks from forming in the space between the sill plate and the foundation. Sill sealers have an aggressive adhesive side that sticks to the foundation and protects against air, moisture, insects, and rodents.

Concrete sealers are often spray-on products that prevent water and vapor from traveling up through porous concrete. Some sealers also tout additional benefits like preventing the seepage of radon gas and inhibiting mold and mildew growth. Sealers tend to strengthen the concrete and keep cracks from forming down the road.

Fiber Cement Siding

Fiber Cement Siding - Installation

Photo: Flickr

Fiber-cement siding is an alternative to real wood, engineered wood, and vinyl siding options. Although fiber cement has endured some largely unwarranted criticism concerning moisture issues following faulty installation, it remains one of the more durable siding products in the industry.

Strength and Durability
Fiber-cement siding composition may vary from company to company, but the basic recipe is Portland cement, sand, and cellulose (wood) fibers. Wood fiber helps prevent cracking, as does a special curing process that leaves fiber cement with a low moisture content.

Fiber-cement siding has the durability of cement, a class 1A fire rating, is impervious to wood-boring insects, does not rot, and is resistant to deterioration from salt and ultraviolet rays. “The added cost of fiber-cement is made up by the fact that once it’s up, you don’t have to worry about it,” says Lisa Santerian, marketing director for CertainTeed WeatherBoards fiber-cement siding.

Fiber-cement siding is low-maintenance, impact-resistant, and available in finished or painted options. Most companies warranty their product for 50-years, which is proof of its durability.

Designs and Profiles
The fiber-cement siding industry has spent years perfecting the look and finish of its product. Surface designs are created during manufacturing, when the surface is embossed with a wood grain or left smooth. “We can do any sort of architectural shapes and styling, and the consumer can pick any color they want,” says Santerian. In addition to stained, prefinished, painted, or unfinished faces, fiber cement is available in every siding type and profile, including vertical and horizontal laps, shingles, trim planks, and soffit panels. “You can even get half-rounds and octagon shapes if you want,” adds Santerian.

Both James Hardie’s ColorPlus line and CertainTeed’s ColorMax line of pre-finished fiber-cement siding products come with a 15-year warranty on the finish. This warranty covers the product against cracking, chipping, and peeling. The ColorMax line also includes a 100 percent SureStart protection, which covers the cost of materials and labor in the event of a manufacturer’s defect. “Again, consumers save money by not having to re-paint the product—the paint is covered for 15 years,” Santerian says.

Fiber Cement Installation
Fiber cement may be heavier than vinyl siding or engineered wood, but it is still lighter than real wood or stone, which means it is not terribly difficult to install. Installation guidelines should be closely followed, particularly when it comes to cutting the product and keeping it dry. Cutting fiber cement is harder than cutting real wood; it requires pneumatic or handheld shears, a dust-reducing circular saw, or a diamond-tip miter saw. Cutting fiber cement will release silica dust into the air, so you should wear a mask when cutting.

DIY-ers and contractors alike should follow handling and storage recommendations closely. Saturated or moist fiber cement siding can shrink at the butt ends if installed prior to drying. “All our packaging states very clearly: ‘Do Not Install Wet Product,’ ” Santerian says. “Unfortunately, we still hear tales of installers spraying the product down prior to installation.” Proper storage of the product before installation is essential if the siding is to stay dry. A sheltered storage space is best.

Creating a Green Product
Fiber cement may enjoy even greater popularity now that consumers are looking to use green building products. As a wood alternative, fiber cement has forest-saving properties and environmentally friendly qualities. CertainTeed takes the wood fiber needed for its fiber-cement siding from a sustainably managed forest. They also use fly ash (a byproduct of coal-burning) to replace the sand and silica, thereby adding post-industrial recycling to its list of attributes. Fly ash also makes the fiber cement lighter than its sand and silica counterparts, so it can be easier to handle and install.

Enhanced Plywood and Subfloor Products

Protect an unfinished home from the elements by building a durable subfloor from new, improved options in engineered wood.

Plywood and OSB


Plywood vs. OSB
When plywood was developed to replace solid-board sheathing for subfloors and decking, builders were generally reluctant to switch to the new product, which ultimately became the standard for subfloor applications. When OSB came on the scene as an alternative to plywood, detractors were quick to point out its deficiencies. The truth is that plywood and OSB each have strengths and weaknesses when used as exposed decking or subflooring.

When a roofless, partially built structure takes on water, both plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) used for floor decking can absorb water, swell, delaminate, and require sanding or replacement before finish flooring can be installed. The fix is to use water-repellent or water-resistant products in place of ordinary plywood or OSB.

Plywood and OSB are considered “structural panels,” and building codes treat both materials equally. Compositionally they are different, however. Plywood is made from glued strips of wood veneer that are layered at alternating 90 degree angles and placed in a hot press. The resulting cross-laminated and layered material is structurally enhanced and resistant to the expansion and contraction that affects wood.

OSB uses 3-inch to 4-inch strands of wood that are also layered and configured in a crossing pattern, then glued and pressed. OSB is heavier than plywood, absorbs less moisture, and is considered a more structurally consistent product. Furthermore, OSB does not have the delamination issues that can plague plywood. However, OSB is prone to edge swelling when exposed to moisture, and does not dry out as fast as plywood. In addition, a couple of national ceramic tile associations have discouraged the use of OSB as a subfloor or underlayment below a tile or ceramic finished floor, due to the problems encountered by edge swelling. “Wood and water just do not mix well,” says Jeff Key, marketing manager for wood products at Georgia-Pacific. To address these water issues, OSB and plywood manufacturers are refining their products.

Enhanced OSB
Products like AdvanTech, an OSB product by Huber Engineered Woods, were brought onto the scene to meet the need for moisture-resistant OSB. Essentially an enhanced OSB material, AdvanTech uses a resin integrated with the wood to resist water absorption and reduce the swelling that plagued the original OSB subflooring. Huber even offers a 50-year warranty on AdvanTech.

Using a water-resistant subfloor product saves the builder time and money because they make compromised deck sections a thing of the past. “I use the AdvanTech sheets so I don’t have to worry about sanding the edges later,” says James Langeway, a Vermont contractor. Louisiana-Pacific offers Top-Notch, an enhanced subflooring system with an edge coating to prevent water absorption and a self-draining notch design that drains standing water away from the panels.

Enhanced Plywood
Acknowledging that some builders are going to be loyal to plywood, Georgia-Pacific recently went national with its new line of enhanced plywood, called Plytanium DryPly. DryPly is plywood treated with a water-resistant coating. “Our product comes with a 100 percent builder satisfaction guarantee against delamination, edge swelling, and joint sanding,” says Key. By combatting moisture issues, this new generation of plywood aims to go head-to-head with the enhanced OSB products. “There really isn’t another plywood product out there like it,” adds Key.

This evolved plywood may claim an overall advantage over OSB, since plywood is a stiffer, longer-lasting subfloor option. It will also hold up better under flooring accidents like leaks or flooding, and has greater nail withdrawal strength to hold the nail in under stress. “The difference with plywood is not felt initially during the first walk-through by the owners,” says Key. “It is made for long-term durability.” This sentiment is backed by Georgia-Pacific’s lifetime warranty on the product.

Comparative Costs
The cost of any wood product will fluctuate by region and supply. OSB is generally less-expensive than plywood, which is why a good number of high-volume builders have turned to it. The cost of plywood will vary depending on wood species, a factor that can also affect performance. Enhanced building products will cost more, but the savings come in time and materials when a second subfloor is not needed and finish flooring can be installed directly on top.