Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A home for my Mom

Late last year, my then 88 year old mom began to fail and could no longer live alone. Not a believer in warehousing the elderly, I built her a specially designed addition to my home.

The roof was the trickiest part of the design, thanks to the second floor shed dormer and the small pieces of roof on either side.  A simple shed roof would have had a very flat pitch and looked unattractive.  My solution was a hip roof.  While much more complicated to build, it allowed for an increased pitch and tied in nicely to the existing roof-line.

My very capable Amish contractor, Amos, liked my design but soon realized that some very unique trusses would have to be made for this job.

What I found interesting about this design is that none of the load is carried by the existing structure.  Instead, the trusses span 34 feet from side to side, and there is one massive truss that supports many smaller trusses at right angles.

A very strong design, but one that was difficult to insulate, thanks to the many odd spaces it created.

I spent hours cutting fiberglass to fit neatly in all of theses spaces.  It paid off, and the addition stayed comfortably cool with minimal air-conditioning this summer.

The bathroom was a real challenge.  The first floor had a powder room that could be enlarged into the addition.   I wanted a large shower and direct access to my mom's bedroom, but without using a lot of floor-space.  I also wanted a shower that one could wheel into, if handicapped.
  My solution was a shower area that was 48" x 54" and had a tile floor that drained to the center. When taking a shower, the area is closed off via a curtain that rides on hospital grade ceiling tracks. When not using the shower, the curtains are pulled back and one simply walks through to use the bathroom or exit the original door.
  An unusual design, and one that my contractor had some misgivings about, until he saw the finished product.  In the end, it works well, looks attractive, and only used 18 square feet of space in the new addition.
The tiling was a challenge, thanks to the multiple inside and outside corners, and the sloped shower floor.  But I like tiling,
and this is only the latest of several bathrooms I have done.

It is a bright and cheerful space, with plenty of room for my mom's furniture.  Far more than she could have taken with her to a retirement home.
If you noticed the missing trim above the doors, you can relax.  All of those little details are now complete.  I felt it was more important to move my mom in quickly than worry about having everything finished.

My mom and my cat in her new living room.

As my mom's health has declined, I've had to add some refinements, like a ramp to the door, and a new 4 foot wide walkway.  There were only 2 steps before, but now even a single step is a problem.

I also added a shower chair, and grab bars in the shower and on the wall opposite the toilet.  The toilet assist bars were easy to install and work well.  This should make life a lot easier for my mom.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Solar Electric Upgrade

While my 4.4kw solar electric system was performing to specifications, size does matter.  Unfortunately, my budget and choice of suitable locations were limiting factors.  As a result I had a system that could only deliver 620kwh/month when I was using 1800kwh during our hot and humid July.  My solution was to create a new mounting site over my southern facing coal bin.  In addition, I designed and machined my own mounting system.  This greatly lowered the cost, and it also gave me a system that I could not find anywhere:  One that is both roof-mounted and has adjustable tilt for summer and winter.
Fortunately for me, my PV Powered 4800 inverter had the ability to handle the 5 extra panels, bringing my cost per watt down to a very reasonable $2.50, installed.  The result was a substantial 31% increase to 5.58kw and a summer monthly output averaging 812kwh.  While still far short of July's 1800kwh, it will produce a surplus in the spring and fall, when demand drops into the 600's.
Close up of the hinged mounts.  I used the identical design for both the top and bottom rows.
However, only the top row mounts function as
hinges.  The bottom row mounts are separated at the hinge pin and a 24" piece of square tubing is
placed between the hinge halves.  Bolts are then inserted through the hinge pin holes to lock the tubing in place.
These hinges allow for 22° of movement, a few degrees less than ideal.  However, achieving more movement would have required taller hinges, which would have put more stress on this design than I desired.

Panels in the winter position.  I designed the 
coal bin roof with a 45° angle.  Not the optimum
winter angle for our latitude, but a good compromise between the requirements for the coal
bin and the solar panels.

Panels raised 22° for the summer months.  Not the optimum setting, but close enough.  Overall, I'm pleased with the design.  The tilt can be changed in a matter of minutes, and even 22 degrees gives me a significant advantage over fixed systems.

After panels are raised, a link with tapped holes
ties adjacent panels together. The bolts now serve
2 purposes, attaching the legs and linking the
panels. The result is an extremely rigid structure
that does not move even in the strongest winds.

The system has been in operation nearly one year, and has performed very well, even through our cloudy winter.  The winter output is surprisingly good, given that the system had to cope with snowstorms and fewer daylight hours. Below are charts of the electric production, my consumption, and the amount the system is saving me at our current rates of $0.15/Kwh.
Under my current agreement with my utility, excess production gets rolled over into the following month.  That reduced my November bill by $15. The May surplus was $13. That, along with the 800kwh the system made in June, reduced the bill from what would have been $161 to only $28. Since the system was installed, it has made 76% of my electricity. 
Last year, the propane hot water heater failed, and I decided it was more cost effective to use a 60 gallon electric water heater as the backup heater for the Reynolds Solar heater.  This has proven to be a good decision, for my propane use for hot water dropped to zero, while my electric bill remains low, if not zero.