Water Tank and Foundation Finishing

DSC_0472We finally decided at 1pm on Monday that we were going to do the water tank in the mechanical room. We had went and viewed our neighbours set-up and talked to him about his experience. It all seemed good enough. But meanwhile that morning, the crane had shown up and lowered the giant steel beams into the walls of the foundation.

I had watched the crane go to work in awe like a little kid – “Woah, a crane!” It was pretty awesome to see the crane towering over our trees and lowering the steel beam into the grooves that Taylor and Curtis had left when pouring the concrete a couple days earlier.

It was an impressive sight to see.  The slid in so effortlessly.

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Within a few hours, the guys were hanging the joists and starting to the lay the floor. You’ll notice that the beams and all of joists are within the envelope of the foundation walls. This was intentional from an energy efficiency point of view. There is no thermal bridging at all with this system. Oftentimes typical houses are built with the joists sitting on top of the concrete wall or on a ledger of the wall. Both of these are a bit more work then simply using hangers. And the former, requires excessive use of spray foam to seal.

The way we did it required a taller basement wall, but there is zero chance of air leakage, thermal bridging or heat loss with this.

Anyways, the carpenters were working fast. Crap, Darcie and I realized, we had to decide immediately whether or not we were going to have the water tank in the basement. The carpenters were going to be done the floor system the next day, which meant that the tank needed to go in the basement NOW.

I made some calls and found a manufacturer east of Saskatoon who sold large tanks. We hopped in the truck and  made the 45 minute drive. We had debated briefly about what size of tank to get – essentially everyone we talked to told us to purchase the largest tank that would fit in the house. That meant we could get a 2100 US gallon tank – measuring 88″x88″. If you can’t picture that, well, it’s big.

We drove back to the land and within a couple hours were ready to haul the giant beast of a tank into the basement…

Only problem was the crane was long gone, and there was a huge gorge – 11′ deep and 6′ wide – all around the perimeter of the house. The four of us put our heads together. We all agreed this would have been a LOT better to have done when the crane was here… Crap.

The options were slim. The only possible way was to jimmy up a rickety makeshift bridge between the foundation and the ground using 2x10s and some left over joists. We decided to push the tank off of the trailer (there was no way to carry it) and roll it to the side of the gorge. From there we wrapped two large ratchet straps around the top of the tank and lashed them to the back of my tractor.

Now came the dangerous part – Taylor and Curtis pushed the tank onto the shoddily crafted bridge (one false step would mean certain death or at least dismemberment) while I slowly backed up the tractor thereby keeping tension on the straps and allowing the guys to ease the tank across the “Bridge of No Return.” My wife cringed as she watched the bridge bow under the weight of the tank and guys.

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Miraculously no one was killed. Not even a little bit.

Once we had the tank to the edge (Taylor had also built a small ramp on the inside of the foundation), I could simply back the tractor up and lower it down.

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That went well.

By the end of the day, the guys had the floor framed – pretty impressive. They’d poured the basement on Friday and floor was framed and sheeted by Wednesday. Time for a dance party.

We all grabbed a beer to celebrate and as we were standing there, an eagle flew by carrying a fish.  We were all in awe and Curtis said “and this is where you guys live?”!  It was awesome.

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PS. One more geek/nerd energy efficiency thing: They wrapped the house in the water proofing seal, but also wrapped it up and around the plywood to create a complete seal around the entire basement. It is possible that a small amount of air leakage could occur through the plywood and the top of the joists and foundation wall. This simple trick tightens the house up even more.

Water and the Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

We had always intended to use our well as our source of drinking water and domestic hot water use. It had simply made sense to us all along. It seemed to be the most sustainable and logical thing to do.

The only problem was that our water, well, it sucked.

It was very strange to think that our water would be so crappy. We live right on the river. It is our front yard. You’d think the water would be good. Our house is perched about 50-60′ above the river, but our well is bizarrely 140′ deep. (Interestingly, as for our neighbours, one could not find water on his land, the other had to go down 250′ (!!) and the other only 20′ – so strange how in a two mile radius everyone can have such different water tables and all of us are along the water). We’d had it tested when we first bought the land to make sure it was potable. It was, but it really tasted bad. I was also worried as it had caused serious damage to our hot water element in the shop the year before – completely corroding it.

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Still we were determined to make it work. I had read a fair bit about different water treatment systems and really you can make any water drinkable (even salt water through distillation). We had gotten a couple different companies out to test our water and recommend a treatment system – two of the three recommended a Whole House Reverse Osmosis (RO) System.

This type of system is just one step under complete distillation of water in terms of intensity of water treatment. It is major. It takes a LOT of equipment, tanks and processing and is very expensive (in the range of $12,000 to $14,000 for the initial setup, not including the cost of regular filters). There are however, some serious considerations with this system, besides the cost. RO water, is basically demineralized water – it is void of minerals (at least most of them as far as I know). Many people consider this a bad thing. Firstly, the water will try to “remineralize” itself by drawing minerals out of the plumbing pipes that they run through, especially copper – essentially eating it away (that is BAD for pipes). You must use only plastic piping as a result. Secondly, it can draw minerals out of the foods you cook with it making your veggies less mineral dense. Thirdly, it wastes a tonne of water. For every 1 gallon produced of treated water 2 gallons are wasted. Fourthly, some people argue the RO water that you drink will demineralize YOU! Meaning it will do things like take calcium out of your bones leading to a higher risk of osteoporosis. Although some of this information has not been completely proven – it seemed intuitive enough that I really did not like the idea of using RO water. But what other options were there?

Then came Mr. A-hole (although I did not know this at the time of course – I had thought he was pretty O.K.). Yes this is the same septic contractor who has ruined our lives for the past 6 weeks. He adamantly told me that there was “no way” that I would ever need a whole house RO system. “Never!!” He told me he had put one in before, but only because the people really wanted it and not because they needed it. He promised me that he could deliver a system that would give us good water, protect our plumbing, and would not be too costly. He estimated his “worst case scenario” to be $6000. Well, I liked the sounds of that – less than half the price of the other options and none of the drawbacks!

I know what you are thinking: “It must be too good to be true.”

And dammit! You’re so right.

Although we did not find this out until it was ALMOST too late. As in two days before it really would have been too late.

At our infamous coordination meeting, Mr. A-hole finally had taken a water sample (yes, we had talked to him about the water treatment system five months before) and low and behold, our water really did suck! It was basically unusable without having to do the Whole House RO system. Our plumber, at the meeting strongly cautioned us against using this. Beyond the reasons I wrote above, he thought that we would likely then require a stronger, more resilient hot water tank and boiler, that the RO water would still corrode and stain our plumbing fixtures, and then there is the maintenance costs and lifespan of an intensive treatment system like this. He estimated in the range of $100/month for filters and it would last, at most, 15 years before needing replacement. That’s not to mention that actually just hooking up the well to the house is $8000.

Well, isn’t that just great?

So, basically we’d be looking at the following:

– Well hook-up at $8000 + Whole House RO system at $12,000 (minimum) = $20,000 start-up costs

– Ongoing costs $50-100/month for 15 years = $9000-18,000 operational costs

– Replacement at 15 years = $12,000

The best case scenario we’d be looking at over $40,000 in 15 years. That is just ludicrous. There is no way that that is sustainable living.

Really the only other immediately plausible option was to do what our neighbour, who could not find water at his land, did: Get water brought to you.

There are several companies in town who will haul water to you for a small fee. Monthly water bills for residents of town is about $80-90/month. These companies will bring you water to your house for $120-150 per trip, depending on the volume of water needed and distance of travel. I had thought this was completely dumb before – why would you do this if you had a well? But now this seemed to be the only logical thing to do. And with doing some simple cowboy math, it was WAY more affordable then the well option.

– $150/month for 15 years = $27,000

Even if we did not try to be conservative with our water use, this option is so much more affordable then the RO water treatment option we had.

So how were we going to do this?

There were two options we were given: 1. Put a concrete water tank under ground, or 2. Put a big water tank in your mechanical room.

The in-ground tank is good if you don’t have the space in your house, but due to trenching, the cost of the concrete tank itself and piping required, this option comes in at about $6000. Option 2, is a lot cheaper. The indoor tank is a heavy duty poly plastic that costs about $1000. I like saving money so the latter seemed to be the better option. Although I have to admit, I did not have as much time to research this as I would have liked, because we had literally two days to decide (I talked to our neighbour and a friend who both use the indoor tank and have no complaints as well as some suppliers, the water delivery companies, and contractor who installs the in-ground tanks). The foundation was done and the floor was going on (you can’t fit a 2000 gallon tank through the front door – it must go on before the main floor joists are in).

All of this really just gave me another reason to really hate Mr. A-hole, septic contractor. We had based so many decisions in the design of the house – particularly the placement of the Mechanical room in order for easy access to the planned placement of the septic tank and the proximity to the existing well. Ya, it was a good thought, but neither of those things are actually happening anymore as we had intended and in fact, the mechanical room is probably in the worst location possible now given where the new septic placement is and where the water company will have to bring the water to. Grrr!

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But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

– Robert Burns

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But enough about me complaining (I really am sick of hearing myself complain about it), the upside is that we will have really good treated water that will not corrode our pipes, not poison us, and be more affordable in the long-run.

Though now we had seriously 6 hours to get a giant tank and somehow get it into the basement…

Concrete wall reveal

The day following the pouring of the concrete, we were ready to pull off the plywood forms and see what lay beneath. Leaving the plywood on for more than a day would cause them to adhere too firmly to the concrete and make them extremely difficult to remove. We were a bit nervous. We had been pegging a lot on how these walls would turn out – they would be, after all, our finished interior walls, so I really hoped they wouldn’t look like crap.

First we had to remove all of the exterior bracing that the builders had spent four days installing, tweaking, levelling, and straightening.

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They had done a great job. The walls were perfectly straight and square.

We started unscrewing the plywood forms and Cha-Ching!

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They looked frickin’ awesome!

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As we removed the forms, I had to chuckle, because the builders, who had for the previous week been cursing the Nudura One system, as they saw the finished look decided the would “use it again.” I guess looks due make up for a bad personality from time to time.

We spent about two hours removing all of the forms. As we got towards the base of the floor, we crossed our fingers hoping that it had all settled nicely to the bottom without any “honey combing” of the concrete that would need to be parged. Impressively, it looked excellent all the way from top to bottom.

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Dang, those are sexy walls.

Foundation/Basement Forming

Meanwhile, the foundation work continued to move forward. A few weeks ago I’d written about the Nudura One Series of ICF. We were quite excited about it for a number of reasons. Firstly, basements are generally BORING. So, with using this system of ICF we could have a finished interior wall of concrete immediately, which would look aesthetically pleasing and be something of interest and uniqueness in the basement. No need for any extra framing and drywall. Second, in terms of energy efficiency, this system should perform better than conventional ICF. You are not insulating the walls of the basement from the house itself (standard ICF and standard poured basements have insulation on the inside and cannot use the thermal mass of the basement walls). Being that we have a huge thermal mass in the walls (and floor) of the basement, they can store a lot of heat to radiate to the rest of the house either through sunlight or simply from the in-floor hydronic heat. Essentially functioning like a giant battery.

About a week prior the forms had been sent out. There was an incredible amount of insulation that was stacked in the shop.

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And the day following our stresses with the septic system, Taylor and Curtis got to work building the basement forms. They had budgeted about four days to get the forms up and one day to pour. ICF goes fast, they said.

… But not this ICF. This basement was a massive pain in the ass. After one day, the guys only had one row of the seven done. There was no simple way to attach the forms and keep them locked in place. You see, in standard ICF, the blocks are basically like Lego. There are little grooves on the inside and outside that line up and attach to the corresponding little plugs on the other block. Snap snap snap, it goes together. Easy.

Typical ICF

This was not easy. The little Lego grooves and plugs were only on the outside of the blocks. Not the inside,  as the plywood slabs simply butted together creating big seams and gaps (wouldn’t tongue and groove plywood have made sense, Nudura!?). Frustrated at the lack of progress, Taylor called the Nudura sales rep who came out to the site. Amazingly, he had never seen the Nudura One series before. Like never ever. As they all worked together to try and troubleshoot this problem, they eventually decided to call the head office in Ontario, Canada and their technical support team.

IMG_2544They suggested make 2×4″ L-brackets to support and anchor the forms (uh, that’s part of the plan?). Oh and as for the gaps in the plywood? (Where concrete would completely burst from when pouring.) Well, just use Tuck Tape, they said. Tuck tape!?? (I suppose it’s slightly more classy then duct taping the forms). Jeez Louise.

Unfortunately, after building a bunch of the 2×4″ L-brackets and bolting them onto the forms, the carpenters realized that this was not going to work at all. These brackets did nothing and if anything made the problem worse by pulling the forms further inwards, causing even greater warping of the walls. Thanks for the “technical support”!

(You’d think they’d never sold this product before – which, later we found out they have never actually used it in a residential application!)

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Over the following four days, Taylor and Curtis grudgingly put the forms together and stacked them higher and higher, eventually reaching the top at 10’6″. They put an absolute tonne (perhaps 2 tonnes) of rebar in the ICF both vertically and horizontally to reinforce the high walls and provide the structural support for the beams, joists, and double wall that would sit upon it. Seeing the forms go up was pretty exciting, but just don’t look too closely or right down the line of the wall…

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Because that ain’t straight.

I have to admit, I was more than a bit worried. How the hell were they going to straighten these walls? I wondered.

Taylor and Curtis had also eaten through their projected timeline and still had to try to straighten the walls. After four days the walls were not even stacked, let alone straight and ready for concrete. Over another three days, all they did was straighten and adjust the walls. Using large bracing and strapping to make them level, straight and even. When Taylor finally told me they would be pouring concrete the next day, I had to run over and make sure.

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Praise Jebus! (This whole process is making me become very religious it seems.)

The following day the pumper truck was out, pumping a buttload of concrete into the basement walls. Now was the real test of the untested Nudura One walls and the Macgyver skills of the build team.

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I was nervous that day at work, just waiting for the phone call from Taylor explaining that there had been a catastrophic failure when the walls of the forms burst under the pressure of the concrete causing the walls to break apart and concrete to fill our basement.

But that call didn’t come. Relieved, we drove home at the end of the day. The walls were still standing and they were filled to the brim with concrete!

The next day we would pull the plywood off and see what magic laid beneath.

PS. Nudura has offered to cover at least some of the extra time of the build team for Research and Development of the Nudura One series.

Lessons learned

After solving the problem of the septic tank placement we were then confronted by the issue of how we were going to get all of this dirt moved.

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When the excavator had originally come out, I had wanted them to bring a truck and haul the dirt to create a berm along our driveway. However, the same septic contractor had told the PM that he didn’t need to worry about it. When they came out to do our septic tank and dispersion field, they would also backfill and haul – “No big deal.” This seemed strange to me (and as I write this I can’t believe how many warning signs I missed along the way). Why would you want to move dirt twice?? But I didn’t question it at the time. Of course no prices were discussed. Stupid.

Lesson 1: Don’t ever agree to something without talking prices

Once he actually saw the pile of dirt, he clearly had no idea about the volume that we had been talking about. And so within a couple days, we received an “estimate” of $7500! Wow, they just throw around thousand dollar price tags like it’s chump change. This price just seemed completely outrageous to me. They had dug the basement for $2500, surely it should not cost that much to move the dirt a couple hundred feet. Again, my blood boiled. I was really coming to my wits end with this septic contractor. But we were in deep with him: septic tank, septic mound, well hook up, water treatment, excavation/backfill, and electrical (they have an electrician on staff as well). We went with them in order to keep everything in house. It is not easy to get trades who are willing to drive 30 minutes from the big city to work. And we also thought that keeping all of these contracts with one company would improve efficiency. But at this point, I was feeling like we were totally getting taken advantage of.

Lesson 2: trust your instincts

Although we had avoided the massive cost of the deep burial septic tank, we were now facing a $7500 bill for dirt removal (plus he had added another $3000 to the septic system for crushed rock and topsoil) and he had a +/- 10% on his bills, which did not feel very comforting given how things were going. Murray, our new Project Manager, requested a meeting of all of the trades in order to try and sort out pricing, improve coordination and communication, and to get everyone on the same page and working to the same goal: a house delivered as designed, on time and and on budget (no simple task). As the meeting developed, we quickly recognized that the septic contractor did not at all share this goal. He blatantly stated that he “would not help with the budget.” He also demanded payment of his bills within two days (we are talking about $50,000 here)! And beyond this, he was rude, belligerent, and domineering in the meeting. Speaking over our project manager and telling him that he could “learn a thing or two by spending a day with him” and that he had “5 minutes” to finish his meeting (when the meeting had just begun). It was really an amazing thing to behold. I can’t say that I have ever encountered as big an asshole as this guy. In my head, as this was all unfolding and I was getting madder and madder, I wanted to stand up and tell him he was fired. To get out. But at the same time, I thought, then what? We have to find new contractors for all of these jobs! That could delay the project by weeks! Maybe they will be the same price in the end? But I did say something, not exactly what I really wanted to say, but it was close. I essentially explained that the lack of communication to date (with him of course) had caused prices to rise and now had put us over budget. We needed communication and coordination and everyone was expected to be involved. To my surprise, he shut up, for the most part.

The meeting went on. All of the other trades were excellent. Very knowledgeable and had a wealth of great information, thoughts, and discussions. I only wished that we had done this process right off of the bat, before we started any work.

Lesson 3: Have a coordination meeting before you start your building

As we left the meeting, I was happy about the other trades but still fuming about the septic guy. I said to the PM, “I want him off of the job.” We have to get rid of him. I do not want to pay him a single cent.

Lesson 4: Being an asshole can cost you $50,000