All posts by Marcus de la fleur

About Marcus de la fleur

Marcus is a Registered Landscape Architect with a horticultural degree from the School of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Sheffield, UK. He developed a landscape based sustainable pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. in 2002, and has expanded his skill set to building science. Starting in 2009, Marcus applied the newly acquired expertise to the deep energy retrofit of his 100+ year old home in Chicago.

Bracing for the cornice issue

Our house came with a beautiful cornice that was attached to and supported by the parapet behind it. It was constructed out of copper, but the bottom section had been painted, unfortunately.

It has terrified me for years. This was because upon closer inspection, the top of the cornice was in dire need of repair and we had water infiltration issues, which led the supporting parapet to crumble. And no matter who I asked, I never got a straight answer on how it actually was constructed, supported or attached to the building. It remained shrouded in mystery, leaving me to procrastinate.

With the looming solar array installation, there was no avoiding this any longer. I opened up the top copper sheet to get a visual on the inside and the attachment mechanism – or lack thereof. And the more I started digging the more terrifying it got.

The “support mechanism” was rotting pine boards, which were rotting either in the masonry or the opposite end. And the supporting masonry had deteriorated into loosely stacked bricks.

The crumbling masonry had to be removed and rebuilt. The bottom of the cornice was salvageable, but the top sheet had to be entirely replaced to prevent any further water infiltration into the masonry behind. Mind you, the job of the cornice is to shed water away from the building façade. Along with all this we needed a new support mechanism.

To save and reuse the bottom section of the cornice, I had to brace it before I could remove and repair any of the masonry or top copper sheet. The last thing I wanted was for it to fall off the building.

I managed to score a stack of reclaimed two by fours at The Rebuilding Exchange, which I used to rig up a solid bracing system.

Next step, taking down the crumbling parapet.

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The roof project

We were ready to get the solar PV array installed on our roof. We did our research on when a renewable energy installation makes sense and got ourselves familiar with the solar lingo. We went through the basics on how to size a solar PV system, and how it gets connected. And the timing was perfect to maximize the rebates available for a solar PV system installation.

That sounds pretty ready, right?

Yes, this was a trick question, and no, we were not ready at all.

You see, you don’t want to put a roof mounted solar system onto an old roof. You want to put it onto a new roof (or at least fairly new roof), so that the solar system has about the same life expectancy as the roof.

Not only did we have to address the old roof issue, we also had to deal with the desperately needed repairs to our front parapet and the attached cornice. Plus we had to raise the elevation of the side parapets, because we had planned to add insulation on top of the roof deck.

So what did our path to roof solar look like?:

  • Cornice bracing
  • Front parapet demo
  • Cornice repair
  • Rebuilding front parapet
  • Raising elevation of side parapets
  • Roof tear off
  • Insulation installation
  • Integration of solar system attachments
  • New roofing system installation
  • Flashing
  • And (drum roll) – installation of the solar array

Well, it is good to get all these items out the way and fixed up once and for all. If we were diligent about it, we knew we wouldn’t have to touch any of those items again for a few decades to come.

Stay tuned as I will keep posting about each of the steps and the decisions involved.

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Minisplit cooling pause

A typical summer in Chicago comes with heat and humidity that is every now and then interrupted by cooler spells with lower dew points. Those spells can be pleasant enough for us to stop running the minisplit in cooling mode and instead open the windows.

Once the heat and humidity roars back into town, we shut the windows in a hurry and power up the minisplit for that pleasant cool breeze. Except, there isn’t much pleasantness in that breeze, unless you enjoy a musty and mildew-drenched flavor.

If you abruptly stop the minisplit in cooling mode, the fins on the evaporator/condenser will still be drenched in condensate droplets. It is not easy to see in the above pictures, but believe me, the droplets are hiding in there.

And they will be sitting there for several days like a bunched up, wet towel in the corner of someone’s bathroom. If, after a few days, you dare to pick up that towel and give a sniff, you experience a similar flavor to that of the minisplit after it had been paused for a few hours or days. It is a death knell to indoor air quality (IAQ).

The good news is that this is an easy to solve problem. Rather than abruptly stopping the minisplit in cooling mode, switch it to low speed fan mode, and let it run for half a day or overnight. The fan keeps drawing air across the fins and will slowly dry them out.

It’s like taking your wet towel and hanging it up to dry. That towel definitely will smell a lot better – and so will your minisplit once you start it up again in cooling mode.

If you would also like to dry out the condensation collection pan at the bottom of the indoor unit, keep the minisplit in fan mode for a good day. This is definitely recommended at the end of the cooling season (end of summer).

And if you turn off cooling mode for a week or longer before starting it up again, you may want to consider cleaning the condensate drain line, as described in the previous post, just to be on the safe side.

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GreenBuilt Home Tour 2020

July is GreenBuilt Home Tour month in Chicago! This year the whole event shifted to a virtual format so that you can enjoy the tour from your favorite office chair, recliner or couch.

The tour stretches across four Wednesdays in July at 3:30 PM for a web series highlighting green homes throughout Illinois and NW Indiana. Each date during the 2020 GreenBuilt Home Series will focus on one of four themes:

  • July 8th – All-Electric Homes
  • July 15th – Deep Energy Retrofits
  • July 22nd – Passive House Showcase
  • July 29th – Wellness + High Performance Homes

Each web event will allow you to hear from the building team behind the featured green homes and learn about the latest sustainable home technologies in action.

And yes, we will be participating again with our deep energy retrofit on July 15th!

Learn more and register here!

Minisplit cooling startup

Cooling season has started. Our living space has been comfortable in terms of temperature and humidity since we turned off the heating mode on our minisplit back in March. Now it is time to bring the temperature and humidity down a notch so that we can sleep comfortably at night.

The last time the minisplit ran in cooling mode was about eight or nine months ago. Since that time, dust may have accumulated in the condensate collection pan. Once that dust mixes with the first condensate from the heat exchanger coils, it may cake up and block the drain line that is supposed to safely evacuate the water to the outside.

If that is the case, you will notice water droplets on the luvers and a water puddle on the floor under the minisplit.

It’s time to turn the minisplit off and clean that condensate drain line. Or, even better, as a routine maintenance item, preemptively clean the condensate drain line at the beginning of each cooling season.

To do so, find the discharge point of your drain line, which typically would be outside the building. Take a wet/dry shop vacuum with a narrow nozzle. Fit the nozzle over the drain line and proceed to evacuate any water, dust and crud that may have accumulated in the drain line since it last ran in cooling mode. Once the vacuum doesn’t pull any more water or crud out of the drain, start up the minisplit in cooling mode and monitor whether you get any more spillover from the condensate collection plan on the indoor unit. If you do, repeat the cleaning process. If you don’t, great job, and enjoy your cool building interior!

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