This Old House 30th Anniversary Special Broadcast
(NOTE: Timestamps below correspond to the running time of the downloadable audio file of this show. Text represents a professional transcriptionist’s understanding of what was said. No guarantee of accuracy is expressed or implied. ‘Ph’ in parentheses indicates the honetic or best guess of the actual spoken word.)
BEGIN HOUR 1 TEXT:
TOM: Coast to coast and floorboards to shingles, this is The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show. I’m Tom Kraeutler.
LESLIE: And I’m Leslie Segrete.
TOM: Pick up the phone; give us a call right now. The number is 1-888-MONEY-PIT, 888-666-3974. Call us right now if you have a home improvement question, especially if you own an old house.
You know, the economy has forced millions of Americans to stay right where they are and not many of you can afford to move on up. You’re probably trying to improve what you have or maybe your income level has changed and you now consider home improvement costs a luxury. We hear similar stories from so many of our listeners these days and lots of you want to know where to spend those home improvement dollars so that you’re getting the most bang for your buck. And it’s exactly what the homeowners of the current This Old House renovation wanted to know.
LESLIE: That’s right. Well, we are bringing you a very special edition of The Money Pit today.
We are on location at the current This Old House project just outside of Boston. And the focus, this season, is on quality but at an affordable price and, you know, in this economy, isn’t that really what we all want?
LESLIE: And as you learn what went on in this renovation right here, you may learn something about your own house that will help you make an inexpensive fix.
TOM: You know, Leslie, the homeowners bought this house five years ago knowing that work would eventually be needed and finally saved enough pennies to get that job started. A local architect helped design a small addition, as opposed to gutting and reno-ing the entire house, and the result is phenomenal. It’s an extra 330 square feet that includes – check this out – a new kitchen, a family room and a home office; even a little library. I mean they’ve got a lot into this place.
LESLIE: I know it sounds like a little bit of space but, when you see it, it really is huge and beautiful. So here to kick things off with more details is the host of This Old House, our good friend, Kevin O’Connor.
TOM: Welcome, Kevin.
KEVIN: Thank you, guys. It’s always great to be back talking with you.
TOM: Yeah, because it means you’re just about done with the house. (all laugh)
KEVIN: Not our favorite day but it’s up there with a pretty good day.
TOM: It’s a busy one. Now, you guys put a lot into 330 square feet. Tell us about the project.
KEVIN: Well, Tom Silva and his guys put a lot into 330 square feet (Leslie chuckles) but I think it’s a pretty common story. You move into a neighborhood; you buy the house you can afford and then you fall in love with your school system, with your neighbors – or at least some of them – and as you grow, you want the house to grow with you. And so that’s what this family did. They needed some more space and they really hadn’t touched the house. So the house hadn’t been touched in about 70 years, so it needed to be updated.
So it was a very modest, but still impactful, renovation: a kitchen that just didn’t work – and imagine this – no upper cabinets; a little bathroom sort of tucked off of it; a choke point between the small table and the refrigerator that no one could get by; and an old staircase that had been topped off was their pantry – so, not an ideal kitchen for folks who cook at home three meals a day.
That was completely gutted, updated; we gave them a little more space by taking some staircases and bringing them into the kitchen and using that space. And then, a very small addition – 330 square feet – that got them a new family room, modest in size; a new powder room; and an additional home office and library because both mom and dad are writers and academics.
LESLIE: And I think we’re forgetting to mention that at the landing on this flight of stairs is this beautiful little library nook which is all of – what – 6×6 but so many interesting little cabinets and a window seat.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Yeah. Right.
KEVIN: (overlapping voices) Right.
LESLIE: There’s so much character that I think, really – you know, and credit to the architect in this as well – that the charm of the addition really works with the charm of the original project of the house.
KEVIN: I agree a hundred percent. The architect nailed it with this one. And for two reasons, I think it really works. Something was there when we got there. At the landing of their stairs was a wall of books and a window; and so they really keyed off of that. But also, they love books and they want to show them off; so they created a library. Usually when you hear someone say, “Oh, I’m doing a renovation with a library,” you might want to choke on it. But, as you say, 6×6; a couple of walls of shelves; some beautiful lighting and that is it but it makes all the difference.
TOM: Kevin, when we tackle a project like this, very often there are tradeoffs. What were some of those in this particular job?
KEVIN: Square footage was definitely a tradeoff. They didn’t go with the sort of big, giant open plan where the family room kind of sprawls from one end of the house to the other end of the house; and so you end up with smaller spaces and you’ve got to manage those.
KEVIN: If you have discreet rooms, how do you separate them? Pocket doors work in this case, [sliding them] (ph) properly works in this case. And you also, well, would love to have a giant kitchen; one that incorporates not just the cooking areas and the eating areas but nowadays people want sort of a mini-home office where they can put the computer and drop all the books and stuff like that. Wasn’t enough room, so out it went; you know, it just didn’t fit. But that’s OK. The kitchen is doing what the kitchen needs to do and that is to feed the family, give them a place to sit and have meals together.
TOM: And the result is really fantastic.
Kevin, we’re going to take a short break. Can you stick around?
KEVIN: Absolutely, I’d love to.
You are listening to the Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show on air and online at MoneyPit.com and we are coming to you today from the site of the current This Old House renovation.
TOM: You know, old houses are great. I have one, you have one.
LESLIE: I do.
TOM: They’re usually built very well. But are they energy efficient? We’re going to clear up some old myths and teach you how to make your old house as efficient as possible, after this.
TOM: Where home solutions live, welcome back to the Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show on air and online at MoneyPit.com. We are celebrating old houses today on The Money Pit. In this economic climate, you might not be able to move up. You might have to maintain what you have and make due with maybe just a little less space. It’s what we’re all having to do these days, just like the family who owns the home that is the current This Old House renovation project.
Now, if you have an old home, you know that they are historical, well-built, they’ve got lots of characters. But old homes do come with their own set of issues and maintenance is a big must.
LESLIE: And you know you might associate older homes and think that they’re less energy efficient – and, particularly, more drafty – but that’s not always the case. In fact, many older and even historic homes were designed for energy conservation. You know, they have wide overhangs which would provide shade; they have thicker walls for insulation; and even deep porches to protect the house itself against the elements. Now, it might just take some extra weatherstripping around your doors and windows as a very inexpensive fix for those drafts. And you know, in fact, anybody could benefit from some extra weatherstripping; whether it’s an old house or not.
TOM: Absolutely. Now, the old house that we’re in right now has received a 330-square-foot addition that paved the way for a new kitchen, family room and office space. Before the break, we were talking to the host, Kevin O’Connor.
Kevin, I want to talk to you a bit about energy efficiency. What are some of the energy-efficient challenges that you guys had to overcome here and how do they apply to the rest of America?
KEVIN: Yeah, well we definitely tackled them here; thanks to Richard Trethewey and his smarts. And with an older house, the biggest problem is you’ve got this existing space that’s usually buttoned up. And so how do you get into it and make it efficient without sort of spending all of your money doing that? And here, we did two things.
In the addition – those 330 square feet of the new space – that was pretty easy, right? Give it the spray foam insulation, you get a high r value, you get very little air infiltration and you use the right windows with the insulating glass and such. In the old part of the house, we couldn’t go and take all the plaster down and put new insulation in and we couldn’t just get it poured in everywhere but wherever we touched a room and wherever we touched a space, we made sure that the old insulation came out – if there even was any.
LESLIE: Most likely there wasn’t, I bet.
KEVIN: Someone, at some point, had blown in cellulose in this house.
TOM: Into the walls.
KEVIN: Into the walls, right.
LESLIE: Oh, interesting. Because we have a 1922-23 Dutch colonial; balloon frame, no insulation at all.
KEVIN: Which is what this was originally. Someone along the way smartened up and put in cellulose insulation. But we saw the effects of that over the years. It had settled; you had big cavities, big pockets where it didn’t exist. So we updated that again with a spray foam insulation. That’s part of the equation.
The other part is we upgraded all of the mechanical systems and we also changed sort of how they make hot water and how they make the heat. So, a sort of central gas furnace that’s 15 years old and an old tank-type water heater that’s – it works but it’s not that efficient – that all goes and now we have a super-efficient condensing boiler; we have an indirect hot water tank; and we also introduced radiant heat in the new edition which, as you guys know, is not just a comfortable way to make heat but also a very efficient way to make heat.
So, better insulation; tighten up the house wherever we could; and upgrade the mechanical systems is the way we did it. And on an addition and a renovation, it’s almost irresponsible not to do that.
LESLIE: And I have to say that this is like a This Old House trademark: the boiler room – or the mechanical room, if you will – (Tom and Kevin laugh)
TOM: Yeah. Gorgeous.
LESLIE: – in this case is a wall – is gorgeous. I mean the fixtures, the piping, the tubing, how it all comes together is just – you don’t ever want to close it up; you want to look at it.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right. And you know what, we’re actually recording in the basement of this house right now. That’s where we’ve been set up.
LESLIE: I know. I can’t stop looking at it.
TOM: And I was going to set up over near the heating equipment and they said, “No, don’t do that. Everybody likes to look at that.” (laughs)
LESLIE: It’s true.
KEVIN: It’s like the command deck of a sophisticated submarine, you know?
TOM: Command center.
KEVIN: It’s very – fancy stuff. But it’s the technology that exists and when you’ve got a smart mind, like Richard Trethewey, you definitely should use it and we love it because there is such rich content there to educate people that this technology is out there; these levels of efficiency exist; and if it’s done right, by the right people, you are going to have, yourself, a critical part of the house – you know, the mechanical system – a critical part of the house, done perfectly.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Yep, absolutely. And also, because you guys have done such a great job insulating this house, you can actually downsize these systems a little bit. You don’t need quite so many BTUs as before because when these homes were built, those heating systems were way bigger than they needed to be because, let’s face it, an old house – 1915 – you probably had six to eight air changes per hour in this.
LESLIE: (overlapping voices) Because of the air exchange.
TOM: That means the inside air and the outside air are exchanging six times an hour. I mean that’s a lot of air to heat.
LESLIE: It’s crazy to just keep heating that over and over – and now I’m thinking about my freezing little 1920 colonial. Thank you again. (Tom and Leslie chuckle)
TOM: So Kevin, what’s next for This Old House?
KEVIN: We are currently working on a two-family in Roxbury, Massachusetts; it’s a neighborhood of Boston.
KEVIN: This is our 30th year, so we’re going back to our roots, staying close to him. And as this story was about modesty and restraint in the current economic conditions and topical, that story in Roxbury is topical as well.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right.
KEVIN: It is a foreclosure story.
KEVIN: The house was left abandoned and lost to the bank in foreclosure but we are working with the city and a nonprofit to bring it back, reinvigorate the street and then we’re going to turn it over to two families who are of means need to get them in there and hopefully we’ll make an impact on that neighborhood and for definitely two families.
TOM: Well, Kevin, congratulations on another great project wrapping up today and congratulations on 30 years of This Old House.
Kevin O’Connor, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
KEVIN: Thank you for having me, guys. It’s always a pleasure.
TOM: You are listening to the Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show coming to you from the current This Old House project just outside of Boston. Let’s get to those phones. We’ve got some old house calls coming in. Let’s take one right now.
Leslie, who’s up?
LESLIE: Alright, we’ve got Mike who has an old house and wants to know how to save money on his energy costs. Welcome, Mike.
MIKE: Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I have a house that was built back in 1895 and it’s made of brick. It’s about 3,500 square feet or so. I have three furnaces and three air conditioning units that we use to heat and cool the house and we put the draft-stops under the door and winterize the windows with plastic and stuff. But even with all that, during the peak season our utility bills are outrageous. I kind of feel like I’m putting the utility company’s kids through college.
TOM: (chuckling) Absolutely.
LESLIE: Right. (chuckles)
TOM: Yeah, we know how you feel and you shouldn’t be doing that. But you know, you’re in the same situation, Mike, that a lot of people are. You’ve got serious drafts in the house, serious energy efficiency issues and you don’t know exactly where to begin. And so, in a situation like this, you could not be a better candidate for an energy audit.
TOM: Now an energy audit – as you know, Leslie, it’s when you bring in a pro that does all the testing and figures out – doesn’t speculate; which is what you’re doing, Mike – it figures out exactly where all of the losses are in the house. Is it the attic?
LESLIE: And they use pretty high-tech equipment that really notices the spots that are hot and cool – you know, depending on the season – to see where that specific energy loss comes from.
TOM: That’s right. They have infrared cameras where they can see cold and hot areas of exterior walls. They have blower door tests where they essentially fill the entire house up with air and then test it for leaks. But these guys can tell you, Mike, where to put those dollars. Maybe the insulation is a good idea. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be but I mean certainly that’s a good place to start. But should you replace your windows?
LESLIE: Right. And I think, also, the benefit of the energy audit is – and correct me if I’m wrong – you’ll be able to see sort of – they’ll give you the calculations as to what would give you the biggest return on your investment and how quickly you can recoup that, correct?
TOM: That’s right and that’s critical information that’s missing right now. He doesn’t know exactly where he’s going to recoup those dollars. So should you put in a new door or a new window or insulation or replace your energy-efficient lighting or maybe those three furnaces and air conditioners; it might be time to replace those.
LESLIE: For a more efficient model.
LESLIE: And you know what, Mike? I would start with your utility company. I mean a lot of companies across the U.S., they offer their own energy audits of your home. But if yours doesn’t, I mean I imagine there are pros that you can hire to do the job.
TOM: Yeah, and not only that. Right now there’s a lot of TARP money available and, in some states – I know in my state of New Jersey, for example – they supplement the cost of those energy audits.
LESLIE: Oh, that’s interesting.
TOM: In fact, if I wanted to have an energy audit – I was talking to one of the remodelers that does it in my area, who happened to be at the remodelers show, and he said that I would pay around $100 and the state gives them about $300.
TOM: So basically, I’m paying 25 percent of the cost of that audit.
LESLIE: I mean that’s really fantastic because when you’re looking at it, there’s really the benefit of you finding out how you can save money but then it’s also your state’s energy usage and how green your state specifically can be based on how much your carbon footprint is reduced.
TOM: Absolutely. So Mike, get on the phone; get an energy audit and I think you’ll have the information that you need to tackle this project.
LESLIE: This is The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show coming to you from the set of the current This Old House renovation. And you know, this time around, the focus was on really being economical; which truly is the goal for everybody these days.
TOM: Well, absolutely. You know, millions of you are making due with what you have and trying to make the best of it in the cheapest way possible. Now this home just outside of Boston was expanded by just 330 square feet but the architect was a genius. He made every inch count. And the rest of the home was pretty much left alone with one major exception.
LESLIE: That’s right and here to tell us about that is Tom Silva, This Old House’s general contractor.
TOM SILVA: Thank you, Leslie and Tom. How are you?
LESLIE: We’re well.
LESLIE: So I understand that there were some pretty serious electrical issues going on with this project.
TOM SILVA: There were some serious issues, yeah. (Tom chuckles) It’s a house built in the early 1900s. Knob and tubing is the wiring system and it’s a great wiring system if you don’t …
LESLIE: Was it still functioning or had it been bypassed?
TOM SILVA: Yeah. Oh, no; it was still functioning. And with knob-and-tubing wiring, one thing that you do not want to do is insulate the house.
TOM: Right, because it’s an air-cooled system that those wires are standing off the beam so that air can cool them and if you insulate them you make it unsafe.
TOM SILVA: That’s right, you can cause a fire. And lots of times, if you do insulate a house that has knob and tubing in it, knowing that, you can actually void your insurance. So, no money for a fire.
LESLIE: Interesting. And was it – I mean as you started getting into the project, did you notice that insulation was right in contact with the knob and tube?
TOM SILVA: Only in a few parts of the house. Someone had insulated parts of the house and other parts were uninsulated. But I mean that’s a big-ticket item, when you have an old house and you don’t want to disturb the walls.
TOM SILVA: You’ve got to work around plaster and you’ve got to snake it up the walls, get to the floors above. So, basically, what we did is run a main line up to the attic and wire the second floor from the attic and the first floor from the basement. But it still meant breaking into the brick fire-stopping. Back then they used bricks and mortar; now we use wood. They could drill it but a lot of hard work. I mean you’re looking – round numbers for this house was a little under $10,000 just to rewire the existing structure.
TOM SILVA: But now you have a safe structure and now the building is insulated.
TOM: Hey, Tommy, this is not unusual. We get into these renovation projects and there ultimately is a surprise. Do you kind of have a process you go through to try to eliminate some of the unexpected when you’re scoping these things out?
TOM SILVA: It’s very difficult. I mean I’ve been doing this all my life. I grew up in the trades. But professionally, I’ve been doing it for (purposely inaudible, Tom and Leslie chuckle) – a long …
TOM: Well, it’s the 30th season and you don’t look a day over 29, so … (Tom and Leslie chuckle)
TOM SILVA: Yeah. Yeah, right. (chuckles) I wish I could go along with that. But you know, I can spot a lot of things by looking at a house. I can tell if there’s usually a structural problem somewhere. And I knew that there was a little bit of a structural problem in the kitchen but I didn’t realize it was going to be as bad as it is – as it was. When we took down the kitchen ceiling, we found out that the plumber had totally destroyed some of the header beams that carried the floor structure and it dropped two inches.
LESLIE: (overlapping voices) Ooh.
TOM: And those are the surprises that need a guy with your skills to help solve.
Tommy Silva, the general contractor on This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit. We’re going to bring you back a little bit later and get you to answer some This Old House questions from our listeners.
TOM SILVA: Sounds good.
TOM: You know, looking around, I’ve got to say, Leslie, that this is a great finished product. The homeowners have got to be exorbitantly happy.
LESLIE: Yeah, sure they’re happy now. I mean but during the renovation – now this was very unusual – the homeowners, they lived here; they went on with life as usual. Alright, maybe not as usual. (chuckles)
TOM: Not exactly as usual. Exactly.
LESLIE: But they did go on with their lives in the house and that’s not common, particularly for This Old House. So we’re going to talk to the homeowners next.
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TOM: This is The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show on air and online at MoneyPit.com, where home solutions live. I’m Tom Kraeutler.
LESLIE: And I’m Leslie Segrete.
TOM: And we’re coming to you today from Newton Centre, Massachusetts where the current season of This Old House is just wrapping up production. But before the finished product ever airs, you get to hear a little bit about it right here on The Money Pit today.
LESLIE: That’s right. You know, old houses, they’re well-built and they certainly have lots of charm but they do need a little extra TLC. And you may have to upgrade some of your home’s major systems. Now, I recently added central AC to my own home and it was something that we’d always thought was not possible for our old house and was going to be a giant disaster. Well, it actually wasn’t and with some clever duct placement and some creative thinking, it really wasn’t messy and you would barely notice it was done.
TOM: Yeah, and that’s a good point. You know, there’s another option to central air; that is a whole-house fan and it’s kind of a larger-than-attic-fan device. It gets installed in the second floor ceiling and it can pull a breeze throughout every room in the house.
So, for more great house tips on how to perhaps cool your house or make it more comfortable or more energy efficient, visit MoneyPit.com and search “maintaining an older home.”
LESLIE: Now, with This Old House, it’s certainly fun watching these projects from start to finish but what is it like living through them?
TOM: Ah, good question.
LESLIE: So we’re going to ask the homeowners. We’ve got, joining us right now, Bill and Gillian Pierce.
GILLIAN: Hi, there. Thanks.
BILL: Thank you.
TOM: Well, you guys must be very excited. This is the last day of production and, hence, the last day of construction.
GILLIAN: We are thrilled. (Leslie chuckles) It’s …
BILL: After six months.
GILLIAN: Yeah, it’s great to see this finally come to a close and we’re so happy with the results.
LESLIE: Now this was highly unusual. I mean, generally, when This Old House takes on a project, it’s a major renovation; we’re gutting things from start to finish and people are gone.
BILL: That’s right.
LESLIE: Now this was a smaller project for the team and you guys were right in the mix of it. I mean how was it?
BILL: There was a big discussion about that at the beginning because, you know, Tom and we and the people who are on the television crew, the camera crew, were discussing whether it would work; whether we could pull it off.
BILL: And Tom felt strongly that we could. And so we’d always wanted to do it because we thought that the money you’d spend renting a place, especially in the Boston area, would not be – you know, would be better spent on the house itself.
GILLIAN: Yeah, and it’s true. This is a smaller project for This Old House and most of the existing house really wasn’t touched. So we didn’t have a kitchen – I think that was the biggest challenge – but we did have most of our regular living spaces. So you know, we had to work around the dust and the disruption sometimes but, really, it wasn’t that bad. The kitchen was the biggest challenge.
BILL: If we had it to do over again, though, I think we would put more of our stuff in storage. (Tom and Leslie laugh) We would have moved out more completely.
TOM: Well, you guys have had to do what millions of Americans have had to do right now and that is to kind of prioritize and decide where to put the few dollars that we all have left these days to where it does the most good.
Now, Gillian, I know that you’re a good cook; in fact, I heard from some of the team here that you actually were cooking up some treats for them now and again, keeping everybody happy. (Gillian chuckles)
BILL: In the basement. (Leslie chuckles) She had the stove in the basement and she was cooking.
TOM: But now you’ve got a completely redesigned kitchen. Tell me about some of the issues that you went through in deciding how that space was going to work for you.
GILLIAN: Well, you know, we wanted to maximize the amount of space we would have for kind of living in the kitchen – eating and gathering – but, of course, we also wanted to get some high-tech appliances in there, so we didn’t have a lot of space for gadgets or toys. So we have a nice, gas range in there; we’ve got a lot of refrigerator space but – you know, not a lot of bells and whistles.
GILLIAN: Just really functional things; that’s what we focused on.
LESLIE: Now I noticed you guys were really serious about sticking to a certain budget and keeping things within the parameters of what you’d set aside. Now, was it that you’d accomplished everything with the house so well that you had extra money for the garage or did you see that the garage really needed some fixing up as well and sought out extra cash?
BILL: Yeah, well we actually – we set aside money to do the project and then we decided to get a loan – you know, to get an equity loan – and make sure that we could do those last little things that would make a big difference. The garage had been a problem from the beginning because it was leaking; not just the roof but the sides.
TOM: Oh, boy.
BILL: It was an old, metal building.
LESLIE: Oh, interesting.
BILL: So you couldn’t just reside a little bit of it. It was like a Sears and Roebuck special from 1945.
LESLIE: (overlapping voices) There wasn’t a cosmetic fix.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right.
GILLIAN: Yeah, it really wasn’t a functional building and as this beautiful, new addition started to go up, it just looked worse and worse by comparison. (Leslie chuckles)
GILLIAN: We knew we had to straighten the driveway as part of the project; and so, making a nice, new driveway to lead up to the rusty structure just didn’t seem like a smart decision long-term.
BILL: One thing we did in the kitchen was open up the back and the side with a lot of windows and they really framed that old, rusty garage beautifully. (Leslie laughs)
GILLIAN: (laughing) That was our view, you know.
BILL: (overlapping voices) But we thought we could do better than that.
GILLIAN: So, yeah.
TOM: Well, you know, doing home improvement, it’s a lot like driving a train: it takes a lot of energy to get it going but you don’t want to stop. (Leslie chuckles) So I think you guys did exactly the right thing.
GILLIAN: We tried to show restraint.
TOM: Bill, Gillian Pierce; thank you so much for allowing us to come here to your home and teach all of our listeners about what it’s like to live through a renovation and build the home of their dreams.
GILLIAN: Thanks. (chuckles)
BILL: Thank you.
LESLIE: Congratulations. Enjoy it. It’s beautiful.
GILLIAN: Oh, thank you very much.
BILL: Thanks a lot.
LESLIE: Alright, well up next, no matter how old your house is, you’d better hope that the plumbing and heating systems keep chugging along.
TOM: (chuckling) Absolutely.
LESLIE: Yeah, right? Well, one guy that knows just how to do that is Rich Trethewey, the plumbing and heating expert on the This Old House team. We’re going to hear his tips, next.
TOM: This is The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show on air and online at MoneyPit.com. I’m Tom Kraeutler.
LESLIE: And I’m Leslie Segrete.
TOM: We are on the set of the current This Old House project just outside of Boston in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. We’re giving you a sneak peek into the newly-renovated home and you won’t get to see the finished project on TV until just a bit later this season; the 30th season of TV’s This Old House on PBS.
LESLIE: Yeah, I mean it’s amazing. I know I’ve personally been watching it for as long as I can remember, which is the 30 years, and both Tom and I own one of these older houses – or pretty much old homes. And they’re beautiful and well-made but older homes do have a lot of things to be aware of – you know, like old plumbing – and it could consist of steel pipes, which are prone to clogs because of internal rusting and they sort of close up like arteries. And they will eventually burst or even have drastically-reduced water pressure.
So, here to talk more about old house plumbing issues we’ve got Richard Trethewey, plumbing and heating expert. He wanted me to mess up his last name. (Tom and Leslie laugh)
RICHARD: No, you did perfectly, you did perfectly.
TOM: Hey, Rich.
RICHARD: How are you?
TOM: We’re good and you’ve done a lot of work in this house. Why don’t you give us sort of an overview of what work you did do.
RICHARD: Well, this was a 20s-style house and so it would have started with a coal-fired heating boiler that would have had no circulator pump and had big, big, steel pipes all the way through the basement. You hit your head everywhere you went and there were big radiators.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right.
RICHARD: And so we wanted to keep the radiators but we wanted to modernize. So we got rid of all the steel pipe and we fish this new super-plastic called PEX to each of the radiators and we made every radiator its own zone.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Yep.
RICHARD: And what that allowed us to do was to have a full-blown basement that the kids can have as a playroom and it was really great. And we also upgraded all the plumbing piping so that we can leave here and know that it’s going to be good for the next 50 years.
TOM: I think there’s some plumbing upgrading going on right now. (all laugh)
RICHARD: Yeah. It’s good that we can have our studio here in the middle of the highway. (Tom and Leslie chuckle)
LESLIE: Well, it’s interesting. I mean our studio that we’ve set up in the house is right by your control center that you’ve built down here in the basement and your buddy, Tommy Silva, you know, off air sort of walked us through this a little bit and he said that you really are the mastermind of all this.
RICHARD: (overlapping voices) Yes, yes.
LESLIE: And I think it’s so interesting how you married these two systems. I mean PEX, so advanced; cast iron radiators, not so much. How do you get the two …?
RICHARD: (overlapping voices) That’s right; the old and the new; the yin and the yang.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Yeah, exactly.
LESLIE: Yeah, how do you get them to speak to one another and allow everything to place nicely?
RICHARD: Well, you have individual supply to each one of these radiators and a local control to say yes or no to whether that radiator gets heat; so there’s zoning in every room. But then, beyond that, back at the boiler we put in this new, modern, gas-fired condensing boiler. Condensing boiler means it extracts every bit of the heat. Ninety-six cents out of every dollar becomes usable heat into the building.
TOM: And what’s left is water vapor, right.
RICHARD: A little bit of water vapor and a little flue that goes up a special pipe and a little bit of water that has to go down the drain. So we just take every bit of that heat and then we gently heat the boiler – and when I say “gently,” we know how cold it is outside; so most heating boilers or furnaces, you turn the thermostat up and it just fires up to 200 degrees and then it shuts off.
RICHARD: It’s sort of like having an automobile with one gas pedal at full blast and a brake. This thing, we always know when we just put the right amount of water and now the water circulates all the time through the radiators but just it’s at a mild temperature. When it starts getting colder, the water gets a little hotter and you don’t notice and you’re always 68 in every room; always perfect.
LESLIE: And that’s all controlled through one, central thermostat?
RICHARD: Well, it’s actually through one brain that’s down at the boiler that says, “I feel it’s getting colder. OK, I’m going to make a little hotter water temperature” and it really becomes the saving story of cruise control on your automobile, versus stop and go.
LESLIE: So there’s no thermostat in the house?
RICHARD: There are local thermostats but their role is only to say, “I don’t want to overheat this room.” You know, the real control is done down at the boiler to say, “I’m not going to let any thermostat fire my burner. I’m going to let my little brain look at how cold it is outside and just govern the amount of water temperature that goes out to the system.”
TOM: So control systems have come a long way, Richard.
RICHARD: (overlapping voices) Absolutely, absolutely.
LESLIE: (overlapping voices) That’s amazing.
TOM: It used to be just one thermostat, set it and forget it.
TOM: And now we can measure the outside temperature, we can measure the inside temperature, we can adjust the heat and the BTUs and that makes it incredibly efficient.
RICHARD: That’s where the savings are. We really have to find a way because everybody wants to oversize the equipment. Everybody wants to put in the way big piece of equipment so they get plenty of power on the coldest day. But that coldest day rarely happens. I mean it happens – in the Boston area, it happens about 14 hours a year.
RICHARD: Yeah. We’ve designed for this condition that some winters it never happens and then, on average, over the last 65 years, it happens 14 hours a year.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right.
RICHARD: So, how do you offset the fact that you need that full power on the coldest day?
TOM: When you need it.
RICHARD: Well, you do it by changing the control method; by just having it be able to modulate or put lower-temperature water and circulate water like a Ferris wheel going through all the radiators all season long but just changing gradually.
LESLIE: Now, how much of an investment is this type of system? Are we looking at $20,000, $30,000 and will you recoup that?
RICHARD: Well, this was a major rehab and it was driven as much by trying to gain space down in this basement.
RICHARD: But the basic addition of a smart control on a boiler is it’s a $500 to a $1,000 investment and that pays itself back in no time.
TOM: It really does, yeah.
RICHARD: The other thing that you get from it is not just the savings, though. It is the comfort that – right now, in most houses, you turn up the thermostat and the boiler fires up or the furnace comes on and then you hear the pinging and tinging of the hot water going through the baseboard and then it satisfies the thermostat and it shuts off and you feel cold again.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right.
RICHARD: This just lets it run all the time.
TOM: Plus, there’s a fair amount of springboarding of thermostats that goes on by these things we call humans. (Leslie chuckles)
RICHARD: That’s right, that’s right.
TOM: You know, you get chilly; you throw it up; it overheats the house; you turn it down and then, of course, the kids open a window or something like that and it’s just crazy. So …
RICHARD: (overlapping voices) Yes, that’s right. That’s right, that’s right. Yes.
TOM: Hey, we’re talking to Richard Trethewey. He is the plumbing and heating expert for This Old House, in its 30th season.
Richard, before we let you go, let’s talk a little bit about old house plumbing in general. Most common problem we get a lot of questions on: steel pipes. Always a replacement?
RICHARD: Well, it’s galvanized steel. During the – probably the late 20s up until the post-war era, probably into the early 50s, that was the pipe of choice.
RICHARD: And it was galvanized steel. It had a coating on it that seemed to hold up on the outside but, over time, on the inside, by – usually by the velocity of the water, it would scrape away that coating and then you would just get this layer of ferrous oxide, this rust, and it would just close down and close down. The short answer is if you’ve got galvanized and it’s exposed, you should get rid of it.
TOM: Only a matter of time.
RICHARD: Yeah, yeah.
RICHARD: And it’s going to get – the pressure generally – it generally forces your hand because the pressure gets less and people ignore the fact that they’re drinking rusty water or they don’t even know.
TOM: (overlapping voices) Right. Right. (Leslie chuckles)
RICHARD: You know.
TOM: And I also have to congratulate you. I understand today is World Toilet Day. (Leslie laughs)
RICHARD: It is? Is that true?
TOM: It is true. It’s World Toilet Day.
RICHARD: Did you get me anything?
TOM: I looked for a Hallmark card.
RICHARD: (laughing) That’s in aisle six.
TOM: But unfortunately, to my shock and surprise, they did not have one.
RICHARD: (overlapping voices) World Toilet Day.
TOM: Richard Trethewey …
LESLIE: Aw. And if they did, it would be made out of toilet paper. (laughs)
TOM: It would be. Rich Trethewey from TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
LESLIE: Yeah, thank you so much.
RICHARD: Glad to be here.
LESLIE: It’s been a pleasure and you’ve really taught us a whole lot. Thank you.
RICHARD: I try.
TOM: You are listening to the Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show.
Up next, do you know exactly how old your house is? You know, if you do, it can give you a heads up for what’s likely to need fixing. We’re going to have a tip on how you can date your own house, next.
TOM: Where home solutions live, welcome back to the Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show. I’m Tom Kraeutler.
LESLIE: And I’m Leslie Segrete.
TOM: Broadcasting today just outside of Boston in Newton Centre, Massachusetts where the This Old House cast and crew has just finished up season 30 by building a 330-square-foot addition for the Pierce family.
LESLIE: Well, you don’t have to have an old house to have issues in your home. Each era of home construction has had some sort of advances and some kind of duds.
LESLIE: Well, to find out if your home might have dangerous aluminum wiring or problematic steel pipes, you want to search home repairs needed by the age of your house at MoneyPit.com and you can learn more about what you might find in your home.
TOM: That’s right. And if you’re trying to figure out how to date a house, there are a few clues that you can look for inside your house. And I’m going to welcome back to the program right now Tom Silva, the show’s general contractor, to talk through some of those.
TOM SILVA: How are you?
TOM: So we’re trying to figure out how old a house is. Now the trick I always have is because I spent so many years in home inspection that we used a toilet. Because the toilet is always dated when it was made and, generally, you know, they’re not making them and having them sit around for several years; they’re making them and putting them in. So you can open up the lid of your toilet, look inside and it usually has the last two digits of the year.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, that’s a good way to do it.
TOM: Now how about you; about some tricks of your trade?
TOM SILVA: I like the bones. I go into the bones. I figure if it’s brace-frame, balloon-frame, timber-frame – I look at that because that’s the kind of stuff that I like to do anyway, so it’s always interesting. Balloon-frames got their name because timber framers named them that because the structure was so light they thought it was going to blow away.
TOM: Oh, is that right? I didn’t know that.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty cool.
TOM: That’s really interesting. Yeah, and every era of construction had its strengths and weaknesses and it’s always amazing to me that we’re still building homes today much like we did, you know, 100 to 200 years ago. The framed wall is still the framed wall. We’re still setting them up like …
TOM SILVA: That’s right, that’s right. It’s the fast, efficient way to build.
TOM: We’re still setting them up like Swiss cheese and everything else is to close them in, right?
LESLIE: (overlapping voices, chuckling) Filling it in.
TOM SILVA: (chuckling) Exactly, exactly.
LESLIE: Alright, well if you don’t mind, I’d love to ask you one of our e-mail questions from our audience.
TOM SILVA: Alright, we’ll give it a shot.
LESLIE: Alright, Pat in Connecticut writes: “I have a 90-year-old house that badly needs a new roof. The roof surface area is huge and made up of several parts, including a covered porch. Does it make sense to do the project in sections to make it more affordable and what about using less expensive materials on some of the smaller areas?”
TOM SILVA: Wow, well it depends on your budget. You could do sides of a building but you don’t want to do sections of the same side.
TOM SILVA: But I would always pick a good-quality roof material that’s going to last.
TOM: Yeah, because the devil …
TOM SILVA: You’re not going to save any money over the long run. You’re just going to redo it sooner.
TOM: Yeah, because the devil is in the details. Especially when you have a roof that’s got a lot of angles to it, it’s not going to leak on the roof surface, on the flat.
TOM SILVA: Right.
TOM: It’s going to leak where everything comes together.
LESLIE: Or any protrusions.
TOM SILVA: I mean if you’re going to use a 50-year roof, you want to use a 50-year flashing.
TOM SILVA: If you’re going to use a 25-year roof, then you use a 25-year flashing. You save money everywhere. It’s a cheaper roof but the life is shorter.
LESLIE: What’s your feeling on existing roofing material? Remove it, leave it? Are there situations when one is better than the other?
TOM SILVA: I never go over anything. I don’t believe in it. I believe in stripping it off, lighten the load, nail off the structure, tighten the connection between the sheathing and the roof itself, tighten that building. I mean that building moves all the time with wind and rain and everything. It’s always moving. Tighten the structure up, lessen the building from moving and lessen some cracking from happening also.
TOM: And you know, Tom, what I always notice – I spent 20 years as a professional home inspector and when I saw a second roof, if the first roof lasted 20 years, the second layer would only last, say, 15 or less.
TOM SILVA: That’s right; you’re not going to get the life out of it.
TOM: So you’re just about done today. Today’s the big wrap party.
TOM SILVA: Today’s the big wrap party.
TOM: That’s right. I bet you really enjoy when you get to this point in the project.
TOM SILVA: I love to finish but I love being there through the whole process because I’m here almost every, single day.
TOM: Yeah, that’s right.
TOM SILVA: And they’re long days.
TOM: Yeah, well it’s lucky that you live in the neighborhood, so to speak. (Tom Silva and Leslie chuckle) Well, Tom, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit and thanks for giving us the opportunity to broadcast here again and from your job site.
TOM SILVA: Well, it’s nice to have you as always and it’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.
TOM: You’ve been listening to the Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show coming to you from the set of This Old House, season 30, just outside of Boston. Be sure to check local PBS listings for This Old House and Ask This Old House. The show continues online at MoneyPit.com.
I’m Tom Kraeutler.
LESLIE: And I’m Leslie Segrete.
TOM SILVA: And I’m Tom Silva.
TOM: Remember, you can do it yourself …
LESLIE: But you don’t have to do it alone.
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(Copyright 2009 Squeaky Door Productions, Inc. No portion of this transcript or audio file may be reproduced in any format without the express written permission of Squeaky Door Productions, Inc.)