Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Alexandria Traffic Sanity!

The Del Ray Patch reports that the no right turn from behind Target onto Potomac will be going down, and only trucks will be prohibited from making that right turn onto Potomac.  Good news for getting home from Target!

Pretty much everyone ignored it anyway!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Harris Teeter Back this Year!

Looks like Harris Teeter does intend to come back to the area. It'll be great to have them back!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The big green blob....

So some of you may have one of these green blobs in your backyards:

Heated and Ventilated Pump Cover
I haven't found anything super detailed about maintaining it, or what all it provides pressure for in the house. I believe it pressurizes the entire water system, at least in my home. This includes the sprinkler system, and the household water lines. I was happy to have a water pressure boost pump as without the right pressure, the third story could have had low water pressure.

What is in this beast? Here you go:
Water Boost Pump and Bladder Pressure Tank
I do question why Pulte put these in the back yards. It looks like on the next round of homes, they went in under the stairwell on the first floor. Given how much ours runs, I'm not sure I'd want the noise and vibration in the house. On the plus side, the unit isn't taking up space in the courtyard, and it doesn't need an electric heater to keep it from freezing in the winter.

Pulte has evidently had complaints from other homeowners about the units, as they sent a letter back in November (see below) explaining that it is heated, so it won't freeze and they're confident that it won't leak.

Letter from Nov 29th, 2012
I decided to post about this for two reasons.

First, Pulte tells me to "check on your booster pump at the start of every cold season to confirm that everything is in working order." but doesn't tell me what to check, or what I should be inspecting. They also don't mention that the cover is a "Drop-over" cover instead of one with an access hatch. I've tried to lift the cover myself, it isn't easy, and it doesn't pivot off the pump due to the tight fit. I noticed as I was walking around the community by the park near the sales office one of the housings is meant for maintenance and can be opened. A little research show's these are common.

Second, if this is such a great design, why was it moved to the interior of the house in later designs? Why is the pump located in the garages of the other town homes, why was it moved under the stairs of others? My guess, this was just the cheapest place to drop it, with the cheapest cover available, and they don't have to pay the costs associated with running an electric heater in the backyard all winter, so why bother putting it in the garage, when just tossing it in the backyard is acceptable.

I guess a big green box in the backyard is another life tested feature that their customers requested. You won't find wasted space in Pulte's homes. I have to admit I admire the gumption required to call this big green box a "specially designed housing." They crack me up.

04/22/2013 Update - So I noticed today they even make the insulated box that opens for maintenance in green. I liked how this one was actually put down on a slab, instead of sloped pavers.

Green Blob with convertible top - sexy, isn't it?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Why doesn't it get warm downstairs in the winter?

So I heard from neighbors they couldn't get their homes warm downstairs. The funny thing about this is that it isn't a secret in the building community that three story, and greater, town homes have issues with temp distribution. The four story units have a split heating system to help cope with this issue.

So Pulte decided to put in a zoned system to help the three story town homes improve the temp distribution. I got curious, just how bad was the temp spread?  I picked up 6 Temp and Humidity data loggers to find out.

What I found is in the graph below. Pulte's temp warranty specification is 4 degrees Fahrenheit between rooms and floors (Section 23.2). My favorite part of the discussion with Pulte was them telling me that it's 4 degrees between adjacent floors, so theoretically it could be 72 on the third floor and 64 on the ground floor, and that would meet the design specification. Yeah, that makes sense, you want it 68 downstairs... how about 76 upstairs?

For this data set, the thermostat was located in the hallway on the second floor in the original design position and set to 68 degrees. You can see the temp spread was anywhere from 3-7 degrees from the kitchen to the third floor rec room.

Click on it to make it full sized.
I'm happy to provide the data file if you're interested.

Pulte's answer to this was to put in two zones to reduce temperature variation in the home. In their infinite wisdom, they chose to put in two zones. The third floor is its own zone, and the first and second floor are the other zone together. I particularly loved that the construction folks played the upgrade to the zoned system as a complimentary upgrade to "do the right thing", when per the terms of their warranty, they had to fix it.

Now you may be thinking, perhaps three zones is too complex substantially more expensive... Nah, they put in a three zone controller board (HZ322) made by Honeywell. They just couldn't be bothered to put the zone dampers anywhere but in the mechanical room. You might also be wondering how they put in new thermostats. They just used the RedLINK wireless ones, so they didn't have to put in a thermostat wire to the downstairs. You know, because nobody would want a Nest wired thermostat.

What happened with two zones? The thermostat downstairs tried to heat the downstairs to 68 degrees, and the concrete slab is a big heat sink, so it ran a lot. This dumped lots of heat into the master bedroom, and then up the stairs to the rec room. I sat in bed sweating for 2 nights before I decided that enough was enough, and I'd put in the proper installation of one zone per floor that I asked them to do in the first place.

I'll detail the install in a future post, but I will say the temp is now consistent around the house. Now that we're in Air Conditioning season, it's great to be able to turn down the temp in just the master bedroom, and have the system really only worry about the third floor heat load.

So, Pulte, thanks for the zone controller board and the dampers for the third floor. Too bad we couldn't have had it done right the first time. Pulte - Life Tested!

They don't call it a rec room because it's rectangular.....

So, what are you buying when you buy based on a floor plan? I took the statement in the Purchase Agreement that "'as-built' dimensions may vary slightly from the plan" to mean walls might move around an inch or so. I didn't expect to have a 32" by 45" block inserted between the windows on the third floor, and 32" by 45" block on one end of the rec room, and a 32" by 28" block put in on the the other end of the room to accommodate the roofing structure. To Pulte's credit, they moved the wet bar to make the room work better, but I lost 26+ square feet of floor space in the third floor rec room creating an awkward configuration.

Pulte's "Home Purchase Agreement"
5.4 Seller Substitutions or Variations. Due to governmental conditions, availability of materials, changes in product offerings or changes of suppliers, Seller reserves the right to make changes to the Home and/or tmake deviations from the plans or specifications as become necessary in Seller's sole opinion by site, and job, so long as Seller substitutes materials of equivalent quality and appearance. Determination of equivalency will be in Seller's sole and absolute discretion. If Seller makes such substitutions, the Total Purchase Price will be adjusted to reflect such substitution. Buyer acknowledges that actual "as-built" dimensions may vary slightly from the plan.

So here is what the third floor plan looked like when I signed the contract:

Notice how rectangular the room is?

Floor Plan As-Built
So, the thing about this change is that it took 2'8" off of the short dimension of the room making it nearly impossible to put a TV on an end wall, and impossible to center a TV across from the center of the large window bay where the couch has to sit. I also really enjoyed that I lost 4" behind the new location for the washer/dryer, and they deleted the sink with the explanation of "Pulte doesn't do wash basins, I don't know why that's in there."

I made it work by moving the wet-bar to the right side of the room from wall to wall, and then adding a wall to box in where the wet-bar is located in their plan so I could center a TV on the wall (nah, Pulte couldn't put that wall in for me, they're not a custom builder). Anybody want to calculate what 26 square feet at the price per square foot we paid works out to be? Pulte just thought it was ok to make the change (I discovered it, and notified them of the discrepancy) and said I couldn't rely on the floor plan.

Hmm, that's not a straight front wall on the third floor... That seems odd...

So, buyer beware. Pulte can pretty much change anything they want, and substitution is at Pulte's sole discretion. You have no idea what you're getting until you see it go up, get out there and walk the home sites. Pulte can literally build almost anything they want, and you're on the hook for the deposit.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


I've posted about drywall before, but I found a new favorite drywall issue when I went to move the shower curtain up so it wasn't sitting on the tile in the guest bathroom. The drywallers just drywalled around the shower curtain rod. It was just priceless!

Amazing finish work!

Stainless Steel Appliances!

So, I love the stainless steel appliances in my kitchen. They're really nice and cook well too.

I've mentioned before that I didn't get to see the home cleaned prior to going to closing. I wish I had seen the scratches on the stove control panel before I went to closing. I've been trying to figure out how to re-groom the stainless, but I haven't been gutsy enough to try yet.  Photos are really hard to take of scratches, but these show you a little bit of what you can expect from your appliances upon delivery from Pulte.

I've been impressed at how resilient the stainless has been. With a little TLC I haven't put a scratch on it, but the scratches from closing are still there. I'd get it replaced, but I'd imagine it won't be cheap... and of course Pulte doesn't cover scratches after closing. When I left to go to closing, the kitchen was still covered in construction dust and debris. This, of course, is why I didn't realize just how bad the floors, drywall, and stove are....

Kitchen Cabinet Visit #6 (That's 3+ full days off work)

Visit #5

So the cabinet folks from Suburban Cabinets came back out to fix the cabinet problems back in mid March. I've been lazy with the update, sorry. Again, less than impressive, but he did manage to get the island cabinet aligned with the island counter top..... after some serious arguing between him, the framer, the Pulte rep and me just saying "look, it's not right."

Scratches from screws on Lazy Susan

Look Brown Wax on Lazy Susan

Screw Indentation on Cabinet

Look ma, more brown wax on the same cabinet!

So, as I've said before on here. I'm a big fan of doing things the RIGHT way. I guess Pulte views putting brown wax over the scratches caused by incorrectly mounting the door handles as cool in their book. It's not cool in my book.  I really liked the gouge the installer put in the door on the right with his drill. He said oops, and then said nothing about it. I was too tired of dealing with him to even care at that point, but yet again, it's more in the category of "not quite right" than "we'll make it right."

He did go through and counter sink all the handles in the house. He was nice enough to spin the philips head bit on the screw heads leaving nice shards of metal on the screw heads. The worse news is the screws for the handles are metric, so you can't buy them at Home Depot. I did find them at They are M4 machine screws and here is the link to the screw. My guess is that the door handles are from IKEA. The guy at Home Depot literally laughed at me when I told him they weren't standard 8-32 screws, and they must be metric. If Pulte was going to buy IKEA door pulls, I wish they would have purchased IKEA cabinets, then I could at least easily retrofit with soft close dampners. No such luck. After all, Pulte isn't a custom builder and soft close doors and drawers weren't an option. It must be part of the "Life Tested" slogan to slam doors, you know.... to test them.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Exchange at Potomac Yard

Here's a rendering of what the Exchange at Potomac Yard is expected to look like.
Exchange at Potomac Yard

Bisnow has a nice short article about it. Should be done in late 2014.

So you're looking for touchup paint?

In case you're looking to find touch up paint for the Flat "Antique White" color of the walls and ceilings, you should know that you can only buy it in the 5 gallon bucket from Duron. Sherwin Williams can mix it, but it won't be exactly the same as the bulk mixed Duron paint.

I used it this weekend, and it seems ok, but it would be nice if Pulte used a paint that was available in smaller increments than 5 gallons. I may go pick up 5 gal, anyone want to share?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Exhaust vents pulling air down your chimney?

So, I knew going in to the purchase of my home to be on the lookout for Pulte cutting corners when it came to energy efficiency. The builder doesn't have any incentive to actually build an energy efficient unit, only to say they're building an energy efficient home so buyers will buy. I never suspected that Pulte would install a B-vent or natural venting fireplace in a home built in 2012.

Some background. Fireplace inserts come in 3 flavors. Direct Vent, Natural Venting or B-vent, and Ventless.

Direct vent fireplaces are essentially sealed to room air. Combustion air is drawn in through the outside of a co-axial venting duct and the exhaust goes out through the center of the ducting. Here is a good photo.

Direct Vent
Room air circulated around insert, combustion air drawn in from outside.

Natural vent fireplaces use room air for combustion, and exhaust the room air up the chimney. These units, at least the one installed in my home, don't have dampers to close off the chimney. This has resulted in backdrafting in my home.
Natural or B-vent
Combustion air from room
Ventless fireplaces are just what they sound like. They don't have a chimney or vent. Ventless fireplaces are designed to have very complete combustion resulting in very little byproducts and very high effeciency.

So, what I'm going to explain next is a multi-faceted problem involving the pressurization difference between internal and external air pressure. If the home has a positive pressure, when you crack open a window air will flow out. If the house has negative pressure, air will flow in.

What affects whether a home has positive or negative pressure you might ask? Stack effect is a significant contributor. Hot air rises, so a tall building can act as a chimney, the warm air rises and leaks out the top of the building. Venting can affect the pressure in the building. Bathroom vent fans remove about 80 cubic feet per minute (cfm) when they're turned on, dryer vents exhaust air (100-200cfm), and kitchen vent hoods exhaust air. For homes with upgraded kitchens, the range vent hood exhausts 1,200 cfm at the high setting.

On the plus side, Pulte seems to have sealed our home fairly well. On the downside, they installed a natural venting fireplace. This means that with bathroom fans, the dryer venting or especially if the range vent hood on, our chimney back drafts into the house. We have to open a window, or the front door to get the fireplace to vent.  Once the chimney is hot, it seems to do ok, but it's really irritating to have to open the front door to turn on the fireplace.

The HVAC units in our homes are designed to bring in outside air via a 6" duct connected to the return side of the furnace. The furnace essentially sucks outside air into the home when it's turned on. I've seen homes with a timer to adjust how often the outside air damper opens, but in ours if the furnace fan is on, the outside air damper is open.

This back drafting is why modern high efficiency furnaces and water heaters draw combustion air in from outside and then exhaust to the outside. This prevents negative pressure in the home from affecting combustion or pulling exhaust back into the home.

Why Pulte chose an incredibly inefficient fireplace is beyond me (perhaps they chose direct vent and got screwed by their sub contractor). Looking at the HVAC diagrams, I noticed the fireplace ducting was supposed to be of the direct vent type, but that clearly isn't what they installed. I suspect the fireplace installers pulled a fast one on Pulte.

How Pulte got away with building a home that doesn't have make up air for a 1,200 cfm kitchen exhaust hood is beyond me. They're in violation of code with this one.

Air infiltration will either happen by accident or by design. Pulte didn't design enough make up air for our home, so it is coming through the path of least resistance.  In our case, that's the fireplace chimney.

What the building code says (Link):
2009 IRC
M1503.4 Makeup air required. Exhaust hood systems capable of exhausting in excess of 400 cubic feet per minute (0.19 m3/s) shall be provided with makeup air at a rate approximately equal to the exhaust air rate. Such makeup air systems shall be equipped with a means of closure and shall be automatically controlled to start and operate simultaneously with the exhaust system."

So a couple things to note.

  1. Pulte's design doesn't seem to meet 2009 IRC code.
  2. Pulte's choice of fireplace model exacerbates the problem and is an inefficient choice
A couple issues solving the problem.
  1. Sticking a big hole in the kitchen wall to provide make up air is going to look horrible.
  2. Bringing in 1,200cfm of unconditioned air will cause problems (think 30deg or 90deg air).

A couple other folks have good information about the make up air issue growing with tighter modern construction the following link has good info and some interesting insights in the comments.
Make up air for range hoods

In my opinion, the only way to solve this problem is to have the furnace fan kick on with the range hood and draw make up air through the furnace return so it can be mixed, conditioned, and distributed throughout the house. I don't want icicles in my kitchen in the winter or condensing humid air in the summer.

The fireplace issue can only be solved by conversion to direct vent. Why would I want cold air coming down the chimney all winter?

Here's hoping Pulte figures out some solutions!