Saturday, January 23, 2016

Track Lighting

Track Lighting Ideas

Beams - Painting in Process
As with many other homes in the neighborhood, when we moved into our current house (and actually also in the previous home in the neighborhood) there were areas that used Track Lighting to illuminate walls and dark corners. Our house was painted light green and had dark green beams when acquired, so in 2005 we decided to paint and go to a different color scheme - the walls became a yellowish cream which was a bit lighter than the hospital green, and the beams became a dark brown (which is the current beam color).

Pre-purchase Photo near fireplace
Since we were painting, it made sense to pull down the old track lighting, especially the white which looked a bit awkward - the existing tracks washed walls in our living and dining room with 13 foot ceiling and were mounted on the bottom of the beams - those would need to go and be replaced with new tracks that would be mounted on the sides of the beams (so they would essentially be hidden from the sight-line when viewing the room from the carport entrance). There was one track in the master bedroom mounted on a beam in white; and another along one wall where the fireplace resides with large black heads that illuminated the brick wall and a very dark walnut paneled corner with shelves (see the photo to the right for what was there). It didn't look as bad as the other areas since these were black, but I wanted to have the same types of lighting throughout the house for easier maintenance - call me anal.

Hampton Bay Original Box
We ended up replacing all of the tracks and heads with black-finish lights purchased at Home Depot and made by Hampton Bay - those were the most reasonably priced options available at the time (around 2005-ish). Basically, you could purchase a 36" HALO style track (two conductor plus ground) with three Low-Voltage Halogen heads for about $50.  I swapped everything out, added extra track length to some areas and also added two additional fixtures so we could use the same MR16 Halogen bulb everywhere. In the 13 years we've lived in our home I've only had to replace 2 bulbs and most recently one of the heads died, so the system worked very well - it also worked with a regular dimmer switch.  That was our current setup up until December 2015.

When I first looked at LEDs in 2012 the bulbs I purchased didn't produce enough light to illuminate our closet - they were pretty bad.Most recently the technology for LED replacement bulbs has finally caught up with the amount of light (lumens), distance of travel, color or quality of the light, etc that makes them comparable to the halogen (or even incandescent) bulb. Sure, they aren't exactly the same (it would take some bulb to do the output of a 50W Halogen) but these new bulbs are very close - plus, if you're like us, you normally have your lights dimmed at least slightly so the net result for 95% of the time is the same. I want to use this post to discuss what we did and what we used.

I recently pulled down three pendant lights as they no longer worked in the remodeled study (they used to illuminate a planter that acted as a retaining wall for the stairs to the basement - the planter is gone and soon to be replaced with a Northcrest-appropriate post-and-rail system. We wanted  wash the wall of the stairwell as we have a large canvas that would work perfectly there. So for this project I was looking at two different things:
  1. Adding two new tracks that would provide some lighting to the wall (there's a beam separating the current line of pendants) - we selected tracks because it would provide the most angle and placement of the heads, plus the track would cover the existing ceiling holes - the wiring was already in place.
  2. Replacing the existing track lighting bulbs with LEDs if possible as it was time to transition to the new technology, and potentially save some money. For me, it's much easier to use the same bulbs everywhere so I only have to keep up with sourcing and keeping one style. 

Lighting Choices

When I started to look at what was available in an LED, I had the following considerations:
  1. Ideally I would be able to use the existing heads and swap out the bulbs with LEDs. My initial exploration into that possibility didn't fare too well - the BORGs (Big Obnoxious Retail Giants - like Home Depot or Lowes) didn't have any low voltage options other than the existing MR16 halogen bulbs. So I starting thinking about swapping out the heads, worried that it could become difficult to find the old-school low voltage bulbs based on not being able to find them in the big stores.
  2. With the idea in mind to swap the heads, I really wanted to continue using the existing track light setup - meaning I either needed fixtures that could fit into the HALO style track or I would have to replace the track if I went with a different type of fixture.
  3. Once I got into the idea of replacing both the tracks and the lights I started down the path of what was available at Home Depot that would "work" - the choices they have are two different Hampton Bay tracks - each set came with three heads and the LED bulbs. The first was $99 and was a 30W equivalent while the second was $110 and was a 50W equivalent, but the bulbs and fixtures were huge - more like those spots you use in recessed cans. They were also JUNO style tracks which weren't compatible with my current tracks AND they used a regular screw-in style bulb (just in two different sizes). I actually purchased 2 sets of each style thinking that one of them would work - they sat on the floor while I pondered them.
FYI there are two other track types/styles - one looks just like the HALO but only has two conductors - it's usually called JUNO style; and the second is a flatter track with two conductors that originated with Lightolier - nowadays, if you go to Home Depot the track and kits offered are the JUNO style. The kits at Home Depot look very similar to the old Hampton Bay track that I used before, only the heads aren't low voltage - in my case, the base doesn't contain a transformer from 120v to 12v. Instead the base looks like an iPhone charger. Also the bulbs used are 120v and when you look at them, even if you get a fixture that uses MR16, these bulbs are called MR15GU10 - instead of pins that push into holes, there are two knobbed pins that lock with a twist into the fixture. Due to the voltage and the style, they two bulbs aren't interchangeable - too bad as they can be purchased the most cheaply (they carry the GU10s at IKEA, for instance so they are readily available).

LED MR16 Low Voltage Bulb Replacement

After looking things over in the area where the two tracks would go, I started to think about alternatives. I really, really didn't like the idea of having a different type of bulb to keep up with just in this one area. The last time I tried halogen replacements for the MR16 they were horrible - hardly any light at all, so I was a bit skeptical at direct replacement. However what I found was that in the intervening years the technology had vastly improved. I decided to try what was available on Amazon - my selection was the Torchstar 7W MR 16 LED Dimmable bulb. I bought a set of 6 rated at 450 lumens which was close to what I was shooting for so I ordered a set as a test (when I researched the best price points buying in groups of 5 or 6 provided the best price). This was the set I ordered:


http://www.amazon.com/TORCHSTAR-Dimmable-Replacement-40-degree-Spotlight/dp/B013G3HCFS/ref=cm_rdp_product

I swapped these out with the highest fixtures I have (13 foot ceiling) and we liked the amount of light output - of course the old style dimmers caused them to flicker, but upgrading to the C*L style dimmer by Lutron (TGCL-153PR-WH) solved that problem. The lights with the new dimmer were terrific - no flicker, dim from about 10% to 100%, direct replacement to what I had in the walls and they were automatically rated for 3-way. I immediately ordered three more sets of bulbs to swap out all the existing heads and give me 6 bulbs for two new fixtures. Notice that my project just got bigger with the addition of the dimmers but these would need to be swapped anyway with the transition to LED.






Now to source a similar low-voltage kit for the new area - this was problematic until I found a vendor on eBay (handle suzyq9871) - who had a 36 inch track kit with three heads for $40 with free shipping. They looked right but I wanted to make sure so I asked a few questions (are these HALO style, are the heads low voltage, and do they use MR16 with the two narrow pins -technically GU5.3 and NOT GU10?). The replies were immediate and yes, yes, yes so I ordered two sets (figuring that the two sets cost less than a single new kit at Home Depot). Upon arrival I tried one with an LED bulb in an existing track and it worked fine but unfortunately flickered, even with the upgraded dinner switch (note that it worked perfectly with a halogen). The head looks slightly different - the base is shorter in length and taller from the track, with a shorter bracket (I think the brand being knocked-off is WAC which may be another option, but much more expensive), but otherwise the heads look the same. The fix was to swap out the heads with those in the closet (which don't have a dimmer). Problem fixed by putting the older Hampton Bay heads with the LEDs in the newly added track while the cheaper heads go in the closet.



http://www.ebay.com/itm/Black-3-Light-Low-Voltage-Mesh-Roundback-Heads-Track-Kit-/231471366579?




Project Costs


I've now finished updating all the bulbs, installed the new track and fixtures and installed new dimmers. Here's a breakdown of costs:

  1. 24 Bulbs (4 sets of 6 at $42.81/set) plus tax = $189.91
  2. 2 Light Kits from eBay = $80
  3. 6 Dimmer Switches - 147.48
  4. Total: $417.39
Sounds like a lot? But remember I was already adding two light fixtures (About $150 for the fixtures, bulbs and one dimmer plus tax) and with all the lighting going to LED, my existing dimmers would have been unusable and would need to be replaced anyway at some point (about $125 plus tax of the total). So it's really about replacing three sets of bulbs at $128.43 for 18 bulbs.

The Math

The cost savings of running these bulbs - 7w LEDs over a 50w Halogen, is calculated at 86%. The average cost to run each of these bulbs, 3 hours at a time every day for a year is $0.84 and yes you read that correctly, 84 cents. Multiplied by 24 comes out to about $20 a year if I leave all the track lights on for 3 hours per day. Also, LEDs are rated to last about 10 times longer (50W Halogen 2500 hours, 7w LED, 25,000 hours).

From a practical perspective, three tracks are on most of the time (minimum 3 hours a day with the rest rarely used) and each has 3 bulbs so 9 bulbs total, multiplied equals $7.56 per year. 7w LEDs use about 14% the energy of a 50w halogen for the same period and interval, so about $5.88 per bulb per year, multiplied by the 9 bulbs is about $53 per year to run the halogens in the same 3 tracks.

If you do the math, the entire project, based on the savings of only those three tracks and 9 lights, is paid for in 9 years. Note though that I'm getting two additional tracks, 6 fixtures, the dimmer replacement and all the bulbs paid for during that interval. Not bad, right?

Factor in bulb replacement - since the LED last so much longer you get 23.4 years out of them rather than 2.5 years for the halogens (356 days x 3 hours/day divided into the average life in hours) and it really becomes significant.

Note that I may have screwed up all this math but you get the idea - LEDs pay for themselves, have improved performance and they are look finally close enough to traditional lighting to be worth buying and using. Also, these bulbs end up costing about the same as a replacement halogen so the replacement cost is a wash (meaning when a halogen burns out you'd need to buy a replacement anyway and the price per bulb is under a dollar).

One final note - I believe as the industry transitions to LED you'll have a tough time finding bulbs that aren't and when you do find them, they'll become a lot more expensive (supply and demand thing). You may want to plan for this sooner rather than later. You could also replace your most-frequently used lights first so you get an immediate savings gain then transition the rest over time if you're on a tight budget.

-- John

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Northcrest Tour of Homes 2015



The Hoe 'n' Hope Garden Club is proud to sponsor this year's Northcrest Tour of Homes on Sunday, April 19th, 2 PM - 5 PM. Please see the attached flier for more information about the homes featured on the tour. Admission is free, however donations are much needed and appreciated. All donations go towards maintaining the Northcrest entrance planter and sign.

Brochure available for download here
 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Scans of Original P&H Homes Tri-Level Home

We've finally received original plans to the P&H Homebuilders Tri-Level.

You can download your own copy here (4 pages, 75 dpi at 100%):

  1. P&HSplit-Pg1.jpg
  2. P&HSplit-Pg2.jpg
  3. P&HSplit-Pg3.jpg
  4. P&HSplit-Pg4.jpg
These are original scans of documents supplied by neighbor Rick Lozano (left by the original homeowner). I've done some mild retouching of torn areas but otherwise they are color scans of the bluelines.

Enjoy!

-- John

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Installing a Whole-House or Central Vacuum System

This is going to be a relatively long post as I'm going to write a bit about the selection process, etc. of installing a whole-house vacuum system.



It all started back during the holidays of 2010 - we were preparing to visit my brother and family up in Tennessee which starts with a thorough clean-up of the house - contrary to many people, we like to come home to a clean house rather than leave one in a shambles prior to traveling. Cindi has always complained about vacuuming under the bed - our old upright vacuum was rather awkwardly designed for performing this task - the hose attaches to the top of the housing and even extended with wands leaves much to be desired when picking up dust under things - the area of our queen sized bed means you have to move around a lot to get everything - not the best situation. Later, while visiting my family up in Tennessee we got to see and experience a whole-house vacuum and this immediately gave me the idea to install one in our ranch home - I thought it could be a surprise that would make things easier and also improve our home's value.

I began to research whole-house vacuums - there's actually quite a bit of information online about systems, costs, installation, etc. I studied the various installation manuals available until I felt comfortable doing the job myself.  I have some links to generic installation manuals at the bottom of the post in case you're thinking about doing this job - you can at least think through the steps and decide for yourself. I also sorted through the brands (and trust me, I spent several weeks parsing through all the stats, comparing, factoring in warranty, features, etc.) and ultimately favored Nutone as the best of three I had settled on - mainly due to the "classic" NuTone radio installed throughout the house - I thought this would be a nice homage to the original build-out and the consumer ratings were good (I know, it may not have been the best excuse but the three units were so similar that I fell for nostalgia). NuTone makes three models that vary a bit in suction with two options: bag or bagless (the latter uses a cyclonic configuration that empties into the pail formed by the bottom of the housing - this is also where the bag would be held if it used them). I decided to go with the cyclonic version both for ease of maintenance and to keep from having to purchase bags as this is an incremental, periodic cost that I wanted to avoid.

Here's a comparison of the three NuTone cyclonic models:

 Model: VX475C VX550C VX1000C

   
Water Lift 90" 130" 130"
Air Flow (cfm) 114 135 230
Volts 120 120 240
Maximum 15 15 15
Startup Amps
Capacity Bagless: 4 Gal. Bagless: 7 Gal. Bagless: 7 Gal.
Motor & Relay China China China
Manufactured In
Utility Valve Yes Yes Yes
Diameter 11.5" 11.5" 11.5"
Height 36" 39" 39"
Warranty 2 Year 4 Year 8 Year
*chart from thinkvacuums.com, slightly simplified

After thinking about this a bit and figuring that we had about 2400 sq ft of finished space, plus about the same area in the basement, I decided that the base unit would suffice but that if I could get a deal on the next level up I would consider it. The VX475C ranged in pricing from $310 to $500 with a "good price" of $342; the VX550C ranged from $415 to $600 with a "good price" of  $465; and the VX1000C ranged from $600 to $1000 with a "good price" of $629.

Once I decided upon the brand it was a matter of finding the best price. The 550C can be sourced easily locally (actually, right down the street off of Chamblee-Tucker Rd that stocks them with parts and fittings) at $499 if you prefer. Surprisingly the best prices I found were consistently on eBay. I started to watch a seller who was listing many vacuum systems and parts in a periodic manner with opening bids on the VX475C at $189, VX550C at $229 and the VX1000C at $299 - these were all listed as "Sales Prices" and I started to watch the trends - as you can imagine most of these units sold at about $100 over the opening price and then the bids started slowing down. The seller began taking $50 off of each starting bid. I continued to watch and then jumped on a unit closing at an awkward time (around 5:00 AM EST close to Christmas) and jumped on a VX1000C for $249 with free shipping. Here's a copy of the specs in case you're interested: VX1000C specs.

The unit appeared about two days later in the original box, with a label indicating that it had been drop-shipped directly from a Nutone distribution center. I next began the search for the PVC piping, fittings, ports and attachments. Once again eBay proved to be the best source for pretty much everything. I was actually able to purchase 200 feet of 2" PVC (not the same as for water, this is thin-walled with smooth inner surfaces) shipped from Canada cheaper than I could buy it locally - with free shipping it was about $50. I settled on two valve/fitting kits, each with three valves and all the fittings, wiring, glue, etc for a total of 6 intake valves at $29 each with free shipping. The most expensive part was the attachment kit - I settled for an unmarked Electrolux powered brush wand (I did the direct connect for power - I'll explain that in detail later) with several attachments and two wand sections and a 25 ft hose for $180. I also opted for a cloth hose cover (saves the furniture and walls). Finally, I purchased a "garage kit" (unpowered) so I could vacuum in the basement. In all with the unit and all the bits I spent less than $600. I also bought one specialty tool for cutting the PVC that was about $15 (the only thing I found cheaper off eBay and well worth buying). The only mistake I made was in buying so much pipe - turns out 80 feet would have been plenty - I'm not sure if I would have saved much as the $60 was a "deal" bulk price. Let me know if you need any pipe as I still have most of it unused.


I decided to start the install the first week of May, 2011. Tools and other bits/parts assembled for the installation (note the bag in the back - it came with the power unit and includes couplings and a manual port you place next to the unit so you can use the hose in a garage/basement - basement in my case):


Big bundle of piping - this is specialty piping with thinner walls for vacuum installations - apparently the interior walls of regular PVC piping is too rough.


These are the kits I bought - two kits with three powered valves each - they also came with an additional unpowered valve.


These kits come with multiple fittings to make tight and wide turns, plus 45 degree fittings, brackets and wire (the DC wiring operates the switch so the unit turns on when tripped).


This is the hose that came with the accessory kit (the wands and heads are underneath):



The first step in the install is to locate where you're going to put it. I don't have a lot of options since there isn't a good way to route the piping to the carport - it had to go into the basement. The problem with my basement is that only one remote quadrant is above ground (the property slopes to the back and one corner, opposite the carport). After some deliberation, I selected an area that would be convenient to the basement stairs, to the left of a plumbing down-pipe and near the washer and dryer. After locating the where, you basically hang a bracket, allowing for enough room for the piping. There are some other installation specs, like the distances the unit should be off the floor, etc., but these will vary by unit. I had to use anchors to mount the bracket to the block interior wall (note that I later removed it and applied a good urethane caulk to all cracks and two coats of Dry-Loc - I recommend that all basements in Northcrest have the same done to prevent gasses from seeping in from the surrounding earth).


This is the unit hung - note that even though it's a fairly large unit, the oval body cavity (in cross section), allows it to "snug-up" to the wall):


You also have to have power available and for most units that's a 120v outlet. The unit I purchased, as I've already mentioned, required a 240v. So for this part of the installation, I basically hung the unit and ran some 12/2 wiring from a dedicated two pole 240v breaker out to an outlet mounted on the ceiling. I was originally going to mount a metal breaker box on the wall but decided that with the extra length of the cord it would be easier to run it up out of the way, so switched to a rough-in box.


At this point I removed all the tape, etc. that secured the unit and plugged in to see if it worked properly. No issues. I also called it a day - actually, I stopped working on it while I worked on some other projects. That brings me to December of 2012 (time flies, right?). I decided that I needed to get all the bits and pieces off of my workbench and try to get this thing done. Nothing like having a big-ole vacuum unit hanging on the wall every time you go into the basement, to remind you that you need to finish an install.

I first took a good look at where I needed to install the powered valves on the main floor. I carefully measured, using the actual hose, to make sure that it could reach everything. Fortunately the 25 feet could reach everything when measured from the central hallway - I only had to add one valve at the end of the hall and all the bedrooms could be reached, all the way to the exterior walls. The second valve I put into the wall to the left of the two stairs. leading up to the hall. A third valve on the opposite end of the sunk-in living/dining/kitchen would reach all the way to the stairs leading down to the basement. One additional valve will need to be added when I re-do the finished based (project for later this year) - in the meanwhile, the valve next to the unit will reach the basement stairs and most of the finished basement room.

I also examined the joists and location of the powered valves from the basement side, ensuring I could reach everything. There would be one "trunk" line that runs the middle of the house pretty much the whole length, with a leg back to the unit, then an extension and drop to pick up  the valve closest to the stairs. Make sure you look at any wiring and plumbing and allow for it before you cut any holes or pipe.

First valve hole at the end of the hall:


Second hole in the dining room next to the stairs to the hallway:


(note that on this and the third valve hole I had to locate close to the baseboard - there's a supporting double-joist just above that would have had to been "carved away" to mount the housing higher - I don't like to eliminate any supporting bottom plates so I worked around them).

To cut the hole I have this big dustpan that I use in the shop - these big pans are great for sweeping up to since they are heaving enough to not move as you brush debris onto them - they are also excellent for catching sheet-rock dust when you're cutting small openings.



So the next steps are to start running the pipe from the vacuum unit to the main trunk line (that's the length of pipe that extends along the "spine" of the house as I've already mentioned).


You basically cut sections as you need them until you get where you need to be, then use the various fittings to make turns or branches using "Y"s (make sure everything flows back to the vacuum)...


This is where that pipe cutter comes in handy. You lay up the next section of pipe then mark where it needs to be cut. There's a small hole in the cutter that you place over your mark, lock the cutter down so the blade in engaged and spin a couple of times for a perfectly cut end.


Once I got to the trunk I went to the opposite ends - the valves, and started measuring and cutting from the opening back to where I planned for the trunk line to end up. One thing to note - I almost glued the short 45 degree fitting tight to the back of the port - if you do so you'll end up blocking pipe from fitting into the other end of the fitting.


The pipe needs to clear that screw nub on the back of the port:


When selecting your valves there are two different type: powered or unpowered. The difference is that the unpowered valve does not provide an electrical connection to power an electric brush head, like you get from an upright vacuum. If you still want to power an electric head using an unpowered port, you will need to plug in a pig-tail type connector that comes at the end of the hose. This may be a good option if it's difficult to get power to where your valves are located. I choose the powered valve and ran electrical wire back to nearby outlets - this does require a bit more wiring and knowledge if you decide to go that route.

You can loosely hold the valve in place using a coat-hanger or other means (this is mentioned in the installation manuals I've got linked at the end). Measure everything and cut as you go, dry-fitting until you get back to the trunk-line. You can see the valve housing from underneath in this photo (this is the opening that comes out in my dining room). I used a piece of foam to hold things in place while I finished up the dry-fit. If you make turns and want things to come out the same, put marks on each side of the pipe-to-fitting (easier to see in later photos) - mark which-is-which (like a- to -a):


Also, you should allow for the wiring, both the low-voltage for the switch and the high-voltage if you're using a powered valve and make sure these come through the openings into the box to be wired into the port. When you have the basic shape where you want it you can start gluing, or you can wait until you have the whole thing dry-fitted, then mark and carefully dissemble. Just make sure you think through the reassembly as there may be only one order to put things together successfully (when you mess up once you won't do it again). I had to do several odd drops to clear the sunk-in flooring and such - I used the extra 45 degree elbows to accomplish this. You can see my marks in the following photos:



Since the end of the hall ended on a wall that was added, the bottom plate rested on the sub-floor. I located where to drill by screwing a piece of coat-hanger into the floor just below the baseboard. I then used a hole sale to cut the hole up through the bottom plate of the wall.


Keep fitting everything together and gluing your sub-assemblies until it's all together. I directly piped back to the vacuum unit itself then made a cut where I wanted the unpowered valve or port to be.


Here's the port with the second hose kit (unpowered) plugged into it:


The next-to-last thing to do was to add pipe to get the other side of the vacuum (the discharge end) away from the unit. You would typically take this outside - right now I it going through a  noise dampening muffler and into a filter. I'll eventually knock a hole through the block and thread the pipe to the outside.

Finally, you need to splice all the low voltage wire at any intersections and pull the wire back to the connections back at the vacuum canister. Here's a test to make sure all the wiring is working. First I turn the powered head unit on to ensure that the vacuum canister is drawing air. Next, I turn on the powered brush which you can see in the video as the light, can hear as the brush spins-up and feel when pushing forward - the head draws forward, taking much of the effort out of moving the wand over carpet. The latter ensures that you have connected up high-voltage power to each valve correctly.



At this point I had two valves installed with piping, and a stub of pipe leading to the third valve on the opposite end of the living room. Once again I stopped and worked on other projects. I then picked up and added the third port, that was this past weekend in the middle of April 2012. I still have the last port to add but it will be trivial compared to these since I have access to the other side of the wall (the back of the wall is unfinished and opens into the basement). I'm reworking that room, the large, finished part of the basement, and the valve location is yet to be determined.

These are the manuals I used to research the install. They aren't Nutone specific but they do highlight the planning and installation phases of doing an install yourself:
That's about it. Let me know if you have any questions.

-- John