Hot and Cold Water Pressure Lines
Like every facet of this garage-apartment project, we tried our best to systematically categorize each phase, then spend quality time researching the best plans for product type and installation. The good news and driving inspiration is that I have had a good amount of exposure to just about every construction facet through my many DIY projects over the years. This goes all the way back to when I was a boy, helping my Ma and Pa as they constructed our family weekend vacations homes. I was very lucky in that respect, and no doubt that my parent's drive to cobble together these special vacation get-aways with a lower middle class family budget. My folks were both creative and smart. They knew how to stretch a dime and they knew how to do it without having to hire someone to help them stretch it. Quite simply, I have become my parents and this entire garage apartment project is nothing more than their next project, guided and exectuted by the next generation that they inspired and taught.
The pressure lines for the plumbing fell into 2 material options: Copper and Pex. I grew in a Sears kit house that was built in 1928. The pressure lines were galvanized pipe. I am very familiar with good, the bad, and the ugly of using galvanized for pressure lines. Ain't gonna happen again. When Donna and I built our current principal home, it is plumbed like pretty much all the other, more current homes. The pressure lines are 1/2" and 3/4" copper with sweated fittings. I have made a number of alterations and/or added new lines to the extent that I am very comfortable with sweating copper pressure lines. I'm good at it and it is definitely a consideration. Then there is Pex. I have never used Pex before, but I have read a lot about it and seen plenty of TV DIY shows that use it and rave about it. This Old House is probably my first inspiration, going back many years. Now that I have the chance to do an entire water pressure system, and I am doing it from scratch, I am VERY intrigued by the use of Pex.
So, we made that big, important appointment with our County building department to meet with the Big Cheese to show him our plans and apply for the building permits. I spent many hours of creating architectural drawings and detailing all the utilities. Naturally, the plumbing is on the hit list of utilities. I was well prepared and loaded with expertise to bowl him over with professionalism. In the end, all my anxieties were totally unneccessary. I am still not sure if this is because I really did ooze expertise, or I was trying to fit 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag. Either way, the ultimate bag requirement was somewhere between 4 and 5 pounds and we breezed through the meeting like we knew what we were doing. How do I really know this? My first tip was after we answered his short shopping list of questions about how we planned to build certain details and he leaned back in his chair and said "well, it sure sounds like you know what you're doing". These are the moments in life where one wants to smile like they just hit the lottery, but you know you can't break your poker face for fear of losing some credibility ground. I kept a straight face and returned the volley by listing my questions. Of course, one of them was plumbing pressure lines. It went something like this: Q: I am thinking about using Pex. A: OK Q: have you ever used it? A: Nope Q: Is it OK if I use it on this structure? A: Don't care.
OK, fine....I guess this is one more bonus of my overwhelming charm and expertise! Or, maybe....just maybe....he really doesn't care. I may never know, though it doesn't really matter. Pex rules
Next stop, Ebay. I worked through and selected an Ebay vendor and laid in an order for tubing, fittings, valves, and what-not. We actually had a little bit of experience with Pex already because we had laid the pex tubing into the shop slab floor when we poured that concrete as part of the foundation. Not much education, but a taste of what it's like working with Pex. Make no mistake. It blows copper away for simplicity and ease of installation. In my mind, it is very similar to the difference between conduit and romex. In the end, this garage apartment will be powered with romex and plumbed with Pex. It meets code, is perfectly safe and functional, and easy to install. THAT'S how I roll.
I never claimed to be an architect at any level, let alone have any portion of the formal education. So much of what I do know and understand is the by-product of what may better be described as a street wise education. Working with my parents as they DIY'd our family cottages and weekend getaways, and forever wanting to do it myself all played out as my inspiration and growth. I say all this because sometimes I do stuff that makes me look like I really do know what I'm doing, when in fact it was a lucky guess based on having most of the facts and taking my best shot. This is kinda how the plumbing pressure lines played out. So, instead of further self deprecation, I will step up and tell you that I knew exactly what I was doing...
Being only 1100 square feet of living space upstairs, and a somewhat limited amount of plumbing fixtures, it was pretty easy to locate all of the fixtures pretty close to each other. This design plan allows us to pitch the pressure lines in the same fashion as the drain lines are pitched....to drain to one direction. Huh? Who cares if the pressure lines drain or not? Hell, they are always pushing in the same direction; toward the fixture....right? Here's the deal...
For the first few years, this garage apartment is going to be a part time getaway; weekends, some pop-ins during the week, and some extended vacation stays. That means that during the winter, there will be times that we are not there. We don't want to pay for propane to heat the place for the numerous days that we are not there, so that means we will be shutting down the heat completely. Anyone that has ever owned, or knows someone who owns, a part time cottage is aware of the term winterization. We will be confronted with this term, also. I have already done winterization too many times. It's kinda like when they close the public pool at Labor Day because the summer is over and it's time to get ready for the cold seasons. That sucks and it closes the best time of the year. To me, winterization portends that same basic feelings. Like the pool, no more water until the following Memorial day next spring. I gotta beat this winterization thing, or at least force it to meet a compromise. This is what we did.
We have 16" of framing height within the 2nd floor. This allows...drumroll please....16" of vertical drop for my pressure lines. We are going to systematically lay in the Pex lines with a constant pitch that flows downhill from the fixture they serve, all the way back to their source; the manifold inside the mechanical room.
The plan is quite simple. When it comes time to remove the water from the pressure lines, I want to be able to simply open the valve at the fixture, open a valve inside the mechanical room, and let gravity drain the line downhill and into a plastic bucket. OK, sounds fairly simple. The theory is simple. Let's take a look at the top side; the fixtures.
Each fixture must also drain completely. This means KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Faucets with single mixing valves will not work. That tiny bit of water that gets trapped inside the valve channels of the mixing valve will freeze. It won't take much to smoke the mixing valve. The only sure bet, then, is to use simple fixtures with separate valves....the type that open and close, one for hot and another one for cold. OK, let's see....two bath vanitys. That will be easy. One kitchen. That means no fancy single valve/single handle mixers. It does mean the same plan as the bath vanitys. There are plenty of double valve designs for kitchen faucets that look nice and meet the engineering need. That leaves the 2 toilets and the bath/shower. The toilets were a concern. I was unsure if they would simply release pressure and allow water to flow back out thru the pressure line. We got lucky...THEY DO! Or, at least, the models we selected worked fine. This brings us to the bath-shower. This is where I came up a bit short on proper planning. Yep, I already purchased and installed a single mixer valve. There is a work-around cure, so we had no choice and employed this 2nd choice plan. It's a boring explanation, but this is my website. If you don't wanna hear the story, skip the next paragraph.
The tub-shower story. Once upon a time..... OK, forget that. Here's the short story: During the warm weather, there is no concern for draining the valve. When it comes time for freeze protection, we remove the small cover that keeps water from exiting the shower thru the valve opening. This, then, exposes the large hand screw ring that secures the valve inside the valve body. When we leave and shut down the heat, I have to unscrew the ring and pull out the valve assembly from the brass valve body. That's it! Any water splashes and dribbles out; done. Now, because we pulled that small cover at the end of the summer, we really can't use the shower part because water can run outside thru the small opening that it normally seals up. This means baths all winter. Not ideal, but a nice hot bath in the dead of winter is a nice trade off for body funk. This, then, will be our plan. After I do it couple of times, I can winterize the bath valve in about 45 seconds. We'll take it.
So that covers all the fixtures at the top end of the system. Let's review the steps necessary to deal with the top end of instant winterization. The bath vanity faucet valves are simply opened up. The kitchen sink valves are opened up. The toilets are flushed. The bath/shower valve is removed. Sounds simple, right? Come on now, you know there's got to be more. There is. Where does the draining water go?
Remember; all the pressure lines are carefully installed to pitch downhill, starting at the fixture they supply and ending up inside the mechanical room at the manifold that feeds each line. This downhill pitch is eveything about this system. The rest is simple logic. If all I have to do is open up the valves on the faucet, and the pressure line is in a constant downhill pitch, then the only remaining engineering facet is a valve at the bottom end to allow it to drain. This is the plumbing basics; no big deal.
We laid out the entire plumbing pressure feed matrix on a piece of 1/2" thick plastic sheet. I found this stuff at the home center in a 4' x 8' sheet. It cost about $45 for one sheet. I think it's made out of recycled plastic milk jugs and pop bottles. I wanted a water resistant support backdrop that would hold screws. I then took a piece of galvanized sheet and cut, formed, pop riveted, and silicon caulked it into a trough for the bottom of the plastic sheet backer. I installed the galvanized trough at a slight pitch and put a drain line at the bottom edge of the pitch. The idea is to provide a water resistant catch and drain so when I change the water filters, I can make a bit of a watery mess and not have to be concerned. The drain leads to another small drain PVC pipe that exits the mechanical room near the floor level, through the wall, and pops out the other side in the garage.
The idea is that if some type of leak occurs in my pressure line matrix inside the mechanical room, it will eventually run out of the drain pipe and onto the garage floor next to where the car is normally parked. I should see the unexpected water next to the wall, signalling something to react to in the mechanical room. I test it the first time when I happen to splash a bit of water during filter replacement, and it works great. The water quickly runs down and out to the garage side and forms a puddle in an area where no water should occur. The water damage is relegated to the concrete garage floor, harmless and waiting to be noticed.
Let's touch on the actual engineering of the mechanical room regarding construction. The idea here is to keep the mechanical room heated all winter. Everything else in the garage apartment is shut down, heat and all. We pulled one dedicated 220v line to the mechanical room to feed the electric baseboard heating that will keep it heated all winter. Then, we installed 2 separate 24" electric baseboard heaters, each with its own thermostat (one of those dial thermostats that install directly to the heater; one thermo on each heater unit). This give us a little bit of redundency. One thermostat/heater is set at about 54 degrees and the backup is set at about 48 degrees. This keeps the room at 54 while the 48 degree unit remains satisfied and turned off. If the 54 fails, when the temp falls below 48, the backup 48 will turn on. The room itself is very well insulated. It is basically a 4' x 10' x 9' high rectangular room. The 3 interior walls are carefully set with 6" fiberglass. The 4th wall is a 4 foot section of the exterior wall, so it has direct exposure to the outside. We used 2 layers of 2" thick foam panels + 1" thick foam panels (2 + 2 + 1 = 5" total thickness of high density foam) to create a solid R30. We foamed in the edges to seal the foam to the wall studs. It's a solid, airtight foam sandwich, much like a closed cell sprayed foam seal. The ceiling is 16" thick from sealing to the subfloor above (the 2nd floor) that is meticulously stuffed with fiberglass. It is something like R45 or 50. There's more. I put a 2" thick layer of the high density foam on top of the concrete floor. I put a layer of 1/2" cement board on top of the foam layer to provide something I can walk on and not worry too much about getting wet intermittently. The entire insulation system works great. That little 24" baseboard heater cycles nicely, often off and satisfied with the temp it is holding.
Everything inside the mechanical room sits on top of that foam/cement board floor. The furnace, the pressure tank, and the water softener. It is all kept at about 54 degrees for the entire freeze season. If we should ever suffer a power outage, and we do, the 30 some odd gallons of water inside the pressure tank will act as a 54 degree heat sink. The insulated room ambient atmosphere will also help. We should be able to weather any extended power outage before dropping below 32 degrees for the necessary length of time to foster a hard freeze. All plans must carry some risk. This plan is no exception, but we are confident that we have more than suitable protection. I should also add that using electric baseboard heaters is a major part of the risk mitigation. Electric baseboard heaters are the closest thing to indestructible. There is very little that can/will fail in their engineering and construction. Using the simple dial thermostats follows the same line of simplicity in engineering and reliability. In the end, the weakest link will likely be the power company. We hope our preparations will cover for any of the power companys "issues".
OK, let's get back to the instant winterization. This is how it plays out:
pull the pump main disconnect inside the mechanical room
turn off the water main that feeds the hot and cold pressure manifolds in the mechanical room
pull the main disconnects that power the tankless water heater (don't want to damage the elements)
open the hot and the cold drain valves at the manifolds (they run thru a tube into a 5 gallon plastic bucket....real high tech, eh?)
go upstairs and give the toilets their final flush, open all the sink valves, and pull the tub/shower valve
use a cheap plastic disposable cup to bail out most of the remaining water in the toilet bowl and tank
splash RV waterline anti-freeze (the pink stuff) into the sink and shower drain P-traps, the toilet bowl, a bit in the toilet tanks
The first couple of times each season takes a little bit of recollection, but by the third time I can do the entire routine in about 10 minutes. As I pen these details, it has been 3 winters of these procedures. So far, so good. There is one other pressure line that I have not discussed. We ran a hot and cold line thru the garage ceiling (or just below the second floor) that goes from the mechanical room manifolds to the other end of the structure. It drops down and feeds a washing machine valve setup and split off to feed a laundry tub right next to the washing machine zone. Since these two lines (hot and cold) have to rise up, then run back down to the fixtures, the winterization plan is a bit different. I used the same plan of pitching the lines, but I pitched them downhill from a point about halfway between the fixtures and the mechanical room. At the end of fall, I open the manifold drains and unhook the fixture ends. 1/2 the water drains to the bucket in the mechanical room and the other half of the water drains out at the fixtures. When it is done draining, I shut off the small valves on the manifold that feeds those 2 specific lines. This way, when the manifold is pressurized during a winter visit, those lines receive no water and stay dormant until I open the line-specfic valves on the manifold in the spring. In other words, no laundry tub or washing machine during the winter. Of course, this is only because we turn off ALL the heat in the living spaces when we are not there. In the future, should we live there full time and the heat remains on 24-7, the garage would hold above 32 degrees and we would have a washing machine and laundry tub through the winter.