Our first 2019 update describes how we began converting a basic metal pole building into a future home. Here’s what the barn looked like at the end of that post:
With floors, insulation, septic, and basic plumbing and framing, it was time for utilities.
We’d been procrastinating utilities, partly because of the weather. Endless rain was making the ground impossible to excavate and too mushy for utility trucks to come in without turning the field into a mud pit.
We also weren’t sure how to pull it off. Accessing utilities is no big deal in a neighborhood with infrastructure, but our neighborhood is a half mile into a few thousand acres of uninhabited mountainside. Getting power and water have been major achievements in our domestead adventure, achievements we didn’t realize we’d have to relive so vividly.
The Power Gauntlet
Besides septic, electric is the only permit you need in our county, which means hiring a professional electrician who’s current on NEC (National Electric Code). The other necessary entities in the power process are the utilities company and a State inspector.
Way back in October, we met with our utilities company rep, Power Guy, to determine how to connect to their grid. He gave us a set of instructions to take to the utilities office when we were ready to move forward. When Chris did, they were confused by what we were doing. We lined up another meeting with Power Guy to reconnect the disconnect. I also wanted to know for sure where the panel should go.
I had drawn a rough switching plan (where we envisioned sockets and fixtures, with specs for appliances, TV, furniture placement, etc.) to help our carpenter and a future electrician understand our vision. When you’re drawing home plans, you desperately want to assume that features like panels and sockets and septic tanks and sinks can go where they look right. But modern homes are more sophisticated than, “I want that there.” Everything affects something else. House layouts are puzzles.
Panels, for instance, need 3 full feet of clearance and can’t be inside cabinets or closets. I don’t think they’re even supposed to be behind doors anymore. This was presenting a challenge in our little space.
When Power Guy came out, he confirmed that we didn’t need to cut more trees but that the panel did have to be on the corner of the house nearest the power pole, where the kitchen is. As we talked through the aesthetic failure of putting the panel in the kitchen, he thought of something: an exterior panel. It cost only slightly more and is so, so worth it. You can see in this video how much the panel wouldn’t have blended in a kitchen.
More good news: if we connected above ground instead of underground, the utility company would cover the cost of wire. We’d save hundreds on wire, excavation, and conduit. Since we never thought we were going to live on the lower side of the acreage, we’d already run above-ground powerlines behind the barn. Adding 1 extra line back there was no problem.
The bad news was our tankless water heater flummoxed Power Guy. Electric tankless water heaters are evolving fast, but gas tankless seem more common here. We haven’t found anyone truly comfortable with electric tankless, ourselves included, but it makes sense for our space. Except to Power Guy, because electric tankless take up a lot of room on a power panel, and he wasn’t sure how to help us with that. He started to point out flaws in my switching drawing and the bungalow in general (hey, man, don’t badmouth the barn). I left the meeting demoralized and worried we’d made mistakes that would mean we couldn’t get power to our home.
Just another dip in the construction roller coaster. Power Guy was wrong about most of the negative things he said. After all, utilities reps help with power on the outside of the house, not the inside, and he told me as much before he left that day. His comments did help prepare us for news we were about to encounter: in fall 2018, our county updated to 2017 NEC, stricter than the previous code enforced here. “Stricter” translates to “more expensive.”
Hopefully it really means “safer” and “lower maintenance,” too, because the updates aren’t cheap. Of our 3 quotes from professional electricians, the first felt a little high but the second – from a down-to-earth man with decades of experience – was almost as much as we’d budgeted to wire the dome home, which will be 3 times the size.
Disturbed, Chris grabbed the phone and called somebody whose work we trust but who’s never available…but he was available. Rainy weather has halted his excavation jobs, so we were catching him at the ideal time for indoor work. After a walkthrough, he gave us a quote similar to the first electrician. He’d barely finished sending the quote before we were calling to schedule him.
It’s our excavator. Remember Excavationstravaganza from the first 2019 construction update? Same person, and he helped build this barn, too. He’s prompt, perfectionist, knows our work style, and he’s an electrician.
It took him a few days with 1-2 other crew to complete the electric “rough in” for the first inspection.
Fun fact: the pros call bathroom fans “fart boxes,” and they’re part of the electric rough in. We’re serious about fart boxes. Until you’ve lived with the worst of them – which we have, thanks to our landlord – you may not appreciate their value. We chose powerful but quiet fans because a) it’s a small space, and loud fans can ruin your day, and b) Smokies humidity requires good ventilation.
But I digress. Guess what passed its first electrical inspection on its first try? Barn bungalow!
Windows have been installed, too.
The inspector approved the rough-in around 5 p.m. one day, and linemen appeared the next morning without warning.
It’s fun watching them work. Everyone was in good spirits because the weather was great. It was the first set of consecutive sunny days in weeks. The ground was dry enough that their trucks could drive over the grass without destroying it. The weather meant we were ready to move forward with water, too.
It’s ironic that we couldn’t run water to the barn until it stopped raining. We needed a 350′ trench from the well to the barn, at least 2′ deep, on a tough slope, through rocky terrain and a creek. More than what a standard Ditch Witch would handle. We priced heavy equipment rental, but during the week when the sun came out, our electrician was almost done with the initial wiring and offered to dig the trench at a price comparable to what the rental would’ve cost us.
Chris was miraculously able to coordinate with the well crew to be there the same morning. They put piping in the trench so it could be backfilled the same day. That was a serious plus. If the rain had come back before the pipe was in, the trench could’ve dissolved before our eyes.
We’d be more likely to dive into the work ourselves if we didn’t like our well guy and excavator-electrician so much. If you’re a novice, trustworthy, hardworking people who do the work every day are worth the money. The decades of experience in this photo equate to tweaks and decisions we would never have known to make, details that will reduce mishaps and maintenance for years to come.
An energy cleanse on New Year’s morning must’ve worked, because in the space of a week, we had power and water. It all went so smoothly that Chris and I didn’t know how to feel. At the end of the week, we were on the couch, dogs snoring, food in the kitchen from sweet neighbors, movie on TV. Jumping out of our skins.
Progress had caught us off guard. It took about 48 hours for the positive energy to sink in and for us to stop twitching.
To finish the water portion of Plan Barnbungalow, wiring was run to the well. The pump goes in soon. We’re stoked to finally taste and test water from our well as it’s brought up from the depths. It’s a big enough deal that we’ll write a separate post about it.
I underestimated the price to climate control this cottage. Call it wishful thinking, but I budgeted for equipment and not installation. I’d assumed we’d use ductless minsplits and install them ourselves (and thought self-installation would somehow cost nothing. A girl can dream).
Minisplits, as simple as they seem, only come with a warranty if installed professionally, which can cost the same as a traditional AC/heatpump systems but without the benefits. We’re not wed to warranties, but minisplits have other downsides; without traditional ductwork, we’d only be climate controlling the main room, bedroom, and office, hoping the walk-in closet and bathroom areas didn’t get too balmy. From what we could tell at this time, minisplits weren’t going to be as cost-effective as a low-end traditional system.
Chris began to get quotes, with ductwork itemized so we could consider doing that part ourselves. The first 2 quotes, from salesman types, were appalling. One of the salesmen even somehow made contact with Chris without being called. Never a good sign. The most outrageous quote was nearly $10,000. For a 720 square-foot space.
If you’re curious, yes, that’s too much. All we can think is that people having second homes built remotely have been paying without question rather than negotiating competitive rates. Soapbox: We owe it to each other to take an active role in the building of our homes. It’s not hard to research pricing and get multiple quotes to help keep the market from inflating. Housing prices are soaring, but we can all play a part in keeping housing in reach.
Excavator-electrician saved the day again with a referral whose price was less than half the other quotes, right where the job should’ve been priced. He clearly understood the intricacies of balancing ductwork better than we ever will. We gave him the whole job. He and his crew finished it in 2 nights, not including coming back for testing later.
We’re not basking in climate-controlled air yet, though. He advised not to run the system until we’re finished with dusty work like sheetrock. Dust is a good way to kill a coil.
Luckily, we’re headed to the sheetrock stage soon.
We’re finally at the stage where we get to do tongue & groove (T&G). We wanted the lightest-colored wood, which in a nice twist, is among the most economical. It’s not-too-knotty knotty pine.
Big, open walls go up fast because our carpenter is great at it. Bathroom/kitchen areas can’t go up until after the second plumbing rough-in, running waterlines and pipes, which hopefully happens this week. After the T&G is up, we’ll sand and add a clear finish, and our carpenter will add trim to seams. We’ll tie together the walls (and cover other awkward spaces) with darker trim top and bottom.
Metal, sprayfoam, and T&G all conduct noise, so Chris is adding the “pink stuff” as budget soundproofing to walls like the back of my study, since the HVAC unit is right outside.
Many people have no idea what’s in that mythical area behind our walls. I’ve always been fine with thinking Narnia may be back there, but building walls ourselves is even more magical. This house is a labor of love.
Finishing and Beyond
While we prepare for more detailed finishing work, like painting doors and finalizing the kitchen at IKEA, other preparations to live on previously uninhabited land have snuck up on us.
I keep trying to flag down the postal carrier to see which side of the road he wants the mailbox on (USPS are the scariest drivers out here). We’re deciding where the garden should go, planning TV and internet.
The dogs need fencing. For the little dog, it’s to keep the wildlife out and to keep him in our sight. For Clover it’s room to run without running into the neighbors’ horses and chickens. She’ll have a few acres inside an invisible perimeter that she helped us measure the other day.
It’s a real kick to be at this point.