Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Yoga attic crawling

It didn't take long after my most recent failed attempt at resuscitating our bathroom heat/vent/light (HVL) appliance until my wife and I decided to just put in a new unit altogether.  We had exhausted (har!) all avenues of repair available to us, and the fan was only getting worse so last Saturday we trekked off to the bathroom aisle at Lowe's and stood gaping at the lights and fixtures on display like some sort of Martha Stewart-inspired rock climbing wall.  We really didn't know where to start, but thankfully the salesdude on duty was fairly knowledgeable and was able to answer most, if not all, of our questions to our satisfaction. After some deliberation we decided on a Broan 100HL which was a little more expensive than we were hoping for, but one of only two models in stock that actually had a heating element. Since this was one of our purchasing criteria, and since the cheaper version was pretty wimpy for our master bathroom, we bit the bullet and got the mamma jamma one instead.  Normally we like to shop around when making purchases, and we knew we could get the same unit on Amazon for about 25% less, but in this case we decided it was worth it to buy from a store in town so we could get help if we needed or return it if it was broken.  We also didn't want to wait for it to be shipped to us, because we were hoping to take care of the installation that same day. We were really itching to ditch the old unit and get a functioning model put in right away :)
This thing is so old, Carson originally installed it in Lord Grantham's bathroom.
I knew, for the most part, what the installation would involve and wasn't all that concerned. In this order, here's what would need to happen:

0. Flip circuit breaker off (this is step zero because it kind of goes without saying)
1. Un-wire existing unit
2. Remove existing unit
3. Cut ceiling drywall, if necessary, to make room for new unit
4. Install new unit
5. Wire new unit

I honestly didn't think it would be all that difficult, especially since I had some experience with this kind of thing after putting in a ceiling fan with my dad a year ago. I knew my way around the attic and I had a general idea of what would need to happen with the new unit so I thought I could get everything done in one day--hopefully while our son was napping.  What I forgot to pay heed to was that "Everything went according to plan" is a phrase that has not been uttered by an amateur handyman since the invention of the hammer.

The first thing when doing any project like this, as my dad taught me years ago, is to say a prayer. So I did, and even though not everything worked out how I hoped it would there were many times during the replacement process that I was sure I felt guidance and peace from the Lord. After closing with a hearty "Amen" I made sure I had all the necessary tools, but since I wasn't sure exactly what all I would need I just brought in a bunch of stuff from the garage:
New HVL unit, drill bits, socket set, hammer, drill, old shoes, extension cord. Not pictured: halogen light, mag-light, rulers, pencils, and face mask because breathing in attic insulation is no fun.
I ended up using a lot more than this, but it was a good starting point. And of course any project like this requires some amount of liquid sustenance as well:
One of the most important tools of the trade
Just so we're all on the same page, here's the inside of the existing HVL unit:

On the right is the squirrel cage fan that I cleaned out and lubricated a few days prior but continued to defy me by rattling around like a crippled hampster on a rusty wheel. On the left is the heating unit, which has always worked pretty well but probably not as good as it did back in its youthful carefree days several decades ago.  Taking the thing apart was fairly simple, and one of the easiest parts of the entire operation thanks to the discrete assembly nature of the overall package.  The heater, vent, and light were each plugged in to what was basically their own mini-outlets inside of the box:
To remove each individual component all I had to do was un-screw them from their mountings and unplug them from the box. After that I was left with nothing but a metal housing in the ceiling with some wires hanging out:
On these HVL units there are two sets of wires: one for the heater and one for the fan and light. I grabbed some tape and labeled the wires so I would know which was which when installing the new unit:
The next step was to remove the entire metal housing, which basically just involved taking out a few support screws. When that was done I had a big ol' gaping hole in our bathroom that led right into the attic, and then it was time to start installing the new unit.  Unfortunately, this is where things went south real quick and I stopped taking pictures since I was more concerned with getting the job done than documenting the process.  Thus, I hope verbal descriptions will suffice :)

After the box was removed I climbed up into the attic through the entry point in the bathroom closet--the same method I used for my rafter repair job in July.  Right away I could tell that this job would be more complicated than the rafter work due to a number of factors:

1. The HVL unit was situated near the edge of the house, which gave me about 1 to 3 feet of vertical space in which to work. It was gonna be super duper cramped, and like some twisted form of a child's game, you can only step on the rafters when working in the attic. One wrong move and you can put your foot through the ceiling. A yoga instructor would probably have had a difficult time, and I am no yoga instructor.
2. There was a heating duct running right on top of the HVL unit. This was going to be tricky to maneuver around. Side note: do not apply pressure to a heating duct. It will collapse and you will be sorry.
3. The new HVL unit needed cross braces to support it between the rafters. I was going to have to put these in by myself. Somehow.
4. The old HVL unit had two sets of White/Black/Ground wires coming from the three-way switch in the bathroom. The new HVL unit required one White/Black/Ground for the heater and one White/Black/Red/Ground for the vent and light. I was going to have to do some re-wiring.
5. No way was I going to get this all done while my son was napping.

Like any linear first-person-shooter though, the best thing to do when faced with a series of obstacles is ti just start going and tackle everything one by one. So I took a deep breath and got cracking. I cut out the hole in the ceiling a bit more to accommodate the longer metal housing of the new unit, which was a few inches longer than the old one. Here's what our bathroom looked like after this segment of what was quickly turning into an episode of Tool Time:
Then I went back into the attic and screwed in two support braces between the rafters that the new unit would be attached to. After this was done my wife stood on the stepstool and held the new unit in place while I was in the attic working on securing things...and we hit another snag.  Things were not lining up properly and we were going to have to make more room for the new unit than I had originally planned.  To do this the opening would need to be cut longer and the support braces would have to be moved.  No big deal, right? Sure, unless the screws used to secure the support braces get stripped out and can't be removed. Which is, coincidentally, exactly what happened. (Though only on a couple places. Fortunately I used heavy-duty hex-head screws in a few spots, and those came right out).  So we went back to Lowe's and got a screw removal tool, a new three-way switch, and 25 feet of White/Black/Red/Ground wiring.  Back at home and up to the attic I went, only to find that the screw removal tool only sort of worked. At this point I used the tried-and-true method of banging on things with a big ol' hammer, and sure enough the support struts eventually came loose.  Woohoo! You can kind of see how this worked in the picture below, which I took by popping up like a whack-a-mole through the hole that was cut in the ceiling.

We were now about four hours into the project and nowhere near finished, but it's amazing what can be accomplished with a supportive wife and a portable crib for one's child :) I climbed back up to the roof while my wife held the new HVL unit in place, extended the metal brackets on the unit, attached the support braces, and nailed the brackets into place.  This whole process took about 30 minutes during which time my wife's shoulders weren't exactly having a field day and our son was busy dismantling the components of his portable crib.  But we finally got everything up up which meant that the worst was over and it was time for dinner and then cleanup.  Even though the new unit was not wired up, it was in the ceiling and ready to go.

The next day after our son was down for his nap I set about tackling Part Two: The Wiring.  Basically I had to turn this into a functional switch:
The first thing to do was track down the wiring for the existing HVL unit, which was buried under six inches of blown attic insulation, and get it the heck out of there. Of the two sets of wires going up to the unit, only one would need to be replaced because the standard White/Black/Ground could be re-used for the heater portion.  Back up in the attic I found the wire leading to the vent and light, cut it open, and spliced it with the new wire from Lowe's by looping the ground wires around each other and then duct-taping the whole thing up tight. This allowed my wife to pull the old wire out from the switch box while I fed in new wire through a tiny hole in the attic. Soon we had the new wiring in place, and I crawled back to the new HVL unit and hooked all the wires up to the box itself.  Then I went back down, wired up the new three-way switch, sent my wife to flip on the circuit breaker, and...nothing.  Well, not for the light and fan anyway. The heater worked but the other two were dead as a doornail.

Way bummer.

This was probably the worst part of the entire process because everything was, in theory, all hooked up properly. The old unit was out, the new one was in place, and the wires were hooked up right. I double- and triple-checked the wiring, but nary a fault was found. Everything was in place, but it just didn't work.  I was seriously annoyed, and I'm generally the kind of guy who doesn't get annoyed easily.  My wife was taking it pretty well though, and she calmly walked me through all the steps of the installation. (Tip for any do-it-yourselfer: make sure to marry a supportive and patient spouse!) After re-doing all the connections back in the attic and trying several things on the new switch, we came to the conclusion that the problem must be with the switch (which was unlikely) or the physical wires themselves (which was highly unlikely).  Just by chance I happened to tug on one of the white wires that I had secured with a wire nut and...it came right out. Just like that I knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it. I simply grabbed the white wires connected by the new switch, trimmed the copper a bit, screwed the wire nut back on, and voilà! It worked! Oh joy! Rapture! The new unit was functioning properly!

All that was left to do was secure the vanity plate to the wall, dig my tools out of the attic, and clean the place up.
The weird thing about the new unit is it's really not all that different from the old one, except it works properly. Home repairs can be like that sometimes: simply maintaining the status quo can involve more time and money than you would ever expect, and when you are finished you often find yourself in roughly the same position as when you started.  The only difference, of course, is that whatever you fixed or replaced probably works a lot better or will last a lot longer, which might not be as fun as a new computer or home theater system but probably a lot more practical.

One other thing that helps when encountering home repairs like this is to have money already set aside so the cost of the repair doesn't break the bank. My wife and I have put money away for home repairs each month since we purchased our house, and we rarely dip in to this reserve fund. We keep it only for major repairs, and because of that when we had to absorb the cost of this new HVL unit we didn't really have to think about how to pay for it or what we would need to sacrifice in the coming months. We also did not have to get a cheapo unit because we couldn't afford the nice one.  While setting aside money in a fund might seem unnecessary at times, I promise you it is worth it in the long run and something I highly recommend if you are not doing it already.

Of course the final step in all this process was a prayer of thanks, followed by a lot of horsing around with my son who didn't see much of his daddy this past weekend.


Steve said...

What a project... glad it worked out in the end.

I understood step 0 (shut of the breaker -- I know all about breakers since I blow mine quite frequently) and the put money aside for repairs. The rest looked like a bit of magic or photoshopping.

Simon Ringsmuth said...

I can't say that magic wasn't involved :)