By Jon Eakes
The Tools for Energy Conservation
the editor asked me to write about tools for energy conservation in this issue,
what came to mind was the whole evolution of making airtight electrical boxes.
It was the National Research Council that came forward with the data that enough moisture can flow through an ordinary electrical box to accumulate 10 pounds of ice during a cold Canadian winter. If this is a north wall where the sun never hits, all that water could be waiting to flow, or at least grow mould, in the spring. So we started sealing electrical boxes. In new construction today, most parts of the country create that air barrier on the outside of the house with house wraps, but very often in renovation we are working on walls that do not have an air barrier. It becomes incumbent upon any renovator to make those boxes air tight, both to stop the cold air drafts and to stop the moisture accumulation.
Today, most renovators are vaguely aware of this and they simply put in a small piece of poly when attaching the electrical boxes, to later seal that poly to the main vapour barrier. It looks good, but in reality it does not last. The only thing that seals the poly well is acoustical sealant, and it never gets hard. After you close up the wall there will be long-term air pressure on that outlet, which will slowly open up that "sealed" poly-to-poly joint. The sealant doesn't maintain the seal. This was discovered early on in the R-2000 program and the standard best solution was to build a compete wooden frame around the electrical box, line it with poly and then seal the vapour barrier to this directly over the frame. This way the drywall and the frame would hold the seal mechanically against air pressure and keep it closed. That worked and stayed put, but was a lot of work.
Then PolyPans were invented. Heavy poly mouldings that were slightly larger than the electrical boxes with a wide flange for sealing to the vapour barrier. This "pan" and the electrical box were nailed in at the same time. This certainly works better than floppy sheets of poly, but is not rigid enough to actually squeeze the joint tight such as between the drywall and the framing. There is some question as to how long that seal lasts. It is better than floppy poly, and cheaper than framing and labour.
Then companies began to produce true airtight electrical boxes. The box itself is airtight with soft gaskets to seal around the wires. These work very well as they present a rigid flange, complete with a soft gasket which sandwiches the vapour barrier to the drywall making an airtight assembly, no messy acoustical sealant needed. Although double the cost of poly pans and metal electrical boxes, they do the best and easiest job of stopping that air movement. If you have an air barrier house wrap on the outside, you don't need anything more than regular electrical boxes. But often in renovation we are not touching the outside of the house, and we do need to seal off those boxes. For the quantity of boxes we are putting in, it is hard to justify not using the true airtight electrical boxes. But where do you get all of these "tools"?
My quick survey was a bit discouraging, although not surprising. Rona got a low mediocre rating as they stocked only one size of poly pan and nothing else. Home Depot got a better mediocre rating as they at least had two sizes of poly pans. In my quick survey, outside of the industrial electrical suppliers, I only found true airtight electrical boxes at Canadian Tire. My hat off to one buyer who insists on quality over quantity or maybe he just recognizes the specific requirements of cold-climate renovating.
While we are trying to keep moisture out of walls after the renovation is finished, so must we be very concerned about recessed light fixtures in insulated ceilings. Not only do you need to use IC housings that will permit insulation around the fixture without overheating, but you also need IC fixtures that will end up being airtight as well.
Juno Lighting, for one, continues to make a complete line of what they call Air-Loc Ready. Ready means that they are not airtight until you seal them to the drywall. This is either done with a special self-adhesive gasket or with some trim pieces that are specifically designed to seal airtight. But, oh, how many times have I seen the right fixture installed and the gasket thrown away by someone who did not understand. Where an electrical outlet can let 10 pounds of water into the wall, a hot recessed light fixture is like a water pump into an attic, particularly if it is installed in a bathroom. The right equipment is available; you have to insist on installing it and installing it right.
Energy efficient renovations often include the installation of significant ventilation systems, and most of these will have six-inch ducting. So how do you cut a hole in the wall for six-inch ducting when the largest hole saw sold in North American stores is just six inches in diameter? The duct won't go through. So I jumped all over Starrett to get them to bring in European metric-sized hole saws. Surprise: 610mm, a standard saw size in Europe, is 6-5/16" of an inch in diameter - just right for your six-inch ducts. They are available for under $100 wherever Starrett is sold - but, of course, only by special order because the guys in the hardware store haven't figured this out yet. By the way, for some odd reason, that 610mm saw fits your regular mandrel perfectly, so you don't have to buy a special metric mandrel.
And I just can't quit today without talking about hand screwdrivers. My favourite has always been the Clutch Driver because of a decent handle that doesn't break too often and excellent driver heads. Clutch still wins in the category of the variety of heads available, but Picquic is giving them a real good run for the money with two tiny details changed on their latest models. They still have a very sturdy handle and rather than a lid on an empty compartment, you shove the head up in the handle to push out the head you want and they, like Clutch, have excellent quality heads.
Just recently they have cut away the plastic where the tips are so now you can easily see which one you want. In addition, they have enlarged their strong hex on the base of the shaft to allow easier clamping on with a crescent wrench. They solved the only two reservations I had about their screwdrivers. They are limited to seven heads, but that seems to handle most of my needs and provides the strongest of the multiple head screwdrivers on the market.
There is a total newcomer into the competition, the Maximum from Canadian Tire's Mastercraft. Now, I have never been too excited about the quality of Mastercraft tools and I still have some reservations about durability here, but this one is really a genius idea. It stores six standard short heads inside the handle. You pull the handle housing back, rotate and push forward, and much like a multiple-coloured writing pen, the selected head just shows up on the end of the screwdriver, held in place by a magnet. It is the smoothest and quickest head change unit I have ever seen and is a beauty to work with when you need to switch back and forth. I don't trust the quality of the heads, but they can easily be replaced, even one at a time. I am not sure how long the handle will stand up to hard work but for light duty work it is the most convenient multiple-head screw driver I have found to date. HB
broadcaster, author, home renovation and tool expert Jon Eakes provides a
tool feature in each edition of Home BUILDER.