25 ultimate upgrades

High performance solutions to get your cottage in top working order

By Richard BrignallRichard Brignall



Under the floorboards and behind the walls, your cottage’s mechanical systems — plumbing, electrical, heating, and ventilation — hum away in the background to keep you comfortable. The difference between a well-oiled, efficient cottage machine and a high-maintenance handyman special is often in the choices you make when you’re installing, replacing, or upgrading. Here are 25 ways the savvy cottager gets those systems in top form, so they work better, last longer, and require a lot less repair time.

1. Air compressor

If your water supply pipes are plastic, invest in an air compressor. When you close up in the fall, prevent frozen and cracked pipes by attaching the compressor to one end of the line and blowing out any standing water that might be sitting where the pipe has sagged.

2. Sag-proof your pipes

Plastic water supply pipes are a do-it-yourselfer’s fave because they’re easy to install. However, they’re meant for year-round homes, not cottages with lines that have to be drained before winter. Plastic supply pipes can sag, and water will collect in low spots where it can freeze and damage the line. Copper supply pipes are more durable in a cottage. Though soldering of joints makes copper more trouble to connect, the pipes are rigid so they’re easier to install at a slight angle for drainage. Also, copper connectors will allow full flow-through, while plastic connectors actually reduce flow because the middle of the connector has a smaller diameter than the pipe it connects.

3. Install a three-wire pump

Submersible water pumps come in several sizes and two varieties — two-wire or three-wire. A three-wire pump system costs about $100 more, but saves a lot of future headaches. In a two-wire system, the motor control, the component that responds to a signal from the pressure tank switch by turning the submersible pump on or off, is in the water as a part of the actual pump, while in a three-wire system the motor control is separate and is usually installed near the pressure tank. Both types of pumps work well, but there is a big difference in servicing, because the motor controls are much more vulnerable to problems compared with the rest of the pump. In a three-wire system, the motor control, located above water, can be easily tested and replaced. The only way to repair a two-wire pump motor control is to pull the submersible pump out of the water — a job every cottager should loathe.

4. Protect your pump

Submersible pumps, which stay in the water year-round, are one of the great cottage labour- saving devices — no priming in the spring and no draining in the fall. But watch out when the skies light up and the first thunderclap echoes into the forest. While cottagers can run inside, the pump has nowhere to hide. Power surges, such as those from lightning strikes and the moment power returns after an outage, are to a submersible pump as kryptonite is to Superman. They move through the wiring and can fry a pump’s highly sensitive motor control and damage the inner workings of the motor. Protect submersible pumps with a lightning arrestor, a simple device that diverts that power surge away from the water pump’s wiring into the ground. Two-wire submersible pumps are out of luck, because this $50 protector, installed right in the motor control box, can only be used in a three-wire system.

5) Keep systems accessible

Make sure your mechanical systems are easily accessible, not crammed behind junk in the crawl space, or jammed into a tiny hard-to-reach cubbyhole. For safety reasons (and to meet the Electrical Safety Code), nothing must hinder your ability to reach the electrical panel, read the panel directory, and flip any circuit breaker. For the hot water tank, water pump, or pressure tank, easy access is important when a system breaks down, or during the yearly rituals of opening and closing. If you have to struggle to reach these devices, you’re much more likely to neglect them. Each unit must be installed in a dry area where all valves can be easily reached, and it should sit on a concrete pad or wooden platform. Not only does this shield the tanks and pumps from moisture in the ground or floor, it also helps keep them level. Avoid installing your hot water tank with the front service panels facing a wall or some other obstruction. If you have trouble getting the tank into a location, chances are you’ll have trouble getting into the location yourself to service it.

6. Baseboard heat

If you use baseboard heat, insulate both exterior and interior walls. Heat will stay where you are – say, in the bedroom at night – without escaping to unoccupied spaces.

7. Use the right wire

A client of mine wondered why her feet tingled whenever she stood in a certain spot after a rainstorm. It wasn’t wanderlust she was feeling, but a case of the wrong wire in the wrong place. A buried electrical cable had deteriorated and a broken wire was sending a small current into the ground around it and into her feet. Every type of electrical cable has its own uses and limitations. The two most common are NMD90 and NMWU. NMD90, sometimes known as Romex or Loomex, is standard household wire — what’s in the walls of your cottage or underneath in the crawl space. It can only be used in dry or damp locations. In a wet location, the outer covering will begin to fall apart. Over time, the individual conductors will become exposed and create a fire or electrocution hazard.

For buried or wet locations, choose NMWU cable, which has a fungus- and corrosion-resistant cover that won’t deteriorate and give anyone a buzz.

8. Prevent frost heaves

Cottages are often built like decks, on concrete footings instead of a continuous foundation that extends below the frost line. Ground movement in the winter can wreak havoc if it shifts the footings. When this happens, drywall cracks, flooring buckles, and the cottage’s weight load shifts, putting stress on the structure. To avoid this, footings must extend below the frost line. As well, create a better, stronger footing by allowing the concrete to flare out at its base, either by carefully widening just the bottom of its hole, or by using a cone-shaped Bigfoot form, which fits on the end of a Sonotube. Another way to reduce frost heaving is to grease the tube before putting it in the ground. Rub -petroleum-based grease, which is less likely to freeze in the winter, over the outer surface and then wrap it with 6-mil polyethylene plastic, tacked in place with a couple of staples. It can be a messy job, but this sheath lets the ground rise and fall while the cottage stays on the level.

This article was originally published on February 5, 2006

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