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.

9. Protect your waterline

It doesn’t take much to cause a break in a waterline: wave action rubbing it side to side on a rock, a snagged fishhook, or an anchor deployed from a boat. And all it takes is a pinhole to make it harder for your pump to move water to the cottage. Protect your line with 4" corrugated polyethylene pipe, often called Big O, or weeping tile. Just slide this inexpensive pipe over the waterline, from the submersible pump or foot valve all the way to where the line emerges from the water, ending it at least a metre up from the high-water mark on shore. Piling rocks over this pipe, especially at the shoreline, will enhance its protection from wave and ice action.

10. Locate the thermostat

Every room with baseboard heat should be individually controlled by either a wall-mount or built-in thermostat. A wall-mount model should be installed on an interior wall opposite the heaters, where it will accurately gauge a room’s temperature. If the thermostat is on a cool exterior wall, it will be influenced by the outside temperature, making baseboards, or other heating systems, run longer than they should. Built-in thermostats, installed right on the baseboard unit, take a reading near floor level and usually under a window, so they’re also apt to be fooled by a cold draft.

11. Keep creatures out

Insects and mice have an innate ability to find any hole that leads to kitchen cupboards, broom closets, and warm stud spaces. As well as seeking food, they’re looking for places to stay warm — walls full of insulation are a hot winter hideaway and a gap under the floor is a rodent maternity ward. Electricians often give these living headaches an entry by running wire below the cottage and then drilling holes up to feed receptacles and light switches. All holes between the outside and inside need to be filled with a combination of caulking and steel wool — caulking will stop bugs, while steel wool will take care of the rodents.

12. Position baseboard heaters

As cottage upgrades go, electric baseboard heaters are super — they require no ductwork, little space, and are relatively inexpensive to install. However, they can be expensive to run, especially if they’re not installed properly. They heat a room through convection: The air around the electrical elements is heated and rises, warming the room and pulling more cold air through the elements. Baseboard heaters should be installed on exterior walls and are most effective when installed under windows — the chilliest places in a room. In winter, the air around a window is cold and heavy, and with a baseboard installed underneath, the falling cold air will be heated by the rising warm air coming off the baseboard’s element. You need about 10 watts of baseboard heat for every square foot of floor space – more if your cottage is drafty. Ideally, a heater will be at least as long as the window is wide. Properly sized heaters, positioned under the windows, will fully compensate for the cold air coming from the window, but if they are too small, the rooms will be cold and the electric bills sizable as the heaters work overtime trying to keep up.

13. Pipe thickness

As with one of those extra-thick milkshake straws, your pump moves water more easily, and with more volume and pressure, through a 1 1/4" (or wider) waterline, instead of the usual 1"-diameter line.

14. Send moisture outside

Cottagers would rather hear the sounds of nature than the drone of an exhaust fan, but the latter is a necessity if there’s a full bathroom in the cottage. You can usually get away without one in the summer by opening a window, but in cooler weather, and especially winter, this isn’t a practical option. Without proper ventilation, moisture can cause everything from peeling paint to mould, and even structural damage. In the winter, these problems intensify as improper bathroom ventilation can lead to windows icing up, window seals breaking, and condensation freezing on the walls. Problems will fester in a cottage that is used intermittently — on winter weekends, for example. It heats up for a couple of days, gets moist, then stays cold for the rest of the week.

Ventilation goes hand in hand with a vapour barrier; one gets the moist air out of your living space, while the other blocks moisture from infiltrating wall cavities and the attic. Sometimes cottagers make the mistake of venting moist air into the attic space, where it will condense and freeze in the winter. This can ruin your insulation, and in spring, can melt and drip down into the living space below. It’s important to use an insulated vent duct, with its seams sealed with foil tape, so moist air stays warm when passing through the cold attic to the outside in winter. If it’s not insulated, you’ll get that familiar condensing and freezing inside the pipe and, like cholesterol in an artery, ice will collect over winter, block airflow, and may melt back into the cottage or even cause a break.

15. Seal the vapour barrier

If you’re insulating, paying attention to the details is key to a warm, cozy and, most importantly, energy--efficient winterized cottage. For vapour barrier, use 6-mil polyethylene, then get out the caulking gun and seal any seams well with acoustical sealant. To keep this envelope continuous, don’t forget to seal those big, drafty holes you cut for electrical boxes in exterior walls and the ceiling below the attic space. Encase the boxes with inexpensive moulded plastic covers, sealed to the polyethylene sheet. This will stop cold drafts from entering the walls and prevent heat and moisture from rising out through light fixtures into the attic. Any penetration in the vapour barrier — say, where wires enter an electrical box or pipes poke through a wall — is a potential draft and must be sealed with caulking or tape. Remember that any weak points in an insulating job let cold air in and, even worse, your money out.

16. Electrical wires

Never leave cut electrical wires hanging in the crawl space or anywhere else. Code,and your own safety, requires that all wire — live or not — must terminate in a receptacle box, and that all boxes must have a cover.

17. Cool your attic

Cottages, especially ones with an attic, need roof and soffit vents to help keep the attic space cool. In winter, this lowers the chance of ice dams. In the summer, a poorly vented attic can reach 65°C or more. This trapped heat can turn the ceiling, especially if it’s uninsulated, into a huge radiator that pumps heat into the living space below, and can shorten the lifespan of asphalt shingles above. If the clocks start dripping like they’re in a Salvador Dali painting, it may be time to look to the attic for insulation and vents, not the fridge for another iced tea. Turbine or gravity roof vents can get the job done, but a continuous ridge vent is more effective because it ventilates along the entire length of the ridge, the highest point in the attic, where the hot air collects. But if there aren’t soffit vents under the eaves, any roof vent is mostly decorative — the soffit vents let cool air in, pushing warm air out the roof vents.

18. Prevent surge damage

Lightning storms, power outages, and other events that cause power surges can damage your cottage’s electrical system. The familiar power-strip, or power-bar, surge protectors shield whatever is plugged into them and a submersible pump surge arrestor protects the pump. A whole-house surge protector, installed (by an electrician, not a DIYer) right at the electrical panel, diverts power surges coming into the cottage away from your electrical system and to ground. It shields all those appliances and other devices that aren’t plugged into a power-strip surge protector. But whole-house protection doesn’t mean you can get rid of those power strips. While power strips can handle small surges coming from outside the cottage, they’re really intended to protect sensitive electronics from fluctuations created by other devices within the cottage. For example, turning on your microwave or dishwasher creates a small disturbance that finds its way through your wires and, in time, slowly wears down electronic devices. Some power strips protect equipment connected to other wires, such as those carrying your phone or satellite TV service. A good power strip will cost about $50 or more; cheaper ones are often not very effective.

19. Preserve your deck

Many cottagers don’t realize that pressure-treated and cedar lumber is still susceptible to the elements. Both can slowly decay with the effects of rain, sunlight, snow, and traffic. In areas of high humidity, shade, or poor air circulation, mildew can take up residence. A coat of stain or sealant will help preserve the wood. A clear, water-repellant sealant helps prevent splitting, warping, cupping, and cracking. One with ultraviolet protection, often used on cedar, preserves the original colour. A repellant without that ultraviolet barrier also protects your deck, but allows the wood to develop a subdued grey patina. Semi-transparent stain is absorbed by the wood and shows off its grain and texture, while solid-colour stains are more opaque. The stain’s pigment is a deck’s best defence against sun damage. These products are available in water- and oil-based forms; while oil-based ones have a reputation for being more durable, water-based formulations have improved considerably. Every few years, use a wood — cleaning product to prepare the surface before reapplying stain and sealant. On new decks, coat all six sides of a decking board with stain, preservative, or both before attaching it. On older decks, use a long bristled brush to get between the decking.

20. Light up the crawl space

The crawl space under a cottage is the last place a cottager wants to be while on vacation, but it’s often where mechanical systems — hot water tank, pressure tank, and electrical panel — are hidden. They are usually not alone in this space, as it becomes a storage area for lawn chairs and water toys (and derelict hot water tanks and pumps). A few well-placed outdoor light fixtures in the crawl space will get you in and out faster, without having to search first for the trouble light or juggle a flashlight.

21. Add ceiling fans

Ceiling fans not only help cool a hot summer day, they also help keep the cottage warm in the winter. High-ceilinged rooms can be hard to heat because warm air collects up top and doesn’t circulate back down. In the winter, ceiling fans should rotate slowly clockwise, which pulls cool air up the middle of the room and circulates the trapped warm air down the walls and back into the living space. This also helps keep windows moisture-free. In the summer, ceiling fans should rotate counter-clockwise, pushing air down to cool those below.

22. Upsize your pressure tank

Water pump motors and motor controls aren’t fond of the frequent starting and stopping a small pressure tank causes, so pamper your pump by installing the largest pressure tank you have room and money for. The pump moves water into the pressure tank, which stores it until needed. When the pressure in the tank, which corresponds to the water level, drops below a set point, the pump will start and refill the tank. With a smaller pressure tank, the pump will cut in and out more often, especially if you have a cottage full of shower-loving teenagers. A larger pressure tank gives the pump a rest because it takes longer for the water level to drop, so the pump will run less often, but longer, to replenish it. If it takes less than one minute for the pump to fill your pressure tank, you know your pump is working too hard and wearing out too fast.

23. Supersize your septic

When it’s time to install a new septic system, choose the largest one you can fit in your space. It will last longer, work better, and need to be pumped out less often, an advantage if your cottage isn’t the most accessible place for the honey wagon. And if your usage increases in the future, your septic system will still be up to the job.

24. Stop the rot

Moisture is one of your cottage’s greatest enemies because, given a chance, it will lead to rot. Wood that’s close to the ground, over the foundation or supporting a deck, say, is especially susceptible. Most cottagers know they can’t put a wood post directly on the ground; it must rest on a footing, such as a concrete block or concrete-filled Sonotube. But concrete is a porous material that absorbs water and can wick it into the post. An easy solution is to put a moisture-proof barrier between the concrete footing and the wood post. Something as simple as tar paper or an asphalt roofing shingle, placed between the two, will stop the transfer of moisture and guarantee strong foundation posts.

25. Power for the future

Cottages can have a lot of electrical demands, sometimes even more than a city home: water heaters, baseboard heaters, water pumps, sump pumps, electric heating cable to keep waterlines unfrozen, boatlifts, hot tubs, and saunas. Any of these puts extra load on the power supply — a load that a 60- or even 100-amp service may not be able to handle.So when upgrading an electrical service, make sure to anticipate your future needs; select a panel with a lot of extra breaker space and, if you’ll need it someday, 200-amp service.

This article was originally published on February 5, 2006


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