Information about design and construction of earth sheltered homes and a journal of my own progress

Electrical Main Breaker


Posted on December 13, 2015 by

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  – Abraham Lincoln.

“Never underestimate the power of stupidity”  – Robert Heinlein

OK, so maybe those quotes don’t have much to do with hooking up my main breaker, but I wanted power, even if it tested my character, and I was not too stupid to get it ;^)

In my region, the power company has set things up to favor a proper service entrance setup rather than temporary “construction” power.  The temporary setups have more paperwork and lots of rules about the setup, such as you can’t have outlets more than 10 ft from the transformer.  They also make it more expensive than hooking up the actual house main power.  On the phone with the power company, and I said, “With all this hassle and expense, why would anyone want to get a construction hookup?” and they guy on the other end just said, “Exactly.”

Of course, I had no wall to mount the electric meter or breaker on, so I would need to continue with my generator for a while longer.  I appreciated having my generator, but I didn’t like the noise and I really don’t want to make things noisy for my neighbors.  I also don’t like paying for gasoline.  Getting electricity on site just makes the whole building process easier.

Once, when I stayed past sunset the night before a pour day, a neighbor drove by and told me to, “Go home.”  All I could do was reply, “I’m working on it.”  I shut the generator and lights down within 15 minutes and finished up the column forms by flash light.


This post is just the story of how I got that power hooked up. If you know anything about electrical, my mistakes will be obvious to you, no need to point them out now. Anyway, I learned a few things along the way to getting it right and ended up still saving a lot of money.

The Video


Why do it myself?

The quotes to get my electrical done were not affordable.  I tried to get other quotes, but most electricians never got back to me or told me they were not interested in bidding for such an unusual home. The few that did get back to me wanted more than $64,000.  I asked one of them about the crazy price and he said it was about triple his normal rate per square foot because he still needed to figure out how to do it.  Some of this was because I have electric backup heat and electric hot water (on demand), which increased the overall power requirements, but most of it was just because the house was not like anything they had ever done and they had to estimate high to cover their risk (understandable).

I have already wired the basement, and that only cost about $400.  I was already pretty familiar with that sort of basic wiring, and you can find tons of information in books and online, so it was no problem. Taking care of the service entrance and main breaker was the next step.  However, it was something I was unfamiliar with and most books on wiring don’t cover beyond a basic hookup.

Why those two big switches?

My house is long and the service entrance was at the far corner of the garage (closest point to the transformer).  If I ran all the circuits from that back corner of the garage, it would be a huge task to wire the house, with many of the runs going well over 150 ft.  It would be a wire-pull nightmare. Also, the cost of all that wire, especially the bigger stuff for the on demand hot water heaters, well pump, etc. would really start to add up.  The concrete walls and unusual shape would also make it tricky to run circuits between the various sections.

So, I decided to put a breaker in each major section of the house.  I figured one in the in the laundry room, for the bedroom wing, and one in the mechanical room (under the middle of the house), to cover the rest of it.  However, the total AMPs required between these breaker panels was also going to be well over 200, so I couldn’t just have a main breaker and a sub breaker.

Code requires that the power from the meter socket should not travel very far before it passes thru a breaker or disconnect.  If I was not going to have the Main Breaker right on the other side of the wall from the meter, I would need a fusible disconnect switch to turn off the power in case of a short.   You can get reasonably priced switches for 30 amp or even 100 amp circuits, but they get big and expensive for 200 amp circuits.  My 200 AMP fusible disconnects are pretty much considered “commercial” equipment and I had to special order them.

There was also the issue of scheduling.  I had the back wall of the garage up well before I could put up either of the other panels.  The wall of the laundry room won’t even exist until June 2016 (or so). Having the switches lets us hook up the main power now, but just leave the switch off until I have the panel installed.  This is why the disconnect on the left is not connected to anything.


The breaker panel to the right of those big switches was originally a temporary idea so I could have power during the build.  I planned to move that one to the Laundry room eventually.  However, I have since decided to replace it with a smaller panel and just wire the garage circuits from there instead of from the mechanical room.  This will save me time and money and lets me get the garage circuits going sooner.

My mistakes

Building code is important, but things are not always clear and there is a learning curve when applying book knowledge to the real world.

electrical-cautionI had passed my basement wiring inspection easily, but the service entrance was more mysterious.  What info I could find in books or online really only covered the basic situation where the meter and main breaker are just inches apart.  From reading the code, I knew I would need to add switches, but I couldn’t find out much about how to install them, etc.  I hoped those expensive switches would at least come with some instructions, but they didn’t.  I figured I could figure it out well enough.

Some of the mistakes were things that I had known earlier in my life, but temporarily forgot or just messed up in the rush to beat the ground freeze.

Oh well, mistakes were made and that is what in the inspection process is for.  I will try not to mess up like that again, but, for now, I am moving on, still happy that I saved many thousands of dollars over getting a pro to do it.  I also learned a bit more than I would have otherwise.

Turning on the power

On the first day, two trucks and 5 guys from the power company showed up.  I had booked the day off work to be there and was anxious for them to get started…  They didn’t.  Only one guy even got out of the truck to talk to us. We asked what the delay was and he said they were a bit confused about where to run the cable.  Basically, they wanted to run from a slightly closer (180 ft distance box), even though it would require digging across the driveway, which they did not have the equipment for anyway.  I had already got the power company to agree to a 15 ft longer path from another transformer that would stay far away from the drive way or any thing else and only cut thru soft sand. Anyway, they didn’t want to start until the project manager at the power company approved what I told them he had said. He wasn’t in that day, so they would just wait.

I thought that was crazy to just sit around all day, but they told me not to worry because “This has been spec’ed as a two day job.”  He basically made it clear that I didn’t need to worry about how long they took because the cost was fixed.  They stayed, sitting in their trucks, all day, but did literally nothing towards hooking up my power. I was pretty annoyed that I would need to take a second day off work, but at least the weather was good and I was able to work on other things.


The next day, they were back before 9:00 AM.  They sat in their trucks for the first hour or so.  We went down to ask them if everything was OK, but they just said they would get to us soon. Eventually, a few of them came up and looked at the meter cabinet while a couple others got the trenching machine off the trailer.

During about a half hour time frame, they hand dug the first couple feet by the wall/foundation and then used the excavator arm to dig a short trench, maybe 20 ft long.  This was done by 10:22 AM.


They said something about not having any 3 inch pipe with them and said they would need to wait while someone brought some.  This is the standard pipe that they always use, so I thought it was funny that they hadn’t brought any with them.  However, they only needed a few feet of it and I had several pieces laying around. I offered them a piece, but they said they would just wait for the delivery.  They waited in their trucks until 11:40.


The next step was to use the trencher to lay the cable.  One guy drove the machine and another fed the wire into it by hand.  The wire was pulled down thru a plow that split the earth to lay the wire and then let the earth close up behind it.  It basically moved at walking speed, so the cable was laid within 15 minutes. The cable had been laid on the ground next to the path before hand, so the whole process looked similar to pulling up a zipper. Then they took a 20 minute break before the one guy came back up with the machine and filled in the trench at the top at 12:21.  Again, that was just a few minutes of work.


They put the machine back on the trailer and were quiet again until 1:54 when some other guys came out to hook up the meter socket (meanwhile the trencher guys stayed sitting in their truck).

AllenHere I should note that, other than something to cut the cable, the only tool these guys need to attach the cable to the meter socket is a 3/8ths inch Allan key.  This is the same sized Allan key they need for every single service entrance job that they do.  Guess which tool they didn’t have?  I loaned them mine.

Roughly 20 minutes later, they were done.  hooking up the 3 wires.  After packing up, one guy came to tell me that I could start to use the power. That first attempt video was shot right after they left at 2:22 PM. That didn’t work. Obviously, I was pretty annoyed with the crew by that point. I called the power company and was told someone else was planning to come and finish the setup.


After my family had gone home for dinner, a sixth guy showed up around 6:20.  He did something to start my meter (I didn’t see exactly what he did, but it was quick.)  It seemed to me that perhaps I had misunderstood the first crew and the power was not supposed to be on until this guy came and did his part? I asked him about it, but he didn’t seem to understand my question.  He quickly sealed the meter box and told me I could start using the power, and then he was on his way.  I filmed that second video, with working electricity at 6:26.

So, let’s do the math.  They were at my site for most of two days, but my time-stamped time-lapse pictures show that parts of the crew worked on my hookup for less than an hour and a half.  I guessed three hours in the video, but I see that was much too generous.  If they were doing something in that truck, I can’t imagine what.  Keep in mind that this is a private company, not even government work.  But they do have a monopoly in the region, so maybe that explains it.


The 2/0 cable was about $1.50 per foot and I needed 3 cables, each 15 ft long, so 65$.  There was also the 45$ worth from my first try that was wasted.  The ground wire was about 10$, plus 25$ for the two grounding rods and acorn clamps.  The main panel (200 AMP QO) was about 200$ and the 20 amp breaker I installed for the construction circuit was $7.  Those big switches (200 amp fusible disconnects) were very expensive at over 330$ each, and each took 30$ worth of big fuses.  There was maybe 20$ worth of 2 inch conduit. Then there were a few small things like Tapcon screws to mount the boxes, etc.  I had them already laying around, but lets say 5$ for all that.

So the hardware total is, $372 for the service entrance and main breaker, and $720 for the switches, so $1092 total.

The price to get the power hooked up was reasonable…  820$ up front covered the meter box and all the hookup, including the 195 ft of cable from the transformer. Since it took 5 guys a couple days to get it done, I am guessing it cost the company more than that to do the work, but they plan to get the rest from me over a lifetime of electric bills.

It was going to cost an additional 3$/ft if the ground froze (nearly 900$ more).  So, after getting the back wall completed in october, I was in a rush to get the service entrance installed and inspected and the hookup scheduled.  That rush may have contributed to the mistakes.  It was only due to the merciful “Al Gore” winter that let me delay into the middle of November without the ground freezing.


So total to get the service entrance and switches up and running is ~$1910.  A big chunk of my electrical budget, but only a tiny fraction of what the professionals would have charged.  Of course, thee were also a few evenings worth of time to get it done and then rip it out and do it again properly.




Finishing the Quonset Hut


Posted on October 24, 2015 by

The Video

Its a short one this week, and the end is rather abrupt, but here it is anyway…


Why a Quonset hut?

My house design is an experiment with a variety of different arch forms.  Since it is a self build, I kept most of my spans shorter than 15 ft.  The exception is the garage.  I wanted a 3 car garage for practical purposes and decided to use a Quonset hut to form the wider span.

The quonset hut could probably support a significant earth load, if it were carefully distributed, etc. But in my design, it is really just fancy formwork to hold up the rebar and shotcrete that will actually support the earth.

My build also required a workshop to build the other components, and the Quonset hut is something that could be erected quickly, early in the construction, and provide that place.  I have used it to weld steel arches, store materials, and most importantly, to form my large concrete ribs.

Why build it in two stages?

The rib forms needed to be built on a large flat surface, out of the weather.   But we would also need to use a crane to move them to where they needed to go.  The ribs weigh 5000 lbs each, so I couldn’t roll them out across the gravel or dirt.  Instead, I needed to keep them on the slab, but also needed open sky above them for the crane.

The solution was to build only 2/3rds of the Quonset hut on the slab floor.  I could use that sheltered space at the back to form the ribs.  I would then jack them up and pull them forward to the open 3rd where a crane could lift them up and over to where they needed to go.




When the crane came out, it did lift them straight up and over, but I noticed that it actually had a telescoping arm.  I asked the operator and he said that he could lift them up and pull them out of the building if I finished it…

The ribs were taking me a long time to make and closing off the building would save me a lot of hassle, so that seemed like a good idea.  It had been almost a year since the first 2/3rds were erected.

The final 3rd

My parents came down to visit and to pick up their camper. Anyway, it was windy and we didn’t want to try erecting Quonset sections with just the three of us. However, that is a good number for assembling the steel arches, so we spent most of the afternoon doing that.



The following week, I put out help requests on Facebook and at work. The first few days, I was worried that I wouldn’t have at least 4 people there at one single time.  By the end of the week there were lots of people volunteering and I was buying a few extra half inch sockets and wrenches so there would be tools for everyone.  One co-worker even volunteered his whole family of very capable teens.




The steel ribs went up very quickly.  7 in under two hours.  We were actually done before the Pizza lunch I ordered arrived.  No worries, we had other work to do (not captured on film).


Because these new steel arch sections were were bolted to the rest of the Quonset hut, which was already bolted and concreted to the slab, and because they were very heavy, I wasn’t too worried about the new section blowing away. With 13 people working in parallel to bolt the sections together, I didn’t want to interrupt that flow and make everyone stand around while I drilled and bolted the steel sections down.  I figured I would come back and take care of the anchor bolts next time…

However, by the next time I went out there, I found that the wind had lifted the front third of the Quonset out of the groove.  We ended up wasting several man hours and a lot of sweat getting it back into place.





I should have known better because this is a pretty typical fluid dynamics problem that I had to do several times at school.


Another “mistake” that I pretty much accepted was that my building was a little longer than it should have been and ended up hanging over the edge by a few inches.  I ended up cutting that off so it wouldn’t get in the way of the end wall, but that is another story.

Quad Deck, Part 2


Posted on October 18, 2015 by


After the Quad Deck ICFs were installed, there was still a lot of work to do before we could pour concrete, and then still a bit of work after.

Before we could pour, we had to install the pex tube for the radiant floors, build a perimeter form to hold in the concrete, put in plumbing, electrical conduit and duct work, and generally clean up any mess from the previous steps.

While we had the pump truck there, I also wanted to pour a couple 7 ft tall columns, so we also prepped those.  We also poured a section of ICF wall, but I will save that for another post…

After it was all over, we had to remove all the forms.  We gave the concrete a couple weeks to cure (and gain strength) and then we removed the scaffolding and shoring.



You can find the Video here:

Experienced workers and new technology

Pour_01They workers are used to pouring concrete on stable ground, so they were quite nervous about pouring on the ICF forms.  They started out walking very carefully and there was a lot of nervous laughter.  I made sure to pass along the pour instructions I had received from the Quad Deck installers. After the grooves were filled, the guys appeared to forget what they were standing on and began stomping around as usual.  We had no problems with the Quad Deck system.  Everything held up and there was only a little bleed water in the basement.

The blow out

During the column pour, the weight/lateral pressure of the concrete blew out the forms.  To be clear, these were my column forms, that I built, not the Quad deck forms.  My heart sunk as concrete spilled into the basement.

Next thing I knew, the guys from Dysert concrete, who were working on finishing the slab, jumped into action and helped strap the form and re-level it.  This was really going the extra mile because they were really only there to look after the floor.  They also went another extra mile and helped me scoop some concrete out of the basement.  When it was all over and guys were packing up, I tried to give them some cash for their extra efforts, but they wouldn’t take it. If you are in the SE Michigan area, I recommend these guys.

Pour_08_ColumnsIn contrast, the pump truck operator (not my usual guy who is very helpful, so I won’t blame the company), clearly did not want to be there. He was grouchy from the start, perhaps not a morning person?  When the floor was finishing up and I told him the columns were next, he complained a lot because he thought he was only there for the floor.  He threatened to charge me extra.  At that point, we were not even half way thru the minimum 4 hour window that I had to pay for.  Also, I had specified (in writing) the volume of concrete and listed the columns and the ICF wall when I booked the truck.  I didn’t bother arguing all these details with the driver, but I simply ignored his threat and told him it needed to be done before he could pack up.

Amateur legal note:  If a contractor tries to change the price part way thru a job without sufficient justification, you can safely ignore the threat.  Legally, if it would be even more expensive to switch contractors at that point, the threat of a work stoppage amounts to extortion and puts you in financial duress to agree with their unjustified price increase. In this case, I didn’t verbally agree to the extra charge, but I did tell him to continue on, which could be considered implicit agreement.  However, even if I had agreed verbally, or in writing, I would still be able to contest the extra charges in court later due to financial duress making the amended agreement invalid.  In order to increase the cost mid project on a fixed bid, the contractor would need to prove that the scope of the work increased significantly beyond a reasonable expectation.  For instance, my septic field guys found a 1940’s garbage dump almost as soon as they started digging.  The health department got involved and ended up raising the cost of the installation by about 30%, which I agreed to and paid without an argument.










When the columns failed, he was even more annoyed at the extra delay and kept saying he had another job to get to.  I reminded him that he had been there less than half the minimum time I was paying for.  A moment later, he started dumping concrete on the sand, we suspect it was intentional so he could leave. Sherri got mad and yelled at him until he stopped. However, as a result of the waste (intentional or otherwise), we did not have enough concrete to finish the ICF blocks in the north wall, but that is another story.

This pic is just one the time-lapse caught as I was moving the camera.  It shows Sherri trying to clear the dumped/wasted concrete off the footings.  Definitely not princess work, but I never asked her to do it…  I was running too much to even think about it, but she separated it into smaller piles that I could move after it hardened, so I am glad she did.




AaronYou can see that a few of my friends in this and other videos and in the gallery below.  Some of them actually like this sort of work, others come out and help anyway.  I appreciate them all.

Working with friends makes the work go faster and the day fly by.  Some of them have also taught me some good tricks based on their respective experience, or mentioned tools that would make the job easier. I will definitely have to have a big party when this thing is all done.

Pex connections

LeakingSharkBiteIn the video, you might have caught that the pressure test dial didn’t hold the pressure when I filled it.  I ended up using some dish soap from the camper to find the leaks.  I had one easily fixed leak in the manifold, but most of the trouble was with the Shark Bite connections.  Basically, I had not left enough extra length to reach down to my manifold (oops), so I needed to connect some short bits to make the final stretch.  The SharkBite connectors are individually expensive, but easy to use without any tools, and I only needed a handful.  However, try as I might, I couldn’t stop some of them from leaking.  I talked to the plumbers (who use Pex for everything) and they said they prefer the crimp connections.  I figured I would eventually be putting in a bunch more radiant, so I decided to spend the money on the crimp tool and it easily sorted out my issues.

Fibonacci Spiral

Fibonacci_01I had long planned to insert 1 ft long glass rods thru the Quad deck to let light thru in both directions.  When it came to the layout, I went with the points of a simple Fibonacci spiral, centered in the room and leading around to a spiral stair case around the corner.  Later, I can etch or mosaic in the actual curve if I want to.

These are sorts of fun little extras that make building your own home fun.

To keep the glass rods from being pushed thru the floor by the workers stepping on them, I screwed boards up underneath to hold the bottoms in place.  This is why the lights turn off just before the pour in the video.



Rented Scaffolding

IMG_20151031_170822546 (Medium)The scaffolding that I rented has been stacked nicely and ready for pickup for more than 4 months with no responses to my monthly texts to the builder to come and pick ’em up.  You will see it in the background of various other videos ;^)  It was actually quite labor intensive to remove it from the basement, so I hope the builder appreciates that that free labor.  I wonder if I could surprise him with storage fees?  I had to move it again recently.


Here are some pics with descriptions

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