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Jacuzzis. Saunas. Granite countertops. These may be your client's idea of comfort and quality in a bathroom remodel, but the fancy extras can't make up for what's in the walls and under the floor — where comfort and quality truly begin. The basics A drafty bathroom is an uncomfortable one.

By Scott T. Shepherd, PATH Partners November 30, 2006
This article first appeared in the PR December 2006 issue of Pro Remodeler.




Jacuzzis. Saunas. Granite countertops. These may be your client's idea of comfort and quality in a bathroom remodel, but the fancy extras can't make up for what's in the walls and under the floor — where comfort and quality truly begin.

This diagram shows the most common areas where air can leak into or out of the home.

The basics

A drafty bathroom is an uncomfortable one. So is a humid bathroom, which can lead to mold. Prevent or solve these problems in three easy steps: seal air leaks, insulate and ventilate.

Seal leaks in the walls and floor and around plumbing and electrical penetrations with caulk or expanding foam. Besides wasting energy, air leaks may also allow moist air into the walls, which will reduce the effectiveness of the insulation and support mold growth.

Next, fill the cavities of existing uninsulated exterior frame walls with blown-in cellulose or fiberglass. If you have to replace the existing wallboard, fill the cavities with batt insulation first.

Now ventilate with a bathroom fan, which is the best way to control excess moisture. Proper ventilation prevents mold and mildew and prolongs the life of paint and wallpaper.

Still, a fan is only effective if homeowners use it, and if it's noisy, they won't. Pick a fan with a noise level of 0.3 sones or less, and make it an Energy Star qualified model to ensure maximum energy savings.

Then remind your client to turn it on before every bath and shower. The fan should stay on for another 20 minutes after the water is shut off.

Natural light

Good lighting creates ambiance — and shows off good work. For natural lighting, choose double-paned, argon-filled Energy Star qualified windows and skylights, which can make an especially big difference in the comfort of a bathroom with inefficient single-pane windows. Efficient windows also eliminate fogging and problems with condensation running off the window onto the sill.

Replacing windows may solve another problem: in homes built before 1978, the windows likely have layers of lead paint, which will create lead dust every time the paint on the window scrapes against the frame.


Tubular skylights let light shine into windowless spaces like interior bathrooms and hallways.

If new windows are beyond your client's budget or the client likes the current windows, you can suggest adding storm windows, which will also improve comfort and cut energy costs.

And what if you're remodeling an interior bathroom and windows aren't an option?

Try tubular skylights, also called solar tubes, which have a roof-mounted light collector and a reflective sun scoop that directs sunlight into a tube. The tube guides the sunlight to a lens that spreads light evenly throughout the room.

"I've been installing them for more than 10 years," says Sylvain Côté, president of Absolute Remodeling in South Salem, N.Y. "Tubular skylights are a great way to give the warmth of the sun to a room, plus it limits the need for artificial lights."

You can integrate the skylight with electrical lights, so the fixture provides light both day and night. The tubes also can be installed with baffles to regulate the amount of incoming sunlight.

Storm windows and Energy Star qualified windows and skylights are eligible for federal income tax credits. (See Resources for more information on tax credits.)

Better plumbing

While planning any necessary repiping, consider using cross-linked polyethylene (PEX), flexible piping that can be easily snaked through walls and crawlspaces.

"Above all, flexible piping is ideal in retrofits or additions where you are working with the existing piping," says Tommy Strong, a project manager with Brothers Strong in Houston. "It greatly reduces the time needed for piping."

PEX also reduces cutting, welding, and gluing for the plumber, which can result in labor cost savings for you.

Sometimes a job like a bathroom remodel requires replacing old piping, particularly if there is a history of pinhole leaks, malfunctioning valves or leaky fittings. In that case, consider replacing it all with PEX plumbing and a home-run plumbing system, one of the simplest plumbing improvements a remodeler can make.

A home-run system includes a plumbing manifold, a control center for hot and cold water that feeds plastic supply lines to individual fixtures. A manifold essentially acts like a fuse box for the water supply, allowing you to turn off the water one fixture at a time. This simplifies maintenance if the plumbing ever springs a leak and makes it easy to add or modify fixtures in the future.

Less piping; fewer penetrations


Air admittance valves (AAVs) eliminate the need for many piping and roof penetrations.

If you could reduce the need for conventional pipe venting and roof penetrations, you'd put fewer holes in the roof, use less flashing around roof vents, and have fewer callbacks because of a roof leak. With air admittance valves (AAVs), this isn't just a pipe dream.

These pressure-activated, one-way mechanical valves are installed in a plumbing drain system, taking the place of through-the-roof or through-the-wall pipe venting. They operate automatically with the discharge of wastewater, such as a toilet flush or an opened drain.

Codes usually require only one plumbing vent when you use AAVs. Because AAVs eliminate a lot of piping, the cost — typically between $25 and $40 — can result in net savings. They also require less installation labor: no extra penetrations; no extra piping. AAVs are ideal for remodelers.

Plus, it's going to be a long time before the homeowner has to replace one. American Society of Sanitary Engineers standards require AAVs to last about 30 years, while some manufacturers have tested valves to last up to 80 years.

Instant hot water

Available in electric, gas and propane, tankless water heaters offer an endless supply of hot water and are small enough to fit in a closet, under a sink or on a wall. They are gaining popularity in upscale bathrooms, where homeowners want double sinks with instant hot water to both faucets.

"Tankless water heaters are quite popular among our clients," says Tommy Strong, a project manager with Brothers Strong. "They can really feel the impact as soon as they turn the water on."

While whole-house models are available, point-of-use units are usually more practical for a bathroom remodel because they are easier to install and less expensive.

Tankless heaters don't require energy to keep water hot while it sits in a tank, so they deliver energy savings. Point-of-use water heaters can also deliver water savings because you don't need to flush the standing cold water from a long supply line.

Some tankless water heaters qualify for federal income tax credits.

Even heat, warm feet

If you're looking for bells and whistles — and something your competitor might not have considered — radiant floor heating is a great option. This will keep feet warm and cozy on hard stone or tile floors.

Radiant floor systems pump heated water through tubing under the floor or use electric heating cables under the floor to produce consistent, even heat throughout the room. These systems are energy-efficient and especially clean because they don't use registers, which can kick up dust every time the heat turns on.

"The clients who go with radiant heating always love it," says Côté. "It really adds value to the project."

Radiant floor heating is less common in remodels because the typical "wet" system isn't usually practical to install in an existing home. But don't let that deter you: a variety of radiant systems are available to meet a variety of needs.

Wet systems require tubing or heating cables to be embedded in the concrete foundation slab, in a lightweight concrete slab on top of a subfloor or over a previously poured slab. This will work well for a large addition.

Dry hot water systems use tubing positioned in loops beneath the finished floor and do not need to be planted in concrete. These systems are ideal for remodeling an existing structure. In electric radiant floor systems, the heating cables must be covered in thinset cement before laying down the new floor.

Other factors to consider: above-floor systems may affect the placement of doors and can make the room feel smaller; below-floor systems may require a higher water temperature to perform as well as above-floor systems. This may be more expensive because you might need a larger heater to ensure the correct water temperature.

Value added

Tommy Strong says his clients are often aware of these products and want more from their remodelers.

"In most cases, they are looking to add value to the bathroom," he says.

While you still may want to propose that Jacuzzi, do it after you've discussed some of the less glitzy features that will give your clients the real value they're seeking.

Author Information
Scott Shepherd writes about better building practices on behalf of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). PATH is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Learn more at www.pathnet.org.



Bathroom remodels can deliver comfort and quality

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