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Time-efficient source of information on how to build a good house?

mikeysp | Posted in General Questions on

Hello. We are about to build our house an hour west of Nashville (Zone 4a) Mixed-Humid and I need a fast track curriculum to learn how to build a good house.

I drew up a plan, 1250 sq ft ranch (115 SQ mt), and since I am self performing everything, I was trying to decide between slab and crawl space, I came across this site. This fixed me on a monolithic slab and also prompted me to read close to a 100 hours on Building Science, Passive House, Net Zero, etc..

I have bought the land, cleared a building area, installed a septic, brought in temp power and water, and set our camper to live in while we build.

I was all ready to get my building permit, when this fire hydrant of information caused me to stop all progress until I am educated sufficiently to avoid huge regrets.

I need a short curriculum, one book would be ideal, but several would be fine if needed. I am looking at your being my education counselors to help me put together a smart and time efficient curriculum building my home.

My skills are pretty good, but slow. I have built two other standard construction houses in my life. On the other two, I did 90% of the work. I will do 100% on this house including the septic we recently installed.

I don’t need convincing of the wisdom of building an efficient house, I am convinced. I do need help in design decisions and practices and details on how to make the assembly.

Concepts that come to my mind that I need to answer:

How to build in Zone: 4a.

How far to go… all the way to passive standards?

Details on construction assembly and better/best practices on how to achieve it.

Budget solutions. Eg.. I would rather use OSB instead if ZIP if it saves me several hundred dollars, but costs me a few days more labor.

How to design the house and systems without hiring experts.

Some routes I have considered:

Building Science Corporation Mixed-Humid Guide, but it is dated 2005.

Dept of Energy guide on Mixed-Humid is dated 2011 and BSC helped put it together. Is it the same info as the BSC guide?

I tried google and Amazon for reviews of books came across books like Passive House Details, The New Net Zero, or Pasivhaus Bauteilkatalog; However, I have found no mention of these books on GBA. I think if a book is the cat’s meow, why hasn’t it been mentioned on GBA? Then I considered getting a paid membership at GBA but I don’t want to distill a thousand articles to find the information that someone else has distilled and packaged already.

Thank you for your counsel.

-Mike

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Replies

  1. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #1

    Mike, there is too information for one book to cover everything you need to know. People think construction is simple, and it's true that almost anyone can nail two boards together, but there is a lot to know and a lot of pitfalls to make when designing and building a home. I've been building and remodeling for 30 years (starting summers in high school) and have been focusing on high performance techniques for 10 years, and I still learn new things every day.

    Based on my experiences, I think the best thing you could do is get subscriptions to Fine Homebuilding and the Journal of Light Construction, check out the videos on ProTradeCraft.com (created by Dan Morrison, the person most responsible for starting GBA), and most importantly, get a membership to GBA. There is a lot of information to sift through but every single project is different, so no book is going to be perfect for your situation. That said, Martin's book, Musings of an Energy Nerd, is worth reading, but even that is not going to cover everything you need to know. If you haven't already, check out the articles here about the Pretty Good House concept--they don't include much for nuts-and-bolts information, but the philosophy may help your decision making.

  2. Kurtis Hord | | #2

    build walls in 3wythe, like your ancestors. problem solved.

  3. Alan B | | #3
  4. Walter Ahlgrim | | #4

    To me Passive house standard of X number of watts per square foot per year without regard to the local climate does not make economic sense. To meet the passive standard in most climates you are forced to spend money buying insulation and windows that will never save enough dollars to pay for themselves.

    The net zero is better it considers costs and you stop spending money on windows and insulation once the current price of adding solar panel saves more dollars. It is a moving target dependent on your local climate and price of solar after local incentives and tariffs.

    The “pretty good house” is a great standard. If you search this site for “pretty good house” you will find lots to read.

    If the green part of building you are interested in is money down load the BEopt program spend the 30 hours watching the training videos and modeling your house. It will analyze hundreds of options given your costs and interest rate and let you identified the best set for your house.

    https://beopt.nrel.gov/

    Personally I would not be comfortable living on a concrete slab, it just too hard on the feet and back.

    This was my set of goals
    R3.33 or U <0.3 windows
    R0 under slabs
    R8 foundation or slab perimeter
    R20 above-grade walls
    R38 in the attic or roof
    No ductwork in the attic
    No plumbing in exterior walls

    Walta

  5. Kurtis Hord | | #5

    whole bunch of bad noise. look to the last sane moment in the past. copy their model.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Mike,
    You're not going to learn everything you need to know in a few weeks. You're going to make mistakes -- but if you're lucky, many of the mistakes will be fixable. Hard-to-fix mistakes include:
    1. Orienting the building the wrong way.
    2. Making the foundation too close to grade.
    3. Building a house with low ceilings.

    Other mistakes, for the most part, you can fix.

    Here's a link to a web page where you can buy my book: Musings of an Energy Nerd.

    Here is a link to a web page that amounts to an index of important articles. (Note that a GBA Prime subscription is helpful. You can pay $15 for one month and download as many articles as you can until the subscription runs out, if you are cheap): "How to Do Everything."

    Here is a link to an index of GBA's so-called Category Pages: Index of Category Pages.

    Here is an example of a Category Page -- the one on the "pretty good house": "The Pretty Good House."

    Here are links to the two most important articles for people like you:

    "Green Building for Beginners"

    "Martin’s Pretty Good House Manifesto"

  7. mikeysp | | #7

    Gents, thank you, thank you, thank you! I should have asked this days ago, but soemtimes it's hard to see clearly when you have fire hydrant water coming our your ears.

    Michael Maines,
    I looked at all your recommendations. I also watched one ProTradeCraft.com video on tile shower which I have never done. Very much a keeper website!

    I also read through the fist Pretty Good House and it led me to Allison Bailes Mixed Humid climate PGH and I will read that this morning.

    Since I am in a drink through the firehydrant situation and I am very thirsty to boot, I am going to start with a GBA Prime membership. I will add JLC and FHB as I am able to keep from drowning. As it is, I plan to read the PGH info along with the How To Do Everything which has my sincere attention. I join GBA today.

    Alan B.,
    I will join GBA today and "How to do Everything" is indeed the the most enticing series title I have seen. I can't wait to join GBA today so I can devour that series after I go through the PGH articles for my climate.

    Walter Ahlgrim,
    I was no sure what you meant by "If the green part of building you are interested in is money down" Can you elaborate. That BEOPT simulation software looks very interesting. I need to get a better handle on Net-Zero. If that is the route for me, I will happily spend the 30 hours learning the modeling software. I followed the links and saved them in my serious consideration pile. Reference the slab, I too do not like the hardness for that reason; however, I hope a good set of slippers and some strategic mats (sink/stove) will address that.

    Martin Holladay, I was on track to make at least two of the three irreparable mistakes. House orientation and 4" slab, 6-8" above finish grade. Not sure if an 8ft ceiling is too low.

    Orienting the house east/west is easy, but the road is on the north side. I will read up to see if there are design options for the back of the house to be to the south. If this does not work, I will make some changes to fix this.

    You have a clear understanding of my goal. Do you read minds? I am not cheap, I am PO. Can't even afford an "O" and an "R", so I can become poor. I GREATLY appreciate those links and will read them all. Joining GBA Prime today. That index page is nice! Organized topics...good!

    Gent's, thank you again for your advice.
    I have an evolving quick start curriculum:
    1. Join GBA Prime
    2. Read "Green Building for Beginners"
    3. Read "Martin’s Pretty Good House Manifesto"
    4. Read Allison Bailes "Is the Pretty Good House the Next Big Thing?
    And what might one look like in a MIXED-HUMID climate?"
    5. Read all PGH threads.
    6. Read "How to do Everything" series cover to cover
    7. Be flexible and modify my curriculum as I go.

    Short of hiring a competent architect, to design for me, which I would do if I had the funds for it. Is there a a consultant service that can evaluate my DIY design and offer advice to bring me from a 65% solution to an 85%, or keep me from serious blunders.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Jon R | | #8

      I'm sure there are experts that can provide a review of your design once it is done. Posting on GBA is also also helpful.

    2. Alan B | | #10

      Glad to be of some help.
      This is going to sound harsh but if you can't afford an expert you need then perhaps wait to build until you can. Getting the best advice (and finding the right person) takes time and money, if you want your job done the best it can be its worth being patient, not rushing and making sure you get the best advice. You can't think straight when your overloaded and you will make silly mistakes you will regret later because you rushed and didn't see the forest for the trees. I can personally attest to this so don't build right away. Don't think of waiting as lost money but think of it as an indirect investment in excellence.

      That said i have kept in the back of my mind if i am ever in a position to build a house someday i hope GBA is still around and i would ask a few experts on here if they are willing to consult and what their rates would be. Some of the heavyweights around here are the best in the business.

      I have a collection of links i have curated over the years of things to think about if ever building a house, i'll have to have a look and post some of the broad strokes. A few come to mind though, think about flooding potential and fire, newer composite beams burn faster then traditional beams meaning less escape time in a fire. Plan for an all electric house, no gas, heating/cooling by minisplit, induction stove, heat pump water heater, runs to sinks for hot water (making them as short as possible) and maybe even water sources from wells to rainwater treatment.
      You don't necessarily need an architect but i would get it designed to your local code at least (above code is quite important in many cases IMO), insulated properly without thermal bridging, net zero and designed for durability (extreme weather), and designed for future solar, battery storage and low maintenance. You may also want to consider the future, if you had less mobility or an injury someday you might want fewer floors or the ability to section and rent out or have family living with you or making your family larger and so on.
      Also this comes to mind:
      https://buildingscience.com/documents/insights/bsi-081-zeroing-in

      @Martin, i don't know if you take requests but this might be a good spotlight article idea?

  8. Tim R | | #9

    Energy Calculation - here in California the energy calculation (title 24 of the CA code) is done by certified individuals. The cost for a 1,500 sq ft home is about $200. You might be able to find and work with some one that knows the software and how to get the solution you want.

  9. Brandon S | | #11

    I'm an owner builder as well. I've owned my lot for 2 years and my house plans have been completed for 18 months. Similar to you I thought I just had a few questions for GBA until I started but the process has completely evolved. One benefit you have is your perseverance which will be needed. The hardest part for me was deciding what is truly sufficient for your ACTUAL needs and not therotical. My house originally was a 2100sq ft 2 story on basement that I've since downgraded to a 1200sq ft ranch on basement (minimum allowable by covenants). I mean no offense, but I think you will find twice as many questions as answers while you dive into this process. Give yourself more time. The deadline of the home is of equal importance to your confidence and preparation to build it. Some tips:

    -Use a dedicated HRV or ERV for bathroom and kitchen exhaust.

    -I built my plans in Google sketch up and worked directly with a structural engineer on prints. If your home is simple you may be able to do the same. They cost money, but it's worth it to have a set of detailed prints to help preserve your energy details (raised heel truss, advanced framing, frost protected slab, etc). Plus they're handy for inspectors who rarely see these kinds of homes.

    -Reach out to a HERS rater. Be upfront with them and ask for help. Once you're far enough along have the heat load calcs performed also. Blower door, etc.

    -Concede that your view will always be subjective. Which highly stresses the importance of you hiring and engaging professionals.

    -Personally I found BE-OPT to be way off on cost. Still highly useful!

    Most of my advice was unsolicited...nontheless I hope you found it helpful.

    Good luck!

    1. Alan B | | #12

      "The hardest part for me was deciding what is truly sufficient for your ACTUAL needs and not therotical. My house originally was a 2100sq ft 2 story on basement that I've since downgraded to a 1200sq ft ranch on basement (minimum allowable by covenants)"

      Thats a very good point, reducing square footage is the best way to save on building costs, maintenance costs and conditioning costs.
      More space is not always better, good design can make smaller spaces work as good as larger ones.
      But one thing i have kept in mind if i ever build is to install at least double the storage space i think i will need, you will always need more storage space then you think. Also design it very intelligently.

      1. Brandon S | | #14

        Thank you Alan. I don't mean to hijack but I'm still tweaking my plans. Are you speaking about garage storage, bedroom closets, hall closets or all of the above? Being completely honest I hadn't considered that and I'm grateful for you post as a reminder!

        1. Alan B | | #15

          All of the above.
          You can't have too much accessible storage.
          I'm a minimalist so i do with only what i need but consumables are surprisingly bulky. Paper towel, toilet paper, kleenex take up a surprising amount of space. Even when you don't use much of them, i use rags for most things but just keeping a few large packages of the above will eat a closet.
          Then there is food, some people only keep a weeks worth of groceries around, but some stock up during sales or shop at Costco. A few months worth of canned items, spices, seasonal items and so on will take up a lot of storage. Don't forget chest freezer, perhaps a water softener and laundry plus accoutrements.
          Vacuum cleaners, mops, buckets, cleaning supplies, ladders, empty suitcases for travel, extra linens, family heirlooms, the list goes on.
          Tools will eat an amazing amount of space. In fact try to borrow when you can. But if your building a house you will easily use up an entire room or two just storing them. And they are hard to get rid of, what if you need one or more again someday...
          Clothing builds up quickly as well. A few on sale, old things that have sentimental value, suits or rarely worn items, seasons with winter/summer clothes, hobbies such as outdoor sports will all use up loads of storage space. Times your family size and anticipate many visitors for parties who will have coats.
          Don't forget camping items if you do that, beach tents, whatever else you might have.
          And you will need many maintenance tools from lawnmowers to shovels to rakes to maybe chainsaws, snowblowers, hoses, pressure washer, gardening, seeds, pots, etc.
          And if you work on your vehicle that will take a good many specialty tools as well. If your going to stock firewood that is huge space, any hobbies, interests, jobs, will all take up space, not to mention kids toys, documents, valuables, office space, paperwork/filing, entertainment centers and so on.

          So in the end doubling is probably not even enough, go with triple or quadruple.

          1. Brandon S | | #16

            Fantastic reply. I've got some work to do. I relate with being a minimalist and hadn't even considered to that extent. Our grandmother provides an abundance of paper towels and toilet paper for Christmas I need a closet just for that! Thanks again, one of the several gems of information throughout GBA.

  10. Mark B | | #13

    Lots of good, free knowledge resources at foursevenfive.com, including downloadable cad drawings, etc. This link, in particular, might be of interest to you-https://foursevenfive.com/2x-framing.

  11. Kurtis Hord | | #17

    first, dig a hole. get some stones. lay them in a block pattern, one after the other, until you have a cellar/foundation. then, get some timbers, preferably from a dismantled victorian mansion, then, get a whole bunch of bricks, again, preferably from a dismantled "historic" temple to oppression, one brick, then the next. use lime putty mortar. build in three wythe. put a roof on the thing, use a gable. cover the roof in slate, or true standing seam. supplement with gizmos and manufactured crap as needed. full stop.

  12. Kurtis Hord | | #18

    just do this:

  13. Walter Ahlgrim | | #19

    I tend to think of a house as my cost of ownership over time. In that I would not build an R60 wall as the total cost of building and heating and financing that building for 20 years would be more than R26 wall and could be the same as R12 wall given the right set of weather, fuel costs and interest rates.

    Designing your dream home is fun part. At some point the reality of money comes in play and hard choices must be made. Making it smaller or build in phases should be considered.
    One if the most important thinks my builder did was to have a bid or a realistic allowance for each and everything before we started. Getting a construction loan is not easy when you have the money and can prove it.

    Do not rush to get your permit because the minute it is issued the clock starts running, in most places you have 365 days and on paper they can demolish incomplete projects. Working by yourself you can’t afford to waste a single day.

    Walta

    1. Trevor Lambert | | #22

      A good question to ask the building department. It would be pretty diabolical to demolish building in progress just because it's behind schedule. Going beyond 365 days on an owner built home has to be not all that uncommon. Our building department has no time limit, they just want to see continual progress. We have a couple of neighbours who must be beyond 5 years by now. The bank gave us a 1 year time limit, which started from when we applied for the mortgage. So the time started before we could even break ground, because they had a strict rule that they wouldn't approve an already started construction (I also didn't find out the time had already started until months later, fun). When I enquired as to the consequences of not meeting the time limit, I could not really get a straight answer. I got a verbal assurance from the mortgage specialist that he would just ask for an extension, and it was just a formality. This turned out to be true, but it definitely gave me some more grey hairs.

  14. Kurtis Hord | | #20

    the manufacturer, is not your friend. culture, is not your friend. stack stones, and brick. make it noble, and it will be green inherently.

  15. Stephen Sheehy | | #21

    I'd build a garage or barn first. You need a secure place for tools and material storage and a place to fabricate stuff out of the weather. Since you're doing it yourself, it'll take longer than if you had a full crew. Having a place to work that's outside the main house is helpful.

  16. mikeysp | | #23

    Wow, overjoyed to find all these comments upon return home.

    Not one link that I was sent will go unvisited! I really do value your comments and advice. It is not harsh to tell me to slow down, to reconsider my approach, to get expert help. It is a kind thing to offer a warning to someone in danger, even if he is blind to it. Thank you all again, I feel as though I already reaped so much benefit and this is just the beginning.

    Please share your lessons, conclusions, links, etc.. I have already made many notes from your comments.

    I joined GBA prime and I will spend all week reading all the helpful links and taking notes. I realize I need to take out some time and come up with a way to organize all the information in OneNote. As stated, the process seems to create a thousand new questions, so I don't want to lose some gold and silver nuggets in the midst of the downpour.

    I am convinced I will need to get some expert counsel. I will look at doing my bestest to achieve a fictional 90% solution in my mind, then hire a consultant who knows his stuff to evaluate, critique, and advise, so it can become a non-fiction 90% system.

    I told my wife we need to completely reevaluate and perhaps scrap the entire plan we made and she is completely on-board with this. She has watched me burn the candle all last week reading and is very glad to see it. It is good to be of one mind as it is enough to focus on the plan. I still need to expedite the process by sacrificing the hours intensely to approach my summit as efficiently as possible, so I do not hire a consultant while I am still in Kindergraden. I need to get to second grade first.

    What is the most flexible software to evaluate building sytems? Is BEOPT only suitable for Net-Zero, or does it allow you to play around with differnt bulding sytem approaches?

    Brandon S., you said BEOPT was off on cost for you? Can you explain what this means. I am not sure what BEOPT does. I assume it evaluates a build for efficiency? I will look for a video or article that explains beopt before I invest 30 hours in learning it.

    I have already been gifted many items. Beautiful set of cabinets, hardware, fasteners, A "bunch" of high quality double pane windows. I do not know about their ratings though. I will have to see if they have any data on them. Is it possible to know what the ratings on the windows are without that sticker? About two miles away, I have over a 1000 square feet of storage available in my buddies huge shop, and the use of an old empty farm house. I will put something simple together on the property for keeping some of the building materials out of rain on site.

    I don't have a construction time limit, but I do have a two year camper limit. Once the slab is finished, I can build the house in a few months with just my family. My design will be small, rectangle, and simple. My time will be more on details. I can work on it six days a week, full time, and my friends will show up in mass on special days where I desire lot's of help...concrete pour, hanging drywall. Another friend is insistent on bringing out his dozer and leveling our pad and grading the slope away. The building inspector is a very reasonable man from my four encounters with him and according to many reports from others who have built in the area.

    Now to read, read, read, and read some more.

    Goodnight!

  17. Alan B | | #24

    @ Brandon S
    Thanks :)
    I have moved around a lot and found storage can make or break a place. Having unused storage is a good thing, it means you have excess capacity. Now if you have 90% unused thats one thing but 30-40% available even when fully stocked up is probably a good thing to strive for.

    @Walter
    Cost effective is one thing but also resilience is a consideration. If you had cheap energy so walls with no insulation are cost effective for say 50 years then you will do great until there is a power outage. No amount of cost effective will help you then.
    Thats an extreme example to illustrate, but my point is that you should look beyond just cost effective. If an R5 assembly is cost effective its still stupid in a very cold or very hot climate. But one should not go overboard, Passivhaus in an extreme and may be extra resilient but it will be mucho expensive. I would look at kW/day at 99% design temp and see what would be needed to supply it and factor that into my calculation and even have such a backup available for a few days to a week.

    @Mike
    When you come up with a floor plan and design plan (insulation, no thermal bridging, materials to be used, placement of appliances, storage etc) sit on it for a while and get a few extra opinions. I have found when i let something rest for a bit and come back to it i find more insights coming at it fresh.

  18. Alan B | | #25

    Okay so i did a quick run through of my bookmarks, here is what i came up with

    Flooding risk, make sure your house is designed to mitigate such risk as much as possible, make sure you get the proper insurance and make sure you think ahead on this, from a burst pipe to extreme weather. How high is the water table?

    Vermin risk, i don't know whats local in your area but bear all in mind. Ants, mice, termites, squirrels, bears, whatever.

    Lightning/surge protection. A direct strike will probably fry everything in your house but high amperage surge suppressors that are whole house units are not expensive to buy and install. They will protect from utility spikes, indirect lightning strikes and appliance induced surges.
    Proper grounding is essential.

    What type of attic, conventional, cathedral, other? Make sure whatever you go with do it properly to prevent rot risk. Use hurricane ties, they are cheap and can protect your house in extreme weather.

    What type of roof do you want to go with. Asphalt will need replacing about once a decade, metal is great when done properly, when done wrong (common) its an expensive boondoggle. This is more common then you think.

    Air tightness and ventilation. Properly size your HRV and choose one you can dial up or down from your selected rates to account for future developments in ventilation research.

    What type of concrete. It may crack in future (quite common) so waterproof it. Also consider Xypex or another additive during pouring to make it waterproof. Flexible concrete has been invented but good luck finding any for sale

    Garage or no garage. If you go with garage design for storage beyond cars and insulate judiciously, though the door is the weak spot in air and thermal insulation.

    As mentioned earlier you want storage up the ying yang. Also plan where things like garbage and recycling will go in the house and outdoor storage if you do that instead. Then add more indoor accessible storage.

    What type of windows are you going with. Ideally you want at least R5 and preferably designed for extreme weather, tornadoes for example even if uncommon. I mention noise and windows below.

    Hot water, even if you go with electric resistance or gas plan for future heat pump, learn their space and thermal requirements and design the house to accommodate it. Also place so you have the shortest runs to the most used kitchen and washroom to reduce waste. Recirculators can use a lot of energy so should be avoided in general but this is up to you.

    Radon is something you can't plan for, you won't know the levels until after the house is built and tested. Plan for this.

    Fire safety is a concern, use real wood over engineered and make design changes where appropriate to reduce risk and help mitigation. Some advise sprinklers even in residential housing but if it ever leaks your going to have a repair headache. Use above code floor/ceiling beams, especially floor unless you like creaking.

    You should think carefully about electrical wiring, where your running it to, how many outlets, design for comfortable height USB chargers for phones/tablets, etc. Running conduit for future network cable may be a good idea but does introduce air leakage pathways. Something to think about.

    Design your home including doors and windows to be theft resistant. Doors with longer screws and theft resisting locks and strike plates and windows that are hard to break can reduce your risk of robbery greatly.

    Soundproofing your house is an investment in peace of mind, From walls to windows to doors, check the ratings. Especially windows, expensive to retrofit later and some are very bad. You want to get this right from the start or your going to be annoyed as long as you live in the house. Walls can be designed to be noise blocking, doors can be replaced, Your stuck with windows, they cost a lot so don't skimp on sound deadening units that meet your thermal and aesthetic and breaking resistant requirements. I believe you mentioned you got some already, if they are not good enough spend the money for better ones. If you don't and they are not sound blocking you will wonder why you built the house in the first place.

    Finally make sure you have very comprehensive insurance. Don't skimp here even though its a continuing expense.

    1. mikeysp | | #27

      Alan, Thank you!
      You mentioned many areas I had not even thought about. A couple that bit me on my last build that I forgot about like climbing mice. I put together a file system on OneNote so I can put all the tips, and questions that need answering. I am actually getting a clearer path forward even though it is much more tedious than I thought it would be. I am really enjoying the intense study and am optimistic it will pay off with a much better house than I was aiming at a few days ago.

      1. Alan B | | #29

        Your welcome.
        Its always worth taking your time and being thorough. In the long run you will be very happy you did with avoided issues.

  19. Walter Ahlgrim | | #26

    What BEopt does is draw graphs like the one in this attached.

    Every dot represents a full year simulation of a set of options. The gray dots are not optimal choices. The black dots are best in one way or another.
    The ones on the left use the most energy think code minimum house see the red arrow.
    The ones on the right use the least energy think passive house see the green arrow.
    The ones at the bottom cost the least to build and operator are the ones I find interesting.

    The models are only as good as the data you enter.

    Walta

    1. mikeysp | | #28

      Walter, thank you for the overview. I am interested in hearing some reviews/comments on experience with BEopt vs other options. I have written in my questions that need answering section: BEopt vs other options? Seek reviews and video intro on BEopt.

      -Mike

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