Shopping for Parts — What Else Would I Do On Black Friday?

As the last bits of excavation and site preparation come to fruition, the project is now entering the phase where I have to actually start buying materials. When I was making my plans, I did a lot of research on the Internet to make sure I could source the critical parts that I needed, and I did some preliminary estimating. Even though it was quite helpful, things become more serious when you start putting cash on the table. Back in the day, I would spend hours perusing the aisles of the big box stores, writing down prices and in general figuring things out. Now I spend hours on the Internet, copying and pasting prices and in general figuring things out. At least I don’t have to waste time travelling to and from the store. And I can sip a beer without fear of arrest.

All kidding aside, the Internet and stores with an on-line presence are the best thing that has happened to DIY’ers since, well, DIY. Not only can I check inventory and prices, but I can also source difficult to find products and have them shipped to me. For example, I was looking for an irrigation controller that was set up for a smart home, and I found one for sale directly from the manufacturer (Irrigation Caddy). It has an ethernet port, controls 10 zones, and has a rain sensor option. Boo-Yah! In addition, many of these stores have a lot of how-to’s. I completely figured out my outdoor 12v lighting system from a website that sold lighting parts directly from the factory (Landscape Lighting World). They had tons of how-to videos and some very practical advice on landscape lighting. Their products seemed pretty good as well, and when I compared prices, they were reasonable, so I ordered from them.

The big box stores also have significant online presence, and the ones that I use (Home Depot and Lowe’s) have convenient features on their websites that allow you to develop lists. However, sometimes navigation of that all that stuff is tricky. For instance, if you type in a key word on the Home Depot site, you get results that are typically incomplete. The best way to search is to drill down from the home page once you find the department where the product is located. The other hassle is that sometimes you get things that are in the store, which get pulled immediately, and other things which have to be shipped to the store. So I get several e-mails and texts urging me to hurry to pick up my in-store order (and being threatened that they will cancel it) while they haven’t even shipped the balance of the order to the store. I eventually straightened that out, but really, HD should figure out a way to let me know when the complete order is ready for pick-up. Then some items they won’t ship to the store and they’ll charge you to ship it to your home. For example, I wanted to order some drain pipe, and the price was $28, but the shipping was $55. No thanks.

Of course, sometimes they won’t have what you want. Mostly, I try to figure out a way to order it from someplace that has free shipping like Amazon, but in some cases, that’s impractical. So, it’s back to the big box store where you can ask if they can do a special order. My experience with these is pretty positive, because the folks at the special order desk typically have a lot of experience, and they will do thorough research. If they can order the part, you’ll have it in a few days. If they can’t they usually will give you good advice about who may have it.

Lastly, sometimes you really need to see the product in person. Thus far, I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve been looking up the product specifications on line while I was in the planning phase, so I have a very good idea of what I want and how much I need. This works fine for commodities (pipe, wire, fittings), especially if they’re hidden. If they’re not, then you have to start worrying about color and texture, and shape, and … all that stuff that I’m not very good at. So, because my wife has a far superior sense of style, I enlist her help when it comes to these things. She also has a vested interest because she doesn’t want the house to look like I dress. Well, ok,  like I USED to dress before she started picking out clothes for me. Now, I have to busy myself in obtaining “samples” so we can carry them around when we look at materials. These samples go beyond paint samples, although that’s included. We’re talking brick, retaining wall blocks, roofing shingles, … etc.. I hope I don’t need a truck to haul this stuff around! Actually, I exaggerate. All we really need are paint samples and a piece of roof shingle. Be that as it may, my wife is correct about getting all this stuff together to see what it looks like in person. Pictures on the Internet can fool you when it comes to colors because there are so many variables (lighting direction, lighting color, camera settings). Sometimes you can get the data, such as RGB values, for colors, and that can help with computer rendering. But bottom line is that you need to see things in person to make sure. Especially if you’re buying several pallets of bricks for a brick wall. I have a feeling that would be WAY more difficult to return than a pair of bunny slippers.

Excavation–Oh The Joys Of Dirt!

As I was in the later stages of planning, and after the home inspector I hired pointed out that I needed to install a proper drainage system in my yard, I came to the realization that I would have to move a LOT of dirt. In a previous blog entry, I mentioned the fact that I rented a “skid steer” (or Bobcat) to do the demolition of my concrete and retaining walls. Now, with another long weekend at hand, it was time to rent the beast again and do some real digging.

I remember from my childhood an interest in heavy machinery doing all kinds of excavation and grading on a miniature scale in my sandbox. With my Tonka Toy grader and bulldozer, I was digging awesome ditches and making the grade so smooth that you could calibrate your level on it. A nice memory, perhaps, but it takes a little time to get the hang of operating one of these beasts so it doesn’t hurt you (it can), and produces the desired result.

First, safety. It is important to get hold of an operator’s manual and read it. Although the machine is very intuitive to operate, there are some basic safety concepts which must be followed. Other than doing dumb-ass stuff that the machine isn’t designed for, like using the shovel as a working platform, you really have to remember one thing:  BALANCE!!!  ALWAYS keep the HEAVY end towards the uphill side. If you have a full bucket, then forward is good. If you have an empty bucket, then backward is the preferred arrangement. I made a couple of mistakes along the way and, because the machine is very compact, the center of gravity (CG) can shift quite a bit. It’s a tradeoff between stability and compact size. Fortunately, I did not tip over, but doing wheelies with a 2 ton machine can be scary. Interesting side note: The machine has a “roll cage” which the manufacturer insists that you do not modify in any way. I wonder if that’s because the occasional operator became over-enthusiastic and found themselves upside-down! The other factor affecting balance is the height of the load. The arms can raise the load above your head in order to dump it into a truck. But if you carry the load that way, you are in serious danger of flipping over. Of course, you also need to have personal safety equipment. A hard hat, because you can actually dump crap on yourself (I did), safety glasses (your eyes are vulnerable and too important not to take this simple safety precaution), earplugs because the engine is noisy and I didn’t want to listen to any criticism about my heavy equipment operating skills, and steel toed boots because your feet are important. If your feet get injured, then you can’t walk, and you then become an invalid. Take no chances!

Second, have patience and practice. I saw a lot of You Tube videos on how to operate these machines, and I learned a lot, but there is no substitute for experience and experiment. Start with a relatively benign environment where you have some room to move around, and some latitude to make mistakes. Try to do different operations such as cut, fill, load, and dump. Yes, you may spend an hour or two getting oriented, but the time spent is well worth it.

Third, have a plan. This means that you have to think through what you’re going to do given the topography and the desired end result. It’s more nuanced than just getting rid of a bunch of dirt, although you may have to do that at first. Where will you be able to dig? What are the constraints on my maneuverability? Most importantly (for me): how do I get this material out of the back yard an up a 30″ elevation? This last problem was not trivial. I had experienced two failures (detailed in a previous blog), so this time, I used railroad ties to build a “staircase”. I figured that if these ties could support a locomotive, they could support a measly skid steer. Turns out, that I was right. This solution stood up to numerous 2 ton trips. Here is a picture:


A Ramp That Works!


In the end, I learned how to get a full bucket (pile up your stuff, lower your bucket, and ram it while scooping the bucket (right foot) and lifting the arms (left foot). I learned how to cut (lower the bucket and aim down, push forward, but be careful about digging too deep). I learned how to fill (dump some dirt, and then lower your bucket and go backwards, then run over it a bunch to compact the dirt). Other variables include type of soil (this clay shit that I have to work with needs a jackhammer!), and proximity to existing objects (house, patio cover posts, trees….).  Bottom line is that I did OK with establishing the grade (using frequent measurements), I got rid of the dirt that I think I needed to, and (most importantly) I didn’t kill myself or anybody else. I consider that a worthy accomplishment. Here some “after” pictures:

Side Yard... Lots of handwork BC the skid steer wouldn't fit!

Side Yard… Lots of handwork BC the skid steer wouldn’t fit!



Nice grade for the driveway apron

Nice grade for the driveway apron


Front yard. This was my practice place.




Backyard — no, I’m NOT installing a swimming pool!

Last Gasp

End of a long day. Full dumpster, and the skid steer ready to return. Tomorrow, they will vanish from this scene.



For those of you who were interested in seeing me actually operate the little skid steer beast, Here is my video on steer skid operation:

Here are some more videos of cool skid steer operators:

This guy is my hero. I learned SO MUCH from him.

This is how I learned how to cut and fill. PATIENCE!!

Here is a trickster. See what I mean about balance:

Even the pros F/U:

The other thing I learned is that many of these videos show how the operators make nice even contours given an expansive area. When you’re confined, it doesn’t matter how small your skid steer is. There are places where it won’t reach, and you’ll have to do the work by hand. So it turns out that I have a lot of work to do by hand! But, overall, I probably saved 90% (or more) of the backbreaking manual labor which I am getting ready to undertake as “residual” earthmoving.

In the end, you have to ask the question, was it worth it ? In other words, would this have been an activity that was better to hire out?  At first blush, I seemed to think so. Then, I looked up what the going price was for excavation services in my area. I spent about $5,000 between equipment rental, dumpster costs (5 x 15 yd = 75 yd of concrete/stone and soil detritus), and ancillary expenses (diesel fuel, measuring equipment, safety equipment). The cost for 75 yards of excavation was $10,000. So I saved $5,000. Well, I still have some scut work to do with manually finishing the job (that will take several weekends). I guess it hinges on what is most important to you. If you have a tight schedule to meet, then maybe spending $10,000 on hiring a service is OK. On the other hand, if you’re not so dependent on schedule, then maybe saving $5,000 is better. Of  course, there was the angst of worrying about the skateboarder who would suddenly appear just as my skid steer was emerging from the back and running into him (her) and killing him (her) and thereby losing what little remains of my fortune. But that didn’t happen, so the bullet was dodged, and I am happily putting aside this phase of the remodeling project. And moving onto the next one! Trenching and inspections. But only after I finish up the manual work of cleaning up the excavation. Wish me luck!


Home Fire Sprinklers — Why I Did It

When I was fiddling around in my “research” phase of what it would take to make my home compliant with contemporary standards, I stumbled across the requirement (in California at least) to have new construction homes be equipped with a fire sprinkler system. Being a veteran of the Navy, where there is a fetish about fire protection and safety — think about it, you’re surrounded volatile fuels and explosives in the middle of nowhere — it, needless to say, piqued my interest. I found out that IF you are involved in a fire (unlikely because I have been careful about minimizing the root causes of fire), then the statistics show that protection with a residential sprinkler system increases your survival rate by 80% and decreases your property damage by 70%. How could I not continue? Did I mention a fetish?

It turns out that installation of a residential fire sprinkler system is within the DIY realm. If you’re trying to go with a “modern” plumbing system, which has all sorts of headers and networks and PEX pipes, then it’s probably not DIY. If you don’t know what PEX or a networked plumbing system means, then it’s DEFINITELY NOT DIY. However, if it’s just a retrofit or a new construction, you can install a simple “tree-branch” design.

A “tree-branch” design is simply a source of water that has runs and branches to distribute the water to the individual sprinklers. The basic design mimics the design of a standard plumbing system. The source of the water needs to come from the main water supply to the house, and then branches off before the supply to the rest of the domestic water system. The sprinklers can be thought of as a “complimentary” plumbing system. So, if you can install plumbing using CPVC (Chlorinated Poly Vinyl Chloride) pipe, you’re GTG with a DIY installation. Except…..

There is a pesky requirement called a “hydraulic calculation” which involves a litany of limitations and specifications which, if followed, will ensure that your sprinkler system will spray the correct amount water over the area that it is designed to cover. There are a lot of variables, and the interaction of these variables (e.g., pressure, flowrate, pipe diameter, K-factor) can be intimidating if not fully understood.

FORTUNATELY (for me), this is right up my alley. My studies in chemical engineering involved fluid flow, so I had a good background in what the calculations were all about. I dug back into the recesses of my tiny brain, and , with the help of Wikipedia, reconstructed the seldom used  neural synapses to come up with a spreadsheet which helped me figure out the required water pressure at the street main, and the required water pressure of my design. So I called the water authority to get the pressure at my residence (105 psi) and I went merrily to work. I submitted my design, and got told that it was F/U.

First, the assumed pressure was wrong. I had to submit a request for the available water pressure at worst case conditions. It turns out that the fire department and water authority have this dance figured out. I was just not invited to it. Bottom line is that I had to request a “residual” pressure base on worst case conditions. Once I received that, I was back to ground zero. Second, I was not properly accounting for the pressure at the “second” sprinkler. Code requires that whenever you have two or more sprinklers in the same room (compartment), then you must use the most limiting flowrate from two of those sprinklers. I had to lick my wounds and remember the lessons that I learned (and apparently forgot) in my sophomore fluids flow class, and revise my handy-dandy spreadsheet to make it reflect reality.

With the new available pressure, and the right methodology with my spreadsheet, I had to re-do the entire design. In the end though, I actually was able to make the design easier and less expensive to install. The key was to make the k-factors similar. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then maybe you shouldn’t be designing a residential fire sprinkler system.

The upshot is that my sprinkler design was approved today. I’m actually quite proud of it because the majority of designers plug their designs into a computer program which tells them whether they are right or not. I did the calculations by hand, so I know that the design will work because I understand the underlying principles. OK, I used a spreadsheet, but I had to put the Hazen-Williams formulas in. I’m sure that if you contract a designer to provide a sprinkler plan for you, that it will be correct and will work just fine. It’s just that the designer won’t know exactly why. Let’s just keep that as our personal secret.

Here is my advice (for what it’s worth):

  • Get a residential fire sprinkler system. The cost is more than worth the peace of mind and the protection it offers your family and your home.
  • If you’re DIY, but perhaps not so interested in the nuances of hydraulic calculations, then try to hire a designer who will give you plans. Having said that, you’d better understand some of the nuances of fire sprinkler installation. There are very specific requirements for the mounting of the supply lines and sprinklers so that they don’t jump around when they get activated.
  • If you’re interested in the design, here are some references:

Residential Fire Sprinklers



Here are my plans:1370 BFD Fire Supression R 2.5

And the spreadsheet for the hydraulic calcs: 1370 BFD Hydraulic Calculation Worksheet CPVC

OK, I know I’m a geek at heart. I really do love to design and to manifest my ideas, in terms of numbers and letters (in the correct sequence) so that they can be created in the physical world. This is what I’m all about, and this is what I hope you can see as I take my next steps on the DIY highway.


P.S.  Did you notice that “Why I Did It” contains DIY backwards?