Roughing It

Now that the wall framing was up, it was time to start installing everything that goes inside the framing. That means electrical and plumbing lines, and in my case, data cables and fire sprinkler piping. In this entry, I’ll briefly address the rough electrical, plumbing, and data lines, as I will have a separate entry on the sprinkler system (because it’s unique and cool).

Rough service work begins with locating where you want to put stuff. For plumbing, that’s usually spelled out in the plans, e.g., where you want the sink, shower, and toilet, so that part is pretty easy, and the relevant dimensions of where the plumbing fixtures connect are standardized. However, there are some nuances that must be considered, and since I’m doing an entirely custom installation, I decided to get all of my fixtures up front. That way (a) I could look at the installation instructions and actually do measurements if I needed to, and (b) the fixtures all matched. It cost  quite a bit up front, but at least that expense is taken care of (!). So, I went ahead and marked where I wanted the toilet, sink, and shower drains and water supplies to go. Now, I had to learn plumbing.

Supplies 1

All fixtures and parts for the bathrooms, plus the toilet and sink for the MBR bathroom.

Supplies 2

The rest of the parts for the bathrooms. I also bought all of the tile at once to make sure I had it from the same run. Lots of stuff to warehouse!

As a chemical engineer and as an engineer on a nuclear sub, I figured I could deal with the technical aspects of a residential plumbing job. I had to review the relevant codes to make sure I was in compliance, but then I figured, how hard can this be? I was about to find out….

I decided to start with the toilet drain because it was the largest pipe and I found out I would have to be doing some tricky routing through the joists, which I had previously tripled to shore up the master bedroom floor structure. These extra thick joists turned out be be troublesome because the pipe had to be angled to get the slope correct and the hole saw that I was using was only slightly larger than the OD of the pipe. I eventually hammered it in but getting that last joint together was a bitch! I hope it doesn’t leak.

Toilet Drain

Toilet drain piping. See the tripled joists surrounding the pipe? I had to drill big holes through those and ram the piping in!

The next challenge was putting together the water supply system for the showers. I decided to ramp up the quality of the showers by installing a “smart” shower system that uses an electronic control in the shower to remotely control the mixing valve. I went with copper pipe because that’s what the house had to begin with, and I sure got some good experience in sweating the pipes together (turns out that it’s not that hard). The best advice that I got was to use MAPP gas instead of propane. The higher temperature of the flame makes the solder flow much better. Nevertheless, It’s a complex setup and I ended up gouging one of the press-fit O-rings when I inserted the pipe into the mixing valve, so it caused a bit of a mess when I turned on the water to pressure test.

Shower Mixing Valves Annotated

Diagram of the remote shower mixing valves. These are located in the garage directly below the bathrooms. The hot and cold water supplies connect to the mixing valves and the remote controller sets the temperature and volume through the controller signal lines. The water then goes directly to the shower head(s).

Remote Shower Control

Remote shower controller. This is all electronic and has a memory for 4 different settings (his/hers/morning/after workout/whatever).

 

I also found some cool water supply valves that were recessed into the wall and had a very clean look. They are called “stop pull boxes” and are made by a company called “LSP”. If you’re interested, here is their website: LSP Pull Stop Box

And some pictures:

Recessed Water Supply Valve 1

Recessed water supply valve. The valve is the brass fitting in the middle. If you look closely, you can see the ball valve itself (the silver thing in the middle). This is really slick because it’s behind the drywall and the valve is operated by a pushrod attached to the threaded rod on the left-hand side. Looks very clean after installation which I thought was important for a pedestal sink.

Recessed Water Supply 2

Recessed valve installed. The eustachon will cover the hole OK. The brand is “LSP” and the device is called a “pull stop box”.

Going on to rough in the electrical, the plans are important, but I decided I wanted to do some Human Factor Engineering to get the exact location of the switches and lighting fixtures. I imagined myself doing everyday tasks like going to the bathroom, going to the shower, getting dressed, getting ready for bed, etc., and that helped me locate switches so that (a) they would be easy and intuitive to reach for and (b) I could operate the lights from different locations to minimize going back and forth when I wanted to turn something on or off. I also put in extra wall receptacle boxes, especially near where the bed and home office would be. Receptacle and switch boxes are pretty easy to install, so with that done, I was ready to start running wires.

Rough Electrical Bedroom

Example of the customization that one can do if you’re doing this yourself. I added the data and power boxes for the flat screen TV at the last minute (at no cost to the customer).

Running the wires for the rough electrical is something that’s not typically in the plans, which only show the locations of the receptacles, switches, and fixtures. I guess I could have done a schematic diagram, but I figured I would only be doing this once, and as long as I was disciplined in labeling each wire, I would be OK. To run the wires, I did have to plan out where I would be bringing in power from the electrical panel, and then how that power would be distributed throughout the room. The bedroom has two circuits: one for the sink in the bathroom, which needs to be a dedicated GFCI circuit per code, and one for the receptacles and lights. The “current” electrical codes (pardon the pun) require that receptacles in living spaces (bedrooms, living rooms, dens, dining rooms) be AFCI protected, so I needed to take that into account as well. The dedicated GFCI circuit was pretty easy (one wire from the panel to the receptacle), but the other wiring was more involved. The first thing that I did was to bring in power to a receptacle box, and then distribute power to the other receptacle boxes from there. The lighting circuits then tapped off the receptacle boxes.

One thing to keep in mind is the number of wires you have running in and out of each box, and the number of “devices” (switches, receptacles, both of which are referred to as “yolks” in the trade). There is a limit based on the heat load, and there’s a fancy calculation in the NEC, which it turns out, is not trivial. Here is a link to an good explanation. To make things a little easier, I just always get the biggest box possible for the number of devices I want (switches/receptacles) and have not run into any problems.

Electrical Switches and Receptacles

Good example of tailoring the electrical controls beyond the minimum. I can control both lights outside the garage (front and side) and the garage work lights from this location. The front garage door light can also be controlled from the master bedroom and the front door because it is a security and safety feature. I’ve also installed smart switches, where necessary, to allow control automatically under given conditions (e.g., coming home at night, opening the garage door, fire alarm or smoke detector goes off to illuminate egress routes). The receptacles with built-in USB chargers are a must, pretty much in every room.

Routing the wire takes a little planning. The main idea is to drill as few holes as possible, which typically results in running the wires in the ceiling. The other “trick” is to unroll the wire so that it’s flat. If you just pull the wire from the roll, then it will come out twisted and be difficult to staple neatly to the framing. Unrolling it before you pull the wire takes some effort: you have to pick up this heavy roll and heave it ’round several times. But it pays off with a neat and professional installation.

After the wiring was installed, I needed to energize some circuits so we could continue to live normally (if you call living in a house during a remodel “normal” — I guess it’s the “new normal” for us). Despite my supreme confidence in my ability to install some relatively simple electrical work, I flipped on one of the breakers and there was a loud “pop” (“arcing and sparking” in the trade).

Electrical Boo Boo 2

I thought I smelled something funny. Better find out what happened here!

Turns out that I tightened down the cable clamp too tightly and the clamp cut through the insulation and caused a short.

Electrical Boo Boo 1

Forensic analysis showed that I had tightened down the strain relief so much that it cut through the insulation and caused a short. More is not necessarily better!

I felt pretty bad and embarrassed about that, but later, after doing some additional reading in my electrical “how to” books, I found that these sort of things occasionally happen even for the pros. I guess that’s one way to get experience! At any rate, I had to pull the entire cable and replace it because you’re not allowed to splice or patch an electrical cable. All interconnections must be in electrical boxes that have an opening through the drywall to prevent an electrical short from causing a fire behind the drywall.

Lastly is the data cabling. For my project, I’m running a minimum of 2 cat6e ethernet cables and one RG-6 cable per room, but the the master bedroom and home office, I ran quite a few more. I started with standard electrical boxes, but found that low voltage boxes are easier to work with, so from now on, I’m using those. Because these cables are circular in cross section, there’s no need to be too fussy with the unrolling. However, the installation should still be neat. I found some nice cable organizers that allowed me to create nice data cable runs, which was important as the cabling multiplied as I approached the wiring closet.

Data Lines Annotated

Data cables running through the attic. With a minimum of 2 Ethernet and one coax cable per room, that added up pretty quickly. I put a lot of these in the master bedroom because I wanted the cables for a flat screen TV and a home office.

Wiring Closet

Wiring closet replaces the furnace, which was relocated to the attic. All data cabling from the upstairs is run and neatly bundled (on the right). The loose stuff is the cabling from the living room and garage, which needs to be bundled later when I run the rest of the downstairs cabling.

Finally, I had to install draft stops. The inspector pointed this out to me, so that was something I was unaware of, but once I figured it out, it was pretty easy. Basically, wherever you have a penetration through the sole or top plates of your framing, you need to seal the openings. The best way is to use polyurethane foam that comes in a can. You can get a one-use can with an applicator, but I found that hard to control, so I ponied up for a pro applicator, Worked much better, and I figured I’d be using it for other things.

Draft Stop

Draft stop for the data lines coming into the wiring closet. I also had to accommodate the gas line going up to the furnace, which is now in the attic.

So with the rough work done, it was time to put in one of the true infrastructure “upgrades” that I planned for this remodel: a residential fire sprinkler system. Stay tuned…..

 

California Sleepin’ — Finishing up the Porch Roof and Getting Ready For Roofing And Stucco

Alas, even though I had been working hard on getting the framing and roofing done, I still had to build the roof system over the porch. This was going to be some more fancy carpentry than what I did in the past because I had to put together a new roof structure and stitch it up to the existing roof structure. I did much of the work during the design phase, so my plans were pretty detailed. But, before I could proceed, I needed to build a proper structure to support the roof and the associated framing.

The first thing that I had to do was to replace the old beam and column which held up the balcony with a new structure. The old one was falling apart, and most of the construction was more of this slipshod crap from the original builder. I try to replace as much of this crappy work as possible without tearing down the whole house! This, however, was a no-brainer, and not very difficult when compared to building the main addition. I started with a bare foundation, then drilled holes and put in new anchor bolts secured with epoxy. I learned the proper way to do it when I did the seismic retrofit in the garage. Next was some simple vertical framing for the column proper. The main thing I had to consider was how to protect the top of the column from weather. I put in two sheets of building paper with some flashing on top, and made sure to have about 3-4 inches of overhang so that the stucco folks could tie it in when they did the lath.

New hold down bolts properly held in with epoxy.

New hold down bolts properly held in with epoxy.

Close up of the porch column with building paper (2 layers) and flashing installed. The stucco people will like me for this.

Close up of the porch column with building paper (2 layers) and flashing installed. The stucco people will like me for this.

I also had to tear into the wall of the house to get to the old beam and remove it. Good thing I did because the wall support for the old beam was totally inadequate. I replaced it with a proper 4×4 and fastened everything together with SDS wood screws. That baby ain’t coming apart!

New in-wall support column for the porch beam. The other one was a crappy little 2x4 that was all bent. Note the SDS screws which secure the beam the the wall structure.

New in-wall support column for the porch beam. The other one was a crappy little 2×4 that was all bent. Note the SDS screws which secure the beam the the wall structure. “SDS” stands for “Strong Drive Screw”, which is a proprietary name for these screws made by Simpson Strong Tie.

New column and beam for the porch roof. The old assembly was falling apart and the support column in the wall behind was just lousy, sloppy construction.

New column and beam for the porch roof. The old assembly was falling apart and the support column in the wall behind was just lousy, sloppy construction.

The next thing to do was to lay out the roof structure. Roof structures are made with either trusses, which I had to use over the master bedroom, or simple framing lumber put together one piece at a time. This is called “stick” framing when you’re doing it for a roof. Before I get too far into how I did this, I think it’s helpful to be familiar with some of the terminology. As with walls, each structural member has a name. The board going across the top is called the “ridge”. This is supported at each end by walls called “gables”, if they are straight up and down, or “hips” if the roof slopes at the ends, as well as the sides. The framing of the roof from the ridge board to the top of the walls is called a “rafter”, and the lumber going from the top of each wall across is called a “joist rafter”. For more complex roofs, you have “hip rafters” which are at the edges of hip roofs, “valley rafters” where a one roof line intersects another forming, well, a valley, and “jack rafters” which are the short rafters going between the hip rafter and the top of the wall, or the valley rafter and the ridge. Here is a picture to help sort things out.

Basic diagram for roof framing. There are all kinds of references and resources on the Internet.

Basic diagram for roof framing. There are all kinds of references and resources on the Internet.

My porch roof was a little different (naturally). The roof is only “half roof” that starts halfway up the second story wall and slopes down over the porch, so the ridge board becomes a “ledger” board. And, instead of intersecting the main roof with a valley, I have to put down lumber on top of the main roof. I came up with this idea by myself during the design phase, but little did know that my situation was not unique. In fact, I found that the proper terminology for this piece of lumber is called a “sleeper”, and because this happens a lot in California (God only knows why), it’s called a “California sleeper” — hence the title of this post.

This shows the structure detail of the porch roof.

This shows the structure detail of the porch roof.

Now that I actually had to start cutting lumber, I was faced with the conundrum of figuring all of those pesky things like lengths, miter angles, and bevel angles. I also knew from past experience that little errors are magnified when you start cutting angles. I did some research on the Internet and I found a REALLY GOOD roof framing website by a master carpenter named Sim Ayers who had a blog entry on EXACTLY what I was trying to accomplish. So I read with enthusiasm and discovered that calculating these lengths and angles directly from trigonometry was pretty tedious. While there are some handy-dandy roof calculators out there, I decided that I already have a “calculator” in with my 3D modeling program. Since I wanted to be as accurate as possible, I used some direct measurements, which are always good when you’re working with existing structures, and then fed them into a simple 3D model and took off the necessary lengths and angles (bevels and miters) from there.

3D model of the porch roof where it joins the main roof. I only took 3 orthogonal measurements (as shown) and constructed the rest of the model from there using the known dimensions of the lumber and the rafter spacing (16

3D model of the porch roof where it joins the main roof. I only took 3 orthogonal measurements (as shown) and constructed the rest of the model from there using the known dimensions of the lumber and the rafter spacing (16″ o.c.).

Close-up of the

Close-up of the “sleeper” rafter and how I measured the cut angles. The 3D modeling program gives me the exact angles.

I know this isn’t a really useful “how to” unless you have a 3D modeling program, which I highly recommend anyway, but really, if this is something you’d like to know more about, then visit Sim’s website (link above). Here is the link for his blog post on Off Angle California Framing.

Picture of a

Picture of a “pro” roofing job (by Sim Ayers) using a California sleeper.

My DIY version. That was some pretty fancy carpentry!

My DIY version. That was some pretty fancy carpentry!

Once I had the rafters and trim in place, I needed to get the roof on. I decided to use shiplap on the entire roof because the underside would be exposed and I wanted a nice look.

Underside of the porch roof matches the shiplap of the eaves.

Underside of the porch roof matches the shiplap of the eaves.

Front wall extends up to the last common rafter. Note the small space between the main roof, the adjacent wall, and the porch roof. This will be totally closed off when complete. Maybe I'll cut a small hole in the bedroom wall and use this as a

Front wall extends up to the last common rafter. Note the small space between the main roof, the adjacent wall, and the porch roof. This will be totally closed off when complete. Maybe I’ll cut a small hole in the bedroom wall and use this as a “secret compartment”.

I always sign my work. This area is going to be covered with plywood and stucco. I wanted people 2000 years from now to uncover my hieroglyphics during an archeological dig and argue for decades about what this find meant.

I always sign my work. This area is going to be covered with plywood and stucco. I wanted people 2000 years from now to uncover my hieroglyphics during an archeological dig and argue for decades about what this find meant.

Now, before I got the windows installed, I wanted to load the bedroom with any additional drywall and lumber that I might need because I sure didn’t want to haul it up the stairs! Fortunately, I could rent something called a “material lift” which makes it possible.

Drywall and lumber ready for loading up into the master bedroom. I wanted to get this loaded before I had the windows put in,

Drywall and lumber ready for loading up into the master bedroom. I wanted to get this loaded before I had the windows put in,

I rented a material lift to get all of the plywood and drywall up to the second floor.

I rented a material lift to get all of the plywood and drywall up to the second floor.

Unfortunately, I had some “learning” to do when it came time to actually use it as the following video shows.

Despite my failings, I was able to get the materials loaded and the windows installed.

Drywall and interior lumber loaded into the master bedroom. That was a LOT of WORK!

Drywall and interior lumber loaded into the master bedroom. That was a LOT of WORK!

All buttoned up and ready for the lath folks.,

All buttoned up and ready for the lath folks.,

The House That Frank Built

OK sports fans! This moment has been many years in the making. The moment when I, and only I, will bust out the structure of our house with the intention of EXPANDING our living space and making a fantastic en-suite (master bedroom-master bathroom) in a manner that puts HGTV to shame! Because this is a big task, and I needed to focus all of my spare time on it, I haven’t made a blog entry for a while. It’s either work on the house and generate material for the blog, or write the blog and make stuff up. I prefer the former. I took 2 weeks of vacation to accomplish this bodacious task, and I got most of the way through. At least I put up the walls and the roof trusses. But it took another 4 weeks of my spare time to finish the roof structure, put the trim on, and finally cover the roof.

Phase 1: Demolition.

As with most building projects, the first part is the demolition. I know I’ve been talking about demolition a lot, so I won’t bore you with too much more of it. As with most demolition projects, the best course of action is to work from the top down, and to disassemble whatever you’re demolishing in the opposite order that it was built. Because the bedroom extension will also result in extending the roof (sleeping under the stars is OK if you’re camping), I began by stripping the shingles from a portion of the roof. My biggest concern was roof safety. If there is anything dangerous in this endeavour, this is it. So I took some time to get the proper equipment: roof jacks, scaffolding, and a safety line with a harness. Yes, it cost a few bucks, but it’s cheap insurance. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I’m a bit obsessed with safety. The other nifty tool that I got was a roofing shovel. This tool has a notched spade that you ram underneath the shingles to get under the roofing nails, and a fulcrum that allows you to pop the nails right out. The technique is to start at the top of the roof, and after you pry off the ridge shingles, you get a start on the shingles at the top and then just go to town. That being said, even with the right tools and safety equipment, it’s hard, tedious, and somewhat messy work.

Safety harness and safety line. It's kind of a PITA to work with, but it sure provided me peace of mind. This is what all the pros use now.

Safety harness and safety line. It’s kind of a PITA to work with, but it sure provided me peace of mind. This is what all the pros use now.

Roof safety: Roof jacks to provide a solid base for working.

Roof safety: Roof jacks to provide a solid base for working.

Roof stripping complete. Took me all day.

Roof stripping complete. Took me all day.

 

Next was the trim. One might think that removing trim is no big deal. But it was to me because I had to get way up high and had to bang and lever stuff around, keep my balance while precariously perched on the scaffolding and ladder, all the while making sure that whatever fell down didn’t fall on me. The other bad news was that we were experiencing a record heat wave, so that meant that every push and pull was accompanied by beads of sweat in my eyes, lack of energy, and dehydration. I kept trying to drink as much water as I could, but there’s really no way to keep adequately hydrated while doing heavy physical labor in 96 degree heat.

Roof overhang and trim removed.

Roof overhang and trim removed.

Now, on to the messy part: Knocking down the walls. This part of the demolition worried me a bit. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time cutting stucco vertically on the wall, but I needed to get the wall down in pieces that were not so big they would damage the subfloor when they would inevitably come crashing down. I first had to knock down the gable wall, first by taking down the triangular portion of the gable by splitting it at the top plate, and then taking down the vertical walls. Since the side walls are load bearing, I had to build a temporary structure to accept the load. Also, I only took down one of the side walls at a time so only one side of the roof was unsupported. Because I didn’t want to have to cut stucco while precariously balanced on a ladder from the outside, I decided to pull the wall down from the inside. Since I know that the easiest way to cut the stucco is when the stucco is lying flat, I decided to yank the whole wall down and then disassemble it. Sure enough, with all of that weight of the stucco, it came down with a big crash! This turned out to be a very bad thing because I, like a dummy, did not think to put temporary bracing under the joists of the bedroom floor. Here is the result:

Gable wall demo complete. What have I gotten myself into?

Gable wall demo complete. What have I gotten myself into?

Temporary bracing to transfer the roof load to the floor. Too bad I didn't complete the job by constructing concurrent bracing to properly transfer the load from the underlying joists to the slab foundation below.

Temporary bracing to transfer the roof load to the floor. Too bad I didn’t complete the job by constructing concurrent bracing to properly transfer the load from the underlying joists to the slab foundation below.

Wall before demo.

Wall before demo.

Wall after demo.

Wall after demo.

Minor damage from the downfall of stucco. I had a surprise coming.

Minor damage from the downfall of stucco. I had a surprise coming.

Joist failure as a result of not properly transferring the load to the foundation. I'm going to put a bag over my head when I call my engineer for recommendations.

Joist failure as a result of not properly transferring the load to the foundation. I’m going to put a bag over my head when I call my engineer for recommendations.

Cracked joists. I needed to deal with termite damage anyway, so really no extra work. But I sure feel dumb!

Cracked joists. I needed to deal with termite damage anyway, so really no extra work. But I sure feel dumb!

Phase 2: Build the walls.

One of the tricky things about building on a second floor is that you actually have to get the building materials UP to the second floor. This meant spending the better part of a day tediously pushing lumber, mostly one piece at a time, up a ladder and onto the second floor. I had to plan ahead to make sure that I had all of the lumber for the entire build, including the interior framing and plywood, because I did NOT want to struggle hauling this stuff up the indoor stairs after I closed in.

Lumber delivered. Now, to get it up to the 2nd floor!

Lumber delivered. Now, to get it up to the 2nd floor!

Building a standard wall for a house is pretty straightforward. You layout and cut the lumber, build and sheath the wall while flat on the floor, and then raise it up. The easiest way is to start by carefully aligning your sole and top plates, and then doing the layout of the studs all at once. This not only saves time, but more importantly, helps to make the wall square because all of the top and bottom measurements are the same. The next thing to do is to make a “kit” for all of the framing lumber. This not only includes all of the studs, but also the headers, sills, cripple, and jack studs for the window and door openings, as well as the framing for each corner. From there, it’s a simple matter of separating the sole and top plates, scattering in the pre-cut parts, and then methodically nailing them together. It’s important to follow a nailing schedule, meaning that the prescriptive codes require specific sizes and spacing of nails for a given assembly. For example, a stud to sole plate or top plate can be two 16d nails driven longitudinally into the stud (“face nail”) or three 10d nails driven in from an angle (“toe nail”). Fortunately, the County of San Diego has a convenient summary sheet of all of these requirements, which the plans inspector “suggested” that I include as part of my building plans. I took the hint.

Wall lumber cut to length and organized to form a "kit". I did this for the lumber for all three walls.

Wall lumber cut to length and organized to form a “kit”. I did this for the lumber for all three walls.

All kit parts need to be labeled so you don't get confused. These are labeled "C/O" for "cripple" stud (window), and "outside" because the top is cut at a 5º angle to allow for water drainage from the sill.

All kit parts need to be labeled so you don’t get confused. These are labeled “C/O” for “cripple” stud (window), and “outside” because the top is cut at a 5º angle to allow for water drainage from the sill.

The next thing to do is to sheath the wall. In many building situations, it’s better to put the wall sheathing on after the walls are raised because you can do some adjustments for dialing in plumb and square, and you can apply the sheathing in a fashion that overlaps the structural assemblies to add some strength. However, it’s more difficult to fool around with large pieces of sheathing, particularly plywood, when you’re trying to hang it vertically. Putting the plywood on the walls while they were still on the floor was a no-brainer for me as a one-man-show. One thing I learned about walls is that 2×4 lumber can be pretty flexible on this scale. You have to use a big sledge hammer to bang stuff around, but it’s important to square things up before you put the plywood on, because once the plywood is attached, it ain’t movin’!

Lastly the wall needs to be raised. There are lots of pictures of construction crews all gathering around a wall, and with a mighty “heave ho”, the wall comes up. Not possible with just me doing the heaving. Fortunately, there is an outfit (Qualcraft) that makes something called a wall jack. This operates much like the old-fashioned car jack that you used to hook under your bumper to change a tire. But instead of a metal jack shaft with teeth, it uses a long 2×4 piece of lumber. It’s pretty ingenious, and here is a short video and some pictures:

Wall jacks in position, ready for action!

Wall jacks in position, ready for action!

Close-up of wall jack. 2x4 screwed into the floor prevents kick-out.

Close-up of wall jack. 2×4 screwed into the floor prevents kick-out.

 

Last wall up, ready for trusses.

Last wall up, ready for trusses.

Phase 3: Place the trusses.

Now that the walls were up, it was time to get some help. The trusses, by themselves, are not particularly heavy, but they are difficult to handle and are fragile if they are handled while they are flat. Fortunately, the same co-workers that helped me place the big beam I needed for my garage portal were willing to spend a morning yanking these bad boys up and securing them into position. I only had 4 of these, but we had a little trial and error at first, so it took a little longer. I also had them come back to help me with the gable wall. Now, it was up to me to finish detailing the front of the roof line with outlookers and blocking.

Last wall up. Things are beginning to take shape.

Last wall up. Things are beginning to take shape.

Trusses delivered.

Trusses delivered, ready for installation.

My "crew". Their help was indispensable in completing this phase of the project.

My “crew”. Their help was indispensable in completing this phase of the project.

Trusses are up!

Trusses are up!

Gable wall and outlookers in place.

Gable wall and outlookers in place.

Phase 4: Finish the roof.

Finishing the roof was actually a two step process. I first needed to get the trim boards placed on the ends of the truss overhangs and outlookers. These are called “barge” rafters, and these were particularly long and heavy. I spent an entire day messing around with scaffolding and engineering a “third hand” to hold the rafter while I put it in place. But when I found it impossible to even the the board up there by myself, I knew it was time to call my crew back for another session. Sure enough, in about 3 hours, we were all done. Finally, I was able to get the roof sheathing in place. If this were a flat surface, this job should have taken about 3 hours. But because it was on a roof, I had to laboriously move around and reconfigure scaffolding, haul materials up and install them, and then move onto the next part. Getting the plywood up for the roof sheathing was also challenging. I decided to make a simple lifting fixture from scrap 2x4s that I screwed onto the plywood, and then used a rope to pull up the plywood. I also set up a couple of long boards to help the plywood slide up to the roof. This lifting fixture also proved valuable in placing the plywood because it gave me some leverage. Note that I had to place on piece of plywood at a time using this method, so, again it took a long time.

Another thing I learned about working on a roof is that it’s physically hard! That’s because you constantly have to fight against gravity because you’re working on a slope. Plus, there’s no shade (duh!). So, in addition to it being hot, all of that up-and-down and muscling the plywood in place really wore me out. In the end it took about a week (!) to finish the roof. But I liked the result.

Outlookers in place, ready for the barge rafters. Note the "3rd hands" to the right and left of the scaffolding on the outlookers.

Outlookers in place, ready for the barge rafters. Note the “3rd hands” to the right and left of the scaffolding on the outlookers.

Barge rafters in place. Beginning to look like a house!

Barge rafters in place. Beginning to look like a house!

Shiplap appearance boards are on the roof overhangs to match the rest of the house.

Shiplap appearance boards are on the roof overhangs to match the rest of the house.

Roof all done! Looks nice.

Roof all done! Looks nice.

The inside. This is going to be a nice bedroom!

The inside. This is going to be a nice bedroom!

The proud builder and his creation.

The proud builder and his creation.

Phase 5: Install the connectors.

Actually, installing the connectors is something that I did as I went, but I wanted to highlight the fact that the days are gone when you can simply use nails to build a house. Modern house construction uses metal connectors almost everywhere, especially between major components (e.g., foundation to first floor, first floor to second floor, second floor to roof). There are hundreds of connectors to choose from, but that was taken care of during the design phase, so the ones that I’m using are all in my plans. Each connector has a specific fastening schedule (number and type of fasteners), so you have to be pretty meticulous. I made copies of the specification sheets for each connector that I used, and highlighted each one and keep them in my permit book so that when the inspector comes by, I can show him what I’m working to. I really did learn something when I prepared for my inspections in the Navy!

Metal connectors for the roof, studs, and top plate.

Metal connectors for the roof, studs, and top plate.

Connectors between gable and front wall. I still need to add connectors between the wall and the rim joist on the bottom.

Connectors between gable and front wall. I still need to add connectors between the wall and the rim joist on the bottom.

I’m hoping the pace will now pick up with the roof, windows, stucco, and HVAC contractors coming in. Stay tuned!

 

Upon This Rock I Will Build My House

With demolition largely complete, it’s time to start building! Well, not quite so fast. Demolition being “largely complete” simply means that I’ve done as much as I could without actually opening up the house. This is an important distinction because once you open up the house, you have to work like hell to build it back up so that the varmints stay outside. Especially the ones who are walking by and see your expensive tools and want to take them.

My new pneumatic nail gun. The new tool for this project. I know, a REAL framing carpenter only uses a hammer, but nobody does that anymore these days.

My new pneumatic nail gun. The new tool for this project. I know, a REAL framing carpenter only uses a hammer, but nobody does that anymore these days.

At any rate, I was ready to build the portion of the garage that was directly under the new bedroom addition. Originally, I planned to keep the existing structure and simply reinforce it and put plywood panels on the outside to make new shear walls, and build a new deck overhead. But, alas, when I removed the drywall, I found that the framing around the garage door, commonly referred to as a “portal”, was not even close to the required specifications. So, I had to take down all the walls and start from scratch, building up from the foundation. It was probably just as well because the existing framing, although adequate, was lacking somewhat in craftsmanship and accuracy. Best to get a fresh start. But I had one “big” problem.

One of the hallmarks of this project is that I’m doing EVERYTHING myself. So, I typically have to give some thought about how I will handle materials without help. In most cases, I can rig up a “third hand” or find a way to wrestle this or that into place, and sometimes have to come up with a mechanical solution (e.g., ropes, pulleys, chains). In this particular case, I had to figure out how to lift a REALLY BIG BEAM into place. I’m talking 3-1/2 inches thick by 16 inches tall by 20 feet long. While contemplating this at work, I mentioned my conundrum to one of my co-workers, who happened to have some extensive remodeling experience himself. He said, “Let’s just get some folks together and muscle this thing into place. It won’t take but a few minutes, if everything goes right, but let’s plan on a few hours because I’m a believer in Mr. Murphy.” He was referring to Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it probably will. So, with some cajoling, I was able to enlist the help of another co-worker and my oldest son, and arranged for a Friday morning beam raising ceremony. I also got my plumber scheduled so he could re-do the water service entering the house. This was important because I had run the water line through the front and needed to have the line disconnected to get the shear wall in place.

Now the pressure was on! I took 3 days off from work, figuring that I could get the demolition done and the framing up to accept the beam during the first two days, and be all ready by the appointed time on Friday morning.

The front of the house sure looks different with the balcony removed.

The front of the house sure looks different with the balcony removed.

Day one, Wednesday: Let the demolition derby begin! The first thing to do was to remove the old balcony floor. It turned out that the subfloor was attached with screw nails and it was a real bitch to lever off the plywood, and of course, it took much longer than anticipated. I then had to disassemble the joists underneath. I found out that I could knock them sideways and they came right down. Then, I had to remove the stucco from the walls.  This is one dirty, tedious job that requires a lot of muscle work. Never mind that I had to take my 7″ grinder and precariously balance myself on top of a stepladder while getting all that dust in may face. Fortunately, I was smart enough to wear full goggles and a dust mask. Still, the goggles fog up and you end up getting covered with that crappy dust and end up looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Needless to say, this took longer than anticipated (do you see a pattern developing?) and I had to stop before I could finish. Plus I was dead tired. I figured I could make up the time tomorrow. But first, I had to clean up and then install a big piece of black visqueen across the garage opening. I wanted to discourage random thievery and I figured that hiding everything would at least keep my valuable tools out of sight.

The stone that the builder rejected has become the chief stumbling block.

The stone that the builder rejected has become the chief stumbling block.

Day two, Thursday: Despite being exhausted from the day before, I had trouble sleeping because I was cramping up. That’s what happens when you hit your body hard with a bunch of exercise (as I know from my triathlete days). But woke up early because I knew I had to catch up. Went to Home Depot to get some pressure treated lumber for new sill plates because the existing ones looked like hell and I figured now would be the time to replace them. More unanticipated work. I still had one wall to knock down and some additional stucco to remove, but I couldn’t start because my lumber delivery came. It was one big load all strapped together, so the driver just slid it off the truck and onto the driveway. So, I had to move it all around in order to clear the driveway, but it was just as well because I re-stacked it in the order I needed to use it, which would hopefully save some time later. And it was getting later. By the time I had finished the remaining demo, and cleaned up, it was noon. Putting in the new sill plates took some time, but I figured that the wall framing would be pretty easy. I cut all of the lumber to the sizes I needed, but was only able to get one of the walls together and up before it got dark. And I was totally out of gas. Time to get some rest for the big day tomorrow! But first, I had to clean up and put that damned plastic back up.

Day three, Friday: I couldn’t sleep last night either because I knew I had to get that last wall up and I had folks coming at 7:30. Fortunately, I was able to get the wall framing assembled on the ground, and my son showed up to help me wrestle it in place. I was just finishing up when the rest of the crew arrived, and it was time to raise the beam! After a few minutes of strategizing, we all grabbed it and muscled it up there. I tacked it in place, but then Mr. Murphy showed his ugly head. I realized to my horror that I made the end walls 3″ too short! How could that be?? Well, like a dumb-ass I subtracted the double top plate, which I shouldn’t have done. Now we had to take out some nails, which was pretty damned difficult, and raise the beam enough to slip in a couple of 2×4’s underneath to get everything level. Unfortunately, we had to do this one side at a time, which meant that there were some small gaps at the ends because lifting up the beam on one end, even by 3″ threw it slightly out of level. In the end, I was only about 1/2″ off, but still you could see some gaps. Ultimately, gravity will settle things somewhat, but it was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, my plumber came and did his typically excellent installation, so I was able to get up most of the shear panels and ended the day with something that looked like a proper structure. After clean up and putting the plastic up (again) I could go in with a sense of satisfaction.

Day four, Saturday: Once again, I was working by myself. I got the rest of the shear panels up and then had to install some additional framing around the garage door opening so that I could re-install the garage door. I didn’t want to keep putting plastic sheeting up, plus I sure didn’t want to leave the house wide open when I went back to work on Monday. This took longer than expected because I decided to put some additional framing in to more easily locate the seismic hold-downs. I then had to attach a 20′ 2×12 to an existing beam that would support the joists of the bedroom addition floor. When I did the plans, I figured that what was existing (a built up beam of 3-2x12s) was good enough, but the plans examiner INSISTED that I put in another 2×12 and secure the whole assembly with a bunch of 1/2″ carriage bolts. At the time, I though it was overkill, but as I tried to marry up the new 2×12 to the existing structure, lo and behold, the existing beam was sagging. I mean by a very noticeable amount, like over an inch! So, I guess the plans examiner was right all along, and I now thank him for his advice. I wasted an hour trying to jack the existing beam up with what I had, but the more I thought about it, I figured the only way to straighten the whole thing out would be to replace it — a non-starter. So I did what a lot of remodelers end up doing, which is living with what you have and adapting. There will be a discontinuity when the new floor meets the old floor, especially in the center, but I’ll deal with that later. I also had to waste another hour or so cutting out the bottom of the aluminum framing around the sliding glass door.  The new lumber was hitting it and wouldn’t go flush to the existing built-up beam. As usual, time flew and by the end of the day, I only ended up getting the new 2×12 tacked up and in place. Still had to install all of those bolts.

New joist all bolted into place. See the gap between the bottom of the new joist and the bottom of the existing beam?

New joist all bolted into place. See the gap between the bottom of the new joist and the bottom of the existing beam?

Day five, Sunday: I really wanted this to be a day of rest, but I spent several hours after church re-installing the garage door. It was a little fussy, but I got it in and working. This was good because now the garage had some physical security and I felt OK locking it up and leaving it. All the tools were out of sight, and it would take some doing to climb up and around to get into the place. So much for the “big week”. At least I got stuff closed in a bit, which removed some of the pressure to meet deadlines. After all, this is supposed to be enjoyable, eh?

The garage door re-installed and my tools safe from random thievery.

The garage door re-installed and my tools safe from random thievery.

Here is a video of the whole thing:

Now my attention turned to installing hardware. Besides the bolts for the new 2×12, and joist hangers and hold-downs for the new joists, I had to figure out where to drill holes in the foundation to install threaded rods glued in with a special epoxy to meet new code requirements for seismic loads. I had a pretty good idea where most of them should go, but there was a tricky spot in the corners next to the garage door opening. Additionally, the special epoxy installation needed a “special” inspection, meaning that an inspector certified in this sort of thing had to inspect every hole for proper depth and cleanliness before you put the epoxy goop in. So I figured I would ask the inspector about the bolt location AHEAD OF TIME. Note my predilection for avoiding future trouble caused by me.

Proposed hole locations. I really didn't know how to do this correctly. At least I realized this ahead of time.

Proposed hole locations. I really didn’t know how to do this correctly. At least I realized this ahead of time.

I looked up special inspectors on Angie’s List, and while Angie’s List is usually pretty good, here I found nothing. So I searched on the Internet and found a guy whom I contacted. He was very cooperative, and since I did the design, I knew the requirements so I was able to give the impression that I knew what I was doing. I sent him a picture of the proposed hole locations, and he contacted a colleague who happened to be a registered Professional Engineer (PE) to get his advice. After some back-and-forth, I contacted the PE, whose name is Chris Pinnow (see link to his website) and arranged for a meeting. As the appointed time came closer, he was running late and suggested that he would come the following day (Saturday) AND he would bring a hammer drill and bit and offered to help drill the holes and knock off the entire job! It was pretty easy to say yes.

"My" engineer- Chris Pinnow. Really glad to have met this guy.

“My” engineer- Chris Pinnow. Really glad to have met this guy.

Sure enough, he shows up and we get to work, and in 4 hours I have all the holes I need, properly inspected with threaded rods properly secured with that special epoxy. Turns out that I had some misconceptions about what the hold downs were supposed to accomplish, and I’m really glad that Chris came and checked things out, because he made some crucial corrections to the installation. Here is the lesson: The days of framing a house with a stack of 2x4s, circular saw, and a big box of nails, are over. Today’s construction techniques are pretty sophisticated and if you’re doing something on the order of a remodeling job that involves structures, you’d better find a PE that can help you look at a few things should they come up. Their prices are usually very reasonable for professional services, and their advice is well worth it because you won’t have to do things over.

Final location of the holes, per my engineer.

Final location of the holes, per my engineer.

New hold down bolts all glued in place.

New hold down bolts all glued in place.

With that out of the way, it was time to build the deck over the garage, which serves as the structure for the floor of the bedroom addition. Ordinarily, this would be a relatively straightforward task, and if you were building totally new construction, it’s a day’s job, even if you’re solo. But with remodeling, usually nothing is so straightforward. That’s because the old stuff has most likely moved around a little bit due to settling. Plus, sometimes the carpenters who build the house may not be so fussy about accuracy, especially if they’re building a tract house and time is of the essence. So, things are not necessarily plumb or square, and you have to accommodate this when you meet up the new with the old. In my case, the built-up beam that supports the existing bedroom gable wall was not only sagging, as mentioned above, but was also bowed out and canted forward. That meant that I had to not only cut each joist to a different length to accommodate the bow, but also cut each at an angle so they would meet up correctly with the canted face. But, hey, it gives me a chance to exercise my craftsmanship skills.

Old meets new. Note the sag in the existing beam as compared to the new joist. Also note the location of the chalk line.

Old meets new. Note the sag in the existing beam as compared to the new joist. Also note the location of the chalk line.

Notice the difference in the position of the chalk line. This shows the bow in the existing beam.

Notice the difference in the position of the chalk line. This shows the bow in the existing beam.

My worksheet to keep track of what joist goes where.

My worksheet to keep track of what joist goes where.

I had to cut each joist at an angle to take into account the cant of the existing beam.

I had to cut each joist at an angle to take into account the cant of the existing beam.

All joists are up. Still have to add the rim joists.

All joists are up. Still have to add the rim joists.

Deck framing complete with rim joists installed.

Deck framing complete with rim joists installed.

Blocking detail. These are short blocks of wood that fit in between the joists. This not only gives the structure a lot of additional strength, but also squares up the joists nicely. Note the tight fit in the corners. Really looks nice!

Blocking detail. These are short blocks of wood that fit in between the joists. This not only gives the structure a lot of additional strength, but also squares up the joists nicely. Note the tight fit in the corners. Really looks nice!

Now with the framing in place, it was a simple matter to install the plywood on the frame to make a nice solid deck for the bedroom floor. I was a little concerned about fitting together the tongue-and-groove plywood together by myself, but I came up with a nifty way to do it. All you have to do is to get one corner started and then temporarily secure it with a deck screw to the joist below. Then you can coax the whole assembly together using the deck screw as a pivot. Here is a picture:

How to mate tongue and groove plywood by yourself.

How to mate tongue and groove plywood by yourself.

With the deck in place, it was time for an inspection. This was important because if I don’t have an inspection every 6 months, the city assumes that my project has been abandoned and they cancel my building permit. Because I can only work so fast, and I didn’t have a lot of inspectable items while I was working on the outside, AND I used up my one-time extension, this was a big deal. The inspector came and had some good words of advice, particularly when he pointed out that I had installed the washers on the hold-downs upside-down. How embarrassing!!

New hold down ready for inspection. Note the position of the U-shaped washer under the nut. I had a little surprise coming.

New hold down ready for inspection. Note the position of the U-shaped washer under the nut. I had a little surprise coming.

Hold down properly installed (!)

Hold down properly installed (!)

Nevertheless,  I got a couple of inspections signed off, so I punched my card for 6 more months. This whetted my appetite for the BIG buildout of the master bedroom, which is next!

New deck installed.

New deck installed.

The proud builder atop his masterpiece.

The proud builder atop his masterpiece.

Building a Catio — Learning To Love Cats and Keeping Them Happy

Let’s face it: I’m a dedicated cat lover. I didn’t used to be, but when I was first dating my yet to be wife, she had mentioned that she liked cats and had many a fond memory of them. My tiny little pea-brain thought: “Well, wouldn’t it be nice to get her a cat because she likes them so much.”  She did like the cat, but it came with the newfound responsibility of being a “cat-daddy”. It was all good, though. She showed me how to relate to them, and that they were very affectionate, but their life was lived on their terms, and after a fashion, I came to respect that. Since then, we’ve had many a cat, and I now believe that those who don’t like cats, don’t know cats.

Cats have always come into our lives either through the local shelter, or have just shown up. We never pass up the opportunity to attract a stray and needy cat, and, if it is not obvious that the stray is neutered, we get it to the vet (trapping it with a live trap if necessary) and take care of that little piece of business.  We started with the one cat way back when, but as Earnest Hemingway says: “One cat just leads to another.” so we’re at four (at the moment).

A couple of things that cats need are (a) territory they can claim and (b) places for their territory that are interesting to them where they can perch, play, sleep, and watch. For indoor cats, this can present a challenge, especially if you have more than one cat. The answer is to “catify” your house. There are lots of good ideas out on the Internet about “catification”, and these primarily emphasize making use of vertical spaces, such as shelving, steps, climbing posts, and perches that allow the cats to move around and find more space. However, all cats like to be outdoors. The conundrum is that outdoors can be dangerous to cats because they can become prey to other animals (like coyotes) and can become injured by other cats, cars, and mean people. But, what if you were able to put them in a big cage? And what if that cage shared a wall with your home so that they could have a private “kitty door” they could use at their whim? And what if you made that cage big enough for people to have a couple of nice outdoor chairs and a small table so you could enjoy the outdoors with the company of your cats? Say hello to the “catio”.

A catio is a patio that has been modified to accommodate the needs of cats that keeps them safe while they enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors. Some are very small — basically a shelf extending from a window with a cage around it. Very popular in cities. But for a home that already has a patio with a patio cover, as it is in my case, it is a simple matter to add some rudimentary framing, a couple of doors (one cat, one human), and some wire mesh, to have a nicely defined outdoor space that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Yes, cats are part of the family. But, to really bring it up to proper “cat standards”, one needs to add some cat specific architectural details that give the cats places to hide, peek, perch, watch, climb, run around, and sleep. These don’t necessarily have to be complicated, so I decided to have some fun in designing the interior of the catio to provide the cats interesting and fun things for them to do, while still maintaining a sense of style. Here are some pictures of the design.

Here is a rendering of the catio with the cat "toys". There are numerous features that are attractive to cats, such as vertical interest, views outside, places to run, hide, and peek, and places to climb and scratch.

Here is a rendering of the catio with the cat “toys”. There are numerous features that are attractive to cats, such as vertical interest, views outside, places to run, hide, and peek, and places to climb and scratch.

The actual building of the structure is pretty simple. I used basic 2x dimensional lumber for framing everything out, and decided to use deck screws to put everything together. Because none of this is load bearing, and was built against the existing framework of the patio cover roof and posts, I didn’t need a permit. Having said that, I did use my SketchUp modeling program to do a detailed design because (a) it helps me visualize the final product, (b) helps me figure out how I’m going to build it, (c) helps me with the material estimates.  I put some effort into the door because it has to be sturdier than a typical screen door, and if you’re using dimensional lumber that is pressure treated, it probably won’t stay square because it is sold as green (wet) lumber and will warp when it dries. I found out this the hard way with my first attempt at a catio. This time around I used kiln dried 2×6 lumber for the door and joined it with mortise and tenons, held together with waterproof glue and dowels. Here are some pictures of the final design.

Catio Framing

Catio Framing

Catio Toys

Catio Toys

Detail views of the construction.

Detail views of the construction.

And of the construction.

The "before" picture. All tools in place and materials staged (on the left). Time to start framing!

The “before” picture. All tools in place and materials staged (on the left). Time to start framing!

The framing is done! I paid particular attention to the frame for the door, making sure that it was square and plumb.

The framing is done! I paid particular attention to the frame for the door, making sure that it was square and plumb.

Framing is spaced at 36" to fit the 36" wide roll of wire mesh (with overlap). This minimizes the time cutting the mesh.

Framing is spaced at 36″ to fit the 36″ wide roll of wire mesh (with overlap). This minimizes the time cutting the mesh.

After the framing was up, I installed all of the “cat toys” and the door, and then took them all apart for painting. The plywood and untreated wood needs protection against the elements, and it’s easier to paint these parts while they are flat, and disassembled. They all go back together pretty fast!

The last part is covering the structure with wire mesh. I used a 1″x 1″ 14 ga galvanized mesh that is available from Home Depot if you special order it. The first time I bought this stuff several years ago, I paid about $100 in shipping because the stuff was not available locally. What I found out was that if you find the product you want from a manufacturer that does business with Home Depot, you go to their “pro” desk and ask them to special order it. No shipping charge!

I found the  1″ x 1″ mesh to be ideal because (a) it looks nice (chicken wire makes it look like a chicken coop — not my decor), (b) it’s sturdy enough so the cats can climb on it and not deform or make holes in it, and (c) it’s large enough to minimize the obstruction of the view from inside, yet small enough to prevent unwanted “visitors”. The visitors that are small enough to get through are taken care of by the cats….

I chose a 36″ mesh width because that fit very well with the proportions of the framing, which minimizes the amount of cutting of the mesh. It also makes it easier to handle when attaching to the framing.

Attaching the mesh single-handedly can be challenging because the mesh has a “memory” that tends to spring the damn stuff back on top of you and give you scratches. When people see my recent scratches, they ask if they are because of my cats. Well, in a sense, yes.  But I digress. I found that laying a long piece of 2x lumber lengthwise will (a) prevent the roll from coming back on you when you’re cutting it, and (b) can help you stabilize the piece when you fit it to the frame. The other “must-have” is a pneumatic stapling gun. It makes aligning the mesh fairly straightforward, and for quick work in stapling it down the rest of the way. Yet another reason to buy that “new tool”. At least one new tool per project…. that’s my motto.

Using a spare 2x4 to hold the roll of wire mesh in place for measuring and cutting.

Using a spare 2×4 to hold the roll of wire mesh in place for measuring and cutting.

The mesh has a "memory" which tends to roll it back to its original shape. If you try to straighten it out, chances are it will be deformed when you staple it in place. The best strategy is to work with the spring-back. Align to the framing by tacking the middle of one end to the framing, and then aligning one edge to the framing and tacking the edge in place. Once aligned, it is relatively easy to "unroll" the mesh as you progressively staple it to the frame.

The mesh has a “memory” which tends to roll it back to its original shape. If you try to straighten it out, chances are it will be deformed when you staple it in place. The best strategy is to work with the spring-back. Align to the framing by tacking the middle of one end to the framing, and then aligning one edge to the framing and tacking the edge in place. Once aligned, it is relatively easy to “unroll” the mesh as you progressively staple it to the frame.

The 4x4 is being used to hold back the "spring" in the mesh. Once the mesh is aligned, it is easy to tack in place with the pneumatic staple gun.

The 4×4 is being used to hold back the “spring” in the mesh. Once the mesh is aligned, it is easy to tack in place with the pneumatic staple gun.

Finally, having a little “cat door” is essential because you want the cats to enjoy the space when they want to. And you don’t want them bugging you. There are many kinds of animal doors available, and I chose one that had a magnetic strip which keeps the door vertical when not in use, plus a 4-way lock (open, locked both ways, locked in, locked out). Some come with an RFID chip that you put on your cat and the door allows only your cat to go in and out, but that was way too fussy for me.

The catio makes an elegant (well, at least consonant) outdoor space where we can enjoy our cats and the outdoors together. Is it cocktail hour?

The catio makes an elegant (well, at least consonant) outdoor space where we can enjoy our cats and the outdoors together. Is it cocktail hour?

The finished product. Suitable for human and beast.

The finished product. Suitable for human and beast.

The catio should be appealing to both cats and their caretakers.

The catio should be appealing to both cats and their caretakers.

A catio should be a place where the cat caretakers can enjoy the space along with the cats. Cats like human companionship, and we can share and enjoy this space with each other.

A catio should be a place where the cat caretakers can enjoy the space along with the cats. Cats like human companionship, and we can share and enjoy this space with each other.

Here is a video of our cat family:

 

Installing The Laundry Greywater Irrigation System

During the month of July, I dedicated myself to the remodeling project, with the objective of finishing the retaining wall back yard so I could start preparing for the final push to get the brick patio done. I was all in. I took a “sabbatical” from my church choir, stopped cooking on the weekends, and worked on the project on weekdays when I got home. I got pretty close. Because this was my second shot at a retaining wall, I learned some more streamlined and efficient methods, plus I used my laser level system that I got for Father’s Day. The results were really good, as you can see in the following video.

One of the major design objectives of my home remodeling project was to build a water-friendly landscape. This resulted the inclusion of a lot of hardscape, surrounded by planters that would be planted with drought-tolerant plants and watered using a drip irrigation system. However, I had a bit of a conundrum with my existing fruit trees. Fruit trees, especially citrus, would need a lot of drippers running almost constantly to get the desired amount of water in the hot months. While a drip system would be much better than the sprinkler system that I was tearing out, the amount of water was still pretty horrendous — especially when compared to the new drought friendly plants I was planning on. Fortunately, while I was doing my research on irrigation design, I ran across the concept of using the greywater from my home. I stumbled across the  “San Francisco Greywater Design Guide” that was pretty comprehensive, and as I continued down this line of thinking, I found out that my own city (Chula Vista, CA) had greywater design guides and permitting rules as well. Best of all, if you just keep the system simple and use only your laundry greywater, you don’t need a permit and the project becomes something well within the realm of a DIY’er.  I wrote about this system  in a previous blog entry (Irrigation and How A Project Expands) which goes into more detail about why this is a good idea.

The design of a laundry greywater system is fairly straightforward. The most complex part of the whole deal is getting a 3-way ball valve, also known as a diverter valve, and installing it such that the effluent of your washing machine can be “diverted” to either your landscape, or to your sewer system, where it normally goes. More on that later. Once diverted from sewer, the greywater needs to get outside the house and out to wherever you plan on irrigating with greywater. This is where things get problematic for existing homes that want to retrofit the system. If you’re having to burrow under driveways, sidewalks, or through slabs, then the cost quickly outweighs the benefit. There are probably some imaginative ways to get the water from here to there, but in reality, unless you plan on this during the construction phase of your home, or during a major remodel, then this part will likely be a deal-breaker. Fortunately, because this was a major remodel, I had things outside torn up sufficiently such that burying some extra piping for this greywater system was no big deal. Hey, this is a big modernization project and so, why not do my best to get up to contemporary standards? Here are some pictures of the installation of the piping from the house to the back.

This is the supply line coming up into the back. It is routed under where the retaining wall will be.

This is the supply line coming up into the back. It is routed under where the retaining wall will be.

The greywater supply line showing where the line will exit the house and routed to the back yard. I took advantage of the fact that I already had the ditch dug for the site drainage system.

The greywater supply line showing where the line will exit the house and routed to the back yard. I took advantage of the fact that I already had the ditch dug for the site drainage system.

Next is the water distribution system. Most of the literature I found on the subject showed a bunch of upside-down plastic flower pots that were repurposed to cover a greywater outlet and then had these troughs filled with bark mulch surrounding each tree that, in theory, would provide an even distribution of water around each tree. I did not like the bark mulch idea because it decomposes over a relatively short period of time, so every 3-4 years or so, you’d have to go in and basically re-do that part of your water distribution system. However, I remember one of the first “projects” my dad doing when I was little was the installation of a drywell for laundry effluent. We had just moved to a place in the “country”, which is now considered part of the ex-urb of Detroit, and our laundry basically discharged out to the grass in back. To get this working properly, he re-did the drainage piping and then dug a big hole and filled it with gravel. The laundry effluent would go into the gravel bed and have time to disperse into the ground. Not really necessary for irrigation because we were in southeast lower Michigan, but the principle would still apply in my situation. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. A gravel bed has an advantage over bark mulch in that it doesn’t decompose. However, I didn’t want to fill my backyard with gravel, so I came up with the idea of a series of “mini” dry wells that would be arrayed around my trees as best as I could manage. This, fortunately, turned out to be a straight line, as shown in the following picture.

Drywell Layout. I had a long, narrow area to irrigate, so this seemed to be an optimum design.

Drywell Layout. I had a long, narrow area to irrigate, so this seemed to be an optimum design.

Here is a picture of the final installation. Note that I had to switch the side where the supply pipe came in. Sometimes you deviate from the plans, especially when it makes sense.

Here is a picture of the final installation. Note that I had to switch the side where the supply pipe came in. Sometimes you deviate from the plans, especially when it makes sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things that a greywater distribution system needs is a manner of controlling the flow to each discharge point. This is because, due to the nature of fluid flow, if you just hook pipes together, the distribution will be uneven as the outlets closest to the source will discharge a disproportionately larger amount of water due to the higher pressure of the water as it is closer to the source. So, the basic drywell concept had to be modified to allow access to a valve to regulate the flow. I came up with an idea of a perforated drain pipe that would house the valve, with an annulus of gravel around it. The water would enter the standpipe, and the holes would direct the water into the surrounding gravel, which would then be absorbed by the surrounding soil. I also didn’t want any of the roots to infiltrate the gravel bed, so I decided to surround the entire assembly with landscape fabric. A circular concrete paver on top would provide a decorative finish, as well as access for future adjustments and maintenance. Here is a schematic of the basic “mini” drywell design.

Anatomy of a laundry water mini-drywell. I know what you're saying -- why do I use a cardboard concrete form? Well, read on. It's really a great idea.

Anatomy of a laundry water mini-drywell. I know what you’re saying — why do I use a cardboard concrete form? Well, read on. It’s really a great idea.

So, now, with the design all set, all I had to do was build it.

Whenever installing something that is connected together, be it pipes, electrical wires, data lines, whatever — always start with the placement of the endpoints of the connections first. I know this seems obvious, but focusing on this aspect of the installation helps me figure out the right sequence. In this case, I had to dig holes, and then somehow fill them with gravel and stick a standpipe in.  I also had to fuss with that landscape fabric. But, I didn’t want to do the backfill, and then have to dig it up once again to make these holes. So, I came upon the idea of making a self-contained form that I could set in the ground, do the backfill around it, pour in a couple of inches of gravel, set the standpipe in, and then fill around the standpipe and withdraw form. This had the advantage of making it easy to wrap landscape fabric around the form so that all I had to do was pull out the form, and I’d have a perfectly centered standpipe, surrounded by an annulus of gravel and close fitting landscape fabric. Here is how I prepared the forms:

Step #1: Cut the landscape fabric to 3.5x the diameter of the form in length and the height of the form plus one diameter in width.

Step #1: Cut the landscape fabric to 3.5x the diameter of the form in length and the height of the form plus one diameter in width.

Step #2: Align one edge of the landscape fabric with the top edge of the form and roll it up into a neat cylinder. Secure the edges with wide tape. I used duct tape, but probably any tape could be used. This only temporary as the backfill will hold everything in place once installation is complete. DO NOT TAPE TO THE FORM! You will never get the form out later and you will be very sad.

Step #2: Align one edge of the landscape fabric with the top edge of the form and roll it up into a neat cylinder. Secure the edges with wide tape. I used duct tape, but probably any tape could be used. This only temporary as the backfill will hold everything in place once installation is complete. DO NOT TAPE TO THE FORM! You will never get the form out later and you will be very sad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step #3: Fold one end of the landscape fabric in like you're wrapping a birthday present. Fold the opposite end toward you. You will have two fabric "ears".

Step #3: Fold one end of the landscape fabric in like you’re wrapping a birthday present. Fold the opposite end toward you. You will have two fabric “ears”.

Step #4: Tape each "ear" to the side of the form. You will have a neatly made bottom of landscape fabric when you're done.

Step #4: Tape each “ear” to the side of the form. You will have a neatly made bottom of landscape fabric when you’re done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step #5: Tack the loose edges of the landscape fabric to the bottom with a couple of pieces of tape.

Step #5: Tack the loose edges of the landscape fabric to the bottom with a couple of pieces of tape.

Here is the form, all finished. I made two of these and then sequentially installed them into the landscape.

Here is the form, all finished. I made two of these and then sequentially installed them into the landscape.

The next thing to do was to prepare the standpipes. I had a total of 12 wells, so I needed 12 standpipes. The dimensions of my wells were 18″ tall by 12″ in diameter, but since I wanted 2″ of gravel underlayment, my standpipes were only 16″. These standpipes are actually repurposed 6″ perforated hard PVC drain pipe. This means that (a) it is made of sturdy PVC and (b) it has two lines of holes oriented at 90° to each other. This gives the water some direction because, well, there are 360° in a circle, and this only covers ¼ of that, so by sheer mathematical principle, the flow will be directional. Except that the gravel will disperse the flow, so the effect is not that great. I digress. Bottom line is that you have a pipe with pre-drilled holes, so that saves you labor. To a point. There still must be a way for the water to enter the standpipe, and that will be via a branch from the supply line. SO… you have to drill a hole to allow the supply line to penetrate, preferably opposite the two rows of holes so you can pretend that you’re directing the water in the direction that you wish. No problem, you say. But, there is one more consideration, and that is elevation. Ideally, you do not want to have to force your water uphill. That will create unnecessary stress on your washing machine pump, and if your situation is such that the closest land is on the “downhill” side, then you need to put a solid pipe to the highest point in your system, and distribute downhill from there. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then please just trust me. The net effect (for me) was to locate the holes for the individual supply lines at an ever decreasing level so I could have a natural slope. I took the distance between the first and last drywell, and then multiplied it by the % slope that I wanted (anything between 1% and 2% is good). For ease of measurement, I came up with a slope of 10″ over 50′ which turns out to be 1.7%. It’s all good! I then put a flag marker in each place where I wanted to put a drywell and measured the distance between each one. Multiplying the distance (in inches) by 1.7% (or 0.017 — easy to do on a calculator), gave me the difference in height. Here is a picture of the finished standpipes with the holes drilled at the correct heights.

This shows the relative height of the holes for branch lines, which gives a slope for the water to drain once the washing machine pump turns off. See the purple pipe? This is the correct color and has the correct labeling for a greywater irrigation system. I had to go to a specialty irrigation supplier to get this stuff. But, it's required by code!

This shows the relative height of the holes for branch lines, which gives a slope for the water to drain once the washing machine pump turns off. Best to number them as well so you can keep track when you do the installation. See the purple pipe? This is the correct color and has the correct labeling for a greywater irrigation system. I had to go to a specialty irrigation supplier to get this stuff. But, it’s required by code!

Now, it’s time to do the actual installation, I begin with digging a relatively shallow hole in the vicinity where I marked the drywell to go. I then insert the fabric wrapped form into the hole and check the level. I want the top of the drywell to be the same height as the finished retaining wall. Since I am putting 2″ caps on the retaining wall, and putting 2″ concrete stepping-stones over the drywells, the net effect is to see a series of stepping-stones among a bed of bark mulch, with everything level. Once the form is in place and leveled, I add 2″ of gravel to the bottom. This serves not only to stabilize the form, but also to provide a way for the water to disperse downward. I then center the standpipe and pour enough gravel around the standpipe to reach the bottom of the hole I drilled for the branch pipe. After all, I don’t want to be have to rout through the gravel to install the branch pipe and valve. I then backfill and pull the form off. And then on to the next one. Here are some pictures.

Step #1: Insert the form and set the level. The level of the retaining wall is two courses lower (8") than the finished height, so I use an 8" block on the existing course to get the level right. Making up 4" and 8" blocks of wood is another way that helped streamline my building process because these are considerably lighter than the actual bricks themselves. (Think .25 lb versus 26 lb.)

Step #1: Insert the form and set the level. The level of the retaining wall is two courses lower (8″) than the finished height, so I use an 8″ block on the existing course to get the level right. Making up 4″ and 8″ blocks of wood is another way that helped streamline my building process because these are considerably lighter than the actual bricks themselves. (Think 0.25 lb versus 26 lb.)

Step #2: Pour a 2" gravel base. It helps if you mark a line 2" from the bottom of the form with a sharpie. Just make sure you put the fabric on the right way!

Step #2: Pour a 2″ gravel base. It helps if you mark a line 2″ from the bottom of the form with a sharpie. Just make sure you put the fabric on the right way!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step #3: Insert and center the standpipe. Make sure the hole you drilled for the branch supply line is oriented perpendicular (facing) to where you intend the line to run. It helps to wiggle it around a bit to embed it in the gravel base so that it will withstand the pouring of the gravel around it.

Step #3: Insert and center the standpipe. Make sure the hole you drilled for the branch supply line is oriented perpendicular (facing) to where you intend the line to run. It helps to wiggle it around a bit to embed it in the gravel base so that it will withstand the pouring of the gravel around it.

Step #4: Pour gravel around the outside of the standpipe up to the hole you drilled for the branch line. Then backfill up to that level, ensuring that you tamp the backfill down well to minimize the inevitable shifting that occurs as things settle out.

Step #4: Pour gravel around the outside of the standpipe up to the hole you drilled for the branch line. Then backfill up to that level, ensuring that you tamp the backfill down well to minimize the inevitable shifting that occurs as things settle out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step[ #5: Remove the form by pulling upwards. This can be tricky because you need to grip the form without gripping the landscape fabric. Wiggle it around a bit, and it should slide right out.

Step[ #5: Remove the form by pulling upwards. This can be tricky because you need to grip the form without gripping the landscape fabric. Wiggle it around a bit, and it should slide right out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next step is to install the pipes. Basically, this design is a series of 1″ PVC pipes that have 1″ to 1/2″ PVC tees at each drywell. The 1/2″ pipe terminates with a 1/2″ ball valve in each drywell, which is used to balance the flow. Here is a picture:

This shows the 1/2" branch line coming off the 1" main line and into a PVC ball valve. If you look closely, I put some masking tape over the open end of the valve for "Foreign Material Exclusion" (FME) purposes. I'm still going to be doing some additional backfill to finish things off, so I don't want any unnecessary contamination entering the valve. If I can help it.

This shows the 1/2″ branch line coming off the 1″ main line and into a PVC ball valve. If you look closely, I put some masking tape over the open end of the valve for “Foreign Material Exclusion” (FME) purposes. I’m still going to be doing some additional backfill to finish things off, so I don’t want any unnecessary contamination entering the valve. If I can help it.

Piping is all installed. Note the little "white" pipe near the stake. This is what is called a "flex" pipe and it was invaluable in getting the pipe to fit through the tortuous path that was necessary. I highly recommend you include a few of these in your parts list for this type of project.

Piping is all installed. Note the little “white” pipe near the stake. This is what is called a “flex” pipe and it was invaluable in getting the pipe to fit through the tortuous path that was necessary. I highly recommend you include a few of these in your parts list for this type of project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another view of the pipe installation. Note how the pipe slopes away from the source (behind you).

Another view of the pipe installation. Note how the pipe slopes away from the source (behind you).

This shows the supply pipe coming up from behind the retaining wall. I have installed a check valve and hose fitting to the top to give me the ability to flush and/or perform supplemental irrigation with a garden hose. It is VERY IMPORTANT to only do this when necessary and to disconnect the garden hose when finished with the operation. There is some risk of getting soapy water into your plumbing if you leave the hose connected, and you don't want your crêpe suzette tasting like Tide!

This shows the supply pipe coming up from behind the retaining wall. I have installed a check valve and hose fitting to the top to give me the ability to flush and/or perform supplemental irrigation with a garden hose. It is VERY IMPORTANT to only do this when necessary and to disconnect the garden hose when finished with the operation. You should also install a vacuum breaker at your hose bibb. There is some risk of getting soapy water into your plumbing if you leave the hose connected and don’t install that vacuum breaker, and you don’t want your crêpe Suzette tasting like Tide!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that the pipes are all installed, it’s time to get the rest of the backfill done. One slight problem remains, and that is how to re-insert the form into the fabric that you left hanging out there. It’s a pretty tight fit! The answer is to cut the form lengthwise almost all the way to the top, and then overlap the cut ends so that they fit into the fabric cylinder. These forms have some spring, so they will be able to pull the fabric taut again, and you can then proceed with backfilling and gravel filling as previously discussed. Here is an example of the finished product:

Ready for the rest of the backfill. Insert the cut form inside of the fabric and pull the fabric up as far as it will go. This will require some wiggling and jiggling, but it will get there.

Ready for the rest of the backfill. Insert the cut form inside of the fabric and pull the fabric up as far as it will go. This will require some wiggling and jiggling, but it will get there.

Backfill around the form and fill with gravel up to the top of the standpipe. The measurements you made earlier allows you to use the top of the fabric as a guide for the height of the backfill and gravel fill.

Backfill around the form and fill with gravel up to the top of the standpipe. The measurements you made earlier allows you to use the top of the fabric as a guide for the height of the backfill and gravel fill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the drywell after the form is removed. It may take some effort because the form is pretty well sandwiched between the backfill and the gravel. I use a couple of pairs of pliers to get a good grip, and once the form was loose, it came right out. Looks really nice!

Here is the drywell after the form is removed. It may take some effort because the form is pretty well sandwiched between the backfill and the gravel. I use a couple of pairs of pliers to get a good grip, and once the form was loose, it came right out. Looks really nice!

The concrete stepping stone is now in place. This prevents the detritus of the yard from entering the drywell, as well as provides an attractive cover. The average person admiring your yard will have no idea that you have a high-tech irrigation system buried below.

The concrete stepping stone is now in place. This prevents the detritus of the yard from entering the drywell, as well as provides an attractive cover. The average person admiring your yard will have no idea that you have a high-tech irrigation system buried below.

 

 

 

Now it’s on to getting the washer all hooked up and connecting the supply line from the washer to the pipes outdoors. As I alluded to above, one of the trickiest parts of this whole installation is the 3-way diverter valve. The first challenge is to find one. I tried the big box stores, speciality plumbing stores, and irrigation supply stores. I was going to go to a pool supply store because they make these valves for spas, but really, they’re typically too big, and therefore, too expensive. I was looking for a 1″ 3-way ball valve and I found what I was looking for on Amazon. (Click here for a link.) The next step was where, and in what orientation, to locate it. This can be challenging because (1) you have to know where your washing machine hose, washing machine drain line, and proposed route for your greywater line will be, and then orient the ports of the valve so you can accomplish the pipe hookup without too many bends. (2) you have to make sure you provide enough clearance to allow you to grip the handle and move the valve. (3) You’re typically dealing with very tight quarters because of the washing machine electrical outlet and the water supply valves and you have to avoid interference from all of that stuff. It helps immensely to dry-fit all of your fittings to make sure everything is going to line up later. Once you’ve got the location and orientation right, you have to figure out the mounting. This valve requires some torque to get it to move, so just putting in some drywall anchors and hoping things will work ain’t gonna cut it. If you don’t want to remove your drywall, then you could locate the studs behind the drywall and use pipe straps to secure the pipes that connect to the valve, but typically the studs will not be in a very convenient location to do this. An alternative is to get a piece of plywood that fits over the studs and screw it to the studs. You can paint it the same color as the wall, and it will blend in pretty well. After all, it’s a laundry room and the plywood will be obscured by the valve and associated piping. Plus, this gives you some freedom in choosing the final location of the valve. If you have the drywall down because you’re renovating or are building new construction, then you can install some horizontal blocking between the studs. I used this approach because I needed to replace the whole wall. That was because I found TERMITES when I was peeking behind the drywall to locate my plumbing lines. And I just had the house tented a year ago! Major bummer. But, it turns out that the plumbing and electrical crew that the original builder had done a real hack job on the original framing of this wall, so it was probably just as well that I replaced it with a proper retrofit. Here are some pictures of the 3-way valve mounting (and the termite damage).

This shows the 3-way valve all hooked up. I used hefty pipe straps around each of the PVC adapters that I screwed into the ports of the valve. This ain't goin' nowhere!

This shows the 3-way valve all hooked up. I used hefty pipe straps around each of the PVC adapters that I screwed into the ports of the valve. This ain’t goin’ nowhere!

Hey, where did the wall go?

Hey, where did the wall go?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the wall. What a mess!

Here is the wall. What a mess!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now for the hook-up. I was fortunate to be able to locate and align the 3-way valve so that I had a pretty clear shot to the existing sewer drain and to the outside. I originally wanted to run the line going to the outside through the wall, but the existing drain vent stack prevented that. So I opted just to run it outside the wall. This is not a big deal because the line will be concealed behind my freezer and all the other junk that I store in the little alcove that the line runs through. Hell, I won’t even paint it because I want to be a water conservation snob and show off that cool purple color. The only remaining problem was actually hooking it up to the washing machine. My washer came with a discharge hose, but try as I might, I found it extremely difficult to get a fitting that would provide a watertight seal under pressure. I guess that’s because a standard washer discharge hose is meant to go directly to your sewer drain and you want a loose-fitting to prevent the siphon effect. So it will be a non-standard size to purposely avoid a tight fit. This meant that I had to ferret around Home Depot and Lowe’s and screw around with various hose and fitting combinations until I found something that worked. Eventually, I found a replacement washer drainage hose that was flexible enough to insert a barbed 1″ PVC fitting. That meant pulling apart the washing machine to replace the hose. Actually it wasn’t that big of a deal because of the Internet. There are all sorts of appliance repair videos out there and these machines are designed to be easy to take apart, provided you know the tricks! At any rate, here are some pictures of the final hookup for the washing machine.

This shows how the washer outlet is properly secured to the inlet of the 3-way valve. It's important to use a barbed fitting and hose clamp to prevent leaks.

This shows how the washer outlet is properly secured to the inlet of the 3-way valve. It’s important to use a barbed fitting and hose clamp to prevent leaks.

Here is a close-up of the PVC barbed fitting. Lowe's carries these. Home Depot does not.

Here is a close-up of the PVC barbed fitting. Lowe’s carries these. Home Depot does not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I had to connect the greywater pipe from the washing machine to the standpipe I had previously installed (many months ago). I briefly mentioned above that the reason the washing machine discharge hose was intended to be a loose fit was to provide a siphon, or vacuum, break between the machine and the sewer line. Now I was defeating that safety feature by making a watertight seal between the new greywater distribution system. While the discharge going to the sewer still had an air gap (so no problem there), I needed to install a separate siphon break on the greywater irrigation supply line. This is actually quite a common plumbing fixture called an “air admittance valve” and they are readily available under the trade names of “Redi-Vent” (by Studor), and “Sure-Vent” (by Oatey). They are sized for a 1-1/2″ pipe, so you’ll have to get a reducer, but really no big deal. Here is a picture of my installation.

This is the vacuum breaker that you need to make sure that the greywater from your garden does not siphon back into your washing machine. Note the silicone seal where the pipe comes out of the wall.

This is the vacuum breaker that you need to make sure that the greywater from your garden does not siphon back into your washing machine. Note the silicone seal where the pipe comes out of the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally it was time to test! I went out to uncover all of the drywells and then removed the masking tape from each valve (to prevent contamination during the construction process) and opened each valve. I then filled up the washing machine with water and let her rip! The first load used to perform a system flush to make sure that any dirt in the system was fully flushed out of the pipes. I then did a couple of additional runs to adjust the streams coming into each drywell to be relatively equal. The only problem I had was that the last drywell was flowing too fast. That’s because I did not install a valve on it in order to make sure that the system had a reliable path to discharge water in case of a clog. I may rethink that because I do not believe my system is going to be as subject to clogging as the aforementioned bark mulch systems, but I might be wrong. Worst case is that the washing machine pump runs at shutoff head for a while before I notice it isn’t pumping, and then I go out to clear the lines. Here is a short video of the first run.

This was a long post, and I hope you liked it. I’m nearing the home stretch for the outside remodel, so I now turn my attention to the last big hardscape project: installation of the brick patio in back and the decomposed granite path in front.

Thanks for reading!

Playing Footsie With Footings — Attention Shifts To The Back Yard

Now that the concrete pour for the front and service sidewalk was complete, my attention shifted to the back yard. In my master plan (that which I jealously harbor in the dark recesses of my brain), I was going to start building a retaining wall, However, when I surveyed the situation with an eye to actually start work, the ugly footings for my patio cover and trellis began to weigh heavily. Little did I know.

There were several things wrong with the way my patio cover and trellis were supported. First, many of the posts, were warped and rotted. So, at some point, replacing them was inevitable, Second, the footings were now protruding above the finished grade as a result of lowering the level of the grade to accommodate a code-compliant drainage system. This not only was aesthetically unpleasing, but was also a trip hazard. Third, embedment of the footings no longer met code because I removed some of the soil that surrounded them, so they really had to be buried deeper. Fourth, the footings were cylindrical, making it difficult to fit the rectangular bricks of the patio around them. I had originally planned to just replace the posts and live with the substandard footings. But after all the work on the front yard, I couldn’t stomach a backyard with second-rate footings. So I decided to do the “right” thing, and replace the footings.

This became a very interesting project because it was a retrofit, and thereby was not amenable to  a “standard” sequence of events. By this I mean you first do the layout, the dig and pour footings, and then build up from there. For this project,  I had to do things a bit out of sequence, which required some “backyard engineering”.

The first challenge was to remove the existing posts. To do that, I had to figure out a way how to support the existing structure with the old posts out while I was removing and replacing the footings. The second was to extract the footings. I didn’t want to dig them out, so I wanted to figure out a way to pull them out. The third was to pour the footings. I didn’t want to wait a day for the concrete to harden, because I would be only doing 2 footings at a time. So, I needed to use fast setting (high-early strength) concrete. Fourth, I had to figure out how to do all of this in the context of a one-guy operation.

Let’s face it. I love it.

To support the existing structure while replacing the posts, I came up with a system of jacks. These jacks consisted of a post made of 2x4s separated by 1/2″ plywood to give a square (3-1/2″ x 3-1/2″) bearing surface to match the beam, a “shoe” which was made of 2x4s and 3/4″ ply that incorporated an axle for the post to allow it to pivot, and some 1/2″ ply attached to the top of the post to act as a guide. I cut off a corner on opposite ends of the jack post to allow me to rotate the assembly in place underneath the beam. It’s way harder to explain in words, so here are some pictures:

Picture of the post jack. The top will be hammered into place vertically after shimming  to ensure good support.

Picture of the post jack. The top will be hammered into place vertically after shimming to ensure good support.

Picture of the shoe of the post jack. The bolt allows the jack to pivot into position, and the shoe provides a stable base.

Picture of the shoe of the post jack. The bolt allows the jack to pivot into position, and the shoe provides a stable base.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This shows the top of the jack, with the corners of the jack post cut at 45

This shows the top of the jack, with the corners of the jack post cut at 45

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up was to remove the old posts. This turned out to be more difficult than originally planned because the connecting hardware I used was meant to stay in place. Additionally, I had to do all of this while perched on a stepladder that was placed awkwardly because of the jacks and other assorted obstacles.

To get the footings out, I wanted to pull them up, and not dig them out. After seeing a few techniques on YouTube, I came up with the idea of using a winch (come-along) and hang one end from the beam above, and attach to the footing using the anchor bolt. I repurposed a couple of heavy-duty angle braces, some chain and some shackles to hook up the come-along to the footing, and I used a lifting sling to hang the entire contraption from the beam. This is a good example of “seat-of-the-pants” engineering. I did some very rough estimates in my head: some nominal weight for the footing plus whatever load would break the footing free from the ground, I figured maybe 1000#. Then got everything about 5x that (8000# come-along, 6400# lifting strap, 5000# shackles, etc.). No calculations for how much stress would be on the nut holding the plates to the anchor bolt. No calculations on the loads I would be putting on the beam or the jacks when I hauled the thing up. Never mind that you’re not supposed to use a come-along for lifting stuff. Just get everything big and pray that something doesn’t bust. Fortunately, it all worked out pretty well, and with 8 of these things to pull out, making up the rig was a great idea and a real time-saver.

Then I had to dig, form up, and pour the new footings. My recent work with concrete forms helped because I had already come up with a design concept and had built a couple of re-useable forms that I could easily take apart and put back together. I set the form on the ground and aligned it using a DIY plumb bob (weights attached to a string) hanging from where I wanted the post on the beam. I set the height of the form to the finished grade and leveled it using my new laser level (my Father’s Day present), and then dug a hole 12″ deep by 12″ dia and slipped a tubular concrete form into the hole. Then I placed the rectangular form on top and staked it in place.

Now came the fun part. I had to fill the forms and I had to hustle because I was using fast-setting concrete mix. After some experimentation, I came up with a plan to mix 3 bags at a time in 3 batches. I would always start the next batch so it was mixing while I was shoveling the mud from the current batch into the forms. What made it even more challenging from a time perspective is that I was working with a “hot” mix with the 2nd and 3rd batches. A hot mix occurs when you start a new batch of concrete in the mixer with residual concrete from a previous batch. The residual concrete already has a chemical reaction going, and that acts as a catalyst (or accelerator) for the new mix. This also occurs on the jobsite for large concrete pours, especially if you have trucks that are cycling through because they won’t take the time to wash out the truck before putting in the next load. This video shows me in action pulling and pouring the footings:

Sure enough, by the time I had cleaned up all of the concrete mess from the mixer and tools, the new footings had hardened to the point where I could pull the forms and mount the base to the anchor bolt. From there, it was relatively easy to measure, cut, and install the new posts. Then it was on to the next set of posts. Doing two at a time, it took me 2 weekends to finish, but this was one of the few projects that I completed within my original time estimate. That’s including several trips to Home Depot (I had to get more concrete and different size posts), troubleshooting and fixing an electrical problem with the cement mixer, removing old surface mounted electrical conduit, and dressing up and re-cutting the threads on the anchor bolts which I had managed to mushroom while banging them in. The concrete had already began to set, you see. At any rate, it’s all done and it’s the first step in actually building something in the back yard. Here are some photos.

Patio Cover Footings -- Before.

Patio Cover Footings — Before.

After -- New posts and footings for the patio cover.

After — New posts and footings for the patio cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New footings and posts for the trellis.

New footings and posts for the trellis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next thing I do will be to build the back retaining wall. This will be another back-breaking, dirt digging, block hauling adventure. At least I get some good cardio and strength training! I’ll try to post as soon as I can about it!