The General: Getting Other Trades Involved and How To Be A General Contractor Part One: Stucco.

With the project sufficiently mature, the time has come to involve other trades for work that I was not going to do by myself. I had to get a new roof put on, get the stucco put up, paint the exterior trim, and get a new HVAC system installed. I had planned all along to contract these jobs out because there really are limits to what even a pro can do by themselves (and I’m just a lowly, but enthusiastic, DIY’er). Finally, I could relax a bit and have someone else do the hard work, right? Well, not so fast….

It turns out that when you start to bring other trades in, you have to work as your own general contractor. That means coordinating schedules, materials, inspections and the like. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of experience in coordinating projects, so this one was really not so tough from a management perspective. However, I had to hustle to make sure that I did my part of the job and get truly ready for the next steps. The one thing that you have to understand are the dependencies that the jobs have on one another.

We start with the stucco. I had to coordinate the stucco and the roofing because, on my home, there was some interrelated work. I had to contract with a roofing company and get on their schedule, and they had to come out and do some preliminary roofing work before the stucco contractor could start. The stucco contractor then had to agree that he could finish the work before the roofing folks came in. But it turns out that some other trades were involved, and because I was covering those, I had to get back to work! For example, I had to finish rough electrical work around the living room and porch because they would be inaccessible after the stucco was up. So I had to DO the work, then schedule an inspection to get it signed off, then finish installing the plywood substrate and all of the other electrical penetrations. I also had to install bases for the new exhaust vents (dryer and ventilation fans) before the lath was put on. Even so, I forgot the doorbell and the intercom penetrations. I’ll just have to compensate later.

Getting ready to cover this area with plywood. I had to tear it all apart to get the porch roof beam installed, and as long as it was uncovered, I took the opportunity to fix up the wiring and add new coaxial and ethernet cabling.

Getting ready to cover this area with plywood. I had to tear it all apart to get the porch roof beam installed, and as long as it was uncovered, I took the opportunity to fix up the wiring and add new coaxial and ethernet cabling. I also had to get this inspected and all buttoned up before the stucco lath folks showed up. I had to hustle!

Insulation installed prior to lathing. This is R-19 underneath where the master bedroom floor cantilevers out by about 12 inches.

Insulation installed prior to lathing. This is R-19 underneath where the master bedroom floor cantilevers out by about 12 inches.

Nice lath job around the front door.

I also had to install all of the electrical fixtures (see the little yellow wire) and get a new front security door before the lath started. That’s because there was not enough clearance to remove and replace the old door without damaging the stucco. More unexpected work!

So, I finally got to the point where the lathing could take place, but I had one problem: I needed to remove the old electrical panel, and in order to do that I had to get the electrical service transferred. I worked with my stucco guy and we worked out a plan where I would get the electrical service transferred first thing on a Friday, then rip out the old box and have the lather come in and finish the area around the old electric box. Then the inspector would come later in the day. Unfortunately, the guy who was supposed to come to finish the job didn’t show, and the stucco contractor had to get a substitute who (a) came too late, so the inspection was called off and (b) was not a lath specialist, so he missed a few things. Fortunately, my stucco contractor and I came up with a plan “B” and he had somebody come out the following Monday to make sure everything was right, and then we got the lath inspection completed on Tuesday.

Utility workers pulling new electrical cables through the conduit that I installed almost 2 years ago. These guys are working on live lines, but are extremely careful to only work with one at a time. and they know how to do it safely. I'm way to chicken to ever do this.

Utility workers pulling new electrical cables through the conduit that I installed almost 2 years ago. These guys are working on live lines, but are extremely careful to only work with one at a time. and they know how to do it safely. I’m way to chicken to ever do this.

New meter installed. Actually, it's really just the existing meter taken out of the old panel and installed in the new main panel. Still, it's my nwe electrical work which has been given life!

New meter installed. Actually, it’s really just the existing meter taken out of the old panel and installed in the new main panel. Still, it’s my new electrical work which has been given life!

My old electric meter is now out, but we only have a few hours before the inspector comes to inspect the lath. I'm not feeling good about this...

My old electric meter is now out, but we only have a few hours before the inspector comes to inspect the lath. I’m not feeling good about this…

Temporary electrical hookup. I needed to install a working electrical system so I just ran new wires to the existing wiring and secured it. with tie wraps. It's neat, and it's exposed so I can monitor it, But definitely will need a total replacement. The good news was that everything worked when I turned it on the first time!

Temporary electrical hookup. I needed to install a working electrical system so I just ran new wires to the existing wiring and secured it. with tie wraps. It’s neat, and it’s exposed so I can monitor it, But definitely will need a total replacement. The good news was that everything worked when I turned it on the first time!

This little experience highlights something that I have found important as a project manager: A good project manager knows how to anticipate problems and avoid them, but also knows how to accommodate when unforeseen problems occur. I knew that scheduling a bunch of things to happen in a certain sequence that Friday had inherent risk. The electrical switchover had to go just right and be timely, the stucco guy had to come early enough and finish, and the inspector had to come late enough to give the lather enough time. So, things didn’t work out, but it was worth the try to maintain schedule. The good news was that I was done with all of the work that I was personally responsible for, so now, I’m not in the way. Nothing makes me more productive than the last minute!

The stucco work commences first with the scaffolding. This Sam the scaffold man. His work is solid and so much better than the tower scaffold that I had to endure working on during the construction of the addition.

The stucco work commences first with the scaffolding. This Sam the scaffold man. His work is solid and so much better than the tower scaffold that I had to endure working on during the construction of the addition.

Scaffolding all ready to go to start work!

Scaffolding all ready to go to start work!

Removing some of the old stucco in front. We just had to get rid of all of that

Removing some of the old stucco in front. We just had to get rid of all of that “chunky monkey” look that was popular when these houses were built. It’s not popular anymore.

Lath installed where I will get the new stucco. The rest of the house will be color coated only, but the combined effect will be like getting a brand new stucco finish.

Lath installed where I will get the new stucco. The rest of the house will be color coated only, but the combined effect will be like getting a brand new stucco finish.

The next day, the stucco guys came in and started the “scratch” coat, which is the first part of a 3 part stucco siding. It is designed to cling to the lath and help tie in the rest of the stucco. It is called the “scratch” coat because the finish is “scratched” to provide a good bond for the rest of the stucco. The following day, they came in and did the “brown” coat. This is the coat that gets close to the final depth of the siding, and is finished fairly smooth. Not sure why it’s called a brown coat, but that’s the lingo. Now it was time to wait a few days before the color coat. I had a hard deadline coming up because I needed the stucco guys out so the roofing guys could come in.

Let the stucco begin! First application of the scratch coat has started.

Let the stucco begin! First application of the scratch coat has started.

The mixer man dumping a load to hod around. This stuff is really heavy!

The mixer man dumping a load to hod around. This stuff is really heavy!

 

Brown coat complete. It really looks good, and will even look better once the finish coat is applied over the whole house.

Brown coat complete. It really looks good, and will even look better once the finish coat is applied over the whole house.

The next week, a couple of guys came out to do the scaffolding on the entire house. That was an all day job and it really had to be all over. This is one of the many reasons that stuccoing an entire house is NOT a DIY project! Then, the stucco finishers came out and started putting the color coat on. When they put it on the back, they smoothed out the existing texture and then put an awesome lace texture on. These guys are really artists — well maybe not Michaelangelo, but same idea (and same medium).

Scaffolding on the West side of the house. Scaffold set-up and take-down is a significant part of the cost of the work.

Scaffolding on the West side of the house. Scaffold set-up and take-down is a significant part of the cost of the work.

Scaffolding outside my loft window. I'm glad somebody else is doing this work while dancing on scaffolding!

Scaffolding outside my loft window. I’m glad somebody else is doing this work while dancing on scaffolding!

The man at the mixer mixing the color coat. Apprentices get to do the heavy work of mixing the stuff up and hodding it around to keep the plasterers busy so that they have time to work with the material. This is why I subcontracted this work out. Definitely NOT DIY!

The man at the mixer mixing the color coat. Apprentices get to do the heavy work of mixing the stuff up and hodding it around to keep the plasterers busy so that they have time to work with the material. This is why I subcontracted this work out. Definitely NOT DIY!

Color coat being applied over existing stucco (right under the eaves).

Color coat being applied over existing stucco (right under the eaves).

The master plasterer at work. Michelangelo had nothing on this guy!

The master plasterer at work. Michelangelo had nothing on this guy!

Stucco is a very messy trade. Sort of like sausage making -- you don't want to see the process, but you like the result.

Stucco is a very messy trade. Sort of like sausage making — you don’t want to see the process, but you like the result.

In the end it all worked out. I was very pleased with the result, and my home is becoming the envy of the neighborhood. Next, onto the roof!

beautiful-texture

Close-up of the texture. This is real artisan stuff here. I have a very unique product that looks great!

color-coat-complete

Color coat complete. Looks fabulous! The roofers are coming next week, so the scaffolding still has to be removed. It’s going to be tight with the schedule!

It’s Electric!

While waiting for some more vacation time to accrue so that I could take a couple of weeks off and do the master bedroom buildout, I had a few weeks with nothing planned in particular. So last week, I decided to get some of my electrical work in. I’ve been researching this for some time and came to the conclusion that I would get the new service entrance panel and breaker panel all mounted and connected, and then I could call the city inspector. After passing that inspection, I could then contact the electric company (SDG&E) at my convenience and have the upgraded services connected at a time convenient for me. So I figured I could at least get the panel installation done.

The first thing was to order all of the parts. I had figured out most of this during the design phase of the remodel, so all I had to do was to re-familiarize myself with the work I already had completed, and then go back into the manufacturer’s catalog (I chose Eaton), get the part numbers, and then type them into the Home Depot website and put them on order for home delivery (that was free). 3 days and $1,000.00 later, I had all of my panels and breakers at the ready.

The next step was to open up the panels to see exactly how they were laid out so I could figure out what would go where, what knockouts I would use, what types of conduit and fittings I would need and what kind of wiring to get. I didn’t need a lot of wire because the panels are back-to-back, but it needed to be pretty hefty wire because it carries all of the house loads. One thing I had to figure out was how to lay out the grounding bus and neutral bus. If this means nothing to you, then you can (a) read my previous blog entry on grounding, (b) go to this website (http://www.wireyourownhouse.com) which does a pretty good job of explaining the terminology, or (c) skip ahead and forget the technical stuff. Since I like the technical stuff and it’s my blog, then I’m going to tell you all about it.

My brand-new meter panel. This is just like Christmas!

My brand-new meter panel. This is just like Christmas!

In most panels, the service (main) breaker and all of the feeder breakers are in the same enclosure. This arrangement allows you to install grounds and neutrals on the same bus. However, once you have a panel which is fed from another breaker (called a sub-panel), you now have to electrically separate the ground from the neutral. The reason for this is because if you have a unbalanced load running, such as a single 120v appliance, then there will be current running on the neutral, and if that neutral is grounded, it will be running through the grounding wire as well, which can be dangerous. It also can screw up the operation of your Ground Fault Circuit Interruption (GFCI) and Arc Fault Interruption (AFCI) breakers.

So, the way I have my panel wired up, with the main service breaker as part of the meter panel, I have to wire the panel with all of the circuit breakers as a sub-panel. Yes, it’s a little more complicated, but I wanted to be able to COMPLETELY de-energize the circuit breaker panel so I could work on it safely. All in one panels are NOT de-energized because you still have live voltage at the cables coming in from the meter into the top of your mains.

No big deal. All of these panels come with a neutral bus that can be separated by removing a jumper bar, and you can now have a separate neutral and ground bus. BUT, I had one problem. Nowadays almost EVERY breaker is going to have GFCI or AFCI protection. Out of the 21 circuits in my design, only 3 use conventional breakers. The GFCI and AFCI breakers have a “pigtail” which forms part of the sensing circuit and connects to the neutral bus. But I really couldn’t see trying to wire the panel with just one neutral bus without having pigtails on the opposite side making a complete mess and a wiring nightmare. If there is anything that I know about electrical work, it is that neatness counts. Big time. Yeah, you can get it to work if your wiring is a rat’s nest. but it will be difficult to work with later, especially if you have to troubleshoot or add a new circuit.  What I really needed was a neutral bus and grounding bus on each side of the panel so that I could have some flexibility in routing the wires.

Well, it turns out that the panel manufacturers make individual grounding busses that you can screw into holes in the panel that just so happen to match. So, I left the jumper between the existing ground and neutral busses and just didn’t connect them to ground, making them both neutral busses, and then installed two of the add-on grounding busses above and connected it all up with proper grounding wire.

Indoor distribution panel modified for neutral and grounding bars on each side.

Indoor distribution panel modified for neutral and grounding bars on each side.

With that problem solved, it was time to locate the panels and figure out how to attach them to the wall. I also had to make sure that it was vertically located to make it easy to work inside the panels, and met the utility company specifications for the height of the meter. The last part was to figure out how the wires would be routed so I could identify the correct “knockouts” to, well, knock out.

After some preliminary fitting, I temporarily attached the indoor breaker panel between the studs and marked the hole for the wires coming in from the meter. I then removed the panel, drilled the hole with a hole saw, and installed a short piece of threaded pipe, or conduit in electrician’s terms, so that the wires would be protected as they passed through the wall.

Closeup of the through-wall conduit, which is the silver pipe on the lower right. The yellow water seal is visible.

Closeup of the through-wall conduit, which is the silver pipe on the lower right. The yellow water seal is visible.

Turning my attention to the meter panel outside, now could locate it using the conduit coming from the inside as an anchor point. After some trial-and-error and trimming of the conduit coming up from the ground for the main power lines and ground wire, I marked the location of the mounting holes in the back of the panel and drilled holes for the mounting bolts. I chose to use carriage bolts for mounting the panel because (a) they would provide a good anchor to the plywood of the wall and (b) they could protrude enough so that I could get a layer of stucco on the plywood before I mounted the panel. More on that later.

Exterior studs and conduit aligned for the outer meter panel. Yes, the stud on the lower left looks a little out of line, but I needed to "adjust" it to make it fit.

Exterior studs and conduit aligned for the outer meter panel. Yes, the stud on the lower left looks a little out of line, but I needed to “adjust” it to make it fit.

Lastly, I needed to fit everything together to make sure it all worked. So, out with the inside panel (again) to install the bolts for the outside panel, replace the inside panel and fit the conduit into the hole in the wall, fiddle around with the outside meter panel to align it with the main power, ground, and thru-wall conduits, and finally fit the panel onto the mounting bolts. How does it look? Ugh! The damned thing was leaning over! But, never a project without some kind of do-over, and because I do a lot of this do-over stuff, I’m pretty good at it. One hour later, voilá! Nicely done.

Outside meter panel temporarily mounted., Want to make sure everything lines up before putting on the waterproofing building paper and stucco.

Outside meter panel temporarily mounted., Want to make sure everything lines up before putting on the waterproofing building paper and stucco.

Well, maybe that wasn’t the last step. I needed to make sure that the wall behind the outside panel was properly waterproofed, and if I installed it directly to the plywood, that would be impossible. The correct solution is courtesy of my favorite stucco guy, Kirk Giordano (http://www.youtube.com/user/StuccoPlastering). He showed a video of putting up stucco behind a new electrical panel with all of the proper waterproofing. In his instance, the panel was already located, but In my case, I could remove the panel to get better access. The key is to properly waterproof plywood with 2 layers of building paper, making sure that you flash and counter-flash around the conduit through the wall and the mounting bolts. Then, it’s time to do some stucco work! I really didn’t want to do a whole lot of it — just enough to make a nice surface in back of the panel. The professional stucco people that I plan on hiring will feather in around the panel and it will all look nice in the end. My job was just to make sure that I left enough room for them to tie into the paper and the lath when they come in to do the finish work.

The studs and conduit are properly wrapped in masking tape to shield them from the onslaught of stucco mud.

The studs and conduit are properly wrapped in masking tape to shield them from the onslaught of stucco mud.

 

Meter panel mounted in the final position. I tried to make the wall in back waterproof, yet easy for the stucco contractor to come in and finish around the panel.

Meter panel mounted in the final position. I tried to make the wall in back waterproof, yet easy for the stucco contractor to come in and finish around the panel.

Closeup of the sealer locknut. This is a great installation.

Closeup of the sealer locknut. This is a great installation.

 

Now the fun part — wiring! To me, this is a fairly straightforward task that is not particularly physically taxing, and you aren’t under any time pressure, like you are with masonry, and it’s pretty clean work (no mortar, sawdust, paint drips, water, etc.). My primary objective when doing wiring, other than meeting all specifications (e.g., wire sizes, connectors, strain reliefs, grounding) is NEATNESS. Especially in the main electrical panel. Wires should not just cris-cross all over the place, but be neatly run, vertically and horizontally, so it is possible to easily follow where each wire goes. As with all projects, a little forethought can go a long way, and in this instance, I figured out that I needed to route the ground wires first because I had to snake the wire coming in from the meter panel in back of the neutral bus on the breaker panel. I then had to connect just 3 more wires: two hot and one neutral. But these were BIG wires. Well, cables if you want to be more descriptive. For a 200 amp service, 2/0 copper is sufficient. There are some techniques for handling this size of cable, and I learned a lot from the Internet, as well as a great book by Rex Cauldwell called Wiring a House (Taunton Press, 2014). But basically, all you need is a utility knife, a pair of linesman pliers, a hacksaw and a crescent wrench (you use the hole in the handle for bending the cable).

Here are some pictures that show some of the electrical details.

Elements of a meter panel. Cables from the transformer at the street come up through the big conduit on the bottom. The two power lines hook up to the bottom of the meter, and the neutral cable hooks up to the neutral bar. The meter goes into the base on the left hand side, The two cables coming out of the top of the meter base go to the main panel breaker. Cables for power and neutral will come down and feed back into the house through the metal conduit on the right. Everything on the left hand side is the responsibility of the utility. Everything on the right hand side is all mine!

Elements of a meter panel. Cables from the transformer at the street come up through the big conduit on the bottom. The two power lines hook up to the bottom of the meter, and the neutral cable hooks up to the neutral bar. The meter goes into the base on the left hand side, The two cables coming out of the top of the meter base go to the main panel breaker. Cables for power and neutral will come down and feed back into the house through the metal conduit on the right. Everything on the left hand side is the responsibility of the utility. Everything on the right hand side is all mine!

 

Everything all wired up for action! The feeder breakers are installed back-to-back along the center so they make contact with one (for120v) or both (for 240v) of the hot legs. Outgoing wires for the branch circuits are routed in along the "gutters" adjacent to the hot legs. What is it about the trades and their terminology? Male and female fittings, nipples, studs, hot legs? Sheesh!

Everything all wired up for action! The feeder breakers are installed back-to-back along the center so they make contact with one (for120v) or both (for 240v) of the hot legs. Outgoing wires for the branch circuits are routed in along the “gutters” adjacent to the hot legs. What is it about the trades and their terminology? Male and female fittings, nipples, studs, hot legs? Sheesh!

And here is a video of me putting all of this together.

All done. Now it’s time for inspection!

Drip Irrigation and Planting — Finishing The Outside

In and amongst the holidays, I was able to wrap up the outside work so I could go into the New Year with a clean slate and start on the OTHER part of the remodeling project — the INSIDE!! The good thing about finishing up was that the work could be easily broken up into short stints so it was relatively easy to fit this remaining effort into a busy holiday schedule.

First on the list was completion of the drip irrigation system. I bought all of the parts over a year ago, because I had to install a bunch of stuff underground, so what is shown in the photos has been gathering sawdust in my garage for over a year. Maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to do because a few things changed during construction of the planters and retaining walls, so I ended up overbuying some things, but I definitely wanted to get all the parts from the same manufacturer (Rain Bird) to make sure that they all fit and worked together. I have a previous post on the design of the irrigation system if you’re interested.

Irrigation plan details. The laundry greywater (purple) is already installed and all of the underground pipes and control wires are buried and ready for hook-up.

Irrigation plan details. The laundry greywater (purple) is already installed and all of the underground pipes and control wires are buried and ready for hook-up.

The first thing that I needed to do was to hook up the wiring. This is not terribly difficult to do, but you do have to keep track of which wires are doing what. In my case, I have a total of 5 zones, which means 5 valves, plus a rain sensor. Each valve requires one dedicated wire, and another connection to a common wire, which makes 6. The rain sensor requires 2 wires, so that’s a total of 8 wires. Plus, you always want a spare or two, so I ended up getting a 10 wire control cable. Now comes the important part: WRITE DOWN what color goes where, and then COPY that to someplace that you will remember. Most folks just write it down on some sort of sticker that they put on the inside of the irrigation controller door, but because mine is going to be part of a smart home and connected to the home controller via ethernet, it won’t have a door, so I’ll have to figure out something else.

This is my plan for mapping the irrigation zone numbers to the wire colors. I sure hope I remember to put this somewhere where I won't forget about it or throw it away!

This is my plan for mapping the irrigation zone numbers to the wire colors. I sure hope I remember to put this somewhere where I won’t forget about it or throw it away!

Connecting the wires is pretty simple. The wires are fairly small (18 gauge), so you’ll need a wire stripper that accommodates the smaller size. I found out this the hard way years ago, so I now have two wire strippers that cover most all sizes between the two of them. Don’t be all cheap and use a knife to strip the wires. You’ll damage the wires, AND your fingers.

Types of wire cutters. The one on the right is pretty common, but I've always had trouble with it. I bought the others which are specifically designed for stripping wire (and nothing else). The one on the left is mostly used for residential wiring (which includes the irrigation control wires). The one in the middle is what I use for wiring electronics (smaller wires).

Types of wire cutters. The one on the right is pretty common, but I’ve always had trouble with it. I bought the others which are specifically designed for stripping wire (and nothing else). The one on the left is mostly used for residential wiring (which includes the irrigation control wires). The one in the middle is what I use for wiring electronics (smaller wires).

The way to properly join the wires together is with waterproof wire nuts. They work just like regular wire nuts, but they are stuffed with petroleum jelly (Vaseline) and have a flexible retainer on the bottom that holds the goop inside. You’ll want to get the smallest ones. If in doubt, the package will have the number and combinations of wire sizes that you can use with that particular size of wire nut, so you should be able to figure out what you’ll need. Turns out that the sublime skill of choosing the correct wire nut is vastly more important when working with standard residential electrical circuits (120v/240v), so it is a must-learn for the serious do-it-yourselfer.

Tools for the wiring hookup. From left to right, you have the waterproof wire nuts, a set of "dikes", wire stripper, needle nose pliers, and a utility knife.

Tools for the wiring hookup. From left to right, you have the waterproof wire nuts, a set of “dikes”, wire stripper, needle nose pliers, and a utility knife.

Now that you have the right tools and materials, it’s pretty straightforward to hook everything up. You’ll have to “daisy-chain” the common wire, meaning that you’ll take the incoming white wire, outgoing white wire, and valve wire and twist all three together, and then go to the next one, etc.. Just remember to follow the color codes that you made up earlier. One quick note about the valve wires: it doesn’t matter which one you choose to be hooked to the common (white) wire and which you choose to hook up to the individual colored wire. That’s because the valves work on 12v alternating current (AC). Since it’s low voltage (i.e., cannot cause a fire or deadly shock), there aren’t any complicated rules about neutrals or grounds, so, bottom line, it’s pretty hard to f*** up. One other thing about electrical wiring is that it pays to be neat. Sure, if the electrical connections are correct, the darned thing will work, but making things neat and secure will not only make it much easier to troubleshoot and repair when (not if) it is necessary, but will also make those repairs LESS necessary. Plus, you want to have pride in your work, yes?

To get to the wires, you’ll need to strip off the sheathing. This stuff is a bear to get off, but there’s a trick. Use a utility knife and make a small slit in the sheathing and then pull it back. Find the white thread and give it a pull with pliers down the sheathing. Voliá! The inner wires are nicely accessible. Strip off about 1″ from each of the wires you want to join, and then twist them together. You want them to match up where the insulation ends. Don’t worry about the ends, as they will be cut off. For this size of wire and wire nut, 1″ is way to long, so use a set of diagonal pliers (“dikes”) to cut the twisted wires to the correct length (about 1/2″). This allows you to insert the wires well into the wire nut, and you want the goop to cover the wires all the way past the insulation to fully waterproof the connection. Twist the nut until you feel it “bite” the wires, and then continue twisting 1-2 turns. The wires coming out of the wire nut will twist around each other, and this provides assurance that the connection inside is nice and secure while also providing some mechanical strength to the assembly. When you have all of the connections made up for the valve, use a nylon tie wrap to secure everything together. Nice and neat! Here are some pictures:

Cut the sheath of the control wire cable with a utility knife. All you need to do is to get it started. Since you might damage the control wires when you do this, allow sufficient slack so that you can cut this end off after you strip the sheath.

Cut the sheath of the control wire cable with a utility knife. All you need to do is to get it started. Since you might damage the control wires when you do this, allow sufficient slack so that you can cut this end off after you strip the sheath.

This is a little thread that can be used to strip the cable sheathing. It is pretty difficult to grab with your fingers, so I found using needle nose pliers pretty much essential.

This is a little thread that can be used to strip the cable sheathing. It is pretty difficult to grab with your fingers, so I found using needle nose pliers pretty much essential.

The white line does a really good job of cutting through the sheathing. You'll want to cut a fair amount of sheathing off to give you plenty of wire to work with. You did remember to allow lots of extra cable during the underground installation, didn't you?

The white line does a really good job of cutting through the sheathing. You’ll want to cut a fair amount of sheathing off to give you plenty of wire to work with. You did remember to allow lots of extra cable during the underground installation, didn’t you?

The wire stripper will have several holes, each marked with the gauge of wire that you're stripping. Find the number that corresponds to the wire you're working with (in this instance, 18 gauge) and then squeeze the handles and pull off the insulation.

The wire stripper will have several holes, each marked with the gauge of wire that you’re stripping. Find the number that corresponds to the wire you’re working with (in this instance, 18 gauge) and then squeeze the handles and pull off the insulation.

To twist the wire, line up the wires at the ends of the insulation and then twist clockwise.

To twist the wire, line up the wires at the ends of the insulation and then twist clockwise.

Wires all twisted together and ready for the wire nut. Well, almost....

Wires all twisted together and ready for the wire nut. Well, almost….

Twisted wires are too long for the wire nut. This is on purpose.

Twisted wires are too long for the wire nut. This is on purpose.

Wire is now cut to the proper size. I do this because (a) I want to make it easy to twist the wires together, and that means they will be too long, (b) cutting gives a clean end with all wires at the same length, and (c) The wire ends have little sharp edges which will give a good "bite" into the spring insert of the wire nut when you screw it on.

Wire is now cut to the proper size. I do this because (a) I want to make it easy to twist the wires together, and that means they will be too long, (b) cutting gives a clean end with all wires at the same length, and (c) The wire ends have little sharp edges which will give a good “bite” into the spring insert of the wire nut when you screw it on.

Wire nut properly twisted on. Note that the insulation of the wires goes up into the base of the nut and that the wires are twisted around each other, ensuring a good mechanical connection.

Wire nut properly twisted on. Note that the insulation of the wires goes up into the base of the nut and that the wires are twisted around each other, ensuring a good mechanical connection.

Here is an example of a completed wire assembly for an irrigation control valve. The white wire is the common wire, and the green wire is the color that you used per your plan. You have a plan, right?

Here is an example of a completed wire assembly for an irrigation control valve. The white wire is the common wire, and the green wire is the color that you used per your plan. You have a plan, right?

Control wires in the farthest valve box. I initially used electrical tape to group the wires together but decided that it was (a) kind of difficult to be neat and (b) will be tough to take apart if I ever have to. Nylon tie wraps are better.

Control wires in the farthest valve box. I initially used electrical tape to group the wires together but decided that it was (a) kind of difficult to be neat and (b) will be tough to take apart if I ever have to. Nylon tie wraps are better.

Control connections completed in the front. Lots of wires, but all are grouped neatly and out of the way of the manual controls.

Control connections completed in the front. Lots of wires, but all are grouped neatly and out of the way of the manual controls.

Enough about the electrical stuff. Let’s get to the irrigation! Drip irrigation is simple on the one hand, and nuanced on the other. A basic drip system is composed of a drip supply line (dripline) and drippers (emitters). The dripline is typically a 1/2″ thin-walled polyethylene piping, which is fairly flexible (when warm) and elastic. This flexibility will allow you to “punch in” the emitters with a special tool (yes, you need the special tool!) wherever you need them. The emitters have a sharp barb which, when pressed hard against the drip tubing, will pierce it, and the tubing will self-seal around the barb because of the aforementioned elasticity. And there you have it: a dripper ready for action! (Note that there are many different kind of drip emitters. If you want to learn more, you can go to the “Irrigation Tutorials” website to find out more. BTW, this is a GREAT site if you want to really learn something about irrigation!)

Ready for installation of the driplines and emitters. I've had these parts for about a year, so it's time to get to work!

Ready for installation of the driplines and emitters. I’ve had these parts for about a year, so it’s time to get to work!

Now comes the nuance. Where do you need to place the drippers? Again, the Irrigation tutorial website gives excellent advice on emitter spacing. It also shows you how to do a simple test to determine the optimum spacing. I did this test and determined that the optimum spacing for my soil was 18″. That meant the each dripper needed to be 18″ from the adjacent ones, and the dripper tubes needed to be 9″ from the edges of the planters, and 18″ between each dripper line.

An 18" spacer stick made from scrap PVC pipe. I used this to space my dripper lines and emitters based on testing that I did earlier.

An 18″ spacer stick made from scrap PVC pipe. I used this to space my dripper lines and emitters based on testing that I did earlier.

With those details out of the way, I was ready to start actual work. Remember how the irrigation lines were installed in the trenches way back when? Well, the have some dirt inside due to the nature of the assembly process. So, the dirt must be flushed out first, otherwise, you have a bunch of emitters that will get clogged and won’t work. With some trepidation, I turned on the water supply to the irrigation system, and thankfully there were no leaks or blowouts. Not that I expected any, but I’ve been proven wrong before. I then used the manual override on each control valve to thoroughly flush out the piping. I then installed the mandatory vacuum breaker assembly on each of the stubs, and then was ready to connect the dripline. The best way to connect dripline is with compression fittings. These can be a little difficult to work when it’s cold (as it was the day I was doing the installation), but with enough twisting, pushing and swearing, the damn things will go together. Being mindful of the spacing requirements, I laid out the dripline on the ground and used U-shaped stakes (made for the purpose)  to hold everything in place. The dripline comes in big coils, so it’s best to try to warm it up in the sun beforehand so it becomes more flexible.

Above ground drip irrigation parts.

Above ground drip irrigation parts.

This is what is known as an Atmospheric Vacuum Breaker (AVB). This must be installed at least 6" above the highest point of the associated dripper line so that you don't get backflow into your drinking water. We have an outdoor cat, and who knows where he goes or what he does. All I know is that I occasionally find some of his "nuggets" well hidden under the mulch. Best not to take any chances!

This is what is known as an Atmospheric Vacuum Breaker (AVB). This must be installed at least 6″ above the highest point of the associated dripper line so that you don’t get backflow into your drinking water. We have an outdoor cat, and who knows where he goes or what he does. All I know is that I occasionally find some of his “nuggets” well hidden under the mulch. Best not to take any chances!

Getting my driplines warmed up by the sun so they will be more workable.

Getting my driplines warmed up by the sun so they will be more workable.

Front planter driplines all connected and staked.

Front planter driplines all connected and staked.

The side yard with dripline installed.

The side yard with dripline installed.

Dripper lines in the herb garden. Because I want flexibility in this area, I chose to run the lines at a 18" spacing and do the same with the emitters. That way the entire area will be irrigated.

Dripper lines in the herb garden. Because I want flexibility in this area, I chose to run the lines at a 18″ spacing and do the same with the emitters. That way the entire area will be irrigated.

One of the important design considerations in a drip system is to provide a means of flushing the driplines. This will typically be a stub off the farthest end of the line (or a tee if the line is looped) that has a removable plug (that you bought in anticipation of this need). So before you begin in earnest to install the emitters, you’ll need to perform a good flush of the dripline that you just installed by removing the plug and manually activating the irrigation zone of interest.

An example of a flush line. Yes, I know what it looks like. It will be covered with mulch, and after I took this picture, I decided to twist it around so it lies flat.

An example of a flush line. Yes, I know what it looks like. It will be covered with mulch, and after I took this picture, I decided to twist it around so it lies flat.

That detail out of the way, it’s time to install emitters. I knew that the spacing for me was 18″, so I made a little gauge out of leftover PVC pipe. Punching the emitters into the dripline is made MUCH easier with a special tool, that the manufacturer provides (for a reasonable price). If you’re punching in 250+ emitters into this dripline, then you REALLY need this tool! Yet, even using this tool, the emitters can be a bit recalcitrant. Usually you can feel the barb penetrate the tube and seat properly. If in doubt, give the emitter a tug to make sure it’s secure. Even so, you’ll probably have a few blow off when you first turn on the system. In most cases, reseating the blown-off emitter with the tool will solve the problem. If not, then you can install a “goof plug” and pop the emitter in someplace else. Make SURE you get some “goof plugs” so you have this option.

Anatomy of a diaphragm pressure regulated drip emitter.

Anatomy of a diaphragm pressure regulated drip emitter.

Emitter installed in the insertion tool.

Emitter installed in the insertion tool.

Punching in the emitter.

Punching in the emitter.

This is the hole that the barb in the emitter punches into the polyethylene dripper line. The material is elastic and deforms, which is good because it provides a good seal.

This is the hole that the barb in the emitter punches into the polyethylene dripper line. The material is elastic and deforms, which is good because it provides a good seal.

Emitter installed in the polyethylene dripper line. Note that there is a dimple in the line. This is apparently OK because they all look like this and don't leak.

Emitter installed in the polyethylene dripper line. Note that there is a dimple in the line. This is apparently OK because they all look like this and don’t leak.

 

Now that all the emitters were in, it was time to run a test. I had previously hooked up all of the irrigation control valve wires to a temporary controller (because I don’t have my smart-home infrastructure built yet) and I now programmed it and turned everything on to make sure it was working. Sure enough, an emitter blew off, but I re-inserted it, and re-ran the test with no problems.

After the drip system is in, the next step is to mulch. I suppose you could plant first and then spread all of the mulch around the plants, but I figured it was easier to get the mulch in place first, and then push it aside where I wanted to put the plants. Probably about the same, amount of work overall, but because I was using bulk mulch (way cheaper), I wanted to barrow that around before I put up the gate and fencing around the front porch so I could more easily maneuver the wheelbarrow.

It was finally time to order the plants. We had a few in pots that we wanted to keep, but by and large, I needed to start from scratch. Shopping for plants can be quite intimidating because of the large variety available. The best thing to do is to figure out what constraints you have (size, sun, water) and then go with plants that tend to work well in your particular area. Even so, there are still a substantial array of choices. After much deliberation, visits to nurseries, and many hours online, I came up with a handful of plants that I thought would work well together. I put them in a list and sent the list to my favorite nursery, thinking that they would order it and deliver it. Well, that didn’t work out so well because (a) several plants weren’t in season, and (b) I didn’t get a chance to see them in person. What I ended up doing was visiting the nursery several times and having the folks help me make good choices of what they had in stock. If I had to do this over, I would perform the research as I did, but then take the list of plants and have the folks at the nursery make suggestions and recommendations based on the overall guidance of the original plan and forget about the delivery or special order stuff.

Fortunately, planting is a pretty straightforward process. (1) Position your plants. (2) Move away the mulch and dig a hole. (3) Toss in some fertilizer. (4) Set the plant in the hole and backfill. (5) Put the mulch back over the dirt. (6) Repeat for the other 49 plants you bought. It took me an afternoon to plant my herb garden and another afternoon to plant the rest.

Irrigation and mulching in place, I'm ready to plant!

Irrigation and mulching in place, I’m ready to plant!

Ready to plant the side yard. This shows how I arranged and spaced the plants while still in their containers. Much easier than digging a hole, planting, and finding out that it really wasn't where you wanted it.

Ready to plant the side yard. This shows how I arranged and spaced the plants while still in their containers. Much easier than digging a hole, planting, and finding out that it really wasn’t where you wanted it.

The center planter will be a succulent garden. All drought tolerant!

The center planter will be a succulent garden. All drought tolerant!

Finished edge plantings. Here you see ornamental ryegrass, salvia with red blossoms (substituted for bougainvillea), and creeping rosemary.

Finished edge plantings. Here you see ornamental ryegrass, salvia with red blossoms (substituted for bougainvillea), and creeping rosemary.

 

This is the herb garden. It doesn't look like much now, but I have lots of yummy treats in store once this gets going. 4 kinds of mint, 2 kinds of thyme, 2 kinds of oregano, italian parsley, chives, culinary lavender, lemon verbena, lemon grass, and sage. I already have a mature culinary rosemary bush, and I have another plan for the basil garden (on the wall under the trellis).

This is the herb garden. It doesn’t look like much now, but I have lots of yummy treats in store once this gets going. 4 kinds of mint, 2 kinds of thyme, 2 kinds of oregano, italian parsley, chives, culinary lavender, lemon verbena, lemon grass, and sage. I already have a mature culinary rosemary bush, and I have another plan for the basil garden (on the wall under the trellis).

This is a shade-tolerant, water friendly plant which will grow into a nice evergreen bush with yellow flowers. I have no idea what it's called. That's why I go to a nursery and have the folks there give me suggestions.

This is a shade-tolerant, water friendly plant which will grow into a nice evergreen bush with yellow flowers. I have no idea what it’s called. That’s why I go to a nursery and have the folks there give me suggestions.

My new mexican thornless lime tree on the left, and a poinsettia on the right. I got the poinsettia from a colleague at work who was selling them on behalf of his daughter. This was 2-3 years ago and the thing has survived, so it's a hacker and therefore has a place in our garden. I hope that it grows to be the nice evergreen bush that poinsettias become, now that it will have proper care.

My new mexican thornless lime tree on the left, and a poinsettia on the right. I got the poinsettia from a colleague at work who was selling them on behalf of his daughter. This was 2-3 years ago and the thing has survived, so it’s a hacker and therefore has a place in our garden. I hope that it grows to be the nice evergreen bush that poinsettias become, now that it will have proper care.

 

 

Now I have a nice garden started, and just in time for the El Niño rains (that are starting as I write this). My attention now turns to the inside where I will undertake a serious “spring cleaning”, so we can get rid of the stuff we really don’t need, and the rest has to be pushed around and/or go into storage so we can move out of our bedroom and garage, and start the work from the INSIDE. Yes, this project is only half-done and some of the worst is yet to come. But my wife has new-found confidence in my ability to design, build, and make things look nice. That outlook will now be tested. (Again!)

My First Electrical Work, But First I Build A Workbench — Now How Did THAT Happen?

As I’ve mentioned before several times on this blog, all major projects will take some unexpected turns. I had a good head of steam going with finishing the front yard, but, in the back of my mind, I had one piece of unfinished business. When the inspector came by back in December to OK the burial of services, we discussed the ground for the electrical system. He suggested that I check what kind of grounding system I already had in place, and I might be able to use it with no further work on my part. Well, to do that, I had to remove the drywall from the back of the main electrical panel, and to do that, I had to take off all of my tools from my pegboard and unload my workbench. So, because that was a big job, I kept putting it off. But now that I was getting ready to pour concrete, I had to get this resolved. I surely did not want to have to bust up newly poured concrete!

The first step was to unload and dismantle my workbench. It was kind of a POS to begin with because I used cheap prefab cabinets made of fiberboard. Maybe OK for a rental unit, but the cardboard drawer bottoms really didn’t hold up to heavy loads like tools and boxes of metal fasteners. So it was destined, at some point, to go. But what to put in its place? I mean, any self-respecting DIY’er needs a workbench! All kidding aside, your workbench is an essential tool, if for no other reason to lay out your work and materials. So, now I had to build a workbench. I wanted to get this done quickly, but the more I thought about it, I did not want to just build a “throw-away” bench. Was there a design out there that was relatively quick and easy to build, but would be something that I could keep and use for years to come? The short answer was yes. In fact, there were plenty of them. The Internet is chock full of designs, but also, because I use a 3D modeling program called SketchUp, there is a tremendous online presence which has a bunch of pre-designed models just waiting to be used. Turns out that woodworkers use SketchUp a lot, so I was in luck.

I found a really nice design by Tom Caspar of the American Woodworker magazine. This was a very functional workbench, made of common lumber you could get from a big box store, and it had a number of features of a traditional master carpenter’s bench, including a large face vise, a tail vise with provisions for bench dogs, and a tool tray. I added a couple of shelves and some retractable casters, and voila! A functional, inexpensive, and easy to make workbench. OK, well inexpensive is relative. I probably spent about $500 on materials if you include the vise hardware and casters, but I see these “works-of-art” workbenches made of hardwoods and fancy hardware that sell for $2,000. I’ve also known other woodworkers that pay that much for just the raw materials (good hardwood is expensive). Actually, I don’t understand why there would ever be a market for a pre-made master woodworker’s bench. If you have the woodworking skills and interest to actually use a bench like this, well, you would just make it, right? I mean, isn’t that what woodworking is all about? Unless you’re just a pretender. Some things will always remain a mystery to me.

Easy to make is also relative. I have a pretty well-appointed woodworking shop with a table saw, drill press, jointer, planer, bandsaw, lathe, and dust collection system (ShopSmith). (I really like my ShopSmith and have used it ever since I bought it back in 1990 — I think it’s a great solution for a complete workshop in a small space.) I also have a sliding compound miter saw that is mounted to a workstand (that I built). I also have a special jig for my circular saw that guides it accurately when cutting sheet goods — just like a panel saw. So, with all of these tools, and a number of years of experience, I found it to be relatively easy, and I put it together in a couple of weekends. Here are some pictures,

Picture of the plans

Picture of the plans

Finished Workbench With Tools

Finished Workbench With Tools

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and a link to the PDF set of plans:  TOM’S TORSION BOX WORKBENCH REV 1.0

Finally, it was time to move all of the tools from the pegboard and empty the drawers. I was able to find some nice plastic storage tubs which fit very nicely on my shelves in my new workbench, so I was actually able to keep the garage fairly well-organized. I tore out and broke down the cabinets, pulled out the old shelving and pegboard, and prepared to demo the drywall. My first cut showed that there was no ground wire coming out of the bottom of the electrical panel. Not good. So I kept tearing down drywall until I found what looked like the grounding wire. It was a #4 aluminum wire (bad) that obviously was headed upstairs to the plumbing system (bad again). I was hoping to find a ground to the rebar of the foundation (also called a Ufer ground), but no luck. So, I had to go back to the codes to figure out my options. Here is what I found:

#4 Aluminum ground wire won't be enough to handle a 200A circuit. Plus, it's grounded to the plumbing system which is no longer allowed. So, I need a new grounding system.

#4 Aluminum ground wire won’t be enough to handle a 200A circuit. Plus, it’s grounded to the plumbing system which is no longer allowed. So, I need a new grounding system.

An example of the crappy electrical installation in my home.

An example of the crappy electrical installation in my home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More code violations! If I can, I'm going to replace every wire in this house! Especially because they're aluminum.

More code violations! If I can, I’m going to replace every wire in this house! Especially because they’re aluminum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turns out that I had already done a lot of research. I knew that there was a possibility of not finding a good grounding system and that I would have to install a new one, so I started looking into what that would take several months ago. A residential electrical system needs a good, low impedance connection to the earth for several reasons. (1) The earth ground will help protect your house and all of your electrical/electronic devices by dissipating high voltages that could occur due to a lightning strike or an electrical surge on the electric grid. (2) The earth ground serves as a zero voltage reference to help keep voltages constant at your appliances and receptacles, and serves to dissipate stray charges caused by static electricity build-up. (3) The ground allows a return path from your electric service panel to the electric utility’s supply transformer to correct imbalances in your electrical system. (WARNING — TECHNICAL STUFF AHEAD!)

Your electrical system connects to the electric utility through a “transformer” which is a relatively simple device that, through the magic of Maxwell’s equations, takes high voltage (typically 7,500V) from the electric transmission lines, and converts it to lower voltage (240V) suitable for residential use. This transformer splits this voltage into two legs using a center tap on the secondary windings of the transformer as a common return line. Hence your electric panel has two voltages available: 240v across the ends of the transformer, and 120v taken from one end of the transformer to the center tap. This center tap is called the “neutral” and, in theory, if all loads on both sides of the transformer are balanced, the neutral current is essentially zero. However, that’s rarely the case as the various circuits in your home draw from either one or the other side of the neutral (center tap) and some times they’re on and sometimes they’re not. So there is ALWAYS some current flowing through the neutral, and the grounding of the neutral to earth allows a return path for these “stray” currents to go back to opposite winding of the transformer via the ground on the transformer side.

Well at least I think I understand it.

Back to installing the ground. Because of the dry conditions, the best ground you can get in the southwest United States is a Ufer ground, or more appropriately called a “concrete encased electrode”. It turns out that the rebar in your slab and foundation makes a pretty good ground to the earth because concrete is conductive and the large surface area exposed to the earth provides a good, low impedance connection. But that didn’t do me any good because I’m not pouring a foundation. Another option is to use the water supply system provided that it is conductive. Even though the code allows it, this can be problematic because (a) somebody can always come in and install a non-conductive fitting (e.g., PVC) and (b) my water supply line is covered by a protective plastic sleeve to help prevent corrosion, which makes it useless as a ground. So the best option was for me to use grounding rods.

Grounding rods are 8′ copper encased steel rods that are driven into the ground. Normally they are driven straight in, but if you have rocks in the way, this can be problematic. So, if you run into rocks, you can drive the rods at a 45° angle, and if you STILL run into rocks, you can bury the rod horizontally at a 30″ depth. So, I decided to go with a rod grounding system that consists of two, 8′ rods driven at least 6′ apart (2x length, or 16′ is best) and connected with a continuous #4 solid copper wire. From the Internet I learned that the best way to drive these rods was to pony up the bucks to rent the largest hammer drill you could carry and rent a special rod driving bit to go with it. This YouTube video showed somebody driving the rod in about 40 seconds, but I really didn’t think I would be that lucky. Nevertheless, I procured the necessary materials and tools and merrily went to work.

The first attempt was about like I expected. Although I was hopeful at first, the rod stopped about half way in, so I had to do some digging and, through some  imaginative extrication work involving a pipe wrench and swearing, get the damn thing back out. At least I learned how to climb up a stepladder cradling a 40# electric jack hammer and lifting it up to gingerly rest on the top of the rod and then balancing the whole affair and hammering it in without falling off the ladder and breaking my neck. With that bit of confidence under my belt, I relocated the rod and tried again. Same result. So now, I knew I had rocks about 4′ deep and the next step was to drive at a 45° angle. I extracted the rod using the same methods mentioned previously, except for double the swear words, and relocated the rod and tried again. This time it went in farther, but still stopped. So I decided to dig the 30″ trench and just bend the end in to fit. However as I started to dig, I found out that the trench was running into existing buried electric, phone, and cable services. So I had to stop and, once again, extract this stupid rod.  It just looked like it was shaping up to be this kind of project with multiple problems and no real end in sight. Not that I’m inexperienced in this situation.

So, I did some more measurements and figured out where the rods should go so as not to interfere with existing services and maintain a minimum of 6′ spacing regardless of whether I had to bend the rods over or not. With low expectations, I tried to drive the rod for the 4th time and, by God, it went in. Like a hot knife through butter! Just like the video. So I was lucky, and being never one to turn down a lucky streak, I tried again with the second ground rod. It was going in pretty good until about the last 18″, and at that point I was loathe to give up the fight. So I put some serious ass into that jack hammer and the rod started to move slowly. I kept with it until my fillings were about ready to fall out, but hey, I got it all driven in. No need to trench or remove the rod and try again. I was all done!

Well at least the hard work was done. I had to unwind the copper wire, secure it to the rods with acorn nuts, and then put the wire in a little bit of PVC conduit so it would be protected from damage from where it exited the grade to where it went into the house. Here are some visuals:

Getting ready to drive my ground rods. I wanted to drive 3, but I ran out of wire because of where I had to locate the first 2 rods. Only 2 are required per code.

Getting ready to drive my ground rods. I wanted to drive 3, but I ran out of wire because of where I had to locate the first 2 rods. Only 2 are required per code.

Ground rod driven at 45º with proper ground wire installed.

Ground rod driven at 45º with proper ground wire installed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grounding Electrode Conductor (GEC) must be one continuous wire. (Splices must be either welded or use approved specialty connectors.)

Grounding Electrode Conductor (GEC) must be one continuous wire. (Splices must be either welded or use approved specialty connectors.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now with the ground in place, I’m all set to finish shoveling and leveling the final grade and get some gravel in to get ready for the concrete pour. The inspector came in yesterday and took a look and said I was good to go! Now, onto the backfill and concrete pour! Good thing that I checked all of this out ahead of time!