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!

Progress Inspection

Things are moving along well. In fact, I had a very productive day today and I’m going to do a first: two (2) blog posts in a single day! My inspiration was something called a “progress inspection”.

One of the requirements for maintaining a building permit is that you actually do some building. In the City of Chula Vista, you must have an inspection performed at least every 6 months to make sure that you just didn’t get a building permit, do some work, and abandon the project. At first, this had me worried because I could foresee occasions in my “planned” schedule where the time between formal inspections could easily exceed 6 months. This became especially concerning to me as the project advanced because I was coming to the realization the my projected timelines were hopelessly optimistic. I am optimistic to a fault. Just ask my wife. Fortunately, she thinks it’s an endearing fault. We all have our foibles. Equally fortunately, is the fact that the City of Chula Vista allows the “builder” to satisfy this requirement through what is called a “progress inspection”.

Basically, a progress inspection is an opportunity for the “building official” (i.e., the designated representative) to verify that your project is progressing. Therefore, there (theoretically) will be no abandoned projects without a resubmittal of the building permit. So I was going to be OK, provided that I showed some sort of proof that the project was advancing. Fortunately again, the City of Chula Vista is a relatively small municipality, and this allows the DIY’er to establish a somewhat personal relationship with the staff. What I found out was that the entire staff was very helpful and accommodating, providing that you had a clue. In addition, they have AWESOME inspectors who are more than willing to help a DIY kind of guy such as myself navigate the sometimes arcane and nuanced building codes. For example, the inspector who signed off on my electrical grounding system (see my previous post for details) had mentioned that I needed to make sure that the connections to the grounding rod were accessible after the concrete pour. This little bit of advice was extremely helpful because I had planned on just pouring the concrete over the whole shebang. Turns out that the inspector was the same guy who gave me the OK backfilling my water supply and site drainage. He was favorably impressed with my self-designed fire suppression system at the previous inspection,  and he remembered me. Hence that personal connection, and the personal advice to me about my electrical grounding installation as an informed DIY’er. He has my best interests at heart and wants me to succeed. How great is that?

Back to the progress “inspection”. I have done a lot of finish work and I’m getting ready for the big “concrete pour” which  I will subcontract out. I’ve put caps on my front yard retaining walls to give it a finished look, and I’ve cleared and excavated the front so it’s ready for putting in the gravel and setting up the forms for the concrete pour. Here are some pictures:

Right driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

Right driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

Left driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

Left driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Front yard in the sunset

Front yard in the sunset

Front yard

Front yard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Front yard. Almost finished!

Front yard. Almost finished!

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Be A Safety Pro

Yesterday, I set about digging (again!), this time for a foundation for a masonry fence. Because the excavation for the foundation was right next to the sidewalk, I knew I would have to provide some kind of barrier and visual key that there was a deep (2’+) and potentially dangerous trench next to where people would be walking. Seriously, if you ended up walking into this thing, you would almost certainly break your leg, or worse, and that’s a liability I’d rather not have to bear. More importantly, being safe and providing barriers and warnings to potentially hazardous areas of your work shows consideration for those around you, and is just plain common sense. That got me to thinking about safety, and when you’re doing any kind of handy work, safety needs to be an integral part of how you approach the job.

OPEN TRENCH BARRIER

OPEN TRENCH BARRIER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, you have to protect yourself. That means things like gloves, safety glasses, proper footwear (steel-toed boots-yes, flip-flops-no), hearing protection, breathing protection, and hearing protection. Of course, you’re not going to necessarily use all of these at once, but this always has to be part of the thought process before you proceed with whatever the next step of the operation happens to be. Almost always — safety glasses. I’ve spent way too many times trying to get crap out of my eyes and I’m probably lucky I’m not blind by now.

Second, you have to be aware of the hazards around you. Is that wire or electrical box hot? Have you checked? Is that pipe under pressure? Is my ladder stable? Will something fall on top of me? Do I have a bunch of trip hazards I have to watch out for?

Third, be considerate of the people who may be around you. Cordon off public areas where there may be hazards. Clean up after yourself. Make sure that you have a clear path around your worksite so that people can go where they have to without stumbling around in your mess.

At any rate, I finished my digging and put up an effective barrier. Those traffic barriers sure come in handy! Here is a short video of the work.

I Always Wondered What It Was Like To Be a Ditch Digger

In my childhood, my parents would admonish me to do my homework and get good grades at school because “you don’t want to be a “ditch digger” when you grow up!”. The implication was that the profession of being a ditch digger was low brow, low rent, and definitely not in consonance with my (supposedly) superior skill set.

Fast forward several years to an experience I had while I was participating in a simulated undersea battle as part of my professional education as a nuclear submarine officer. I was assigned a lowly position that is typically assigned to a junior enlisted person on a sub. The instructor told me to use my (supposedly) superior skills as an officer to come up with the correct answer to shoot the enemy submarine up its butt. Which I did. This was an important lesson for me because it taught me that there are subtleties and nuance in lowly tasks which can be leveraged to produce a superior result, provided that you pay attention. And use your (supposedly) superior skill set. Mom and Dad, I hope I made you proud.

One of the lowly tasks that I’m having to perform as part of this remodel is to dig ditches. This is very important because there are myriad underground services which are part of the infrastructure of the modern home. The list includes: water, sewer, electricity, cable/internet, site drainage, and irrigation. All of which require a “ditch digger”. It turns out that ditch digging has some subtleties and nuances that become more obvious once you actually have to start digging. In today’s world, most of the work of “ditch digging” is assisted by machines, which makes the profession of heavy equipment operator the parallel of the “ditch diggers” of yore. If you actually get to talk to one and show interest in what they do, you find out it’s much more of an art, like a sculptor of sorts. It’s just that you’re using big machines and the medium happens to be dirt. But sometimes it’s back to picks and shovels, especially when you’re digging around live electrical lines, and water and gas lines under pressure. And heaven forbid, you certainly don’t want to cut your cable or telephone service and be without football and Facebook!

Because I knew I would have to do some digging by hand anyway, I assessed the value of renting a trencher, which is a machine with a bunch of dirt scoops on a chain that loops around a digging bar — sort of like a chainsaw. But they aren’t cheap to rent and I would have trouble fitting it into the tight places I needed to. So I decided to do it all by hand. Heck, I needed the exercise!

So, what does a “ditch digger” have to do? Well, it’s as easy as 1-2-3!

1. Get the proper tools. OK, so a shovel is a given. But what kind of shovel? Flat? Point? …. Turns out that there are a lot of implements that are available to deal with dirt. If you’re trying to dig up a large volume of dirt, then a bunch of dirt, then a point shovel is what you need. If you’re trying to scoop up dirt from the sidewalk or a flat surface, then the flat shovel is best. If you’re trying to dig a deep hole with vertical sides, then use a post hole digger. Trenches are best attacked with a trenching shovel. If you have to deal with rocks and/or clay, then you’ll need a pick and/or a mattock. A hoe and a rake are also useful. For most jobs, you’ll end up using several tools, depending on the demands of the moment.

 

DIGGING TOOLS

DIGGING TOOLS

1a: Pick. Used to loosen up dirt (esp. clay) and dig out rocks. Wear safety goggles! 1b: Post Hole Digger. Used to dig, well, holes for posts. Also very useful when you have something deep to dig and want the hole to have straight sides. 1c: Trenching Shovel: Used to dig trenches (what a surprise). The technique involves starting the trench with one of the other tools, and then sliding the trenching shovel back and forth along the bottom of the trench. 1d: Flat Shovel. Good for skim cutting the ground for a nice flat grade, or for shoveling bulk material (e.g., gravel or sand). 1e. Point Shovel: Used for digging big holes and moving a lot of material.If the ground is soft enough, then you can jump on it and the blade will penetrate the ground. 1f. Hoe. You’d be surprised how useful this is. It’s good for spreading materials, gathering up materials, and cleaning up trenches. 1g. Mattock. This is used to break up the ground. It has a sharp point like a pick, and a blade on the other end that is really good for trenching because it allows you to break up the dirt in just the trench and leaves a nice clean cut.

 

 

2. Figure out where the services have to run to and from and mark out the layout. For me, this was relatively easy because I had to submit plans for approval, so I had it all on paper. Easy from a bird eye’s (i.e. “plan”) view. But you have to remember that there is the “up-and-down” dimension. Here are the plans for the drainage and irrigation:

DRAINAGE PLAN

DRAINAGE PLAN

IRRIGATION PLAN

IRRIGATION PLAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Figure out the depth. Most underground services need to be buried a specified minimum depth. For my new 200A electric service, that turns out to be 36″. That’s pretty deep if you’re digging a ditch by hand! If you’re installing drainage, you need to make sure that gravity works for you, and thus need to make sure that the drain pipes have a slope of at least 1% in the direction you want the water to go. So now, you have to figure out a way to determine elevation. 3-dimensional space is wonderful, don’t you think?

Here is how I did it:  To transfer the measurements from the plans to the actual drawings, I decided to use a system of lines that were centered on the trenches I needed to dig, and set at a constant, reference elevation. To do that, I used what are called “batter boards”.  These consist of two upright stakes driven into the ground with a cross piece. You install this arrangement at either end of the trench, set the height of the top of the cross piece to the chosen reference height (I used the weep screed of the house), and then string a line between the cross pieces. Volia! A perfectly straight line at the reference height.

BATTER BOARD

BATTER BOARD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a link to a really nifty video on how to run string lines.

The next step was to set the drainage basins in position, mark where they needed to be on the dirt, and dig a hole for each one. I would dig until I got the bottom of the basin to where it needed to be based on the plans. You may need to do a little arithmetic to get the answer for the right depth. For instance, I needed the top of the drain to be 4″ down from the reference (weep screed), plus 2% of the distance from the house, which was 2.5″ (10′ = 120″x2% = 2.4″), so 6.5″, and the distance from the top of the drain to the bottom of the basin is 12″, so 6.5″ + 12″ = 18.5″. Really no big deal (unless you are challenged by arithmetic).

BASIN IN POSITION

BASIN IN POSITION

DIGGING THE HOLE

DIGGING THE HOLE

 

CORRECT HEIGHT (DEPTH)

CORRECT HEIGHT (DEPTH)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then you dig the trench between the catch basins, and you know that the depth of the trench will be correct because you’ve set the depth of the basins. With the string line, you can easily measure the depth at any point along the line to confirm that you’re digging to the correct depth. Here are some pictures of the finished product.

 

 

DRYWELL TRENCH

DRYWELL TRENCH

 

 

DRYWELL PIPING

DRYWELL PIPING

FRONT DRAINS

FRONT DRAINS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things that I didn’t give much thought to was where to put the dirt. In my brief career as a ditch digger, I simply assumed that it would go next to the hole. However, this became problematic as progress continued with the “moat” I was digging around my postage-stamp size lot. This was complicated by the fact that ALL of the digging and installation of underground services must be complete so that the inspectors can give their approval before you cover it up. Towards the end, it became quite a challenge to navigate my way around the property between the high-wire walk along the trenches, and having to step over those batter boards.

DIRT PILES

DIRT PILES

PETRIFIED POTATOES

PETRIFIED POTATOES (I ran into lots of rocks. THAT was fun!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually, the inspectors came, gave me the thumbs up (yaay!), and I was able to start covering up stuff. You’d think that filling up a hole with dirt would be pretty simple. But yet again, there is nuance. You need to compact the dirt as you go because if you don’t, it will settle and at best leave you with gullies where the trenches used to be, and at worst, cause underlying structural problems with your concrete, or whatever you put on top of the dirt. Alas, the other realization I came to was that what goes out, must go in, and so the large amount of digging resulted in a large amount filling. That gosh-darned dirt seems to get heavier with each shovel-full!

ELECTRICAL SERVICE TRENCH (Before)

ELECTRICAL SERVICE TRENCH (Before)

ELECTRICAL SERVICE (After)

ELECTRICAL SERVICE (After)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great news is that the outside of the place is never going to look worse than it does right now, and I’ve actually begun installing things instead of demolishing stuff and hauling away the detritus. Speaking of detritus, does anybody have any suggestions for getting rid of the rocks that harvested? People buy this so-called “river rock”, so maybe I can give it away. Too bad the Pet Rock fad is over. I’d be sitting on a fortune!

A Home Remodeling Christmas

In my last post, I mentioned all of the “Christmas” shopping I did in getting all of the parts for my buried services. I’m deep into digging (more on that later), and I actually am looking forward to spending some dedicated time over the Christmas and New Years holiday to make some really good progress.

As usual after Thanksgiving, our neighbors decorated their homes with lights, and it really makes the street look nice. We would always participate, putting up some tasteful white lights and some garlands. In fact, my remodeling plans call for an exterior plug, controlled by a switch, that will be installed expressly for Christmas lights.

But that is in the future, and for now, I felt I had to come up with something that was appropriate for the season, yet fit our “decor” of a torn up yard, complete with piles of dirt and trenches. Honestly, the exterior of the house and property will look no worse than it does at the moment. What a friggin’ mess! Then, in a flash of insight, I had the answer!

My lovely wife always encourages me to “use what I have”. I think this comes from her Scottish heritage, and I appreciate and admire her way of making elegance out of frugality. In rising to that challenge, I took a look at these traffic barriers that I had, and it gave me an idea. I was required to buy traffic barriers with flashing lights for the dumpster(s) that I needed to put on the street, marking where the dumpster was, lest an errant driver not see it and run into it at night. I swear that the drivers around here are so fu#&*@’n dumb that they don’t need any assistance from alcohol to run into a dumpster in broad daylight. And swear I do. Profusely. When I’m driving.

Back to the point. These traffic barriers have flashing lights. And, I have my strings of Martha Stewart LED outdoor Christmas lights. AND I have a bunch of “CAUTION” tape. What a great combination! So, I placed the traffic barriers in a tasteful manner across the front of my yard, strung my Martha Stewart lights tastefully between them, secured the assembly with tasteful CAUTION tape, and put the lights on a timer that I had from my (now defunct) pond. This arrangement has the added advantage of discouraging errant people on the adjacent sidewalk from stumbling onto my property and breaking their legs when they trip into one of the many trenches that await their drunken follies. (OK, they have to be drunk, but that is not outside the realm of possibilities.)

Although I try to elicit visual pictures with my writing, this video is worth 454 words.  Good thing this blog has a word counter, otherwise I’d be guilty of false representation! (OK that’s 472 words).

Everyone have a wonderful holiday season, and I promise I’ll have more posts in the near future.

Excavation–Oh The Joys Of Dirt!

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0046

A Ramp That Works!

 

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

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

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

 

 

Nice grade for the driveway apron

Nice grade for the driveway apron

Front

Front yard. This was my practice place.

 

 

Catio

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

Last Gasp

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

 

 

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

Here are some more videos of cool skid steer operators:

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

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

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

Even the pros F/U:

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

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

 

Staking Out Your Territory — How To Survey And Set The Grade

One of the challenges that any builder has is to transfer what is on the plans to the physical reality of what you happen to be working on. If you’re building a birdhouse, then you have to take the written dimensions on the plan and transfer them to the wood. Remember to subtract the width of the saw kerf! (My woodworker friends will appreciate this bit of free advice.) If you’re building a structure on a piece of land, you have to transfer those dimensions to the land. This is not a trivial endeavor,  because land is not necessarily level, square, or plumb. That’s construction terminology for orthogonal axes in a cartesian coordinate system, depending on your point of reference. But I digress.

The bottom line is that you first have to establish reference points, relative to your plans, to measure and mark your material. With wood, this pretty easy because typically  the raw material has reasonably straight and square edges. With land, you are on your own. The first priority is to establish a reference point. In the world of land surveyors, this comes down from edicts issued from backroom deals made among the wealthy and powerful who claimed the land and established certain boundaries, which may or may not have had any bearing on the indigenous people who currently occupied the land. So, because the rich and famous had guns and cannons. they displaced the indigenous occupants who had no concept of land ownership, and established the boundaries that you and I obey.   Again, I digress. Maybe this is a sign of old age.

So, if you follow the legal thread, you own property, which is documented precisely in the county records. Your deed specifies the plat (the drawing) that is the official and legal record of the land that you own. That plat has specifications which detail the dimensions of your land, as well as the precise locations of the corners of your property. If you are adventurous, you can probably take the data from the  records, and locate the surveyor’s marks on your property. If you are a city dweller, then you may see them as little nails in the sidewalk.

The builder of the house will transfer the dimensions of the corners of the property to the footprint of the house. There, the builder will begin excavation, pour the foundation, and build the house. All per the plans submitted to the city (or “building official”) and approved. It is with this thread that I start my measurements. My assumption was that the house was situated correctly on the property, and since my objective was to obtain proper drainage via a proper grade away from the house, I would use the corners of the house as the reference points.

But the problem remained: how to accurately locate the level of the land when the raw material was dimensionally random. For this, I had to learn a little bit about surveying. The basic geometry is middle school math, but the application is a bit more nuanced. How do you measure a level over a long distance? How do you mark the reference and set the other marks precisely relative to this reference? Professional surveyors use high-tech tools like laser levels and differential GPS theodolites. The equipment costs thousands and rents for hundreds. Was there a DIY solution? Well, yes. There is ALWAYS a DIY solution!

The first step was to take inventory of what I had. I had a laser measuring “tape” (I bought it when I needed to take the dimensions of the “as built” house for my plans.), a tripod, and an iPad. I checked out the apps that were available for the iPad and. lo and behold, somebody had developed a theodolite app. A theodolite is an instrument which will tell you the precise azimuth, elevation, and level from a given reference point. (If you don’t understand this terminology and how to convert polar coordinates into cartesian coordinates, then maybe surveying isn’t your thing.) The theodolite app was the ticket. All I had to do was to build a “surveyor stick”.

To explain: Surveyors need to measure changes in elevation over long distances. To do this, they set their measuring device (transit, theodolite) over a designated reference point, and then focus on a “stick” that is held by an assistant at the point they want to measure. That stick is essentially a ruler, which if the transit/theodolite is level, will measure the vertical distance between the observer and the stick.  If you combine this information with the azimuth (i.e., the angle from true North), you will have an EXACT location of that point on the earth. So, I needed a surveyor stick that was self-supporting because I couldn’t assume that I would have an assistant. I designed one, and the plans are here.SURVEYOR’S STICK. Once I was able to measure the difference in elevation, all I needed to do was to establish the grade, i.e., the slope, to allow the proper drainage. The slope is 2% away from the house, and 1% from front to back. So using my handy-dandy laser rangefinder, I simply multiplied my measured distance by the % slope to get the final elevation at the measured point.

All I had to do now was to research a bit of jargon with respect to grading and how to actually mark the property. The first thing I learned was that surveyors will mark the land using squat little stakes called “hubs” which are pounded level into the ground where you’re making your measurement. The vertical distance of the hubs are then measured between the hub and the reference (theodolite). You then take that difference and compare that to the plan. If the measured vertical distance is greater than the required distance, you need to fill (raise) the level of the land at that point. If it is less, then you need to cut (lower) the level. If you do this at several points, you can establish the contour (grade) that the plans specify. So at each hub, I would put a grade stake, with a mark that indicated a cut “C” or a fill “F” of a given dimension. Professional surveyors use 1/100 of a ft., but since my measuring devices were calibrated in inches, I used that standard. Whatever works.

The cool thing about all of this was that after all of the staking, I began to see the real outline of the plan manifested on my actual property. It was, perhaps, a turning point in the project because it represented a change in direction from demolition to construction. In my mind’s eye, I now have a glimpse of how the finished product will look like.

Here are some pictures:

Grade Stakes. Don't you like the colors?

Grade Stakes. Don’t you like the colors?

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

My Site Plans and Measuring Tools

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite App. Awesome!

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Theodolite and Surveyor Stick

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!

Empty dumpster. Ready for the next load!