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!)

Installing The Laundry Greywater Irrigation System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Hey, where did the wall go?

Hey, where did the wall go?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the wall. What a mess!

Here is the wall. What a mess!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Thanks for reading!

How To Build a Keystone Retaining Wall

Today, I finished the majority of the hardscape of my front yard (if you don’t count the concrete for the walkways and driveway aprons). This is, in a sense, a milestone because, from now on, I will no longer be moving around dirt, but actually putting it in its final resting place. Plus, it’s pretty cool to see the design manifest in physical reality. A lot of the hardscape is done with Keystone blocks for the retaining walls, and because I ran into some challenges during the installation and came up with some solutions, I wanted to share those with you; hence the subject for today’s blog entry.

First, a disclaimer: The instructions that I’m providing are the way that I came up with. They are by no means the ONLY right way to accomplish this task and, indeed, deviate from some of the recommendations on the manufacturer’s and distributor’s websites. I will provide my reasoning for these deviations as I go. Having said that (whew!), let’s get started!

Keystone retaining walls are a wonderful example of smart design and engineering. The company has figured out how to put together walls with specialty engineered Concrete Masonry Units (CMU’s) that do not require mortar. Just like Lego. Fit them together, and voila! A sturdy, attractive, easy to build wall. Perfect for the DIY’er. In fact, the videos that the company puts out makes it seem like putting up a retaining wall is a breeze. And at some points during the construction, it is. But don’t let the sales videos fool you. Putting up a retaining wall, as with any other permanent structure, requires attention to detail, and a lot of scut work, as I will detail later in this blog entry. Still, for a DIY’er, it’s a great solution.

Keystone has many different wall systems to choose from. I had previously installed a Keystone “Garden Wall” during a previous remodel where I replaced old rotten wood with a “real” retaining wall. Wood is not a good material to use as a retaining wall because it, eventually, will decompose. Masonry doesn’t decompose, so that’s the long-term solution. So, a “Garden Wall” was the system I decided to use going forward, mainly because I wanted to make use of what I already had. I ordered the materials (more Keystone Garden Wall blocks) from a local manufacturer (RCP Block and Brick) whom, I assume, has a franchise agreement to produce these CMU’s locally to Keystone’s standards. Now the tricky part.

The Keystone website has an installation page that shows an idealized portrayal of an attractive couple putting up a retaining wall. And the website has some very essential information on how to properly complete the installation. But nevermind the hype, or how “easy” they make it seem. Did you ever watch a cooking show where the chef makes it look easy and throws everything together in a matter of minutes, and you have a perfectly cooked, delectable meal? Well, forget it. They didn’t show the toil and tribulation of the underpaid and underappreciated proletariat doing all of the prep work. THAT agonizing, laborious PREP WORK is what you, as a DIY, will have to do. Forget the good looks and focus on the hard work ahead, but with a vision that your creation will be as remarkably beautiful, as it is pleasurable to work on.

To begin with, you need a design from which to do the layout work, and from which to estimate materials. I discuss the design process in some of my other blog posts, so I won’t go into detail here, except to refer you to the design that I’m working from.

LANDSCAPE PLOT PLAN

LANDSCAPE PLOT PLAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first task is the layout, where you transfer the dimensions in your plan to the dirt. The most important aspect of the layout is to choose the reference points from which you will measure. For this example, I’m laying out the center planter, so I wanted to make sure that the planter was centered between the two sides, and at a specified distance from the outside retaining wall to allow for a comfortable pathway. If you’re doing the layout on a relatively flat surface with no obstructions, then a measuring tape will usually do. For this layout, I couldn’t lay a measuring tape flat, so I strung a mason’s line and used a plumb bob to measure down vertically. This turns out to have a second advantage, which is that you need to measure vertically to establish the height of the base course. I used little flags and marking paint to mark the layout on the dirt.

 

Layout of the center planter. Notice the string that I used to set the height.

Layout of the center planter. Notice the string that I used to set the height.

Another view of the layout.

Another view of the layout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just for fun, I decided to check the level of the string, which would tell me if the outer retaining walls that I just built were good. Look at that! Dead on, which validated my process for laying out the base course.

Just for fun, I decided to check the level of the string, which would tell me if the outer retaining walls that I just built were good. Look at that! Dead on, which validated my process for laying out the base course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is vitally IMPORTANT to make SURE you have a level base and that your first course is aligned properly. The nice-looking couple portrayed on the Keystone installation page make you think this is relatively easy. From my personal experience, I will tell you that this process is difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating. And you must be able to stomach these facts if you really want a nice, professional, retaining wall. The way I established the height of the base course was to use my vertical reference (the outside retaining wall) and drop a plumb line to where I wanted the first course to start. At least one course needs to be fully buried, so that was taken into account in the measurement. I then located the first block as precisely as I could, measuring from the reference “flags” that I previously planted, and then did a lot of fussing around to get that first block level, square, plumb, and in the position that I wanted it. Once I had the first block in position, I went around the circumference of the layout to place other “reference” blocks so that I could work to those as I continued to set the base course.

I had to do a lot of trial-and-error to come up with a technique to reliably and quickly place the subsequent blocks in alignment. Professionals will dig a shallow trench, fill it with gravel, and then use a mechanical compactor to level the gravel. This is a great idea if you’re building a large retaining wall, or in an area that gets a substantial amount of rain, because waterlogged soil puts a lot of pressure on the wall and it’s important to have good drainage. I will probably do that on my back retaining wall due to the height, but for a small wall (12″) in an arid climate, I decided this was overkill. As a DIY’er, I’m always looking for a reasonable shortcut. At any rate, the method I came up with was this:

Loosen the dirt with a trowel.

Loosen the dirt with a trowel.

Level the dirt. Try to level a little bit above the bottom of the previous brick.

Level the dirt. Try to level a little bit above the bottom of the previous brick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plop the brick down to compact the dirt and align it with the previous brick. Check the cross-level. Looks good! (I was lucky.)

Check the back-and-forth level. This is very important because you will use this as a reference for your next brick. This one is not so good.

Check the back-and-forth level. This is very important because you will use this as a reference for your next brick. This one is not so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beat on the high side with a hammer using a wooden block to protect the brick. This hammer is called an "Engineer's" hammer. In the Navy, we referred to this as a "persuader". Draw your own conclusions.

Beat on the high side with a hammer using a wooden block to protect the brick. This hammer is called an “Engineer’s” hammer. In the Navy, we referred to this as a “persuader”. Draw your own conclusions.

Level after "persuasion". Looks good!

Level after “persuasion”. Looks good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check the level from the previous brick to make sure that you're at the same height.

Check the level from the previous brick to make sure that you’re at the same height.

Check the alignment with your previous bricks. You don't want your wall to unintentionally start to meander. NOTE: if you're placing the blocks along a curve, then you need to measure the curve radius from a reference point.

Check the alignment with your previous bricks. You don’t want your wall to unintentionally start to meander. NOTE: if you’re placing the blocks along a curve, then you need to measure the curve radius from a reference point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check your level using a long level to make sure that you're keeping a good level all the way around.

Check your level using a long level to make sure that you’re keeping a good level all the way around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the tricks I came up with was to chip off the shoulder that protrudes from the back of each brick. This shoulder is very important because it serves to lock each course to the course below. However, for the base course, it only gets in the way and adds unneeded complexity to the leveling process. So I decided to chip it off for the base course bricks, as shown in this brief video:

Base course, all laid out!

Base course, all laid out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that the base course is all in, the job goes really fast. The hardest part is to lug these 30 lb. bricks from your staging area and plop them onto the course below. It’s a simple matter to align the edge of each block to the one next to it, and then to make sure that the shoulder (which you didn’t cut off for these bricks), rests firmly on the course below. The only challenge here is that you need to make sure that each subsequent course is “on bond” which means the brick on top is placed directly over the seam formed by the two bricks below. No big deal if you’re dealing with a straight line, but the bricks will go “off bond” on curves. This is because that shoulder displaces each course inward by about 1″, meaning that the radius of the curves get progressively shorter for outside curves, and larger for inside curves. In this case, I did what the manufacturer recommended, which was to make sure that the straight courses were on bond, and then work towards the middle of the curves. Inevitably, you will find yourself with a space that is too small for a standard brick, in which case, you will need to cut a brick to fit. While it is possible to do this by hand with a brick hammer, it is way easier to use a 7″ grinder with a wet-dry masonry diamond wheel. Fortunately, Santa Claus had the foresight to deliver this to me in my stocking this past Christmas, so I was all set! Seriously, if you are doing a fair amount of masonry work for a hardscape (brick walls, retaining walls, brick patios, etc.), this tool is well worth the money.

Once you have a couple of courses in, it’s important to backfill. This is because the Keystones lock with outward pressure due to the shoulders, but will fall inward if you stack them too high. The manufacturer and distributor both recommend backfilling with gravel, but that could be a major PITA (not the bread). If this were a big time retaining wall in a wet environment, I would do it, but for this little project, I decided to forego the added expense and construction complexity.

One other feature that I added to this wall was to put landscape fabric on the inside of the wall. This prevents plants from growing in between the seams of your brick, and it worked extremely well for a previous wall that I built. This feature is not in any of the manufacturer or distributor instructions, but I know of folks who have made these walls without the landscape fabric, and they constantly struggle with weeds growing out of their walls. This is cheap insurance and better for the environment than spraying a bunch of chemicals all over your wall. Here are some pictures of the finished product.

Two courses on top of the base course with landscape fabric. Ready for backfill.

Two courses on top of the base course with landscape fabric. Ready for backfill.

Finished center planter.

Finished center planter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Demolition, Excavation, and Skid Steers

Now that I had the brush cleared and a dumpster to put my detritus, it was time to start demolition in earnest. The first step was to get rid of my retaining wall, sidewalks, and driveway apron made of cobblestones.

Basically any hardscape besides the driveway proper was going to go. In a blinding flash of naivete, I went ahead and rented a breaker (a.k.a jackhammer) and had the notion that I would be able to take care of this trifling demolition effort in a mere afternoon. 2 days later, I had barely made progress on that damned retaining wall, and it wasn’t looking good for the completion of the demo that weekend. I had to lift that heavy jackhammer and get it into all sorts of crazy positions in order to get proper purchase on the wall, and even then, it took forever to bust up the concrete — especially the foundation. So, I stopped the foolishness with the retaining wall and focused my remaining efforts in breaking up the sidewalk on the side of the house so I at least accomplished something during the weekend. I went back inside, cleaned up,  and nursed a beer while I licked my wounds and began plotting plan “B”.

The problem that I had was that I needed bigger tools and more power, preferably something that I didn’t have to lift and lug around. Fortunately, I rented a mini “skid steer” for use during the Columbus day holiday weekend, and I was initally planning to use the skid-steer to do excavation and grading. But these little beasties have all manner of attachments, and all I needed to do was to rent the companion breaker attachment. So, for a mere $700 extra (it was $800 for the skid-steer), I would be in business. Now, I just had to do some replanning and figure out how to operate the damned thing.

First, a little background on what a skid steer is. These are smaller versions of a standard power shovel, with a bucket on arms that can be used to scrape, scoop, push, pick up, and dump stuff. It has a small diesel engine that powers a hydraulic pump, and it has 4 wheels which are powered by hydraulic motors. These motors are controlled by handles on either side of the operator such that when you push both forward, the machine goes forward, and when you pull them both back, the machine goes back. And when you push one forward and the other back, the machine skids and spins around and does donuts. Hence “skid-steer”. The best thing about these little guys is, well, they’re little. Perhaps compact is a better work. They weigh about a ton and a half, but they’re only 36″ wide, which means they can fit into your living room through your front door. Not that you’d want to excavate your living room, but I’ve seen videos of folks driving them into garages and using them to bust up garage slabs. Which is where I got the idea to rent the breaker attachment to help me finish the demo work. Here are some pictures:

DSC_0058 DSC_0063 DSC_0057 DSC_0065

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day came when the rental company delivered the skid steer and attachments (hydraulic breaker and two buckets). I had downloaded and printed a copy of the operator’s manual, studied it, and watched some videos on operating it. With my hard had and safety glasses, I nervously strapped myself in the seat, checked everything out, and fired it up. After a few tentative moves, I found that it was very intuitive to operate, so I set the bucket down and disconnected it from the arms so I could mount the breaker attachment. Bad move. I went over some uneven ground and got stuck. Turns out that you need the weight of the bucket , or attachment, to balance things out. So the lesson is that you put all of your attachments in one place next to each other on level ground and make your changeouts there. I put on the breaker attachment, and then went to town on the front sidewalk. Awesome! That thing broke apart fairly quickly, and using the machine to pull out deeply buried chunks of concrete with the breaker was a real labor saver.

One of the conundrums I had to overcome was getting the little guy in the back yard. There was not enough clearance on the sides of the house (yep, less than 3′), but fortunately there is a common walkway on one side of the property, and there are gaps in the masonry wall that borders that walkway, covered with wood fencing. So all I had to do was remove the chunk of fence and I was in business, right?  Well… not so fast! The walkway is about 20″ higher than the level of the ground in my back yard. So I had to build a ramp. The first version looked pretty sturdy, but literally broke apart after a few uses. I had to build another one, at a critical time while I was still paying for use of the skid steer (that $1500 clock was ticking), and it was better lasting a whole day, but in the end, it didn’t cut it either. Plus it was too steep, so I was on the edge of doing wheelies going up with 1.5 tons of machine and another half ton of load. Not cool. Especially when I slipped off once, had to back up, and ended up bashing a support column on my porch cover. Ahh… the joys of DIY! At least I had to replace that column for other reasons, so NBD. I’m trying a new scheme  for next time which involves railroad ties. I figure if it can support a locomotive, it can support a measly skid steer!

Here are some pics of the failed ramp(s) and the broken post:

DSC_0071

DSC_0062 DSC_0070

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, I moved 2 loads of concrete and rocks (about 25 yards) and loaded up another 15 yard dumpster with excess earth. I still have some grading to do, so there will be more earth removal. And my grading skills suck. But I relish the chance to improve for next time, and I’m carefully studying YouTube videos as part of my heavy equipment apprenticeship program. Nonetheless,  one typically learns by doing. Either that, or I’m going to have a really bumpy landscape!

 

More pics:

DSC_0055 DSC_0067DSC_0056 DSC_0072

Site Planning Complete — Digging Has Commenced!

Although I had to submit a “site plan” to the city for inclusion in the building permit plan set, I really didn’t have a plan that was detailed enough for me to work with. Additionally, when it came time to start digging, my wife and I took a second look at the front yard and decided to completely change it since it had to be gutted anyway. As mentioned in my previous post, I had to add an irrigation system, and I determined that all existing retaining walls had to be re-done because when I lowered the backyard grade to the correct level, it would undermine the existing retaining wall. Talk about project expansion! So, I went about revising the site plan, and I’ve uploaded it here: 1370 BFD LANDSCAPE PLAN R 0.0 for your reading pleasure.

The first action that I had to do was remove all of the bricks and sand from my existing patio. Rather than toss the bricks and buy new ones, which would be tremendously expensive and wasteful, I decided to pressure wash them and stack them up. For the sand, I needed a way to screen out all of the mess, and after some research, I came upon a website that had plans for a hand “trommel”. This is a device that was used by gold prospectors, and it turns out that there is an active hobby community that goes out and does this sort of thing. Hence, there are resources available. You could buy a motorized one, all assembled, for a lot of money, but a guy developed a plan for a real DIY trommel that is made of Home Depot (or Lowe’s) buckets, some PVC pipe and fittings, and some screen. Here is a link to his page, and here is a picture of my finished model.

Site Work 043

I also needed to get rid of all of the plants in front of the house. This would be no easy task as it was overgrown with agave and rosemary. They were pretty plants, and it was a nice ecosystem with zero maintenance (no watering), and buzzing with bees who were hard at work gathering rosemary nectar. (That would make awesome honey!) Alas, with heavy heart, we called in a landscaper to do the dirty work. Good thing because he got attacked by the bees and had to go to the drug store to get some benadryl. Plus, digging out that agave is a royal pain. It as well worth the $850 I paid him and his helper. Here are before and after pictures:

Front Yard After

Front Yard After

So, work is now well underway. There’s still a lot of site work to go, but I’ll have more updates along the way. Next up: Dumpsters and Steer Skids!

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before