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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catio Framing

Catio Framing

Catio Toys

Catio Toys

Detail views of the construction.

Detail views of the construction.

And of the construction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finished product. Suitable for human and beast.

The finished product. Suitable for human and beast.

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

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

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

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

Here is a video of our cat family:

 

Building a Paver Patio

One of my  “successful” DIY projects was a paver patio I built when I was living in Chesapeake Virginia. In fact, you can still see the results of my handiwork on Google Earth. The address is 1901 Shady Cove Ct. (if you want to check it out). Building a paver patio is DEFINITELY in the realm of DIY. The question is, do you want it do look like DIY, or do you want it to look professional? I always choose the latter. And I think that all serious DIY’ers aspire to create works that equal the quality of, if not exceed, those that can be professionally built. I guess that strays into the realm of “artisan”, but let’s keep the discussion on the practical side.

We start with the basics. Looking good is one thing. Looking good and lasting a long time is quite another. In my second attempt at building a paver patio, which happened to be at my current address, I took a few shortcuts. While the initial results were nothing short of outstanding (hey, this was the second time I was doing this, right?), over time the patio deteriorated. I didn’t put in a proper aggregate base, and I didn’t seal it, so the ants came in and undermined the sand under the pavers which caused the pavers to sink and the ants to rise up and threaten our very existence. Additionally, the level and slope did not provide proper drainage. I spent a lot of time and effort (and $) fixing the level and drainage problems, as profusely documented in other posts on this blog, but I want to now focus on slope.

It is important to make sure that the ground has at least a 2% slope away from the foundation of the house to allow for proper drainage and water shedding during a heavy rainfall. While we don’t get a lot of rain here in San Diego, when it comes, it comes in gigantic buckets. So my landscape has to be able to handle large rates of rainfall, as infrequent as they might be. A 2% slope is more than adequate, but how, exactly, do you do this?

Making an accurate slope starts with defining a reference point. In the case of a slope away from a house, the reference is, well, the house. Convenient references are typically siding or the weep screed on stucco. Since I have stucco, I’m using the weep screed. Because stucco absorbs water, the top of the finished grade must be at least 4″ below the weep screed. Adding 2″ for the pavers, 1″ for the sand base, and 4″ for the aggregate base means that the ground must be 11″ lower than the weep screed. That’s fine for the level at the foundation, but my drainage grates are 10′ away from the house (120″) meaning that I have to subtract an additional 2-1/2″ to from the 11″ to get the required 2% slope away from the foundation (120″ x 2% = 2.4″). This means that the ground must be 13 -1/2″ lower than the weep screed at the line of my drains.

Now, you have to transfer these measurements to the surface of the soil. You can use a tape measure to transfer the marks from the weep screed, and then use a line level to transfer that mark to the reference you’re using for the slope, and measure down from there. However, that’s not very accurate, and it’s pretty fussy, especially for a DIY’er. A far better method is to get a laser level and a grade stick. It used to be that these setups cost thousands of dollars. But now, you can pick up a good rig for around $375.00. OK, that’s not exactly cheap, and if you’re doing just one job, then maybe renting is a good idea. But if you are doing remodeling as a DIYer working alone, this will come in mighty handy. Plus, isn’t collecting cool tools part of the DIY experience? I can always justify the expense by how much I save in labor costs. But I digress. Here is what you need:

Laser level tools. Make sure you get a grade rod calibrated in fractional inches. Most surveying grade rods are in decimal feet, and that can be a pain to convert, unless you're a professional surveyor, in which case you don't bother converting and leave that to the other trades.

Laser level tools. Make sure you get a grade rod calibrated in fractional inches. Most surveying grade rods are in decimal feet, and that can be a pain to convert, unless you’re a professional surveyor, in which case you don’t bother converting and leave that to the other trades.

Onto the task of transferring these measurements. After a lot of thought, I came up the idea of pounding in grade stakes close to the foundation, and then doing the same where I wanted the low point of the grade to be (near the drainage grates). I would then connect them with strings, and I would have an accurate grid to which I could properly set the grade. The only problem was that if I used the calculated level of the ground, I would have to be fussing with marking and stringing at ground level. Totally a non-starter. What I came up with was to offset the level by 4″. This corresponds to the depth of the aggregate base which I plan on putting in. I would then use a wooden “block” that was 4″ in height to run along the string, which would establish the proper level of the ground with the correct slope.  Here is a video and some pictures.

Now that the building lines are set, I have to remove additional dirt to get to the correct level.

Now that the building lines are set, I have to remove additional dirt to get to the correct level.

Look at these dirt clods. I needed a pick to break them apart!

Look at these dirt clods. I needed a pick to break them apart!

More petrified potatoes. Fortunately, these are very popular as free giveaways on Craigslist. I don't have problems getting rid of these.

More petrified potatoes. Fortunately, these are very popular as free giveaways on Craigslist. I don’t have problems getting rid of these.

This shows how I graded to the lines. I ran my 4" block along the lines and then established the correct grade at the lines.

This shows how I graded to the lines. I ran my 4″ block along the lines and then established the correct grade at the lines.

I then eyeballed the grade and leveled everything out. Pretty nice, eh?

I then eyeballed the grade and leveled everything out. Pretty nice, eh?

Unfortunately while digging (again) I had some trouble locating previously buried services. This is a repair job of my blasting apart my pristine new greywater irrigation system. Fortunately I know how to fix this stuff.

Unfortunately while digging (again) I had some trouble locating previously buried services. This is a repair job of my blasting apart my pristine new greywater irrigation system. Fortunately I know how to fix this stuff.

 

 

Here is the truck used to deliver the 15 yards of aggregate base.

Here is the truck used to deliver the 15 yards of aggregate base.

And here is the aggregate base in all its 15 yards of wonderfulness. This is really going to suck.

And here is the aggregate base in all its 15 yards of wonderfulness. This is really going to suck.

Here is a cool video on how to tighten, and easily loosen, building strings.

Easy Building String Knot

Now that the proper grade is established at the ground level, the next step is to add the aggregate base. The best aggregate base to use, at least in Southern California, is something called “Class 2 Road Base”. This is a mixture of aggregates from 3/4″ gravel down to dust. Plus it had recycled concrete. And it’s cheap(er). Best of all it compacts to a very stable base which is perfectly suited to a paver patio. Because I had the true genius of using a 4″ offset for my building strings, “all” I had to do was to trundle in the aggregate base and make it level with my strings. However, all of my genius could not overcome the basic fact of having to muscle the 15 yards of aggregate that was required to fill my front and back yard to the required 4″. Once the aggregate base is in place, it MUST be compacted. The best way to do this is with a plate vibratory compactor that can be rented. The aggregate base that I’m using compacts really well because of the different aggregate sizes. It really makes a stable, sturdy base on which to lay your pavers. Here are some pictures of the finished product:

This is the fill all compacted. The orange beast in the foreground is the plate compactor. Also notice the wet say in the background. This tool is essential in making nice cuts for your pavers.

This is the fill all compacted. The orange beast in the foreground is the plate compactor. Also notice the wet say in the background. This tool is essential in making nice cuts for your pavers.

Side yard all nice and compacted.

Side yard all nice and compacted.

Front yard all ready for the next step. I'll be filling this with decomposed granite (DG) and will stabilize it with a goop which promises to be resistant to erosion. We'll see...

Front yard all ready for the next step. I’ll be filling this with decomposed granite (DG) and will stabilize it with a goop which promises to be resistant to erosion. We’ll see…

The next thing to do is to lay out the sand on which you’ll be placing the pavers. After doing some research on the Internet, I found a really nifty way to get it perfect. Obtain some 3/4″ PVC pipes, which have an outside diameter of 1″, and lay them down at 4′ intervals. Then dump your sand between the pipes and screed it off with a 2×4. The original video on the Internet showed an 8′ spacing, but they had 2 people working the screed. So I chose to shorten the distance to make it easier for a one-person crew. Working as one person sometimes requires a different approach than what a professional crew would do, so just “doing it like the pros” is not always possible.

One-person screed.

One-person screed.

Everything is now ready for actually laying the pavers. While this can be a big payoff, because it’s so easy as compared to setting the grade and leveling the aggregate base, you have to be careful to set up that all important first course as accurately as you can. Once again, we need some reference points, and the most common one is the foundation of the house. In my case, since the patio occupies the entire back yard, I chose to use the corner of my foundation. The first bricks to lay will be the brick edging, which are bricks that are set perpendicular to the wall. For the corners, I used some 8″x8″ paver blocks, which made the corner transitions easier than cutting up 4″x8″ bricks on the diagonal. More of that to come. Now to set the pattern which you’re going to use for the “field”. Many patterns (basket-weave. running bond, 90º herringbone) should fit right along your edging, and you can merrily brick away. However, I chose to use a 45º herringbone pattern because (a) looks really cool, (b) aligns with the cardinal compass points relative to true north on the property, and (c) is a bit more challenging.

To line up a 45º pattern, the first thing to do is to set up a building line with some masonry string and blocks. This line needs to be parallel to the edge you’ll be working, and should be offset such that the filler bricks are relatively easy to cut and fit. I’ve seen some videos of how to set this up on the Internet, and while watching the process is instructive, these videos miss the obvious when it comes to determining the offset. It’s really quite simple: since the bricks will intersect the edge at a 45º angle, you’ll want to cut off the corner of a brick so you can flip the pieces around and complete the pattern. Here is a diagram:

Diagram of how to set up the first course.

Diagram of how to set up the first course.

A closer look at the diagram shows that the offset is the hypotenuse of a 45º right triangle, whose two legs correspond to the width of your brick. The hypotenuse is the square root of the sum of the squares of the legs (Pythagorean theorem, yes?), So since my bricks are 4″x8″, the offset is √(4² + 4²) = √(16+16) = √32 = 5.65. That works out to 5-5/8″. (If you really want to be nerdly, the closest fraction is 21/32 which is right between 5/8 and 11/16, so you could use your tape measure to get spot on, but in reality, 1/8″ is pretty good.) Why do I discuss this? Because I’m a nerd. And proud of it! That bit of mathematical nuance out of the way, it’s time to lay some brick! Take your bricks and align the corners diagonally with the mason’s line. You want to lay a fair number of bricks to establish a good course to build from, as shown in the picture. I set about 10 pairs (20 bricks).

Now we get to a point where we have to start thinking about the order of things. Specifically, you need to think about how you’re going to set the sand base, then lay the brick, without stepping in the sand base (which defeats the purpose), or disrupting the bricks that you’ve already set. You can (indeed must) walk on the placed brick, but you must step gingerly so as not to disrupt the bricks on the edges. So the brick path you step on needs to be at least 5-6 courses wide. You can start from one edge and build out until it’s wide enough, and then you’re home free.

Stepping Stones. Lay enough brick so you can step on it (carefully) and work your way out.

Stepping Stones. Lay enough brick so you can step on it (carefully) and work your way out.

One of the critical observations in doing masonry work is to realize that masonry is the art of adjustment. Constantly. Bricks are not exactly the same size. Foundations are not exactly straight. So, one has to constantly compromise. In laying this particular herringbone pattern, I noticed that the bricks tended to become misaligned, probably due to the fact that the bricks came in contact with the edging at their corners. This meant that only a slight misalignment in the angle of the bricks will make a big difference. The way to notice this is to look at the gaps between the bricks. If there are excessive gaps, then it is likely that the bricks are misaligned. This is where your rubber hammer becomes your friend. Simply tap the edges of the bricks and they will tend to lock together and self-align. To a point. If you’re not vigilant, then things can get away from you and you might have to pull some of the bricks up so you can align them. Bottom line: constantly pay attention!

It turns out that laying the pavers, as whole bricks, is only half the job. The other half comes when you have to cut the bricks to fit along the edges and any other protuberances, such as post foundations and drainage grates. This is where a diamond blade wet saw comes in handy. Although one can dry cut the bricks with a grinder, the wet saw makes the cuts much more accurately, resulting in a very nice, professional look. The cost of renting this type of saw is totally worth it, especially when compared to the effort you will expend in putting all of the pavers in. The technique is to fit a brick where it would normally go, and then mark where it contacts the edge with a sharpie. Turn the brick over, draw a line between your two marks, and you now have your cut line. I also number the cuts so I can cut in batches to save time, yet keep all of the pieces organized. You’d be surprised how much they all start looking alike! Remember — mark the BOTTOM of the brick. Having a bunch of numbers on the top of your bricks will elicit some uncomfortable questions by your guests after you finish.

Step #1: Line up your bricks.

Step #1: Line up your bricks.

Step #2: Mark where the brick intersects the edge.

Step #2: Mark where the brick intersects the edge.

Step #3: Connect the marks to make a line.

Step #3: Connect the marks to make a line.

Step #4: Number your bricks so you'll remember where they go.

Step #4: Number your bricks so you’ll remember where they go.

Step #5 Cut the bricks. See how handy the numbers are?

Step #5 Cut the bricks. See how handy the numbers are?

Step #6. Set the bricks in place. Looks nice!

Step #6. Set the bricks in place. Looks nice!

Now that the bricks are in place, they should be set into the sand base. This is best done with a plate vibratory compactor. This is a little like a lawn mower, except that it’s heavy and has some weights that rapidly spin, causing the plate on the bottom to buzz in a heavy manner. This is, perhaps, one interpretation of getting “heavily buzzed”. At any rate, the bricks will settle nicely into the sand base and start to lock up with each other, stabilizing the entire assembly. That’s all good, but in order to completely stabilize the structure, you must add sand. These pavers are specifically designed to have small (1/8″) gaps between them — in fact, there are little tabs on the sides of the brick to optimize this spacing and keep it uniform throughout. Because the gap is small, and the friction of the sand is what is used to lock the pavers in place, it is important to use “joint sand”, which has the right grain size and sharp edges. The process is to spread the sand all around, sweeping it back and forth a bit to get it to go into the gaps, and then take the plate compactor and run it over the bricks again. This will shake the bricks and the sand will rapidly and completely fill the gaps. (Heavily buzzed with “joint” sand — hmmm…. maybe that’s what makes them act like bricks.) You’ll want to sweep and vibrate one more time to make sure the gaps are filled all the way to the top. You will likely now have some excess sand on top, so it will need to be swept off. I used the extra sand to make a sandbox for our outdoor cat, Tiger.

Here is our outdoor cat, Tiger, in the supervisory mode. He is a feral cat that we tamed, and he comes in to eat and when the weather is bad, but we could never litter train him. So....

Here is our outdoor cat, Tiger, in the supervisory mode. He is a feral cat that we tamed, and he comes in to eat and when the weather is bad, but we could never litter train him. So….

Tiger's Toidy. A pristine sandbox in a secluded, private location. It pays to be a cat!

Tiger’s Toidy. A pristine sandbox in a secluded, private location. It pays to be a cat!

 

Finally, the last step: sealer. Sealer is important because (a) it penetrates the sand, discouraging ants and other bugs from coming up through the gaps between the bricks, and (b) penetrates the surface of the bricks to make the cleanup of spills, including such things as grease from your grill and bird poop, much easier. Putting on the sealer was not particularly difficult, but it was important to flood the bricks, and especially the gaps, to get good penetration. I used a roller attached to a pole and it worked pretty well.

This particular job took a lot of time, particularly in some unseasonable heat, but I took some vitamins and had a few extra cups of coffee, so the following video outlines the process from start to finish.

As a bonus, I now have completely cleared my driveway which, for the past 18 months, has served as a lay down area, particularly for the bricks and sand I harvested from the original patio. I finally feel as though my outside projects are near conclusion. Here are some more pictures:

Driveway with all the junk and lay-down for the patio. I removed the patio bricks 18 months before and they've been sitting there until now when I could reinstall them.

Driveway with all the junk and lay-down for the patio. I removed the patio bricks 18 months before and they’ve been sitting there until now when I could reinstall them.

After 18 months, the driveway is clear and I can now park my cars! Unfortunately, this is a temporary situation as I will be starting on the inside of the house and will need this space for another lay-down area. :(

After 18 months, the driveway is clear and I can now park my cars! Unfortunately, this is a temporary situation as I will be starting on the inside of the house and will need this space for another lay-down area. 😦

So, the next few steps will be to finish off the outside, and that begins with a terrific outdoor space called a “catio”. More to follow….

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!

Removing Recalcitrant Concrete Forms — How to Adapt and Change Your Approach

This week was a bit of an interlude. I had just finished one project (the new patio cover/trellis supports and footings), but I really wasn’t ready for the next one (building the backyard retaining wall). Nonetheless, there was a lot of work to do. I had to determine exactly where the backyard retaining wall would go based on how much dirt I had to accommodate from the net result of my adventures in grading (see previous posts). So, early in the morning, I went out with my AWESOME laser level and grade rod and determined the level of my retaining wall, and then went back to my computer model to set the dimensions of the retaining wall based on the volume of dirt I had to re-distribute. I then calculated the number of retaining wall bricks and capstone that I would need.

I also had to demo the old footings with a jackhammer. It cost $75 for 4 hours — if I would have done this earlier, when I had the jackhammer for other reasons, I would have saved the $75.  That is (part of) the price of not thinking ahead. Oh well. I also had to sort through a bunch of other demolition products, primarily lumber, so Habitat for Humanity could pick it up. To meet their requirements, I had to disassemble all of my structures (e.g., concrete forms), and also had to rid some of my other used lumber from nails and screws. I don’t want to pay somebody to take this lumber to a landfill where it will rot and pollute our environment, instead of being repurposed for someone else’s needs. My lovely wife is the great conservator and recycler, and I always follow her recommendations. Over the years, I have come to truly appreciate her wisdom and forward-thinking about our care for our environment. It makes a difference on many levels.

A big pile of busted up footings. Will I ever get rid of this stuff?

A big pile of busted up footings. Will I ever get rid of this stuff?

All the lumber I used for my concrete and footing work, ready to be repurposed by Habitat for Humanity.

All the lumber I used for my concrete and footing work, ready to be repurposed by Habitat for Humanity.

Part of my demolition activity was to remove the forms from the concrete pour. In particular, I had to remove the forms which made a recess in the concrete to fit in my footlights. These were all left in place when the outside forms were removed because it was important to have the concrete cure and gain maximum strength because removal of these forms places a stress on the surrounding concrete. Thanks to my naiveté,  I did not seriously consider the potential difficulty in removing these little forms. After all, they were just little plywood boxes held together with a few finish nails. And the concrete contractor did a good job of spraying release agent (diesel fuel — you can smell it when you pull the forms), so I figured no big deal. I’ll just yank these bad boys out by inserting a few screws and pulling with pliers.

This approach did not work out well.

Turns out that the fresh concrete has water (duh!) which gets absorbed in the wood, no matter the release agent. This causes the wood to expand, and, unless you live in a desert (I do) and are willing to wait for several months to let ALL the moisture evaporate (forget that — I have a schedule to keep and I’m impatient), then you will have to remove the forms using brute force. This was an “inside” form, meaning that when it expanded, it only forced itself tighter against the surrounding concrete. I tried a couple of methods which involved a somewhat clever use of jackscrews that would push out the form from behind, but all ended up in failure. If I would have foreseen this complication, I could have installed the correct hardware before the pour, but I didn’t, so I was stuck. In the end, the brute force method was the way to go.

Brute force means removal by destruction. Basically, you use an array of tools, (hammer, crowbar, hand-held jigsaw, drill, chisel) to cut up the form and lever it out. Without doing damage to the concrete, of course. I would cut the top and bottom of the plywood with a jigsaw and then crowbar the top and sides out. For the back, I would drill a horizontal and vertical line of holes, and then use a chisel to break the plywood along the drill lines. The remaining pieces could then be pried out. So was this DIY hell, or was it what the pros do?

In a word, yes to both.

I had a basic misconception with how difficult the form would be to remove based on overlooking the expansion of the wood due to moisture in the concrete. My initial attempts did not take this into account. After trying the alternative jackscrew approach (the screws would either strip or shear off), I found that the brute force demolition approach was not so bad. This is what I think pros do in this situation. So I eventually came up with a “pro” approach. It just took me a few iterations. And a lot of time. Which is why pros are always faster. But I had “fun” doing it, right? Truthfully, no, but I learned something, and that is one of the benefits, if not a joy, of being a DIY.

Here are some pictures and a video:

Here is an "after" picture. Note how the edges of the well are a bit rough. I'm going to have to figure out how to hide this. Hiding your mistakes is an essential part of being a good DIY'er. Hey -- even the pros do it!

Here is an “after” picture. Note how the edges of the well are a bit rough. I’m going to have to figure out how to hide this. Hiding your mistakes is an essential part of being a good DIY’er. Hey — even the pros do it!

The detritus from the destructive removal of the concrete forms. That entire project turned out to be a "well spent" afternoon (!)

The detritus from the destructive removal of the concrete forms. That entire project turned out to be a “well spent” afternoon (!)

 

I’m trying to get a little more traffic on my blog and I ended up getting a domain name: http://www.diydivo.com.  It’s easier to remember, so please visit often!

 

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!

The Concrete Pour — A Very Gratifying Moment

In the course of most, if not all, projects, there are moments when all of the hard work of preparation become manifest in a sudden and visceral way. Such is the case with my “big” concrete pour. Well, “big” is relative. Many concrete pours are measured in hundreds of cubic yards and many concrete trucks. Mine was about 10 yards, which was a pretty full truck, but, hey, have you ever had to move 10 yards of anything by hand? To me, this falls into the category of “big”.

This was “big” in another context as well. It marked a big turning point in the outdoor part of the project because, in a matter of a few hours, it transformed the front of my house from a bunch of shabby looking trenches into something that was actually warm and inviting. And that’s how projects go. Lots of preparation with little apparent visual progress, and then, boom. it’s all done.

The first thing I needed to do was to find a suitable contractor who would do the pour and finishing. I have tried to do some concrete work by myself, or by enlisting the help of some of my family members and friends. Some of these turned out OK. Others were major disasters. Bottom line is that through experience, I had learned that a concrete pour, especially of the size which I had planned, was something left to the pros. There are things that are NOT DIY and this is one of them! Concrete has a relatively short working time, and the crew that showed up numbered 9 people, if you include the truck driver, pump operator, and the owner/supervisor. No way can that be duplicated at the DIY level. I got a few bids by calling some contractors that were advertising on Angie’s list, and I chose a company that (a) showed up on time, (b) gave me an estimate that was competitive and (c) told it like it was. The owner had been in the concrete business since he was a teenager and knows concrete from the bottom-up, inside-out, over-under, well you get the idea. Here is a link to his website in case you’re interested. The owner’s name is Dave Parker and he gave me several suggestions on how to improve some significant details of my design (which I took on board). We had sealed the deal and, because I had everything set up, he was able to work me into his schedule last Saturday.

Saturday morning arrived, and it was a good thing that I am on an “early” schedule. My alarm goes off at 4:00 AM and I’m usually on the job not later than 6:00 AM, whether that be my day job or my remodeling adventure. The crew arrived at about 6:45 AM and I walked the foreman through the project. As additional workers started to show up, they started doing the layout. Although I had set the forms, they snapped chalk lines against the walls to make sure they had a good reference to work to, and did some clean-up. Eventually, the owner shows up and gives his crew some specific directions based on my walk-through with him a couple of days before. Then comes the concrete pump. Nowadays, concrete pumps are ubiquitous. No pros EVER use anything but a pump. It’s a relatively small part of the total job (for me about 17% of the total cost) and that would be about the same as the labor for barrowing the stuff around. At any rate, the concrete pump and the associated truck which pulls it takes up a significant amount of frontage. Then comes the concrete truck. Fortunately, I had made good use of my traffic barriers to block out any stray cars from the front of my house, as well as my two adjoining neighbors to fit the whole rig in. But,hey, it was early on a Saturday, so the first inkling that they had regarding my occupation of “their” parking spaces was a big concrete truck  in reverse with its warning beepers at full blast. So much for sleeping in. Such is the price of progress.

So things were getting exciting. For the rest of the event, I invite you to watch the following video.

To me, working concrete is an amazing skill. Or perhaps it is art. Your medium is this heavy, messy, wet stuff that looks like, well, you can draw your  own conclusions after reflecting on the video of the stuff coming out of the hose. Yet a good concrete finisher will direct the pour to align the edges perfectly to the forms and/or lines, and then sculpt swales and mounds to get the water to drain properly. The stuff has a certain working time, so one has to be cognizant of that and work accordingly (usually fast). However, there is a “sweet spot” of time when the concrete just begins to harden, and that’s where the magic of a good finisher shows itself. The guys I had were expert. They poked, prodded, screeded, floated, sculpted, troweled, cut control joints, finished the edges, and finished it off (I wanted a broom finish*) in what seemed to me a well orchestrated ballet. Literally, they were dancing on top of the forms and whatever else the could gain purchase on to do the finishing under the pressure of the clock. Baryshnikov would have been proud!

Here are some pictures of the finished product:

Finished  Front Sidewalk and Ramp

Finished Front Sidewalk and Ramp

Finished Side Yard

Finished Side Yard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m really happy about how this came out, and it represents a big step because it is not only the culmination of a lot of hard work,  but also had an immediate, positive, visual impact on how the project is shaping up.

Now… onto the back yard!

* A broom finish is where you take a stiff bristle broom and push it across the wet concrete. The result is a surface with a lot of tiny parallel grooves which produce a non-skid surface. This finish is standard for any concrete which will have foot traffic. Your driveway is probably finished like this as well, because you’re probably going to walk on it. However, on public roads, the shallow grooves of the broom would wear down rapidly. So, the builders will frequently cut big grooves with a concrete saw to not only provide traction, but also to shed water, which, when it rains,  is a significant hazard.

Getting Ready For A Concrete Pour

Things are beginning to shape up in front, and one of the final “projects” was going to be to pour the concrete. This is DEFINITELY a job for a professional crew — NOT DIY! I know this from harsh, personal experience. Oh, I know, the videos make it seem really easy, but trust me, striking off a mound of concrete with a screed is hard, messy work, and is actually quite comical if it’s just you and your wife doing it. OK, I’ve done a couple of small sidewalks, but this job is way too large and intricate to trust to anybody but a professional crew. Hey, at least give me credit for knowing the difference!

Be that as it may, I had my plans, so I know what I wanted to do. Well, at least I thought that I did at the beginning. More on that later. The fact is that a dedicated DIY’er can do essentially all of the prep work. This is quite a lot of work, it turns out, and while you may get some benefit of saving some money, the biggest advantage for me was giving the concrete subcontractor a lot of flexibility with the schedule. If you have a pro do the whole job (demolition, site and grade prep, base fill, building the concrete forms, and setting out the remesh), then you’ll have to wait several weeks until the schedule is clear for a multi-day (or week) job. If you do all of the work, it’s a 1 day job of pouring and finishing the concrete, which can be scheduled more easily. Now for all of that prep work.

Demolition was done previously, per several of my previous posts. And, although I did a reasonable job of getting the grade set correctly with the steer skid, I still had a fair amount of cleanup to do. The skid steer doesn’t get into the corners, plus I had to get some stumps ground after I had completed the initial excavation. Plus the rains over the winter (such as they were) ended up “displacing” some dirt which had to be “re-placed”. In other words moved around some more. I ended up barrowing out about 4-5 yards of dirt to the back.

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next thing to do was to set up a base. I had a choice between 3/4″ gravel and “class II  road base”. I decided to use gravel because I though it might be better, but it turns out that class II road base is what is typically used around here because gravel is used for areas where frost heave is a problem, and you want something to absorb the resulting ground motion. Road base is less expensive (!), and since it compacts way better, I plan on using it as the base for my brick-on-sand patio. So I find this out too late and I now have 7 yards of gravel to chuck  and spread around. C’est la vie! Fortunately this went reasonably quickly. The only hiccup was that I had to somehow figure out a way to get wheelbarrows of this stuff to the back while navigating around previously installed drainage pipes that were annoyingly protruding from the ground. My solution was to barrow a pile of gravel around the drains and then take some plywood and make little ramps so that I could gingerly push a wheelbarrow with several hundred pounds of gravel through the maze that eventually lead to the back yard. After all was distributed, I rented a plate compactor to give a good solid base.  Because the compactor wouldn’t fit into the corners, or around some of the obstacles sticking up, I had to use a hand compactor to get everything nice and tight.

That there is a cubic butt ton of gravel to move!

That there is a cubic butt ton of gravel to move!

Chucking gravel from front to back. Note the plywood highway.

Chucking gravel from front to back. Note the plywood highway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used a pile of gravel and some plywood ramps to navigate around the drain grates that were sticking up. I ended up raking the gravel level as i worked my way back, so it ended up all good.

I used a pile of gravel and some plywood ramps to navigate around the drain grates that were sticking up. I ended up raking the gravel level as i worked my way back, so it ended up all good.

 

 

Front entrance gravel all level and compact. Ready for the forms.

Front entrance gravel all level and compact. Ready for the forms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I was gearing up to move all of this gravel, I also had to buy lumber for the forms. So, I woke up early on a Saturday and headed over to the local Home Depot. Alas, it was raining, so it promised to be a mucky day outside. As I drove into the parking lot, I saw that the rental truck was conveniently parked, so I assumed it was available. I loaded up a bunch of lumber (plywood, 2x4s.), paid for it, and tried to rent the truck. I was then told it was out of commission for some obscure reason. Since my mood sufficiently sour to begin with, I vented my frustration. The customer service people were very nice, let me have my say, then proceeded to help me out with a free delivery. How good is that? So, shame on me for being a dickhead, but good for the Home Depot folks. I sent their boss a nice e-mail apologizing for my brief outburst and profusely thanking them for their excellent customer service. At any rate, I come back to the house and discover that my brand new wheelbarrow has a flat tire that will not succumb to mere inflation. So it’s back to Home Depot to get a flat-free tire. I guess it just was going to be one of those days….

 

My new wheelbarrow with a flat tire. Come on!

My new wheelbarrow with a flat tire. Come on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next was the forms. With my previous experiences with concrete, getting the forms right was always a challenge. So this time, I wanted to make them very sturdy and straight. I used 1/2″ plywood and made a frame of 2x4s to support the plywood so there would be no bending. The 2×4 frames also gave me something solid to work with so when I drove the stakes, I would be using the forms as the guide. The contractors who came out to bid basically said that this was overkill, and they may have been right. But as a DIY guy working alone, I think this gave me the best result and minimized the amount of fussing around to get the forms aligned and in place.

Frame for the form. I had to eventually rebuild this one because it was too large, but you get the idea.

Frame for the form. I had to eventually rebuild this one because it was too large, but you get the idea.

Detail of my forms. The corners are bolted together with braces that pull everything tight and square, and make disassembly very easy. Too bad I won't be using these again.

Detail of my forms. The corners are bolted together with braces that pull everything tight and square, and make disassembly very easy. Too bad I won’t be using these again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bottom of plywood on form extends down to allow for concrete to flow between levels to allow a monolithic slab without a lot of fuss in removing the form to finish the faces.

Bottom of plywood on form extends down to allow for concrete to flow between levels to allow a monolithic slab without a lot of fuss in removing the form to finish the faces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the nuances of my design was that I wanted to place can lights within the concrete to provide lighting for the steps (as a safety feature). Although the lights that I chose were rated for casting in concrete, in the long run, that is a bad idea because when (not if) they fail, you’ll have to tear out the concrete to get to them. No thanks. So, my plan was to construct plywood molds that would result in a perfectly sized recess that I could fit the lights into. Additionally, the molds had a hole that accepted PVC conduit, so that I could run the wiring between the boxes and back out through the wires that I had cleverly routed around the house while I was digging the drainage lines to supply the power. This is 12v lighting, so no problem with running the wires adjacent to where water might be. However, on the back porch, the lights needed to be located near the top of the slab. This could be problematic with cracking, so I added a 1×1 wire mesh reinforcement with material I had left over from a previous project. I also knocked down the sharp edges of the plywood boxes to minimize stress concentrations. My hope is that, with these little details, plus the fact that I am going to tile over these fragile areas, will make everything all right.

After I had set up the forms, I and my wife had a good chance to look at what the final result might be and, you guessed it, we were having some reservations. So, we took a step back, and perhaps some steps around, and started to actually walk through the expected traffic patterns. After a few iterations, it became obvious that we had to change things around a little in the front, and that is one of the advantages of DIY. You really can change things at almost the last-minute without a great impact on cost or schedule. Had this been an agreed upon design and had I already had a contractor doing the work, changing this stuff would have been out of the question. Of course, perhaps my design was not so good to begin with, and maybe a pro would have come up with the right answer in the first place, but what fun is that? I also had to re-design (and re-build) the forms to have the proper height above the finished concrete surface and provide a gap underneath so that the pour could be continuous, resulting in a monolithic slab. Good thing I had ordered some extra lumber!

The front landing is disjointed and not ergonomic. It looked better in the model and plans.

The front landing is disjointed and not ergonomic. It looked better in the model and plans.

Just doesn't look right.

Just doesn’t look right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That's more like it! Nicely balanced and allows access up the ramp (on the right), from the driveway apron (on the left), and from the garage.

That’s more like it! Nicely balanced and allows access up the ramp (on the right), from the driveway apron (on the left), and from the garage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I was doing all of this, it was time to get some bids for the work. I had a number of folks come by, and each was very helpful and offered some advice as I was finishing up. One comment was pretty much universal: “Fill in the areas where you have deep concrete (e.g. the back porch and front landing) with materials that are less expensive than concrete. Well, it turns out that I had a big pile of masonry detritus  accumulated from my previous work, so it was a no-brainer to chuck that stuff into these areas, if not to save money, than to just get rid of the stuff in a manner that did not involve surreptitiously dumping this crap into the residential waste stream over a long period of time. Which is my normal modus operandi. I learned this from my wife.

Finally, the re-mesh. This is a welded wire mesh that is used to provide reinforcement in the concrete. It is made of large gauge (#6) steel wires that are spot welded together to form a  6″x6” mesh. You can buy these in flat sheets of 5’x8′, but that is much more expensive than buying a 150′ roll and cutting it yourself. Of course, I did the latter. I had previously purchased a heavy-duty wire cutter (essential for this work) and set about unrolling the beast and nipping off sections so that they fit where I needed to put them. I ended up with a number of relatively small pieces because (a) they were easier to make flat — the roll has some “memory” so you have to bend it a little to make it lie flat — and (b) they were easier to handle and place where I needed them.

Back porch ready for the pour. Can you see the masonry detritus poking through the gravel? Also a good look at the forms and reinforcement for the can lights.

Back porch ready for the pour. Can you see the masonry detritus poking through the gravel? Also a good look at the forms and reinforcement for the can lights.

Left driveway apron all ready for the pour.

Left driveway apron all ready for the pour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PVC electrical conduit is supported by rebar stakes so that it won't bend when the concrete is poured over it.

PVC electrical conduit is supported by rebar stakes so that it won’t bend when the concrete is poured over it.

Service sidewalk all ready. I'm replacing the square grates with round ones on the advice of the subcontractor to minimize cracking.

Service sidewalk all ready. I’m replacing the square grates with round ones on the advice of the subcontractor to minimize cracking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now everything was all set and the bids were in. It was time to choose a subcontractor. I chose a person who (a) provided a reasonable price (part of my day job is cost estimation, so I knew what the price range should be), and (b) would provide a schedule (e.g., meeting time, estimates), and stick to it. I believe the latter is a key indicator of future performance.

I’m meeting with the subcontractor tomorrow, and with luck, I’ll have the concrete poured by the end of the week. Wish me luck!

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Picture of the plans

Picture of the plans

Finished Workbench With Tools

Finished Workbench With Tools

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

An example of the crappy electrical installation in my home.

An example of the crappy electrical installation in my home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Well at least I think I understand it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

“Little Projects” — Another Part Of A Home Remodel

Thus far, most of my posts have been focused on progressing the home remodeling project as a whole. However, as with any thorough home remodeling, there will be a few things that will be seeming unrelated to the main project, and these stem from the inspections that occurred in leading up to the start of the overall project.

In this example, I had a plumber come in and inspect my domestic water drain lines (not to be confused with site drainage for runoff). I actually did this quite a few months ago because I wanted to know if I had any major work lurking in the background and would have to perform additional digging to fix my drain lines. The good news was that my drain lines were in excellent shape. No clogs, build-up, roots, or other “growies”. In fact, I did not need a drain cleaning! However, there was one part of the drain, right below the kitchen sink, that had a crack and was leaking. My plumbing contractor (Eastlake Plumbing)came in and did an AWESOME job fixing the drain. In fact, they re-routed some of the drain in order to fix a problem that the original builder left behind. However, I had to cut a hole in the stucco on the outside wall near the drain in order to give my plumbing heroes the correct access. That left a big hole in the side of my house. I wasn’t sure exactly how to fix it, but I had bought some cheap plywood and some goop with the hope that I could just seal it up and have it done properly when I hired a stucco crew to stucco the addition and “fix” some other problems.

I had deferred this project because I wanted to keep my momentum going with the brick wall and front yard. That turned out to be a good move because, lo and behold, my favorite YouTube stucco guy Kirk and Jason Girodanos posted a video on how to do a stucco repair after a plumbing job. He gave me some key pointers, but more importantly, showed the job from start to finish so that I had a really good example from which to proceed. I bought my materials, and then finally, this past weekend, had a chance to actually start on this project.

The first thing to do is to chip away the stucco from the perimeter of the cut so that you can slide some building paper underneath. Unfortunately, as I broke away stucco and exposed the underlying structure, I found that it had been adversely affected by the water which was constantly leaking out of the drain. Plus, for whatever reason, the original stucco only had one layer of building paper underneath, instead of the required two layers. So I had to remove a lot more stucco than I planned on in order to expose solid material from which to work with.

The other problem was that there were several studs, plus some of the sole plate and the weep screed, which were totally rotted out. Thus, I had to deal with the structural issues first, before I could move forward with the stucco repair. At least my carpentry skills are fairly well-developed, so I was able to cut away the offending materials, and rebuild the ends of the studs by wedging in “cripple” studs at different lengths to form what looks like a finger joint. This gave me some resistance to shear forces, in addition to the gravity forces which were taken by a new sill plate that I attached to the foundation using a “gunpowder” hammer. I also had to cut notches in the new studs to accommodate electrical wiring and then secure them with nail plates.

Demolition is complete Note how the rotten sole plate and studs are removed, and that I cut the studs to make interlocking "fingers" that will provide lateral strength.

Demolition is complete Note how the rotten sole plate and studs are removed, and that I cut the studs to make interlocking “fingers” that will provide lateral strength.

Rotted out studs. Like swiss cheese!

Rotted out studs. Like swiss cheese!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New sole plate installed. This is a "powder activated" hammer, meaning that it uses a .22 caliber shell to power a hammer. The nail has an orange centering bushing that holds the nail in the "muzzle" of the hammer. You whap the end of the tool with your regular hammer, and that fires the shell and drives the nail right into the concrete. I bought this years ago for attaching furring to a concrete wall, and I've used it countless times since. A must-have if you want to attach something to concrete.

New sole plate installed. This is a “powder activated” hammer, meaning that it uses a .22 caliber shell to power a hammer. The nail has an orange centering bushing that holds the nail in the “muzzle” of the hammer. You whap the end of the tool with your regular hammer, and that fires the shell and drives the nail right into the concrete. I bought this years ago for attaching furring to a concrete wall, and I’ve used it countless times since. A must-have if you want to attach something to concrete.

Replacement studs, interlocked, nailed, and notched for the electrical wires.

Replacement studs, interlocked, nailed, and notched for the electrical wires.

Nail plates over the wires. Required by code, but also did a good job of keeping the wires in place. Note that I'm fitting the building paper.

Nail plates over the wires. Required by code, but also did a good job of keeping the wires in place. Note that I’m fitting the building paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next step was to shove 2 layers of building paper underneath the original building paper at the top edge of the cutout. I thought this would be a major problem, but it turned out to not be so bad. For me, the key was cutting everything the right size and breaking it down into a few separate sheets to make it easier to handle and position.

From there, I had to staple on some lath. I got this lath at a discount because it was folded over and wasn’t a continuous sheet, but for my purposes it was OK. Again, cutting and fitting took several iterations, and I used a number of individual pieces to make things easier to work with. And a lot of staples.

Building paper in position.

Building paper in position.

Lath installed. Ready for stucco!

Lath installed. Ready for stucco!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, time to put on the actual stucco. I bought a couple of boxes of “stucco patch” which has only a 20 minute working time, so ya gotta work fast! I used my “eggbeater” mixer and a 5 gallon plastic bucket to mix the stucco and then went to work. Kirk and Jason Girodanos  use what is called a “pool trowel” and that worked like a champ! So, I got everything on, but I ran out of stucco mix, so I have a big concave area in the wall where the patch is. NBD because (a) the patch is fully functional (waterproof and no holes), and (b) I’m going to have a crew come in and stucco the addition, so I can have them go around the house and fix all of my other stucco problems. Honestly, I don’t know how to apply the finish, and I have other demands on my time. Again, this is an example of making smart decisions about what you do yourself, and what you contract the pros to do. When it comes to portland cement products, I will typically defer to a pro who has a crew that can get the job done before everything turns into an unworkable and ugly slag heap. I speak here from experience.

Stucco in place. Looks like crap, but it's functional and it's concave so the pros can cover it up and make it look nice. I'm calling this the "brown" coat for obvious reasons.

Stucco in place. Looks like crap, but it’s functional and it’s concave so the pros can cover it up and make it look nice. I’m calling this the “brown” coat for obvious reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up: the big Concrete Pour!