Drip Irrigation and Planting — Finishing The Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above ground drip irrigation parts.

Above ground drip irrigation parts.

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

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

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

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

Front planter driplines all connected and staked.

Front planter driplines all connected and staked.

The side yard with dripline installed.

The side yard with dripline installed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anatomy of a diaphragm pressure regulated drip emitter.

Anatomy of a diaphragm pressure regulated drip emitter.

Emitter installed in the insertion tool.

Emitter installed in the insertion tool.

Punching in the emitter.

Punching in the emitter.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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!

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.

How To Build a Keystone Retaining Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

LANDSCAPE PLOT PLAN

LANDSCAPE PLOT PLAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

Another view of the layout.

Another view of the layout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Loosen the dirt with a trowel.

Loosen the dirt with a trowel.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Level after "persuasion". Looks good!

Level after “persuasion”. Looks good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Base course, all laid out!

Base course, all laid out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Finished center planter.

Finished center planter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Many Hats Do I Have? — A Short Essay On Project Management

Yesterday, I was picking up some materials at one of my local suppliers (Home Depot). I got there just when the store opened (0600), yet I wasn’t ready to do any “real” work until 0900. What’s up with that?

Actually I was engaged in a lot of activity because I had to rent the truck, wait for the materials to get forklifted to the truck, drive back to the house, unpack, unload, dispose of the packing material, drive the rental truck back, top it off with gas, and then drive back to the house.

Turns out, that whenever you take on a home improvement project of any size, one of the critical tasks is to get your materials. In addition, there are a number of other tasks that need to occur before you commence “real work”. (By “real work” I mean doing the deed. Measuring, cutting, digging, assembling… whatever your concept of “real work” may be.) My Dad always said: “Always have a plan.” For simple tasks, this can be a drawing on the flap of an unused cardboard box. I did this today when I was laying out a manifold for my irrigation system. For more complex tasks, you might need dimensional drawings or a 3D model. Yet, this kind of “plan” is only one-dimensional. Well, really 2-D, but it oversimplifies the task of planning. Planning includes ALL of the tasks necessary to complete a project (of any size). Here is a list of common tasks that are necessary predecessors for “real work” in the context of DIY home improvement:

  1. Define your task. This is the fulcrum around which everything else rotates. Do you want to remodel your kitchen? Do you want to have an accessible bathroom? Do you want to have a water-conserving landscape? Do I want to put in new flooring? (Yes to all.)
  2. Make a drawing. A drawing will force you to detail  critical information. What kind of cabinets do I want for my kitchen? What kind of shower to I need to make my bathroom accessible? What kind of irrigation system do I need to have a water conserving landscape? What kind of flooring do I want? How big? How much? What shapes? As you answer these questions, your design will become increasingly more detailed, and from this, you can not only get an idea of how you’re going to put things together, but also be able to extract a list of materials. This is crucial to the next step.
  3. Source and obtain your materials. I remember before the Internet that I used to spend hours roaming the aisles of the big box stores just seeing what materials were available for my project. Now, I spend hours roaming the Internet. The cool thing is that I now have access to exponentially more choices of materials, and most come with free shipping, so I don’t even have to leave the house. Stuff just shows up. As a matter of practice, I develop my material list in conjunction with the design process, so by the time I have finished the drawings, I also have my shopping list.
  4. Perform a cost estimate and obtain financing. OK, for simple projects, that may mean taking $200 from your savings account. But for bigger projects, like a home remodel, this step is more integrated with the planning process as you will be making trade-offs with your design. Cost estimation is a science unto itself, and there are some good software tools out there when it comes to estimating residential construction projects. I did a detailed cost estimate using an online program called Clear Estimates just before I had my plans approved. Not only did I get a good figure the cost of my remodel, but I also was able to get estimates for the work I plan to contract out. Now I have some benchmark costs so I can better evaluate the bids of the subcontractors.
  5. Set aside time for the project. You want to have a block of free time that allows you to have an uninterrupted workflow to make the job go faster, and minimizes repetitive set-up times. Planning when to work on the project also helps you schedule your material procurements and deliveries. Frequently, deciding on when I’m going to do a project is the first thing that I do because it helps me plan and complete all of the predecessors (task definition, design/drawing, and material procurement). Deadlines are an effective motivator.
  6. GET TO WORK! Finally!

The steps above are the essence of what is called “project management”. It’s actually pretty straightforward if the project is simple, and if the project is larger, you just have to break it down into smaller chunks until what you’re left with are a bunch of simple projects. Here is where it gets interesting. This collection of simple projects, representing a much larger project, is not just a “honey-do” list. These sub-projects are interrelated. Some tasks have to be completed before others can start. Some tasks can be done in parallel. Some tasks require specialized skills which are best left to professional contractors. So, answering the questions of “where to start” and “what’s next” can become quite complicated. Large commercial projects develop what is called an “Integrated Master Schedule” (IMS) which typically uses computer software (e.g., Microsoft Project) to logically link all of the sub-tasks and assign labor and material resources to each task. In theory, you can get an accurate estimate of how much the project will cost and how long it will take. In reality, there are ALWAYS cost overruns and ALWAYS schedule delays, largely due to the facts that (a) there is always a measure of uncertainty in planning any project, (b) the bosses will tend to be overly optimistic because they want to win the bid, and (c) the customer frequently has a change of mind, which results in a change in the plans, and things just cascade from there. I actually have experience with doing this, and I made up an IMS for this home remodeling project about a year ago. That schedule showed that I would complete the project sometime later this year (2015). Alas, the IMS was difficult to keep up to date, and since I’m the only guy working the project, I made a choice to ditch the IMS in favor of doing “real work”. Needless to say, I now only have a vague idea when I’m going to finish, and I’m not quite sure what the final cost is going to be. All I know is that I’ve been stopping by Home Depot almost every day to pick up yet another part that I seemed to have overlooked in planning.

So, as the only person who is working this project, I need to wear many hats. Designer, draftsman, planner, scheduler, estimator, finance manager, procurement specialist (shopper), shipping and transportation (bring the stuff home), warehouse manager (store the stuff), general contractor, and finally tradesperson. I’m sure I left something out, but I think that’s enough to illustrate the point.

Now, when you see a construction crew at work, realize that there is a lot of action behind the scenes that is necessary to support that work. Even if that construction crew is a crew of one.

Here are some pictures of my warehousing operation:

WAREHOUSE

WAREHOUSE

WAREHOUSE  Do you see my ShopSmith?

WAREHOUSE
Do you see my ShopSmith?