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….

Getting Ready For A Concrete Pour

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

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

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

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

My new wheelbarrow with a flat tire. Come on!

My new wheelbarrow with a flat tire. Come on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Just doesn't look right.

Just doesn’t look right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Left driveway apron all ready for the pour.

Left driveway apron all ready for the pour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Progress Inspection

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

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

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

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

Right driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

Right driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

Left driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

Left driveway apron ready for gravel backfill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Front yard in the sunset

Front yard in the sunset

Front yard

Front yard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Front yard. Almost finished!

Front yard. Almost finished!

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

Will I EVER get rid of this dirt?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DIGGING TOOLS

DIGGING TOOLS

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

 

 

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

DRAINAGE PLAN

DRAINAGE PLAN

IRRIGATION PLAN

IRRIGATION PLAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

BATTER BOARD

BATTER BOARD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

BASIN IN POSITION

BASIN IN POSITION

DIGGING THE HOLE

DIGGING THE HOLE

 

CORRECT HEIGHT (DEPTH)

CORRECT HEIGHT (DEPTH)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

DRYWELL TRENCH

DRYWELL TRENCH

 

 

DRYWELL PIPING

DRYWELL PIPING

FRONT DRAINS

FRONT DRAINS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

DIRT PILES

DIRT PILES

PETRIFIED POTATOES

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

ELECTRICAL SERVICE TRENCH (Before)

ELECTRICAL SERVICE TRENCH (Before)

ELECTRICAL SERVICE (After)

ELECTRICAL SERVICE (After)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Happy New Year! Reflecting on 2014 and Looking Forward to 2015

The turn of the year is always a good time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next. It’s a common demarcation point, and it occurs when we’re collectively given the time to reflect and plan, according to our nature. I know what you’re saying” “If you’re in retail, or emergency services, or in the military on deployment, the maybe I’m not given the time.” However, I think because of the time of year, everybody is doing it, and you can’t help yourself. Actually, serving your customers, community, or country can have special meaning at this time of year.

OK, well maybe not so much in retail.  As they say, anybody who says there are “No stupid questions!” has NEVER worked in customer service. You know, retail is a dang hard job, and I truly appreciate everybody who helps me when I’m shopping.With a smile and a kind word, you will always get superior customer service! All you have to do is to distinguish yourself from the a**hole who decided to take out their frustrations on some poor, underpaid retail associate who is constantly bombarded by yet another a**hole! But you have to remember to take the time to take the survey and say nice things. If you REALLY want to reward good customer service, then have the presence of mind to remember the name of the person who helped you, and then take the time to make a positive comment  on the survey, or the website. These people get promotions and monetary rewards for this kind of stuff. So, the lesson is: Be nice, and when you get good service, make sure you tell the boss!

Where was I?

Reflections on 2014: I had been planning my remodel since 2012, when my lovely wife and I started discussing concepts and the things that we really wanted out of  life, and how our home would reflect that. At the beginning of 2014, I had finished detailed planning and had drawings that I thought were good enough to submit to the city building department for approval. 8 months later, after 3 revisions, I finally got the building permit! Actually, I didn’t wait to get the building permit do start work. I knew that I needed to take out my patio in back, and I wanted to save the bricks and sand. That was a major undertaking which filled the dead time in between the review of the latest plan revision, and answering the comments for the next plan revision. Once I got the building permit, I started in earnest, with site demolition, excavation, and installation of underground services.

What I learned:

  1. If you don’t follow the prescribed approach in the codes, then you will have to have a licensed engineer sign off on your plans. For a small job, it’s not worth it (and they were kind enough to tell me that). Learn the codes and follow the prescriptive approach.
  2. Take each “rejection” as an opportunity to improve your design. I can say that my plans have been significantly improved by having reworked them for the building department.
  3. Detailed planning helps you build faster. My plans have speeded up my work (thus far) in ways that I could not have imagined before.
  4. Detailed planning does not account for everything. Inevitably, you run into unexpected obstacles. The fittings don’t fit like you expected. You need to change the routing of the conduit to account for other buried services. Remain flexible and adapt. “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” (Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke.)
  5. Know when to quit for the day. Something my dad taught me.  This is a big project and you have to know your limits. If you push too hard, then quality suffers. It’s OK to have goals, but sometimes (OK , frequently), the goals are too optimistic. There are only so many hours in the day, and you need to take care of yourself. So know when to quit for the day, and make sure that you leave enough time for clean up!

Goals for 2105:

  1. Don’t get injured. Building can be dangerous if you’re not careful!
  2. Keep my job. Don’t get too involved in the remodeling at the expense of the day job. Yes, I still have to pay for all of this somehow.
  3. Go to Smithfield, VA for my  wife’s 50th high school reunion.
  4. Finish the site work. I’m optimistic this will be done by March. But who knows?
  5. Move out of the master bedroom, and do the demo.
  6. Build the addition and close in. I’m hoping by July-August. Before the rains come in any case.
  7. Install A/C. That will be contracted out.
  8. Install a new roof. Also contracted out.
  9. Re-stucco the front. Yet more contract work.
  10. Paint the house. Did I mention contract work?
  11. Install new electrical service. This will be all me. Wish me luck!
  12. Don’t take the remodeling too seriously. Yes, it’s important to have goals and to work hard to achieve them, but in the end, this is supposed to be rewarding and it’s important to take pride in one’s accomplishments. Otherwise, I’d be hiring somebody to do all of this!

I wish all of you a very happy New Year, and I hope that you continue to follow my blog. I’m working on an epic post for digging ditches!  Stay tuned……

A Home Remodeling Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excavation–Oh The Joys Of Dirt!

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0046

A Ramp That Works!

 

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

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

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

 

 

Nice grade for the driveway apron

Nice grade for the driveway apron

Front

Front yard. This was my practice place.

 

 

Catio

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

Last Gasp

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

 

 

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

Here are some more videos of cool skid steer operators:

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

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

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

Even the pros F/U:

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

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