Sunday, December 12, 2010

Filling in the South Pit

December 2010

The pit is done (at least in the short term). Several days of shovelling dirt from the dirt piles in the back yard into the wheelbarrow and then dumping it into the pit has both eliminated the dirt piles, and filled in the pit.

The dirt in the dirt piles was what I saved from digging out the pit (and other parts of the yard). Mostly it would then be the heavy clay that is native to this area. But it also includes some amount of sandy loam that some contractor would have brought in, and some amount of better, composted soil that we brought in later. But still the bulk of the dirt is not very good. So to improve the soil quality, I mixed in 32 bags of leaves, and about 30 bags of "organic humus".

The "organic humus" is the least expensive soil additive from Lowe's. It's mostly semi-composted wood products. It looks like pine needles plus other stuff. The leaves were from the neighbors. It being Fall, lots of people rake up their leaves, put them in bags and leave them on the curb for the City to pick up. I picked up some of these bags and brought them home.

As I was breaking up the dirt piles and shovelling it into the wheelbarrow, I mixed both the leaves and the humus into the soil. The theory is that this will add organic compounds to the soil, and make it better soil. It certainly makes it lighter and airier. I expect it to settle quite a bit over time in the pit.

The two spots in the back yard where the dirt used to be piled are now just barren dirt spots.

I've tried to spread some grass seed and put down a layer of organic humus on the top of each area. If we were to get any rain, the grass might grow and help keep the dirt in place. If this doesn't work, I'll try something else next Spring.

I have receipts for 30 bags of the humus from Lowe's this month $46.76, plus there were probably a dozen from a previous purchase. In addition, it was taking days to move the dirt from the piles into the pit, so, since time was of the essence at this time of the year, I hired a day laborer to help with shovelling. $80 for a days work. This allowed me to finish up the digging in one day.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Finishing the South Pit

So first we take the rocks out to the curb. Line them up along the curb.

Then we put a notice on Craig's List and wait for people to come take them away. In this case, I put the notice up on Saturday. On Sunday, we drove my daughter back to college. In the four hours to do that (from 1 pm to 5 pm), all the rocks disappeared. All of them plus 4 or 5 that were to the left of the above picture, from our own rock garden.

Now the pit is empty. We have, occasionally over the past decade, had problems of things digging under the fence. Dogs, cats, possums, armadillos, skunks -- don't know what it was, we could just see the hollowed out area that they used. When we dug out the Bamboo Grove, we put a stone wall around it at ground level next to the fence. Since we have it all dug out, let us do that here too.

First we pour a cement wall down to bedrock. Just as with the bamboo grove, we use a 1x4 for spacing, and a piece of masonite cut down to eight feet by 16 inches for the framing. We stack up bags of dirt next to it to keep the framing in place. The bags of dirt are just mulch and compost plastic bags filled with dirt from the pit shovelled into them. This picture shows the result on one fence.

And here we see the process in progress on the other fence. When we were digging straight down from the fence, to get the back side of the cement wall, we hit a couple more rocks. In particular the really big one in the following picture. I was able to move it out with a pry bar, but it was too heavy to move. Before pouring the cement, I used the jack hammer to break it in two pieces and rolled them up the pile of dirt in the pit to the edge, then out to the front to take the place of a couple of our missing rocks.

It took 29 bags of cement (from Home Depot at $3.10 each), and 4 bags of mortar ($3.77 each) for this work. The limestone rocks for the top were left over from the previous work on the Bamboo Grove

Once the cement wall is poured, I can then mortar limestone blocks on top of it to finish it off. Once the dirt is back in the pit, all you will be able to see will be the top of the limestone brick, as an edging. It should keep things from digging under the fence, including animals and roots from trees or anything. It may make it easier to mow or edge the lawn.

It is not clear what effect it will have on drainage. In theory any rain in the yard will sink down and be stuck here, unable to soak under ground down the hill. But it's well away from the house, and I assume any plants in this area would welcome any extra water. (Plus, at the moment at least, any water can just go to the right and around the wall, since the wall is only at this corner (and the opposite corner, where the Bamboo Grove is).

This gives a pit about two feet deep and 16 feet by 24 feet. The next step is putting all the dirt that I dug out back into the pit. To increase the quality of the dirt, I will add compost and vegetation. Luckily it's now Fall, and the trees are dropping their leaves. I should be able to get bags of leaves from the neighbors to add to the dirt as I put it back in.

The bags of dirt from the Bamboo Grove that I used for the forms were mostly limestone rock dust, from when the utility trench was put in thirty years ago. Apparently when they are bagged up, get wet, and sit around for 6 months, they get hard and are not of much use. So I took them to the Travis County Landfill, $18.60. I had previously taken a load of loose rock out (another $18.60), but am now trying to get rid of the loose rock on Craig's List.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The final rock in the South Pit

I spent the last couple of days raking the rocks out -- all the rocks that are produced as a side effect of breaking larger rocks into smaller rocks -- the debris that's left over. Now all that's left is the one big rock in the middle of the pit.

After two hours of jackhammering and pried rocks apart, the big rock is gone, replaced by a bunch of smaller rocks and the accompanying debris.

Tomorrow, we haul all these out to the curb and try to get rid of them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Replacing Windows (Part 3)

November, 2010

We are having the last set of the old metal frame windows replaced with wood frame windows. This is the third time we've done this and finally replaces all the windows in the house.

We are again using Renewal By Andersen, a nationwide chain of window replacement companies. A phone call to them set up a meeting for a person to come out and measure all the windows, settle on options (color, trim, screens) and provide a cost. We had 17 windows left to replace.

Mostly it's a one to one replacement, but in the dining room, the current windows are two very large windows, and while it would be possible to replace them with two new very large windows, our experience with very large windows is that they are hard to work with. So I suggested that they replace the two windows with three. That meant we were replacing 17 windows with 18 new windows.

The total cost was $25,705. This includes the windows, the labor and materials to remove the old windows and install the new ones, and finish them. We went with an exterior aluminum cladding (Terra Tone), with an oak veneer interior. The actual window is a mix of wood and plastic that is supposed to be very stable. The oak interior will be stained to match our current oak floors and window trim, and then sealed with a coat of polyurethane. I expect to go back and sand everything down and put a second coat of polyurethane on since I believe everything needs two coats.

I put $13,000 down on 11 Oct 2010. The local company then sends the measurements off to the factory (in Minnesota or some place) which makes them to order and then trucks them down here. I got a call on 3 Nov that the windows were here and scheduled them to install them on Wednesday 10 Nov. The rough schedule suggested it might take 3 days to install them (Weds, Thurs, Fri).

Come Wednesday, no one showed up. I got a call that the crew was running late on the previous job they were doing, but would be there on Thursday.

On Thursday, 3 guys show up, and today they replaced 12 of the windows. As an example, here is a picture of the old dining room window.

First the window panes were removed, and then the frame was removed. This created a large hole in the wall where the windows used to be.

Now the new windows can be put in place and screwed in place to the framing around the old window. Spacers are constructed and put between the two windows, or in this case between the three, since we replaced these two big windows with three windows, to make them smaller and easier to manage.


Once the windows are all securely in place, oak trim pieces are attached to cover the space between the windows, and quarter round put all around the frame where the windows meet the sheetrock to finish it off.

The outside of the window is filled with an expanding foam sealer, to keep it air tight, and a finished trim piece attached. Since some of these are in a stone exterior wall, someone will come over and mortar around the windows on the outside, to blend it in with the existing stone exterior.

Today, Thursday, all of the windows except the ones on the back porch were replaced and sealed. The exterior trim will be done tomorrow (Friday), as will the remaining windows. At least that is the plan.

December 2 Follow-up.

The inspector from the City of Austin came today. A building permit had been taken out to replace the windows, and the inspector came to check things out. By and large things went well. There were two (or three) problems. One was that the windows next to the door have to be "tempered" glass, not regular glass. So this means that the window next to the sliding patio door needs to be replaced. Someone said this requirement is because you can really slam a door, and vibrate the wall, and a window within two to three feet could then break. Not at all clear that this reasoning applies to a sliding patio door.

The other problem was the windows in two of the bedrooms. We didn't have these replaced this time, but apparently the third problem was that Renewal by Andersen had failed to take out a building permit for the previous window replacement work. In the second part of the window replacement, we took out the sliding windows that were in these bedrooms, and never really worked very well, and put in two side-by-side double hung windows. These work much better, and look better. All in all, a substantial improvement. Except they apparently do not meet code. The problem, as explained, was that in a fire, they are not big enough to get out. So the inspector said they had to be sliding or casement windows. I've had both before and prefer these double hung windows.

We'll see what happens on these issues in the future.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Back to the rocks

Having finished the back deck, it's back to the rocks. The general approach is to break all the big rocks into smaller rocks -- small enough to be moved out.

As an example, here is the big rock in the South-Western corner of the pit.

We use the jackhammer to split it into many smaller pieces.

and the result is a jumble of rather large rocks, probably weighing over 100 pounds. In this case, I think we broke the original rock up into eight smaller rocks. The intent is to make them as large as they can be, subject to the constraint that I have to be able to move them.

Once we have them broken up, we can move them out to the front of the house and put them on the curb. We post this on Craig's List under the "Free" category as "Landscape Rocks". In this case, our post is dated 6:00 pm on November 1.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Refinish the Backyard Porch

The weather has been warm and dry, so it seems like a good idea to refinish the back deck. The deck is made of ipe, and has turned silver almost everywhere.

First, we move everything off the back deck. Everything except the gas grill. It took 3 or 4 guys to get it up on the deck, and it would be very difficult to get it down. But since it is on wheels, I can just move it around to work around it.

Next, I pressure wash the whole deck. This takes a day or two. I have a small consumer level power washer, and that seems to work well enough. It then takes 3 or 4 days for the deck to dry completely.

We use Australian Timber Oil by Cabot to finish the deck. I rub it on with a lambs wool applicator since that is what the can recommends. The deck has a lot of splinters, suggesting that maybe I should have sanded it after the power wash.
It took 2 full gallons to cover the deck.

I still have the corner under the gas grill to coat. I have a small quart can to use for that area.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Extracting the rock

Now that we have dug out all the dirt, we need to get the rock out. We start with all the exposed rock.

We start breaking the rock up into smaller pieces.

And once it is broken up into manageable pieces -- 80 to 200 pounds -- we can pull it out, leaving behind a lot of smaller pieces.

What to do with the larger pieces? We haul them around to the front of the house and put them on the curb. We started with two rocks from before the heart surgery.

and now we have a much larger crowd. We should be able to get rid of these by posting them on Craig's List as "Landscape Rocks". But we may wait until we get even more out of the back.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Completion of Excavation in the South Pit

October 2010

I've finished excavating the rectangular area between the fence and the raised garden. By that, I mean that all the dirt has been removed. This exposes the
underlying rock structure.

Notice that from the other angle there is clearly a round hole in the rock.

Let's look at that up close. This hole was put in for an ornamental cherry or peach tree that was part of the original landscaping. The tree died a couple years ago, so it lasted about 20 years. One problem might have been that it just did not have any place to grow to other than it's hole.

There are actually two holes -- there is another one closer to the fence that I put in a couple years ago for an olive tree. It didn't last thru the first winter.

The next step will be to remove this exposed later of rock. There are some probable seams between the rocks, but even so, the rocks themselves are much too large to be lifted out. I'll have to use the jackhammer to break them up into more manageable pieces of no more than a couple hundred pounds each.

Once the rock is removed, I will be able to put back the dirt, upgraded with as much organic material as I can get -- leaves and grass clippings. Then when we want to plant another tree, there should be a lot of space for it to expand into.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Digging in the South Pit

October 2010

I'm back to work digging. I was out for awhile with heart surgery, but they say I can go back to digging now. When I left off in June, the corner of the back yard looked like this:

So getting back to work, I enlarged the area that had been excavated to a rectangle.

We had a problem that the dog fell into the pit and couldn't find her way out, so I build a short PVC fence to keep her out.

The next few days were just expanding the excavated area.

This morning (Friday, 8 Oct), was more of the same -- expanding the area that we have dug down to rock.

Of course, we need a place to put all the dirt being dug out. We get about two or three wheelbarrows of dirt for every one of rock.

The pile of dirt just gets bigger, day by day.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mortgage paid off

We made our last mortgage payment.

When the house was built in 1986, we took out a 30-year mortage to finance it.

  • 15 July 1986 -- 30-year mortgage for $200,000 at 8.5% interest
  • 15 April 1994 -- 30-year mortgage for $159,200 at 5.99% interest
  • 11 December 2000 -- 15-year mortgage for $140,000 at 7.25% interest
  • 14 October 2002 -- 15-year mortgage for $125,800 at 5.75% interest
We were aggressive in paying extra principal when possible.  Even so, it took 24 years and $227,651 in interest to pay off the original $200,000 mortgage.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

End of work for awhile

Sprinkler system repair

We have been having a minor water leakage problem in the back yard. The initial problem was there was a damp spot in the back yard right at the fence. I tried to read the meter at the street, and then read it again 3 hours later with no one home but me. No change in the meter. So I wasn't sure it was ours.

But when I started to dig there, I found a sprinkler head. So I took the head out and capped it off. That stopped the leak. Or at least it did at that spot. Now there was a new wet spot out in the yard. Again, this was another head and I capped it off. I want to excavate and rebuild this section of the back yard anyway.

This worked for several weeks, then a new wet spot showed up about where the zone control valve should be. I have never replaced a control value, and it turns out I need to have open heart surgery, so I called Jonathon Griesheimer, who had previously replaced the main sprinkler control value for me. His phone is 512-836-6539. I didn't have the time to figure out what the problem was before I went in for surgery.

But while I was in the hospital, he came out, figured out the problem and put in a new valve. There was an indirect comment, thru my girlfriend's daughter that the valve is too far underground. Which would be expected, since we have been raising the level of part of the back yard in this area. This then took 3 hours of labor to dig everything up and replace the leaking parts. $260.

So that solves that problem, and I'll just have to wait for another 6 weeks or so before I can consider going back to work.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Replacing a toilet in the guest bathroom

We've had a suspicion that the toilet in the guest bathroom leaks, at a low level. But it also has a tendency to get clogged, and it's a 25 year old model, so the current ones should use much less water. And that bathroom is next up on interior remodelling, so rather than repair it, we will just replace it. 

The unit we have in the back bathroom seems to be working fairly well. It's an American Standard Champion 4 model. We can get this from Home Depot, but only in white. Linda says she wants "Linen" which is an off-white, and that needs to be special-ordered. I order it on 22 May 2010. $500.93 for the Toilet -- Right Height, Elongated Bowl, plus the matching toilet seat. It finally comes in on 8 June, but then we have Lauren's high school graduation, so I don't get to installing it until 13 June. 

Everything goes very well at first. Removing the old toilet is as expected. Removing a bunch of bolts. Turn the water off at the wall. Take the pieces outside, with as little water leakage as possible. Clean out the old wax ring that was under the old toilet. 

Turn off the water supply to the house, and replace the cut-off valve at the wall with a new one. I have trouble putting the new wax ring in place. The box with the wax ring says to press it on the up-side down toilet and then "set it in place". But when I flip the toilet over, the wax ring falls off. And positioning the new toilet bowl over the bolts is difficult, since you can't see the bolts when they are under the toilet bowl. 

 Finally get it set in place, and bolted down. Then attach the tank, and a new water supply line. Everything goes together just right -- no leaks. 

Then flush the toilet the first time, and it leaks under the bowl -- flowing gently out along the floor. 

So I take everything apart. The water supply line. The tank. Remove the bowl. The wax ring had shifted and half covered the hole into the floor. Remove it. Back to Home Depot to get another wax ring. Reinstall just the bowl. Test it this time by pouring water into the bowl with a bucket. Still leaks. Take it apart. The ring is pretty much in the right place. But normally when I've put in toilets, after installing the wax ring and putting the bowl on top, it's squishy as the bowl compress the wax ring into place, sandwiching it between the floor and the bowl, spreading out slightly and sealing everything. I had not noticed that this time. So it would seem that this unit is a bit further from the floor than a normal toilet bowl. 

Back to Home Depot again. In addition to the normal wax ring, they have an "extra thick" one. Costs an extra dollar, but it's about twice as deep. Put that in place around the hole in the floor. Position the bowl on a couple of pieces of wood to hold it up until the bolts show through the bolt holes, then pull the wood out and lower the toilet bowl. Feel it squishing the wax ring as I press down on the bowl and tighten the bolts. This time it works; no leaks. Put the rest of it back together. 

Altogether it took about 6 hours, but that included three installations, two removals, and two trips to Home Depot.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Digging in the corner of the yard

Not much to report for this weekend. I was able to dig for a couple of hours on Sunday. I'm starting in a new corner of the yard. The objective is to clean out this section of rocks, and upgrade the soil, so we can move the oak trees from the area by the box over here.

I'm starting in the corner and working my way out. I'm still a foot or so away from the actual fence line, so that it holds the fence in place while I dig. Once I get it in the condition I want, I'll pour an edge wall with rocks on top next to the fence, to keep things from digging in or out under the fence.

So far it looks like a classical dig. Lots of smallish rocks -- smaller than a watermelon -- and a couple of really big ones. I've pulled them out of the hole, but I still need to move them out of the way. I'm not sure yet how much dirt is under the big rocks; I'll work more on it next weekend, with any luck.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Changing the Stovetop

Ever since the house was built, it's had a Thermador electric stove top. It's showing its age. One light doesn't work any more, and the pans under the burners are in bad shape. I've replaced them at least twice, but still they get baked-on spills. And Linda believes that a gas stove is better, so we are going to switch it out for a gas model.

Consumer Reports lists the Sears Kenmore Elite 3249 as its top ranked 36-inch gas cooktop, and after looking at several places, we choose it. We were unable to find one in stock, that we could actually look at, so we went over to Sears to order one. As it happens, just the day before, someone had returned a new one, and so they had an open box of that exact model, in Stainless Steel, on display for half-off. So we took it.

As you might expect, things are not perfect, as it was missing the installation instructions. With some work, I found a PDF file of the installation instructions on-line and printed them out. I started the installation early on Saturday and finished up about 8 pm, so it took all day, and three trips to Home Depot.

The first problem was to remove the old cooktop and make the hole in the counter larger. The depth is okay, but we are replacing a 30 inch cooktop with a 36 inch cooktop, so I needed to make the hole wider.

Once that was done, I dropped the cooktop in place. This looks like it is almost done, but most of the work is still ahead.

The obvious work is attaching the gas line to the cooktop. The builder had put the gas line in, but just capped it off. I had to remove the cap and put a cut-off valve on. Then I could run the line from the cut-off valve to the cooktop itself. That was actually fairly easy. You have to be careful to seal all the connections, and then test afterwards with soapy water to look for any leaks (which will make bubbles).

The really difficult part was providing it electrical power. The electrical cooktop had a 220 volt direct connection. This same circuit runs the wall oven next door to the cooktop. It would be possible to use half the 220 to get the 110 that the gas cooktop needs, but not safe. Since the oven runs on the 220 circuit, I had to just cap it off and seal it away.

There are some 110 circuits that run around the counters to provide power for kitchen appliances, so I tapped off one of them and ran a wire down under the cabinet and put in a new outlet. That was the most difficult part -- running the extra wire down in the exterior wall behind the cooktop. But it didn't have to be pretty; it just had to be right.

So with these tasks complete, we now have a new gas stove top.

The next project in the kitchen should be new counter tops. Granite, I assume.

Another spot to dig -- the South Pit

I dug back to the fence line along the right side of the electrical box, getting all of the stump and it's roots out. Going all the way down to bed-rock, I found the trench that runs along the fence (from the corner of the Bamboo Grove that holds the electrical, telephone and cable wiring.

Then I filled it back in, at least partially.

This has accomplished the basic goal for this section at this time -- removing the stump, clearing out the rocks, and making the soil better by increasing its organic content. I've mixed a lot of last Fall's leaves into this dirt as it was shovelled out, and then shovelled back in.

It appears that we will want to move the remaining trees. These are Shin Oaks -- a small native oak for Central Texas. It likes full sun, has low water requirements and likes the limestone based soil. So it's a nice tree, and we don't want to lose it, but it's sort of in an inconvenient place. My idea is to move it over to the corner of the yard.

So that will be the next area to dig. We will dig this area up, to get down to bedrock, clean out the rocks and improve the soil, then move the Shin Oaks over to that area and see if we can get them to live there. That will allow me to continue the excavations by the electrical box.

This area is where the compost pile was -- we've moved it now to back by the Bamboo Grove. Also we have had a couple of trees planted in this area, so the soil is somewhat disturbed and uneven; after the trees were put in or out, the soil settled. So part of the goal is to even up this part of the yard. We will need to be careful, since it will settle after we are done.