How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.

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Feet and basements, they like to be dry.




It’s getting rainy and cool.  Basements can take on a little moisture this time of year.  The rain comes pretty often and soon will be in the form of slow melting snow.  Cooler weather and less sunlight means a lot of this water will soak into the ground.  This is good for the water table where we pump a lot of our water from.  It’s also challenging to basements and foundation walls.  Poured basement walls free from cracks do a pretty good job of holding water back.  It usually moves to a drain outside the footing and runs away from the house. Even antique houses have clay pipe drains around the foundations. A few of them are inside the basement footing.  A lot of homes have drains that lead to a sump pump where the water is collected and pumped up and out the basement into a pipe that lets the water run out onto the lawn or a rocky area.  Even with all this going on moisture can build up in the basement.  Foundation walls, especially cinder block walls, become saturated and sweaty.  Stone wall foundations are fairly porous and without good drainage in the landscape water will seep through.  The basement gets muggy.  
This would almost be ok, except there’s usually a lot of stuff in the basement.  Personal items. Storage.  These things soak up moisture.  I’ve heard too many times about photos, documents, books and old vinyl album covers being damaged after long storage in the basement.  Clothing and cardboard soak up moisture too.
Here’s a few things you can do this fall to significantly reduce this issue.  Start outdoors.  See to it the landscape drains away from the foundation walls all the way around the house- at least 3-5 feet.  Gutters should not flood over and downspouts should be extended 3 feet our more out to the yard.  Driveway and stairwell drains should not allow water to collect at the base of the doors.  Once in the basement move all your storage to the center of the basement leaving a 3 foot space along all the walls.  I know, this sounds crazy, it’s opposite of what most people do.  We love to push all out stuff up against the wall and have a big open space in the middle.  That’s fine, except all that stuff against the wall is closest to the moisture, and, reduces air movement.  Organize your shelving in the middle of the basement, like a library.  If your basement walls are stone or cinderblock they will be easier to observe and maintain when an “aisle” is located along all the walls.  When maintenance is needed, you won’t be spending all weekend trying to move your storage away from the wall.  Windows will be easier to access too.
 Invest in a good dehumidifier and put it as close to the floor drain as possible.  Install it with a hose attached to the outlet so you don’t have to empty the water collector.  You’ll never get enough water out of the air even if you empty the collector every day.  Put the drain hose on.  Set the humidifier so it comes on automatically.  If it is the kind that shows a percentage of humidity set it at about 45%, if it comes with a 0-10 setting, put it at about number 8.  Then at the most opposite side of the basement, set an oscillating fan on the floor.  Turn it on and let it run.  The fan will keep the air moving constantly.  Since the walls are now clear the air will move along the walls and push the moisture toward the dehumidifier.  This setup will significantly reduce moisture in the basement.  Your belongings will be fresher and last longer.  The  basement will smell better and be more pleasant to spend time in too. 

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Snowblowers are fun!

Fall is pretty in the midwest.  The leaves start to turn and sunlight moves through the trees differently.  Coming home from work, I find lots of leaves on the patio and blowing around the driveway. The shorter days seem to trigger an archetypal rush to get ready for the cold season.  I’m not sure how our ancient ancestors felt about preparing for winter, but a lot of us are thinking snow. Up north folks pretty much know they’re going to get a lot of snow. It’s going to stick around and accumulate. In the south they freak out with snow. Those people basically either stay home during an storm or go out and crash their cars in the stuff.  Here where I live we’ve gotten used to waking up to just about anything between now and April.  Ice is a no brainer. With a ten thousand pound work truck I stay home. No way am I going to risk sliding that thing off the road or into another vehicle.  Snow on the other hand is a blast.  I’d like eight inches of fresh snow every Friday night from the day after Halloween to April Fools Day.  I wish for this because I love the look of snow, and, I want the convenience of not loosing work time to it.
For the last four or five years we’ve gotten more snow than in the past.  Big, heavy loads that pull down trees and clog the roads.  About four years ago I was shoveling snow with two broken ribs and my sons helping.  Between the ribs and the kids jacking around I decided to buy a snow blower.  Funny what compels a purchase.   These twelve to fourteen inch snows on our hundred and twenty-five foot driveway were more than I cared to shovel.  Buying a snowblower was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.
Snowblowers come in all shapes and sizes.  Like haircuts and beer, you get what you pay for.  The lightest of the blowers are electric, not much bigger than an upright vacuum.  They work great up to about four inches of fluffy, cold snow.  If you’ve got a sidewalk or teeny tiny driveway and plenty of energy this may be fine. Beyond that you could consider a bigger machine.    The next level and most popular are gas powered “paddle” snow blowers, also known as single stage. They may use straight gas or two cycle oil/gas mix.  They have two rubber paddles horizontally across the front that basically scrape the driveway surface as they spin and throw the snow up and through the chute. The chute can be turned to the left and right to deliver the snow exactly where you want it. They are normally not self propelled and have to be pushed like a lawn mower.  They work pretty good.  They will handle up to about eight inches of snow, depending on how wet the snow is.  In our region snow might be pretty dry and fluffy at first, but we get a little warm in the mid-day and the snow starts to get real heavy at the bottom near the driveway surface.  A paddle type snowblower starts to work pretty hard at this point. These machines are fairly light and can be rolled into the back of a station wagon or SUV to take to mom’s house for her driveway.  They are available with 110 volt electric starters which are really handy when the machine is cold.  Like their size the price on these machines is mid-range.  Here in our area these machines are the most popular and are seen all over the place after a big snow.  Then there’s the two stage machines.  These machines have an auger in the front that breaks the snow up and delivers it to a second impeller that throws the snow out the chute.  Be careful with this machine. Reaching in to clear a clogged chute could deliver a thumb or finger into the yard, still in your glove.  This is the type I own.  These machines are heavier, self propelled and will crawl through just about anything.  They will handle really deep snow, and, when operated in low gear will grind through the big pile of snow and ice left at the end of the driveway by the snow plows.  These machines are fairly heavy, take up considerable space in the shed and need a pick-up or trailer to be transported.  Again, like their size, the price is the most.
A lot of snowblowers come with options making the job easier and more comfortable.  Electric and battery operated starters make getting a cold machine running a mere push of a button. Once warmed up they start easily with the pull cord if needed.  They are available with headlights which seems silly until you try to clear the driveway early before going to work or after work when it is dark again.   Some even have heated hand grips.  Larger two stage machines can be fitted with a sort of plastic see through cab.
I clear the driveway before I go to work.  Once a car is driven on snow it’s harder to manage and may stick too hard for the machine to scrape it clean.  At six am the headlight comes in handy.  Another advantage of a snowblower is it throws the snow clear of the area.  This is advantageous over a lawn tractor with a plow which at it’s best moves the snow to the edge of the driveway.
If you are going to buy a snowblower this year, do it this weekend!  The first heavy snow will clear the retail outlets of all machines available in a matter of hours.  Do some research on line.  Choose the machine you think suits you best.  Buy your machine from a locally owned equipment dealer who can service the machine.  Cheap machines from big box stores can be hard to buy parts for and sometimes impossible to service.  This will be a considerable investment and you will likely own the machine for years to come.
When the first big snow hits our area, you’ll be amazed at the ease snow is moved by a good snowblower.  I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite things to do in the winter.  You’ll still need a shovel to touch up the tight areas and stairs, but the time and back-ache you save with a snowblower will be great reward for your investment.  Have fun, be safe and pray for snow, Friday night will be here soon.

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The Holidays Season is here, get something done!

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I throw such a big party on Labor Day for my family I’m just glad to have a holiday with no guests. Maybe it’s because the weather has cooled off and it’s dark earlier. This always settles me down and makes me a little quieter. Starting with Labor Day I basically consider it holiday season until February. I’m your basic American protestant kind of guy. I know there’s all kinds of other religious, national and secular kinds of holidays, but I deal mostly with the big three; Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. If your holidays are different, cool, you get the idea.

Getting work done in a customer’s house during the holiday season can be tricky. So far as customers go, they are all over the map. Some customers wouldn’t dream of having a worker in the house from August to January. They have mountains of decorations or mountains of obligations. Then there’s the customers who just don’t worry. They travel during the holidays, they don’t entertain, they don’t recognize “the big three” or they are just adventuresome. For those of us serving the home owners, booking work through the holidays is important. We’ve got our bills to pay, families to feed and the need for feeling secure in our jobs. But we also don’t like to barge in. This is the tricky part. Our job as service workers is to get work done with the holidays in mind. Not only do homeowners want to be with their families for the holidays, so do we. Plus, despite some stories you’ve heard good service companies want your holidays to go smooth without your house being torn to smithereens while you’re trying to entertain family and friends.

If you think you’re going to get the dining room remodeled before Thanksgiving, you should have it booked by now. Christmas? Same thing. Most service companies are trying to fill those weeks without disrupting the homeowner. If you’re the kind of family traveling out of town or not really celebrating these holidays, you could be a real favorite to a service company trying to stay busy through the holiday season. I’m always a little dismayed at service guys saying it’s slow in the winter or they can’t get work. It’s a little slow, but mostly because of the interruptions. To me it’s a sales challenge. I’ve got some customers who seem to hire my during the holidays on purpose. Booking the time between Christmas and New Years is pretty challenging.

Come to find out some customers like having service done then. Maybe their families are out of town and they like the distraction. Maybe they’re not the kind of people who celebrate Christmas and love to keep things secular. Maybe they just love their service guy or gal and want them to keep the cash flowing through the winter. They’re out there and they book the work.



Imagine that silly job you’ve been putting off. You might be thinking of waiting until two thousand fourteen to do the work because the holidays are coming up. Think again. Call your favorite service person. Trust me, nothing makes the holiday season more relaxing, affordable and thankful than a calendar full of friendly customers with work to do.

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Herringbone pavers don’t stretch.

Herringbone is a great pattern on a jacket.  It’s different and sort of mathematical because of it’s clear angels and weave.  It’s a great pattern in brick patios too. It just weighs a lot more.  A herringbone brick patio might slide a little, it could sink or rise in a couple places depending on trees and water shed.  And this can all take place differently from season to season.  If the patio was set in sand and not a slab things get a little organic.  
About eight years ago a customer asked me to help him with a ground drain near his house.  It was backing up and causing some water problems inside the basement wall.   The drain was in and odd spot right up against the foundation and also caught a downspout.  The house was only about twenty years old and built town home style to look antique. It’s neighbors are late eighteen hundreds victorian houses.  Every thing is tall and narrow and landscaped with paver bricks.  
We tried to clean the drain drop and ran a water pressure hose thirty feet into the four inch landscape tubing underground.  This didn’t really help and after a couple of other tries by other companies my customer decided I would dig a new line across his herringbone front patio, which just happened to go completely across the front of the house.  Not the little one near the garage or the side patio where no one looks, but the entry patio.  I suggested he enlist the service company that his home’s association dues paid to do these exact jobs.  He said no.  I reminded him of the option to get some bids.  He ruled that out.  He expected me to do the job.  I tossed out the disclaimers I knew about the challenges of paver bricks set in sand herringbone style.  I tossed out a couple more just to make it stick. I reminded him that even with lots of tamping and careful reinstallation the work may show and need some re-work after a few seasons.   He said he was sure it would be fine.  With the formalities out of the way we shook on it and put it on our calendars.  
The patio had some slope.  I pulled a string line and started removing a course of pavers wide enough to drive a trenching tool through.  I marked the cut pieces and laid them carefully to remember where they went.  Using a gas powered, self propelled trenching machine I made a first initial cut as deep as possible, between thirty and thirty six inches.  I spent the rest of the day with a four inch trenching shovel sloping the trench across the front of the house to the side of the house where the drain would daylight.  The trench ended up about forty-two inches deep at it’s deepest point, it was about a fifty five foot run. A nice slope on the edge of the house allowed the drain to daylight pretty easily.  (By the way, daylighting is basically the act of installing a drain underground with enough down hill slope to cary water to daylight where it spills out into a gravel or grass swale.)  This is the good spot.  The point of a job where the digging and scraping and clawing end and the job starts to get put back together.  The trench is in and sloped nicely.  It’s ready for the drain to go in.  
I started putting the drain pipe in early in the morning. I used rigid landscape drain with a bed of gravel under it and on top.  I ran a level the whole time to insure good slope.  I tied the old flex drain into the new one since we could not determine it’s functionality.  Lot’s of nice rock on top the drain to give it good drainage.  Every thing’s going nice.  Since this was about seven years before I ever even heard of a smart phone I lived by the seat of your pants weather watch.  It started to rain. I had open soil stacked out on both edges of a trench.  It was getting soaked.  The seat of my pants got soaked.  In an act of insanity to keep things moving I started to shovel the dirt, now mud, into the trench and pack it. This seemed like it was going to work, until I realized my customer was watching me under and umbrella from about fifteen feet away.  “Jonas, you’re soaked” he said.  I agreed and explained I wasn’t about to let this mud wash out onto the patio.  I mustered up the confidence to express my beliefs that packing the mud in wet during a downpour would reduce voids and settling.  I hid my panic with determination.  He told me to get warmed up when I could and went back in. 
The next day I returned to put the brick back into the gap in the patio.  According to the seat of my pants it was sunny and probably going to stay that way all day.  I found the trench to be soaked and washed in beautifully by the rain all night.  The soil I shoveled in was filled and smooth.  What luck.  I started adding sand to the gap and working the brick back in herringbone style.  The customer was gone at work that day, which was good.  Re-installing herringbone brick into a gap is weird.  It’s one of those, “please don’t interrupt me” jobs.  Not trying to be rude but this requires attention and rhythm.  The rhythm was good.  The brick, including the cut ones, hopped right back into place.  The soil was soft so tamping the sand and brick in level went really nicely.  I swept the project with sand and left an invoice with a note that said “no traffic on the repair for two weeks”.  I don’t know why I thought that would help but I wanted the whole thing to have a chance to settle in flat and solid before a cocktail party broke out. 
Years later that patio repair is basically invisible. Flat and perfectly blended.  Coming into this fall season reminded me of those cool rainy days when I made that repair. It reminds me of the sudden storm, the rain and leaves.  That customer and I laughed at that job a year or so later standing on the patio.  Maybe he’s in upper state New York, watching fall blow in there this year, laughing about it again.