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August 2012

Sometimes you just have to call in backup

When I moved into my house, I knew a few things were going to eventually cause headaches down the road.  The biggest one was a damp crawlspace.  Thankfully, a dry summer, rerouted gutter downspouts and increased landscape grading  seemed to help dry out the crawlspace.

But the next home repair wasn't something I felt comfortable tackling on my own.  The previous owner had tried putting in a bathroom dormer structure but failed miserably with siding it correctly.  They left a furnace outlet pipe resting directly against the bathroom's outer wall.

Dormer before
This setup wouldn't have been as big an issue had they taken the time to actually put siding in between the furnace outlet vent and the dormer's exterior wall. 

Eventually rain has made it's way around the slipshod job and started to leak through the ceiling into the room below the bathroom.  The leak hasn't turned into a torrent of water yet but it's bad enough that it's starting to cause some damage.  So before the fall rains arrive, I called various contractors to get quotes for the job.

The whole project requires: 1.) relocating the furnace outlet vent away from the dormer 2.) repairing the roof once the old outlet vent is removed 3.) and finally replacing the "siding" on the dormer.  I forgot to mention the previous owner had the builder put soffit material around the dormer instead of using actual siding material.  (Or the builder did this on their own, it's anybody's guess)  This really made me start to wonder what else the person did wrong.  (Previous memories of insulation put in backward come to mind.)

After discussing with different contractors, I went with Larkin Remodelers for the shingle and siding work and Baron Sweeps for moving the duct work inside the house.  Why two vendors?  I tried getting one one person to tackle the entire job but wasn't having any luck for several weeks. Everyone either told me they didn't handle one aspect or they said they could but never called me back.

Dormer after

Both companies were very accommodating and flexible.  For example, the old furnace outlet had an extremely heavy chimney pipe made out of some kind of ceramic material.  I'm guessing it weighed a few hundred pounds and the length was around 6-8ft long.  The first contractor left the old furnace outlet in place, at my request, since I didn't want to have it removed which would leave a hole in the roof until the second contractor came along to finish the job.  The Larkin crew was able to break it in half and remove all of it in under an hour.  Also, Larkin had a job cancel on them and asked if I wanted them to come back the next day to finish the siding work instead of the following Monday which we had originally scheduled.  I'm glad they were able to do it while I was home the entire time, since I wanted to see what the whole process entailed. 

I'm very happy with the completed work and look forward to facing future rain days without the worrisome dread normally associated with leaky ceilings.  And the dormer looks so much better with new siding, sans an ugly furnace outlet.

Long, long ago..

It dawned on me this week that it's eight years ago this month since I stepped off a plane for my first Foreign Service tour in Sudan.  I always look back to that tour as the one that was the most exciting and unknown. And looking back through my original blog entries, I'd like to think my blog writing has improved since then. :) 

Speaking of joing the Foreign Service, being in DC makes it easier to serve as a mentor for new hire Specialists.  So when I get a chance to talk with them about going out on their first tour, I can see the same look of wonderment in their face.  Many of the questions they have were the same I asked veterans back in the day.  I'm still learning new things daily so I try to remain consistance in seperating fact from opinion when discussing what to expect from the job with others.

That said, there are still several things I want to do before going abroad again.  While this blog has taken a domestic turn, I still think it's benefical for those that join and want to know what to expect during a domestic tour.  Besides DC tours can still feel like a foreign one on occasion!

Dr. Landscape - or how I learned to stop worrying and love the rain

Final steps for my rain barrel project- 

Slim Pickens first and last rain barrel attempt
"Here's what can happen if you only drink rainwater and grain alcohol."

I researched a few different ideas for connecting barrels to my existing roof gutter.  I ended up buying a rubber rain gutter diverter from Rain Brothers that goes inside my gutter downspout. Their complete kit contains some plastic parts that I ended up replacing with sturdier versions from Home Depot.  I mainly wanted their hole saws, rubber diverter, and winter downspout cap.  At $30 + s/h, I considered it a bargain.

From the rubber diverter in the downspout, it's simply a matter of running PVC pipe to the input of the rain barrel.  I put a wire screen at the top of my downspout and also placed a screen over the PVC opening going into the barrel, in order to prevent mosquitoes and other bugs from entering.

Diverter and input
The barrels are connected with PVC pipe hidden underneath the top of the bench.  Both barrels will fill at the same time.  When the barrels are full, the excess water will run out an overflow pipe and be directed away from the house.  Eventually, I'll hook up a hose to the overflow and run it underground to where I want it to travel.

I drilled a small hole in the top of the second barrel to make sure air doesn't get trapped and glued some screen over it. I also covered the end of the outlet pipe with a screen.  This should help keep bugs out while also letting me clean out any trapped debris that made it through the whole system.

I forgot to mention painting the barrels.  Since mine are white, I needed to paint them so the light doesn't cause algae to grow inside.  I tried using a primer and then painting one white.  Bad idea.  It takes several coats of white to cover up the primer.  I ended up switching to a Krylon paint called Fusion.  It's specifically made for plastic and it doesn't need sanding or priming.  (Which works out better because sanding a plastic barrel really made it look funky.)  I put three coats of white on each barrel.  It made it darker inside the barrel but not as much as the primer did.  Time will tell if it's dark enough. 

While each coat of paint dried on the barrels, I worked on cutting and welding PVC pipes and joints together. After the first barrel was ready, I set it up on the table and started connecting pieces together.  I ended up using PVC primer/cement on all the joints and coupling.  I put dope tape, or ´╗┐PTFE tape, on anything that had a threaded fitting.  The entire PVC manifold system is hidden underneath the barrels with only the ball valve being exposed for ease of turning off and on.  I connected a 50' coiled hose to allow me to water continuously instead of filling up watercans.

Spigot and hose
Connecting the gutter to the barrels was a bit trickier since I wanted to make it low enough to take it out easily come winter, but high enough to force the water to work it's way down into the barrel.  I also had to secure the PVC pipes to my house which required drilling into asbestos shingles.  Since it was a minor job, I just wore a mask and sprayed down the shingle to limit dust. (I wasn't going to hire a pro to spend 6 seconds drilling one hole.)  Actually I was more worried about cracking the shingle and breaking off a whole piece, than drilling enough to fill the air with hazardous fibers.  

Rain barrels completed !
By the time I finished, the whole project of painting the barrels and connecting the PVC took about about 6 hours.  The rain gods must have been watching me because, during the last few minutes of welding the final pipes together with cement, it started to rain.  I crossed my fingers and hoped for no leaks as the rain continued for at least a half hour.  Here's a sample of how much rain was being diverted.  This is a smaller amount than I'd wanted, so the next day I modified the diverter so it would catch more of the water along the downspout's interior walls.  (edit- modified system is diverting about twice as much water now.)  I'm also working on a tie-down system to keep the barrels from falling off the table.  Safety first!


If you decide to make a rain barrel, keep in mind the water is not safe for drinking.  I wouldn't think people need to be told this, but water running off your roof where birds do-you-know-what and where your shingles collect all manner of debris, is not potable.  Even if you think your roof is clean, asphalt shingles are made of materials that you wouldn't want to use to filter water anyway.  So don't use the water on edible plants.  Also, don't save the water for too long.  Use collected water within a week or so.  

Let me know if you have a barrel or end up making one.  I'm interested in seeing what other people have come up with.  In the future I'd like to add some artwork to the barrels.  There's some great designs out there from very creative folks.

Landscaping 2.0

Now that my yard is home to several new plants and trees, my water bill is feeling the effects of a dry summer.  So I've decided to install some rain barrels to ease the pinch on my pocket book while also reducing some of the polluted runoff that overflows into the city's waterways.  

I thought making the barrels would be the most challenging part.  But it turns out, just finding some barrels is tougher. Craigslist didn't have any cheap enough to make it worth the drive.  I finally decided on buying some from the Pepsi bottling facility in Hyattsville, MD.  

That's how i roll
Yeah, it's a long drive but they sell the white (and sometimes blue) 55 gallon barrels for $10/each. Call Howard Turk, Recycling Coordinator, 301.583.7260 or 301.322.7000.  You can also sign up for local rain barrel workshops organized by county programs.  Costs vary.  If money is of no concern you can also buy retail barrels on-line or from your local garden/nursery centers.  They'll run you anywhere from $50-$200 depending on the size and quality.

I arrived at the Pepsi plant around 6:45am but nobody was available to help me till around 7:30am. The guy at the loading dock had me wait outside the parking lot until someone showed for work. Eventually, I made it into the loading dock area.  There were only four barrels available sitting outside but I could only safely load 3 of them. The Pepsi dock helper said more people usually show up but since it was raining maybe that kept some folks at home.

Now that I have some barrels, the next step is figuring out where I can install them.  Initially I thought about a spot near my greenhouse.  But I didn't like the way they were going to stick out when people looked at the yard from the deck.  So I decided on building a spot on the south side of the house. Unfortunately, the south side has a flower bed running the entire length of the house.  So I had to transplant some lilies and a chrysanthemum elsewhere.  Then I had to decide what to do with all the leftover potting soil.  I have several brick edging pieces laying around so I laid out the plans for another flowerbed next to my tool shed.  

A yard project isn't a project until it snowballs into creating a couple more projects.  In this case I now had to build the new flowerbed's edging and level everything out.  But that's a project for another day.  I moved the extra soil over to the spot where the new bed is going and left it at that.

Breaking ground
So back to the rain barrel spot.  Once I reached the depth I wanted for the rain barrels to sit, I smoothed out and tamped the ground to get it level.  Instead of just sitting the barrels on some stones, I decided to build a table.  A full 55 gal barrel weighs close to 500lbs so a couple full barrels will need a strong table.

Here are the trees that gave their lives in order to harvest rainwater

Here's the table I made from about $115 worth of supplies from Home Depot, along with some stain from Sherwin Williams.  Sitting barrels on a table will increase the water pressure inside the barrels, which in turn helps if you want to connect a hose to the barrel instead of using a bucket.

Form of a rain barrel stand!
The table dimensions are 52"L x 36" H x 28" D.  I used pressure treated pine (4x4s for the legs, 2x8s around the top, 2x6s around the lower legs, and 2x4s to make the top and bottom shelves).  I used deckmate screws  (2 1/2" and 3 1/2" screws) but had to replace a couple pieces of 2x4s that split because even the smaller screws were a little to big.  So I suggest drilling slowly and using smaller screws.

So back to the spot where the table goes.  I couldn't just set the table on the ground and expect it to stay upright or last for very long.  I wanted paver stones to make it more stable and to also look nicer.  That required some prep work.

I laid some landscape fabric down first to help prevent weeds from growing.  I intentionally dug a wider and longer area so I could work with adding dirt, soil and seed around the finished paver bricks later.  Next, I laid paver gravel about 4" deep.

Paver gravel added
I tamped down the gravel and check the level. I left a very slight slope away from the foundation, but not enough to throw off the table's level only enough to keep water running in the right direction.  

The next step was adding about an inch of sand over the gravel.  I used some old rods I had laying around to give me an idea how deep the sand was and to help level it out.   I lay the bricks and then installed the edging to tighten up and secure the bricks into place. 

Lucia adding the sand and paver bricks

Here's the edging in place. The last thing I had to do was apply some fine paver sand that would help lock the bricks into place.  Regular sand will eventually wash away and I wanted the bricks to look like they had permant mortar in between them.  I added soil and grass seed on top of the edging after I finished moving the table and barrels into place. 

Edging added
So that's it.  The first part of my rain barrel installation.  Location leveled out and paver bricks installed. Barrel bench built and stained (subject absent during picture day).  Next part - adding the rain barrels and connecting them to the rain gutter.

Halfway between 'Possom Trot and Monkey's Eyebrow

The road less traveled
So now I can say I've been to Monkey's Eyebrow, Ky.

While we were in Paducah earlier this summer, B showed me where the strangely named little hamlet exists.  It's hard to find and depending on who you talk to, the population varies from a handful of people to somewhere around 80.  

Monkeys eyebrow

Monkeys eyebrow2

Monkeys eyebrow 3
More info can be found here at, by one of the Eyebrowains, Eyebrites?Monkenzienes? ah, one of the citizens of Monkey's Eyebrow.