Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sealing Out the Drafts

Winter has arrived yet again, and our struggles to maintain an efficient - and more importantly, comfortable - 100-year old home continue. This is a battle I wage with elements every year as things turn cold.

This year, I've become increasingly knowledgeable about a little thing that is hard to see and really adds up - air. Or more specifically, air leakage, an important aspect of green building. Although we performed a blower door test over a year ago, there continue to be opportunities to improve the air leakage in our home.

So after learning some building science, its useful to know that in addition to heat rising, the upper levels of a home are constantly under more pressure. Heat and air both rise, creating a chimney effect in a mult-level home. This static pressure causes air to want to find its way out of the house, particularly in second floor converted attic like we have.

With this in mind, I recently went around our second floor to address these air leakage issues. The largest losses on the second floor are in all the ceiling penetrations. The recessed lighting cans and built-in speakers have been great and provided clear headroom, but when installing them we could have been a bit more careful. The biggest regret I have is buying the big-box special recessed lighting housings. We purchased the insulation contact (IC) rated housings, which were important so insulation could come right up alongside the lights. However, had I spent a dollar or so more on each light housing, we could have had air-tight insulation contact (ICAT) housings. As this article explains, regular recessed lights allow for a ton of air leakage. Note to self: when buying these in the future, hold up to the light in the store. If light comes through, so will air!

Oh well, fortunately, many of our recessed lights in the attic have an air-tight shower trim kit. We liked them because they have a flat, not-quite-interrupted surface. Now, I'm glad they help fend off air leakage too. Additionally, I recently took to time to caulk between the drywall and the metal can to eliminate further leakage around the cans.

While I was messing with the ceiling, I also took down the smoke detectors (we have 3 upstairs). Underneath one of the smoke detectors, there was a significant amont of dust - enough to form a ring around the collar! I knew it would take more than Wisk to make this ring go away. Dusty signs like this - after just two years since installation - is a tell-tale sign that there is some major air leakage and heat loss ocurring here.

After removing the smoke detector mounting bracket, I pulled out one of my new favorite stocking stuffers, Dap Latex Foam Sealant, a great easy-cleanup spray foam that is water-based instead of oil-based (like Great Stuff).

I also used the spray foam around some of the air return ducts that weren't sealed to the drywall, and plugged a few other holes with what remained in the can.

After all of this, I think our second floor bedrooms in the converted attic space will be more comfortable this year. And, this may be a surprise, but this will likely make the basement more comfortable as well. Why? Well what happens in the basement has everything to do with what happens in the attic.

It goes back to that static pressure concept - when air is lost through the attic,
it comes in at a lower level such as a basement or, even worse, an attached garage (think of all the chemicals and fumes stored in a garage, and how that air might come in if the attached garage is the weakest link in the air barrier). We are fortunate to have a detached garage, so we don't worry about this. However, if we make it harder for that static pressure to force air up through the attic, it means less air will be pulled in from the basement, keeping that a bit cozier and healthier too.

All in all, it took more time to write about this than it did to actually seal up some of these holes, so I'm hopeful we'll get a more comfortable home with this small investment. With the Chicago winter underway, every little bit of comfort and energy savings helps Humphrey House be a happier and greener home!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Vision of the Scarecrow

Neighbors and passer-by stare in wonder and awe as they pass our creepy yard, and the days until Halloween tick down.

Our good friend Mark recently helped add a crowning touch to the Scarecrow that we fashioned for the graveyard, bringing him to life in a new way. One of Mark's many talents is repairing consumer electronics, and when I told him about the scarecrow and the plans we had, he offered to help out in a small way by stringing together a few spare LED lights he had. All I had to do was figure out a way to insert them.

Fortunately, the scarecrow's construction is quite modular and easy to disassemble. When creating him, I was trying to get as sturdy as possible without permanently affixing things so that it would be difficult to store the scarecrow. One of the nice things is that with the plastic skull as a base (see the beginning), I could drill eyeball holes easily enough to glue in the LED lights. The head is supported by a 1" PVC pipe so I could run the wires through this, down into the body where the wire could be hidden by the creature's "clothes".

Mark gave me a nice long wire I was able to snake along and tuck into the crawlspace under our front porch, where there is some weather-protected electrical access. By taking an old 3.0 volt transformer, which the LEDs run off, I could simply plug this in and voila! Our scarecrow suddenly has beady red eyes!

This really brings it to life. I can just hear the Tales from the crypt theme music, and the Cryptkeeper laugh, "What are you lookin at??"

Like what we're doing here? if you have a Facebook account, cast a vote for us at a halloween contest being sponsored by a local real estate firm.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Custom Graveyard Monuments

This year our annual haunting of Humphrey House are growing a bit out of control. I blame the book How To Haunt Your House, Jen thinks its because I don't like work as much play. Whatever the reason, the scary props are growing.

Besides the scarecrow and the graveyard fence, we also decided to take some 2" foam board and make custom grave markers for our front yard. The store bought tombstones are okay and we always steered clear of cheezy ones, but ultimately the just look so, well... fake. To liven things up, we were inspired to create some of our own tombstones.

Armed with a wire heat gun, I sculpted the remains of some 2" rigid foam insulation into various custom tombstones, which we then embellished by melting in designs with a soldering iron (note: use LOTS of ventilation!). Jen came up with all kinds of cool fonts and designs. Next up was coloring the foam board.

Mixing the same colors used on the scarecrow, we came up with a nice gray that I blended with some old drywall compound. This was used to cover the sides and back of the tombstones. I first tried this on the front of one tombstone (the "Crane" one below), but quickly remembered that this material is meant to fill in holes and cracks (duh!). It filled in the front details far too much. But on the sides and back, it gives the tombstones much more weight and appearance of somthing sculpted out of stone. A regular paint mix (no drywall compound) on the front faces made the tombstones complete.

After drying, we used black paint for any recessed details and used a nice iridescent paint we had left over (from our condo 6 years ago!) to highlight certain aspects. Here are the results:

Bill Compton's tombstone.. May he rest in peace for all eternity.

The Van Tassel grave marker (inspired by Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow) is one of my favorites. Jen's skull-head design and side markers turned out great with the iridescent paint.

This last marker is a bit unique. I had to get Green into this display somehow, so I figured I'd make more of a monument as opposed to a tombstone, for the green homes rating system called LEED that I work with. There are five areas of the rating system that are represented by icons:

  • Sustainable Sites (SS) represented by the leaf
  • Water Efficiency (WE), shown by the drop
  • Energy and Atmosphere, indicated by the asterisk
  • Indoor Air Quality (IQ), shown by the waves
  • Materials and Resources (MR) shown by the reduce, reuse, recycle triangle.
It's a bit corny, and I know I'm taking my work home with me here, but I figured I was investing the time so might as well make it a bit personal.

Anyway, once we had the props complete, we staked them out in the yard with insulation hangers (more leftover building materials!) and a piece of lathe behind each one for support.

One of the nice things about all this work for Halloween is that its done using materials that we already had laying around from the various construction projects, giving the surplus material a new, and haunting, life. Just wait until we show you the hologram ghost we're making!

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Grave Yard Indeed

This year we learned that tearing out the grass in the front yard makes for a delightfully creepy graveyard in preparation for All Hallow's Eve. With leaves starting to fall and make their way around the landscaping, we simply needed to put up our tombstones to start out with a ghostly yard. Some flowers were still blooming, making an excellent offering for a tombstone or two.

But with concerns about the rampant number of children that visit our block on Halloween, we decided some protection might be in order. Maybe we could erect a fence around our tiny yard to give it a more formal feel. We thought of doing this with PVC pipe but decided for a more recycled look. I still had a pile of lathe from the plaster walls we took down when we redid the kitchen. It didn't take to long to find the longer pieces, strip the nails, and erect a graveyard fence. Jen's brilliant touch was wrapping the top in some imitation barbed wire we picked up on clearance last November.

There was a bit still lacking though, so we decided to make some of our own tombstones. More on that in a later post!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Scarecrow Comes Alive

The tortured soul that will oversee the front yard cemetery has slowly emerged and come to life. Our inspiration is the book, How To Haunt Your House.

Once the paper mache and mod podge applied to the skull had dried, we found some gallons of Oops paint we picked up for $5 a long time ago. This turned out to complement the yellows from the glue quite nicely.

A layer of brown paint wiped on casually with a foam brush, and then some strategic dark purple paint gives him a nice bruised-flesh appearance. A few highlights with an off-white around the eyes, nose, and sinew completes the look. The "neck" was a pants legging from an old pair of PJs that got the same paint treatment.

Next, I glued various rope twine pieces to the top of the head to give him some "hair". It appears a bit too much like dreadlocks so I'll likely separate these out for a more tufted appearance.

After cutting a hole in the skull just large enough for a 1/2" PVC pipe, an old 6-foot bamboo pole lying in the garage serves as a perfect stake for our scary beast. The PVC slides right on top, so I found a scrap plywood piece that could be the "chest" to which to attach the pole and a couple of "arms" fashioned from 1x2 cutoffs. I'm glad we've kept all kinds of spare lumber in the garage for just these types of events. A couple of electric conduit fasteners were just the right size to attach the bamboo pole (and allow for later disassembly).

An old burlap sack was hastily turned into a hat (reinforced with electrical wire and loosely sewn with string dyed black). Then, taking some scrap black fabric we had leftover and a spare chain, I dressed the scarecrow for the first time.

There are a few tweaks to make - puff out the body a bit, and shorten the neck, but you really get the idea here. I can't wait to see him in place in the front yard. Bwah ha ha!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Preparation Begins

Those that have followed our blog for awhile know that Halloween is a big event at our house. This year, I've decided to take advantage of the many extra building materials we have and create some neat props for the yard.

We found some inspiration in a great DIY book called How To Haunt Your House
and have a few plans that include creating custom tombstones, a freaky scarecrow for the front yard, and a truly transparent ghost.

Before beginning, I needed to create a work area in the garage. I finally cleared off the old desk my grandfather gave me, which had become more of a shelf than anything else, and then added some task lighting to the area. Jen then got a number of craft supplies together, and we were ready to start.

First up, the scarecrow. A cheap $3 plastic skull serves as the base, and we're paper mache-ing him to give him a bit of torn skin and sinew.

Twine will be glued to his head for hair, and we'll take some old burlap and fashion it into a hat using some excess 12 gauge electrical wire for support.

We also took some old foam board a neighbor was tossing out and made some of our own tombstones. A couple ornate ones and a few cross-type as shown above. We'll be taking some old drywall compound and mixing paint to create "monster mud" to coat the foam boards and cover up the pink.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Happy Hops Plants

Earlier this spring I was working with a Habitat for Humanity green building project, and one of the project members and I had a discussion about growing Hops. I mentioned I'd like to do that for a type of greenscreen if nothing else, and perhaps one day get into homebrewing.

Well, later that day, the energy rater colleague happened to stop by his father's house, who had extra hops plants growing. So he dug some up. And then just happened to be near our home and dropped them off for us. What a pleasant surprise!

I managed to separate the root rhizomes into several groups, and planted them into seven containers. Some of these looked pretty sorry, but to my surprise, eventually every single one formed into a plant!

And it turns out hops plants are very excellent vertical growers. The vines are almost sticky, and want to grab ahold of anything they can - including me when I was tried to train them.

I put a few of these into a raised bed near the garage, and strung some landscape string from hooks in the garage eave to the wood frame in the bed. The hops quickly found their way up the garage as shown at right. Within a few weeks, the vines then had nowhere else to go vertically, so they started spilling over and climbing up themselves. We now have a large bunching mass of hops. And since this wall receives the most sun in our tiny back yard, the plants started forming little flowers already.Elsewhere in the yeard between us and our neighbors, I took an extra 10' section of 1/2" gas pipe and pounded it in the ground almost 2 feet, threw a Tee on it and a few short segments to create a pole stand for two other hops vines. These hops vines have also worked out quite well - these were two of the plants I was less certain would make it.

These plants are not quite flowering, but they certainly are reaching for the sky. It may not be until next year that actual hops buds are produced. But that's okay, the main idea for these is to add some color against the drab color of the neighbor's home, as this is what you see when you walk off our back porch.

I subsequently learned all these hops plants are from the Siebel Institute, a well-respected brewing academy, so I think some homebrewing will be in my future. I even had extra plants that I donated for a friend's pergola. And Chris actually has brewed beer before, so they may get put to use sooner than mine. In the meantime, we're enjoying the extra vertical greenery in our small urban yard.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Despite Heavy Rains, Block Party Goes On

Last weekend, our annual block party was scheduled. We had a hand in helping organize a few events and were excited as our niece and nephew were coming over to join the fun.

However, heavy rains Friday night and Saturday morning threatened to put an end to this. We received 8+ inches of rain which contributed to I-290 being shut down for the first time ever due to the new river that formed beside it. In fact, our town was declared a disaster zone and received the highest rainfall in the Chicagoland area.

We and others on our block were fortunate to only receive a little minor water in the basement, unlike some friends who received much worse damage. But despite this rain delay, folks on our block decided to press on with the block party.

After a social breakfast, the main activity of the day was painting rain barrels. While I may have had a part in suggesting the activity, it was well-coordinated by another member of our block, who took some photos of the process. Those of us interested chipped in on paint and supplies ahead of time, and we ended up with 6 rain barrels painted by different families on the block. The kids got into the painting at first, but quickly lost interest when bubbles and water balloons started flying around, so the adults ended up completing the barrels.

For our part, we took one of our existing rain barrels and painted a playful underwater sea scene on it. Jen had some great inspiring artwork for a whimsical octopus, puffer fish, jellyfish, and more that she printed off in advance. We painted directly onto the barrel and protected it with a coat of polyurethane. We're thinking about installing our barrel off the garage beside the vegetable garden, where it can give a lot of life and color year-round.

Another fun activity I was in charge of was the Blender Bike. Our friend Jim works with the good folks at Working Bikes and loaned me an old exercise bike fitted with a DC motor that could power a lightbulb. It could also power an old school blender, so with a bit of ice and some Countrytime lemonade mix, the kids on our block got a first-hand feel for energy. I would have them pedal and get a good speed going on the exercise bike, and then flip the blender switch to on. They would immediately feel the "electrical load" and have to pedal much harder to keep it turning. It worked out great and with the heat and humidity, the kids lined up for an ice cold slushie! Especially the ones who were pedaling to power the blender.

The party really started a bit later, when I offered all the adults to make a slushie with vodka in it. Lots of takers for that!

I also brought out our baggo boards and had borrowed a really neat set from Chris to have a baggo tournament (with a 16-team bracket). This has become a good block party tradition. We had some good teams this year, and I think we'll do some seeding for next year's party.

Finally, I collected electronic waste (e-waste) from people as usual to take for proper recycling. There's a Green Fest in Elmhurst this weekend that will be a perfect drop-off.

We skipped the evening communal dinner in order to spend time with our niece and nephew, but I think the block party was great fun on an otherwise wet day. It's always great to come together and strengthen the community.

"On this shrunken globe, men can no longer live as strangers," Aldai E. Stevenson

Friday, July 23, 2010

Some Finishing Touches in Front

I can tell you one thing. Putting together a garden during a hot, humid summer day is no fun. So after the initial landscape was in place in the front yard, I took it easy. Off tangent thought... if there no longer is any grass, can it still be called a front yard? Hmm.

Anyway, after the busy weekend planning and planting the front garden, I wasn't about to subject myself to further heat exhuastion. So I have been subsequently doing a little work after the sun goes down each day (but before nightfall).

I planted an evergreen groundcover, and then made a trip to the local mulch pile. A few weeks ago, Chicagoland had a massive round of windy thunderstorms that resulted in many trees and branches falling down. Our city picks these up and runs them through a grinder to make mulch. These are stashed in a few locations, and they let residents come by and help themselves to as much mulch as they'd like.

So I went to get some. I really missed my old pickup truck for this trip, and instead had to lay down a tarp in the trunk of our economy car, backed it up to the pile, and shoveled away.

Frequently, this free mulch can get quite rotten, but with the fresh thunderstorms that had passed through earlier in July, the available mulch was actually quite nice. I made several trips over the last two weeks, and it was interesting how the quality varied. Sometimes there was really rough course mulch (shown above), other times it was very fine wood chips. But beggars can't be choosers!

So far three trips have been made, and I plan to make at least one more to establish a nice mulch base. And, much as installing trim in a room helps bring everything together, mulch really does help give the front yard garden a finished look. And hopefully with a bit more rain (and rainbarrel water) the plants will all get properly established before winter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Surprise! A green landscape plan

Sometimes the best things evolve and happen organically. Other times they don't.

Our front yard had evolved organically over the past 5 years that we've been in Humphrey House, almost like a nursery rhyme, "here a plant, there a plant, everywhere a plant plant." And you know what? It wasn't working. In fact, it failed miserably. Even though people tried valiantly to help us, we had no clue about various plant sizes - placing things in a tight bunch, too close to the foundation, putting tall plants in front of short plants, sun plants in shady areas - if there was a list of bad DIY landscape plans, I felt certain we were on that list. Well, all that changed over the weekend as I finally set things straight.

With Jen leaving town for the weekend, I promptly set off to surprise her upon her return, and ripped out the existing hardscape timbers and dug up almost every existing thing in our front yard and put the plants into spare containers. The only thing that survived were the coneflowers Chris from TinyBungalow gave us a few years ago and our weeping cherry tree. This gave me a blank slate, with lots of dead ground to play with.

The plan for our yard started with a goal: Create a sustainable landscape. Great, but what does that mean? Well, a landscape that is more native (adapted) to the local climate - able to withstand Chicago's winters and dry summers without extra care. A garden that doesn't need extra watering beyond the natural rainfall we receive. And a landscape that would be more pervious and help absorb stormwater on-site rather than directing it to the overburdened municipal storm sewers. Additionally, native plants also are more attractive to wildlife providing food and cover for birds, butterflies, etc.

But there were many challenges to meeting this goal:

  1. Aesthetics - we wanted something with year-round interest that didn't look like crap.
  2. Shade - our parkway has a Norway Maple that provides dense shade - and few hours of sunlight. Most aesthetically pleasing drought-tolerant plants and flowers thrive in full sun.
  3. Maintenance - I like the idea of quarterly yard maintenance rather than weekly mowing.
  4. Budget - always a factor, which meant trying to use many materials we had on-site
  5. Size - while not huge compared to many, we are dealing with 2/3 of our front yard, about 400 square feet, which could definitely stretch the budget. We also wanted some good vertical height to transition to the porch.
One of the nice things about delaying a landscape plan until July is that you can take advantage of season-end sales, which really helps with #4 above. I visited no less than 5 garden centers and deals ranged from buy 2 get one free to 50% off or more. I even got a 1/2 gallon healthy goldenrod plant for $1 at Lowe's just by asking how low they would go!

Well, it all came together so much better than expected. Once everything was cleared out and placed into extra planting containers, I laid down some flagstone pavers that had been left behind under the back porch by the previous homeowners. With a hardscaped footpath in place, I then played around with arrangements with the existing plants such as evergreen boxwoods, along with some new plants I had picked up. Fortunately some of the local garden centers have a nice distribution line with American Beauties. No, that's not a link to some X-rated site, it's a native plant landscape supplier. Combining this with the selection at the big box stores and our existing plants, I grouped the plants together in odd numbers and got successful results.

So what did we do? Well, using advice from friends as well as a native plant specialist, I selected:The hardest thing to find was an ornamental grass that can perform in a part shade environment, on about 4 hours of sun per day. I was careful not to choose Chinese Silver Grass, as that is classified as an invasive plant species in Illinois. But with a bit of help, I was able to locate an ornamental that was actually labeled "Full sun to Part shade", a Miscanthus feather read grass strain called "Karl Foerster". These will be great because the grass dies off and provides a clump of winter interest. And potentially neat colors in the spring and summer. Right now though, there's not much to look at.

While I was working, several neighbors came up and remarked on how improved things look. Of course, anything is better than the dead lawn that was there for for months. I'm not entirely convinced the spacing is "just right" for everything, but we'll keep an eye on the plants and adjust as the year goes by. In the meantime, it's had a truly transformative effect on our home giving it style and a natural prairie setting to our neighborhood.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Are Grass Lawns Overrated?

We've been experimenting with a new thing at our home this summer - a dead lawn! Just look at the wonderful progress we've made on killing off the grass.

But why... Is this the lazyman's approach to "lawn care"? The latest form of a "no-mow" lawn? No, we are in fact prepping the front yard for a sustainable revival of sorts.

While we are a bit lazy on yard maintenance, and I certainly do not like to mow (especially in August when hay fever allergies set in), the real reason for this unique approach is that we are killing the existing turfgrass lawn and rotting it out with compost on top of it, in preparation for a more natural (and drought tolerant) landscape.

We're going to replace this area with plants that have deep root systems that are native or adapted for the natural amount of rainfall Chicago receives. Once established, the landscape should require no extra water, and only occasional seasonal maintenance (as opposed to weekly mowing). Our biggest challenge will be finding plants that perform well given the abundance of shade.

Traditional lawn turfgrass has very shallow root systems (ever see sod?). When wet, the roots lock up preventing extra rainwater from infiltrating into the ground. This creates "ponding" or soggy lawns, and causes excessive stormwater runoff. On the other hand, native plants have deep roots that go down 6 feet or more to tap into the Earth's moisture. These plants grew all over the prairies of Illinois, and as the plants died or were burned off in natural fires, their root systems became deep-rooting fingers of compost. Over decades and eons, these composting roots evolved into some of the best soil and farmland in the United States.

In addition to returning some of this land to its natural sustainable use and using less water, our goal is to give a nice prairie-type of landscape setting for Humphrey House, which should fit well with the arts and crafts feel of the home. Now all we need is a good plan.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Managing our Rainwater

For those that recall, our home has a number of rain barrels around it. Well, the ones we installed last year were great - until we had a massive intense rain event on our small urban lot. There were a series of issues that combined to cause some water to enter our basement:

  • Lots of rain - a few inches in a half hour
  • Lots of water hitting two rain barrels
  • Rain barrel overflow hose way too small to accommodate flow
  • Barrels located near our exterior basement stairs
  • Neighbor's downspouts also directed towards this area
  • Concrete step that was disintegrated, allowing water to head downhill
  • Floor drain full of leaves and debris, preventing drainage
    = Water coming in the house under basement exterior door!
Tearing apart the concrete last year helped address a number of issues such as grading and building a new concrete step. I also took advantage of this opportunity to reconfigure how our rain barrels worked. The neighbor has since directed her downspouts to keep water on her lawn, but in the meantime I came up with four solutions specifically to handle downpours:
  1. Gutter diverter
  2. Rain barrel interconnection
  3. Underground discharge
  4. Wider overflow hose
1. Gutter Diverter. I ended up purchasing one of the diverters shown at right. The great feature here is a manual lever that can send water either to the rain barrels, or to the downspout. This will allow us to divert water from entering the rain barrels when they're already full. It also is an easy way to winterize the rain barrels. My only change is instead of the final "turn-out" shown in the photo, I used a fold-up ramp that takes water to the rain barrels.

2. Rain barrel interconnection. Every set of directions I've ever seen for connecting rain barrels seems to say they should be interconnected at the top overflow hose. After our basement flooded, I thought about this and it makes no sense. If you connect two or more barrels at the bottom, they will fill up at equal rates rather than having one fill up completely and hoping the overflow works faster than any new rainwater coming in. Here's a photo showing the diversion system, as well as the two barrels (on either side of our side gate) connected in tandem. The connection hose is hidden from view behind them.

3. Underground discharge. I know I'm a nerd when I think this was a fun way to spend some time. When excavating for our bluestone pavers last year, I had the foresight to take advantage of the opportunity to dig a bit deeper, and create an overflow area for storm water that would carry it away from our our home's foundation wall. I purchased a 10' section of 4" PVC, added an elbow and a cleanout with a cap on one end (which can be capped in winter), and a Tee with access port on the other end.

After this, I connected 10 feet of drain tile (perforated tube) wrapped in landscape fabric to prevent silt infiltration, and ran it out where the old concrete sidewalk had been. All told, this runs about 25 feet away from the foundation wall.

Honestly I recognize this is excessive to accommodate overflow and way more than what most people need. Don't be scared into thinking you have to do this if you want rain barrels. We did this more because we had the opportunity. That said, you do need to have some kind of plan to take the overflow from the barrels. I highly recommend the following video showing more traditional rain barrel overflow.

4. Wider overflow hose. This particular downspout handles exactly one-half of the roof area of our home, over 1,000 square feet of surface area. In a 1" rainfall, that means we're getting 620 gallons of water! Because of the large roof area, our (2) 65-gallon rain barrels fill up after roughly 1/4 of an inch of rainfall. In heavier rains, the small garden hose overflow can not handle the volume of water coming down the downspout.

The solution? Drill a new hole and install a 1.5-inch wide sump-pump hose. If its' good enough for leaky basements, its good enough for several gallons of rain per minute. Sump-pump hoses are sold in 20' lengths. I tried searching for something shorter but then I realized that I could snake the entire 20 feet all the way through the 4" drain tile system mentioned above. This puts the overflow way out in the yard in case there wasn't enough pitch to carry the water away. For you eagle-eyed home improvement experts, the hose is connected to an old stainless steel drain fitting from one of the sinks we took out of the home.

So, with these four measures, our stormwater management system is much better engineered. As I mentioned earlier, this type of system is overkill for most homeowner's needs. But we had a confluence of events that led to a leaking basement, and we don't want to have that ever again.

The weather the last few weeks in Chicago has put this to the test as it has been raining almost every day. Our barrels are full, and the manual downspout diverter is sending excess water to the storm sewer system. And I can sleep better knowing that any water that splashes past the diverter and makes its way to the rain barrels is overflowing into the backyard, away from the basement.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Building a Planter Box

The last few months have been too busy to blog, but we're going to try and carve out specific times to update the blog to let you know all that's been happening at (mostly outside of) Humphrey House.

We'll start with something actually made before winter: A raised bed planter box in the backyard. Since our porch is a half-story off the ground (about 5'feet) and we have a small yard, we felt like we needed something to help transition the yard to the porch.

I originally had brought home used railroad ties and had planned to use those to construct the raised bed. I figured they'd be nice thick materials and provide plenty of butt space. Plus, they were quite cheap and very thick. Perfect right?

Well, as I was unloading them, I realized a lot of "stuff" was coming off. This stuff is creosote, and is what railroad ties are treated with to resist decay. After reading up and learning creosote is probably carcinogenic to people and contaminates groundwater, I realized I probably don't want to bring that onto our property, much less have people sitting on it. So, I took the railroad ties back to the store and got regular 6x6 treated lumber (ACQ, not CCA).

Anyway, because the timbers are 8 foot lengths, I planned to make a 6' x 2' raised bed, using four courses of timber to give the planter a comfortable sitting height. To start, I dug trenches a couple inches down into the soil for foundation drainage, and filled this pea gravel and sand. This made leveling the raised bed much easier as well, since there originally was a slight slope from the left to the right sides.

I laid the first course using full 8-foot lengths, and then cutting two 1'-6" pieces for the short ends. The next course would be 7' on the long sides, and a full 2 feet on the ends to stagger the joints. However, I soon realized that I was going to need something to keep these all together once they were stacked.

Fortunately I had a few 2'foot lengths of rebar lying around (doesn't everyone?), so I bored 3/4" holes through the corners and "persuaded" the rebar through with the help of my trusty mallet. I did the same for the second course. The third course I only bored halfway through so it was a sort of "cap" that would add support and then the rebar wouldn't be visible.

Because I imagined a 400-pound gorrila coming over and wanted to over-engineer the planter bed, I poured extra sand through a funnel down the boreholes around the rebar so it would extra be solid. I also had some galvanized steel (safe for contact with treated lumber) right-angle ties that I used on the top course to further anchor the front side of the planter to the two sides and the back side, so the entire top course is tied together. And just to be safe, I lined the sides of the bottom two courses with plastic so the AC2 chemicals stay away from the soil we put in there.

All said and done, it came together wonderfully. We now have a nice planter bed next to the porch that will be a perfect spot for herbs, veggies and flowers and an occasional butt when we're enjoying the outdoors. Here's how it looked at completion:

And how it looks now with a garden of herbs and lettuce growing in it: