Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Throneroom

This was one of the reasons I dreaded even thinking of remodeling. Bathrooms involve plumbing, and plumbing involves checking for leaks, as I described last time. My father taught me how to do it, and I would really enjoy it if I did not have such a negative memory about it. Just before I got married, my father had me plumb the house he was building. It was in December of 1976. I got it all done, so there were no leaks when I turned the water on. Very pleased with myself, I went home, forgetting one very important item: To turn off the water.
It got down to 20 degrees that night. As you ought to know, water freezes at 32. Of course, we were not heating the house at that time, and, you guessed it, the pipes froze, and broke in several places. When I came back the next morning, there were leaks everywhere. Some of them took months, possibly even years to find.

When I went to work on the downstairs bathroom, there had been a slow leak down there for probably half the time we had been in the house (fourteen years) The sheetrock was wet underneath the vanity, and along the whole wall, and it was black from mildew. When I touched it, it fell off the wall. Why had I not done anything about it? Because it was downstairs, out of sight. The kids might have complained a little, maybe even a lot, but until then, it fell on deaf ears.

So, when I went down there to assess the situation, I was shocked. I didn't dare to accusingly ask the kids why they hadn't said more, for fear they had and I just hadn't been listening. Mumbling unpleasantries under my breath, I yanked out the sheetrock, which makes such a huge mess, and then turned off the spigots under the sink, and ripped it out. It was a tiny little vanity that was really not big enough for full sized people. Then, with a vengeance, I came up to the shower. It was tiny, two feet by twenty inches, not really big enough for an adult. Since the bathroom was four feet wide, I couldn't see why the builders had installed such a tiny shower. I made the assumption it was to accommodate pipes that must have been behind the wall where the shower could have been.

It was a one piece, prefabricated shower stall unit, (but I don't know where they found it, unless there was a manufacturing plant in Bangladesh, where they make people really thin) and I had to destroy it to get it out of there. Since I didn't have, and never would have a place to put it anyway, I indulged myself with the youthful pleasure of destroying something, and hammered it to bits, carefully hammering when I got to the inside parts, not wanting to harm the nest of plumbing I would find in the wall.

But to my surprise, there was nothing in the wall, other than the copper piping which serviced that shower. The space between the wall and the prefab unit was empty. I had to think about it a while before I realized why.

The shower was an afterthought. Since this was in the basement, when they built the house, they had not been planning on finishing it. At some point, they had decided they would finish it, but they ended their project with the bathroom. At that point, all the doors were framed, and all the sheetrock was in place. The only shower stall that could fit through all the doors and around all the corners was the starvation unit they used.

I had bought an American Standard shower tub that happened to fit the bathroom perfectly, and which the designer of the house had in mind when he or she drew up the dimensions. I had to shim it in a few places, and had to cut back the firring on the outside wall (remember, this was a basement) but Murphy's law taken into consideration, it went in smoothly. Then I put Hardy Backer (cement board) on the walls, then tiled the whole thing with twelve inch tile. This particular tile cost about $1.15 per tile at Home Depot, in a very nice color. I made the joints tight, and I extended the tile a foot beyond the shower. After it was grouted and cleaned up, it looked really good. We bought a shower door at Lowe's, and it operated smoothly, better than any shower door I'd ever had dealings with. By the time I was finished, my attitude about the shower had completely transformed. I wanted to take my showers downstairs. Only the knowledge that it wouldn't be terribly long before the upstairs was just as nice kept me from doing it.

There was nothing wrong with the toilet, except it was in an unacceptable bathroom, so I replaced it. The new one was an American Standard, using less water per flush, and it was more comfortable than the old one had been. I replaced the needed sheetrock, then put in a toilet topper cabinet for toilet paper, reading material, Game Boys or whatever else people need for entertainment while they're multi-tasking on the wall above the toilet. It looked nice too.
Then I turned my attention to the vanity. It had sat in a space wide enough to accommodate a four foot sink, but we decided on something else. Since this was the bathroom the kids would ordinarily use, we thought it might be nice if we put in two vanities, with a dressing mirror. The plumbing was a little tricky, but I accomplished it. Both sinks worked perfectly. We ordered a special 16 inch countertop to go between the two vanities, and I installed a little bit of tile over the countertop. A girl could sit on the stool, look in the mirror and do her makeup, hair, or whatever else she does that takes a half hour. I put in a large mirrored cabinet on the other wall, so girls sitting on the little stool could see the backs of their heads, just to make sure everything was all right.

Of course, I didn't think of any of this. When I say 'we' in the above paragraph, I really mean 'my wife.' I only said 'we' because even though it was her idea, I had to put it in.

But this does bring up an important point. If you ever decide to build a house or remodel, don't presume you can do it without any outside input. When you are working on areas of the house where your spouse spends more time than you do, (and for most men the only place they might spend more time is one specific place in the bathroom, or the garage) let your spouse give you input about her desires. Some of them may not be possible, but most of them will be, if you allow yourself a little imagination. It's true. And the nicest thing is, when you get done, you'll have a wife that is really happy, and she'll tell you multiple times. And you can get some good mileage out of that.

The last thing we changed in the bathroom was the flooring. When we moved into the house, there was carpet on all the bathroom floors. I don't know everyone that lived in the house before we did, but I can see only three possibilities. Either the bathroom floors stunk all the time, no men lived in the house, or they had been trained to go sitting down. There isn't a man alive, from whatever age he learns to do it outside the diaper through youth and middle age, up through dotage, who hits a dead ringer every time, without dribbles, in spite of the ample target. Not only that, toilets flood sometimes, and showers or baths splash out on the carpet. Who in their right mind carpets a bathroom? Either an idiot or a terrible optimist.

Needless to say, I had taken the carpet out soon after we arrived. Underneath it, I found, to my great surprise-- linoleum. Perfectly acceptable linoleum. I think there was a fad in the eighties, somehow created by the carpet lobby, for carpeted bathrooms.

So we bought a nice piece of linoleum that matched the tile in the shower and installed it. We bought a type that is weighted to sit where it is placed without glue. It cost about seven dollars a square foot, but once it was in place, it looked great. More than anything else we had done, it transformed the bathroom. From being a place where we never allowed guests to go, it became the first room we showed off. I had torn out walls, replaced sheetrock, replumbed three fixtures, tiled and linoleumed, placed vanities and other cabinets, redone the baseboard, rehung a couple doors that had holes where kids had kicked them when their siblings had barricaded themselves in the bathroom, redone the door trim, textured the ceiling (after I had patched it with a two by three foot piece of sheetrock) where a large hole had developed from a leak in the upstairs bathroom, (I fixed the leak, of course) and just for good measure, changed the light fixtures.
It was a new room, and especially compared to what it had been, it looked spectacular. I might have grumbled when I started it, but I was very happy when I was finished. And, it may be just my fancy, but it seemed like my kids stayed cleaner. I'm positive the backs of my daughters' heads were in better order.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Laundry Room

Even though I worked on this project off and on throughout the duration of the remodel, I will chronicle it now because I had to address it immediately after we finished the kitchen. As I mentioned before, we had trouble with quite a bit of calcium build up in the water. This was most flagrantly obvious in the dishwasher.

It was a problem area from the beginning of our sojourn in the house. The first dishwasher came with the place, and had a problem with one of the plastic runners that allowed the bottom tray to slide in and out. In their always unenthusiastic and sometimes violent usage of the dishwasher, our children forced the tray open, which bent the track, causing the bottom heating element into the plastic bottom of the body of the dishwasher, melting it clean through. At that point, any time we decided to use the dishwasher, we were also deciding to flood the kitchen and wash the edges of the carpets on either side. So we got a new dishwasher, a Kitchen Aid, with the steel tub. It worked great—until it got literally clogged up with white sludge. It was the built up calcium from our water.

There had been a water softener when we first moved into the house, and it worked, but it started leaking, and it overflowed a couple of times, so I took it out, telling my wife in all my denial that the water wasn't that hard. Rather than leave the connections there, I cut them out and soldered solid pipe in its place, thinking that any joint would be a place where calcium would have a chance to accumulate. We went without water softening for eleven years, and I shudder to think of the struggles our water had to make through the gauntlet of built up sludge to find its way into our sinks, hoses, toilets, tubs and showers.

A brand new, modern kitchen needs to have a dishwasher, and now I knew that in order for a dishwasher to last more than a year in our place with water so hard it puts diamonds to shame, I knew I had to put in a water softener. And that meant major plumbing revision. All of that kind of plumbing was in the laundry room.

It was my least favorite room in the house for several reasons. It had a cement floor that looked like the concrete had been finished after it had already set, which means it had humps and valleys all across it. The dryer, which vents outside, was not set against the outside wall, because the washer hookups were. During the course of massive laundry loads (we raised a large, laundry intensive family in the house), the dryer vent had become disengaged from the dryer, and the dryer had spewed its very moist, lint filled exhaust into the room, which resulted in moldy, peeling, hideous sheetrock.

I fixed the dryer vent several times, but only half-heartedly. When I got really serious, I invested about 20 dollars in a secure hose and large hose clamps, and it worked perfectly, but the (lint) cows were already out of the barn by then.

So before I did anything else down there, except replumb for the well, I put a white Masonite siding over the peeling sheetrock. It didn't look all that great when I was done, but it looked about forty times better, allowing me to go in and do the rest of the work I needed to do.

Swallowing all my uneasiness (it takes courage to cut main plumbing lines. In the process of soldering everything together, it becomes exceedingly difficult to assure that there are no leaks anywhere. The only way to find them is to turn the water back on, and if there happens to be a large leak, the ceiling, floor, walls, windows (and maybe even neighbor’s house if the windows are open) get watered. Turning off the water, emptying the pipes (soldering will not take if there is any water in the system) is exceedingly tedious, especially when it is necessary, and it always is, to heat the leaky joint, pull the pipes apart, sand down all the solder, apply the flux and try again) I cut open the main line and got to work. I had to put in a filter which sits in the line ahead of the water softener, eliminating sand, clay, small fish (just kidding about the fish) and other larger sludge. We bought a General Electric Filter, which needs to be changed every three months or so, but makes a huge difference. It hangs in the main water line, happily doing it's job, with a blue light that will flash and an annoying beep that will sound when it needs to be changed.

Next, with huge ambition, I soldered together a system that would allow me to divert the water around the softener if I wanted. It required 22 soldering joints, and it took me an entire precious Saturday to put in. I would have been proud of it, except it leaked in three places, one of which I couldn't locate. Eventually, I took it out. It cut the water pressure down because it shunted the water through half inch pipe when it had been using three quarter inch. I almost cried when I saw my masterpiece sitting on the back porch waiting for recycle, with its loose ends, like a mutant octopus, jutting out randomly in all directions.

And as it turned out, my efforts to put in a shunting system were foolish. The softener itself had one built into it. We picked ours up at Home Depot for about three hundred fifty dollars. It was quite nifty, because everything happened in a single unit, which I put next to the water heater. But the way I did it, the thing opened against the wall, and the salt (all softeners I know of need salt to recharge the system) could not be conveniently poured in. Naturally, (it may not seem natural to you but unfortunately it is to me) I had put it in backwards.

I had to turn off the water, drain the system and redo twelve solder joints to do it. It worked just fine in its backwards state, but it wasn't satisfactory, and I knew it. Usually my wife is the one that tells me it just isn't going to work the way it is, but in this case, I figured it out for myself.

And, I have to admit, it was worth it. The system worked perfectly and he MLB (massive lime buildup) ceased.

The water heater was next. I had replaced four of them in our fourteen years because the sludge that built up on the heating units (because we didn't have a water softener) caused them to burn out. Eventually my wife found heating units that had a different configuration, designed not to build up, and they had worked great for about eight years, but the tank was filling up with lime and because of the septic tank backing up (that's a problem we fixed later) the bottom was rotting away. So I bought heater number five, the privileged one, that was going to have all the fresh water that entered it filtered and softened. As I installed it, I felt kind of bad that its predecessors had been so deprived. (Kind of like the younger children getting stuff you couldn't afford when the older kids were little)

Compared to what I'd already done, the water heater was a snap. I didn't have to do any rerouting or soldering for it. Mainly, I drained the old one, (turned off the power) undid the wiring, unscrewed two pipes, the inlet and the outlet, hollered for my boys to help me move it out, then while they were there, had them help me move the new one in, screwed in the inlet and outlet pipes, attached the wiring, turned on the power and the water and voila! There it was, working perfectly, leak free. (I have to mention the leak free part because it is quite unusual)

The laundry room was essentially done, but I had one more thing I wanted to do, aside from the painting, window blinds, curtains, light fixtures, shelving, and other minor details my wife insisted on, that I didn't want to do. It needed a large tub with a big drain to wash out muddy boots, ice chest, kitchen wastebaskets and other jobs to large and gross for the kitchen sink or a bathtub. I had considered putting one in before but thought it too hard, but after what I'd just been through, it was a breeze. I tapped into the drain for the washer, and atttached the pipes without too much difficulty. Then I put Y connectors on the washing machine hookups and attached rubber pipes to both for my hot and cold water. The tub was great, and very handy, and it really bugs me that for thirteen and a half years, my wife didn't have it. If I had just tried a little harder to be creative, our boots would have been a lot cleaner.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Kitchen

So, for a few months, we lived as we had, enjoying our new well, keeping our 3 and 5 gallon water bottles filled with our own water, cooled to perfection on the water cooler. (I strongly recommend getting one if you don't already. It gave me a much better attitude about drinking water, which we all need to do more. We got ours for less than a hundred bucks)

But it was just a temporary break from inconvenience and we knew it. We knew we were going to move, and we also knew we had to sell our house. That meant transforming it from eye caca to eye candy. More or less prioritizing areas of needed work, we began with the kitchen.

There were several areas of concern. First of all, it was cramped. It seemed two people couldn't work there simultaneously without bumping into each other. Second, the cabinets were old and torn up. Made chiefly of pasteboard, they were designed to endure only gentle hands, not the hands of children so desperate to play on swings, they were willing to use cabinet doors as substitutes. A few of the doors were totally missing, and many others were held together only negligibly, by screws in stripped particle board. Third, the dishwasher was non-functional, filled almost to the brim with lime sludge, caused by years of hard water use. (The water from the new well was no less hard than the old had been) Fourth, the floor was old, scarred linoleum, needing replacement. Fifth, the stove and other appliances were barely hanging on. Sixth, the ceiling had been lowered, increasing the claustrophobia to almost panic level. Finally, the room was too dark.

The only good news was, my son was wiling to come and help us. He is a skilled finish carpenter, and had good experience with some of the other needed tasks as well. His assistance (mentoring would actually be a more accurate term) in the kitchen set a precedence of excellence for the remainder of the house. It also gave me confidence I could do the rest. (In all truth, before I was finished, I came close to cursing the standard he set. Maybe I'll go into a little more detail later)

He started by ripping out the ceiling. On December 15, I came home from work, and there was rubble lying all over the place in a lightless kitchen, (the lights had come out when he took out the lowering suspension) but I could immediately feel a lessening of the claustrophobia. With some enthusiasm, mitigated by the fact that I would have to crawl into the cold, itchy insulation-filled attic to run the wires, we opened the boxes of the three new four foot florescent lights. (It turned out one of them was a different style from the other two and had to be replaced later)

With only minimal grumbling, I donned my warm coveralls and climbed into the attic. I nailed in a switch box where I attached, with red wire nuts, the individual wires of each light to the switch wire, and fed the light wire through holes drilled in the sheetrock. With little difficulty, I came down, we screwed in the light fixtures, attached the wires of each one, (white to white, black to black, wound the ground wire around the green screw, tightened it, installed the bulbs, flipped the switch, and voila! We had a brilliant bank of lights, illuminating the rubble.

I think doing the lighting first was a good idea. Every project seems more cheerful, more possible, if it's well lit. It also allows for more attention to appearance details during the rest of the project.

It was really fun after that. Every day, I'd come home from work to find more work accomplished. The day after the lighting, I found the cabinets gone, leaving only more rubble (if you plan on redoing any part of your house, you will have to count on lots of it) but lots more space. The cabinets had defined the borders of the kitchen, separating it from the family room. Now there was one big room with no cabinets except the one holding the sink, which we took out as soon as I turned off the water. (With all his cleverness, my son never figured out how to do anything having to do with plumbing. He left that entirely to me) For several days, we had to do without a kitchen sink and a stove, but we had a microwave and a hot plate, and we could always get water from the bathtub.

The same night, we took out the linoleum. My son decided it would be easier to do the floor all at once, rather than do it in pieces. Then we cut and placed backer board, a concrete pasteboard designed to make the floor more solid, and screwed it down with electric drills.

For the next two days, I learned how to do tile, mostly by watching my sons. We used a grey ceramic tile speckled with a rust color (to match the dirt outside) which we found at Home Depot, costing about two dollars a square foot, that we could have cut with a scoring blade alone, but my son had borrowed a tiling saw from his brother-in-law, so we used it instead. We had to hook it up to water, which cooled it while we cut, making a glorious mess, but doing a fairly good job. He had my other son measure and cut while he called out measurements. This worked very well. We mixed thin set mortar mix, specifically designed for tile, using a stirring blade attached to our electric drill, spread it out, placed the tile and wiped off excess mortar. It went quickly, which is always gratifying. I found out later it is more efficient to apply the mortar to the back of each tile individually, but either way works fine. We let the floor dry for a day, then mixed the grout and applied it with a trowel, then sponging off the excess. After we let it dry another day, we rolled a liquid sealer over it three or four times to keep it waterproof.

The floor looked magnificent, but the grout between the joints ended up being a different color than what we planned. It looked almost pinkish, but it ended up matching quite well. I would advise anyone that cares about the color of your grout (I don't because I'm a minimalist like I said in the beginning, and once it's applied I love it, and I don't think about colors ahead of time, but my wife does) to mix a little before you actually apply it, mix it, let it dry and see how you like the color. Experiment with different amounts of water when you mix, because that affects the final color.

Grout comes in all sorts of hues, so you can drive yourself crazy finding the right one. I, of course, choose to stay sane and be happy with whatever I apply. For any women who might be reading this, I strongly recommend you don't let your husband pick out the grout, if he's going to be the one installing the tile. Don't believe him, even if he has a good eye for color and you don't. He'll pick the first color he sees and defend it to the death. If you need to, find a girlfriend with a good eye for color matching, (or even one who claims to have a good eye for color matching and can argue her point assertively) to take your side.

Tile looks great, but it has some disadvantages. It's cold on the feet for one thing. You can fix this by planning way ahead, usually before you build your house, and placing heating coils on the subfloor, then installing the flooring over it. (This is a delightful, if not costly and labor intensive task, but it does make for quite luxurious living). Also, though it seems silly to point it out, tile is very hard and brittle. If you drop something on your floor that's weaker than the tile (glass jars come to mind), it'll break. If you drop something that's stronger than the tile, like a wrench or hammer or something, the tile will break. It's a never ending job replacing tiles and trying to match grout (of course, I don't care about the latter, but of course my better half does) if you're a little bit of a butter fingers, which my wife and I both are, and if I had to do it over again, I would get a high grade linoleum, or find rubber tile.

The cabinets came next. My son installed them, and did a beautiful job. Later on, I did a few, and found out my son had used a level liberally, along with screws, clamps, glue, and shims, because, especially in an older house, you cannot assume the floor is level. We (that means my wife and an insensitive lout that wanted to take the first thing we came to) picked them out at Lowe's because they were the only ones who had unfinished cabinets, which are cheaper, and allow the installers to choose their own finish. We elected not to have hanging cabinets, which cut down on our overall cabinet space, but was worth it, because it kept the kitchen open, and gave the illusion of much more spaciousness.

After the cabinets, my son installed granite tile for the countertops. We got this at Home Depot, who had it in stock, for five dollars a square. The granite tiles are grey, about half an inch thick, and have to be cut with the tile saw rather than the scorer. They are strong and very attractive. We grouted with a dark brown grout, which we sealed five or six times, that brought out the color of the floor tile and grout. (You can tell my wife is coaching me here) When we were finished, even I could tell the overall effect was very good.

I strongly recommend granite counter tile. The only thing that's better, in my opinion, is if you buy a single formed granite countertop all in one piece, which is a lot more expensive (forty-five dollars a square foot is a good buy) but even more attractive. (and that's saying a lot) Granite is strong, it's totally heat resistant so you can put hot things directly out of the oven or off the stove on the counter without a hot pad, and it cleans up beautifully. If you've sealed it well, and made the grout joints flush with the tile, they don't collect dirt. Again, to any woman, if you get it, I promise your friends will be jealous.

My son left holes in the cabinets for the sink, dishwasher and stove, as well as a space for the refrigerator. It didn't take much to push the refrigerator and stove into place (the stove is electric) and plug them in. The sink (we bought it at Lowe's) slipped in place without trouble, and I silicon caulked it like crazy. Some have told me I was somewhat of a spendthrift in my caulk usage (meaning I used way too much of it) but I do not claim to be a professional caulker, and do not aspire very much to that position, so like it or lump it. I bought our faucet at our local Ace Hardware, which is a little more expensive than Home Depot or Lowe's but has every thing under the sun, with much less walking. It is simple to install, but is very elegant. I got the type where the sprayer is built in to the main faucet, and pulls out conveniently.

Our dishwasher was the last thing I put in. We bought a Whirlpool in the mid price range, moderately quiet with some nice features. It also went in very easily, needing only two connections (water supply and drain) to make it functional.

I knew when I put in all our plumbing things, that they would last a year or so regardless of the softness of our water. But I also knew it wouldn't be honest of me to doom all of our plumbing to early failure by not putting in a water softener. So, when I put the dishwasher in, though my lazy part wanted to tell me that was all I was going to do, deep down I recognized I would have to put in a softener, which was going to require major plumbing changes. I'll tell about it next time. See ya.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Well

When we first moved in to the house, the realtor poured Clorox down the well. I didn’t know how he did it, because the well was sealed off on the top, in a snug little well house, loaded with straw and fiberglass insulation. Later I found there was a well in the barn, between ten and fifteen feet deep, with an open hole, covered only by a empty plastic milk jug. In the thirteen years we’d lived there, naturally, the jug had gotten jostled off, and since we’d used the barn for hay and firewood, the shallow well was liberally sprinkled with hay, wood chips and whatever was on our feet. Considering that we kept dogs, cows, horses, cats and goats at one time or another, what might have fallen down the hole can only be imagined, but it is not surprising that within six months after moving in to our home, our water smelled like rotten eggs.

When the pump finally gave out, it had been giving us trouble off and on for about six weeks. Thankfully, it limped along, working about half of the time until we had successfully hosted the wedding reception of our daughter. It had been the hottest day of the year, and even at seven o’clock, when the reception started, it was still 103 degrees. We sweltered through three hours of smiling and posing and inventing conversation, the whole while having a working bathroom for the visitors. At ten o’clock, when the final lingering guests were driving away, as if on cue, the pump shut off for good.

For two or three days, we fetched water from the irrigation ditch to flush the toilets, and found alternate places to take showers. We had been drinking bottled water for years, so that wasn’t a problem. We had about thirty gallons on hand that we’d filled up at Walmart for 33 cents a gallon. Just for fun, we brought a delightful little fellow who had a very good reputation as a douser (water witcher, but I don’t like the term) to our home to tell us where we could dig to find sweet, potable water. He designated a place where we could dig 45 feet to find thirty gallons a minute, which is quite spectacular. At the time, we were just planning on pulling out the old pump and either fixing it or putting in a new one, but when I tried to pull the pump, I found it was far deeper in the ground (175 feet) than I thought. (15 feet)

At that point we decided to spend five to six thousand dollars to dig a new well, as opposed to 1500 to have the pump pulled and replaced. I called everyone I could think of, and they were all booked for weeks. Finally I told one of them I was going to try to get it done myself. He laughed and said, "good luck."

His laugh was infuriating. He had all the power, and I had none, and meanwhile, I was drinking bottled water, showering at work, and flushing the toilet with ditch water. My wife and children, who didn’t have access to my workplace shower, had it a little rougher, and when friends started offering their bathrooms and hot water, we didn’t know whether they were hinting that there was a problem or just being kind.

I didn’t decide to dig a well immediately. I brought it up to one of my friends the next day.

"What do you know about digging a well?" I asked.

"I’m around the rigs (oil field, rife in our area) all the time. I know quite a bit," he answered, an eager (and dangerous, though I didn’t recognize it) light in his eye. "When do you want to start?"

"Today," I said, feeling the same excitement that showed in his face.

"Okay," he answered. "See if you can find some three and a half inch drilling pipe."

And so we began. I got the pipe from a friend who delivers stuff like that and had a few pieces of it lying around. We attached the three 30 foot pieces together with a chain, and with great effort, and the combined strengths of me, my friend and my three sons, we were able to lift the pipes up (each section weighs about 250 lbs) and make a tripod, designed to hold our drill or hammer or whatever we were able to rig up. It also made a large eyesore for cars passing by and neighbors to see.

But that was not all bad. My neighbor, once he learned what we were doing said, "Why didn’t you tell me?" An hour later, he and his son came with a section of ABS pipe which they had run up from his place. They connected it into our pump system, and voila! we had water again.
That was an exceedingly kind thing for him to do. I took very quick showers while it was in place, and the habit has stuck since then. (If you ever meet me, and you notice an unpleasant odor hanging faintly about me, you’ll know why)

My friend found a power drill used for drilling post holes. We placed a carbide tipped bit on the end, suspended it from our tripod, hung about 150 lbs of weight from it to give us a little extra advantage, put some guide poles up (all these things were fastened together by means of an arc welder which my friend had brought over. I didn’t know how to weld, but I’ve learned a lot since then. If you ever want something welded, and call me, I’ll get it done, but I won’t guarantee anything to be pretty)

The post hole drill worked great– down to five and a half feet, when two things happened. First of all, we hit ground water, and we hit cobble rock. The water we expected, and the cobble rock– well, we actually knew about that too, but I applied some of my magical thinking, and wished it away. (It didn’t go very far. In fact, I don’t think my wishing moved it more than an inch or so deeper)

For three days, we ran the drill. I tried climbing up and standing on the assembly, hoping my added weight would help it bite through the cobble. No luck. At that point, my friend said, "well, we’ll have to rig a hammer and pound that rock to bits."

It wasn’t a bad idea, and eventually we might have been successful in breaking through the first, or second or third or maybe even the fourth rock, as we wended our way downward, but at that point, his work got really busy, and he became unavailable. I was about ready to throw in the towel and have the professional come out, but I brought the subject up to another friend the next day. His eyes lit up the same as the first friend. "I know just the thing," he said. "We’ll attach the drill to the PTO of my tractor, (the PTO is a shaft that protrudes out the back end of the tractor. It spins when the engine is running, and turns the brush hog, haybaler or whatever attachment the farmer wants to use) and then lift the back wheels of the tractor. That’ll put 1300 lbs of pressure on the drill."

I got excited again. "Can you come over today?" I asked.

We had to do some more welding, but after a week or so, (it took a little while to line up our schedules) we were ready. I had caved in some of the hole, because I had tried to make it big enough for me to hand dig, so it was about four feet deep. The new device dug down like crazy– about one and a half feet. Then it stopped and spun just like the other drill.

This friend also had a few ideas to solve the problem, but I had had enough. I sensed that my neighbor was tired of shipping half his water to us, and it was late summer. We could have our first frost any time, and the ABS pipe, above ground as it was, would freeze.
Just to make certain, we called the douser again. He came over, basically said there was water in the same spot, but this time it was 65 feet down. That didn’t worry me too much, because he said he was weakest about determining depth.

A week later, the drill truck was there. It was a giant, jutting up like a skyscraper in our rural area, making our tripod setup look like tinker toys in comparison. They were willing to drill right where where the douser told us. I watched them start, and then I went in to the house to get a drink of water, confident I would come out and find them stuck at five and a half. To my surprise, however, when I came out, no more than ten minutes later, there was water spurting out of the drilling rig.

"Is that the ground water?" I shouted. (The rig makes a lot of noise)

The driller shook his head. "We hit ten gallon a minute at fifteen feet," he said. "Is this good enough?"

I pondered a moment. While I was thinking it over, I noticed water coming out the top of the old well head. I pointed to it. "What’s that?" I said.

"This is the same water you were pulling from your first well," the driller said.

I held out my hand in front of the stream. Then I smelled it. Sulphur.

"We gotta go deeper," I said.

"This might be all you get," the driller countered.

"No, we’ll find water further down," I said. "I’m sure of it."

Well, I was right, but not for another 260 feet. It only took them two days to do it, after the days and days of us sweating at five and a half. After Rick installed the well casing, the pump, the wiring and the pipe which brought the water from the bottom of the hole to the surface, I attached the pipe from the well to the house myself, and got it going inside.

What came out was cold, sweet, lovely water, and worth every penny of the $12,000 we ended up paying for it. I learned a lot, and now consider myself a semi expert on well drilling. You can just ask me.

I had two questions that came up while we were doing (or rather having done) the project. First of all, why was the original well 175 feet deep, when the aquifer it was using was only 15 feet down? The answer, I believe is that the original drillers found the first water, but wanted to go deeper because deeper water is more stable in drought years and less subject to contamination. When they got to 175 feet, (it costs 18 dollars a foot to dig) they ran out of money, so they put the pump down in the hole, pumping out water that was draining down from 15 feet. The barn well was in the same aquifer, so all the stuff we kicked in as we walked in and out of there, contaminated what went to our house. (I shudder now as I think about drinking that stuff when it smelled bad. For all I know, I was drinking the neighbor dog’s business in our barn)

My second question is, was the douser, or any douser for that matter, right? Certainly he was wrong about the depth, but we did find wonderful water right where he told us to dig. So I don’t know the answer to that. You’ll have to make that decision yourself, if you ever decide to dig a well.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Beginning our project

DIY Doctor

It wasn’t exactly my idea to fix up the house. I’m a man, and therefore a minimalist. We knew we were going to move, and we knew the prices of land and property had inflated in the thirteen years we had lived in our home. So it was my plan to sell it in the piece of junk state it was in. We’d reared a passel of kids there, and the broken windows, cramped kitchen, holes in walls, hammered cabinets, stained carpets, dingy linoleum, peeling paint, garage door it took Hercules, or at least a Herculean effort to open, bathroom doorways so small my wife and I could not pass each other in the door frame at the same time, heaters that had not worked since we lived there, a woodstove downstairs that smoked so badly we had only used it once, an upstairs woodstove that worked admirably well, but was set in front of a wall of thick, hideous lava rock that shrunk the room by six inches and made it seem like a cave, a master bedroom that fit a king size bed but little else, light switches, bathroom fan, holey doors, (note the spelling, which means “doors with large holes” caused by child who had just slugged sibling and fled to bedroom, locking the door, with sibling close behind, wearing fire-hardened leather boots and enough anger to kick with sufficient force to overcome the integrity of the Masonite and glue bedroom door) and our weed farm outside, were just going to be part of the package we sold, hoping someone was desperate enough to buy it “as is.” (Do you realize that was a 209 word sentence?)
My wife had other ideas. “Look at the Granger’s [name changed so I don’t have to ask their permission to use it] house,” she said. They’ve been trying to sell it for a year, and it’s not as junky as ours.”
“Right, but–” It’s not that I didn’t say any more, it’s just that what I said was irrelevant. Mostly when I protest my wife’s arguments, it’s irrelevant. I know it and she certainly knows it, but I still do it.
“So, shall we take out the staircase and move it somewhere? It kind of disrupts the hallway downstairs.” When I make up my mind to do something, I tend to get grandiose.
With great indulgence, Velinda entertained the idea with me. Two days later, we had a feasible plan, although we didn’t explain what we would do for a staircase while the new one was under construction. I expended a lot of effort convincing Velinda that it was doable, and even more converting her to the idea.
In the end, it was I that abandoned the plan, just after Velinda became convinced. I curse myself now for my foolishness in bringing it up, because once she has something in her mind, I have to act like a spoiled child, screaming (I never quite fell to the level of pounding my fists on the floor) “I don’t care what you say! I’m just not going to do it!”
It works, but for those of you who understand the delicate balance of give and take in a marriage, you might see how it would decrease my good boy points down to negative two hundred or so. For those of you who don’t understand the balance, I will tell you: those points are not easy to retrieve.
So we began. I was in penance, which essentially rendered me helpless. Therefore, (and from there on out) Velinda told me what to do. “We’ll start with the kitchen.”
But before I go there, I have to tell you about our major preliminary project and expense. Six months before we began our rebuilding, our well failed. It had been acting up for several weeks before it actually went, with wide varying of pressure, including frequent periods of nothing. In the process of trying to diagnose it, I asked the opinion of many experts, and replaced the check valve, the pressure switch, the pressure tank and all the fittings, from the inlet coupling to the emergency shut off valve.
At risk of becoming too technical, and talking over my head, I’ll try to explain my rationale. A deep water well, (ours went down 175 feet) usually has a submergible pump that permanently operates down in the hole, twenty to fifty feet from the bottom. Wires from the main electrical switch box, on a 220 volt circuit, go down to the pump, which runs continuously unless someone or something turns it off. This is generally not desirable, because the pump unchecked will run the pressures up to 100 pounds per square inch, depending on the pump. This usually is too strong for an ordinary house’s plumbing fixtures, which like pressures no greater than 50 psi. 100 psi will cause leaks to spring out everywhere. As a rule, that’s bad. If someone took a shower in a stream of water under that pressure, he or she might be able to bore a hole in their back. Generally, that’s not good.
Enter the pressure switch. This is wired to the pump, and has a sensor that can be set to the pressure desired in the house. When the pressure is around 40 to 50 psi, the pressure switch kicks off the pump, and only allows it to turn back on when the pressure falls below 35, depending on the setting. If the pressure switch goes out, either the house will have the full pressure capacity of the pump, or none at all. Most definitely, none at all is not desirable.
The check valve allows the water to flow in only one direction: away from the pump. It keeps the water pressure built up in the house from flowing backward into the pump. (Later I discovered that the inside check valve is unnecessary, but I’ll get to that later)
The pressure tank sits either in the pump house or in the home, depending on the exit point of the water pipe from the well. More on that later too. It holds between 30 and 50 gallons usually, and maintains the water pressure evenly. It has a bladder inside it that maintains pressure even when the pump is off. It serves as a buffer between the pump and the house, and provides a store of emergency water in cases (hopefully rare) when the electricity goes out and the pump doesn’t run.
None of my interventions did a lick of good. A week after I replaced the pressure switch and the pressure tank my pump quit working– for good. Experts told me the pump had “sanded up” or burnt out, neither of which was good. I needed either to have my pump “blown out” or replaced, incurring a cost of between 2000 and 3000 dollars, depending on the problem. (a pump that only needed cleaning, or a pump that needed replacing)
At this point, Velinda and I made our first rash decision. Our water had been tasting like rotten eggs for some time, almost our entire time in the house, so we weren’t terribly keen about reestablishing a stinky water supply. We decided to spend two or three times more than the cost of installing a new pump, and dig a new well.
I’ll tell about it in a little while. My hands are tired right now, especially my forefingers. Stay tuned.