07 December, 2010

Great-Grandma's little house

Somehow during the Great Depression, my grandparents managed to come up with enough money to buy a property in Ashtabula County, Ohio near Pymatuning Lake, so that my great-grandparents would have a place to retire to in their golden years.  The house was a post-and-beam cottage, originally built in the 1860’s and then moved to the lot around 1910.  The place was tiny, with only 480 square feet on two floors.  My siblings, cousins, and I loved to spend our summer days out there visiting Great-Grandma in the little house near the lake.
In the mid-1960’s, as my grandparents approached their retirement, the family helped add another 240 square feet onto the front of the original structure, for a grand total of 720 square feet.  Gramp and Gram lived there happily for 20-odd years after they retired.  Most people today would consider a 720 square foot house far too small for them, but some folks are changing their minds about what their needs require and how they impact the world with their “carbon footprint.”  Smaller housing means lower utility costs to heat and illuminate and less money to maintain.
With my children gone, I myself am living alone in a 1400 square foot house with my critters (and mortgage).  While I still have some time before I’m ready to retire, I’m trying to consider my options for finding a smaller place that will be easier for me to maintain and less costly as I age.  I’m hoping I can find a lot in Ashtabula County where I can build (or rebuild) a one-story place, about 500-800 square feet in size and with an outbuilding for a workshop.
When I searching the web for house plans last year, I happened upon the website for Jay Shafer and his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company (http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/).  Jay has been building and living in tiny homes since 1997, and he eventually started a business to sell them.  According to his site, he currently lives in an 89 square foot house.  (That’s 10 square feet smaller than my kitchen, and I certainly can’t imagine my two 100-pound dogs bumping around in there, too.)  He holds workshops to train others to build their own homes – there’s even a fifteen year-old Sonoma County (CA) boy building one to use as his housing for college.  Some of the homes are mounted on trailer frames (65-140 square feet) and can be moved whenever the need or desire arises. These homes range in price anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 if professionally built, and about $15,000 if you build it yourself.  Other plans are available for houses, ranging in size from 250-to-837 square feet that are mounted on a stationary foundation.
Another site that I find interesting is the Texas Tiny House (http://www.tinytexashouses.com/). The houses shown on the site are styled to look like 100-plus years old structures.  The site says that 99% of the materials the builder uses are salvaged from old structures and then re-used to build these small houses in Texas.  As their tagline says: “Building the future with the past.”
Both Texas Tiny House and Tumbleweed stress “off-grid” living – using composting toilets, propane or wood stoves for heating, and solar panels for both heating and lighting.  They also talk about collecting rainwater for gardening or flushing toilets.  While I’ve long been interested in alternative sources for energy and heating, I’m still not quite sure I could give up the luxury of a flush toilet in my residence.  Not that I’m being a wimp about it.  When my companion Mary and I visit our hiking club’s cabin in New York, we use an outhouse – even though it gets a bit malodorous in the summer and really cold in the winter. 
So I hope to someday have my own 'tiny house,' a structure that is sufficient for simple day-to-day living, as well as an occasional social gathering.  As my family lovingly remembers Great-Grandma’s little house in Williamsfield, maybe someday my great-grandchildren will fondly remember their Granddad’s little rustic place in the country.

29 October, 2010

Civic Duty

I have this childhood memory (mid-1950's) of my grandparents’ neighbor, a retired minister whom everyone called ‘Pastor’.  He would come out everyday but Sunday--weather permitting; sweep the sidewalk, the storm sewer grates and pick up litter in the street.  I remember asking my grandmother why he would do that and her reply was that he did it as a civic duty, that it was just the Pastor’s way of keeping the neighborhood nice.  I know I didn’t quite grasp the concept of civic duty at age six, but I took her word for it.

When I purchased a house on the near west side of Cleveland in 1980, our neighbor across the street wasn’t necessarily a church-going kind of guy.  But, Lenny reminded me of the Pastor in the way he would clean the area in front of his property every couple of days with a hose and pushbroom.  I started calling him "the Dutch wife" for the way he scrubbed the front of his house.  One day, after mowing my lawn, I went over to talk to him about what he was doing.  Lenny said it was his way of keeping an eye on the neighborhood kids and keeping his property value up.  Ahh!  An ulterior motive-- preservation of his investment in his house!  From then on, I would join him in cleaning my side of the street whenever I saw him out there.

Another childhood memory was a fire at a relatives’ house and the firemen had to chop the snow and ice with their axes in order to get to the hydrant.  Snowplows clearing the streets a few days before had packed the snow around the hydrant.  With the freezing temperatures in the days that followed, the snow acquired a rock-like density.  Clearing the snow took several minutes, delayed putting out the fire and the house was a total loss.  Had the hydrant been clear when the firemen arrived, I think they could have saved much more of the house.

My current home in Cleveland Heights is at the low end of our street and has both a fire hydrant and a storm sewer grate out front.  During a heavy rain, water will collect in the street and flood the tree lawns if the grates are blocked with leaves or litter.  So there’s more an ulterior motive than some sense of civic duty that I make sure the sewer grate is kept clean. It’s to keep my yard from being flooded.  During the winter months, I keep the hydrants at home and at my office cleared.  The thought of losing the house because the hydrant is blocked is enough motivation for me and it only takes a minute-or-two to do the job. 

So, if you have either sewer grate, a hydrant or both on your property, get out there and spend a little time cleaning them up.  The property you save from damage may be your own.  Besides, I’d like to think Lenny and the Pastor would be proud of us.

28 September, 2010

Call before you dig!

Over 20 years ago, an acquaintance of mine was digging a trench with a backhoe in the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland--when he struck a natural gas line alongside a building.  He miraculously survived the resulting explosion that flipped his machine over backwards, but suffered some second and third degree burns.  The pipeline he hit was an uncharted line run out to a out-building on the same lot.  About ten years later, while trenching for an electrical job, I hit a buried gas pipe to a garage that had been disconnected.  But it made me really think about what happened to my acquaintance.  So the lesson to me here is that all buried utilities work done on a property should have a permit (with a map) registered with the city building department. 
The reason for mapping and permits is to ensure that the work is done to code.  It is an official record of where the utilities are on the property and at what depth.  Don’t believe for a moment that the utilities are buried too deep for you to hit.  Over the years since when a house was built; erosion, landscaping, grading or excavating may have changed the depth at which the utilities lie.  A friend recently found while digging in her front flower beds that her gas line was only six inches under the soil surface. 
Many states have organization to protect the public and utility companies from accidents that can cause disaster.  Formed in the 1970’s, the Ohio Utilities Protection Service (O.U.P.S., yes you can say “OOPS!”) is a nonprofit that serves as a link for utility companies to contractors and residents planning any digging. Though O.U.P.S. does not physically mark lines, they do convey digging and excavation requests to the member network of utilities and underground facility owners. This network includes, but not limited to: TV cable, gas, electrical, water, sewer and phone companies.
In most of my hometown--Cleveland Heights, the buried utilities (gas, water, sewer) enter the front of the property (from the street) and the overhead utilities (electric, phone, cable) enter from the rear.  But that does not hold true for all properties in the city.  A corner property for example, may have some or all the buried utilities coming in from the side of the lot.  Some newer neighborhoods have all of the utilities buried.  It’s quite possible that your neighborhood has a sewer to the rear of the lots as a portion of my street does.
Hey, call before you dig!  An Ohio law says everyone MUST contact O.U.P.S., at least 48 hours but no more than 10 working days (excluding weekends and legal holidays) before beginning any digging or excavation work.  The web address is www.oups.org and the phone number is 1-800-362-2764 or you can just dial 8-1-1. This regulation also applies to smaller or personal projects to include but not limited to digging fencepost holes, anchoring supports for decks and swing sets, planting trees, removing tree roots and driving landscaping or electrical grounding stakes into the ground. For folks outside of Ohio, call your local building department or 'google' the phrase; your state plus "utility protectection service" to find your area service
When you call, the staff person will give a reference number for the job.  Keep this number with your property records so that you can refer to it at a later date as necessary.  It is proof that you made contact with O.U.P.S. and it’s the only way they can look up a past job ticket. 
You will need to indicate the area where you intend to dig. Usually this is done by using white spray paint or white flags to mark the area to be excavated.  Be sure to ask what procedures they want you to follow as things do change over time.  So next time I see my yellow lab digging in the yard, I’ll guess I’ll have to ask him if he has his O.U.P.S. ticket to start the job.
The O.U.P.S. logo and name are trademarks of the Ohio Utilities Protection Service.

10 August, 2010

Gutter works

I’ve been spending some time this summer with folks that have gutter problems. The past winter was a banner season in Northeast Ohio for ice dams. As a result, a lot of gutters were bent or damaged, and sometimes the entire fascia board and gutter system came down.

Most gutters in our area were installed using spikes (long nails) and ferrules (hollow tubes spanning the width of the gutter, through which the spikes pass). The spikes are generally spaced approximately 3 to 4 feet apart and are nailed into a fascia board that is only ¾” thick. (Many gutters are still being installed using spikes.) The problem with spikes is that they often back out of the fascia board, allowing the gutter to pull away from the house. So, with a heavy snowfall, the gutter may pull off the house entirely.

Using a hidden hanger system helps avoid this problem. The hangers hook under the front lip of the gutter and slip over the back gutter wall (see illustration). They are installed using screws that go into the wood 1-1/2 inches. Because the screw is driven home using a ¼” nut driver on a cordless drill, the gutter is also spared the hammer damage that can occur from driving in a spike. Screwing a hidden hanger into each rafter tail (generally 16” on center) will ensure that the gutter can resist the weight of water, snow and ice.

Gutter problems can also occur when rafter tails (ends) rot out. When that happens, the fascia board that is nailed to it is no longer held securely in place. The remedy is to “sister” a new piece of wood alongside the original rafter, so that the fascia board can be attached to sound wood at each and every rafter tail. The fascia board itself also needs to be solid. If you have to replace a rotted fascia board, prime all sides of the board before you install it. It’s best that you screw the new board in place, rather than nail it, to minimize pull-away.

Look at the size of your downspouts, too. The usual 2 x 3-inch rectangular downspout is sufficient to carry water from your gutter to the storm sewers. However, if one downspout must transport a large amount of water or if it carries water from an area where several roof sections come together, consider installing 3 x 4-inch downspout. It will double the capacity for water to flow towards the storm sewer. This size downspout may not be available at a retail store, so you may need to go to a specialty shop to find it.

If you have to replace the entire gutter as a “do-self” project, I would suggest that you stay away from the gutters found in most retail stores. The aluminum gutter sections available there are only .024 gauge (thinner than most seamless gutters), and are sold only in ten-foot lengths. That means you will have more laps or joints with the potential to develop leaks. Nor should you use plastic gutters; these units simply do not do well with UV light and our wonderful Northeast Ohio winters.

Heavier-gauge gutters, as well as gutters in longer lengths, are available in specialty shops. These shops generally have equipment that rolls out as much gutter as you need. So, if you need a 26-foot length, they can make it. The hard part is transporting it home. In most shops .027 gauge is common; however, if you can find .032 gauge, it will withstand ice or ladder damage better.

The pitch (slope) of the gutter only needs to be 1/8” per foot to give a good flow to the downspout. You can tape a ¼” spacer taped onto one end of a two-foot level to give you the right amount of pitch towards the downspout. Then, be sure to caulk all the joints in the gutter to prevent leakage.

Finally, make sure that all the water carried by your gutters can flow freely away from your house. Check for leaves and other debris that may have clogged your downspouts, and snake any storm sewers blocked by roots that have grown into the pipes under the ground.

So, while the weather’s still nice this fall, check out your gutter system. You can prevent a lot of problems later this winter by making sure your gutters and downspouts are in good condition. People don’t believe me when I tell them, “98% of the time, the cause of a wet basement is a leaky gutter system.”