22 December 2012

Budget ridge

The roof is done! After I did about 2/3rds of the shingling, Lemontree tried her hand and then ended up finishing. I was much happier fetching shingles and flinging them onto the roof for her than I was nailing them down myself.

Here I am, putting the ridge on. As you can see, we used "architectural" shingles, to match our house. However, the ridge shingles for architectural roofs come in a box for like $60 and one box contains enough ridge shingles for three chicken coops. Too rich for our blood! Instead, we just got a pack of cheap 3-tabs from the same manufacturer* as our architectural shingles, and in the same color. Then we cut the 3-tabs into thirds, making them 1-tabs, and used those to lay down the ridge. (I dunno if that's kosher for a human dwelling, but the chickens don't seem to mind.)

Both top rows of architectural shingles bend over the peak, and so do both top rows of tar paper underlayment, so even with a "cheap" 3-tab ridge it's gonna be real hard for water to find it's way in through 6 layers.

Even though we only bought 1 pack, we still have a ton of leftover 3-tabs, so there's plenty to re-ridge after 20 years when this ridge fails.

We also got the rest of the sheathing on. Lemontree will cut in a window on this side later.

* The shingle manufacturer, if you're curious, is Owens Corning. We got that kind because that's the kind Lowes carries, and Lowes is the closest place to our house. (We selected Certainteed shingles for our real house, because they seem to be the best and that's what the roofer with the cool German accent uses.) If the Owens Corning turns out to be trash, oh well, it's just a chicken coop. And since the coop was roofed by amateurs anyway, any failures are more likely to be due to the installers rather than the product used.

15 December 2012

Structural rigidity

We took a little break from roofing, because it was becoming obvious the whole thing was a little wobbly. The sheathing -- OSB in this case, but you could use plywood, particle board, whatever -- is what keeps those stud walls from racking or becoming a rhombus. Stud walls are good for holding the roof up, but can't resist sideways forces... such as the ones I set up when I crawl around on the roof. Good thing I don't get seasick.

The coop is now solid as a rock, as any building should be. Above, you can see a cutout for the egg door. Below, you can see the opening for the people door and inside past it, the two tiers of nesting boxes.

Without a ceiling, nasty chicken-eating animals like racoons could climb right up through the attic and down into a smorgasbord of fine dining options. It was all hands on deck to get that installed, the kids helped hold it in place while I zipped screws through it into the truss chords. Good thing we ponied up the extra $2 for 1/4" plywood vs the 3/8" OSB -- the plywood is feather-light in comparison.

12 December 2012

We have shingles

No, not that kind of shingles! This kind:

You can also see the cedar fascia. And if you think the fascia looks suspiciously like 3/4" thick fence pickets that have been ripped down to 5" and the dog ears cut off... you'd be right.

08 December 2012

Corwin, the roofer

Got the chicken house decked, tar papered, and edge-metal'd today. That sounds simple to say, but it took us all day to do that.

First, we used nails to space the sheets of OSB. Should they expand with moisture or temperature (for example, they were installed at 34°F but will see 120°F in in the summer sun), we don't want them to lift or buckle at the edges like the Rocky Mountain range. The OSB was attached with screws around the perimeter (to resist wind uplift) and nails in the field (cheaper, faster, and more fun to drive with a palm nailer. B-b-b-b-blat!)

Next we cut lengths of 15lb tar paper (sometimes called felt paper, for reasons unknown to me) on the ground and tried to get them on the roof without tears (either kind). A random website said to use the fewest fasteners possible, so I just used roofing nails on the corners of each sheet. This critical error revealed itself to us right after we finished the last sheet, when a gust of wind ripped it right back off, leaving little holes in the paper the exact size of the roofing nail heads. Apparently, using the fancy nails with 1" plastic caps isn't just something roofers do for fun. Stupid website. So, off to the store for cap nails, back to replace the torn tar paper, then go crazy sinking plenty of cap nails everywhere. Ugh.

Then it was time for fascia. Actually, we should have done the fascia before trimming the tar paper flush with the decking, because ideally the tar paper should protect the top of the fascia too. Too bad, we're newbies and messed it up. Fortunately, the edge metal will still cover the fascia top so no biggie. No picture of the fascia, we had to rush to beat the clock. Lemontree did a good job figuring out the compound angles to cut all the miters (where the gable fascia meets the eave fascia for example is complicated). Thinking about doing all those angles the right way makes my head hurt.

By this time the sky was getting dark and little snowflakes started to drift by lazily. I wished I could also drift by lazily, but we needed to get the edge metal up before the wind blew more of the tar paper off, cap nails or no cap nails. So we tried to shake feeling back into our frozen fingers and got out the tinsnips. In our house, tinsnips are normally never actually used to cut tin, but instead are used to open items in those stupid bubble packs. Today, though, we cut T-shape drip edge metal for the eaves and L-shape drip edge metal for the rakes (rakes are the edge of the roof over a gable wall). The T-shape eave metal goes under the tar paper, so that any water that gets under the shingles, goes over the tar paper and eave metal to keep it off the fascia. The L-shape rake metal goes over the tar paper, so that wind-driven rain cannot get between the tar paper and the top of the fascia.

So, our roof didn't turn out quite as pretty as Tom Silva does it on This Old House. Despite lots of care measuring and cutting our trusses, the rafter tails somehow still ended up at various heights so the decking looked a little drunk when you looked down the length. We also kinda sorta made the whole coop a bit of a trapezoid rather than a square (my fault) so the north wall is some 7" longer than the south wall... this required the installation of oversize decking, which was then trimmed with a circular saw. Ok so I can't cut straight with a circ saw, they didn't teach that skill in school. So now we have wavy decking edges up and down and side to side. Sigh. They say, though, that the difference between the master and the apprentice, is the master knows how to hide his mistakes. Well, I would never claim to be a master but we pushed and pried things a little straighter when we screwed the fascia on, then covered the remaining uglies with the edge metal. Once the shingles are on, I don't think you'll be able to see any flaws (fingers crossed).

At the end it was totally dark, sorry for no pic. But the roof is "dried in" with tar paper protecting the OSB so the OSB doesn't melt should it rain. Sadly though, we only get maybe 1 hour of light after I get home from work each day, so shingling is likely to take all next week.

I must say I have a newfound respect for homebuilders, and now I understand why houses are so expensive. Doesn't make me feel any better about making mortgage payments though.

01 December 2012

Chicken house

Chicken house is starting to look like a house. I don't think we can really call it a coop, since it's big enough for me to walk around in. At least, if I don't mind whacking my head on the truss chords. Every. Single. Time. Ow.

Here I am trimming the rafter tails with a circ saw in between rain showers. I bought the lumber for the rafters a little long, as we had not yet decided on an overhang size. Lemontree settled on 2', or thereabouts.

Note: Do not attempt to build a house based on what you see here. We've used 2x4s 24" on center, with wooden gusset plates to make longer lengths out of our reclaimed lumber. Of course that is not strong enough for human habitation, but I'm pretty sure it won't blow down in a strong wind, or collapse under a winter snow load. On the other hand, if there's an earthquake, I hope it happens while the chickens are outside.

Here's a little bit of fun. The ladder to the nesting boxes takes up a lot of room, which makes it hard for humans to get in periodically to muck out the... er, muck. So,

it hinges up. (The hinges are also reclaimed from the former hot tub.) Additionally, there is a carefully engineered, cantilevered 2x4 cut at an angle under the landing. It provides solid support for the dead load of the ladder as well as the live load of 7.3 average chickens... just don't let the kids sit on it.

29 November 2012

Plumbing inspection: PASSED!

Well I can finally let out that breath I've been holding in for the last... month. The Boise City Plumbing Code inspector signed off on our total-gut-and-replumb of our supply pipes this afternoon, after a surprisingly brief inspection. My custom recirculating hot water pump configuration didn't even phase him.

So, now I can finally sleep at night without the nightmares of the inspector shaking his head sadly and telling us it all has to come out again. Phew! Good job Certified Amateur Plumber Lemontree!!

10 November 2012

Installing a swamp cooler in the snow

Yep it snowed yesterday and there I was, up on the roof installing a swamp cooler in the middle of November. I was lucky to even get the swamp cooler, actually. Home Depot and Lowes stopped carrying them in their summer seasonal section long before our roof was put on, so I had to order it online and have it drop shipped. And the roof jack (the duct for the air) and leg kits were available from one, just one website on the whole internet after summer was over. Lucky they still had some in stock!

I also had a hard time finding 1/2" pipe jacks. (Those are the things that let pipes stick up through the roof without letting water leak in around the pipe.) Most jacks are designed for plumbing vents and are thus way too huge for a little electrical conduit and an even smaller water pipe. Finally I found "solar" jacks (for installing photovoltaic solar cells, presumably) that were the right size, and they were actually local.

Last night I got the roof jack leveled and the base pan attached, then ran out of daylight (shakes fist at the US Congress for their Daylight "Savings" shenanigans). Then this morning Tiffany and I braved the frosty roof and she helped me assemble the corners and top.

The cooler is currently empty inside. The blower assembly that normally goes in the middle will be stored in the garage this winter -- it's too cold to rig up ropes and things to haul it up onto the roof right now. We'll finish in the spring.

And there it is, up there on the back of the house. Yeah, not the most attractive thing but I think it's better to be up there than stuck on the side of the house where it's right in your face. Traditional A/C condensers are just as ugly, and are also louder than a swamp cooler, so this is actually better in my opinion.

Oh and below is a slightly better shot of the roof now that it's daytime. We finally finished patching siding and painting everything (just one coat in many places, so we'll need a second coat in the spring) too, so the house looks pretty darn presentable now if I do say so myself! I included a "before" shot for comparison:



By the way, on the 19th and 20th of November we get new windows. The window installers are adding green trim (to match the fascia) around the windows, so the appearance will change yet again, shortly.

Also, here's the finished water heater install. Plumbing may not be sexy but I think it turned out pretty well, for a rank newbie.

09 November 2012

The roof is done!

Madison Roofing did a good job on our roof. (Of course they had better, considering what we paid.) We also liked talking with Madison's project manager Hans Weikl, with his cool German accent -- we joke that we chose Madison's bid more for the accent than for the quality of roofing. (We certainly didn't go by price alone, as Madison was not the lowest bidder: a roof is not a place to cheap out.)

There was some debate on shingle color selection, I don't think either Lemontree or I got the color we really wanted but it looks ok. It's actually somewhat close to the old faded cedar shake roof in color. And let me say, I love the high-profile ridgeline. See, most roofs around here have a plain ridge and "mushroom" or "turtle" vents spaced every 3-4 feet near the ridge. Those are stone-age technology, as far as I'm concerned. I did my homework and found that a continuous ridge vent offers superior ventilation with only a slight increase in cost -- and now that we have one on our roof, I have to admit it looks sharp too. Makes for a really nice architectural detail.  Ok, it may not work for all styles of homes but for a ranch with a low-pitch hip roof and Dutch gables like ours... oh, yes.

The only downside now is I have to buy a leaf blower to clean the leaves off the roof so they don't collect and rot (can't sweep asphalt with a broom like you would shakes). Wait, what downside? I love buying new power tools! :)

Sorry, all I have right now is this crummy picture taken in the fast-fading daylight. It doesn't even show the awesome ridgeline very well. :( Click the pic to make it bigger:

07 November 2012

And the Golden Crimpers Award goes to...

And the Golden Crimpers Award goes to... Lemontree!! (The Golden Pipe Wrench just isn't appropriate in this day and age of modern plumbing materials, as the Pex crimpers are now a plumber's primary weapon.)

So, Monday we started cutting out our old plumbing and hooking up the new. By Monday night we were tired and dirty and had no water for showers, because we had a nagging leak at the well pressure tank. It started out as a small leak in one location, so I tightened the threaded pipe a little, which started a new leak somewhere else. Tightened that, and the leak got worse. That's odd, I thought, and tightened it a bit more... leaks even faster. Uh-oh. Yep, I cracked the complicated cast iron manifold that has a bunch of ports in it for the well pressure switch and pressure gauge and relief valve and things. No showers for us!

Concurrent with all this, we had also decommissioned the old water heater and had a licensed plumber move the exhaust flue/chimney to the garage for the new water heater. Scheduling was almost a disaster, because the plumber showed up late just as the roofers were leaving for the day. Fortunately, the roofing foreman and the plumber were able to put their heads together and come up with a plan for moving the water heater chimney that both parties agreed with. Poor plumbers were there until like 9pm... but they got the job done. They also tore out the old gas piping that ran along the back patio. It was ugly, rusty, and in violation of code (it had too little clearance from grade, and it had NO hangers for support -- it was just resting on a couple of wood blocks. Worse, it went across the threshold for the back door, so you'd step on the unsupported pipe if you weren't careful). (The new gas pipe runs in the garage attic, protected from weather and neatly out of sight.)

So -- next day, Lemontree buys a new manifold to replace one I cracked. I tried to transfer the old relief valve to the new, but it snapped off because the threads were welded into the old fitting. Hil-freakin-arious. So off Lemontree goes to get a new relief valve too.

That finally installed, the original leak at the well tank came back. Being careful not to crack any more fittings this time, I tighten... and tighten... and tighten it until I run out of strength on my biggest pipe wrench. Still leaks. We think rust flakes and sand (which the old well tank was apparently half full of) contaminated the threaded connection, so no amount of cleaning with a toothbrush could ever remove all the grit from the joint. So, off to Lowe's for a new pressure tank. $250 later we had a leak-free connection and could finally wash our dirty hands and hair and flush the toilets. You know, I used to hate showering in that nasty 70's puke-green bathtub with 41 years of hard water stains... but last night it seemed like the lap of luxury

So, the long and short of it was, Lemontree's dozens of crimped Pex connections has shown no leaks so far, while it was my ham-fisted recklessness that caused all our headaches. So Lemontree deserves the award.

I also discovered that copper compression fittings have to be ridiculously tight. At each of our stub-outs for the two bathroom sinks, kitchen sink, and toilets, we used shutoff valves ("stops") that use a compression connection to the copper stub. (Should a stop malfunction, this will make them easier to replace than if they were soldered on.) I thought I had installed them all pretty tight, but 6 out of the 9* seeped water out the joints. It took several rounds of tightening with my biggest crescent wrench until they made groaning noises and finally stopped leaking. So, too tight and you crack cast iron fittings, too loose and copper fittings leak. Sheesh, I can't win.

As an aside, it seems we needed a new well pressure tank anyway. The well pump used to short-cycle twice for a single toilet flush, probably because the old tank was clogged with sand at the bottom -- becoming effectively a 0-gallon tank instead of a 30-gallon. This is our first house with a well, so we had assumed such behavior was normal. Apparently, it's not! Now, we can get several flushes without the pump cycling, so pump should last longer now. I also upgraded the system with an added tank-shutoff-valve (so we can service the plumbing in the future without draining the tank and wasting 30 gallons of water) and an added union on the pump pressure switch so it can be removed without disconnecting the 240-volt wiring. I don't know why it was installed in the first place without a shutoff and a union, but then, there are a lot of things about this house like that.

By the way, I'm pretty sure the old water heater is also full of sand, because it too used to short cycle. And the day we moved in, we tried to flush it, but never got more than a trickle out of the bottom. So that's gonna be fun to drain and get it out of the house. Rest assured we will be regularly flushing the new water heater to prevent a recurrence, although I'm hoping the sand issue only occurred because previous owners ran the well dry by watering the lawn with well water (at least, that's what our neighbors tell us). Since we won't be doing that, I'm hoping the sand will not be as bad from now on.

In other news, our old roof has been torn off and new decking and tar paper laid down as of Tuesday evening. Our attic smells nice now -- all that new OSB smells like perfume. Today the roofers start shingling.

* 9 stops: 2 toilets, two each for 2 bathroom sinks, and 3 for under the kitchen sink -- code requires the dishwasher have a dedicated stop.

02 November 2012

Corwin, the plumber

To be fair, Lemontree spent a lot more hours (worming around in the nasty dirt in the crawlspace, no less), but I'm the one writing this so I get to choose the title.

After finding that plumbers want money in the amount rivaling a college education before they will replumb a house, we decided to treat ourselves with the pleasure of doing it ourselves. Lemontree used PEX in the crawlspace and I did copper anywhere the piping is exposed to the living space. I achieved a 90% success rate soldering, which means I ended up trashing a few fittings but even with re-buying a few mutilated fittings we still came out way ahead.

The experience did reaffirm to me that I MUCH prefer machining metal over joining it though. Soldering (and brazing, and welding) seems to be more of an art than a science... and I guess I'm not an artist.

Anyhoo, the complex arrangement you see in the pic is for the recirculating hot water pump. There is a check valve to ensure hot water drawn at taps comes only from the water heater hot line, and not from the recirc return line (which would result in lukewarm instead of hot water). And there is a faucet to bleed air from the line (since the pump would burn out if it tried pump air).

The pump itself will not be at the water heater; by placing it in the laundry room -- closer to the furthest fixture from the water heater -- our thermostatic pump will be more energy efficient. If it were at the water heater, it would have to pull hot water all the way through 70' of return line before sensing the hot water and turning off. By putting it as far away from the water heater as possible, it only has to pull hot water through about 12' of return before it shuts down. It's not so much the electricity we're saving (the pump only uses 11W, less than a compact fluorescent light bulb), it's the 58' of water we want to avoid heating and re-heating all day long.

16 October 2012

Less like camping

You never realize how nice it is to wake up to a warm house, until you've woken up to a 60°F house every morning for three weeks straight. Actually, that's not so bad -- it's the temperature delta stepping out of the 110°F shower that really wakes you up.

Our new furnace is finally in. It's so shiny!

...especially compared to the old rusting junk bucket that had puked condensate all over itself.

You may have noticed it's also a magic furnace because the gas is not hooked up to it. Actually, the new gas line still has to be inspected so the furnace is running off the old line temporarily. We should switch to the new gas line next week when the roofers come and move the water heater chimney from the old water heater (in the house) to the new water heater (in the garage) that will run off the new gas line. Yes, it's complicated.

06 October 2012

Knight rider

We're building a new chicken coop for Lemontree's hens, and we don't like getting up at the crack of dawn to go let them out of the coop every morning (if they're not locked up, literally with a padlock, racoons eat them). So, I'm making an automatic door.

If you're read this blog you may recall I've made other electronic devices like DRL/stop/turnsignal integrators for motorcycles and such. However this time we wanted more sophistication. Think about it -- a timer based solution will only open the door at the right time twice a year, because sunrise and sunset times (what chickens work off of) change every day. A light sensor could work, except our chickens like to wake up about 1/2 hour before dawn and go to bed about an hour after sunset.  Besides, a light sensor could be fooled by a cloudy day, full moon, or neighbor's motion lamp.

So how to we make a door open half an hour before sunrise, and close an hour after sunset no matter what? Well there's a mathematical equation to figure the sunrise/sunset times exactly, so we just have to calculate it every day. That requires... a computer.

Putting a computer in a chicken coop is silly (well, I guess the hens could Tweet using Twitter when they want out, but they have a hard time using a mouse without opposable thumbs). No, this is why microcontrollers were invented.

A microcontroller is about as powerful as state-of-the-art PCs in the early 80s. The one I selected, the Atmel Atmega328p, can run up to 20MHz. It's only got 2K (as in, 2,048 BYTES) of RAM, though, and 32K of program storage. The good news is, a chicken coop door program takes maybe 11K of program storage and maybe a few dozen bytes of RAM, so it's perfect. In fact I'll even be running it at a slower 8MHz to save power, which still takes only a fraction of a second to calculate sunrise/sunset times.

The kind folks at Arduino have written some nice developer software for the Atmega chips, so I don't have to learn a bunch of arcane incantations. In fact, I wrote a whole program last night. This isn't the chicken coop door program, it's just something I was playing around with. It uses a "shift register" chip -- it has 8 outputs, so you send it a series of bits (1s and 0s) and it sends them to it's 8 output pins in sequence.

Here's the program:

#include "SPI.h"

int dtime = 60;
byte direction = 0;

void setup() {               

void loop() {

  if (direction == 0) {
    dtime = dtime -10;
    if (dtime < 1) {
      direction = 1;
  else {
    dtime = dtime + 10;
      if (dtime > 59) {
      direction = 0;

If you look at the position of the "1"s in the above SPI.Transfers, you can guess that I've just made a Knight Rider (or Battlestar Galactica Cylon) back-and-forth animation. If that's what you guessed, you're right! I also decided to make it speed up and slow down, just for fun.


(Those of you reading by email may have to go to the website to view it.)

We have serious Project Overload on the new house right now, we have a plumber coming Monday, the roofers coming in a week or two, gutters after that, furnace end of October (yes it's already cold and we're freezing), Windows mid-November, and we're in the process of painting right now. We also put up a bunch of new siding yesterday, and I got to use my new pneumatic palm nailer (those are a blast). New chicken coop and automatic door have to fit into the schedule somewhere. So, more on the door later.

11 August 2012

Oh, I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK

We haven't been updating this blog because we've been busy moving. We bought a foreclosure on one acre.

Among the other delights one finds in a foreclosed-upon house, we got a lovely letter from the wonderful people at our homeowners insurance company. It was their pleasure to inform us that they were cancelling our insurance due to a number of concerns, one of which was a tree touching the "detached garage" (our future automobile shop + wood shop + metal shop + craft room).

We had actually planned to remove the tree anyway (either someone with brain damage planted it 12 inches from the shop wall, or some imbecile failed to cut down a volunteer at the time when it would have taken 10 seconds with a lopping shear), but this moved up our timetable a bit.



Putting aside the looming threat of doom (losing insurance and thus losing the mortgage and thus losing the house), it was actually kind of fun. You know, the raw edge of danger knowing that the growling beast in your hands will just as happily zap your legs off as it will cut down trees made of solid wood, flavored with the standard male urge for destruction. And, of course, the hearty shouts of "timber!" interspersed with Tim Allen grunts and the whistling of Monty Python sketch songs.

14 March 2012

Invent Idaho

It all started as part of a class assignment. Everybody in Jessica's 3rd-4th grade class had to make an invention to enter into the school's Invent Idaho competition. Though the children did some work on their invention journals in class, the bulk of the work was to be done at home under parent supervision. Now, don't get me wrong, I love to see my children create. I love for them to work on things at home. I just either want it to be stuff they can do by themselves or stuff I want to teach them. I am under the firm belief that if the children are doing a school project, the parts they bring home should be the parts they don't need adult help with. I want to teach my kids independence, and to me, a big part of that is allowing them to do things alone. I have a big problem with school projects that require a hovering parent. So, I wasn't too thrilled that for some reason, I was expected to help my daughter with her school project.

Jessica's idea was to build a device to clean chicken poop from the backyard. She calls it the Chicken Poo Be Gone. It is a spray nozzle attached to a scoop shovel. I encouraged her to work on it alone, and to her credit, she did a great deal, outlining the idea process in her Invention Journal, making a display board, and finally, making a model. The only thing I really helped with was building the actual working model. We went to the store to buy parts-- Walmart for a child size snow shovel and Home Depot for the spray nozzle parts. For the competition, all the parts had to add up to less than $20. Jessica really tried to put everything together. I encouraged her to try each part of building it. She tried to cut the snow shovel shorter, but wasn't strong enough, so I did it, and moved the handle down, and cut the pipe. She put plumber's tape on all the threads and glued the pipe together. Together, we built the Chicken Poo Be Gone.

Jessica won an award at the school competition, so that qualified her to go to the Regional Competition where she won second place in the category of working models 3rd&4th grades. Winning that award qualified her to enter the state competition. Jessica and I caught a ride with some of her classmates and traveled the 6 hour drive to beautiful Moscow, Idaho. Don't you just love the rolling hills?

Here she is posing in front of her display just after she set it up.

We walked around the campus at the University of Idaho, visiting the arboretum, and admiring the architecture and landscaping.

Saturday was the competition. Jessica stood by her invention and was interviewed first by a local newspaperman, then Senator John Goedde, and finally the MC of the event, a local radio-show host (sorry, I didn't catch the names of the media guys). Her she is being interviewed on mic:

One final picture. Jessica didn't win anything at the state competition, but it was fun just being part of the event. Also, maybe I shouldn't be so reticent to help my kids with projects, it did turn out to be an experience.

28 February 2012

Turning things on my metal lathe

Here's a little video of me making some mirror extenders for my motorcycle. It's sped up 3X to keep it interesting.