Monday, March 7, 2016

The Big Pedagogy

The fifth of January dawned cold, dark and threatening, and by the time I saw Wifey off to work, the rain began to come down gently. I scurried back into the house, confident I was ready for the serious downpour that was coming. The roofs were all clear, and the gutters all clean.

I spent the whole morning upstairs bringing order to the inchoate mass of last year's financial records, dreary work for a dreary day. Soon enough, the storm hit full stride, and though it was only of middling intensity compared to what these skies are capable of, it didn't let up until after one o'clock, at which time I went downstairs to fix lunch.

I looked out the kitchen door at the backyard, and was startled to see this:

I'd expected to see some flooding, because the turnout at the top of the driveway has always backed up in anything more than a light rain ever since the driveway was built. My surprise was at the extent of the flooding. This was easily twice as bad as I had ever seen it. I was afraid that if the skies really opened up, the water would back up into the garage.

Before I ran out and started filling sandbags, I checked Weather Underground, and saw only very light rain forecast for the rest of the storm. So I went on with lunch as previously scheduled.

As I ate, I thought back over the history of the turnout. It came into being in December 2004 with the completion of the driveway. This was just in time for the winter of 2004-05. As it happens, this was the wettest one on record here in Pasadena. Don’t take my word for it, you could look it up.

We weren't living here then, but I remember it well because at that time I spent most of my waking hours here working. I remember that our contractor's foreman—let’s call him “Rudy”—was very concerned that the turnout area would flood in a storm. He said it was because he'd noticed that patch of ground was especially slow-draining.

I took his word for it without much thought, because at the time I was very busy preparing the upstairs bathroom for the installation of the fixtures, which Rudy was pressuring me to get done, like, yesterday. Funny thing about that: for all the prodding he gave me, it took him a few months to get those fixtures in after I finished my work there.

Rudy cut a small drainage notch in the curbing at the bottom of the turnout, and even went so far as to dig a big trench leading from that notch over to a low spot of the yard as a temporary measure. He told me that eventually I would have to install a catch basin near the notch and tie it into the drainage system to take care of the problem long-term.

The turnout area did back up in heavy rain that winter, but so did every low spot in the yard, and the water would sink into the ground a few hours after the rain stopped. Of course, a lot of water did flow down Rudy’s trench, which gave the excess water a much greater area in which to sink into the ground, but I didn't give that much thought. 

January 10, 2005: Rudy's trench, part 1. . . 
. . .and part 2. 

We were in the house by the next winter, which I seem to recall was about average rain-wise, although my memories of that winter are pretty sketchy because I was sick in bed for most of it. The entire backyard might have been under water at some point that winter, for all I knew.

After that, we went into an extended dry period, capped by an epic four-year drought. During the spring and summer of 2006, I found the trench cutting across the yard to be a hazard to navigation, so I filled it in halfway; subsequent erosion and my leveling of the ground under the gazebo all but obliterated it.

The long succession of dry winters effectively removed the drainage problem as an active concern, and I found myself able to ignore it completely as I focused upon the exterior restoration work. The turnout still backed up in the rain, and I noticed that as the years progressed the backup became larger and slower to recede, but this was never more than a minor nuisance until now.

I did have to dig out the well around the persimmon several times through the years as erosion filled it up, and over time this erosion reached all the way to the curb, creating a new escape route for the turnout overflow directly into the tree well. This did not entirely replace the drainage provided by Rudy’s trench, but it certainly helped.

After I finished lunch, I continued to chew on these recollections as I finished putting our records into tidy piles and filing them away. I came to the conclusion that the backup was so much worse because it hadn't rained that hard for that long for at least a decade, and there was now no trench to carry the water away.

During the next 24 hours or so, it rained lightly and intermittently, and by the time the rain stopped for good, the tree well had drained completely, but the turnout was still quite flooded. The following 24 hours brought little improvement.

That completely baffled me. True, the drainage notch was clogged with dirt and debris, but even after I cleaned it out only a tiny trickle came through it, and at any rate the water should have sunk into the ground in that amount of time.

I dug a narrow trench from the notch over to the low spot, and blew the water down it with my big electric blower, leaving me with this:

It's not visible here, but there is still standing water in all the low spots. The turnout was so saturated that as soon as I blew the water out of a low spot, water would flow in from the surrounding area to fill it again. I decided to wait to investigate matters until it had dried out some.

In the meantime, I turned to the Internet to learn all I could about drainage. I knew something about the subject, but apparently not enough. I read about the importance of proper grading, and the various methods of moving water safely away from flood-prone areas.

I had a lot of time for study, because the turnout took eight days to dry enough to work with it, and it really didn't do much drying out until the sun came out at last on the seventh day and did its thing. Clearly, there was no downward movement of water in that area. It was as if there were a layer of concrete underneath it.

I did pick up a few clues during this time. I noticed that the wet area of the turnout was a darker color than the rest of the driveway. At first I thought that was due to its being wetter than the rest of the driveway, but the dogs were finding great fun in splashing through our little swamp, and I saw that at the bottom of the fresh divots made by their paws I could see the contrasting orangeish-tan color of decomposed granite. I recall now that these paw-divots had no water standing in them, which is what made them stand out from the surrounding muck.

At that point it finally dawned on me that the wet area of the turnout had a layer of dirt over it. That meant that water had all along been running into the turnout from the surrounding soil. Then I remembered that the backup had seemed to get larger and take longer to dry as time passed. That was enough evidence for me to conclude that the layer of dirt was what was causing the severe downward drainage problem in the turnout.

But how could the very dirt that allowed the passage of water right next to the turnout block it in the turnout? Here was a real mystery. After some heavy cogitating in the Lounge over a few pipefuls of black Cavendish, I concluded that the soil on the turnout must be mostly silt.

Loungers lounging in the Lounge.

Silt is the part of soil that is of the smallest particle size, and is thus the lightest; it stood to reason that it would move far more readily than the rest of the soil. Packed silt can be very resistant to water movement. I thus figured that the soil on the turnout was primarily silt.

I went out and looked at the grading of the soil around the turnout. There was a big rise, about six inches, at the bottom of the turnout that had been necessary at the time the driveway was built because there was a big liquidambar tree in that area that stood at that level.

December 2, 2004, completion day for the driveway.

Sadly, the tree died about five years ago of old age. We sure miss that tree. It was beautiful, and it gave us fall color all winter. In the South they call this kind of tree a sweet gum, and they grow like weeds, but here it was exotic and special.

Anyway, there is no further need for the rise.

The rise along the side of the turnout was not apparent to my eye. I had to put down some stakes and stretch a level line across the area and sight across that before the rise became evident. It crested at about two inches beyond the bottom of the turnout before it sank down into a low area that was the vestigial remains of Rudy’s old trench. The rise lessened toward the top of the turnout before it plunged down below level where the soil had eroded into the tree well.

With this information in hand, I had my plan of action: I would correct the soil grading around the turnout so that water flowed off of it instead of onto it, and remove the layer of silt. This would reduce the amount of water entering the turnout, restore the natural downward drainage, and prevent the re-formation of the silt layer. I hoped this would buy me the time I needed to finish the exterior restoration before taking any active measures such as installing that catch basin.

Next came triage. I decided to do the work in this order: remove the rise along the side, then remove the silt layer, then work on the large rise. I also resolved to build a proper well for the persimmon tree this coming summer, when I don’t have to worry about rain complicating the work.

I saved the large rise for last because it was the most complicated procedure, involving the most planning and work. I couldn’t simply remove all that dirt and establish a downward slope away from the turnout, because that would clash with the necessity of having the soil slope downward away from the house, and it would also require my removing the two nearby benches covered with potted plants and then having to re-level them when I put them back in place.

Oh, and I’d have to remove my new feeder pole, empty my new hole, dig it deeper to reflect the new grade level, and replace the pole. I didn’t expect to have nearly enough time before the next storm to get all that work completed, so I put that problem off until the end to give me time to come up with some sort of temporary fix that would prevent water from flowing onto the turnout from that area.

I put the removal of the silt layer from the turnout second because I had the romantic idea that if it were bone-dry, the silt layer would crack and come off like a hard candy shell. And so I started with the smaller rise.

Any soil work at the Farm House is likely to be difficult. It's not the kind of soil you can safely dig right into with a shovel or a spade, because it is hard clay shot full of rocks of varying size. You really have to loosen it up with a pick or mattock first, lest you dislocate your shoulder when your shovel hits a boulder.

The only effective way to establish a new grade in this soil is to dig up the area, screen it to remove all the rocks and the accumulated debris of 130 years, put the screened soil back down, rake and drag it out to the new grade, wet it, and roll it out with a heavy lawn roller. Then, over the following several weeks you have to keep raking it smooth, wetting it and letting it bake in the sun until it sets up.

A piece of buried treasure from the Farm House soil.

I wasn’t going to be doing all that anytime soon. I didn’t have the time, and I didn’t have the weather. It's a summertime job, because until the soil sets up any rain would oversaturate it and turn the path between the house and garage into a treacherous swamp. This would have been a worse problem than the one I was trying to correct.

Because of this, I had to try to loosen only the soil that I needed to remove, being careful to keep the remaining soil as undisturbed as possible. This would have been tricky enough without the many rocks embedded just below the surface. I tried a few different ways to get the job done, but I ended up having to chip the dirt away by chopping at it with a soil scraper. This is a tool with a triangular forged steel blade mounted on the end of a stick with a D-handle at the top.

I loosened the soil in a small area about a half-inch down in this way, which I then dragged into a pile with a hoe and scooped up with a spade. If I encountered a stone, I loosened it carefully with my big iron digger bar and removed it by hand. It was slow, tiring work, but it got easier as I developed the technique. The stones got larger and more plentiful as I moved towards the house, so I ended up having to disturb the soil there more than I liked.

When I was done, I had established a reasonably even slope going downwards from the house to the garage and just slightly downwards from the turnout to the low area across the yard. It wasn’t as much slope as the situation called for, but I wanted to see what happened in the next storm before I did more; there was a chance erosion would increase any slope I put in, and it was far easier to increase the slope later than to decrease it.

Next came the removal of the silt layer from the turnout. As I said, I expected this to be a quick job, but when I began to chip away at it with the scraper, I discovered that the silt layer was even harder than the soil. I took my soil tamper, an 8-inch square piece of heavy cast iron mounted on a stout wood pole, and pounded the silt layer with it in an attempt to loosen it and start to break it up. This had absolutely no effect.

It was really quite imaginative, my envisioning the silt layer’s coming off easily. It must have been the Italian in me. As I mentioned in my last post, "decomposed" granite (“DG”) is in fact crushed granite; it settles so firmly because its individual particles are quite jagged, and tend to interlock firmly when compacted. This same quality naturally caused it to become quite firmly interlocked with the much smaller particles of silt and clay in the dirt above it, once the dirt had dried.

I realized that to get the silt off, I would have to get it wet. I had wanted to avoid this, because when this stuff is wet it becomes quite slippery, and I was afraid that if I worked it when wet it would mix readily with the decomposed granite below it, thus making it necessary to remove a lot of the DG to get rid of all the silt.

That was when I remembered a procedure I had learned in the Doll House days, at our Culver City home, during the time when I first heard the ancestral call of the family green thumb. The soil there is black adobe, which is even harder than the soil here at the Farm House. The adobe, when it was completely dry, was extremely resistant to wetting; I would pour water on it, and the water would just bead up and sit on top as if the soil were tar.

I soon discovered that the only good way to get that soil to take water was to wet it evenly with water in which I had put a little dish detergent, sprinkled gently from a watering can. The detergent lowered the surface tension of the water, defeating its tendency to bead, and it would sink right into the adobe. After this treatment, the soil would then take water readily.

It occurred to me that I might use this same method to soften the silt enough to remove it without getting the DG wet. I filled up the watering can, mixed in a little Joy, and wet a six-foot square area evenly. As I had hoped, the water sunk right in. I waited a few minutes, then started scraping. An eighth of an inch of silt came off, and the rest was still completely dry. I filled the can with hot water this time, and put in a whole ounce of detergent. More or less the same result. Next time I used the same mixture but put down twice as much water, with only slightly better results.

I kept increasing the amount of detergent-spiked water and applying increasing amounts of elbow-grease, and I did manage to get down to the DG, working dry once I got down close to it. It took me several days to work my way stubbornly about a third of the way up the turnout until I finally admitted to myself that what I was doing obviously wasn't working well enough. I needed something that would break up the silt so the water would penetrate further.

I ditched the scraper and got out the dethatching rake, which has very thin, narrowly-spaced semi-circular tines. It's designed to pull thatch out of lawns, but its tines can be pivoted so that they act as tiny little soil-tillers. I didn't use it in leveling the rise because it's too aggressive, but that's just what I needed here.

It wasn't aggressive enough. It just slid back and forth on top of the silt. And with that, I tossed out the cautious, incremental approach. I could no longer afford it. By this time, another big storm had begun to loom in the forecast, and I had to start working more quickly. I realized that I'd have to get this silt good and muddy, and then just scrape it off the DG as carefully as I could. So I flooded the area with water from the hose and started raking vigorously.

After a bit of muddy drama, the water and silt suddenly resolved themselves into crumbly, dark, slightly moist soil, sitting on top of almost completely dry DG.

I had flooded that area, but some unseen force had kept all that water from moving out of the silt layer into the area directly below it—a force stronger than gravity.

Sounds like the Italian kicking up in me again, I know, but that was precisely what was happening. That, or some sort of ancient curse.

I swept all the soil up and got down on my knees for a closer look. Here's what I saw:

I said to myself, "IT BAFFLES SCIENCE!!" I could see that the moistened areas were where I had physically broken into the DG layer slightly; the bone-dry areas seemed to be right at the interface between the two areas. The interface between the two areas. . . .

A voice within me replied contemptuously, "No. No, it doesn't. It doesn't baffle science. It only baffles you."

It was another callback to the Doll House days, when I really had gotten in touch with my inner Oliver Wendell Douglas, when I lived for nurturing young growing things, when my workbench was usually covered with hundreds of tiny little pots full of little seedlings illuminated by grow lights on pulleys so I could adjust their height to account for growth. Back then, everything that I planted in our garden I had raised from seed.

Except for the roses. I tried, but I didn't have the skill to grow roses from seed. Roses I grew either bare-root or from pots. One thing that I learned early on about planting roses in that adobe was that you couldn't just dig a hole and plop the plant in.

Sure, you could do everything to ensure that the soil in the planting hole was perfectly blended, full of good things and well-drained; but once the roots had grown to the extent of that hole and hit that solid adobe, the roots would stop. Moreover, whatever water you put on the plant would stop at the extent of the hole. It was as if you'd planted the rose in a pot in the ground, a pot with no drainage holes.

When I first observed this situation, I consulted my gardening books and learned that this was called texture interface. As they explained it, when you put two types of soil with significantly different textures next to each other, a barrier to water passage occurs where the two soils meet.

I learned that to avoid this situation, you had to dig a hole much larger than the plant needed, and fill the excess with a 50/50 mixture of your prepared soil and the unamended soil from the hole in order to provide a more gradual transition between the two soils.

I was baffled by texture interface, and the gardening books really didn’t help much. They told me what it was and how to avoid it, but they gave no explanation of the science involved. I assumed it had something to do with fluid mechanics, but in what way I had no idea. I just figured that water was very skeptical of change.

What had been happening in the turnout was undeniably texture interface. As it turned out, the dirt on top of it was not all silt, but I'd say it was about 60% silt, and most of the rest was clay. So the dirt was extremely fine-textured, and DG is 100% sand, uniformly coarse-textured, and the result--well, the DG might as well have been concrete.

Here is a perfect illustration of the difference between rote learning and experiential learning, between learning by reading and learning by doing. Previously, I knew of texture interface because I had read about it and seen its effects indirectly, but I didn't really know what it was until I saw it happening with my own eyes.

Not that I'm knocking rote learning. It's how I’ve learned a lot of things like the times tables, the lyrics to the Roger Ramjet theme song, and lots of other useful, fun things like that. Rote learning is how the past prepares the present to face the future.

I was prepared for the hearty face-smack of epiphany by that bit of rote knowledge regarding texture interface that had been languishing in my brain, just waiting to be activated by experience. As Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind.

By chance, the very last big caper I had pulled was the installing of the bird feeder. Do you recall how I was able to re-use the sand I removed from the hole before I dug it deeper? I marveled at the time how cleanly that sand came out of the hole.

Down on my knees there in the turnout, bathing in the warm bright light of revelation, I looked over at the feeder, not more than a dozen feet away, and realized that texture interface had a big role in that job as well.

The sand came out of that hole so cleanly because texture interface works horizontally as well as vertically. It keeps the sand in the hole packed firmly together, holding the pole right in its place. Texture interface is in fact the reason why sand works nearly as effectively as concrete when setting poles in the ground. In our soil and climate, it arguably works more effectively than concrete, because it does not allow moisture to become trapped next to the pole, as concrete can.

It was but a small mental hop from that to understanding precisely why one puts a layer of small rocks at the bottom of the hole for the pole: to eliminate texture interface at the bottom. The rocks initially act as a buffer; the relatively large voids between them allow the water to fall out of the sand and then get absorbed by the soil. Soon, the soil and sand mix together in a gradual transition from one to the other to fill the large voids, thus eliminating texture interface.

This was all a great deal of fun, but it wasn’t enough. I was on a roll. I at last knew exactly what happens at a texture interface, but I still didn’t know how it happened. The mystery of how the silt layer could keep all that water captive until the sun finally set it free had not yet been solved. I got off my knees, went inside to my computer, and looked up a proper scientific explanation of texture interface, expecting it to be perplexingly counter-intuitive to match the actual physical event I had witnessed.

In fact, the explanation is perfectly intuitive and easy to understand. There are two forces involved, cohesion and adhesion, and while the names may be unfamiliar, the phenomena they represent are quite commonplace.

Cohesion is a force that attracts molecules of a liquid to each other. Water has high cohesion, which is what causes its relatively high surface tension.

Picture an icicle hanging off the eave of a house, just starting to melt in the sun. You know how a drop will start to form at the tip of the icicle, but it just hangs on until it finally gets too big, and then the drop falls off all at once, staying together until it hits the ground? That’s cohesion. The cohesion of water is strong enough to put up a good fight against gravity. Cohesion is why water beads up on the dry adobe soil of the Doll House.

Adhesion is the force that occurs when the molecules of two unlike materials have an attraction to each other. Liquids are strongly attracted to solid materials that contain very small voids. The combination of a liquid’s cohesion and its adhesion to such materials is called capillary action.

Picture what happens when you put a paper towel down on some spilled water on a countertop. The water goes upwards into the towel and spreads out until the water is completely absorbed. The water is attracted to the narrow voids between the many small fibers in the towel. Pick up the towel, and the water stays in it, held there by surface tension and capillary action, products of cohesion and adhesion, against the force of gravity.

This is just what was happening with the water in the silt layer. As with the paper towel, the voids between the tiny particles in the silt layer generated adhesion with the water that entered it, and it spread throughout the silt via capillary action until it was saturated.

Where the silt met the DG, at the texture interface, the water stopped moving because the voids in the DG are so much wider than those in the silt that capillary action stopped pulling the water forward at that point, and surface tension held it there. The water in the silt layer was held together by the combination of cohesion and adhesion so strongly that the force of gravity could not overcome it: the water in the silt did not weigh enough for gravity to pull it down.

It was as simple as that.

So I guess I had been right: water really is skeptical of change!

And with this, my spell of smartening-up was complete. It seemed as if I could feel my mind get suddenly less cluttered, as I threw out all the old, dusty, unconnected bits of soil lore that had been lying around in there. I didn’t need them any more, because now I know what texture interface is and why it happens. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, dispatched it with my own hands, made it do my bidding. I’ll recognize this perpetrator when I see it again in some new disguise. And I’m sure I will.

Rote learning is a wonderful preparation for, and enhancement of, living. Experiential learning is living.

* * *

It was now a simple matter to remove the soil from the rest of the turnout, although I did have to remove some of the DG as well, to ensure I had removed all traces of any ancient curse, just in case. By that point I could see that there was a thin layer of soil on the driveway all the way across to the opposite curb and continuing down below the turnout for five feet or so, but I didn't have the time to take care of it, for the rain was coming in two days, and I had to do something about the big rise below the turnout before that.

Happily, by then I had a good plan for this: I dug a trench between the rise and the turnout. I tried to construct it so that water would flow into the trench from both the turnout and the rise, and the overflow from the trench would, if the rain was not coming down too fast, run out the side and down to the low spot on the other side of the yard.

With this, I put all my tools away and waited for the rain to come.

It came on schedule, and it didn't take too long before the turnout was backed up nearly as much as it had been the last time. I went out to watch how the water was flowing. Here's what it looked like:

Yep, I was right about having disturbed that area with all the rocks too much. As I feared, the water sank in there and oversaturated the area. And between this area and the tree well, I hadn’t established quite enough downward slope to move the water across the yard; my hoped-for erosion down to the low area did not occur. Instead, it mostly flowed into the tree well.

It was a mess, but I was happy with it. Sure, the water wasn’t going just where I wanted it to go, but it also wasn’t going where I didn’t want it to go. It wasn’t going from the soil onto the turnout, and that was the important part.

I can tell this is so by the fact that the water in the turnout is a lighter color than the water on the soil, as you can see clearly on the soil side of the drainage notch. Note the small finger of turnout-colored water flowing into the soil-colored water. This makes the distinction between the two colors clear, and confirms that no water is flowing the other way anywhere along the curb.

The swampy patch in the middle is a bit of an annoyance, but at least it is easily avoided, and in any event I can't really fix it until after the rainy season.

24 hours after the rain stopped, the turnout was free of standing water and was well on its way to being dry.

I was happy with this result, because it did allow me safely to postpone further measures until I had the time for them, but I was troubled by the apparent fact that despite my having accomplished essentially what I had set out to do, I had nonetheless failed to decrease the amount of water backing up in the turnout when it rained. This didn’t seem to make sense.

This time, it didn’t take more than about half a pipeful to come up with an answer: when I removed the silt from the turnout, I lowered the level of the turnout surface by over an inch. This caused the curb to act as a dam, holding the water back so that it had nowhere to go but down.

This restored my peace of mind for the other half-pipeful, but then a question popped up to disturb the peace: if I had stopped the flow of water from the soil into the turnout, then where did all that water in the turnout come from? It doesn’t rain more on the turnout than it does in the areas immediately surrounding it. Moreover, under the DG in the turnout, and in all the driveway, is four inches of coarse gravel. The turnout should thus have considerably better drainage than the surrounding soil.

True, Rudy did tell me that the soil under the turnout area was especially slow-draining, but I had finally dismissed this idea weeks earlier as highly implausible. What, was there a giant, turnout-sized boulder that just happened to be in that precise location, eight inches down? I figured the actual answer must be something else.

I looked back over the photos I had taken during the last rain and came upon a short video I took that I’d forgotten about. It showed me just where all that water in the turnout was coming from. I can show that to you here in another photo of the flooding in the last storm:

Look at the turnout below where the curb enters the photo from the right, and then follow along the curb to the left in the turnout. That is a flow of water from further back in the driveway. I didn’t record how far back this flow started, but the driveway continues to slope upwards from the turnout to the front of the house. This naturally creates a small but steady flow of water down that slope into the turnout.

This is why the turnout is a flood-prone area, and Rudy knew it. It was a direct result of errors in the way the contractor had built the driveway. Rudy lied to me because if he had told me the truth, we would have insisted the contractor install the drainage basin himself. It was his responsibility, because his work created the flooding problem. By planting the idea that the flooding problem was not the contractor’s fault in my head, keeping me swamped with work, and digging that big trench to mask how bad the problem really was, Rudy conned me into giving them a pass on it.

Yes, I was a chump. Don’t take my word for it. You could look it up.

Rudy was able to make me a chump because at that point I had not yet learned what a good liar he was. Over the remainder of our interaction with the contractor, I learned this all too well. During this time, it came to light that Rudy had been lying to me all along about crucial matters, and he had gotten the City inspectors and even our own independent inspector to go along with him. A bit of a sociopath, that Rudy.

It’s not as if I had not been paying close attention to the proceedings. I was here almost every day, working alongside Rudy and his men, asking questions, conducting my own inspections, bringing errors to Rudy’s attention. But I could not be here all the time, and I did not know everything about every aspect of the work.

I now know that whenever I was not here, and in every aspect of the work I did not know, Rudy was busy cutting corners and co-opting the very people whom I relied upon to keep him honest. When I caught him dead to rights, he managed to make it look like an honest error when he had no choice but to fix it, but otherwise he just flat-out lied.

It was a thorough and unforgettable lesson in the importance of maintaining a polite but unflagging skepticism in any business relationship. Rudy and water have taught me the power of skepticism.

Experiential learning. It’s the most effective way to learn, if you’re prepared for the lesson.

But it isn’t always pleasant.

* * *

A truly irresistible force.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

For The Birds, Part 2

To recap the story so far, our old feeder and pole had been damaged irreparably by an onslaught of corpulent doves, and after an inordinate amount of difficulty, I managed to assemble a new feeder and locate a stronger pole that needed some modification before I could use it.

The new pole was ten feet long, which meant I had to dig the existing hole two feet deeper in order to mount the feeder the required six feet above ground—four and a half feet deep in all.

The added depth was a bit of a concern. Our soil is riddled with boulders, some of them quite large. I was lucky the first time around in that I encountered no obstacles, but I was really pushing my luck going two feet further down. I hoped I didn't have to blast.

Of course, I could simply have cut two feet off the new pole and made the job a whole lot easier. I didn't do that because rigid electrical conduit is heavy, and as I mentioned last time, it has a certain amount of flex in it. With the feeder at its top, it will have a tendency to flex back and forth in heavy winds, and the flection could conceivably extend down below ground level, increasing the risk that the pole will work itself loose and start to lean. The deeper footing should prevent that.

I pulled the old pole up, and was very happy to see that there was no rust on it to speak of. This was a nice verification that six inches of rocks in the bottom of the hole was sufficient drainage, even in our slow-draining soil.

Then, I started to dig. The first two and a half feet of the hole was easy, because all I was doing was emptying the hole I'd already made. I saved the sand from the first two feet in one pile, and the rocks and dirt from next six inches in another, so that I could re-use the fill.

At the Farm House, we even recycle dirt and rocks.

From that point on, the work was considerably more tiring. I haven't done any really hard physical work since my last bout of tendinitis in January, and on top of that I had had that spell of pneumonia. My arms and lungs were thus in need of a good workout, and boy, did they get it now.

On the way down the hole, I needed frequent rest stops in order to catch my breath, and so to keep things moving I decided to alternate the hole-digging with the task of reducing the diameter of the top of the pole so that the receptacle on the bottom of the feeder would fit. I have very little experience working with steel, but I figured a file would be the right tool for the job.

I have an extensive collection of files inherited from my uncle, so I picked out the most appropriate-looking one, cleaned its teeth with a brass brush, and started filing away. I went slowly and methodically around the circumference of the pipe as far in from one end as would be necessary to accommodate the receptacle. Once I came back around to the starting point, I slipped the receptacle over the end to check the fit. It slipped readily along as far down as the pipe threads went, and then stopped. I filed around the pipe again where it was still too big, and when I checked the fit again, the receptacle progressed about a sixty-fourth of an inch further down. It seemed as if I were taking off a lot of material, but apparently I wasn't.

So I worked around the pipe once again, more aggressively this time. This yielded another sixty-fourth of an inch of progress. Something seemed wrong. I did a little research on the Internet, and learned that I was using the right kind of file, and I was using the proper technique, more or less. So I abandoned the hole-digging for the time being, and worked on that pipe for the rest of the day and well into the evening. While my arms benefited from the exercise, I didn't make much progress. Still, the project up to that point had been so full of mishaps and complications that I just accepted the situation. I was happy that I was making any progress at all. I was a hostage to fate, and the Helsinki syndrome had set in.

Wifey suggested that perhaps the file I was using was dull. That had not occurred to me. The file looked perfectly fine. There were no broken teeth, and there was no evident wear. Still, she had something there. After all, my uncle had inherited his father's tools. There was a very good chance that the file I was using was older than I was, and had been used a lot. Moreover, it had been kicking around in a tool box with a number of other files for a long while.

The next day, I got a new file of the same type and went back to work. In an hour I was done, and the receptacle slid down fully without binding or wobbling. I primed and painted the filed area to prevent rust.  

While I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, with Wifey's help I feel as if I can do anything. We make a good team.

With the pole now all ready to meet its destiny, I went out and finished the hole. There are tools made specifically for this purpose that make the job simple: the post-hole digger, and the digging bar.

I use a post-hole digger of a unique design, called The Hole Deal, and I highly recommend it over the traditional design. All post-hole diggers comprise a pair of shovels joined with a pivot so that when the shovels are brought together, they capture soil between them that is then lifted out of the hole. The traditional design joins them with a simple pivot, so that the handles must be separated to bring the shovels together. This gets progressively more difficult as the hole gets deeper, because it is hard to keep the soil in the digger when the sides of the hole are limiting how much the handles can be separated.

The Hole Deal uses a two-pivot design so that the handles and shovels move in parallel; its handles are brought together to bring the shovels together. The sides of the hole and its depth are thus not limiting factors, and it is very easy to keep the dirt captured between the shovels as the digger is lifted up. This allows one to dig holes that are plumb and uniform all the way down. Although the digger is only five feet long, I had no difficulty in taking the hole down to four and a half feet without my having to widen the top of the hole.

The other tool is called a digging bar. It is a six-foot-long iron bar with a chisel end and a tamper end. The chisel end is used to loosen the dirt at the bottom of the hole to make it easier to remove with the post-hole digger; the tamper end is used to settle and compact material at the bottom of a hole. The digging bar is also used to dislodge and break up rocks, or cut roots, as necessary.

Happily, I encountered absolutely no obstacles on the way down, so while the work went slowly, it also went steadily. I got so enthusiastic at the end that I actually went an inch farther than I needed to. Then I had lunch.

You may be wondering why I set the pole in sand, rather than concrete. While there are several advantages to the use of sand as a base, the reason I used it here is that we have no overall plan for the yard design, and until we do I don't want to build anything that I can't easily remove. If you think a concrete footing would have kept the old pole from leaning, take a look at it:

Clearly, the sand held the pole so firmly that it bent at ground level; it did not shift in the hole. If I had set the pole in concrete, I would have had to excavate and lift out a hundred-pound cylinder of it, and then I would have had to dispose of that.

It occurred to me when contemplating the pole with the socket that I could have sunk the socket in concrete in order to give it some measure of stability, but without drain holes at the bottom it would have rusted out in short order, causing the pole to move back and forth in the hole more or less constantly. This movement would dislodge the concrete plug soon enough, and the pole would fall over.

I could have put down two feet of concrete to prevent its being easily dislodged, but then I'd have that hundred pounds of concrete to remove someday. This was altogether too much work for a setup that would never have been satisfactory.

The best material to use for setting poles in sand is actually not sand, strictly speaking, but crushed granite (usually called "decomposed granite", or "DG" for short). DG is the best because its individual granules are jagged, and tend to interlock pretty firmly when the material is compacted, making it quite stable and resistant to movement. This is why it is used for baseball diamonds and "gravel" driveways; as I've mentioned, we use it for our own driveway.

Unfortunately, DG is generally not available in smaller than half-truckload lots, at least not hereabouts, so instead I use paver-base sand, which is readily available in 50- to 70-pound bags. Paver-base sand is silica sand of a uniform fine grain; it interlocks to a lesser degree than DG, but it is more than stable enough to serve nicely for setting poles. Building sand will work if necessary, but not playground sand, which has no silica and offers insufficient resistance to movement.

A word of caution: never handle any silica-containing sand when it is dry without breathing protection, because silica dust acts like sandpaper in the respiratory tract. It is best and most convenient to work with it moistened enough to prevent dust from kicking up.

After lunch, I screened the two piles of the material I'd removed from the original hole in order to remove debris and reclaim the stones that were in them. 

I put a layer of larger stones down as evenly as I could at the bottom of the hole, put the rest of the stones back in, and tamped them down with the tamper end of my digging bar to minimize any settling when the hole was filled. I ended up 3/4 of an inch higher than I wanted, but that is close enough for my purpose, and the extra drainage won't hurt. I put in water to just above the level of the rocks, and let things settle overnight.

As I mentioned, our soil drains very slowly.

But I was not yet done for the evening. I drove four three-foot wood stakes into the ground, each about two feet away from the center of the hole, two of them situated roughly parallel to the back wall of the house, and two perpendicular to it.

When tomorrow came, I lowered the pole into the hole slowly, taking care to land the pole somewhere in the center. Precise positioning is not crucial, but a position near the center ensures that the pole is supported evenly around its circumference, thus increasing its tendency to remain plumb as the sand settles. As it happened, the pole found a nice little niche within a half-inch of dead center. This positioning is ideal, for it locks the bottom of the pole firmly in place, further enhancing its tendency to remain true to the earth.

Having achieved this, I carefully moved the pole over to rest against the side without knocking it out of its niche. I took a length of sash cord (any rope will do), tied one end to one of the wood posts, looped the other end around the pole and tied a taut-line hitch around the cord. This is a knot that I learned back in Cub Scouts, very useful when you need to adjust the length of a rope under tension. I use the knot shown on Wikipedia as #1857 (the third one listed at the link).

I did this for all four posts, all the while moving the pole gently to avoid dislodging its bottom end. Then, I attached a post level to the pole at eye level, oriented it so one side was parallel to the rear wall of the house, then I adjusted the length of each rope by sliding the taut-line hitch towards or away from the pole until the bubbles in both horizontal vials were centered. indicating that the pole was plumb (i.e., perpendicular to the ground). I tightened the cords just enough to ensure that the pole stayed plumb, and no tighter.

This reminds me that I have forgotten to tell you about the post level, one more specialized tool used in this job. It has two spirit vials positioned horizontally at right angles to each other to check for plumb, and one positioned at a right angle to the other vials vertically to check the top of a post or beam for level with the ground. 

This gag with the ropes and wood posts was something I whipped up this time around, so I would be free to work with both hands without undue worry about keeping the pole plumb. I've put poles up several times before without doing this, and it was quite awkward filling the hole with one hand while trying to keep the pole plumb with the other.

I worked with the posts and the level oriented to the house's footprint because the feeder would most often be viewed from the house. Theoretically it doesn't really matter how one orients the posts or the level, but a post level is not a terribly precise instrument, and orienting things the way I did maximized its precision along the most-used sight lines.

With the pole thus secured, I filled the hole back up, starting with the screened sand I took out of the old hole and continuing with some new sand. I put it in a trowelful at a time evenly around the pole, stopping every six inches or so to wet the sand evenly, putting just enough water in to cover the sand and then letting it drain in order to eliminate any little air pockets and to get the sand to settle evenly and firmly.

At eight inches below ground, I switched from sand to decomposed granite, which I stole from my supply that I have for filling divots in the driveway. I put in six inches of it just to help keep the pole on the straight and narrow path. I topped up the last two inches of the hole with screened dirt to give the installation a finished appearance, then let the whole hole settle overnight before I put a load on the pole.

Early the next morning, I put the feeder in place, and Wifey set a table of tasty comestibles for our little pals. As is always the case with a new feeder, it was greeted with great skepticism at first; the little creatures of the forest are rightly skeptical of change. By mid-afternoon, however, we had our first hungry customer.

This reminds me that my next job is to clean the gutters.

Our feeder is open to all our little woodland friends. But as for the company that sold us the feeder with its crappy screws and instructions as well as that pathetic excuse for a mounting pole, the company with the buncombe-laden product descriptions, the company that through its malfeasance turned a simple task into a major project—well, that company is strictly for the birds.

* * *

"My client is prepared to plead to one count of PC 481(a)(2), Knocking Non-Glass Ornament Off Christmas Tree, if the count of PC 666(e), Grand Theft Bird Ornament, is dropped."

Monday, December 21, 2015

For The Birds, Part 1

We have more than our share of wildlife here at the Farm House. While this can occasionally be troublesome, our pups do a great job of keeping the predators at bay. Nature is a fine thing, but we want our yard to be Daktari, not Wild Kingdom.

The first summer here, I put up a big platform feeder on a 8-foot galvanized-steel pole that came with it. It was a simple feeder, just a wood frame with a perforated-metal insert to hold the food and provide drainage, but it served our needs quite well.

June 2007, about a year after I installed the feeder.

I set the pole in a sand base two feet into the ground. It did just fine for nearly a decade, serving all comers with no problems. I had to tighten up the joints of the feeder occasionally, and eventually replaced all the screws with better ones, but the pole remained serenely unchanged by the passing years.

Then, a few years ago a new species began to appear, some sort of dove or pigeon that is larger than a rock dove (the common street pigeon), with a generally pearl-gray body and a dark collar on the back of the neck. As nearly as I have been able to determine, it is the Eurasian collared dove, although our birds are larger and of a more substantial build than the breed description.

For a long time, there was only one pair of the collared doves. Eventually, another pair appeared, then a third. Then, before we knew it, the feeder was covered with them. It was much like that sequence in The Birds wherein one bird lands on a jungle gym, then after a while the scene cuts back briefly to show a half-dozen, and after a while the scene cuts back to the same shot a third time, only this time you can't see the jungle gym for all the birds on it. Soon thereafter, the birds start breaking things.

So it went with us. The collared dove population kept increasing until by the start of this past summer, they had become a genuine nuisance. Scores of them would appear each day, occupying every square inch of the feeder. When they'd eaten all the food, they'd just hang out on the feeder like a street gang, blocking all other customers. We'd shoo them away, but they'd return in short order.

After a month or so of this, we looked out one day to find that the pole had actually bent under the weight of all those doves. Not only that, but they'd bent the feeder's mounting plate and the metal insert, and loosened all the joints badly. As a result, the feeder was pretty much useless.

Great, another unscheduled job. Well, at least it would be a quick, simple one. The hole was already dug. All I had to do was get a new feeder and a stronger pole, take out the old pole, empty the hole, put in the new pole, fill the hole up again, and put up the new feeder. It was a day's work at most, once I found a new feeder and a stouter pole.

I surveyed our usual online sources. I found a half-dozen or so feeders that would serve, but no poles long enough to suit me. I needed eight feet at least; we'd learned from experience that this pole length was necessary to place the feeder high enough to keep our invited dinner guests safe from our canine security detail when the pole was sunk to the proper depth. Anything less than 8 feet, and either the feeder would not be high enough, or the pole would not be stable enough.

At that point, I came down with a pretty bad case of pneumonia, and was out of commission for about six weeks. When I recovered, I was wholly occupied with the task of catching up on all the general maintenance that had gone undone during my illness. I was desperate to get back to my raison d'etre, finishing the exterior restoration.

In order to defer replacement until I had the time to find a suitable new feeder and pole, I reset the old pole in its sand to counteract the bend somewhat and did what I could to fix the other damage. This made the feeder marginally usable. To discourage Las Palomas Gordas from wreaking further damage, we put out only peanuts, which are too big for them to eat. This would at least take care of the squirrels, jays and crows.

After resetting. The feeder was pretty wobbly on the pole.

November rolled around, and with the Christmas season fast approaching, I abandoned hope of getting back to the restoration anytime soon and began my usual seasonal preparations. Then, the weather turned decidedly colder, and Wifey, concerned for the winter welfare of the little birds such as finches, nuthatches, and sparrows who needed actual seeds to eat, took matters in her own hands. She selected a rather pretty new feeder with a roof, and brought her choice to my attention.

This brought the feeder project suddenly front and center once again, and so I put everything else aside in order to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. I liked her choice; it was somewhat smaller than the old feeder, which would lessen the load on the pole, and the roof would, I hoped, make the feeder less accessible to the collared doves, who were too big to fit easily under it.

I wasn't so sure about the pole that was intended to go with the feeder. It was one of those that I had rejected earlier. I didn't like its base: a foot-long socket that was to be buried in the soil. The socket was just a length of pipe with one end squashed. The pole itself was probably okay as far as it went; it was 80 inches long in three segments, and it looked like it could stand up under a load. I figured that at most 10 inches would slip down into the socket, putting the feeder at the absolute minimum height, which was fine. But that would put only one-eighth of the pole in the ground, which is not nearly enough. Good building practice dictates that at least a quarter of a pole or post's length should be in the ground, so that it can carry the load and still remain securely in place.

At this point, however, I was beginning to get desperate. As skeptical as I was about this pole's suitability, it was the only possibly suitable one I had found. Moreover, the company selling the pole is reputable and has been around for longer than I have. The pole's description specifically promised "super stability in any soil."

We've had a pleasant relationship with this company for over twenty years, and in all that time we'd never received a product that did not live up to its description. So I ordered the feeder and the pole. I wished, rather than believed, that the pole would come with a way to embed the socket securely enough in the earth to support the pole, feeder, food and birds.

In due course the order was delivered, but when I unpacked the pole I saw to my great dismay but utter lack of surprise that it came with no instructions, no revelation about its installation that would somehow render it usable. The pole was stout enough, but it was too heavy to be supported by that short socket once the feeder was mounted upon it. In any soil.

Self-evidently inadequate.

Perhaps the most irksome thing about the socket was that it had no drain holes in the bottom, and although the pole was advertised as being powder-coated, it appeared from the thinness of the coating to be merely painted. Thus, even if it were somehow possible to arrive at a stable mounting for this pole, the socket was doomed to rust fairly quickly from the unavoidable accumulation of moisture sitting in it constantly.

Not willing to give up just yet, I thought it might get us at least through the winter if I could drive it directly into the soil, but I had to give up on the attempt before I'd managed to get the socket more than two inches in; our ground is so dense that at that point the top of the socket was already beginning to flatten. It would be unusable before I got it halfway in. If I had tried to sink it in sand, it would slip to one side as soon as I put the feeder on it.

The pole purchase was nonetheless necessary, because I needed the feeder mounting plate that it came with; it has a nice, sturdy socket on the bottom that slips onto the top of a pole and tightens securely with a thumbscrew. I could work with it, if I could find a suitable pole it would fit upon.

If. This put me back at square one. It didn't matter that I had a swell new feeder, because I had no suitable pole for it, and my muse had thus far failed to guide me in the proper direction.

Getting increasingly anxious to put this task behind me, I decided to put the feeder together while I awaited divine inspiration regarding the pole. It was a very pretty feeder, made of solid unfinished cedar with iron roof supports. The stock used was even 7/8 of an inch thick, just like the 4/4 S1S stock used throughout the Farm House. Wifey had chosen well, it seemed.

My job was to screw the supports to the base, then the roof to the supports. It seemed simple enough. They had even put little dents were the screws were supposed to go. The instructions said to line up the holes in the supports with the dents in the wood and start screwing away. They even said it was "OK" if some of the screws didn't go in straight.

Well, skewed screws may be okay with them, but certainly not with me. Furthermore, as I've pointed out more than once, it's never good practice to drive screws into wood without pre-drilling the hole first; either the wood will split or the screw will break.

I became rather annoyed when I looked at the provided screws; they bore a thin yellowish finish that was unsuitable for outdoor use in any event, and especially unsuitable for use in cedar, which is readily and deeply stained by such screws. I briefly considered going out to get the proper stainless steel screws, but at that point I just wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible. Besides, no one else would likely ever see the screws, or the ugly black stains they would make. So, I forged ahead.

Before pre-drilling the holes, I checked the alignment of the guide dents. Fully half of them were way off the mark. I was beginning to suspect that these people just didn't take their business seriously. This was a very expensive feeder, and these blackguards couldn't even be bothered to put their dents in the right place. No wonder it was OK with them if the screws didn't go in straight; once you reject pre-drilling, it's a slippery slope.

I made proper guide marks where they belonged, then drilled pilot holes. Then, I grabbed a screwdriver of the appropriate size and slowly drove the first screw most of the way in, at which point the still-protruding part of the screw, with no warning, twisted right off, despite my having pre-drilled the hole. One of the most expensive feeders on God's green earth, furnished with the cheapest screws I've ever seen. What were they made of, gutta-percha? At this point, I really wanted to drive these screws into my temples and have done with this whole mess. The walls were seriously closing in on me.

Not enough of the screw was left above the wood to back it out with pliers, so I went out to get one of those doodads that allow one to back out a damaged screw, as well as the stainless steel screws that should have been provided in the first place. I had to go to a few places to find these items, only to discover upon returning home that the diameter of the screw shaft was too small for the screw-extractor doodad to work. So I just left the broken screw in place and put the blasted thing together with no further trauma nor offense to my bleeding sensibilities.

I then turned back to the problem of finding a suitable mounting for the feeder. I hit upon the idea of using a 4x4 wood post; I knew the company that sold the feeder had feeder mounting plates for such posts, and this would definitely be strong enough to carry the load. They also mentioned in the feeder's description that it could be mounted on a 4x4 post.

This idea ran aground when I discovered that, in fact, the feeder couldn't be mounted on a 4x4 post, at least not with the only mounting plate the company sold for that purpose; the bottom joist of the feeder wasn't wide enough to accommodate it. I could have modified the feeder to address this problem, but I decided to look for a simpler solution.

As I mentioned, the receptacle provided with the pole that came with the feeder was sturdy enough, so I resolved to try to find a pole that would fit it that would also provide a solid mooring for the feeder. I figured Ganahl Lumber was a promising place to start, because they have an admirable selection of building materials, and they always make me feel at home there.

As usual, Ganahl came through for me. 

Thar be poles here!

I found a nearly perfect solution: a 10-foot length of 3/4-inch (inside diameter) rigid electrical conduit. Despite its name, it's flexible enough to withstand stress and snap back to straightness without staying bent permanently.  It's sturdy enough to carry the weight of a hundred collared doves, made of galvanized steel to resist corrosion, and it has an outside diameter of just over one inch. I say "nearly" perfect because I would have to reduce the diameter of the pole's top down to an inch in order to accept the receptacle.

But I didn't think that would be very hard.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I actually get to the point.

* * *

The Wily Forest Cat lies in wait for his prey, after having hidden all the remotes.

Monday, May 4, 2015

CSI: House

I haven't written here for some time because I haven't been working on the exterior restoration. I've been taking some time to catch up on all the things I have neglected for the past several years while I concentrated on the restoration work.

In the process of doing these other things, the garage, my base of operations, fell into such disarray that when I was ready to return to the restoration work, I found that my workshop had assumed the character of an archaeological dig. It is only this past week that I have at last dug down to the stratum containing all the tools and materials I use in the restoration work, so I expect that I shall be back out on the veranda roof soon.

Of course, along the way unexpected things cropped up, as they always do with any house. One happened just last week that bears retelling here, for it touches upon a subject I have visited many times in this blog.

It was late afternoon, and I had just come back into the house from a long day out in the garage. I ran upstairs to put something in the bathroom, and when I got there I heard a noise coming from the vicinity of the toilet. It was an odd, mechanical noise, hard to describe, but it sounded something like this: whirrrrrr TIC. . . whirrrr TIC. . . whirrrrrrrr TIC, over and over, with the length of the whirr varying randomly.

As I got closer to the noise, it sounded as if it were coming from the toilet tank, but a quick check inside revealed that the noise was in fact coming from inside the wall.

This immediately put me in mind of something I wrote way back in the early days of this blog, in the post "The Farm House Speaks:"

We've all heard it a million times: "If these walls could talk. . . ." Well, walls do talk, especially in an old house like the Farm House. They tell many stories of the events they have been through and the people who have lived within them. If you take the time to understand what they are saying, you can learn a lot about the house's history;  more importantly, you may learn important things about its condition.

This particular wall, at this particular time, had an important thing to tell me about its condition: "I have a leaky pipe in here!"

While the noise sounded more like there was a time bomb in there, I knew it had to be a leak, because I knew that the only thing in the wall in that area was the water supply pipe for the toilet. I knew this because I was familiar with a photograph I took of this area from the adjoining room back when the walls were still open.

The picture is pretty fuzzy, because it was one of the first I took with the digital camera my friend Nik kindly lent me, and I still didn't know how to operate it properly, but it is nonetheless plenty clear enough to see the curved copper pipe heading over to the left and disappearing back into the wall; this is right where the noise was coming from, so whatever it sounded like, it had to be a leak.

Also clearly visible is a piece of wood that appears to have been wedged in under this pipe, and right above this piece of wood, barely discernible, is a copper strap (indicated by the red arrow) of the kind customarily used to keep a pipe in place.

That piece of wood bothered me: why, precisely, was it there? I could not help but conclude that the plumber who installed the pipe had stuck it under there, because he had reason to believe that the strap alone would not be sufficient to support the pipe. Moreover, the only reason he could have for this belief was the knowledge that he had not installed the strap correctly.

If this sounds unduly harsh or paranoid, please understand that I was merely drawing upon my long experience with this plumber's workmanship. He had a perfect record with all the fixtures he installed: he did every one of them incorrectly.

There is not one of them I did not have to fix myself or have fixed by a plumber. Every one of them developed leaks at every joint and connection, because he had failed to tighten them all the way. Every handle was loose, because he had not tightened the attachment screws. Every one of the aerators was clogged with plumbing debris, because he had not bothered to remove them and flush the debris out after installing the fixtures. The man seemed to have a psychopathic compulsion to cut every corner he could find to cut in his work.

I had hoped that his in-wall work would prove to be better, especially because it had been subject to inspection and testing, but that aberrant piece of wood said otherwise. It had consciousness of guilt written all over it.

Of course, I did all this sleuthing and deduction later in the evening. The minute I realized there was a leak I called our plumber—or rather, I called Wifey and she called the plumber, because I'd just gotten a new phone and hadn't yet typed my contacts back in (for some reason, they never seem to transfer over from my old phone as they are supposed to). Unfortunately, it was past the end of the workday, and the plumber was not immediately available, so Wifey had to leave a message.

When she buzzed me back with this information, I filled up some buckets with enough water to get us through the night, then turned off the water supply to the house. I then went to the basement faucet, the lowest one in the house, and opened both taps. This relieved the pressure in the pipes, which stopped the leak immediately. Soon thereafter, the plumber returned our call; after I explained the situation to him, he said he'd be here first thing in the morning.

True to his word, he was. His dependability is one of the reasons why he is a valued member of the Farm House maintenance team; another is that he really knows his stuff.

We turned the water supply back on. Once the pressure built back up in the pipe, the noise returned. He was as baffled by its mechanical sound as I was, but he agreed that it had to be a leak, so he opened up the wall from the adjoining room to expose the area where the noise was coming from.

Sure enough, there was water bubbling out from under the strap. And just as I had suspected, the strap was not installed correctly. It should have been attached firmly to the wall with screws driven in all the way. This strap was only loosely attached, with the screws driven in only partway and at an angle. This is contrary to code, but I have already described how curiously tolerant the City inspector could be of our contractor's distinctive mode of operation at the darndest times.

It was easy to see why the plumber did it that way, because he screwed directly into the beadboard wainscoting of the bathroom, and if he'd driven the screws in snug they would have broken through the other side. What he should have done was to affix a small 3/4" thick piece of wood to the back of the wainscoting and then attach the strap onto that; that way, he could have secured the pipe properly without breaking through the beadboard. But that would have taken more time, and time is money, the kind that bites into a contractor's profit.

Having found the problem, the plumber was able to fix it in short order. After shutting off the water and draining the line, he removed the strap and the block of wood, cut out the damaged length of pipe, and spliced in a new piece of rigid copper pipe with soldered joints at each end. This gave the pipe enough structural rigidity that it no longer needed to be strapped to the wall.

It may be odd to consider any leak a fortunate one, but if there ever was such a thing, this was it: a mere pinhole, covered by the strap so that it did not spray onto the walls. Instead, it just bubbled out and dripped down onto the end grain of the wood underneath. The wood acted as a sponge, absorbing all but a very small amount of the leaked water and preventing any water damage. So that wood performed an essential function after all, although certainly not one the original plumber intended.

Why did the leak occur? The answer to this was immediately obvious to the plumber. It had to do with the incorrect way the strap was attached. The reason a strap must be securely attached to the wall is to prevent the natural movement that occurs in a pipe when it expands and contracts in response to temperature changes caused by the passage of water through it. The fact that this strap was loosely attached caused the copper supply pipe to move constantly with every variation in temperature over the eleven intervening years, eventually to come into contact with one of the steel strap screws.

One of the cardinal rules of proper plumbing procedure, and the reason why a loose strap is a code violation, is that copper-containing metals should never be allowed to come into contact with any ferrous (iron-based) metal such as steel. When this happens, corrosion occurs at the point of contact, which weakens both metals and eventually results in a leak. That is just what happened in this case.

All in all, this was a happy ending to what could have been a disaster. Of course, now I have yet another unexpected task, that of patching up the hole in the study wall.

I've taped plastic screen material over it to discourage feline exploration while the residual moisture evaporates.

But I'm certainly not complaining. This could have been a major disaster if the leak had been worse, or if I had not taken immediate action to stop it.

So, with this little incident in mind, always remember that the stories a house tells are not always historical in nature. Sometimes, they are breaking news flashes. Or, as I put it way back when:

Listen to your house, and it will keep you snug and safe for a lifetime. Ignore it, and it will surely find a way to get your attention.

For my part, I am now going to look back at all the other pictures I took when the walls were still open, to see if I can find any advance tips on breaking news flashes yet to come.

* * * 

There are some stories only cats can hear.