October 26, 2016: The rains have arrived and we're not ready. Well, we're more ready than we were a couple of months ago, but that is to say we're in the middle of a major front yard overhaul that won't be helped by days of deluge or soggy soil.
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The sand is authentic Delta river sand, taken from our own front yard.
We left you on a bit of a cliffhanger last month. We were on vacation and had spent the first week of it painting and installing a planked ceiling over the front porch entryway. We are happy to report that the ceiling work is finished and looks great, especially as Halloween draws near and we won't be embarrassed to have people come to our front door for once. Wrapping up that job was made much easier once we acquired the right tools in the form of a miter saw and an air compressor with a pneumatic nailer, but even those didn't entirely save us from misadventures.
It was close to the end of the porch ceiling project and Glenn was cutting trim boards like a pro when he went to use the miter saw and nothing happened. He had been alternating between the saw and his Dremel moto tool on one extension cord plugged into the outlet on our front porch along with the Porter Cable air compressor he had been using to operate the nail gun. Everything had seemed to be working fine until suddenly it wasn't. A quick check of the other tools confirmed that none of them worked, leading us back to the plug itself.
We're used to power problems on that circuit. The porch outlet is one of six on a GFCI breaker located in the garage, and for years the breaker has mysteriously shut off and had to be reset. We say mysteriously, because most of the time it trips when nothing is plugged into it. We go to turn on our water fountain or charge up our electric razors in the bathroom some morning and get nothing, necessitating that we venture into the darkness of the garage to reset the breaker, then everything returns to normal until the next time. That could be weeks or hours, we just have no way of knowing because there never seems to be a pattern to the outages.
This latest one, however, really got us scratching our heads. Glenn went to the garage to reset the GFCI breaker and it wouldn't cooperate. At first it just popped off, then he heard something snap inside the wall, and suddenly the switch wouldn't respond at all. He could push the reset button in but there was no power on any of the connected lines. Hmmm.
We were so close to the end of the porch project that we didn't want a faulty electrical circuit to be the reason it didn't get done, so for the time being we transferred the extension cord to the next available plug inside the hallway near Ben's room and finished the job. Now the question became what to do about the electrical situation.
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HE FIRST THING the pros tell you about electrical problems is to let the pros handle them. That being said, there is plenty of work that Joe Homeowner can do to troubleshoot faulty wiring. We didn't have Joe available, so we relied on Glenn. We decided that because we'd had so many problems over the years with our GFCI plugs that we'd simply replace the main receptacle in the garage as well as the circuit breaker in the electrical panel. We picked up both from Home Depot and Glenn installed them. But that didn't solve the problem. What we did discover was a significant amount of charring on the back of the old GFCI breaker, indicating that at some point the wires had arced. We were probably just lucky that there wasn't a fire. So even though the new plug didn't restore power, at least we felt better about having replaced it.
A check with a circuit tester confirmed that the new breaker we also installed in the main panel was fully functional, so the question remained why the GFCI plugs weren't getting any power. Glenn's theory was that the wiring between the main panel and the GFCI plug was itself faulty, so to test it he installed a temporary jumper cable from the panel to the plug and proved that the new plug functions properly. A continuity test of the original wiring hidden inside the wall revealed that the neutral white wire was fine, but there was next to no current on the black hot wire. Somehow, some way, the black wire had broken inside the wall and may have been broken for years, for all that we knew. Could that have been the popping sound Glenn heard just before the GFCI circuit went completely dead? The only way to find out is to tear apart the wall and locate the break, which we have not yet done. Nothing that removing a few shelves and some drywall can't solve, but it is a project best saved for a free weekend, and we don't seem to have a lot of those.
The broken wiring was just the start of our electrical problems. While the jumper cable confirmed that hunch, it also proved that even though the new GFCI plug was working fine by itself, the moment we hooked it up to the rest of the branch circuits, everything went dead. The GFCI breaker immediately tripped, even when no tools were plugged in anywhere else. This meant that there is a short in one of the branch lines. So while we were replacing things, we decided to replace all the outdoor plugs as well, thinking that their exposure to 30 years of harsh weather conditions could have contributed to wiring problems. As we expected, there was some rust around the receptacle housings and lots of sand inside, but overall everything looked okay. Glenn swapped out the plugs anyway, but still there was no power.
So we know there is a broken wire near the main panel and a short somewhere else, but we don't know where or the cause. This may lead us back to calling in an electrician, but for now we face the prospect of Halloween and the holidays without the ability to plug in lights or fog machines outdoors, so we are bummed by that prospect.
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HE LACK OF outdoor power more immediately complicated work on the next phase of our front yard makeover. The first week of our vacation had been spent painting and doing the porch ceiling. For the second week, we turned our attention to the front garden and making that look better. Roni had a plan for this, as she often does, and it involved laying concrete patio pavers close to the house, extending the planter box, and adding decorative rock and potted plants along the front. It also involved removing or drastically cutting back the oleanders and shrubs that have been growing there.
We were in general agreement about the look we wanted to achieve, but we weren't sure how we would get there. The patio pavers we tried first were the giant 16x16-inch ones you can find at any home improvement store. They come in different colors — ours were tan — and sometimes have patterns stamped into them, as did ours, so they look a little more decorative. But the fact remains that they are basically huge slabs of concrete designed more for functionality than aesthetics, and once we saw them laid out in the dirt near the house, we weren't all that impressed, even though we had planned to get creative and put grout in the joints to make them look more like individual bricks.
We had already purchased 19 of these pavers and were on our way back to Home Depot for more when Glenn expressed his reservations about them and we decided to change course. We'd find other uses for the blocks we'd already bought. Instead, we decided to go with Rumblestone bricks to continue the rustic style we had already established with the edgers we'd bought a few months ago. The bricks were considerably more expensive per square foot than the patio pavers we had been using, but they had the advantage of being much more attractive and easier to work with, given their small size. We could lug about 200 of them home in the back of Roni's car in a single trip, and we needed more than 550 bricks to complete the project.
Before we could install the pavers, large or small, we first had to do something with the planter box. Our plan was to truck in enough fill sand to raise the level of the garden and create a more even base for the bricks. We know the proper way to install a paver patio is to first put down a couple inches of paver base rock to provide a firm, stable surface for the bricks, but we decided not to do that in this case because we didn't intend to walk on it much and were concerned with putting rock on top of the existing plant roots. We expected there to be settling of the soil and just accepted that.
We wound up making a trip to Brentwood Decorative Rock and ordered two cubic yards of fill sand along with a yard and a half of river rocks. They were delivered to us the following morning in a dump truck that deposited the two loads on our driveway. We spent the rest of the day shoveling sand into buckets and using a dolly to wheel it to the garden. At first we worried that we'd have a lot more sand than we needed, but in the end we wound up running a little short. No worries. We made it all work out.
We compacted the sand as best we could by hand, or more specifically by foot. When we had enough of it in place, Roni was able to put down paper bags and plastic sheeting to act as a weed barrier and then move her rocks from the driveway to the garden area, where she carefully arranged them. Meanwhile, Glenn began placing the Rumblestone pavers in the window well near Ben's room and along the edge of the front porch, just to see how we liked them. We liked them a lot. It was decided that we would get the rest of the pavers and complete the patio using them.
We were exhausted by the end of the day after having shoveled sand and rocks and testing out the paver stones, but we were eager to get the project rolling along, so that night we made another trip to Home Depot to purchase 200 more bricks, just so we'd have them available to start laying out the next morning. How incredibly convenient that Home Depot stays open until 9 p.m. most weeknights, and 10 p.m. on Friday.
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WO-HUNDRED BRICKS may sound like a lot, but they vanish quickly once you start laying them out. We depleted our supply again the next morning and were back to Home Depot for more by the afternoon. We'd bought up most of the pallet that was available at the Brentwood store, so we made this trip to the Pittsburg location where there were still plenty of bricks to be had. We bought 220 of them, about as many as we could comfortably carry without putting too much strain on Roni's car. We wanted to get as many as we could because we hoped to complete the patio before the supply at the store ran out, which has happened to us before.
As it turned out, we guessed about right. With the latest load in place, we were about 50 bricks shy of what we needed to finish, and we knew there were about that many left on the pallet at the Brentwood Home Depot — assuming no one had come along and bought them since the previous night. So that night, Friday the 7th, we made a quick run to collect their remaining supply.
Because the Rumblestones don't come in half sizes, that meant we would have to find our own way to cut them to fit the gaps remaining in our patio. Glenn had anticipated this and decided the most expedient way was to cut the bricks using a diamond blade. He picked up an inexpensive angle grinder from Lowe's along with a 4-1/2 inch diamond grinding wheel and spent Saturday marking and making most of the necessary cuts. Because we still had to contend with the inoperative GFCI circuit, he ran the grinder off an extension cord connected to the hallway outlet.
Cutting concrete with a dry saw blade is a lot of fun. The diamond wheel cut through the bricks like butter, kicking up huge clouds of dust that coated everything in a 5-yard radius. There were remarkably few sparks, and the blade stayed unexpectedly cool. The grinder made short work of the cutting task, and by that night the patio was mostly done. Just a few small cuts left to make Sunday and the remaining gaps were filled in. Glenn brushed paver sand into the joints to help things lock together and we called it done.
We carted most of the river rocks off the driveway Saturday and finished placing them in the garden area. The few buckets we didn't have room for we "stored" beneath the ornamental plum tree, where they will eventually be used when we get around to building the dry creek bed we have planned as our next project. Roni finished the front garden by installing several large pots we had picked up from Home Depot and that she had painted to match the Smokin' Hot accent color we used on our front door. It all looks so fresh and different. We wonder why we waited so long to do this.
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HILE WE HAD been hard at work for months contemplating and slowly altering our front yard landscape, our neighbors on our immediate left and right had been doing next to nothing. That's a risky situation in our city, where the code enforcement officials are at their Big Brother worst in ordering people to beautify their properties. The rental unit to our northwest is one of the more egregious examples of why people hate rentals; the absentee landlord abandoned his gardening service and let the lawn go to seed during the drought, as many places did, but when the city finally delivered an abatement notice to the tenants they were unable to reach him to get the situation resolved. The couple who live there commute to work during the week and are hardly ever home. They wanted to bring back the gardener, but when they were finally able to get hold of their landlord, he basically decided that the city's fine was cheaper than the cost of new landscaping and maintaining it, so he declined to do anything. So the property sits as it is, without a lawn and with a fence that is falling down in between our two yards.
Our other neighbors, the Sanchez family, are a different story. They have owned their house for about 11 years and at one time had a beautiful front yard, but like us, they let the lawn go to sand during the drought. During September they had their roof replaced, and when it came time for the city building inspector to come out and verify the work, they are convinced that he turned them in for a code violation on their landscaping. Their response was what others have done, taking the quick and dirty way to a landscaped yard by going to the home improvement store and buying some landscape fabric and a bunch of red mulch. Within a week they had ripped out the beautiful olive tree that had been growing in their front yard and replaced everything with bark and a few small potted plants. It looks fine, but it's not especially creative and it's just a temporary solution until the bark turns to compost and starts growing weeds.
We have much to say about what the city is trying to accomplish with its landscape rules and how, but that would take a whole newsletter of its own. Suffice it to say that we disagree, but because we don't want to be fined ourselves, we have been trying to make steady progress on our front yard. The unfortunate thing about the Sanchezes barking their yard is that it makes both our yards look smaller and draws more attention to the fact that our former lawn area is still mostly sand. That will eventually change once we decide whether to install sod or artificial turf. Whichever one we go with we hope to use as little of as possible; lawn is water intensive and plastic is expensive to install.
There are other things we can do in the meantime, and one of those is to expand the driveway as we had talked about doing for more than two years. When we bought Roni's car in 2014, we found ourselves having to cope with three vehicles in our two-vehicle driveway. The old 1998 Corolla got moved to the weeds on one side of the driveway, waiting for the day Ben would get his driver's license and start using it again. The other two cars had to move over just far enough that Roni now parks halfway off the pavement, and the pavers we laid years ago as a walkway have sunk an inch or more because of the added weight.
We wanted to expand the driveway by a couple of feet, but we didn't want to use concrete, which would be too permanent and not look good. We decided on using cobblestones to do the job, but once we researched the cost and necessary steps for the project, we put it off. Now we have come back to the idea and have begun to prepare the ground. We ordered two pallets of stones from Lowe's that should be delivered just before Thanksgiving. While we wait, Glenn has been digging up the strip along the driveway, trying to work around the roots of our plum tree and moving the sand to the middle of the yard, where it will become part of the dry creek bed we are going to build.
None of the work is close to done, but we hope that for now any city officials who happen by — and there have been many in our neighborhood — will see that things are happening in our yard and leave us alone so we can work at our own pace. We should have more photos to show you by next month.
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ALLOWEEN IS JUST days away and it is one of our favorite seasons, but with all the yard work it has taken us away from the decorating we hoped to do. As usual. Our goal this year was to expand our cemetery scene. We didn't like the foam gravestones we bought last year because they tend to blow over in the wind, so this year we are trying our hand at concrete stones. Well, one or two. We have been doing a lot of concrete casting as part of our yard landscaping project — more on that another time — and Glenn wanted to make a tombstone out of concrete. We made a simple mold and cast two stones this week. They are about an inch thick and weigh 10 pounds, which should make them fairly sturdy. Now we just have to paint them up.
We'll probably still carve jack o'lanterns, and Roni has already put up some of her other displays on the front porch now that we've liberated it from the construction and paint supplies. We hope the weather will be nice for trick or treaters — and that no one will fall into the trench we've dug along the edge of the driveway.
Roni participated in the Delta Protection Commission's annual flood safety fair held Oct. 22 at the Delta Farmer's Market at the Highway 12/160 intersection near Rio Vista. She brought the Delta Science Center booth to the show, mostly as a favor to the fair's organizers, and we enjoyed four hours being out at the market on a nice warm Saturday. Attendance was sparse, sadly, but those who came got to learn about the Dutra Museum of Dredging, the state's levee management plan, the benefits of flood insurance, and had a chance to tour fire engines and marine patrol boats staffed by some of the area's first responders.
For the DSC's part, we wanted a display that reflected the theme of the fair, so Roni came up with the idea of doing a model of a levee break. She bought a long, flat storage container that we filled with sand and sculpted it into the shape of a levee, with a farm on one side and the river on the other. The rocky rip-rap that is used to control wave erosion on a real levee we simulated with colored beach pebbles that we spread over the sand. Then we poured in 2 gallons of water and watched for the next few hours to see what happened.
The water wicked into the sand, and eventually everything was soaked. The farm scene we'd set up, using foam blocks to represent structures and plastic animals to serve as livestock, was a soggy mess by the end of the day — which is exactly the way most Delta islands would be if it weren't for pumps to keep intruding groundwater out. The display was a hit with the folks who stopped by our booth.
After the show we picked up some baked goods from the farmer's market (including an apple pie that mostly found its way all over the back of the car) and then drove into Rio Vista for a late lunch at Lucy's Café, one of our favorite restaurants there.
Eevee has taken a turn for the worse after showing steady signs of improvement nearly three months after he was diagnosed with pancreatitis. He has suddenly become more reluctant to eat and recently developed a severe limp in one of his hind legs. We have put him on subcutaneous fluids and appetite stimulants once again, but we are beginning to lose hope that he will ever fully recover. Lately he spends a lot of time sleeping in his favorite spot in one corner of the living room, except for the times when he gets up to hide because he knows Roni is planning to give him another shot. Poor cat's been through so much, but we keep trying to help him because we love him.
That's going to do it for this month. Happy Halloween, and we'll write more in November.