Home Reviews

Extension cord safety tips for homeowners.

Extension cords are common household items that almost everyone takes for granted. So I was surprised recently to learn just how dangerous extension cords can be. Inspired, I went home to check mine out.  As I suspected, my cords were all ancient and ratty. It was time to head to our local “big box” to get replacements.

Confusing marketing

I was confronted by a wall of products at the store. So many that it stopped me in my tracks. The options were staggering. Adding to my confusion was heaps of mysterious and sometimes misleading information spread all over the packaging. Accordingly a new cord can be purchased in several versions including with a UL listing, 3-wire design, Multi-outlet, indoor only, outdoor weather resistant, 13amp, 1625 watt, 16/3, 125V, designer, basic, NEMA, reinforced blades, oil resistant, vinyl jacket and tangle-free. The cords were available in 3’,6’,10’, 12’, 15’, 25’, 50’, and 100’ lengths, and I could have them in white, brown, green, black, yellow, blue, pink, orange or red.  Even pink.

I got to thinking that if I am having this much trouble buying an extension cord, how in the world is the average joe ever going to able to do it? So, in this post, I am going to take you through my learning process and explain a few important and surprising things I discovered about extension cords. Hopefully it will help you.

Safety first

Construction sites are dangerous places, so the US government Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established regulations to help make them as safe as possible. One area of concern is working around electricity. After falls, electrical related injuries are the second leading cause of accidental death at work.  For this reason, has developed electrical safety procedures that prevent electrocution on the jobsite.

Homeowners can also benefit from these safety regulations. Let’s start with some simple OSHA best practices around extension cords. Since we all use extension cords at some time or another, these simple rules will help provide a much safer household for you and your family.

extension cord safety
An extension cord waiting to become an accident

A lot of people consider extension cords as little more than objects of convenience. When we need one, most of us are in the habit of grabbing any cord available.  Think back and you will probably remember times you used a cord with bent or broken prongs, exposed wires, missing ground plugs, or frayed jackets.

It is easy to overlook problems when in a hurry but we really need to think smarter about these products. Ignorance in this case can get you killed. Power cords are actually electrical tools. Tools that are used to provide a safe, flexible and extended high voltage electrical source for your power equipment. They need to be serviceable and in good condition.

Five OSHA Rules

Here are five really important OSHA extension cord rules you must learn and teach your family to follow:

Rule 1

Only use extension cords with GFCI protection. GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter and it will disconnect power if a potentially dangerous situation occurs. A GFCI compares current flowing through the cord and disconnects the power of there is a “leak” or imbalance of 4-6mA.  GFCI’s are not expensive and can be real life-savers. I recommend using extension cords with built-in GFCI’s. Otherwise you must have a GFCI outlet or circuit to plug into. Be certain  since not every outlet or circuit in your home is protected this way.  If you are on a job site or some other area where certainty about GFCI protection is in doubt, you can simply use a cord like this with a “built-in” GFCI device

Rule 2

Use only one cord per tool up to 100 feet in length. Do not exceed 100’ feet. If a project requires more than 100 feet in distance, a temporary power distribution box will need to be installed. Never plug one extension cord into another.  This mistake can lead to fires, equipment failures and electrocution. A cords’ power ratings vary by wire size and length. Plugging two cords together reduces their current capacity in half which will result in voltage drop and overheating. Purchase heavy duty cords with 10-12 gauge wire. This avoids worrying about voltage drop problems. This gauge wire will handle any of your power tools without problems even at 100’ lengths. Forget about buying or using cheaper cords made with smaller gauge wire.

Rule 3

Do not use a damaged cord. A damaged and repaired cord is easy to spot as it will likely have tape on it. The cord may still work, but it is a violation of the OSHA regulations. Do not patch damaged extension cords. The only acceptable repair to a damaged cord is to cut off the damaged area and install a new male or female end. This may shorten the cord, but is safe and acceptable. Take care to protect you cords. It is easy to damage them by dropping tools or materials on them, by driving over them or pinching or kinking them.

Extension cord safety
Repaired extension cords are a no-no

Rule 4

Do not secure extension cords to walls or ceilings using metal nails or staples. Metal fasteners can easily damage the relatively soft flexible jacket of the cord.  Slight impacts, pinching or bending can damage the cord. Even pulling on the cable can wear through the jacket accidentally.

Rule 5

Do not run cords through doorways or under rugs. This rule helps avoid two causes of problems: trips/falls and traffic damage to the cord.  Lay the cords around the edges. Avoid laying cord across the room. Use cord protectors if they are exposed to any kind of traffic or abuse.

Extension Cord Safety Summary

  1. Every extension cord needs a GFCI
  2. Never plug one extension cord into another
  3. Do not repair damaged extension cords between the ends
  4. Do not hold extension cords in place by metal nails or staples
  5. Avoid running extension cords through doorways
  6. Learn how to properly coil and store your cord

Here are some references to extension cord safety put out by OSHA:

https://www.osha.gov/oshstats/commonstats.html

Recommendations:

For work get a 50’ or 100’ 12-gauge cord with a built in GFCI. An illuminated end feature can save a 200’ walk to and from the receptacle to check for power. Get a cord with high quality terminations (ends) and a heavy-duty protective jacket.  Keep your cords safe. Don’t allow heavy objects to run over them and store them properly when not in use. Forget clever and expensive coiling and storing products. Learn from Dirt Farmer Jay how the pro’s coil and store extension cords… https://youtu.be/eTpbh2zJGhA  

Cords are rated for hard or extra-hard usage per the National Electrical Code. The ratings must be indelibly marked along every foot of the cord. Examples of these codes are: S, ST, SO, and STO for hard service, and SJ, SJO, SJT, and SJTO for junior hard service.

  • Get a professional 50’ or 100’ 12-gauge cord with a built in GFCI.
  • Get a cord with an illuminated end. These reveal instantly that power is flowing and will save a 200’ walk to the receptacle.
  • Protect your cords. Don’t allow them to become trip hazards or allow heavy objects to run over them.
  • Store your cords properly.

What makes excellent asphalt?

Six steps to excellent asphalt
Award winning asphalt driveway

Here are the six steps to excellent asphalt paving for your driveway. Our Oregon home was recently awarded First Place for asphalt pavement construction on a residential project. Apparently paving contractor Knife River submitted our project to the Asphalt Pavement Association of Oregon for consideration.  And it won!

I was not aware that there were awards given out for quality asphalt work. But then I was not even aware that paving companies had an association. It was refreshing to learn that these trades care enough about their work to actually compete over who can do the best job. Here is the criteria for judging the award explained to us by Executive Director John Hickey who personally inspected the work for the Association.

  • Attention to detail—even seemingly minor flaws sometimes make the difference between placing and not.
  • High-quality workmanship—criteria include:
    • Uniform texture—make sure there is no segregation
    • Smooth tight joints—both longitudinal and transverse
    • Smooth tight matches—on all intersections, curbs, and/or appurtenances
  • Ride! Smoothness is crucial for placing in the competition
  • Overall appearance—layout and design will have an impact
  • Degree of difficulty—some jobs are tougher than others to build
Six steps to excellent asphalt paving
PM Jill, and the award

Scope of work

For our home, the key driveway concerns were durability and drainage. We need to drive heavy trucks with big horse trailers on the driveway. Because of this the paving and sub-structure had to be able to support these loads. The site is also on a slope so good drainage had to be designed into the driveway. 

Contractor considerations

At nearly 50,000 square feet, our driveway was a large job (for us) so we wanted to get it right the first time. Knife River Corporation came strongly recommended by both friends and our general contractors. They are a substantial and capable company. Unfortunately, they were not the lowest bid. After some deliberation we decided to suck it up and pay the piper, and looking back now I am glad we did.  We came out winners in the end because I believe Knife River delivered way more value than their higher initial cost.

Our project manager, Jill Hawkins took time to do much more than just measure the surface. She evaluated the existing underlying base material, and shot grades to make sure we had proper drain slopes. In order to get the driveway to properly shed water by gravity, Jill found and removed some rocky areas before starting the job. This required use of a large jackhammer to remove a high spot. She also made sure that existing finished areas of the home were protected from harm during the work. Along 130′ of the driveway, the asphalt abuts a nicely finished concrete parking area and a rough boulder retaining wall.  

Installation

The installation team also worked hard to ensure a quality job. Joints were smooth and almost imperceptible. Edges were crisp and hand compacted. The paving machine operator never let the mix get cool or run out completely between loads. This made the transitions seamless and nearly invisible. Jill’s team actually invented a manual compaction method to get the paving tightly fit between the retaining wall boulders.  It was a bit painstaking for guys used to working with road graders and steam rollers. But the result was amazing!

Six steps to excellent asphalt paving
The awesome Knife River paving crew

Even the batch plant participated in the quality by making sure every load delivered was uniform and perfect.

Six steps to excellent asphalt paving
Asphalt paving day

Summary

Just like other parts of the project, the paving took care, forethought and cooperation to produce a quality result. Our gratitude goes out to Knife River corporation, Jill, her team and everyone else who participated in this quality job.

Six steps for excellent quality asphalt paving

  1. Good foundation material-base. Appropriate for the projected use.
  2. Good drainage, no pooling or standing water.
  3. Smooth transitions, invisible and imperceptible when driven on.
  4. Appropriate excellent mix, uniform in texture and well compacted
  5. Good installation methods and practices
  6. Maintenance (check back for posts on maintaining asphalt paving)

Learning to build a roof overhead was a great intellectual leap in mankind’s quest for decent shelter. Walls were a fairly easy idea and could be built intuitively with stones or timbers. But learning to construct a waterproof span over an open space took some innovation.

The first roofs were a simple layering of leaves. Then came combinations of leaves and sticks. Eventually we learned to apply materials like clay or dried mud to sloped timbers in order to shed water away. Finally trusses were invented that could span great lengths and support heavier (and more durable) materials like slate and tile. The evolution continues today with the use of steel and high tech waterproof membranes. Each new innovation allows for more and more architectural possibilities.

Central vacuum cleaning sheets

Central vacuum motor

Fresh air for a stinky appliance

Your central vacuum is not just a major appliance, it’s also a massive pipe system. Only the central power unit of this system is visible. The main piping lays hidden. A central vacuum system may have hundreds of feet of plastic pipe meandering through your walls, attic, crawlspace, basement, and soffits.

Keeping it clean

Central vacuums are really handy. If you have one, it’s likely to be put into service frequently, and will often be used to suck up rather filthy debris.  In time, this process will build-up a layer of dirt on the insides of the pipes and leave the entire system smelling, well, dirty.

The solution

Central vacuum cleaning sheetsWhen suctioned through the hose, these treated sheets rub on the inside of the piping. This action cleans the pipe walls as the sheets travel through the system to the main vacuum unit. Along the way, the sheets will often collide with stuck objects in the tubes. Crayons, nerf balls, batteries, model cars, dried candy, hair-balls, cocoa puffs, and just about anything else will get pushed along by the moving sheets and end up in the main vacuum canister.

How it works

Central vac pipes in wall framing
Central Vacuum Piping

This reason this works is because vacuum cleaning sheets are designed with the perfect balance of size, density and moisture to create suction pressure. The pressure causes the sheets to adhere and scrub on the interior walls of the pipe. As the sheets travel through the pipes they wipe and clean the surfaces.

If the system is old you may want to repeat the process several times. Run sheets through from all the various ports starting with the closest and moving outward to the others.

The powerfully pleasant scent leaves the entire system smelling clean and fresh. Even the exhaust air exiting the main unit is fresher because after passing through the system, the cleaning sheets simply remain in the bin till emptied.  I did not find a scent-free version but you may be able to achieve similar results by using unscented dryer sheets for the same purpose.

Cleaning sheets for central vacuum piping

Can cleaning sheets clog your pipes?


If your system has experienced a tough clog, this product should push it all through. Unfortunately there is a chance it could get stopped up even more. That may turn out to be a good thing as sometimes clogging the pipe can actually help the vacuum build enough pressure to force the mess through.

If not, then the clog was certain to be a problem anyway because something is stuck fast in the piping or hose. If you have something stuck like this, you may need to have your contractor come out and free up the problem. Once the problem is cleared you will be able to use the service sheets again with no issues.

Summary

Cleaning sheets are easy to use if you follow the directions. Simply vacuum a cleaning sheet through the hose at each wall port.  Repeat the process after each use thereafter. The product comes in a container with 25 sheets so you may want to get several containers. The result is a cleaner, fresher-smelling system with stronger, uninterrupted air flow. Plus a happier homeowner! I can attest to that…and you can get them here.

The nastiest place in your home may surprise you

Crawlspace, the filthiest place in your home
Where is all my heat going? And what is that smell??
Crawlspace, the filthiest place in your home
How many problems can you spot? Let me know??

Beware… an invisible, unhealthy area of your home may be making you sick.

Where is the nastiest place in your home? Behind the refrigerator? Under the washing machine? Around the toilet? Nope. The nastiest place in your home is a place you may not even be aware of… and it’s right under your feet.

If you want a good a scare, check your crawlspace.

Under your floor is the crawlspace, an area rife with dust, disease and crawly creatures. Some are alive… and some not so much. This small dark world may be out of sight, but its toxic environment permeates your every breath, and affects the health of the entire structure…even in the most beautiful and expensive homes. the crawlspace is truly the filthiest place in your home.

What’s a crawlspace

Crawlspaces are shallow, uninhabitable areas located between the soil and the first floor of the home. They are typically excavated below grade and are meant to provide ventilation and access to the foundation, framing, and utility systems running below the floor. This area is avoided by everyone except brave plumbers and termite inspectors and who can blame them? These areas are dark, barely accessible and dangerous. They are also the filthiest place in your home.

Out of sight, out of mind

After just a few years of neglect, crawl areas can become universally unhealthy and dangerous places for humans. Even for pros equipped with protective gear, descending into a crawlspace abyss is no picnic. Inspectors daring to go into the crawlspace, are regularly confronted with abandoned construction debris, mold, termites, spiders, wood rot, plumbing leaks, mud, standing water, raw sewage, sharp nails, empty beer cans, reptiles and both living and deceased rodents. One large luxury home HPS worked on had 37 rodent carcasses under the home. That must have been nice to live with.

Dreadful air quality makes for the nastiest place in your home

Homeowners would be absolutely appalled if they could see the conditions just inches under their feet. Here’s the really bad part. Even though you don’t see it, the crawlspace is affecting you. The reason for this is that air from the crawlspace permeates into your home and mixes with the air you breathe. It gets in through leaky heating ducts, around oversized holes cut for plumbing and electrical lines and through minute cracks or other openings in the subfloor.

Water in the crawlspace

The filthiest place in your home
How to dress for a crawlspace visit

The dirt floor of the crawlspace is below grade, so any drainage issues from outside will allow water to find its way in.  Moisture in your crawlspace means a big “F” on your home’s drainage report card. You may have a problem with overflowing gutters, disconnected downspouts, poorly sloped splash blocks, bad perimeter grades, failed perimeter foundation drains, broken water lines or all of the above. You may also have a home that was built over a spring or is subject to runoff water from neighbors.

In really serious cases, crawlspaces can have several inches of standing water collected in them. Any water in the crawlspace can cause mold, mildew and elevated humidity problems in the house. All of these problems contribute to poor air quality. Moist soil and standing water will also soften the foundation footings and allow settlement and eventual foundation damage to occur.

A wet crawlspace screams that something is wrong, so the first thing you should do is figure it out and fix it. You may need some professional help with tracking this down. Learn more about perimeter drainage systems and how they work by visiting my foundation and drain pages.  Eliminating moisture makes crawlspace clean-up and repair much easier.  

Fight back

The good news is that bad crawlspaces can be fixed. A bit of clean-up and the repair of broken ducts and drainage problems will make a huge difference. There are professionals out there who will even do this for you.  Because the work is dirty, dangerous and must be done in dark, cramped conditions it is not inexpensive. Call and get several proposals.  

If you are brave, you might consider doing the clean up job yourself. It won’t be easy or fun but it will be worth the effort.

Here’s a plan:

Keep safety in mind first. Wear protective gear and make sure you arrange good lighting and fresh air.  Make sure the access hole is large enough to get in and out safely.  If you are claustrophobic, let someone else do this work. Crawl the entire area making observations and taking. Photos will shorten your time under the home and allow you to review them at length later so that you can make a plan of attack.  

Once you have created a strategy of attack, you can get on with cleaning up the filthiest place in your home.

The filthiest place in your home
A relatively clean crawlspace (uninsulated) w/no liner

The filthiest place in your home clean up checklist

  • Bring in fans to dry out any moisture and provide fresh air.
  • Repair or replace any damaged ducting and strap it properly up to the floor joists.
  • If insulation is in place, check around the plumbing and ducts to see if there are any openings through the subfloor.
  • Secure and reinstall any loose insulation.
  • If there are hanging wires, have an electrician check them out, make them safe and secure them to the framing.
  • Have a plumber check out the system and to secure any loose plumbing and water lines.
  • Seal any and all holes in the subfloor. The idea is to stop air migration between the crawlspace and the living area. Areas that typically have problems are bathtubs, heat ducts, air vents, wire and pipe penetrations.
  • Close any holes in screens or other perimeter openings that might allow rodents to enter. Check the foundation vents and be sure they are sufficient to meet the ventilation code.
Crawlspace liner
Crawlspace after clean up and liner

Summary

If your home stinks or smells musty all the time, something is likely wrong in the the crawlspace, the filthiest place in your home. Have a professional check it out and take photos. Most termite companies will do this for you. Don’t hesitate to clean up any messes found in your crawlspace. With a little work you can turn the nastiest place in your home into a surprisingly clean area that will help breath some fresh air into your life.


Door locks-hardware have actually been around for quite a long time. Some person with something very precious to protect came up with a basic wooden pin-lock mechanism around 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia. That lock was opened with a wooden key. What’s surprising is the mechanics haven’t really changed much in all that time. Most homes today still use a pin-lock cylinder mechanism just like that only in metal. Ours open with a metal key. If you are like most homeowners, you probably have a key for your front door.

How to care for your stainless steel appliances

This may sound silly, but even stainless steel needs love. Well, maybe not. But if you can’t give it love… at least you might want to give it care.

Homeowners guide to maintaining stainless steel
Stainless steel BBQ

What is stainless steel

Stainless steel is a truly wonderful material and it is surprisingly new to the industrial world. It’s made from a very precise alloy of iron, nickel, chromium and carbon. The term alloy refers to metals made with blends of various elements such as this. What makes this steel alloy so special is its resistance to corrosion. Corrosion resistance comes from a chromium content of at least 10.5%, mixed with small amounts of molybdenum. Apparently, rust doesn’t like that mix.

Steel’s resistance to corrosion and pitting increases with higher amounts of chromium and molybdenum. Unfortunately, there are limits and some drawbacks to going too far with this. Increasing the amounts of chromium and moly too much can weaken and increase the brittleness of the metal. This means that there is no single magic bullet, or “best” alloy when it comes to stainless steel. The result is a multitude of special stainless grades. All these come with infinitely varying chromium and molybdenum ratios to address the many applications and environments they must operate in.  Choosing, or even creating the right grade of stainless steel for the job is an important and exacting metallurgical science.

In the beginning 

In 1913 Harry Brearley led a team of scientists in Sheffield, England to develop the first stainless metal alloy.  Since then, more than 250 stainless steel grades have been created to meet various needs.  Of all those grades, there are five basic types: Ferritic, Austenitic, Martensitic, Duplex and Precipitation steel.

The most exotic stainless

There is a sixth and fairly exotic family of stainless called Superalloys. As a homeowner, you can basically ignore these. Superalloys are much stronger and more durable than the others. They are also hard to make, very rare and thus come with extremely high prices. Space exploration, nuclear weapons and submarines apparently all need superalloys. I’m sure our military loves the stuff. However, homeowners needn’t care about it unless you are planning to build a DIY nuclear accelerator in the back yard.

The homeowner’s guide to common stainless grades

Here are the main grades of stainless steel that homeowners should know about:

304

This is a common grade of stainless steel that you see every day. 304 contains a minimum of 18% chromium and 8% nickel. It is ferrous (magnetic) and used in the manufacture of many mass market household appliances like refrigerator skins, BBQs and even the bodies of the Delorean automobile.

316

This is a slightly higher quality “marine” grade. 316 contains 16% chromium, 10% nickel and 2% molybdenum. Molybdenum helps resist corrosion from chloride (salt). Metal parts exposed to the ocean or other salt environments are perfect for 316 material.  316 stainless makes great food machinery, precision tools, surgical instruments and even jewelry. It is commonly built into boats and extremely durable outdoor rated appliances. The most durable BBQ’s are made with this type of stainless steel. See how to buy a BBQ.

Homeowners guide to stainless steel
Stainless steel brewing chamber

409

This material is not attractive and does not polish well.  409 stainless is the material of choice for engine exhaust systems. It is also used in applications where corrosion resistance is desired and aesthetics are secondary.  

420

420 stainless has a higher carbon content than some and is thus stronger and harder. Flatware, cutlery, surgical and dental instruments, scissors, tapes and straight edges are all made from 420 stainless steel.

430

430 is not very hard or hardenable, but it has good aesthetics, corrosion resistance and formability. It is one of the few stainless materials that can be easily rolled into flat sheets and formed into shapes. Dishwasher interiors, chimney liners, wire lashings, auto trim and other decorative products are all made from 430 stainless steel.

440

Known as razor steel, 440 is a very hard and high grade stainless used for fine cutlery, knives and razor blades. 440 can be sharpened without losing its hardness, and is unaffected by food, acids and other corrosive materials. These characteristics make for long wearing, durable sharpness which is ideal for cutting edges. 

904L

This is an extremely high quality, non-ferrous stainless steel. It has a bright, beautiful appearance combined with good machining properties. It is used for the manufacture of one the most sought-after wristwatches in the world, the Rolex Stainless Steel Daytona. Critical parts for top-secret US military machinery and submarines are made from 904 L stainless. Unfortunately I can’t tell you about those.

Homeowners guide to stainless steel maintenance
Rolex Stainless Steel Daytona

General care

When first manufactured stainless steel is ultra tough, but contamination can adversely affect its surface during later fabrication. Debris, dirt residue like free iron, grease and machining oils can all collect on the surface. These are usually microscopic and can go unseen to the human eye. These pollutants weaken the metals resistance to surface corrosion and make it more susceptible to degradation. This microscopic contamination can allow stainless steel to corrode and explains why some low-cost products will develop “rust spotting”.

Passivation

A process called “passivation” or pickling can return some corroded stainless steel surfaces back to original specifications. Passivation aggressively removes the contaminants from the surface and neutralizes any unwanted electrical charges. It then washes the material in a protective bath, and coats it with a sealer. The process is labor intensive, but it purifies and protects the surface of the stainless steel and allows the metal to protect itself. Years ago I developed a good formula for the passivation of high-quality outdoor stainless steel railings and other materials. We use it at HPS frequently for our clients with homes exposed to marine environments. If you are interested in the “pickling” process, the recipe for it can be found here.

Stainless steel passivation
Polishing stainless steel

Cleaning

Do not scrub stainless steel with an abrasive. Appliances with stainless steel have a very uniform, machine applied finish. It is surprisingly easy to scratch. Any use of an abrasive will mess up the machine marks and permanently ruin the finish. Simply clean stainless steel with mild detergent, water and a soft cloth. 

Also, never, ever use steel wool to clean stainless material. Its abrasiveness will ruin the machine finish and also embed microscopic particles of iron onto the surface. These particles will begin rusting almost immediately and destroy the finish. As tough as stainless steel is, the cosmetics are delicate. If you scratch or mar the surface, you may have to replace the part. Refrigerator and dishwasher fronts are often the victims of damage thanks to kids or overzealous housekeepers. It is possible to replace the damaged front “skins” on some of these appliances, but it can be expensive. Perhaps it would be better to just place a magnetic reminder over the damage. It should say “Don’t scratch me!”

Cooling Off A Hot Attic

Cooling a hot attic
Your attic is hot! Here’s how to cool it off

Most of the U.S. is broiling under a heat wave at the moment. From the Midwest to the East Coast a sweltering parade of 100-degree days seems to be marching across the country without end.  Severe weather is the norm these days, and when times are hot like they are right now, it’s nice to have a cool home to retreat into. But if the interior of your house is roasting too, you’ll be glad to learn there are some hacks that can help with cooling it down. Let’s start with cooling down your attic.

What is an attic?

An attic is an uninhabitable space in your home that lies directly below your roof and above the ceiling framing of the top floor. On homes with tall, steep-pitched roofs, the attic spaces can be very large and voluminous. Homes with low pitched roofs will have very small and cramped attics.

Attics spaces are there to provide access to these areas for inspection, maintenance and service. Building codes require access to attic spaces but deem them uninhabitable because they lack things like insulation, floors, escape windows, climate control, fire resistance and other basic elements needed for safe human occupancy.

Conditions

Cooling a hot attic
A clean, empty attic space

Since attic spaces are not inhabitable, they are usually left rough and unfinished. Attics spaces contain exposed framing, insulation, roof nails, electrical wiring, plumbing pipes, and heating ducts. On rare occasions a conscientious builder might have installed a bare bulb work light and some planking to traverse across the ceiling joists safely.  That’s about it for attic amenities.

Attics are required by code to be passively ventilated to the outdoors, meaning outside air is encouraged to flow through the attic freely. If properly designed, fresh air will move in through screened openings around the eaves at the perimeter, then out at the upper areas of the roof through the natural movement of convection. Convection basically means hot air rises.

Since air flows freely through the attic, pollens, dust, smoke and any other pollutants in the air migrate in as well and accumulate onto the interior surfaces. Any insects and animals able to find their way through the screened eave vents or any openings in the siding will also take up residence there. Because of all this, an attic space is a place most people prefer to avoid.

Heat generation

Under ideal conditions and with perfect ventilation, air would naturally flow through the attic at a pace that would keep the space very close to the same temperature as the outside air. This would be similar to how your house would feel if you kept the windows and doors open all the time. On hot days the rooms would be hot and on cold days the rooms would be cold.

In reality the attic space is much different than rooms in your home.

Inside your home, the outside walls and ceilings of the rooms are insulated, and the wood framing is covered with drywall. In the attic there is no insulation from the exterior (roof) and no drywall on the framing. This allows much more heat gain in the attic as compared to the interior of your home. The reason is that heat is transferred into the attic from the sun as well as from the temperature of the outside air.

Radiant heat from the sun

It works like this. The attic starts out the day with a volume of air that is about the same temperature as the outside air. As the day progresses, sunlight radiates down on the home heating up the surface of the roof.  As the roof surface temperature rises, this heat transfers (conducts) down through the sheathing and rafter framing.

Thermodynamics and heat gain

Now the roof structural members and sheathing in the attic space are hot and they begin to transfer heat to their surroundings. They do this in a couple of ways. 1) heat radiates from the roof framing down through the attic and heats up anything it comes in contact with including stored boxes, the ceiling framing, furnace ducts, wiring, ceiling insulation, dust, dead rodents, etc.  2) All the hot items in the attic (framing, sheathing, toys, boxes, insulation, dust etc.) now begin to conduct (or transfer) heat to the surrounding air molecules that come in contact with it. This all happens fairly quickly.

The process described above produces heated air much faster than it can be exchanged through ventilation. The result is an extremely hot attic.

The sun’s radiant heat is the engine for all this, and the process continues as long as the sun is shining on the structure. Even after the sun goes down, the hot items in the attic will continue to radiate and conduct heat keeping the air inside warm long after the outside temperature has cooled down.

Convection

Once the air in the attic has become hot, another thermodynamic process called convection occurs.  Convection is the characteristic that makes hot air rise and cool air sink ,and it is at this point where a good ventilation system comes into play. As the air inside the attic becomes hot, it will rise to the highest point in the roof and escape through any vents placed there for that purpose. (Continuous ridge vents are good for allowing hot air to escape at the place it collects.) As the hot air escapes out the top, cool air will be sucked in at the lower eave level to replace it.

Unfortunately, radiant heat causes the temperature of the attic to rise faster than the air can be exchanged through passive ventilation (convection).  Large mechanical fans aiding the ventilation process may help some (by moving the hottest air out faster), but that will not prevent the radiant process from continuing to elevate the temperature of the entire attic structure and all its contents.  In other words, faster air exchange (convection) may reduce the temperature of the attic air, but that will do little or nothing to cool the structural elements and contents because they are continually being heated by the radiant process.

So what’s wrong with a hot attic?  

A hot attic it makes for a hotter house. This results in higher cooling bills and the need for thicker insulation above the ceiling. Another problem is any ducting in the attic will be heated and the heat will transfer into any the duct and warm any cool air moving through it and into the home. Also, any equipment in the hot attic will have to work harder to do its job and thus the life will be shortened. No heat sensitive items can be stored in a hot attic.  You will be tempted to purchase an attic fan.

So how can you make a cooler attic?

Step one: Ventilation

Thanks to the radiant heat affect, attic temperatures on a 100-degree day can reach 170 degrees or more. That is certainly too hot, but how hot is OK? At the very best, conventionally ventilated attics can never be cooler than the outside air temperature. This is because the attic is essentially open to the outside air.  If the air outside is 100 degrees in the shade, your attic cannot ever be cooler than that. But even 100 degrees in your attic would be much better than 155, so how can we move the temperature in that direction?

Passive venting

The easiest way to start is to maximize the passive ventilation in your attic. Make sure you have the most ventilation your home can handle. Code requires 1 square foot of vent opening to 150 square feet of attic space. I personally don’t feel that is near enough because the total volume of air that needs to be exchanged can vary quite a bit with the pitch of the roof. In addition, locating the vents is just as important. You will need as much square footage of vent at the apex of the roof as at the perimeter eaves. Put in as much as you can.

Mechanical fans

Cooling a hot attic
Attic fan

If you plan to use an attic fan to exhaust hot air out of the attic, make sure you have enough incoming air vents around the perimeter to accommodate the extra flow. Otherwise you can create negative pressure in the attic that will suck expensive conditioned air out of your living area.

Good ventilation improves the convection process. It helps to move some of the overheated attic air out and replace it with fresh “outside” temperature air.  But this is not enough. Now we have to deal with the cause of the heat gain.

Step two: Radiant barriers

Once you have mastered the ventilation problem, the next step is to install radiant heat barriers. These barriers will help to reduce the heat gain created by the sun and prevent it from radiating from the roof throughout your attic. Radiant barriers are very effective in hot climates and especially effective when heating/cooling air ducts are located in the attic. Studies have shown these barriers will reduce a/c cooling costs 5% to 10% in hot, sunny climates. The reduced heat gain may even allow for a smaller air conditioning system.

Installation

Installation is fairly easy when building a new home. Simply drape the barrier between the roof rafters. Placing the material just under the sheathing will minimize dust accumulation on the reflective faces. Retrofitting barriers later can be more difficult. Space is tight when working in the attic and there will likely be framing, braces, wiring, plumbing ducts and other obstructions to work around.

It’s important to allow an inch or so of air space clearance between the attachment points and the bottom of the roof. The radiant foil will heat up, and the air space will allow the heat to migrate up and ventilate out. A couple of safety notes: Radiant foil will conduct electricity, so avoid making contact with bare electrical wiring. The foil may also interfere with cell phone reception. Please refer to the reflective insulation trade association as they offer other information and excellent installation tips.

Radiant barriers create invisible shade

What the reflective barriers do is halt the heat from the roof area from radiating down to the other interior areas and contents of the attic. The heat stops at the upper reaches of the roof framing. The barriers shield the area below that would normally themselves become heat sources (ceiling joists, cross braces, equipment, boxes with Christmas decorations and ducting etc.) that would then conduct heat to the air and make the attic hot.

cool a hot attic
Attic radiant heat barriers installed

As discussed above, these solutions work. Radiant barriers will immediately reduce temperatures in your attic. The improvements will be significant, perhaps 20-25% lower than temperatures prior, but as mentioned earlier the temperature in your attic using these methods will never be lower than the outside air temperature. If the outside temperature is 110 degrees in the shade, your attic will always be hotter than that.

 

Cooling your attic
A very hot 170 degree attic

A conditioned-space attic…the ultimate solution

If you want a truly cool attic, you can convert it to conditioned space. I have used this option personally several times and highly recommend it. It requires some work and has a cost but it is worth it.  A conditioned-space attic will keep the entire home cooler in summer, warmer in winter, while prolonging the life of any attic mounted equipment, and improving air quality in the home.

Creating a conditioned space attic means sealing up all eave/roof ventilation openings, removing the insulation between the ceiling/attic space then adding foam insulation to the underside of the entire roof system down to the wall plates.  This turns your roof and attic into a kind of thermos and the air in the attic area becomes (conditioned) the same temperature as the interior of the home.  This idea is not new but some building departments are not yet aware. Check the building codes in your area.

The key to a successful conditioned-space attic is to heavily insulate the roof diaphragm and completely seal it.  Any air allowed to migrate will eventually find a cold place on which to condense and cause mold/dryrot. This sounds simple enough, but the frame of a highly complex roof has many places that might allow air to pass through.

High-tech foam

The solution that makes the conditioned space attic possible is spray foam insulation. Foam insulation is a chemical product created by mixing isocyanate and polyol resin. When these chemicals come together they form millions of tiny air bubbles and quickly expand up to 60x. The bubbles in the foam create extremely high insulation qualities per inch and the finished solution blocks the three primary forms of heat transfer, including radiant heat. Simultaneously it fills and seals any voids in and around the framing and allows no air/moisture filtration. This is a perfect storm solution for roof applications. 

cool a hot attic
Spray foam insulation

On my projects, I like to use a closed-cell foam product blown on by hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) to avoid any environmental or global warming impacts. Closed cellfoam provides a higher R-value per inch and is completely air/moisture tight.

With a conditioned-space attic there are no vents to the outside air. The removal of screened vent openings eliminates the infiltration of dust, smoke, pollens, insects, rodents and birds as well as heat and cold. Eliminating dirty air migration from the attic greatly improves air quality in the home.

Summary

Designing a cool attic can be tricky and requires a basic understanding of thermodynamics and how air and moisture migrate through a home. The combination of sufficient ventilation and the ability to control radiant heat gain are keys to success. Before you go out and spend money on fans or barriers take time to study your roof and attic to come up with a reasonable plan. Using this guide will help you have a cooler summer.

 GFCI’s help keep you safe, but don’t last forever!

It is always a bit frightening to learn that something meant to make your life safer has a deadly dark side. Today’s surprise villains are GFCI protected outlets… and they are everywhere. These outlets are a mandated part of your home electrical system and are designed to keep you safe from shock. They do a great job too, as long as they are working. Unfortunately, GFCI’s can silently fail leaving your life at risk. Regular service as described here can reduce the risk of failure, but most homeowners will never know, because although GFCI’s are mandated, proper maintenance is not.

shocking news about GFCI's
Pop-up GFCI outlet

Purpose of GFCI

GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. These are special electrical outlets in your home that stop the flow of electricity if any abnormal current flow takes place. Their purpose is to prevent a possible electric shock.

Starting in 1971, the electrical codes have required you to have GFCI outlets in your kitchen, around the backsplashes, and in each bathroom in your house. They are required in any potentially wet location. Also, any exterior outlets around your house, are required to be connected to a GFCI-protected circuit.

Types

There are two types of GFCIs. GFCI “circuit breakers” and GFCI “receptacles”. GFCI receptacles are used extensively inside the house where they are safe from weather and easier to reset.  Circuit breaker types work better for protecting exterior outlets since they can be better sheltered in a service panel. The main disadvantages of GFCI circuit breakers over receptacles are cost and inconvenience (resetting). The advantage is circuit breaker types will typically outlast GFCI receptacles as they are not exposed to the rigors of the outdoors.

Most homeowners have had to “reset” a GFCI outlet at some point? You can do this by pressing the RESET button after it has tripped. GFCI’s can sometimes trip because of power surges, electrical storms, or just by overloading the circuit. The fact is, unless they have tripped, you probably don’t really think much about them. That could be a dangerous error.

How GFCI’s Work

A normal 120-volt outlet in the United States, has two vertical slots and then a round hole centered below them. The left slot is slightly larger and is the “neutral,” the right slot is the “hot”. The hole below them is called the “ground.” If an appliance is working safely, all electricity that it uses will flow from hot to neutral in exactly equal amounts.

A GFCI outlet monitors that current and if there is any imbalance in the flow, it trips the circuit. The GFCI senses any mismatch (as small as 4 milliamps,) and interrupts the circuit almost instantly (one-thirtieth of a second.) These specs are important because at around 10 milliamps, human muscles will lock up from electrical shock, making them unable to release whatever is causing the shock. Just two seconds of sustained current can cause death.

Mechanics

Shocking news about GFCI's
GFCI breakers w/blue test buttons

When the reset button is pressed, the spring-loaded contacts close, allowing current to pass. An internal solenoid connected to a sensing coil keeps the contacts closed.

 The sensing coil surrounds (but is not electrically connected to) the hot and neutral conductors. In normal operation, the current moving down the hot conductor returns up the neutral conductor and the currents are equal and opposite and cancel each other out.

Any fault to ground, caused for example by a person touching a live component in the attached appliance, will cause some of the current to take a different return path, creating an imbalance in the current flow.

This imbalance causes a current in the sensor coil which then releases the spring-loaded contacts and cutting off the electricity supply to the appliance.

All this happens in milliseconds, greatly reducing the chances of a dangerous shock being received.

The test button allows the correct operation of the device to be verified. This simulates a fault by creating an imbalance in the sense coil. If the GFCI does not trip when this button is pressed, then the device must be replaced.

GFCI Outlet Service Life

GFCI outlets don’t last forever. This means that some of yours may no longer be protecting you as they should. Functional GFCI outlets likely save thousands of lives every year by preventing electrical shocks from wet hands, improper use of extension cords, touching bare exposed wires etc. But only if they are working.

The average GFCI outlet has a service life of only 10 years. If your home is older than that, there’s a good chance that at least some of your GFCI outlets aren’t working properly. If your area is subject to corrosion, high humidity and/or frequent storms or power surges, it is possible for GFCI outlets to become non-functional in 5 years or even less.

Compounding the problem, contractors and developers often buy GFCI’s in bulk which usually nets the most cheaply made units on the market. Using higher quality receptacles will give a longer life span so buy specification grade, commercial grade, or hospital grade. These are much higher quality GFCI’s for just a few dollars more.

Testing your GFCI

Failed GFCI outlet

The best way to see if your GFCI outlet is still doing its job is to test it. To do so, the outlet must be powered up. An unpowered GFCI outlet can’t be tested, and it won’t allow you to reset it until it’s powered.

The simplest way is to press the TEST button on the outlet. Doing this creates a fault to ground and interrupts the flow of electricity. This in turn pops out the spring-loaded RESET button. You can then press the RESET button to reconnect the circuit and resume normal operation. Common GFCI outlets have a red TEST button and a black RESET button, though newer outlets may look different.

Press the TEST button and if the GFCI doesn’t trip, replace it as soon as possible. If your test causes the outlet to trip but the RESET button won’t reset, that means it needs to be replaced (it probably wasn’t protecting you anyway). A GFCI outlet can’t be reset if it’s not getting power so check that the breaker isn’t tripped before deciding that the GFCI outlet is faulty.

You should test your GFCI outlets ay least quarterly. It’s extra work, but it really could save your life.

Outlet Testers

The best way to test a GFCI outlet is with a device that actually creates a ground such as this Triplett Plug-Bug:

GFCI outlet tester

I get them for my entire crew here for under $7 on Amazon. Just plug it into the outlet, press the button on the tester and see whether your GFCI outlet trips. Testers like this one have Indicator lights to show whether any outlet (GFCI or standard) is wired properly. It can identify common problems like an open ground, open neutral, open hot, or reversed wires. Sometimes an outlet will not look like a normal GFCI but the when tested the circuit will go dead. In that case you either have a GFCI breaker in the main panel, or the outlet you tested is “downstream” from another GFCI outlet located somewhere else. If so you will need to search for the breaker or outlet and reset.

Replacement Protocol

There is no way to take outlets apart to make repairs.  If they are found to be defective they must be replaced. Here is the replacement protocol HPS recommends to their clients: Use a tester to check and verify GFCI operation every quartier. For the first five years replace one at a time as needed. After five years when one fails, replace them all.  

I save money by buying high quality GFCI outlets in quantities. I recommend these 15A GFCI outlets by Eaton. Eaton makes great quality products but what I really like is that these GFCI outlets do a regular self-test. A blinking red LED indicator means they’ve reached the end of their service life and need to be replaced. If you don’t have HPS. or can’t remember to manually test your GFCI outlets regularly, using these self-testing versions are a good option. NOTE: Make sure when ordering to match color with your existing outlets and switches.

Safety First

Testing your own GFCI outlets is definitely something any homeowner can (and should) do. Replacing a GFCI outlet that has reached the end of its service live is something average homeowners should leave to a professional licensed electrician.  If you ignore this advice, just know that with any electrical work, it’s important to follow safety procedures such as shutting off the circuit at the breaker and testing all wires in an outlet box before touching anything. This is particularly important in boxes that contain more than one outlet and/or switch. Never assume that a wire is dead. Always use an electrical circuit tester before touching anything. If you don’t have one, you can get a circuit tester in a set with a GFCI outlet tester for less than $15. These are good tools that every homeowner should have.

Summary and Recommendations

GFCI outlets wear out and fail after a few years much like smoke and CO detectors. It is highly likely that some of your GFCIs have failed or are way past their intended service life. With your own tools, you can safely test your GFCI outlets. Have a licensed electrician replace any failed outlets. Another problem to avoid is locating a master GFCI (a GFCI controlling a number of non-GFCI outlets) in a closet or some other difficult to find location.  These can be time consuming and frustrating to find when tripped.

History of GFCI code changes

Various GFCI code enactments: 

1971 Receptacles within 15 feet of pool walls 
1971 All equipment used with storable swimming pools 
1973 All outdoor receptacles 
1974 Construction Sites 
1975 Bathrooms, 120-volt pool lights, and fountain equipment 
1978 Garages, spas, and hydro-massage tubs 
1978 Outdoor receptacles above 6ft.6in. grade access exempted 
1984 Replacement of non-grounding receptacles with no grounding conductor allowed, pool cover motors and  distance of GFCI protection extended to 20 feet from pool walls 
1987 Unfinished basementsKitchen countertop receptacles within 6 feet of sinkBoathouses 
1990 Crawlspaces (with exception for sump pumps or other dedicated equip.) 
1993 Wet bar countertops within 6 feet of sink 
1993 Any receptacle replaced in an area presently requiring GFCI 
1996 All kitchen counters – not just those within 6 feet of sinkAll exterior receptacles except dedicated de-icing tape receptacleUnfinished accessory buildings at or below grade 
1999 Exemption for dedicated equipment in crawlspace removed

Details and actual codes can be found here…

https://www.nachi.org/forum/showpost….18&postcount=1

 

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  • and generally how to be a better homeowner.

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Thank you!

Copyright and permission to use information.

If you have questions or just want to say hi, please send me a note. If you are looking for help performing the work described and you are in the San Francisco area, go to HPS Palo Alto Inc.and request a free evaluation.

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Outdoor-Rated Appliances And Why you Need Them.

Entertaining outdoors at home is more fun and exciting than ever. And thankfully it’s not all about pools anymore! Outdoor living has become an all year activity.

Today’s back yard experience centers more around food and drink. And homeowners love kitchens.  As a result, pizza ovens, elegant BBQ’s and patio heaters are now the dream features for the average back yard. Even wine and tiki bars are coming back!

Outdoor rated appliances
Outdoor rated refrigerator

Patio cooking for family and friends has become a central event for many homeowners. And of course, good cooks demand every convenience. Disposals, dishwashers, refrigerators, ice machines, coffee makers and microwaves are needed. And since the entertaining and cooking tasks have moved outdoors. The need for outdoor-rated appliances has become important.  

Harsher conditions

The outdoor environment is much harsher than indoors.  And any appliances placed permanently outside are going to have to endure some bad weather. Everything from widely changing temperatures, fluctuating humidity, fog, sun, dust and wind will all attack any equipment outside. And insects and animals will certainly find your outdoor kitchen appliances to be a cozy place to raise a family.  This is why every patio kitchen needs outdoor-rated appliances.

Tougher specifications

Outdoor-rated appliances have been specially designed for outdoor use and are tougher and more durable than indoor units. They are more corrosion resistant and have protected wiring and plumbing. The exteriors are sealed to keep out gnawing rodents and nesting insects. And outdoor rated equipment also has better insulation and moisture protection. Especially for the electronics. They are essentially “hardened” to the outdoor environment.

Every manufacturer has different specifications. Meaning some are tougher than others. So be sure to check them carefully before buying.

Prices

All this “hardening” comes at a cost. As a result, prices for outdoor-rated appliances are a bit higher than their indoor counterparts. Fortunately, they also appear to come with better warranties. Some are even advertised with limited lifetime guarantees. Despite the slightly higher costs, preventing a rat from living in your pizza oven or chewing up your refrigerator is affordable peace of mind.

Availability

Outdoor rated appliances
Outdoor rated dishwasher

Specialty outdoor-rated appliances are available over the web from BBQ Guys and can be shipped to you in just a few days.  Some of the appliances currently available with “outdoor” ratings include:

  • Cooktop burners
  • Ventilation hoods
  • Dishwashers
  • Refrigerators
  • Freezers
  • Ice makers
  • Warming drawers
  • Pizza ovens
  • Sinks and bar faucets
  • Wine coolers
  • Televisions (SunBrite and Sealoc make products in 4k up to 75 inches. 

Check out BBQ Guys Outdoor Kitchens at BBQGuys.com!

I could not locate true “outdoor-rated” small appliances like microwaves or coffee makers. But many were available in a “marine” grade. The drawback to marine grade appliances is they have different dimensions and voltages making them less suitable for home use.  The point is basically moot anyway. The portability of small appliances like coffee makers, toasters, blenders etc. makes them easier to move indoors when not in use. And their low cost makes them less painful to replace if you don’t.

Summary

If you want your outdoor kitchen equipment to last longer than a week or two, you need outdoor-rated appliances. Normal appliances will not survive long outdoors, and doing so will void the manufacturer warranty.  If you are putting together a quality outdoor kitchen, don’t make the mistake of using the wrong kind of appliances.

Be sure to read my article on “outdoor kitchen mistakes to avoid.”

Tips For Safer Fire Pit Fun

Outdoor fire pits have become extremely popular over the years. Wood or gas burning fire pits are the contemporary version of the old campfires. Fire pits are attractive design features of the “hip” patio or landscape. Fire pits are less costly or imposing compared a spa or swimming pool and almost anyone can afford one.

Fire pit safety and maintenance
Gas fire pit

These are great features to retire to in the evenings for casual conversation with friends over a few glasses of wine. Most fire pits are self-contained, easy to start and safe. Some of the gas units are so easy to use they can be turned on with a remote control.

Some Service Required

As fun as these backyard features are, they are not (you guessed it) maintenance free! To help you, I have provided some important maintenance and use tips below and separated them into three sections: General, Wood Burning and Gas Burning.

Whether your pit is wood burning or gas, these are good tips to help make your time around the fire pleasant, safe and uneventful.

General Fire Pit Safety Tips

Maintaining outdoor fire pits
Corten steel fire pit
  • Only use your firepit outside in an open space with plenty of air flow. Never use your fire pit under trees, low-hanging plants, or on/near anything flammable. Do not allow your fire pit to become the cause of a wildfire
  • Read the owner’s manual thoroughly so you know how to use and take care of your fire pit properly.
  • Learn the rules and always exceed the recommended clearance distances to combustibles. 
  • Never use accelerants such as gasoline, lighter fluid, alcohol, or other volatile liquids to start a fire. Accelerants are very dangerous and can damage your fire pit. Spewing mouths full of rum onto the fire is dangerous and not advised, even during festive celebrations.
  • Never, ever use plastic materials in or around your fire pit. Melted plastic is extremely difficult to remove and will ruin the fire pit’s surface. Burning plastic also releases toxic fumes into the air.
  • Always keep water or a fire extinguisher close by in case of emergency.
  • Place a cover over your fire pit when it’s not in use. Covers prevent water, dirt, and debris from collecting inside the burning area, and will prevent unnecessary rust, freeze/thaw, wear and tear from inclement weather conditions. Allow the fire pit to cool completely before covering it. If you live in a region with harsh winters, it’s best to cover or store your fire pit in a dry, sheltered area to keep it in proper working order.
  • Never leave your fire pit burning while unattended. Always make sure children are supervised and kept a safe distance away from the fire at all times. Don’t allow children to play in the flames
  • To clean your fire pit, follow the instructions in the owner’s manual. Generally, you can use a soft cloth and mild soapy water to clean the surface and outside of the fire pit. Avoid harsh chemicals and cleaning agents, unless otherwise approved by the manufacturer.

Important Note

Fire pits are made for outdoors. Never, ever use them in enclosed spaces. Unventilated fire pits produce buildups of toxic smoke and harmful gases, like carbon monoxide that can quickly become deadly. Always use a fire pit in an open space with plenty of air flow.

Wood Burning Fire Pit Safety

maintaining your fire pit
Outdoor wood burning fire pit
  • Only use properly seasoned, dry, split wood for fuel. Do not burn trash or pressure-treated wood. Burning pressure-treated wood releases toxins and chemicals into the air that are harmful to your health and the environment.
  • Learn how to properly start a wood fire using tiny pieces of kindling, then small twigs with larger pieces above them. Use clean dry material and it will work great. Don’t use accelerants like gas or BBQ starter fluid. They are not safe and can even create a foul odor around your pit.
  • Use a screen or spark arrestor to prevent sparks and embers from flying out.
  • Plan for time to allow the pit to burn out. It is best to allow it to burn down and out naturally. Monitor the fire as it does but do not leave it unattended. Avoid quickly extinguishing a pit fire with water. The application of cold water can cause steam pressure and the changes in temperature can damage your fire pit. You can use sand to extinguish the flames. Sand will smother the fire without damage to your fire pit, but you will need to clean the sand out before using your fire pit again.
  • Allow ashes to cool overnight by spreading them out in a thin layer over the fire pit’s surface. Remove the ashes the next day using a shovel and place them into a metal bucket with a lid. Ashes can stay hot for a while, so having a metal bucket with a secure lid will prevent them from scattering around and possibly igniting a fire.
  • If you’re using a cooking grate to prepare food over your wood burning fire pit, always clean up properly to avoid a build-up of grease and other food residue on and around the fire pit and cooking grate. This is unsightly and will attract vermin.

Gas Burning Fire Pit Safety

Maintaining your gas fire pit
Outdoor gas fire pit
  • Before each use, make sure there aren’t any combustible materials and flammable liquids close by.
  • Before each use, inspect the burner and plumbing system to make sure they are in good shape and not leaking or in disrepair.
  • Keep the vent openings and surrounding areas free and clear of webs, dirt and debris at all times. Bugs, dirt, and buildup can block the flow of gas and cause a fire.
  • For safety purposes, have the fire pit, gas supply, plumbing and any remote or chimney system inspected once a year by a licensed professional. Any maintenance needed must be done by a qualified service technician.
  • Don’t burn solid fuels, like leaves, sticks, wood, paper, plastic, trash, or food in a gas fueled fire pit. These items will damage the unit and the burnerand can lead to disaster.
  • Never cook food over a gas fire pit. Falling debris, grease and residue will permanently damage the media stones and burner, which can be difficult and expensive to replace.
  • Over time dirt and soot will accumulate on the burner and media. Check them regularly and follow the instructions for cleaning or housekeeping in your owner’s manual to remove any buildup. It is a good idea to be sure the fire pit has cooled completely and the gas supply is turned off before starting any cleaning process.
  • If there is standing water in the fire pit or the media stone material is wet, drain the water out and let it dry completely. If water gets into the gas line or burner it can constrict the flow of gas, reduce the overall flame levels and corrode the system. 

Summary

Armed with these fire pit safety tips and maintenance procedures, we hope you will spend some quality time relaxing around the old fire with your friends!

Pre-finishing a wood deck

Pre-finishing a wood deck
Boardwalk deck

Over the last year I’ve posted a number of articles on wood deck construction. If done well, wood decks can be beautiful, permanent extensions of your home’s living space connecting the outdoors. They can also become outdoor kitchen and BBQ areas. I have a special interest in wood decks because witnessing their premature failure was one inspiration for this website.

Unfortunately, many decks are built almost as afterthoughts and not designed or constructed to endure the punishing elements they will be subjected to. As a result, too many wood decks (some  constructed with very dear materials) end up in the land fill before their time.

Battling the elements

The deck’s protective coating is it’s first line of defense in battling the elements. In this post I’d like to show you how to apply a finish to a new wood deck during installation. Installation is the best time to apply the first coats of finish because it is the only time you will ever have complete access to all six sides of the decking boards. You’ll only get one shot at this so take your time and do it right. 

IPE

In this example we are preparing to install IPE material. I love IPE because it is absolutely gorgeous. It is also insect resistant, hard wearing and stable (very dense, few twists, knots, splits etc.).  All these things of course make it very desirable and expensive. It is also a rainforest product. And even though we only use FSC certified lumber, I still feel IPE deserves special treatment and honor by only using it in the most well planned and executed applications.

Pre-finishing a wood deck
IPE decking
IPE Oil

 

One drawback to IPE is that it will require re-coating the surface finish every 18-24 months to in order to maintain the rich color. If not recoated the surface turns a weathered gray color much like teak.  Applying a good finish to begin with makes subsequent applications much easier. We use IPE Oil purchased here from Amazon. If we need to add color (this is sometimes needed for follow up applications) we can use Sikkens stain products also available here from Amazon.

Process

I’ve included a video here of the initial stain and finish process. This was a large installation so the crew set up a system to handle long pieces in high volumes. Even with all the people and infrastructure in place it is a slow process to handle and put the first coat on these boards.  The process goes like this:

  1. wipe each board clean and sand all sides and remove dust.
  2. place in dip tank to soak for 5 minutes.
  3. work the oil solution into the grain and grooves with brush.
  4. wipe off the excess oil.
  5. stack the finished boards on “finished” stickers for drying and eventual use.
  6. Once the boards are installed, they will be sanded again and a final coat will be applied and wiped down.
  7. Be sure to store any oily rags in a sealed, water-filled can of water to avoid a fire.

Before the finish process, these boards were pre-grooved on site. The grooves are used to accommodate the invisible Tiger Claw fastener system that attaches the planks to the structure. This hardware leaves the surface blemish free. If y0u like a surface free of fasteners, the Tiger Claw product can be had here at Amazon.

If you are reusing older boards or using brand new boards that have aged or become dirty you will need to clean them first. Do this by washing and scrubbing them with a deck cleaner material and rinse, followed by a wood brightener.

Drying

Stacking the material and allowing it to completely dry is important. This way the material can be handled easily during installation. The drying rack stickers must also be finished with IPE Oil because raw wood stickers will absorb the finish from the boards and leave permanent unattractive white lines on them. Wood decking must be sealed on all sides including the cut ends of every board. End sealing is especially important for pre-finishing a wood deck with IPE lumber.

pre-finishing a wood deck
Pre-finished deck boards on drying rack
Pre-finishing a wood deck
Sanded deck prior to final coat

 

 

Prefinishing your deck boards will add years of life to the end product and reduce the regular maintenance time considerably.  Special thanks to ProStaff Painting in San Carlos CA for their help with this project.  

Do you have a wood deck project coming up? Feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions?


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