Sewer, Gas, and Electric

50 thoughts on “Sewer, Gas, and Electric”

  1. When I bought an old house with a dilapidated storage shed, debated whether to raze, rebuild or refurbish that shed. Turns out it was improperly sited right on the property fence line by not meeting setback requirements. Supposedly, what appears to be the back yard is actually the front yard (even though no road or development beyond due to what is effectively a wetland), and the front yard is actually the back yard, so the only road leading to the house is nominally an alley (even though it has an official name and address). Anyway, tearing down and rebuilding the shed would have activated a bunch of weird and inconvenient restrictions, so refurbished in situ to avoid hassle.

    1. Great article. Short version: Water flows uphill – towards money. In a place where people value independence and shun regulations the de facto trajectory will be lots of dry wells and no Plan B.

      “Others will have no choice but to drastically depart from the domestic habits to which modern Americans have become accustomed—or move somewhere else.”

  2. Hi Johnny, probably a stupid question but why don’t you just bury those unsightly cisterns: why do they have to be above ground?

    1. Cost and complexity. Plus the tanks provide water at relatively good pressure by gravity when they’re above ground. If the tanks were buried I’d need another pump. It’s possible. But it’s just one more component that would need to be installed and managed.

      Here’s an example of a similar type of problem I’m still mulling. I want a poly tunnel (greenhouse) in the back garden to extend the growing season and protect frost sensitive crops like citrus. A 500 square foot hoop house costs about $1,500. I can swing that. But the land slopes slightly – about 2′ per every 25′. It’s gentle, but it makes a difference in terms of preparing the site. And 500 square feet of surface will create a lot of storm water to deal with. I hired a specialist to draw up plans for a remedy. Moving the earth around, putting in French drains with perforated pipes and gravel, digging in on one end and mounding up on the other with retaining structures… It was going to be a ridiculous $10,000 project. That’s not going to happen.

  3. What did you use to make the pad for the water tank? Looking at the photos, it looks like your older rainwater tank is some kind of some bolted together steel ring while the new one is pressure treated lumber with some kind of stakes to hold it in the ground? Why the change? And then the border is filled with Class 2 Base or DG? I am interested in installing a tank at my place (San Luis Obispo County, CA), and don’t want to pour concrete.

    1. I didn’t want to pour concrete either. (Lots of reasons, but fresh concrete and plastic don’t like each other chemically.) Decomposed granite is a great base for large rain water tanks. It supports the weight and allows for drainage. The steel ring is a standard inexpensive water tank item that helps hold the form of the loose base. The pressure treated wood helps keep the slightly sloping land in place.

  4. A power company that lets large trees grow around high voltage lines ?
    No wonder they are bankrupt due to forest fires.
    The tree roots might have contributed to the concrete slab cracking too.

    1. Yeah, PG&E is not smelling like roses.

      Last summer, our local power company sent a nice arborist out to ask if they could trim a couple of trees and cut down a third on our property because they would eventually cause problems with the power lines. I think they learned – twenty years ago we had multiple power outages every year because storms brought down trees. Clean-up costs were pretty high and people were angry, which I suspect got communicated via the utilities commission not being very sympathetic to requests for a rate hike to cover cleanup costs.

  5. The issue you had with PG&E trimming a tree that is in their wires is crazy and would not happen where I live. Most utilities DO trim all the trees in their service territory, and would be happy to remove a tree that is growing into their lines. That seems like part of a larger issue with PG&E.
    Also, its hard to tell from the photos, but that drill rig looked awfully close to the power lines. They should never be within 10 feet of 12kv lines by OSHA regulations. But that would have prevented them drilling in the only place left on your property….

    1. Yes it was a tight fit, but the 10′ clearance from the 12K volt power lines was part of the larger calculation of where the well could be drilled. The machinery was slid in to place “just so” in order to comply with OSHA et al.

      Last year one of my immediate neighbors contacted the power company asking to have the branches from the same kind of tree on his property to be trimmed away from the same exact power lines. They said it wasn’t their job. He didn’t hire professionals so his situation will only get worse over time. Fun!

      As a side note, I discovered something pleasant about the house during the drilling. I was in the kitchen talking with my tenants as the process was underway and when it came time for me to leave I opened the front door and was hit with a massive wall of noise. When the door was closed – with all the insulation, new windows and doors – the sound was almost completely blocked. My tenants and I appreciated that.

    2. That position regarding the tree trimming truly appear to be indicative of fundamental issues with PG&E. Our power company here in NE OH has all their line ‘ROWs’ on a regular trimming cycle. Therefore, we have alot of ‘topped’ and ‘V-cut’ trees throughout our community.

  6. Your posts about your rental house are always interesting. I’m curious about the surrounding area. Is it in a suburb? It’s hard for me to tell from the pictures.

    1. The house is on the border of where post World War II suburban development stops and farmland begins. The suburban homes were built around the nucleus of an old 1850s village that had a rail station (now long gone) and some small warehouses and little saw mills and food processing factories. Those buildings are now associated with the wine industry so still in use with high value activity.

      I bought this property because it ticked all the boxes on my “must have” list. First, very low cost (relative to property in Sonoma County, California) so as to keep debt to an absolute limit.

      Then it needed to be close enough to town that I could walk and bike to everything I might ever need from groceries to medical services. This place is not only walkable to the village, but bikeable to a larger town with doctors, dentists, a hardware store, two book stores, etc. And the trip there and back is along a county-wide bike path along the old rail right of way so the ride is safe, direct, and beautiful.

      But I also needed enough land to do a meaningful amount of gardening – and I absolutely would not accept anything with a Home Owners Association with all the rules and restrictions. A half acre was less land than I really wanted, but the price was right and the location was a good compromise.

      I also spent a lot of time researching flood zones, fire risk etc. This spot is high enough to avoid floods (we just had some really bad ones and the neighborhood stayed dry) but low enough in the valley that the wells don’t go dry in long droughts.

      Earthquake risk is a problem, but I had the foundation retrofitted. In a mild quake the house should be okay. In a really bad one we’re all fucked anyway. I expect a retrofitted small one story house is less likely to kill the inhabitants. And the value of the property is about the same even if the house were removed since in this location it’s all about the cost of land and legal entitlements rather than the structure. I could survive financially if worse came to worse. You do what you can…

  7. It might be weird, but I get a really hopeful, wholesome feeling when I read your articles about improving your properties, acknowledging the tradesmen doing good work that usually warrants a footnote, and reading about your robust strategies. It’s good stuff.

    1. I’m not a doomer. A doomer would be on the beach right now drinking tequila shots off a whore’s ass enjoying what’s left of the dregs before the lights all go out.

      I look forward to a comfortable future surrounded by charming people, a beautiful garden, and good food. And since I think that kind of future is possible I’m doing things right now to help make it happen.

      1. And now you’re making doomers sound like fun people to hang out with too. I’m being pulled in all directions! Be responsible, store food, tap groundwater wells… do tequila shots out of hookers’ back dimples… decisions decisions.

  8. Thank you for this step by step story of improvement.

    I work for local government, so I certainly understand your frustration. We work to understand and view our processes and fees from the outside looking in, so that we can strike the right balance between permitting processes/fees (to protect the Commons) and private sector/owner needs for rationality and timeliness.

    You, unfortunately, also had to loop in the local ‘public’ utility. Private bureaucracies can often be much worse to deal with than public ones.

    1. I’m not someone who instinctively hates on government. I’ve been to parts of the world where there is effectively no government and it’s not pretty. Civilization is worth paying for.

      But eleven months to get permission to drill a well? You can’t be surprised when that pisses people off. My theory is that most of these time-consuming procedures are rooted in citizens who demanded X or Y over the years and multiple constraints just accumulated like an alluvial delta of dysfunction. County officials administer the chaos as best they can.

      My strategy is to reverse engineer my personal desires and modify my plans to minimize interactions with the authorities. How much do I want to add on an extra bedroom and bath vs. the pain of dealing with the county? Turns out, I don’t need the extra space that badly… A new well wasn’t optional so I had to suck it up.

      1. Enforcing regulation and process accretion is the last 17 years of my professional career. In my current municipality something like a new well drill permit would take 1-2 weeks, at most. 11 months does seem much too long. I’ve not worked for a County in CA, but I have difficulty even speculating why it would require that much time.

        1. I know a lot of government workers all over the country, and several are close friends here in California. They tell me things at the kitchen table that they can’t share publicly.

          First, there’s been a relentless drive toward outsourcing and privatization. No municipality wants the burden of permanent full time employees anymore. In the beginning there are cost savings and efficiencies. But after twenty odd years there’s no longer much institutional memory because Helen or Bob aren’t around anymore who know how anything works. This leads to departments having to hire very expensive consultants to do forensic studies to understand the nature of the problems. And private companies have their own short term internal logic that’s in direct conflict with serving the long term needs of the community.

          Second, the money just isn’t there. You can kvetch and moan about waste, fraud, and abuse all you want. And there’s some of that. But mostly we’ve all promised ourselves things we can’t possibly afford. And we’ve spent decades kicking the can down the road using creative accounting and deferred maintenance to get things to look good for one more election cycle or until whoever’s in charge retires.

          Third, there’s a dark side to efficiency. In normal times a lean operation works pretty well. In a crisis the system is overwhelmed. And the more bare bones an organization is the smaller the crisis needs to be to make everything go haywire.

          I could go on, but you get the idea. We can’t reform the institutions we have. They’re simply going to fail and be replaced by new institutions. Over time they’ll eventually fail too. Rinse. Repeat.

          1. This.

            Accretion: Groundwater safety awareness has increased over the past couple of decades, and sanitary setbacks are a real thing. But that’s typically more related to septic fields…the “what if the sewer fails” setback seems a little over the top. Just test the water quarterly.

            Privatization: There is some obvious and inherent conflict when government consultants bill hourly for the privatized engineering services. The reviewer’s “customer” is the company’s CFO who wants billable hours, not the county executive who wants results.

            You touched on “what if the well had failed”. Imagine some imaginary neighbor, an older person getting by on Social Security or pensions…they’d be screwed because they lack your resources. Maybe this describes your “State of Franklin” neighbor.

            1. The universal solution to the problem of needing money when you have insufficient income and no savings is to tap the equity in the property. Just about everyone has done that multiple times. Then when you reach a certain age you take a reverse mortgage. What could go wrong.

          2. There’s also the asymmetrical risk/reward equation for government agencies – they get blamed if they allow something bad, but rarely blamed if they prevent something good (well, that happens in private companies too, but most private companies are far more ephemeral than government agencies).

          3. That dark side to efficiency already counterproductive in private sector. Extra lean workforces struggle during normal times, so things quickly go off the rails at the smallest setback (which is of course, often). Overtime is typical during “slack” periods, requiring death marches after inevitable setbacks. Smart managers knew never to run manufacturing near 100%, because maintenance, repairs, etc would make expected output unrecoverable. But somehow that principle never applied to people. And of course constant restructuring long ago destroyed institutional memory. The astonishing chaos I’ve seen in too many private companies often makes me wonder how they manage to keep going.

  9. What an ordeal – but that’s looking backward, and as you were going forward step by step it was also one creative problem-solving challenge after another. Your attitude is inspiring!

    I didn’t even know about PG&E’s bankruptcy filing. Get much of my news from upscale blogs like yours. 🙂

    I am working on a relatively small project on my simple tract house but also experiencing the takes-longer-costs-more — and the need for patience above all.

  10. Wow, an epic journey. Your water preps are fantastic (looks sheepishly at bottled water in the garage)… Water in dry places is a fascinating subject. Instead of bombing the Middle East maybe we should study how they’ve survived in the desert for so long. Here’s an Arab water system – a “qanat” – they made in Sicily more than 1000 years ago and still functioning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CNHC-TqUog

    1. I think everyone needs more preps than they have – which is typically none. I’m extreme in some regards, but just having a little bit more water and such set aside is better than not doing anything. Baby steps.

      North African Arabs ruled Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula for about 800 years after Rome fell. They maintained engineering, art, culture, medicine et cetera while the rest of Europe reset at a lower level. My family is Sicilian by way of Brooklyn and I’m sure I have Arab blood.

  11. Congrats Johnny! Baby steps and it’s looking good. I’m dealing with the same amount of back and forth road blocks on my fixer-upper, rental income-till-i-move-in house in FL. It’ll all be worth it in the end when the projects are done and the house is occupied by me just the way i want it. Until then..

    1. I’d love to hear more about your Florida home adventures. The rule is… Everything takes longer and costs way more than you ever expect. So give yourself plenty of time – and budget accordingly.

      I made a conscious decision to do the least sexy things first. Insulation, mechanical upgrades, new roof, new windows… I’m getting to the point where almost all of that is done. I just need to deal with the crack in the garage concrete. Then I can start making the place pretty!

      By the way, here’s a short video my friend Kirsten Dirksen recently made of me and my tenants at the house.

  12. Thank you so much for these detailed, practical posts. As a homeowner who is on a much earlier section of the retrofit-for-resilience curve you seem well along, I really appreciate hearing about the nuts and bolts (and headaches and red tape and cost). It helps me realize that the obstacles I have faced are both normal and surmountable.

  13. Well done! Looks good from here.

    I agree with your views on debt. It is an evil way to live and has produced a debtor slave society here in the West. I’m currently trying to remove all of mine and have a solid, not spectacular, plan in place to remove a large chunk of it in the next three years. As will all plans, it will probably take five. I’m flexible.

  14. At the risk of being a jerk couldn’t you have saved a tree and a lot of hassle by just waiting on the old well to expire? Maybe it would have outlasted you and been somebody else’s problem.

    1. I thought a great deal about all the options. Hoping the well would last forever was a bad plan. All the homes on the block are about the same age and one by one all the wells failed. And as I wrote, the county approval process all by itself was a year long ordeal. I have tenants with little kids. I have a responsibility to make sure they have running water. In a tight overpriced real estate market like ours they wouldn’t have had any other place to go.

      There were also advantages to removing the tree – as painful and expensive as it was. We’ve had really bad forest fires in the area and having a clear zone around the house reduces the risk of the place burning down. Plus There’s sun now so solar panels work when they won’t before. And I get to plant more food bearing plants in the front yard. It’s also miraculously easier to keep the rain gutters on the roof clean. Overall, I sucked it up and did what had to be done.

      1. Like you I hate to take a mature tree down. Where you are there is real fire risk and that fir would go up in seconds and throw ash everywhere.

        Where I live people tend to plant spruce trees too close to the house; next week we’re taking out a 50 foot tall one that is just 10 feet from the kitchen door…do the math. (Our issues are foundation and storm/lightning rod related…one lightning strike on that corner already and another one in the yard blew over several years ago.)

        The saddest part is no one seems interested in bringing a portable sawmill out and converting it to live edge slabs. So the tree guy will chip it for mulch, I suppose.

        1. Oh I tried soooo hard to get the tree turned in to usable lumber. No one was interested in either the work (job was too small) or the lumber (wood is cheaper at the big box store.) so at least I’m using the wood chips in the garden to build up the soil.

          1. Mmmm…Douglas Fir, my favorite firewood in the west. Did you consider having it cut to stove length, split and stored for heating fuel when TS [might possibly] HTF?

            1. In an earlier renovation right after I bought the property I replaced the old Volkswagen size wood stove in the living room with a wee little super clean burning extra efficient unit that also had a cooking surface. I thought that was a prudent Plan B utility item to cover multiple bases. Then I stacked what I thought was a modest amount of firewood – maybe a third of a cord. This is California not Saskatoon. But six or seven years went by and the wood was still there rotting away.

              Turns out once I completed the insulation process (inside the wall cavities, up in the attic, under the floor) and installed high quality windows the house no longer required heat of any kind. My tenants tell me once-in-a-blue-moon they’ll use a small electric ceramic heater in the bedroom kept the dampness out on cold winter nights. Otherwise – no gas heater, no wood stove, no nothing.

              I went to several people in the neighborhood and asked them if they wanted the firewood and discovered it was more effort to move it than it was worth. I tried. I really tried.

              1. Folks often forget that we’re mammals.
                That means we’ve got an excellent heating system built-in.

                I visited Mount Vernon about a year ago (highly recommend!).
                Our nation’s wealthiest president (no, not the current one), heated his home with wood.

                Well, that’s not entirely accurate.
                Because the home didn’t have any central heat.

                In his era, only one or two room in a typical mansion had fireplaces, the larger ones, where you might have company.

                The kitchen would sometimes be a structure onto itself, to protect the main house from danger of fire, and from the lowly servants who prepared the food.

                Washington’s mansion was, for its time, a conspicuous display of wealth. Even the bedrooms had fireplaces.

                But they weren’t used, save for particularly frigid Virginia winters.

                More commonly, people were heated, rather than rooms. Each of the beds have a rack where a pot of smouldering coals could be placed, and water above it, heating and humidifying the bed above. The beds themselves had canopies and thick, insulating curtains. Basically, a tent.

                I live in the sunbelt. Austin, Texas has all sorts of weather, but “cold” here usually means below 60, and winterization is most commonly done with a polar pop cup placed over the outdoor spigot.

                For my occasional heating needs, I use an electric mattress pad and good blankets.

                1. In places like Austin the real concern is keeping cool rather than heating. In the past buildings had two foot thick stone or adobe walls, broad roof overhangs on the south and west, and oak trees to shade things. Now it’s all 2×4 and sheetrock walls with some half assed insulation, plate glass soaking up the sun, and air conditioning compressors running 24/7.

                  1. Historically it was more shotgun houses than Adobe here in Austin. We’re more south than Southwest.

                    Keep in mind, even in “this city is a testament to man’s arrogance” Phoenix, cooling a home takes under a quarter the energy of heating one in even the more mild areas of the Midwest.

                    Better passive cooling design is absolutely possible, and I agree it’s unfortunate that modern homes are about granite countertops and big windows, since that’s effectively a solar oven get.

                    1. The shotgun is also a traditional architectural response to a hot climate with no mechanical air conditioning. The house is raised up off the ground for air circulation, the house is only one room wide with windows on either side for cross ventilation, the ceilings are relatively high so heat rises and escapes through louvers in the roof eaves, and covered porches front and back provide shaded outdoor space.

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