Kitchen Renovation – Moving to Open Concept

2014-07-29 by . 19 comments

This is part two of a series.

For part one, read Kitchen Renovation – Introduction and Footings.

The previous installment dealt with the building a new footing to support the interior end of the beam. When I last left you, I had posted a picture of wet concrete in a hole. As luck would have it, that wet concrete soon became dry, hard concrete. I watered it a couple of times to help it cure, and waited the prescribed 5 days (warm weather) curing time before loading it. Installing the posts was relatively simple. Cut 2x4s to length, hammer them into the bracket, and bolt them together. Well, it should have been simple. The problem was that 5 2x4s makes a post 7 1/2 inches. I had a stud that I really didn’t want to demolish at about 16 inches on either side. My drill, with a bit long enough to penetrate the post, was just too big to fit in that stud bay. The idea occurred to me that I could use a shorter bit, and by drilling the holes with absolute perfection, have them meet somewhere in the middle. However, that involves more precision than I am capable of; so I nixed that idea right off the bat. I ended up using a short, 3/8 spade bit to start the hole, and when I had gone in a couple of inches, stuck the long bit in the hole, wiggled my drill onto the long bit, and using some severe bodily contortions, managed to tighten the chuck. Then I finished drilling.

Now that the holes were drilled, it should have been a simple matter of slipping the bolts in and tightening the nuts. Not quite. There was a new problem. An 8-inch carriage bolt doesn’t quite make it through 7 1/2 inches of post when the 2x4s aren’t exactly tight together. I grabbed a couple of bar clamps and tried to move everything, but it just didn’t work. Road Trip! Off to the the blue store! At the blue store, I bought a ten inch bolt. I stuck it in, and nutted it tight, and everything came together tightly — tight enough that the next hole now took the 8 inch. Working up, I pulled the post together, and when I was done, took the ten-incher out and replaced it with and 8. I’m sure I could have returned the long bolt, but I had used it, and decided not to.

I installed a bit of blocking at the top, used structural screws to the header, and 10d nails into the bracket at the bottom. Once everything was done, it felt really solid. I’m not a structural engineer, but sometimes you can just tell that something won’t fall down. This won’t. Unfortunately, I was rather neglectful in the camera department, so all I have is a picture of the top of the post.

Top of basement post.

Top of basement post.

Next Step: Prepare for the post at the other end.

This one should have been simpler. I had a lot more room to work, having cleared out a couple feet of plaster on either side. The plan called for a single 8″ bracket, drilled into and epoxied to the top of the foundation wall. I had a sneaking suspicion that the foundation wall might have been hollow block, which would have required me to fill a couple of courses with concrete before mounting the bracket. Luckily, I was wrong. It was a solid poured foundation and it was wide enough for full bearing. Simple! All I need to do is drill and slip in my bracket. What I didn’t consider, and neither did my engineer, was that all those joists had to end up somewhere. In particular, the 2×8 double joist that was supporting the existing wall would probably be resting on the foundation wall right where I wanted to put my post! There was a third joist a couple inches away, and the space between was filled another bit of 2×8. So I opened up my finest drafting tool (MSPaint) and put together a quick sketch to email to the engineer:

Revised plan for exterior wall post.

Revised plan for exterior wall post.

That email was sent off, and my wife and I went out to a friends for 1 pound striploins, many kilos of wine and several of Fidel’s finest exports. The engineer got back the next day and approved my revision. Road Trip! This time, to the orange store, which rents tools. I rented a concrete drill and bought a tube of concrete epoxy. It took about 3 minutes out of a 4 hour rental to drill the hole. I cleaned the hole out with the shop vac, squeezed in the tube of epoxy, and stuck the base in. I quit there, figuring we’d put the post up on beam day. Besides, I had a whole lot more work to do.


Once again we enter the realm of lower skilled labour. My contractor is booked solid over the summer, and can only give me a day here and there for jobs that I really need him for. Swinging a hammer at old plaster walls isn’t a valuable use of his skills. So I did it myself. First, I put 6 mil poly and duct tape over every door in the house. I had learned from the small amount of demolition that I had already done for the front post, that dust gets everywhere. Turns out I needn’t have bothered. Dust got everywhere anyways. I did have the foresight to put big shipping bags over all the furniture that was too big to move out, and laid the 6-mil over the wood floor. Then I spent two days swinging a sledge, prying and reciprocating away the plaster walls. Not fun work, but also not work I want to pay top dollar for. A second person would have been useful to make trips to the dumpster, but I didn’t want my spouse becoming concerned over the mess I was creating. The only point of interest is that plaster is messy, and some genius thought it would be a brilliant idea to put wire mesh on ever corner, both inside and outside, nailed about every 2 inches. I suppose it was meant to last, and it did last for 50 years, but I wanted it to no longer last. I also ran into something the previous owner had done himself. At one point he had installed some off the shelf cabinetry, and added a couple more cabinets than the original builder had. This meant that the bulkheads didn’t quite match up. So he boxed them out with plywood. The only problem was that he was a frugal man. The type of penny-pinching gentleman that saves every screw he has ever removed in a jar. Well, he used those recycled treasures on this project. It took five different screwdrivers to pull them out: two sizes of Phillips, red and green Robertson and a slot. I saved those screws, and will use them to install something just before I sell the house. He actually did a good job of it. Everything was tight and square, and there was no room to squeeze in my reciprocating saw with a metal blade to cut them off.

At some point in there, my brother-in-law and his wife came over to help Anna pack up the cabinetry, and destroy any cabinetry that we could get away without. I also made some trips to the specialty lumber yard to order parts. I needed a couple of big nasty metal brackets to connect the beam to the posts. The load should be bearing down on the posts vertically, but we need something that can handle a bit of torque or the whole house collapses like this: / /. I also needed to order the beam, which was 4 plies of 16 inch by 1 3/4 inch LVL. The parts I needed, while standard in the catalogue, are actually made to order. This meant some delays, but the Simpson Strong Tie plant is only a 15 minute drive from my place, so I saved some time by picking them up rather than waiting for delivery. I also went to the bolt specialty store to pick up big 3/4 inch by 8 inch bolts at 8 bucks a piece.

Also somewhere in there, I spent a day and a half moving electrical circuits away from the wall to be demolished. Unfortunately, the orange store did not have wire stretchers available for rent, so it involved purchasing junction boxes to put in the basement drop ceiling or attic for splicing purposes. Only three orange/blue trips. Managed to snag a 20 m roll of 14/2 off of my next door neighbour who literally just happened to be carrying it out of the house to my bin (with my permission), as she was cleaning up her late husbands workbench. The fun work begins:

Wiht all the prep done, it’s now that most joyous of days! Beam Day! My contractor, Adriano and his buddy Franky showed up, with a truckload of tools, when they said they would, with a cup of Tim Horton’s each. On time and pre-coffeed. These are responsible contractors. They took 15 minutes to look at my plans, look at my parts, and took off to the orange store to buy big honking drill bits. Half an hour later, they were back, ready to work.

The first thing we did was install the post at the front, and mount one of the big ECC brackets. Then more of the same at the other end. IMPORTANT: Everything takes longer than you expect. Cutting, drilling and bolting 5 2x4s together should only take 10 minutes. Wrong. It’s more like 30. Then drill 2 8-inch by 3/4 inch holes for the bracket bolts. About 15 minutes each. Between Adriano’s drill, Franky’s drill and my drill, we managed to not heat them up too much. Adriano did one end, Franky the other, and I ran around and did what I was told without getting in the way. Once the post and brackets were up, it was time to install the beam.

We live in a back split, and are very fortunate (for this job) to have fantastic access to the the attic. Through the wall — not the ceiling. But, even with that, there was no way we were going to be able to manouevre a 23-foot long beam to that access door. Particularly since we only had 20 feet to the back of the house. Adriano went into the kids’ room, and took out a window. Something I never would have had the courage to do. (For fear of breaking the glass or slicing my hand off.) Franky and Adriano fed the beam segments up to the second floor window, while I grabbed and got it into the house to a balance point. Then I could hold it while the guys ran upstairs to feed it in the rest of the way. The first three segments went in easily, the fourth required a bit of “encouragement”. But we squeezed them into the brackets. We now had 4 plies in the brackets — and it was only 10:30. This job would be done by noon! Franky screwed a 2×6 across the joists parallel to the beam so we could use a pry-bar to straighten the beam, and temporarily screw it the the joists to keep it straight. (Important: do this before bolting to the brackets.)

All that was left was to drill 8 3/4 inch holes, 24 1/2 inch holes, bolt everything in, and nail up the joist hangers. That took another 4 hours. Plus a trip to the blue store for more nuts and nails. At 2:30, it was time to test our creation. Franky and Adriano went at the stud wall with sledges and pry-bars and got rid of the of the offending lumber while I ran back and forth to the dumpster. At 3:15, there was a mass rush with brooms, garbage cans and the shop vac, while we fought over the ownership of tools. Actually, sorting out tools was easy. I had designated 3 areas beforehand so that each person had their own storage. Other than a couple of drill and impact bits that we were exchanging freely, everyone respected the zones.

3:45, beer on the back patio, while I counted money out to the boys. They earned every penny. There was no way I could have done this job with a couple of unskilled buddies and a case of beer.

The Money Shot!

Post and Beam connection against exterior wall.

Post and Beam connection against exterior wall.

Post and Beam - Interior

Post and Beam – Interior

Post and Beam Interior

Post and Beam Interior

Joist hangers

Joist hangers

Why we did this

Why we did this

Reverse angle

Reverse angle

Anna was thrilled when she came home. We had finally achieved the open concept that we wanted. Well worth the effort.

The question I know you all have is “Was he properly attired during all this work?” I’ll leave you with this photo, salt stains and all:


Next Up: Flooring, Kitchen and more demo.

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Kitchen Renovation – Introduction and Footings.

2014-07-15 by . 5 comments

Lifestyles have changed. In a 1950s Leave It to Beaver world, urban people had very clearly defined roles. Dad would entertain the guests while Mom hid in the kitchen preparing a meal. Design reflected that. Kitchens were viewed as utilitarian areas in which guest were not to enter.

1960s and 70s design at least acknowledged that families would often eat in the kitchen, and more space was provided to accommodate a kitchen table.

Some time in the 80s and 90s the kitchen evolved into a more public space. Guests would gather and even help out in the preparation of a meal. The drawback was that seating was often uncomfortable.

More recently, the trend has been to open concept kitchens. This design philosophy often puts the kitchen right next to a dining/living room without a wall separating them. It allows the guests to sit comfortably on a couch, have drinks and snacks on the coffee table while still allowing interaction with the people in the kitchen working on the meal. It fits in with a more modern lifestyle.

Our house was built in the 60s. We have a 20′ x 10′ kitchen separated from the living/dining room (24′ x 14′) with a central supporting wall. We finally decided that that wall has to go.

One end of the wall to destroy

One end of the wall to destroy

The other end, with a glimpse of our lovely 80s cabinetry

The other end, with a glimpse of our lovely 80s cabinetry

Also on the list is updating our extremely dated cabinetry, which had been installed by the previous owner, probably from off the shelf cabinets. Hinges are going, finish is chipped. The laminate counter-top is swelling up in the humidity making it nearly impossible to open some of the drawers. Corner Cabinets require me to change into my spelunking equipment in order to find anything. We need an update.

So, the plan is:

  1. Remove dividing wall.
  2. Re-tile the floor.
  3. Replace the cabinetry.
  4. Re-wire so that we can make coffee and dry our hair at the same time. (Bath and Kitchen are on the same breaker)
  5. Install a fume hood (requires moving the stove) from an internal to an external wall.
  6. While the cabinets are gone, stud out the uninsulated exterior wall and put some pink stuff in there.
  7. Do a fantastic job, as cheaply as possible. Hire experts where needed, DIY where we (I) can.

We shopped out the cabinetry and designed the new kitchen ourselves. Next step. Call an engineer to figure out how to get rid of that wall.

Fortunately, the wall isn’t carrying a heavy structural load, but the ceiling joists are lapped on top of the wall, and they support the ceiling plaster, insulation above, and any light fixtures. So we can’t just knock down the wall, or the ceiling will collapse into the center of the house.

Lapped ceiling joists...

Lapped ceiling joists…

On top of this stud wall

On top of this stud wall

The solution is to install a beam to take the load off the wall, and then knock down the wall. The problem is that the existing stud wall carries a linearly distributed load. A beam, being supported at the ends only, will put the load onto two points. Consequently, these loads need to be tied into the foundation.

Step 1: Footing.

The post at the front of the house is relatively easy. It will rest on the foundation wall, which is (I assume), hollow construction blocks. I’ll simply need to fill them with concrete, a couple of blocks deep, and stick in some column base connectors while the concrete is still wet.

It’s the other end that’s the problem. I need to dig a new footing. The engineer specified a footing of 22″ x 26″ by 14″ inches deep, with a 15 mm @ 4″ spacing rebar grid, 2.5″ below the surface.

Now, digging is traditionally used as an example of extremely unskilled labour. “But the world needs ditch diggers too!” is often used as a rallying cry against sending everyone to university. Unskilled labour? I’m highly skilled at unskilled labour. This is right up my alley, and a job I can save money on.

So I started digging. This isn’t as easy as you think, because the floor is concrete. I made several false starts. I tried drilling holes with a masonry bit to create some break lines. It worked somewhat but was tediously slow.

Next I took out a mason’s hammer, with a pick on one end and just started whacking away at the center of the field.   It was slow and tedious, but eventually I managed to break away a hole big enough for my hand.  It was about 3 inches thick.  Certainly not enough to support a load.   I dug out some of the gravel underneath,  and managed to whack away with a small sledge.  Eventually, with a combination of under-digging and sledging, I got a rough opening dug.    Then I used a sledge and chisel to clean up the edges.   Concrete went into plastic pails, and were carried upstairs to the dumpster.

Digging out was much more difficult than I had imagined.  I’m sitting on top of some of the hardest clay imaginable.  In the end, I resorted to picking at it with the pointed end of the mason’s hammer, and scraping of 1″ thick layers with a hand trowel.  Soon I ran into a problem.  There was an old footing in my way.

Evil Old footing that is both useless and in the way.

Evil Old footing that is both useless and in the way.

This was 5″ thick, no where near enough for my engineer’s needs and just too thick for me to hack away with with the sledge or mason’s pick.  Time for a trip to the rental store. I picked up a handheld demolition hammer (mini-electric-jackhammer)   and went nuts on the concrete.

It also did a trick on the clay, allowing me to shovel it out rather than troweling it.  Things went mighty smoothly.   Fortunately, I had a nagging suspicion that there might be a clay sewer pipe in there somewhere.  The last thing I wanted to do was crack it, so I went very carefully, probing with a thin rod, and hand digging around anything solid I found.

There was a clay pipe, and it was in the corner by the hammer head, about 12 inches from the surface.  I did not break it. Infantry mine sweeping training comes in handy sometimes.

Next, I lined the hole with 6 mil poly, and threw an inch of gravel on top of that.

Meanwhile, my metal-working buddy was building the rebar for me.  The main problem was that the engineer specified 15 mm bar, which is impossible to bend.  10 mm, I could have stuck in a vise, but 15 mm is just too much.  He bent it in his massive hydraulic brake.

The rebar cage was made with 10″ legs, as per design.  However the design also specified that the top of the cage should be 2.5″ from the surface.  When I stuck it in the hole, It ended up 5 inches too low.   In order to solve this problem, I ran a couple sticks of scrap lumber across the hole, and suspended it from them with mechanics wire.  Good plan, as it allowed me to finely adjust the height.

Some time earlier, I put the call in to the inspector.  In my jurisdiction (Toronto)  All holes must be inspected by a city employed hole inspector before you make them not a hole anymore.   This is actually a good idea.   The building department’s job is to verify that you are following the plan.  The only way they can tell, is if they see the hole as a hole.  If it’s full of concrete, they have no way of knowing whether it is the proper depth, or if the rebar is even there.

Shortly after I wired the rebar in, the inspector showed up, looked at my plans, said “Yup, It’s a hole.  You’re good to pour.”

After 7 paragraphs of my regaling you with tales of my hole emptying experience,  you probably can’t handle that many of my hole filling experience.  So I will be brief.  11 bags of concrete were mixed 2 at a time, carried downstairs, and dumped into the hole.  A piece of scrap rebar was used to jiggle and poke it so that it got into the corners.    I smoothed off the top, and inserted my column base.   And my footing was done:

Finished footing

Finished footing

Next on the list: Attach the columns and smash plaster off the wall.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Tiling a Fireplace Surround

2014-02-21 by . 9 comments


Our 1869 foursquare farmhouse had been renovated around 1905 to make it more “upscale and modern”. The front and back parlors were joined and a fireplace was installed.  In 1999, the house again got a makeover, with new beams, plumbing, wiring, but maintaining much of the molding, windows, and style from the turn of the 20th century.

The fireplace now consisted of a painted wooden mantle and trim, with a brick façade around the firebox.  The façade had been painted several times, but seemed fairly sound.  It was now a dull, dark greyish green. Time for a freshening up.

fplace orig2


We decided on tile, selecting an arts-and-crafts style that would have been in keeping with early 1900s décor.  The 4 ¼” x 4 ¼” tiles were handmade in California.  We chose field tiles (regular four sided tiles), bullnose tiles (with one sloped finished edge) and a few decorative bulls-eye tiles for accents.  The tiles were about 1/2” thick and slightly irregular, with no built-in spacers.

The layout worked out fortuitously. We wanted wide grout lines, often seen on arts-and-crafts projects.  We also wanted decorative tiles on the inside corners where the vertical and horizontal runs met.

With the moldings closest to the façade removed, and with a careful adjustment of the grout spacing, we were able to get a pattern that gave us two columns wide on the sides and two rows deep on the horizontal section.  We wanted only full tiles between the decorative corners, but the 48″ spacing between the inside edges of the firebox was a bit too wide for 10 tiles, even with 3/8″ grout.  Stretching them out was not an option because the grout lines would be too wide compared to the vertical runs. So we decided to add tiles to the vertical inside edge of the firebox. This narrowed the horizontal opening by about 1½” ( the thickness of two tiles and thinset), down to an overall width of 46 1/2″ .  With just a little fudging of the grout width to a hair more than 3/8” (but not quite ½”), we got a satisfactory fit of ten tiles horizontally between the bulls-eyes.



Getting ready for the installation, we took a closer look at the brickwork, only to find that it was not.  The sloping angle of some of the “brick” corners should have been a giveaway.  This was actually stucco that had been textured and grooved to look like decorative brick.

fireplace mid

As I begin each DIY project around our house, my wife asks “Have you ever done this before?” the unstated, but obvious worry being that I was going to serious wound myself, set the place on fire or cause a giant sinkhole to swallow up our homestead.  My usual answer is a smug, silent look, implying that, beyond question, I am up to the task.  But his time, I actually hadn’t done ceramic tiling before.  Time to start reading, surfing the web, and asking my good old friends on

While the paint on the “brick” façade was largely intact, we were a bit unsure about whether the thinset mortar used to mount the tiles would adhere well enough.  A quick post on DIY brought me some great feedback.  Regular contributor HerrBag suggested trying a test patch of thinset on the surface to see how well it adhered.  The test showed fair (not great) adhesion with some paint peeling away and some thinset sticking pretty solidly.


Heavy tiles and some exposure to heat suggested a stronger grip was needed, so we went through a vigorous scraping of the painted surface with a wire brush to remove any loose paint.  Then we did a thorough scarifying of the surface using an angle grinder with an abrasive wheel to cut grooves into the stucco.


You know how they say “preparation is more than half the task”?  Well we didn’t prepare well enough for the hurricane of dust that blew through our entire house.  We had taped and masked the wood of the fireplace and put down newspapers for several feet.  We wore safety goggles, dust mask and gloves.  Nowhere near enough protection!  The grinder threw up clouds of paint and stucco dust, worst in the immediate vicinity, but the film reached upstairs bedrooms!  We have since been cleaning for weeks.  And with old paint there is always the risk of lead contamination.  (Next time, a full plastic tent around a grinding project.)


Before beginning the actual tile mounting, we put on a skim coat of thinset to level out the variances in the stucco and give a more complete base for the tile.


Now on to the actual installation!  Guided by several books on tiling and an internet sweep, we positioned a support brace at the top edge of the firebox (the bottom edge of the horizontal run).  It was leveled and attached with light duty anchors and screws (it’s only temporary).


After mixing the thinset powder (having been warned away from premixed products) with a drill and mixing paddle, waiting the required slaking time (to fully absorb the water), and remixing, we slathered on the mixture, and then striated it using a notched trowel.  Finally, we began setting the tile, beginning with one of the corner decorative tiles, working across to the opposite decorative tile, using spacers to guide the placement and then tweaking to get even spacing.  Over the firebox, bullnose tiles are used, with the tapered edge facing down.

The row above then followed, finally filling in the area outside of the decorative tile, both using field tiles.  Numerous spacers were used to keep the tiles in position (including additional spacers gently wedged in where additional support or a slightly wider gap was needed).  Tiles are tapped into place with a rubber mallet to seat them firmly.  If precise leveling were needed, a tapping block, several tiles wide would be used under the mallet, but the slight irregularity of the hand-made tiles didn’t call for it.  We wiped off stray thinset from the faces of the tiles (lots on the first few, less as we got better at it).  Step back. Admire. Now go to bed.

top rows3


Time to remove the brace and begin the vertical legs.  Same routine with thinset and then to the tiles.  Line up the first row just below the bottom of the upper section, and work your way down.  What? Wait! What’s going on?!?  The tiles are sliding downward!!! Oh, yeah.  Now I remember, the books, the videos said “Start from the bottom, work up”.  Now we see why.  Gravity!

Pull the tiles, scrape off the thinset.  Begin again at the bottom of the leg, with a flat spacer under the edge of the bottom tile, building with tile, spacer, tile, until they meet the upper section.  Adjust the gaps, using spacers as wedges until the gaps are comfortably uniform.  As discussed earlier, the layout resulted in a lucky positioning that didn’t require any tile cutting, a pretty unusual occurrence.  If a partial tile had been needed, it would have been determined in advance, cut with a wetsaw and placed at the bottom.


The tiles on the inside of the vertical legs are bullnose.  They are placed so that the inner edge will line up with the face of the return tiles that will be placed inside the firebox in a later session.  Now do the other leg.  (Is it getting easier or are we getting better?)  Again, time to knock off to let the mortar dry.  But clean up before retiring (uncured thinset comes off oh-so-much easier).

  • edge2

The last tiles to be set are the return tiles inside the front vertical edges of the firebox.  Same routine as the legs, beginning with a spacer, tile, spacer, building from the bottom to the top.  Again, luck (and a little tweaking on grout width) gave us full tiles with no cutting.  Clean up, let dry overnight and pull all spacers.  The tiling is done!  (Not the project, just the tiles).


Next day, grouting begins. Huzzah!  We knew exactly which grout color we wanted – Tobacco!  So warm, so rich.  But let’s mix up an actual sample.  A few tiles on a board, grout around the edge.  Uh, oh.  The tiles are wrapped in fudge!?  OK, the next color lighter, Earth!! Hmm. Still pretty muddy looking.  Five days and four more colors on a sample board led us to the right complement color.  Seeing the grout colors in reality, alongside actual tiles, is much more informative than a color chart.  Given the cost of a tiling project, “wasting” a few tens of dollars on several bags of different colors of grout is a small investment to be sure you get a shade that you like.  And once the grout is installed, it is cast in concrete.

sample grout2

One more step before the actual smear.  The top edge of the upper horizontal row will get a grout line that will show below the upper molding.  To keep that line on the same level as the rest of the grout, we installed a strip of furring level with the surface of the tiles.

Grout mixing and installation is like the books and videos say, but pay attention to the amount prepared at one time. Amateurs (like us) really should limit themselves to a small bucketful.

Mix, let slake, remix and apply.  The pundits vary in their advice about consistency from thinner than mayonnaise (or even soupy) to thick peanut butter.  Because of the wide joints, we leaned toward the stiffer end.  Using a grout float, work it into the channels, scrape off, holding the float at nearly a 90 degree angle and on the diagonal.  It really is a question of practice makes easier, if not perfect.  The nice part is you can go back over the area a few times if the first pass is a bit ragged.


Follow the grout’s instructions about waiting before wiping down with a sponge, and then do so gently. Aggressive will just undo the careful joints you have so lovingly created.  You may need to finesse the ends of the joints, especially as they round toward the firebox returns and the decorative corners.

After wiping, wait the designated hours (as instructed on the grout bag, RTMS) to allow a good set before polishing the haze off with a soft cloth.  You can gently tune up the edges of the tiles if the grout is still a bit high, but moisten the rag to avoid digging out too much.


You may need to do the grout process in several stages. It took us three sessions – one for the horizontal field and one for each of the vertical legs and their firebox returns.

With moldings reinstalled, the project is now just waiting for caulk, color-matched to the grout at the base, grout sealing, and the first blazing fire.



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Spraying foam around the windows

2013-11-05 by . 14 comments

One of the best home improvements I’ve made in a while, is one you’ll likely never see (unless you read this blog). And at about $10.00, it was also one of the cheapest projects I’ve done.

When the temperatures started to drop, I noticed that the second floor of my house was quite a bit colder than the first. So, I did what my mother had always done. I went out and bought window wrap, and applied it to all the windows in the house.  You know the stuff. The plastic wrap, that shrinks with a hair dryer.

Yeah, that stuff.

After spending a day installing the stuff, I noticed it was still quite cold upstairs.  As I investigated further, I found that I could still feel a draft near the windows.  So I thought to my self “The air must be coming in around the window, not through it.”.

The next day I removed the casing from one of the windows, and found a puny bit of fiberglass batt insulation stuffed in around the window.  I couldn’t believe that in a newer home, in the northern United States, this was the way they insulated around a window.  I knew what had to be done, so I hopped in my truck and headed to Home Depot. Where I picked up two cans of Great Stuff™ Window & Door, for about $10.00.

If you’re going to do this, make sure you get the stuff designed for windows and door.  The “regular” Great Stuff Gaps & Cracks may expand too much and/or too quickly, causing the window or door frame to bow out.  If this happens, the door or window may not function properly.  The window & door formula is created to expand with less force, so it will not bend the frame of a door or window.

Installing the stuff is dead easy.  Once you have the window trim removed, and the gap around the window frame revealed. You simply gently pull the trigger, and fill the gap about 50% of the way (that’s 50% of the depth, you want to fill the entire width). Run a smooth continuous bead in all the gaps, and sit back an watch it expand.



Don’t worry about being super neat, you can trim off anything that expands out of the crack later.  Use a hack saw blade, or utility knife to trim off any excess, once the foam has cured (usually about 8 hours).


Once the foam has cured, and you’ve trimmed off any overflow. There’s nothing more to do except, install the casing, and celebrate a job well done.

I found that one 16 oz. can, was enough to do two standard sized windows. You’ll also want to be aware that once you start using a can, you have to use  the whole can.  If you don’t use all the product in the can, you cannot save the remainder for later. So before you start spraying, make sure the trim is removed from all the windows you plan to insulate.


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Demystifying the mystifying GFCI

2013-07-30 by . 3 comments

A commonly misunderstood electrical device, is the Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI).  Whether posing as a circuit breaker, or a receptacle, the GFCI device is almost always misunderstood. To understand the GFCI, however, you have to know a bit (and I mean a really little bit) about transformers.

This is a transformer.


(Well, a crude representation of one anyway).  It consists of an iron core, and a couple coils of wires.

Transformer Coils

More specifically, it has a primary coil of wire, and a secondary coil of wire.

Transformer Labeled Coils

When you place a voltage on the primary coil, some magnetic magic happens in the core and a voltage is induced on the secondary coil.

Transformer Working

And there you have the most basic crash course, on the most coarse basics of transformers. Which is all you need, to understand how GFCI devices work.

Inside a GFCI device, you’ll find what’s called a Current Transformer (CT).  A crude representation of a CT, looks something like this.


A CT works just like any other transformer. When a voltage is applied to the primary, a voltage is induced on the secondary. The only difference, is that the primary isn’t a coil, exactly.  The primary is instead the ungrounded (hot), and grounded (neutral) conductors of an electrical circuit.


When current is drawn on the circuit, it flows down the ungrounded (hot) cunductor. Out to the consuming device, then returns back to the source on the grounded (neutral) conductor. Similarly, if we draw current from a GFCI device.  It flows down through the ungrounded (hot) conductor, and through the CT core.

CT in GFCI  (Current on hot)

The current then flows back through the CT on the grounded (neutral) conductor, and back to the source.

CT in GFCI  (Current on Both)

According to the right hand rule. If you point the thumb of your right hand  in the direction of current flow, and wrap your fingers around the conductor, your fingers point in the direction of the magnetic field produced by the flowing current.  If this is done with the above diagram, we end up with magnetic field lines like this.

CT in GFCI  (Current on Both with Magnetic feild lines)

Because of the proximity, and opposite-ness of the fields. They cancel each other out, and no voltage is induced on the secondary coil of the CT.

CT in GFCI  (Current on Both with Magnetic feild lines) Even

In the case of a ground-fault, however, not all the current will flow back along the grounded (neutral) conductor. This creates an imbalance in the magnetic fields, which allows magnetic magic to occur in the transformer core, and a voltage is induced on the secondary of the CT.  If the voltage on the CT is large enough, and lasts long enough, the GFCI device will open the circuit.

CT in GFCI  (Current on Both with Magnetic feild lines) Not Even

Next time you come across a GFCI device that continually trips, think about how it works and what it’s looking for.  This might give you a better idea of what to look for, and where to start troubleshooting. And remember to always work safely, and cautiously whenever you’re working with electricity.

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Filed under Electrical, Safety

Replumbing an improper trap.

2013-04-16 by . 7 comments

When I was inspecting the home that I recently purchased, I took a look under the kitchen sink and noticed this…

Bad Trap

Typically, traps have a trap seal between 2 – 4 inches. This amount of water allows waste water and debris to flow down the drain, while still providing enough force to prevent sewer gases from pushing past. The problem you find with a deeper trap, is that the waste water; and in particular the debris, does not have enough force behind it to escape the trap. This leads to a nasty, dirty, stinkin’, slow flowing trap. Which leads to your wife saying “Dang, this sink stinks!”. If Google Nose BETA worked, I would have saved the smell from when the old trap was removed. Then you’d smell what I’m talking about.


If you take a look back at the first image, you’ll see that the trap seal is simply too large.  The entire pipe below the disposal drain line, all the way to the lower dip of the elbow coming out of the wall will be filled with water. Where in a normal situation, only the lower bend of the P-trap will be filled with water.

Bad Trap - Filled

Usually this situation is fixed easily by purchasing the correct fittings, and connecting them in a way that allows proper drainage. In my case, however, some genius glued a downward facing elbow at the outlet connection. As soon as this elbow was glued in place, the fate of this trap was sealed. It would forever be WRONG!

To fix this problem, my only choice was to cut the offending elbow off. Once removed, new pipes could be connected, and a proper trap could be arranged. So I set about cutting the elbow off, as close to the back of the elbow as possible. The idea was to leave enough pipe behind the elbow, to allow me to attach new fittings. Unfortunately; as with most home improvement projects I ran in to problems and, this was not possible.

Cutting the pipe

To leave the maximum amount of pipe, I used a hacksaw blade (removed from the hacksaw) to cut the pipe. If you attempt this, don’t forget to wear a good pair of leather gloves, or to wrap the ends of the blade with duct tape to make makeshift handles.

As it turned out the stub was just too short, so there was no way I was going to attach anything to the exposed pipe. My only option was to move back one more fitting, and cut the pipe beyond that. In this situation, this involved opening up the wall a bit. Fortunately I was working under a sink, in a cabinet, so a limited amount of damage was acceptable. I grabbed my trusty Milwaukee multi-tool, and cut a hole in the back of the cabinet and the drywall.

Exposed Pipe

In a lot of instances this fitting will be a tee connecting the sink drain to a drain-waste-vent stack, which may require a bit more damage to the back of the cabinet and wall. In my situation, I was lucky it was a simple elbow.

Using my hacksaw blade. I cut off the tee, glued on a new tee, glued on a short stub, and finally glued on a PVC DWV trap adapter.


Once that was done, it was a simple matter of installing the remaining bits of pipe.


Now my trap is just the right depth, and the waste is flowing as it should.


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Filed under Plumbing, Repair

First-Time DIY: Duct Tape ≠ Plumbing

2013-04-02 by . 10 comments

Hello again everyone! When my wife & I bought our first house, we went right to work remodeling it. We started by refinishing the hardwood floors and updating our shutters to add some curb appeal. After the floor was finished, we moved on to begin remodeling the kitchen. While I don’t have all of my kitchen photos ready for you, I wanted to show you what I found while re-plumbing the kitchen.

Let me just explain that the previous owners turned the laundry room into a laundry/bathroom – adding a shower, sink, and toilet. They decided to have the washing machine and sink share the long drain pipe (left) and that the shower would drain straight down. The only thing holding these pipes together was the duct tape – no primer, no glue – just duct tape.

Long pipe (left) is from washing machine & sink

Long pipe (left) is from washing machine & sink

Corner shower drains straight down

Corner shower drains straight down

I replaced this incredibly nasty, 3-Way Sanitary Tee (what an oxymoron in this case) with a Flexible 3-Way Sanitary Tee connector. I used silicone sealant on the inside of the connector before tightening it all and on the seams afterwards.

So the lesson here is always use the correct tools for the job … and duct tape doesn’t always fix everything…

What’s the worst “quick fix” you’ve ever run across? Let us know in the comments!

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How to Build Sturdy Garage Shelves

I’ve done some finish carpentry in the past, but I’m really more of a framer because I like to just throw things together quickly and make them as strong as possible. With garage shelves, in my opinion, they don’t need to look fancy, but they do need to be sturdy – I’ve seen far too many saggy garage shelves that look like they’re going to come tumbling down at any moment. In fact, I’ve actually had a pet killed by some pre-built garage shelves that collapsed.

I recently built some new garage shelves in the home we have been living in for a couple years now. I had always planned to build some, but only got around to it a few months ago. I wanted to share my experience to give other DIY-ers an idea of a simple shelving design that is built to last. The pictures in this post are only of one of the walls I built shelves on. The total cost for wood, nails and screws for both walls was just under $200.00. My goal was to build the strongest shelves as possible, without spending too much money. For the amount of sturdy shelf space we now have in our garage, $200.00 was well worth it.

Tools Needed:

  • Hammer and nails (preferably a nail gun if you have one)
  • Screws and a screw gun. I used 3 ½ inch wood screws.
  • Some kind of saw. a chop saw would be best for this, but technically you could use a skill saw, a jigsaw, a table saw, or even a hack saw if you had to.
  • Tape measure
  • Stud finder
  • Long level (at least 4 feet)
  • Pencil
  • Small ladder
  • Chisel (if you have baseboard in your garage)

Prep Work


  • Know what you’re going to store on the shelves and their dimensions. Once you know the height of the tallest item you plan on storing on the shelves,
  • Measure the distance between the floor and the ceiling. Divide this distance by the height of the tallest item you will be keeping on your shelves. For example, if you have a cooler that is 20 inches tall, and the distance from your ceiling to your floor is 108 inches tall, you would divide 108 by 24 1/2 (I’ll explain why it needs to be 4 ½ inches taller than your tallest item later). This would equal roughly 4.4, which means that you have enough room for 4 rows of shelving with 21 inches of usable height.

garage-shelves-prep-1 Obviously you don’t have to make all the shelves be the same height, but make sure to have at least one of two rows of shelving tall enough for all of your tallest items. I made our bottom two shelves taller to hold the larger, heavier items (like food storage), and made the upper shelves a little bit shorter to hold the smaller, lighter items. I would also recommend storing all of your DIY chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, or cleaners on the top shelf, so your children cannot reach them (easily…).

Finding and Marking the Studs

  • You will need a stud finder for this part. What I did was mark all the vertical and horizontal lines that my shelves would follow. Take your stud finder across the wall horizontally (twice), once up higher, and once down lower and mark each stud. Then take a 4 ft (or longer) level and trace a straight vertical line between the upper and lower marks. Use that line to extend the vertical line all the way up the wall. This vertical line will be your guide to help you see where to screw the boards to the wall.
  • Next draw the horizontal lines by measuring from the ground up. If your bottom shelf will have a 21 inch space under it, measure up 24 ½ inches and use your level to draw a horizontal line all the way across the wall. The next horizontal line should be 24 ½ inches above that line (assuming all of your shelves will be the same height). The reason you have to go up 24 1/2 inches to build a 21 inch space is because you have to account for the 1/2 inch plywood on top, and the 3 inch tall  frame board.

Calculating Amount of Wood Needed

  • Given the length of the walls I was building my shelves on, I bought my wood in the 8 foot lengths. I used a combination of 2x4s (for the vertical support posts), and 2x3s (for the main horizontal framework, including the boards tacked to the wall). I also used ½ inch thick plywood for the shelving surface, with the smoother side of the plywood facing up. Lowes will rip cut the 8×4 ft sheets of plywood for you to save you some time. My shelves were about 21 inches deep so I was able to get two, 8 foot long pieces out of each sheet. I found this depth to be good for most tubs and other large items you would store, and plenty of room for storing several smaller items.
  • The wall I built these shelves on was about 14 feet long, so I needed two 8 foot sheets of plywood for each row. I had to cut off the extra two feet with my chop saw.
  • Once you know the length of the wall, it’s fairly straightforward as far as counting up how many 2x3s and sheets of plywood you need. For a 14 foot wall, I used 5 2×4 vertical posts, two on the end and three in the middle, each spaced about 3 ½ feet apart. You can do whatever you want here, but make sure you don’t go too far between the posts so you have enough strength.

Building the Shelves

Once you have all of your lumber, it’s time to start building. This is the fun part and if you’ve already measured and marked everything, the building portion should go fairly quickly (with this design).

  • The first step is to tack the 2x3s to the wall. Place them over the horizontal lines you drew and put a nail in at each vertical line (where the studs are). I used both screws and nails for this part. Screws offer the horizontal strength, and nails provide the vertical strength.

As you can see in the picture below, I also used the perpendicular wall for increased support. I would recommend this as it provides horizontal strength.


  • After screwing and nailing the boards up on to the wall, you can put up the end boards (2x4s). Measure and cut these boards (and all the other vertical support 2x4s) to be ½ inch taller than the highest board against the wall. This is so that when you lay the plywood down on the top shelf it will fit into the frame for additional support.
  • For those with some kind of baseboard in your garage, you will need to take a chisel and notch out a spot for the vertical 2×4 boards that will go on the ends, against the wall. You can also notch out a space on the support beams themselves, instead of the baseboard.
  • The next step is to put up the outer 2×3 boards on each row. Start at the bottom and place something under one end, while you nail the other end to the perpendicular board that is against the wall. Replace whatever you were using to support the other end with the first vertical support 2×4. Nail it into place with only one nail so you can still pivot the board side to side and level it. See image below.


  • Continue moving across, putting the next horizontal 2×3 into place and nailing the next vertical 2×4 to it.
  • Repeat this process with the next row up, but before you nail the vertical 2×4 to the second row, make sure to level it vertically with your long level. After you have leveled the 2×4 and nailed it to the second row, the remaining rows will go quickly. I would still check each row with the level as some boards can be warped and will need to be bent into place.


It’s a little difficult to see in these pictures, but I have also tacked in some support boards between the horizontal beams, coming out perpendicular to the main wall.



The final step is to lay in the plywood pieces. They should fit right into your frame and once nailed down will offer additional strength coming out of the wall, as well as side to side. I nailed them down roughly every 12 inches.

As you can see in the picture below, your garage shelves should be strong enough to double as a jungle gym for your kids!



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First Time DIY: Carpet vs Hardwood

2013-03-19 by . 11 comments

When my wife & I decided to buy our first house I had never thought about whether I wanted hardwood floors or not. My wife on the other hand, LOVED them. After we had picked out our house, we were doing a walk through to determine what things needed to be fixed by the sellers  (a sampling): maxwell floors 2

  • Repair the moldy bathroom
  • Find and repair the gas leak
  • Clean the carpet

We walked into the now guest bedroom and I saw that there was no molding in the closet and that the carpet was loose. Instead of just marking it down as something for them to fix, I was curious and pulled back the carpet. To our surprise, we found original hardwood floors! My wife flipped.

After pulling back the closet’s carpet completely, we saw that it looked almost as if the floors had been refinished and then someone laid carpet on top of it. What a shame.

Once we found the flooring, the repair list looked more like this:

  • Repair the moldy bathroom
  • Find and repair the gas leak
  • Clean the carpet Whatever you do, do NOT clean the carpet!

But, what the sellers heard was:

  • Don’t worry yourself about the mold in the bathroom, just knock a couple hundred off the price
  • Gas leak? *sniff* What gas le–…. *passes out*
  • Ignore our requests and please clean the carpet and leave it wet Pay ZERO attention to this!

But wait, there’s more!

Filed under Projects

Handling the pressure with expansion tanks

2013-02-19 by . 28 comments

Is an expansion tank required?

Private, older public, and some other water distribution systems may not require an expansion tank to be installed. This is because these systems may be considered “open”, since they lack pressure regulators and/or backflow preventers. Plumbing code changes intended to prevent the contamination of the public water supplies, have made backflow prevention a requirement in most current new builds. While this may be a good change for the water supply, it can be a damaging change to your plumbing system.

IRC2009 P2902.3 Backflow protection. A means of protection against backflow shall be provided in accordance with Sections P2902.3.1 through P2902.3.6. Backflow prevention applications shall conform to Table P2902.3, except as specifically stated in Sections P2902.4 through P2902.5.5.

Before pressure reducing valves and backflow preventers were used, any excess pressure in your system could easily spread back into the water distribution system. This meant any thermal expansion of the water caused by your domestic hot water (DHW) system, could easily be dissipated back through the distribution system. Now that backflow prevention is required, your plumbing system has become a “closed” system, and a new way must be employed to prevent over pressurization.

This is where expansion tanks come in. Expansion tanks are used to absorb any excess pressure created due to thermal expansion, which prevents an over pressurization of the system. In any situation where water in a “closed system” is heated, an expansion tank is required.

IRC 2009 P2903.4 Thermal expansion control. A means for controlling increased pressure caused by thermal expansion shall be installed where required in accordance with Sections P2903.4.1 and P2903.4.2. P2903.4.1 Pressure-reducing valve. For water service system sizes up to and including 2 inches (51 mm), a device for controlling pressure shall be installed where, because of thermal expansion, the pressure on the downstream side of a pressure-reducing valve exceeds the pressure-reducing valve setting.   P2903.4.2 Backflow prevention device or check valve. Where a backflow prevention device, check valve or other device is installed on a water supply system using storage water heating equipment such that thermal expansion causes an increase in pressure, a device for controlling pressure shall be installed.

Symptoms of an over pressurized system

High pressure in a plumbing system can damage any fixture connected to the system, including faucets, taps, toilets, washing machines, dish washers, water heaters, etc. It can also lead to leaks, running toilets, difficult to operate faucets and taps, and even burst pipes. A frequent symptom of an over pressurized system, is a sudden surge of water when a faucet is turned on. The surge will quickly dissipate, and won’t return even if you close and reopen the valve.

If the over pressurization is caused by thermal expansion, you may only notice symptoms occasionally and seemingly randomly. This is because the pressure in the system increases when the water heater is heating, and all fixtures are closed. The pressure diminishes when any fixture is opened, or as the water cools. The problem may only be observed when the system pressure is at its highest, which may only be on rare occasions.

What is an expansion tank?

An expansion tank physically resembles a small propane tank.

Expansion Tank

It’s usually installed fairly close to a water heater or boiler, and may be installed in almost any orientation. Internally, there will likely be a flexible (Butyl) diaphragm which divides the tank in two. On the “wet” side, you’ll notice a 3/4” NPTM connection which allows it to be connected to the plumbing system. The “dry” side, often features a Schrader valve which allows the pressure of the tank to be adjusted as needed.

Schrader Vavle

Normally the tank will be completely filled with air, and the diaphragm will be pressing against the water inlet. As the water pressure increases, it compresses the lower pressure air in the tank, and the tank fills with water. When the system water pressure decreases, the air pressure forces the water out of the tank, and back into the pipes.

Inside Expansion Tank

How do I install an expansion tank?

Expansion tanks are installed on the cold water supply of a domestic hot water tank, or boiler. The installation process is fairly easy, usually only requiring a tee fitting to be added to the water line.


The first step in installing an expansion tank, is to decide where you want it. We already know that the tank must be installed between the cold water shut off, and the water heater inlet. So we know where it has to connect to the system, but we still have to decide where the tank itself will sit.

Up, Down, Left, or Right?

Most tanks can be installed in any orientation, though there are advantages to some positions. For example. If you install the tank vertically with the air side up, and the tanks bladder ever fails. The tank may continue to function (though at a reduced capacity), until the air escapes from the tank. Whereas, if the tank was installed with the air side down, and the bladder failed. The air would immediately move to the top of the tank, and the tank would fill completely with water.


While most smaller tanks can be supported by the plumbing itself, it can be a good idea to support the tank by other means. Water weighs about 8.34 lbs/gallon, which means even a properly functioning tank can weigh quite a bit. Lets look at an example tank.

  • Tank Capacity: 4.4 gallons.
  • Maximum Accept Capacity: 2.5 gallons
  • Tank Weight: 8 lbs

Maximum Properly Functioning Weight:

2.5 gallons * 8.35 lbs/gal. + 8 lbs = 28.875 lbs.

Maximum Failure Weight:

4.4 gallons * 8.35 lbs/gal. + 8 lbs = 44.74 lbs.

Even when the tank is in working order and fills to maximum capacity, you could end up with almost 29 lbs hanging from your pipes. Because of this, it may be a good idea to attach the tank to a nearby structural member. This can be easily accomplished, using straps and/or brackets designed for this purpose.

Tank Bracket


Now that we’ve decided where the tank will connect to the plumbing, and where the tank will spend the rest of its life. It’s time to start the actual installation.

Turn off the water

The first thing you’ll have to do is to figure out how to turn off the water heater/boiler, and then actually turn it off. Next you’ll have to locate the cold water supply shutoff valve, and turn the valve to the closed (off) position. Finally, turn on (open) the lowest hot water tap in the house. This will release any built up pressure, and prevent water from spraying out when you cut the pipe in the next step.

Mark and cut the pipe

Use the tee as a guide, and mark the pipe where you’ll be installing the tee. Cut the pipe at your marks, using a pipe cutter.

Pipe Cutter

If you don’t have to cut the pipe, skip this step.

Install the tee

Solder, snap, or twist the tee into place. Then install any nipples or extension pipes required to reach the tanks final resting place. You’ll want to end the extension with a 3/4” NPTF fitting, so the expansion tank can be screwed into place.

At this point you may want to think about adding some extra fittings that will make required maintenance easier. A ball valve and spigot, will make isolating and draining the tank much more convenient. Installing a combination fitting like this Ball drain valve, can make this task much easier and clean looking (Make sure to check your local codes to insure this type of setup is allowed.).

Combination Valve

Check the system pressure

Pressure GaugeAt this point you’ll want to close the faucet you opened, and open the shutoff valves (make sure you cap the extension pipe, or close the valve on the extension, or you’ll have water everywhere). Turn on all the hot water fixtures in the house until water flows normally (no sputtering), to insure the system is filled and at full pressure. Check for, and repair leaks.

Attach a pressure gauge to any part of your plumbing system. Some gauges contain threads for a garden faucet, or you can attach one to the extension where the expansion tank will be installed. Once the gauge is attached, open the valve to get a reading on the gauge. Note the pressure. If the pressure is not within the normal range of 40 – 80 psi, you’ll have to take steps to correct it (which is not covered in this article).


Pre-pressurize the tank

Most expansion tanks come pressurized to 12 – 40 psi, but before you install the tank you have to match the system pressure. Start by removing the protective cover from the air valve on the tank. Use a tire gauge to check the pressure. Use a bicycle pump, or compressor, to fill the tank to match the system pressure you noted earlier.

Mount the tank

Attach the tank to the plumbing, and mount it using your straps and/or brackets. Turn everything on, and check for/repair any leaks. Stand back and revel in your success.


You can quickly verify the tank is working at any time, with a simple tap. When you tap on the air side of the tank, you should hear a hollow sounding dong. If you hear a solid sounding thud, the tank has failed, and is filled with water. In this case, the tank will have to be replaced.

Check the tank pressure

Once a year (see owners manual for schedule) or so, the air pressure in the tank should be checked. To do this, you’ll have to isolate the tank from the water systems pressure (Once again the extra valve and spigot come in handy). As before, you’ll have to shut off, open, close, or disconnect things until there is no pressure on the water side of the tank. Once you’ve accomplished that, use a tire gauge to check the air pressure. Add/remove air as needed. Repressurize the water system, and you’re good for another year.

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Filed under Plumbing