Archive for the ‘Home Ownership’ Category

And So It Continues…   Leave a comment

28 February 2019

Five months (and about $120k) into the big adventure… we’ve got almost all the new construction built out; the 2-story garage is framed, roofed, and mostly buttoned up, the whole-front bump-out is framed, roofed and insulated, the entirely-new sun-room is framed, roofed and insulated, the front dormers have been rebuilt and roofed with the rest of the original roof front, and the connecting mudroom between the original house and the new garage has been framed and roofed.  New siding has been installed on most of the new construction and some of the old (all exterior walls will eventually get new siding).  The windows have been ordered, delivered, and installed.  We’re waiting on the two new exterior doors (being painted), the front bay window (in-hand but the window cut-out is the only way into the bump-out area until they break through the existing wall), and the rebuild of the back dormer in the master bedroom.  A hell of a lot has been accomplished in 5 months, but there’s a hell of a lot more work to do.

At first we were able to stay in the house while work was being done (once the water got turned back on and the septic tank was re-attached after being moved), but the house became uninhabitable fairly quickly with frequent power outages and water shut-offs.  We were able to stay at some friends’ house while they were away for 2+ months, and after that we’ve been alternating between staying with Lynn’s sister who lives in Brunswick (about 28 miles south of the Ballot Box) or staying at the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb (about 5 miles south of the Ballot Box).

Lynn’s been wrestling with kitchen issues; layout, cabinets, appliances, lighting, and more.  Lots of moving parts here.  She’s also been grappling with what kind of floor we want; solid wood, laminate, etc.  Lots of decisions.

The outside rendering from the architectural designer is online here (yellow shows the original structure we started with), and progressive sets of photos of the progress can be seen on the website’s “Changes Are Afoot” page, that get’s updated every week or two when we drive up to check on progress or consult with the General Contractor or need to research fixtures or cabinets or need to talk with the electrician.

The GC is still saying the house will be able to host the tenth annual Lobster Feed that we throw for Lynn’s side of the family on Memorial Day weekend.  We’ll take him at his word.

And So It Begins…   Leave a comment

27 September 2018

About two years ago, after discussing plans and timing for a number of years, we decided that I would retire in late January 2019. Our retirement “plan” for almost three decades was to sell the house in Woburn and move to mid-coast Maine.  We bought a house in mid-coast Maine nine years ago – the “Ballot Box” – as part of that long-term plan, to get our foot in the door in the area to find out where we really wanted to spend our retirement.  The fact that we fell in love with the Ballot Box – in spite of all its shortcomings (most of them related to lack of space) – just made the process easier… at first.IMG_7333-c

Well-aware of the BB’s shortcomings – a great place to escape to for weekends… or weeks… or in some cases months at a time, but too small as a primary residence – we began to start getting serious.  Basically we had three options available to solve the space problem; sell the Ballot box and buy something “better,” tear the Ballot Box down and build something all new and “better,” or expand the existing structure to give us the features and space we expected we’d need – and make it “better.” We couldn’t bring ourselves to sell or tear down the Ballot Box, so that left only option 3… expand. We decided to expand!

We actually did our due diligence.  We consulted with multiple architects and architectural designers about both “replace” and “expand” options, and we spent a few months with a real estate agent friend, looking at what was on the market for purchase. None of the market offerings had all that we wanted or needed, so renovations would have to be implemented anyway.  Why not renovate what we already owned and loved?

Our needs did indeed revolve around having more “space.”  Lynn needed a quilt studio that could accommodate all her tools and materials… to include work space, room for her “stash” of cloth and other materials used in making quilts, and most importantly room for her tools: a cutting table, a piecing wall, multiple sewing machines, and a 10-foot long quilting machine.  I needed space for my computers, my genealogy research, my photography hobby, and my underutilized woodworking tools. We both needed under-cover space for our cars, especially during the winter, and we needed space for our yard tools (rakes, shovels, clippers, trimmers, lawn mowers, snow blowers, wheel barrows, etc.). Most importantly, we needed welcoming space for visitors.  We also wanted (reluctantly) to add a first-floor bedroom suite to make our lives easier when our legs started giving out and climbing up a flight of stairs became too much of a chore in our dotage.

We consulted with one architect who just didn’t seem interested in a measly house expansion.  He said the right things, but in a bland monotone. Not our style.  We contracted with a local architectural firm to get preliminary sketches of possible designs, but they couldn’t seem to grasp the fact that we wanted maximum natural light. They insisted on putting the garage directly south of the house, blocking most of the sunlight from getting to the windows. No thanks.

A long-time friend who had been the general contractor for construction jobs for a few of our friends suggested we talk to an architectural designer for a local lumber company that he had worked with many times, with the added incentive that if we proceeded with construction and used that lumber company for materials, her services would be free.  She was great to work with, listened to us, and had some great ideas of her own. We started working with her in October 2017, went through four iterations of the plans, and we hired our GC-friend as the general contractor for our project too!

The biggest change in the plans came between rev.s #2 and #3.  Lynn understood the reason why we were planning a first floor bedroom suite, but just wasn’t happy about the concept. It also bothered her that we were taking up most of the new floor-space on the first floor and dedicating it to non-daytime use.  Then we had an epiphany and decided to make that space into a 4-season sun-room that could eventually and easily be converted into a bedroom if and when needed. Eureka!

Rev. 4 – the final rev – looks like this, and will include the finishing of the original house basement into a guest suite.

They broke ground on 17 September, excavating the cellar for the sun-room and the front bump-out and the footings for garage and breezeway.  We were able to watch the frenetic activity live via webcam for a day or so, until they had to cut power to the house which took down the webcams.  One update needed to be an increase of the electrical service from 100 amps to 200 amps, to accommodate the heat pumps we are installing.  That required digging a new underground conduit from the telephone pole to the house.  Also, the well water-line and power to the well pump passed through the space that needed to become the cellar for the sun-room, and the septic tank was in the way of the breezeway and had to be moved, so water in and water out was also shut down.  My carefully crafted entryway deck was also in the way of the breezeway, so what took me 4 months to build got removed in about ten minutes… intact (I plan on converting it to a tent platform in the yard for visiting campers).

We’ll probably be visiting even more frequently than we did before construction.  The plan is to build and button up all the outside work (sun-room, front bump-out, breezeway, garage) before the snow flies, and then do the interior work during the winter. We were assured it would be done by the first of May.  I’m tracking progress in pictures on a “Changes” page on the web site.  We also need to focus on cleaning out and prepping the southern house for sale in the spring.  Tell us again how relaxing retirement will be??

Posted 27 September 2018 by Gene Vogt in Home Ownership, Maine, Newcastle, The Ballot Box

“All God’s Critters Got a Place in the House!” *   2 comments

* with apologies to Bill Staines

17 June 2018

Baby SquirrelBack a couple of visits ago, we found what we THOUGHT was a baby squirrel, dead, in the wastebasket by Lynn’s side of the bed when we first arrived at the Ballot Box for the weekend. To us that meant a mother squirrel had gotten in and had her babies somewhere in the house. We don’t have an attic in this house so we were (and still are) a bit puzzled about where the nest might be. According to some quick research, squirrels have 3-4 offspring in a brood, so there might be more. We were also a bit confused about *how* they might have gotten in. We have occasional trouble with Meadow Voles (a.k.a. American field mice) as the fall turns to winter, but mousetraps seem to be able to stem any possible tide of Microtus pennsylvanicus.

Our next visit was for a week-long stay in conjunction with the Memorial Day holiday. We throw a “Start of Summer” party for Lynn’s side of the family each year on the Sunday before the holiday, and this was the week. We got up on the Thursday before and began plans and preparations for the party. The next morning after Lynn had taken her shower, she went back to the bedroom from the bathroom (Au Naturale, of course) and grabbed a big canvas LLBean Tote in the hall that we often use as an overflow suitcase. She went into the bedroom and plopped the bag down on the padded hassock/bench in front of the window, and out jumped another juvenile squirrel that started running around the bedroom – with Lynn as naked as a jaybird. Needless to say she was a bit Victor Mouse Trapstartled and perplexed. So was Lynn! The squirrel retreated to under a half-height folding bookcase full of shoes in the corner, and Lynn got dressed quicker than she ever had before, giving the bookcase a wide berth! We moved the bookcase to see if he was still there, but the squirrel had apparently retreated from that hiding place to a different one. We set out a couple of mousetraps in the upstairs hall soon after that episode.

That night we heard some rustling and rummaging around upstairs while we were watching TV, and then a “SNAP!” and a wailing ruckus from upstairs, so I went up to investigate and a baby squirrel – we assumed THE baby squirrel – was thrashing around in the hallway. It was a bit too big for the mousetrap but still was caught by the leg. I tried to put a wastebasket over it but as I approached it got loose and scurried into the bedroom, again under the bookcase. We slowly moved away all the stuff in the corner near the bookcase, and then Lynn stood with a blanket poised to throw and I moved the bookcase to reveal the wounded squirrel. Lynn threw the blanket over the squirrel and I tried to stun it under the blanket to keep it from escaping as we tried to bundle it up in the blanket and take it outside. We tossed the blanket containing the squirrel into a trashcan and carried it outside. When I unfurled the blanket the squirrel fell out, dead. That was two…

During the rest of the week (after the party) I noticed mouse movement along the top of the foundation, emanating from one specific corner of the house, while I sat at my desk in the cellar working at my computer, so I figured that the critters had found a way in at that corner of the foundation, up under the trim-boards that box in each corner of the house and run up the side of the house to the roof. I went out to that corner during the daylight hours (ostensibly while the critters were out and about) and jammed a bunch of steel wool up into that trim-board corner to block re-entry with something that can’t be chewed.

The next trip up (two weeks later) we found a dead mouse in the upstairs bathroom wastebasket (they sometimes fall in and can’t get out, not unusual), but there was stuff askew and knocked around all over the house; a walking stick had been tipped over by the door, the umbrella in the corner of the downstairs bathroom was on the floor, a vase had been knocked off the kitchen counter, a greeting card had been knocked off the hutch, and the upstairs bathroom had been “ransacked,” the cup of toothbrushes knocked on the floor, all the accouterments in the shower (soap, shampoo bottles, a plastic pitcher for rinsing the tub after a shower, facecloths, etc.) had been knocked off their shelves and into the tub. So we started investigating… and also found a hole had been chewed in the inside fiberglass screen on one of the closed casement windows in our bedroom. We considered booking a room in a B&B for the night (we had arrived ~9 pm and it was getting late) but none of the B&Bs in the area were taking guests yet. So we went to bed, wondering if a squirrel was going to attack us as we slept.

Nothing happened during the night, and the next day (Friday) we started a deeper search of the upstairs. Eventually Lynn found a “lump” under the guest bed bed-covers so we carefully cleared everything off the bed and slowly peeled off the puff… to reveal the third baby squirrel… dead. Apparently there was still a baby squirrel IN the house when I plugged the entry/exit with steel wool, and it made a mess of the bathroom and other parts of the house looking for food and water and another way out. It finally died of starvation after tucking itself into bed in the guest bed. We bundled the mattress cover and the puff (with the squirrel carcass) into a trash bag and tossed it in the trash at the dump/transfer station, and peeled off the foam egg-crates that were on the bed under the mattress pad and put them out on the deck to get aired out or more likely pitched another day.

havahartOn the outside chance there’s yet another one still in the house we set a “small squirrel” hav-a-hart trap in the upstairs hallway when we left, to be checked when we return. Remember, our research revealed that squirrels broods are 3-4 in size… we found three…

Never a dull moment in the woods of Maine!

UPDATE 1 July 2018

On returning to the Ballot Box after two weeks away, the hav-a-hart trap was still empty, the bait carrot was dried up and wizzled and untouched.  We did catch one field mouse in one of the two baited mousetraps we left, but the 2nd one was untouched, so I’m declaring victory over the squirrels in the house, and a stalemate with the mice (which is all one can ask for).


We’ve been corrected… what we thought were baby squirrels were actually adult “flying squirrels,” most likely “southern flying squirrels.”  We found two more in the house during construction on the house in preparation for our moving here permanently.

Posted 18 June 2018 by Gene Vogt in Home Ownership, Maine, Newcastle, The Ballot Box

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Quiet Times at the Ballot Box… Sort of…   Leave a comment

14 APRIL 2016

Four months have quietly slipped past us since my last entry on this blog. Lynn and I have actually been up to the BB six times since I wrote the last entry, but nothing of interest has happened so I have had nothing of interest to write about… until now…

There was a mystery of sorts just before our last visit. I often check the webcam page on the Ballot Box web site each morning that I’m NOT at the Ballot Box, to check on the morning’s weather and to make sure everything is working as expected. It almost always is, except for Tuesday the 5th of April last. The last image captured and transmitted to the web site occurred at 12:36 AM on Tuesday morning. At 6 AM when I checked the web site while eating breakfast, I noticed the lack of recent updates (the system is programmed to send a new snap from each webcam to the web server every 120 seconds, every 2 minutes).

I checked again when I got to work, still no new images, so I hopped onto the Internet and checked Central Maine Power (CMP)’s web site to see if there was a reported power outage in the Ballot Box area. We get power flickers up in that part of Maine fairly regularly, so I have my webcams, my house server running the webcam security software, my router, and my cable modem plugged into a UPS that can keep everything running on battery backup power for about 20 minutes; long enough to skate through 99.9% of the momentary power outages we experience up there.

CMP was not reporting any power outages anywhere near the Ballot Box, but I was not able to connect over the Internet directly to any of the webcams, which usually means the cable modem has shut down, which usually means that we lost power for longer than 20 minutes, which triggers a graceful shutdown of my server which hosts the webcam security software, and power is still out. When power comes back on the UPS initiates a graceful startup of all the equipment, so within five minutes of the restoration of power my webcams begin transmitting images to the web server again. This had not happened yet that morning.

I called CMP customer support and chatted with a technician who tried communicating with my electrical meter over the power lines. No answer from the meter. The tech said that he would dispatch a linesman to our house to see if there was a problem with the power lines at the pole (we have underground utility connections from the pole to the house).

The linesman called me from outside our house and said that the main circuit breaker built into the electrical meter had been switched off, and because the breaker was on the house side of the electrical meter it was the homeowner’s responsibility and he was expressly forbidden to touch that breaker or anything electrical on the house side of the meter. He was also fairly precise in explaining that the breaker had been switched off and not tripped since when a breaker trips the switch ends up in the middle of the throw area, but when a breaker is switched off the switch ends up at the far side of the throw area.

What he was effectively telling me was that someone had manually (and maliciously) switched my main electrical breaker OFF sometime around 12:15 AM that morning – 20 minutes BEFORE the 20-minute lag time for the UPS to drain and shut my server down. How’s THAT for a “WTF!!” situation!

So I’m 160 miles south of the unoccupied Ballot Box (~3 hr drive, one-way), at work, on a work day, thankfully not in the dead of Winter (but it can get cold in Maine in April), and I’m being told the Ballot Box has had it’s power shut off by a prankster and the linesman is not permitted to fix it. Think… think… think…

We had had a problem with our well pump about four or five years ago at the Ballot Box, and we hired Mid-Coast Energy Systems to fix it (I was *not* going to mess with a finicky well pump 408 feet down the bottom of a pipe-lined hole in the ground), which they did, so we had an account with them from that time. I called them, explained the situation to them, and they agreed to send an electrician out to the house (for a fee, of course) to investigate. The electrician picked up the house key we have held in escrow at our fuel provider, and inspected the house inside and out. He could find no problem, so he reset the breaker, re-inspected everything inside and out again to make sure there were no sparks or flames emanating from anything, and declared the problem solved. He was talking to me on his cell-phone in real-time as he was doing this, and as he was standing in our front yard the webcams resumed transmitting images to the web server at 12:48 PM.

Problem solved, sort of, but it was fairly disconcerting to think that A) someone bothered to sneak up to the front of our house around midnight to flip the breaker on our electrical meter, and B) my front-facing webcam didn’t detect the motion of someone in the front yard (the electrical meter is in the direct field-of-view of the webcam, and the webcam illuminates the entire area at night quite well with IR lighting). When motion of any kind is detected – day or night – I immediately get an email showing two still images and a 30-second video of what triggered the detection.

Once we got up to the Ballot Box that Thursday for a weekend visit I immediately checked the house server to see what had been captured around 12:15 AM on Monday morning, and I found… nothing! No motion-triggered archive that night at all. But what I *did* find later that day REALLY got me scratching my head for a bit. At 9:39 AM on Tuesday morning, motion-detection captured the CMP linesman driving up to our house in his bucket-truck. Video capture paused once the truck stopped, but picked up again at 9:41 AM when he drove back out the driveway to leave. That was about the time he called me.

THEN… At 12:46 PM (two minutes BEFORE the webcams resumed transmitting images) the Mid-Coast Energy Systems electrician shows up on the security archive, walking around the house.

Interesting. What scenario would generate these clues? Clearly we did NOT have a power outage that lasted from about 12:15 AM (~20 minutes before the last successful image transmission) until about noon that same day (when the image transmissions resumed), or else I would not have caught the CMP linesman at the house on the security video archive at 9:39 AM. What is most likely in my mind is that we DID have a power outage around 12:15 AM (the digital clocks were blinking in the house when we got there Thursday), and it lasted more than 20 minutes, triggering a graceful shutdown by the UPS. And then the power came back on sometime later, but well before 9:39 AM, causing a graceful startup of the security cameras and server, but NOT of the cable modem for some reason, which prevented the resumption of image transmissions every 120 seconds and email alerts when motion was detected (no Internet connectivity, no file transfer or emails). Furthermore, I believe the CMP linesman was mistaken when he said the breaker had tripped manually, and when the Mid-Coast Energy Systems electrician flipped the breaker switch later, THAT was enough to kick the cable modem back to life, and the image transmissions and email alerts resumed.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

Posted 14 April 2016 by Gene Vogt in General, Home Ownership, Maine, The Ballot Box

Webcam Replacement Follies…   Leave a comment


Last May (Memorial Day week, to be specific) I finally got the prep work done to be able to do what I’ve wanted to do since I started using security webcams at the BallotBox, mount a weatherproof webcam up under the eaves on the outside of the house, aiming at the front yard and driveway area. I chose a Foscam FI9805E 1.3 Megapixel 1280x960p H.264 Outdoor Power Over Ethernet (POE) IP Camera. I use indoor Foscam cameras and like their functionality and software interface, and Foscam runs occasional on-line sales via directed email to their registered customers. I got it for less than half the list price.

Power Over Ethernet (or POE) is a common commercial and professional camera configuration that delivers device power over unused wires in a standard Ethernet cable, which for me means that I don’t have to wire a 120v 60Hz AC weatherproof outlet up under the eaves of the house along with an Ethernet signal cable (yes, I know they make wireless outdoor cameras but wireless signals get iffy over distance with lots of solid wooden things like floors and walls in between). I had the camera, I bought a POE injector (a power supply that injects 44-57v of DC power onto specific unused wires in a CAT5 Ethernet cable as per the IEEE 802.3af standard), I ran about 45 feet of armored direct-burial-rated CAT5 cable along the rafters in the cellar then out a hole in the sill then up a conduit to the location where the webcam would be mounted, and I spliced RJ45 connectors with sleeves on both ends of the cable. I was ready.

Disappointingly, Foscam chose to wire in multiple methods of connection for the FI9805E, so there was the black POE-capable RJ45 LAN connector I wanted hanging off the back on a 2 foot cord, ALONG WITH a black alarm connector, a black Audio-in connector, a black RS485 connector, a black audio out connector, a black power-only connector, and a black reset button, all on a 2-foot cord.  Seven cables with seven connectors, six of them I did not need or want. Sigh. I packaged up the unused connectors into an elongated bundle, let the RJ45 LAN connector hang a bit lower than the others, then mummy-wrapped everything in white electrical tape (to hopefully blend in with the white trim on the house), except for the end of the RJ45 LAN connector cord.  It looked like a small white snake had swallowed a large rat.

IMG_20150529_170458491I extended my Little Giant hinged extensible ladder up to the spot where the camera would be mounted and tied neck lanyards around my DeWalt 18VDC cordless drill AND the webcam so I could hang them around my neck to keep my hands free while climbing on and standing on the ladder.  I stuffed a screwdriver, screws, a Phillips-head bit, drill bits, pliers, and a hammer into my pockets for the vertical climb and headed up.

Slowly and meticulously I mounted the camera bracket and the camera to the side of the house. I plugged in the Ethernet cable, checked the “IP Cam Viewer” app on my phone, and VOILA! There was the side of my head on my phone!

20150529-1558-BallotBox1bI slowly (and gratefully) climbed down off the ladder, emptied my pockets, put away my tools and my ladder, and sat down at my server to finish configuring the new webcam in my Blue Iris webcam management software.  The high-resolution camera provided a delightfully crisp and detailed image.

In Blue Iris I can configure various things to happen based on triggers, and triggers can be motion-based or time-based; If something moves in the field of view, I can have Blue Iris send me an email – with still images and/or video clips of the triggering event – and/or I can have Blue Iris record video of the triggering event and archive it to the local server and/or a remote storage location via FTP.  I can also take a snapshot of the camera’s view every X minutes apart and store the images locally and/or at a remote storage location via FTP.  I can also have Blue Iris take a snapshot at the same time every day and store the images locally and/or at a remote storage location via FTP.  These three things I do.  I can also specify when during the day (8am – 8pm, sunup to sundown, etc.) these things happen, but I run surveillance 24×7.

I can also (thankfully) adjust the sensitivity of the camera to the triggering event, and the area of the field-of-view to pay attention to (motion in one area of the image triggers an event, but the same motion in another area of the image does not). Set highly sensitive, I get repeated emails (sometimes hundreds) when it rains at night and each individual raindrop gets illuminated in infrared as it streaks by. Some night-flying insects apparently also fluoresce under infrared light so I get emails when the bugs are out. The first few days after the initial end-of-May deployment of the under-eaves camera were quite rainy at night, so I got 6-8 HUNDRED emails per night. TOO SENSITIVE!!

BallotBox1a.20150601_041310_757147Also poorly-installed.  My white electrical tape bundling of the unused connectors inadvertently left the RJ45 connector jack on the camera facing UPwards, so the jack acted like a small rectangular rain gauge, collecting rain-water, which shorted out the 44-57 volts of DC power and damaged the camera. It lasted about 10 days.

Next trip up to Maine (19-21 June) I climbed back up on the ladder, unmounted the camera, brought it down for testing, and determined that it was dead.  It was still under warranty so I sent it back to Foscam for RMA repair.  It was returned to me mid-August.  I tested it out and it worked perfectly, so I re-taped the unused connectors into an elongated bundle again, making sure to arrange the RJ45 connector jack so it hung facing DOWN this time!

This past weekend, after spending most of the weekend priming and painting the (now not-so-new) new deck at the BallotBox, I got time to haul out my ladder and climb back up under the eaves and re-mount the repaired webcam.  The damn thing still didn’t want to cooperate. I got up there (up on a ladder is not my favorite place to be, as you may have guessed by now) and remounted the camera, plugged the POE Ethernet cable in, configured the RJ45 connector jack to hang DOWN this time rather than up like a rain gauge, taped the connection to keep any blowing water out this time, and fired up my cell phone webcam app (from up on the ladder) to re-aim the camera in real time… but no signal.  WTF?? I poked around a bit but finally decided I needed to access the feed from my computer in the basement.  Down the ladder… still no signal.  First I suspected the POE power injector so I swapped it for the injector I have on the twin camera aiming out the back deck slider.  The suspicious injector worked fine on the other camera, so that wasn’t the problem.

When I took down the camera a few months ago before sending it out for repair, I cut off the old RJ45 plug and re-crimped a new one while up on the ladder in case the water-based shorting damaged the plug, so I decided I had crimped the plug badly.  I loaded up my pockets with networking tools (crimper, wire cutter, scissors, blank RJ45s, and my color wiring diagram cheat-sheet) and climbed back up the ladder.  Slowly and meticulously I cut off the old RJ45 and crimped on a new one while hanging onto the ladder and trying not to lose my balance.

BallotBox1a.20150830_145335_757147Down the ladder… check the feed on my computer… still nothing!  I was getting annoyed now.  The camera was working perfectly when plugged into the POE injector with a short cable in the basement, so the source of the problem had to be the armored direct-burial-rated CAT5 cable run from the POE across the basement ceiling, through the sill, into the conduit and up the outside wall of the house.  One RJ45 connector (up under the eaves) had just been replaced, so I decided to replace the RJ45 connector in the basement. That fixed it.  Back up the ladder one last time to finally re-aim the camera, and got this lovely portrait of my left ear emailed to me in the process.  Motion-detection sensitivity was set low, but not off.

By then it was time to take a shower and scrape off all the dried paint on my hands from the deck work so I could catch the DownEaster train south to ARTC in Woburn.  Next weekend (going back up on the train Friday morning and down on Monday evening) I need to adjust the motion sensitivity – I set it off when my face was right in front of the camera when I was back up on the ladder and finally able to re-aim it in real time, but I had desensitized it back when I was inundated with rain-generated emails the first time, and cars pulling up the driveway won’t set it off now, and people walking around definitely won’t set it off. The every-two-minutes image capture is already being FTPed to the BallotBox web server for near-real-time viewing.

Posted 1 September 2015 by Gene Vogt in General, Home Ownership, The Ballot Box

Replacing the Entryway (was: I Love Power Tools)…   3 comments

(click on any photo thumbnail to see a full-size image)

12 JULY 2014

I have seen the light.  I have been converted.  I am a believer in the convenience and benefit of power tools, and I’ll tell you why.  Back in 2002, I took a summer (and then some) and repaired/rebuilt the 16-foot by 20-foot deck on the house in Woburn.  Everything on the deck was replaced except the joists and the ledger.  The four concrete-filled metal posts holding the deck up along the far end were planted on a concrete wall about two feet below grade (i.e., underground), so the posts simply “disappeared” into the ground rather than being mounted on footings.  The span of the deck (16 feet) was too far for the posts as positioned, so the deck had a lot of “spring” to it when one walked across the decking.  I dug and mixed and poured concrete footings where the posts disappeared into the ground down to that subterranean concrete wall, then replaced the four metal posts with 6×6 pressure-treated wooden posts.  I also dug and mixed and poured three additional footings along the center span in order to add a beam in the center of the deck to get rid of the deck “spring.”

I dug these seven footings by hand.  I drilled holes and set rebar into the subterranean concrete wall to anchor four of the new footings to the existing wall.  I mixed the cement a bag at a time (how many bags is lost in antiquity, but in excess of 20) in a mixing trough with a hoe, and shoveled the wet cement into the sonotubes.

It took a few months to get all seven footings poured and cured.  It was backbreaking work.

IMG_7804Fast-forward twelve years, and the Ballot Box in Maine needs to have the entryway landing replaced.  It is too small (see photo at left); to open the screen/storm door you have to step backwards DOWN the stairs to let the door swing by you.  And it is just sitting on the ground, so in the early spring the platform shifts as the ground-frost melts on the side facing southeast that gets more sun.  The obvious solution is to build a larger deck-like landing on footings set down beneath the frostline.  And the landing cannot be attached to the house via ledger because the Ballot Box has the original (now decorative) “carriage house” sliding door that covered the entrance to the former carriage house for the carriages (and maybe horses) to be moved in and out.  A free-standing deck on four footings was the only way to go.  That means digging and mixing and pouring four footings.

IMG_7810I decided to rent an auger to bore the footing holes, and rent a cement mixer to mix the concrete. Oh… My… God…

I picked up the Stihl one-man auger at the local rental center on Thursday morning (10 July), and was able to bore all four footing holes 4+ feet deep, with assistance from a 6-foot 16-pound pry bar and a post-hole digger – and clean up – by 5pm.  We had a guest coming over for dinner at 6pm and with a little fluorescent orange CAUTION tape around the open holes by the stairs we were ready.

IMG_7817Friday morning (11 July) I turned in the auger and picked up a sweet cement mixer that looked like the bastard offspring of a cement truck and a wheelbarrow.  Electric, easily maneuverable, it was an absolute delight to use, ESPECIALLY when compared to what I was familiar with – a trough, a hoe and a lot of elbow grease.  I was able to prep the holes with sonotubes, mix up sixteen bags of concrete, dump each of the mixed bags into a cement trough (what I formerly used to mix cement in by hand), shovel the wet cement into the sonotubes, set an anchor bolt into the wet cement at the top of each footing  – and clean up  – again by 5pm.  This night we had made arrangements to meet some good friends in Brunswick for dinner at 6:30, and we made it!IMG_7800

On Saturday morning I returned the cement mixer to the tool rental place, cleaned up the excess dirt around the now-hardening footings, put the wooden walkway back in place, and covered the curing footings with plastic bags to retain moisture.  I got more done in these two days than I ever could have in two weeks doing things by hand like I used to do.  I love power tools!!

And now I wait.

EPILOGUE #1 – 10 August 2014

Isnapshot_00626E492392_20140804093313 let the footings cure for 3+ weeks while I spent time attending to yard work down south, then I came up the first weekend in August, intending to start the actual construction.  I drove up Thursday (31 July) after work, and hit the lumberyard Friday morning to order the pressure treated lumber I needed, with the hope that it would be delivered Saturday.  No such luck; the earliest available delivery date was Monday morning, so I got no construction work done this weekend.  The lumber was delivered Monday by a nifty truck with a built-in pallet crane (see photo at left), but I was back south so I had to watch on the webcam and wait until the next weekend to start in earnest.

IMG_8248b-33pct20xI drove up again on Thursday (7 August) after work, and spent most of Friday building sizing jigs to get the four IMG_8116a-25pct20xfooting posts the right length for a level deck surface at the right height relative to the door.  Our weekend visitors arrived Friday night so my deck work was put on hold until Sunday afternoon.  With the posts sized I was able to place the two load-bearing beams (double 10-foot 5-inch 2-by-10’s, bolted together with heavy-gauge construction screws).  The outside beam will have joist hangers to hold the joists flush with the top of the beam, but the inside beam will be a joist’s width lower so the joist will sit on top of the inside beam and hang over a bit.  This will allow me to have the deck freestanding, not touching the house, as the carriage-house sliding door is in the way of a few feet of the deck.  The joists at the entryway door will extend closer to the house than the other joists so the decking will be close to the house at the entryway and not have much of a gap between the house and the decking, but the joists at the carriage-house sliding door will be a bit further away to avoid having the door bang up against the deck, as it moves a bit in a strong wind.

I worked on the deck all day Monday and Tuesday (11 & 12 August), with the goal of getting the deck usable before I headed south (“usable” being defined as allowing ingress and egress through the door without having to resort to using the basement door as the only lockable entrance).  I mounted 2-by-8 PT joists every 12 inches, and cut and mounted all the railing posts Monday in preparation for screwing down the decking boards and building stairs Tuesday.  My initial plan was to get the deck “usable” by mid-day Tuesday and head south Tuesday afternoon, but the blade on my skil-saw had other plans.

IMG_8263a-25pct20xCutting pressure-treated wood is noxious to saw blades, dulling them much quicker than when cutting regular wood.  I forgot this, and left my blade-changing wrenches down south, so when the already-well-used skil-saw blade gave up the ghost after cutting the basic shapes of the three stair risers (cut from a 16-foot PT 2-by-12), I wasn’t able to cut the tread notches without the blade binding in the damp PT wood.  Plan B was to use temporary tread blocks in half of the 3-riser set, providing a narrow temporary stair up to the new deck (see photo at left).

Once the stairs were functional I began cutting notches in the decking boards for the railing posts and  screwing down the rest of the decking boards.  I finished up around 6pm by screwing 2-by-4’s on top of the railing posts as a temporary railing until I can build true railings with 2-by-4’s and balusters to match what is on the other deck.

Left to do at this point:

  • Build the permanent stairs (i.e., cut the notches in the three stair risers and lay in decking for stair treads)
  • Snap a chalk-line on the left and right side of the decking and trim the decking boards (with a newly replaced blade in the skil-saw)
  • Buy 1-by-8 PT boards and make a skirt around the deck just under the decking boards to hide the brackets and recessed lag bolts
  • Build a railing to match the railing on the other deck in the background (long-term, may take most of the autumn)

EPILOGUE #2 – Labor Day Weekend 2014

IMG_8424a-33pct20xMore than two weeks have passed since I was up north and working on the deck.  I spent two weekends at the southern house catching up on yard chores (mowing the lawn – twice, hedge-clipping all the shrubbery, staining some of the lower half of the deck, power-washing the vinyl siding on the north side of the house, etc.) but now it’s Labor Day weekend and I’m back north. I came up Wednesday after work, telecommuted back to work for parts of Thursday and Friday, hit the lumberyard to buy more PT wood (1-by-8s for the deck skirt and stair kick plates, 2-by-12s for a landing at the bottom of the new stairs, and three more pieces of 2-by-12 for stair stringer re-dos – I cut the first ones incorrectly), and worked on the stairs for the other parts of Thursday and Friday.  By Friday evening we had permanent full-width stairs (see photo at right)!

These were the first stairs I’ve ever built (and first stair stringers I’ve ever cut), and it was a bit nerve-wracking.  Cutting wood on 90° or 45° angles with a miter saw is a no-brainer, but slicing up PT 2-by-12 planks at odd angles with a hand-held skil-saw, and getting the rise (height of each step) and run (depth of the step surface where your foot lands) correct is NOT a no-brainer.  I screwed up on the first set of stringers (I beveled the back of the stringer too much where it attaches to the deck, and cut the rise too high) so I did have to buy another set of three stair stringer planks again.  Not as catastrophic as some deck-building mistakes I could’ve made, but it annoys me when I mess up.  I spend far too much time planning out projects like this in my head, partly to avoid stupid mistakes, so it really pisses me off when I goof up in spite of the thinking and planning.  Oh well.  Proves I’m not perfeckt.

IMG_8433AND… as of Saturday evening the deck was essentially completed (see photo at left); left- and right-side of the decking boards trimmed, and a skirt under the decking installed to hide brackets and lag bolts.  I needed to install one more handrail on the left side of the stairs and build the permanent railings (with balusters) and install lattice underneath, but it’s a functional deck that could weather the winter as is. The permanent railings will be a project for the autumn… no hurry.  We also need to redo the wooden walkway from the driveway to the base of the stairs.  Right now it’s a little askew as it sits aside the first segment of the walkway that is deeply embedded in the grass.  If we pull it up to align it better with the stairs it would sit crooked and look horrible since all the grass UNDER the walkway is dead.  We’ll probably reshuffle the two halves of the walkway to line up with the new stairs just before the snow flies so it’ll have all winter to resettle.

IMG_8460a-33pct20x - CopyrightSunday was a day of rest – we had a Sunday-to-Monday overnight visitor and extra guests for Sunday dinner (a big slab of Scottish salmon grilled to perfection, boiled Maine potatoes, and a delightful salad with multiple kinds of oil and vinegar for salad dressing) – but I spent most of the Monday holiday working some of the finishing touches for the deck – I installed the second railing on the steps, custom-cut and installed the last little piece of decking by the door, built a jig to standardize baluster placement on the permanent railings to be built, beveled all the 2-by-4s that will be used for the permanent railings, and installed the smallest part of the permanent railing (the segment with only two balusters) to the left of the stairs.  Monday night we went to Damariscotta River Grill to celebrate our postponed 40th anniversary dinner out.  A delightful day, with lots accomplished and lots enjoyed.

EPILOGUE #3 – 19-21 September Weekend 2014

This was supposed to be an alternative activity weekend, but I managed to squeeze in a little deck work on Saturday.  I came up Wednesday night to attend a talk in Brunswick ME given to the Maine AMC club by my brother-in-law, who has through-hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail; the triple-crown of hiking. I tele-commuted Thursday and Friday, then Saturday was supposed to be a day at the Common Ground Country Fair, put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, but a migraine kyboshed that plan.

IMG_8518So Saturday was chore and puttering day. I picked up the mail at the post office; I brought trash and recycling to the transfer station; I dropped off the bags of deposit bottles at the grocery store; I picked up more 6-inch construction screws at the lumberyard for the deck railings; I configured a new weatherproof power-over-Ethernet webcam (Foscam FI9805E) that will eventually get mounted outside under the eaves and replace the webcam that’s inside the house looking out over the front yard. But I did find a bit of time to work on the deck too; I built and attached another section of permanent railing (see photo at right).

I was planning on working on the last two sections Sunday, but as of 8am Sunday morning it was raining, so I guess I won’t work on that today.  I won’t be up under the eaves on a ladder stringing Ethernet cable either.

EPILOGUE #4 (and last) – 3-5 October Weekend 2014

IMG_9196a-cClosure!  Completeness!  I finished the last two sections of railing Friday (3 October), and found and installed wooden end-caps for the railing posts Saturday.  I declare the deck done!  I’ll let it sit and season for the winter and paint the railings and skirt next spring or summer (not the walked-on surfaces; they’ll get clear water-seal).  We got the signed building permit on 9 July, literally “broke ground” by using the auger to drill the footing holes on 10 July, and put the finishing touches on the completed deck on 4 October.  Not bad for a construction project 160 miles from the primary residence!  I have to admit, I enjoyed this project!  I had to have a solid idea of how I wanted to build the entryway so I could draw it out and describe it on the building permit; I had to provide a list of materials on the permit so I had to know roughly how much of what kind of lumber to buy, and the work fell into clean delineated chunks (dig and pour the footings, build the frame, build the platform, build the stairs, build the railings).  Progress was made in weekend spurts, with extended (usually 2 week) breaks between, but I was down south at the primary residence so I didn’t have to see the unfinished work every day.

Cost of materials and tool rental and new saw blades and the building permit, etc. – in other words, the cost of the deck not counting labor – was $1,538.87.  I over-bought a bit on the pressure-treated wood (three extra 12-foot decking boards, two extra 8-foot 1x8s, six balusters) but not a lot.

EPILOGUE #5 (truly the last) – 30 August 2015

IIMG_20150830_154012319at’s the end of the following summer, the deck has seasoned, I filled most of the screw-holes with Plastic-Wood® a few weeks ago, sanding them smooth a few days ago, and we primed and painted the railings, kickboards, and skirts this weekend, finishing up today before I rode south on the DownEaster to get ready for the work week.  And here is how the final product looks:


As always, I try to photo-document progress on projects like this, so the ever-expanding collection of photos with more detail can be seen here

Posted 12 July 2014 by Gene Vogt in Home Ownership, Maine, Newcastle, The Ballot Box

Winter’s Stranglehold Has Been Broken   Leave a comment

(click on thumbnails to view full-size images)

5 MAY 2014

IMG_7252a-25pct20xWinter has lost its grip on the mid-coast. The snow piles have melted; the trees are budding; the daffodils are blooming (see thumbnail); the rhubarb has sprouted (see thumbnail); the swallows are fighting over the fence-post birdhouse (see thumbnail); the goldfinches have regained their bright yellow luster; the lawn is lush, green, and will soon be in need of mowing; the ladybugs have invaded the interior of the Ballot Box – again; and the 151’s have been rehung and rewired, so IMG_7193a-25pct20xmusic has returned to the deck of the Ballot Box.  Can summer be far behind?? 🙂

Lynn and I went north this past weekend, and the chores were predominantly in preparation for summer. We reinstalled all the freshly-repainted window-screens in the windows, replaced the glass insert in the storm/screen door with the screen insert, and replaced the slider screen back in the channel on the deck door.  Lynn cleaned out the gardens and transplanted some day lilies and other perennials from the southern gardens up to the Ballot Box gardens.  She also moved some of the recently-tamed wild lupines from beside the door landing to various other places in the yard, including by the driveway entrance.

IMG_7276a-25pct20xI assembled a new grill (a Thermos-brand $145 special from Market Basket) to replace the prematurely-worn-out Kenmore grill bought 4 years ago (for a lot more than $145!).  I bought the Sears Kenmore brand to assure myself that I would be able to buy replacement parts, but when I went to order the replacement parts over the winter, the cost of the parts was going to be more than what I paid for the grill in the first place, so it will get scrapped.  I’m going to buy cheap throw-away grills from now on. I used to make disparaging remarks about cheap Char-Broil grills (Thermos-brand grills are made by Char-Broil) but maybe they’ve had it right all along!

IMG_0599 -1The relocation of the tamed lupine was in preparation for the start of construction of a new landing for the door.  The landing we have now is a small entry platform that is so small that the sweep of the screen door forces you to step back down a step or two to let the door swing open (see thumbnail).  Lynn hates it, so  I’ll replace it with a larger deck-like structure that will give people room to stand their ground while the door opens, and also provide a small sitting-space for morning coffee in the sun.  Step one will be to dig and pour footings for the platform, which will allow me to leave the old stairs in place while I’m digging.  Then the old free-standing platform and stairs will be removed and the new deck and stairs will be built.  I enjoy this kind of work so it should be fun!

Posted 5 May 2014 by Gene Vogt in Home Ownership, Spring, The Ballot Box