My Shop ~ Part 2

November 5, 2011

This past week Armando and I worked on my shop. We poured five concrete columns and dug and poured the foundations. Here’s how it went:

Here are the columns:

The column on the right is nearly 12-feet tall, and the concrete in the form exerted some serious pressure on the forms. After we poured it, we were just about to walk away when I spotted the beginning of a split the entire length of one of the pine boards. Luckily I had planned ahead and had some straps standing by. Armando and I rushed and got the column strapped up just in time. We strapped a piece of metal against the split to keep it from bulging out. Close call. Like my favorite line in disaster news stories, “It could have been worse.”

After the columns were done, Armando spent two days between raindrops digging the foundation. In the next photo I am laying out the location of the door so that we don’t put rebar sticking up there.

Then while Armando was mixing concrete, I cut rebar to sit in the foundation trench. I also cut more rebar, bent one end in an “L” shape, and wired it to the bottom rebar. Like this:

These upright rebars will fit in some of the holes in the blocks when the wall blocks are laid, and we will fill the holes with concrete.

Cynthia insisted that I include this next photo. I’m not sure why.

Next we ran a string around all the columns and leveled it. The height of the string isn’t important. Now we need to pour the foundations nice and level so laying the blocks will be easy. We took a six-foot piece of 1″x3″ board and nailed a one-foot piece of 1″x3″ on the bottom like a foot. We put the footed stick in the foundation trench at the height that we wanted the top of the foundation to be and drove a nail in the stick where the string met the board. After Armando dumped a wheelbarrow full of concrete in the trench, I used the footed stick to tamp the concrete down until the nail in the board met the string and, tada — level footing.

Here you can see the string more clearly. This part of the foundation is completed. The blocks are holding the vertical rebars in place.

Armando worked really hard today mixing all the concrete. We used a dozen 94-pound sacks of cement and who knows how many wheelbarrows full of sand and gravel from the river. Here he is putting the cement on top of the pile of sand and gravel.

Then he opens the bags and thoroughly mixes the pile by turning everything several times with a shovel. We kept one eye on the sky but despite the ominous clouds, we were free of rain all day. Cynthia forecast no rain for the day. She’s right again! Armando likes to wear his hard hat because it keeps his head cooler.

Then he makes a hole in the pile and fills it with water and mixes it all together again. I try to help, but this is young man’s work for sure.

At the end of a seven hour day, Armando was dog tired.

And that ain’t no joke.

Bonus photo: Sunrise over my hammock

In other news, after several days of heavy rain a tall, very rotted tree in the lot next to our rental house fell across the main road. A tractor trailer rig came to a screeching halt as the tree fell, missing each other by only inches.  Several people stopped to help including John who lives in town. I’m standing with Cedelinda (pronounced Sadie Linda). I tutor her in English.

Cedelinda helps clear the road.

After we had the job almost done and I had dragged the big trunk mostly out of the road with the truck, four firemen showed up with chainsaws and finished the job. It was difficult to know who these men were, as they showed up in a pickup truck with the logo of the Tourist Police, all wearing orange Panama Civil Defense tee shirts.

Yes, Panama has a Tourist Police division. They are stationed in tourist destinations to keep tourists safe. They are also stationed at the airport, checking the paperwork and recording the destination of taxis departing with tourists.

Extra Special Note: Thanks to Cynthia who took all the photos in this post. She made me promise to take pictures of her tomorrow at her sewing machine. She is making me five new shirts. I can’t wait to try them on.

A Final Note Today: I find it curious that I like to write. To the best of my knowledge, no one else in my family wrote much. I don’t know how good a writer I am, but what qualities I do have I owe to my English 101 teacher, simply known as Prokus, at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. I liked Prokus. I remember one time a student raised her hand and asked, “Prokus, how come I didn’t get a “A” on my paper?” He answered, “Precisely.” I thought of this today because I noticed the passing of Andy Rooney. He wanted to work until he died, and he missed that goal by only a few weeks. I always enjoyed his essays. Other writers I have enjoyed over the years include Charles Kuralt, Garrison Keillor, John Ciardi, and Studs Terkel.

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.

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My New Oxy-Acetylene Tank Cart

October 21, 2011

Thanks to everyone who guessed about my latest contraption in my last post. You all guessed correctly. You are a smart bunch. Even you, Charles.

No, actually, as Juan and Rick guessed, it is to hold the oxygen and acetylene tanks that I just got. Charles–Fugetaboutit.

My next task on the house is to make frames for windows, cut holes for windows, and fix the frames in the holes. So far, I’ve been cutting the container walls with a steroidal 9-inch angle grinder with a metal cutting disk. But let’s face it, this is really arduous and dangerous. Arduous because it takes a lot of muscle power, and dangerous because of the propensity for the machine to kick back and sever body parts. I’ve written before about my plasma torch that died an electronic death, not to be revived here in the harsh Panamanian climate of rust, humidity, electrical brown outs and power spikes, and geckos that have the propensity of dying on circuit boards, “melting,” and shorting out the whole mess.

So that leaves two choices:

Choice 1: Hammer and chisel. I remember when I was first investigating Panama as a place for us to live, I stayed at a hotel in Boquete. Early one morning, 6:15 to be exact, I heard a hammer pounding a chisel on metal. It didn’t stop. Finally I got up and got dressed and went to check it out. Two men were cutting strips off of 20-foot lengths of sheet metal roofing. No angle grinder, no plasma torch, no shears, and, bringing me to choice number two, no oxy-acetylene cutting torch.

Choice 2: Oxy-acetylene cutting torch. A torch is really low-tech. No electrical parts, no computer, just a hot flame that slices through metal. The cost had been stopping me, but it was finally time to bite the bullet and buy a rig.

I got a medium duty Victor brand set, complete with welding/cutting torch, hose, and gauges for the oxygen and acetylene. $245 at Pemco in Panama City. Victor is an excellent brand and I like the way the torch balances in my hand. Tools like this are exciting.

Next, I needed to rent the oxygen and acetylene tanks. $300 deposit for the two tanks, plus $75 for the gas in the tanks. I could have bought the tanks, but I would have had to return to the city each time they needed refilling. With the rentals, I can just swap them locally at the hardware store.

But they don’t just deliver out here in the hinterlands. The tanks need to be transported upright and I had no way to accomplish this with the Honda Ridgeline. So I welded up a goalpost rack for the truck. I used the existing tie-down fixtures in the bed of the pickup to affix my rack.

Here are the tanks strapped to the goalpost rack. Jabo is a gas, too.

And here it is in all its painted glory, along with the long-load rack that I made some time ago but just now got around to painting. The traffic police will be happy with the official reflective sticker, $1.

I used the goalpost rack again today to transport two, heavy eight-foot lengths of 4″x6″x1/4″ angle iron that I picked up for my next shop project, a sheet metal bending brake. But I digress.

The point of this post is the cart that I just made to hold the oxygen and acetylene tanks in my shop, and to make it easier to move them around the job. Here are some photos of the cart ready for paint:

I pretty much started the project by holding a length of 1.5″ square tubing in my hands and holding it up to the tanks. The rest just followed element by element. I love the lines, kind of retro, like something that would have been in my grandfather’s shop. I think it has a little Steampunk look about it. I considered clear coating it, but safety yellow won out.


And here it is with the tanks loaded and strapped in with the safety chains across the tanks and an additional anti-theft chain.

So that’s that, I am now ready to cut the window openings in the container walls. I’ve just picked up the windows I had fabricated, so my next post will about windows.

Thanks for all your comments on the Name That Contraption post. That’s all for now.


Paint! ~ We Paint Some Interior Walls And Ceilings

September 26, 2011

We are making progress. With the interior walls framed and ready for Plycem (tilebacker), it is time to paint. I want to paint before hanging the Plycem because the Plycem will have a clear finish and will not be painted. Doing the job in the paint first, Plycem second order will save us from having to do a lot of masking and taping.

I debated on whether or not to paint over a note that someone had written on one of the walls. The paint won, but I did take a picture of the note. I find it endlessly fascinating that our house has been around the world:

F.C. The best from St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands. 5/14/2008

I wonder what F.C. and his crew were loading or unloading?

Here is a photo of the paints I chose for the interior walls:

The tube of urethane caulk is actually a windshield adhesive. The tube is aluminum and double sealed to prevent the caulk from drying out. Even so, I wore a hole in the palm of my hand trying to pump it out of the tube with a caulking gun. I ran new beads of this caulk where container walls meet the ceilings and at weld joints that I have made.

The Lanco Oil Red Oxide Polyurethane primer is thinned with mineral spirits and sprayed on nice and smooth.

The Lanco Super Dry Enamel (Esmalte) is thinned with lacquer thinner and dried in just a few minutes.

I’ve seen the question asked on the Internet, “Can I use latex paint to paint a shipping container?” The beauty part of latex is the easy cleanup. It is a lot more work to clean the spray gun when using oil based paints, but it doesn’t make sense to me to spray water on metal and expect it not to rust. When I started painting years ago, I don’t think there was such a thing as latex paint. All I remember is cleaning my first boss’s brushes with turpentine. Oil based paint really is not that bad once you get used to the regiment of cleaning up after yourself. I allow a half hour to forty-five minutes at the end of the day to get everything squeaky clean.

Here’s container 3 all primed and ready for the white top coat:

I bought a roll of yellow "caution" tape to use as masking on conduits and on the hardware on the container exterior doors. Jabo awaits further instructions.

There is hardly any over spray with the HVLP spray gun.

After we sprayed the primer, the next day it was ready for the first of two top coats of white:

This is the north wall of container 3. I really savored the moment when I cut out the two doorways. The nearest doorway goes into what will be our dry (dehumidifier) room. The further door goes into the hallway that will connect to the living room. With the doorways cut I don't have to crawl through walls and go out of my way to get where I am going. It feels more like a house now.

Partly painted. I'm standing in what will be my shop, looking toward the master bedroom. The unpainted square area is in the master bath. It will be cut out and the wall pushed out four feet for the shower. We plan to use glass blocks for at least one wall of the shower.

First coat all done. Note that 34 sheets of half-inch Plycem have been delivered. I can't wait to start hanging it on the interior walls.

We still have to cut holes for windows including above in the clerestory wall, but for now I’m happy with the progress.

Here’s a photo from outside (west side) looking in. The big hole in the wall will be wall to wall, floor to roof windows. The view of the night sky from the bed should be spectacular as there is no artificial light for miles around.

The left container (#4) is part of the master bedroom as is the large open area. This end of the right container (#3) is the hallway between the bedroom and the living room (yet to be built).

Rain has been starting by noon most days, but in the mornings Armando has been working on delineating the east side of the driveway. When we built the driveway we put large rocks in the mud then covered the rocks with tosca. At that time we had no design idea of how the driveway edges would meet the rest of the yard. Now, we have stretched a string line and Armando is digging a ditch. We’ll pour a concrete footing in the ditch then lay a course of concrete block as a curb. Here’s Armando working on the ditch:

With the new garden on the left side of the driveway and this curb on the right, the lot is getting more and more defined.

That’s all for now. Thanks for visiting, and feel free to leave a comment below.


Pop Up Garden

September 19, 2011

In this post, we plant a flower garden.

It is a frequent occurrence that neither Cynthia nor I can remember who’s idea it was to do something. There is an organic process that happens between us, a decision is made, and a day later we are oblivious as to how we got from point A to point Z. “Honey, do you remember how we decided to do such and such? Who’s idea was it to get started?” “Um, I dunno.” Well, it just happened again; a huge flower garden just popped up that stretches sixty feet across the the front yard.

Some background: We’ve been living in a nearby rental house for nearly three years. We really wanted to be in this neighborhood and this rental house was the only option at the time. It has a big fenced in yard, big enough for our long-legged, gotta-run dog (I’ve clocked him at 28 mph).

But the house wasn’t love at first site. We saw the outside, figured we could re-assemble our five-man crew from a former project and get the yard cleaned in a week or so. We signed a one-year lease without seeing the inside. When we finally got the keys and opened the front door for the first time, Cynthia cried so hard and so loudly that a neighbor way at the end of our road and up on the hill came down to see if everything was okay.

It wasn’t. The house — how do I say this nicely — had a lot of deferred maintenance “issues.” (Cynthia says this is an understatement.) As I said, the outside was overgrown with weeds and tall grass that we cleared away. Additionally, we spent a couple thousand dollars making vital repairs to the inside of the house to make it habitable. In return we got periods of no-or-reduced rent. Our elderly landlady, who often wears a stylish vintage hat and white gloves, loves us and often says in her broken English, “Oh, you make me new house!”

Here’s a photo of the kitchen as we found it, except we had already removed the termite-ridden upper cabinets. Remember, click a photo to enlarge it, click the back arrow to return here.

Here’s the new kitchen we built:

Some change, huh? Does Cynthia's apron coordinate with the curtains on the cabinets? She's a clever one, I tell you. Oh, and is the chicken coordinated, too? By the way, I made the pendant lamp over the sink, and three others like it, from stainless steel kitchen utensil holders and plumbing supply hoses that we found at a DoIt Center store in the city.

The point I am making here is that this place was a disaster, and relating to this post about our new garden, there were no nice plants in the yard. Here is a photo of part of the yard after the tall grass was cut and a lot of the weeds were hauled away:

And here is exhibit B, a photo of the yard once it was almost cleaned. Note that there were no flowers.

So, for the next few years, Armando would from time to time bring plants from his house, charging us only a small percentage of what we would have paid if we bought the plants “retail.” We ended up with quite a lush yard, and recently with our attention more focused on our new property than on the rental, it was really, really lush. I think I may have said it elsewhere on this blog, but my joke is that you can stick a METAL fence post in the ground here in Panama and a month later you have to come back and prune it. Everything grows so well here in the tropical mountains.

So a few days ago Armando and I dug up a slew of plants and trucked them to our new house. This photo is one of three loads:

Armando and Jabo ready to unload the truck.

With not much to do while all the welding and other infrastructure work has been happening, Cynthia has been chomping at the bit to contribute to the project. So she was on hand and was Project Leader as to the design of the garden and placement of the plants. Nice job, Cynthia! A very productive three days.

Here are some photos. Sorry some are blurry; it was raining fairly hard when I took them.

Overview of the new garden. Later, we will make the stone borders more permanent.

Ornamental ginger, antherium (little boy plant), spider plants, and a blue walking iris make up our new garden.

There is also a tree trunk that we have been debating whether or not to remove. Included in the garden, we think it will look great with orchids and bromeliads covering it. Maybe it will get a bird house on the highest point.

We have these in red, white, and pink. Armando put some rotten tree trunk pieces around each of the antheriums as fertilizer. How does he know this?

All the plants have started out good and healthy. I hope they like their new home.

Not bad for three short (rain by noon) days. We can’t wait to see the garden all filled in a few months from now. I hope that this post has given some enjoyment to those of you heading into winter. The key is under the mat.

To finish the project, Armando and I are getting a few yards of larger rocks and he will construct a more robust border around the garden and the path.

In other progress, when it was raining over the past week or so Armando and I sanded (random orbital sander) the interior container walls and ceiling in the space between 3 and 4 and number 4, and sprayed on a coat of oil red polyurethane primer. Here is the job in progress:

To spray, I am using my Fuji HVLP (High Volume, Low Pressure) spray gun. There is very little paint mist in the air when using an HVLP unit. The gun is powered by the black box which is basically a vacuum cleaner blowing in reverse. HVLP is nothing new — I remember that my parents had one back in the ’50s — it was an attachment to the Electrolux vacuum cleaner that I think they bought from a door-to-door salesman.

Fuji and I met on the world’s largest online tool dating service, Amazon.com, about five years ago. We have been very happy ever since. I quickly clean the gun after every few hours of spraying, and when I am done for the day I clean it within an inch of its life. I recommend this unit if you need to spray a lot of projects.

Bonus photo: Our neighbor cuts the grass early in the morning, kicking up the dew on the grass.

Tomas cutting the grass.

We are getting more and heavier rain of late. Now at mid-September, we are headed toward November, time of the heaviest rain of the year.

That’s all for now.


Alan Gets Blog Cred ~ Rethinking The Roof on Container Three

August 4, 2011

In this post I talk about the roof over container three. I planned to pour a concrete slab.

In my previous post, Wallito, reader Alan wrote an extensive comment* (repeated below in its entirety) about the roof on container three. Thank you for going out on the limb to suggest an alternative solution. Most guys won’t give another guy suggestions or advice unless we ask for it. We don’t want to cut in on another guy’s turf. But thanks Alan, you did, and you did it with grace and class.You made me think, especially when you mentioned the half-life of caulking.

And another thing happened. We have had some wicked heavy rain since I applied the urethane caulk yesterday and the caulk all washed away. I thought it was urethane, but it turns out that it is urethane enhanced elastomeric caulk in a latex base. The urethane caulk that I have been using elsewhere on the containers is sticky-gooey in a non-latex base. It cures fast and remains flexible. Water doesn’t affect it even if it isn’t cured, but this elastomeric caulk didn’t have enough time to develop a water-resistant skin. Bye bye three tubes of caulk.

In my construction career I learned not to trust caulk of any kind for any mission-critical project. Make joints tight and right. But I guess I forgot or got lazy. Reminds me of the painter’s saying, “A little putty, a little paint, makes a carpenter what he aint.” Thanks Alan for bringing this to my attention.

Alan also mentioned that the concrete slab would accumulate heat during the day. Very true, and I was going to put a sheet of foam insulation under the concrete.

I was going to use the concrete slab on the roof of container three to direct water off the roof. This roof will handle a lot of water. If we look at the photo of the model again, you can see that two significant roofs dump onto number three.

The model is somewhat lacking, as there is actually a two-foot high wall on the right side of container three, and that wall is the tilebacker wall that I just detailed in Wallito:

I am going to duplicate this wall on the left side of the container for the other roof to sit on.

The concrete slab is now off the table. Alan suggested installing a sloped roof using cement board roofing tiles. Alan, I’m going to take your sloped roof idea, thank you, but I think I’ll use the corrugated metal roofing sheets that I am using on the other roofs. Several of our friends have the cement board roofing panels and they seem to need more maintenance to keep the green slime pressure washed off the roof. Also, it is slicker than slick to walk on and I see a lot of broken tiles. The metal roofing is not elegant in any way, but it is economical and the only potential leak points are where the screws penetrate the metal making it easy to diagnose and maintain. Another advantage of the metal roofing is that it is highly reflective and doesn’t accumulate a lot of heat.

With the two-foot high walls, I can easily construct a roof over number three that slopes from about eighteen inches at the high end down to nothing at the other end of the container.

The metal roofing is flexible and I can roll it up the wall and screw it in place. The screws won’t hold in the tilebacker, but I can place a carriola behind the tilebacker to receive the screws. Armando and I can work together; he on one side of the wall and me on the other.

I can also use Alan’s idea of the roll insulation placed directly on the container roof below the new sloped roof.

In other happenings, today was a near washout with torrential rains beginning at 10:30 a.m. But I did manage to spray two coats of white paint on the exterior of the 12-foot wall between three and four, and between raindrops I got one piece of tilebacker up on the triangular wall section.

That’s all for now. Thanks again Alan.

*Here’s Alan’s comment in its entirety:

Hi Fred,

Thanks for your most recent update. I’m enjoying the process of your build and I am taking notes for that day when I will also build a container home or container something.

In any case, I wanted to chime in regarding your roof and give you an unsolicted opinion. You know what that’s worth!

You may have already thought through your process so please don’t look upon my advice as expert, other than I’m building my own home and have lots of experience with leaky buildings especially where I come from (Pacific Northwest). I am also building a home in Panama and it’s a learning experience for me also.

With regards to mixing different elements like concrete, caulking, and metal; these are all materials that expand and contract differently. So it’s almost guaranteed that eventually your caulking will separate from your metal. If you put concrete over the seal, it may help but the mass of the concrete will expand at different rate as the metal on the roof. If the concrete cracks due to this dynamic, it’s possible water could penetrate the concrete and this will require you to seal and paint the concrete regularly to keep it from taking on water.

So, my thought is to suggest a slightly sloped roof for the top of our container made from concrete board (plysem) that is corregated and also conveniently stained red. The plysem overlap each other in the installation so you have a sealed, overlaping joint wherever they meet. The corrugated look may not be what you are looking for so this is also a consideration. I have installed on my own roof and it looks good the way it is despite the fact that I am installing reclaimed clay roof tiles on top of the plysem.

With regards to where the plysem meets your newly installed concrete board wall, you would simply install an L shaped flashing that covers the top of the plysem where it meets the wall by at least 5 inches and goes up your concrete board wall by the same amount. You can later cover your concrete board with a repelo to hide the flashing that’s attached to the concrete board wall. Ideally, the flashing would have been placed behind your concrete board and extended outward to cover the plysem but you’ve already got your board up and this will work just as well.

This should also allow you to install a radiant barrier (plastised aluminum sheet ) underneath your plysem directly on the top of your container roof. This is a cheap way to reduce your cooling and reduce the temperatures of your house. You can pick radiant barrier at Hopsa for about $96 per roll 4′x100″.

The other thing you need to be aware of is if you choose to use concrete to cover the top of the container, it wll also collect heat all day and dissipate into your interior as it will be directly connected to the metal on your roof that I believe is also the ceiling in your rooms.

You can overlap and tape the radiant barrier by a few inches and it also acts as an emergency secondary barrier for any leaks that may come through your plysem roof. The radiant barrier will most definitely reduce the amount of heat entering your home as it acts to deflect infra-red heat back up and into the plysem. You need to make sure there is at least one to two inches separating the radiant barrier and the plysem and the corrugated part of this concrete board provides sufficient space between the two.

Again, only a thought and most likely not what you’ve spec’d but may be worth the consideration.


Here’s The Plan

June 30, 2011

Regular readers will remember a previous post or two when the price of containers went through the roof and we were having difficulty finding a crane that we could afford to raise two containers to form the second floor. We decided to amend our plans to make a one-story house. Now, we rarely think about that old two-story plan and we are happy with what we are currently building.

For some time I have been promising to take some pictures of the (rudimentary) scale model of the house and post them here.

Here they are:

This is the view from the east. The four containers are marked 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Referring to the photo above, the kitchen is at this end (east) of containers 1 & 2. The TV, computer space, and our hang-out area is at the far end (west) of 1 & 2.

Between 2 & 3 is a 24-foot space that will form the front entry, the dining room, living room, and stairs to the roof deck above 1 & 2. The roof over this space is very simple, but creates a big surprise, exposed in the next two photos.

This end (east) of containers 3 & 4, as well as the 12-foot space between them, will be my shop. The far end (west) of this space will be our bedroom, master bathroom, a half bathroom, and a big closet that will have a dehumidifier.

The location of the laundry area is unconfirmed as of this moment, but I have promised Cynthia that we won’t have to go into town to do our laundry!

When we were buying containers, we wanted to get a 20-footer to make a guest casita and storage room (deposito in Spanish), but the price was the same as for a 40-footer. So the plan now is to take some of the metal that I cut out of the containers and build the casita myself.

The roof surprise is next:

View from the south-east.

Above, rotating just slightly to the south-east, you can see that the roof has a low-slope, late-1950s style. But it is on an angle creating some interesting geometry. Roofs in Panama are all about shedding a large amount of rainfall, and this low-slope is very common. Steep snow-shedding roofs just aren’t necessary here and look out of place in my opinion. Swiss chalet in Panama? Huh? Maybe if you are homesick for Switzerland, but don’t push it.

Hot air balloon view from the east.

Above, you can clearly see how simple the big roof is; it is just a big rectangle with one corner cut off at the bottom. But on its 45-degree skew it packs an understated design punch.

To give you a better idea as to the size of this roof, the long beam on the leading east edge will be 65-feet long. I’ll weld it up on the ground and have some fun with ropes and mirrors getting it up in the air.

The triangular open area between 2 & 3 creates a covered entry, and the prow of the roof forms cover over much of the roof deck.

Monster gutters and a sloped concrete roof on container 3 will move rainwater off to the west. It should provide a dramatic cascade during our tropical downpours.

So that’s our new plan.

My window painting gig is coming to an end. I had to weld up another scaffolding to safely get one last window done. Now I have to second and third coat a few windows and touch up some tired areas of the house and I will be done. The owners of the house and I are really happy with the way the job is turning out; the new transparent paint really showcases how badly the polyurethane failed after only three years. But ask me in another three years how our grand experiment in paint vs. varnish turns out; I’ll be hanging by my thumbs in the meantime.

The top window is done and we have moved the scaffolding down one level. Armando sands and preps this window. Compare the top left window with the one on the right. What a difference!

IN OTHER NEWS: In It Takes A Pueblo, I made two errors because of my incomplete grasp on the Spanish language. I now have the full stories:

1. The 500 sacks of cement were a gift to the families in the pueblo from their elected representative, the diputado (deputy). Aparently the diputados have discretionary funds. Some fix the remote dirt roads, some give sacks of cement. Remember this come election time, dear voters.

2. The young boy with the goose egg lump on his forehead that I took to the Central Salud wasn’t in a car accident as I thought. Turns out that he and his older brother were playing with rocks. Big rocks according to their sister, and the younger boy got in the way of an airborne boulder. No TV for a month… wait a minute, they don’t have a TV because they don’t have electricity in their home. At least the kids aren’t couch potatoes!

That’s all for now.


Septicly Speaking

January 28, 2011

Over the past week or so, as time permitted, we installed the septic system. I wanted to place the tank and drain field more toward the back of the lot, well away from the water well. But our lot is sloped from back to front, and you know the First Rule of Plumbing: That there stuff runs down hill.

The way most septic tanks are built here is this: Dig a big square or rectangular hole, pour a perimeter foundation at the bottom of the hole, lay up concrete block walls, pour a concrete floor, stucco the inside of the walls, pour a concrete roof, building in an access door for future tank cleaning and maintenance. The only problem with this approach is that any crack anywhere at all in the tank would allow ground water to enter, filling the tank, and unprocessed effluent to escape and potentially enter the water well. Additionally, we have a very high water table and it would be a real mess to work in all that water for a week or so.

So I bought a big, five-foot diameter, six-foot tall, 2,600 liter plastic tank. The tank is leak proof, plus it allows for very rapid installation. We thought that a six-foot diameter hole would be just about right to drop the tank in and then back-fill with dirt.

I stuck a piece of rebar in the ground about where I wanted the center of the tank. Then I loosely tied a piece of string to the rebar. I tied another piece of rebar to the string three feet away from the first piece. With Armando, Manuelito, and Abdiel standing by with shovels, I used the string and rebar like a big compass, walking the rebar around in a circle, scratching the ground, and the guys digging to mark the circumference.

The three of them started digging. But when the hole got about a foot deep it got too crowded; two of them kept digging there, and I got the third man started digging the drainage field a few feet away.

While this was happening I had four yards of crushed rock delivered for the drain field.

I also walked home and got a short stepladder, because the hole was beginning to be deeper than the guys are tall. At first the digging was quite easy. But at just below the three-foot mark, the guys hit a layer of yellow, hardpan clay. The clay got progressively harder as they dug deeper, and for the last two feet or so it was very slow going. Even with a pick axe it was inch by inch by inch.

But the guys finally prevailed, and at the end of a tiring day we dropped the tank in the hole and back-filled it as tightly as we could. The men really pushed to get the job done in one day; I reminded them that if we didn’t accomplish it in one day, then they would have to bail hundreds of gallons of water the next morning. I could see by the look on their faces that they didn’t relish the prospect of that job! Cynthia and I keep a supply of five-pound bags of rice on hand; they make a very good tip for the men on those really grueling work days.

The next day we finished digging the drainage field and spread the stone in the pit. I ran four-inch PVC pipe from the tank to the drain field. In the States, I remember using drain-field pipe that had holes drilled every few inches for drainage. But that product doesn’t exist here, so I installed an open wye fitting every few feet in the drain line in the drain-field. I think that the down hill rule will work just fine with this system.

Then I rolled out some weed barrier cloth over the pipes and stones, and the guys back-filled the dirt over the weed cloth.

By the way, do you know the other Rules of Plumbing? Rule Two: Don’t lick your fingers. Rule Three: Payday is Friday. Rule Four: Wear a shirt with long enough tails to tuck well into your pants. This rule is widely ignored by those practicing the trade.

Here are some photos:

Yes, I carried the five-foot diameter tank home in a four-foot pickup truck.

Abdiel loosens another inch of hard pan while Armando shovels. At the end of the day, everyone was wet.

Manuelito prepares the drain field area.

The drain field is ready for pipes and cover.

Armando back-fills over the weed cloth.

That’s all for now. Next: Steel plate column tops.