erobinson's blog

New Thermostats Save Energy

Programmable thermostats are not new to homeowners. They have been around for about 20 years now but they have traditionally been difficult to adjust and maintain because you had to stand at the thermostat and program them on a small screen, often following a complex procedure. I have one of the older type programmable thermostats, and I must admit that it has lost its program several times due to battery replacements or other problems and I just have not taken the time to reprogram it. The other problem I have with mine is difficulty in making minor adjustments as I negotiate with my wife over what really is comfortable and cost effective. Enter the new internet ready programmable thermostats. Some of these self-program and most all can be adjusted from a phone or other internet enabled device. Our local news covers the basics of a few thermostats you may want to consider, but do searching and you will find more available. Find the one that works best for you and try it out.


Crawlspace Damage? - A Common Indicator

If you are looking at the purchase of an older home with a pier and beam foundation you can often find indications of possible structural problems at the crawlspace based upon observations you can make from the outside of the building.

In some types of pier and beam construction it is common that the perimeter beam at the foundation visible from the crawlspace, which supports the floor structure on the concrete grade beam at the foundation, deteriorates due to water running over the outer surface of the beam were it is exposed to the brick siding.

Rot Sill Beam

In this case this was visible at the access opening allowing photographs.  Often it is not this easy to see.

When this beam crushes due to rot a common indication it is rotting in a building with brick siding is that the window ledges resting on the brick siding tip up at the outer edge.  Sometimes this distortion is enough to hold water.  This can rot the window jamb and ledge as well as run water in to the structure making matters worse.  This occurs because as the sill beam crushes the wood structure moves down relative to the brick.  Since the brick does not compress under the load of the sill it pushes up on the outer edge of the sill tipping it up.  In some cases I have also seen the window break off brick ledges.


Window Ledge Tip Up

Ledge Tipping Up

When you see this condition you definitely want to get into the crawlspace to determine the condition of the structure.  If rot exists or is suspected you want to get a foundation repair contractor, or general contractor, familiar with this type of construction to determine the scope of damage and needed repairs.

Bubbles in Your Pool Jets?

Bubbles coming out of your pool jets can be a problem.  This normally indicates air is getting into the suction side, or low pressure side, of the recirculation system due to a leak in the plumbing.  The most common cause is a leak at the pump strainer cover which is typically a cheap fix.  In this case it was due to improperly made repairs at joints in the return plumbing to the recirculation pump.  Sometimes the leaks are not as obvious and can be costly to find and repair if they occur below the deck or soil.

Roof Photo From Field


nail through roof

What you don't see when you don't walk the roof system.  We cannot get everyone or on every roof, but we try if we think it is safe to do so.  This is a nail which has worked through the roof system.  This happens when they work up, or are under driven.  These can and do leak water to the deck and interior.


Now Is The Time to Check Yard Drainage

Lately it appears it is feast for famine where rain is concerned in our area.  Not complaining at all, but now is a good time to consider drainage around your home.  While it is raining have a walk around the perimeter of your home.  Have a look at the drainage patterns, gutter performance, gutter drainage points, and area drains if you have them.

Water should not be standing or running directly against the foundation.  Over a long period of time this can be detrimental to your foundation.  You should have a slope in the soil away from the foundation for at least a few feet and more if possible.  Areas often poorly setup by builders in new construction is at flower beds.  Check you gutters to see if they are overflowing due to clogging or improper pitch.  If they are dirty clean them or if the slope is off make a note to correct improperly positioned supports.  Check the downspouts for proper positioning of splash blocks or proper connections to your area drain system. Make sure your area drains work and are not allowing ponding in the yard.  If you find problems, take some pictures and make notes so you know where the problem areas are when it stops raining.

Mosquito Information

Going outside recently has been a challenge due to the number of mosquitoes around my home.  With the recent rains and resulting increase in mosquito activity you may literally be taking your life into your hands if you don't go out properly prepared.

In doing some quick looking this morning I found that Harris County has a whole web site devoted to this subject and is worth browsing.  I have not had time to read it all just yet but it looks like a good source for information local to our area.

Have a look at:

Be Careful Working In The Heat

If you live in Texas and you have been here the last few days you know they have been scorchers and I mean really HOT!  Yesterday it was 104 deg F where I was working.  We work in the weather rain or shine hot or not so we have to be careful not to become injured by it.  This is a challenge since heat affects you slowly and you may not realize you are dehydrated or over heated until you are well into the process.  If you are going to be exposed to the heat having a plan is your best defense.

My strategy for dealing with working in the heat is:

  • Taking regular breaks to drink cold drinks.  This is really important and you should plan for it.  If I just spend the day on a project where I know I will not get back into AC frequently I use a backpack hydration system to keep hydrated so I don’t forget.  These work exceptionally well and can be filled with ice for even better effect.
  • Limiting my time in really hot places like attics.  I don’t spend more than about 10 min in really hot attics and I take frequent lengthy breaks to drink cold water and cool down.  If I don’t have a place to cool down, I don’t go into excessively hot space.
  • Getting lots of rest in my off time.  I have been limiting my off time exposure to heat during these really hot day.  This is much to the disappointment to my daughter since we run together.  Heavy exercise and working in the heat all day does not work well for me.  I normally spend my evenings trying to rehydrate for my next work day.
  • Slow your work pace if you must work outside.  This will help you work longer.  I have a job where I must think and reason under hot and often physical conditions.  This is difficult in the heat and I must slow to do a good job.

Keep in mind I have developed my strategy based upon my experience in work and as an athlete.  These tips work for me but you may have additional considerations and needs.  Things like illness, medications, extreme heat, or other considerations should be considered deciding how you will deal with the heat.  The Center for Disease control has a great resource here:


National Environment Public Health Tracking Network

Mostly I want to be sure you think about it and make a plan to deal with it.  If you can keep hydrated and keep your core cool you can normally prevent injury.

Increase Your Watering

As we get into the hot months early this year you can adjust watering to meet demand.  Normally it is recommended that you water 3 times a day 10 min at a time through the end of June.  Since we are getting hotter sooner this year go ahead and increase that to 4 times a day 15 minutes at a time if you believe you need it.

Remember that watering times and duration is site dependent.  If you are watering and you still cannot keep up you may have large trees or extra vegitation you are not considering.  You may need to move or remove vegitation, or install root barriers.

Choosing A Contractor For Repairs

One of my clients called yesterday to let me know that she had a bid from a contractor to replace their water heater based upon my recommendation due to its age and condition.  The bid they received was over twice the typical cost for replacement with no special circumstances at about $2,400.00. A typical water heater replacement at the first floor garage area tends to run in the ballpark of $1,000.00 in our area.  The water heater was readily accessible in a garage storage room; the replacement was with a standard water heater.  The contractor recommended replacement of all of the associated components such as the flue pipe and plumbing connections but wanted to charge about 10x the normal cost for replacement of these components.  While changing these associated components my not be mandatory it is a conservative measure and not uncommon it should be done at a reasonable cost.  This bid was provided by a local well known contractor many of my clients might use.  The client called to let me know about the high bid and I suggested that she should get a few more bids from other plumbing contractors.

When you are looking to have even small work completed be sure to get multiple bids for the work.  It is recommended that you try to get at least 3 bids for the work with written proposals covering the scope of work so you can compare them.  If possible create a scope of work you expect from a contractor prior to getting bids so you can provide it to the contractor preparing a proposal.  It should include details about the scope of work and components you expect to be used.  If you need help with this process do not hesitate to contact a professional third party such as Professional Engineering Inspections who can provide you with unbiased assistance.

Check our page on selecting a contractor:

Why We Water Several Times A Day

Yesterday morning Steve Drake called and asked that we do an interview, which went off rather well.  Based upon that interview, Steve called me later to let me know that I did a good job, but that he was concerned that my recommendation about watering your foundation several times a day might affect my credibility.  I have never gotten that reaction that I am aware of, but my wife later presented a question that came off about the same way.  If you have not heard this recommendation before, I can understand the reaction; however, I can assure you I am not the only engineer recommending it and I wanted to take just a moment to address it.

First, I would like to clarify that during a radio interview, I am not free to speak my mind at length.  Although I find my topics interesting, I understand many of you would be a little bored over some of the details, resulting in a challenge to balance the “what” with the “why.”  This prevents me from providing the “why” about everything I recommend.  The “why” related to the engineering in construction can be very technical and thus long-winded.  That said, let me take a moment to clarify some of my comments so you don’t think me crazy.

The Foundation Care Information you can find on our web site is based in some part upon consulting experience but was largely developed by Texas A&M and issued about 15-20 years ago, including watering recommendations.  Remember a sprinkler system is not a foundation watering system.  A foundation watering system is specialized to use water to its best effect in maintaining the performance of your foundation.  Although watering your yard with a yard sprinkler system can be effective at maintaining your foundation under some conditions for the most part, it is not as effective as a purpose built foundation watering system for few reasons.  Normally, you water your yard every second to third day and you run the sprinklers for an extended time.  This prevents damage to the grass due to a continuously wet yard causing fungus.  This works well for grass but not for maintaining uniform moisture content in the soil to ensure foundation performance.  For maintaining foundation performance, you must maintain a uniform moisture content in the clay soils supporting the foundation, and the best method for achieving this goal is to water a little, but often, and near the foundation rather than out in the yard.  This makes the most effective use of the water too.

The reason that watering of your foundation is recommended in much of the Houston area is because, to a large extent, the buildings in our area rest on some degree of expansive soil.  This expansiveness is caused by high clay content in the soil, which shrinks with loss of moisture and swells with addition of moisture.  Because most foundations in Houston are shallow and often rest on this expansive clay, non-uniform shrinkage or swell of the supporting clay soil is the cause for what we call “foundation settlement” and the resulting damage to the structure.  Another result of the high clay content in the soil supporting foundations is that the permeability of the soil can be very low, meaning water simply will not flow through the soil rapidly.  For this reason, we water for a short time, say 10-15 minutes, and do it 3–4 times a day divided as equally as possible.  This allows the water to soak into the ground near the foundation rather than pond on its surface, allowing it to run away from the building where it would be most effective.  This technique also makes the most efficient use of the water.  If you water for long durations, you may use excessive water and it may be much less effective, as most of it runs across the yard or to the gutters.

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