Floors out of level

Floors out of level - do your sloped floors need attention - Where to begin - Bedroom with hardwood flooringMost homes eventually will have floors out of level with the passage of time, but they shouldn’t feel like The Mystery Spot. How much sloping or crowning is too much? What should be done about it? And most importantly, what is the cause of it?

In Belwood, Belgatos, Surmont, and nearby, having issues with unwanted slopes is not unheard of, unfortunately. Most of Los Gatos close to the hills can experience foundation and drainage issues that result in floors that aren’t flat. But those aren’t always the causes.

What causes uneven floors?

A number of causes can make floors out of level. Often it’s related to water, weight, and soil.

  • Water Leaks: Tub or shower water that gets under bathroom flooring can cause the particle board or plywood underneath it to swell, making the floors squishy feeling or unlevel. That shouldn’t be ignored, as water damage can lead to things like mold, fungus, and dry rot.
  • Rain or Ground Water: Sometimes hardwood floors get cupped and unlevel when there’s moisture in the crawl space below. A couple of our clients saw buckling floors begin to flatten out on their own after they sealed their crawlspace against groundwater intrusion. (The moisture could have several possible sources, or a combination of them. All sources will need to be addressed.)
  • Excessive Weight: Excessive weight can wreck havoc, too. A home’s components are designed for a particular load, but if that area is overweight, there can be bowing beneath it.
    • For example, a client who is also a contractor pointed out cracked tiles in a bathroom floor and remarked that the room was probably designed with a lightweight vinyl floor and when home owners upgraded, they installed tile without additional support in the crawl space for the extra weight.
    • A similar result could happen if a house was designed for a lightweight roof and later on a heavier one, such as concrete tile, was added without structural reinforcements.
    • You might see this in other parts of the structure as well. We frequently see framing around garage doors sag across the top when occupants store heavy items in the garage attic area, which is not built for it – the span from one side of the garage to the other makes it prone to sagging if weighty things are stored in the middle.  Drive down almost any residential street and you are likely to see at least one or two droopy garage door frames across the top.
  •  Foundation Movement: Foundation issues can be especially costly to rectify.
    • Foundation problems often are related to water mixing with expansive clay soils (this type of soil expands when wet and shrinks when dry) , so foundation and drainage work often go together hand in hand. (See this helpful video from Bear Engineering for more info.)
    • Tree roots and erosion can also cause problems with foundations, and those may result in uneven floors, too. (This is not an exhaustive list.)
    • Flooring can also go out of level due to additions to the home and uneven settling between the new and old footprint of the home. Clients of ours in this situation chose to replace the flooring (which was worn anyways from active use and settling) and have the installer use a leveler before installing the new material.

 

Isn’t settling normal?  When should we be concerned about floors out of level?

Homes do settle, particularly when they are first built. Ideally, that settlement would be even, and the entire structure may sink into the soil by the same amount. If your floors are out of level enough to be bothering you, pay attention. Is it just one spot? Is it somewhat even, is there a pattern to it?

(more…)

Power Outage Readiness

Power Outage Readiness - candle in the darkLast March, during Atmospheric River Storm #11, we had a 70 hour power outage at my house, and we weren’t alone. Our neighborhood largely went black at night except for solar landscape lights in some front yards and a very few houses that had either a gas generator or solar with a battery backup.

When our lights flickered again during storm #12, I had that “never again” resolve. Of course, for any emergency we know it’s imperative to have safety items such as flashlights, batteries, candles and a way to light them, emergency food, water, and first aid kit. What else? A hand crank radio is wise to have, too, not just for a power loss but for a severe emergency, such as after an earthquake.

Additional power outage tips

  1. Fridge and Freezer:  Ice in the fridge and freezer can help preserve the temperatures needed for food to stay safe. The FDA says that a fridge needs to be at 40f or lower for food safety. Freezers should be as close to 0f as possible. And, of course, we should limit how much we open the doors since each time it will warm the interior.
    • Ice in your ice maker may melt during a prolonged power outage. We hadn’t thought about it until a puddle appeared by the freezer door. If you can load that ice into large plastic bags and seal them, they may help to keep the freezer a little cooler and not ruin your floor in the process.
    • Dry ice keeps longer than regular ice. Some grocery stores do carry it and I wish we had thought to buy it on the first day of the outage.
  2. Camping tools: I confess that I’m not much of a camper, but I was grateful when my husband pulled out his old camping stove and used it to make me breakfast in our backyard.  These stoves and their fuel aren’t too expensive and might be a worthwhile emergency backup tool you’d want to consider having.
  3. Charging laptops, cell phones, tablets: even with our small backup batteries, most of us cannot go 3 days without charging our devices. Luckily the county was not all out of power at once and perhaps each of us had family or friends or an office where we could power up daily. What if it were more extensive? For about $200 a portable power station (electric) can be bought that will get through quite a number of charges for your devices. Here are two that I like (after way too much research – these are NOT affiliate links):
    • BLUETTI EB3A Portable Power Station | 600W 268Wh – on sale today on the Bluetti webbsite for $209, it is $299 on Amazon and in between on most sites. It can be recharged quickly in the loud “turbo mode” setting, or 2-2.5 hours in a quieter one. It can be used in conjunction with solar panels (which are not cheap!).
    • A close contender at $199 on Amazon is the EF ECOFLOW Portable Power Station RIVER 2, 256Wh LiFePO4 Battery, which also has a fast charge and can work with solar panels.  This one has only one 3 prong AC outlet, and the Bluetti had 2.
    • You could also consider buying just the solar panels. I opted not to do that since I didn’t think it would work well during a downpour – but it might during a PG&E summer PSP outage.
  4. Battery backups for sump pumps and garage door openers: we are fortunate and have a dry crawl space that does not need a sump pump, but that’s not too common in our neighborhood. Some sump pumps will only work with the electricity is on – and you might need it most precisely when it isn’t. If you have a sump pump, it might be wise when replacing it to upgrade to one with a battery backup. Same with the garage door opener. Some people are not able to open the garage door even with a release, and if that applies to you or anyone in your home, it might be worthwhile to upgrade it to one with the battery backup.
  5. Gas generators: I don’t have much info on gas generators but have several family members who swear by them. I will say that they are loud! Prices vary depending on whether or not you want to backup your entire home or just a few items, whether it’s portable or permanently installed. Please be aware that gas generators will be unavailable to buy in stores in California starting in 2028, though. The sales ban has to do with air quality.
  6. Portable solar landscape lights are a plus during a power outage. Last summer we purchased some “fairy lights” in mason jars with solar lids that can sit on tables, hang from the handle, or sit atop stakes in the ground. At the time I thought they could be useful during a power outage – and they were. The ones we bought aren’t good for reading, but we moved some from the backyard to the front and put others indoors for lighting in bathrooms, hallways, etc. They stayed bright all night long. This is a good alternative to candles, which should not stay lit when people are asleep in the home.
  7. Solar on the roof with a battery backup is a solid but expensive option. With the battery, your solar generation can actually power your house during the day even in a power outage, and that can be a lifesaver! Of course, if it’s cloudy and storming there may not be much electricity generated. A battery cannot go for days and days if there’s not enough sun coming through, so choices have to be made about how much to use and when. (See above: portable power station.) The batteries that I have checked out recently are pricey at $17,000 to about $22,000 each. This is a huge ticket in the “home improvement” department. That said, when we reroofed last summer, we added solar and a battery backup, and I don’t regret it.

I wish that we didn’t even need to share tips on power outage readiness, but let’s face it: our grid in California a mess. The PG&E employees who are out there restoring our power in horrible conditions (rain, wind, smoke) are our everyday heroes. But choices have been made for decades which were not good for us, the consumers. We need to put ourselves in the position of being ready to do without power at times, sadly.

Do you have any power outage tips that I’ve missed? Please send me an email at mary@popehandy.com and I’ll check out any helpful info to see if it should be added.

Is your sump pump ready for winter rains?

Graphic image: how's your sump pump?Many residents in Los Gatos and nearby communities such as the Los Gatos mountain communities, Almaden Valley, Monte Sereno, Saratoga, the Cupertino foothills, etc. have sump pumps in their crawl space to pull off water that can accumulate below the house.

Water can get there for a variety of reasons, such as reverse grading (the soil should slope gently away from the house, but in some cases the slope is unfortunately toward the house), downspouts not being extended to carry roof water away from the structure, or even underground water bubbling up from below (that’s a problem for a drainage expert, not a do-it-yourself job). These situations often happen during periods of heavy rain.

Sump Pump Options

Like any other appliance, sump pumps come in all ranges of quality and performance from bare bones and portable to full of bells and whistles. They also get old and need maintenance from time to time, and they can fail. Some will turn on automatically, some must be switched on manually (assuming you are home to do it). Some run only on electricity, and will be no good to you during a power outage. Others come equipped with a battery backup.

If it’s been a long time since you have checked in on your sump pump, now is a good time to do it (or pay someone else to inspect it). Also check to see if the soil under the houses is graded or has channels to bring water to the sump pump. Also double check the downspouts to insure that they are carrying water away from your home / foundation.  The best time to inspect all of this is before you need it. (Anyone with air conditioning knows how hard it is to get a service call on a malfunctioning AC unit during a heat wave!)

Time to upgrade? I would suggest looking into sump pumps with battery backups so that it works even if the power goes off – that may be when you need it most. It would also be good to have one that can register water accumulating and turn on automatically.

 

Related reading:

Cracked Foundations, Adobe Clay Soils and Water in Silicon Valley (on the Valley of Heart’s Delight blog)

What is a cripple wall? (on popehandy.com)

What To Consider When Buying a Hillside Home in Silicon Valley

Water Table (on this site)

Racoons wreaking havoc with lawns in Belwood and east Los Gatos

Racoon Lawn damage Has your yard been hit by racoons yet? For the last month or two, many Belwood and nearby residents have been awakening in the morning to damaged landscaping, particularly front lawns.  One home owner phoned the Los Gatos Monte Sereno Police to complain about his vandalized front yard. But this time, it’s not human caused damage.

On several social media sites, neighbors vent that they have been victims of wild pigs or boars.  But that’s not it – at least not for most of us.  Boars do far more destruction and they are further in the hills, though perhaps if you are in the east Los Gatos foothills around Santa Rosa, or in parts of Almaden near open space that could be a risk.

Although sometimes the damage is quite extensive, involving a large percentage of one’s front lawn, the guilty parties are usually hungry racoons.  Crows may be assisting too, but they don’t create problems on as large of a scale.

They are after a meal in the form of tasty lawn grubs.  Grubs find their way into the soil to eat the roots of the grass, and those grubs seem to be the best eating in town for some of the local wildlife.

If that’s not enough,  squirrels like to bury food in lawns, too (someone used to give out peanuts in the shell near us – the squirrels kept burying them in our lawn – I’ve watched them!).

(more…)

Home fire hardening

With the increase of fires in recent years, California has a new fire disclosure law on the books, AB 39 (2019). In response, the California Association of Realtors has come out with a new home fire hardening form. This is a new advisory and disclosure document combined, “C.A.R. Form FHDS, 5/21 Fire Hardening and Defensible Space Advisory, Disclosure, and Addendum”. It’s intended to help sellers and buyers be more aware of what can be done to make a home more resistant to fire.

Selling a home in a high fire risk zone? Expect these home fire hardening questions

In one section of the document, home sellers are asked if they have made the following alterations:

  1. Eave, soffit, and roof ventilation where the vents have openings in excess of one-eighth of an inch or are not flame and ember resistant.
  2. Roof coverings made of untreated wood shingles or shakes.
  3. Combustible landscaping or other materials within five feet of the home and under the footprint of any attached deck. (Wood chips and mulch may not be a good idea!)
  4. Single pane or non-tempered glass windows.
  5. Loose or missing bird stopping or roof flashing.
  6. Rain gutters without metal or noncombustible gutter covers.

All of us who are near Belgatos Park and nearby open spaces can benefit from improving our home’s safety should a fire breakout nearby. We recently measured our vent screens and found them to be 1/4 inch, so will be improving that. It’s a good list.

There’s a longer article on my main blog. Check it out for more information:
NEW California Disclosure – Home Fire Hardening Disclosure and Advisory

Below there’s also a document from the CA Assn of Realtors on the law. This is a good article with helpful information – I highly recommend it.

 

Related reading:

Los Gatos Fire Risk (Live in Los Gatos blog)

A History of Los Gatos Fires and the Los Gatos Fire Department (Live in Los Gatos blog)

CA Association of Realtors: Home Fire Hardening Disclosure Law, Feb 2021 (the form was updated in May 2021)

Tall weeds are not a result of the drought

Weeds in Belwood summer 2015With our extensive drought causing many lawns to wither and die, some home owners seem to have given up on maintaining their yards at all. It is as if they’re saying “why bother weeding at all if I cannot have a lush green lawn?”

Those 4-6′ tall weeds are an eyesore, that’s why.  And worse, they infect the neighboring yards as well.

It’s not just one front yard sporting people-sized weeds – it’s a few.  That’s very surprising since the Belwood area usually displays a lot of pride of ownership.Weeding is no one’s favorite pasttime.  When the monsters get to be 4 and 5 feet tall, even chopping them down and leaving the roots would be an improvement both to reduce neighboring properties to infection but also for the neighborhood’s looks overall.

Tall weeds are not a result of the drought and they are not a neccessary part of water conservation efforts. Please be a good neighbor.  Please do not let your front yard become a neighborhood blight.

Water conservation and lawn blonding: most neighbors get it

How green is your grass?Two or three days ago, I got a phone call from a home owner in another Silicon Valley city who was interested in selling his house.  “My lawn is a perfect green, both front and back”, he boasted to me.  “My neighbors are letting their lawns get yellow and brown, but not me.  If I get a fine, I’ll pay it, but my lawn will be green.”

You don’t hear a lot of that around here these days, luckily.

In fact, the opposite is true – most Silicon Valley neighbors, including folks in Los Gatos, understand that keeping a lawn perfectly green means that you are squandering a resource (unless you are painting your lawn green or have replaced it with artificial turf). In  other words, due to our very severe and 4 years long drought, most home owners or tenants believe that it is unethical to water your lawn to the point where it is a healthy green.

Blonding lawn in Belwood of Los GatosThat new sense of ethics appears to be helping to get more people onboard.  Having slogans like “brown is the new green” isn’t all that motivating.  But noticing that yours is the only green lawn on the block might cause some (hopefully most) people to get with the program.

There are oodles of rules about when and how much to water.  If you are a San Jose Water Company customer, you can water only twice a week, on set days (homes with even numbered houses, you water Tuesdays and Fridays, after 8pm and before 10am, for 15 minutes per zone max; for odd numbered days it’s Mondays and Thursdays).  You are not allowed to hose down sidewalks, driveways, or cars.  And water is never allowed to run off.  Some of it’s intuitive, but much of it is not.

Get all the San Jose Water Company rules here:
https://www.sjwater.com/news/topic/new-water-conservation-rules-effect

Blonding lawn in east Los GatosYou can report water waste in Belwood, Belgatos, or Surmont to the San Jose Water Company online – see link at the bottom of this article.  There’s even an app, DroughtShame, for photographing and turning in offenders.  Drought shaming is a way of trying to get neighbors to comply – not sure if it works or not, but it does appear that social change, meaning that most people embrace conservation and letting lawns go, does seem to work.

Big thanks to the neighbors who are doing a good job of conserving.  Some of you are ripping out lawn and putting in artificial grass or low water landscaping.  Others are allowing once lush greenery to go “California blonde”, as my husband calls it.   When we walk the neighborhood and see so many lawns which are barely hanging on, we know that a lot of people really do care about the drought and conservation.  No one loves a dead or dying lawn – but it’s a very visible way of doing your part.  Thank you.

 

 

Resources:

Water saving plants on the San Jose Water Company’s website

California water wasters beware: Drought Shaming on the rise    Article on the San Jose Mercury News

You can report water waste for the San Jose Water Company’s service area online:
https://www.sjwater.com/for_your_information/save_water_money/report_water_waste/