Deck Building: Tips for Pouring Footings in Winter

If you’re like me and live in a place where winter temperatures regularly dip below freezing, keeping the decking trade going through the off season can be challenging to say the least! To get a jump on the competition, here are a few tricks that will get your footings set before the first day of Spring!

Choose the right concrete mix
Quikcrete has a number of blends designed for specific applications. In the deck building industry, we use structural concrete blends such as:

  • Concrete Mix (No. 1101)
    Fast-Setting Concrete (No. 1004-50)
    FastSet™ Concrete Mix (No. 1004-51)
    FastSet™ DOT Mix (No. 1244-56, 1244-81-extended)
    Green Concrete Mix (No. 1101-63)
    QUIKRETE® 5000 High Early Strength Concrete Mix (No. 1007)
    Crack Resistant Concrete Mix (No. 1006-80)
    Fiber-Reinforced Deck Mix (No. 1251-80), Polymer Modified Fiber-Reinforced Deck Mix (No.1251-81)

But which of these set up in cold temperatures?
Concrete Selection Guide


Our options here are basically FastSet and 5000 if you’re looking for something that is appropriate for footings and sets in cold weather. The standard mix “concrete mix” is used for most applications in decking, and you’ll see from the data above that it sets to 4,000 PSI at 28 days, while 5000 mix sets to 5000 PSI. That’s a 20% improvement. Next, you’ll see that it reaches 1500 PSI 3x faster than standard mix. This is a huge advantage when you’re working in cold weather which can shorten cure times. In effect, you’ll have very little difference in how your footings set in winter if you simply change blends.

Add Heat and Insulation

Try concrete blankets, straw, or other heating solutions. The genius innovator Dr. Decks up in Washington uses upside down 5 gallon buckets with drop lights suspended in them to add heat to the top of the footings while they cure! There are also ICF forms that provide some insulating value, but I haven’t tried them.


10 Things I Wish I Had Known About Owning a Home


1. Hot water heaters are often ruined if they’re submerged, such as in flooding.

Newer hot water heaters contain warnings on the side cautioning that the are essentially garbage after having been submerged. There are control electronics on the sides of these units that are sensitive and not repairable. You would be well-served to elevate your hot water heater off the ground some distance to prevent these kinds of issues in the event of flooding.

There are a few things to take into consideration when elevating your tank:

  • Make sure that your vent systems still drafts. The pitch of the vent pipe is angled such as it is to ensure that vapors draft up the pipe. If the vented gases hit a 90 degree angle (no pitch) at the top of the vent, they will face less resistance to vent elsewhere! There’s an updraft effect created when warm vapors travel through a pipe that draws a current. Check this by snuffing out a lit match and seeing if the smoke follows the vent line. The smoke should be pulled into the system.
  • Your supply lines may need to be swapped. There are a few types of water supply lines, and some of them are more resilient than others. Corrugated copper lines, for instance, are a great choice for installations, but they are prone to kinking and then leaking, making them useless and in need of replacement. I like using braided hoses for their flexibility and durability, but they don’t take and retain a shape in tight spaces quite as well as corrugated copper.
  • Hot water heaters are heavy! It’s no simple task to raise these, even a strong adult can struggle with a hot water heater with retained water. Sometimes it’s difficult to drain all the water from their tanks from the bottom spigot. With a drill pump and some hose, you can drain more from the supply line holes, but it takes some extra effort.
  • There are pre-fab platforms designed to hold water heaters. This is a great choice, but not the only choice. In our mud-floored basement, I laid down gravel, cinder blocks (hole side up), sand, then plywood. The sand and gravel allowed for better leveling on an uneven surface, and the blocks added a ton of stability.

2. Blow out your sprinkler system before the first frost.

Sprinkler systems are very expensive and are easily ruined if you forego yearly maintenance! Consider how your sprinklers might be effected before…

  • Aerating your lawn. If aerators penetrate deeper than the soil level above your sprinkler plumbing, they can do a ton of damage in a matter of minutes!
  • Tilling your soil. Basically, never use a tiller on soil with a buried sprinkler line. The system will likely be destroyed in the process.

It’s also vital that you blow out the system yearly to prevent freezing and cracking below the ground.

3. Tree service can be very expensive!

If you purchase a property with poorly-maintained, unhealthy, older trees, you may love the shade when you move in, but they can quickly become a hazard. Ice storms can put enough weight on limbs to cause massive branches to fall on your roof or vehicles. If your trees are in need of maintenance, it’s wise to hire a licensed arborist (yes there’s a license for this) to do the work in case of any liability issues. If an unlicensed arborist causes damages to surrounding properties, you could, and likely will, be held liable for repairs!

4. Know what’s in your sewer drain.

There are a number of services in most major real estate markets that will snake a video camera down your sewer drain to see if things are in good order. Over time, clay drain pipes can collapse or be damaged by roots underground. This can lead to one of the most expensive repairs a homeowner can have to make: a new sewer line. The going rate is in the thousands of dollars range.

5. Don’t assume your house is in great shape just because it passed inspection!

Not even a week after our home inspection and closing, we discovered that the fools that lived in our house before us had tiled our shower surround directly onto common drywall! The tiles began falling off like porcelain base jumpers and crashing down into the tub. Behind the tiles was a thin carpet of black mold! Don’t think that just because your home passed inspection that it’s in tip-top shape; the inspection is really for the bank, to make sure that they can still get their money back if you default.

6. Rusty pipes can ruin your fixtures.

If your home still has galvanized steel pipe, it can still remain in service for quite a while if it’s in good shape, but will eventually need to be replaced. If you bump one of these pipes or shut your water off and bleed the line, this can disturb rust deposits in the pipes that will run upstream and potentially ruin your faucets. With PEX being so cheap and easy to install, you may as well upgrade.

7. Just because a plumber is licensed, doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing!

There’s a way of doing things by the code that is smart and in compliance, or in compliance and dumb. Just because it’s done to code, doesn’t make it “right.” There’s a whole spectrum of right and wrong in the trades. If something a tradesman is doing to your home doesn’t make any sense, and they can’t explain, that should be a big red flag. Trust your gut.

8. Duct tape is not for rigid metal ducting.

These vents can get hot, I mean really hot, like 500 degrees max. Self-tapping screws are the way to go.

9. Most modern appliances have flashing lights for diagnostics.

Your HVAC repairman affectionately calls them “idiot lights” because they have idiot-proofed most diagnostics. Count the flashes, read the label, and proceed.

10. Early vinyl tile contains asbestos!

What we know know as VCT, vinyl composite tile, used to contain asbestos. It’s not a problem if it’s contained and/or not cut, but the dust can be hazardous to your health and has been linked to lung cancer. Pry it up, cover it, but don’t sand or grind it!

Must-have tools that aren’t in most homeowners’ tool boxes:


  • Pipe cutters for PVC, Copper, PEX
  • Hacksaw
  • various sizes of boots, splices, ball-valves, tees. Sharkbite fittings are great!
  • short lengths of PEX, PVC, Copper, ABS pipe
  • PVC glue
  • propane torch, flux, solder, emery cloth
  • Heat isolating blanket (for brazing it tight spaces)
  • teflon tape
  • monkey wrench
  • basic wrench
  • water key
  • strap wrench
  • channel locks (2)
  • vise grips
  • coveralls and a head lamp (you’ll thank me later)


  • Outlet tester
  • voltage tester
  • wire nuts of various sizes
  • some standard shielded wire
  • Spare fuses (if you use them)
  • Wire cutters/strippers


  • Some HEET roof patch
  • Putty knife, caulk gun
  • tarp
  • spare shingles
  • ladder


  • self-tapping screws
  • hose clamps
  • duct tape
  • the manual for your AC / furnace / water heater
  • a carbon monoxide detector

Or at very least, a good handyman’s phone number. Mine is 720 315 8591

Line Cook Tricks: part 1

You’ll get the finer points from other resources. Here are a few things that I see people screwing up on a regular basis that pros do all the time.

Your blender (probably) sucks.

Basically, consumer grade appliances are terrible. They are under-powered and over-priced garbage. If you do nothing else we discuss here, save you hard-earned cash for professional-grade tools if you do anything other than holiday cooking. The work of maintaining a scratch kitchen these days equates to professional usage in the age of microwave dinners and fast food.


If you’re to mix, such as with a whisk, double the size of the vessel relative to the contents.

Mixing utensils in order of the thickness of the liquid: whisk, paddles, hooks. The thicker the solution, the smaller the vessel it will tolerate for mixing.

Mix the oil on top of your peanut butter with a dough hook and a hand mixer.

If there’s a chance of wasting in a smooth-sided vessel, use a rubber spatula.

Liquids follows what interrupts their path. A chopstick on the rim of a bowl when pouring is a tool for aiming your pour.

Chopsticks are not just for eating sushi. They are immensely valuable in plating anything that benefits from precision. You can find long chopsticks designed for cooking as is common practice in many parts of Southeast Asia.

Silpat mats are indispensible! No more cooking spray on your sheet trays. Use them to make fruit leathers. Throw over-ripe bananas cut in half and skinned onto a silpat. They cook down into a delicious sugary caramel and chewy dried fruit. Clean-up only takes 1 minute with the silpat.

Nothing looks dumber than using a normal spatula on a griddle. Use the long, flat, wide kind, or try a 6″ taping knife. And be brave and shove it under the food with gusto like you’re shoving a table cloth under a place setting.


Dimples are cute, but your knife doesn’t need them. Hands up, tips down (perpendicular to the table) if you want to minimize drag (by minimizing surface area). Hands parallel to the cutting board, tips facing forward if you want something to cling to your blade.

Harder to dull = harder to sharpen. Easier to dull = easier to sharpen. How much maintenance can you live with? Now, go buy a knife. Past what feels good and what you can afford, that’s the decision you need to make.

You can hone a knife on anything. I use the spine of another knife in a pinch or the rough underside of a porcelain plate.

You’d have to be high to cut high-acid foods with a high-carbon knife.

Nobody needs a tournee knife. You should probably get an oyster knife, because not having one and needing one is just dangerous.


Using wooden skewers? Soak your skewers. Only a fool puts wood in fire and expects something other than ashes.

If you intend to sear, you must get HOT. A warm surface sticks. A HOT surface cauterizes and then sears. Carbon is a lubricant; create carbon if you wish for your protein to release.

Furthermore, the protein must be DRY. Pat the meat dry, rub in salt, set it down, walk away. This especially goes for scallops, but keep an eye on them. They’re sneaky little bastards.

You only cook as hot as your conductor. Water boils at 212. Oils retain quite a bit more heat. We sear with oil.

Use dry towels for hot things. Steam burns suck. Ask your barista.

Add a splash of water and cover the pan to heat quickly and evenly.


Want eggs to cook faster? Cook them from room temp. More importantly, a “6 minute egg” is 6 mins from room temp, not from your frigidaire.

Add yolk to, hell, nearly anything. Throw one into your pasta. Whisk some into any cream-based sauce.

Clarify stock with your left over whites. They even make a tasty snack after straining if you dare.


Buy turkeys when they’re cheap. 

I thaw the birds and debone them, then they freeze in one flat layer like a meat blanket. Slice down the back, cut shoulder joints, peel the back meat and breasts down like taking off a meat sweater. Dislocate and cut hip joints, and scrape the meat off the bones and cut around joints. Remove breast fillets. Use a dry towel to grab ligaments and scrape them away from the meat with a knife. Takes about 2-3 minutes per bird with some practice. Then brown the bones and start your stock.

Save the fat.

Chill your stock. Skim the fat off the top of your chilled stock. Heat the skimmed fat and when it stops bubbling, filter it through a coffee filter. Waste not, want not. If you are cooking stock or another fat-generating dish without rendering your fat, I feel bad for you. This is one of frugal living’s great pleasures.

Low & Slow

Throw meat in a crock pot with any kind of marinade and it will probably be good. This trick never gets old. It saved mom’s behind more than a few times when you were a kid, and you never knew the difference.

London Broil

If sirloin is the poor man’s filet, and the filet is the poor man’s waygu, then the London broil is the poor man’s “hey, it’s steak.” This cut is always dirt cheap compared to the rest of the beef, the cuts are massive, and if you take your steak medium rare, you’ll love it! If you’re running a crematorium, you’ll end up with a shoe, but then that’s probably what you deserve, peasant.


No, you are probably not a chef. Calling yourself a home chef is about as lame as forming a single-member LLC and calling yourself the CEO. Just stop.

Coming Soon Part 2: Veg, Tofu, Rice, and other assorted hippie chow.

Fast shelf brackets for maximum strength

My wife’s sewing room is running out of storage space, so it’s time to go vertical. Looking around the garage, I can’t seem to find any shelf brackets, so I’m opting to make my own. In designing these, I think I may have inadvertently found a very efficient way of manufacturing them. With this design, the brackets can be made from inexpensive food and still be quite strong. Additionally, they can be glued up in long sections and cut into pieces. For instance, it would not be unreasonable to glue up 6’x7″ lumber with the 45 degree panel dadoed in, then cut them apart with a crosscut sled on the table saw.

The joinery is designed to maximize glue surface and minimize time. The dadoes for the angled slots triple surface area for glue, and the rabbet at the 90 degree joint doubles glue surface and allows for a mechanical fastener through the back that’s hidden and not just going into endgrain for extra strength. angle bracket iso

HTML instruments!

We no longer need a VCR, camera, camcorder, voice recorder, or typewriter anymore; that’s a given. Did you know that there are several instruments that you can use right now inside of your web browser? Here are a few of the coolest ones I’ve found.

HTML 909 

HTML 909 

Web Modular

Web Modular

HTML5 Drum Machine

HTML5 Drum Machine

True Grid

True Grid

Pattern Sketch

Pattern Sketch

Sympathetic Synthesizer System Mk 1

Sympathetic Synthesizer System Mk 1



Web Sid

Web Sid

Smarter Business: Vetting Contractors

In the skilled trades, we often accept work from people we know little to nothing about, often with some form of contract, but especially for small jobs this can be a simple as a verbal agreement. When collecting payment, we’re often taking these people at their word. With communities become more populous and alienated, the social pressures that once existed to enforce these contracts have all but vanished. There are luckily a few things that a tradesman can check before doing business to minimize risk. Granted, this is not a fail-proof approach; I’ve been burned by people I’ve vetted this way. However, you can at least minimize the risks.

Business Filings

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 2.01.45 PM

Check that their trade name is registered and in good standing. The state secretary’s office manages this records and most states’ records are online now. Try searching for “your state”, SOS. This will provide several valuable pieces of information.

  • How long they’ve been in business
    • Do you see numerous DBA changes? Has the business owner told you they’ve been in business for decades, but is working under a new trade name?
  • Their business address or registered agent
    • Many legitimate businesses use registered agents for a number of reasons, but it could be an attempt to obscure the primary stakeholder’s identity.
  • Legal name
    • Does their legal name match the name they’ve given you?
    • Are there other businesses filed by the same person?
  • Filing status
    • If they haven’t kept up with their tax filings, they will be in delinquent status. If they don’t pay the state promptly, will they pay you?

If their address listed is a home address, check the property records. Do they own their home? While there’s nothing wrong with renting, it’s not exactly normal for a successful contractor to still be renting, especially when they have the tools and income to buy an affordable home and remodel. Do they have poor credit? Is it their real address? I wouldn’t necessarily rule out doing business someone based on this alone, but it is the beginning of a trend.

Residential Records

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 1.59.30 PM

These records are held by the respective county in which the person resides. Many property assessors records are now online and searchable by multiple criteria.

  • Chain of Title
    • Has the home in foreclosure?
    • Is the contractor still the current owner?
    • Is the property owned by a landlord or other party?
  • Spouse
    • Another name to vet for business entities
  • Former HUD
    • There are very specific criteria that must be met to qualify for a HUD home, most of which would disqualify a successful businessman.

Contractors Licensing Office

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 2.00.45 PM

Many cities are beginning to make their contractor databases publicly searchable. Is this licensed contractor active for the county and building classification you’re supposed to be working on?


Check permutations of the contractor’s full legal name, nicknames, maiden names, etc. Have they had businesses in other states recently? Are they still active? In good standing? How is their rating with the Better Business Bureau? Are they members? Check contractor review and lead generation sites for their names and trade names. What are customers saying? Are there any reviews from former employees or subcontractors? Tip: Use quotation marks to tell google exactly what you want. 

Cabinet making without a cabinet saw

It’s easy to approach a task, see that you don’t have the proper tool for the job, and write it off as an impossible task. It takes creativity and some persistence, but you can actually build custom cabinets without a cabinet saw.

I was tasked with making a custom cabinet 16 1/2″ deep and 28″ wide at standard base cabinet height. To achieve maximum strength, I needed to cut two dados in two panels: one for the backing, and one for the bottom shelf. I set about accomplishing the task using factory edges on sacrificial plywood pin nailed to the work to create a straight guide for my circular saw. To cut the first shoulder of the dado, measure the distance from your blade to edge of fence over and tack your guide piece in place. Set your depth to 1/4″ or so. Cut your first groove. For the second, use a scrap of the shelf material to sit between your circular saw fence and your guide to manage a perfect spacing for your dado. Once cut, pry the waste out with a wide timber framing chisel.

For your backing, space the dado in enough to allow for a cross piece from the panel material. In my case, 3/4″. With dado cut, pin nail together, patch any imperfections, and the cabinet is finished. Budget 3-4 hours labor and 1 sheet of ply for a single cabinet at $35-45 per sheet.

What kind of tool box could $3,000 buy?

wohngeistWhen I see the lengths to which hipsters will go in search of authenticity, I’m rarely as shocked as when I stumbled upon the Wongheist tool set. At $3,000, it’s easily the most ridiculous extravagance I’ve seen this year. The contents are as follows:


  • screwdrivers
    • small flat
      • shorter
      • longer
    • large flat
      • shorter
      • longer
    • phillips #2
    • driver
      • Bits
        • phillips, torx, allen, etc. about 8-12 bits in all
  • Pliers
    • linemans pliers
    • channel locks
    • dykes
  • hammer
  • half round rasp
  • Measurement and Layout
    • folding rule
    • square
    • marking pencil
  • allen key set
  • 1” chisel
  • awl
  • swiss army knife
  • Wooden case

That’s a total of 18 hand tools and a box for $3k. That’s $166 per tool, unless this is a $200 box. Then, we’re still talking $156 per tool. I truly the pity the fool who buys this thing.

The quest for the perfect chalk line

There are dozens of chalk boxes on the market, but all have their shortcomings. Cases crack when dropped off a ladder, cotton string lines fray and break. The old standby, the Irwin Strait-Line has a thick, fuzzy cotton line that is great at holding chalk, but definitely wears out quickly with daily use. The customer service at Irwin Tool is pretty impressive though. They sent me replacement chalk line ends when I asked at no charge and threw in a sticker! Irwin’s models are a great budget choice, but what if you’re a pro user looking for an upgrade? Here are a few good alternatives I’ve found:


  • This may be the Cadillac of all chalk lines. The line is a higher quality composition than your average variety, making for a longer-lasting product with less down-time. The retraction time is much faster than most others on the market. It’s actually a solid metal product with overmolded grips. Perhaps the best part of this chalk line is its low-profile design that makes it easy to get in and out of a tool belt. The fill mouth is wider than most, so it’s faster to add chalk. Still, it’s pretty expensive for a chalk line at $26.99 +S&H.


CH Hanson 12710 PRO 150 

  • 41K6384CNSL._SY355_The loop end on this chalk like makes it easier to snap on a 90 degree angle, and it’s easier to replace with standard hardware. Rather than wrangling with a hook end that constantly snags on everything in sight, the loop end on this model stores flat and will hook on a nail for great precision. At $20, it’s still a bit spendy, and it’s the largest of these options. I wouldn’t want to carry this in a tool belt all day. Still the handle would be handy for constant use.

MD Contractor Reel

  • 612jhkpdc-L._SL1200_At half the price of other competitors here, this is for the minimalist that wants a box full of chalked string. At $12, if you drop it off a roof, it’s not worth being too upset over. It’s a solid device that does its jobs without the bells and whistles of the other two options.

    The Hidden Plumb Bob

    Still, the best thing about the classic strait-line style chalk boxes is their ability to double as a plumb bob in a pinch. While no substitute for a proper plumb bob, hang your chalk line from any point, give it a spin and let it stabilize. You’ll have a decent starting point for your measurements. The M-D model would work, the Tajima could work, but the Hanson just isn’t designed for this.

Why you shouldn’t start a cell phone repair business!

For much of last year, I was running a cell phone repair business at (site down). My business plan was based around purchasing used cell phones, repairing them, and reselling them locally at online through eBay and similar sites. For a number of reasons which I’ll outline here, it’s simply not as great a market as it seems to those on the outside looking in.

1. Every time you buy a used cell phone, it’s a bit of a gamble!

Buying a used smartphone - New Page

See how most arrows point to “don’t buy it?” That pretty much sums it up.

The current cell phone pricing structure that most people use to purchase their devices relies on a discount for maintaining a contract for a certain period of time. The agreement states essentially that you’re given a discount on the device in exchange for maintaining service for a specified period of time. If you stop paying on your contract, the phone is “bricked” making is useless for anything other than parts. Furthermore, it could even really be called a stolen phone, because the consumer violated the terms of the agreement. If I bought one of these phones which seemed legitimate at the time of purchase, then it became bricked, I couldn’t even pay the balance to the carrier if I wanted to. They will not allow anyone other than the customer to pay.

2. Or do you want to service a client’s own device while they wait? 

If you make an error, you’re in big trouble. Lost data, a damaged device, irreparable parts? These costs add up quickly, and the good-will runs out as well. If you make an error in the repair, the client is without a cell phone when they were only dealing with a cracked glass display before. How often would you like to deal with this unpleasant quandary? How much capital can you invest in practicing repairs? I opted to purchase the devices outright and fix them on my own time.

3. Parts are of unreliable quality and samples always cost money!

If you have the investment capital to buy from a dozen suppliers and try out their products, then you’re fine, but if you’re relying on suppliers to send you quality you’re either paying a premium or gambling on online reviews. Once the parts have been installed, they’re not returnable or they may charge a restocking fee. To really know if the part works or not, you either need a tester (make your own) or you reassemble and test the phone and hope you get lucky. Either way, you’re now out parts cost, time, and potentially you have an angry impatient customer waiting to get their phone back. I ordered iPhone 5 screens from half a dozen suppliers and notice variation even from one lot to another. There were often noticeable differences in image quality and durability. The best parts with the largest margins come from China, but the shipping is unreliable and you’re either sending a lot of money to a stranger thousands of miles away with no safeguards or buying slowly and cautiously and spending too much time and cash on shipping fees.

4. The S-Curve: cell phone repair’s ship has already sailed

The people with the most profit potential were in the game in the infancy of the trade. Without the ability to capture market growth during the expansion phase, there’s little to sustain a venture during the mature phase. How does one capture market share in a fast-paced mature market with a myriad of trade secrets? Well, answer this question and you’ll do better in cell repair than I ever did!

The bottom line: 

If you got in on the ground floor of the industry, operate a mobile operation and either provide perfect repairs with a stockpile of expensive parts bought up-front or can purchase devices efficiently with large enough volume to make it worth your time, then you’re in a great position. If not, keep looking for the right business opportunity.