Opening up the lounge fireplace

I want to install an open fire in the lounge so this weekend, with Eli’s brother Yutlhiam, we got out the cold chisels and bolsters and started hacking away.

I was hoping that once we knocked through the wall I’d discover a neat Edwardian fireback, all ready to use, perhaps with a few loose bricks in there.

This is it before:

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Day 1

Getting the front removed wasn’t too difficult.  We chipped away plaster until we could see the outline of a brick, being careful to stay beneath where the lintel should be.  It helped that the old outline was clear in the plaster.

Then it was just a matter of carefully hacking away plaster and cement around a brick.  Once the first one was out the rest were easy.

The only thing to be careful of was to make sure the lintel was not removed or damaged – but that was always unlikely.  In any case, as soon as the hole was large enough I could stick my head up and check the lintel was there.  All good, so the rest of the bricks were removed and the house didn’t fall down.

A total surprise.  Once we’d chipped away all the bricks and removed three bag-fulls of cement breeze blocks I was left with a clean hole, freshly plastered, and with the remains of a gas pipe.

Not what I’d wanted!

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Clearly, the owners before last had ripped out the original fireplace and installed a modern gas fire in a minimalist rendered opening.  I’m sure it looked quite nice at the time.  It still does.  But for restoring the old open fire it’s a pain!

Day two

Continuing to reveal.  Now the arch of the lintel is visible.

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The arch is in OK condition (a few chips) but there is a loose brick that fell out above it.  Nothing a bit of cement can’t fix.

Going downwards is tough.  It’s all solid brick with masses of very tough cement.

To be continued…

Painting pebbledash on the garage – What a pain.

Painting is one of the jobs that I don’t particularly enjoy, and always takes so much more time than it should.  Preparation is half the job, and any time spent on prep is worth it many times over.

Until now I’ve painted the hallways inside, the office room, loft room, and the repaired rendered garden wall.  But not pebbledash.

Painting pebbledash is a pain!  It is hard.  Our garage had old flakey walls that hadn’t been painted in many years.  This is how it looked at the start:

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This is how I ended up painting the pebbledash and the garage in the end:

  1. Rub off all loose paint and plaster with a stiff wire brush
  2. Hose off thoroughly, working from top down.
  3. Dilute the paint by 20% or so, to make it soak into the surface a little.  I used Dulux weathershield brilliant white paint.
  4. Cut in around the edges using a 4″ masonry brush.  Don’t scrimp on the brushes.
  5. Paint the main walls using a thick pile masonry roller.  A masonry roller is essential.  It has long hairs that get into all the crevices
  6. Finish any missed areas with the brush, working in a rotating motion to get into the holes
  7. Top coat in more Dulux, without diluting.

The whole thing took around 2 hours per coat, including prep, which wasn’t too bad.

What it taught me is never paint the pebbledash on the house.  It will look good for a while, but repainting it every few years would be a nightmare.

Doors, Windows, Fascia and Soffits.

I was a little worried about the garage being too white so we decided to paint the doors a deep Forest green, and the fascia’s black.

Later on I’m going to add a window box and shutters, and I’ll open up the window from inside to get rid of the chipboard that is there now.

This is how it looks so far.  Much better!  It needs some nice pots and flowers in front of it, and I haven’t had time to fit the new guttering yet, but it’s much better looking from the house.

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Still left to do:

  • Open the window
  • Put up the new black guttering
  • Another coat of paint on the render

Removing more trees and grinding out tree roots

The bottom of our garden has always been very shady.  In fact the whole garden was dark until around 1pm every day, hidden in the shade of a large, but still young Sycamore.

I’ve been wanting to remove it for several months, but Eli was keen not to have it out before our Summer party thinking it would leave the garden as a mess.  In retrospect we needn’t have worried.

The tree came out yesterday, along with a Laburnum and a Hawthorn that were crowded in next to it and growing into each other.

You can leave roots to rot, but that can spread fungus.  We wanted an apple tree here so paid a little extra for grinding out tree roots of each one.

We kept the Hawthorn and Sycamore for firewood.  Laburnum is poisonous and the wood doesnt burn well so that got taken away by the tree surgeon.

garden before
When we moved in

I’m delighted with the result!  Suddenly the garden appears so much brighter and larger.  Not only that, but the garden feels more balanced now.  The tree dominated the garden so much that the eye always led to that.  Without it there the other plants already show up much better.

See the difference before and after…

garden after
After removing some of the excessive growth, plus the 3 large trees

 

Once the Sycamore came out I counted the rings and it is 18 years old.  So very very young.  That means by the time the last owners bought the house it was only 3, and just a sappling a few feet high.

We already know the last owners were not gardeners so the age tells me that it was almost certianly an unplanned tree.

Now it is gone I can finally start to plant something better in that space.  Perhaps an apple tree, or more elegant tree that won’t grow too high or wide.  Any ideas?

Fixing the central heating system and plumbing

Fixing the heating system and plumbing of our Edwardian house has been a long-running saga.

When we first moved in in June I opened the airing cupboard to discover pools of water and rotting carpet.  The previous owners had neglected to do any maintenance for several years, so the first thing to address were the numerous leaks.

Learning the basics

I’d never done any plumbing before, so it was time to learn.  YouTube and the forums were a great help.  In particular I used the DIY plumbing forum which was a huge help when I needed advice.

I also bought a plumbing book to have somethign for the basics.  The one I chose was the Haynes Home Plumbing manual and it was perfect.  Plenty of pictures and and easy-going jocular style of writing, without trivialising anything.  Heavily recommended.

Fixing the leaks

Before worrying about fixing the central heating system and plumbing I wanted to fix the leaks.  This was easier than I thought.

Tell tale signs of a leak
Tell tale signs of a leak

I had three main sources of leaks.  Dripping stop cock valves, dripping gate valves and drip

DSC_0041

ping compression joints.

The compression joints were fixed by removing the old one and replacing.  The only problem is the olive won’t come off, so I had to cut some new pipe.

After I did a couple this way I decided to just undo the leaking valve, carefully wrap some PTFE around the olive and redo it using the same nut.  It’s not as elegant, but holds perfectly well, and apparently it’s what most plumbers do – even though strictly speaking an olive should only be used once.

Gate valves are basically the same as normal compression valves.  Cut the pipe, take off the old valve and put in a new one.

After buying parts from Amazon (my usual one-stop shop for everything) I started buying them at Screwfix.  Much better value.  For plumbing parts Screwfix is fantastic.

The third type of leak I had was with stop cock valves.  These seem to develop a slow drip over time where the washer perishes.  The normal adcice is to replace the washer, but don’t bother.  I tried and it is a massive headache.  Getting the old washer off involved much lost skin and swearing, and getting a new one on was no better.

Much easier just to buy a new  part.  The valves are a couple of pounds.  Then just undo the centre spindle of the new valve and replace into the old one.  The main body of the valve was old and discoloured, but the leak will not be there so leave it alone.  By just replacing the centre spindle I got rid of the leaks entirely.

Getting the boiler and heating working again

Once the leaks were fixed the next challenge was to get the heating and hot water working.  This took much longer than expected…

There were multiple problems to fix, including:

  • A weak pump (I dismantled and cleaned it and then eventually replaced with a new one)
  • Silted up radiators.  I fitted a Magnetic filter, flushed the system several times with fresh water and then added a strong magnetite remover from Fernox, before again flushing and replacing inhibitor
  • Powerflush (when above didnt help)
  • Dismantle and clean out diverter valve
  • Clean out header tank
  • Rebalance
  • Replace PCB in the boiler (twice)
  • Attempt to fix explosive ignition in the boiler (in the end this wasn’t necessary as it was exacerbated by PCB problems)

The whole thing was a real pain, and took me every weekend and most evenings from November to end of February.

During this whole time the only heating we had were a couple of small electric heaters and the coal fireplace in the hall.  Waking up and seeing your breath every day was invigorating for me, but Eli wasn’t quite as happy with it.

The system is now properly fixed, thanks to some great help from Mischa Bitter (I built him a website in thanks for his work).

Without a photo I wouldn't have a hope of rewiring this the same way
Without a photo I wouldn’t have a hope of rewiring this the same way

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Five top tips for fixing plumbing problems

These are some things I learned from experience over the last few weeks. My top tips for fixing plumbing problems:

1.  Get advice

Advice from family or a friend is ideal, but a close second is to use forums.  The online forums such as http://www.diynot.com/forums/ and http://www.ukplumbersforums.co.uk/ are full of helpful people that will answer your queries.

When posting on a forum remember to provide as much info as you can.  If you post something that says “my heating is not working.  What’s wrong with it” then don’t expect much help.  At least describe it as much as you can.  Is it just radiators?  Was it working before.  Do you have a combi or conventional boiler.  New or old. etc.

2.  Take photos before you start

Once you’ve taken the pipes apart, or especially if you have done some rewiring, you may think you’ll remember how it goes back together – but don’t risk it.  One of my top tips for fixing plumbing problems is to take a photo on your mobile before you start.

3.  Plan the order

If you need to fix a leak, and repair a valve, and also clean a radiator then those things all need the system to be drained.  So do them all in one go.  There’s nothing worse than refilling the system, bleeding all the radiators, adding in the chemical inhibitors that you’ve just bought, and then you realize there’s a leak and you have to start again.

4.  Use a helper

Any job is easier with a helper.  Plumbing involves holding parts and undoing things often with very little room around you.  Having someone to pass you tools or even just hold the light is a huge help

5.  Plan for future maintenance!

In everything you do, think about the next time.  If you’re adding a valve, angle it so you can reach it easily when other pipes go in.  If you’re cutting a pipe anyway, then add a simple stop valve / isolator valve in.  It will cost you a pound or two more but can be save so much time in future.

Unfortunately in my house the previous plumber didn’t do any of this.  Even the feed tank in the roof was totally boxed in by a new water tank, so a simple job of cleaning it out took over two hours and involved cutting three pipes, lots of muscle power and some extreme contortion.  At one point I was seriously considering knocking down a wall to get to it – though in the end I just about managed to do it without any major damage.

Finding and fixing damp problems in the house

Nothing damages a house more than water, whether it’s a leaking roof, a slow dripping pipe, or rising damp from the subsoil.

Water is the enemy of a sound house, so number one on the list of jobs when we moved in was fixing damp problems.

In our case when we moved in there were no obvious leaks, and nothing highlighted by the survey, but in living there some sources of damp soon became obvious.

Damp patch behind blocked guttering is clearly visible
Damp patch behind blocked guttering is clearly visible

The first surprise was coming down to the lounge one day and noticing the papers I’d left sitting on the sofa were wet through.  Looking up there was a hairline crack in the ceiling and water slowly dripping through.  Straight above is a small ensuite shower room so that was the obvious culprit.

I couldn’t see any problem other than a tiny hole in the waterproof mastic on the shower room floor, but bought a tube of white silicone, removed the old silicone and did the new one.  Job done and problem fixed.

Before fixing damp problems elsewhere we bought a dehumidifier.  Getting one of these is definitely a “cheat” and is no substitute for tackling the source of the damp.  But all the same the humidifier was amazing.  I couldn’t believe how much water it captured every day.

The de-humidifier we bought was a De Longhi (see reviews on Amazon) and works really really well.  It dried out the basement in less than a week, removing 5-10 litres of water a day from the air.  Since then we’ve moved it around the house to any room that feels a bit musty or has condensation on windows.  Strongly recommended!

Tell tale signs of a leak
Tell tale signs of a leak

Apart from the leaks we have worked through a whole number of other sources, and each one was quickly fixed.  The only one we needed help with was the guttering, as the roof was just too high for our ladder to reach.

The results have been amazing.  All the damp problems we had are now gone, and each was such a simple fix once found.

So, so far the damp problems have been tackled by:

  1. Fixing small leaks like the one in the shower tray
  2. Plugging the hole in the drain that let water into basement
  3. Replacing several stop cocks and gate valves on the plumbing
  4. Removing and re-tightening radiator valves that had become leaky
  5. Cleaning and unblocking the guttering
  6. Cleaning the air bricks under the house
  7. Removing old wood and newspapers from the damp crawl space
  8. Using a dehumidifier!

If you have any damp problems start with working through each possibility.  The list above is a good place to start.

Damp crawl space – Fixing damp under the floorboards

When you living in an older house damp is a constant threat to be kept at bay.

We’d already spent a couple of weekends fixing damp problems in the house, and I was really happy with the results.    The house has been drying out nicely, and the constant wet patches in the basement have now disappeared.

However, while checking for leaks in pipes under the lounge (there were none) a few weeks ago I noticed how damp the subsoil under there was.

A damp crawl space (the space under the floorboards) is a really common problem, but not one to ignore.

Moving rubble to avoid breaching the damp course
Moving rubble to avoid breaching the damp course

Woodworm thrives on humidity.  Anything under 70% humidity and woodworm won’t get started.  Dropping the humidity just a little lower, to around 60-65% will stop even existing woodworm from continuing to spread.  This is why modern houses, with central heating, rarely suffer from the woodworm that used to be such a threat to older houses.

First thing to do to sort out a damp crawl space is address the source of the problem.

Damp
Damp

In general damp under the floorboards can only be caused by one of three things:

1.  Poor sub-floor ventilation

2.  Rising damp from the soil

3.  Water entering from above, for example a leaking water pipe or drain.

The first of these I tackled was the easiest.  Ventilation is provided by air bricks.  These are really important, but some people seem to want to cover them up to stop cold air getting in.  Bad idea.

In our case the air bricks at the back of the house were in place, but were so clogged up with dirt, dust and old paint that no air could get in.  I chipped off all the old paint, and the iron underneath was so fragile and rusted that it disintegrated.  I’ll need to replace the brick, but for now at least they let air in.

Eli clearing under floor
Eli clearing under floor

To get air movement you  need air bricks on both sides, so I checked the front.  From outside these ones looked fine.  Clear and clean.  However as soon as I go under the house I saw the bricks were covered by the glass-fibre insulation that had been fastened under the floorboards.  Easy job.  Done.

Freeing up the air bricks alone has made a good difference.  Already the air has lost its musty smell and the ground looks drier.

But to really speed up the drying out the next job was to clear out some of the  old rubble, building waste, soil and general detritus that had been dumped under the house over the last 100 years.

All this old abandoned rubbish attracts and holds water, so needs to go.

So, this weekend, Eli and I armed with trowels, dust masks and buckets, cleared out all the old muck.  Not a pleasant job.  There was very little space to work and lots of sharp old nails and stones to get in the way.   But, very satisfying to complete.

Above are some pictures of the work.  I’m pretty confident that the space will now dry out nicely.  And just to monitor it I’ve installed a remote humidity meter so I can monitor it over time.

Piles of damp soil in the crawl space
Piles of damp soil in the crawl space

Funding house redecoration by taking on a lodger

With the whole house needing redecorating, new carpets and a host of other work it is hard to know where to start.

Finding the time and money to complete the work has been a bigger problem than we had anticipated.  Once the most urgent work is completed there is barely any time left to do the little things that make a house feel homely, like adding soft furnishings and paintings.

After four months the only furniture in our lounge is a manky old sofa-bed, and half the boxes are still unpacked.

So a few weeks ago we made a decision; to take on a lodger and use the money to accelerate the work we want to do.

It wasn’t easy to decide on having a stranger share the house.  Who would we pick?  Would we feel like we were back in a house-share again.

The decision was made simpler by the fact that we have a loft room with ensuite that we rarely use.

People take on lodgers for different reasons.  For some the kids have flown the nest and they want to have the company or security of someone in the house.  For others they want someone similar to them to chat to and go to the pub with.

For us, we really just wanted someone clean and tidy, who wouldn’t intrude on our life too much.  As a result we made the room almost self contained.  Installed a TV, put in a desk, chair and light and supplied clean sheets and towels.

The other decision we made was to choose a Monday to Friday lodger.  We specified this in the advert.  It means the lodger has to vacate the room every weekend so we can use it for family and friends.

Having a Monday to Friday lodger also means that at the weekends the whole house is ours again.  Given that we all work all week that means we really don’t feel like we’ve compromised on having our own house at all.

If you’re looking for a little extra cash for a spare room then taking on a lodger is a simple and easy way to do it.  Most of the money you get is tax free, under the government’s rent a room scheme.  And unlike with tenants, lodgers don’t have property rights so you can change your mind if you need to.

Next step was doing up the room.   More on that next week…

Starting to do up the house – a project per month

Since moving in we have wanted to get the house exactly how we wanted it.

But with so many jobs to do we had to prioritize.

First we are concentrating on the “must-do” structural work. Work that we have to do to keep the house from being damaged. That includes clearing blocked gutters and treating the woodworm on the ground floor.

Then we are tackling the basic comforts, like getting the TV working and at least one sofa.

After that it’s everything else.  And there is so much to do.

Every month we try and set aside enough cash to do at least one major job or major purchase.   We aim to do at least one significant job each and every month, and then fit in everything else around it.

See our list of projects and remaining jobs at the Project list for the first 6 months.

 

Learning how to cut a hedge

Well it is now almost three months since moving in, and still most of my things are in boxes stacked in the hallway.

With a few days off work and finally some time to start on the most urgent jobs I’ve decided to tackle the overgrown garden hedge.

The hedge, like the rest of the garden, was already massively overgrown when we moved in, but tackling it meant saving to get a hedge cutter.  No way I was going to do this one by hand.

With a hedge trimmer I’m glad to say it really wasn’t too bad a job.  The hardest part was reaching the top, so for that I used a ladder and slowly inched it along bit by bit.

The important thing is in trimming a hedge to taper it slightly, so it is wider at the base and narrower at the top.  That lets the sunlight reach the whole hedge so it is nice and even.

Being brutal was hard.  I’ve had to really take it back quite a long way because it had just grown too much.  Unfortunately that means there are now lots of bare patches.  Will it regrow?  Time will tell.  Ideally I would have done this earlier in August so there was time for new leaves to develop before winter.

On cutting the hedge I discovered some large bare patches filled with ivy and other creepers.  I suspect the growth of these is blocking the sun to parts of the hedge and stopping it growing in places – so the ivy had to go.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the results.

Before:

Before before before

 

And After

after after after