Information about design and construction of earth sheltered homes and a journal of my own progress

Running Septic Lines


Posted on May 4, 2016 by

We needed to hook up the septic side lines to run from the bedrooms and garage to the main central line coming from under the basement.  The original plan had these running under the house, but the plumber suggested that it would be much easier to run the line outside the house completely…  At some later point, we also decided to run the bedroom electrical along this outside line.  Of course, this all required some digging.  Gota love that nice soft sand.

The Video

Some details

The Stack:

The bedroom septic line had a further run and needed to be below frost depth, so it connected at a lower point on the stack.  Then I connected the garage line at a higher point.  However, I thought it would be a good idea to slope it more and get deeper than I had to…  Some plumbers say that you shouldn’t slope too much because the solids and liquids will separate and you will have clogging problems.  I have done my research and determined that was not true (just a plumbers wives’ tale) so I didn’t mind sloping it more.  However, after making the stack connection with the Y-pipe shown in the video, I decided that I didn’t like the angle of the connection.  Basically, these pipes are designed to connect at closer to perpendicular or maybe 5 degrees off.  My original connection was maybe 20 degrees off.  It was probably sealed, but it didn’t look great and I didn’t want to take any chances.  I ended up cutting off that Y-connection and extending the stack so i could connect at a higher point with less slope.

The Shortcut:

The plumbing and the electrical in the bedroom wing both connect in the laundry room, very close to eachother so they can exit from the same hole and follow the same trench…  However, I didn’t measure conservatively enough and although the electrical cables could reach the panel, I was worried about being a few inches short of making final connections, so we ended up digging a short cut trench for the electrical cables. At least we could still re-use about 2/3rds of the trench.

The Electrical cables:

Earlier, I had experimented with other kinds of cable, running thru conduit. This time I was using cable that was certified to be directly buried.  It was still in conduit where it came out of the garage (because it is not certified to be encased in concrete and because I didn’t want a potential leak above the floor anyway), but then came out of the conduit below the footings level.  I basically wired it according to above ground code with the required depth below the footing and bushings, etc. After burial, it will only further exceed code.


Just some pics…

Front Steel Columns


Posted on April 28, 2016 by

In this segment, we mark and place the front columns and the curved I-beams that form the framework for the entry and green house sections.  Most of the time-lapse footage was lost some how, but I did have some pics…

The video

Surplus Steel

I bought the columns from the surplus steel place in my area.  The cost was low enough that I didn’t mind a few imperfections.  No regrets and I will probably do it again.  I did put tape over the holes to keep wasps from moving in.

Trouble with the Forks

When I bought the skid steer, the guy who sold it to me said he also had a beat up set of old forks that I could have for 200$.  New forks cost 3 or 4 times as much, so I told him to send those with the skid steer even though I hadn’t actually seen them.  At first, I just noticed that the back board was a bit damaged.  After using them, I also noticed that the two forks were actually different thickness (miss-matched set) and had bent slightly differently and I was having trouble holding things level.

We didn’t worry about the back board, but my father and I fixed the “uneven” issue with some torches (and lots of patience) to heat up one of the forks so we could bend it to match the other.

But all that time, I was using the forks to lift heavy things, so I didn’t notice the 3rd issue…  When you apply loads the other way (pushing down on the forks), the locking mechanism is supposed to hold them in place.  However, the top ledge that holds the locking mechanism in place had been slightly stretched upward and increased the tolerance by maybe 1/4th of an inch, and that was enough for the mechanism to actually detach when the load was pushed the other way.

While setting the second I-beam, The beam got hooked on the bent back shield and wouldn’t let me lower the forks.  Since this flipped the load direction, it also shifted the locking mechanism down 1/4th inch relative to the forks and they detached from that top edge.

With the load direction reversed, the forks detached from the skidsteer

Those Forks are a few hundred pounds of heavy steel, so rather than just let them fall off and possibly damage something on the way down, we strapped them to the quick attach mechanism on the skid steer so we could still lower them carefully.

The final fix was to weld 2 pieces of angle iron across the top of the quick attach mechanism to remove the gap so it won’t be unlocked by a reverse load.

Final view. There will be windows under most of those Ibeams and a Front door under the left most one. Earth covered in grass, etc. will be above.

Putting up Stucco with the Mortar Sprayer


Posted on April 24, 2016 by

I needed to mount an electrical panel in the mechanical room in the basement.  But first, I needed to stucco those walls.  The walls were really too rough to use metal tools (the stucco just falls off between the lumps and tool) and packing it by hand was too slow.  After trying both, we decided to spend the money to buy a Mortar Sprayer from Tool Crete.

Here is the video

Enough Air?

These mortar sprayers use air pressure to blast wet concrete/stucco/mortar from the bottom of the hopper on to the wall, so obviously having enough air is critical.  For maximum flow, I would need a decent air compressor and high flow fittings and hoses, but without spending too much money.

My little pancake compressor, with its quarter inch fittings, definitely wasn’t going to be sufficient. Larger compressors can get expensive and the mortar sprayer was expensive enough on its own. Fortunately, my father let me have his old compressor.  He must have had that thing for about 30 years and I remember hating it as a child… Not just because it was annoyingly loud, but because he would sometimes ask me to turn it on or off and the switch was strangely placed on the inside and I would have to reach blindly under the bench over the electrical connections, between the motor and compressor and way too close to the spinning belt that connected them…  Regardless of my past (totally reasonable) fears, I was quite happy to get it now.

Next, I would need to find the right fittings.  Larger is better, so I was looking for 1/2 inch fittings. These are not available at any hardware stores near me, so I was checking out places like Grainger industrial supply and they were pricey.  Fortunately, I didn’t get around to buying anything before I realized that the compressor outlet was only 3/8ths of an inch.  There is no sense in having larger connections downstream of a smaller one, so the compressor outlet diameter limited my max fitting size to 3/8ths inch. I found that Home Depot had plenty in stock and they were much more affordable than the 1/2 inch ones.  My fathers old hoses were also 3/8ths, but with 1/4 inch fittings, so, I just swapped out all the fittings.

The last hurdle was the 220 volts required.  My generator has a 220 plug, but it couldn’t keep up with the demand I expected from the compressor.  This meant I needed to wire in a 220 plug and make up a long enough extension chord. At least that was pretty straight forward. I also had to swap out the plug on the compressor to match. While rewiring the generator, I discovered that the original wiring didn’t have a properly connected ground, somewhat further justifying my childhood fears.

Once that was all done, I bought the stucco and waited for a rainy day.  No sense wasting a good sunny day down in the basement.

Mortar Sprayer Tips

I found the mortar sprayer pretty easy to use, and you would probably figure these things out yourself if you picked one up, but I will write them down anyway.

1) It is clearly designed to scoop from a wheelbarrow, so you might as well just mix the stucco right in the wheelbarrow.  I do have a paddle mixer (attaches to my drill), and a barrel mixer, but it just seemed easier to do it directly with a hoe in a wheelbarrow.  Proper “mixing hoes” have two big holes in the blade to help reduce drag and improve the mixing, but the light weight stucco mixed easily with a standard garden hoe.

2) Mix consistency is important.  If the mix is too thick it doesn’t slide down the hopper to where the air nozzles are.  I found I could sometimes shake it down, but that was tiring.  On the other extreme, if the mix is too thin, it slides down the hopper and some of it starts to drain out the holes before you can shoot it on the wall.  With a little trial and error, we worked out a water ratio and mixing process that worked pretty well for our conditions.

3) Ladder work is sometimes required.  The hopper empties quickly and climbing up and down the ladder with the mortar sprayer and hose is a bit tiring.  We found it worked best to stay up on the ladder and pass the sprayer down to someone who could scoop it and pass it back up.

Shooting the Scratch Coat onto the wall

Shooting the Scratch Coat onto the wall

4) The scoop action is easy if the mortar is all piled in the right place in the wheelbarrow, but near the end of each load, we found it saved time if the second man used a trowel to help push the mortar from the corners into the “scoop zone” while the sprayer was shooting onto the wall.

5) The sprayer does make a bit of a mess and things are much easier to clean up if you can put down some plastic, etc.  In the video, you can see I even covered the water pressure tank in a garbage bag.

6) After getting the mortar up and smoothing it off (with a tool or by hand), you should let it set for several hours (depending on environmental factors) and then come back with a grout sponge when it feels pretty stiff.  These are tougher than a regular sponge and you can find these in the tile section of the hardware store.  I used a bucket of water to keep in wet and wiped down the walls to smooth them significantly.  The difference between the sponge smoothed walls and the walls I didn’t smooth is pretty dramatic.  I am just glad that I will be putting a lot of duct work, etc. in front of the rougher walls.


A gallery of pics.


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