Alright – Let’s Talk About the House Project

Last year we started working on our DIY house project and now we’re recouping our funds down in McMurdo because the well tapped us dry. We didn’t travel last season because we had aspirations to get back to our land and begin work on the preliminary infrastructure. We purchased a mid-sized travel trailer so we would have something to live in. It was reminiscent of living on our boat, only much more accommodating. For instance, we have a full sized bed in the trailer, a fridge and even a shower (oh la la). Ah, the lap of luxury!

When we first arrived at our property, we opened the makeshift gate to drive the trailer in and noticed two horses in the distance galloping towards us.

They had seen the path to freedom and were racing towards the open gate – we barely corralled them in before they broke free. We hadn’t expected there to be horses on the land. When we had purchased it six months earlier there had been two horses living on it and we had informed the previous property owner it was fine for them to stay on it until we returned, considering it was going to be vacant anyway. We hadn’t expected that the horses would still be there upon our return, and naturally, the owners were out of town and out of reach.

So we set the trailer up amidst curious and uncooperative equines. They were friendly enough, especially once I began sporting carrots in my pockets. Though we realized they were quick to make a run the instant the gate opened (one of them did manage to get out once, apparently he just wanted to nibble on the grass just out of reach of the gate and was satisfied once his point was made).

They chewed up some of our water jugs…

Rubbed their rears on the corner of the trailer shaking us around and occasionally we’d pull the blinds up and have a horse staring in, waiting for morning carrots and a scratch.They were fun though and when their owner finally returned a week later and took them away, I missed their company.

The horses had lived on the land for quite awhile, leaving behind years worth of manure. While it was unsightly, we were 100% okay with this knowing that it would produce good soil…at least it would produce good soil once we raked and cultivated it. So we immediately got to work on nearly six acres; this was all old fashioned manual labor, mind you, just blisters and backaches. There were some areas the horses really liked pooping; in these areas the compressed and flattened manure was over ten inches thick! You should see the gigantic pile of manure that we accumulated!

We tended to the pile all summer, turning it and composting it.

It became the envy of the neighborhood I think, because neighbors would come over and ask for loads of it for their garden. We gladly shared the wealth. If only wealth was measured in manure, we’d be living a life of ease.

We didn’t have any power on the land so we had to run a generator to charge the batteries in the trailer. The first few days we went without any power, having discovered that one of the fuses was blown. Our first few days were cold and dark. Once we were able to replace the fuses, life got much more comfortable. We’d usually run the genny for a bit in the morning to recharge for the day. We’re pretty meager when it comes to power consumption, so this was typically enough to keep us covered for a 24-hour period. Dave had made the wise decision to pick up a small portable propane heater. We cracked a couple vents and kept toasty warm inside without sucking the batteries dry using the built in heater.

DIY house project lesson one – Living in a trailer without power and water hookups was a part-time job in itself.

We were regularly having to drive one hour to town to get gas for the genny, or refill propane tanks for the stove and heater. There was also the issue of getting water and dumping sewage. The water and sewage needed to be attended to regularly. We had purchased a portable, external sewage tank so we could just transfer all the goods from the trailer and drive it to the nearby trailer dump hookup. All these regular chores made the idea of power and water all the more alluring…

We decided the first part of our DIY house project was to acquire a shed to store our tools and figured we’d get better quality for the price if we just built it ourselves. So we purchased all the materials and had everything delivered to our property a couple days later. The day after our materials arrived, it began to snow and it continued to snow for days – almost four feet of snow on the ground later, our shed efforts were thwarted by Mother Nature. We’re no stranger to her twisted humor. We had to wait two weeks for the snow to melt so we could finally begin construction on the shed.

DIY House Project
Let’s shovel some snow

We discovered the ground was too wet and soft for any projects that involved trenching, which was everything else: installing power and septic, digging for the well and having the county perform the perc test. All of these tasks would have to wait until the soil was dry enough, which ended up taking another couple weeks.

When we finally started trenching for power for our DIY house project, my genius idea was that we should dig the trench ourselves; it’d be a great way to get back into shape, spend some time outdoors putting color in our skin and save us money. Dave, I don’t know why you let me get away with these kinds of ridiculous ideas…

We had determined that we didn’t want to put a telephone pole in plain sight so we had to connect the power to a pole that is 300 feet from the house. I’m sure some people are mocking me for this – especially when considering us digging the trench by hand, rightfully so. We were actually making descent progress until we hit a section of granite.

We foolishly even tried to break this up by hand, using a pick axe and digging bar. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching Dave swing the axe around…kind of worth the oversight. Finally, we caved after digging for over two weeks. We saw that we weren’t making the progress needed to complete this task in a reasonable time frame. So we rented a mini-excavator and made short work of the 250 ft left. Way more fun than digging by hand!

Right about this time, it started to rain. It rained for almost two weeks straight, saturating the ground once again and leaving us out of work for a month. Our trench filled with water due to the water table raising so much. And…we were left waiting (again) for the earth to soak up all the water so we could continue working.

Long story short, the weather put about two months worth of delays onto our summer projects. Moral of the story, don’t bet on Mother Nature – she’s more shiesty than a Blackjack dealer in Vegas.

Here’s a little side project we did while we waited for the soil to dry…

DIY fire pit
Our DIY fire pit!
DIY fire pit
Our DIY fire pit!

In an attempt to do things the best that they can be done, we decided to dig the trench deeper than the required 24” so most of it is around 30” with some sections at 36”. After calculating for voltage drop we also decided to go with aluminum 350 kcmil quadplex direct burial cable to provide power to the future 200 amp service, but then sleeved it in PVC to help prevent our friendly ground critters from biting into it someday in the future. At this point we tapped onto it with insulated Polaris Lugs at the shed for our 100 amp temporary panel and will continue the rest of the 150 feet to the house when we make it back. These are Dave’s words. Half of what is said here makes no sense to me.

All the while, we’re also making plans to have the well drilled.

Another fun fact: we have no cell service on our land and, naturally, no internet either. This made for a lot more trips to town in order to find a café so we could do some internet research on companies and materials, contacting the county for permits and to schedule inspections.

The company we hired to drill the well showed up to determine where to drill. They asked if we were interested in having it witched. Yeah..that’s okay, we’ll just go with your best educated guess. Psshh, witching, I laugh at you! So, they picked a spot they felt would work that would also prevent the well head from getting damaged in the future. They scheduled to come later to begin drilling once the permit had been approved.

The day they arrived with their equipment and truck, we had a friend from the ice visiting with us for a couple days. It was a thrilling moment for us – finally, we’d have a well drilled on the land. For some reason, this made the whole prospect of the house-to-be so much more tangible, so close we could nearly taste it. We enthusiastically watched the drilling, minute by minute, turning to hour by hour…wondering when we would hit water.

DIY home build
Drilling for the well.

Here’s how it went down; they did hit water, they even called it a ‘gusher’ at 23 ft.

Though, as required by law the well has to be at least 40 ft. below the surface. This was fine by us, the idea of a well this close to the ground has so many negative implications. They like to have a flow rate of at least 6-9 gallons per hour before they’re willing to consider it to be a viable source. Our neighbor’s wells are drilled down to 150ft – 250 ft. They estimated the cost of our well based on this fact, assuming our well would likely be around the same depth. Murphy’s Law threw us a curveball on this one. They had drilled to 400 ft. and hadn’t yet hit a fracture good enough to produce a reliable amount of water.

What did that mean? DIY house project lesson 2 – keep throwing money at it until it goes away.

It meant we had a few costly options to consider. 1. Keep drilling, worst option. The odds of hitting water would get slimmer and the complexity of pumping the water to the surface would be greater. 2. Pick a different spot to start the process all over again. Drill in a new area with hopes that we get lucky. This would also be the most expensive option, with the chance of doubling our bill. 3. Frack.

Normally, I wouldn’t care to divulge financial details on the blog but in this case it’s worth it. Plus, it might help some other poor soul out there who finds themselves in our shoes. The original cost of the well was estimated to be around $15K, based on a depth projected to be around 250 ft. This cost also included the drilling and the casing. After having drilled for nearly 400 ft., at approximately $25 a foot (including the well casing) we now had a bill that was almost twice the original estimate and no water to show for it.

Our morning had started out so optimistic! We were absolutely high on life and excited about the prospect of the future for our little DIY house project! By the time the second day came to an end, we felt wrung out, emotionally wracked and somewhat destitute.

After some investigating on the process of fracking for a well, we opted to go this route.

To be clear, fracking for a well is a completely different ballpark from fracking for oil. There are no chemicals involved, it doesn’t go to nearly the same damaging depth that oil fracking does and doesn’t have the same environmental implications. So please, no anti-fracking comments. We’re both environmentally conscientious, probably more than most people, and would not have gone forward with this without having done our research.

I want to make clear that in no way do we hold the company who drilled for us responsible. In fact, we’d highly recommend them. They were reliable, friendly, helpful and honest. This is just the name of the game when it comes to drilling. It’s not an exact science and there are no guarantees. C’est la vie.

I can’t tell you how many people said to us, “You should have witched.”

Fair warning, the next person to say that to me might get slugged. I see the humor in it, really – but consider yourself warned.

The gentleman who was to do the fracking was a very busy man and wasn’t available until after we’d have to leave for the ice. We’d have to wait for water until we were back down in McMurdo. Sigh. For the rest of the summer, our fuzzy Ground squirrel neighbors enjoyed moving into the casings. It became Ground squirrel manor – we couldn’t keep the little dudes away. Sometimes we’d have to move a few and would need to dump out a handful of Ground squirrels by gently sliding them out. Every now and then we’d get a fighter who refused to exit his claimed docile so we’d have to coax him out with treats.

We finished the power just in time to head back down for another season on the ice. We enjoyed plugging the trailer in for a solid week – ah, life is good when you own land.

Just as predicted, the freshly raked and tended land soaked up the much needed rain and all the nutrients from the broken down manure and gave us a magnificent flower display all summer long. We had a field full of wild orchids and roses, poppies, mushrooms, Black-Eyed Susans, columbines, Gaillardias, I could go on! We left the land looking better than when we arrived. It had been trampled and chomped on for so many years by those goofy horses, it ached to come back to life.

I can’t wait to return to our DIY house project. I hope the seasons are treating it well, along with all of our wildlife that we’re sharing the space with.

To replenish our cash, we’re currently in McMurdo again. This time, we’re spending a year on the ice – relishing our first winter. Additionally, we’ve already signed up for another summer to help recoup the loss of money from the well. Next blog update will show a glimpse of a winter in Antarctica.

4 comments

  1. Great blog ! Thank you for this detailed update. Colorado does have many challenges ! Lots of luck !

  2. Awesome, I love reading this. Nice to hear what you two were up to during that summer. Keep stories coming!

  3. Lovely to “catch up” by reading the blog. Thanks for the share. I was almost lured to the romance of land living through your words …and a dolphin popped up next to our boat. Such a perfect reminder that I’m where I’m meant to be while loving knowing you’re where you are too. Hugs & Kisses from Hilary & Charles aboard S/V Ship O’ Fools!

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