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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 12, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Stamped Concrete, Paying for Rain

I have learned, over the years, that the best time to have major projects done on your house is when you're not in it.

So when we needed our driveway replaced (it had gradually been turning into gravel over the 16 years we've lived in this house), we knew the best time to lose all access to our garage was when we didn't want it. In other words, while we were at the beach.

This is not a good idea, however, unless you have a contractor whom you can absolutely trust to make sure the job is done right. And by "right" I don't just mean "up to professional standards." I mean your contractor has to understand so perfectly how you want things to end up that you don't have to be there every day to make sure somebody doesn't inadvertently make a mistake you have to live with for the next few decades.

Tim Davis, of Tim Davis Home Improvement, is exactly that contractor. We have been working with him now almost as long as we've had our house, and he has proven over and over again that he cares more, and knows more, about the results we want than we do! I don't know how he could do a better job even if it were his own house.

First, he knows everybody, so we don't have to find subcontractors ourselves. When we decided on stamped concrete, Tim called on Preston and Son Concrete Contractors, Inc. But not before driving around Greensboro and inspecting work they've done on other people's houses.

When they came over, we described what we needed, and then Tim and the Prestons walked over everything with us, making counter suggestions. They helped us avoid aesthetic mistakes, but they also listened carefully to what we wanted to accomplish and made sure that everything would work as we wanted it to.

We decided to make the driveway into two smooth lanes, with stamped concrete giving the impression of stonework as trim between the lanes and down both sides. This requires two separate pours of the concrete, since the stamped concrete has one color added to it in the initial pour and then another over the surface to give it visual texture.

To look good, this concrete treatment requires true artisans to do the work. Mistakes can happen quickly, but they last forever.

And we've had our experience with very bad concrete contractors. When we first moved into our house, we knew we needed more parking next to the house, and I hate having cars parked in the driveway because that makes the garage unusable. So we hired contractors to pour a parking pad.

This was before Tim Davis was supervising all our projects, so we had no idea what to watch for. They poured it all in one continuous pad, and then they were gone.

Within a year the entire surface had corroded away and it was rough and stony. It did last, in that condition -- ugly as sin, but at least we didn't have to park cars in the mud.

That isn't the whole story. The main driveway was the original one poured when the house was built. It, too, had aged badly -- though not as quickly as the parking pad!

It had been poured in two sections, each approximately twenty feet square. But over time, cracks had appeared, dividing each half into halves, and it was a constant effort to keep weeds from growing in them. And the surface had begun crumbling a few years ago. Pretty soon it was going to look like ruins in a war zone.

So when Preston and Son came over to see our situation and make their bid, they pointed out that concrete should never be poured in sections that large. Each slab should be no more than ten feet in every direction. In other words, where our driveway had been poured as two slabs, we should have had eight.

And to demonstrate the truth of their point, our driveway had developed cracks at about those ten-foot intervals, and none in between. Ten feet is not just a good practice, it's a law of nature! Concrete will have a break every ten feet, so if you want it to look nice, build it that way in the first place!

While we were gone on vacation, everything happened as planned. Tim Davis took care of removing the trees and bushes that would interfere with the pour; he was there with the Prestons every day, making sure that the plan was followed. When they discovered that our driveway was not straight -- it angled oh so very slightly in order to avoid a storm drain between our driveway and mailbox -- Tim called us to make sure their solution was acceptable to us.

When we got home, we could not have been happier. We still had a week of not using the garage, because the Prestons insist that no major weight (i.e., cars or trucks) be put on the concrete until it has cured for seven days. But that was a small price to pay, considering how beautiful it looked

We used concrete textures from Brickform -- the London Cobble pattern. And we deliberately chose very muted colors. This is not Brazil, where bright-colored tilework everywhere is the norm. I loved that look when I lived there, but bright colors would not have fit in with our neighborhood.

The idea of the stamped concrete is for it to be aesthetically pleasing. We're not trying to fool anybody into thinking we have stonework. I suspect that real stonework would have been way too expensive for our budget, and would not have lasted as long, as a continuous surface, as this concrete will.

In fact, we had previously gotten bids for doing the driveway in stone, and the price was double that of the stamped concrete. So not only do I get the pleasure of having a very attractive driveway (for the first time in fifteen years!), I also get the addition pleasure of knowing that I saved the equivalent of a year of tuition and housing and meals for a student at the university where I teach!

We have learned our lesson about hiring contractors without knowing much about them. Not that we haven't made mistakes even after the original concrete pad disaster, but what homeowner who embarks on improvements doesn't have a few horror stories?

The remodeler who puts your advance money for materials up his nose as cocaine; the yard guy who takes your money for bringing in new soil for the front yard and the next you hear about him is in the public notices in the paper, where they tell you how long his sentence for possession and sale of narcotics will be.

Over time, you do find a precious list of contractors you can trust. It's one of the reasons why we can never move away from Greensboro. We now have excellent people doing yard service, pond maintenance, irrigation, plumbing, electrical, television, and even design and drafting.

And, of course, we have Tim Davis to make sure everything works together.


During the drought, I hated watching my plants die. There had been rainstorms, they just didn't happen often enough or bring enough water to refill our reservoirs. I kept thinking about how much water fell on our roof, only to drain away down the spouts and into the ground.

The obvious solution is: Rain barrels!

I had never actually seen a rain barrel, of course. I grew up in suburbia! But I knew they existed, mostly because my mother loved to sing the old song about children quarreling:

I don't wanna play in your yard.

I don't like you anymore!

You'll be sorry when you see me

Sliding down our cellar door!

You can't holler down our rain barrel!

You can't climb our apple tree!

I don't wanna play in your yard

If you won't be good to me.

I had lived in several older neighborhoods with those slanting cellar doors leaning up against the house, so I knew what that was about (though they were always so paint-peely and splintery that no way would I risk my backside sliding down them!). The rain barrels, though. I had to ask my parents what those even were.

Then, a few years later, reading some interesting books about self-sufficiency, rain barrels came up again. Lots of advice about how to make the water drinkable, so you were no longer completely dependent on city water.

Well, that's an excellent idea, but in truth I like civilization and its benefits. City drinking water gets purified in reliable ways that don't depend on me to remember what to do at each step. I just pay a bill and turn the faucet. I think that's an excellent system, especially now that we've learned from the Romans' mistake and don't make our pipes out of nice, pliable, human-sterilizing lead.

However, I could see a real use for rain barrels to water our potted plants. Plants in pots have nowhere to turn in a drought. They can't grow their roots deeper in order to find hidden ground water. When draconian water restrictions are in place, they wilt, they die.

So when I saw that Gardener's Supply Company, my favorite online source for cool gardening stuff, was offering a nice selection of rain barrels, I decided on their "flat-back" rain barrel. It's made of plastic but looks nice, it holds fifty gallons, and because it's not completely round, but is flat across part of the back, it sits up closer against the house and doesn't intrude so much into the yard.

Because our house is L-shaped -- it's a corner lot, and our garage faces the other street -- we actually have six locations where downspouts reach the ground. We had never tried to measure which ones carried the most water, but we made our guess and bought two rain barrels for what we thought would be the best spots.

I made a deal with my brother-in-law, who is has good skills and very high standards of workmanship. I would get him a couple of rain barrels if he would install mine. We both think it was a great deal. But he opted for a different model of rain barrel from Gardeners Supply -- and I'm not going to swear mine is somehow the better choice. I just happen to like it.

The barrel has a screen on top so you don't get a lot of gunk coming down into it. You have to cut off your downspout and then get a twisty portion to bend to exactly where you want it to be, so it can pour down onto the screen. (Other models have the downspout join in an airtight connection, but I don't feel any particular need for that extra complication.)

My brother-in-law set the rain barrels up on thin concrete blocks. We soon learned that you want another block or stone or bricks or cinderblock in front of the rainbarrel's faucet, so you can set down a watering can and walk away and do something else. The water comes out of the rain barrel without benefit of the pressure that comes from having a tall water tower, so it can be a slow trickle into the can.

And since the faucet is in the middle of the rain barrel, it can only let you get to half your water. So they have another drain near the bottom of the barrel, to which you can attach a hose and get the last dregs of water out.

One rain barrel was superbly placed where a couple of roofs join together, and it filled completely in the first rainstorm. That means that at least fifty gallons of water had previously been poured into the ground right by our foundation with every storm!

The other rain barrel had a lot less roof to draw from -- it took two storms to fill it.

I like the results well enough that I've ordered another barrel or two from Gardener's Supply, to catch the water from the other likeliest downspouts and get more from the roof of our house to serve the needs of our garden.

Here's a link to the rain barrel I bought from Gardener's Supply.

There's a gauge on the outside of each barrel, showing you exactly how full it is. I can't tell you yet how long they last, but I will say that it's kind of fun to use the water and know that I didn't have to pay the city for it.

Oh, but wait! I said that near my assistant, and she said, "What makes you think you don't pay the city for the rain that falls on your roof?"

"Because that would be absurd," I said. "Ludicrous. Rain falls from the sky. Why would I pay the city for that?"

She laughed -- not an evil laugh, mind you, but a rather rueful one.

Then she went to Greensboro City's website and got the facts. Here are the websites if you want full information:


The idea is, I believe, that when you put a roof on your house and a driveway and other pavement in your yard, that's water that does not get absorbed into the ground and must instead be carried away by storm drains. So you're really being charged according to how much of a burden you put on the city's storm drain system.

The trouble is that most of the water that falls on our roof has been carried into the ground by our rain gutters and downspouts. And because we live near the bottom of what used to be a bog, our yard is quickly saturated with every heavy storm, so that while our roof water goes underground, our lawn water flows over the curb and into the street.

In short, their assumptions about where the water that flows into the storm drainage system comes from are faulty. But whether we like it or not, we actually do get charged for their estimation of how much water falls on our roofs and driveways.

In other words, I've been paying the city for my roof water all these years, and only now, with the acquisition of a few rain barrels, am I starting to get my money's worth.

Then again, since my rain barrels are theoretically reducing the amount of water that can possibly reach the storm drains, shouldn't they give me a special rain-barrel discount?

Yeah, right, like that would ever happen.

The fact is, folks, you're already paying for the rain that falls from the sky onto your roof. You might as well get a rain barrel and make use of some of that water!

I don't know if the rain barrel "pays for itself." For me, the main attraction is that in a drought, I can keep my plants happy for a bit longer than otherwise. And if there were ever a dire emergency, like a polluted city water supply, I could filter and boil what's in my rain barrels. I was a Boy Scout once. Why not be prepared?

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