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Posts from the ‘Varmints’ Category

A flue fiasco

Just in time for warm weather we pulled the trigger on capping our chimneys, a project we’ve delayed for more than three years. Our house has survived two hundred seventy-something years without caps on the chimneys. When a fireplace is actively used, this is a sustainable situation. When it’s not, problems arise because critters move in.

Each spring, like clockwork, chimney swifts newly arrived from South America set up house in our living room chimney. Although there was a certain charm to hearing the plaintive chirps of the baby swifts as they were fed by their parents each evening, the knowledge that the byproducts of those feedings were accumulating above our damper was a bit off-putting.

In addition, I’d noticed a squirrel had taken a keen interest in our middle chimney, often settling atop it for long sunbaths in the late winter. More on that later.

A few weeks ago, I called the local chimney “experts” to work up an estimate. We decided to spring for durable copper caps to make this a once-and-never-again project. To sweeten the deal, we also elected to reline one of the chimneys so that we could use the living room fireplace. Although our house has 8 fireplaces (maybe 9), due to age-related deterioration of the masonry, we can’t use any of them until they’re lined properly.

My dealings with the chimney folks did not have auspicious beginnings. The first sign of trouble was when the estimator called and couldn’t figure out which chimney was which – his field technicians hadn’t relayed that information to him, even though I made a scale drawing of the roof and suggested it might be helpful for them to take it back to the office.

Later, the estimator called again to deliver the news that the liner “won’t fit” in our chimney flue.  Since this was the first mention of any difficulty despite an hours-long site visit a few days earlier, I was miffed, and asked for some time to think things through. The next morning, with no interim conversations, an estimate that included the lining of the chimney appeared in my inbox. Confused, I called the estimator back and was told that he had made arrangements with a chimney supplier to fabricate a custom oval liner that would fit neatly in our flue. Although the estimate total was stomach-churning, we went for it, anticipating the luxury of a crackling fire on crisp fall nights.

Meanwhile, my gut was screaming, “These guys are a joke.”  Silence, gut.

Fast forward to installation day. Again, inauspicious beginnings: the lead tech commenced hauling out bag after bag of pourable cement insulation that would be used to insulate the new liner, although I had specifically requested that we use a less permanent fiberglass wrap. After a long conversation, I conceded to using the insulation in the interest of moving the job along.

An hour or so later, I heard some loud banging and raced downstairs down to find the installers attempting to indelicately snake a 30 ft. long steel liner through my brand new kitchen. I screamed “STOP!” and politely explained the idiocy of what they were about to attempt. Taking matters into my own hands, I grabbed every scrap of cardboard I could find to fashion corner protectors for my newly-installed cabinets and walls. Then I helped to carefully steer the liner to the foot of the fireplace.

chimney liner

Next, the techs set up scaffolding and a winch on the roof. Once they had the liner connected to the rooftop hoist, they began slowly pulling the tube up the chimney. For the first fifteen feet or so, it was like a “hotdog down a hallway”, as they say. And then, a piercing screech as metal dragged across brick. Peering up the chimney, one of the workers in the living room yelled to his colleague on the roof, “What’s the problem?!”

A pause. “It’s stuck,” came the reply.

They weren’t kidding. The liner was wedged into place and wouldn’t budge in either direction. A variety of tools started to emerge from the crew’s supply vans. At one point, I’m fairly certain I saw someone sitting in my fireplace shoving a garden hoe up the flue. It turns out that our chimney flues twist 90 degrees halfway up. Why the chimney crew hadn’t figured this out prior to installation day, I’ll never understand. I was deliriously upset at this point, and had to excuse myself to confer with my wife.

“Send them away,” she suggested. This, unfortunately, was not an option given that half the liner was still draped across our living room floor.

The lead technician retreated to the corner for a hushed phone conversation with the owner of the company and then, channeling his inner surgeon, announced that he would have to “go in”.

“Go in?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re going to cut into the chimney from the outside to free the liner.”

The one and only ground rule I had given this company from the very first phone call was that they were not allowed to touch the exterior of the chimneys…period. The brick is historic, fragile, and held together with lime mortar, which nobody knows how to use anymore.

Those of you who know me know that I maintain a fairly even keel emotionally, but I’m certain the veins in my forehead looked like a bowl of spaghetti at hearing this news. Believing that the liner was actually stuck, I conceded to the chimney breach. But when I heard the sound of the electric grinder spinning up to speed outside, I went to the fireplace and leaned on the liner with all my might.  It budged, a little at first, then more freely. I raced outside, ordered the grinding to stop, and asked the crew to get the liner out of my house.

I called the owner of the company and scolded him, more politely than I should have, for completely botching the entire operation. He admitted their fault and fed me a bunch of nonsense about using this as a “teachable moment” for his staff.

“Neanderthals can’t be taught,” I thought.

I made it clear that I would not pay for anything related to the chimney lining and asked that they cap the chimneys and leave our house, post haste.

Two days later, a different pair of technicians showed up to cap the chimneys. I reminded them that I had seen a squirrel sitting atop the middle chimney and asked that they verify for certain that no squirrels were in the flue before installing that cap.

A few hours later, they finished up and insisted that it was impossible for a squirrel to get into the middle chimney.

The following morning, I looked out our bedroom window and, sure enough, a squirrel was frantically circling the new cap on the middle chimney, gnawing at its corners. I suspected that this was an adult female squirrel trying to access babies that she had nested in the chimney. Fearing that she would chew directly through our pricey new copper caps, I spent the better part of the morning racing up and down the roof in an attempt to scare her away. After awhile, it became clear that there were only two ways this was going to get resolved: either momma squirrel was going to get her babies back, or she was going to wreck shit.

I called several wildlife control guys who were more amused than helpful when I described the situation. The only useful piece of advice I got was the suggestion that there was only one place the baby squirrels could possibly be: on top of the damper. While Weezie monitored the premises for the psychotic momma squirrel, who had temporarily retreated to plan the second wave of her attack, I set to work trying to free the damper which was weighed down by bird crap, chunks of old bricks, and (spoiler alert) a squirrel’s nest.

It took half an hour of vacuuming and persuasion, but the damper finally popped up and revealed a couple of furry baby squirrels, very unhappy to have their morning slumber interrupted. I transferred as much of the flea-ridden, ammonia-scented nest into a cardboard box as I could and carefully tucked the babies into their new accommodations. Problem (partially) solved.

squirrel baby

Unsure of what to do next, I turned to the world’s greatest repository of completely random information, YouTube. I quickly learned that squirrel moms will relocate their babies to backup nests if their primary home is compromised. So, I needed to get the babies to a place where their mom could find them when she returned. With some scraps of wood, I fashioned a stool that would straddle the ridge of the roof and support the box-o’-squirrels, not far from where there nest had been.

squirrel box

With the box perched on the roof, I sat down to wait for momma squirrel. As dusk settled in, and squirrels began scurrying across the yard towards their nightly hideouts, my target scurried down the electrical service wire to our house, scaled the side of the chimney, and planted herself on the ridge of the roof. Clearly, she could smell her babies (it would be hard not to, those are some funky critters). After a few minutes of poking around the box, she finally found the kids, tucked them into a ball in her mouth and took off to greener pastures.

I caught momma squirrel’s initial explorations on video. You can see her sniffing around the box, clearly confident that her babies are nearby, but not yet sure where to look. I apologize for the quality – I wanted to move in for a closer view, but I didn’t want to scare her away:

Thankfully, the squirrel family seems to have adapted to their new home and hasn’t returned to our rooftop. People sometimes ask me why I’m so reluctant to hire contractors to work on the house. This whole frustrating ordeal is a great example of what can happen when you mistakenly hire someone that doesn’t care about doing a good job, which seems to be frustratingly common in the trades.

To recap, after a lot of grief, we now have:

0 working fireplaces,

1 damaged chimney,

2 fewer baby squirrels in our house,

and 3 sparkly new chimney caps.

copper chimney cap

Was all the grief worth it? Absolutely not. It’s nice to have the chimneys capped for good, but next time I hire someone, my gut gets the last word.

Until then, I’ll strive to attain the level of Zen-like chill that our dog Meg has mastered:




Ignorance is bliss

There’s a point in every renovation project when you must face the unexpected. I knew it was too good to be true when the pest control man who inspected the Ordinary House before closing pointed to a few termite-eaten boards in the library and announced, “That’s it.” A 250 year old wood house in the muggy South and that’s it, huh? Dealing with the financial strain of buying the house, I was content to believe the guy, even though my left brain was screaming, “This joker’s on the pipe!”

So, I wasn’t altogether surprised when I demolished the walls of the kitchen-to-be and discovered some suspiciously crumbly wood. Since termites don’t leave telltale signs of their presence on the surface of the timbers they’re eating, I tapped the post a few times, listening for a hollow sound.


I poked the wood with my finger – it plunged right in. Then I grabbed a corner of the post with my fist and watched as it disintegrated into powder. 

Crap. Termites.

A few gentle taps with my hammer was all it took to reduce the post to a pile of dirty cellulose. After a few moments of abject terror, with visions of collapsing houses playing in my mind’s eye, I evaluated the damage. The good news: the infestation is no longer active and was largely isolated to a diagonal brace that was only structurally critical when the existing kitchen was a freestanding structure. The bad news: in addition to the brace, the little buggers got into the back of the siding boards behind it.

termites in siding

I’m not known for my unbridled optimism, but after years of architectural training and practice, I’m conditioned to turning construction’s inevitable lemons into lemonade.

The solution to the termite damage is is to completely remove it and put in a window that’s already on our list of “someday” projects. Though the trio of windows in the kitchen-to-be admit a decent amount of light, they’re east-facing which means the room gets limited light late in the afternoon and into the evening. The termite damage is on the west wall in a spot we’d already identified as window-worthy. In addition to late-day light, an opening in this spot will give us views to the backyard.

backyard window

Didn’t realize our backyard had a Rhode Island sea view, did you? It’ll be a trick to figure out where to locate the window. That white beam in the picture continues across the wall on the other side of the post; it’s actually the ceiling beam of the kitchen, down the stairs on the other side of the door. A transom window above the beam might keep the main window from feeling awkwardly low. Clearly, I’ve got some design studies to do.

The main reason we didn’t include the window in our original plans was that I wanted to pull a building permit quickly so that we could get the kitchen project underway. Since we’re smack in the middle of the Hillsborough historic district, any change that impacts the outside of our house requires the approval of the Historic District Commission, of which I’m now a member (I hear the boos – don’t hate the player, hate the game). HDC approval requires additional documentation to be submitted in advance of a monthly meeting, and approval must be granted before a permit can be issued. Fortunately, with a building permit already in hand, I can continue working on the the kitchen interior while I prepare for the next HDC meeting.

My elementary school art teacher used to say, “mess up, fix up” as a way to encourage us to recognize the hidden opportunities in mistakes we made while working on our noodle art. Who knew I’d be putting that lesson into practice 25 years later while restoring a house?

Happy New Year!

Bugs behaving badly

If there’s one thing we don’t lack for here at the Ordinary House, it’s critters. Two of them, Meg and Louis, are invited guests. But then there are the squirrels and deer and skinks and snakes and wasps and chimney swifts – all uninvited and badly behaved. Apparently the local fauna enjoys east Hillsborough as much as we do. And now we’ve got another visitor staking a claim to this side of the ‘hood.

For the past several weeks, the stone walk from the driveway to the back door has become increasingly sticky. Tree sap, I figured. But the sticky stones got so tacky that our shoes were making a ripping sound with each footstep. Looking for the source of the gummy gunk, I peered upward and discovered that the trees above the walk are blanketed with these little buggers:

whiteflies on leaves

If I was a betting man, I’d say we’ve got whiteflies.  And they’re dripping a sea of honeydew, a word that I formerly associated with tasty white melons, not insect excretion. The stuff is seriously sugary, but might be tolerable if it didn’t provide a breeding ground for black soot mold, a layer of which now coats every plant and horizontal surface of our side yard.

black soot mold plant

That newly painted white fence? The top rail is nearly black in some spots.

black soot mold

I’m hoping that the cool fall nights will put a damper on the whiteflies’ goo-fest.  Until then, any tips for removing soot mold or preventing the flies from returning next year?

Chirping chimneys

At our neighborhood potluck the other night, someone asked me if we have swifts living in our chimneys.

All signs point to yes:

The first evidence of our avian amigos’ arrival this spring was the flutter of their wingtips behind the fireplace mantel each night around dinner time. Several weeks later we began to hear high-pitched chirps from the same location. “Adorable,” we thought, “there’s a mama bird and a papa bird and two or three baby birds living snug-as-a-bug in their chimney home just above our fireplace.”

But as the video demonstrates, mama and papa bird have been busy, if you catch my drift. For the past month, every night at dusk, a swarm of our feathered friends dances around the chimney before diving into it one-by-one just as the sun dips below the horizon.

As it turns out, this isn’t one birdie family. Apparently swifts gather and roost in large groups just before their migration to South America in the fall.

It’s probably mesmerizing and beautiful if that’s not your chimney sitting there in silhouette.

Note to self: cap chimneys this winter.

If it ain’t rodents, it’s ruminants.

Recently, perfectly elliptical patterns of trampled vegetation began appearing in our lawn. It was like a midget UFO was using our yard as its personal landing spot. But, the true culprit was revealed when I pulled into the driveway one evening and a startled deer fawn leaped from the underbrush and sprinted for cover. Unable to jump any of our fences, the fawn paced the perimeter of the yard until its mother appeared at dusk, taking cautious glances at her offspring from the shelter of the neighbors’ trees. I propped a gate open, and a few hours later the family was gone.

I figured that the incident would cause the animals to steer clear of our yard for awhile. But this weekend, I was outside one afternoon and saw the same fawn quietly lounging by the fence in the front yard.

deer fawn at fence

Mom was nowhere to be found. I was a bit perplexed by this behavior until a little Google-ing taught me that deer daycare consists of parking your kid somewhere (anywhere will work, apparently, which explains the flat spots in the lawn), giving them the “stay put” signal, and literally high-tailing it to the nearest patch of woods.

Perhaps deer like the adrenaline rush of being discovered because the fawn and its posse have visited our yard several more times over the past week.  And they made it clear why deer fencing is so tall.  In the picture below, I caught one of the animals mid-flight, effortlessly leaping a retaining wall from several yards away.

leaping ruminant

Capable critters, yes. Smart? Certainly not.

At least they don’t try to live in your attic.


They’re baaack…

File this one under: if it’s too good to be true….

When we moved into the house, a small family of squirrels was using our attic as an expansive rodent residence. A bit of wood repair during our paint job blocked their entry routes, and I’ve surveyed the eaves periodically since then to be certain that they don’t return. And I thought they hadn’t. At least until I returned home one evening and observed a bushy tail flicking out the top of a chimney. Seems that at least one of the furry beasties didn’t move far, overlooking the plethora of enormous trees in our yard in favor of a carcinogen-caked brick flue.

As evidence, I submit exhibit A:

squirrel chart

  1. Squirrel, calmly observing my fit of rage.
  2. Brick missing from chimney.
  3. Missing brick (see #2) now on ground due to squirrel (see #1) hopping in and out of chimney.
  4. A/C units!

Now, I’m something of a control freak when it comes to my house and this sort of uninvited guest draws forth an unbridled fury in me that’s completely out of proportion to the magnitude of the problem. To some degree, I lost my ability to think rationally when I discovered the varmint’s presence. But in a moment of lucidity, I realized that the only clear path to the high roof was by way of some low-hanging branches on an adjacent tree.  So I bought a pole saw and whacked them posthaste. Satisfied with my efforts, that evening I watched as the frustrated squirrel looked around confused at the change in his daily commute, pausing briefly before leaping 15+ feet across the gap as easily as I might jump a puddle in the sidewalk, and then springing into the chimney. Boy, did that get my knickers in a twist.

The very next morning, I headed off to the hardware store to pick up a steel trap. Everything you read on the internet makes it sound like trapping squirrels is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  Set the trip plate, throw down a couple peanuts and you’ll have six or eight of the little buggers in a couple of hours. Well, the squirrels in this town must have PhDs (just like all the people), because after two weeks I haven’t caught a single one.  I’ve caught two birds and put out enough peanut butter, corn, sunflower seed and cereal to feed a horse for a month. But not a single squirrel.  The bait disappears and the trap trips, but no squirrels. I don’t intend to hurt the critter, I just want him to make his home elsewhere.

So, I’m feeling a bit desperate and trying to strategize my next move. The chimneys need to be capped.  It’s a minor miracle that they’re in such good shape after being open to 250 years of rain and snow. This is a project that was already high on my list, but I worry that if I take away the squirrel’s home without relocating him first, he might go looking for another one nearby – e.g., in the attic, by way of our newly painted trim. I wonder if I should have the tree man come chop the branches that he leaps from first.  This would have the additional advantage of discouraging newcomers. Or do I call the professional wildlife people to try to trap him? Has anybody had success ridding themselves of these persistent critters, and if so, how?

I’m accepting all advice and until then, if you see me throwing rocks in trees, I haven’t lost my mind, I’m just trying to convince Chip to move into the nearest available hardwood hovel.