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The Home Inspector

Like boot camp for homeowners.

Trench digging without nasty lawn scars

I rented a trenching machine the first time I had to dig a trench in my yard, and it made digging the trench a piece of cake. The entire trench that I needed was completed in a matter of about 15 minutes, and all with very little effort on my part. There's nothing like having the right tool for the job, right?

trenching tool

Side note: the machine shown above is actually called a Power House Prodigy multi tool.  It has several other tools that it can operate, including a post-hole digger and a bucket loader. For the project shown above I was installing a yard drain to take surface rainwater from a low spot in my back yard all the way around to the front yard, where it could drain down a hill and eventually make its way to the city sewer storm sewers. That's my dad driving the machine.

The downside to using a trenching machine on a lawn is that it's like using a chainsaw to do surgery; you're going to have a huge scar. It took me the rest of the summer to get new grass to fill in the scar left by that trenching machine, and probably another year or two before there wasn't a big obvious line of different grass in my yard. Part of that was surely due to my lack of a green thumb, but that's beside the point.

I've figured out a much better way to make trenches in the yard. I've explained this process to so many people that I'm finally just writing down the instructions to make it easy. This is a far more time-consuming process than using a trenching machine, but I think it's worth the effort.

edge-houndYou'll need the following items:

  1. A trenching shovel
  2. An Edge Hound (shown at right) or a shovel with a similar shape.
  3. Several big plastic bins

Any time you're digging in the yard, it's a good idea to call 811 a few days ahead to get your yard marked for utilities. Once your yard has been marked, figure out where you want the trench and mark it. If you want a straight line, tie a string between two stakes. If you really want to get fancy you could use spray paint. Once the marking is done, use your Edge Hound or flat shovel to cut a single straight line in your grass along the path of the future trench. This is the easy part.

Cut a line in the grass

Next, use the edging tool to undercut the sod along the entire cut line, and then fold the sod over as shown below.

folding-sod-1 folding-sod-2

Now the tedious part. Take your trenching shovel and remove the soil, and place the removed soil into plastic bins all along your trench. This makes replacing the soil far easier and prevents your yard from being turned into a big mess.


Once the trench has been dug, you can lay down whatever you dug the trench for. Presumably, it's for a yard drain like the kind shown at the beginning of this blog post. Once that part is done, use the plastic bins to pour the soil back into place, stomping it down all the while. Just remember to leave a little room for the sod; if you try to get all of the dirt back into place, you'll have a huge hump in your yard. You'll surely end up with extra dirt, as it's impossible to get it compacted as well as it had been previous to the dig.

Once all the dirt is replaced, simply fold your sod back over the top and push it down into place. That's it, that's all. Your yard will heal from this gentle surgery quite quickly, but a little extra watering probably won't hurt. The photo below shows a post-surgery scar in my yard immediately after digging a trench.

After lawn surgery

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Reduce the risk of Legionnaires' disease in your home

Nine recently confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease in Hopkins, MN reminded me of an old blog post that I thought would make for a timely re-blog, along with some updated information. First, here's the story about the recent cases in Hopkins: As mentioned in the story, Legionnaires' disease resembles a severe case of pneumonia and is spread by inhaling the fine spray from water sources containing Legionella bacteria. In your home, the source of that bacteria could be your water heater, especially if you turn your water heater temperature down to the "vacation" setting when leaving for extended periods of time. The people who are most at risk for Legionnaires' disease are those over 50, smokers, or those with certain medical conditions.

Scald warning

According to, legionella bacteria can grow at temperatures from 68° F to 122° F, but the ideal growth range is between 95° F and 115° F. When it comes to preventing legionella bacteria growth, hot water is better. Legionella bacteria cannot multiply at temperatures above 122° F, and are killed within 32 minutes at 140° F. So crank up the water heater as high as it will go, right? No, of course not. That would create a scald hazard. Water heater manufacturers put a warning on water heaters saying the water temperature should not exceed 125° F to help prevent "severe burns instantly or death from scalds". Their words, not mine.

So what's the perfect temperature for your water heater?


Unfortunately, there's no simple answer. The American Society of Sanitary Engineering Scald Awareness Task Group released a white paper many years ago on this topic, which essentially says that there is no perfect temperature to set your water heater to. Part of the reason is that traditional tank-style water heaters don't keep the water in the tank at an exact temperature; there is a temperature "band" that tank water heaters maintain. At the beginning of a heating cycle, a water heater set to 120°-ish might start at 115° F, and might get up to 125° F at the end of its heating cycle. There's more to it than just that, but the point is that water heaters do not produce constant temperatures.

If the water in a tank is kept below scalding temperatures, there is a potential for Legionella bacteria growth. Ideally, the temperature in a water heater tank should be cranked way up to 140° F or higher, but now we're back to the scald hazard thing. One solution is to have a hot water tempering valve installed for the entire home.

This valve would be installed right at the hot water outlet of the water heater. It would allow the water heater to be cranked up to a scalding 140° F, which would be sufficient to kill bacteria and would extend the capacity of the hot water tank, while at the same time reducing the temperature of all of the hot water throughout the house. Click the following link for more information about these devices: . While these devices won't guarantee safe water temperatures at every fixture, they'll get you a lot closer.

If you want more hot water out of your water heater and you want to reduce the risk of Legionella bacteria growth, hire a plumber to install one of these mixing valves at your water heater and turn the temperature up on your water heater. I should also mention that point-of-use thermostatic mixing valves should ideally be installed at the faucets for the highest level of safety... but I'm pretty sure I've never seen a home fully outfitted with those.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections