Doni’s Old House Remodel: 811, Gas Lines and Crossed Wires

I keep saying I'm in the home stretch of this remodeling project, but the home stretch is a moving target, and the finish line seems to be disappearing into the horizon.

Two steps forward, one step back.

I was pretty excited that Handyman No. 2 (who prefers to remain nameless, after what happened to Corey, Handyman No. 1), dug out the area of the south side of my house in an effort to get dirt and concrete and debris away from the vents. This was to prevent water from further flooding beneath the house this winter, which is what happened before I purchased my house, and contributed to dry rot, and required expensive, extensive repairs immediately after I bought the house.

A daunting task for mere mortals, Handyman No. 2 dug in and tackled the side yard in an attempt to reduce the slope and the dirt volume that points toward the vents.

On Saturday Handyman No. 2 called me over and said he thought he'd uncovered a big root. I looked. (Dang, I forgot to take a photo. I'll add it later today.) Whatever it was looked old and man-made. I told Handyman No. 2 to not proceed, to just leave it alone. By the way, sadly, that was Handyman No. 2's last day, because he'd already reached the ridiculous $500 CSLB cap for an unlicensed worker.

Goodbye Handyman No. 2. It was nice knowing you and working with you.


Sunday I received some advice from someone who wishes to remain nameless (see the pattern?) that I should call the 811 number first thing Monday and see what we'd uncovered, especially since he suspected it was a gas line.

811? I'd never heard of it.

I called the number Monday morning, and got into a bilingual telephone loop, so I just called PG&E where I reached an automated message that said my expected wait time would be about 30 minutes. The automated voice asked me to say in a few words what my call was about.

I did.

Within seconds a live person was on the phone, asking questions. In what seemed mere minutes - not enough time for me to even get in the shower after my workout - a PG&E truck was in front of my house. Wow. Impressive.

My twin later joked that from now on, if there's an emergency that would normally prompt us to dial 911 - such as someone having a heart attack -- we should dial PG&E and say the magic words: gas line. Then, when the PG&E truck arrives, ask for a ride to the hospital.

One PG&E supervisor later, the two PG&E folks had determined that not only was "the thing" a working gas line, but it was very old, and instead of heading toward the street, as expected, it actually traveled through my back yard and toward the alley.

A little while later another PG&E guy came out with a kit to patch some of the sheathing that was missing from my old gas line, which may or may not have been caused by someone's shovel. The guy asked why I'd not called 811 before I'd had my handyman dig. I said I had never heard of 811. He said there are ads all over TV and radio about 811. I said I don't watch network TV or listen to commercial radio. Also, because I'm an REU auto-pay customer, I don't read the inserts, either.

Sounds like 811 needs to advertise online with A News But I digress.

Apparently, before we citizens proceed with ANY digging, we're supposed to call 811, which notifies the local utility authorities of our dirty intentions and dispatches trained professionals to check things out. That call (or online application) triggers a series of visits from various agencies, such as PG&E, and city of Redding Public Works, who'll identify things like gas lines. (Not sewer lines on my property, though. That's private. I have to go the city to see a plot plan for that information.)

I have to say, I was impressed with the process, and the efficiency and professionalism of every worker that day, including an REU arborist - unrelated to the 811-call - who responded to my online report of trees in power lines.

But learn from my mistake. Before you make the call, first mark off your area in question with white paint, or white chalk, or even (I'm not making this up) white flour. Then call.

Instead, I filled out the 811 request online, and while I was on a roll I filled out a different form online with REU about tree branches in utility wires near my property. Just as I was heading to the garage for the 811 white paint, the city of Redding Public Works guy showed up. He did his markings on the ground and said my white markings should have been there first.

He was here and gone and in no time another PG&E representative arrived, but this one was here to mark the gas line with yellow paint. The PG&E guy also questioned me about digging without the 811 call, and said that if my handyman had actually punctured the line, and if PG&E had come out on a weekend, I could have faced up to a $7,000 fine.

Yellow markings mean gas lines. DO NOT DIG there.

That rattled me, probably because it was my second brush with a potentially serious gas issue in just a few days. The first gas event happened when one of the electricians (a licensed contractor, for those who care) was installing under-cabinet lights. He accidentally drilled a hole in a gas line inside the wall.

The smell was instant and unmistakable.

He turned off the gas outside, but then had to open a wall to get to the line, which needed a plumber to come and repair. The electrician is supposed to arrange for someone to come patch the hole, but in the meantime, I've covered it with tape and plastic, you know, in case there's a returning rodent who missed the memo that this is now a rat-free zone. Whenever I pass that wall, I keep expecting to see a hairy little pointed face pressed against the plastic, checking out his old digs.

Gas line exhibit in Doni's guest room.

Yes, I'm aware that rats can chew through chicken wire, let alone plastic and masking tape. Indulge me.

The good news was my appliances were delivered, including an LG stacking washer and dryer set that I got for a super marked-down price in the store's clearance section, because it was a returned special order. Oh, how I love those kinds of deals!

The bad news was the set was delivered without the stacking-kit hardware, so the install guys ordered one and left. The good news was the Home Depot store manager drove the part to my house after she got off work that day. (She's new. She's from Utah. She says that's how they do things in Utah. I think I like Utah.) The good news was the install guys returned a few days later to stack the set. The bad news was the washer and dryer had such major issues the set had to be picked up and returned to the store a few days later. This pick-up was the third trip for those same two guys to my house.

I got another stacking set, and this time, as the installers pushed it against the wall, there was a major light-and-sound show from my new laundry room. Sparks flew. A flame shot up from the back of the dryer. The aluminum dryer hose melted. A woman in paint-covered overalls screamed.

I contacted the electrician, who came out the next morning and fixed the problem. The stacked appliance was not the problem, rather, the culprits were two wires behind the outlet that were too close in proximity. The jarring from the appliance bumping the wall made the wires connect when they weren't supposed to. Arking ensued.

It sounds like I'm focusing on the negative. But really, I'm grateful for so much, such as the fact that the install guys weren't hurt in the laundry-room incident, or that the house didn't catch fire and burn to the ground in the process.

It takes a village to complete a remodel of this magnitude, and I'm so grateful to everyone who's helped, such as my sister, Shelly, who finished painting the last bedroom room yesterday.

Twin painters Shelly, left, and sister Doni.

And I'm eternally indebted to my son, Joe, who flew from the Czech Republic to install cabinets, but ended up picking up major, unexpected duties when Corey was ordered off the job by a bully CSLB representative.

I'm also grateful for locally owned businesses, like Weaver Lumber, my chosen source for exterior doors and interior trim and moulding, and Appliances Direct, where I purchased all my kitchen appliances, and Nor Cal Granite and Tile, whose guy will tile a bathtub surround in pretty mosaic next week, and Edgewood Plumbing, which has worked with me for years and is my favorite plumbing company, and Best Price Furniture and Mattress, for my new couches and for selling me my first real grown-up bed with a matching head and foot board.

I'm supremely grateful to Mobile Me Moving, for not just packing up all my earthly belongings in June, but storing them in a huge container months longer than expected. (Delivery is Sunday! Ready or not!)

I'm also grateful to personal trainer Matthew Lister at Align, who keeps me on the straight and narrow with my workouts, despite my crazy remodeling schedule and elevated stress levels; and that he withholds judgement when I confess that my dinner on the night of the flaming-dryer incident was a corn dog, a beer and a Neopolitan ice cream sandwich.

Finally, this week I'm grateful for Pacific Crest Granite, whose technician took my countertop templates Tuesday. That means I'll soon have counters, which means I'll have a sink and running water in the kitchen. No more washing dishes in the bathtub.

Most of all, I'm grateful to have a home here in northern California, when thousands of people have been left homeless - or worse - by fires just a few hours from here.

Keeping things in perspective, I'm grateful to be in this home stretch, for as long as it takes.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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34 Responses

  1. Beverly Stafford says:

    The stretch in your home stretch seems like a bungee cord they way it keeps getting longer. I admire your being so grateful in light of all these setbacks. A corn dog, beer, and ice cream sandwich seem like the perfect prescription to treat these woes. Maybe Matthew will return your scale as a housewarming gift.

    • A bungee cord is a good way to look at this process.

      Actually, I’ve progressed to the stage in my workouts where I know how much I weigh. I could have my scale back, but I think I’ll pass. Matthew weighs our group every Thursday, and that’s good enough for me.

  2. cheyenne says:

    This remodel reminds me of the Saturday morning movies I watched as a kid where the heroes would solve one calamity only to end that week with a cliffhanger to be solved the next Saturday morning.

    • It sometimes feels like a cliffhanger to me, too. The plumber is here now (hooking up some vanity sinks), and I find myself expecting to hear some kind of bad news. But so far, so good. 🙂

  3. conservative says:

    The 220 breaker did not protect against sparks flying and burned dryer duct. I believe there is a 220 GFI breaker on the market.

    All kitchen outlets are protected by GFI because of the water in kitchens. Given the amount of water in a laundry and the steel appliances, maybe the code should require GFI. When was the 30 amp 220 dryer outlet added? Is the wiring and receptacle up to snuff?

  4. Richard Christoph says:

    Thanks for letting us sit in on your trials and tribulations as you move toward what will someday be a beautiful forever home with a veritable plethora of remodeling memories that will someday make you smile. Thanks also for the information re 811. Who knew?

    Best wishes for a safe, rapid, and successful completion. Your tenacity, perseverance, and good nature are remarkable.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who hadn’t heard of 811.

      And believe it or not, I’m smiling now. The majority of the remodeling projects have gone well.

      Thanks for the good wishes. 🙂

  5. Ginny says:

    In spite of all the handicaps, Doni, you are a winner! Know your new home will look very lovely when you are finished being a general contractor, The time is close, yeah!


    • The time is close! The next big push is getting the finish work done inside (doors, hardware, trim, etc.), but really, I’ve grown accustomed to that shower curtain on a tension rod where a bathroom door should be.

  6. sue k says:

    I agree – “your tenacity, perseverance, and good nature are REMARKABLE!”
    You are a model for extraordinary character.

  7. Adrienne says:

    It is said that if a marriage can stand a house remodel it will stand anything . When you are single and facing all of these vagrencies it’s good to have a sister to prop up your spirits… or maybe that should read, SHARE your spirits!

    • One of the parts I liked best about being married was doing projects together.

      It’s always more fun and more interesting when there’s someone to bounce ideas off during a remodel. I am pretty shameless about picking the brains of almost anyone who ventures onto my property, which is how I’ve come with some of the most creative solutions.

  8. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    Why do I get the feeling that if your name was Frank or Steve instead of Doni that you wouldn’t have so many questions like, “Are you sure the whatzit is installed up to code?”

    • Yup, I won’t argue with that. There have been many times during this remodel when I had the distinct sense that I’m sometimes treated differently than if I were a guy. And if I had to name the difference, it’s that some guys assume I’m ignorant of anything construction-related.

      I don’t see the point in telling them that I know more than they think, and actually, sometimes that works out in my favor to see what THEY know. But what’s really interesting is if I happen to have a man – ANY man – on the premises, such as when my son was here, or this week, when an old friend stopped by during one of the 811 guy’s visit. EVERY time, the guy who’s here to give a bid or whatever turns his attention to whichever man is here. For example, the 811 guy talked to my friend, telling him what needed to be done. What I found even more interesting was my friend didn’t correct the 811 guy’s assumption and say something like, “This is her house, not mine.”

      I also know there are things that I’ve put up with (like hiring one contractor at an hourly wage, which turned out to be a huge mistake) that most men would have ripped someone a new one over. When that happens, first, I kick myself, and then I try to see what I can learn from it for next time.

  9. Pamela Knowles says:

    I enjoy your writing always-I started reading when you were doing Food at RS-so that tells you how long I’ve followed you:) But when I see your house updates in mail, it’s thefirst email I open?
    I love your eternal optimism after righteous indignation (sometimes).
    I’ve been forwarding some of your articles to my sisters in AZ and Chico. And I’m trying to get them to just sign up for A News Cafe! They were raised here, and grew up in Kutras Tract so stories about our neck of the woods strike home?
    Thanks for the laughs today!!

    • I’m so happy that you’re here on ANC, and that you enjoy getting the house updates in your inbox.

      I’m touched that you’ve been reading my stuff for so long. Thank you! I appreciate you!

      • ginny says:

        Many of us who check into aNewsCafe have been following your writing for years. You did some fantastic writing when you were with the Searchlight. Now they are history, too! But you have the best right here in your adopted “hometown”.

        Thanks for all the years of writing. EXCELLENT………

  10. Grammy says:

    You are lucky that the washer/dryer jarred those two wires when it did and were able to control what happened. Could have been SO much worse in the future.

  11. Zeno says:

    My gosh, you are a good writer, so funny! Thanks for making me laugh!

  12. Randall R Smith says:

    Small change to your saga, but PG&E was here below on our two empty lots this week. They were digging, installing service, routine gas line maintenance, ripping up streets, flag people, stopping traffic, lots of noise, machines, ruined daffodils by the hundreds; not a “Good Morning” or “Here is what we are doing and how long we will be here.” The area by the curb is a utility easement and anyone can dig, play around, whatever without any need to tell anyone who lives near by or might happen to have title. It seems notice is one way unless you happen to be in San Bruno when an explosion is all you need to know. Same was true of R. E. U. who took down a fine DBH> 6″ native oak some years ago that was potentially bothering overhead lines. There was a “sorry” for that after I made inquiry on seeing the stump.

    Keep up the good work. Imagine all the fun at Christmas!

    • Randy, I’m sorry for your experience with PG&E and REU. I’ve had nothing but good interactions (so far).

      I actually imagine I’ll be having fun by Halloween! (But I’m an optimist.)

      Thanks, Randy. xodoin’

  13. Chris Nagy says:

    Thank you so much for the laugh about your “stress” corn dog dinner. It really puts things in perspective for me. Great perseverance on your remodel, I’ve been following your adventures. Not so sure I’m ready to tackle something like that!

  14. conservative says:

    An energy audit might reveal things easier to fix at this stage than later. My ex added attic insulation and did a few other things after the free audit by NV Energy. It may be worth paying a few hundred bucks if REU does not offer one free. reports that the multibillion dollar wine county fires were caused by PG&E lines in the wind. PG&E ratepayers may end up paying.

    • conservative says:

      The NV energy auditor was a woman. I would like to see more women in the building trades. Maybe more women in the city and county building departments would be an improvement. City or county building inspectors seem to be all male and that job does not require the strength like framers, roofers, sheetrock hangers, painters, heating and air, etc.

    • trek says:

      A good home inspector prior to escrow can save a home buyer from picking a lemon based on looks alone. Ask a remodel contractor whom has a good reputation for his input, money well spent. Most everything mentioned in these stories were items that could have been identified with a “good” home inspection from someone qualified. Problems inside concealed walls not so easy to spot but there are tell tale signs if one knows how to look.

  15. Canda Williams says:

    As always, such a fun read, Doni. You really crack me up. Glad things are moving right along, but wow, you’ve encountered some potentially scary stuff! What a great attitude you have-always looking at the learning experience. I’d say you’ve learned enough for one lifetime remodeling this old house. So happy your appliances are about in and your other stuff is coming soon! xoxo

  16. Scott Finley says:

    Hi, Doni –
    I’m Scott Finley, the media/pr manager for Texas811. We are the nation’s largest 811 call center, taking three million incoming locate requests in 2016. We’re also a non-profit, and for 30 plus years have worked very hard to get the “call 811 before you dig” message out to the public! Thank you for what you said about the 811 system in your blog. It is indeed a national system; call 811 in any state and you will be connected to the nearest one call center. The call is always free, as is the subsequent locating/marking/flagging of buried utilities.
    Your comment “Before you make the call, first mark off your area in question with white paint, or white chalk, or even (I’m not making this up) white flour. Then call.” is good, though I personally have never heard of using white flour! In the industry this is called “white lining” and serves to delineate the area to be scanned for underground lines by the locator.
    Thanks again – and remember what we say: call 811 first, so you don’t have to call 911 later!

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