– Ben Martens


Open Sprinkler Review

opensprinkler_v20s_5-500x500When Tim installed my irrigation system, he was kind enough to throw in a free irrigation clock that he had sitting around. It’s a standard Hunter model (probably $75-100) and it worked great, but every time I looked at it, I thought about how simple the device really was and that I should be able to control it from my computer. Standard industry offerings are hundreds or thousands of dollars with monthly fees. They’re mostly intended for commercial use.

After a little searching, I found Somebody else had the same idea and made such a nice package that he is able to sell it. The basic model is Arduino based but there are Raspberry Pi and Beagle Bone versions too. I chose the standard model for $155.

Installation was a snap. I labeled all the wires from the existing clock and transferred them over to the Open Sprinkler unit. I also ran an Ethernet cord from the clock in the corner of my garage up into the network closet. (It is SO convenient having the network closet share a wall with the garage!) I turned the unit on and very quickly was turning the sprinklers on and off from my computer. With a little extra configuration I was able to do it from my phone.

Why? Well yes, it’s a toy, but it also makes it very easy to walk around the yard testing zones or turning them on to blow out the line. Also, last summer I’d wake up to hear the rain and realize that my irrigation was scheduled to run in the morning. To avoid wasting water, I had to turn off the house alarm, go out in the garage, turn the program off, come back in, turn the alarm back on, and go back to bed. Now I can just reach for my phone and adjust it… if I even need to (more on that below.)

Aside form the convenience factor, here are some other features that I love:

  • I can completely manage the system from the comfort of my couch instead of standing in the garage.
  • Programs can be set to start based on sunrise or sunset. General recommendations for lawn watering are to do it a little bit before the sun comes up to avoid the hot sun burning off the water but also not let give moss a wet, dark place to thrive. This setting makes that super easy.
  • By checking the weather online, the system can automatically adjust the programs based on the humidity, temperature and precipitation from the previous days. This either means skipping an entire program or just running it for fewer minutes.
  • Programs can be set to run every N days instead of on specific days of the week.
  • You can view a log of when each zone was on. This will be nice when I try to track water usage and also to evaluate how well the Open Sprinkler system is performing.
  • As the software gets updated and perfected, I can update my unit with the click of a button.

All in all, I highly recommend this product so far. As long as it actually does the job of controlling the irrigation system without ever crashing, I’ll be very happy!


Last weekend I spread seven cubic yards of bark around my house. Thanks to Logan for helping! It took a lot of wheelbarrow loads, but it looks great now. The bark lays nicely over the drip irrigation that I put in place (under Tim’s tutelage) to water each plant. It will help hold in the moisture from the drip irrigation, and, in conjunction with the pre-emergent I put down, it should keep weeds from growing. And oh yeah, it looks really nice too!

bark1 bark2 bark3


The final step in the back yard and front yard makeover was putting in new plants. We held off last year to spread out the bills and because I was more comfortable installing the new plants at the beginning of the growing season.

Picking plants for the entire yard would normally be a pretty daunting task, but it only took Tim a couple hours to figure out what would look good and walk me through it. He showed up with all the plants and we got them planted in less than three hours. Thank you (again) Tim!

The grass in the back yard heading down to the gate under the magnolia tree never had a chance. The constant wet weather in the winter left a steady stream of water flowing down an area that rarely got sun and it just turned to mud. I gave up on that and decided to bark it over as a walkway down to the gate. I also took the opportunity to make a planter along the fence out to the corner to add a little life to the back yard. You can see that new planter area in the last picture. We had planned ahead for this possibility and there was a drip line stubbed out in the corner.

This week I’ve been working on finishing off the drip irrigation lines and then this weekend I’ll be putting down six yards of bark over the top of all the planter areas. It will look nice and help slow down the weeds.

frontyardplants1 frontyardplants2 backyardplants

Front Yard Project Recap

It was a wild week, but 9 days was all it took to polish off the front yard. We had taken a break after finishing the back yard to recover and also because Tim was re-siding his house. Here’s a rough breakdown of the front yard project:

  • Dad and I started on Friday the 19th by digging a trench under the sidewalk. We picked up the tractor, truck and trailer. Then we used the tractor to fill up the trailer, make a run to dump it, and then scraped off some more sod.
  • On Saturday, Don, Logan and Tim joined in and we made huge progress. The trailer made non-stop runs all day long getting rid of the sod and the dirt that was being scraped off with the tractor. While that was happening, three dump trucks arrived with the new dirt that was replacing the old dirt.
  • By the end of Sunday, all of the old dirt was gone and the new dirt was pretty much in place. We also rented a trencher and in just two hours, we had trenches for irrigation. It might seem silly to trench through new dirt, but we still had a couple more inches to go under the new dirt and it was almost like digging in concrete.
  • Tim and I spent Monday through Thursday evenings out in the yard plumbing for irrigation. It was a wet, soggy mess as we got over 2 inches of rain. I bought a hand pump to help clear out the trenches but there were big sections of the yard that were just completely saturated.
  • We took Friday off in hopes of letting it dry out just a little more. All I did was pick up a few more yards of dirt and left it sitting in the trailer for later.
  • Saturday we started by spreading the remaining dirt to really level everything out. 2600 square feet of sod was delivered, and, with the help of two guys Tim knows, we had it almost all in by 2pm. We returned the tractor, spread one more truck load of dirt, finished off the sod, and then tested out the irrigation.
  • I spent Sunday by myself cleaning up the yard, washing the truck, returning tools, etc.

It’s incredible how much work got done in such a short amount of time. Here are some stats:

  • The front yard added up to 117 hours of labor (compared to 310 in the back yard.)
  • Each load from our house to the spot where we dumped the sod took about 75 minutes round trip
  • 14 trips with the dump trailer to remove the old sod, and there was 3-4 yards in each load
  • 53 yards of beautiful new “supreme mix” dirt added, including three 15-yard deliveries via dump truck
  • 500 miles on Don’s truck for this project
  • 10.6mpg average for the truck while we were making the runs to dump the old sod
  • 3.4 gallons of diesel used in the tractor over the many many hours that it was running

Because our scheduled was so compressed, I didn’t stop to take as many photos or do fancy timelapse videos. Thankfully Tyla and Mom snapped a bunch of photos and one of my security cameras caught some of the action.

THANK YOU once again to all of the friends and family that helped out! We had exactly the right amount of help to get this done. And a huge special thank you to Tim. Without you, this project would never have been attempted. We couldn’t have afforded to pay a contractor to do this, and I don’t know nearly enough to attempt something like this on my own. I loved learning about all this stuff and it was awesome to spend so much time out in the yard working with you. Thanks for putting up with all of my questions, my stress, and my mistakes!

Front Yard Plan

My neighbors have had to look at quite a mess for the past couple months. The back yard is beautiful but all we did in the front yard was tear out all the plants and leave 4-5 yards of dirt piled up in the side yard. We took a break from that project to give Tim time to put new siding on his house. The siding is done so it’s back to the yard project!

The front yard should go much quicker than the back yard did because we’re doing a lot less work. Here’s what is on the agenda:

  • Scrape off all the sod and the top ~6” of dirt
  • Bring in new dirt
  • Add downspout drains out to the street
  • Extend the back yard irrigation system into the front yard.
  • Install new sod

If all goes according to plan, we’ll be done in two weeks. I can hear you laughing now. When’s the last time Tim and I worked on a project together and had it go “according to plan”?

Backyard Completed!

It has been a long road and this will be a long post, but Tim and I are finally done with the back yard. I got the two gates built, installed and stained and on Saturday at noon, I declared the project done. “Done” here means that all the big pieces are completed and the yard can be locked up again. There are still plenty of smaller items like making one final dump run, adding bark chips, etc but those aren’t as urgent and I’ll just work them into my normal home improvement projects. The front yard is still a mess too, but that will sit for a couple months until Tim is available again. The front yard should be a lot smaller project too. So with all those caveats, I’m done!

When I show people photos of the finished project, it’s kind of anti-climactic. They look at the before photo and wonder why we changed anything. So let me go back and list out the reasons why we weren’t thrilled with our old back yard:

  • Any time it rained, the yard was muddy. Drainage was horrible/non-existent and water would sit in the yard for days after a heavy rain. From roughly November through May the grassy area was pretty much unusable.
  • The cedar swing was nice but it took up a big chunk of our yard. We only used it once or twice for photos because it was a giant spider web. As I started tearing it down, I also learned that it was very rotten and probably would have caused some serious injury before too much longer.
  • The fence was rotten and falling over. I had propped it up with some extra supports but those weren’t enough to hold it anymore.
  • The pine trees (arbor vitae) along the fence were getting close to the end of their life and were starting to brown. The thundercloud plum in the corner was disaster. Please don’t ever plant one of these trees.
  • Most of the bushes in the back yard were not pruned well by the previous owner and were overgrown.
  • The “retaining wall” appeared to be constructed with old concrete from the patio that was there before the new one was put in. It was about two feet high and I can’t tell you how many times it crumbled underneath me. We would have constantly been pulling Elijah back from it as he toddled around (if he could even make it there in the mud.)

So yes, on the surface it looked ok, but as we got more familiar with the yard, we knew it’s time had come. Now we have a beautiful new yard!

[UPDATE: These links are broken now, but I’ll leave the text] I made a Photosynth of the back yard in it’s current state. If you forgot what it looked like before, you can check out this previous Photosynth. Honestly I do like the way the old yard looked like it had been lived in and wasn’t brand new. This new one has so much more space though and it will grow in like the old one did (but without getting out of control!)

It should come as no surprise that I was collecting a lot of data about this project as we went. Here are some facts:

  • Major features completed: French drains, irrigation, retaining wall, and fence
  • Square feet of grass before: 475. Square feet of grass after: 1175
  • Number of retaining wall blocks: 441
  • Linear feet of fence: 152
  • Gates: 2
  • Posts: 21
  • Cedar fence panels: 332
  • Gallons of stain: 13.5
  • Nails: 2200
  • Yards of dirt added: 34
  • Home Depot Transactions: 32
  • Project calendar duration: 44 days
  • Actual days spent working: 41 days (only 3 days with no progress!)
  • Days affected by rain: 1
  • Estimated savings by doing it ourselves1: 58%
  • Total Hours spent: 310

1 This calculation was done using a standard contractor markup for materials and then assuming that professional labor would work 30% faster than we did (except for Tim.)

Here are a couple charts breaking down the cost by feature of the yard and then another one showing how much time each helper put into the yard. Thank you everyone! The cumulative hours chart shows that we kept the rapid pace up for the whole project. I don’t think we could have done it quicker without taking more vacation or hiring more help. Nearly every available hour was spent working on the yard.

And finally, here are some photos, starting with before:



And finally, here’s a complete list of all the timelapses I made along the way.

This is the last you’ll see of the yard updates for a couple months until we start on the front yard. Until then you’ll find me in the back yard admiring our work with meat on the grill and a beer in my hand.

Links to previous updates 1, 2 , 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7

UPDATE: The front yard is done now too!

Yard Project Update 7

Everything is coming together! This week is all about the finishing touches. To get started, we put down two more yards of dirt on Monday.

On Tuesday, we planed 10 emerald green arborvitae trees along the fence line. We got 7 foot trees so that they were just taller than the fence now and they’ll grow ~6” per year until they’re back up at the height we had before. The old trees that were there really helped to hide the fact that the neighbor’s house is so close. There’s a drip irrigation line running around the trees so I set up the controller to keep them well-watered while they are adjusting to our yard.

Wednesday morning we had sod delivered all the way from Oregon. It’s a mixture of fescue and rye and it looks beautiful! Tim and I laid it all down on Wednesday night. The irrigation is a huge help again here because the sod really needs a lot of watering to recover from it’s journey. On top of that, it’s supposed to be 90+ degrees for the next 7 days. Hopefully everything stays green and healthy and puts down good roots. If that all goes well, we’ll be able to use the yard in just 2-3 weeks!

There is a seemingly endless list of small things that I can keep doing on the yard, but I’m calling it “done” once I finish building the second gate, install it, and then stain both gates. At that point we’ll have a closed back yard with everything planted. Dump runs, mulching, etc can be handled much more slowly as I have time. The next update you get on this project should be the grand finale! (At least for the back yard… the front yard starts in a couple months.)

Links to previous updates 1, 2 , 3, 4, 5 and 6

Yard Project Update 6

Tim and I put 2 more yards of dirt and leveled out the yard. It’s sitting for about a week to compact and get ready for sod. I got the fence stained (see the timelapse below). Don and Logan came over on Saturday to help set the remaining three fence posts. There’s one short fence that sticks out from the east side of my house with a gate on the end and then the other post was for the gate on the west side of the house. I got the short fence built, posts cut off and capped and started building the first gate.

This is an exciting week as we’ll be putting in trees along the back fence between our house and the neighbors (same basic type that were there before) and then we’re going to put down sod! The original plan had been to seed but given the small size and our desire to be DONE we are just going with sod.

I did some calculations and we in more than doubling the amount of grass we have in the back yard! The new grass area will be about 250% of what we had before.

Links to previous updates 1, 2 , 3, 4 and 5

Yard Project Update 5

These updates are coming fast and furious now. Lots of items are getting crossed off the list which feels great! So much of the work up to this point has been digging and doing early stages of tasks.

The sod that Tim put in by the front cherry trees is looking really healthy. The irrigation was all connected so I went out morning and evening and turned the valve by hand to water that section. A few days later, we hooked up the irrigation controller so now it’s all done automatically on a timer. The back yard irrigation is done and wired too. All the nozzles are in. We tested to make sure coverage was good and it was such a joy to see the whole area get perfectly covered with water. I used to spend so much time dragging sprinklers around and trying to get it all aligned correctly!

I finished putting up the fence rails and most of the planks. There’s a timelapse of part of that work below. Then Ken and Logan came over on Saturday to help me cut the final boards and attach all the tops rails. I also got all the post tops chopped off and the caps put on. The next phase there is staining and hopefully I’ll be doing that this week. That’s a tricky proposition though because I have to be really careful about overspray. If it isn’t feasible then I’ll be hand rolling the fence which isn’t the end of the world.

A couple other smaller tasks got crossed off too. I connected the sump pump to the drainage system, installed metal flashing along the fence that borders the neighbors yard to keep their higher dirt/pine needs from coming in direct contact with the bottom ~8” of fence, and I dug out part of our old rock pathway where we will now have sod.

Remaining tasks are adding a few more pickup loads of dirt to level out the yard, planting trees, installing sod, and building the gates.


Links to previous updates 1, 2 , 3, and 4

Yard Project Update 4

While it might not look that much different than a week or two ago, we’re crossing some major work items off the list. The drainage is completely done and covered up. We dug trenches for irrigation, laid the pipes, installed the heads, and filled in the trenches. All that’s left there is hooking up the controller. We even installed a bit of sod along the driveway. I think we’re going to sod the back yard instead of seeding. It’s a pretty small area so the cost isn’t huge, and it will get us a nice result sooner. Don and Logan stopped by to help me set three more fence posts along the wall.

The biggest remaining puzzle piece is the fence. I’m hitting that hard now and hope to make good progress over the weekend if the weather cooperates.

We are 227 hours into this project and doing pretty well with the budget. It’s a ton of work but it’s fun to see it start coming together. My life right now is pretty much wake up, go to work, come home, work in the yard until 9 or 10, go to bed. Tyla has been great putting in extra hours to take care of Elijah when I’d normally be helping out! We’re both eager for the project to be done so things can return to “normal” and we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. I’m able to list out the remaining work in quite a bit of detail which means that we’re getting closer to the end. At least it’s measurable with a pretty high confidence rate.

Links to previous updates 1, 2 and 3