From the monthly archives:

April 2010

Fence panels are the sections of fencing that get attached to posts. Each fence panel consists of slats, chain link or a mesh material, and two or more rails that run across them. They can be assembled from scratch in DIY fashion, or, more commonly, purchased as prefabricated units. Fencing panels are avilable in a wide range of styles, from ornamental to utilitarian, and for a wide array of applications ranging from privacy fencing to animal containment.

Installing Fencing Panels

Panels are typically sold in 5″ to 8″ lengths. You’ll need to measure the total footage of the enclosed property’s perimeter, then divide by them your panel’s length to determine the number of panels needed. The posts are placed in the ground centered at intervals corresponding to the panel’s length — they go between the panels, usually on the inside of the property, and the panels are attached with lag screws. The exception would be the first and last panels, which will either overlap with the first/last post be a few inches, or will be cut to the edge of the post.

Common Fencing Panel Materials

Wood is the most commonly used material for residential fencing, particularly for stockade fences designed for privacy. Redwood, spuce and cedar are excellent materials for wood fence panels that weather better than cheaper wooden fence panels like pine. Bamboo fence panels also weather nicely, and are ideal for decorative garden fencing while being quite affordable.

If you’re interested in the look of wood, but would rather not have to deal with the long-term maintenace issues like moisture damage, rot or chipping, consider vinyl fence panels. They’re lighter, weatherproof, and already colored (and therefore don’t have to be painted).

Metal fence panels come in a variety of styles. Like vinyl, aluminum panels require no painting. Also like vinyl, aluminum fence panels are impervious to rust. Aluminum provides a similar look to wrought iron fence panels with a much lower price tag. Aluminum panels are easy for home homeowners to install themselves, since they’re usually sold with a posts that are prepunched for simplified attachment. Mesh and chain link fence panels are usually meant for sports, animal containment, crowd control and other temporary fencing rather then residential applications.

Concrete Fence Panels

Panels for precast concrete fence walls are by far the most strongest, heaviest and most expensive material, with individual panels often costing more than entire fences made of wood, vinyl, or even wrought iron. More often than not, concrete walls are intended for commercial enclosures. For residential fencing, they’re more commonly found in Great Britain than the United States.

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Stair railings are nearly as important as stairs themselves. Material selection is the first priority when choosing a stair railing systems. Handrails for stairs and balusters are available in different types of metal, wood, vinyl, stone and composite materials, each of which offers its own advantages in terms of decoration, durability or economy. This is an overview of the most popular types of modern stair railings for indoor and outdoor installation.

Indoor Stair Railings

Being more organic and less formal than wrought iron, wood is the most common material to install indoors, with oak stair railings being the most popular. Wood stair railings can be stained or painted to match virtually any interior, not only in color but in texture. For hardwood floors, it’s common practice to apply a stain finish on the railings to give aesthetic consistency to the landings.

While it’s a popular material for gates, wrought iron railings are less popular for homes of average size, especially for the expense. In smaller houses, wrought iron stair railings tend to look rather heavy, so it’s more common to see more lightweight metal stair railings, such as aluminum or stainless steel. Aluminum railing is quite durable, coated with a baked enamel finish that makes it suitable for either indoors or outdoors.

The most modern stair railing systems for industrial homes use stainless steel and glass. Cable stair railings feature widely spaced balusters with steel cables stretched between them horizontal, typically ever 4 inches. Glass stair railings also have wide balusters, with rectangular glass panels (or panels of parallelograms) inserted between them with steel brackets.

Outdoor Stair Railings

Vinyl railing systems are usually considered the most cost-effective solution for porches and decks, offering a somewhat of the look and feel of wood to the casual eye without the wood’s tendency to warp from prolonged exposure to rain. Composite railing, though more expensive, has an even more wood-like texture, and is less likely to yellow or flake than vinyl. Since decks are more exposed to rain than porches, composite decking is more economical in the long run, with lower maintenance costs, than wood decks, so composite deck railing is a logical choice.

Wrought iron stair railings are great for decks. While railings made entirely of wrought iron are common, combinations of wood and iron, or vinyl and iron, are effective alternatives, where the banisters are made of wood or vinyl, and the balusters are wrought iron. Balusters are often sold in packs ranging from 10 and 200 pieces.

With a wide array of materials to choose from, you’ll not only have to consider how the possibilities for stair railings mesh with the look and feel of your existing stairs, but how much they’ll cost, how durable they’ll be, and how safe they are for your family. There’s more to think about than decoration.

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Automatic gates, also known as electric gates have a few benefits over manually operated gates, but two of them make the electric option essential. They make swinging or sliding rather unwieldy gates open and closed as simple as pushing a button. More importantly, they offer several optional tiers of remote access control and security.

The mechanics of hinges and guide rails of swinging and sliding gates are essential the same for manual and automatic gates. Gates of either type may consist of metal, wood or vinyl. What’s different are the components that do the heaving lifting, alternately known as gate openers or gate operators. Strictly speaking, an electric gate opener is meant to refer to a controller for light duty residential gates, while an electric gate operator is intended to for heavy duty commercial installations; but in practice they’re often used interchangeably.

Electric Gate Openers and Operators

A gate opener is the heart of an electric gate. This is an electromechanical or hydraulic armature enclosed in a waterproof hood for above-ground installations. In swinging gates, the motor’s arm extends to the center of the gate panel. For a dual gate opener, a separate operator is positioned at either end. Underground swing operators contain the mechanics inside of metal boxes underneath the plates for the gate’s hinges. Since underground gate openers have no machinery visible to the onlooker, they’re usually considered the most aesthetic. They’re also the most expensive type of automatic gate openers.

Whether or not electric gates are a viable option depends on your location, or rather, the proximity of the fence to the power mains. If the gate is too far from your residential power source, which is often the case for farms and other sprawling properties, it’s still possible to power the operator’s batteries, which typically need 24 volts, by solar panels if they have access to adequate sunlight.

Sliding Gate or Swing Gate?

Whether or not you opt for swinging or sliding gates is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are logistics to consider, like the slope of the site or any possible misalignment of posts as the ground expands and contracts with changes in weather conditions. In most cases, sliding gates, while more expensive than swing gates with above-ground controllers, are more likely to maintain alignment due to their guide rails. You will, however, need as much track in the open position as you need in the closed position. In other words, if your dual gate spans 24 feet between posts, you’ll need an additional 12 feet of track beyond either post. If you’re installing a dual swing gate on a higher-than-normal grade, you’ll probably need to have a concrete foundation poured between posts to connect them and keep them aligned.

Access Control Systems

Finally, electric gates offer different levels of access control, depending on your budget. This can mean, for instance, that you can enter and exit your driveway with a remote controller that spares you the trouble of getting out of your car. Or you can install a programmable keypad controller at the entrance that can be set with temporarily assigned access codes for service workers, like handymen or maids. You can manually buzz guests in without having to walk to the driveway entrance. If money is not an object, you can install a full-featured controller with an intercom and security camera. Electric gates can give you all the convenience, functionality and security you could possibly need.

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Driveway gates come in an overwhelming array of styles, so it’s important to focus on the critical features that make for a satisfying long term purchase. Let’s take a look at these features, focusing on modern automatic driveway gates instead of manual ones.

How will your gate opener be powered, and where will the power come from? If your houses electrical mains are too far away, as is the case in most rural settings, you’ll have to rely on solar power. If you need a solar panel, you’ll have to ensure that any surrounding trees don’t block the sunlight.

Driveway Gate Materials and Build Quality

The materials and build quality should be considered before settling on the design of the driveway gate. Do you want wooden driveway gates, metal driveway gates, vinyl? Regardless of the fence panel material, posts should be installed at least 5’ deep to account for wind and any irregularities in slopes, and 5” square tubes of 3/8” thick steel is a good standard for a secure foundation. The tubes for the posts and the rest of the gate should be acid-washed and treated with primer. Acid washing ensures that the final paint job will properly adhere to the metal, and the primer protects the gate against rust. Fence panels made of hot dipped galvanized steel offer most of the look, feel and durability of wrought iron driveway gates at a much lower cost.

The style of gate will depend on your needs and priorities. Economy style gates are quite popular, since sliding driveway gates aren’t feasible for many suburban residences with narrow driveways where the house and the property line are only three or four yards apart. In this situation, a single swing gate is the most practical option. A typical model is a 12” gate reinforced with three cross-members, controlled by a swing-arm opener. This is the most common setup for a do-it-yourself installation. The cost of the gate and the controller (the hydraulic or electromechanical assembly that operates the swing arm) is often under $1500.

As implied above, swing gates usually require less installation and maintenance that sliding gates for residential purposes, unless you already have a fairly large fence to begin with, or live a a pronounced slope. Single swing gates are most often cheaper than dual swing gates by half, since you’re not committed to buying a pair of driveway gate openers. Unless you’re aesthetically attracted to the symmetry of the dual swing gate design, a single swing gate is usually more pragmatic.

Remote Gate Control Systems

Finally, consider what kind of remote access control you’ll want to control the gate. The simplest and most economical style is the one-button remote with a visor clip, like ones for garage doors. The next level would be a keypad controller, allowing the resident to leave the remote behind. The most expensive and feature-complete option would be a keypad with an intercom and camera, allowing the resident to verify guests and buzz them in.

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An electric dog fence isn’t really a fence, at least in the physical sense. Electric dog fences are made up of two primary components: a transmitting wire and a dog collar receiver. In most cases, the wire, which typically comes in 500′ to 1000′ lengths, gets buried underground, making it in effect an invisible fence — a brand name frequently used in a generic sense to refer to invisible dog fence systems. The dog collar receives the signal transmitted by the wire once it’s in range. Once it receives the signal, the collar issues a beep to alert the dog, and also issues a mild electric shock. The intensity of the shock is adjustable, and larger dogs might require a greater shock to be an effective deterrent.

As you can probably imagine, more than a few animal lovers object to using an electric fence for dogs on general principle, insisting that the solution is inhumane. Defenders of electric fences for dogs insist that the shock delivered is too mild to be traumatic. You can spend all day looking up arguments for either position online without finding conclusive evidence one way or another. Ultimately, whether or not you decide to employ a dog electric fence is a judgment call you’ll have to make on incomplete information.

Electric dog fencing has a number of advantages over a physical dog fence. Homeowners might be prohibited by their neighbors from installing physical fences and barriers. Most wireless electric dog fence systems, generally under $300, cost a fraction of what wood or metal fences would cost. Unlike underground dog fence systems, physical fences are easily dug under or jumped over by many dogs, making them a poor solution if pet containment is the main reason for installing them.

Furthermore, while an electronic dog fence is sometimes referred to as an underground electric dog fence, nothing prevents owners from installing the wire above ground, indoors, or in any desired location to prevent dogs to wandering into areas that should be off-limits, like pools, gardens, or particular rooms.

But dog electric fences have definite drawbacks. They’re inherently a one-way safeguard: they may prevent dogs from escaping, but do nothing to keep animals and other intruders off of your property. Even a not-so-mild shock may not prevent a determined dog from running beyond the perimeter, and the shock associated with crossing that perimeter may actually discourage the dog from returning.

Electric fences for dogs do not work like simple appliances; they have to be supplemented with voice training in order for the dogs to understand that the perimeter is not to be crossed. Finally, owners must be diligent about checking the batteries. Forgetting to charge them is easy to do, and a dead electric dog fence is like having no fence.

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The pool fencing ideas you consider should reflect and align with why you want to enclose your pool in the first place. Is your pool fence primarily for decoration, privacy or utility? In every case, safety will factor into every design decision, but aesthetics and functionality need to be weighed as well.

Popular materials for pool fences are wood, metal and vinyl. Wood fences are typically made of cedar and pressure-treated pine. A swimming pool fence made of cedar tends to last longer, as its higher-density grain makes it less vulnerable to insects and moisture. Metal and vinyl, particularly wrought iron, have an even longer life span and require less maintenance. The rods should be no more than 4″ apart to prevent kids from squeezing through, and any horizontal framing members should be faced on the inside of the fence to prevent giving kids a foothold for climbing.

If you’re mainly concerned with purely functional fencing, chain link fences are a popular and seemingly straightforward choice, but regulatory restrictions in your area may not allow it. Chain link fencing is a safety risk for children, since the links easy to climb. Some codes require that links must be no greater than 1.25″, making it more difficult for kids to insert their feet. Another alternative for an above ground pool fence is split-rail fencing. A split-rail fence typically comes in two-rail and three-rail options, both of which must be covered with wire mesh at least 48″ in height. Split-rail fences offer the least amount of privacy, but conversely offer the best view or the surroundings.

For privacy fencing, a stockade fence with no gaps between its wood slats provides maximum privacy. Needless to say, this also provides no view of the surroundings, and no view of the pool from the outside, which may feel uninviting before long. Small gaps between slats give enough of a view to convey activity to outsiders, but no significant level of detail to encourage voyeurism. To discourage kids from climbing, solid wood plank fences should be at least 48″ tall. Some regulations also require that the bottom edge of the planks be no more than 4″ off the ground to discourage kids from crawling underneath the fence.

For decorative fencing, nothing beats an ornamental iron fence if your budget allows for it. Wrought iron fences are the most popular choice for ornamental fences, but hot-dipped galvanized steel can provide an identical look at a lower price, while being far more durable than aluminum fencing.

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If you have a hearth that you actually use, a fireplace safety gate is essential for childproofing your home. While a hearth gate is pricey, typically ranging between $100 and $200, it’s a much more secure and versatile option than protective foam padding which is sometimes recommended.

Pads can be pulled off, and don’t provide a high enough obstacle for children anxious to touch a visually dazzling fire. Even worse than foam padding specifically designed for fireplaces are pool noodles that some parents try to tape down. Not only are these easily pulled off, but they usually come in bright, child-friendly colors that makes them even more seductive for meddling.

Unlike a baby gate, or other safety gate products made from lighter materials, fireplace safety gates are usually made out of non-toxic, heat resistant steel or iron, giving them a heft that makes them fairly difficult for small children and small pets to knock down. Fireplace gate dimensions vary from product to product, but typical measurements are 6′ wide, 2′ deep and 30″ high. A hearth gate should be tall enough to discourage children from climbing.

Unlike fireplace doors, most fireplace gates are portable enough to be used for wood burning stoves and outdoor grills as needed. The also have the advantage of protecting children from a fireplace’s sharp brick or stone textures and corners.

Some child safety gate products consist of three interlocking segments whose left and right segment angle inward. Higher-end models are made up more segments to accommodate wider fireplaces, with additional segments available for purchase. These gates often have a section with a walk-through gate with an adult release latch. It’s important to measure your fireplace and the clearance you’ll need before committing to a particular model, since the number of segments included by default may not be enough, and having to purchase extra segments might bump up your total cost by 30-50%.

While a determined child can knock down a baby fireplace gate, the gate’s heavy metal hitting the floor is excellent for alerting a parent that the fireplace is exposed. The thud of the falling gate will usually prompt the child to jump away from the fireplace rather than toward it, at least long enough for the parent to intervene.

No matter how diligent the parent, it’s impossible to keep an eye on a child every single moment. Without exception, every child at some point learns the hard way that fire and hot objects should not be touched. A parent’s task is to make the hard way less severe, and as unlikely as possible. Even a bad safety gate is safer than none.

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A baby stair gate is a critical childproofing accessory, one that you’ll want to install that the first signs that your child is becoming capable of walking. Stair gates are arguably more important during the initial stages of walking than when a baby can walk at full speed. In order to walk, babies have to learn how to balance themselves upright, which inevitably means they’ll fail more than they succeed at first, frequently falling backward. Falling on a level floor only hurts, but the consequences of falling anywhere near or on a flight of stairs can be disastrous. A baby safety gate is no minor precaution.

Baby Gates for Stairs

Baby gate products come in different designs with different mounting arrangements, so there’s always at least one model on the market that can work with your home’s stair configuration. With slight variations between products, baby gates stairs tend to be 30-34″ wide and 28-31″ tall. Gates for stairs are designed to use one of two primary fastening methods: pressure-fitted mounts and screw-fitted mounts.

While pressure mounted baby gates obviously require less assembly in terms of drilling, screwing or gluing, they’re prone to egress from babies or pets to butt against them over time, and they run the risk of eventually slipping out of place. For this reason, pressure-fitting stair gates should not be installed at the top of stairs.

Screw-fitted mounts are inherently more secure, and can also be used between doorways to close off access to rooms. But they’re more labor intensive to assemble, and less convenient to reposition if desired. Having the flexibility to reconsider the best placement of a stair gate is an important consideration. While screw fitting gates aren’t conducive to repositioning, most models have a quick-release fittings that allow the gate to be removed when not in use.

Baby gates for stairs aren’t just for stairs (not are they just for babies; they protect pets as well). They can often be used to block access to any area not suitable for children: a kitchen, an office desk with exposed cables, an entertainment center or a dining table. Sometimes your goal is not just to block off stairs, but to whole floors.

Just because a safety gate is a necessity doesn’t mean it has look utilitarian. Many safety gates are quite attractive. A wooden stair gate blends in nicely with most walls, and is usually available in a variety of common colors. While a metal stair gate is less attractive, it’s also far less prone to damage from children and pets.

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A retractable baby gate combines safety with convenience. Using a polyester mesh screen that pulls across the doorway on which it’s installed, retractable baby gates operate in a similar fashion to window shades, but laterally instead of vertically, and locking to a mount installed at the opposite end.

Since these baby gates pull across to a desired length, they’re capable of handling most doorway widths. There are wide and extra wide baby gate products available if your doorway is exceptionally wide. Typical retractable baby gates are designed to handle 42-72″ openings, and range between 30 and 34 inches in height, which should be more than sufficient to prevent toddlers from climbing over them. On the other hand, while the mesh screen is taut when stretched across a doorway, the material is still flexible, and in most cases should not be used at the top of stairs.

Some retractable baby safety gate products marketed as baby stair gates are newer or different designs, and may be suitable for their advertised purpose. Some “retractable” gates are actually older designs, like accordion gates, which use wood lattices to expand and contract. An accordion baby gate is not recommended, as it presents a danger to fingers and limbs when closing and opening. True retractable baby safety gates with mesh screens are often called rollers to distinguish them from other designs.

These rollers are compact alternatives to swinging baby gates, and are ideal for rooms with limited floor space, since they don’t arc outward from the doorway. When retracted, the rolled-up screen extends less than half a foot, so there’s no need to store it elsewhere when not in use.

Some retractable gates only rewind manually with a knob, which may not be an issue for many owners. In many cases, it’s not necessary to fully retract the screen when entering or exiting the room; it only needs to be briefly taken off the mount, then put back. Other models have automatic rewind mechanisms that retract the screen once the locking mechanism is released. This is idea for avoiding the trip hazards of an unmounted, unretracted screen that hangs limp across the doorway.

Most retractable baby gates only have a couple of drawbacks. They have a reputation for being noisy while extending and rewinding, which can be an issue when checking in on a sleeping baby. They’re also rarely the instant install that manufacturers advertise them to be, unlike some pressure-mounted gates. The components usually have to be screwed into the wall of the doorway, which isn’t a complicated process, but it definitely falls into the “some assembly required” category.

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A remote gate opener is an enormous convenience. Installing a remote control gate opener, or having one professionally installed, saves you the hassle of getting out of the car each time you need to enter or exit the driveway. This is easy to appreciate in areas with frequent bouts of rain, wind and snow.

Remote gate openers refer to the mechanical systems activated by remote controllers; they shouldn’t be confused with the remote control itself. Another potential point of confusion is the difference between a gate opener and a gate operator. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, gate operators are commercial systems designed to open and close heavy-duty gates. Gate openers are residential systems design to control light-duty gates. Manufacturers and vendors are being more careful to label their products as “commercial” or “residential” to simplify things.

A worm driven operator, also known as a screw driven operator, is typically an enclosed assembly with a jackscrew-operated piston that turns a ram arm. Screw driven operators can work with either sliding gates or swing gates. This is a simple design that doesn’t require pumps, chains or valves.

A swing arm operator is an enclosure that’s installed beside a swing gate. The arm extends from the enclosure to the middle of the gate using a hydraulic piston. This type of swing gate opener quite versatile, as many models can hand wood, tubular steel, or wrought iron gates. You can purchase a swing arm electric gate opener for a light duty single-swing gate for about half the cost of a unit for a heavy duty dual-swing gate. Swing arm operators are a great choice if you’re up to handling a do-it-yourself installation, as many models are available as kits in the $400-800 range.

An underground loop opener can be used for swing gates or sliding gates. Since the mechanics are buried out of sight, underground gate openers are the most popular option for residential entrances, not to mention the most aesthetic. A base that, a ground level looks like a plate, is placed at either end of the gate. This pair of bases actually covers underground box holes that contain the mechanics that power the gate operation. Underground openers are an ideal choice for dual-gate systems where the gate is close enough to the electrical mains to draw AC power; using solar panels or DC modules is possible, but they defeat the purpose of hiding the system’s components.

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