It's a process to imagine, plan, design and install a fence BY ROXANNE McROBERTS, Weekend Projects Editor
Is the idea of a fence on a residential property to keep the kiddos safe, contain Fido, screen an area for privacy or create a decorative backdrop for landscaping?
A residential fence usually starts with the homeowner's imagination and grows into a napkin sketch drawn while sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window. In our case, after some discussion and the napkin drawing, any drive or walk led to detours to scout out other types and styles of fences to see what we thought would best suit our needs, complement our house and property and work well with our neighbors.
For a pre-installation, two-dimensional view of what the project will look like, the simple sketch will morph into a drawing with measurements and details that include all permanent structures, trees, landscaping elements and obstacles.
Consider maintenance, initial cost, appearance and architectural compatibility when you're choosing a fence style and material.
A privacy fence usually is at eye level or higher and solid. A semi-private fence has some solid components but includes open designs at the top or between posts. A decorative fence is just that -- intended to be an aesthetic element, but not to contain space or minimize or block visibility.
Wooden fences, whether pressure-treated, unfinished or a painted wood, require periodic maintenance. You'll need to clean and reseal, stain or paint it, while a vinyl fence needs to be rinsed. Metal fences, including aluminum and steel, often offer more decorative elements, but steel requires additional upkeep and periodic repainting, and aluminum is more maintenance-free.
Municipal zoning comes into play with almost all types of building and, to some extent, fences fall under that category. There are height, location and, sometimes, style restrictions.
In Lancaster city, for example, "Fences have to be on a homeowner's property, and if the property lines need to be determined, they should engage a surveyor to find the corners," says Walter Siderio, city zoning officer.
Other municipalities may have rules similar to those in Lancaster city, height limits of 4 feet on street frontage and 6 feet for rear fences. The finished side of a fence must face away from the property and no two fences can be within 5 feet of each other, according to Siderio.
Variances can be sought for fence situations that don't adhere to regulations, Siderio says, and should be sought before construction.
Whether a permit is required depends on the municipality, according to Siderio, who noted that in the city, the only requirement is that a project plan be filled out to be kept on record with the city.
The City of Lancaster website, for example, explains fence guidelines and requirements and recommendations (cityoflancasterpa.com). Homeowners are urged to check with their municipality's zoning officer, who will be able to guide the project and answer questions.
Stick-built fences usually have wood or vinyl components. Each picket, slat and post is individually assembled, and there are pre-assembled or manufactured panels in almost all fence materials. Stick-built fences allow the pickets to follow the property's contour.
Pre-built panels or sections usually dictate that any length of fence that extends over a slope will require the stair-step look: each section between posts is level at the top but drops down section by section to follow the slope of the property.
Michael White of Michael's Fencing, Little Mountain Road, Myerstown, prefers to compromise when there's a slope. Using 6-foot sections, an aluminum fence also can be "racked" enough to provide a gradual overall slope while keeping the vertical elements plumb.
White says that the aluminum components' vertical pickets have individual screws holding them in place in the horizontal rails. If each screw is loosened, the section can be racked to drop with the grade. He has found that a 6-foot section can be racked a maximum of about 2 feet if the slope requires it. Then, of course, retighten all the screws.
Because the rails are inserted into pre-routed holes in the posts, the height of the fence must be determined and can be defined with another string. Strings, levels and plumb bobs are essential, but White speaks to "eyeballing down the line." Posts must be at the right height and distance apart to receive the fence rail extensions. The overall run of one side of a fence project looks best if the entire slope is continuous and gradual.
If necessary and possible, odd dips and rises in the ground can be regraded to taper to keep the fence slope consistent, White says.
"Normally you start off at the corner of the house," White says.
To square things up, it's best to pull strings and use stakes at the corners and at the starting and finishing points to determine the fence path. Next, rewind to your middle school math classes to check to see if the corners are at a 90-degree angle.
Remember 3, 4, 5? Measure from the first corner in one direction, and mark the string at the 3-foot mark. From the same corner, measure the other way, and mark that string at the 4-foot mark. The measurement diagonally between the two marks should be 5 feet. If not, adjust accordingly. Do that at each corner.
Consider each leg of the fence in approximate 6-foot increments, because many fence panels come standard as 6-foot sections. "If sections need cut, I don't like to make the cut section less than 4 feet. If that's the case, I'll cut the first and last section so that they are both 5 feet so that there's not an odd, small one," White says.
Remember to take the post width into account when you're measuring for post locations. White says it's best to work one side at a time before digging all of the post holes and make sure things are lining up.
Before digging, think about what's underground. Make sure no underground utilities are in your path by calling OneCall at 888-258-0808. Also think about underground wiring for features like landscape lights or pet containment and lawn sprinkler systems.
Dig holes three times the width of the post, just below the frost line and half the width of the post from the string. The string will have to be moved while digging.
To ensure alignment along the sides, White installs the end posts and all corners, checking that they are at the right height and location. He makes sure there is some dry concrete under the post, especially for the corners and posts that will support gates.
He sets each post, making sure it's plumb in both directions. Working his way down the line, he tamps dry concrete around each post. He shakes each post to tighten the dry concrete around it, settling the concrete like sand in an hourglass. "I dig the holes in a line, set the end and corner post, pull a string, put the sections on and put the dry concrete in. Once I've adjusted and wiggled it all into place, then I wet it so the concrete can set up," White says.
He also suggests keeping the ground slightly away from the bottom of the fence pickets. Otherwise, the ground may force the section out of alignment when it freezes and heaves.
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