The unforgiving nature of concrete and the dangers of Ram Board


As I’ve said before, I do love concrete. Though, recently, my love affair with concrete has been tested and I have started to see a side of concrete that I do not appreciate as much as much. This is, of course, it’s unforgiving nature.

I’d been told this before by a concrete contractor. He said, “I hate working with concrete. It makes me very nervous. You only get one chance with it.” It’s one thing to hear that but I’d never experienced this myself before. Until now.

OK, so let’s start at the beginning, just after we’d poured the concrete floors. We’d been told to be VERY CAREFUL with the floors after they had been poured. They take 28 days to cure, so anything done to them in that time and, following this prior to sealing, will effect the outcome. We had simply wanted a troweled and sealed concrete floor, without any fancy finishes. So that meant we had to protect them from the other trades coming in. We were recommended to use a product called Ram Board – a temporary floor protector.

So we ordered the product and proceed to lay it out across the whole of our main floor and basement concrete. Now, if you actually look at the link to the Ram Board, it says, “lays out easily.” So you would think (as I did) that you simply roll this stuff out, covering the floor, secure it together, secure the sides and you’re done, right? Wrong! This stuff was insane to try and secure to the floor and secure it to itself. We were initially told to try masking tape or painter’s tape. Fail. We then tried packing tape (as the Ram Board seems basically like thin cardboard). Nope. Duct tape? Nope, not at all. Finally, the only stuff that we could find that was sticky enough to hold the board together and secure it to the floors was Tuck Tape (please learn from my errors). Neither the contractor nor the supplier could provide us with any other suggestions.


I will say this, and perhaps if you have or are planning to pour a concrete interior floor in a residential house, you will have noticed this, but every time I talked to someone about anything related to an interior concrete floor, it was as if we were the only people in the entire world to ever do such a bizarre thing. Trying to get any information out of anyone, including contractors, suppliers, designers, et cetera, was like beating my head against the wall – I couldn’t find any information. Even online the information and resources were incredibly scarce. So I do hope that this will be helpful to someone in the future, because I wish I knew then what I know now.

Ok, so that’s what we did. We tuck taped it down (NOTE: don’t do as we did). And for awhile we said, thank goodness for Ram Board! It saved us from the leaky chimney, from the muddy boots that the contractors wore into the house, from the incredible mess from the drywall mudders, and from our own sloppy painting.

Then about four weeks after we’d laid the Ram Board out, I went to the concrete wholesaler to pick up our sealant and wax for finishing the floors. He asked how we’d protected the floors and we told him what how we covered them. “You know that Ram Board can leave cure lines, right?” He said. Umm, no and I don’t even know what that is (I’d never heard of ‘cure lines’ as a term before in my life – never in all of my exhaustive research on concrete). “Well, hopefully not,” he said. “How do you prevent cure lines,” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never used Ram Board before.” He replied. (See what I’ve saying re: beating head against wall?)

Well, I couldn’t do anything about it now, and I still didn’t know what cure lines were, so if we got them then I guess we’d have to figure it out later. Another month passed.

Finally, we were ready to expose the floors and see what lay beneath. We started with the basement and to my horror, the board, no, the Tuck Tape, was really fricking hard to remove! As we started to pull the board away, the tape began to release, but…


Oh God, no. FML.

All around the perimeter of the floor was this. In spots, not so much. In others, a nightmare.

We got down on our hands and knees and started scraping it frantically with a razor blade and a hair dryer (seriously). The tape started to slowly release. Ok, good (kind of) we can fix this, I think. Although there were dozens of areas like that in the photo.

We decided we would get the rest of the board up and then proceed to take the tape off the floor. As we continued removing the board in the basement we worked towards the interior walls.


What?! NO!!!

Yes, this is red chalk. Deeply pigmented red chalk. Why would we have red chalk on our floors, you may ponder. Well, the framers, had chalked the floors to mark the walls for framing – a typical practice in a basement that will be covered with laminated, hardwood or carpet – but not on a finished concrete floor! Oh my god.

Well, I guess we have a red concrete basement floor now, I said.

But hey, no cure lines!

(I can joke about it now, but this really really sucked.)

Over the next two days, I spent on my hands and knees, scrapping the red fucking tape with a razor blade and hair dryer (I believe it was in the range of 20 hours of work). How we were going to get the red chalk off was another question. I figured (naively) that it was wipe off with soap and water, and so, I futilely attempted this.

Nothing. It did absolutely nothing.

Desperate, I got my palm sander out and sanded a small area in the closet with 80 grit sand paper. Hmm. It started to come up – ok, this is good. Although my measly 4″ palm sander would take a lifetime to try and get the roughly one 1/4 of our basement that had red chalk dust clean.

Bizarrely, on my day off, sweating and angry in the basement, perhaps by the grace of God (or whoever), a stranger showed up at our door. It was a Tuesday afternoon and we don’t get people just dropping in. We are in the middle of nowhere. It was a guy who we were actually supposed to have a tour of his house some months before, but we’d gotten busy and never gone. He was coming by to see how things were going and to check out our house (I think he was just snooping though really, as how would he have known someone would be around on a Tuesday afternoon). Naturally the discussion turned to the concrete floors, (which he also had!) and he asked how we we were going to finish the floors. Not sure, I told him. He informed me that he had in fact wanted to grind his floors to expose the aggregate, but when they came to do this, they found the floor too hard to work with. Because they had intended to grind the floors they did not cover it so it was covered with paint and drywall mud and all sorts of other crap. After much of their own stress, they decided to try to sand off that layer of crap. They rented an industrial floor sander, like the ones they use to refinish decks and old hardwood floors. It was a fair bit of work, he told me, but it removed all of that junk and left the natural grey floors. You should come check it out, he told me.

I had too much work to do. I needed to get the main floor board up and see what was underneath. I was relieved to find that, for whatever reason, this board and tape came up much better and there were only a couple spots with Tuck Tape residue left behind. Wow, must be my luck day, I thought. But then I stepped back and surveyed the great room. Sonuvabitch.


It may be faint in the photo, though it is much darker in person… you see those lines running to the end of the room? Yup, those are cure lines.

I was beside myself.

After being super depressed for the next few days, talking to contractors, suppliers, builders, and trying to think if there was anyway to fix this multitude of problems that we were now facing with the floors.

(By the way, I also researched “cure lines with ram board” in concrete floors. And wouldn’t you know that the only way to “fix” this was to prevent it from happening in the first place! By using a special vapour permeable floor tape! A tape that was not available through our supplier nonetheless… Rage.)

After talking to numerous people we narrowed our options down to four:

  1. Live with it. Gah, concrete is unforgiving. You mess it up and you have to live with the shame of it for the rest of your life. Probably though you will get over it and not notice it eventually. But as a recovering perfectionist, this was a stretch for me. A leap of faith that I wasn’t ready to accept without trying something – anything.
  2. Creative acid staining. The suggestion was to stain the area around the cure lines a darker colour then stain the whole floor in another colour. This may or may not work and to be honest, I don’t like the look of acid staining anyways.
  3. Grinding and polishing. I like this look, but it is very very expense ~$10/sq.ft. This is where the top 1/8″ of the concrete is ground off and polished to expose the aggregate. This was the only option to guarantee removal of the cure lines and chalk in the basement.
  4. Sanding. This is an option made only by the stranger that showed up at the house a few days prior. I found no information online about this except for one article that said you could sand the floor to prep it before staining to even out the finish. There was no guarantee that this would work, but it was probably the one with the least risks associated.

I called up the rental store and asked if I could rent a floor sander for the weekend. In talking with the stranger about the concrete floors, he told me he had used 60, 80 and 120 grit sand paper on his floors. Now I needed to go a bit deeper to see if I could get the cure lines slightly reduced, if not eliminated. I elected to start with 24 grit. Again, I will say this was a total experiment and I had no clue what I was about to get myself into.

I, of course, did not tell the rental store that I was going to use it on a concrete floor as this may raise some eyebrows. We decided to start in the basement because if we did fail, at least I would prefer to screw-up the basement over the main floor.

And so, on Friday we spent the evening like this:


It was a crazy crazy amount of dust – crystalline silica dust to be precise, which interestingly is super cancer causing. But ever so gradually as I went over and over the floors on the second and third passes with 24 grit sandpaper, the red chalk started to disappear. At the same time though, where the Tuck Tape had been stuck to the floor, it showed the residue of the adhesive more clearly. This too had soaked into the floor. The sander was not localized enough to get at this, so it had to be done on hands and knees with the palm sander (which did remove the adhesive residue) and some serious elbow grease.

We then made passes with 40 grit and 80 grit paper. I had been worried that the sanding might just “grey out” the floors into a bland pattern, but this wasn’t the case at all. Impressively, this actually exposed some interesting tone and variations in the concrete that were not there prior. And in some areas that were gone over a bit more heavily, some aggregate became exposed as well. The industrial sander worked well in that it covered a broad area with out leaving any sort of pattern to its movement. In that way though it was also really hard to control. Weighing about 100 lbs and vibrating across the floor in a seemingly random pattern did end up leaving some unsightly dings in the drywall that will need to be patched later.

After the dust settled the next day (literally), we surveyed the situation and were happy and relieved to see that the vast majority of the chalk had been removed, and with the hand sanding, the tape lines too.

With some returning sense of optimism, I decided to try it on the main floor. I followed the same process going over with the 24 grit sand paper 2-3 times, then the 40 grit and lastly the 80 grit paper, vacuuming with the big shop vac between each pass in each room. It was tough to tell at first, but the lines seemed to be less noticeable. But maybe it was just the dusty residue. We decided to leave it again for another day.

On the third day we returned with the plan to clean the floors and seal them if they did not look like a total disaster. We vacuumed the entire house another two times.

IMG_3127Well, I’ll be damned, they looked better. They weren’t perfect, but definitely a bit better. I could still make out the cure lines in places, but they were less continuous overall.

In the photo to the left, you can slightly see the cure line running in the right top corner on the diagonal.

So, relatively satisfied with the outcome, and happy that we had at least done our best to fix it, we decided to seal the floors. I had picked up a 20% solvent acrylic sealer (totally poisonous stuff). They recommended using a nap roller to apply the sealant, but we had used that method for the concrete basement walls and it sucked, so instead we decided to use the ol’ “spray and back roll method.”

This is just what it sounds like, spray the stuff and use the roller (pulling backwards) to smooth it out. Try not to overlap the rolls too much and just apply the spray lightly in a mist to cover the area. I sprayed and the wife rolled. This method went about three times faster than just the roller method and it gave a nice even finish. It took about 45 minutes to cover 1200 sq.ft.

We then proceeded to the main floor. This solvent sealer is very sticky as it starts to try. We’d taken a short break to breath non-toxic air before returning to the main floor. It started well, but about 1/2 way through the sprayer became gummed up with the drying sealant and I could not turn it off! It was spraying uncontrollably, including onto the freshly painted wall! Yup, nothing is easy when building and nothing really goes as planned.

The rest of the main floor ended up taking four times as long as the basement as I was constantly stopping to clean the sprayer. In hindsight, I would recommend having one sprayer for every 1000 sq.ft.

Finally though we finished. It was sealed and now there was no going back at all. Fine by me. I was so done with these floors.

We left all of the windows open for the next 24 hours to let the house air out as the sealant smelled very potent.  When I stuck my head in the window the next day though I was very pleased to see that, well, the floors looked pretty awesome:


Again, there were spots that were not perfect and in the second bedroom there was still a very dark line that I was not at all able to reduce. Can anyone say: throw rug? But nonetheless, I’m relatively happy with them. We tried and didn’t totally fail. Although I wish I would have known how to prevent the cure lines in the first place (now I do and so do you): Special tape!

Drywall (the least romantic part of building) and Paint

Ok, none of it is really romantic, but drywall has got to be the most unappealing stage in building. Despite what everyone says about it making a space “look bigger”, I didn’t get that impression at all. I just thought: this is gross.


I had been taking a tonne of pictures up until this stage, but truthfully, I didn’t want to remember this drywall stage (I think I took 3 photos total). I was glad when it was finally over, but it ended up that the contractor took 4 weeks longer than anticipated and ended up setting us back a full month in construction.

In the end, they did a “good job” from a boarding/mudding/taping point of view. Our house was actually pretty complex, as we realized, for the drywallers. A few things I will share.

First of all, we did not want any baseboards, crown mouldings, or trim around the windows. Why!? Why would you do this?? You may ask. And I will tell you: we like the look of the clean lines of the materials sharply bumping up against the next – drywall to concrete, drywall to pine ceiling, black window framess to walls. If you want to get philosophical (who doesn’t?), this transition for us of moving, building, giving up our city life, has been an experience of pulling back the layers of ourselves and exposing who we really are. And the non-philosphical reason: I just think it looks cool.

Now, this added a couple of significant dimensions of challenge to the drywallers, how do you finish the drywall where it meets the concrete floor (main floor and basement), where it meets the concrete walls of the basement, and where it meets the window/door frames (a whole challenge in itself)?

4c221eaa86bc8bab489c71ea825d0b14_f267After much debate, we elected to use a product called a “tear-away bead”. Basically they stick this bead on the bottom edge of the drywall, mud overtop of it, and then simply tear away this little tab on the bottom giving a nice clean line at the drywall edge. Most people use this for butting drywall up against exposed timber framing. We ended up using it extensively, about 2000 linear feet, on all bottom seams where the drywall met the concrete floors and the exposed concrete walls in the basement.

Now the windows were another challenge altogether. As you know, we built 16″ thick walls, which made for a significant 14″ return on the windows from the interior wall (2″ for the window thickness). On the window sills, we will be installing douglas fir sills, but to do that around the whole of windows would be too much wood (in my opinion, as we will be installing pine ceilings throughout the whole main floor). So instead we wanted to do a drywall return on the top and sides. Now, I’m not sure how other people do this, but there is a drywall return channel on the window frames that the drywaller will simply slide the drywall into and then you’re done and ready to proceed with adding your trim.

DSC_0036aFor our windows, it was not that simple at all. We had asked them to remove all of the drywall return channels prior to the shipping the windows so that we could add our fancy air sealing Tescon Profil tapes to the windows (if we hadn’t have done this there would have been no way to secure the vapour barrier to the window frame – how do people normally do this, I asked? Most people don’t secure the vapour barrier to the window at all, was the answer I received. No wonder people have drafty windows!).

Ok so that was one thing, but it had a cascade of effects, namely that you had to get a reasonable overlap onto the window frame to secure the tape, which was approximately 1/2″. Remember too that there is spray foam that is sprayed in between the rough opening of the window and the actual window frame – about 1/2″ as well on all sides. Drywall is only 1/2″ thick… see where I’m going with this? The numbers were not adding up. Our only option was to double-up (two sheets) of drywall at each window return. As there was now no way to use the drywall return channel for the windows (and we weren’t putting on trim anyway to hide it) we ended up using the tear-away bead here too to give a tight clean line between the window frame and the drywall.

Problem solved!

Not quite… the whole house had been designed for 1/2″ drywall throughout, which you may not think would be a problem, except for the two corner windows (between the main entry door and kitchen/dining room).



This was not going to work. After coming up with some preliminary dumb ideas, I removed the second piece of drywall, which made the corner flush again, but it exposed too much of the Tescon Profil tape on the windows, that cutting it away would expose the vapour barrier. I ended up shimming out the side closest to the window, at 14″ in depth, you can’t visually notice the 1/2″ transition that occurs, allowing the corner to be flush and the tape to be covered at the window frame. I’m so smart! (I humbly told myself). (Though my woodworker doing the sills will be cursing me).

Unfortunately the corner window with the main entry door, would not be so simple. The only option here was to build out the entire one wall and to make it two sheets thick. Oh well.


Once the mudding was finally done, we spent the next two weeks painting like madmen. We decided to use Benjamin Moore Cloud White for the entire house (except for the basement doors, which we will paint in Oxford White). I do like the colour white and there are seemingly an infinite number of whites to choose from. Cloud White though is a favourite of one of the design duos we follow: Mjolk. So that made the decision easy for us.

I do not like painting at all, but we are lucky enough to have an amazing neighbour who came and helped us paint for two long days on the weekend. Having the extra hands was such a blessing to us. Over the next week we were able to finish the painting and were ready for the next step: exposing the concrete floors and the nightmare that followed.

Solar panels – Good for the environment, good for your wallet

It wasn’t enough for us to simply reduce our carbon footprint through building a super-insulated eco-house. We wanted to come as close to eliminating our footprint completely by working towards a net zero standard. The house envelope, airtightness, passive solar design, and thermal mass of the house, would all have the effect of reducing our energy consumption by 75-80%. The rest of our energy for heating, domestic hot water, and appliances was purely electric based, with the exception of our wood burning stove. We have no natural gas to our property – and to be honest, even if we did, we would not have hooked it up. Burning fossil fuels for energy, despite it’s current affordability, is not a clean energy source nor is it sustainable. Still, despite what some people say, electricity – at least in Saskatchewan – is not sustainable nor is it clean either. Our electricity comes from a power plant that uses a combination of coal and natural gas. Really, in one of the windiest and sunniest places in the world, you’d think we should be able to have some capacity to utilize renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, this is often a top-down decision in the government and sadly, both our provincial and federal governments are heavily financed through their strong ties to the oil and gas industries in this country (no matter how much of a downturn there has been in the markets over the past year) and there is no sign of this changing anytime soon

Until such a time that the collective elite decide to recognize the need to shift away from non-renewables, it will continue to be left to the grassroots movements and local homeowners to decide if they care enough to make a commitment to renewable energy – despite the upfront costs of doing so.

But these times are changing. No longer is it purely a decision of environmentalism. Now the argument of the economics of renewable energy can be made. Let me present this in layman’s terms (as I am, of course, a layman myself).

Our projections for electrical energy consumption:

Estimated yearly energy use (DHW, appliances, heating) = 14,508 kWh (including regular wood stove use for heat)

Cost per kWH hour of electricity in Saskatchewan = $0.1456

Our projected electrical costs per year = 14,508 x 0.1456 = $2,112.36/year or $176.03/month

We worked with a company in Saskatoon, called MiEnergy, in sizing a choosing which solar array system would best suit our needs. We decided to purchased a 6.2 kW PV array. There was the option to upgrade to the 9.3 kW system but we felt that this would definitely be oversized for us at this point. The 6.2 kW system will be slightly under-sized but we can always add on more panels at a later date if we so choose.

6.2 kW system delivers an average of 775 kWh/month = 9330 kWh/year on average

That provides us an immediate saving of $1358.45 per year ($113.20/month) in energy costs. Expanded over the course of a 25 years this delivers $33,961 in electrical savings at the current electrical rates. (I found an interesting article on the energy outlook in the U.S. – there has been a $0.04 cent rise per kWh from 2003 to 2013. Extrapolating that, conservatively, over the next 25 years we should expect an upwards $0.08-0.10 rise per kWh. That equals between $0.22-0.24/kWh. The projections from MiEnergy pegs the 30 years saving at $58,067).

If you take the cost of the PV panels and roll this into a 25 year mortgage at a current 3.19% interest, this only costs a meagre $110/month. So essentially instead of giving $113.20/month (currently, which will increase) to the government to cover our extra electrical bill, we will invest $110/month towards the PV panels on our mortgage. After 25 years, they are paid for and we have money in our pocket (not to mention the fact that we’ve saved 233,250 kWh of energy from being generated at a polluting power plant). That’s a win for us and for Mother Nature.


If you want the facts and economics only, then disregard the story that follows. Of course, I wish my post, could be that short and simple. But as I’ve learned with building the house – something always goes wrong – no matter how bizarre, stupid or impossible it might seem…

The above photo is the after shot. After I received the phone call at 6pm on a Friday night from Saskpower (the electrical company) asking why a large steel beam had been driven directly through their power line?

“Uh… I don’t… know?”

You see there is this thing called: “Call Before You Dig.” It’s a free service that most places have that asks that you please call them to mark your underground power and gas lines before digging so that you don’t kill, maim, electrocute or otherwise dismember yourself. Unfortunately, as we learned that night, it is not a perfect service.

The solar company had called and had the power line (note, the singular word: line) marked a couple of days before the planned installation. Unfortunately, there were in fact, two power lines running into our transformer, one from our neighbours place to ours and the other running from ours to about 60 houses over the next number of miles. Well, you guessed it, they hit the one running to the 60 houses (that was not marked), knocking out their power for the next 8 hours. Oopsy.

IMG_3040When I showed up to the house, you could see the one line that was marked (as it was prior) with the solar panel racking system 4-5 feet away, then you saw where they had discovered the 2nd line, lying directly underneath the 2nd row of racking (not previously marked). The Saskpower guys though were very good, they realized it was not the fault of the solar company, nor mine, the line simply had not been marked by the Call Before You Dig people. They were just glad that no one had been hurt. They were able to restore power to the 60-odd houses that had been affected and the next day they were back out to splice and move our newly rediscovered power line.

(Incidentally, this was a total blessing, had they actually marked both power lines previously, we would not have been able to put the solar panels where we had wanted them. We would have been forced to find another, less ideal spot a much greater distance away).

By the way, we have had a number of people ask us why we did not choose to utilize a solar thermal system for water heating. Basically, it was because of this article and this article on Green Building Advisor.