The [Dis]Advantage of Canadian Winters and Building

I mentioned in my last post that I would give a follow up post about the things I don’t like about carpentry work in Canada’s winter wonderland. I just finished up couple of jobs in November and in Alberta, November is winter (my friends from Victoria can stop laughing now!). I know some places in Canada have it lucky where Halloween is quite fun – because you don’t have to wear a snowsuit. Not here. In Central Alberta, my tag for where winter begins is the week before Halloween. It’s not a rule, but I generally won’t do “summer only” jobs like exterior painting & caulking past October 20th.

Incidentally, the photo shows the reason I’m writing this blog now on December 4 instead of working.  “Travel is not advised” says the RCMP. So here is a list of things that make Carpentry and reno work hard in the winter (but not impossible).

  1. Things that freeze and should not! Carpenter’s glue cannot freeze, so don’t leave it in the work truck overnight like I always do. Same goes for ABS solvent cement for plumbing. many forms of caulking (usually when it says acrylic) cannot freeze. Paint usually can not get close to freezing, either in the can or when being applied. Usually the statement on the label will read something like “apply above 5 deg. Celsius” I just finished putting up an exterior wall of Quality Stone product which is a polyurethane product requiring a caulking bead around windows and doors. I got the product up but have to wait till the spring, then go back and finish the 1 hour job of caulking and touch-up. I could be one of those contractors that slaps up the caulking in a snow storm. The caulk would fail next year and I’d have cashed the cheque long ago.
  2. Concrete is touchy when It gets cold. You can do it due to chemical add-mixes, or you can apply artificial heat and make a funky tent over the jobsite, but it’s difficult, time consuming and just raises the price of everything. It may be 15 degrees above during the day, but at night it could plumit to -10 deg. which would ruin the job.
  3. I don’t like to dig for my lumber like fido. I am currently working with a mixed farm operator who is having me nail up slab boards for wind breaks along fence lines. This can be done anytime but I know tomorrow, I’m gonna spend a lot more time digging the boards out of snowbanks and kicking boards that are frozen together.
  4. Digging the ground can be a really hard chore. I’ve had to dig earth after the frost has set on several occasions and ground frost is interesting (each time involving laying electric cable). I used to think that ground frost was this zone with uniform thickness that gently set into the ground over hours and days. Wrong, and wrong. ground frost has a lot to do with the moisture content of the soil. It’s the water that makes the digging hard. No water, no problem. Second, frost can be here and not there. Thick here, thin there and not frozen elsewhere. Frost thickness can be “slowed down” by laying straw, woodchips, peatmoss etc. to insulate the ground. Areas with biomass ground cover may never get ground frost. However, places with traffic over the earth (foot or otherwise) compacts the ground and excellerates the frosts thickness and rate of penetration. Having said all this, there are all kinds of powerfull machines that can rip up frozen anything.
  5. The cold weather makes things brittle. Working with plastic – like vinyl siding – is tricky since the cold makes things crack much easier. For roofing, there is a sweet spot for shingles. In the summer shingles are too soft most of the time. On cold days they are too brittle. The roofer who was in charge of my roof always said “the sun gives you 10 degrees”. so he only worked on sunny days in the winter.
  6. Icy conditions. Simple “chicken ladders” used on construction sites to access the building can become dangerous when icy. Roofing is out of the question unless the sun has burned off the frost on a roof. When I built my house there was always a bag of snow-melter around.

Winter construction seems to be more of a challenge than in the summer. The simple act of getting ready in the morning takes longer, but there are more sunny warm days than most people realize, however today is a shop day. I haven’t even put the blower attachment on my lawn tractor.
The Snowblower from 2008!