Archive for December, 2010

Durham Public Schools poised to win $100,000

by Susan Herst

As reported yesterday in the Durham Herald-Sun, Jordan High and the NC School of Science and Math could EACH win $50,000 in December’s Pepsi Refresh contest if Durham citizens continue to vote, (

Voting is online and/or by text every day in December. The top 10 vote getters win. As of Tuesday, Dec 28th, Jordan High is #8 in the nation. NCSSM is #13. A third Durham entry, to help students earn a laptop computer, is #271.  With just three days left, the public must vote for our schools to win.

These $50,000 grants to support public schools will benefit everyone. Jordan High will use the money for much-needed white boards, science tables and desks.  NCSSM will use the money for a statewide food drive.

To text your vote, text the folllowing codes to 73774 (Pepsi):
  • 104617 (Jordan High: Help update worn-out classrooms and ignite community support)
  • 104425 (NC School of Science and Math food drive).
To double your vote or vote online, follow instructions on
Pepsi Refresh grants are very competitive, so all Durham must vote for our schools to win!  Thanks for caring and asking others to vote; please contact me if you have questions at Thank you!

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Keeping Your Home (and Self) Safe for the Holidays

posted by Ashley St. Clair

The holiday season conjures images of hot toddies and fireplaces, festive dinners with friends and family. We like to think of the holidays as a warm, safe, and spirited time. And with a few simple—yet oftentimes overlooked—precautionary measures, we can each help to ensure that our holiday season is in fact safe for our families and our neighbors.

Note: The Durham Police Department offers free home security surveys to identify security weaknesses and can provide suggestions for how to increase the natural surveillance of your home and make your house less inviting to a burglar. Call 560-4404 for more information.


● Avoid advertising that you will be away.

● Consider using at least two timers for turning on lights inside your home. This will give the appearance that it is occupied.

● Put exterior lights on photoelectric switches to activate them at dusk.

● Ask a trusted neighbor to watch your home, shovel snow, and park in your driveway periodically.

● Don‘t forget to have mail, newspaper, and deliveries stopped (or picked up by a neighbor).

● Leave a key and your contact information with someone you trust; don’t hide a key outside – burglars know all of the “good hiding spots.”

● Lock up ladders, tools, and recreational equipment.

● Do not keep large amounts of money in your home.

● Make sure your windows are locked and secured, that you use deadbolt locks on exterior doors, and that you pin sliding glass doors for added security. Burglars will only spend approximately sixty seconds trying to break into a residence.

● Cut back your shrubbery so that it doesn’t obscure the doors and windows of your home.


● Turn on lights, the radio, or a TV so that it looks like someone‘s home.

● Be cautious about locking doors and windows when you leave.

● Don‘t display gifts where they can be seen from outside your home.

● Upon your return, if anything looks suspicious, don’t go inside. Call the police from a neighbor’s house or cellular phone.


● The holiday season is a good time to update—or create–your home inventory. Take photos or make videos of items, and list descriptions and serial numbers. Keep the photos or videos in a secure place for future reference. If your home is burglarized, having a detailed inventory can help identify stolen items and make insurance claims much easier to file. Make sure that things like TVs, DVDs, VCRs, stereo equipment, cameras, camcorders, sport equipment, jewelry, silver, computers, home office equipment and power tools are on the list. Check it twice!


● Stay alert and be aware of what‘s going on around you at all times.

● Park in well-lit areas, and be sure to lock the car, close the windows, and place all shopping bags and gifts in the trunk.

● Avoid carrying large amounts of cash; pay with a check, or credit card whenever possible.

● Carry wallets in front pockets and purses close to your body.

● Pay attention to people walking in front of behind you. Be particularly observant when you are in crowded areas such as malls and stores, as places with large crowds are favorites for thieves and pickpockets.

● When shopping with children, teach them to go to the store clerk, information center, or security guard if you get separated.


● Always lock your vehicle and store all items out of sight. Breaking into a seemingly empty car isn‘t worth a thief‘s time.

● Always lock your car and check it before you walk away.

● If you take packages to the car but plan to return to the store or mall, drive to a new location. Criminals can be on the lookout for unsuspecting shoppers who simply drop their purchases into the trunk and then return to keep shopping.

● When returning to your vehicle (or home) have your keys in your hand ready to open the door.

● Most vehicles are equipped with factory car alarms; if you become startled or approached unwanted, push your vehicle‘s panic alarm. It may prevent an unwanted situation from escalating.

Crime prevention tips courtesy of The Durham Police Department, the Hope Valley Neighborhood Association, and the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association

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Foundation problems and the value of a good structural engineer Or… Help, there are cracks in my foundation!

By Lou Perron

Pier and Curtain Foundation (Image from Windyhill)

People often ask me about cracks they have discovered in their foundation.  Before I go further, I need to make a disclaimer —  I am not an engineer.  That said, I did study structures and materials as part of my architectural training, and have been involved with many repairs over the years.  I’ve learned what to look for – and when I need to bring in an expert.

First of all, what’s a foundation?  When you start building a house you dig down below the frost line to undisturbed ground.  At this point the soils are compacted so nothing should budge.  Then a trough is dug and filled with concrete to create a “footing.”  This is a wide continuous base on which the foundation is built.

When you see a crack it’s important to determine where it is and how severe it is.  In order to figure out whether it’s a big deal, you need to know what kind of foundation system you have.  For this article I’m going to talk about “pier and curtain wall” foundations.

This type of foundation is most common in the pre-1950 houses in Durham’s in-town neighborhoods. These foundations are made with a series of supports or “piers,” which are located at intervals of about 6 to 8 feet along the perimeter of the house and in the corners.  Most often the piers are made of a double layer of brick.  In addition to the piers at the perimeter, there will also be a series of free standing piers in the center of the house. These piers are usually 16”x16” and are designed to support the floor, wall and roof loads.

In between the piers are one brick thick walls called “curtain walls.”  It is not meant to support the house, but is just there to close in the basement or crawlspace, keep it dry and keep out the critters.

With this kind of foundation, the main cause for concern is when there’s a crack in a pier, parts of the pier have moved or if the pier is missing mortar between the bricks. When the piers can’t do their job, the curtain wall may end up doing it, even though it wasn’t designed to do this.  This can cause cracking or bowing.  This is generally only an issue if there’s a problem with the piers.  As long as the piers are secure, then cracks or even bowing in the curtain wall are usually cosmetic.  A mason can easily fix this.

The thing to be worried about is a major crack in a pier.   Then it’s a good idea to call in an engineer. While many homeowners or buyers feel this is just an additional expense, the cost is small considering that foundation repairs can mount into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.  An engineer can tell you if the crack you’ve found is a major problem and identify cost-effective solutions.

Why not just call a foundation contractor?  While there are some very good foundation contractors, there is an inherent conflict of interest when you ask a contractor to provide you a solution as well as do the work.  No matter how honest the contractor, they have a financial interest in recommending an expensive solution, even when there’s a less expensive solution that will solve the problem.  When you hire an engineer, they work for you, and have no stake in the cost of repairs.

Also, most contractors are not structural experts. I’ve noticed a tendency toward overkill that sometimes doesn’t even solve the problem.  I’ve had an engineer out to look at work that cost thousands of dollars but still didn’t fix the problem. The engineer just shook her head.

So if you notice a crack or sagging, don’t get caught up in foundation hysteria.  Take a deep breath.  Ask your broker to recommend a licensed structural engineer.  Have the engineer look at your foundation and identify any structural problems.  If your engineer believes repairs are warranted, ask her to recommend a specific solution, in writing.  Then have contractors bid on the work.

Your small investment in the services of an engineer could save you thousands of dollars.  It’ll also give you peace of mind and confidence when you sell your home.

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