Q: I’m unfortunate enough to work in a part of the country that gets serious winters. How do other deck builders manage to keep the cash flowing when the snow’s blowing?
A: Andy Engel, editor of PDB, replies: I used to build decks and houses through the winter — I once started framing a house on a day that dawned at minus 28°F.
If you want to work in the winter, market in the fall so you have jobs to go to. Slogans like “Build your deck this winter to enjoy it all next season” resonate with smart consumers. You could offer a discount on winter-built decks, but don’t knock too much off the price, and don’t oversell, either. In the winter, work goes slower, and days will likely be lost to bad weather.
Probably the toughest part of working in the winter is digging footings. If you can, put your footings in before the ground freezes and build the decks later. If you can’t, at least insulate the ground where they’ll go with a couple of square feet of 2-inch foam insulation.
It is possible to dig frozen ground, if you must. One way to get through the frost layer a little easier is to heat it up with charcoal fires. Use a chimney starter to fire the charcoal, and dump the coals right where the footings will go. Repeat as needed and allow plenty of time. Alternatively, if the deck is high enough off the ground to permit the footings to be dug after the deck is built, support it on temporary posts until the ground thaws, then retrofit the footings. If you do pour a footing in freezing weather, insulate the concrete to keep it from freezing for the first few days.
You will have issues with your tools. Air tools can freeze up from condensation in the compressor tank. My solution is to upend the compressor each morning and dribble in a few drops of automotive anti-freeze through the drain cocks. It doesn’t take much.
Batteries are another issue. NiMH batteries have a reputation for not working below freezing, and lithium ion ones aren’t a lot better. Keep them warm, perhaps insulating them in the cold. Keep spare batteries somewhere warm and swap them frequently. Never charge cold batteries. Doing so can ruin them.
Working in the cold adds safety concerns. My most painful accident happened when I slipped on icy deck joists and fell through them so both shins hit the edge of a neighboring joist. Be smarter than me — don’t work in unsafe conditions.
This is basic, but dress for the weather. Rather than one heavy coat, wear layers you can adjust to avoid sweating as the day warms up. Throw out your cotton long Johns and buy ones made from a wicking fiber. They keep your skin dry if you sweat, adding considerably to your comfort. In fact, it’s best to avoid cotton altogether. An outdoorsman’s adage is that cotton kills — when it gets wet, it stays wet, and wet clothes lead to hypothermia.
Hands and feet are hard to keep warm. I use chemical warming packets that heat up when exposed to air. You can buy inner soles for your boots that hold these packets. One in the back of each glove keeps my hands warm.