If you have been actively farming for a long as I have, you have seen more than a few changes in the machinery we use. Today’s farm machinery is more powerful, faster, “smarter” and more comfortable than ever before. To be fair, they are also more complicated and expensive as well. Not everyone is thrilled with the changes, but as much as we call for a return to the “traditional’ tractor with four gears, two ranges and a single clutch, manufacturers see their future in advancements, not antiques.

As much as we have seen advancements in the farm machinery world, there has been at least an equal amount of advancements in the construction and building trades as well. Every time I go to the local building supply store or the big box suppliers, I think about how my dad would react to the changes in how we build and repair our farm structures.

“Put that cheap plastic stuff back and go get the steel one,” he might say. However, as I replace and repair structures that he designed and built nearly five decades ago, I see that many changes in building materials are a vast improvement in what they used to consider “stout.”

Plumbing and water supply lines are a great example of how changes have not only made repairs and replacements easier but more durable as well. Last fall, I “fixed” an underground galvanized waterline twice. Between the pressure, air exposure and rust, the old pipe’s age showed how there was a need to move from repair mode to full replacement.

This replacement was my first introduction to PEX piping. I continue to feel my dad cringe as I replaced his heavy steel piping with a plastic tube! It was flexible and easy to install. It was certainly not cheap and the fittings definitely were not inexpensive, but overall, it was a great product to work with as long as some rules are followed.

Fittings have to be securely fastened in order to prevent leaks so you need to be able to apply force to the fittings to get them to seal. PEX is easy to cut to length so it is also easy to cut by accident. Since our replacement ran across a driveway at the barn, we ran the tubing through a heavy conduit to prevent overloads and rock punctures.

Plastic tubing is also replacing copper pipes in many homes and farm buildings. With all the news that water supply lead levels has gotten, sweating and soldering copper together has lost its popularity. There are several products out now that also repairs to copper without solder and I have used them in my home as well. Once again, you need to be able to apply enough pressure to these adapting fittings but they work great without having to use a flame around your house or barn.

Technological advancements are not limited to plumbing supplies. Doors and windows have also evolved in very desirable ways. It shows my age, but I remember when double-paned glass was the hot new technology in windows. My wife and I recently completed replacing the windows in our home, choosing low-e glass for our windows. The results are fantastic. Our home is more sound proof and, during the afternoon, it looks like our home has sunglasses on! We lose less heat in the winter, gain less heat in the summer and our furniture and floor’s colors fade less.

Low-e glass is a type of treated glass that conducts visible light while controlling the passage of heat. Low-e stands for low emissivity. This glass is an energy efficient way to control the heat being allowed in and out of a home or environment.

The same type of evolution, if you will, has found its way into doors, large garage doors especially. Today’s large opening doors are stronger, have a higher “R” value and open more reliably. Improving the technologies in your doors can make your shop more comfortable, more energy efficient and safer as well.

Even door openers have advanced. While they are more expensive, I do not think I would replace a door opener ever again without opting for the battery backup option. Being able to open a garage or shop door during a power failure could prevent a minor disaster from becoming a major one!

Speaking of electrical issues, even the way we wire a home or barn has seen some improvements. The way we splice wires and form junctions has become easier and safer. Again, we see more use of plastic over metal and we also use less conductive materials to reduce the fire risks of power supplies.

Lighting is (pardon the pun) light years ahead of where we were in my dad’s building days. I replaced Dad’s old 8-foot fluorescent fixtures with LED lights a few years ago. Not only do I have more light, but the lighting I have is faster and more reliable especially in cold weather. I also do not have that “fingernails on the blackboard” hum and that maddening flicker that Dad’s fixtures emitted.

My shop is warmer too because of the LED lights. Why? I hated those old fluorescent lights so badly I usually chose to leave them off and open the doors!

We have only talked about a few advancements here in this column and frankly, I don’t know if there is enough room in this entire publication to scratch the surface of building material technologies. Our title speaks about 2x4s and we never even addressed laminated veneer and structural composite lumber.

Suffice it to say, if you have not built a new barn, shed, shop or home in a few years… and especially if you are DIYers like my dad was and I am, then you need to do some research. Start by asking a professional that you trust what materials they use. You may find that not only have the materials changed and improved, the tools used to install them have as well. 

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Dr. Andy Overbay is Smyth County’s agriculture and natural resources extension agent.

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