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Fencing Overview

Mark boundaries, keep out critters, and find your privacy with proper fencing.

White picket fencing iStock

The earliest fences in America were tree trunks split lengthwise and stacked in zigzags to delineate the landscape. These fences made great sense as the land was being cleared of trees for agriculture. It was a great way to turn what was then considered a waste product into a resource. You rarely see such fences today except in historical villages.

Today, we have many more fencing options, but some of the same considerations remain. Fences exist to mark boundaries. Sometimes that’s a property line, sometimes it’s the boundary between where you want people or animals to go and where you don’t. Fences also can run for long distances, so the cost to build and maintain them is a big consideration.

And today, privacy from prying eyes is often the biggest consideration in choosing a fence.

Utilitarian Fences Are All About Function

If all your aim is to keep the dog in the yard or the horse in the field, you can build a very simple fence. Agricultural fences run the gamut from barbed wire and electric fences to estate-quality board fences and split rails that fit in mortised posts. Pet fences can be chain-link, but today many homeowners opt to keep pets confined with invisible underground wires that emit radio signals to trigger a shock collar.

Quite common in suburban areas are deer fences. Anyone who tries to garden where there are deer can testify to the damage they can do. Deer fences must be tall–about 8 feet— to keep them from being jumped. They’re often made from unobtrusive, black, plastic netting.

Another option is a similarly tall electric fence. Electric fences can be powered by PV or by a transformer at the house or barn that turns 120 volts into a jolting but harmless zap. This type of electric fence needs to be patrolled regularly as fallen branches and the like can ground the circuit and minimize the shock.

Privacy Fences Can Be Made From Wood or Plastic

As we build houses closer together, we find our privacy behind fences. Typically, six to eight feet tall, privacy fences shield our back yards from those of our neighbors. Not long ago, the main option was a rot-resistant wood such as cedar. To retain its original look though, even cedar needs maintenance in the form of regular staining or painting.

Today, various forms of plastic that require little more than an occasional pressure washing are eclipsing wood as the go-to fence material.

In some settings, blocking the view isn’t as important as marking the boundary.

Regulations are Important When Planning a Fencing Project

Nearly every town and city has regulations that govern where fences can be installed and what type of fencing can be used. It’s critical to check with the building and land use departments at town hall, and if you live somewhere with a homeowner’s association, with them as well. Homeowner’s associations often have more restrictions than are found at the municipal level. Municipal regulations often control how close to the property line a fence can be (setback requirements), as well as maximum fence height. In some cases, materials and colors are limited as well, but those kinds of restrictions are far more likely to emanate from a homeowner’s association.

Municipal regulations may also require that fence posts be set a certain depth. This is good practice in any event. Privacy fences in particular can act as big sails, so secure posts are necessary to prevent wind –related damage. The deeper the posts are that support a fence, the better it can resist wind.

Fence Layout Determines Post Spacing

Of course, the particulars will vary with the type of fence you’re installing. In every case, however, make sure you aren’t encroaching on your neighbor’s property or violating local setback requirements. Additionally, you’ll want to have any underground utilities located before any digging takes place. This is a free service that you can access anywhere in the US by calling 811. Even if you don’t get injured putting a shovel through an underground electrical or gas line, whoever is doing the digging is responsible for the cost of the repairs.

Once you’re sure where the fence can go, you’ll want to make sure it runs in straight lines between its corners. The way to do this is to dig, set, and brace all the corner posts first. Then, pull a string between those posts to guide the installation of all the others.

Before setting the corner posts, think about how the lengths of the fence sections will work out with the overall length of the fence. The fencing or rails that extend between posts are usually is sold in lengths of six feet or eight feet. If possible, use this module to space your posts and establish the overall length of each fence run.

That said, fence manufacturers are well aware of this issue and most build some sort of adjustability into their system – Either the intermediate post spacing can be fudged a little bit or the last section of fencing can be adjusted in length.

Fence Installation: It’s All About the Post Holes

Once you know the post spacing, the hard work begins. Post hole depth should be 1/3 to 1/2 the post height above ground. If the fence is open, say a wire fence or a traditional thee-board paddock fence, you can get away with the shallower hole. But privacy fences that offer a large sail area to the wind should have deeply set posts.

Digging holes is work. You can rent a powered auger to speed and ease the process. If you have a lot of rocks though, augers don’t work well, and you’ll be spending a fair amount of time on the wooden end of a shovel or post-hole digger.

While you can get away with backfilling post-holes for light-duty fences with gravel or even native soil, most posts should be set in concrete. (That, by the way, also means you’ll have wheelbarrow loads of soil from the holes to dispose of.) To set a post, brace it plumb in both directions with 2x4s temporarily staked to the ground (mason’s form stakes, available at home centers, work great for stakes). Fill the hole with a fast-setting concrete mix. Some of these don’t have to be mixed first–you put water in the hole, then dump in the concrete mix. Most set in about 20 minutes, letting you move down the line quickly.