Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hay and other forms of cellulose

When I realize how important the cellulose chain is to our lives, it makes me wonder why I don't know more about it that I do. I even went to Forestry School, but I can't for the life of me remember what the structure of this polymer looks like.

(Time for a quick Wikipedia search.)

Here in the woods and green fields of Maine, of course, cellulose is most of what we see every day, all year, at least until it gets covered by snow.

Anyway, it's been even more prevalent lately than usual around the farm.

First, we were able to get the hay in. It was a sweaty, tiring afternoon, but with the help of Friend Alysa and a friendly truck, we now have 272 bales of freshly compressed cellulosic product stacked in the barn attic.

Right where it needs to be. Victory over the weather, too. Score one for the good guys.

Timing is everything, and in this case it was our farmer who watched his fields and the weather like a hawk. He mowed Sunday when the weather had been dry and windy since later Saturday. The crop lay for less than 24 hours in 80 degree sun and low humidity. It was tedded (turned) once the next day, left for another hour or two of sun, and baled.

This procedure of course was risky, and the outermost rows of bales, the ones that had felt some shade from the trees that surrounded the field, were damp and heavy. But the bales in the center of the field seemed just fine. We bought the bales right off the field and so had to lift them and haul them ourselves, but we save money that way, around $300 less, in fact, so the labor pays for itself. We took only the dry bales. The farmer kept the damp ones. He probably sold as much hay off each field as he normally does, despite these unsold bales, because of the heavy crop.

Thanks to Alysa and the Maintenance Crew at UC for help with this vital project.

The next kind of cellulose I had to wrestle with was the insulation kind. This is recycled newspaper and paper factory waste, and I've been blowing it into the walls of this old house.

You can see the apparatus that does this job here, which you rent from a rental yard.

I suppose I'm a bit of a fanatic about insulation.

(The local hardware store manager was commenting recently on the number of containers of spray foam insulation I've bought from him, dozens and dozens. That stuff is so useful. I even use it to fill the tires of small items of farm equipment when all else fails.)

In the case of these walls, the cellulose is only part of the procedure. There's also a whole system for shoring up the sills against damp and carpenter ants. The sills in this house are six by six hemlock, 109 years old, and except for a four foot section that got attacked by carpenter ants and had to be replaced, are as sound as the day they were laid. But we need them to last another 100 years, so we are stripping the siding and sheathing off to expose them, spraying them with pyrethrin, covering them with "Plytanium" pressure treated plywood, and then adding another layer of two inch pink Styrofoam (polystyrene) insulation.

All the stripping, spraying and re-sheathing has to be done before the celluose can get blown in. Each layer of plywood and foam is sealed tight with spray foam, too.

After the foam board insulation, which make the house a nice but temporary shade of hot pink, there's a final layer of oriented strand board, #30 construction paper and cedar shingles. The OSB is really just a nailer for the shingle nails.

The cellulose blower is a tricky beast. To get the stuff inside the walls I drill 2-inch holes with a thirty-dollar augur bit and a very heavy duty power drill a few inches from the top of each stud bay. There's a reducer nozzle on the blower pipe that goes in these holes. You load up the machine with product, take your hose and remote control switch to the top of the ladder, push the nozzle in the hole, hit the t*t, and wait for the cellulose to come rattling through the blower. You can tell when you're getting product and not just air because the hose will shake violently. If you let the bay fill up and don't withdraw the hose at the right moment, the nozzle will block. It's possible to actually block the entire hose, if you don't shut the machine down. All this, and filling the hopper, means you have to be up and down the ladder like the proverbial underwear in the house of ill-repute.

You can see from the picture how much of this gets on me! At the end of the session with the machine, I have to go hose myself off with the garden hose. The material, which has borax in it to repel insects and rodents and reduce fire risk, stings like salt, too, if you get it in a cut or a scratch

I like American poet Gary Snyder's idea of "the real work," by which he means the work of community and household building through, among other things, Zen meditation. I think there's a Zen to the art of using machinery for the common good. In this case, the good is not so common, mostly just Aimee and myself and the indoor animals, dogs and cats, will benefit. The occasional clever mouse that escapes the cats might be a little toastier this winter.

But he'd better not be living in my nice rebuilt walls!

However, at the college where I work we teach students how to do this kind of work in public service projects, and so they go out and insulate houses for local folks, especially old people, using federal government "stimulus" money.

Which I think is a very good deal. Definitely the real work.

And of course, since Maine is a major producer of paper, the likelihood that the cellulose originated here is fairly high.

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