Saturday, February 6, 2010

Canada retreats

Well, we seem to be over the hump. The daytime is getting noticeably longer each day, which I always find heartening. And even though we're in the grip of another Canadian high, the large amount of sun that the clear northern air brings, now the days are longer, is enough for us to get some real warmth in the afternoons.

(Readers should understand that in this context "real warmth" might be 25 F.)

I notice that all nearly my posts for a month have been cold- and weather-related. The reason for the obsession should be obvious -- the weather is the most important thing. And it prevents pretty much anything else new or interesting around the farm from happening.

Until things get sufficiently better I can't do very much outside or workshop work. My workshop is only partly heated by virtue of being the home for our massive wood-fired furnace. The furnace has a forced air jacket, so it really doesn't put out a lot of waste heat, and the garage door and board-and-batten siding leak massive amounts of air, so if you're working on the bench and it's 10 F outside, it might be 25 F inside. That's too cold to work comfortably. Your hands get stiff in a few minutes.

But if it's 25 F outside, it can get up to 35 or more in the shop and we can start to get some stuff done. I'm thinking that this afternoon I'll be able to tidy the place up up in some comfort, and possibly do some prep for classes at school that involve shop work. I'm looking forward to it.

Some things you can't avoid, of course. The car work needed to be done. I used the shop lights for that, to keep my hands from getting too stiff. And I come in to warm up and thaw out every so often. And emergencies always happen around any farm, I guess, so you have to work outside if there's a problem.

The other night after a late meeting at college I came home in about 8 F weather, expecting a nice hot shepherd's pie for dinner, only to realize the well pipes had begun to freeze.

Like many old Maine houses we have a relatively shallow well and an above-ground jet pump. This sits in a well house inconveniently located in the center of my shop. The well predates the shop. When they first built the shop, they built it around the well. Probably the well head space, a rectangular cavity about 3' deep by 4' by 5', used to be below ground. When they decided to add the shop, they excavated a little and then poured a very crude concrete wall around the well head space, creating an above-ground concrete well house. This was insulated and provided with a 60 W light bulb for heat, as being newly above ground it would now freeze. I've added a proper hinged lid and better insulation, as well as replaced the pump and refitted all the fittings and wiring. I also keep all my paints and fuels and shop fluids in secondary containment, extra plastic tubs for everything, as even half a gallon of spilled diesel would ruin the well for months.

The well itself is a 56 foot deep, 8 inch borehole, and very reliable. One of the reasons we bought this house was that I could see it had a good water source.

But if the light bulb goes in the dead of a Canadian freeze, watch out! Mainers who let their pipes freeze may never get them thawed until spring. I check this bulb every night. There's a slight light leak from the lid, and I look for this slice of light every night before bed. I had done so the night before it went out, but it was a cold day, and the bulb happened to fail, and so when I came home the frost had begun to creep in. I found this out when I couldn't draw water for the sheep.

First thing I did was curse the late meeting. It had already gotten dark, there was no light to work with, the meeting was somewhat unnecessary and ill-conceived, and I had been up since 3 am, and working since 5am. I do my day-job work early in order to have time later to farm. These are my normal work habits, but they work well for the students too. I had an 8am class to prep for, and at 5am I have peace and quiet to do this kind of thing. Other faculty of course tend to keep "banker's hours," and so a late meeting seems perfectly pleasant to them.

To me, having to stay late is often a harbinger of some farm problem.

On a normal day I'd have been home by 4pm, and not quite so tired. There would have been daylight to work with.

Thirsty sheep and frosty wells wait for no man, though. I played around with changing the light bulb first, but realized I needed to take more active counter measures, so I dropped a 1,500W electric heater in and waited for everything to thaw. Luckily the frost had not crept in as far as the well pump itself. That would have been expensive.

Pipes thawed, I had a little difficulty then getting hoses to run. The technique for preventing a water hose from freezing in the winter is simply to drain it after use so there is no water to freeze. I lay it out on the driveway which has a steady slope and so the water runs out. But the last day I had used this it had been very cold indeed and so the water in the hose had frozen before it could drain. The technique for thawing a frozen hose is to put it someplace warm. In this case it went to the kitchen where the 75 F air warmed by the wood stove did the trick in twenty minutes. While waiting, I popped my dinner in the oven and stoked the furnace to full blast.

The electrical water heater that goes in the tub had clicked off automatically because the water level was low, so it too had to be changed. We keep two of these items for this purpose, although they click back on automatically if you give them time.

But the sheep got their water in their tub changed by 6.30 pm and were happy. And disaster was averted. I got my shepherds pie only a little late. After a nice warm shower. Very tingly. All in all a nice demonstration of the difficulties of Maine winters, and the need for preparation and techniques to deal with them. Imagine what it's like to be an older person in this environment. Not easy at all. I admire our elderly neighbor Jean who still chops her own wood.

I left the heater in the well head, ready to be turned on if needed again. This unit had been in the greenhouse last spring to keep the late frost off the starts and had gotten a little moldy, preventing it from being used in the house. It can stay in the well head until we begin to use the greenhouse again.

So the weather is looking better, for us at least. Maple sap will start running very soon. We have at least three fat pregnant sheep and possibly a fourth from the day when Snorri got out. I'm watching the fattest, Molly, just in case she comes early. She's huge and may be carrying triplets.

The weather is not better for Americans further south, including Aimee's folks, who are in the path of a major snowstorm. This will cause problems down there, because of the lack of snow infrastructure.

But don't worry. We'll get our share. The final stage of a Maine winter is yet to come, when the Canadian air, and the jet stream that brought it, both retreat north. Then the storm track will come our way again, and we can get another few feet before it's all said and done, especially in March and even early April.


  1. Premier has an auto switch that turns whatever is plugged into it when temperature drops below 32 - may be you can put the second (backup) lamp on a switch like that inside the well house? There also switches that can turn things on when it gets dark.

  2. Sounds interesting, but it might also be another thing to go wrong. I generally don't mind technology that requires an active interest/monitoring, like the light bulb or the wood stove. I've been checking the light bulb every time I go stoke up the furnace since it burned out, and it hasn't bothered me in the slightest to do so, although I know many other guys would prefer something fail-safe or at least something that gave the appearance of being fail-safe.

    What I really hate is when I can't find enough time to do both my day job and my farm jobs properly! That doesn't happen very often, as the amount of work we get done here steadily increases, systems get more and more reliable. The work on the well house lid, for instance, or the refitting of all the well pipes and the new pump. That was a good investment.

  3. Oh, I didn't mean you should stop checking the bulb daily- that would be asking for it. The second lamp is just a backup for a few hours between when something goes wrong there and when you home to fix it.

    > What I really hate is when I can't find enough time to do both my day job and my farm jobs properly!



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