Sunday, January 27, 2013

A cold week

Photo: Aimee helping our chickadees survive the cold. These birds are part of the infamous 47%, but they don't cost that much to maintain.

The weather in this part of Maine has been pretty cold since the beginning of the week, thanks to a big bulge of Canadian air.

Heating systems need to work and work well when it's this cold.

Our Post Office lady was complaining yesterday of frozen pipes. Not good. This is an elderly lady, probably around 65 years old or more. I don't know if she has a husband and have never asked, but I feel badly for her if she has to battle frozen pipes with or without a partner.

There have also been a lot of nasty house fires reported on the news. One family of five lost four to the flames in a town just across the Penobscot River from here. The only survivor was the mother. I have no idea what that kind of loss could do to a person, and don't wish to find out, so I've been checking smoke alarm batteries even more regularly than usual.

Another farm lost its barn and chickens to a heat lamp fire. Our chickens might like some heat, but I'm afraid they will have to suffer through without. I'm not risking a barn fire. When the lambs come, they will have to have heat lamps, but we'll check and double check them several times a day.

Another good reason to delay lambing in Maine until April -- to minimize the risk of barn fire from heat lamps.

We've been using oil heat ourselves to heat the Womerlippi farmhouse, which is a pretty good sign of a cold snap. We don't use much of it -- the sight gauge on our oil tank has barely budged since the last time we put any oil in three years ago -- but it helps to keep us sane when we know we can leave the house to go to work and the pipes won't freeze. We continue to use our wood stove and the electrical baseboard heater in our living room, to minimize the oil use and thus the greenhouse gas emissions, but the furnace will come on if the temperature in the house drops below 62 degrees F. And if we come home from work and the house is at 62 degrees F because the fire in the wood stove has died down, we can use the oil furnace to heat everything back up a little faster.

I dislike our central heating system. Not only does it burn oil, but it's also a forced air system, and in a house with two dogs and two cats and a wood stove, that makes for a lot of dust. It's also noisy. So it was with relief that, as the cold snap began to moderate yesterday, I turned it all off, and we've done without since.

In years gone by, we'd have used the large outside wood-fired furnace in the garage, also a forced air system, whenever it was this cold out, but I haven't wanted to use that since the new chimney was found damaged from corrosion two years ago -- the result of crappy work from a local contractor and crappy materials from a national-level supplier.

I never got around to repairing the garage chimney, mostly because this huge machine uses too much wood. It does a great job of heating the house even when it's cold outside, and runs for much longer than the kitchen wood stove without needing to be filled, but it doesn't really help protect the pipes very much, since the air registers are in the wrong place for that, and it doubles or triples our firewood consumption for the year.

We began instead leaving a small electrical heater on much of the time when the weather was cold last year or the year before, and realized after a while that the extra electricity bill from that, around three or four hundred dollars a year, was much less than the six or seven hundred dollars of firewood the large furnace would blow through, even if it was only used for the coldest weather. This electrical heater, which is now a higher quality 115 volt, American-construction baseboard type, since the several Chinese-made oil-filled heaters we previously tried have all failed, sits next to the living room couch where we normally sit. This couch is fully thirty feet and around a corner from the kitchen wood stove. The baseboard puts the heat exactly where we need it, for about a hundred dollars a month if left on all the time.

We'll reuse that outdoor furnace in one or the other of the new buildings we have planned.

Another difficulty has been knowing exactly how cold it is outside. I managed to break our outside thermometer somehow, and replaced it with a cheap hardware store dial thermometer. Some time afterwards I realized that the new thermometer wasn't reading the right temperature, so I went back to the hardware store for another one, and installed them side by side, just to see if I was correct.

This confused me even more, since the replacement thermometer read a few degrees differently than the old one, but was still incorrect. It took me a while to figure this out. When the photo above was taken, the actual outside temperature was closer to zero degrees F. You really need to know what the temperature is outside, so you can know when to turn heating systems on or off to protect pipes.

Last year Aimee was sent to the hardware store for greenhouse thermometers and returned with these small electronic ones, so I went out to salvage these, and installed one in our kitchen window. It seems to be working. 

It didn't help any, in this game of Maine winter survival, that late last year I switched out our hot water tank for a tankless heater. The hot water tank, which used to live in the basement, was a supply of heat to the pipes down there. The tankless heater doesn't provide any heat unless the hot water taps are running, and so it doesn't protect the pipes at all when we're not here. I put a heat lamp down there instead, on a thermostatic socket adapter. When the heat lamp is plugged in to the switch, it comes on at 35 degrees F, and doesn't go out until 45 degrees. The socket adapter is less than ideal in this sense, because you can't control the temperature at which it turns on or off, but it adds protection. I also added a good deal of insulation and sealed up a lot of cracks in our basement, making it much warmer in the area where the pipes are.

All this, just because I changed the kind of hot water heater we were using! 

You really need to be on the game, technologically speaking, to survive a Maine winter comfortably. But even then there's an element of luck. Any of these carefully maintained and serviced systems could fail at any time, indeed, as our furnace failed earlier this winter, and cause a fire or frozen pipes.

I feel sorry for our Post Office lady with frozen pipes, and for the people that are having house fires.

But it's kind of fun to sit here in the warmth and read these old diary entries about all the effort we've put into to making this old farmhouse stay warm over the years.

Here's a selection:

Great Farm Diary entries with the word "cold."

Great Farm Diary entries with the word "furnace."

Great Farm Diary entries with the word "snow."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Swayed by a bar link?

After switching out the driver-side drive-axle in Aimee's Camry last week, in a failed attempt to make a clunk go away, we needed a new castellated lock-nut to secure the main axle nut permanently with the proper cotter pin (AKA a split pin, to any British mechanics who happen to be reading). These are flimsy nuts made of galvanized mild steel, pressed into shape to accept the cotter pin. There's a good photograph on the Wikipedia page here.

I had to chisel the old one off to change the drive-axle, along with the old cotter pin that had rusted into place. We'd driven around for a few days without the nut while I tried to locate one at regular parts stores, to no avail. I decided one of us needed to make a trip to the Toyota dealership. Aimee decided to shop in Bangor this last Friday, since we needed some of the regular items she gets from the larger stores there, so she drew the short straw and was asked to go the the dealership parts counter to pick up the nut.

Understandably, Aimee was at a loss to understand why this tiny nut was so important that it required a special trip to town. If we could safely drive around without one, why worry?

The answer, of course, is that this is a safety feature. In particular, the axle nut is torque-loaded to only 217 pounds-feet, which is a lot of torque for a small component, but not such a large amount for a threaded shaft that must be an inch in diameter. The lock-nut and cotter pin combination holds everything together and prevents the wheel falling off. It might be permissible to drive without this device for a few days, assuming you remained alert and checked it frequently, but leaving it off and forgetting about it would likely be a recipe for disaster.

The dealer didn't have it in stock, and had to have the part sent over from the warehouse. This required a second trip the next day. We decided to make a day of it and take in a matinée showing of Zero Dark Thirty. While we were at the dealership picking up the nut, I asked for an estimate of what it would cost for them to diagnose the Camry's mystery clunk that I had failed to diagnose myself. The answer was a half-hour of labor at $47 plus tax, which sounded a lot better than another several hundred dollars of parts. If they could tell me what was wrong, I could do the work myself.

Now, you have to appreciate the reluctance with which I approached this process. Generally, I despise the parts and service operations of auto dealerships, and hold them at least partly responsible for the collapse of civilization.

What I don't like is the "front-counter/back-room" dichotomy. Unlike the traditional mom-and-pop repair shop, the modern "professional" approach at the dealership is to isolate the customer from the technicians using a service desk staffed by non-technical types whose job it is to fill out the paperwork and over-sell the services of the technicians. The Toyota dealership in Bangor, Maine is a masterpiece of this black art. Having called ahead and made an appointment, the hapless customer drives into a heated indoor reception area. They leave their keys in the car and go up to the service desk to sign forms, and are then given the choice of a courtesy shuttle home, or to wait in a well-appointed waiting room. At no time does the customer get to talk to the mechanic.

As a result, the customer is not involved in the decision-making process regarding their auto repair. They never have to deal with the grease and dirt. They don't have to meet a technician with greasy hands and clothes. Everything is bright and shiny and clean and "professional."

Except that there's nothing professional about it. It's all branding, designed to make you believe the Toyota car is a clean, shiny, masterful piece of engineering, and to alienate the customer from the ability to properly assess the price and value of the repair. This reduces the customer's power and responsibility and serves to encourage the increase of the number of technically illiterate people there are in western civilization, while increasing the returns to the dealership's owners.

As a result, while we westerners invented modern technology and engineering, we're being beaten at our own game by the Chinese.

The auto dealership's service desk is therefore complicit in the downfall of western civ.

While I'm their worst-ever customer.

When I go to a dealership, what I want is either knowledge or the use of a special tool only available to the dealer.  I'm perfectly able to fix the car myself given the tool or the knowledge. I can assess very well whether I'm getting a useful repair or a flim-flam job. I'm always going to do my best to minimize my outlay on their inflated service and parts costs. I know I can usually get the part for a fifth or a tenth of the price online at one of my regular wholesale parts warehouses. And my technical expertise is usually way more than the guy at the service counter, so I can easily decide if he knows what he's talking about.

And what really, really pisses me off is the number of times it's been obvious that the service desk guy doesn't know what he's talking about, but talks all the same.

Usually the inhabitants of the service desk have some automotive knowledge, and in the best possible circumstances they are actually former technicians retired from the back room, the result of a dicky back or knee, or a wife that prefers clean hands. But generally they are guys who failed to make the grade as technicians, or didn't try. If they could make the grade, they'd be in the back room, getting paid an awful lot more, their share of $96/hour.

They are of course just as much a victim of this system as the customer, but I don't get to complain to the owner, so if I don't like the results, I have to complain to the guy at the service desk.

I don't mind doing this, complaining. It helps to improve the service for the rest of the customers, and is one of my own small contributions to stopping the rot in western civilization.

In this case I showed up for my appointment at the allotted time of 12.30 pm, and allowed myself to be relieved of my car and ushered to the waiting room. I was not allowed to talk to the technician, even though anyone with any mechanical knowledge at all would realize that even a few minutes between me and my mechanic would help solve the problem, especially in this case when so may parts had already been changed. Instead I took my seat along with the rest of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Luckily, I had bought a book.

I sat and read, and read. After about two hours variously reading, listening to people complaining to their spouses on their cell phones, multiple trips to the bathroom to drain the coffee I was drinking, and a wander or two around the shiny showrooms, I got up and went over to the service desk to see what was what, only to be told my car hadn't even been pulled into the workshop yet.

This was upsetting. But like any slave to circumstance, I returned to the waiting room and read some more.

Feeling more and more helpless, eventually, at about 3pm, I decided to go and actually see whether or not my car was in the shop yet. I distrusted the service counter guy by this time, so I walked around the parking lot looking for the Camry. It wasn't there, so I walked around the whole building, acres large. I finally found a large garage door with small oval plexiglass windows. Peering through the windows, I could just see the blurred shape of the tail end of a green Camry rocking up and down. Obviously the mechanics were finally on the job.

I didn't want the service desk guy to hesitate or forget about me, so I didn't return to the waiting room but instead stood around in the room where the service desk was, pretending to look at all the useless gimcrack accessories for sale there. This strategy worked well, because as soon as the docket came back from the shop, the service desk guy came right over.

He told me the mechanics had said the noise was in the sway bar link, and so I needed to change the link.

I told him I didn't believe him. I'd already changed the sway bar link. I interrogated him about what technique the technicians had used to diagnose the problem. It had, he said, taken two guys and a lift, one guy pushing up and down on the car while the other listened underneath. Eventually I said I'd go away and change the link, and if that didn't fix the noise, I'd come back for another opinion. And I paid my bill, which was only $27, since the guy gave me half-price, either for waiting around so long, or because it only took the technicians a quarter hour instead of a half-hour. On the way home, I stopped off at CarQuest and picked up a second new sway bar link. And when I got home I changed into my insulated coveralls and switched out the link.

And that was that. The noise went away. It was the sway bar link. Go figure. The old one looks fine. But the new one is quiet.

I think I may be the only guy to escape from the Toyota dealership with only a $27 service bill in living memory.

Score one for western civilization.

Maybe we can get on top of this decline-and-fall thing yet, before we decline and fall too far.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The mystery of the clunky Camry

Aimee's beloved 1997 Toyota Camry, which we bought for only $3,500 four years ago, when it had only 44,000 miles, has developed a nasty driver-side clunk that won't be diagnosed, and it's driving me nuts trying to figure out what it is. It's also costing a lot of money in parts.

It all began when Aimee convinced me that the struts needed replacing. We were down in VA visiting with her family, driving around with extra passengers, which we rarely do, and the suspension kept bottoming out on small potholes and bumps that shouldn't have been a problem.

Accordingly I went out and bought a new set of lifetime warranty front struts and one day when the weather wasn't too cold, I pulled the Camry into my shop and switched out the struts and the sway bar links. The car no longer bottomed out, but Aimee came home a day or two later saying that there was now a new noise, a clunk that occurred while turning left.

Wives and car noises, I find, do not go together well. It's best not to have both together at any time if you can help it. Either you fix the noise, or you remove it from the environs of the wife. No compromise between these choices will end well, however reasonable and rational said compromise may seem to the husband.

So I took my floor jack and a long pry bar and went at the Camry, trying to make the noise happen. I pushed up and down on the fenders. I drove around the driveway in ever-decreasing circles with my head out of the window, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from and when it was happening.

I couldn't narrow it down, except that the control arm seemed a little loose and the ball joint could be inspected easily as the old control arm was being removed, so I ordered a new control arm with bushings and fitted it, inspecting the ball joint thoroughly at the same time. I put it back together and the noise was still there.

So again I took my floor jack and a long pry bar and went at the Camry, trying to make the noise happen. I pushed up and down on the fenders again and again. I drove around the driveway some more in ever-decreasing circles with my head out of the window, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from and when it was happening.

In a moment of faith-based inspiration I decided to switch out the driver side driveaxle and cv joints. The old one was bad -- the upper joint was bone dry and clicky, but not completely shot. I put it all back together, but the noise was still there.

I even tried to crowd source the solution on Facebook, but none of my Facebook friends seemed able to come up with a new idea.

I'm not completely at my wits end yet, and will try some more today with the pry bar and floor jack to make the noise happen, but I am very, very frustrated that I can't diagnose what seems to be a simple car clunk of a kind I've successfully repaired many times before.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Toad Work

Back to work tomorrow. We've been plugging away at this and that job for college all break, of course. I was writing a syllabus and re-re-reading my new climate text just yesterday for at least three hours, before I gave it all up a little too easily and went for a penultimate, long, unhurried walk with the dogs.

I'll do much the same today, and that will be all she wrote for the pups until spring break in March. They'll have to get by on shorter excursions, even those very lazy dog "walks" where we just kick them out the front door and let them run around the dooryard by themselves.

We'll all get by, of course, dogs and humans. We shouldn't complain. We all have to pay the piper, bring home the bacon, earn our daily bread, whatever metaphor you choose, we all have to work. Aimee and I are lucky to be able to spend our days doing something we like.

I guess as a college professor who makes his living primarily from teaching, what the British would call a "lecturer", I'm one of Larkin's examples of men who live off their wits. Not in such good company, either, listed with "lispers, losels, loblolly-men" and "louts."

What on earth is a "lisper" in this context? Who knows? Poetic license, no doubt.

I'm not sure he really understood how much work good college teaching really is, either. Or how psychologically difficult, for the student and the teacher.

I do know I couldn't do it all year long. The stress would kill me in a year or two. But after four weeks off, I do feel up to another semester. A two-mile hike with the dogs each day, better nutrition (more home cooking, more of our own farm produce), some time to relax, some time to keep up with house and car maintenance, some vegetating in front of the TV, all this was needed fairly badly.

And the spring semester, which really starts in mid-winter, does end in spring, specifically spring planting season. Something to look forward to. Along the way there'll be lambs in April. The six bred ewes are all showing the curvy, filled-out look of early stage sheep pregnancy.

Lambs! Now there's a thought that always makes me happy.

By the way, talking about spring, there were tiny spinach plants showing in the soil in our new plastic greenhouse the other day.

That made me happy too.

Philip Larkin

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually _starves_.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Stayin' warm?

(This post mirrored from the Sustainability Blog)

It's the depths of a Maine winter, and despite continued climate change and what was initially expected to be an El Niño year, we're having proper Maine winter weather. The warming trend expected in the southern Pacific in the early fall never quite panned out and SST temperatures there are right about average now.

As a partial result, we've had a solid week of cold Canadian air. It's warmed up quite a bit out there just now, a brief slug of warmer air having penetrated north as a Rossby wave passes, and the outside temperature is just below freezing. But the Canadian or more correctly polar air will return today and we'll be back in the teens and below for another week.

Minus ten to plus ten degrees F is, to say the least, pretty cold for an Englishman, even a fat one. But I long ago learned to deal with it, and even thrive.

How do we stay warm and well in such cold weather without contributing greatly to climate emissions?

Two important factors: Dogs and logs.

The science of logs is very interesting to me, especially this time of year when we depend on it a good deal. The Womerlippis heat primarily with wood, much of which we cut off our own land. This year we began the winter with about three cords on hand, most of which was ash and bird cherry, cut from the southerly end of our smallholding, that had been seasoned for two years. About a cord of ash was only one-year old, the remains of a single large ash tree tree that overlooked this year's garden expansion and had to go.

This would have been enough firewood, had we had a La Niña winter more like last year's. But the cold weather meant we burned more than we planned, and so I shopped around for an extra cord of dry firewood. A young lad in the town came by on New Year's Eve with a truck and a buddy and dropped a cord of mixed hardwood right into my firewood crib. (The very prompt delivery was, I surmised, due to a need for cash for some New year's carousing.) This was wood that had been cut and stored in tree length for two years, and so it is seasoned, but not nearly as bone dry as the Womerlippi logs that were cut and split and covered for one to two years.

Accordingly, some judicial mixing and matching of logs is called for. The off-farm logs can be burned whenever the house is too warm, or when the outside temperatures are moderate. The Womerlippi logs are saved for when the house needs to be warmed up, or when it's very cold outside. So far the coldest it's been at the farm was -5 F. It can get a lot colder than that around here. When it does, we have a back-up, a forced air oil furnace that can be fired up at the touch of a tiny button. This furnace, at 175,000 BTU/hr, dates back to the original pre-retrofit farmhouse, and is about double the capacity required for the house at its current level of air-sealing and insulation, so it heats everything up very quickly indeed. But we try not to use it, preferring to live on BTUs that are part of the contemporary carbon cycle, not the Cretacean one. 

This is a life trick that a lot of people are going to need to learn, one way or another, if we're to avoid a climate that is more like that of the Cretaceous. You don't need a wood stove. You could build a passive house like Unity College's own Terra Haus, or the Unity House. Or you could use a pellet boiler like the ones in our college library or Thomashow labs. Even a moderate retrofit of a regular oil-burning home can reduce your oil consumption enough to help meet emissions reduction targets.

But the wood stove is my favorite approach because of the nice radiant quality of the heat.

It helps in this emissions reduction project that our particular wood stove is a well-designed Norski model with the modern afterburner or secondary combustion set-up. Not only does the presence of a secondary combustion chamber reduce particulate and other emissions, it also saves firewood. The detailed retrofit work that we've invested in year after year also pays off. The house is literally cocooned in insulation. We haven't used more than a few gallons of heat oil a year for many years. Our last delivery was three years ago, and then only a hundred gallons. 

We do use the oil furnace when we leave the house and animals in the hands of a sitter, and most recently managed to fry an igniter during a power outage, requiring a diagnosis-and-repair process. Following that, I ran the unit for a few days, partly because I wanted to make sure it was working safely again, partly because we were having a cold snap and Aimee wanted me to do so. But I could only put up with the noisy thing for a few days and was glad of the excuse to turn it off yesterday when the temperatures warmed up a bit.

So, we're back to the logs. We used less than fifty gallons of oil this winter. I don't intend to use any more if I can help it.

As for the dogs, well, it's our winter break, and they get a lot of attention. In particular, they get nice long walks in the snow in the deep empty woods behind our house. There's about two thousand acres of empty Maine woodlands and wetlands back there, and in the winter, when the wetlands are frozen, it's all very much more accessible than in the summer when the bugs deter. I enjoy these walks, and appreciate the recovery of fitness and a regular sleep pattern that accompanies the exercise. If I didn't have as much work to do as I do, I'd take a good long walk with my dogs every day.

Here's some pictures that Aimee took that capture the mood of these winter hikes with the dogs.

Flame, a rescued Australian shepherd from Louisiana, has taken to the snow like a duck to water.

Ernie, an English Shepherd, and the official Womerlippi farm sheepdog, is her constant companion.

Sometimes we need to use snowshoes. 

Here's what happened to my second-best set of snowshoes just the other day! But because the snow was set up well, I was able to finish the hike easily with the fragment of snow shoe that remained attached. 

And yes, duct-tape does make a good repair material for snowshoes. If you're cheap, like I am.

So that, dear readers, is how we stay warm in the depths of a Maine winter, without adding too much to climate emissions, or to consumerism.