the homestead

Tinkering With The Hydroelectric System

With my brother and nephew “in the house” we took a walk up the hill to do some noodling about the penstock (pipeline) for the hydroelectric system.  Since it froze last winter I had awaited its thaw and repair, the former occurring in late April and the latter after I returned home from the Studley exhibit.  I did not complete the penstock all the way to the original capturing basin as the last 400 feet or so were quite difficult and gained very little additional head (the amount of water fall in the system) — only about 2 psi.  For the mean time I had simply immersed the end of the penstock into the creek bed.


With the three of us in hand I located a near perfect location for the penstock head only about 40 feet upstream from the temporary location.  It was a place where the creek narrowed and one bank was a huge rock and the other bank a movable pile of rocks that could be configured to a width of just a couple feet.  With a little bit of bed and bank reconfiguration it seemed like a darned good place to construct a new diverging and capturing dam.


To test the idea I went to the hardware store for a couple hundred pounds of sand, and grabbing a handfull of feed sacks to use as sandbags, backed my trusty 4WD pickup up the hill to be adjacent to the location.  In short order we had a less temporary but fully functional sandbag structure in place and the system was up and running with excellent performance.  To enhance the new basin I built a debris catcher to place over the spot and reduce the amount of leaves and sticks to clean from the intake.  My hope is that the new basin needs housekeeping only every month or so.  Once I am back on my feet I will fabricate a little more functional debris trap for the end of the penstock, but that will have to wait another six weeks or so.

With Apologies to The Talking Heads

…tearing down the house…




Recently my younger brother and his son visited White Run for a week of vacation, during which we tore down a shack that had been a blight on the front hillside corner of the property.  My local pal Tony said he thought it had a lot of chestnut in it and I needed some chestnut to make battens and some trim for the shed over the root cellar, so that was all the impetus we needed.


Day One was marked by the removal of the roof and much of the siding, yielding indeed a very large quantity of chestnut boards from the roof sheathing and ship-lapped siding.  So we tore into it with enthusiasm, first peeling off the standing seam metal roof and underlying tar paper.


While my brother and I were working on this my nephew stripped all of the ceiling boards out of the one room inside.  These ceiling boards were among the treasures of the project as the were long, straight pieces of 6″ wide by 3/4″ thick chestnut.


Unfortunately like all of the interior surfaces, they were plastered with numerous layers of newspaper and cardboard, affixed to the surfaces in part with flour paste, easy enough to remove, augmented with literally thousands and thousands of tiny upholstery tacks.  We removed as many of these as we had time for, but I will have to go over all of these boards with metal detectors before I use them.  Still, these are magnificent boards.


It turned out that all of the roof sheathing and almost all of the structural lumber, run-of-the-mill 8/4 stock, were chestnut, which back until the early 20th century was a dominant local material.


It was pretty warm that day, probably about 80, and we took frequent breaks for refreshment.


By five o’clock we were done for the day.


Day Two pretty much finished the deconstruction phase of the project, harvesting an even greater stack of oak sheathing from the walls.  Most of the sheathing boards were 5/4 white oak, 7-1/2 feet long.  Some of these boards were in excess of 16″ wide.  Our stacks of salvaged vintage lumber that had been air drying for a century kept growing throughout the day.


I started the task of loading the salvaged lumber into the truck and the unloading and stacking it in the log barn.  I think this load was all chestnut.


The second load was a mix of the long chestnut with a mound of white oak.


Oak stacked in the lumber barn.


Chestnut roof sheathing stacked up.


More chestnut, including a lot of 8/4 structural material just awaiting me to do something with it.

On the next day in my quest for new experiences I decided to break my hip.   I cannot recommend it as it is much less amusing than I had been led to believe.

Thus endeth this chapter of life on the homestead.

Not exactly a project worthy of Joshua Klein (and huzzahs to Joshua, Julia and company for getting the house down without any injuries!) but it made us pretty pleased with ourselves.


Salvaging the Root Cellar III

Once the contractors departed I jumped in and replaced the original floor of the shed.  The building had settled enough that I wound up shimming the joists at the new wall about an inch prior to laying the new 3/4″ CDX flooring.  Once that was done I retrieved some of my stash of rigid foam insulation from the barn fourth floor and cut and placed three inches of foil faced polyisocyanurate rigid insulation in between the joists from below, in essence turning the root cellar into a super-insulated chamber.

The winter set in about then and I abandoned the project for eight months while we coped with winter and the all-consuming Studley projects.



Finally on my return from the MJD tool auction I turned my attentions to finishing this project.  This included first clearing the path across the creek to the entrance of the root cellar and the construction of a temporary walkway bridge to hold sway until I build the permanent arched bridge there this fall or next spring.



The next step was to excavate the rubble on the entrance path to the cellar door in order to find a place to put the huge stones left in place by the concrete contractors who managed to leave the collapse rubble in place.


One special treat was removing a several hundred pound mass of poured concrete slag that was simply left in place.  The wrong place.

The moving of all these hunks of stone and concrete was achieved through the judicious use of horsepower in the form of my truck, placed across the creek directly opposite the cellar door, with the stones lashed to the tow hooks on the bumper with rope.  Gently I pulled the stones out, then placed them with iron pipes and other leveraging tools.



Once that was done and the space was cleared enough to actually work I undertook the finishing of the masonry so that the doorway could be rebuilt, along with some repointing of the stonework inside.



The last big construction task was to fabricate a bear-proof door for the cellar, which I did with two layers of pressure treated 2x construction lumber with the two lamina assembled cross grained with a box of decking screws.

The final steps were cleaning up, clearing out, and moving in the new gravel to level and smooth the floor in order to fit the door bottom and threshold.  And that is when I suffered the debilitating attack by the gravel laden wheelbarrow.


This is how I left it, the final details will have to wait another month.

Salvaging the Root Cellar II

With the shoring in place we had a bit of time to think through the ultimate resolution to the problem of the collapsed root cellar wall.  The options ranged from reconstructing the original wall with the original materials strewn on the floor of the cellar, building an all weather wood foundation to replace the original wall, constructing a concrete block wall, and finally the option we went with, pouring a new monolithic concrete wall.  This technology has been making serious headway in places like here where the providers of skilled trade are pretty scarce.





One of the first orders of business was to replace the wooden sill plate on the shed wall.

Fortunately I have a substantial inventory of large timbers.  These were mostly being compiled for the eventual building of workbenches, but this need trumped that one.


Once the new sill plate was in place it allowed Tony to remove the poured-in-place rock wall top beam that was part of a 1953 rehab of the original building.  Under Tony’s direction the ground adjacent to the previous wall was excavated fully in order to provide access to the structure for some repair and new work.




Once the new sill plate was in place it allowed Tony to remove the poured-in-place rock wall top beam that was part of a 1953 rehab of the original building.

Then the concrete contractor moved in to set the forms and rebar/wire mesh for the new poured wall, followed by a new poured inner wall on the opposite wall to make sure that wall didn’t collapse also.  Some remedial stone work to finish off the corner you see here, and the crews cleared out leaving the rest to me.

It took 14 months but I finally got back to it last month, which I will recount next time.

Salvaging the Root Cellar I


The Spring of 2014 was a hectic time as we were trying to get moved from the house in Maryland in order to take up full time residence in the holler by the barn.  We found ourselves taking frequent overnight and even out-and-back trips with the truck loaded with possessions to relocate.  The pace of these trips meant that at times we would swoop in, unload, and leave.  Well, in this one particular day we were just walking around for a minute before jumping back in the truck and heading to Mordor on the Potomac.


As I rounded the root cellar/garden shed I was struck by something in the corner of my eye that didn’t look quite right.  On closer examination my heart sank, as the catastrophic damage to the building was readily apparent.   A look underneath from inside the root cellar confirmed that decades of frost heave and the spring snow melt caused one wall of the root cellar to collapse with a couple of tons of debris scattered about inside.

With zero time available I departed for home and called my pal Tony to ask him to take a peek at the problem and offer some counsel.  Tony is a local contractor and amazingly inventive guy.


He reported back a couple days later that he had shored up the building with some of the timbers in my lumber storage and hydraulic jacks from the barn.  That would hold stasis until we decided what to do next, which I will recount in the next blog post.


As they say about many things in life, timing is everything.

With winter setting in here in the Allegheny Highlands, I’ve been trying to time the winter shutdown of the hydroelectric system in order to avoid the carnage of last winter, as lengthy sections of the pipeline to the turbine froze and shattered.  I planned for the shutdown to occur at dusk today.  The system has been performing brilliantly, even with several consecutive nights with lows about 10F.

Today we took a trip across the mountains to get some lumber and groceries, returning just before dusk so that I could walk the line and shut the system down.  The day was cold but sunny, between 15 and 20F as we headed out, and the turbine could be heard doing its little turbine work.  As we pulled up on our return five hours later, parked, and got out, a sickening silence cut through the air.  The gentle whine of the turbine was missing.

After quickly unloading the groceries (the lumber can stay in the back of the truck) I headed up the hill to see what the situation was.  The situation?  I waited one day too long.  The water in the pipeline has frozen in place, and all I can do now is wait for the pipeline to thaw to determine the level of damage and make the repairs.  Surely some will have to be replaced, but that might have to wait until spring.  Had I closed the system down yesterday, I could have resumed it on the warmer days here.  Now?  Probably not until late March at the earliest.  Good thing we added the extra solar panels last September.  In the morning I will brush off the snow and get back to work on the various projects around here.

I also need to re-examine every part of the pipeline system, to get it perfect.  Clearly, it is not so now.

It is now just past dusk here, and even though they are predicting a low of 2F tonight, it was already 1F a half hour ago.  I suspect the air temperature will get to minus-5F or maybe even minus-8, and with winds gusting to almost forty miles an hour, that will yield a wind chill of around -40F.

If you come across any anthropogenic global warming crackpots (but I am being redundant) whack them with a snow shovel.

Readying For Winter

One of the front-burner activities over the past couple of months was getting ready for our first full winter in the Allegheny Highlands, where winters are essentially identical to those of upstate New York or central Michigan.  Having spent my formative years in Minnesota, admittedly in southern Minnesota, the more tropical part, the upcoming winter in the mountains is something about which I am fairly sanguine despite three decades in the Mid-Atlantic. However, since my bride of 34 years is from Southern California the angst is running high; my task of keeping the cabin warm and toasty is priority #1.


The assembly of gigantic firewood piles has continued apace.  Virtually all of the available spaces around the cabin are filled to the brim with cut, split, and mostly well-seasoned wood (I especially have sought out dead trees on the hoof).  This picture is of the cabin front as of last weekend.


We’ve even loaded up the side deck with firewood.


On top of this stash, my pal Mike told me he had a bunch of dead and risky trees he wanted removed from his farm, so for the past several days I’ve been working with him to accomplish that.  The result for me has been five heaping trucks-full of mostly already-seasoned firewood, now awaiting splitting and stacking into giant piles out the the lower barn.  The local tradition is to always have two full years of firewood on hand.  We literally see firewood piles the size of garages here.


Add that to Mrs. Donsbarn’s efforts to get the gardens prepared for spring, including the nurturing of greens in the front raised bed with a plastic hoop house (her goal is to have fresh greens for Thanksgiving) and things are shaping up here at the homestead.