the homestead

Combating Ignorance (My Own)

A couple months ago I had a “crisis”(?) with the power system for the barn.  I made it through most of the winter just fine, invariably shutting down the system on my way down for supper and turning it back on in the morning to save the power that would have kept the system up overnight.  Suddenly the power accrual fell off the cliff and I really got concerned.  A day that should have been inputting 300-400 watts into the system was instead producing 70, or 50, or even 20.  Since I had a generator wired into the system last year I was not at risk of being without power while working but the dysfunction was not insignificant despite the fact that I seemingly had enough power to work in the shop all day.

I trouble shot every aspect of the system I knew, even getting so desperate as to READ THE INSTRUCTION MANUAL (even my pal BillR who is an EE and MS Robotics guy says the system product information is almost impenetrable).  In desperation I corresponded with Rich, the EE who sold me the system, and BillR, who installed the solar components.  They too were scratching their heads about the situation.

Then at about the same time they both had a suggestion: make sure the Dump Load switch is turned on.   The Dump Load is a resistance coil to “dump” any excess electrons once the batteries were charged to full capacity to prevent them from being damaged by over-charging.

Yup, that was the ticket.  Apparently during one of the evening shut-downs I absent-mindedly (or at least inadvertently) threw the Dump Load switch to “off” and left it there.  The Dump Load switch is right next to the switches for the inverters.  With the Dump Load off the system would literally only accept the trickle necessary to keep the batteries topped off.  So, when I saw the system first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, where no meaningful consumption was ongoing, the system had told itself to choke off any wattage input from the solar panels to protect the batteries.  During the day when I was using electricity the system would have shown an input equal to my usage but I would not have seen that.

In the moments following my turning the Dump Load back on I literally let out a whoop as the input went from 20 watts to almost a kilowatt because throwing that switch told the system to go full bore.

So I didn’t really have any kind of crisis, other than the one in my own mind due to the fact that I did not understand fully the intricacies of the power system, even after all these years.

Good thing ignorance is curable.

Rat Patrol

Spring comes to us so quickly and late that it is inevitably a frenzied season of activity.  It seems that no sooner does the snow stop than we have to start mowing twice a week.  And Mrs. Barn’s cabin fever breaks into a session of manic gardening that ends only when the harvest is done and the preserves are put up.

After three years of successful gardening last year was the tough one for Mrs. Barn as the big rats, a/k/a “deer”, finally discovered the tender goodies there and mowed them down.  Over and over again, regardless of how many fences or other dissuasions we installed.

This year we decided to get serious and installed an electric fence in accordance with all the instruction our friends and neighbors provided.  When we bought the system at the local feed-and-seed I requested an electric fence system that would not just discourage the deer but would provide enough current to kill and barbecue them in one fell swoop.  Alas the new system only shocks them.  A little bit.

The set-up preferred by locals is to target the vegetarian predators where their noses are.  Thus the three levels of electric tape are at bunny nose height, ground hog nose height, and deer nose height.  That big gap in between has us skeptical, but we were told repeatedly that this approach will work.

It has been successful up to this point, and in fact we have not seen any deer in the neighborhood of the garden since it went up three weeks ago.  They are around the homestead but steering clear of the front yard.  Prior to the electric fence we had a mama and her fawns taking up residence, and at one point over the winter I actually found them sleeping in the flower bed adjacent to the front porch.  Often when looking out the windows of the barn I could see up to a dozen grazing on the hill above the cabin.

But now?  None!  We are hoping for the trend to continue.  Plus, the garden looks so much better with much of the cobbled together fencing removed.  I will even dismantle most of the hoop houses, leaving only one or two to be draped with screen or plastic sheeting over the winter as needed.

It’s a win-win situation.  If I could get the barbecue function it would be a win-win-win.

A Week *Under* The Cabin

Finally after several years of dithering, we got the crawl space under the cabin insulated. The log cabin sits atop a stone wall in the front with the newer rear addition on a stone-faced block wall, with nary a lick of insulation to be found in the vicinity. Whether you are a physics purist determines if you think the cold was wicking in or the heat wicking out. One thing was evident always; the floors were cold all winter long regardless of how much we cranked up the wood stove. So the time had come to address the situation.

It was not straightforward.

For starters, I am not the most nimble fellow, on or off my feet, and the space underneath the living space was, well, close. I am not claustrophobic, I’m just large (notwithstanding my self image as a small man, due almost entirely to being a most enthusiastic basketball player as a kid. I was almost always the smallest guy in the game. Like Peter Follansbee my dream was to play power forward in the NBA but I definitely picked the wrong parents and stopped growing a foot too soon). Fortunately a chance remark to the fellow who grew up in this house 45 years ago yielded an excellent referral to Rick, a retired electrician/handyman who is a renowned spelunker.

After a few weeks of phone-tag we set the time to commence the project immediately after our week in Florida celebrating my Mom’s 102nd birthday. Being a spelunker Rick kept saying, “This project is going to be fun!” After a week under the house I wonder if he thought the same.

Our first task was to clean out the small amount of debris there, Rick uses a concrete-mixing tray hooked up to a rope for that, and then we got to work on lining all the surfaces — dirt floor and walls — with heavy duty plastic sheet. Have you ever tried maneuvering a hundred pounds of slick plastic sheet while on your belly? It’s less fun than it sounds.

Underneath the old log cabin the space was so tight I was of little help. Even Rick had to lose his winter jacket in order to fit. Once the plastic sheeting was in place he attached 3″ XPS foam panels I had salvaged years before (I used this insulation for my shop space and it worked magnificently). He was underneath while I was outside cutting the pieces to the dimensions he shouted out. All the seams were filled with sprayed polyurethane foam.

With the cabin space finished we moved to the newer addition where the space was comparatively capacious. The first task was to install a sump pump in a depression that was evidently created to hold water, it was in fact full of water when we specced out the project. Fortunately there was no water present during our week under the house.

The final day of the week-long project was tough for me standing outside cutting the foam sheets as a record breaking cold front was moving in. But then it was done.

The days immediately after the installation were record cold, with overnight wind chills in the -40 territory. Given that level of cold we could not adequately discern the efficacy of the insulation. That was followed by record-warm weather, so it has only been in the last fortnight when a “normal” weather pattern resumed that we could tell it was really making a difference.

I placed a dehumidifier and box fan in the space to get it really dry before I treat all the wood surfaces with borate salts solution, and once that dries we will dive back in and finish insulating the perimeter beam on top of the wall, from which the joists are hung.

Coming and Going Just Got Easier

Recently we “got around” to a project more than a decade in the making, namely the rebuilding of the driveway at the homestead.  The issue came to a head a while ago when the UPS truck struggled getting up the straight but fairly steep and narrow driveway to the barn.  The existing driveway there was a “temporary” path laid down for the initial barn raising eleven years ago, so the time was at hand.  Between the hurdles of weather and resources we sorta scheduled the work late last winter and we finally got a stretch of days dry enough for the ground to firm adequately for the heavy equipment.  I believe the curb weight for a loaded dump trunk is in the neighborhood of 50,000 pounds.

As I understand it the process of building or rebuilding a driveway is dependent on the ability to first lay a deep foundation of cash on the ground.  Actually it begins with scraping the bed flat and smooth, then building the roadway with first coarse gravel followed by fine gravel.  It packs like concrete.

This is then smoothed and packed, and if done well will last for decades.  That’s what I’m counting on.

The new driveway crown is a foot higher than previously in some places.  Make no mistake about it, this makes coming and going to and from the barn a whole lot easier.  Now I will no longer have the UPS/FedEx packages dropped off on the cabin front porch when they are meant for the barn.

Making a 1″ NPT Tap For A One-off Use

I am in the process of reconfiguring the plumbing at the bottom of the hydroelectric system (more about why later) involving increasing the size of the final flow route from 3/4″ to 1″, a dimensional increase of 33% and, more beneficially, a volumetric increase of almost 80%.  But in order to accomplish this I needed to fabricate some fittings with 1″ NPT female threads, requiring a 1″ NPT tap.  Ever priced one of those?  The number is exceedingly off-putting so instead I made my own using a $3 piece of  1″ NPT pipe fitting from the hardware store.  Since I was cutting threads in Schedule 40 PVC it was more than robust enough for the task.

I first tapered the end of the pipe with a file, then sawed four kerfs into the surface of the threads with a hacksaw.

With files I then reduced the cross-section of the threads such that each of the four kerfs became four cutting faces for the new threads which were being cut into a slightly oversized 1-1/8″ hole drilled in the PVC.

The “tap” handle was just an assemblage of plumbing pieces, and the thread cutting could commence.

This allowed me to screw in the fitting I needed for the radiator hoses that connect the penstock to the turbine valves/nozzles/impeller.

It took about an hour to make the tap, and it saved many, many dollar$.

A Different Kind Of Sharpening (for a different kind of “woodworking”)

It’s been a preposterously wet early autumn and my routine of firewood processing has been disrupted mightily.  It’s looking like there may be some break in the daily rain perhaps next month some time, at which time I will dive in with vigor in pursuit of my goal of cutting two years’ worth of firewood, which must be a dozen tons or so.  This is a pile of 24″ diameter bolts I cut the last nice day we had almost a month ago.

This year I have acquired a specialized sharpening tool to make my work faster.   Harvesting wood in the mountains is a challenge, not the least being that when trees are brought down the ground underneath them is rocky, rocks being our primary agricultural product here.  No matter how carefully you work with a chain saw it is only a matter of time before you nick the rocky soil with the running saw, inflicting great damage to the saw chain which requires a pretty thorough re-sharpening.   And, my saw is slightly under powered (read: “lighter than a concrete block”) which means I need the cutting to be as efficient as possible.

I’m pretty good at chain sharpening but I am not fast, so I explored this tool with great interest.    Though pricey, roughly the same as a high quality sharpening stone for my finer woodworking tools, it has proven to be absolutely worth it for me.  Acting as a reverse pencil sharpener that attaches directly to the saw bar and sharpening each tooth hollow with a quick turn of the carbide bit, then moving on to the next indexed tooth with alacrity, I can get even a damaged chain ready in a couple minutes.

Here is the whole process demonstrated in near-real-time.

Flo’s Wet Kiss

Although we live 400 miles from the landfall for Hurricane Florence (and I rejoice that the casualties were as low as they were — great job local authorities and emergency preparedness folks!) the resulting weather system sat over us and parked several inches of rain on an already sodden landscape.  Our usually gentle stream was a roiling whitewater rapids and the spillway was flowing in full force.  Here’s what it looked like at the homestead.

One of the weirdest moments was when it was pouring rain with the sun shining.

Black Swan Event Final(?) Report

Hmmm, two posts sans images in one week.

I’m not sure where exactly I left this tale of my formerly dysfunctional hybrid power system for the barn, but following the replacement of the solar controller guts by the manufacturer after they found ants had shorted out the main circuit board, the reconditioned unit was returned to me.  As we were about to leave town for several days I hurriedly installed it to give it a test drive.

It would not even turn on.  I stewed about that for several days.

On our return after traveling I reached out to the manufacturer’s support tekkies and related the situation, with resolute firmness and precise language.  After a brief silence from them they sent me a shipping label and I sent the unit to them.  Again.

Two weeks later it arrived back with the cryptic note that a disconnected fitting had been connected.  So much for the assertion that the unit had been previously tested, don’t you think?

Again we were on the cusp of leaving town for a few days, but at dusk I installed the newly re-repaired unit.  At least this time it turned on!  There was great joy in Mudville.  That it would not perform any controller function was not especially disconcerting since the evening was fast approaching and the unit normally puts itself to sleep for the night once the photon levels get lower than net operating power.

Assuming that the system would wake up with the morning sunshine I left everything status quo and left town.

Big mistake, but then you know what assuming does.

On our return three days later I discovered that not only was the solar system not turned on and functioning well, the entire system had shut down because the batteries had been drained to the point where, well, the system turns itself off in order to protect the batteries from harm.  Now, this is not a cluster of AA batteries.  These are four monster huge batteries, each weighing about 150 pounds.  Something was amiss.

Side note – when the troubles first began I tested the circuit from the solar panels to the control input terminals and noted the voltage.  It was fine (~100 volts at solar noon on a clear day).  In the follow up testing I was finding voltage variations not unusual for solar systems given that the voltage output varies with the intensity of the sunlight.   Just keep that in mind for future reference.

I contacted the tech weasels again, and spoke to them with increased fervor.  I was given a series of diagnostic exercises which I executed while I insisted the tekkie remained on the line, waiting for me to walk to the system, make the test and return from the power house fifty yards away.  Zilch, zero, nada.  The unit would not perform its functions even though it powered itself up.  The input voltage numbers were a bit low (~60), but certainly enough to jolt the system to action.  But it was not responding no matter what the tekkie told me to try.

“Would you like to return it to us for an further evaluation?” I was asked.

“What I want is for you to send me a unit that actually works,” I replied.

After a few minutes on hold I was told that a new unit was being sent to replace the old one.  It arrived a week later, smack dab in the middle of the ripple molding soiree (we had been using the hydro power and gas generator for that).  Anxiously I installed the unit at high noon on a brilliant sunny day, checking and double checking my wiring connections.  I threw the switches in anticipation of, something.

The unit turned on but refused to perform its function.

To say I was disappointed is to gloss over my mindset.  I took a couple hours to gather my thoughts, called the engineer who had helped design and install the system, dismantled the breaker box and re-took the circuit readings.  But something weird was happening with the readings.  They varied wildly and continued to drop regardless of the sun shine.  40 volts.  32 volts.  26 volts.  50 volts.  20 volts.  48 volts.  24 volts.  39 volts. 22 volts.

Second side note – the buried cable from the solar panel array to the power house was a type specifically certified for direct burial, no conduit required.

Third side note — when digging the trench for the cable with a rented trencher, the trencher broke in less than a minute due to the rocky soil.

With my friend Brint’s help we took some cable and bypassed the buried cable to connect the solar array bus on the side of the cabin directly to the power controller.

It read ~90-100 volts.

Something, somehow, the circuit had been breached, and through trial and error we determined that it was somewhere in the 75-foot buried section, not in the open cable that was suspended underneath the bridge over the creek.  We grafted in the new cable to replace the buried cable, this time enclosing all of it entirely in conduit sealed from the fuse bus to the power house.  This will be buried as time and weather permit.  The new circuit worked perfectly and at solar noon the next day the panels were cranking out over 1300 watts, pretty astounding given that it was September and the theoretical capacity rating for the panel array is 1410 watts.

So now I have a fully functioning doubly redundant power system for the barn; hydro turbine, solar panels, and gas generator.  As a friend once quipped, “The problem with being your own power company is that you are your own power company.”  Every part of it  must be maintained and attended to, but through it all my appreciation for the aggregate utility grid is immense.  Although this has been a supremely frustrating episode I find that my understanding of every part of my system has been enhanced immeasurably.

Last side note — in retrospective contemplations we have arrived at the un-provable conclusion that somewhere in the original underground cable a sharp rock had encountered the cable and through essentially micro-seismic vibrations had eventually breached the sheath of that cable.  Not enough to cut the circuit entirely, but enough to ground it, the amount of the grounding discharge probably dependent on temperature and soil moisture.  As I said that is un-provable but does explain a lot; varying voltage, draining the battery bank, failure to wake up, etc.

One Day A Week

It’s getting to be that time of year when I will spend a day a week or so for the next dozen weeks building up the firewood inventory.  I still have a half dozen more trees on the ground from last year to cut up and that should do for this coming winter but I want to get a good jump on the following one.

Last week in between thunderstorms I sliced up a 24″ maple and an 18″ locust, both tall and a ton apiece, probably three pickup loads together.  Now I’m just waiting for the ground to get dry enough for the truck to get to them.

Way up the hill I still have several logs I thought might work for making Gragg chairs but the first couple bolts were not promising so the rest will instead provide heat.  I’ve got another promising one for the chairs, though.  Really long and straight.

We’ve got some sort of walnut blight going on here, so there will be some of them getting the axe this year.

Black Swan Update – 3 is 2…

With all the disruption of two robust independent electricity producing systems going belly-up at the same time I decided to add another producer into the mix, is essence to modify the “two is one and one is none” rubric for logistical planners into “three is two, two is one, and one is none.”  In the absence of the hydro and solar electron hamsters I relied on my gas powered generators and a bunch of extension cords.

I decided to contact the local electrician to see if he could wire the generator into the service panel of the barn, and he suggested instead wiring it into the power system at the bottom of the hill, alongside the electrons provided by the hydro and solar units.  I got a quote, smacked my forehead and said, “Of course!”, and authorized the work.  Plus, since there was already a buried cable from the powerhouse to the cabin, could he perhaps also wire that into the system?  Sure, he sez.

The day came when he and his son, also an electrician, arrived to do the work.  The first step was to clear the work area, which translates into “ripping off the raggedy shelter over the electronics closet.”  I’d been wanting to do this anyhow in order to build a more proper enclosure for all these components so this was the time.

In no time flat they were abuzz with work, installing a new sub-service panel to provide for vastly improved current distribution.

After a bit of time they separated so one was completing the sub-service box to serve as a new router for the electricity and the other was making the modifications to the service panel inside the cabin, alowing it to be powered by the same auxiliary system.

By lunchtime they were finished and I test drove the system in all its iterations available at the time: inverter/battery bank power to the house or barn, gas generator power to the house or barn.

Brilliant!

I spent a couple days making more proper housings for the system electronics and the generator and this chapter was complete.