the homestead

Black Swan Events, or 2 is 1, 1 is None

Among the few public observers to whom I pay attention, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a place at the table if for no other reason than his monumentally insightful book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Now, change gears to the old insight from the military logistics and supply realm, “Two is one, and one is none,” an exhortation on the value of redundancy for important operating systems and supplies.  Well, that particular old black swan bit me in the nether regions recently as I found that I’d better start with a bigger number for electricity supply.

Since becoming my own Power Company for The Barn there have always been hiccups; a connection or section of water line breaks, storm debris clogs the hydro system intake or turbine nozzle, even a nearby lightning ground blowing the fuses on the solar array.  In these cases the interruption of one or the other power source is not an activity-stopping hurdle, although it can be a bit of a nuisance and interruption to address.

 

In essence my system is a hybrid of the microhydrolectric turbine generating power 24/7 through much of the year, along with the array of six 235-watt solar panels cranking out juice whenever it is daylight and they are not buried under snow.  When you are your own public utility, maintenance is never far from the “To Do” list.

My two electron sources are tied together in a complex control system designed and installed by Rich at Nooutage.com and my friend BillR, a retired electrical engineer with a robotics specialty.  For the past half dozen years or so it has been humming along, providing all of what I need in the barn for general usage.  Even in the dead of winter, when I have the hydro system mothballed during the coldest weather, the solar panels keep the batteries charged and I can operate pretty much normally if I am the least bit attentive.  If I know I need to use a lot of electricity with a machine or a heating coil (processing beeswax in cookers, for example) I know I need to wait for a nice sunny day.

When I have a particular need for ultra high wattage consumption, like my smelting furnace of kiln, I have to fire up the smaller (3500w) of my two Coleman Suburu generators for that isolated need.

Flash forward to three weeks ago as we were spending a day in the studio recording another session for the Gragg Chair video.  I had checked the system the night before as I do routinely, and it was working fine.  Batteries were topped off, solar panels pounding out watts, hydro puttering along.  (On a normal day each of the production components produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 5kwH, higher on a sunny summer day).  Just as I was coming to the end of a session of steam bending some chair parts the room went dark.  Quickly I hustled down the hill — I do not run any longer since breaking my hip three years ago — and saw that the system had shut itself down for no apparent reason.  It booted back up manually, but still the work for the recording session was lost.

I was leaving town the next morning for a week so I put off conducting the investigation of the hiccup until I got back.

what it should look like

what it did look like

On returning I was able to confirm that the solar panels were contributing zero to the system performance.  It.  Jjust.  Went.  To.  Sleep.  The hydro turbine was still working as it should so the overall system function was adequate, but several days of chasing down the solar inactivity proved fruitless, despite numerous emails and phone calls with BillR, who assigned me several detailed troubleshooting tasks, and literally hours on hold with the tekkies at the solar control module manufacturer.

In the end the tekkies told me there was some sort of hardware failure and I needed to disconnect the solar control unit and send it to them for their ministrations.  So I did.

As all of this was unfolding, the hydro turbine suddenly (literally overnight) developed the growling rumble of worn out bearings.  I took it off-line as soon as I noticed this, dealing with two $15 bearings is one thing but letting them run to destruction might have damaged the $2k turbine and that was not high on my list of risks to take.  After speaking to the turbine manufacturer I decided to remove the turbine core and ship it back to him for new bearings.  Replacing the bearings myself was not really an option as I do not possess some of the specialized tools required for the job, although I will have to address that shortcoming in the future.

Quick as a bunny I was without any power system input to the barn and things ground to a halt, including cancelling/rescheduling the Boullework Marquetry workshop that was slated for this weekend.

For now all I can do is wait on the turbine manufacturer to return the turbine core with then new bearings and hear back from the solar control module manufacturer for a report on that unit, and contact the local electrician to come and wire in my gas generator to the system.

I clearly need for “2 is 1” to become “3 is 2,” or maybe even “4 is 3.”

Stay tuned.

In a true Black Swan event both my redundant power sources failed at the same time.  Maybe I should have called Nassim Taleb first.

Foiling the Wascally Wabbits

Mrs. Barn has been especially plagued this year by the wildlife endemic to our remote mountain retreat, most especially the bunny rabbits coming to nibble off the tops of her flowers in the bed she has been cultivating for many years on the hillside adjacent to the cabin.

To mitigate the problem I made several cylindrical enclosures from 1/2″ hardware cloth to fit over the plants under attack, painted them black to make them less visible and placed them where they needed to be.  In fact they are nearly invisible from a typical viewing distance, and so far they have done their job.

Now we are hoping the deer don’t take a liking to these plants.  That might take, um, a more impactful pyrotechnical response.

Feral Woodworking, a/k/a “Firewood Season”

As we settle into the routine of life on the homestead it becomes ever more clear that it is always “firewood season.”  We made it through the winter with a large amount left in the re-filled crib, having gone through the complete supply in the side crib and the front porch, refilling the former two months ago in case it was needed.  It was not.

But still there are at least a half dozen large trees on the ground up in the woods, trees we felled last summer and simply awaiting my further ministrations.  Now on nice days, and by that I mean “dry” days with good enough traction to get the truck up the mountain, I section and split a ton or two of firewood.  I discovered a useful implement for the task, a ramp.  I found that rolling the bolts of wood into the truck was dramatically preferable to hoisting them.

D’oh.

I enjoy reflecting on the fact that my goal of having two years’ worth of firewood ready to go at the beginning of winter might be fulfilled by autumn of this year.  Plus, I am noting that late winter is the time to forage for firewood as the naturally fallen trees are so readily visible, as are ailing trees to be harvested this summer.  I look forward to growing the pile to the size of a truck in the coming days.

Now, it only I could persuade Mrs. Barn of the need for a John Deere Gator or something similar.  For the firewood.  For the children.

Consecutive Days

Last Sunday night we had torrential rains overnight, and this was the sight greeting me the next morning.  The roar of the water was almost deafening, and we were hoping for a warm sunny day to help dry things out.  It was not to be, as the day remained cold with snow flurries in the air all day long.  There was no damage to the homestead, and the flow over the spillway ceased late in the afternoon.

The flurries kept up all night and in the morning there was a total of almost two inches on the cars.

Doggone winter is hanging on tenaciously.

Firewood

Recently I was reviewing the manuscript for Joshua Klein’s great new book about polymath and furniture maker Jonathan Fisher for Lost Art Press as I had been asked to write the Forward.    The book is an excellent reading and learning experience, and one of the descriptions of Fisher’s day-to-day life caught my particular attention.  In addition to everything else he had to do was the onerous task of obtaining many tons of firewood requisite for each Maine winter.

My friend Bob, who is a lifelong timberman, came for couple hours a few months ago and felled more than a dozen large ailing trees that had been damaged over the years.  His help is incalculably important as I simply do not have the experience necessary to fell very large trees with confidence, while he has felled literally tens of thousands of trees and manages to drop them safely right where they need to go.  Among this year’s prizes was a wonderful old oak with a long, straight trunk, that had been damaged in a storm last winter.  I’ll be splitting and riving that one in a few weeks, I hope.  More about that later.

Sometimes we just go where the trees are, but I am particularly interested in thinning the woods to the south and southwest of the barn to perhaps extend the daylight portion of winter days by an hour or more.  Currently I lose direct light by about 3PM and I aim to push that to 4 or 4:30.  That will be the best I can hope for unless we remove the crest of the hill occupying that space.

Once the trees are on the ground I can then return at my leisure to cut them into bolts and haul them down the hill.  Inasmuch as I have the same objective as Jonathan Fisher, gathering tons of firewood each winter, I am more than delighted that almost a century ago the good folks at Stihl, Dolmar, and Festool worked independently to provide us with what we now have as the modern chainsaw.  Ditto whoever combined a gasoline engine, hydraulic piston, and steel wedge to create log splitters.

With the side crib completely full with a double course of wood and the front porch filled with only a walking path to the front door we are ready for winter.  I’m now working on my firewood pile for next winter with hopes of eventually getting a couple of years ahead.  It’s the mountain way.

Straightening Up

 

 

 

 

With the shed roof line as straight as we could get it (there was still a tiny bit of dip but I was fearful of literally tearing the building apart if we went any farther based on the screeching coming from the building itself) we began the steady process of assembling in-place the laminated post-and-beam to replace the sagging wall.

We started by assembling the posts complete from three laminae of 2x8s with the center board being off set the width of the beam dimension and notched a couple of inches to serve as the tenons so that the beams could be assembled in-place fairly simply.  This also provided good purchase for the concrete we were using as the footer ex poste.

Since the rear corner being the highest, we shot for everything eventually becoming level with it.  So as the posts were constructed moving forward, we had to dig out holes in order to make all of them the same length.   Once the structure was complete I began the gentle lifting of the front corner with a post and hydraulic bottle jack.  Even I was astounded to recognize that the front corner needed almost 16-inches of raising to get everything level-ish.

With that I filled each footer hole with dry concrete mix, and old trick I learned from a deck-builder friend of mine, who said that you could use dry concrete in holes like this and it would absorb moisture from the ground and set in fairly short order.  I have used this method numerous times in the past and it turns out he was right.

The following week I dismantled the original wall and salvaged almost all of the material to use as the new 3/4 wall.  That new configuration, along with the new structure, has transformed the space from a sagging, foreboding cavern into a robust and airy storage space for the tools and machines necessary for maintaining the homestead.  For the moment I have left the rear section of the wall un-built as we are debating the desirability of a door opening there.

Unsquare Dance

 

Back in the mezozoic era when I was in college, I hosted a late night jazz show on the college station.  My theme song was a Dave Brubeck piece (as would be the case with any civilized person in that situation), in this case Unsquare Dance.  For whatever reason this tune, or more precisely the title, leaped into my head when I first saw the juxtaposition of the new and magnificent stone wall with the whomperjawed lean-to attached to the ancient log barn behind the root cellar/granary.  I’d always recognized it was a bit off-plumb, but goodness the comparison was sobering.  My desire to get it straightened out needed to become action.

About that time my younger brother came for a week-long visit.  We are pretty much two peas in a pod, although he is a better marksman than am I.  He is an excellent carpenter and builder, so once I knew his schedule I ordered some 2x8x8′ pressure treated SYP to use in building the new wall structure.

The strategy was to assemble  stick-built laminated beam to serve as the top plate for a post-and-beam configuration, about a foot inside the original wall.  But first we had to jack up the roof to some semblance of planarity, which we accomplished with hydraulic bottle jacks and extra 2x8s to wedge the roof to the height we wanted.  It took a day of gradual lifting, but we finally had it ready to work on.  The foot worth of swale was as gone as we could get it, and it was time for the hard work to begin.

 

Arched Bridge – Finis

The final day of bridge building involved cutting, painting, and installing the decking, which was made from the same 1×6 material used for the beams.  Prior to installing the decking I mounted electrical wires to the underside of the structure.  These are the wires that 1) carry electrons from the solar panels on the cabin to the power system, and 2) will eventually carry electrons back to the cabin from the system.

Before

After

A little debris clearing, including the old plank walkways, and the job was done for now.  I’ll let the paint weather a bit, then wait for a warmer sunny day to sand it and apply another coat of paint, sprinkling the sticky paint with play sand to give it better traction.

Between the new stone wall, arched bridge, and new wall on the lean-to on the old barn (more about that later), the vista from the side deck has been transformed.

Arched Bridge – Day One

The root cellar on the homestead is just across the creek from the cabin, about 100-feet from the back door.  Well, technically, it is across two creeks, one coming from a series of springs way up the hill and the other emanating from the spring that is about halfway between the root cellar and the cabin, and used to provide the drinking water for the cabin until the artesian spring was discovered 350 feet up the mountain in the 1980s.  For the past dozen years or so the access to the root cellar was across two increasingly rickety plank bridges, and I had become increasingly concerned about the footing there as Mrs. Barn is usually the one retrieving vittles from the cellar.

The time had come for an updated structure to (re?)establish ease and safety for the trek.  Since I’ve made a number of curved beam structures before, both bridges and arbors, this was the route I chose to take here.  The total span of the space being covered was 25-feet, and one of the issues for the logistics was rendered irrelevant by the choice of an arched structure; the two end points were not level with each other.

With my long time pal Tom visiting for a few days, I decided that the time had come.  I ordered some sweet 1x6x16′ pressure treated lumber, and it turned out to be nearly “Select” grade.  We ripped each of the 1x6s in half, then used them to build the laminated arch in place.

With each end point determined by the site of the creek banks, I used concrete blocks in the center of the span to define the apex of the gentle curve and establish the form of the arch itself.  Placing dead weights on each end of the laminae as we built them up, a near perfect arch was formed and replicated with each new layer.  By off-setting the 1x3x16′ pieces when we glued and screwed them together, the arch was well accomplished.

Each lamina was attached to the preceding one with decking screws @ 6-inch spacing, and excess Titebond III weatherproof glue.

The result was right on target.

The goal for the first day was to finish each beam to a bit more than half height, which we did.

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.

cIMG_0256

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.

cIMG_0261

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.