Friday, May 31, 2013

Pouring the Sauna Footings

Grandpa was up bright and early this morning, eager to get cracking on the sauna footing. I was just as eager, and although Mummu and Donna were off on their morning hike, and Kenny was still asleep, I decided to head out. I was certainly within earshot of Kenny if he woke up and was distressed at all.

Grandpa had consulted with his brother, who suggested a ratio of 1 part cement to 5 parts sand/gravel mix. I conceeded to his lifetime of experience, and we mixed up our first batch. It looked great!

We made sure that we wet down the rock first, then, using a combination of wheelbarrow, spade and bucket, poured in a bit of concrete. Then, thanks to the over-the-top efforts of Donna, we dropped clean, wet stones into the layer of concrete we had just poured.

After this, we tried to mix up a slightly thinner batch of concrete, which we would spread on top of the stones and, using a scrap of wood, would pat down the concrete with a quick tamping motion, to hopefully drive out any airspaces between the concrete and the forms and rocks. After this, we would use the flat edge of the wood to smooth out the top of the concrete, sliding it along the top edges of the forms while sawing it back and forth. I believe this is called "screeding" or something along those lines.

Although this was a good, honest workout, it went better than I expected, and when Grandpa broke for lunch, I was able to finish the job with 7 and a half shovels of sand/gravel and 1 and a half shovels of cement mixed.

As per my understanding, and Mummu's reiteration, I broke out my collection of plastic bags leftover from the felt insulation in our Yurta yurts. Using some extra stones Donna had provided, I covered up the concrete to ensure that it didn't dry out too quickly.

Grandpa plans on removing the plastic and forms tomorrow, hopefully to help my footings to cure faster.

When he returned from his lunch, Grandpa and I mulled over the situation with the footings for the cabin. It was not in quite such an auspicious location. There are several deep pits and grooves that coincide with our chosen footings.

We had been going based on a rough 24' by 24' floorspace, but upon closer examination, digging out closer to our 22' by 22' plan yielded a much more positive job. It still looks to be a much more major undertaking than the sauna footings. I think I will look into the possibility of pumping concrete up to our location, even if a truck cannot make its way all the way to the building site.

In the meantime, we'll continue to work on the sauna, and with spare time, to clear more of the cabin footing area.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Preparing to Pour our Footings.

Grandpa returned to our building sites early Monday morning and we added an inner square of 1"x4" boards to hold in our footings for the sauna. I am planning on using standard 8" concrete blocks, and because the footings are only about 4" high all around, we decided we were comfortable with 10" wide footings. These footings are not at all designed to protect against frost heaving, but just to smooth out the irregular surface of the rock and give it a chance to bond to the blocks.

We added in two, 2" diameter pipes about 16" long, to act as conduits for incoming water and outgoing greywater. One of these faced directly at the well. The other pointed at an angle to the well, towards a slope that we were comfortable with the greywater flowing down towards.

On the side facing the cabin, I installed a 4" diameter pipe, as I plan on putting in a nested series of pipes there to transport water to the cabin, and electricity both from AND to the cabin. (If I decide to run the generator to charge the house batteries, I plan on setting the generator on the far side of the sauna so it won't disturb us too much.)

I then headed up to our front parking area to begin moving some of my gravel pile from there, closer to our construction site. The weight of the gravel, combined with some soft spots on the driveway resulted in one of my closer calls with tipping the tractor. I called out to Donna to call out to Grandpa to come and help me right the tractor. I was buckled in, and felt that if I bailed, the tractor would continue to tip.

Donna of course, bless her, thought I was only interested in getting photographic evidence of my folly, and rushed over, camera in hand.

Patiently I explained that I was fearing for my life, and could she please get Grandpa to come and stand on the high side of the tractor!

He got me back on four wheels, and I backed out of the resulting gully and took the long way around to the building site without further adventure. I dumped a few loads of gravel, and then it was time to get some cement and the cement mixer.

On the recommendation of Wayne at Howie's Saw and Woodmizer, I hit up Petersen's Lumber on John Street Road. They set me up with six bags of cement, and a bit of a comment about how few people bothered to mix their own concrete anymore. This did little to encourage me.

Once I got home, it was determined that Grandpa's lead on the cement mixer was still missing in action. At last he got ahold of his grand-nephew (I think) and we hopped in to the truck and were off.

The mixer has loads of experience. It appears that it belonged to Grandpa's father, who used it to make a foundation for his farm house - AFTER it was built! He jacked the whole thing up, dug out a basement, poured a foundation, and then lowered the house. Unbelievable!

Grandpa and I managed to wrangle the mixer up to the building site as the sun was brushing the trees, and he headed for home while I did a bit more digging and cleaning on our cabin site. Finally Donna and Kenny returned from a shower at Mummu's, and we all decided to come inside for bed.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Breaking Ground on the Foundations!

So our excavator, F! predicted that he would be able to do our foundation work early last week. Of course, the weekend before it rained for four straight days, and I suspect this put his schedule way out of whack.

Thankfully, Saturday evening we received a telephone call informing us that he was going to work on Sunday to take care of it for us! We were super-excited!

Sunday was also Donna's birthday - Mummu treated us to a really delightful wifesaver breakfast, one of my favourites! After breakfast, Mummu didn't let me do the dishes, so I headed off to the local gravel pit to sulk - and get an extra load of gravel in anticipation of mixing concrete for my footings.

It was with great excitement that we heard the rumble of F!'s machine coming up the driveway about 11:30 on Sunday morning. We consulted briefly about the order and scope of operations, and then he was off! First priority was the sauna. Grandpa wisely (hmmm, Freudian slip? I originally typed "Grandpa wifely suggested"...) suggested that we have F! do the sauna first, so that if anything went wrong, we could at least proceed with working on the sauna and F! could deal with the other situations on a less pressing schedule.

It wasn't an issue though, F! managed to scrape off the rock in an hour or two, and we set to work cleaning it a bit more with shovels and push broom.

Grandpa grabbed a number of 1"x4" boards from my board pile, and we cut them to size for the sauna footings and screwed them together. Working with a pair of levels, we managed to position and satisfy ourselves with a good location for the sauna.

Meanwhile F! cleaned up our rejected well spot from last summer, and turned it into a nice, deep, small pond. I am thinking of adding a few goldfish for interest and to keep down the mosquito population. We'll see how that works out.

After F! finished with the pond, he headed back up to the main cabin site, and there managed to give me half a heart attack as he pushed over a fully grown jackpine, and then tried to pick it up and move it out of the way with just his backhoe. I'm sure his tractor tipped to 45 degrees before he aborted and readjusted his grip on said tree. He persisted, and managed to get that tree out of the range of our cabin footings.

We had to adjust the location of the cabin by a few feet here and there, and will likely continue to do so, as we discovered that the spot we felt to be nice, flat Canadian Shield, actually did have a number of deep hollows in it.

Finally F! dug a trench from the sauna site to the cabin site. This was to allow me to bury a water and electrical line. As an added blessing, he was able to go quite deep with most of this trench. He even hit deep frost, and a higher level of standing water than the pond. This should hopefully go a bit of a ways to helping keep our water flowing from the tank in the sauna to the cabin. I am currently planning on running as large a flexible pipe as possible between the two buildings, and then running two 120V lines, 1" flexible pipe, and heat cable through that. That should allow me room to run a future electrical line if need be, or replace the water line if need be. It should also protect all those lines from the backfill when I cover them up again.

After naming a very fair price for his work, I gladly paid him and sent him home. We puttered a bit and then Mummu and Grandpa came over for a celebratory barbeque.

Later, we returned to Mummu's to enjoy more of Donna's birthday with cake and fellowship.

That night, we fell asleep with visions of buildings dancing in our heads!


Sunday, May 26, 2013

More Mud Means More Ditches

Last weekend it rained for four days straight. Luckily in the city they didn't experience it quite as dramatically as last spring, but on my clay pathways, it was a disaster! Everything took on the texture of butter, with the look of fudge. Driving on it eventually became out of the question. I took to parking down on the lower, more graveled portion of our driveway.

Eventually Grandpa couldn't stand watching our work wash away, and he began to dig a short ditch. I pitched in, and we managed to put in a much longer ditch (drain?) down the most vunerable side of our driveway.

Then we moved back to a section of my main pathway that also was very sloppy, and actually laid down two drainpipes to shuttle water from one side of the path to the other side.

Finally I tried bringing the truck back up the driveway. It wasn't much of a success. I still got stuck multiple times and really left deep and lasting ruts in my parking area.

Oh well, hopefully it will dry out, and each season that I try to deal with it more and more will mean it gets to be less and less of an issue.


Testing a Coleman BlackCat Catalytic Heater

Now that our dry firewood is pretty much exhausted, we are finding it harder to stand nights that still drop below zero (this morning they still announced a frost warning!)
In an act of desperation, I opted to purchase a heater - but I didn't want a really large one, as I'm hoping this is just a very temporary need.
Having some experience with a Coleman catalytic heater from my winter camping days, it was with great hopes that I purchased one in town last week, as well as some of the (queue conflicting emotions) disposable propane tanks.
We brought it home, and I fired it up. It seemed to raise the temperature in the yurts at a painfully slow rate of three degrees an hour. It performed much better when we took it into the 100sf bedroom yurt and curtained off that area. But we didn't want to let it burn through the night, so we turned it off once the temperature was over sixteen degrees. As an extra precaution, we also kept our carbon monoxide detector close by wherever we used the heater.
One thing of note, it seems to be a very humid heat. This was the first time we had noticed condensation or humidity during cold weather in the yurts.
The next day I instead opted to use it as a kotatsu heater in the larger yurt. This seemed a much more realistic use for it. I think this is about the best we can hope for all things considered. Best just pray for warmer weather, soon!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Low Tech Water Filtering with a Berkey / British Berkefeld Combination

After repeatedly coming close to, but not quite passing, our water tests, I finally became disillusioned with attempting to get our well to a zero bacteria level. We have managed to avoid e. coli, but there often seemed to be other coliforms that managed to infiltrate somehow.
Bleaching the well is always an option, but that didn't really sit well (get it? Well?) with me. So with that in mind, I returned to my camping roots and sought out options for filtering my own water as needed.
Having tried a number of different solutions as a backpacker, including MiOx systems, chlorine drops, and ceramic filters, I opted for the most cost efficient, lowest technology option. This was a ceramic filter. They last for thousands of gallons of water, are easy to care for (requiring occasional manual cleaning of the outer ceramic), and have a long track record of efficient, chemical-free filtering of potable water.
Not wanting to have to manually pump every drop of water though, I was very happy to find that gravity-fed solutions have been around for over a century now!
Online, the tubes of the internet seem to be saturated with the American "Big Berkey" canisters, which also heavily promote their "Black Berkey" filters.
Drilling a little deeper though, there seems to be some lingering questions as to whether or not the Big Berkey canisters and filters are actually made in the U.S. More importantly, though, quality control on the filters seems to be very questionable. Many, many reports of the filters coming apart without warning led me to worry about just how much they could be trusted. Of course, the Black Berkey filters don't appear to be ceramic - they seem to be straight up carbon with perhaps some other components. Having never seen one in person though, I can't really make a confirmed comment about them.
With these reports in mind, I opted instead to go for the original British Berkefeld system, which the Berkey system is a derivative of.
I couldn't get original an original Berkefeld cannister, but this didn't trouble me so much, as it is basically two stainless steel canisters which sit upon one another. Untreated water goes in the top, and filters though to the lower canister, from which a spigot dispenses it for drinking and toothbrushing. The canister isn't nearly as critical as the filter.
I did insist on original UK-made filters though, and wasn't disappointed. I purchased two, 9" ceramic Berkefeld filters. They seem to be very straightforward. Wipe off the ceramic dust with a wet rag, install in the upper chamber with a rubber washer above, and a plastic nut below, and then run one or two full tanks of water though before use.
At first I was going to only use one filter, but the time taken for the canister to empty was on the order of 10-12 hours, so I installed the second filter as well. This does not change the economy of the system - only the speed of filtering.
For a standard "Big Berkey" canister, 9" filters fit fine, but seem to me to be oversized. In future I would order the 7" filters. The top two inches of the 9" filter are no longer covered by water within an hour of filling the top canister, if you even DO fill it. We also noticed while filling that there is a significant risk of contamination if untreated water runs down the side of the upper canister, as it would drain down into the lower canister. To account for this, we placed a "garter" around the base of the upper canister - actually, one of Donna's unused hair bands.
On Friday I dropped off two water samples for testing. One is untreated well water, and the other is water that was run through the filter. Yesterday, Monday, I called for the results - 27 choliform in the well, and 14 after filtering. Disappointing, as that's three times the safe limit, and I expected the filter to be flawless! I will tighten up the fittings as best I can, and re-run the test.
As we use and experience this filter more, I will try to give updates.

The Season's First Mosquitoes

I snapped this picture a week ago. It's the first mosquito I swatted this year.

They seemed larger than usual - and I hadn't been bit by them yet. I was trying to convince myself that they were some sort of damselfly or something like that. I took the picture anyway.

Last night was sauna night. As I spent a bit of extra time outside (now that the evening temperatures have climbed into the teens), these things were buzzing around me to the tune of two or three at a time. Suddenly - zap! One bit me right on my bottom.

Sigh, and so it begins..


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Moving our Solar Panels and Batteries

Once the water lines had been taken down and cut up into firewood for next year, the other big obstacle to excavations was my solar array and battery/electronics box. I was not a little leery of having heavy equipment tearing things up anywhere near my power station.

I anticipated this to be both a crisis, as well as an opportunity. I didn't want to risk my whole solar array to the whims of gravity either. With Donna and Grandpa helping, we gingerly detached the main support pipe from the tree trunk it had been attached to, and relocated it on the other side of my pathway to a new trunk.

I also dismantled the battery bank, and then with much grunting and groaning, rocked and rolled the box over to the new location as well. With Donna's help, I managed to level the box at the new location, and then reloaded the batteries - this time with good space between them, and no foam insulation. I don't anticipate that they will need to suffer another winter. I plan on locating them in the crawlspace under the cabin, foam insulation as an option but not a requirement. As long as the crawlspace stays around the freezing mark, I don't anticipate any real issues, aside from a reduction in overall capacity.

With only one or two sparks, I connected everything back together again, plugged in my panels, and voila! Power on the first try!

It was a good chance for me to clean out the box, spread out the batteries and do a bit of re-cabling. Now it is much easier to plug in other items, as well as charge the batteries from the generator if I ever have need to do that (now seemingly more unlikely for the remainder of the summer, but still, with a modified sine wave inverter, I do need to run the generator to power the washing machine).

It was a very windy day when I did this - the panels were really swaying. I decided that because we seemed to be charging up very consistently, I would tie down the panels semi-permanently facing south-south-west. Now we don't have to constantly be checking to make sure they track the sun every day. I also have the added sense of security that they are soundly fastened and no longer able to swing due to a sudden gust of wind.

Let's hope the next time I have to move these guys - it's to their permanent home on our cabin!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dismantling our Gravity-Fed Water System

Now that we have contacted F! and have arranged for excavation of our sauna and cabin building sites, it is time to prepare the location for some heavy equipment, followed up by some exciting construction!

I first prepared the area with Grandpa by staking out approximate squares where both the cabin, and the sauna would go. I placed our first two stakes where I thought the south-west wall should be, approximately 24' apart. Then, using a rope that turned about to be nearly a perfect size for it, I tied three knots - two that were 24' apart, and a third that was 34' from the second one. In my head, 24^2 is 576. 576*2 is 1152. The closest square to 1152 is 1156. That's close enough for my tastes. Thanks to Pythagoras, finally, a practical use for geometry!

After the ongoing failure of our water system over the winter, I had cut out a segment of the raised water lines to keep it from blocking our sunlight. Now that the snow was off the ground in that area, I decided to dismantle much of the remaining water line as it cut off access to the cabin site from our main driveway. Carefully saving the tie-wraps, I clipped free both the water line, as well as the electrical line that powered the sump pump.

With these lines out of danger, I knocked apart the log supports and untwisted the wires that had helped to hold them together until we could drive in spikes and screws. I tried as best I could to make the locations of the screws and spikes that I was unable to remove from the logs.

Piling the logs together, I got out the chainsaw and very gingerly cut them into stove lengths. As dull and beat up as my current blade is, I still wasn't interested in seeing what happens when chainsaw meets spike. As much as I put great effort into putting up the original water system, which did serve well until the lines froze, I took uncommon delight in cutting it down and rendering it too into something to keep us warm this upcoming season.

For now we will schlep buckets from the end of the hose, which is still closer than the neighbours. I also have decided to purchase a water filter - likely a Big Berkey with British Berkeshire filters. Not that I'm an expert, by any means, but a bit of internet research seems to indicate that the "American" filters are of very poor quality, and the British ones, while making fewer claims to their abilities, are nearly bulletproof in terms of quality - and they have over 100 years of history to back them up. I'll try to remember to do a bit of a review of the filter after we have it and have used it for awhile.

Having our source of water back has been great, and now if we can also drink said water, we will be much further along our journey to some independence!


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Spring Run-Off

As I have complained about lately, we have had an excess of snow. In fact, although much of our snow is gone, it is snowing as I type this - on May 11th.


This snow was a hassle to navigate while it existed. Now that it is melting rapidly, it has again become a hazard. It has turned most of our pathways and trails to mud. The truck and car have gotten stuck a few times just outside of the dojo tent - not because of ice, but now because of mud. Sigh.

For the past week we have abandoned the notion of driving up to the dojo tent. I now park both vehicles near the entrance of our property. The driveway is simply too soft, and I'm doing more damage driving up close than I care to repair with the tractor and grader blade once drier times arrive.

Halfway down the driveway, and continuing to the entrance, there is a veritable lake growing almost to the height of the gravel.

In an effort to prevent a full blown washout or stream across the driveway, Grandpa initiated a goal of creating a secondary ditch from this lake, directly to the highway and culvert. Kenny and I have regularly revisited the location to dredge it lower and lower. In this picture you can see it near the centre of view.

The melting of the snow is an exciting time though; it does clear the way for excavations to begin! Just today Grandpa and I set out preliminary stakes to mark off the cabin and sauna. We also discussed some other work to have done when F! arrives to do our heavy equipment work. Some ideas have included a greywater pit and a small pond. Both are exciting notions. I also like having a better idea of sight lines now that we have an idea where our cabin walls will really need to go.