Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Roof Rake - an Early Review

So a short while ago the fellow who built our roof and mounted our solar panels came back to squirt a little more foam insulation into a few voids that were developing condensation problems.

While here, I pointed out my construction techniques on my porch, and he thought it looked pretty good.  He did have one caveat though - if it had been him building it, he would have doubled up the supports at the outside edge of the porch roof.

This was something that I had originally put into my plans.  I even told myself that I would add this in the fall/winter when there was an actual snow load on the roof.  At the moment though, I'm not sure if I want to add this to the monetary or time budget.  Instead, I opted for another solution that just involved routine maintenance...   Keeping most of the snow clear!

Previously, I had used a long branch that Grandpa had rigged up with the end of an old gravel rake and a small piece of plywood wired to it.  This worked passably to clear snow from the dojo tent and the outside edges of the sauna porch roof, until it self-destructed.

I spend the remainder of the winter poking the dojo tent roof and yurt roof from underneath - VERY challenging work!  My shoulders were screaming by the end.  Then I stood on a step ladder and tried to use a snowshovel to clear snow from off of the sauna roof.  Not very safe (I recall actually falling off into the snow), and not very effective.  I wasn't willing to actually step up on the roof with the snow there too, and no real, permanent supports in place.

In any case, this year I decided to bite the bullet and purchase one of those "angled snow shovels for pulling snow off the roof" - which it turns out has its' own name - a "Roof Rake".

I looked at pricing in the area; all were between $43.00 and $50.00.  Most of them had about 5' or 6' segments that you clicked together to get the length you desired.  Canadian Tire had a version with a telescopic pole that caught my eye, and it also was apparently better because the tube had an oval profile, which should lend it greater transverse strength.

I purchased that one, at about $46.00.  It was relatively easy to assemble, and actually using it was such a joy!  I was stunned with the ease of use and effectiveness.  I would certainly recommend one to anyone who has similar needs.

My greatest regret is that I didn't buy it the first winter.  It would surely have prevented the collapse of the dojo tent - a tough, time-consuming tragedy.  I can say it has a real use here on our particular homestead.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Updating our Solar Power System - Modified Sine Wave and 12 Volts to Pure Sine Wave and 24 Volts

And now the circle is complete.  I have upgraded every single component in our original solar power system - so I have a second system in parts that I will likely try to put together on my future workshop.

As exciting as it is to join the big(ger) boys club with the new system, I did wake up this morning to realizing that the inverter had shut off our power due to low batteries - doubly annoying because yesterday was actually a pretty sunny day!

I will be the apologist for the batteries I guess...  It was sunny, but there was a constant haze that really prevented the batteries from quite getting to absorption.  We also ran the washing machine for a couple of loads, as well as the heating cable in the well, and the well pump for a good twenty minutes to half an hour (at about 30 amps).

Still, I think they should easily be able to handle the loads we are throwing at them overnight.  I could show you my math, but I don't think you're interested.

In any case, this was all an upgrade from the older, modified sine wave inverter courtesy of a Canadian Tire sale about three or four years ago.  I sure cannot complain about the use I got out of that one.  It's still going strong.  My only issues with it were the way it cut out at 15.5 volts (easily reached in winter, or while equalizing) and the low voltage/current alarm that was audible, and sounded every time our fridge compressor kicked in.  (Switching to 4/0 cables from the battery to the inverter mostly solved this problem.)

First I had to remove all the old wiring and setup.

Unfortunately, the inverter I ordered was delayed a week or two, so I temporarily wired back in our original one until it came.

With the old inverter, it had a few cheap built in circuit breakers, and outlets on the front.  I didn't bother wiring in a panel box or anything complicated like that.  I simply put a male end on each circuit and plugged that into the front of the inverter.

With the new setup, I had a distribution panel with three circuit breakers.  I wanted to include an outlet on the input side, so I could get power directly from the generator if the inverter ever failed.  I also wanted an outlet on one of the circuits so that I could plug in our router and modem close to where the lines came into the house from outside.

Finally the new inverter arrived.  I booked off the rest of the day to get it installed.  I screwed a pair of dollar store cookie sheets to the wall, as the inverter dictated that it shouldn't be directly mounted to a flammable surface.

With significant effort, Donna marked where the first few screws should go while I tried to hold the inverter up to the wall.  It weighs quite a bit actually.  Be prepared!

Finally I had it mounted, wired up with 4/0 cables in from the batteries and 10/2 out to my distribution panel.  I switched off everything, put on a single, Michael Jacksonesque glove, and mounted the fuse...

I didn't see the spark myself.  Donna managed to capture it though.

I was delighted to see a display on the remote indicating all was well.
Next I actually turned on the inverter, and then one breaker at a time.  The fridge started up as soon as it was in the circuit, and I was feeling great!

A few observations...  The new inverter is much louder than the cheap one was.  It hums constantly, sounding like a fridge or transformer box itself.  We're getting use to that.  I will hopefully someday soundproof it somewhat.

I no longer have a shunt, so we have to observe things based on the inverter's display of volts and amps out, versus the charge controller which shows volts and amps in from the panels.  It's something we'll be fine with I'm sure - just not as nice as the old display which simply showed whether we had a surplus or deficit of amps.  Someday in the future perhaps a new shunt will be in the budget.  But not for now.

The new inverter/charger allows us to charge the batteries a bit faster - it can push the amps and voltage higher than our old Iota.  It seems that the generator maxes out at pumping a little over 30 amps at 24 volts.  I think upgrading the wiring between the generator and the cabin would help with that.  It will be a project for the spring, as I am not thrilled with the notion of going under the sauna anytime soon.

Now if only I could find a way to make the batteries last through the night!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Biting off More than I Could Chew

Thursday was overcast, but not too badly so.  I headed out to the bush early with the ATV, and pulled in what I thought was a 16' log I had cut a few months ago.  It was a rough, difficult ride, but when I got it to the mill, I realized that it was (surprise), probably about 18' long.  When you don't have a measuring device with you, you tend to err on the side of caution!

The difficult, jarring trip with that monster convinced me that I didn't want to haul too many more large logs without modifying my system.

Grandpa showed up as I was preparing to head back into the bush.  He had noted a standing dead pine that he had a hunch contained a few good boards still in it.  He started cutting it, while I went further down the trial (Freudian slip - trail) to grab two previously cut 7' logs that were estimated to also provide a few 2x4's.  I returned with the trailer and we loaded up what he had cut in the way of firewood.  I noted that he had managed to find two 10' logs that were also of decent size.

Grandpa retired for the day after that, and I thought I might do the same, but then after lunch got a second wind and instead opted to try to go back to skid out the 10' logs he had cut.  I figured that as long as I could still get up the slipperiest slope, I may as well continue with the groove I was in.

The first log skidded ok, although it did catch on a root once that jarred a few of my fillings loose.  I don't like subjecting the ATV to that sort of abuse!  Let alone my own body.

The second I experimented by strapping it to our old toboggan.  This did, and didn't really work.  While it stayed on the toboggan, it worked great, clearly much easier to slide over the uneven trail.  But it often tipped over, and then it was just as bad as ever.  I am currently brainstorming a skidding cone of some sort.  If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them!

After skidding out all the logs available, there was still a few hours of daylight left, and some steam left in my body, and room in the last woodshed.  I checked with Donna and then headed back to the bush to try to bring in one more load of firewood.  This time I went to the very end of the accessible trail.  I figure that I should probably try to get the furthest wood first, so that if the trails get bogged down later in the season, I don't have to fight my way quite as far to get firewood.

There was a large, tall and straight jackpine that marked the junction between our old hiking trail and the new ATV trail.  I moved the ATV far away, and proceeded with my cut.

Of course, the tree tipped back away from my first wedge cut, pinning my chainsaw.  Sigh.  I still consider myself a real novice at tree felling, so this wasn't completely unexpected.  Just an opportunity to learn.

Foreseeing this in a previous life, I had purchased a pair of felling wedges a couple of months ago.  I've never seen Grandpa use them.  He tends to use a nearby pole to push trees that aren't leaning right, or to hook up the comealong high up the tree and try to pull it where he wants it.  This sort of makes me nervous.  With the comealong you have to take extra time, and you are usually within a few degrees of where you are trying to make the tree fall.  Of course, the wedges mean that I'm right at the base of the tree, so perhaps there is a danger there too.

Anyway.  I first knocked off some of the bark around my back cut, to better see where to insert the wedges.  I pushed the tree and managed to move it enough to get the tip of the wedge in.  I used the back of the axe to drive it a bit further, and then added the second wedge a few inches off to the side of the first one.  Briefly alternating between the two, I was quickly able to expand the cut enough to extract my saw.  A bit more tapping, and I started to see and hear the telltale signs that she was going over.  I stepped back a few paces and yelled "Timber!"

Surprisingly, it fell exactly where I wanted!  It did take a single bounce that jerked directly towards me, stopping a few feet short, but still illustrating the tremendous (and dangerous) power that a falling tree has.

I whipped out my four foot measuring stick, and bucked the tree into segments that were about 6" shy of the full four feet.

Loading the sections closest to the butt of the tree made me somewhat rethink my notion of cutting such long sections.  These ones felt rather heavy!

I loaded the trailer up to what I thought was full, and then realized there was only a little bit more to go and I wouldn't have to make a second trip - of course I decided to go for it!

I strapped the whole thing down, and set off...  Within the first few metres, I had to break out the winch to climb a small rise.  A few metres after that, repeat.

I wasn't discouraged, I knew that after I got past these sections, it was a long section of mostly flat area...  I started to move at a good pace and then rounded a corner before BAM!  The party was over.

Past the axle!  I knew this was a wet, soft spot, but there must have been a crust of frozen ice or soil that finally broke through.  There was no way to avoid it.  I would have to unload the trailer.  Sigh.

I unloaded the trailer, lifted it by hand and simply deposited it so that it straddled this sinkhole.  Then reloaded it, and as soon as I began moving again, who should arrive but Donna and Kenny!  Apparently my long absence had made their hearts grow fonder (and their worries grow larger...)  It was nice to see them, but there was no time for pleasantries - I knew I had a few more rough patches to manage.  Which I did!  I got the load back to the last woodshed, and spent the remainder of my time cutting and splitting what will probably be the largest load I take with that trailer, on those trails...

I've said it before, but I'll say it again - happiness is a full woodshed!  I even had enough left over to begin piling it outside of our current woodshed - in anticipation of it being emptied out within the next week or two.  I'm really trying to stay ahead of our needs this season - and the ATV is helping with that tremendously!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Water Freezes, Thaws, Freezes, Thaws - Already!

As I have outlined here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, we have had no shortage of issues with frozen water lines here on the homestead.  It is perhaps one of the major defining issues that we have encountered here.

I have said a few times of late that if we have any more problems, I will bite the bullet and have a well drilled, and we will install a pressure tank and heat line and live with the consequences.  Of course, that's probably outside of our current budget.  We are now on full lockdown of expenses until we can pay down our line of credit a bit more.

In any case, I digress, back to the story.  I was thrilled yesterday morning when I returned with some logs that Grandpa and I were working at harvesting, to have Donna report that there was no water flowing in the cabin.  A quick check of the tanks in the sauna showed that there was water available.  Sigh.  We should have warmed the sauna the night before, but we were too busy/tired and didn't feel completely icky.

My lazy/bright idea was for Donna to start up the sauna right away and we'd just warm the whole building.  I suspected that it was the line in the sauna that was frozen - earlier in the morning I had been able to fill a kettle from the cabin, so the water in the line itself must have been able to flow.

After a number of hours, we were thrilled to suddenly have the water flowing again!  An easy fix - and it conveniently gave us an excuse for an earlier sauna.  I think we will have to really stick to an every other day schedule for saunas for now.  Grandpa even suggested putting on a single fire every day, to ensure that the sauna stays above freezing.

Feeling quite high and happy about having water back in the cabin, and a second sunny day to brighten my time in the bush, I advised Donna to do as many loads of laundry as she could find time to do.

When she again reported no water, I figured no problem - we had likely drained the sauna tanks.  I was certain that the water between the tanks and the cabin were flowing without issue.

I headed over to the sauna, sat down with my cellphone to play a round of hearts, and turned on the pump.  After five minutes, there still was no water.  Sigh.  Now the well was frozen.

Time to try my new thawing cable!  I turned on the power to the thawing cables in the well, and suggested to Donna to set a timer for twenty minutes  Of course, I was still splitting and piling wood, so I let the time drag out to more like a half hour.  I turned on the pump, left the thawing cable turned on, and proceeded to park the ATV.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I returned to the sauna, and the delightful sound of water splashing into the tanks!  I think my new thawing cable has paid dividends already!  Oh happy day!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My System for Cutting Firewood

I make no claims to being very good at either picking or harvesting firewood.  Probably north of 90% of the time, Grandpa points out to me a standing tree that he suggests would be good for burning "this year", and we either cut it right away, or I return on my own to cut it.

We do have two different systems for bringing back the wood we do cut.  I acknowledge that he has a smaller trailer and garden tractor, while I have the ATV and a trailer that is probably 50-100% larger in capacity.

It seems to me that Grandpa prefers to cut his trees into stove lengths in the bush, then pile them near his bush trail, and then bring them in to his woodshed/home woodpile area after they have spent time in the bush drying.  I suspect that perhaps it is just a matter of space that he doesn't bring the wood out directly to further dry, perhaps today I will ask him if I see him.  (edit: I have asked Grandpa, and he confirmed it is a matter of space, AND the fact that he still cuts in winter when he cannot get his smaller tractor into the bush to retrieve his wood.  Excellent reasons!)

Myself, I prefer to be the "wood lord", to borrow a term we used to use when we played Setters of Catan in old days.  I like to have the wood nearby and be able to have the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you know you have enough to get you through the winter (a feeling I think I've bumped against, only to be treated to exceptional circumstances that drive me to get even MORE wood for the next burning season...)

As such, I like to bring back my firewood as soon as possible after cutting it.  Currently, this is because it will likely be burned later in the season (hopefully not until spring though) anyway.  Perhaps in a  year or two I will have enough wood to get me through two winters - dare to dream!

Another difference between most people and myself (I think!) is that I don't like to cut my wood into stove lengths in the bush.  I have been appreciating cutting it to around 42" (VERY approximately) and then loading those lengths into the trailer, bringing them home, and then doing the final cuts here.  I have a few reasons for doing this, and am not sure if any of them are compelling, perhaps some experienced woodcutters will have something to add here?

First off - I have a future desire to capture my sawdust.  It is handy for filling in potholes, and especially for use in our sawdust toilet.  Doing a large portion of my cutting in a specific area will hopefully allow me to harvest the sawdust in the future, if it ever does amount to anything significant.

I also note that trees (especially ones I cut) don't always tend to fall in easily accessible spots.  This makes cutting and then carrying to the trailer or temporary pile both annoying and more hazardous.  Fewer cuts means less awkward spots, and less "back and forth" of logs.  Doing 2/3 of the cutting back at home where I have the advantage of open, clear, flat work areas with access to my car and cabin must definitely be safer.  I also think my three at once is more efficient, as generally when it is cut to stove length, I can only carry two at a time (one in each hand, possibly stacking smaller ones when appropriate).  This is the biggest factor for me.  Safety and ease.

Finally, another consideration for the "future" is that eventually I would like to try switching over to all electric chainsaws.  I feel that a cordless one may not have the stamina to let me do extensive cutting in the bush, but if it could at least cut a tree and then buck it into three unit lengths, that would allow me to return to the cabin to finish cutting with a corded machine running either off the battery bank, or directly off the solar panels if it is a nice, sunny day.  My system would put less pressure on the smaller rechargeable batteries of a cordless chainsaw.

These are simply my current methods.  I wonder if as I get older, maybe shelpping the heavier logs will become more of a burden than an advantage, so it may change.  Of course, I note that Grandpa could easily manage these size of logs and larger, so that gives me hope.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tuning up the Sauna Porch

After having completed the sauna porch first, the remainder of the summer was given over to working on the cabin porch.

This allowed the sauna porch to grow into its role and begin to mold itself to its surroundings and situation.  This sounds all organic and nice, but what it really means is that the roof and floor were sagging in spots.

I had expected and tried to plan for this - so I wasn't too upset or concerned.  When I had lag bolted the structure together, I had only put one bolt in each area so that it would act more as a pivot, and allow the wood to move around each other.

On a recent trip to town, Kenny and I had purchased a dozen 10"x10" patio stones that were about 1 1/2" thick.  I reasoned that they would fit perfectly under my deck blocks and allow me to accomodate that much movement, in conjuction with the screw mounts that each post was mounted with.

I spent a day cleaning off the porch, and then was ready to proceed.

I started on what I felt to be the lowest side of the sauna - as the summer progressed I experienced the sensation of "falling off" the porch more and more along that side of the sauna as the outside edge dropped an inch or two compared to the inside edge.

Using my 2 tonne jack and a solid piece of firewood (in conjuction with several scrap pieces of two by six), I raised it up until it showed level on the floor.

I repeated this process at each post, working my way clockwise around the sauna.  Where it was a small adjustment, I simply screwed out more of the post jack.  Where it was a larger adjustment, I backed the screw off completely, removed the deck block and scraped off the frozen soil (it was a challenge in some places to remove the deck block as the ground had already developed a frozen crust).

Then, I replaced the deck block and jack, and, with much cursing and finagling, I was able to further slide a patio stone under the deck block, and return the screw support to a position ensuring that the floor was still level.

Frustratingly, because the screw jack and the deck block were inset in one another, it was not possible to install the supports from the ground up.  Instead, I had to install the stack from the top down.  This was a real challenge.  I think if I have to do it again, I will enlist an assistant to try to slide the patio stone under while I hold up the deck block.

It took the better part of the morning and early afternoon to adjust all twelve posts on the sauna.  I don't believe I have to do anything with the cabin yet, as it was built completely level, and I can't see any signs of it sagging yet.  Perhaps under a snow load that will accelerate the process (although that will also occur when the ground is likely frozen and unlikely to have much give either).

With the sauna porch levelled, I then moved on to installing the remaining lag bolts at the important load points.  This went quite well, I pre-drilled the holes to ensure that the support boards wouldn't split, and then used my impact driver to put in the lag bolts.

Finally I yanked and kicked the posts until they were as vertical as possible, and installed hurricane ties near to each one to keep them there.  This had the added effect of levelling off the roof of the sauna porch in a location that had become noticeably "humped" where the post was tipping outwards and forcing the outside edge of the roof higher than at the posts on either side.

Stepping back and admiring my handiwork, I can honestly say it looks really good now (it doesn't hurt that I spent another day just clearing off the tools and building materials that had accumulated over the course of the summer).  When I think back to the spring and just how much the snow had deformed the roof, I'm pleased as punch, but not a little apprehensive to see how things go this winter.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Closing up the Foundation Vents on the Cabin and Sauna

When the sauna and cabin were constructed, I wanted to ensure some cross ventilation in the crawl spaces, so I put in two vents on opposite corners of the sauna, and four vents in the corners of the cabin.

On Grandpa's recommendation, I crawled under the buildings last fall and thumped some solid foam rectangles into the openings where the vents had been mounted.

This year I was less enthusiastic with crawling around down there again.  Besides, putting in the foam now, meant I *HAD* to go back down to remove it in the spring.

My best idea?  To mount the foam on the OUTSIDE of the foundation in the fall.  At the moment, for most spots, this meant I only had to straddle the open joists of the deck.  Even when I finally have all the deck boards down, I will only have to work my way across five feet of space to reach the vents, rather than crawling around under the buildings for many multiples of that.

I cut new foam blocks oversize to help ensure a good seal around the vents.

On top of the block walls I had set down some flashing which I bent downwards to try to discourage pests from climbing the blocks and getting direct access to the log of the cabin.  I had to bend up this flashing over the vents to be able to push the foam up more flush with the the top of the vents.  I put in a few screws right through the flashing and into the bottom of the deck joists to hold it in place.

Some scrap two foot pieces of wood mounted like a hinge allowed me to swing them up and apply pressure to the outside of the foam.  Another screw and a short length of string tied with a trucker's hitch completed the simple device.

At this point I am pretty happy with the outcome.  It will be very challenging to try to compare the two options accurately.  Grandpa indicated that it was mainly to keep the wind from blowing through the bottom of the buildings during winter, and that even snow would have worked if we could have banked it up against the foundation once it had accumulated.  I trust that the porch roof and shovelling the porch itself will help to accumulate snow all around the cabin, at least in future when I have more porch to shovel :).

There was one vent on the sauna which did have full deckboards over it and required actually crawling under the deck to access and install the vents.  I was ever so clever, carrying over a scrap piece of steel that was propped up behind the woodshed - it was already five feet long, three feet wide, smooth and clean.  I slid it under the deck and gave myself a clean, comfortable (I put it under with the ribs facing down) workspace that caught dropped screws easily.  I will surely have to remember this trick for future reference.  It is much nicer than rolling around on the ground.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Cold Start to November

November 1st proved to be a bit "invigourating" as Papa would say.

Our pond froze over, but I could see small "pulses" around the solar water fountain as it still struggled to aerate its small part of things.

Perhaps most importantly, it reminded us that winter really is coming, and helped encourage me to finish up some of my outdoor chores that were best done before snow flies and the daytime temperatures are lucky to reach that point!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Papa Panels the Bathroom, Nana Learns About Minecraft

October found us blessed with a visit from my parents, Nana and Papa.  We were so excited to be hosting them again after not having seen them since my brother's wedding in August, and not hosting them since the spring!

Kenny and I stopped at Maier Hardware to order up the new inverter, and of course, Dave and I spent more time than expected chatting about the ins and outs of my system.  You aren't going to find someone better suited to the do it yourselfer than Dave at Maier.

Nana and Papa arrived slightly earlier than predicted, but Kenny and I managed to discipline ourselves to also be at the aeroport a bit early, so we only had to wait a few moments to be treated to the sight of Nana and Papa coming down the short hallway to us.

We stopped at a few places on the way home to pick up some last minute supplies, as well as let Nana and Papa drop by Minute Muffler on Memorial where they were treated amazingly well.  I think it's safe to say that they can't recommend this shop enough.  Of course, out in Lappe here, KC Automotive is my mechanic of choice!

After settling in, Papa and I set to work improving things around the homestead.  While I plugged away in the sauna, putting in a vapour barrier and paneling, Papa went from door to door ensuring that they swung freely and no longer stuck (a problem that developed early and only got worse as the logs settled).

Once he had the doors operating nicely, he moved on to our bathroom, adding insulation to all the walls and ceiling, and then panelling it with 4" v-joint cedar boards I had picked up at Howie's.

Meanwhile, Kenny kept Nana hopping by showing her the ins and outs of Minecraft.  It was also very gratifying to see her coax him off of the screens from time to time to get outside or snuggle or practise more traditional homeschool type activities.

Thanks for capturing Kenny's best angle Nana!

Then, all too quickly, we were taking them back to the aeroport to return to southern Ontario.  We were so happy to have them here with us, and appreciate all they are and all they do.  It will be exciting to see them again over the holidays!