Follow by Email


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Failed experiment or breaking rule #2

It's always fun to write about all my little projects that go well. Sure, I document the little tweaks and fixes needed to make things go right, but today it's about outright failure. Sometimes things do not go as planned.

This happened at a time when I had a huge surplus of waste vegetable oil. We had been running two old diesel Mercedes Benz cars on veggie. Then I sold one to my daughter when she moved to Rhode Island. We were only running one veggie burning car and my wife work situation changed so she wasn't putting as many miles on the car. The veggie was piling up.

Then I found this nifty design for a waste oil burning furnace It seemed simple enough. I won't go into the details of construction as I don't want anyone else to attempt to build one. The idea behind it was that there was a cast iron plate inside the stove. Once the plate was hot it would ignite veggie oil falling on it from a drip tube. The trick was to light a fire under the plate to get it hot then it should be a self sustaining fire.

Since I'm only a partial idiot, I decided to test the furnace in the yard instead of in the house. I rigged up a temporary chimney with some old stove pipe, heated up the fire plate, and opened the drip valve. It smoked a bit at first but settled down to a nice steady burn. Great! Worked fine.

Then I installed it in the basement and connected it to the chimney At first things were working great. The basement got nice and warm. Then there was a little factor I had not considered. Outside the tank of waste veggie oil stayed the same temperature during the test. In the basement, the oil in the tank got nice and warm.

The warmer oil thinned out and flowed faster through the drip tube. The oil flowed faster and faster, too fast to completely burn on the fire plate. Excess oil pooled inside the stove. Then the whole pool of oil ignited. Suddenly the stove took off with a roar like a jet engine.

At that point I turned the fuel off, but there was plenty of oil in the stove to sustain the fire for some time. A huge black plume of smoke poured out of my chimney. Then the smoke detectors on each floor started to go off one by one.

That's when my lovely wife came down to the basement to gently inquire about what I was doing.

There are only three rules that my lovely wife insists I live by. Rule #2 is don't burn the house down. She felt I was getting seriously close to violating that rule. At that moment I was standing in the basement doorway with an industrial sized fire extinguisher and didn't have time to discuss it.

Eventually the fire burned itself out. Doors and windows were opened to air the house out. From that little experiment I thought I learned that the veggie furnace needed a better fuel regulation system. My lovely wife on the other hand concluded that the veggie furnace experiments were over.

The veggie furnace currently sits in the scrap pile waiting for the junk dealer.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The sound of summer

There's a common summer sound here in the rural north: chainsaws. Winter's coming. It's always coming. Wood heat is a popular way to survive the cold around here. There's comfort in a large well seasoned pile of cut and split wood. It's better than money in the bank.

Your average house will use at least a minimum of 5 or 6 cords of wood. That's a lot of chainsaw work. Very few people get their wood delivered cut and split. Even if wood's delivered, it's often in 4 foot, 8 foot, or even longer lengths. It seems that every other house in town owns at least one chainsaw.

I've cut cords of wood with handsaws. While it can be done it's a physical work out. Once cut it still needs to be split. I actually enjoy splitting wood with an ax or splitting maul. However, when I've got a huge pile to split I borrow a hydraulic wood splitter. Life is too short to mess around with that forever.

I've got a problem with chainsaws. Due to lung damage when I was a firefighter I've got a hard time with the gasoline fumes. That's one reason I own some good handsaws. The logs are generally only cut short enough to where I can drag them to the house. Once there they are cut to stove length using an electric chainsaw. This year I've added a cordless chainsaw to my tool kit. It's been really useful. No starting problems, light weight, and can easily cut up a few 10 inch diameter trees on a single charge.

I'm only bothering with a cord or so of firewood, all cut from my land. The local Tractor Supply had a summer sale on pressed sawdust blocks. Those burn really will in my woodstoves so I put down a deposit on a pallet, which is about a ton and a quarter of blocks.

In addition I'm getting a minimum order of heating oil. It the last few years I haven't bothered buying heating oil. Last spring I burned 30 gallons of off road diesel in the furnace to take the chill out of the place when we got back from Florida. Having the oil furnace as backup will be handy. We don't have anyone to feed the woodstove when we are away. It got pretty darn cold in the house if we were away overnight. Then it would take a day or two to get the house up to temperature.

My main plan to deal with winter cold is to avoid most of it. We'll shut down and drain the house plumbing in December and head south for the rest of the winter. Hanging around the Florida Keys in a sailboat beats the heck out of digging firewood out from under snow piles.


Monday, July 27, 2015

House batteries

My solar electric system charges a battery bank rather than feed into the grid. While I've got the expense of batteries, I also have power when the grid goes down. For me, that was the whole point.

The batteries are pretty old school: flooded lead acid batteries, the same kind used in golf carts. Every once in a while I have to top off the batteries with distilled water. While doing that the other day I noticed my batteries are now over 10 years old. That's pretty much near the end of their useful life. Since I took really good care of them, they have a few more years in them yet.

Batteries have always been the weak link in off-grid systems. My house batteries are essentially the same technology as batteries from 100 years ago. The best thing that can be said about them is they are good enough. They certainly could be better. Battery technology is making some huge advances, thanks in part to the development of electric cars. With any luck, when my batteries are replaced, the new battery systems will be available for a reasonable price.

Then again, if the new batteries start to displace the old technology, I might go with lead acid again. Why would I do that? If people start to unload their lead acid batteries for fire sale prices, I'd find it hard to say no. After all, they are "good enough."


Sunday, July 26, 2015

The high cost of being poor

I ran into a cousin of mine I hadn't seen recently. He never made all that much money, but always seemed to be getting by. Not lately, as it turns out. His older car needed a lot of repair work done. Then his furnace died and he could not replace it. To get through the winter he used portable electric heaters. His electric bills were over $900/month. Now he can't afford to fix the car again so is driving around on an unregistered motorcycle. If he gets caught that will set him back even more.

The plans to help poor people have hurtles of their own. My cousin discovered he qualifies for aid to get a new furnace. However, they won't buy him one because he has a lien on the house. Of course, the lien on the house is mostly due to him falling behind because of those big electric bills.

I know from personal experience it's often a pretty short and quick trip from doing fine to being on the hairy edge of disaster. Rich people suffer financial set backs, but they don't miss any meals because of it. They have resources they can draw on, family and friends who can cushion the fall. When all your friends and family are struggling like you are, there's not a lot of assistance they can give.

I live in an economically depressed area so opportunities for advancement are limited. So why don't people move to where the economy is doing better. For one thing it's not all that easy to get a job where nobody knows you and your qualifications don't stand out from the crowd. If you get a job, how will you move there? In the car that doesn't run anymore? Can you sell the house that you owe more money than it's worth? How will you get the money for an apartment?

Right now my cousin has a lot of free child care from his parents. He'd need a huge boost in income to replace that with paid child care. So people hold onto what little support they do get. They struggle along, hoping for a break.

This is a guy with a full time job who does some cash work on the side. His wife has medical problems that keep her from working. He doesn't have any drinking or drug problems. 50 years ago a guy like that would be doing pretty good. Now he can't get by at all.

I know of other people who look to be living the American Dream, but are are months behind on their house payments. There's another family who's falling behind because overtime pay dried up. His base income doesn't pay the bills.

It's seems there are a few big financial issues that are driving people to desperation. Car problems are a big one. Most people in America need a car to work -no car, no work. Medical issues are still a big one. Even if they have medical insurance, the co-pays alone can drive someone into bankruptcy. Housing is an issue not just the cost of a mortgage or rent, but things like repairs and utilities can break someone.

There are lot more people around me struggling than most people realise. People talk to me and tell me things. Maybe it's because sometimes I have some information that can make a difference. Often it's just because I can be a good listener who does not judge.

Hope things are better where you live. Here it's like an apple that looks good on the outside, but has rot deep to the core. In spite of that I woudn't want to live anywhere else. Funny how that works sometime.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Traveling with the herd

There's a trend in the sailing community where people travel in organized groups. The granddaddy of them all is the ARC rallys. They have different rallys that do everything from Atlantic crossings to circumnavigations of the world. On a smaller scale, Sail magazine is promoting a trip down the east coast on the ICW waterway.

These rallys cost money as someone has to pay for the organization. While there are some group discounts on different things, it's said that prices always rise when the ARC people are in town.
Group trips vary between the different sponsors. They usually insist on a certain level of safety equipment and provide some security by traveling in a group. However, some of that group security is probably an illusion. If conditions are bad enough that one boat is trouble, potential rescue boats will be having a hard time too.

It's not just on the water where people travel in organized groups. There's a subset of the RV crowd who travel the country in packs.

My lovely wife and I are unfit for that sort of travel. Heck, we couldn't even follow my in-laws from TX to Mo in a straight line. We ended up on a side trip in Arkansas and camped near Hot Springs. Fortunately we were able to call them on the cell and tell them we'd be delayed.

A group rally would be a huge waste of money for us as we'd never complete it with the group. We might be fine for a day or two, but then we'd discover something off the beaten path and we'd be off on our own. It might be as simple as really liking a place and deciding to stay longer. That's something we do all the time.

One problem with traveling in big group is that the group dynamics are more important than the people and places you meet along the way. They travel in a bubble. Once they get to know the people in their group they tend to only hang out with those people. No need to get to know other people. Besides, when a big group overwhelms an area, the locals either want to profit off them or avoid them.
A single person or a couple is more likely to interact with people in a more normal human way.

Our next sailing adventure will be even less prone to group travel. First of all, our boat is pretty small. That's a disadvantage as shorter boats are just slower. Add to the fact that we will be using an electric trolling motor instead of a more powerful gas outboard. That makes us much more dependent on the wind and tides. On the other hand our small boat allows us to get into places the bigger boats can never dream of seeing. In the shallow waters around Florida that's an awful lot of real estate.

There may be advantages to running with the herd, but for us it's just not worth it.


Work crazy

This recent Slate article covered Americans' attitude towards work. Jeb Bush said Americans should work longer hours -and plenty of Americans feel the same way.

Amazing. Good brainwashing job. I know plenty of Americans working long and crazy hours. It's the only way they can get enough money to survive. That is not a good thing. I know of “retired” people who are basically working full time jobs just for the health insurance. What kind of retirement is that?

There's also the belief that the path to riches is through hard work. Funny, but did you ever notice it's not the guy working crazy hours making all the money. It's often the guy with his feet up on the desk smoking a cigar. He's the owner and it's his workers doing all the sweating.

The Wall Street financial sector is an exception as everyone there works insane hours. That's just a sickness -the pursuit of money and power beyond all reason. They don't even know what work/life balance means. These are money addicts. Like all addicts they've lost interest in everything but their addiction. They should be pitied, not praised.

Life is more than being a cog in a machine. Of course, that's pretty hard to figure out if you are working all the time and barely have to sleep, never mind time to think. Most European countries have a lot more time off than Americans. Many Americans are made to feel guilty if they take a week off. Most Europeans feel slighted if they only have a 3 week holiday. Most Americans don't realize that many parts of the world have much better life styles than they do.

Heck there are peasants in third world countries that live happier lives than Americans.

I am a bit curious about what's going to happen to all the businesses that cater to retired people. Most of the people enjoying decent retirements right now are reaping the benefits of defined retirement plans. Those plans are a thing of the past. The 401K crowd will not have the same income. For most it will be a lot worse. Florida will have to close its doors.

I'm old enough to remember when it was assumed that in the future most people would work fewer hours. That was considered a good thing and something to look forward to. So far the 21st Century has been a bit of a bust.

(not for me, of course -but I'm an exception.)


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Language learning update

Some weeks back I blogged about trying to learn the French language. Believe it or not, I'm still plugging away at it. I've been using the Duolingo App on my tablet. While it's not perfect, it's pretty darn good and also it's free. Can't beat that.

Recent research has shown the benefit of listening to native speakers in whatever language you are trying to learn. Even if you don't understand a word that they say, it's supposed to help a lot. The theory is that your brain gets accustomed to the way the language is supposed to sound.
With that in mind I've also downloaded the Tunein app which allows someone to listen to radio stations from all over the world. Sherbrooke Quebec is fairly close to me as the crow flies so I've been listening to their radio station.

Has it helped? I think it has. Most of the time I can get the general drift of what people are talking about. Once in a while I've got no freaking clue. If that happens on a day when the Duolingo lessons are going badly it's pretty discouraging. However, I've decided to cut myself some slack and keep trying.

Some days it's all can do to finish one or two language modules. Other days I can knock off ten of them. Apparently, I've acquired more French by living next to French speakers than I realized. While I did take two years of High School French, I was the class idiot. Mainly what I learned was how to pass French class without truly understanding it. Even so, some it stuck with me. Unfortunately, the things I learned wrong also stuck with me. Unlearning them is five times harder than learning new things.

Learning has been pretty fun, overall. Good thing as I haven't watched a Netflix movie in a long time. That seems to be where the time to learn has been taken from.

In other news, my passport came in. All those weeks getting paperwork together paid off. Unfortunately, my wife's application was rejected. They want additional information. She was born and raised in a different state so getting the proper paperwork has been a nightmare. Hopefully we can square that away in a few weeks.