Thursday, December 31, 2009

Not Gonna Fly

No doubt by now everyone has heard all about the latest terrorist incident on a commercial aircraft. The existing security arrangements should have been more than sufficient, if they'd been followed properly. Will they raise the level of competency in the TSA? Of course not. Instead, they'll put in more onerous rules -which will be no more effective than the last batch. (Same bunch of bozos implementing the rules.)

I'm sure at some level it's not really about security. At some point it's about training people to act like cattle. (or sheep, perhaps?)

I probably shouldn't be trying to board a flight at this point in my life. For all I know my name is already on a list. Ten years ago, the last time that I flew, I was pissing off the security guards. I don't suffer fools gladly. I could not even pretend to take them seriously. They've gotten a lot more uppity since.

The air industry is due to go into a tailspin as it is. One of their major expenses is fuel. At some point, as the price of fuel goes skyrockets, they'll have to raise ticket prices to match. Air travel will go back to being only for the rich.

When most of the airlines go out of business and air passenger numbers drop, they'll probably blame terrorism. Don't believe it. It'll be about money and fuel.

Restrictions on travel annoy the heck out of me -a free human being. There are too many compromises to air travel.

The way things are going now, if I ever fly again, it'll probably be in a plane I build myself.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Choosing Technology

The Amish are not a people frozen in amber. They pick and choose technology on the basis of how it will affect their community. They do adapt and add technologies, only much slower than everybody else. While my goals may differ from the Amish, like them I pick and choose my technology.

Some of my choices might seem odd. My dad just shakes his head and says, "I've never seen anyone work so hard to live like my grandfather."

Now while it's true I use a wood cook stove that would not have been out of place in my great grandfather's house, I'm no Luddite. I'm not afraid of technology. I'm just careful to pick and choose what works best for me.

One example: snow removal. Now most people around here use either a snowblower or a plow. We are deep in snow country. One might think a snowblower would be a good fit. Here's the thing, I don't only look at the time saved to clear the driveway with a snowblower. Sure it is quicker than my shovel and scoop, but that's not all. There's a whole universe of things that come with a snowblower. It has to be purchased. Heck, I might even have to get a job to do that. Where would I find the time? Then there's gas, oil, maintenance, and storage. Also, I'm not really fond of the noise and smell of a snowblower. Considering everything involved, doing things by hand works best for me.

Now it would be possible to mount a plow on my bit Ford F250 4X4 truck, but it isn't going to happen. I've used plow vehicles years ago. Used to do a fair job of it. Even if a plow was given to me, it won't go on the truck. Plowing causes a lot of wear and tear on a vehicle. It's hard on the four wheel drive, the whole front end assembly, and it doesn't do much good for the transmission either.

The way I figure it, it's easier to shovel snow by hand. It beats the hassles of both snowblower and plow. I shovel snow by hand because I'm lazy. It's easier in the long run than the alternatives.

That's just one example. There are more. I don't have a microwave. Sure, microwave ovens are super energy efficient, but I don't like the taste of food that comes out of them. Also, I'm not in that kind of hurry. It's easier for me to put something in my cast iron Dutch oven and let it slow cook.

Got rid of my drip coffee maker. We go camping so much that I really grew to like the taste of coffee perked in a regular stainless steel peculator. Works just fine on the woodstove or propane stove. Everything is reusable. There are no disposable filters to deal with. Perked coffee is hotter than drip, so it stays warm all day in an air-pot. Coffee brewed in the morning is still hot in the evening.

Don't have cable or satellite TV. We only watch movies and TV shows we get from Netflix. Commercials make me crazy so it's nice to have done away with them. It's a real blessing during election years. Political ads enrage me to the point where I want to do an Elvis and blow away the one eyed monster.

I do listen to the radio, usually commercial free NPR or shortwave stations. Most of my news and informations is gathered from the Internet.

Got rid of my powerboats. Only use canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailing craft. No gas to deal with, plus I don't have to register them. I catch just as much fish trolling my lake in a canoe as I ever did in a powerboat. Works for me.

As you may have figured out by now, I'm not too concerned about keeping up with the Joneses.

I like technology. Hey, anything that provides cold beer and hot showers can't be all bad. Really enjoy my computers. Love my solar electric system. There's lots of cool stuff out there that I'm willing to support. The thing is, nothing is assumed or taken for granted. Always ask if the benefit of a technology is worth the cost.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Back in the bad old days

It's pretty easy to take the Internet for granted.


It's a huge source of nearly free information.

Here's what I had to do back in the old days:

I wanted to learn about dome homes. That required buying books and magazines. My local library had nothing about the subject. It was at least a 40 mile drive to the nearest book store. In one book there was a list of different dome companies. I wrote a form letter to 27 companies. Each letter had to be put in an envelope, stamped and physically mailed. Time went by. Eventually, 8 companies wrote back to me. I wrote three of those for more information. From their replies, one was selected. A paper check was mailed to the company. After the check cleared, the company mailed the plans and an instruction book.

Just getting information was a significant expense in time and money. There was no contact with a larger community of dome builders. There was no support if I ran into trouble.

In spite of all that, the job got done.

The Internet eliminates many of these steps, makes them cheaper, or at least a lot faster.

So . . . you've got this great tool at your disposal. What are you doing with it?


Monday, December 28, 2009

Car Insurance

Car insurance is one of those things that can eat you alive. It's another of those expenses that chips away at your income, but there are options.

I drive used cars that don't have car payments. That gives me certain advantages. In NH, I don't even need insurance to drive legally on the road. Believe me, the insurance companies are aware of that fact. It gives the vehicle owner a bit more leverage. Should insurance get too outrageous in price, I could tell them to go pound sand.

Of course, there are risks.

Don't get into an accident while uninsured. Besides being liable for all damages, the state will then make you pay for insurance if you want to continue to drive. If you travel into another state, like say Vermont, and get stopped, one of the first things an officer will want to see is your insurance card. A good friend of mine got caught that way once, and it cost him a pretty penny to sort it all out.

For my own vehicles, I take a middle course. I buy basic liability insurance. If I do get into an accident, the other person is covered. Seems like the right thing to do. It's one thing for me to take a risk that I'll total my vehicle, it's another thing entirely to put another person at risk. It's a bit of a gamble, but all I'm really risking is the vehicle. Worse comes to worse I replace it with another beater. At least I'm protected from lawsuits that would take my other property.

Now if you buy a new car with a loan, you are really screwed. You have to have complete insurance coverage, not to protect your loss, but the bank's loss. Miss one insurance payment by even a day and the bank gets a letter from the insurance company. Soon after the bank sends you a nastygram telling you to prove you have insurance or to pay off the loan. The insurance company and the bank gang up on you quicker than weasels in a hen house.

Since I own my vehicles, the insurance company is much more generous. If late on my insurance, they'll let me know I have 10 days to make good on it. I've even had them stretch that a bit or accept partial payment. Since I don't actually need them, they are willing to work with me.

Here's one big tip I'm leaned about doing business: deal local. My insurance is provided by a local agent. I can walk into their office and deal with real people -people from my community that I know. It's much easier to hang up the phone on me than to throw me out of an office. I'm a big guy and hard to throw.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Truck that Works for a Living

I own one of the 1994 -7.3 liter turbo indirect injection diesel 4X4 Ford F 250 pickup trucks with the extended cab. Yeah, there's probably thousands of them on the road, but I've got one. It had to be that year too, and the early part of the year at that. Later in '94 Ford introduced the Powerstroke engine. While it made some gains in efficiency and power, it did so at the cost of much greater complexity. Many parts that were fairly inexpensive on earlier diesels became darn pricey.

My main concern, however, was that the pre-Powerstroke engine was much easier to convert to waste vegetable oil. I would never had bought such a huge beast of a pickup of I had any intention of paying for the bulk of my fuel. 90 - 95% of the time the truck burns waste vegetable oil. The oil is almost free. It does cost a bit to filter it. Last time I did the calculations it was somewhere between 10 and 17 cents/gallon, depending on the quality of waste veggie. The rest of the cost is my labor, plus some oil stained clothes that are unfit for public viewing.

Between the truck and my car, an old diesel Benz, I burn something like 125 gallons of waste veggie/month. That's instead of burning diesel. Some months I burn considerably more veggie, like when I go on long trips.

The truck had to be converted to run on veggie. There are kits out there costing thousands of dollars. Pay a mechanic to install it, and it's hundreds more. My conversion cost about $100 in parts -most of which came from the local hardware store.

The truck works for a living. Of course, I use it to haul all that waste veggie. It also hauls most of my firewood. Between the waste veggie oil and the firewood, the truck more than pays for itself. When any of my family or friends need a big pickup, I'm more than happy to lend it out. We've done everything from move 7 tons of gravel and ledge pack for a walkway project, to bales of hay used to cover a garden. I once drove over 300 miles in a snowstorm to pick up a used truck transmission for a friend.

The truck is also a portable power plant. I've installed a 2000 watt inverter with a 4000 watt surge. Very useful for power tools on a job site. It's powerful enough to run a 3.5 hp electric chainsaw. I use it to gather firewood on nearby National Forest land. Yup, I don't even burn gas to run a chainsaw. In effect, my chainsaw runs on waste vegetable oil.

I can load enough vegetable jugs in the back of the truck to take me over 3000 miles. How's that for range?

The truck isn't pretty. It's a mish mash of parts from a whole assortment of Fords. I painted it flat black using foam brushes. The beauty of this truck is that it is possible to keep it going with salvaged parts. A good friend of mine has been driving old Fords for years and has acquired quite a selection of parts, plus the knowledge needed to do repairs.

Occasionally, I do employ the services of a professional mechanic. Sometimes us shade tree mechanics lack the proper tools. I am glad that when I do spend money on a vehicle, it stays in the local community.

The high ground clearance and the 4X4 capability are darn useful here in snow country. It is a comfort to know that we are not snowbound if we don't want to be.

So, the truck's been extremely useful to me. When it dies, however, I won't replace it with new one. First, I'm allergic to car payments. Second, a truck has got to pay for itself and I don't see how an expensive new one would be able to . Finally, my vehicles have to be extremely cheap to run. For now, diesels running WVO do the trick. I'll most likely replace my truck with something similar. However, when that day arrives, I'll have to run the numbers, assess my situation, and only then make my decision. No telling what the future may bring.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Neither a leader nor a follower

I had a problem with authority all through my school days. Schools have all kinds of stupid rules, and I didn't much care for them. Not that I was a trouble maker, I wasn't. Just now and then some stupid rule would go into effect and I'd do my best to "beat the system."

Always had a problem with authority. You might suspect that attitude might have caused me problems when I was a Firefighter. It wasn't as bad as you'd think. Most of the people who were in a position of authority were people I respected. They earned their position. It wasn't a matter of them giving orders from a position of authority. They were giving orders from a position of experience and knowledge. That I could follow.

Authority for authority's sake? I wasn't impressed. Oh, I could follow day to day orders from someone who's authority I didn't respect. What the heck, it's not like it was for anything serious: wash the truck, clean the Chief's office, arrange the spanner wrenches -no biggie. In a life and death situation, it was different. Orders that were given by someone who's knowledge and experience I didn't respect -well, for some reason or another those orders just never seemed to get followed.

I'm not alone with this attitude. It happens from time to time in the Fire service. The guys at the end of the nozzle tend to see a lot more fire than the guys on the sidewalk with the radio. A line officer out there with you in the middle of the red stuff tends to know what he's doing. The guy on the sidewalk is most likely a political animal. If he'd loved fighting fires, he'd still be on the business end. Line officers are much easier to follow. Helps that you've probably saved each other's lives a few times. Creates a bond that goes well beyond who's got official authority.

Now I know the military doesn't work that way. In the fire service, the worse thing they could have done to me was fire me. I was looking for a job when I found that one. They can't exactly shoot you for insubordination. Heck, the fire service tends to attract insubordinate types.

I don't get into much trouble. Laws, or as I call them, "suggestions," often actually make sense and are easy enough to follow. I don't run red lights, drive drunk, steal, cheat, or do a whole lot of other illegal things. If a law is stupid, I tend to ignore it. The most stupid laws are those passed that they have no way of enforcing. That just encourages people like me to have contempt for even more laws.

I follow the golden rule. That should be law enough for most things.

The flip side of authority is that I don't much want any. I don't want followers or people under my authority. Everyone should be their own boss. Everyone's a king. Only thing is, we are like the Irish kings of old. (King from this tree all the way down to the big rock) Everyone's in command of their own little kingdom. We should treat each and every individual like one king treats another. Everyone has a kingdom of one.

I recognize the little spark of godhood in each and every person. Now most don't manifest that bit of godhood, but I'd like to think it's there.

My goal is to help people achieve their own personal sovereignty. One way to do that is to be as independent of systems of control as possible. If a person is confident they can take care of their basic needs without outside help, that person is less likely to follow authority for authority's sake. If a person is free and independent in most ways, what can he gain by bowing to authority?

Isn't it comforting to think that there are people who won't "just follow orders."

After all, a king doesn't have to follow orders.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

I hated Christmas. It didn't happen overnight. As a young child, I remember having a wonderful time.

Christmas eve the whole clan would meet at my grandparents. All my cousins were there and we had a blast. The food was terrific, laughter rang out, and we kids ate candy and chased each other well into Christmas day. Funny thing, I remember the fun, but barely remember what I got for gifts.

Once my grandparents passed on, the big family Christmas get together faded away. For a couple years we tried to have it at my house. Quite a few of the family showed up the first year, fewer the second, and we didn't even try the third. Seems we live too far out in the woods. To be fair, navigating country roads, especially after a drink or two, is not what people want to do at Christmas.

The whole gift thing stressed me out. Always hated to shop, and I hated getting the wrong things for people.

Really got to hate Christmas music. There are only so many Christmas carols a person is supposed to hear in a lifetime. One summer during my teen years I worked at a place called Santa's Village. In that one summer I heard my lifetime allotment of Christmas music. To make matters worse, my wife absolutely loves Christmas music. She'll play it in July. It's enough to trigger PTSD from my Santa's Village days.

Then I had a favorite uncle die just before Christmas. To anyone who's ever lost a loved one during this time of year, you have my deepest sympathies. It's hell.

Funny thing is, the best Christmas the kids remember is the one when we had no money at all. Everyone stopped stressing about gifts -they knew right off the bat not to expect much. We all relaxed and had a good time.

This year, once again, money's tight. Not desperate, but tight. My family is scattered to the four winds. With some, we celebrated early. With others, we'll celebrate after the 25th. As for Christmas itself, it'll be with my wife, one daughter, her boyfriend, and a couple other friends. Pretty low key, but I'm actually looking forward to it. There's little money for gifts this year, so no one's stressing about it. Sounds fine to me.

Heck, I'm even letting my wife play Christmas music on the radio.

Merry Christmas everybody!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Living on Credit Cards

I don't recommend living on credit cards during bad times. Responsible financial advisers recommend against it.

It worked for me.

Credit cards should never be used for consumables: things like food or fuel.

My family lived off the things for years, buying groceries, gas and heating oil.

Yes, we've even used one credit card to pay off another.

It started back in '93. Lung injuries sustained while a professional Firefighter caught up to me. I could no longer work. The retirement system had no difficulty agreeing that I was no longer able to be a firefighter. However, they claimed that my bad lungs were totally unrelated to my job. I'd never been a smoker or have a previous record of lung problems predating my employment. One would think it was an open and shut case.

It took 4 years and a darn good lawyer to win my case. That's where my faith in the system evaporated, by the way.

So anyway, we went from a good solid income to a sudden drop in income. At the same time, I incurred significant legal expenses.

My wife and I were raising three girls. Kids have needs. After the first year or two, the financially wise thing would have been to sell the house, pay off as many bills as possible, and move someplace cheap.

Instead, I decided to hold onto the place as long as possible, use credit cards like crazy, and hope to win my case.

It was a gamble. Either I'd win and be able to pay everything back, or I'd lose, and go bankrupt.

For as long as possible, we tried to keep the kid's life normal. They had things like piano lessons, and karate lessons. We went on vacations -camping on the cheap, but family vacations none the less. The kids were growing up. Every month that their life was reasonably normal was a victory. My pension, if I won, was retroactive, but my kid's childhood was not retroactive.

Two weeks before my house was going up for auction, my pension came through. Four years of back pay covered enough of the bills to be able to keep the house. I'd won my gamble.

Fast forward to today. Now my wife's out of work due to a number of physical problems. she's been out of work since the end of March. Her Social Security application has been denied. Her lawyer believes she's got a good case and an appeal has been field. In the mean time, we've taken another cut in income.

What savings we had were wiped out paying for a daughter's divorce and custody fight -something I've no regrets doing. Family comes first.

So here we are, picking up a bit more credit card debt again -slowly, but the bill is getting slightly bigger each month.

Will I gamble like I did back in the '90's?

Hell no!

Back then, I was raising three kids. Now, while we are still helping our divorced daughter, she'll be back on her own by summer. She's made huge strides getting her life back together.

If by late spring if we haven't heard anything positive from Social Security, we are going to do what we have to do to kill the debt. If the car or the truck needs a major repair that I can't do myself, it will get parked or sold for scrap. The oil furnace will be run dry and not refilled. We'll gather firewood to heat the house. We can pull the plug on the grid and go completely solar. The garden will be expanded. (located a good source of free quality compost.)

It's just going to be my wife and I. We are willing to do things we wouldn't do while raising kids. Either she'll win her appeal and we can clear our debt in one blow, or we'll pay it down a bit slower with a bit more sacrifice.

This time around the bills are much smaller and our responsibilities much less.

Now I'm not recommending you go into outrageous debt and gamble that it'll all work out. Just because it worked for me doesn't mean it will work for you. I'm certainly not counting on it working for me twice.

Still, thought you should know that sometimes the gamble pays off. (against all odds.)

You should know that back in the 90's, I'd mentally said goodbye to all my material possessions. Figured that no way could the final appeal against the retirement system work. I got to know how it feels to let go of attachments. The most important thing for me, the thing that made it all bearable -I had three great kids and my wife still loved me. I was a rich man in the coin that really counted.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Electric Cars

Electric cars have fascinated me for years. Even went so far as to purchase plans for one once. I've little interest in buying a plug in hybrid or a commercially built EV. Too much money and I've yet to see a design I'm really happy with.

For years I've been running vehicles on waste vegetable oil. There are a lot of sound economic and ecological reasons to do so. One of the cool things is that I'm keeping old vehicles from being scrapped. They get a new life and I get to drive for small money.

Point is, I'm exploring alternative forms of transportation.

On paper, an EV would be a good addition to my household. The are perfect for short trips, much better than diesels. My diesels aren't switched over to veggie until they are warmed up. Not only that, I have to switch back to diesel a few miles before shutting them down for the night. The most efficient thing for me to do is long trips. I try and schedule my errands together so that once I get burning waste veggie, I can leave it there. The worse thing is something like a 5 mile trip to the corner store. In cold weather, the vehicle has just heated up enough to switch to veggie, but then it's time to switch to diesel again.

An EV would be perfect for those short trips to the store. A 50 mile useful range would handle most of my day to day driving. Lot's of homebuilt kits achieve that sort of millage -on paper. Now subtract millage for hilly driving. Subtract millage for power lost at the battery bank during cold weather. Subtract millage for traveling on unplowed snow covered roads. Once all that's figured in, would I even be able to make that 10 mile round trip to the corner store? Still doing research on that and would love any real world input.

If I ever did get an EV, I'd probably convert a small gas vehicle. Plenty of decent vehicles with bad engines out there. I've a possible source for good used forklift motors for free. (I know a guy who knows a guy . . .) They can be altered to run at higher voltages. Others have done successful conversions with them. There's no skimping on batteries and electronic gizmos like controllers. I've access to machine shops and skilled mechanics who'll work for barter. No doubt a decent conversion could be done for a reasonable outlay of cash.

Here's the rub -how do I charge the beast? I'm already trying to get off the grid. Ideally, the EV would be charged off its own alternative energy system. Picture a big solar array on the roof of a garage. Now this project is getting out of hand. Charging off a generator is a horrible idea -hugely inefficient. Better to just run your car on what ever the generator would be run on: gas, diesel, WVO, propane -whatever.

Right now, the numbers just don't work for me. Still, I can't get the concept out of my head. There's got to be a way to make it work.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Serious doubts about the economy

I can't get behind all the happy talk about the economy.

Monday my lovely wife and I went with another couple went to dinner and a show in Portland Maine. The city looked pretty dead. To be fair, it was a Monday, but so close to Christmas there usually is plenty of activity. Last year I remember more people being out on the street in the middle of a major snowstorm.

We didn't make reservations at the restaurant. Had a great table. During our long leisurely dinner, the place never got very busy.

At a recent party we went to, a lot of people were out of work, or working fewer hours than they wanted to.

A number of people I know are flirting with foreclosure. Most aren't talking about it publicly, but have confided in me. Some of the people in trouble surprised me. A friend of my wife's just moved her father out of his foreclosed home. That came as a surprise as last I knew he owned the place free and clear. He had a decent pension. The only thing I can figure is that he must have gotten caught up in the the refinance mania of recent years. Beyond driving a nice pickup, I've no idea what he might have done with the money.

It's not only my local economy. I keep in touch with friends and family all over the country. Everyone's felt the impact. I hear from a friend in Kentucky who's factory drastically reduced worker's hours. I hear from my dad in Florida who's neighbor can't find work, has sold his car, most of his furniture and had most services shut off. Dad's been giving him groceries to eat. The guy doesn't qualify for state benefits, so he's not in the statistics. Chatted with the guy driving the recycling truck this morning. He usually operates heavy equipment in Massachusetts. The only work he can find is doing the recycling twice a week.

My information might be anecdotal, but ask yourself: Is it much different than what you've seen around you? I hope it is and my observations are just a statical abnormality.


Experiencing collapse

To many people, the idea of a societal collapse is a foreign concept. (It only happens to people in foreign countries.) They don't believe it could happen in the USA.

For me, it's something I've experienced my whole life. When you grow up in a dying industrial mill town, collapse is real.

I've heard all the arguments. Prosperity is just around the corner. They could never shut down the ****** (insert industry here -I've seen a number of them go.) The industrial economy will be replaced by a tourist economy, or an information economy, or a prison economy. (and maybe we'll all become millionaires by doing each other's laundry.)

It's one thing to hear that sort of thing on a small scale. It's another to hear those same arguments on a national scale -or even a world scale. Frankly, it sends shivers down my spine to hear the same words and to know what they led to in my own town.

It doesn't happen all at once. Oh, there are shocks, recoveries, downturns, success stories: ups and downs. However, after 50 years, the town is half the size it used to be. I've got no problem imagining the world taking the same sort of trip.

Now my friends from more prosperous places tell me my experiences have colored my thinking. No doubt is has. They've experienced growth and sky rocking property values. No doubt that's colored their thinking. Still, I know what collapse looks like.

That's no to say your personal life has to be bad. It might involve less money or different living arrangements than once imagined, but it can still be a good life.

There's a reason I'm still living in the same county where I grew up. I like it here. My quality of life is good. If know you are going to fall, you can at least pick a softer place to land.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Substitute fuels

I just poured 10 gallons of diesel fuel into heating oil tank. Why did I do such a thing and is it safe?

Out here in the woods, the heating oil guy only comes around one day a week. It was yesterday, so I have to wait most of a week before he comes around again. I could pay an extra delivery fee to have them come early, but that's serious money. Instead, I decided to run the furnace on diesel fuel until next week. I'll probably add another 10 gallons to be sure. It all depends on the temperature and how much wood I decide to burn.

Diesel fuel and #2 heating oil are almost the same stuff. They are dyed differed colors. Heating oil has a red tint while road diesel is sort of a blue/green color. Diesel fuel burns just fine in an oil furnace. It's legal to do so. However, it's not legal to burn heating oil in a diesel car or truck that's run on the roads. Road diesel has a road tax added that heating oil doesn't have. Not only that, road diesel has additives for cold weather operation. A vehicle running on heating oil would run fine in warm weather, but not so good in cold. (besides being illegal.)

Knowing that diesel burns in a furnace saves me a special delivery fee. People burn diesel in their furnaces for other reasons. Right now a minimum delivery is 125 gallons. At today's prices, that's over $300. Some people can never scrape that much money together in one pile. Times are tough. However, they can pick up $30 of diesel every few days.

In some locations off-road diesel is available. It's cheaper than on-road as it doesn't have the road tax. It's designed to be used in things like farm tractors that never hit the highway. Don't get caught putting the off-road diesel nozzle in your car or truck. States take that kind of violation seriously. My rural gas station is sometimes staked out by agents of the DOT to catch people using the untaxed fuel on the road. Fines are high.

Is it safe? If you use proper transfer containers, and observe basic fuel safety rules, sure, it's safe. I use 5 gallon containers that are marked for diesel use. You don't want to confuse gas and diesel, as that could be dangerous or cause damage to machinery. A good solid funnel comes in handy to prevent spillage.

For a while last winter, road diesel was actually cheaper than heating oil. That's not supposed to happen, but sometimes weird things occur in the market. A lot of people around here started buying diesel in 5 gallon cans to heat their homes.

I understand handling 5 gallon cans of fuel is a lot more work than having the delivery truck guy just pump it in. Sometimes, however, there are darn good reasons for doing it yourself. At any rate, it's good to know it's possible.

One side note. In warm weather, diesel motors run fairly well with a mixture of diesel and vegetable oil. You can easily do 10 - 20% without much worry. Some have gone as high as 50/50, but that's asking for trouble, in my opinion. Do not try to cut heating oil with vegetable oil. Oil furnaces have a very low tolerance for that sort of thing and will shut down abruptly. Then an exasperated furnace repairman will be very angry with you. At least that's been my experience. Hey, it was an experiment. Even failed experiments yield important data.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pearl beyond price

The best thing that's happened to me in my life is my lovely wife. (I had hypoed "lively" instead of "lovely" and I guess that's true too!)

Right from the start she knew what kind of nut I was and never thought to try and change me.

Her mom says she's the one in the family who inherited the adventure gene. Must be true.

We've done a lot of interesting things together. She's adapted well to living out here in the woods. Hey, if you meet a girl who agrees to go winter camping on the side of a mountain -and she still likes you after, marry her.

In over 30 years of marriage she's laid down only two hard and fast rules and one provisional rule.

#1. No starting a religion:

You would think something like that would be easy. Turns out some people take me way too seriously.


No burning the house down:

There have been some close calls. That would have been embarrassing for a former Firefighter like myself. Let's just say the experimental waste vegetable oil burning heater had some problems. It worked fine in the yard. When moved to the basement, conditions changed. As the basement heated up, the oil thinned. As the oil thinned, its viscosity reduced and more oil flowed into the stove. Eventually, the stove flooded and the overflow ignited. For a while there it sounded like a freight train in the basement. Smoke detectors on three floors went off. She-who-must-be-obeyed came downstairs to see what I was doing. People from across the lake took note of the long plume of dark smoke. (They didn't do anything about it. Figured it was my business. They know I experiment with things. Gotta love rural NH) I turned the fuel valve off and eventually everything died down. Opening the windows cleared the wisps of smoke out of the house. The wife reminded me of rule #2. Waste veggie oil heater experiments came to a sudden end.

I own some large extinguishers, know how to use them, and some experiments are done with fire suppression chemicals at the ready.

*Provisional rule:

If I time travel, I must come back pretty close to the same guy who left. She understands the parallel nature of time and the difficulty inherent in coming back to your exact time line. She demands that I at least come close to the original time line. That way she'll probably get someone back from a close enough time line that she can live with him. (Yes, there are things I've done that have led her to make this provisional rule.)

All in all, not too many restrictions.

Life is good. . . and an adventure.


Saturday, December 19, 2009


Sometimes, once in a great while, I remember to lock the front door of my house. I must admit, security isn't super high up on my list of priorities. It should be, perhaps, but lax security is a tough habit to break.

I good friend of mine had a nice piece of property in Danbury Connecticut. He was at the end of a dead end road. His house and his daughter's sat on a pretty 5 acre piece of land. The property abutted preserved state land that wouldn't get built on. It looked remote, but wasn't. Over the years, the city grew up around his property. His doors were always locked, even if he just went outside to his back garden to pick a tomato. That precaution, while it seemed a bit odd to me, was prudent for the time and place.

My vehicles are rarely locked. When we travel, it's something I must force myself to remember to do. It's not like I never had anything stolen out of them either. In the last 20 years of leaving vehicles unlocked at home, I've had stuff stolen just once, a cheap portable CD and a cell phone with an expired contract. It upset me at the time, not because of the value of what was stolen. The stuff probably wasn't worth $20. No, it's the violation of my space that troubled me. Of course, it didn't trouble me long enough to keep locking my doors.

There's been a series of attempted break-ins in my town lately. There are lots of seasonal and second homes around here. A crook doesn't have to be very clever to break into a place that probably won't have visitors for weeks or months. Time is on his side.

Now that people are wise to the fact that someone's breaking into houses, it's become a much riskier profession. Everyone around here is armed. In most homes, guns and ammo are close to hand. I'm that way myself. It's normal and natural. You never know when you might have to dispatch a groundhog that's invading your garden. I've done it myself.

There has got to be an awful lot of people packing heat in my town. Every week, during regular town business, concealed gun permit applications are processed. When I picked mine up, there was a good stack of them. Assuming they go though a similar stack every week, and having some idea about the number of adults in the town -everyone's packing. It's just safe to assume that everyone is armed. That doesn't count the number of people without permits, but who keep a loaded shotgun by the door.

We are a polite society around here, so maybe Heinlein was right.

People have a fair idea about who belongs. When there aren't that many people, you get to know most of them. Trade in your car for a new one, and you'll get strange looks until neighbors get used to seeing you in it. People wave to each other. We stop and chat. The gentle art of small talk is not lost. You don't even have to particularly like your neighbors to be civil to them. We are all in this together.

So if the criminals are lucky, the cops will catch them. It'd be a shame if they picked on the wrong house.


Can't have everything

In the alternative energy world, sometimes everything doesn't mesh all that smoothly.

You can never do just one thing.

Installing a tankless water heater seemed like a good idea. In many ways it was. When it worked, it saved energy compared to a regular heater with a tank. There was one important unforeseen consequence. Picture my first shower. I run the water until it gets toasty warm. I jump in. It soon becomes icy cold -soon followed by scalding hot. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Scream. Gasp for breath. Jump out of the shower.

What happened?

The shower is located fairly far away from the heater, causing some pressure drop from friction loss. New shower heads come with flow restrictors to save water -another noble goal. The well pump is on a pressure switch. Depending on the point in the on/off cycle, the water pressure varies by about ten PSI.

Between the distance, the flow restrictor and pressure switch cycle, the tankless water heater had a problem. At the high end of pressure, the flow was enough to turn the water heater on and it would make hot water. At the low end of the cycle, the flow was too little to activate the burner. Hence, the painful cycle of hot and cold.

To fix this problem the flow restrictors were removed, allowing more volume to flow through the water heater. While this improved the situation, it didn't quite make it go away. Turns out even just a little blast of cold water in the middle of a shower is no fun.

Adjusting the household water pressure upwards and shortening the on/off cycle of the pressure switch did the trick. Finally, I was able to enjoy endless hot water without the cold water surprise.

Two problems:

Without the flow restrictors, the shower used a lot more water. Fortunately, my well is productive. New Hampshire isn't the desert Southwest.

The second unforeseen consequence was higher electrical usage. Pumping more water took power, and running at a higher pressure also took more energy. I did not realize how much until after the tankless water heater died and I went to a regular tank for a short while. Reducing the pressure and lengthening the spread between the high and low end of the switch cycle put much less strain on the solar electric powered water pump.

At the time, even with the changes needed to make it work, the tankless water heater paid off. It cost more in unexpected ways so it wasn't a 100% gain.

At least I had an interesting problem to solve. Good thing I like solving puzzles.


Friday, December 18, 2009

In hot water

Heating water is a huge energy draw. It's something I've struggled with for years.

When we first moved in to our place in the woods, propane heated out water. Our home was one of the first in the area to have a tankless water heater. When it worked, it worked great. I just turned a faucet on, the propane burner ignited, and it made hot water as fast as you could use it. As long as there was propane in the tank and water in the well, it would make hot water.

My lovely wife and I raised three girls. My girls loved their hot showers. Tankless water heaters do the job, and do it well.

I don't have one anymore.

Our tankless water heater was made by a company called Myson. It was directly vented to the outside -no chimney or power vent needed. Also didn't need electricity. (at first) It worked great until the weather turned cold. It froze solid. The local propane dealer did not know the heater needed something called a freeze kit. The freeze kit had a little electric warmer plate that was supposed to keep everything from freezing. So much for not needing electricity.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. A steady procession of propane repair men marched through our basement. My kids learned all their names and began to think of them as extended family. Valves, diaphragms, burners, and even a heater core were replaced. This went on for 10 years until the warranty expired. The propane company out and out refused to put in a new tankless water heater for me. Being without hot water, and with three teenage girls and a wife waiting for hot water, my negotiation position was very weak. I soon caved in and let them put in a regular propane tank water heater.

It worked well enough, but wasn't anywhere near as efficient as the tankless. Soon after, the girls grew up and went their separate ways -lowering hot water usage quite a bit. However, the price of propane keep climbing and it became more and more expensive to heat water that way.

One winter we came home from our southern travels and reopened our house. The propane burner, for reasons unknown, had failed. The trip had cost a lot more than planned as we to pay for extensive vehicle repairs. I wasn't going to just replace one propane water tank with another -funds were tight.

The local building supply store was running an unbelievable sale on small electric water heaters. I picked up a little 4 gallon tank and plumbed it in place of the 40 gallon propane. It was a start, but we wanted more hot water.

Even though the propane part of the water heater failed, the tank itself was still sound. I stripped all the propane fixtures and the insulation off the heater. Painted the tank black and enclosed it in a box made from salvaged windows. It became a solar batch water heater. The home brewed solar heater dumped into the 4 gallon electric tank.

If the sun was bright, the little electric tank didn't have to work at all. Even on fairly cloudy days, the batch heater would bring the temperate up some. The addition of the small electric heater, combined with solar heat, barely increased electric usage.

Spring, summer and well into the fall, it worked pretty well. Of course, the batch heater would freeze come late fall/early winter. Before then, it was disconnected and drained. Knowing this would eventually happen, it was all hooked up with screw on connectors that were easy to remove.

Then I was back to just 4 gallons of hot water. I can take a show with 4 gallons. My wife on the other hand . . .

In the interests of domestic harmony, I set out to get more hot water. My original idea was to buy a special tank to hook up to the woodstove. Those cost real money. However, electric water tanks the same size are pretty cheap.

It's just a matter of building a heat loop into the system. Hook a line into the tank drain. That's the cold return of the loop. Then it goes up to a copper coil that sets on the back of my woodstove. The heat from the stove causes the water to circulate. From the stove it goes up and dumps into the cold water feed of the water tank. Works well enough.

Since the tank still had its electric coils, I figured I might as well hook those up too. To heat water electrically, just flip a switch on the wall. That activates a contactor that powers the coils. We only use that feature once in a while, usually when we have company and go though more hot water than normal.

It's possible heat water completely without the grid. The batch solar water heater could be moved to a sunnier location. The 4 gallon water heater (solar electric connected this time) could be hooked up on a switch -to be used only when a little extra boost is needed for the solar. For the winter, building a slightly bigger coil for the woodstove should do the trick and make enough hot water.

Water temperature would vary more than what people expect. Still, it'd work and be renewable. Might just try that come spring.

Then there is the quick and cheap water heating method. Got one of those black shower bags used for camping. Put it in the sun during the summer. In the winter, keep it by the woodstove. Worked for a bachelor friend of mine. Of course, he was a bachelor. I wouldn't dream of trying that trick with my lovely wife.

Large hot water tanks are much cheaper than a divorce.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

What to do about the grid?

There's only so much I can do about the grid in general. However, what am I to do about my relationship to it?

Twenty years ago I installed the first version of my solar electric system. At the time, I knew I wasn't going to be able to quite cut the cord from the grid. I'm surprised that all these years later I'm still connected.

Several things have held me back. The number one problem is winter. A month without sun can test anyone's faith in solar. There's a voltage meter in my kitchen that's connected to the battery bank. If the voltage drops lower than I like, I throw a switch and charge the batteries from the grid. In the winter that switch gets thrown way too much. At least my batteries have a full charge in case of a grid outage.

Here's what's running on the grid: The oil furnace. It never ran right on my old style modified sine wave inverter. It uses a fair amount of electricity (oil gun, blower motors, etc.) during a time when solar production is quite low. The answering machine. It's a constant low draw that's best not put on the inverter. I was given a big air compressor that requires 240 volts and my alternate energy system only puts out 120. Only use it a handful of times per year, but it's handy when I do. Some hot water heating -long story best handled in a post of its own. Some part of my laundry gets done on-grid. Some refrigeration. In the winter, when temperatures drop below zero, either the diesel truck or car gets their block heater plugged in. Otherwise the diesels just won't turn over.

The easiest thing in the world would be to replace the grid with a backup generator. That could happen, but only if I had the right generator at the right price. Right now it's possible to charge the household battery bank from my truck -'94 Ford F250 7.3 liter turbodiesel. The truck is wired up with a 2000 watt inverter. Since the truck has been converted to burn waste vegetable oil, it's cheap to run. It's possible to charge the house that way, and I'd probably do it in an emergency. For day to day use, however, it's seems like keeping a dragon chained to light your campfire.

For half the year, it'd be very easy to get by without the grid. The other half, we'd have to conserve, have another way of generating power, or some combination of the two.

As for the things that currently are exclusively on the grid, they could be handled. The oil furnace could be replaced with a propane heater that doesn't use electricity. If mounted in the basement, the plumbing wouldn't freeze if we weren't around to feed the woodstoves. The answering machine could be replaced with either a DC version, or a message service. The 240 volt air compressor could be traded for a 120 volt machine. Laundry could be done only on sunny days. We could downgrade to a smaller fridge. Wouldn't hurt to throw another solar panel or two on the array.

I've given some thought to adding a windmill. It's often windy when the sun doesn't shine. The price of windmills has come down. There are some problems with my location. The house is on the side of a good sized hill. Large hemlocks surround the place. A tower high enough to clear the turbulence caused by the hill and trees would cost a small fortune.

For about 7 years we temporarily solved the winter problem. We drained the plumbing, shut the house down, and traveled all winter. That works. I tied a canoe to the car and drove south until it stopped looking funny. Last winter, family obligations kept me north, and may do so again this winter.

In spite of the problems of doing so, I'm getting more and more tempted to pull the plug. The utility charges $35/month just for being hooked up. Imagine getting a $37 electric bill. That's $35 for the meter fee and just $2 for actual usage. It's over $400/year before I use a single watt. Nice system they have there.

Next summer I think I'll kill the main breaker and see how many months we can go without the grid. Who knows, maybe I'll have figured out something by fall.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The sun at work

This is a shot of my solar panels. It snowed the night before, about 5 inches of heavy wet snow. The sun is just starting to hit the panels. The one on the far right is east and is getting the sun first. The snow melt pattern neatly shows the sun's progression. Soon after this shot was taken, all the snow had melted off. If I was in a hurry to clear the panels, a swift kick to the big black center pole would usually do the job -primitive, but effective.

Notice the panels are mounted straight up and down instead of horizontally. The snow slips off better this way. Many commercial solar panel racks mount horizontally -it saves rack material. Works fine outside the snowbelt.

My location is close enough to the 45th parallel to use it for a baseline for panel angle. This time of year, the panels are at a steep 60 degree angle. Sure helps the snow slide off. Spring and fall angles are 45 degrees and the summer angle is set at 30. The angle is changed by unbolting the two poles and moving them to the threaded rods mounted to the center pole.

Changing the angle pays off, but this far north it's not worth the expense to use a rack that tracks the sun. It'd take forever to get your investment back. The current thinking is that the money would be better spent buying a few more panels.

Built my rack myself using local materials and saved a bundle. Notice the extra square stock hanging off the side. The original idea was to add the same make and model panels as funds became available. By the time there was money in the budget, those panels were no longer manufactured. Too bad, as I had predrilled all the mounting holes.

The large panel on the far right was added about a year and a half ago. I bolted aluminum channels that fit right over the existing square stock. Wire ties were used to temporally hold it in place while bolt holes were drilled. Stainless steel hardware was used to bolt it together.

Took the opportunity to upgrade to an Outback charge controller. Not cheap, but a better investment than a 401K.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The cord you don't burn.

One thing about heating with wood that I didn't mention yesterday: the best cord is the one you don't have to burn. If it normally takes 5 cords of wood to get through the winter, being able to do it it with 4 is a big boost. Just think of the savings in time and effort.

Insulation works. The best part of a good insulation job is that it keeps working year after year with no further effort. The downside is that insulating an older house can be an expensive job best left to professionals. If building a new place, you'll never regret doing the best insulation job possible. The days of cheap fuel are over.

Good windows and doors make all the difference. My house is a weird mishmash. The bottom floor was a cottage built in the early 70's. I bought the place from my dad when he retired and headed to Florida. In 1989 I did a major addition. Since I always wanted to live in a dome, I cut the roof off the cottage and plopped a dome on top. If you stand back and squint, my house sort of looks like a giant mushroom. Yeah, I know: early American Hippy Architecture. The thing is, the dome has excellent double pane argon filled windows. The downstairs has old single pane windows.

I've wanted to change out the windows in the old part ever since I bought the place. It may happen yet. In the mean time, it's been one insulation kludge after another. Some windows are covered with clear plastic shrink film. Others have home made storm windows constructed from heavy plastic over a wood frame. At least those are reusable. Some windows are even covered in salvaged bubble wrap. That works really well -if you don't mind not being able to see out of the window.

Another good way to use less heat is to use less house. Nothing wrong with living in a small house. If you are like me and the number of people who live at your house varies, vary the amount of house you heat. When it's just my wife and I, we keep the kitchen and most of the downstairs toasty warm. The upstairs, we keep at a much lower temperature. When our household expands, we send more heat upstairs. My wife and I are comfortable sleeping in a cool room. That's what blankets are for.

Unlike most houses, there's a layer of insulation between the first and second floor of my house. It's possible to just heat the downstairs. If I ever decide really close all heat to the upstairs, I can turn a few valves in the basement and shutdown the upstairs bathroom. I've plumbed in drains so that no water freezes and breaks the pipes.

Right now, the number in my household changes from week to week, so the upstairs temperature is just reduced, not closed off completely.

In the end, it's a matter of doing the best you can with what you've got to work with.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter Heat

Here in the Northeast, heating oil is the most common way to heat homes. Heck, I've got an oil furnace myself. That way I'm not spending all winter a slave to the woodstove. If I happen to get home late enough that the wood fire has died out, at least my pipes won't freeze. We have the freedom to hit the road for a few days. Of course, while we are away, all I can think about is that expensive heating oil going up in smoke.

There are other ways to heat a place. Propane isn't all that bad. However, it's another fossil fuel, with all the limitations that implies. Life is full of compromises. I use propane, but not for heating. In the winter, most of my cooking is on the antique wood cookstove in my kitchen. Works good most of the time, but it's not worth heating up the whole house in the summer time to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, even in the winter, I'll cook on propane to save time or effort. Also use propane in my clothes dryer -not that we use it that much. A tank of propane can last me a couple years. I just make sure it's filled up before the snow flies. That way I don't have to shovel a trail to the tank for the delivery guy. Not sure if I'm lazy or efficient. Propane is fine, but I wouldn't want to pay to heat my house with it.

Solar heat is nice if you've got the location for it. I don't. My house sits fairly close to the south property line. The trees blocking most of the sun are on my neighbor's land. Even with a perfect location, it takes a highly engineered, expensively constructed house to get most of its heat for the sun -at least here in NH. It seems weeks can go by without much solar gain. That's why I have other ways of charging my solar electric batteries when the sun refuses to shine. My solar electric location wouldn't do me much good for solar heat. To get sun on my panels, they are located on the north border of my land on top of a tall pole. It's okay to run wire all the way back to the house -not too efficient to run heat back.

Wood pellet stoves are becoming more common. They are supposed to be more efficient than a regular wood stove. Under proper conditions, I suppose they are. In the real world, I've heard mixed results. To be fair, most complaints about them come from people with first generation pellet stoves. Pellets are generally made from the waste products of the different forest industries. They look like compressed sawdust. Pellets tend to be a local product, so that's a plus. It doesn't pay to haul a heavy, bulky, low value product too far.

I've got three issues with wood pellets for heat. Suppliers have been known to run out of them. You are dependent on a manufactured product. Pellet stoves don't work unless they have electric power.

Last winter a friend of mine over in Maine did keep his pellet stove running during an extended power outage. He used a good sized deep discharge battery hooked up with an inverter big enough to power the pellet stove. Once the battery discharged, he dropped on off at a place that had power where they charged it up for him. He was able to get the battery/inverter set back to his house before it had cooled off enough to freeze.

I do like wood heat. I've an antique cook woodstove in the kitchen and a large modern airtight in the basement. The best thing about using wood for heat -it grows on trees. After all, I am Sixbears in the woods! I've heated my house by harvesting standing deadwood within walking distance of my house. I've harvested the wood with nothing but hand tools -an ax and a 3.5 foot German crosscut saw. Most of the time my wood comes from a bit further, but at least I have emergency wood close by. In a pinch, I could got quite a few days using branches broken off with my hands.

That's what I like about wood -it's simple. (like me?) I actually enjoy splitting wood. It's one of the reasons a middle aged fat guy like myself is in pretty good condition. Over the years I've acquired a good assortment of axes, splitting mauls, sledge hammers and wedges. Beats the heck out of watching TV.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nice Morning

It's a pleasant -2 F up here in the woods this morning. It's pleasant because the wind isn't blowing. Much more bearable than temperatures in the 20's with high winds. Today I was comfortable going out in hat, gloves and a light sweatshirt.

Now I wouldn't want to spend all day outside dressed like that, but for my morning outside chores, it's fine. The woodstove in the basement needed more fuel brought in. Also split up some smaller wood for the cookstove.

Splitting wood at these temperatures is kinda fun. It seems the ax just touches the wood and it explodes apart.

I didn't work up a sweat doing the chores, and blackflies are down to a bare minimum.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who your friends are

One thing about the current recession/depression is that many of you are going find out who your friends are.

Way back in '93 I was injured on the job, and it took four years to settle my case.

Year one wasn't too bad. We had a few things set aside. We paid off the minivan with my severance money. There was a small insurance payment that came in.

Year two, the insurance money ran out. We were still in pretty good shape, but starting to feel the pinch. Minivan became a money pit -aways in the shop. Lawyers fees added up.

Year three, it was tight. We really started losing ground. We lived on credit cards. I drove my motorcycle in the snow as it was the only vehicle we had.

Year four, things were bad. Zero money for Christmas. By then we were behind on absolutely every payment. Taxes hadn't been paid for three years. We got a notice that the house was going up for auction in two weeks. I had no money and no credit left.

Then I won case against my former employer. Received four years of back pay and scrambled around bringing everybody current.

I learned some life lessons. It's possible to say goodbye all your material possessions and still keep what's important. I still had my family, my wife and kids.

One thing that surprised me -I had a lot fewer friends than I thought I had.

A good friend is there for you during thick and thin. Well . . . things got pretty thin. Apparently, poverty must be contagious and people we thought of as friends avoided us like we had swinethrax or something. It came as a bit of a surprise who avoided us and who stuck with us. You won't know for sure until it happens.

My Mormon friends came though with some of their food storage. That helped a lot, and we aren't even Mormons.

Other friends were good enough to lend a friendly ear and a cup of coffee. It meant a lot at the time.

One surprise was from a friend of mine who lived several states away. We met at a conference once and hit it off. He was about 25 years older than me, but we had wonderful discussions. He bought a new truck and offered me his old one -for free. It was a 10 year old Mazda with 100,000 miles. It had been beautifully maintained, had no mechanical problems or rust, and even had good tires. He felt bad that we couldn't deliver it himself. One of my other true friends gave me a ride to pick up the truck. That truck was a huge boost for us.

Another friend taught martial arts. Three days a weeks he worked me to help me regain my health. I went from being unable to cross the street without gasping for breath, to being in good health. He never charged me for all those private lessons. Thanks to him, I could move on with my life.

I had fewer friends that I thought I had, but the ones I did have surprised me with their generosity.

Only hope I can be as good a friend as some who've been there for me.

For those of you out there going through tough times, I hope to heaven you have at least a few good friends.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Null Zone

We live in the land beyond cell phone service. Mountainous regions have places where the signal just doesn't reach. My house is in one such pocket. It doesn't bother me. The land line works just fine -most of the time.

I do own a cell phone of sorts. It's one of those cheap, pay-as-you-go phones. On the road, it's nice to be able to make the occasional phone call. Since the death of pay phones, it's my last option. When my favorite campgrounds removed their pay phones, I had to do something. There are no killer applications on my phone. It's . . . a phone . . . for talking. Please don't send a text message to it, I don't know what to with it.

New visitors to my place stare in dazed amazement at the lack of connection. Going to a window doesn't help. Going outside doesn't work either. However, hike a few short miles down the road and it's sometimes possible to get weak spotty reception.

Saw a cool thing with an iPhone. My friend demonstrated it's GPS function. What it produced was a dot in the middle of a blank screen. Turns out, the phone gets its maps over the cell phone connection: no connection, no map. I guess it's possible to download a map before heading into the null zone, but you've got to remember to do it.

One thing living in the null zone has taught me: people check their darn phones an awful lot. It's funny the first five or six times a guest checks their phone, but it gets kinda sad after that. What is it about out society that insists we be on call all the time? I once had a job where I was on call all the time, but I was paid for the inconvenience. People do realize it's an inconvenience right?

So yeah, I'm a bit out of touch. Try leaving a message on my home phone. By the way, Fairpoint, the landline phone company that provides my phone service, well, they went bankrupt.
I wonder if I'll have no phone service at all one of these days. It'll sure be nice and quiet.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Plan B

They say it's good to have a plan B. Not a bad idea. Nice to have backup.

Living way back up in the woods, we have a lot of plan B's.

Good to have a woodstove to back up your oil heat -or in my case, an oil furnace to back up the wood heat.

When you drive old vehicles like I do, It's almost necessary to have two -one for backup in case the primary breaks down. It's another plan B.

Backups, preps, two is one and one is none, everything's about having a plan B.

Food storage in case you can't go to the store. Canned veggies might be the plan B for fresh greens.

Your plan B can keep you going. Gotta have a plan B.

There's a problem with plan B. By its nature, it's not quite as good as plan A. If it was better, it wouldn't be plan B, it'd be plan A.

Plan B can be somewhat of a kludge. It's a work around. It'll do. Today I'm driving my car during the biggest snowstorm of the season. Plan A would have been taking the 4x4 truck. It's in the shop -so the car is plan B. It's not a bad plan B, as far as they go. At least the old beater has good snowtires.

Falling back to plan B once in a while isn't all that bad. Problems compound when your life has too many plan B's.

If you reach a point in your life where everything you do is your plan B, there's something wrong. Maybe it's time to reconfigure your life so that it's not just one band-aid patch on top of another. Maybe just your expectations are wrong. At that point you've got to admit that your plan B is now your plan A . . . and then you'd better get another plan B.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Deal Breaker

Driving home this evening the snow was falling on an icy base. It took two attempts to make the corner to the road I live on. It brought back memories of when I first brought my wife-to-be to see my little piece of heaven.

I told her I wanted us to someday live out here in the woods.
-no problem, she said.

I'd like to build and live in a dome.
-no problem.

Dig my own well.
-no problem.

Heat with firewood.
-no problem.

In fact, she didn't have any problems with anything I proposed to do. She seemed like the woman of my dreams.

"Just one thing," she said.

I thought, Oh boy, this is the deal breaker.

"Just one thing, is this road maintained for year round travel?" she said.

At the tender age of 20, my ideal living location was something like my dad's hunting camp. Go eight and half miles down a dirt road. Take a left off a smaller, rougher dirt road for another quarter mile.

The cabin was sixteen by sixteen. Had a woodstove, gas stove, gas lights, a bunk bed, full sized bed, sink, table and chairs. It lacked electricity and plumbing. Water was from a brook down the hill. It had an outhouse out back. It came with its very own shooting range. To live at such a place full time I'd have made a few changes, but not a lot. Maybe I'd put in a solar panel or two, and maybe some book shelves.

The road was reliably passable by car about half the year. Some years it was plowed up to the side road. Other years it was plowed a few miles, but some years it wasn't plowed at all. In the dead of winter it was usually possible to get there by snowmobile. In the spring, during mud season, the road was completely closed to vehicle traffic. I did walk the whole way through mud and slush a few times.

For a single guy, the road conditions weren't a deal breaker.

The land I was showing my girl wasn't quite that isolated. Being on a small lake, it had a fairly busy summer population. In winter, only a few hardy souls braved the snow and cold.

Most importantly, the road, such as it was, was maintained for winter travel.

The girl became my wife and we eventually moved to our little spot in the woods.

She was right about the road. It's one thing for a single guy to hike close to nine miles to get home. It's another story for a married man with a family. Work, school, activities, and any social life at all require a bit more mobility. Life is full of compromises, but sometimes they aren't all bad. Sometimes a good compromise can save us from ourselves.

Tonight, the road is icy, but during the night, a plow and sand truck will come by. It'll be possible to head into town if I have to. Living on a plowed road makes my wife happy -such a small thing in the big scheme of things, yet such a big thing after all.

Good thing I didn't show her the camp first.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More off-grid fun!

There's only one thing better than building your own off-grid home -helping someone else build theirs.

Right now I'm pretty tired out. I'd forgotten how much running wire takes its toll. Of course, since the house currently doesn't have power, I'm using battery powered drills. They've come a long way in the last few years, but don't have the sheer power of a large corded 1/2" drill. On the plus side, they are pretty nice for things like screwing in outlets and switches. It's a more delicate job for which battery powered bit drivers do an excellent job.

In a more perfect world, off-grid construction would go something like this: Install the battery bank -perhaps in it's very own little power shed. Hook it up to a decent inverter/charger. Charge batteries with any combination of solar, wind, and maybe a generator. Use the power from the alternative energy system to build the house.

Here's what really happened. First builder used up time and money but was unable to retrofit an existing building. In fact, that attempt ended in a tumbled heap of broken lumber. Stuff happens. Builder #2 is called in. Pretty much starts from the ground up. Of course, now the budget is blown, and the clock is running. All remaining funds go toward paying Builder #2 to erect a house shell.

The wonderful alternative energy project is put on the back burner. Gas generators provide on site power for construction. Builder #2 actually knows his stuff. He does nice work. However, like most major projects like this, there are setbacks. The shell is almost completed. It's got walls and a roof. A fine chimney has been built by a skilled mason. The place is solid. It also lacks windows. Our builder is off in another state taking care of a family emergency.

Windows would really have been nice. The window openings are covered in house wrap, so at least snow isn't blowing in. It is snowing, however. This being northern NH, temps have been dropping into the teens. Yeah, windows would be nice. It's a bit drafty in the place. This is a prime spot for wind power, but I'd appreciate the wind more in a buttoned up house.

Originally, I was going to help wire the place back in June. I finally got sick of waiting. The building owners and I picked up most of the wiring materials and set to work. The entrance panel and the first room are done. To test everything, a battery and a small inverted were used to energize the panel. Everything worked great -until I turned on more power than the little inverter could supply and it blew a fuse. Don't you just love destructive testing?

The little woodstove is unable to raise the temperature more than a few degrees. At least one can thaw out by standing right next to it. Did I mention at all that windows would be nice? They are piled up in the corner of the building. At least they actually exist, so I'm encouraged.

Today is a day for good news. The first room is wired. Everything installed works the way it's supposed to. The owner tells me that the budget for the battery bank is looking hopeful.

When I left the young couple for the day, they were on the phone talking to their builder -something about windows.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Far from what?

"You live so far from everything!"

I hear that a lot. It's not true.

Sure, I live 15 miles from the big city. (about 11,000 people.) It's about 20 miles of bad road to a Wal*Mart.

Bit further to a good coffee shop.

Even a bit further to a book store.

A good 50+ miles to what is considered "decent" shopping.

Lets just say we don't go to the opera much.

Around here, if you live within two or three miles of someone, they are a close neighbor.

I'm far from a lot of things up here in the woods, but certainly not far from everything.

It's 350 feet to good canoeing and fishing.

I've hunted in my driveway.

2/10 of a mile away is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. That's 740 miles of canoe trail.

I'm close to hiking trails.


Peace and quiet.



Sunday, December 6, 2009

Barter and other economies

Barter's an old system of exchanging goods and services. It existed before money economies, continued in parallel with money, and people fall back on it when currencies fail. Joe trades his corn for Peter's venison. Al helps Fred paint his house and then Fred helps Al fix his plumbing. It's a reasonable way to do a lot of business.

Barter's fine, but I'm rather fond of the gift economy. Think of a barter system, but one in which nobody keeps track. Joe gives his corn to Peter. Peter may give him some venison, but he doesn't have to. Al paints Fred's house. Fred say thanks. People do something without expecting anything specific in return. Does that sound like a good system to you?

It isn't, in the open market. In a barter system, Joe and Peter don't even have to know or like each other. As long as they can trust enough to do a trade, barter works. For a gift economy to work, there has to be some sort of connection between people. Joe is Peter's cousin. Al and Fred are friends and neighbors. There are bonds between people that go beyond commerce. It's tribal.

We evolved in tribal systems. In a gift economy, as long as the gifts are exchanged between people with connections, it's fine. The whole tribe benefits. If the tribe is strong, people are secure and safe. We don't have to be tribal in the old Native American sense. Take an extended family with good bonds and trust. Add in some friends and neighbors, and presto! One tribal economy.

In a tribal economy, a person's value isn't in how much stuff he can pile up. He's respected for what he shares with other people. It could be skills and talents, or it could be goods like the bounty from his garden. Not only is he valuable to the tribe, he gets a lot of satisfaction out of the arrangement. Who doesn't like being respected and valued? Someone who takes and cheats loses respect. Since he's nasty, few will come to his aid should he get in trouble.

The gift economy works at the tribal level. What about the wider world, you ask?

I say, gift to the greater world, even if they are not in "your tribe."

If you are a Christian, isn't it your duty to "cast you bread upon the waters." After all, won't it "come back to you threefold?"

A pagan will talk about the threefold law. What you do comes back to you three times.

Then there are those who follow the law of Karma. Again, the good (or bad) that's done comes back to you.

Now that you think about it, isn't a gift economy a moral economy? Is a money economy moral?


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Solar Electric Power

"How much solar electric do I need?"

That question came up a lot during the almost 20 years I've had solar electric power.

At one time I'd go into great detail about what it takes to live off of electrons from the sun. There were long lectures about reducing loads. Usually it's easier to conserve power than make it. (big lesson here, but few pay attention . . . sigh) The lecture would go on and on about phantom loads, appliance efficiency, compact florescent, sun angle, inverters, system efficiency, storage batteries, charge controllers, and yadda yadda yadda. Damn! I must have been boring people to tears.

After all these years I changed my answer to, "As much as you can afford."

If someone is really serious about running a home completely off-grid, they aren't afraid to do their homework. Those people only need to be pointed in the right direction and they are off and running. They are serious about it. They want enough power to live a lifestyle not totally unlike their neighbors. Before long they learn about the trade offs. They learn how to make it work for them. They don't need my lecture.

For everybody else, please get some alternative electric power. Solar is nice as the sun shines in most places, it's quiet, easy to assemble, reasonably safe, and useful in even small amounts. You'll have some power when the grid goes down. The grid will go down you know, it always does. Maybe for just a few hours, but maybe for weeks, months, or even longer. Doesn't have to be the end of the world, just one good widespread ice storm can do it.

Generators are great. Lot's of power. Many people get generators big enough to power their whole house. They are in fine shape, living high on the hog. The big screen TV is going, margaritas are in the blender, the furnace is blasting away . . . and then the generator runs out of fuel. It's back to the dark ages boys and girls.

No wait! It's just a matter of loading up a bunch of gas cans into the SUV and driving down to the gas station . . . driving on ice covered roads strewn with downed trees to the gas station that doesn't have power to run their pumps . . . never mind.

Much better to have even one good sized solar panel, a deep discharge battery and a small inverter. Having a light to read by beats the heck out of candles. Power for a small TV or radio to keep informed could be a life saver. Heck, you could even charge your cell phone off of it. Sure, it's humble, but it beats the heck out of the dark ages. A little sun light and your power comes to you. Sure is nicer than hunting for gas in a storm blasted wasteland.

I'm not totally off the gird. Winter is long and dark up here in the woods. However, my system is big enough to keep 12 golf cart batteries reasonably charged up. From there it goes from DC power to 2500 watts of 120 volt house current. With that, I could power essential needs for a long long time. I'd have to conserve -cut back to the minimum during the winter. Might put off doing some things until there's a few really sunny days -no big deal. I've got enough for all essential needs and quite a few extras.

It's a good feeling. Just think how secure it would make you feel to have some power that won't go down in a storm, or for non payment of electric bills.


Friday, December 4, 2009


There's no such thing as the paranormal. It's all normal to me. Science may not do a very good job of explaining it sometime, but that may be a shortcoming of science. I'm not one of those anti science and technology people. Computers are fun. Hot showers and cold beers are enjoyable. There are some benefits from the system of thought known as science.

Here's my problem: even though science has "proved" certain things to be impossible, I find those things too useful to discard. The blind can "prove" there is no such thing as sight, but for those of us with eyes, it's pretty darn handy to keep them open.

My approach to the paranormal is pretty nuts and bolts. At a young age I discovered I could douse for water. Call it water witching if you prefer. Call it bunk if you are blind. My introduction to this world of strangeness was from an old timer with a forked wooden stick. He encouraged me to try it. Reluctantly, I did. I walked across the ground with the idea of water in my mind and the forked wooden stick twisted powerfully in my hands, ripping the bark right off the stick. From that point on, I spent a considerable amount of time and effort studying everything I could about the phenomenon.

Dowsing is a funny thing. It starts easy. There's water flowing underground and the human body is sensitive to it. Makes sense to me. Sounds like a practical human sense. Doesn't sound too strange -sort of like a bird's sense of direction. You can even make a good scientific case for an electrical/mechanical explanation. The dynamic tension of holding a dowsing rod under tension may allow the muscles to have involuntary contractions in the presence of magnetic fields caused by flowing water. Yeah, that could work.

Things get harder to explain. With training and practice, a dowser can tell the depth of the water, it's direction of flow, the amount of water. Okay . . . But it gets worse. Before you know it, he's dowsing wells using a map representing property many miles away. Sure blows holes in the electromagnetic theory. Then the dowser turns around and gets information about the availability of water during the worse drought in the next hundred years. Pulling information from the future? Sophisticated extrapolation from past conditions? Self delusion?

Then dowsers started using the technique for things further and further removed for the simple act of sensing water. Some dowsers are sensitive to electrical lines, minerals, oil, and other energies, some of which we currently lack the physical devices to measure. Some dowsers use their talents in the healing arts as they can sense the energy fields of the human body. Then there is just out and out information dowsing -seeming plucking information right out of the universe itself. Many dowsers dispense with the dowsing rods completely and just tell you what you want to know.

Let's get back to earth here -earth as in dirt. A number of times in my past I've moved a lot of dirt with a shovel. Nothing like testing one's dowsing abilities by digging a well with hand tools. Hard as that may be, it's more comfortable than watching a flinty eyed Yankee farmer pay good money to hire an excavator to dig a hole where I pointed. You'd better know your stuff. Nothing removes that cold pit in your stomach like when the excavator hits good water at the depth predicted.

Dowsing is a prosaic skill. It's not perfect, as people aren't perfect. However, it's good enough often enough to be of use.

That's my take on the paranormal. It's it useful? I'm not too concerned if it's impossible, as long as it's useful.

Think I'll just get another cold glass of water from my well. That dowsing stuff is pretty handy to know out here in the woods.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Words just tumble out of my mouth

I've been known to make pronouncements. That's no big deal, everybody does. However, unlike most people I have John Tiberius to remember what I said. John's known me since way back in Junior High School. That's so far back in time that history books only had about 8 pages, as not much had happened yet.

Now it's nice to have someone like John around, memory being what it is. At least I've got his to rely on, instead of my own.

So I make the occasional pronouncement. Like you what, you ask? Like when I dropped out of college and said "They'd have to pay me to go back to school." JT remembered that 19 years later I went back to college -and got paid for it.

Old JT remembered when I boldly pronounced, "If gas got to a dollar a gallon, I'd stop buying the stuff."

Yep, that happened too, and JT reminded me of it.

Haven't bought gas in years. Check back to the last time it was under a dollar. That's the last time I put gas in my car.

"How have I done such a feat?" One may ask?

No, it wasn't by losing my driver's license though repeated DWI convictions. It wasn't by switching to public transportation. Not much of that up here in the woods. Transportation people tend not to put public transport in places that don't have a whole lot of public. I did not switch to bicycle riding. Nothing against bicycles -except that they don't work well when it's -40 and the roads are snow and ice covered.

I switched to diesel vehicles.

Not so much for the fact they burn diesel instead of gas, but because they can be altered to also burn waste vegetable oil. 95% of the time, it's WVO that runs my vehicles. I get my waste veggie for the cost of hauling it away. It works for me.

I wonder what other marvelous thing I'm going to do next? Maybe I'll ask JT if there are any portentous pronouncements still in his memory bank.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Words have power. Read your Genesis. We create with words -be they spoken or written. Human beings are the creatures that evolve through culture. Handy that. Culture is transmitted through words. Words can transform and change the culture, or they can help anchor and preserve it.

Maybe this blog, in my own small way, will do a little of both.

What's this all about anyway? A whole bunch of things. My life has been varied and full of experimentation. I've done everything from build snowshoes to editing a speculative fiction webzine. I've dabbled in alternative energy, unusual architecture, slow foods, hunting and fishing, firearms, vegetarianism, small boats, dowsing, alternative healing, firefighting, travel, juggling, and . . . blog, writing.

I'm that guy who wants to fix something if it's broke, and often can.

Life is so darn interesting.

I met a girl when I was 20. Four months later we were married. That's been over 30 years ago and we are still going strong. I've three daughters who have each had a daughter. As a young man I wanted to be surrounded by beautiful women. It's happened, but not as I'd imagined it.

That's life for you.

When I listen for the voice of God, all too often all I hear is laughter.

Guess that says something about me, God, the nature of the universe, or perhaps all of the above.