Day 10565

Several weeks ago, I reached out to the guy I bought my solar panels from last year, to see if he had any more available. He had sold me a rack of six 10-year-old US-made Siemens 75-Watt panels, which have been working wonderfully on the roof of the bus. I want to have a dozen of the same panel on hand for the barn build. I had seen his ad on craigslist occasionally over the past year, and he had raised his asking price on the panels since I bought them.

Something I really like about craigslist is that if you trust your spidey senses you can meet some really great people. Building a rapport with buyers and sellers can lead to more information about the vehicles or parts you're swapping, or better yet, deals down the road. Gil remembered me and my slightly crazy plan, confided that he'd like to clear out the entire collection of solar panels, and asked how many I'd be interested in. I asked how many he had. After some texting and phone calls, Gil made me an offer I couldn't refuse, to take his remaining solar panels off his hands. I won't write out the price here, but we both walked away very happy, one of us with a trailer full of solar panels, the other with money in his pocket. Thanks again, Gil.

The source of these panels is dubious, but they appear to be panels off of "variable message signs." Based on the damage that some of these panels have (a lot of blunt trauma... like from trees falling on them) I'm guessing these racks are the rejects that were sold at auction. In the pile are, if I counted right, 52 of the Siemens panels in various conditions, and another 8 skinnier 43-watt panels (2 of which are destroyed.) No more than a quarter have some sort of damage, the rest are intact. My new winter project is to clean these up, find out which ones work, and have them available for friends and family wanting to do any kind of solar projects. I think the skinny 43 watt panels would work really well on the cap of a pickup truck camper.

Over Christmas, I stopped into the land and checked on the bus with my dad and Zeke. With the high snowbank, and the depth of the snow, we elected to walk in on foot.

The bus's solar panels, even as steep as they are, had a dusting of snow on them from the morning's storm. I wiped them off with a broom the best I could. Note to self; make sure the panels on a house are somewhat accessible and easy to clean. I ran the generator for a few minutes to drink some gasoline and top up the battery (it's a Honda, and it just runs... it's amazing.) Next time I'm up I'll try to warm the bus's engine block with the generator in order to get it going... we'll see how that goes!

I'll close out this post by leaving you all with this awesome Christmas gift from aunt Zowie.

Day 10557

It's getting cold out, and my endurance on outside projects is waning as a result. This is not my time of year for outside projects, as evidenced by last year's lack of posts in this timeframe. This is when I catch up on reading and planning.

I shared the blog on reddit yesterday, so if you're coming here from there; welcome. One kind redditor recommended taking all the leaves from the pile behind the coop, and using that as bedding in the chicken's run. I moved in a few buckets of leaves today, and it was received very well by the ladies.

Based on his vocal range, the rooster has been named... Roy Orbison. I'm not naming any of the other birds, so I don't get attached to them, and feel bad when my dog (or a hawk, or a coyote, or an owl...) kills them.

This weekend, in the heated upstairs of the parent's barn, I got to work on a small project that I have been gathering pieces for. I really liked the functionality of a dish rack/shelf I had seen online, and want to replicate in the bus, and likely a future home. I liked it enough that I saved the picture to a file on Google Drive for these kinds of things. Here it is;

On Lloyd Kahn's shelter blog a few months ago, Evan Kahn posted a video of how Lloyd washes dishes (it's surprising what you find exciting on the journey to frugalism.) Guess who's kitchen that shelf rack is in? The guy that wrote the book on tiny homes, and small homes, and handmade shelter. It's in his kitchen. Doesn't that make sense? at about 1:30 Lloyd talks about it.

I used the barn's kitchen as a test dummy for my shelf. With no running water out here, this rack wouldn't be used for drying dishes, just for storing them, and freeing up a drawer. I sketched out a drawing and made some estimates, and bought several dozen 2" x 1/2" pine boards, as well as a pair of 8' long 2" x 3/4" maple boards. The maple would form the shape of the shelf, and the pine would make up the dish-rack slats. I cut the slats to shape by bundling them with masking tape, and running them through the table saw. This saved a lot of time!

I glued each slat into position, and kept them snug with the maple rails using the weight of college textbooks (gotta get the value out of these things, they're way overpriced) and clamps.

I had to play with the size of the gap. The plates all sit in between the slat comfortably. I could go with smaller slats when I make another one of these.

The finished product was set upon a couple of lantern crates (these crates are good for just about everything.) I had been using these crates as a way of conveniently bringing a bunch of things up north to the bus, and as a bookshelf. Now I need more of them again.

Day 10541

A warm December day was capitalized on. I'm beat.

I got in touch with someone on craigslist selling some chickens, to give my sole survivor of the Iain & Darcy flock some company for the winter. The small flock for sale included three Rhode Island Reds, a black Australorp, a Barnvelder, a white Ameraucana, and a cool technicolor rooster, who were all hatched in the Spring. We captured the hens pretty quickly, but the rooster was a bit leery of the three humans with a rake and a box. He was ultimately captured by cornering him in the horse stalls, and being body slammed into the wall as he tried to fly away. Once he was held in my arms, he stopped resisting immediately. "Okay humans, you got me." They enjoyed a ride up I93 in a cardboard box and plastic bin.

The seven new chickens were thirsty after their trip. Sophia, the Veteran of multiple dog attacks, is the gray/brown Ameraucana in the lower left.  The rooster is on the top left; he has a bunch of odd colored feathers in his tail. With luck, the rooster will rough up my family's dogs if they get too close to the hens.

I'm hesitant to name them, because they seem to die easily, but I'm thinking the rooster will be named U-P-G-R-A-Y-E-D-D.

So Sophia has coop companions, and my egg-makers won't freeze to death. I wanted them to free range, but the domesticated bird-dogs have proven to be skilled domesticated chicken hunters. The run is a little small for a flock of eight to live in continuously, so I decided to expand it.

I sacrificed money for time, and bought a 100' spool of wire fence. I kicked myself for not bringing one of the spools down from the land! I also picked up a quarter mile of galvanized electric fence wire, ten T-posts, and a new door latch.

I laid out the T-posts in a 30' x 14' box, which would give me some leeway if this takes more material than I thought. I drove the posts into the ground, which wasn't quite frozen yet, using a big scrap piece of steel pipe I had lying around. I spent a few hours unspooling the wire fence, and tying it to T-posts using chunks of twisted wire. I bowed the bottom of the wire fence out, so it would be harder for a wild critter, or my dog, to get in and eat chickens. With the fence all wired in, I snipped a small door in their old run.

Sophia and the rooster were the bold birds who tried out the new run, while the other hens roosted in the early evening. They now have their enclosed coop, a nice roofed three season room, and an open-air run. We will see how easily they can scale the 5' fence (I'm envisioning eight chickens eating all the bugs outside of the wire, 10am, tomorrow) and how exposed they are to air attack from hawks. I have seen a few clever ideas to deter hawks; one was creating a mess of strings above an open air run. Another was making a teepee of thin branches. 

Last weekend, Travis and Gavin came over to keep working on Gavin's Massey Ferguson. When we left off last time, we got it running with a new carburetor, but noticed that the starter wasn't dropping out when the key came back to RUN... so Gavin and I didn't get the right wires on the right terminals when we installed the starter this summer. Travis pulled the carburetor off, we guessed at the 40 year old wires, and got it running properly. We tuned the carburetor by ear, filled the gas tank, and commenced learning what unlabeled lever does what in the cockpit.

With it running reliably, we started in on learning the hydraulic controls. The 3-point hitch arms have a cool float function, but they are slow on the response. Probably because the hydraulic fluid is low; the loader shuddered as we raised it, but everything functioned fine. With the bucket up, we could start driver's training.

We found that the transmission has three gears, high and low range, and a column mounted reverser. With a sharpie, we drew the shift patterns on the dash. Having some familiarity with the 580CK and the 1700's manual transmissions, I stood on the step and gave Gavin driving instructions as we lurched up and down the driveway. Did I mention the power steering lines are blown out? That made things a little more challenging.

On the last remains of our energy, we got the MF20 on the trailer, and brought it up to Gavin's house. We still have a lot of work to do, but the machine is borderline operational.

Next task was "fixing" rust holes on the F150 for inspection. I ground down the rust to bare metal and applied foil tape...

Primed it under a heat lamp...

Another few coats of Krylon white...

And then I found a mostly-empty can of the "Oxford white" for the last coat. Isn't that fender beautiful? I shoved some WaterWeld epoxy into the separating sheetmetal patch I made on the driver's cab corner, too. 

I took it in for inspection this week, and learned that I have a rust hole in my eleven year old's truck frame. It can be fixed, the shop said. 

Designed obsolescence. I read somewhere that cars are only built to last 11 years... and my frame is rotting away at 11 years. I just rolled over 166,000 miles, so the truck has driven, on average, 15,000 miles per year. Which is just above the average of 13,476 miles for an American driver. I would like for the truck to survive above 200,000 miles, but we'll see if the rust returns it to the Earth before it gets there.

Day 10534

On day 10533, good friends Zach and Kristen were southbound, and joined my family for Thanksgiving. They had been on a Great Canadian Road Trip, taking them inside and outside the city of Montreal, up and down mountains in Vermont, and then finally in front of plates of food in the North Country. Zach and Kristen are both avid hikers and outdoor leaders for young adults, who spend their time vagabonding around New England teaching, and being genuinely good company.

My grandmother, Cynthia, did a quick mental genealogical check of last names to verify that none of our guests were actually long lost cousins. With the help of my Grandfather, Scotty, they related as much family lore as they could. We talked briefly about the foundation I came across a few weeks ago, consulting a hand-drawn map in a book about the families and the area, penned by an elder citizen who lives up the road from the land.

With the sun setting, we headed out to the bus to set up camp. My family tagged along to pick a Christmas tree from the field. For the past few years, we have gotten some anemic looking Charlie Brown trees; this year we were able to get something more full!

Zach, Kristen and I stayed up well past sunset solving all the world's problems over tea and aunt Zowie's pumpkin pie, huddled next to the woodstove as it dropped down to 22'F outside. I propped up a cot for Zeke and I for the night. After lights out, Zach and I took turns stoking the fire. The wood isn't completely dry, so it seemed like it would either burn everything rapidly, or snuff itself out! It made for a chilly night, and I'm glad I had a furry space-heater, even if he did hog the cot.

The next morning, we breakfasted on oatmeal, muesli and granola (as well as some dog food,) and I percolated some coffee. Above I'm inspecting the wiring of my little LED lights, which aren't turning on despite everything indicating normally. For the sake of safety, I unplugged those circuits before leaving... further troubleshooting required.

Meanwhile, Kristen gathers the dishes. Both Kristen and Zach are veteran hikers and mountaineers, and they were determined to leave their campsite better than they found it. In a matter of minutes everything was cleaned and put away. Best bus-house-guests I've ever had. 10/10 would recommend.

Zeke and I share an inside joke after breakfast.

Once we were all fed, my travelling friends were bound for the road again. Thanks for the visit!

I drove back to the city via Lost River Gorge, wanting to see how Dilly Cliff had fared in October's fire. The cliffside had a raw look to it, with scorched earth, and burned standing trees stripped of their foliage. I can't imagine hiking up there to fight the fire on the ground; all the respect in the world to the firefighters.

I also picked up a ScanGauge II, which is a sensor that plugs into a vehicle's OBD diagnostic port, and can give you instantaneous and average fuel consumption, among other things. Heading home, I irritated all of the Massachusett's drivers whipping by at 80mph by nursing the F150 along at 61mph, sipping an economical 18mpg! I knew going slower would give me better mileage, but I didn't know it would mean another 3 gallons of fuel in the tank, on a ~180 mile round-trip! Looking forward to using this tool and tweaking driving habits.

Back at home, my otherwise friendly and loyal canine has reduced my chicken flock to 1. It's disappointing to lose a chicken, but it's hard to be mad at a bird-dog for doing what he was bred for. I wanted to let the chickens free range, but now I know that won't be possible without constant supervision. I'm not sure if I'm going to try replacing the missing members of the flock with some new recruits, or if I'll ask my neighbor, also a chicken-farmer, to take in my survivor.

Day 10522

Last weekend's tropical storm knocked out power in the city for a few days. Pictured above is about ten trees blown over, including two large white pines and an oak, which flipped up a bridge on the nearby hiking trail. 

As mentioned before, I was missing the bus's off-grid conveniences during this grid-tied power outage. In the barn I have propane heat, but I couldn't cook without electricity. Thankfully, my truck bed doubles as a field kitchen. Toast & eggs, or tea? Anyone?

The North country had received it's first dusting of snow on day 10520. I didn't see anything taken out by the gusty wind, but the bus had a few leaks inside from all the rain hitting the hatches and the chimney. I think it will survive another winter!

It was still below freezing, so first things first, I cleaned out the woodstove in order to lay down some firebrick. I must have measured wrong, because I could still use a few bricks! These bricks will absorb heat from the fire, slowly, and radiate it out the same way. The bare steel of the stove radiates very quickly.  Hopefully this will make for longer burns overnight.

Zeke supervised the unloading of the 444's new rototiller.  That was heavy... I didn't drag it far.

While the bus warmed up, Zeke and I took a walk out back. 

I know from some research, and the stone walls and barbed wire, that the plot used to be a dairy pasture. I also know that there is an abandoned, grown-in road at the northern edge of the property. Since there were no structures or foundations on the southern edge, I had a hunch that one might lie along the old road...

As soon as I crossed the old stone wall of my land, onto the abandoned road, I spotted two wicked looking old apple trees. People used to plant fruit trees near their homes, and sure enough, a stone foundation lay next to the apple trees. The last time I was out here the woods was thick with green vegetation; I was probably standing right next to it and didn't even know!

I imagine there's more of these foundations up and down the road.

Heading back, Zeke found what appears to be a deer's leg bone. He was very fond of his discovery. 

The winterization of the bus is about done; it should weather the next character-building season alright. The firewood I have on hand is all still a little wet, but nothing will fix that except time in the sun. I haven't even started the dump kit install on the F350, so I'm still without a plow truck for the winter... unless I throw the chains on the 580's tires, and run the generator for a few hours to warm it up! More likely, once the snow gets deep, I'll be hiking in with snow-shoes. With luck, the next few visits up north will be to camp out, cook food, and hike the area.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I have colonized the land in the housebus, and strike that from the to-do list. If the bus can weather another New England winter at the new site, and I'm at the point where I could just go up, start a fire, cook lunch and read... I think it's fair to say I've established myself up North. My next big focus will be picking a site to build, gathering materials, creating building plans, and getting the paperwork in order to start construction in the spring.

Day 10508

On a very short two day weekend (how do people live like this?) I spent a morning with the pooch up at the land. While we were down in the city, I got the 444 tractor's front wheels gooped up so the tires would hold air, and had a braided hydraulic line made to replace the solid steel line that had broken. I also had the bushings for the lift piston (the piston's holes are 3/4", and the pins and mount holes are 1/2".) The bushings would take the space between the lift cylinder mounts and the tractor's hardpoints, so that the mounting pins won't be deformed over time. I installed these parts (the hydraulic line was a small struggle) and cranked the machine over.

Not having a good way of disposing of oil, and knowing the hydraulic fluid I drained out is relatively fresh, and also knowing that a '70's tractor is mostly indestructible, I zip-tied a scrap of t-shirt to the drip pan and returned the hydraulic fluid to the tractor. It's not a helicopter, I can do this and not even feel guilty. Cheap, maybe.

Running again, I used the tractor to pull the mower deck and the reclaimed trailer out of the field, and back into the treeline.

I have designs for this trailer frame...

Zeke and I brought leftovers up for the day, which we heated on the bus's woodstove. To do dishes, we heated water on the stove in the coffee percolator. The compost pile gets the scraps, and Zeke does the pre-cleaning. Dirty dishes and pots get a cup of hot water and a dash of dish soap. I clean the dishes with the scrubby pad, then rinse off the suds with the last of the hot water. It would be nice to do this inside of the bus! I'll have to figure out a woodstove-powered hot water delivery system for the sink... copper pipe around the chimney, then down into the pump? We shall see.

I stacked up some more split wood, and used some of the old plastic sheet pulled from the woods to cover the outdoor piles. The southern side of the wood piles was left exposed, in an attempt to optimize heat coming in, and keeping rain water out.

The bus has a pair of succulents from John & Robyn's wedding, which are both doing well just sitting in the cockpit, in coffee mugs filled with North country soil. 

I accomplished a lot of small projects in the North Country on day 10507. One of these days maybe I'll go up just to chill out. A novel idea.

Back down in the city, Iain and Darcy offered me their small flock of laying hens, and all the infrastructure to support them. A very generous offer, which I accepted. I'm familiar with these chickens from house-sitting this spring. This isn't the first donation from Iain and Darcy, either; the astute reader will recall that I also got the couch in the bus from them! Thanks again!

The morning of Day 10508, trying to stay ahead of the weather, we took the run and the coop apart, and loaded them into the trailer for the drive down the road. This is actually the second time these chickens have gone for a truck ride with me, the first being almost a year ago, helping Iain and Darcy move just down the road to their present location. Hopefully the next road trip for these hens is up to the North country!

Kia helped me unload the run, which was on the edge of falling apart after multiple moves and lots of twisting of wet wood. As it continued to rain, I sloppily screwed the loose corners back together, and stapled the chicken wire back to the frame. It will hold... maybe... for a bit longer.

Working alone, I used a ratchet strap and the tractor to gently lift the coop off the trailer, drove the trailed out from under it, then drove the tractor as smoothly as I could over to the corner of the barn. The hens didn't seem to mind!

With everything back together, I let the patient ladies out of their house. They took in the change of scenery, curious dogs, and fresh selection of bugs and worms. Elsa and Anna are the black & white Plymouth Rocks, or Barred Rocks, and Sofia is the (currently molting) gray/brown Ameraucana.

I want to make that trailer up North into a chicken tractor.

Day 10502

Like the 18th century colonials before us, I am typing this blog post using wifi from my cell phone's hotspot, and light from a candle to see the keyboard, as the power is out down here in the City. A warm, windy front is moving through, bringing some needed rain. It also brought down a power line.

I was in the midst of cooking dinner when the lights flicked off, so I was a little annoyed (crunchy rice soup, anyone?) but I improvised, adapted, and overcame, and cooked most of my food on the grill outside with the waning twilight. Holding the flashlight to see if my Vermont-raised hipster chicken cooked through, I was wishing I had the bus and all of it's amenities. I could have cooked my rice and potatoes over the woodstove. I would have had bright lights for days, even with cloud cover, running off the batteries. Cell phones and computers could be charged with converted or inverted DC power. My resilient mobile homestead is designed to operate on it's own, and this is the first outage where I haven't had the ability to use it.

Not having the bus has really made me think about how dependent we all are on "the grid." One tree goes down across an open, exposed power line in a wind storm, and at least dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of people are without light, and unable to cook their dinner. So the lights are out; now what? Many went into town for food. Some cranked over a loud, gas-powered generator to get their house running again (or not, because it has a dead battery and watery gasoline.) Some settle in and spend time with their family, eating cold leftovers, rooms illuminated with candles, the one flashlight that wasn't dead, and iPad screens. My family went with the latter.

A friend of mine in school grew up in an off-grid house. When the power went out in her town, she had no idea! She'd come into school the next day wondering why everyone was complaining about not having a hot shower, or not having internet to finish their homework. At her house, there was no change! They weathered the power outage just fine, because they weren't connected to it. They weren't reliant on that power coming in off the pole. I didn't realize that an off-grid house wouldn't lose power in a storm until an embarrassingly late age.

How much of what we pay in our electric bill goes to supporting the infrastructure? How resilient is our community, how vulnerable are we, when a single tree can disrupt the evenings of hundreds of people? Now imagine with me, that instead of our grid tied system, with thousands of power poles and thousands of miles of electrical wire, "gracefully" connecting all of our homes to a series of single-point failures... we have a community of off-grid homes. For electricity, these homes have solar panels up on the roof, a battery bank in the garage. A wood stove may provide the heat for the home, or maybe a geothermal system. Let's go the extra mile and assume they have a small garden, and a few weeks of food stored... is there anything that this house, and that family, can't endure from Mother Nature's wrath in New England? How much stronger is the community, when a tree going down across the road doesn't take out power to hundreds of homes? How much stronger would our nation be if more people lived like this?

Imagine all the people, living with no electric bill... and no power outages.

Meanwhile, back in cold, harsh, oil-burning reality, I'm continuing work on tractors. I went up North on Day 10502 to finish "winterizing" the bus. I closed up all the windows, which had been letting it breath in the heat, and laid down some fresh sand in between the bricks under the woodstove.

I cranked up the woodstove for some heat. When I got up North it was early, and still in the 40's. The bus warms up quick once the fire is going; it also cools down quick once it goes out! I have firebrick added to my to-do list; I'd like to put a layer in the firebox to take some of the heat, and dissipate it gradually. Otherwise, this thin sheetmetal stove takes all the heat it makes in the burn and radiates out from the hot steel, or sends the hot exhaust smoke up the chimney. I can slow down the burn with the damper and the air inlet... but the restricted airflow just makes for a dirty burn, which could load my chimney with creosote if I don't burn good dry wood. Can you tell I'm in the middle of a book about masonry woodstoves? Learning is happening.

I wanted to fix the cracked driveline on the 444 tractor, so I needed to lift it up to get under it. I also realized the front tires were flat. My dad had borrowed my farm-jack... what to do?

A solution presents itself. With the tractor elevated, and the front axle properly shored with firewood (what can't be done with a backhoe, a chain, and firewood?) I began disconnecting the hydraulic lines. My intent was to replace the 444's forward and reverse hydraulic lines, from the control valve to the drive motor, with the lines and reducer from the 442 I parted out. The reducer on this machine ought to keep it from "running away" when it's in gear going down a hill, which is a "nice feature."

One of the B-nuts was rusted tight, and the crack opened up and severed the line as I tried to loosen it.

With the line removed, I needed to pull the two 90 degree fittings off the start motor so that I could install the reducer. I found that I couldn't remove the upper 90 degree fitting, because it wouldn't clear the tractor's frame. Hmmm... I don't think I'll be doing much more on this machine today. I'll have to take the axle off, which requires major disassembly off the whole backside of the tractor, in order to do what I wanted. I elected to do a quick fix, and get a braided hydraulic line made up. This way I can use the machine until I have some time to do the major surgery, though it isn't as resilient (or as expensive and hard to find!) as a new steel line.

So the tractor will remain on firewood jackstands until I can get back up with a new line. Good thing the neighbors can't see... how embarassing.

Back down in the city, Gavin and Mark came over to try to start Gavin's Massey Ferguson. We had replaced the battery, spark plugs, spark plug leads, checked the distributor, cleaned the carburetor, then drained the tank and put in a few cups of fresh gasoline. Online we found the cylinder firing order of the 2.5L Perkins motor (1-2-3) and we looked at the rotation of the distributor to see which order the plugs fired in. We didn't know one thing; where the cylinders were in the motor, and which spark plug lead should go where. But hey, we knew there was only three possible combinations, and it wouldn't run on two of them, so we labeled the plugs A, B and C, and started cranking. The carburetor was dripping gasoline from a stuck float and needle valve; I'll have to pull that back off and tweak it. Jokingly, we set a fire extinguisher out on the floor next to us, and made a plan for who would fight the fire, who would jump in the truck, and who would connect the chain to pull the thing out and let it burn in the yard, if it came to that.

Spraying ether into the open port of the carburetor, we got it going on 1-2-3/B-A-C, but it wouldn't stay running. We tried the other combinations. On C-B-A, we got a big coughing backfire out of the carburetor, which ignited the fuel vapors from the leak. The tractor now had a small fire burning around the dripping carburetor. Gavin stopped cranking.

"It'll go out" said Mark.

A few seconds go by.

"It's not going out" said Mark.

I pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher, and hit the base with a two-second burst of powder.

Hero of the day; ABC fire extinguisher.

Coughing through a cloud of monoammonium phosphate, we went outside and decided to call it a night. We elected to get the carburetor fixed, and go back to the B-A-C firing order.