Day 10719

I know I left you with a cliffhanger; a trailer loaded for a trip to the junkyard, and an imminent departure to Louisiana for more Army training. This post will be pretty image heavy, as I catch up on two months of small projects.

The good news is I made like $200 on that load of scrap.

I almost split an entire cord of wood before I left for Louisiana. The cheap-o splitter is a trooper. Having a smooth, safe workflow to compliment the machine's performance saves a lot of time and energy. I use a 6" chunk of 4x4 post to expedite the split, and push the log farther into the blade before the piston reaches full extension.

I made some friends while moving logs. Ambystoma maculatum.

Before I left I was able to get all but two of my corroded panels repaired, and I finished those two up as soon as I got back. I peeled up the junction boxes with a thin putty knife, to cut through the silicone and double-sided tape. I trimmed the backing to expose more of the terminal wire using X-acto #11 and chisel-tip blades. The adhesive would blister up off the metal when rubbed with the butt of a file, so the solder would get a clean connection.

Then I soldered some 12 gauge wire in. I pulled the sheathing off while they were still warm.

The junction box was then carefully dropped in over the tip, and the four leads were soldered to the terminals. The box still has some play, allowing me to get in with a tube of silicone to reseal it to the panel. In total I soldered 6 panels, bringing them back to health. They're expected to make a full recovery.

"We want to climb up... also give me a hand because I'm too fat to jump." - Zeke

The Ranger got the deluxe treatment; I installed several pieces of L-track along the sides of the bed for securing cargo. I learned from doing this on the F150, and from working on our aircraft, that if they are on the floor they fill up with sand and small rocks. Keeping them sideways and elevated will keep them clean and easy to use. I drilled through the bed sides, watching out for the fuel line, with the drill. I had to make two trips to the hardware store, as the 1/4x20 hardware I had picked out doesn't sit completely flush in the L-track's countersunk holes. L-track from US Cargo Control needs M6 metric hardware. 

My favorite part of mechanic yoga is getting dust in my eyes while I'm squinting into the darkness trying to snug down a nut. Thankfully, the Ranger's bed is very easy to access from underneath. I couldn't do this on the F-150.

My mum, who has adopted my chickens as her own, encapsulated the larger run I built with bird-netting to keep the chickens in and the hawks and owls out. The hens are big fans, and are routinely sunning and taking dust baths in the big run. Zeke didn't cull any of my flock on this trip, despite his best attempt.

The F350 got a lot of attention on this cool Memorial Day weekend. Above, I had cut the poorly-attached pintle plate off while there was still snow on the ground. It went to the scrapyard.

I wasn't able to find a fuel sending unit for the plastic aft tank... so I elected to make my own. Above, I used calipers and compass to draw out a disk in some nylon sheet.

I cut the nylon on the bandsaw, then touched it up with a rotary sander.

I straightened two pieces of fuel line that came in a spool by gently working them in the jaws of the vise. I drilled two holes in the nylon disk for the lines to go through, and elected to not install the bulky fluid level gauge on my bulky home-made sender.

Using a pipe-bender, I put 90 degree and 20 degree bends into the lines so they'd reach the bottom of the tank, and threw an adel clamp on them to keep them from wiggling too much. The supply line has the filter on the end.

Inserted into the tank. I won't have any full or empty indication, but it can be the straw the truck can suck diesel from.

The truck wasn't running yet, mind you. I took the old starter out...

... and threw a shiny new Japanese gear-reduction starter in. The top-most bolt is a royal pain to get to. Lots of mechanic yoga poses and positive thinking. I also replaced the batteries. After a few 10-second starter cycles, to get fresh fuel up to the motor after the filter change this winter, the truck exploded to life! It only started because I had spent the past hour scouring the internet for bleeding and troubleshooting the 7.3L IDI's fuel system... which was apparently fine.

With the truck mobile, I drove it up to the barn. The hanger for the muffler had cracked while plowing, so I took the bolts out with the universal wrench (angle grinder.)

After some more trimming, I fashioned a new bracket with a piece of scrap perforated angle (the leftover piece from making all the bus's solar panel mounts) loose hardware, and some fencing wire. The rubber doughnut at the end of the exhaust pipe was also replaced. Better than it was!

I went on a run to Lowes to get 3 8' 2x4's, in order to build a platform for the flatbed. The frame isn't quite flat; it has a high point just above the rear axle. A 2x4 is almost perfect for making an even surface on this truck. I screwed the frame together with decking screws. This is when I found that plumbing the filler neck into the aft tank, which I had spent all morning repairing, would be a huge pain... so I zip-tied a bag over the fillport. I still have one tank. I gave up very easily... someday I will have two tanks. Today was not that day.

You can see the corner of a Class V hitch on the bottom right. I ordered the wrong part... that hitch is for a 37" regular pickup frame. I have the narrower 34" cab and chassis frame. Back to the internet, then.

That one good tank even indicates fuel accurately, now, with a shiny new fuel sending unit.

Remember last post's tractor ballet, used to load a junk trailer onto a trailer of junk? Dad and I tried it again with a decent truck bed and a decent truck... on a slope... on uneven terrain. 

We're kind of professionals at this. Some may say, mistakenly, that this is a redneck operation: but I doubt most redneck operations have a pre-briefed safety plan, risk management, and common hand and arm signals. This is actually an exercise in yankee ingenuity.  

We got the bed on, and drove it up to a more level spot to make the fine adjustments with the backhoe and the farm jack. A ratchet strap is holding it in place until I can get some U-bolts made up this week. After that, I'd like to see if this will pass an inspection and get a sticker.

voila... a rackbody farm truck. It even runs. U-bolts. Tail-lights. Hitch. Sticker. Insurance? Eh...

Notice I never installed the dump hoist? There was a reason for that. Maybe next truck.

Day 10654

One of the big things I want to do when writing is be truthful with my successes and my failures. I think people generally highlight their successes and gloss over their failures. Reading some blogs online make things seem all to easy, which can be discouraging to the amateur. I am that amateur. When doing something for the first time, you are bound to make mistakes, which can often be embarrassing, expensive, and time-consuming. With some research and brainstorming you can avoid some of these pitfalls. Some of them. I want this blog to be that kind of resource for any like-minded frugal yankee-ingenuist, so I highlight my failures here in the hopes that the next guy may learn, and won't repeat them.

Buying a "new" used truck became one of these learning experiences.

During this last school in Pennsylvania, I found a Ranger on craigslist not too far away. It wasn't the fabled 2.3L 4-cylinder with manual transmission, four wheel drive, and long bed which I've been trying to find for nearly a year. They were made like that between 1994 and 1996, and up here in New England those pickups have long since returned to the Earth as rusted steel. This truck is a '94 with the slightly less fuel-efficient 3.0L V6 motor on a clean frame, with 50,000 miles on it.

After looking over it and taking it out for a spin, I told the guy I'd take it. He was firm on his price, but we settled a bit lower than what he was asking. I had sworn off dealerships and new vehicles. I had made my last few vehicle purchases on craigslist as private sales. The guy selling the truck ran a good-sized used car lot... so it must be somewhere between a wallet-emptying car dealer and private sale, right?

I got took. This truck has 150,000 miles on it, and the dealer knew it. I didn't save the craigslist ad. I can't prove it. I signed the title where they wrote out the actual mileage in blue pen on blue paper, while distracting me with idle conversation. I opened the owner's manual in the glovebox when I got it back to the Fort (thanks for the help, Jared!) and saw a note the last owner had written about brakes and tires being done at 103,000 miles. Ultimately, I still would have purchased the truck given the condition of the frame and body. It will easily last another 100,000 miles with some care. I thought I was getting something that was going to last 200,000 miles with some care. If the dealer had been honest, my initial offer would have been lower. I'm still frustrated with myself, and disappointed that I let my guard down. I'd be a horrible businessman. I wouldn't make any money.

Ready for the slow trip home.

My main inspiration for the Ranger was Mr. Money Mustache's blog post "What does your work truck say about you?" I really enjoyed his breakdown of vehicle cost per mile, and found that a Ranger costs a bit more than half as much as my F150 to operate. Moving forward, I want to try to do some of the vehicle modifications listed on the ecomodder website to improve fuel economy. I'd like to put a solar panel on top of a bed cap, and use it as a small stealth camper. The Ranger will be the long-distance light-duty vehicle for trips between the North Country and work in southern NH. The F350, once repaired, will be the heavy-hauler for equipment and materials as I build, and the plow truck. I will also have the ability to run vehicles that burn different fuels, should fuel costs climb again. I don't expect the F150 to last much longer; the frame has started rusting, and there's too many circuit boards and design flaws. It has 172,000 miles on it, and has broken down on me twice this year. It isn't strong enough to pull equipment regularly without destroying the transmission, and it's too bad on gas to use as a commuter vehicle between the Northern and Southern ends of the state. I will run it into the ground and squeeze every penny out of it.

Did I mention it was a manual? I don't actually know how to drive a manual. Jared, from my class in Pennsylvania, patiently let me stall it a dozen times as I got a feel for the clutch. Now I feel like a kid cruising around on a bicycle with no training wheels. Thanks again, Tennessee.

Over the past few months I have been taking the solar panels purchased this winter off of their steel frames, and assessing their damage. Many had smashed glass, some had corrosion, and most have some kind of cosmetic blemish or tweaked frame. Almost all of them, including the smashed panels, are still perfectly usable in some way. One rack must have been left in a salty puddle upside down, leading to their internal contacts at the junction box being completely eaten away by rust.

With no connection, these otherwise perfect panels couldn't produce any kind of power for me. Not wanting to let these panels go to waste, I took one of them apart to see how hard it would be to solder in new connections.

After some YouTube research, I found that the flat wire leads coming from the cells should have some material under the paper that I could potentially solder to... generally. The videos I saw online were for another kind of panel (these are 75W Siemens SP-75's.) I had nothing to lose and I was winging it. I used a very thin and sharp putty knife to score around the junction box, and pried it up. Sure enough, there was still material there. You can see my grease-pencil notes on the back of the panel; "#35, X TABS, DEAD."

With a #11 X-acto (the regular pointy one) and a flat chisel tip, I carved away some of the paper backing, exposing more of the tabs. The one good one of the four I broke off for uniformity. They appear to have been tack welded to the junction box terminals. The welds break without too much force.

I cut some small strips of 12ga copper wire. I pre-tinned each end with solder, and after a few attempts I was able to get them to stick to my freshly exposed tabs. I had to clean off a bunch of old adhesive in order to get the solder to bond to it. This was a slow, delicate process.

With my new wires installed, I slipped the junction box back on the panel, and soldered the wires to the junction box contacts (a little awkward in the tight space.) The loose junction box had enough play that I could reapply a line of silicon to hold it on, and keep it water tight. 

Checking it in sunlight outside on the multimeter, I measured 21.5V open-circuit, and better than 2 amps short-circuit. Not bad! Significantly better than 0.0V and 0.0A. One less solar panel in the land fill. I have another four of these dead panels to repair; good rainy day projects.

With all the panels off the racks, I reloaded the trailer with the rusty steel frames. Then I threw in the backhoe's old control tower, which I had changed out last year. The last large chunk of metal in the backyard was an ancient, rotted, unusable snowmobile trailer. My tractor wasn't quite powerful enough to lift the thing up. Neither was my dad's Kubota. I had an idea, though...

What could go wrong?

The buckets both have an inch of purchase on the trailer's frame. My dad set the Kubota's parking brake, and I left my Ford in neutral while we slowly raised the trailer, so that our buckets would stay tight to the trailer as I gently rolled downhill. With the snowmobile trailer elevated, I backed the loaded trailer underneath, then we set the stricken snowmobile trailer down slowly.

Next stop; the recycling center. Let's see how much we can get for a ton of old steel.

Day 10626

Since last post I have spent a few weeks in Pennsylvania, a few weeks in Virginia, and now I'm back in Pennsylvania; all for Army schools. One of the road trips turned into an odyssey; engines refused to start, patience was tested, the go-bag and boots were utilized, foreign foods were tried, and much later a chicken was murdered by a friend.

To start us off, my venerable F150 is showing it's age. In Pennsylvania I heard a BANG followed by  the snap of compressed air in time with the engine. The engine was making a decent side-to-side vibration. I thought I blew off an exhaust manifold. I opened the hood to troubleshoot, and the problem wasn't immediately apparent. I wasn't getting any codes on the Scan Gauge, reinforcing my thought that it was exhaust related. But why do I smell fuel? Everything appeared fine... all the spark plug boots were installed. I called around to find a shop to fix an exhaust, and with a buddy in his car to follow me on a noisy trip, it finally coughed up a code for #3 cylinder misfire. A-ha!

I popped the hood one more time, and found the spark plug still sitting on the top of the engine (two inches right of the bright flashlight spot; see the ceramic?) The engine had ejected the plug from the aluminum head, tearing the threads out.  The spark plug boot dropped back into place. That's why I had smelled fuel. A quick google revealed this as a common problem with the Triton V8's. Next call was for a flatbed, and another call to a nearby Ford dealer. After a helicoil install, my truck was back on the road. The Ford Dealer got my travel pay.

Telling this story at work, Ed the former-Ford mechanic told me about some of the other common problems with my model year. This conversation would haunt me days later, hundreds of miles away. Driving to Virginia in the rain, my engine died in Delaware on Route 1. It would eventually restart, run rough, and die. I called AAA.

On a Sunday afternoon, the only open shop nearby was a PepBoys. The truck started, and the test drive was fine. A crusty mechanic with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth told me it was the catalytic converter clogging up, choking the engine as it got hot. Here's some zen; vehicle maintenance isn't cold logical diagnosis, it involves a lot of feeling and establishing a relationship with the vehicle. How did it stop working? How has it been acting? What were the conditions? The person operating the vehicle knows these conditions and feelings better than anyone. A good mechanic knows what questions to ask. It wasn't running rough; it just died. I had air, I had spark, I had crank... it must be the fuel. But again, I didn't have a code yet. PepBoys wanted to cut the welds on the catalytic converter, but they wouldn't be able to weld it back together until the next day. It was now running fine. The rain had stopped. I asked for my keys back and kept going South.

An hour later it started bucking occasionally. It had started raining. Finally it died again, and I pulled off to the side. I gave it 15 minutes to sit. In that time I put my phone up as a hotspot, and used my laptop to look around the area. I was three hours from my destination, and at this point, exhausted. There was a town 25 minutes west with a Ford dealer and a motel within walking distance. If it started, I would keep going. If it didn't, I was calling it a night. I called home, called my platoon sergeant, called the school. After a good wait, I tried to start it... the engine caught, ran rough, died, and gave me a code! Low fuel pressure. I called AAA, again. Lenny and Debbie gave me and my disabled steed a ride to Salisbury, MD. We talked chicken farming. Lenny even gave me a ride to the motel; what a guy!

So there I was; down to my boots and my backpack in a random eastern shore town in Maryland. I checked into the motel, then hoofed it back to the dealership to get food, coffee and a change of clothes from the bags buried in the back of the truck. Like Spaceman Spiff ship-wrecked on a deserted world, I took stock of what I had. Google revealed the only places to eat within walking distance were food-tainment (you know, I can microwave my own food for a lot cheaper) ... except an Indian & Pakistani restaurant down the road. Had I had it before? Nope, but I liked some of the Afghan dishes! I set out on foot. I got some rice and vegetable dinner that was very good despite being full of curry. I enjoyed a conversation with the waiter, who was NY-born and Pakistani raised, about travelling and eating food around the world. I passed out around 7:30pm.

The dealership rolled my truck in the next morning. I set up camp in a lobby blasting classic rock hits that put you in a car-buying mood. The dealership replaced the fuel sender (which is what Ed told me to check out several days prior,) and I was back on the road. The Ford Dealer, again, got my travel pay. The fuel sender, located above the spare tire, rots out on these trucks and exposes the circuit board to the elements. When it got wet it stopped working. What a great design. I would not buy one of these trucks again. I wouldn't buy anything with a computer "smarter" than a pocket calculator.

If I was to make the curriculum for the aviation maintenance courses I was attending, then coordinating the repair of a vehicle in extreme conditions far from it's support base, while still accomplishing the mission would be one of the most important things to know. I'd like to think I crew chief'ed the situation quite well.

These two adventures, and three tow-truck rides in a month's time, have encouraged me to step up my search for my next vehicle. I need a pickup, but after reading Mr. Money Mustache's article "What does your work truck say about you?" I want to go down a size for something with better mileage. I also want something I can actually work on, not something designed for a dealership. I may have found that truck here in Pennsylvania, we shall see.

While in Pennsylvania, Tyler of Kentucky and Caleb from Ohio and I attended the Farm Show in Harrisburg. This was a huge event. I saw more people in that building that afternoon than I had seen in all of New Hampshire over the past year. The vendors didn't disappoint, and we left with lots of good food. I have a nice hand-made birch mixing spoon for the bus, now, too.

In Virginia I went to Williamsburg, which allowed me to escape the suburban sprawl of Hampton Roads, and walk around a nice New England-esque town and smell the sweet smell of woodsmoke. I paid attention to how the buildings were constructed... how the timbers were set, how the trim was laid, and where the chimney was (keeping in mind that English style woodstoves are usually very inefficient.)

The day before I got home, Roy Orbison the rooster was mauled to death by my cute, cuddly, and otherwise harmless Springer Spaniel. My domestic untrained bird dog really likes killing my domestic birds... Roy died protecting his flock. Luke at work had asked if I wanted one of his roosters several weeks prior; I texted him back to find out he had lost most of his flock to a wild critter.

If any aspiring chicken farmers have recently lost a chicken to a predator, and are wondering when the pain and sorrow will end, I can tell you that after losing your seventh chicken the reaction is about 1% of the emotion invested into the first one. I liked Roy the rooster... but I'm also getting used to chickens dying very easily. Did I mention none of the new hens have names? Much easier this way. Working with Zeke to increase discipline around the chickens.

I went to craigslist and found a free bantam rooster in need of a home, after it's hens had been taken out by a possum. Apparently possums, known for playing dead, also kill chickens. The family I got him from had small kids who named the rooster, appropriately, Woof.

Woof, being a cool customer, and possibly the friendliest chicken I have met, got a ride home in the front seat of the truck, in a cardboard box. I introduced him to the hens thinking they would love a new friend, and was quickly appalled at the law of the jungle in an 8x8' wire enclosure. The hens had poor friendly Woof bleeding and hiding in no time.

I separated them, and with the help of Mom, built another coop enclosure off the back of the run, where Elvis "Woof" Presley could heal up and not be hen-pecked to death. We used a tarp, a pallet, dog food dishes, and a particle-board cabinet turned on it's side. He got his very own roosting stump and branch.

In the barn, I'm working on cleaning up and inspecting the solar panels. Much more to follow on that in another entry.

Zeke and I took a much needed trip up to the land on a warm afternoon. There was still a foot of snow on the ground, and it was about 50'F and sunny in the way that a plaid shirt is the only extra layer needed. Both the bus and the backhoe started right up after sitting for more than two months. I'm equally impressed that the ancient diesel in the backhoe with no glowplugs, and the modern Powerstroke diesel in the bus with all the computers, both started!

In town, my grandfather showed me around Dave's sugar house, which he had helped build. He explained to me how the foundation was poured, how the walls were built, and how I could do something similar. The design is coming together.

Zeke and I went for a walk, then lounged out on the futon for about an hour. I forgot the mousetraps. 

Day 10576

It's been brutally cold here in New Hampshire. A Nor'easter dumped another foot of snow on us and brought some stiff winds, but it was nice to have temps back in the 20's for a day or two! We're in for another plunge down into the negative teens tonight. I'm going to sound like an old fogey... but I don't ever remember having cold spells like this growing up. January in NH typically has a week of frigid weather, but we usually get a day or two in the 20's or 30's, making it bearable. We haven't been above freezing in two weeks, and this started around Christmas.

To keep the hens happy, I spread a hay bale around their run, so they can stay a bit warmer. They were all digging looking for goodies and throwing it around, so I think it went over well. My mom made them a roosting perch too, which has been well received. I attempted to enclose their run with painter's plastic this week, so they could have a windbreak, but it was so cold that the electric stapler stopped working! Another time.

I made a close-quarters pooper-scooper out of a stall fork by cutting the handle off. Now I can clean the coop out pretty quickly, and get in around the corners. Way easier.

I haven't done as much as I wanted to with the solar panels, this week. I sorted through the pile of loose panels, and found that I have 8 smashed 75W Siemens, 1 Siemens with a burn in it, 1 good 80W Shell, and 6 good Siemens panels... in addition to six racks of six each. After doing some reading about repair of solar panels, I learned that most are constructed so that the photocells are epoxied onto the glass, making it very hard to repair a shattered panel. One of the smashed panels gave the appearance that it wasn't epoxied in, so I started taking apart my panel with the blast mark... for science.

"Authentic battle damage!"

It turns out these are epoxied in. If I want to repair my smashed panels (I'm guessing I have 9 or 10) I'll have to add a layer of epoxy to the outside to keep the elements out of the cells. A good project for when it isn't -10F!

I froze up the plow truck. I shut it down to refuel it while plowing the driveway... and it wouldn't start up again. I only have tomorrow to try to fix it, then I'm off to a few weeks of...

So hopefully I can get it working. I don't have a lot of confidence. It's going to be cold, and I'm pretty sure the fuel lines are either gelled or have ice in them. Ugh. I want to run diesel so I can potentially make my own fuel in the future, but I also need work vehicles that will start in all the temperatures New Hampshire can throw at them...

Speaking of Army, here's my most recent art project;

I put a mask of NH on the right side of the aircraft's tail pylon, and masked around the tail numbers of "450," one of our newer UH-60L's. For paint I used aircraft "CARC" with the little rollers from Home Depot. Three coats leaves a decent dull (and chemical agent resistant) finish.

On the left side of the tail pylon, I masked a big gray goose egg...

Once the masks are removed, and the gray base has dried, I applied another vinyl mask on top, and painted the whole thing green. I added a bit of white to blend the fresh green paint with the slight fade 450 had from sitting in the sun.

I picked off the mask, and now the great stone face of the Old Man of the Mountain is on the tail of another bird. Whenever we're on the road, we get plenty of comments about it, and it's subtle enough that we haven't gotten in trouble for it yet. 

We got an aircraft from Hawaii a few years ago, with King Kamehameha's profile painted on the engine cowlings. Not wanting to deal with any fallout of Pele's Curse, a few of us zen mechanics sponsored a Koa tree on King Kamehameha's old hunting grounds, in the name of the "King Kamehameha of UH-60L 00-26870." We had a small ceremony as we painted over his likeness, thanked him for watching over 870 and her crews, and to rest assured that the Old Man of the Mountain would take it from here on out. 

We continued flying 870 for several years, until it got traded to Tennessee, where it promptly had to get a fuel tank replaced. I'd like to think King Kamehameha's spirit, honored by our gift, kept the fuel tank together until it left New Hampshire.