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.