Monday, March 31, 2014

In the shop: The greenhouse trailer, wrap-up

OK, other than some sort of guttering to channel rainwater into a storage container, I've wrapped up the greenhouse trailer.

We drug the utility trailer to town with us a few days ago and bought supplies for 4 or 5 different projects, including the roofing material for the greenhouse.

Running to town is at least a half-day affair but I still managed to get the roof done that afternoon.

You can also see in the second photo that I went ahead and installed fencing in the gable ends that I originally left open. I should have known better than to expect to get away with that. Cats just can't stand for anyone to have something of their own and they'll go to great lengths, including climbing the fenced walls, to sit on it, dig in it, pee on it, shit in it, or spray all over it (Even after neutering!) I came out one morning to find footprints in most the boxes, some trampled plants in a few of them and one completely tore up since it was used as a litter box. . .

This project ended up costing about $625 in materials. (I'm not counting the cost of the trailer and a few other miscellaneous items we already had.) That's about half the cost of the cheapest 10x10 greenhouse kit I could find on the market, and the kit wouldn't be mobile.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

In the shop: Getting ready for more projects

I thought I was supposed to be retired, but every time I turn around the project list just gets longer!

In fact we hooked up the trailer to the van and made a supply run into town, coming home with nearly $600 worth of material for 4 or 5 different projects.

The five 12 foot long, 2 foot wide panels that will become the greenhouse roof
have already been removed, but there's still many projects sitting here in the
trailer waiting on me to get to them!

Friday, March 28, 2014

In the shop: A couple of casualties

I was working on the greenhouse trailer the other morning, mostly driving screws, when my power driver stopped. Normally that means I've run the lithium battery down and I just swap it out with the one sitting on the charger.

That didn't work today.

It had a good run but finally gave up the ghost.
I put the new battery in and still nothing. At first I though I didn't get the battery onto the charger correctly and now I had two dead batteries, but I pulled out another tool, slapped the battery into it and it ran just fine. . .

After many years of fairly heavy use, after killing the original NiCad batteries and replacing them with the lithium's in 2011, after dropping it countless times, after shredding the handgrip driving thousands and thousands of screws,  my power driver just gave up in mid screw.

I had to finish up using my right-angle power driver (You didn't think I was going to drive all those screws by hand did you??!) which is a pain in the ass. I don't know who designed this thing but the balance is terrible, the drive speed is nearly uncontrollable, the trigger awkward, and it's really difficult to get good pressure on it to keep the bit seated in the screw.

Obviously I needed to replace the power driver and replace it fast!

It just so happened that there was a Ryobi rep right there in the big box store I went to so I was able to find out from the horse's mouth that I was pretty much screwed when it came to batteries. I have two perfectly good lithium batteries at home and two's all I've needed for years, but I could only buy the driver in a 'kit' which meant I had to pay for batteries, and a charger, that I didn't need.

Making the best of a bad situation I bought the same driver I've been using with a charger and a NiCad battery that I guess will just sit on a shelf until I can talk myself into recycling it. This was about $30 less than the slightly more compact driver that comes in a kit with a lithium battery. I suppose I could use the lithium battery but then I'd have three and I just don't need that many.

Only it's not quite the same driver. Something I didn't realize until I got home and opened the box.

New one on the left, old on the right.
As you can see from the picture the old driver has two bit holders on top of the barrel, the new driver has a single bit holder down on the front of the foot. Since I regularly use two different bits as well as twist drills that's going to be problematic.

The old driver has a target level on the back side to help drive screws straight down as well as a tube level on top of the barrel to help drive horizontally, the new one only has the level on top of the barrel. That's going to hurt!

On the plus side, the handgrip on the new driver has been redesigned and uses a different material that looks like it will hold up better than the one on the old driver.

My second casualty occurred that same afternoon as I was trimming limbs back so we can get the travel trailer down the driveway again. (For the past 5 years we've just left it parked down on the coast where my father-in-law uses it during the winter.)

This time it was my gloves that gave out. A fact that was painfully pointed out to me by pointy sticks poking through the holes and into my tender flesh! Yaupon and Post Oak are the worst!

Of course this happens when you use them hard and I go through several pair a year so always keep spares on hand.
Identical gloves bought at the same time, one pair used to the point of destruction,
and you can almost see the hands still inside them, the other pair just pulled off the shelf

Dad's last pair of work gloves are on the right.
On the left is the wooden replica I carved.
I've always felt that well used work gloves absorb some of the essence of the person using them.

In fact, after my father's funeral it wasn't a photo of him I went looking for, but instead I took the work gloves off his bench and still carry them with me today. They ride up there on the dash of my van so when I go camping he comes along too.

As a sort of memorial I also carved a replica of his gloves and these sit on my workbench.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Birdwatching: Sandpipers, Herons, and Wrens; Oh my!

Sandpiper video

Spotted Sandpiper in winter plumage (No spots.)

This little guy, a Spotted Sandpiper in winter plumage, was down in the pond when I went to throw some wood scraps on the burn pile. He/she stood there, chattered away and pretty much ignored me, and was still there after I walked back up to the barn to get my camera. I was at full zoom when I took the video so the little microphone on the camera was pretty taxed trying to pick up his call.

Great Blue Heron

This Great Blue Heron is also a frequent visitor to the pond, though he is much more skittish than the Sandpiper and I usually see him as he floats over the trees on his way out because I've disturbed him.

Carolina Wren

The Carolina Wren was also a recent visitor to the feeder. Though these birds are year-round residents of our area sightings are infrequent.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Gardening: Things are moving fast with the warmer weather

Don't know his name, but this butterfly, and his many siblings, have been busy in
the wild black-berries. These are an early plant for us and will be harvested and
done by the time summer actually arrives.

Because they hug the ground they are ready to go just as soon as things
start to warm.

Bluebonnets, along with several other wildflowers around here
are also early bloomers. That's because they grow as little rosettes
that hug the relative warmth of the ground and as soon as the air warms
they start shooting up flower stalks. It's fun to harvest bluebonnet seeds too.
They are large, about the size of a cucumber seed, and are encased, several to a pod.
You have to time it just right because as the pods dry they twist and store up energy.
Harvest too soon and the seeds are not mature, too late and the pods have burst and
scattered the seeds several feet in all directions. Get it just right and when you cup
a pod in your hand and break it off it will snap open inside your fist and release the seeds.
Of course the first time this happens you're likely to be startled and drop the seeds anyway.

Don't know what this one is called but we get a lot of them too. The environment
beside roads and in some of the hay fields where regular cutting has opened
things up for them, seems to be just right for a variety of wildflowers and in late
March, early April you will spot all kinds of vehicles pulled over as the occupants
run out and crouch down to have their picture taken in the blankets of color.

Bottom watering plants appears to have some promise. It promotes good deep root development,
and gets the water in deep where it lingers rather than evaporates, especially in our climate,
reducing the frequency of watering.
This also had the advantage of keeping water away from the leaves and stems where it could burn the plant
or create a moist environment just right for various molds and insects.
A massive grow operation to supply big-box stores was built about 20 miles from here a few years ago
and the whole place is designed for bottom watering with tiers of shallow 'trays' the size of a basketball court
cut into the hillside so they drain from one down to the next and so on until the last one drains into
a retention pond where the water is then pumped back up to the top of the hill at the next watering.
All the grow-boxes we have are designed as miniature versions of this and as a temporary measure,
until I get my own version of a watering tray built, in order to bottom water the plants in the
red planters, I cut some left over 1" PVC to 14 inches then ran my saw over
one end to cut a pair of water-releasing slits. 

These are then stood on end, slit end down, in the pot, which has a 2"
high retention tray on the bottom,

then the potting mix is added.

(Sorry, bad lighting in this photo makes it hard to see but I'm too tired to go do it again)
Watering is then a matter of pouring water down the tube until it spills over the
edge of the retention tray. Once you get a feel for it, by tilting the pot every few days
you can tell when it's time to add more water. It's important to use a light and
well draining potting mix for this which will wick water up but not stay saturated.
 Soil mixes tend to get saturated which prevents roots, which need air, from growing deep.
Perpetually saturated soil will also start growing nasty, stinky things down there
in the soup, one of which just might kill the plant above.

Grow boxes with their built in bottom-watering reservoirs

And the red pots (Which are supposed to produce redder tomatoes??) with their
watering tubes. (Of the eight pots I bought, seven came with water retaining trays
on the bottom, one, with exactly the same UPC, has holes in the bottom tray. Four very tiny holes
that I never noticed until I tried to fill it up and it started running all over the
greenhouse deck. . .)

A left over hanging basket seemed like a good place for the catnip plant.
Hanging inside the greenhouse it should be safe from molestation while it
grows to harvesting size.
The 4th batch of spinach on the left which was direct sown once things warmed
up a little  (The other three got eaten by something before I could get them
transplanted.) and a lettuce on the right.
Swiss Chard on the left, a different lettuce on the right.
The first and second batches of carrots with room for one more batch in the center

An orange Bell Pepper plant has the honor of sitting in the one pot with
holes in the retention tray. This one will have to be watched carefully for
water until I get the bottom-watering tray build. This will probably be a
frame made of treated 2x4s draped in a heavy plastic.
The onions have really shot up in the last week
These pathetic looking things are my latest try at getting the heat tolerant
Flordade tomatoes to grow. If they ever take off one of these will have to
go to make room the for the other
This is one of the two Beefsteak tomatoes we have going. It's hard to tell in this
photo but compared to the Cherokee Purple and the Yellow Pear they are lagging
behind and some of the leaves are not the healthiest of greens.
This is one of the Cherokee Purples and these things are going gang-busters!
The Dianthus survived the winter well and is blooming strongly
The tips of one of the cactus have been burned by frost and
the whole plant needs some attention as it has grown to the point
where much of it is laying down because of the weight.

The roses are looking a bit leggy and sparse
They have been top dressed with compost
and a touch of organic fertilizer.
Now we just have to wait and see.
This turtle was tucked away and forgotten under the travel trailer my
Father-in-law spends his winters in down on the coast. Now he (the turtle,
not the Father-in-law.) has been rescued, cleaned up and is home for a
Lysimachia. (Don't know which one yet because it is a Walmart plant with
no more detailed information. In fact the tag calls it an annual yet claims
it's hardy to -30 degrees F???

We've had this small ceramic planter for a couple decades now. This
year it will host a white flowered Sutera Cordata, which should be
a perennial in our zone if protected from frost. 

This planter has Salvia in the center and Alyssum around the edges.
both seem to be doing well with the Alyssum leaves turning a
rich purple. I did plant a few seeds of Alyssum in the spout as well
but it doesn't water very well so I don't think they are going to make it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Maintenance: Living with a tank-less water heater

We get very hard water out of our well. I mean water so hard the charts put out by water-softener companies don't even go that high. And no, we don't have a water softener. There is space, plumbing and power out in the well house for it, but we haven't broken down and actually bought one yet. A large part of that is we just don't like softened water but another, big, consideration is that we would nearly double our water consumption with the back-flush cycle that a softener would require given the hardness of our water!

So right now we live with the consequences. And since we use a tank-less water heater those consequences can sneak up on us if we don't watch it.

We really like the tank-less technology for hot water. As long as the power holds up you can't run out of hot water yet the only time it uses any energy at all (For us that's electricity because we didn't install a propane system in the barn.) is for the few minutes a day we're actually running hot water. The rest of the time it just sits there. But since the innards' of a tank less water heater are actually quite small, scale buildup is noticeable long before it would be in a tank type system, although both will be killed by unchecked scale. In fact we are now the proud owners of two tank-less water heaters because the original was killed, though I managed to revive it.

The original has two pots the size of large coffee mugs with coiled heating elements inside them. These pots are configured in series so the second receives water already heated in the first and makes it even hotter. Over the course of two years or so it gradually got less and less effective. After installing a new heater about 6 months ago I dismantled the original (Hey, it already didn't work too well so I couldn't make it much worse could I?) and found that the heating elements were completely coated in scale and the second pot, the hottest one, was almost completely choked with the stuff. A few hours of work cleaned them right up and now we have a spare heater on the shelf.

Our new water heater. There is a shutoff
valve out of sight to the right on both
the hot and cold lines. The blue conduit is
for the electrical.
In the mean time we replaced original with a new one that has two small pipes inside configured in parallel which keeps their temperatures even. Each of these has a straight heating element right down the center for a more laminar water flow which will also, hopefully, cut down on stubborn scale buildup. The new heater also has an output temperature sensor and a digital thermostat which really helps keep the water temperature steady when several faucets are opening and closing at the same time, something the input temp only sensing units are not quite so good at.

(One trick to living with a tank-less water heater is to set the water temperature to 110-115 degrees and when you want hot water, like when taking a shower, or hand-washing dishes, just open up the hot water valve and forget about the cold.)

Having seen the state of the innards of the original heater, despite flushing it out a couple times a year, I now flush the new one once a month. I do this at the same time we do several other monthly chores around here. (We actually have a spread sheet with a whole bunch of maintenance items to be done monthly; cleaning the dishwasher filter, checking all tire pressures, lubing the gate opener, etc.: which takes about 6 hours to complete, usually spread out over two days since we are retired and people of leisure now.)

Our flush kit. Notice that the handle of the bucket has been
bent. This is so we can hang the bucket above the level of the
water heater.
To make the flushing process easier we built a 'flush kit' with some left-over PVC, a 12 volt self-priming pump, a small bucket and a couple of the same flexible-armored heater connection pipes used to connect the water heater into the plumbing. By the way, the instructions for installing both of the water heaters required a shut-off valve on the cold water side but not on the hot water. Don't believe that! The single-handle cartridge type faucets we almost all use now will back water up into the de-pressurized hot water plumbing so a valve is needed on both sides!!

 The first step in our monthly flush is to pour about a half gallon of white vinegar into the bucket. The blue tape on the side of the bucket marks the proper level to make this easier. Then we remove all the faucet heads and drop them in the bucket to soak for about an hour. After an hour or so the vinegar will no longer be bubbling as it eats away at the mineral deposits. This gets the faucet-heads nice and clean and shiny. At the same time we get all those little screens flushed of any loose scale, though I have to remember to pull the hoses off the back of the washing machine once in a while and clean those screens out too or it starts taking longer to fill the machine that is does to agitate the clothes!

Then it's time to focus on the water heater. First step is to close the shutoff valves and remove the cold and hot pipes from the bottom of the heater using a couple small containers to catch the little bit of water that drips out. The pipes from our kit are then attached to the water heater and the other end of each is hooked over the edge of the bucket, which still has that original half gallon of vinegar in it.

The bucket is then hung by the handle, custom bent for just this purpose, from a couple of small screws installed in the top of the shelf unit. this puts the bucket above the level of the water heater so when vinegar is pumped in it won't drain back out into the bucket.

By the way, in between flushes the 'kit' is stored there on top of the shelf unit.


The wire for the pump is long enough that it can reach to the floor and be clipped to a battery, usually the battery for starting the gas powered fire pump, but lately I've just been using an old 10 Amp battery charger for power instead.

The battery charger will only run the pump for about 20 seconds before cutting out and needing to rest for a few minutes, but that's plenty of time to fill the water heater with vinegar. Then I just leave it sit in there to do its thing. I also leave the water heater power on during this so when it sees the vinegar flowing it doesn't know its not water and the heater elements comes on. Hot vinegar is more effective at eating the scale than cold.

That first run of the pump flushes out chunks of scale and the vinegar starts bubbling furiously as it works on them. The same thing is happening inside the water heater to the scale that was too stubborn to let go.

About every 20 minutes I run the pump for another 15 or 20 seconds to stir things up and reheat the vinegar. After an hour or so of this, depending on how distracted I get, all the chunks in the bucket have dissolved and the vinegar has stopped bubbling. I assume the same has happened inside the water heater so then it's time to remove the flush kit and hook the heater back into the plumbing, making sure to flush any residual vinegar out of it before taking that next shower!! A trick I use for this is to only hook the cold side of the heater (The right-hand connection,) back into the plumbing then remove the hot side of the flush kit from the bucket and lay it in the utility sink, just off the left side of the photo above, and open the cold valve for a few seconds and rinse the heater out.

There's a lot of wait time in this process, waiting on the faucet-heads to soak and waiting between pump runs for the vinegar to work on the inside of the water heater, so actual time spent on the whole process is something like 20 minutes and it takes about $1 worth of vinegar. At that rate it will take about 40 years to recoup the cost of a water softener!

This is what the inside of the bucket looks like before pumping vinegar into the water heater

This is what it looks like after that initial run of the pump! That's chunks of scale down there in the bottom and it's only been a month since the last flush!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In the shop: The greenhouse trailer: roof and door

I managed to get the roof structure on in between rain showers. The observant
will notice that I turned the door header around 180 degrees. This was to adjust
the end rafter spacing back to the 24 inches it's supposed to be. I lifted the ridge
beam a couple inches above the rafter ends in order to gain just a little more head-
room and to add a little detail to the peak.

Here I've got the roof-blocking installed between the rafters and the walls wrapped with
4' high fencing held in place with strapping.
The strapping dresses things up nicely and will give me a place to hang plastic
panels if I want to close it in completely during the winter. I also added blocking
around the gable end openings to simplify installing plastic panels there too.
Obviously I've also got the doors built and hung.

The door framing is all half-lapped which should provide plenty of
rigidity. Each door is just under 24" wide and I'm hoping will not need
any diagonal bracing to stay square. The right-hand door latches with a
standard gate latch
And the left-hand door is held in place with a spring
loaded foot-bolt. The hole for the foot-bolt is drilled
all the way through the decking so debris won't collect
in it.

Now I just need to go through my stack of left over sheets of corrugated
polycarbonate to see how much more I need to buy to close in the roof. After
that I'll add gutters to divert the rainwater into a tank we already have.
Since all the remaining work will be done from the outside I think I'll move the
greenhouse (Right now I can't open the doors all the way because they run into the side
of the parking pad.) and start loading it with some of the plants we've already got going.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Birdwatching: new visitor

This guy was a new visitor to the bird feeder a few days ago and hasn't been back since. All excited, I got the book out and started trying to figure out what it was. (Maybe it's just me but I have a terrible time with field guides and usually end up frustrated and none the wiser.) My excitement got dashed a bit when I figured out it was a Common Grackle. Dang-it! Did it have to be common??