Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Spring has Sprung

It’s been a while since I’ve written…partly lack of desire, and partly due to concerns of modesty or privacy. It’s hard to give personal updates that involve the positive progress in one’s life without it coming off as a humble-brag, but rest-assured, I don’t like to dwell on negativity nor air dirty laundry, so that’s why you don’t see that here. I have no problem mentioning challenges and obstacles in this blog, but when I do, it’s because I’m thinking about ways to resolve them. If you want bad news, just turn to your favorite mainstream media outlet.

So some good news- Spring has finally arrived. No April showers yet, but the grass is greening up and the temps are warming. That means spring maintenance like taking down the snow fences around the trees, trimming branches, putting away the snow shovels and ice chipper. And a return to fair-weather transportation.

The to-do list is growing and I didn’t accomplish all I wanted to last year on my “break” summer. Still one wall of siding to complete on the Annex, soffits remaining and painting to tackle. I think the secret here is to hit it hard while spring-fever gives me enough drive to do so. And before the heat, bugs and humidity make it unbearable. The picker batts are charged and I have this Friday off so we’ll see how the painting goes on the north side.

There’s also some new construction projects this year, including adding lean-tos to each side of the existing tractor-shed (of course that means geo-textile fabric and gravel $$). I’m also moving full-steam ahead on the 10kW grid-tie solar project. I’ve spec’d out a system and put together a proposal. This week I met with CFU to share my details and was met with a “fine, whatever” response. I was provided a form for Parallel Generation of Power to be completed and submitted, but am waiting on questions regarding credits to make sure this project is worthwhile. Unfortunately, Iowa is not as progressive as other states when it comes to alternative energy, and this utility offers ZERO rebates for installing such a system. If the answers come back favorably, I’ll be pushing this forward hard to take advantage of the summer peak-power producing months. The next obstacle will then be pulling a permit and working with the district inspector for approval.

This is the first year we’ll be ‘farming our own’ and have pulled the land off of cash rent. Seeding is already taking place around us but we’re at the mercy of MidAm to get their equipment and dirt piles cleaned up before that can start (within the next 10 days). This’ll be an interesting experiment as well as it requires a lot more work than just depositing a check once a year, but it does mean no more heavy equipment cross-traffic on our lane. On the upside, with MidAm out of the picture, and potentially the neighbor using his own new-found property, we might just get a real road put in this year.  

Plan 2020 is still in effect. We added a camper to the lineup this winter for future endeavors but my engineering side has put together a list of improvements and upgrades that will actually be fun and provide instant gratification (as opposed to multi-year gratification which ain’t so hot). I also brought home a ’66 Toro from MN with Ben’s help…something to tackle later on, after construction projects are wrapped up and the Bluegill Pontoon is restored. And after I figure out what to do with this Touring Sedan. Actually, if it were in better interior shape than I thought it was in, this wouldn’t be a problem. I suppose I could clean it up..after all, the paint and body is excellent, and after some mechanical work it should run like a new car. Hell, with a little elbow grease it’s essentially free transportation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Mid-Summer's Check-In Part 2 aka The Second Half of the Year in Review

It wasn't too long before an opportunity in Michigan presented itself. A complete Cad 390 engine and Hydra-matic transmission from a 1959 Cadillac were put up for sale. The pickup was empty and the price was right. Don offered up his place for an overnight stay and Ben and I hit the road for a quick turnaround. We made it back by Sunday afternoon though missed out by minutes on a Radarange. We may also have worn out a few cassettes….

Next thing you know, the Cadillac-LaSalle Grand National was staring me in the face. Betwixt the construction projects and travel, I was also working on the '59 CdV that's been off the road since '09. Brakes were completely dry and still on a single MC. The rebuilt engine was untested. The fuel system needed an overhaul including a new fuel tank, hoses and fuel sending unit, and the exhaust remained loud as hell despite throwing money at it back in '05. The leather was dry, the interior panels were once again discolored and the mice had made a real mess. But by the end of July, the car was ready, and we set out for Milwaukee with Ben and his '61 for the show. It was the perfect 'shot in the arm' needed to get the car ready and roadworthy and we had a great time traversing the countryside and taking in the other beautiful cars despite the rainy departure. I think we may have even made a few friends there.

With barely time for a breath, Cara, myself, and both grandmas, loaded into Grandma K’s Deville and set-sail for Walker, MN for a week of relaxation. This was the first 4th of July trip since my grandma sold her place so it was a little different game plan, but I'll save that for another entry. Let it be said, there was some Cracker Barrel on the way! The fireworks did not disappoint and Cara and I got in a little canoeing. We even came right upon a bald eagle perched on a branch enjoying a fish he had just caught. Our presence didn’t seem to faze him.

The '59 Pontiac became the daily-driver after putting exactly 1000 miles on it last fall. Mileage is probably triple that by now this year. The only issue has been a faulty fuel pump (new last year) causing a knock and occasional starvation issue. Easy fix once I figured it out. 

For a brief while, we had a functioning 1957 dishwasher, after adding casters, replacing hoses, and sprucing things up a bit by adding a lighted dial. Unfortunately, it was not to be as the pump seal started leaking thereafter, so this one goes back on the list for repair. A GE combo machine was added to the collection and after a few hours work, is now in service. This was my first transaction with Uship and getting the machine from California to Iowa was interesting with delays, excuses, and break-downs, but it made it intact.

Summer Chores
Almost every week there was something new in July…from getting tipped off about a CRP program and getting the ball rolling with the local FSA office, to finishing the rock and drainage at the pole building. I even finally pulled the trigger on a much-needed tractor at the local dealership which handled mowing duty, lane maintenance and snow removal this December. Plus hauling and transporting rock and other heavy things around the place (like toting a THM325 from the Lodge to the pole building in its bucket). 

Taking a break to enjoy a weekend bonfire
By this point we were bearing down on August, and a welcome invite from some washer friends had us loading up the Sky and heading to Minnetonka, MN for the weekend. The weather was perfect as we enjoyed drinks on the lake, cruising away the afternoon. Just recalling it from the distance of this snowy January morning is enough to give me a little inspiration to get the Blue Gill restored. The trip was memorable for another reason as well….we almost died. A 4x8 sheet of plywood broke off of a semi we were about to pass and hit us square on, but since we were so low to the ground we were fortunate that it only skimmed us. Any other vehicle and the force would probably have tripped the airbags while we were doing close to 70MPH. This also meant that I had to deal with the transport company’s insurance and have the repairs made on the car.

But August was busy for other reasons, too. My failed attempts at trying to finish the Lodge EIFS had culminated with me tracking down Fernando. He took on the job but it was slow going, finally wrapping up almost a month later. Meanwhile I focused on the Annex siding. Finished the front, the rear and 95% of the west, though only the rear received paint treatment. My bigger focus was finishing CS3 and between rocking the foyer, installing pavers and milling cedar for the rear siding (which I painted a 2nd coat earlier in the spring) I’d say is just about there. I also discovered MMM and the potential of early retirement that month which I’ve written about prior.

Trimming out the doors after EIFS completion
During this time Cara and I were also busy sending out invites and securing Black Hawk Park for our wedding celebration (29Aug). The party was a major success even with torrential downpours the days prior.

September kind of snuck up on us. I found a little breathing room to get things ready before Geoff dropped in from Australia and spent a couple weeks. We paid the Kiwi a visit to exchange a teletype for a homebrew computer that was once a Mohawk Data Systems Key-to-tape unit and took in some super computers in an Iowa barn as well as a Delorean, but more importantly, toured the Iowa countryside in the Suburban on a sunny, but chilly, day, and had a memorable meal at the Dirty Dog. 

The '59 Catalina and '61 DeVille ventured to Montour, IA.
The month marched on, I continued with my evening RR panel repairs for folks and struck up a deal with a seller on the east coast who had an actual RR-1. A friend is holding it until I can get out there in 2016; while I don’t want to count my eggs before they’re hatched, this would be a real centerpiece in the collection. Meanwhile, more dealing was taking place on setting up the CRP paperwork for next year. Cutting out costs and getting my insurance up to date, and deciding to sell off the Sky. I could either have that money working for me generating interest, or working against me as depreciation in a used car. Time to get serious!

Now it was getting cold and the prospect of snow was on the way. With the potential for MidAm to come in this winter and work in our field, I decided a gate and fence would be cheap insurance not only from trespassers, but also from damage to my personal portion of the lane from their heavy equipment. I cut up some of the old drive-in 6x6 timbers and Cara and I installed them along with a 12’ gate down near the tracks. It took a few weeks (not a lot of evening light in December) but I eventually got the barbwire fence put in along with the timber N-frames at each end. A come-along put the needed several-hundred pounds of tension on the barbed wire so I could get it tacked in place and supported. An educational project for sure.

I had wanted to get CS3 online in the fall, but eventually decided the only way to get the project moving forward was to skip connecting to water at that time (digging down to the well and installing an underground valve and drainage would have been a major undertaking). I can run an alternate path to the east side of the building at a later date, and the savings of trying to combine both in the same trench is minimal in the long run. After lining up the trencher, I got cold feet and decided to ‘play it by the book’ with the service entrance. It worked out as we spent all day trenching from the new gate to CS3, then CS3 to the Annex for power. We got a little snow a week later and the electrical inspector got back to me and gave the go-ahead for the service entrance. While not exactly a ‘fun’ time, cables were buried for power to the meter and for communication into the lodge.

We wrapped up the year with solar power up at the road, an automatic gate opener controlled from the Lodge, and full time power into CS3.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Solar Garage Door Opener

Well, not really. More like the 12V DC powered opener. I’m sure they exist, and they probably cost an arm and a leg. But let’s see what we can do with a more conventional model; both for cost and for parts. The idea is to use a 12V deep cycle battery charged by a 100w panel with charge controller to run a garage door at a remote building. The primary use for the power is for lights inside and out, but if a suitable door opener can be added, why not?

After some googling, I found several commonly available openers (Sears/Craftsman, Champion to name a couple) that possessed a battery backup feature. Checked the batt specs and they were indeed 12v. Their description seemed to match what I was looking for (door operation with the loss of 120VAC up to a dozen or so times). But such ‘fancy’ openers also have lots of unneeded features. Would they work at all on DC? Would they be totally useless for the life of the opener? Let’s find out.

After shopping around I picked up a new, surplus ¾ HPS Belt Drive Craftsman model off that popular internet auction site. Model 9-54918 (139.3043). It came with a pair of remotes, a wireless outdoor keypad, the required electric eyes and a switch panel that included control of the lights and door plus backlit LCD display with program buttons. Hmm.

Right off the batt…let’s tear this thing apart and see what we’re working with. Well, the switch panel with all the fancy features, like motion detection and display of interior temperature, connects with only two wires, so there’s a communication protocol taking place, and it’s safe to assume microprocessors at each end. Indeed, the rear of the opener contains a circuit board with micro, relays, driver transistors, etc. And you know what else that means? Software.
Standy Curent Measurement
The drive motor itself is the type used in automotive window regulators and to cycle windshield wipers and is pretty easy to drive. +12v on the red lead and -12V on the other will drive it one direction; reverse polarity to go the other way. So, if you want a brute force drive method and have no need for wireless control, cut those leads, run them out and there you go. However, you now have no safety features nor remote operation. There’s probably a better way…and there appears to be.

First, the thing is too smart for its own good. Buttons and indicators on the rear allow for setting the upper and lower limits of the door and for entering a learning mode to communicate with remotes. When first connected to AC, a rapid flashing green led indicates battery charging. This will turn orange when fully charged. The unit also communicates by flashing the 120VAC bulbs to tell you what else is going on, such as a wiring or communication error with the photoeyes, or restoration of AC power. I would like to rewire one of the two lights for 12VDC operation, and seeing as a basic SPDT relay on the PCB turns these on and off, some hacking should be easy, but it’s not. Software detects the absence of AC power and prevents engagement of this relay except when the motor is energized, so no time delay. And while the wall control has a Light pushbutton and the remotes can be programmed to use their other buttons for remote lighting, that’s a no-go on DC only. At least the 120VAC convenience sockets are wired with spade terminals, so a little rewiring allows the second bulb to be pulled out of circuit and wired to DC as we see fit. A 555 timer triggered off the relay coil (that only energizes during motor movement) should do the trick.
D24 is in the center of the relay footprint. Sharpie + and - marks denote
coil pins that will trigger external time-delay circuit.
The photo eyes must be wired and installed, and I believe they also have serial communication to the opener. The good news is a visible LED is mounted on each to see when they’re connected and when they’re drawing power. There’s no tell-tale click of a relay when the eyes are blocked, so bypassing to conserve power is not an option. However, there’s some good news. After 5 successful door open/close cycles (aka learning mode) once power is connected, the eyes power down when the door is closed. This cuts standby current in half (0.130A drops to 0.055A in standby). That’s less than 1 watt in the quiescent state.

If you think you’ll just bypass the transformer and inject your DC there, that could work, but be aware the system voltage is in the low-20’s VDC so it’ll take more than a 12V battery to make it work. I have to assume the way the software is written that you’ll also draw more standby power going this route, as it will think it’s connected to AC.

When on DC-only several other things happen. The backlight is shut off on the wall control and the LCD lets you know you’re off the grid. The light button is disabled as well as temperature and motion sensing. Luckily the door button still works. The wireless remotes still work, too.  A “Time to Close” feature that automatically closes the door x-minutes after opening is disabled. Big deal.

While I haven’t buttoned the unit up and installed it yet, one glaring issue is that if DC power is removed while not plugged into an AC outlet (such as swapping your battery) the unit will not power-up again without momentarily seeing AC. And you can’t just leave the onboard battery in parallel with the external deep cycle source as it’s small enough to be damaged/overheat and lead to bad things. Since this should be a rare occurrence, it might be possible to wake it up with a little AC inverter plugged into my cigarette lighter should the need arise. Current would be minimal, we’re just jump-starting the micro. 

Update: The unit has been installed and works! I used 14 awg NM romex for the 12V power and I suppose voltage drop could be improved with 12 awg or larger, but honestly these openers were never designed to be "speedy" on DC; their aim was to get the job done. At less than 20' from the battery, this doesn't appear to be an issue. 

I used a 12v inverter and a pair of aligator leads to jumpstart the unit. After leaving it powered for 30 seconds, I simply disconnected the clips, put my wire nuts on the DC leads and coiled up the AC cord. Disconnect too early and it won't go into DC mode. If one really wanted a belt-and-suspender approach, one of those cheapie 150w self contained inverters could be mounted inside the opener case (plenty of room) and a toggle switch added to the exterior. The AC cord could be removed and rewired internally to the inverter. No futzing necessary. 

Also of note, this unit learns remote controls dynamically. You press the Learn button on the unit, then hold in the wireless remote button until the unit flashes its lights. Well guess what...on DC it won't flash its lights (obviously). It won't even click its relay....but it will still pair with your remote. Simply hold down your remote button for 30 sec and then see if it works. If it didn't learn it, try again but hold it down longer. Eventually it'll get through all the codes and have picked the transmitter up. And there you have it-  A custom 12V opener with remotes and minimal power consumption for the price of a discount standard model. 

(Update 12/23: It's one month later and the unit works perfectly. No resets, no outages, no issues.) 

Monday, November 9, 2015

On November, Part 2.

One couldn’t ask for a better segue into this month. The days are sunny and temps hover in the 50’s; we’ve only started to nip on the heels of the overnight frosts, and there’s less than a week to go before we can cross off half the month. Soon enough this’ll all feel downright tropical…better make hay while the sun shines.

And make hay, we did. Since this year was one of a maintenance-mode (no major construction), it’s meant I’ve gotten a little soft in crossing off the to-do items. Oh, I still update the spreadsheet daily, and try to at least chip away at the projects that are due, but there’s been no hard and fast schedule to dig a trench by a certain date, nor play beat the clock with the weatherman over getting a roof on the place. Since I rely on setting goals and crossing them off the list so I can sleep well at night, lately this has posed a problem. If I were one of those types that took serious satisfaction in my corporate office job, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I have a hard time equating 8 hrs in front of a computer with the same mental planning and physical effort of framing a wall. That’s not to say one is inherently more virtuous than the other, it’s just that lunch tastes better when you’ve worked up a sweat.

So this was a welcome weekend where I was able to cross all the to-do’s off without exception. Saturday morning I decided to defrost the Deepfreeze..first time it’s needed doing since I brought it home and since it wasn’t 200F inside I figured I had half a chance of knocking it out without the ice cream turning to mush. A little heat gun action and a bucket to haul off the ice chunks and we were back in biz. Love that pre-war Deepfreeze…. I also got it into my head to vacuum the upstairs, grab the shopvac to get all the Asian beetles and boxelders swarming the clerestories, then go after the bugs that so love the 18’ garage door windows. Plus a good downstairs sweeping. What a difference! And let’s not talk about the flies…

Sat PM I could start on the work, and this involved cutting, edge priming, drilling and installing more siding on the west side of the Annex. I’m really beginning to rue siding work, especially with all the gyrations of fetching planks, crawling up ladders, using the picker bucket, painting ends, etc. I managed to wrap it up by 5PM, leaving a couple courses of siding left that will have to be cut to follow the slope of the roof. This gave me time to clean up before Ben stopped by at 5:30 for a trip to the OP in Waverly. Note: Good food, extremely busy, too damn bright. But it was a nice night and despite each of us only eating half our orders, I think we still required rolling to the car.

It seems I have a tough time on weekends these days. I wake up far too early, still tired, but not wanting to go back to sleep. The sun is up so I screw around on my phone for a while, say enough is enough, then get up and get dressed. Sunday was no different. So after a quick breakfast, I proceeded to juggle the chargers on the picker batteries, got the compressor and charged it, then blew out the yard hydrant lines. Next was man-handling the old 16’ gate, and the 18’+ long 6x6 timbers once used for the drive-in screen. The pickup handled them with ease, along with the post hole digger and shovels. After a few trips to the tractor shed for pea gravel, I was set. Cara came down to lend a hand and we installed the cut down 6x6’s on each side of the driveway on the east side of the tracks. A third 6x6 went in to form the slat reinforcement for the hinge side of the gate. Prior to digging, I decided a smaller gate would better suit us, even if we had to go buy one. The 16’ would be unwieldly in the snow and force the posts too far apart…then there was the matter of weight. We ended up getting everything placed and backfilled before 12:30, though I still need to pick up a 12’ gate to hang.

Next was the unenviable chore of sealing the front cement deck on the lodge. This is a yearly chore to help keep ice from damaging the cement. Last weekend I replaced all the butyl rubber in the expansion joints as part of this two-pronged attack. The trick is to roll out the sealer without allowing any of it to run or drip off the cement edges, yet all top surfaces have to be coated. It went fairly well this year.

Finally, a vintage light fixture was installed at the pole building up at the road. This is in preparation for a 100w solar photovoltaic system I’m planning on putting in this month. Just a simple, single panel arrangement with charge controller and deep cycle batt. Depending how the install goes, I might expand the system with a modified overhead door opener so Cara can get in and out with her car this winter without the “fun” of a manual door in sub-zero temps.

However the big news will be next weekend…the current plan is to rent a trencher and put it to work. 500’ feet will need to be trenched for some Cat-5e cable to run to a telephone down at the gate (as well as future connection for a camera, low-v lighting, etc). Then underground 12-3 cable from CS3 to the Annex. Then a trench from CS3 over to the Pump House to finally get CS3 on the grid. Dropped into the same trench in ¾” poly pipe will be network and coax cables tying CS3 to the Lodge. Cable and other items have been ordered and are enroute but the biggest obstacle is the planning. There are already enough underground cables and pipes that we’ll have to tread carefully in some areas, which means lots of hand digging.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Enter November

Yes, I spent far too many hours at my local insurance agency renegotiating my homeowners coverage and adding protection for the other buildings on the property. In order to get the discounts that mattered, I had to move at least one vehicle from a competing firm, and to get multi-car, we moved a second. There was also lots of 'recalculating' going on as the previous lodge coverage was far out of date. While I trust the competing firm more, it’s nice to have a local rep for all the other insurance and I’ve been with both of them for at least 10 years. Not wanting to leave a stone unturned, it made financial sense to sign up for their credit card (no fees, etc) which essentially adds another discount on top of the quote when used to pay for “insurance products”.

I also found a nice card that returns 3% on gas and 2% on groceries and offers a nice bonus if you spend so much in the first 90 days. Again, no fees or ‘gotchas’. Just pay it off each month and it’s essentially free money on things we would buy anyway. For now I’ll continue to use cash/debit for everything else which makes tracking easier.

And then there’s the big one. On an impulse I sold the roadster. Let’s just say I received an offer I couldn’t refuse…man that was a fun car, but no more monthly payments, and no more silly triple-digit registration fees for plates. I sent her off to the new owners yesterday…hope they’re happy with her.

Meanwhile, I’m just keeping my head down, working my way through the fall and into winter. Trying to finish siding and paint work on the Annex, winterizing the cars, trying to get the wheels in motion for the ag CRP arrangement and doing my best to stay sane at the day job.