Error: Cabin out of Square

I recently encountered one of the most difficult challenges on Serenity Valley that I can remember in recent years. Things have been pretty ho-hum up here, at least compared to the early days, with very few challenges remaining to keep me comfortable.

So, when I discovered that my cabin had gotten out of square enough to prevent the door from closing and locking, well, it was almost fun and exciting. Well, ok, it would’ve been totally fun and exciting if it weren’t for the fact that I was trying to get out of there in time to get back to the city for a party. But with the time pressure, it was only moderately fun, and I even at one point thought to my self “Huh, I’m not sure I can solve this”, which is a thought I hardly ever encounter in life (except for when it comes to matters of the heart).

IMG_3518-0As it were, it took a few hours and multiple attempts to solve the problem. My first thought was to anchor a piece of 2×6 in the ground, then lean it against the cabin and pull on it to apply a force on the cabin. That didn’t work. I then got the jack from my car, and jacked up one corner of the cabin. I succeeded in lifting up the corner an inch (and could’ve kept going) but that didn’t seem to be making a difference so I abandoned that plan. I then tried to push the cabin using a 4×4 by jacking one end against a tree, but that ended up too unwieldy to set up alone.

IMG_3519-0Then, I got out the come-along, which hadn’t seen any action since 2009 when I used it to winch the trailer up my property. First, I drilled a 1/2-inch hole in a beam inside to tie one end of the rope, then anchored the come-along against the opposite corner on the outside, and tried to winch the cabin back into shape. This might’ve worked, except with the rope coming out the door, I couldn’t get it shut (duh). So, then, I did the same thing, but this time securing the come-along against an interior post (though, by this time, I was starting to get a bit desperate and didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures). That didn’t seem to work.

This was around the time I felt stumped. Not to sound arrogant, but I haven’t encountered very many challenges in life where I hadn’t solved it with my 5th attempt. I thought about calling up some neighbors to help, but I wasn’t sure what they could do that I couldn’t.

As a somewhat desperate measure, I decided to try one more thing. I drilled a hole through one of my 4×4 posts, all the way through the exterior siding, so that I could tie a rope to the post from the outside. I then anchored the come-along against a large juniper tree using some rope I found. I started applying tension, then with a BANG the come-along went flying, smashing through a plastic bin that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I checked my fingers– I still had 11 of them.

After taking a deep breath and making a mental note to make sure I got more trucking rope for occasions like these, I got another length of rope, doubled it up, twisted it, then wrapped it around the hook on the come-along a few times (that’s where it failed the first time) and then around the tree. I then started cranking again, applying enough tension that it became quite difficult to pull the lever. I became paranoid so I got another rope and reinforced the anchoring using a trucker’s hitch to take some of the load off the first rope. At this point, I probably had close to a ton of tension, rendering the entire contraption into a veritable siege weapon… pointed directly at my cabin. I gave it a few more cranks, then ran over to the door to see if it would close.

It did, just barely.


Rain Barrel!

I finally got around to setting up the rain barrel I bought last year. The wet season only lasts a couple more months, but hopefully I’ll be able to harvest some water to help keep my cherry tree watered during the dry months. In any case, I’ll tell this story with pictures, so… here we go!

Bits and pieces. Let’s hope I have everything!
Putting up the gutters. I intentionally hung them low so that snow would slide off without snagging them. I may eventually put rails on the roof to keep the snow there so that I can collect more water as it melts. I’ll need to assess whether the additional load on the roof will cause problems. I also set these up on the south side so that exposure to the sun willl hopefully keep things from freezing too badly.
Gutters and downspout all finished. Part way down the downspout is the RainReserve rain diverter. Instead of diverting everything, it captures water that falls along the interior sides of the downspout, while allowing bigger pieces of debris (like leaves) to fall through. Or so the theory goes…
Building a platform for the rain barrel, using the only flat surface within a half-mile radius.
Setting up the base. One side sits on cement blocks, while the other side sits on ice and rocks. It’s what we call MGEP (Mostly Good Enough, Probably) — the impeccable standard to which things are built on Serenity Valley. Actually, I’m not entirely confident it’ll support the weight of a full 300gal tank (2400lb). I guess we’ll find out!
Close-up of the rain diverter and tank hookup. The green hose is the overflow, which could also be hooked up to a second tank.

Halloween in Serenity Valley

I managed to escape the city and head up to Serenity Valley for Halloween weekend, which was a real treat. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons up in the mountains, with the beautiful colors, the damp smell of the woods, and perfect 75-degree weather. And this most recent trip also turned out to be a quite productive one to boot…

On Saturday, I was walking down the dirt road to go visit my neighbor, when I stopped dead in my tracks. What did I see? Acorns! And tons of them. Now, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of Oregon White Oak on my property, you’d think it’d take more than the sight of acorns to get me excited. But, the truth is, I haven’t noticed very many acorns in the past. Sure, I’d see maybe a few worm-holed and mildewy acorns here and there, but I’d never seen shiny plump acorns littering the ground the way I saw this time.

So, I did what any sensible member of a hunter-gatherer species would do: I started gathering. I’d heard that Native Americans ate acorns, and with not much else on my property that’s edible, I was excited to finally come across a native edible crop.

As I filled my bag with these shiny orbs, giddy as a kid on Halloween, I started wondering: why haven’t I seem so many acorns in the past? And why so many acorns under this one particular tree? None of the trees neighboring this one tree by the dirt road had any significant number of acorns under them. Odd…

I stood up, stretched my back, and pulled out my iPhone to do some research. As it turns out, oak trees don’t start producing acorns until they are 20 – 50 years old. Many of the trees on my property are small and skinny, and might not be that old yet. Additionally, it could take trees 2 years or more to save up enough energy to produce acorns, and that’s assuming a late frost doesn’t destroy all the buds. Indeed, further exploration of my property confirmed that while not all of my oak trees had acorns, many of the larger ones did.

Within an hour or two of casual gathering, I had collected several pounds of acorns. But what exactly are they good for? Well, on their own, not much. I cracked open one of the acorns, and the nut inside looked juicy and inviting. Of course, a small nibble confirmed what I already knew: they’re mouth-puckering-ly bitter. I also tried roasting some on my wood stove, which made them edible, but just barely and only if I were desperate. To get rid of the bitterness, they need to be leached with water. It appears the easiest way to leach them is by first crushing them into acorn meal, then repeatedly soaking and straining them until all the bitterness is gone. You can then dry the meal over a fire or in an oven. The resulting acorn meal can be consumed as-is, or can be milled into flour and used for baking.

So, as far as edible crops go, acorns aren’t exactly the easiest to consume. But, I could see how they could be useful as a food source nonetheless, simply because of their abundance and ease in gathering, as well as their (presumably) high caloric content. They apparently don’t keep very well due to their high fat content, but I could see an autumn harvest of acorns lasting through the cold winter, and providing valuable calories during those lean months. It’s also exciting to know that if I grew some corn, I could use corn meal and acorn flour to make bread, without “importing” flour.


The other big news is that, my neighbor came up to help, and we (finally) got the rest of the cement board siding up! As far as I’m concerned, the exterior siding is mostly aesthetic, though it’s definitely more fire resistant than the previously exposed insulation boards, quite weatherproof, possibly somewhat insulating, and it might add a bit of rigidity to the structure, so it’s good to have them up. There’s still some parts that are exposed, so I need to cover those bits up, then put trims on the corners and around the windows, paint the whole thing, and I’ll finally be able to call it done. It’s a project that’s been 2 years (and counting) in the making, but it still feels good to make progress…

Anyway, I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

My neighbor came up to helpMeasurements for all the custom-cut panelsNow with more siding!Hut 2.1 - Now with more siding!

Journal: February 25th, 2011

I woke up to about a foot of snow this morning; I’d finally gotten that snow storm I’d been hoping for. I have a lot of things outside that I use on a regular basis, like my ice chest, the solar panels, the toilet, and everything had to be dug out before use. Oh, yeah, including toilet paper (which I leave next to the toilet in a ziplock bag). I made myself some banana pancakes for breakfast, and then decided to spend the day frolicking in the snow. Except, there was one problem. I have this nice pair of Sorel snow boots that a reader donated to me (thanks Ed!), but the snow was so deep, even just around my camp, that snow would get in from the top of the boots. Obviously, that’s what gaiters are for, except, I don’t have any. So, I decided to make some! I grabbed a couple of plastic shopping bags, cut one of the handle-loops off each bag, cut a hole in the bottom of the bags, then stuck my booted legs through the bottom holes, and stuck each foot in the remaining handle-loops (to keep the gaiters from hitching up). Then I wrapped some duct tape around the ankles and above the boots, and voila! Ghetto gaiters! I’m proud to say, despite barreling through thigh-deep snow drifts, hardly any snow got into my boots. Unfortunately, the gaiters proved to be only good for one-time use, since I had to cut through the duct tape to get them off… But, I’ve got plenty more plastic bags, if needed.

Later in the afternoon, in a bout of unusual productivity, I finished the rest of the work on the floor. The temperature is supposed to drop down to the single digits (-13C or below) tomorrow, so having an insulated floor will certainly be nice. In fact, it’s about 15F (-9C) tonight, but it’s about 65F up in the loft, and warm enough downstairs that I’m just wearing a t-shirt and a thin hoodie. I’m pretty sure that, when the floor was uninsulated, I had to keep the stove burning a lot hotter to keep the inside temperature 50F above outside temperatures, and it was certainly much colder downstairs. Now, I can even sit on the floor without freezing my butt off. Yay insulation.

A couple of readers pointed out that the way I decided to do my raised floor would be suboptimal, due to thermal bridging. This is indeed true. Those 2x4s will conduct heat out through the original floor, somewhat degrading my floor’s insulation. On the other hand, one of the reasons I decided to do what I did, was because I wanted to try using recycled cellulose insulation instead of polyisocynurate or polystyrene rigid insulation boards. Recycled cellulose, I think, is much more environmentally friendly, not just in terms of the environmental impact during production, but also when it comes time for disposal.

When it comes to houses, most people think about the cost of construction/production, as well as costs incurred while living in it (in terms of heating, air conditioning, and perhaps maintenance). But, people rarely talk about deconstruction, probably because most people expect to be out-lived by their houses, and therefore never really need to deal with the inevitable demise of their dwellings.

In my case, however, Hut 2.1 has an intended service life of 5 years, and is explicitly not designed to last long. There are a couple of reasons for such a short lifespan. First, and foremost, Hut 2.1 is as much an experiment and learning exercise as it is a home. I assumed from the beginning that it would be far from perfect, and therefore, that I would likely be building its replacement in the near future. Secondly, I consider this property itself to be an experiment. Once I’ve learned what I could learn from it, it’s conceivable that I’ll want to sell it, and buy property elsewhere. And if I were to sell this property, I may need to get rid of my structures because, let’s face it, most people don’t want tiny huts — at least, not these huts. (And since someone will inevitable suggest that perhaps I should’ve built something that other people would want, I’ll respond by saying that, building something other people would want instead of what I want defies the whole purpose of building your own home.)

So, even while designing and building my Huts, I’ve been thinking about demolition at the same time, and have concluded that using organic combustible materials as much as possible would simplify this issue. The plan, basically, is to remove any materials that can be reused (windows, for instance), and then to burn the rest. The less plastic there is, the less toxic fumes will be released during combustion. In the case of Hut 2.1, I’ll probably remove the roofing and strip off the exterior polyiso insulation before torching it, and the rest is basically just wood (including the “cellulose” insulation I just put in my floors) and a marginal quantity of unnatural materials like Tyvek and spray-foam insulation. This is also the reason I’ve avoided fiberglass; that stuff doesn’t burn and takes a long time to degrade, while I don’t want to leave behind anything that isn’t bio- (or naturally) degradable.

Journal: February 23rd, 2011

I had a pretty productive day today. It was another gorgeous clear day, and I decided to finally set up my “back-up” 45W solar panels to catch some rays while I can. Even though I could probably continue to get by on just my 100W panel, with another storm headed my way, I decided that if the weather forced me to spend more time indoors (while generally giving me less power), I might as well have a little extra capacity. I’ve seen my 100W panel output (as measured between the charge controller and battery array) as much as 80Watts, and the new 45W array was producing just shy of 40W today, so, combined, I should be able to generate as much as 120W. Though, the bigger question is how much they’d generate on a cloudy day, and that, I have yet to measure.

After I got the solar panels set up, I went and cut more firewood to shore up my stockpiles in preparation for the “arctic” temperatures predicted this weekend. I’ve been using my cordless reciprocating saw to chop dead mountain mahogany trees into short logs that’ll fit into my tiny stove. Even though there’s plenty of wood lying around, using the battery-powered saw is a suboptimal solution because it wears out the batteries, and batteries are expensive. Not too long ago, I used to be able to get a load of wood on a single charge, but the batteries are getting worn, and I’m losing power much faster now. At this rate, I’d be surprised if a set of batteries last through a single winter, and replacing batteries every year could cost about $100. It’s still cheaper than buying firewood (not to mention, firewood that’s being sold wouldn’t even fit in my tiny stove), but I’ll probably want to find an alternative if I plan on spending more winters here. An easy alternative is to get a gas-powered chainsaw, but a more environmentally friendly solution might be to use a wired saw. I could use a cordless saw to harvest long sections of branches, then chop them up back at camp where I could use a plug-in saw that’s powered by my larger battery array. Of course, using a manual saw would be the most environmentally friendly option, but I’m afraid that’s more work than I’m willing to put in, if alternatives are available.

Later in the evening, I finally got some work done on the raised floor inside Hut 2.1. One half of the floor is done, but I’ve been dragging my butt on the other half. Today, I finally mustered the motivation to work on the other half, mostly because of the predicted weather. I got as far as laying down the 2×4 joists on top of the existing floor (see photo below), but the 2x4s are a bit wet, so I’m going to let them dry out for a day or two before continuing. The next step is to fill in the gaps with insulation, then cover the whole thing with Tyvek, then the flooring goes on top of that. All in all, that’s probably just a few hours’ worth of work, so I’ll get it done fairly soon. Once the floor’s done, I’ll start working on furnishings, like a desk, a sink, and a kitchen counter to put the gas stove on. I haven’t yet decided on where to put the bathroom (there are two possible locations), but that’ll happen at some point, assuming Spring doesn’t come first. So far, I’ve just been using my outdoor composting toilet, and it’s working out fine for me. It gets a little cold sometimes, but the fresh air and nice view make up for it, if you ask me.

Update on Project 31 Preparations

A quick update on preparations for Project 31 (though, in reality, it’s hard to say what’s just part of my life and what counts as “preparation”…) I still haven’t decided on the exact start date, but I’m guessing I’ll be ready by mid-February.

It’s been surprisingly dry for the past few weeks, but it’s quite possible that the weather will get wetter during Project 31. I have about 30 gallons of rain water so far, so even if there’s no precipitation, I can probably live off of that for a month if I don’t shower (I also have 55 gallons of potable water as backup). As for sanitizing collected water, I have a length of PVC pipe, along with some sand, gravel and charcoal to make a filter out of. For actual drinking water, I’ll pass the filtered water again through a Britta filter. It might not remove 100% of contaminants, but that should make the water clean enough to not kill me in 31 days.

Progress on Hut 2.1 has been slow but steady. I finished putting up the last of the exterior rigid insulation boards last night, so practically every square inch of the walls and roof are insulated at this point. The next step is to put in the insulated raised floor, and continue with the interior “furnishings”. But I can work on that during Project 31, so I’m not in a huge rush.

I had a bit of a scare yesterday & this morning, when I realized that the charge light on my charge controller was conspicuously off, even though the batteries had run down to 12.5 Volts. My multimeter showed an unusually low voltage across the solar panel cables, which lead me to believe that the solar panel had stopped working. After trying a few different things today, I realized that the solar panel’s voltage was fine, as long as it wasn’t hooked up to my charge controller. In other words, when it was connected to my charge controller, some kind of anomalously huge resistance was dropping the voltage to almost zero, without actually sending any of the current to my batteries (I’m guessing a short of some sort). In fewer words, my charge controller is broke. Fortunately, I had another charge controller lying around, so once I did a little rewiring, I got some juice flowing to the battery array again. The broken charge controller is still under warranty, so I should be able to send it in for a replacement, which, hopefully will arrive before I start Project 31.

This incident had me thinking that I might want a back up to my 100W solar panel, in case it did decide to break. A week or so ago, I bought a 45W solar kit from Harbor Freight because it was on sale, but I ended up returning it because it didn’t seem like I’d need the additional capacity. But it might be a good idea to have another set of panels as backup, just in case. Without a backup solar panel, my backup-backup would be to use my car battery, but that would require running the engine to keep the battery charged.

Also on the topic of electricity, I ordered a Xantrex ProSine SW600 pure sine-wave inverter, which should be arriving soon. It’s only rated for 600W, but I don’t think I even own any appliances that use anywhere near that much power. The most power hungry device I own is probably my laptop, which should pull no more than 85W.

I’ve been using the stove every night since I finished the chimney, and it’s kept me nice and warm even when it got down to 15F (-9.4C) outside. In fact, keeping the heat low enough has been the bigger challenge, especially when I’m only burning wood. It’s hard to have a small self-sustaining wood fire that doesn’t burn out in 10 minutes, yet stays hot enough to ignite and burn bigger chunks of wood. I’ve been burning a mix of charcoal and wood, and might look into making my own charcoal once I’ve burned through the bags I bought for my previous experiments. I’m also continuing to gather firewood while the weather is relatively dry, with the goal of actually stocking up on a month’s worth, so that I won’t have to worry about fuel even if it gets wet and cold during Project 31.

I’ve also tried to cook using the stove, but that’s proving to be a little harder than I’d anticipated, because the cabin gets uncomfortably warm if I get the stove hot enough to cook with. I also only have the wood stove going in the evenings, so I’d need to use propane to cook meals or heat water during the day. This isn’t a huge problem, but I might need to revise my projected propane usage up, since I might be using my propane stove for cooking more than I’d anticipated.

I was originally thinking of getting a Verizon MiFi for internet, but I’ve since decided to get a Verizon iPhone, since it has the same capability as a MiFi but would allow me to cancel my AT&T iPhone plan, and have one phone instead of the current two (I have an AT&T iPhone which doesn’t work on my property, and a Verizon feature phone on a prepaid plan for when I’m on my property). The Verizon iPhone goes on pre-order tonight, and becomes available on the 10th.