2015 Race Against Winter

Usually our "Race Against Winter" starts in the fall, as the summer garden is winding down.  This year, we started early.  Last winter was so tough, on our infrastructure and our psyches, that we needed to start early.  As soon as the summer garden was in and going, we jumped in on projects that absolutely had to be done before this winter.  The greenhouse structure covering our woodpile and wood processing area was seriously compromised by heavy snowload last winter, and it needed rework.  The roof on our subtropical tree greenhouse likewise was damaged and needed repair.  The heating system for our shop and tree greenhouse needed enhancement, to reduce workload and provide some backup resilience.  These were our three major projects, but the list of everything else was quite extensive.  Fortunately, we've been able to accomplish 99% of it all.  We haven't been able to get all the garden beds cleaned out yet; we like to have them ready for spring planting before winter, but they'll have to wait until spring this year. The solstice is here; winter has officially arrived, even though it doesn't seem like it yet.  We've really been helped by the spectacular weather we've had this fall.  We didn't have much of a summer this year.  Fairly cool and very dry.  However, September was like August usually is, October like September, November like October, and December like November.  Enjoyably mild.  It feels like a little bit of payback for the harsh winters the last two years.  I'm hoping it continues, but I'm not holding my breath.

Late last winter, we had a blizzard that almost collapsed the woodshed greenhouse.  A lesser storm did collapse its predecessor.  It had semi-circular bows (large flat area on top) and no cross-trusses.  The new one corrected that.  Nevertheless, obviously a third design was necessary.  "Third time's the charm" is a favorite motto of ours.  Along with Baretta's "We're gonna do this 'til we get it right!"  Our fix included doubling the number of bows from 4' on center to 2' on center, for extra structural support.  We also added steel roofing panels on top to help shed snow.  The previous polyethylene sheet covering worked good at first, but we surmise that the snow load eventually went through a melt-freeze cycle and then sagged a little at the purlins, which reduced its shedding ability.  The fourth blizzard of last winter deposited a 4' high drift that nearly collapsed it.  My good friend Jim John, along with my son Daniel, helped with the project.  Jim was essential to accomplishing the project.  He is a fearless worker at height (I'm an acrophobic weenie).  Besides that, we work well together, almost always on the same wavelength,  able to do things in unison without communication.  It makes hard work fun.

Woodshed under load from 4' snowdrift.
Woodshed under load from 4' snowdrift.
Third generation woodshed.
Third generation woodshed.
Look closely. Every other bow is new and straight. Alternate ones are bent and have wooden spacers to support the new wooden purlins.
Look closely. Every other bow is new and straight. Alternate ones are bent and have wooden spacers to support the new wooden purlins.
Partially reloaded, getting ready for winter.
Partially reloaded, getting ready for winter.

Jim also helped us get started on the tree greenhouse re-roof, and Daniel and I finished it off.  When we first put up the greenhouse, it was designed with two roll-up polyethylene coverings, so that the whole covering could be rolled up in the summer, allowing full sun, air, and rainfall into the trees.  The first winter showed us the folly of that design.  Ice shedding from the roof of the adjacent building onto the greenhouse pierced the poly in many places causing the double poly to lose its inflation capability.  The loss of insulation wasn't the worst part though.  When the poly flapped in high wind, it sounded like it was going to tear the building apart.  The following summer we replaced the upper half of the roof we polycarbonate sheets.  Polycarbonate is what bullet-proof glass is made from.  The following winter, the ice that fell onto it made a lot of noise, but thankfully, no damage.  This past winter, the second in that iteration, did result in damage---not to the polycarb, but to the lower level of the roof, which was still polyethylene.  Time for another "third redo".  So we put another section of polycarb on the lower level of the roof.  We still have an inflated double layer of polyethylene for the side, so we can roll it up for summer.  Besides providing ventilation, it also gives better access for the bees.  We had several bumblebee nests inside the greenhouse this summer.

First generation: all polyethylene covering.
First generation: all polyethylene covering.
Nearly thru the transition from generation 2 to generation 3. The upper roof was generation 2. The lower roof is mostly converted to polycarbonate.

Nearly thru the transition from generation 2 to generation 3. The upper roof was generation 2. The lower roof is mostly converted to polycarbonate.

Roof complete. Side hung with new polyethylene.
Roof complete. Side hung with new polyethylene.

The third major project consisted of acquiring, installing, and troubleshooting a new woodboiler to heat the shop and tree greenhouse.  The wood gasification boiler that we have works well, but it really is a little undersized for our application.  Also, we had no backup heat.  The new large outdoor wood boiler we put in gives us more resilience, and also reduces our babysitting time for heating.  We ordered it last spring, and it was delivered in May.  Ron helped set it in place with the tractor (more on that later), and it sat until we could get to it, knowing it wouldn't be needed until cold weather.  Once I was able to get to it, I plumbed it into our underground hot water storage tank.  The first few weeks of use this fall went well, but we eventually had a mishap that caused us to question the plumbing design.  Tying in to our existing system was substantially different than what the manufacturer laid out as plumbing options.  It seems that everything we do here is a little different.  Carol's favorite saying is that we have another "only-one-in-the-universe".  Anyway, I decided to call in the experts, which in this case is Pinney Plumbing and Heating.  They have done excellent work for us before, and came through for us again.  It's always a pleasure doing business with a company that not only does good work, but is trustworthy.  After a little calibration adjustment, everything seems to be working great.  The new installation has definitely reduced the time commitment to running the heat plant.  Also, the two expected downsides to using a conventional wood boiler instead of a gasification one (smoke output and efficiency) don't seem to be applicable.  It doesn't smoke any more than the gasification boiler does, actually, I think less.  And although it might burn more wood (the jury's still out on that), it can burn pine, poplar, hemlock, and other species that can't be burned in the gasification boiler.  Also green wood.  Even stumps.  And the logs don't need to be cut or split as small.  So this job too, was a "third time's the charm".  We ran the gasification boiler for two winters providing heat directly to two buffer tanks inside the building.  It worked great, but the buffer tanks couldn't store enough heat to last all night.  So that required me getting up in the middle of the night to run a fire in the boiler.  Last winter (after a plumbing mod by Pinney), I was able to run a fire all day (6 a.m. to somewhere between 6 p.m. and midnight, depending on heat load requirements) because we could pump heat from the gasification boiler into our 8,000-gallon underground tank.  Previously, it only took heat from the biochar retort.  That afforded me the luxury of being able to sleep through the night, but it still required a fair amount of babysitting during the day.  So far, the new boiler a lot less.

We've been writing this blog for three years now.  Regular readers may have noticed that it's been four months since the last post.  I normally try to post at least once a moth, if not more often.  There have been less than a handful of months that went by without posting.  Anyway, although I have several posts in mind to write, I've been struggling to get this next one out, not really knowing what to say.  Our full-time employee Ron Tinker turned 50 in June, and almost simultaneously was diagnosed with cancer, and became unable to work.  As much as he wanted to help out, he just couldn't help this year's race against winter.  He passed away last month.  Ron worked for Rich for many years at his previous business.  When we decided to start SCSA and hire an employee, Ron was Rich's first choice.  Ron was the guy.  If you ever needed something done, he was the guy to do it.  He never whined or complained about a job, and he was always eager to help out.  You could always count on him.  For three and a half years, I worked almost daily, side-by-side with Ron.  We worked and lived in close proximity.  I already knew Ron before he joined us, but in the past few years, he grew from acquaintance to workmate to friend to family.  Ron had a zest for life, and it was hard to watch him struggle physically.  He was a huge part of the development of what we've started here at SCSA, from the building of infrastructure, to maintenance of equipment, to managing our woodlot operation and compost operation, and all the work he did with our biochar operation.  He would have been intimately involved with all the projects I wrote about above, had he remained healthy.  Even though I frequently expressed my appreciation to him for all his help, it sometimes doesn't feel like it was enough.  At any rate, trying to complete all the tasks that were needed to be done, while also dealing with the emotional and metaphysical challenge of losing Ron, made it difficult to come up with the right words for this post.  We missed Ron even before he was gone, and we'll continue to miss him, as a workmate, a friend, and family.   RIP Ron Tinker.

Ron and Rich on the retort (before we built our warming hut).
Ron and Rich on the retort (before we built our warming hut).
Ron and Steve working on the first generation wood shed.
Ron and Steve working on the first generation wood shed.
Ron at retort in not-as-cold weather.
Ron at retort in not-as-cold weather.
Planting citrus and avocado trees in greenhouse, October 2013. Ron was a master with equipment.
Planting citrus and avocado trees in greenhouse, October 2013. Ron was a master with equipment.
Ron helping with 2nd generation tree greenhouse roof.
Ron helping with 2nd generation tree greenhouse roof.
Ron with his everpresent peace sign.
Ron with his everpresent peace sign.

Ron with his latest bike.  Bikes were the love of his life.

---Steve