March 2019!!

Winter Wonderland

If all the snow we got this year hadn’t melted just a few days after each snowfall, we would probably have 100cm at the very least. Saturday’s storm left us 15cm then the storm last night (Sunday) which ended this morning left us another 15cm or so. And now another snowfall warning was just issued for 20-30 cm later this evening! Wowzers!!

I had to plow twice today!

The Xterra chill’n

A Sawyer

I haven’t been around an operating sawmill before. They are very cool! I even got to try it! In no time we had several 2x10s, a couple of 6x6s and some 1x6s cut. It takes a bit of figuring but Bobby made it look pretty easy. I was surprised at how fast and easy it cuts the wood. They are cutting all the wood needed for their garage they are building. They plan on cutting the lumber I need for the shed we will build this spring. We are hoping to get a 10x10 built to store straw, feed etc for the ducks.

Our friend’s new sawmill

Snow and Solar

I get asked often if solar works in the winter.  Of course it does!  The colder temperatures are better for production actually. The sun's reflection off the snow also increases the output!  There is a problem however if the solar panels are buried in snow. The solar array should be tilted at a steep angle where we live because the sun is low in the sky in the winter. There are two additional advantages of having the array at a steep angle in the winter. The snow should reflect light onto the array (which increases production) and any accumulated snow should also “shed” (slide) off.  Once a litle bit of snow comes off the array, the dark colored solar panel becomes exposed to the sun. The sun can now heat up the solar panels and in turn this causes more snow to melt or slide off.  If all things go well the array will be clear of snow in no time and the energy production begins.  This is not always the case unfortunately.  Depending on the temperature and how wet the snow is you can have a job ahead of you to get the frozen snow off the array. 

Snow “shedding” off the array

New Battery Performance

We installed new batteries in early January.  We ran the generator today and that was only the 3rd time in almost 6 weeks. We didn’t really “have to” run it as the forcast was for a clear and sunny morning. However I didn’t want the power to shut off when one of us was getting a shower.  I‘ve been there, done that, and it’s not fun. Instant ice cold water is not for me!

The pump draws a considerable amount of current when it starts.  The inverter can handle the wattage without any problems but the voltage drops by a half volt or so when there is a large load on the system.  The batteries were at 24.1 volts this morning when I woke up.  When the battery bank is fully charged the voltage is about 25.3.  There is an LVD setting which stands for “low voltage disconnect”, programmed into the system.  When the voltage goes down past a setpoint, 23.6 V on our system, and remains there for a minute or so, the inverter stops producing power.  It does this so that the batteries are not drained down too low.  If the batteries are discharged all the way, or even close to that, their life expectancy is reduced considerably.

Traction Chains for the Tractor

Our tractor slips and slides when I’m plowing snow.  Even when its in 4x4 it has traction problems because of the ice and snow.  I bought studs for the front and that made a difference.  I priced out chains for the rear tires and they want about $1000 for both.  That's a litte pricey.  I been thinking about it and I am going to make myself a set.  I found a place in BC that sells the chain and special link connectors I will need. $350 for everything but the shipping is the problem.  $368!!!!!!! Is it just me or is that ridiculous? I am going to try and get a better price on shipping. 

100 Thing Challenge

I just heard about the 100 thing challenege! I guess it’s been around for a while but it was news to me. The way it works,  from what I heard, is you are allowed to keep100 personal items.  A pair of shoes counts as one. A pair of jeans counts as one, a watch is one, etc... Dishes, cookware and furniture are not included. A pocket knife is counted as one, but if you have a dozen in a collection, thats 12 items!

It sounds challenging but doable. 

After a month you are allowed to trade in a couple of items for a couple of items that you had put away. You can do this again 30 days later but that’s it.  After that, the stuff that is stored goes up for sale or given away.  

I started making a list.  I’m on item 45!

Murphy’s Law... What can go wrong does🙄

Broken window in tractor cab!

What a day

Well everyone gets these days I guess.  

I am able to work from home sometimes and was doing that today.  After lunch I decided to take a break... I guess that’s two breaks.  I was planning on using the tractor to scrape some ice and slush off the parking area.  It was a skating rink there yesterday but today its plus 5 and is melting quickly. It is suppose to be below zero again tonight so now is my chance to fix it.

I went over to the tractor and got in. I started it up and instead of heading back to the house for 5-7 minutes while it warms up, I stayed inside the tractor. It wouldn't take long for the engine to come up to temperature today being that it is so mild outside.  While sitting in the tractor and looking around I notice the lower right front window is shattered! “That's gonna be expensive!” and ” how did that happen!” were my first two thoughts. 

I got out to have a better look and noticed that the front loader assembly hit the window.  There is literally a 1/4” of space between the loader frame and the front window! I checked the other side and there is the same 1/4” space.  All that I can think is “who designed that!”

Last week when plowing I remember hitting a small rock on the driveway that was frozen to the ground.  It just about stopped me dead and I was going about 7 mph. Come to think of it that hurt a little.  Anyways something must have flexed on the tractor chassis just enough for the glass to come into contact with the steel frame. 

This was just the beginning of a few hours of frustration.  When I got back into the tractor and sat down the engine stopped... at exactly the same time as I sat. I thought “hmmmm that’s odd”.  I tried to start it back up and it just turned over but never fired up. 

I headed into the house and grabbed the tractor’s owner’s manual.  I read through the section on “starting your tractor”. There were a few cautions about trying to start the tractor in gear or without the parking break on. I see one note that says if the PTO lever is in the middle position, and the operator is trying to start the tractor while not sitting in the driver’s seat, the engine will turn over but not start.  I know there is an interlock (sensor) that if you get out of the seat and the tractor is in gear a buzzer sounds then a few seconds later the engine stops. 

I thought to myself maybe the seat sensor is faulty and the pto lever got accidentally bumped and is in the wrong position. I raced over to the tractor to check the PTO selector lever but it was in the rear position like it should be.

Brought generator over to run charger

More troubles lol

After trying a few times to start the tractor I notice the battery was getting weaker as the engine was turning over slower and slower each time.  Wow! What else! I went and got the generator, which is very heavy and I would have used my tractor but...

I managed to push and pull the generator up a ramp into the back of my truck.  I brought it over to the tractor and went looking for my battery charger.  After getting the charger and finding an extension cord I headed back to start my generator that I just had serviced. (that’s important for the next part 🙄)

After pulling a half dozen times which is twice as many as it normally takes to start, I stopped trying...  What else can go wrong? The generator won't start, the tractor wont start, the window is broken in the tractor! Wow wow wow... 

I shut the fuel off and emptied the bowl on the carburetor and tried again.  Still nothing. I head to the shed, thats not as tidy as I would like, and tried to find a spark plug socket and ratchet. After searching around for a short while I find the tools I need. I head back and work on the generator removing and cleaning the spark plug and draining the carb again. After what seemed, and felt like 40 pulls the generator finally started.  It ran rough and slow for a minute then out came a puff of black smoke and then ran perfectly! I connected the battery charger to the battery of the tractor and put it on charge. 

After 45 minutes or so the current going to the battery dropped from 30 Amps down to 4A on the display of the charger. I got in and tried starting “O’l Betsie” up. It turned over much quicker with the topped up battery but didn’t start. It must be a fuel problem, or a glow plug issue, or an interlock switch or a sensor or....

I think I may need to get someone that knows diesel engines to have a closer look.   

...”this could get expensive”

It was a great learning experience!

I have rebuilt several gas engines over the years.  In my younger days I raced fast karts and had to rebuild the carb, or change a piston, sometimes right at the racetrack. I rebuilt engines on a few motorcycles as well. A diesel engine however is completely different. There is no carburetor, there are no spark plugs. Gasoline engines have spark plugs to provide ignition to the fuel/air mixture.  On a diesel engine the diesel ignites upon compression, no spark is needed.  There are ”glow plugs” that are used when starting a diesel. They heat the combustion chamber up so that the diesel will ignite easier especially when it is cold. The fuel (diesel) is under relatively high pressure when it goes into the cylinder through the injectors. Diesel engines are more fuel efficient and provide lots of torque.  They are typically louder than gasoline engines, are more expensive but will also last much longer.  “Heavy equipment” such as backhoes, excavators, tractors, loaders, graders and locomotives use diesel engines.

That was about the extent of my knowledge of diesel engines.  If you would have asked me a year ago I wouldn’t have thought I would be taking apart the fuel system on a diesel engine, especially the one on my own tractor especailly because I didn’t have a tractor!

So back to the dilemma I was in lol. My neighbour came over after supper to give me a hand to get the tractor running.  We removed the fuel filter and cleaned it and put it back together.  We checked the seat sensor for proper function and it was working. We removed some of the fuel lines and there was fuel flowing.

After a few hours working with flash lights we had enough and we were also getting cold!  We didn’t get the tractor going but we verified fuel up to the fuel pump.

My brother-in-law owns several pieces of heavy equipment and has worked on them over the years for general maintenance and some repairs. He lives in the US but was very helpful to try and help me diagnosis the problem over the phone.  He looked on-line to try and find information about the engine as it is a different brand than his machines.  

I ordered a service manual online today but it wont be in for a week.  It will hopefully be fixed by then but the manual will be handy to have in the future. A hard copy was $230 but I got a used digital version for $60!

In the morning I went to Digby to pick up a new battery.  $200 later and I have a battery, and it’s the proper one for the tractor.  The battery that I’m replacing is not the correct size but smaller.

I installed the new battery and texted my brother-in-law back.  We continued to try and diagnose the problem.  I checked for fuel at the pump again and then at one of the injectors. What a spot to try and get a wrench into.  There were hoses, steel lines and a large wiring harness in the way.  After finally getting a wrench where I needed it there was only enough room to turn the wrench about 15 degrees at  a time. It took a few minutes to get the nut loose enough so that I could wiggle the steel line. I then tried to start the engine which would get the pump pumping. There was no diesel coming out of the injector line that I loosened. That's a problem!!  

My bro-in-law had an idea but I needed to warm up the steel injector lines.  I needed a small propane bottle for my torch. On the way back from town the road mechanic from the tractor dealership called to get my address. (I had sent an email to them the day before to get a price on the small window that broke and to ask about the ”crank, no start”  problem. The service manager had called me this morning and said they have a mechanic in the area. Their mechanic was working in Digby but would be done by mid afternoon.  I told him I was working on it and might get it running.  He said his mechanic would call to check with me) 

The road mechanic said he was pulled over on our road but unsure of our exact location. A few corners later I see his service truck along side the road. He follows me in to our remote site.  I explain what happened and told him what I had checked. He takes out his test light and checks a few wires and sensors. Several minutes later he says "its a blown fuse".  I’m like noooooooo way!

The blessing was that it was nothing expensive and it was an easy fix... at least easy for the mechanic!

Am I losing my green thumb?

Not one seed germinated!!! :(

Bad seeds?

It has been almost 3 weeks since we planted the pepper seeds. I’m sad to say that not one seed germinated!  We planted 40, yes forty!  I watered them every day or so keeping the top of the soil moist. The trays were on a stand infront of the patio door where they received lots of sunlight. The seeds had good soil,  fresh water, natural light and... what was the forth thing seeds require?

Seeds also need warmth. Could it be that they didn’t germinate because the soil wasn’t warm enough?

I should have known better.  I thought the cooler temperature overnight would be okay.  Peppers especially, need warm soil, consistantly above 70F.  They weren't getting that here 24/7.  In the winter it is fairly warm in our house,  well most of the time anyways. In the morning the house often cools down to about 50F (10C). We like it cooler when we are sleeping but the cold house does make it harder to get out of bed in the morning!  Within an hour the house is usually back up to 70F but the cool night time temperature likely was problem in the failed germination.  In addition to the 40 green pepper seeds we planted we also planted 6 Habanero pepper seeds.  These did not have any success either. 


Trying a new technique...

Seedling Heated Mat

Upon doing some research I find this ”heating pad” that is intended to be placed under the seed trays.  They come in different sizes and the smaller ones use low power.  The one we bought is roughly 10”x20” and uses only 17 Watts of power.  This is important as we have to be careful what electrical loads we have as we are off grid.  17W is about 400Wh per day which is significant but should’t be a huge problem.  An LED for example that uses 6W and is left on all day would use 144Wh of energy.  An efficient refrigerator uses about 900 Wh per day.

Seedling Heat Mat

Plant tray layout

Don’t mix up the seeds!

There is no real easy way to label the seed tray that came in the ”kit” with the seedling heat pad we bought. Normally when we plant in small compostable jiffy pots we use popsicle sticks to label the groups. This seed tray is too shallow for popscicle sticks plus it has a clear plastic cover to help retain the heat and moisture. Instead i printed a page with 72 circles to match the layout of the seed tray.  We then filled out the page to correspond to the seeds we planted. See picture above.  BP is bell pepper, HP is hot pepper,  T3 is TinyTim Tomatoes, and SGT is Scotia Gold Tomatoes.

Tapped a few maple trees

Maple syrup time!

A friend stopped by today for a visit. It was his first time out here.  He mentioned that as he drove in he noticed that we had quite a few maple trees.  I told him that we were planning on tapping some for syrup soon. He said he had just tapped his trees and the sap was running well.  I asked him if he minded showing us the proper way to tap the trees, as far as how high up the tree, how deep into the tree do you drill,  what side of the tree,  and how big of a tree do you tap?  After lunch he took us out to some maple trees on our property and we set up on 7 trees.  We used a 7/16” drill bit and drilled in about 2” on a slight upward angle.  The hole was just above waist height and on the south side.  We then gently tapped in a plastic spigot called a spile. These splies have a hook on it to hold the plastic bucket.  He said the pail should be full in 24hours! I was like no way!  Apprently the sap fills a 2 gallon pail in 24 hours when its running.  It comes out a drip or two at a time. The best conditions are below zero at night and above freezing during the day.  Its a 40:1 ratio so 40 gallons of sap will make 1 gallon of syrup. And one gallon of syrup will do a heck of a pile of pancakes!  A gallon sells for about $100

He sells about 50 gallons of syrup a year. That’s 2000 gallons of sap he collects! Incredible.  He boils it down outside using a woodfire for heat until most of the water has evaporated.  He then finishes the process off inside on a stove. 


Slow sap...

I checked the 7 trees this morning that we tapped yesterday.  5 were producing and 2 had barely anything in their pails. The trees that were producing had about 1-2” of sap in the pails. We poured all of them into a clean 5 gallon bucket which ended up being about 1/3 full. I pulled out the spiles from the 2 trees and whittled a plug to seal the hole. I sunk the bucket about halfway into a pile of snow in order to keep the sap cold.  I tapped 5 other trees making the total 10.  These had slightly different setups then yesterday’s. Today we installed  a different style of spile that didn’t have a hook to hang a pail.  Instead we attached a hose and ran it to a bucket through the lid. 

Tapped a few more trees

Double header!

Plus 7 today... road thawing

The bees made it through winter!

I checked inside the hive today...

I have to admit I was a little worried today of what I might find when I check inside the bee hive.  I lifted the main cover off then I was able to see the inside cover. It has an oval hole in the middle and there were many live bees at the opening. I lifted off the inner cover and there were several hundred crawling around the top of the frames!  What a relief!  Winter is very difficult on the bee colony.  The bees have to keep the queen at about 98F or else she will die. The bees also can’t get any pollen or fresh nectar to make honey so they survive on the honey that they stored earlier that year. If they run out of honey before winter is over the outcome is not very good. That happened to us last year.  We are very happy that the colony survived the winter which was pretty cold and windy.

Seeds germinated in 3 days!!

Day 4

The tomato seeds germinated in 2-3 days.  The picture above was taken this am which is day 4!  I don’t see any germination amoung the pepper seeds but they typically take a little bit longer.

Collecting Sap

This morning I went to check on the sap pails. I collected what was in them and we now have 2/3 of a 5 gallon bucket.  The sap wasn’t running well yesterday as it didn’t go above zero. The same with today.  Tomorrow will be similar as it hovers around -1C. Wednesday however is suppose to be plus 5 so the sap should be running well as Tuesday night will be below zero. Warm days and below zero nights are prime conditions.

I tapped 3 more trees today so we are collecting sap from 13 or 14 trees! We will hooefully get 80 litres or so. That will convert into about 2L of syrup. Fresh. Pure. Maple Syrup. 

Sap sucker

I was away for two days as i was asked to talk at a solar conference in Calgary.  Friend's of ours came to visit my wife who is quite under the weather (she has pneumonia). They offered to collect the sap for us.  My wife said they got another 1/2 or more of a 5 gallon bucket.  

When I got home I checked the pails and they are all between 1/3 to a 1/2 full. My plan is to collect all the sap together tomorrow morning and then start the boiling process.

As for the title of this post, there is a bird that resembles a woodpecker.  They are called sap-suckers.  There is a red and a yellow variety. I tasted the sap and its like sweet water. I guess the sap sucker’s must have earned their name for liking the taste. 


Boiling the sap!

Heat source

We needed a source of heat to boil the sap.  Most people burn wood to heat their pot or pans that they put the sap into. We are short on dry firewood so that wasn’t really an option. We used an outdoor turkey fryer and that worked well.

We started the boiling at 6:30 pm and it went to about midnight. We were able to reduce 8 gallons to 1 gallon or so in that time.  That’s only an 8:1 ratio and typically it is 40:1 so there is more boiling to do with that batch.  I froze the gallon of reduced sap. My plan is to attempt to reduce the other 12 gallons we collected, tomorrow.

Busy days

Living off grid is awesome! I wouldn’t choose to go back to the city... ever.

I must say it is alot more work however, but its worth it. One simple example is heating our home.  Most people just have to turn the thermostat up when they want it warmer. For those of us heating with wood it is a little more involved.

Processing firewood isn't rocket science nor is it the hardest job ever but nevertheless it does take some time and effort. The trees have to be harvested, then cut up into manageable  pieces.  The logs are then cut up to about16” lengths then they are split into at least half or possibly 4-5 smaller pieces. The pieces are then hauled and piled or stacked up to dry. This is just one example of many. 

Eggs are another example.  I have to make it known here before I finish with the egg story that I am not complaining. I’m just pointing out a few things that many don’t think about or possibly even realize. The average person in north America, if they want some eggs, can simply go to the grocery store walk over to the egg cooler and grab a carton or two. I guess we can do the same but we choose not too.  We have ducks and enjoy taking care of them but it is time and effort in exchange for some entertainment (they are fun to sit and watch) and fresh duck eggs.

Tomato and Pepper Transplants

Seedlings Have Grown Well

We have begun to transplant the tomato and some of the pepper plants.  We are moving them from the peat pellets into small peat pots. The “Tiny Tim” and  “Scotia gold” tomatoes are about 2” tall. The peppers are just a little bit smaller. The germination rate of our new MacKenzie seed tray with the heating pad was awesome.  Over 80% so far have germinated and are growing well. 

Don’t be so sappy...

We started boiling sap today at 11am. We are still boiling sap and it is 11pm. 

We stopped the process for about 2.5 hours when we were out at church. Other than that it has been running full out. I was able to reduce the 12 gallons of sap to about 1.5 gallons or 6L. The reduced sugary liquid was placed in the freezer to be finished in a weeks time where it will be syrup.

Spring is just around the corner

It’s almost April and I’m looking forward to some warmer and dryer weather. The tomatoes and peppers we started are growing well.  Some of the pepper plants just germinated recently.  The plan is to start a few cucumbers and zucchini plants soon. We will also plant, okay maybe “sow” is the proper term, wild flower seeds along the driveway.  These will be primarily for the bees.  

I will be “finishing” the maple syrup soon. I hope to get at least three or four 500mL jugs worth. 

I ordered a bush cord of hardwood logs to be delivered next week. I will cut them into 16” pieces and split them.  As mentioned in a earlier post I would like to get the firewood done before the weather gets warm or the flies get unbearable.