Thursday, April 20, 2017

descent engineering

My career before I retired was as an engineer for a large design/construction company. I helped build the energy industry infrastructure all over the world. If I had it to do over, I would not have contributed to the extraction of nonrenewable resources, but that's what happened, and time to move on.

Engineering has a very large number of sub disciplines, but the general categories are usually listed as civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical. A few others that sometimes are considered top level categories are cost, biomedical, and systems engineering. If someone thinks another should be added, I'd not quibble. 

Engineering is still a very important human activity, but as with all other human endeavors, needs to be marshaled wisely, instead of being yoked to the short term profit driven economy we now "enjoy". Even from the long term view, our ability to take raw materials, and through methodical steps, fashion all manner of artifacts is amazing. During this fossil fuel enabled bonanza, we have been able to create millions of items, devices, and structures to make our lives easier.

As we face the end of cheap energy, the end of fossil fuels, and the general decline in easily extracted raw materials, we are on the cusp of a new phase in human history, and a large challenge in fashioning the artifacts that enables us to live in reasonable comfort.

So how will the engineering professions have to change? What do you do when the dozens of manufacturers ready to supply any component you need for your design are no longer there? What do you do when the advanced materials and techniques are no longer economic or even available?

I've begun a list of the new parameters that future engineers will need to consider and take in to account for their designs. This list is more on the technical side of things, and assumes that the ethical, sociological, environmental and systems thinking parameters are already a given. ( They are not yet, but that is a whole other post)

For that matter, will we even have "engineering" in the far future, meaning design using stress analysis, calculus, other forms of higher math, or will our built environment and artifacts be done at the level of craftsmen and passed down experience? I think for a generation or two at least, we'll have engineering, but it will have to change with the newly prominent parameters.

What are the new design parameters? How far down the road are they useful and relevant? How quickly will we be needing these new approaches? 

In no particular order, here are some. 

corrosion- Right now, nearly all ferrous things are just assumed to rust away as part of the natural way of things. Everything from ocean going ships to fencing to pipelines to cars are given some level of corrosion protection, but not enough to extend their lives beyond years or decades. Certainly not centuries or indefinitely. As iron ores and mining of same reach lower concentration levels, the continual input of new steel will end. We will be left with what we've refined, and must marshal it carefully. Any design will need to minimize the steel used, and make it very protected from rusting away. It would be a damn shame if we slid back to the stone age a couple centuries from now simply because we frittered away our iron.

longevity- Current economics dictate that many items are made to last about a day longer than the warranty. There will need to be a reevaluation on which items can truly be thrown away, made from renewable, quickly fashioned materials, versus items that have a lot of embedded energy, and should be made to last a very long time. There are old farm tractors made decades ago, that are still sound and operational, as they were built to last, and just need periodic maintenance and replacement of small components. Newer tractors have electronics, computers, and have had the weight trimmed to minimize cost, at the loss of longevity. They won't last as long without ongoing high tech support.

design for disassembly, maintenance, repair- this goes hand in hand with the longevity point. It also adds the issue that things should be repairable by the user, and not some tech center that will replace much more than necessary, just to do it quickly. The current approach makes sense when  labor is more expensive than replacement parts, but that will not be the case in the future. This approach to design may well mean first cost is greater, but life cycle cost is much less. In the future we are entering, life cycle costs will predominate, not first cost.

design for renewable inputs only-  where possible, some things should be designed from natural materials. This will limit the possible designs, but function will once again govern rather than form. Folks like Calatrava or Gehry will not be getting commissions. One can look at the amazing cathedrals and stadiums that were built hundreds or thousands of years ago to see that there is still much that can be done with stone and wood.

design for technology suites that won't domino- While it is hard to predict which ones with certainty, some technologies and fabrication techniques will be more likely to become impossible or vastly more expensive. Artifacts in the future should be designed so that they are not prone to single point failure in the supply chain. If semiconductor chip fab ends, then anything using them, even if for a simple sensor, might fail if this one single component is critical for function, so technology selection needs to consider only robust and simple components.

design for simple fabrication techniques- The extremely advanced fabrication techniques we have now are dependent on being part of a fully functioning industrial economy, so it's not just materials getting scarce, fab capabilities will likely degrade as well.

design for intermittent or batch production-  Many parts of our industrial ecology are designed to work 24/7 to make full advantage of the capital investment, and because many processes do not lend themselves to lots of stops and starts. Oil refineries and power plants run for months on end, only stopping for preventative maintenance. Factories, food processing, transportation, heck, everything in our society stops and starts whenever it chooses, because electricity and fuels are ready 24/7. If one starts relying on solar power for heat and or power, then one is forced in to the daily batch cycle, or providing very expensive storage and the associated additional conversion losses. Whatever industry we may have in the future will need to scale to the available solar time frame and energy density.

design for easy bio/tech split- ( McDonough and Braungart)- in their book "Cradle to Cradle", they point out how much of our environment pollution problems are because we mix the technical and biological ecosystems, causing it to be very difficult to recycle or compost. Design needs to keep these two material streams easily separated after an artifact has reached the end of its useful life. Europe is much further along in this area than the U.S. In essence, this concept takes recycling to its full closed loop conclusion.

I will continue to add more of these as they occur to me, but this is already a seismic change in what engineers normally have to consider in designing things.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

chicken predators

We are going in to the start of our third year raising chickens. We'll be ordering some meat bird chicks for starting in May, but figure our laying hens are still producing enough we will go another year with them.

 Chickens are plump, tasty morsels, and they can't fly or fight very well. So all manner of predators just love them. I had seen some signs of digging at the foundation a few times this past summer, and refilled the holes, but the hardware cloth I had buried did its job, and entry was denied. Overall, we'd been lucky, with no hawks, coyotes, or raccoons taking any.

Then...........this February, we had our first predator get in to the coop. Turns out weasels are really small, and after reading up on them a bit, I realize now that I could have avoided this, so had to start working to rectify things.

Here is what happened: First- the uneaten feed in the feeding troughs was attracting mice and rats, who helped clean things up overnight while the chicken slept in the roost. 

Second, they dug some tunnels from under the concrete slab section of the barn, providing access from a direction that had not occurred to me.

Third- they are food for weasels, who, by late winter, were getting  a might peckish. I had not minded the mice too  much, and when I saw signs of rats this late fall/winter, decided to start trapping. I got one, but then noticed that there were few new signs, and knew I hadn't scared them off, so wasn't sure what was going on. Maybe they were just getting more sneaky after one fatality?

Well, I now know that the rats attracted a weasel, who mowed through them, but with the rat's thoughtfully provided tunnel system, started taking a chicken every other night or so. 
(Weasels are actually a good thing to have on a farm, as they eat mice, voles, other critters who want their share of my garden. Just gotta keep them out of your coop!)

The first chicken had the classic weasel pattern, with the head nearly decapitated, but no the damage to the rest of the chicken ( what a waste!). I mixed up some cement, shoved it up under the slab where the rat holes emerged, and looked around for smaller holes than I had originally thought I would need to worry about. A couple days later, another two hens got it. I found a couple more holes and plugged them. Before it was all over, seven hens had been killed. 

Finally, no more hens were being taken, so I figured I had sealed all the holes. 

Then this happened

This beautiful, maybe even cute ( but blood thirsty) fellow went in to the rat zapper I had left on in another area of the barn, and got zapped. I had rather he hadn't gotten killed, and actually hope another one takes over his territory, to keep the rats away, just so long as he doesn't get in my coop.

You can see from his size that they definitely punch above their weight. It's surprising that they can take a much larger animal, but this stoat, ermine, or short tailed weasel ( all names for the same animal, you can see the black tip on his tail) is quite the fearless predator.

Anyone building a chicken coop- make it very tight, and if a rat can get in, so can a weasel.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

cross cut sawyering

Our primary winter heating is with firewood, in our Russian furnace. ( masonry stove).

I cut and split my own firewood, using a chain saw for felling and bucking, and a maul for splitting.

I have been doing a bit of cross cut saw bucking ( cutting logs to firewood lengths), but am starting to get more serious about it. It's just one more step toward using less fossil fuels, and getting "functional exercise". I bought a new crosscut saw on line, and it works ok, but recently got an old one to add to my kit.

Turns out that sharpening a crosscut saw is more technical than I had realized. The definitive instructions are at this location, and what I have used for reference.

I am taking a couple short cuts to their complete sharpening system, ( sharpening a saw correctly is time consuming!) but after I get better at filing, I may spring for the jointer tool, and try swaging the raker teeth that need it.

To be clear, I am no expert yet, and have a ways to go, but am sharing what I've learned so far.

Here is my homemade saw vise. I copied the design from a friend who crosscut saws and is good at improvising quick and functional tools. This is an old crosscut saw I was able to acquire that was still in pretty good shape. It had a few teeth that had not been sharpened correctly, but mostly I was just resharpening teeth that had dulled.

One end of the vise. You can see the wing nut and support stand. The vise can be tilted to out of vertical to one side or the other if desired for better angle for filing. This saw has Tuttle, or Champion tooth pattern, better for cutting hardwoods. 

From left to right: 
a spider, used to check the cutting teeth offset.

 A feeler gauge, used to adjust the spider, and to check the projection of the cutting teeth past the raker teeth.

A triangular file, for dressing the underside of the raker teeth.

A flat file, for sharpening the raker teeth tops and the cutting teeth.

A peening hammer, for adjusting the cutting teeth offset
a straight edge, for spanning between the cutting teeth to check the projection past the raker teeth, used with the feeler gauge.

A mini anvil, used with the hammer to make the offset bend in the cutting teeth.

I am not ready to fell trees with a crosscut yet, but might work toward that if I practice two man sawing with a friend. I also acquired a felling saw, but it needs a lot of work, so it will be a while before it's ready to cut.

I guess it's obvious, but buck the wood while it's still green! I have some dead elm and a few seasoned logs that didn't get bucked when green, so I will use my chainsaw on them.

One more thing I learned, is that a "normal" saw buck stand as found on the internet is too low for crosscut sawing. To prevent hunching over while sawing, the log needs to be up higher off the ground than you might get away with using a chainsaw. This also makes the base wider, which helps resist the side thrust that crosscut sawing causes, unlike chainsawing. I had made a sawbuck a few years ago for use with my chainsaw, but just added leg extensions to it, to much better effect on my back. This is the design I built, but have since raised it a good two feet( .6m).

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Resettling of America

Wendell Berry is a national treasure. He's a productive writer, and is also known for his environmental activism based on a strong moral sense and unique ability to state deeper truths. He is by far known for his poetry and fiction, but his nonfiction essays are what are most compelling to me. (Though I do need to read more of his fiction)

Wendell Berry's book "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" was written in 1977, the year I was a junior in college. I read the book three years ago, at age 58, after having just bought 44 acres and returned to the land after decades of urban/suburban life.

In this book, he critiqued the long term trend here in America of urbanization. As more people moved from the land, farming changed into a fossil fueled industrial model.  People's connection to the land was no longer central, and a sense of stewardship was replaced by profit at all cost. He argued that the very fabric of our society became torn. He pointed out several governmental and institutional enablers for the trend. The great urbanization, and decline of family farms and rural America is still where we are today.

The wikipedia article on Wendell gives more info on his views and impact on our culture, so go there for more of that. My point here is to follow up on his observations in the Unsettling book.  He felt that the land grant colleges had become beholden to industrial ag, and no longer helped innovate and research ways for small farms to succeed. He also felt that the government itself was captured by corporate interests, and had abandoned the family farm.

I was part of the urbanization trend, and not so much by choice. Small family farms were going bankrupt in the late seventies, early eighties, and it looked like a dead end trap to many of us farm kids. None of my brothers or I stayed on the farm.  

But now, in 2016, I think we are beginning to see a reversal of the urbanization trend, and I do not mean white flight to the suburbs. While the rural/urban split is still the norm, I have begun to notice that young folks are recognizing the suburban lifestyle feels like something is missing.

As our economic empire slowly declines, there are less opportunities for them in the "knowledge economy", and the service sector is a rigged game and a poverty trap. Living where I do, I have met many young folks who have moved to the area with no more to their names than a car, some clothes, and a glimmer of an idea. They are determined to figure out how to make an intentional living by growing food, and reconnect with the land.

Of course, long term ( two to four hundred years, give or take? ) , resettling the land as a more agrarian culture and economy will be inescapable as fossil fuel enabled mechanization will become more expensive, and eventually very minimal. Human and animal labor will replace hydrocarbons to an uncertain extent over time. We should recall that at one time, well over 50% of the population worked at farming, and they fed the rest of the population. It's not like human scale farming is an unknown thing. It will be fascinating to see what blend of traditional ways and more recent knowledge our future farming will become.

In the coming years, we will once again learn the true cost of food. 

Now is the time to get back through the learning curve of farming without diesel fuel or synthetic fertilizers. Much of the knowledge is still out there, ( I live near Amish, who farm with horses, as well as some homesteaders who are off grid and making a go of it) with a few practitioners already leading the way, but it needs to be spread and shared, and above all, practiced. I find that leafing through the books gives me a good start, but real hands on experience is irreplaceable. I personally am only early in my journey, but know where I am headed.

We are at the very early start of another great transition, and in some ways, it is exciting, but no mistake, weaning off of fossil fuels will be painful and a hardship. The earlier we start, ( with the training wheels on, so to speak) the easier it will be. While inescapable, the reestablishment of community and local connections will be I think a positive result.

( As a post script, I am aware that this reflection is only about the European experience, and does not address the fact that the continent was already fully settled and in equilibrium with the land before we arrived. I may post thoughts on that sad genocide some other time)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

fanning mills

Well, I just today did my first Craig's List purchase. My kids are embarrassed but accepting of my backward "technophobe" behavior, and I still haven't bought anything through ebay, but this item was too intriguing to pass up. 

I have been researching manual threshing, winnowing, and there are not a lot of recent or current developments available. There are one or two gems shared on youtube, and lots of klutzy half hearted gadgets, but no commercial options, or detailed plans. There are a few commercially available "desktop" electrically powered seed cleaners out there, but they are pretty expensive. Of course India and China are teaming with businesses that would appear to be cranking out small scale agricultural equipment, but how does one get more detail than a fuzzy image on the screen or find a local distributor?

So I bought a fanning mill. It is in fairly good shape, and I see what needs repair, and feel confident I can make the fixes.

We are currently growing dry beans for soups, and have been hand threshing, shelling and winnowing. We have the time, and it's not that bad to sit and shell pods for a while each evening, but as we begin to do more and more food preservation and start growing small grains, our time will need to become more efficient.

The one I bought was made by Johnson and Fields, a fairly prominent brand at the time. The model was named the "Racine". The history has been hard for me to track down so far, but apparently Racine Wisconsin was a hotbed for fanning mill manufacturers, so Racine almost became a generic term for this general style of mill. At one time, there were scores of fanning mill makers, and thousands were sold every year for about 40-60 years. 

The history of fanning mills here in the states is interesting for a few reasons. They were first invented in the late 1700's, and as the fertile midwest and great plains expansion happened in the 1800's, there were thousands of small farms needing more efficient ways to process small grains for seed and for market. Going from flails and winnowing baskets to fanning mills was a big step, but once steam powered threshers started coming into agriculture, these fanning mills got tucked away in the barn, or left outside, nearly all to eventually rot and disappear. Seed cleaning is now nearly all done by commercial grain elevators, but there are still a few farmers out there, especially in the upper midwest grain belt that clean seed using electrical powered modern equipment. 

Here is the fanning  mill. You can see the overall shape and size here. 

Here is a closeup of the hand crank, gearing, and the fan blades inside the housing. I plan to change from hand crank to pedal power. The bushing where the crank mounts through the wooden support leg is wallowed out, so I need to fix that.

Here are the screens and the exit point for chaff. I've pulled out the screens for repair and to get dimensions so I can order screen with various sized holes/mesh.

A view of the fan housing from the other side. The fan axle is steel, all the other fan components are wood.

Here is the feed hopper. A screw adjustment allows setting flow rate to optimize speed without overloading the screens.

I will do another post in the future to update with repairs made and our first winnowing trials. Maybe next spring I'll plant what Gene Lodgsdon called a "pancake patch". Just enough wheat to make flour for pancakes on occasion. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cornish Cross and turkeys- our first attempt

Cornish Cross is a chicken breed that has been specially selected to grow very quickly. It is the chicken you buy in the grocery store.

Last year, our first batch of chickens were dual purpose birds, good at free ranging, and laying eggs as well as a reasonable meat bird. The roosters went in the freezer, but it took around 12 weeks to get to a reasonable weight, and the meat was on the tough side because of their age. Fine for canning, stews, and the like, but not as good for frying or roasting. The hens are still doing fine with egg production, so this year we decided to just get some meat birds, and get it over quickly.

Cornish Cross are known for their lethargic, unchickenlike behavior, as well as the fast weight gains, and they did not disappoint. In a way it was comical, as they lay around a lot, waiting for meal time, and they never did take to the roost I provided.

My wife and I butchered the 25 cockerels at the end of eight weeks, when live weights reached six to seven pounds.

I was careful to only feed them per the instructions with the feed, or they would have had leg problems and be prone to heart attacks. I actually weighed the feed each day, and the feed trough was picked clean every single time by the next meal. Our layers never do completely clean up the feed, and are constantly out foraging, and have used the roost from a very young age.

The chickens are tasty and tender, and we may well do them again, while keeping our foraging layers going as well. Probably next year the by then "old" hens will be bound for the stew pot.

If anything, turkeys are even dumber than the Cornish Cross. We raised the broad breasted bronze. WE kept them separate from the chickens till they were around eight weeks old, having heard about black head and coccidiosis.  They seemed to have more of a flocking instinct than chickens, and like to go hang out with the hens, or follow where the rooster leads. We might try a heritage breed next year.

I butchered our four turkeys around three weeks ago. This was another first, as I had never done turkeys before. Found out our scalding pot was just big enough for a turkey. We got lucky on that, as I hadn't thought about turkeys when selecting it. The tom weighed in at 22 pounds (10kg).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

root cellar upgrade

Our home has a root cellar that the builder attached right to the house, with access through a door in our utility room. Since the house is built in to the side of a hill, the root cellar is on the same level as our main living space, and quite convenient.

Hoever, the builder did a couple things wrong, so I am finally improving the performance with some modifications this summer, in preparation for the upcoming root vegetable harvest.

Only one vent was provided in the ceiling of the root cellar. Correct design has two vent pipes, one that exits from the ceiling, and one that has a pipe extending down close to the floor. When cold weather begins, the cold air flows down the pipe, and warmer air in the root cellar exits through the top vent. this all happens automatically since the colder air is denser and stays down at floor level, displacing the warmer air.

I had to rent a hammer drill and a concrete drill bit, and cut a new hole through the top of the root cellar. The drill worked fine, and a piece of 2 inch ( 50mm) PVC pipe is now set to bring cool air in to the cellar. Please ignore that other hole, which will be filled back in. Mistakes were made.

 Existing pipe is to the right in the middle of the chives patch. The new one will be caulked in and have its return elbows glued on shortly.

The other thing I did was repair the foam insulation board that was covering the roof of the cellar. Since the top of the cellar is so close to grade level, they only had room for a few inches of soil, so they put foam on the roof before backfilling. Over time, this had deteriorated. In addition, there was a water leak between the root cellar and the house foundation wall. It was minor, but getting worse. I redid the foam boards, and used spray foam to fill the gaps. 

This style of foam board has a stucco like coating to help protect it. I'll still be covering it back up with dirt.

Our root cellar should get cold quicker, and stay cold longer, keeping our veggies in prime condition.

Finally got some sand and a couple totes to store root crops in. Those go in next.

I also bought a cheap humidity meter/thermometer, so I can keep track of the humidity, and possibly adjust if needed. 

One more summer photo- Our Roma tomatoes have produced fairly well, but we got some early blight ( I think) that is slowly killing the plants, causing some of the tomatoes to fall off before fully ripening. We're just letting them redden up a bit more in the sun room before canning.