Saturday, May 21, 2011

…And the Mole Police Actually Sleeps

I think I have given short shrift to my dog Cookie because, although she is both a good dog & good company, in the past she has not done much more than be a good dog & good company. But she does give me a fair amount of exercise with the amount of ball she likes to play.

A guard dog she is not. But she was chosen from the shelter by everyone because of her small-child-tolerant disposition, and nothing else. As a result of her kind nature, Cookie’s place in our home has been secured since day one. This past weekend, though, Cookie earned her keep.

The weather was cold & gloomy, and I was not able to work in the yard as much as previously planned. Since I was just plain in the mood to be outside, Cookie & I got some serious ball-playing in between me getting done what little could be accomplished. In what I gather was her thanks for playing so much ball, over the course of the day she brought me five freshly killed moles – something she has never done before. I was ecstatic because moles have been a problem in the yard for the last couple of years.

Moles would not bother me except that the ones in my yard prefer to dig holes close to the house. With the under-house rainwater drainage issues addressed in the past few years the last thing I need is to have a mole hole allowing more rainwater in.

I have found “Great Stuff” polyurethane expanding foam to work great for sealing mole holes.

I usually fill the hole one afternoon, then cut off any cured squeeze-out the next afternoon, and rub some dirt over it to make everything blend. Not as much fun as what Bill Murray did in Caddyshack, but a lot less destructive.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tom’s PopcornWerks

Earlier this week, Kim called me at work to make sure I was okay with her volunteering me to repair Weatherly Elementary’s popcorn machine. Apparently, the machine had been out of commission for the past year, and the school had been using a local church’s popper until the church finally asked for theirs back. Since Friday popcorn sales add noticeably to the PTA’s coffers, everyone was interested in getting the school’s machine back in action.

Oddly, everyone appeared to have a different description of this commercial-grade popper’s symptoms. Some indicated it would not get hot enough to pop, while others claimed it continually tripped the circuit breaker. One individual queried claimed it did all of the above, and burned the popcorn to boot.

While Star Manufacturing Inc. is still in business, they do not support their now discontinued Model 89 popcorn popper anymore, and surprisingly the Internet did not offer a manual or wiring diagram. Since the popper is obviously old, I decided it was a good idea to disassemble & inspect the innards for old age issues. With luck, a bad part might be identified which could be responsible for every symptom identified. If nothing else, ever since the first time I saw Marshall Theater’s corn popper when I was a kid on a bicycle, I have always wanted to know what one looked like on the inside.

In comparing this machine to manually popping corn in a pan on a stove-top eye, there are really only two differences: A production-style unit has an agitator to stir the kernels, and the heat is thermostatically controlled. After finding the machine’s switches, wiring and agitator in good order, the kettle was disassembled to find two thermostats controlling the heat coming from two different heating elements.

Heating elements usually work or don’t work, and both of these elements checked out good with an ohmmeter. Thermostats are much the same way but will occasionally have an intermittent fault.

My initial impulse was to replace the thermostats since they are the weakest link, and Mr. Google told me replacements are still available. But at $60 apiece, it seemed prudent to verify there was in fact something wrong with the machine since no obvious “smoking gun” had been found.

The popper’s ID tag indicated it needs 2190 watts of power to pop as advertised. A typical home circuit can only provide 1800 watts before the breaker pops. Fortunately, a typical circuit in Tom’s PopcornWerks (formerly known as my shop) will provide 2400 big watts of corn poppin’ power. It was time to step to the other side of the Marshall Theater concession stand, and pop for the masses.

After tying my ammeter into the circuit, and doing nothing more than following the directions printed on a laminated card taped to the machine, a batch of genuine theater-style popcorn was done in minutes. I was disappointed – I was hoping the fun would last longer. Fortunately, Kim remembered one person indicating trouble did not begin until after a few batches. So, after 45 seconds of training, Kim popped four more batches while I watched the ammeter.

The popcorn popper never blinked an eye, and the ammeter confirmed an appropriate current draw for every batch.

Afterwards, everyone got involved to scoop & box the resulting 80 bags of popcorn - some to help, and some to “observe”.

In the relatively short time it took to pop all that corn, I asked Kim about where, in the school, the popper was plugged in. Apparently, the preferred spot had been in the Teacher’s Lounge until the constantly tripping breaker forced a move to Ms. So-and-so’s room. After that room’s breaker had tripped enough, everyone decided the machine was broken.

Come to find out, the teacher’s lounge had a Coke machine & refrigerator on the same circuit as the popper, and Ms. So-and-so’s room had a laminator along with other power-hungry devices also on the same circuit. My suspicion is the 48 year-old elementary school needs to have its electrical service updated.

Kim decided to take the popper back to the school this past Friday, and operate it with an eye towards problems. Deciding the complaint of burnt popcorn was operator error and not the machine’s fault, I told her to unplug anything short of a dialysis machine on the same breaker, and go from there. She popped her goal of 10 batches without incident.

The Weatherly Elementary PTA now appears to be in good fund-raising shape now that everyone will probably be more careful about what is plugged in during corn popping time. But I’m not putting my ammeter away just yet – Word is now that the church’s popcorn cooker didn’t work when they got it back. Tom’s PopcornWerks may just be getting started.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Garden Is Planted

A few weeks ago, the bell pepper & tomato plants started from seed in a Jiffy Greenhouse were moved into a bed of enriched potting soil. Between having room to grow, and sun from the south-facing window, the plants perked up considerably.

The original plan was to have this year’s Victory Garden planted in the backyard almost three weeks ago. But the incredible amount of rain we have had this year has kept the yard’s water table too high to till part of the garden.

Last Sunday, with the threat of more rain on the way, I went ahead and tilled the garden spot. Afterwards, the pepper & tomato plants were transplanted, and seeds sewn for everything else.

In spite of some 39 degree mornings lately, the Jiffy Greenhouse plants are surviving. I just checked, and some of the newly sewn seeds have germinated.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, we get out of this year’s garden.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

After the Tornadoes

Starting the evening of April 28, and continuing on into the early morning hours of the 29th, at least 150 tornadoes blew through most of Alabama. When the first tornado siren sounded Wednesday evening, Kim took the Boyz to her pre-established command station in the main hallway while I cooked as much of supper as I could before having to join everyone.

The power went out around 5:30. After waiting a minute or two to see if it would come back on, dinner prep was paused while my generator collection was brought onsite.

In short, whichever generator is to be used connects to a designated outlet box in the laundry room via a hookup on the side of the new addition. Extension cords are run from the laundry room to whatever needs power.

The big generator was chosen for this effort, and within 15 minutes, we had the weatherman back on TV in spite of a weaker than usual cable signal.

The news was pretty grim, and bad weather was still ongoing. I went ahead and hooked the refrigerator & freezer up to generator power when it became obvious that power would probably not come back on for some time. We slept on mattresses on the den floor that night just to be close to the main hallway.

Due to an important test, I had to be at the office at 0400 the following morning. Before leaving, I topped off the generator’s gas tank with the last of the lawnmower gas. It was downright spooky driving up Huntsville’s main drag with its absence of streetlights & stop lights. My workplace was running on generator power, and I was happy to find the test had not been interrupted.

Catching up on the news after returning home, I found that 1.1 million Alabamians were without power, and that every one of the eight TVA feeder lines providing power to Huntsville had been damaged. Projections were for the power to remain out for 5-7 days minimum. With the big generator’s eight hours per five gallons of gas rate of consumption, it was obvious the boat’s 40 gallon gas tank would probably run dry before the power came back on.

The small, quiet Honda generator was intended to power the Airstream if we lost power during cold weather. While I bought it knowing it was too small to start the Airstream’s air conditioner, I never thought about its ability to start a home refrigerator or freezer. Kim liked where this discussion was heading because she allowed that, while thankful for the overnight TV, the big generator’s loud drone had given her a headache. I too admit that I was not looking forward to 5-7 ear numbing days of big generator operation.

While Kim & I were reviewing our options for conserving generator gas, Daniel grilled lunch for everyone.

After lunch, the smaller, quieter Honda generator was hooked up in place of the Generac, and I crossed my fingers before plugging the refrigerator in. Success! After a second or two of generator strain, the refrigerator resumed blowing cold air. In an added bonus, the Honda was also able to handle the additional load of two televisions, and friends’ & neighbors’ cell phone charging stations. Swapping between powering the refrigerator or the freezer every four hours or so was a small price to pay for the auditory relief and gas savings.

Internet access on our provider’s end dried up when the power went out. Annoyingly, my backup plan of using our telephone land line for Internet access evaporated because the land line went dead too. The Boyz accepted the lack of access fairly well, and did what Kim & I did when we were their age – play with other neighborhood kids.

The weather for the first couple of days was coolly comfortable. But with warmer weather projected, windows needed to be opened which I knew were painted shut on both sides. And there was a storm window in the way of cutting the paint bond on the outside.

Jared was not sure what to think about a comfortable breeze blowing in from his bedroom window – I know for a fact he has never in his life experienced it from that particular window.

The Madison County Commission did an outstanding job of mobilizing for the recovery, and reporting progress. During one televised update, the Sheriff enacted a curfew, and at one point looked into the camera and reminded viewers that both home & business owners have a right to protect their home or store and property. While I already knew I could shoot bad guys in my house, they needed to be in the house. By his choice of words, I got the impression that the sheriff was extending a little latitude about exactly where the bad guy needed to be in no-lighting situations.

Since Cookie’s response to a bad guy in the yard would be to bring him her red ball for a game of fetch, I decided to chain the generators to my motorcycle for safekeeping.

The plan was that if the sound of chains rattling in the dead of night was to be heard, I would respond with the sound of a 20-gauge pump action being cocked. Fortunately, every night was quiet.

Ya’d think that since we have a travel trailer we would be all about using disposable dinnerware when the power is out. But with a gas water heater, we had plenty of hot water, and a simple, heavy-duty cord run from the dishwasher to the big, loud generator allowed us a luxury not commonly found in campgrounds

It did, however, require hearing protection one evening to check on the evening’s meal of grilled pork roast.

The Boyz continued to handle the power outage extremely well. It didn’t hurt, though, that when other kids were not over, the Wii and Netbook had games for them to play.

Everything appeared to be going well until the morning of Day 2. It was then I discovered I was out of clean underwear. Kim’s recommendation was for me to use some of Daniel’s since he & I now wear the same size. Although reasonable, I dismissed it because the last thing I wanted was to be rushed to the Emergency Room and asked by a snickering doctor if I was expressing my inner child through my choice of underwear.

While powering the washing machine was not a problem, the Generac is not big enough to run the electric dryer. Fortunately, Cookie did not mind us using her 25’, plastic-coated tether for a clothes line. Unfortunately, hearing protection was again required when hanging the wash out.

By Sunday we had had pretty much settled into a routine when the next challenge presented itself – It was starting to get hot.

I wanted to sleep in the Airstream with the Generac supplying power to its air conditioner. Kim was not comfortable with that idea (remember the part about bad guys?) But she did think it was a good idea to at least enjoy dinner & TV in air conditioned comfort before going to bed. So I lugged the big, loud, and heavy Generac up to Mt. Airstream, and plugged everything up.

The generator fired right up, and then died, not to restart. Dinner prep was already in progress so the alternate dining accommodation idea was dropped.

While it was tough getting to sleep as hot as it was, blissfully the power came back on at 0200 Monday morning, and we could run the house's air conditioners.

The Generac’s issue was subsequently determined to be the engine protecting itself from low oil pressure caused by a low oil level exacerbated by the generator sitting at a slight tilt. Both generators were serviced Monday afternoon, and are now stored awaiting the next power outage. I hope it’s not anytime soon.