Friday, November 27, 2009

Rolling in the attic

Apart from painting, the last major project I completed in my house was to redo the attic.

When we moved in, the attic had one light bulb hanging from a cord in the ceiling, a separate (unlit) room, complete with doorway and walls made of wainscotting planks, wide pine board flooring and a sink at the bottom of the stairs. It was also filthy with dust and roofing crud, had no storm windows, and no floor in the addition over my daughters' bedroom (just open insulation). And via gaps in the antique exterior trimwork, it filled up every fall with ladybugs and brown stink bugs (neither of which was much in evidence when I was a kid, one town over, btw) that made their way into the house every spring, much to my wife's chagrin.

Today, it's completely different up there. It's not living space (the floor joists would have to be sistered up for that), but it's much more usable space than it was. I pulled out the room, replaced the stair treads, replaced the floor, added additional insulation underneath, added some storage shelves, added more lighting, insulated the end walls, hung a layer of that mylar bubble wrap stuff on the rafters, and generally made it a much brighter, cleaner more pleasant space to be.

The attic is mostly empty, but I store air conditioners up there off-season, and keep my camping gear up there, along with christmas decorations and the like. I've set aside a corner of the space for my daughters to use as an art studio, though they need a drawing table up there. Maybe a drafting table. I've also hung maps of the world, of the USA and of Massachusetts up there for the girls and me to plan places to visit together. One we checked off last summer was Provincetown. And with some luck, we'll head to Amsterdam next summer.

Getting to the point of this post, I also have my training rollers up there, set up in a riding stall I built while I was redoing everything. It's a great setup that I used "for real" the first time a few weekends ago, and maybe a half dozen times since. The rollers are Minouras that I got for Christmas a few years ago. They're nothing fancy, but they fold for storage and easy transport, and how fancy do they really need to be, anyway? The stall is about 30 inches wide, so it's a good width for rollers. I'm not crowded, but at the same time, it'd be pretty hard for me to get to a point where I fell off the rollers or tipped over far enough to hurt myself. I can actually use the full width of the rollers, and just about brush the wall on each side with my upper arm and shoulder, while riding at the outer edges of the drums. I reinforced the walls at about where my shoulders sit, so as to prevent accidentally busting through the blueboard. The stall is lit from above, and the rollers are sitting on interlocking foam pads. Not at all a bad place to spend some time in. I use the Kestrel, exclusively, up there.

For entertainment, I have an old Denon receiver sitting on a shelf next to the stall, with a pair of Cambridge Soundworks Model Six speakers to either side. The receiver pre-dates iPods and the like, but the CD inputs work just fine with my iPhone or my girls' iPods, so we can all listen to music whenever we're spending time up there.

The rollers are far more interesting than a clamp-in trainer, but because you can fall off, it's generally a good idea to use them in a hallway or doorway or stall like the one I built. The nice thing about rollers is they help you not only with your cadence and having a smooth spin, they also force you to be smooth in how you balance the bike, and give you the ability to play games with placing the bike on the rollers as you ride.

For a smooth spin, I tend to focus on spinning my ankles and feet in circles (vs. focusing on my quads and my leg stroke). A computer with speedometer, odometer ride time and cadence is perhaps not a must-have, but certainly a big plus in terms of getting to a consistent spin and keeping track of my workout. As for bike control, I sometimes lock my eyes onto a point on the maps opposite the stall, sometimes practice ranging from one edge of the drums to the other and back, and other times even try riding with my eyes closed. It's amazing how hard it is to tell what I'm doing by inner ear alone, by the way. Invariably I end up at the right edge of the drums, with my right shoulder up against the wall, when I do that. Don't take that as a recommendation to try riding with eyes closed.

The rollers feel a bit like riding on the road, effort-wise, except that there's really no coasting. Your body's forward momentum (considerable, in my case) doesn't play into anything, so the only thing that keeps the wheels spinning are the comparatively small rotational momentum of the drums and wheels, plus whatever energy you put into the drivetrain. So, stop pedaling and you've got only a couple of seconds to restart, unclip and get a leg down, or otherwise balance yourself.

I've heard rollers are hard on tires, but so far mine don't seem to be too bad that way. I need to replace the tires on the Kestrel in the spring anyway, so burning them out this winter is no big deal. On that subject, I recommend smooth tires, for the sake of vibration and noise -- no heavy treads, and I assume you're smart enough to stay clear of knobbies. Using the rollers (or the floor pump you see in the foreground at right) also terrifies my newly adopted dog, Jake, shown here with Ava. I keep him out of the attic while I ride, rather than risk giving him a heart attack. Fair warning.
In any case, I'm enjoying my riding stall while I can, though there are still no offers on the house, even though last spring it was virtually ladybug- and stink bug-free, courtesy of all the work I did. I won't claim to be a world-class cyclist or roller-user, and honestly I don't understand where people find more than 45 minutes or so to spend on a bike trainer -- a guy I had Thanksgiving dinner with yesterday says he spends hours on his. But I can bang out a 10 mile workout in less than an hour, including time getting dressed, grabbing a towel, filling a water bottle and the like, plus a few minutes at the end with the dumbells. And I expect that as I increase my frequency, fitness and pace, I'll be able to squeeze a few more miles into that hour window.

If I stay, I'm also planning to set up a workstand up there for the handful of bike projects I've got planned for the winter. As always seems to be the case, I've got some setup changes, maintenance updates and one major rebuild to do. More on those another day.

All for now,


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Adventures with Lawn Equipment

I think a guy flipped me off, today.

I was driving my contraption down the strip of grass alongside my road, in front of my house, picking up the last bits of leaves, which I'd blown there with my walk-behind leaf blower, through the slats of my picket fence. Just the remaining scraps, really, and 90% of their shredded remains were being captured inside the box on my trailer. The rest, along with some grass clippings, but surely nothing heavier were being blown out through the slightly bowed-out rear door on the box (an unfortunate shortcoming of the design of the current door, which isn't reinforced along its full height). Possibly miffed that he had to drive his car through some blowing leaf bits, he slowed, extended his arm across his passenger's chest and I think gave me the universally accepted North American symbol of contempt. Or maybe he was just saying "Hello." In fairness, I'm not certain.

But assuming he gave me the bird, it's funny what makes people indignant. This car no doubt travels down the highway at 70-80 mph, with sand, stones, errant bits of hardware and truck tire bits plinking off the paintwork at speed. In that context, are some airborne grass and leaves, driven through at maybe 20 mph, really cause for outrage? I was, after all, vacuuming the leaves up, not blowing them into the road and calling them removed (which would have been obnoxious and deserving of said gesture).

Anyway, no harm done. And in truth, this does highlight one of the shortcomings of my leafer box design -- it's not particularly well sealed. That's one of the things I need to fix for the next time I use it, whenever that proves to be. Here's a list of stuff I should improve upon:
  • Stiffen the rear door. This will be easy -- I just need to run some strapping down the full length of each side of the door, and then put an angle brace on the top to connect it to the strapping already running across the top. This should keep the door from bowing out and letting so many leaf bits escape. And whatever cracks remain should seal pretty quickly with grass and leaves.
  • Better door hinges. The ones I used are flimsy, and I need something stronger, along with a better mounting approach.
  • A better top seal than I've got today. Today I have a length of strapping running along the top of each side panel, and I screw the top panel into the edges of the strapping (an error prone process, given how narrow it is. The top is relatively flimsy and blows up with air pressure. If I relocate the strapping to the top panel as a stiffener along each internal edge, and then mount a 2x3 to the top edge of each side panel, just underneath the relocated strapping, I'll end up with both a stiffer top and a wider screw target for reassembly.
  • Better seals around the top vent and input chute. The T-shirts I'm using work great as seals and dust filters, but I need to sandwich them between layers of strapping to make them a bit tighter.
  • Brackets to hold the truck loader in place on the trailer. I just strap it down, now, and it drifts a bit -- sliding left and right with vibration (mostly right). Not a big deal, but I'd rather it moved around less.

And that's really about it. Otherwise, it's proven to be a pretty effective design (though the word "design" may be a bit grandiose for something that was cobbled together mostly by eye). The tractor needs some love, too:

  • A ring job. Or a new engine. Neither one really makes much sense from a cost-benefit perspective, of course. Oil is much cheaper. But I don't like blowing the stuff up into the sky, and I really don't want to cook the engine on this tractor
  • Some patching of the mower deck. Fiberglass cloth and resin should do it. Though maybe I should buy a welder and learn a new skill?
  • A new transmission brake strap. The one on there is feeble at best. Though I have to say that I didn't otherwise miss the independent brakes from the 430 the past few weekends. The tractor climbed just fine and never lost traction.
  • Repair to the lift. There's something broken in the linkage. Not sure what, but I'm guessing it's a worn or broken pivot bolt.
  • New drag wheels for the deck. I just need a pair of metal mower wheels to replace the ones on there (one of which is nylon and the other of which really belongs on my grill).
  • A new tube in the left rear tire. It loses air in a week's time. I suppose I could Slime it first, to see what that achieves.

Over the holiday weekend, I'll see to some of these things (mostly the box upgrades) before tearing it all apart and stashing the components until next year. Or until I move -- whichever comes first. As I disassemble the leafer, I need to use some care in organizing the contents of my barn. With any luck, I'll be able to fit everything on the main floor. I'm trying to empty the basement out, because if I sell it after snow lands, getting stuff out of the basement then will be much, much harder.

I'll also spend some time working on my little $200, 20" edging mower, assuming the parts I ordered today arrive by then. I've got major surging going on, which some Googling indicated is due to a deteriorated fuel diaphragm. It was a great mower the first season I had it, but it's been useless this year. Parts are on order, including a new oil cap for the leafer.

All for now,


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Last Time?

Getting the leaves off the ground every fall is the one true chore that this house presents. There are lots of smaller jobs that need to be done regularly, yes, but this one is awful by comparison. I've written about this before, but the first couple of years I did it with a rake and a tarp and it took three solid days of effort, spread across two weekends. I'm dead serious -- 24 or so solid hours of raking and dragging. I hated it. And of the 10 years I've been in the house, I've received material assistance only twice. Mechanization has offset the lack of support, though. First with a rented blower, then my own. Then adding my trailer into the mix, towed with my walk-behind, to cart the leaves from parts distant to the woods. Then finally to my contraption and its iterations.

This year, I 've so far run my leafing rig for maybe 8 hours, and gotten most of the work done. Down from 24 hours of raking, I can now get the leaves done in maybe 10 hours, most of which is spent riding my tractor in a standing or seated position, and instead of a disposal problem, the minced leaves (mostly maple) make a nice mulch to spread around erosion-prone areas of the yard.

Today I finished most of what was left. Juliana gave me an hour or so worth of help raking up along the picket fence and in places I can't really take my leafing rig. We made a good team, and she didn't really complain. She raked the dry, top layer out from along the fence, and then I followed behind, scraping the wet, wormy leaves out from underneath. Hard to say how much time she saved me, but it doesn't really matter -- her company alone was welcome. At first, she looked a little uncertain when I started raking after her, cleaning up the wet stuff, so I threw her a thumbs up and told her we made a great team, and she was all smiles after that.

Less than two hours this afternoon with my leafing rig got the space outside of the fenced yard and the back yard most of the way cleaned up. The leaves underneath were still wet, so some stuck to the grass, but they'll dry out overnight and I can get them up tomorrow. I just need to clean up alongside the house, in the garden beds and along the fence (inside, this time) in the front yard. Maybe an hour or so of raking, a bit of time with my blower and then an hour or so of sucking up the results with the rig.

Using my contraption was as much an adventure as it always seems to be. The oil smoke from the tractor is still pretty bad, despite using degunking stuff in the crankcase. And for the second time, the truck loader's engine popped a crankcase plug I'd improvised (Profile handlebar tape plug), blowing maybe a pint of motor oil all over hell and gone. I stole an oil cap from another engine, and that one worked (as designed) to finish the job. But now I need to go buy a new oil cap for the leaf blower, because I need to use it tomorrow.

Assuming I get everything done, that'll mark an even decade of cleaning up the leaves here at my house. Still no offers on the house, and my wife and I are meeting next Friday to talk about progress in settling. One thing we'll talk about is a buy-out figure for the house.

Last time with the leaves, here? Time will tell.

If I have to do it next year, I've got a list of improvements to make to the leafer. More on that tomorrow.

All for now,


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Leafing Rig, the Sequel

So far, so good with the 812.

I spent an hour or so today getting it ready to work as the front end of my leafing rig, then hooked it up and filled a couple of boxes before I ran out of light. To get it ready, I needed to do a handful of things to it:

  • Swap the hitch ball. It was too small, as I guessed it would be, but the mounting hole was sized for automotive hitch balls, rather than proprietary bits like my 430's was. Convenient, to say the least, and the 2" ball I'd had to adapt to the 430 bolted right on.
  • I mounted the Trac-Vac chute to it. The chute is a little banged up from 3 or 4 seasons mounted up to the 430. And it fit the 430's 40" deck better than this one's 50"-er, but I was able to make it work reasonably well.
  • I replaced a drag wheel on the deck. I actually took one from my gas grill, which I'd repaired with lawnmower wheels a few years ago. Home Depot specials, but metal centers, not nylon.
  • I adjusted the mixture screw on the carburetor to lean it out, some. I also dropped the idle speed a bit, because it seemed unnecessarily high.
  • I re-gapped the points, and reinstalled the points cover. That seems to have helped starting. It runs like a champ, actually. The smoke belching out is also just gray, now, so it looks like straight-up oil smoke. Needs new rings, it would seem -- or maybe they're just stuck. If I end up keeping the tractor for next year, I'll have to get that looked at.

Some quick points and impressions of my first couple of hours using it:

  • It's definitely not sissified. The tractor seems to go up hills just as readily as the 430 did, full trailer and all. It's got power aplenty and I don't get the sense that the hydrostatic transmission has a problem transmitting the torque to the ground.
  • The gearing is definitely more usable. It's got a fast reverse, two ranges and four speeds. The top gear is a sort of "road" gear in either range, and it helps me get out of the way much more readily when I have to loop onto the road to turn around (it happens).
  • The brakes stink. The independent axle brakes on the 430 were much more useful than the single transmission brake on the 812.
  • The hitch seems very sturdy, despite my misgivings about its design.
  • The deck seems a bit healthier than the one on my 430, but not radically so. It's wider, though, so I can actually snort up more leaves per pass. The leaves are nice and dry right now, which makes it easier too. If I hang onto it, a new pan might be worthwhile, but I'd need to pull it apart to see how all the pieces are doing, first. This deck, btw, looks exactly like the one that came with my walk-behind. That one had a spindle go bad, and I replaced it 5-6 years ago with a brand new Gravely 50" deck -- one of the last available after they stopped making them. The pan was in better shape than this one, and it had new drag wheels and other new parts on it. This is not the first day I've regretted discarding it, rather than keeping it around for parts.
  • The shape of this seat does not facilitate riding around with my girls, unfortunately.

Tomorrow I'm going to get back out there to make a bit more progress. I have Ava for the day, so we'll see what her appetite is for helping. First, I'll need to go over to the auto parts store to get a quart of oil, a container of Marvel Mystery Oil, and a new spark plug. I'll also get a container of some engine degunking stuff to mix with the oil in the hopes that its problem with smoking has more to do with stuck rings than worn cylinder walls. If that fails, mabe dump a little kerosene into the cylinder and let it leak down into the oil for a few days before having the engine pulled apart for new rings.

The plug is for the truck loader's engine. I broke the insulator off the old one yanking the wire off. It doesn't have a kill switch, you see. So I have to pull the plug wire, which is more comfortably done with a stick (or the handle of a rake, in this case) than a gloved hand -- less zapping involved that way, but unfortunately a bit more breakage of plugs.

And before I climb on, I'm going to grease up the spindles on the mower deck, as well. Anything with a grease fitting or cup, for that matter. I'm hoping I've learned my lesson re: lubricating stuff!

A lesson I already know is that I need to use a little restraint, here. I've already dreamed up a half dozen things I could do to it to improve it. But now is really not the time...

All for now,


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gravely 812 Tractor

I mentioned the Gravely 812 that I just bought. At first glance, it looks much like the 430 I traded in for it, but mechanically it is substantially different.

There have been several distinct generations of "real" Gravely riders, plus a couple of dead evolutionary branches. Just a few words about the ones that seem most relevant, here. The first Gravely rider was a very pragmatic response from a smallish industrial company watching its market for small farming equipment disappear and the market for large residential and commercial mowers emerge. It was really more of a camouflaged Model L walk-behind tractor and sulky combination (complete with center articulation) than a rider in the tractor/car/go-cart sense. From what I can tell, few of these were made, and fewer still survive. I think it was called the Suburban or something like that. It was clever, but not what the market needed.

The second generation Gravely rider was the 400 series, of which my 430 was part. This was essentially a 500-series walk behind tractor transmission (itself an evolution of the L gearbox design), bolted into the back end of a tractor, with elaborate and stiff linkages to relocate control levers from a handlebar position to a panel between the operator's knees. The number designated an engine spec. A 424, for example, was a 12-hp Kohler. The 430 was an Onan 12. There were others, too.

Again, the 400 series was a very practical response from Gravely to the new market -- they took what they had and repurposed it, but this time in a more conventional and compelling way. The result was not particularly refined, but quite effective, in my experience. The big bronze drive gear and independent brakes pretty much made my 430 unstoppable, even when towing heavy loads of leaves around the yard -- a great choice for leafing duty in that regard. The rear tires pretty much churned away no matter the load (no belts or fluid drive to slip, and I never had a clutch give out), and if tire traction was low (say, on wet grass), I could lightly apply the appropriate rear brake for the slipping wheel, just like an ABS-based traction control system, forcing the differential to put the torque to the other wheel, which might have better traction. A little fancy footwork and it always made it up. You'll have to grant me just slightly slower response times than an ABS controller.

Anyway, it was a great tractor, and a complete beast, but the engine was let down by a bum fuel pump and a lax owner/operator, and it needs a heart transplant, now. The guy I traded it to seemed interested in slapping a Kohler on the back to replace the Onan, and selling it back to me. And maybe I'll need it back at some point. I'm actually pretty pleased that it went to the guy it did, in the manner it did. He's a guy who finds old tractors, fixes them up for short money, then sells them. With a new Delco starter solenoid, a new right axle seal, a new throttle cable and a replacement engine (which he's in a good position to find), it could readily serve someone else perfectly well. And he could make some money in the process. For my part, I got $50 off the 812 for it, and it's out of my way. All in all, something I'm content with.

But in the mean time I'm eager to figure out this new-fangled 812 model, which is a third-generation Gravely rider, and probably only 30 years or so old, vs. more like 40 for my 430. The 800 series looks all the world like a 400 series until you lift the engine cover (to which the seat bolts) and notice the entirely different gearbox sitting there. This one is a 4-speed hydrostatic transmission that I really don't know much about, other than that when you have one fool pushing a dead 400 and another fool pushing a dead 800, the fool that drew the hydrostatic transmission will easily win that race.

I really need to get out and about on this "new" 812 to see how it works, but here's what I'm hoping for:

  1. That the gearing will offer greater flexibility for picking up leaves than the 430 offered. With the 430, I had to essentially crawl around the yard in low range and high gear, spinning the blades at high speed but moving at a walking pace, to give the mower and sucker combo enough time to actually pick up all the leaves that passed under the deck each lap.
  2. That the rear hitch will be strong enough to support the trailer tongue. It looks stout, but overleveraged and undersupported. I doubt the ball that's on there is a 2", so need to check that out, too.
  3. That the transmission will be sufficiently oxen-like to pull the trailer up hills, and that the shift to a hydro didn't sissify the whole thing
  4. That the lack of independent/steering brakes won't be a problem when it comes to slick grassy hills
  5. That the whole thing will hold up long enough to do what I need it to this year with the leaves

Time will tell.

In the mean time, though, I got it running. And with a few words of wisdom and reassurance from the tractor's seller, I learned probably enough about small engine ignition systems to be dangerous. It's not what you'd call an easy starter. And neither is it what you'd call smokeless. But it runs, and if I can get the ignition points gap set a little more precisely (can't find my gap gauge), I'm sure both will improve.

Ignition points are essentially a little switch that tell the coil when to fire the spark plug, and for how long. The points gap is important because it essentially determines the precise ignition timing. Since the switch is opened and closed by the camshaft, a tighter gap will close earlier and stay closed longer than a wider gap, meaning the spark will come earlier in the ignition stroke and last longer. But too narrow a gap will make for too long a spark, and you can cook the points. I think mine are slightly wide right now, so the spark is essentially too late and short. Even so, it runs.

To get it working, I pulled off and reattached the connector to the ignition switch, installed a complete tune-up kit (points and gasket, condenser and plug -- I think I mentioned this last week), fiddled with the trigger wire from the points to the coil, messed with the choke, and ultimately resorted to starter fluid, once I had a spark. Making it run well should be relatively simple. Hopefully.

More as I learn more about how this generation of Gravely rider delivers the goods.

All for now,


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Big Weekend

Big weekend. Lots of changes.
  1. I swapped out my Gravely 430 with a blown engine for a Gravely 812 rider that currently won't start. It might be the ignition switch, grounding it out. Not sure. But it's a nicer machine than the one I had. At least I hope it will be, once it's running. I spent a bunch of time today both on the swapping logistics and trying to get it to run. I replaced the points, changed the condenser, changed the plug, and even swapped over the coil -- no joy. Will try the switch tomorrow.
  2. A good friend of mine moved to Amsterdam, and she'll probably be gone for a couple of years. So I helped her move her stuff into storage on Friday, then she spent about 24 hours experiencing my weekend-with-the-girls whirlwind. Dinner out Friday night. 8:30 soccer on Saturday morning. Trash. Laundry. Bake a cake. Clean the hamster cage. House showing. Soccer 2. Frost the cake. Carve Jack-o-lanterns. Hand the kids off to my wife for trick or treating, then off to the airport. It was fun to share. But crazy. The cake is fantastic. Hershey's recipe -- the best I've found, and I did a good job with this particular one.
  3. We adopted a Keeshond. Actually he is my aforementioned friend's, and while she's gone, we're going to take care of him. He's a good boy -- settling right in. The girls got to show him off at soccer, yesterday, and he was quite the draw. He's very fluffy, so it's understandable. I will be vacuuming every other day, I think, which is good anyway -- should help Juli's allergies.
  4. My broker (my mother) hosted an open house today. There's one couple that's apparently pretty interested, so we'll see what happens, there.
  5. I made a pot of black bean chili with a blend of sirloin tips and ground beef. I also used beer, a dried chili that I grew in my garden this summer, a sweet red bell pepper, a sweet onion, a bunch of different spices (notably some chipotle powder), and I even added some molasses to play around a bit. Tastes a bit like catsup/ketchup/catchup as a consequence of the last. But it's good. And there's no ketchup in it -- honest.

Anyway, a big weekend.

Not much going on with respect to bikes, though. I need to start making time in the mornings for the rollers.

All for now,