Notes from Windward: #67


Moving a Container

getting a head start on next year

  November 21:

     One of the key projects we're looking forward to moving on next year involves using solar-generated steam to produce electricity. Here on the eastern edge of the Cascades, we get a lot of sunshine--about a kilowatt per square meter--so it makes sense to use that free energy to produce both electricity and heat. Photovoltaic systems are nice, but they're spendy and can't be produced at the neighborhood level--and one of the key criteria for the work we do is that it needs to be work that can be copied by ordinary people with access to locally available materials.

     Our way is to build a small model of a system, learn from that and then use that knowledge to build a bigger one. For our initial generation setup, we've acquired a 1 horse-power steam engine made by Mike Brown Steam Engines. It looks like a toy, but it's strong enough to drive a permanent magnet generator producing 700 watts, which is about 10% of our average usage.


     The engine is a good example of the sort of technology that will play an important part in the post-industrial age as people combine the best of the old with the best of the new to create sustainable systems. The engine combines the best of 19th century steam design with modern materials to create an environmentally benign way to transform sunshine into electricity and heat since for every kilowatt of electricty produced, four kilowatts of heat is produced in the form of hot water. By circulating that hot water in hydronic tubes under the grow beds in a greenhouse, we'll be able to extend our growing season considerably.

     But that's down the road--for now, our test engine needs a home that's out of the weather. Fortunately, we have a spare 20' shipping container that we can put to good use as our initial heat and power station--the only problem is that the container's a quarter mile away from where we need it to be.

     Years back I was able to pick up a heavy-duty straight axle at a farm auction--now's a good time to put it to use. But in order to do that, it needed to be widened so that an eight foot wide shipping container could fit between the wheels.


     First step was to mount a metal-cut-off blade on the worm-drive Skil-saw and cut the existing axle in half. Given the cost of steel these days, we were delighted to find that we had enough 2" and 4" diameter steel pipe on hand to rebuild the axle in the wider configuration. Another example of the need to not only have the tools to do the work, but also the back-up tools and materials needed to build and maintain those tools.


     The next step was to use the front of the backhoe to lift one end of the container high enough that we could roll a log under it to creae a pivot point which will allow us to use a come-along wench to swing the back end around and point the container in the direction it needs to go.


  November 22:

     At this point, moving the container is a race against winter since for the next bit of time the ground is frozen hard enough to allow us to work--but it won't be that long until a serious snow shuts down outdoor operations for the winter. As so, after a great Thanksgiving lunch, instead of taking the nap which usually follows a Windward feast, the remainder of the afternoon was spent getting the container ready to move.

     Shipping containers are strong enough to handle a great deal of weight, but in order to do that you have to be careful to balance the load on the strong points built into the container--too much stress on the wrong place, and they'll bend. The first problem that needed to be addressed was that the pivot log wasn't under both sides of the container which would have eventually brought all 5,000 pounds to bear on an unreinforced part of the edge.


     A farm jack was used to stabilize and level the south-eastern corner.


     And then another farm jack was used to stabilize and level the north-eastern side.


     We use three different types of hand wenches--typically known as "come-alongs" for various tasks depending on how much force is needed. The lightest work would call for a single draw cable, while more serious work rates a double draw set up where the wench uses a pulley to provide twice as much pull. For really heavy work, we step up to a design that uses a chain instead of a steel cable.

     In the pic above, we've rigged a chain between two trees to act as an anchor point for one of the double-draw come-alongs. Here's another view that shows how the come-along was been connected to the pivot log in order to pull it the rest of the way under the container.


     With the pivot log evenly spaced under the container, the farm jacks were backed down until the container rested again on the log. Now it was time to use another tree to draw the container forward out of the trees so that we can swing it around to where there's enough room to attach the axle. Essentially the plan is to use the widened axle to rig the container as a sort of trailer so that our heavy tractor can pull it to the main work area, about a quarter mile away. Windward's more than a half-mile north-south and almost a half-mile east-west so having a way to move containers is a need we've felt for a long time--in the past it's just been easier to buy another container than to move one that we already had, but with more than a dozen of them, we figured it was time to invest some effort into working out some sort of on-site transport process.


     With the pivot log in place, the next step was to use the chain driven come-along to draw the container about ten feet forward. Each stroke of the heavy-duty come-along only moves the container a quarter of an inch, so it takes a while, but by dark the job was done and we were off to the kitchen for a slice of Gina's fresh baked pumpkin pie.


  November 24:

     The first goal for today was to rotate the container so that it was lined up in the direction it needed to go in order to clear the trees. That involved connecting to the north west corner of the container and using the chain wench to pull the rear of the container about ten feet south.


     Just a matter of chaining up to the right tree, and taking turns working the wench.


     The next step was to use the farm jacks to take the weight off the pivot log so that it could be realigened under the container. That was when we noticed that the door end of the container was high enough off the ground that we could slip the straight axle underneath that end--a bit backwards from what we had planned, but it looked like a good improvisation for now.


     We used the rest of the daylight to continue drawing the container out towards the open area. As the container rolls over the pivot log, the log moves backwards relative to the container. That puts weight on the axle, and with two bearing points, the container is becoming ever easier to move.

  November 25:

     Somewhere in the past, the lower edge on this container had been cut and modified for some unknown purpose. In order to strengthen that area we used grabbed some angle iron from the steel rack and let the pull of the wench pull it into place.


     We then jacked the front of the container up high enough that we could fit the backhoe's front bucket in under the container. With it resting securely on the front bucket, we then jacked up the rear of the container high enough that we could roll the axle into place.


  December 2:

     This week's snow storm dumped two feet on Windward, a depth of snow which would shut down any hope of getting the container moved before the spring melt.


     I wrote "would" because the snowfall, unusually heavy for this early in the winter, has been followed up by a warm rain. The forecast for Portland is predicting some three inches of rain, and while the mountains will break some of that, it's been raining here most of the day and the snow is compacting into a soupy slush. The radar projections are showing a heavy concentration of rain heading this way, and it may be that the rain will take away enough snow that we'll have one more window of opportunity to move the container--or, a cold snap could freeze all that slush into one massive ice sheet. Time, as ever, will tell.

  December 8:

     Now that our weather event is behind us, there's a window of opportunity to get the container moved before the next snow storm arrives--one that can be expected to stick for a couple of months.

     The temporary axle had been mounted at about the three-quarters point on the contain, which left more weight on the front of the trailer than was manageable. The loading has to be balanced so that while most of the weight is on the temporary axle, there's enough--but not too much--weight on the front so that whatever's pulling the "trailer" can maintain control.


     And so, the task for this afternoon was to jack the container back up, and move the axle forward so that it was eleven feet back from the front, which left nine feet from the axle to the back of the container. That put more weight on the temporary axle, which I'm pleased to report handled the added weight just fine.

     I'm even more pleased to report that the backhoe was able to move the container out of its old location, and most of the way down to the landing. It's one thing to ask the backhoe to pull the container on our rock road where the tires can grip, but since the afternoon temp today was almost 40 F°, it made sense to park it on the road for the night. We'll wait for the ground to freeze over night before attempting to move it over open ground to it's final destination.

  December 9:

     We had a hard freeze last night, so after our morning walk, it was time to warm up the backhoe, and take the container on the next leg of its journey.


     The first stretch of open ground, just south of the main garden, was the part that worried me the most because that's one of the places where water moves through our soil. We have about four to nine feet of soil before the dirt gives way to a basalt slab, so once the ground saturates with water down to the basalt, it becomes quick-sand like. One December a few years back, we parked the work truck on one of these underground waterways, and it only took moments for it to sink in up to the axles.

     Today, the ice held and the backhoe was able to pull the container over to the tree line. That's as far as we got because the trees had kept the ground from freezing as hard as the open ground. Once the backhoe tires started to dig into the soft dirt, that phase of the moving project was finished. The container hadn't reached its final destination, but weather permitting, we'll be able to use the come-alongs to move it into position.


  December 11:

     I'm guessing, dear reader, that this task of moving a container is coming across as being about as exciting as watching paint dry, but actually it's a fair example of the sort of tasks that make up much of our life here. Some things go quickly, others go slowly, but one way or another we get the job done, or as I often quip--half-jokingly--we do good work eventually.


     Moving two and a half tons of steel across open ground by hand is a test of ingenuity as much as skill, but given the range of tools we have, we can usually find some way to accomplish our goals so long as we persevere. In this case, the weather predictions are leading us to believe that there's no notable snow in the ten-day forecast, so getting the container moved ten to fifteen feet a day is good enough--the goal being to get the job done within the window of action without straining anyone or breaking anything we can't fix.


     Given the placement of the axle, the front of the container is pressing down on the ground with about a thousand pounds of weight, so in order to keep it from plowing into the ground as it moves forward, the front lip is running along two 2x10's.


     The medium-duty come-along we're using has about a five foot pull before it has to be reset. As part of that process, the front of the container is lifted with two farm jacks, and the 2x10's pulled forward. Repeat a couple of times, and then head inside to warm up.

  December 13:

     Well, we're getting close--about one more session should bring the container to it's final location.

     One aspect of this sort of work is that it allows the mind to wander while the body goes through the motions of working the wench. When we first moved here, back before the days of dial-up internet, there was a sense of isolation about the place--I find that's changed. While we're still isolated in the physical sense, there's been a profound change in our sense of being socially and intellectually connected to the world at large.

     What brought that home to me today was the way that while I sat there working the hand wench, I was also listening to a lecture by Mary Evelyn Tucker, senior lecturer in religion and the environment at the Yale Divinity School on the subject of The Environmental Crisis as Spiritual and Moral Crisis. Yesterday I downloaded the lecture for free via iTunes, copied it to my Shuffle, and wow! Talk about having the best of both worlds--there I was on the edge of the Cascadian wilderness doing work I believe in, and at the same time, able to enjoy a thought-provoking lecture from Yale.

  December 15:

     There was a dusting of snow last night, sort of a friendly reminder that it was important to get the container moved that last bit of distance before the next weather event caught us, and so today we focused our efforts on getting it moved to its final location, and rotated 180° so that the door faced to the west for ease of access.


     The first thing to do was to lift up the end of the container so that we could remove the temporary axle and replace it with a log that would act as a pivot. We hooked together a bunch of chain so that we could anchor on a tree to the east and downhill, and started the task of rotating the container.


     Lots of wench-work later, the container slid right into the location that Mo had picked out back when we decided to do this. It's always satisfying to see a key project like this come together setting the stage for important work to come.


     The container still needs to be jacked up, the pivot log removed, and then leveled using railroad ties, but all of that can be done when the weather's conducive. The next on this project will involve putting together a solar-powered hydraulic air compressor since we'll initially use compressed air to operate our steam engine. The goal will be to get a process control computer to operate the steam engine, and compressed air will work just as well for that as compressed steam, and while compressed air can hurt you if you're careless, it's inherently much safer to experiment with than live steam.

  December 22:

     Took advantage of a break in the weather to do the initial leveling of the container by jacking it up with the farm jacks, and set a foundation of railroad ties. Since this unit will function as our one-tenth scale test bed, we don't want to put a permanent foundation under it. As with all the systems we work on, our understanding of the optimum configuration will evolve as we gain experience, so it's best to keep the installation flexible for now.


Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67