2017 Reflections

I ended my 2017 roughly as I started it: On an ancient tractor, moving snow.  But, at this end of the year, the tractor is mine, and I’ve worked on it enough that it’s running quite a bit better!  And I can take pictures of it from above!

Another year, another trip around the sun, and time for more reflections and resolutions.  Since I have more interesting projects going on in my life now, I’ve decided to break the end of year into two posts – an “end of year reflection” and a “resolutions and plans going forward” post.  This week is the reflections, and next week, to start 2018 off, is resolutions and plans.

Politics, Trump, News Media, and Dying Empires

Obvious to anyone who has been on the internet or watched the news even briefly in 2017, we have President Donald Trump.  A guy who, near as I can tell, ran for the lulz and cheers, and then discovered that the media could not stop talking about him.  No matter what he did.  No matter what he Tweeted.  And if it was a 3AM Tweet, so much the better – more time to cover it for those early morning Social Viral Shares that are a vital part of your balanced breakfast.
Trump was catnip to the news.  Love him or hate him, people wanted to keep up with all things Trumpy.  And, from the perspective of a news company, “Wow, can you believe how awesome this guy is for saying this?” and “I cannot believe this drooling moron is allowed to say this, can you?” are identical.  They’re clicks.  They’re unique eyeballs.  They’re Social Shares.  And the news media, sometime between 2008 and 2016, became addicted to those things.  They’re driven by it.  Even if they hate themselves for it, they can’t help but write the articles – and you’d better beat the next guy to publish, facts or context be damned, because publishing the first article on some new bit of breaking news is great (of which @realDonaldTrump was an endless supply).  Publishing a well researched article that’s 10th?  Well, I mean, you’ll probably get a few views…
Plus, Trump ran a nearly perfect “None of the Above” or “The Outsiders” campaign.  I recognized it very early on, because I ran very nearly the same campaign when I ran for Student Body President at my university – and lost.  Badly.  But still surprised people.  More on that later, but his campaign looked very, very familiar to me.
This whole perfect storm of click addicted media, “outrage sharing” (people sharing just how much they hate this with a link to the article), and a rather different political environment than 2008 (people being fed up with Washington, and a candidate that more or less represented the status quo versus one that represented, “Step right up, Roll the dice, Who knows what you’ll get!”) led to Trump riding the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!” into the Oval Office.
And, so, we have President Trump.
Again, this didn’t surprise me at all.  Dying or declining empires tend to make some especially… interesting… choices in terms of political leaders, and my model of the United States is that it’s a dying empire.  I’m aware it’s an unpopular view, but consider it, and try fitting it with things we see – the infrastructure decay, the political dysfunction, the extreme political polarization.  Glubb’s Fate of Empires is well worth the read, for a quick overview of what we can expect going forward.  Nothing good, of course, and historically, at this point, there is no “right group of people” to vote in to fix the problems.  Politicians, political systems, and solutions to problems that worked on the way up don’t work on the way down – and generally make things worse, because you can’t generally grow your way out of problems created by growth.  Nobody wants to recognize this, so we go on about the gamed financial statistics and listen to increasingly strident assertions that everything is fine, everything is great, and nothing can go wrong.  Well, at least, after replacing Trump with their preferred politician.

Articles about how Trump is causing the American Empire to collapse have started to show up, and they’re amusing, but they reliably have the causation direction wrong.  The American Empire collapsing caused Trump to show up.  Not the other way around.  Or, alternately, less than a year of power from someone who has exhibited almost zero understanding of the levers of government has toppled a country over.  That only happens if a country isn’t on very solid ground to start with – which is also a reasonably fair assessment.

The Outsiders Campaign

I think the statute of limitations is up on this (it was well over a decade ago), so it’s probably worth finally sharing how I ran for Student Body President back in the day, with by far the most blatant violations of campaign policy, and never got called on it.
In college, I spent several years as a bus driver, and quite enjoyed driving the free Friday and Saturday night transportation – the “drunk bus,” as it was commonly called, much to the annoyance of university staff and bus company managers.  I drove it a lot, and ran a tighter ship than some drivers with regards to the PA system.  I didn’t let random passengers sing on it, though I did, at one point, let someone belt out an amazing rendition of The Scotsman on it after he’d proved he had a good set of pipes.  The PA was my method for mocking, shaming, and generally harassing passengers into compliance with my wishes, and I got pretty good at it.  My passengers enjoyed it as well, liked me as a driver, and I began wondering if this was something I could pivot into some free tuition.  Student Body President gets free tuition, you see – and so a plan hatched.
Elections were in February – and it was very clear that you were not to begin campaigning before you’d signed up, or before the official campaigning that started 4 weeks before the election.  Campaigning early was a big no-no, and the cause of more than a few hefty (for students) fines in my time there.  But, I had my weekend passengers, and I made the gamble that the overlap between my party passengers and the people who actually cared about campaign rulemaking was the null set.  So I campaigned early, and often.  General wisdom was that you’d never get “the drunks” to remember to vote, and I recall the occasional candidate sort of awkwardly jumping on a bus or two and trying to campaign.  But they weren’t the well liked bus driver, were they?
My campaign slogan was very simple.  “Vote for Russ, he drives the bus!”  I campaigned early, and I campaigned often.  I was campaigning midway through the fall semester, and by early spring semester, whole groups would get on the bus, see it was me, and start chanting, “Vote for Russ, he drives the bus!”  I enjoyed it, and was busy proving that, yes, people would remember me.  I’d remind passengers as they got off, “Vote early, vote often, vote Russ and Dave!”
The official campaigning season started, and nobody in student government had any idea why on earth I was running.  Dave and I ran “The Outsiders” campaign, and my campaign promise was pretty simple.  I’d find one of those EZ-Up tents, a comfortable recliner or couch, and spend a few hours a week out on central campus under the tent, just being out and around for students to talk to me about whatever was going on.  I had no idea how to run a student body government, and if I’m honest, I didn’t really care that much.  But I was going to be out there, and once I found out what people really cared about (normal students, not the people who were in student body government looking for their next political notches), I’d go from there.
The election came and went, and I most definitely did not win.  But… numbers were weird.  A normal election reliably got 4,000 votes.  Didn’t matter the year, didn’t matter who was running, a student body president election fell in right around there.  The year I ran, almost 5000 votes were cast – and I got about 1000 votes.  Nobody in student government could figure out how I got nearly that many votes (the winning candidate got a hair over 2000, and the second place got a bit under).
And I got off totally clean in terms of campaign fines for violations, even though I was, by far, the worst offender.  I also successfully used a Nerf Wildfire (20 round full auto Nerf gun) in a debate in a bar.  It was a fun time.

Blog Review

I set a goal at the beginning of 2017 of “one research post a month.”  Did I accomplish that?  No.  Not even if you count the whole Mavic Pro Missing Handbook series.  But I did write a few solid research type posts, and I have more of those coming up in 2018.
My surprise of the year in 2017 was that series.  I figured I’d toss together a few posts about flying a Mavic Pro.  I didn’t expect a 7 week, 40,000 word series.  It took a long time to properly understand how that thing works, but I have a very solid feel for it now, and got an awful lot of page views related to it (with a good chunk of my organic search traffic being drone related now).  That was my biggest blog related undertaking to date, and I’m very happy with how it turned out.  Unfortunately, it’s probably out of date by now and would need updating…
I haven’t made particularly good use of the drone for blog photography, though I’m hoping to change that a bit next year.  With a shift to more outdoor projects, the drone makes a bit more sense for project documentation.
On the other hand, I have written quite a bit.  And that was the original goal, so I call it a success.  I’ve started on a book as well – so that’s something.

The tastiest blog post this year was definitely frying an egg with a DeWalt tool battery.

Old Equipment (is fun)

I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of older equipment in 2017.  My trash hauler trailer came from a 53 year old pickup bed, with a 40+ year old canopy that’s still in good shape.
My tractor is over 75 years old.  It took some work, but I entirely expect it to live another 75, and probably longer.  Ford made a good tractor back then, and there’s just not that much to go wrong.  Plus, there are enough of them that parts are easy to come by, if not as good as OEM.

When the tractor was born, the 1927 Willys Knight was already a teenager – that car turned 90 this year when we went touring around.

While my Ural is only a bit over a decade old, it’s a direct evolution of a late 1930s BMW – and still has an awful lot of “old motorcycle” buried in the welded steel frame, tubed tires, and general quirks of life (recently, the brake lights weren’t working because both switches froze up, combined with a connection coming loose and sparking a few times on me).

Working with old equipment is very interesting, coming from the modern perspective.  Not only is it designed to be maintained with simple tools, it lasts a very long time.  An Apple 2e is 34 years old and quite useless.  My tractor is 75 years old and still going strong.  They’re designed from a different era, when you worked on things yourself, and they were designed to be maintained by a farmer, in a field.  It shows in the design.  It’s really, really hard to drop pieces in the dirt unless you try.

And using it is very different from modern equipment that’s designed to handhold you and be easy to use.  If I’m running the tractor, I don’t have headphones or anything else in.  I need to listen to hear changes in load, and, really, I don’t trust the tractor enough to really relax.  It’s easy to use, mostly, but there’s a quiet undercurrent of, “If you stop paying attention, I just might try to kill you.”  Subtle, but there.  And worth listening to.  The Willys is a nice driving car, but there’s the same sense of, “You’d better be paying attention.”  You can relax a bit, but not too much.

I don’t expect my daughter to care about my current cell phone when I die – I don’t even expect to still have it, if I live to my expected age.  The tractor?  The car?  I entirely expect them to outlive me.

If you get a chance to spend time with older equipment, do so.  Even if you only have a chance to be near it at a museum, spend the time to listen.  They have so many stories, are so incredibly patient, and have so many things to teach us in our modern, rushed life.  They’ve outlived many people, and will outlive many more, with a tiny bit of care.

Distraction Reduction

One of my major goals for 2017 was to reduce distraction.  This worked quite well, at least if I was deliberate and didn’t let distractions creep back in.  They have this annoying way of doing so.  But, as a proof of concept (and proof of sanity), it was incredibly successful.  Less distraction is a good way of going about life, and is a very, very productive way of going about getting things done.  I’ve engineered this partly by reducing distracting and addictive input into my life (Facebook would be a good example here), and partly because my blog requires me to finish projects.  Which I’m not otherwise good at.  My office helps a lot here also – it’s free from the usual distractions of an office, and I can set it up to be productive for whatever I happen to be working on.

I’m going to talk about this more in the 2018 goals post, but if you’re on the fence about distraction and how it impacts your life, try reducing it substantially.  If you’re old enough, you may recognize this feeling that hasn’t been around for the last decade.  If you’re young enough, you may never have known it – the feeling of being bored.  Which is a great reason to go find something interesting to do.  Or, even if you’re not bored, the feeling of being able to focus, deeply, on one thing – and see it through
We’re really bad at this, and while I’m not usually one to point fingers, I’d offer that smartphones, “gamification,” and generally a tech industry that looks at the gambling research coming out of Vegas and says, “Yes!  We need more of that in our app!” is at least partly to blame here.  The new default is endless distraction, and there is no shortage of companies willing to distract you in exchange for eyeballs.  It’s not helpful to anyone but them, and it’s certainly not helpful to you in your life.
Towards the end of the year, my wife & I went through the comments and likes on a particularly notable Facebook post, and realized that we simply didn’t talk to most of the people involved.  It’s great that my high school friends know we’ve got another kid on the way, but do I actually care that people I literally haven’t said a word to, in person or online, since high school, know?  Not really.  Do they actually care, or are they just going through the required and socially acceptable motions?  I don’t know, but I’d guess it’s pretty low on their care-o-meter…
More and more people are quitting or severely curtailing their Facebook use (and other social media, but Facebook is the big one), and this is incredibly exciting to me.  It has some challenges for organization (for years, you could assume everyone would see Facebook events, and that’s no longer true), but I think it’s a huge win for concentration and distraction reduction.

I’ve also very successfully made my phone more boring this year.  I’ve tried to reduce the little addictive “hit” I can get pulling it out, and this has been very useful.  I frequently don’t even have my phone on me when I’m interacting with other people, and even if I do, I don’t have the urge to check it constantly.  Do Not Disturb is a great, great feature.  Use it!

Property Thoughts

I’ve got a better feel for our property now, having been here a year and a half, and there’s an awful lot that needs to happen – as is always the case with any property.

The main thing we don’t have a good handle on right now is proper firebreaks, and this matters.  Our hillside burns more often than I’d really prefer, and the intervals are getting more frequent.  I don’t have a good solution for cheatgrass, but I’m going to spend some effort on that next year.  I know that “chopping it short” doesn’t qualify as a firebreak after some analysis, though.

However, the bulk of the “We need this stuff done soon” work is done (or will be in a month, with the installation of the carport).  I’ve got storage space, I’ll have a protected space for vehicles soon, and the rest can proceed as we’ve got time and money.  I’ll be talking about this more next week in 2018 plans.

Wrapping up 2017

That’s about it for 2017.  Next week, plans for 2018!

Continue reading2017 Reflections

Solar Shed Part 17: More Insulation, and Cutting Foamboard Cleanly

Winter is here – and that means an excuse for more shed insulation!  I’ve added under-floor foam insulation as well as a nice set of window plugs this winter!
If you’re not familiar with my office, I took a Tuff-Shed and insulated it fairly well.  I’ve got rock wool in the walls and ceiling, plus a complete (and gap taped) layer of 2″ foamboard inside that.  Then my walls.  It’s well insulated – on top, and in the walls.  But the floor is totally un-insulated (because the shed was delivered whole), and my windows aren’t particularly well insulated either – they’re double pane windows, which is awesome, but a vinyl framed double pane window is very, very poorly insulated compared to the ~R23 of my walls and ~R30 of my roof.
So, being me, I set out to solve these problems and document how the solutions work – as well as some potential gotchas.
Under the floor is tricky – I only had some small access holes.  I went with a local foam insulation provider to blow foam in.  The window gaps are easier – I can just build myself some nicely insulated plugs.

So, read on to see what I did, and how it’s been working!

Under-Floor Insulation

I bought my shed for a rather nice discount – because it was an already assembled demo unit.  It showed up on a truck and was dropped off, quite skillfully, on my foundation.  Unfortunately, this left me no opportunity to insulate under it.  I didn’t have a chance to put anything under there, and I didn’t particularly want to jack one side up and shove rock wool or something under there to get wet and rot out my plywood floors from below.  So, I ran last winter with no insulation under the floor.
There are downsides to a shed with no insulation under it – especially one that I work in all winter.  The most obvious downside (which I hope to resolve) is that the floor is cold.  Even with the inside warmed up, the floor was exposed to the chilled outside air, and the temperature near the ground was often 30F lower than the rest of the shed.  This is hard on feet in the winter – I spent much of last winter wearing heavy insulated camping socks out there.  I’d rather not do that if I don’t have to.  The other problem, which became more obvious while preparing for this insulation work, is that there were an increasing number of critters nesting under my shed.  We chased out a few mice or voles, and I’m pretty sure there were some bees or wasps particularly interested in under my shed for the winter.
While there’s no easy way to shove insulation under my shed, I do have some small access ports – the end framing has these holes that correspond with each gap between the studs under there.  So, if I can find something to inject in there, I’d be golden.

Obviously, the answer is some sort of foam insulation that can be squirted in – but a lot of the DIY foams don’t have a particularly long reach (so they couldn’t reach the center), and they tend to be closed cell foams that generate a lot of pressure while curing.  Lots of pressure is no good for me either – too much pressure and my plywood floors come up.  That’s an awful lot of work to fix, so I didn’t want to go that route.

After calling around, I talked with a local foam insulation contractor.  They specialize in spray foam insulation, and the owner assured me that some of their products worked wonderfully for sheds like this – it’s an open cell foam that expands quickly but has a very low curing pressure, so it won’t pop my floors out.  A bit of scheduling later, and they showed up with their fancy foam insulation truck!

This looks like a box truck with a door in the side, but when they light the (very large) generator up, it’s obvious that there’s more to it.  A massive diesel generator in the front part of the box powers a large air compressor and a few pumps that provide an awful lot of heat and pressure to the injection system.

A long distance from the truck is no problem – they have more than enough hose to snake through multi-story houses from the driveway, so there’s plenty of hose coiled up.

I went with a local company, as I try to for many things (as opposed to a national company).  I’d just rather keep my money local, and my views on the likely long term future of the nation suggest that developing local and regional businesses is a good bet.

The foam injection gun is a super steampunk looking contraption.  A bunch of hoses lead in, it’s got a handle with a massive trigger, and a tiny little jet on the end.  And it’s covered in gunk.  If it had more brass and were covered in grease, it would totally fit in any sort of steam driven fantasy world!

For this project, the foam used is an open cell foam.  The closed cell stuff insulates better, but has a much higher curing pressure, and everyone involved was concerned about ripping the plywood out of the floor of my shed.  I might have considered it if I did this when the shed was freshly installed and it would be easy to replace the plywood, but not at this point.  So, the foam is an open cell foam that doesn’t offer quite the same R value, but it does offer plenty of keeping the wind from whistling through under my office.

The testing process for setting the mixture is interesting – a garbage can with a bag in it.  Watching the foam get sprayed through is fascinating – it’s a thin jet of foam that hits, waits a few seconds, and then suddenly, pfhoomp.  It’s fully expanded.  It’s not the gradual expansion you get with the cans of foam from Home Depot.  This is totally different, and entirely bizarre to watch.  But, that’s how it works, and it’s really cool!

Given the small size of my office, foam injection went quickly.  For the most part, the installers were able to squirt it from one side all the way across to the other (12′) without too much hassle.  It involves a sweeping motion to get the foam injected everywhere, and then there was a bit of touchup from the other side if needed.

My floor joists run longwise (so about 2′ x 12′ openings).  The newer versions of this shed seem to have joists run the other way, so 2′ x 8′ openings.  That would be even easier to foam, if you’re doing this now!  Or, if you can ask your builder, they can probably set the joists up that way for easier foaming.

A bit of mess later, and a few foam covered voles hauling tail out the other end, my shed is now insulated underneath.  The foam eventually yellows in the sun, but this doesn’t mean anything for the foam buried deep under my floors.

Which, I’d add, did not pop up.  So, success!  At least in terms of foaming under the floor.  How big a difference does this make?  I’ll let you know in spring, but so far, it seems to make a noticeable difference in how easy the office is to heat.  The true test will be when it’s -10F with 20kt winds, but I can’t easily induce that to test with.  The floor is still cooler, but not as bad as last winter – and it’s a lot easier to move air around to reduce the temperature delta.

Eyebrow Window Plugs & Cutting Foamboard

One problem with my office, facing south, is that the upper “eyebrow windows” let an awful lot of sun through when it’s low in the sky.  This is great for solar gain, but, unfortunately, this mostly means the sun is shining on my monitors and blinding me.  Last winter, I covered these windows with a bunch of cardboard (you can see some in the photo), and that worked.  This winter, I set out to insulate them a lot better, because there’s no point in having poorly insulated windows when I’m blocking the light anyway.

Or so I thought.  Turns out, you can insulate them too well.  We’ll get there in a bit, though.  If you’re curious, that’s my 2005 Ural in front of my office.  Great fun to ride through the winter, and you get full “You rode a motorcycle in this????” credit, even with a sidecar, 2WD, and somewhat knobby tires.

I thought about permanently closing the windows off, but I really do like them in the summer – the extended overhang shades them nicely, and I get an awesome amount of diffuse natural light in here through them – so my solution needs to be removable.

A bunch of measuring later, and I had a plan.  I can shove two sheets of 2″ thick foamboard (the blue or purple stuff, depending on where you shop) in, with a layer of plywood and some handles to easily remove them.  This will offer an insulation value of about R20 (foamboard is pretty reliably R5 per inch), which is an awful lot better than my uninsulated windows.

When I did the foamboard for my walls, I hacked the foamboard into shape with a reciprocating saw.  This worked, but the results are ugly.  The edges are all torn up, shed foam balls if you touch them, and I simply wasn’t happy with them.  Fine for stuff hidden behind plywood that won’t be ever touched again, but I want these plugs to come in and out, and I need some fairly fine precision to get them to seal well – too large, they won’t go in, too loose, and they don’t block any cold air from sneaking past.

After a bunch of research, I found what looked like a good method – and it’s awesome!  The trick is to turn a putty knife into a foamboard cutter, and get a long metal guide for cutting.  This is, by far, the best way of cutting foamboard I’ve ever found, it makes almost no mess, and I fully suggest doing this if you have any reason to cut foamboard in the future!

You need a stiff putty knife (not the super flexible end ones), a flat file, and a good set of sharpening stones.  What you’re doing is building a super sharp foam knife out of a putty knife.  You could probably use another long, sharp knife you have laying around, but my wife wouldn’t be a fan of me using the kitchen knives for this, and they’re really not designed for the type of cut you’ll be making.  Plus, if you cut all the way through and hit the ground, dulling the large kitchen knife isn’t a great option.  So build your own.  It’s really easy.

Get a putty knife from your local hardware store, and sit down with the file to give the edge the rough shape you want.  For foamboard, you’ll want a fine edge – so a steeper angle and sharper tip than most knives get.  If you have a 45 degree angle, it’s not going to cut foamboard well – you want a 15-20 degree angle, tops.  I went with a double bevel, but it’s up to you.  Again, fine, fine tip.  You won’t dull it on the foamboard, and you want it to slice through easily.

Once you have the angle roughed in with a file, get out your sharpening stones.  If you don’t have a sharpening stone, the Smith’s Tri-Hone is less than $30 on eBay and is great for things like this.  Start with the course stone, and give your new knife a great edge.  Start with the course, work down to the fine, and when you’re done, you should have a putty knife with a brutally sharp edge on it.  This is not a toy – if you’ve done it right, it’s a properly good little knife!

Mine doesn’t have quite as fine an edge as I’d prefer.  I didn’t realize just how much easier that made things.  Live and learn (and offer advice so other people can do better).  I also picked up a 4′ aluminum measuring stick while I was getting the putty knife – this is the full width of a sheet of plywood or foamboard, and makes cutting easier.  You need a guide of some sort for this setup, and a normal yardstick is both too short, and too flexible.  A hunk of iron bar would also work well as a guide.

Cutting takes a bit of practice – you want to draw the knife along the cut line at a steep angle (handle back almost against the board while you’re cutting).  If you to cut with the knife too close to vertical, it simply won’t cut, or it will crunch up the foam and not give you a good cut.  Play around a bit and you’ll find what works (make a few test cuts before you start cutting for real).  It does require a good bit of force to cut, so wear good leather gloves and keep kids out of the way – this is not a toddler-friendly project.
If you cut all the way through or most of the way, great – but you don’t actually have to cut all that deep.  Cutting halfway or so will get you a score you can break cleanly on (from the back side, slam it over your knee, and it should pop the rest free).  If you’re left with a hinge, like this, snap it the other way and you’ll pop the hinge free cleanly.

This is the result of cutting halfway and breaking it – the right side is the smooth cut by knife, and the left side is where it broke along the grain.  You can see that the knife cut is radically smoother than anything you’ll get with a serrated blade.  I really wish I’d known about this method when I built my office!

With this knife, you can also cut off very fine slices to fine tune the size.  This is less than a quarter inch, cut cleanly off one edge.  For slices like this, the knife will sink deeper in and you can usually cut all the way through without any trouble (the cut part can move away so there’s less resistance to cutting).  I definitely can’t do any work this fine with a saw on foamboard!

Building the Plugs

With my handy new foamboard cutter, cutting out the plugs was very simple – I just cut them to size and trimmed them to fit.  There are some vertical 2x4s between the window segments, and I sized the boards so the outer layer of foam would lay over those and help break thermal bridges.  The details will depend heavily on your setup, of course.  Cut slightly oversize, trim to fit.  With the foamboard in place, it definitely blocked the light, but it would be hard to get in and out – and, really, it looks tacky.  Time to built some handles on it!
To hold the plugs together (and to hold the plywood base for handles on), I decided to glue the layers together – but I also didn’t want pieces to shift while I was hauling them back to the shipping container to glue.  A couple screws, punched through the foamboard, served to pin all the pieces in position relative to one another.  I could still pull them apart to get glue in, then clamp them down and keep the alignment perfect.

Plywood Covers, Handles, and Glue

In order to have something solid to attach handles to, I grabbed some thin plywood (1/8″).  Nothing fancy, but it’s not that heavy, and is plenty strong enough (especially when glued down) to let me pull these plugs out and store them somewhere (probably my ceiling with magnets, but I haven’t actually gotten that far yet).

You can find great little packs of cabinet handles at your local home improvement store.

The only real downside to these is that the bolt lengths are designed assuming you’re going through a normal cabinet front – which tend to be thick.  Not 1/8″ plywood.  I had to put a bunch of washers on the back so the bolts could actually clamp down and hold things in place.  That, of course, meant I had a bunch of washer and bolt sticking out the back of the plywood.  A bit of digging with a pocket knife dug out some little holes for the bolts and washers.  This is important so the plywood will sit flat on the foam and make a good seal with glue, because the glue is the only thing holding these together.

Make sure the glue you’re using is compatible with foamboard – some of the glues out there will eat foamboard, but most of the better ones are fine.  With the handles mounted, I put a bunch of glue between the foamboard layers, and between the plywood and foamboard.  Some handy cinderblocks (seriously, these are always useful to have around) serve as the clamp weights, and then it’s just a matter of waiting!

Do the same thing with the end plugs, and they’re ready to install!  Three plugs, keeping the sun out, keeping the heat in, and… making greenhouses between the window panes and the insulation.  Whoops.

How to Melt Vinyl Windowframes

This worked great – right up until the first really sunny afternoon, at which point I discovered that something had gone very badly wrong.  There was… a thing, laying in my window.  A very, very warped thing.  This is not exactly what I expected to see.
Further investigation revealed that the vinyl window edge molding had quite warped from heat – vinyl softens around 170F or so, and this obviously got soft enough to reform.

Closer inspection didn’t reveal any better news.  The frame in the center was pretty badly warped on the inside.  You can see the smaller side windows are still intact – they have less sun coming in, so don’t get quite as hot.

Fortunately, the actual window is still intact and solid.  It’s just the inside that’s warped.  This tells me two things:

  • My insulation works really, really well!
  • I need to fix this before I put those plugs back in…
Even the foamboard had started to swell up, soften, and puff slightly.  It’s not supposed to get that hot.  The limit for this sort of board is also in the 170F range, so I assume I was in the 175F+ range (80C, for those of you who prefer that).  Way, way too hot.  The problem is the sun streaming in – I made a very good greenhouse.

Shed Shutters: Reducing Sunlight

I considered a number of options, and eventually settled on building a movable shutter for the outside.  A nautically inclined friend of mine convinced me to design it so I can open it with ropes in the summer, and while I haven’t actually finished that part, it’s designed for it.
I used some 1/2″ plywood to build the single shutter.  The edges are sealed with Titebond III (a great waterproof glue, and easily found at your local hardware store), then the whole thing is primed and painted with something that’s pretty close to my shed trim (which also needs repainting around the door – I don’t think the trim got properly primed).
My windows stick out from the trim somewhat – so I need spacers to hold the hinges out.  Plus, I’m hinging on the outside (so I can swing the shutter up in the summer and get that wonderful ambient light), which means I need yet more gap for the plywood thickness.  Fortunately, I now have a lot of plywood laying around in my (soon to be legal) shipping container, so I just built some spacers out of plywood.  TiteBond, clamps, some spraypaint, and they’re good!

You can’t buy grey hinges, but you can buy grey spray paint!  While it doesn’t perfectly match, I just hosed down the hinges with some spray paint so they look close.
The screws I’m using to hold everything together (at least on the plywood side) are some lath screws.  They’ve got super wide heads that mean they’re basically a washer and screw combined.  I have no idea if they’re intended to be used for things like this, but they work, and I’m in a very dry climate (look at all that dry dirt below the hinge), so I expect they’ll be fine.

Hanging the shutter solo is a bit tricky, but I worked it out.  Threading screws into the spacer blocks first helps a lot.  Once two screws are in, it’s easy to line the rest up and get everything secured.  The hinges are held in, through the spacers, with 4″ long screws.  They’re deep into the frame of the shed, and the weak point is definitely not the hinge to shed connection!

Unusually, I’ve got my gate latches facing down.  Because the shutter is slightly shorter than the total length of the windows (my goal was to block enough light to avoid melting things, which didn’t require the extra two inches on each side), it’s a long reach on the ends, and it was going to be really difficult to line everything up.
This alignment works fine, and makes it easier to pop the latches open (I can reach them from my step).  I don’t know if I’ll leave them like this forever, or eventually change them.  One thing I might do is replace the screws with some short bolts – I’m not sure that the screws are quite as tightly secured as I prefer.  If I do that, I’ll probably replace one of the screws at the hinge side with a bolt as well.

With the shutter finished, you can see that it blocks most of the sun – and, also, how the low sun would otherwise be streaming straight in my windows.  I’m pretty happy with how it looks – not quite stock, but the color matches closely enough that it looks like a factory option – mostly.

I still get a bit of light leakage through the ends (and a bit through the bottom).  The shutter isn’t designed to totally block light – just to reduce the light enough that I’m no longer at risk of melting my windows.  For that, it works wonderfully!

So, finally, I have my insulation plugs.  They block light, keep heat in, and shouldn’t melt my windows as long as I keep the shutter down.
For the summer, I plan to stick a few old hard drive magnets on them and hang them on the ceiling against some iron bars screwed into the plywood.  Out of the way, and I don’t have much else hanging from the ceiling yet (just a shop lamp over my lab bench).

How’s the New Insulation Working?

Quite well!  It’s been cold this winter (fun with inversions as well), and my office is working fine.  I haven’t had any of the brutally cold days from last winter yet, but my office seems a bit easier to heat in the mornings, it runs a bit warmer in the mornings (last winter it was typically 20F above the overnight low, this year it’s running 23-25F warmer unless it’s really windy), and with airflow in the office, my feet are warmer than they were last winter.  The floor is still cooler than the rest of the office, but it’s not as bad (so far) as last year.  The real test will be if we get the below zero temperatures for a week again – that was rough last winter.  Bundle up going to the office, for sure, because it took an awful lot of time to heat up.  Hopefully this all helps.

Is it “worth it” in terms of financial savings?  Almost certainly not.  The under floor foam was $600, and I’ve got around $100 in the plugs and shutter.  I burned about $30 of propane last winter, and I’ve definitely not removed all heating requirements, so the payoff period is so long as to be meaningless.  But, I didn’t do this for the money savings.  I did it to be more comfortable in my office.  And that, so far, seems to be working!

Like last winter, heating depends on the quantity of sun available.  If it’s forecast to be a sunny day, I’ll heat on electric (actually, I’ll go so far as to turn my Folding@Home box on long before I head out there – sometimes it’s burning power at 5AM).  If it’s forecast to be cloudy, or I’m in an inversion, I heat with propane.  No point in wasting precious electrons turning them into heat without doing something useful.  Occasionally I’m wrong (today I ran the generator for an hour around lunchtime, just before the sun came out for the afternoon), but this mostly works.  I’ve got better battery monitoring so I’m more comfortable cycling the batteries hard, but I still try to keep them above 50% charged.

Otherwise, so far, winter is going fine!  I’ll see how it is next month, when the really nasty weather usually hits.

Continue readingSolar Shed Part 17: More Insulation, and Cutting Foamboard Cleanly