DIY Antibiotic Ointment Packets

I just saw this on a backpacking blog and, well I liked the idea so much I though I would pass it along.This is my kind of idea. Just a little way of “sticking it to the man” if you will. No more need to pay over-inflated prices for single use antibiotic ointment packets for the camper, first aid kit of glove box. MAKE YOUR OWN!

The only thing I would see as a complication to doing this is that you will likely need to have a way of cutting the packet open to use it. Just be careful; don’t cut yourself! But then again, if you do…. you’ll have some antibiotic ointment handy!

As someone in the post has suggested I imagine you could try this with just about anything including toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, etc. I just wouldn’t suggest trying to carry them i n your carry on if you fly. The TSA tends to be a little testy about that kind of thing.


By the way, there are lots of other good articles over on that blog about outdoor adventuring. Take a look if you have time.

Camping! An American pasttime

As the weather warms (it is supposed to be 75 degrees today) our minds start to look toward the summer and its leisure time activities. One of the favorite leisure activities of our family is camping. I grew up spending our family vacations in the summer time camping out and our family has continued the tradition. Camping is an inexpensive, and (for us) very enjoyable way to spend some quality family time together. The majority of our trips are filled with food, fun and friends. Many a summer’s evening is enjoyed by our family sitting and cooking around an open campfire. Camp cuisine for us includes the traditional camp classics like pie iron pizzas and dessert pies, s’mores, and hot dogs as well as some less conventional family traditions like home made ice cream, Skyline Chili, and “walking tacos”.

Regardless of your budget, there are lots of degrees to which you can get into camping. Many families enjoy camping out of the trunk of a car with a dome tent, others prefer the ease and comfort of a full size travel trailer. But for us, our family of 5 is comfortable in our pop up camper. It is about the largest pop-up (some call them tent trailers) that is available and the model we have now has a slide-out dinette that serves to enlarge the space inside the camper. This is especially nice when you are faced with spending some time inside the camper due to inclement weather. A trip to a camping expo is all that is required to see the width and breadth of the camping trailer designs available on today’s market. There are literally hundreds of options ranging from the bare bones basic “You want me to sleep WHERE!? tent camping approach to the plush and comfortable “That’s not REALLY camping” Approach taken by the inhabitants of a class A motor home.

One of the benefits of camping that our family enjoys is that it provides a useful outlet for purchasing some pieces of gear that are really helpful in the event of an emergency. Anyone who has read more than a couple of my posts knows that I am always scanning the horizon trying to forecast what may be to come and to be prepared for it when it gets here. Call it paranoia, call it a “prepper” mentality, but I like to be prepared. I might even say that I enjoy being prepared. Battery powered lanterns, a small propane powered stove, water jugs, sleeping bags, and the like are useful not only when you’re out for a weekend at the campground, but also if the power goes out and remains out for an extended time. One piece of gear in particular that I got recently is an ingenious little item called a “Kelly Kettle“.

English: Storm kettle in operation (this one i...

Kelly Kettle

It is a device that allows you to heat water to boiling in a matter of minutes using anything that will burn. Whether camping or in an emergency, boiling water is a real asset and it is what this device was designed for. It can boil water literally in minutes, taking only  3-5 minutes to bring 1.5 liters of water to a boil — our stove at home can’t even do that! The kit that I got (thanks to my family) as a birthday present includes attachments that will allow you to cook over the unit at the same time. I won’t go into greater detail right now as I may spend the time to do an in depth review some time soon. Suffice to say it is an ingenious little device.

But by far the biggest asset that is found by camping is that of the time and memories spent with family and friends. The memories that are made sitting around a crackling fire are etched forever into our memories. (Would it be too cliche to say that they’re “burned” into our minds?) The first time the kids were old enough to remember going camping as a family they pretended they were camping for weeks after we had returned home.

So fuel up the truck, check the trailer lights and load up the food. Camping season is just around the corner. I for one can hardly wait!

Top 10 Tools for the Automotive DIY’er

Socket Set Deep and shallow well, 6 pt.

Time for another “Top 10 tools” list. This list is the top 10 tools for the automotive DIY’er. I have been wrenching on cars most of my life and I seldom (okay, never) take my car to a shop to have someone else perform service or repairs to it. I would rather spend the money on tools! While I know a lot of people aren’t willing to perform an engine overhaul, or change a transmission, I bet there are a lot of people who wouldn’t mind changing their own oil or doing a simple brake job and having the tools to allow you to do the job is the first step toward empowering you to do so.

My approach to automotive hand tools has been to buy from reputable tool manufacturers. While a cheap hammer will still pound nails, a cheap ratchet or a bad wrench will cause headaches that you just don’t need when you’re dealing with an automotive repair. I tend to buy the best hand tools I can afford for automotive repair. Right now, at this stage of life, that  means I can not afford Snap-On, MAC, Cornwell or any of the other high end, professional quality tool manufacturers. What I usually end up with is Craftsman tools because decent prices + respectable quality = a good value. I have mentioned it before that I like buying from Craftsman because they have an unconditional lifetime guarantee on many of their hand tools, and I have had the opportunity to hold them to that guarantee on more than one occasion. This is not to say that they are the only place to get decent tools, since there are other high quality hand tools available as well from Kobalt, Stanley and others. The best word of caution is to look at where the tools are made; nothing against China, but  they don’t make good hand tools, Taiwan is in the same boat. If you get a tool made in the USA or even Mexico, you’re likely holding a fairly decent piece of gear.

Furthermore, I fully recognize that there are literally hundreds of variations of specialty tools for automotive purposes. Professional automotive technicians spend thousands of dollars on their tools and have some very specific specialty tools for individual applications. I’m not going to get into those tools in detail. What we’re going for here is a quick top 10 of the most versatile and useful tools for general use in repairing your auto. Also, I am going to assume that if you’re interested in repairing your auto, you’re interested in repairing your home as well, so in the interest of simplicity I will not be including any of the tools that were on my previous lists of Top 10 Hand tools and Top 10 Power tools for the homeowner.

Okay, enough with the tool drivel, on to the Top 10 list! Here in no particular order are my top 10 recommendations for getting your automotive tool collection started (witty, yet somewhat dry pun intended, yeah you probably had to read it again didn’t you?).

  • Combination Wrench Set – One of the most useful things you will buy in working on your own auto is a good set of combination wrenches. Whereas many applications in the home will allow for the clearance to use a crescent (adjustable) wrench, when you’re working on your car, clearance is almost always at a premium. Having a wrench that will fit into the tight spots on your car is of tantamount importance. The first wrenches that I reach for in my collection are from the manufacturer GearWrench. These wrenches are a typical combination wrench with an open end and a closed (box) end, but they have the added feature of having a ratchet mechanism built into the box end of the wrench. Placing the box end over a fastener allows you to operate the handle in a back and forth motion without removing the wrench from the fastener. The ratchet mechanism loosens or tightens the fastener depending on the direction you have the tool set to operate. Some wrenches have a lever that you flip to reverse the direction of operation (Mine are like this) and some, you simply flip the tool over. These things are really handy! I have tried other gimmicky wrenches, but these are in a class of unparallelled usefulness all by themselves. These are truly a great tool. Of consideration is whether the auto you’re most likely to work on uses Metric or Standard (SAE). If your car is an import it likely uses Metric sizes on the fasteners, if it is a domestic car, well then it’s a crap shoot. Many Domestic cars are a strange hybrid of metric and SAE fasteners as some of the parts are made overseas. My projects (even on domestic cars and trucks) are using metric tools with increasing frequency. Long story made short, it is a headache but you may need both. If you have to choose one, I would suggest that you buy the metric sizes and make sure that the set includes all the sizes. Many cheaper sets don’t include all the metric sizes and they are likely to skip sizes that you may need. Typically automotive applications use 10,12,13,14,15,17 and 18 mm sizes. Spend a good amount on these tools and you won’t regret it. A set of gearwrenches goes for around $80 while a set of standard combination wrenches is considerably less. Buy cheap wrenches and you will be calling down curses upon your own head as you try to extract rounded off fasteners than no wrench on earth will fit.
  • Screwdriver Set – Unlike my home owner list where a 6 or 10 in one screwdriver was the best tool for the application, in automotive work, you often need screwdrivers of varying sizes and lengths so buying a set of decent quality screwdrivers is a good investment. Philips and Slotted head are both needed.
  • Floor Jack and Jack Stands – If you have ever tried to use the poor excuse for a jack that is sold with most cars these days, you will understand this one. A hydraulic floor jack is a must for doing your own auto work. A 2 ton unit is typically sufficient for a regular sized car or minivan, but you should look for something a bit larger or a “SUV” model if you have an SUV or truck. Typically weight rating is not so much an issue as the maximum lift height can be. A smaller, less expensive jack will in most cases be more than powerful enough to lift your vehicle but may not lift high enough to get the wheel off the ground. Jack stands are also a must. If you are working on your car (or under it) with it supported by a hydraulic jack, you are entrusting your life to the fluid and seals within that jack. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel all that comfortable trusting life and limb to a $.05 o-ring. Having the rigid support of a jack stand is a much safer approach to supporting the vehicle for repairs to be performed. I list these together since many retailers offer them together as a kit.
  • Work Light –  I know I included work lights in my previous list, and I said I wouldn’t duplicate items in this list, but this is a more specialized type of light than you may be purchasing for another application. An automotive work light is small enough to be hung in a wheel opening while you’re doing a brake job, but needs to be powerful enough to provide enough light so you can see easily. There are lots of options here, so just find one that works for you. One thing to remember, however is that a unit that uses an incandescent light bulb will get HOT. The last thing you need when working on your car is one more way to hurt yourself, so try to stay with something that uses a fluorescent or LED lamp.
  • Oil Filter wrench – While there are a lot of different types of filter wrenches out there and each one has its strengths, the one I use the most is a Craftsman wrench similar to the model below. It is adjustable for size and fits into the tight spaces that I need to get into and does a good job loosening a filter for removal. If you’re worried about chewing up the filter while installing it, don’t be. For installation of a new filter, you don’t typically need a wrench. Most filter manufacturers will tell you that the only tension necessary is to tighten the filter until the rubber seal on the bottom of the filter is contacting the filter base, and then an additional 3/4 a turn or so. IN other words hand tight. Any tighter than that and you’re just making more work for yourself when you have to strain to remove the filter next time.
  • Socket Set – Again this is an area where you can spend from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, it just depends how serious you are. In my opinion this is something that you can buy just once in your lifetime and have to pass on to your kids, so I would tend to spend a bit more on this area. I generally prefer to have 6 point sockets as opposed to 12 point since they are less likely to strip out a rusted or stuck fastener than a 12 point socket would be. There are different size drives (1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″) that will include ratchets of different sizes, but if you’re just buying one, I would suggest a 3/8″ drive as a good starting place. A 1/4″ Drive set typically also contains smaller size sockets that will be very useful for removing fasteners on the body and interior of your car. This picture shows both 6 and 12 point varieties.
  • Pliers Set – There are a lot of different types of pliers on the market, but a set of at least 5 or 6 pliers is a great way to ensure that you have the tool you need for the job at hand. The most commonly used pliers in my tool chest are a pair of bent nose needle nose pliers similar to the ones shown in the picture above (4th set in from the left). These are really good for getting into awkward spaces to release spring clips and the like. Again, most of these in my personal collection are Craftsman, but anything from Channellock, or Klein Tools will be of equal or greater quality than what I have.
  • Vise Grips – This one is almost too cliche to mention, but it really is an irreplaceable tool in terms of the function that it fills. Having a good set or two of Vice Grips in your tool box is insurance against being stonewalled by a rounded, broken or stuck fastener. This is one tool that if you don’t buy a good set, don’t bother buying any at all. A cheap set will cause more problems than it solves. In this case the Vice Grip name is a prerequisite for a good pair of locking pliers, although I have a set built by Proto and they seem to be of equal quality. The Vice Grip company was sold to Irwin tools a number of years ago and, unfortunately, since then their quality has been on the decline. Yard sales and eBay are still good places to source the genuine “Vice Grip” brand tools. Look for the distinctive logo as can be seen on the pair in the picture above. I have had other types of locking pliers and different gimmicky tools similar, and they just don’t hold a candle to the original.
  • Oxy/Acetylene torch – Okay, practical for most people – maybe not; dangerous – definitely, but this one is really the be all end all for auto work in the “rust belt” where I live. Rust, road salt and water combine to seize fasteners into place and in many cases a little heat is the only way to free them up. Enter the “Red Wrench” or “Fire Wrench” as some call it. Heating the seized nut or bolt up to cherry red will allow the metal to expand, and it will burn off the rust that is holding the fastener in place allowing you to remove it with a wrench or socket. Add to this the ability to use the torch to “cut” off a bad exhaust or fastener and with the proper technique and safety tools in place, the fire wrench can get you out of a bind in a hurry. It can also get you INTO a bind in a hurry too. It is useful for setting ablaze just about any combustible item in the vicinity so don’t use it without a fire extinguisher, wet rags, a bucket of water or all of them handy. Draping soaking rags over delicate items around the work space is helpful in safeguarding your project, but you really need to be careful. For all the dangers inherent to this tool, it is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal and knowing when and how to use it can be a huge asset. Smaller, portable units like the one pictured above can be had for around $200, take up less space than their full size brethren, and are more than capable of doing the job for smaller projects. There are some new products on the market that perform the same function by a magnetic induction process and without the fire. While these should be safer and faster alternatives, I haven’t had opportunity to see any of them work, so I can’t comment on their function.
  • Computer with an internet connection – This one may be a bit obvious but it bears to be restated. The WWW is your friend in your forays into automotive repair. There is an online forum devoted to about every car manufacturer and model under the sun and it is, no doubt populated by people that specialize in the DIY approach to caring for the car of your choice. Belonging to one of these forums is typically free and opens you up to a world of resources and experience that is truly priceless. Countless hours of frustration can be spared by the experience of the men (and women) on these sites. This is by far one of the most valuable tools you can have access to. Even without the benefit of being able to ask your questions directly, you can search past discussions, and generally find the answer you were seeking. There are YouTube videos on how to perform basic services to your car and even services where for a nominal fee you can register as ask your questions directly to a professional mechanic. The internet is possibly the best resource you have in learning how to do this work yourself.

Honorable Mention:

  • Impact Wrench – This is one tool that while not practical for everyone, if you have an air compressor you will really appreciate the convenience of having this tool at your disposal. It is the ideal tool for removing lug nuts on your wheels. There are electric models available as well for those who don’t have an air compressor at their disposal. This really makes short work of rotating your own tires.

That’s a lot of tools, I know but there are lots of options when purchasing your tools collection. The method that I have taken was to buy (or receive as gifts) a few tools at a time and accumulate this array of tools over a period of time. Others may prefer to buy a large tool set all at once. Buying the tools as a large set, is no doubt a cheaper way to get the tools. It might be a good way to use part of a tax return or bonus, and many tool sets will come with some type of tool box or organizer to store them in. As I have said before, I tend to ask for tools as gifts around the holidays or for gift cards to stores that sell tools. Having a list to work off of is a good way to start watching for those items to go on sale and stretch your dollars as well. Used tools can occasionally be bought at yard sales, auctions and online auction sites like eBay for less than new as well. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, it is money well spent in my opinion.

Well I think that is more than enough for now, Happy wrenching!


Keeping the Lights on – Part 3 Power distribution

In my first two posts on “Keeping the lights on” I talked about sizing and selecting a generator. Now that you (and I) have a running generator, let’s talk for a moment about how to use it for powering your home. For the purposes of this discussion, we need to keep a couple things in mind (yes this is my disclaimer).

– First of all, you’re dealing with electricity here. If you don’t feel comfortable working with electricity, DON’T! If you’re uncomfortable working on this type of project you’re probably better deferring to someone who is a trained electrician and has the tools, knowledge and experience necessary to do this type of project safely.

– Secondly, even if you are comfortable working with electricity, BE CAREFUL. Every year more people are killed and injured by 120 volt power than any other type of electricity. I attribute this to both a lack of working knowledge, and to carelessness.

– Third, please, Please PLEASE, DO NOT run you generator in the house. Evey year I hear a stories about someone doing this or leaving it running in their garage with the door closed resulting in them and their family dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Doing this is tantamount to sitting in your car in the garage with the engine running, windows down, and the garage door closed. It can kill you, and you will never see it coming. You will go to sleep and never awaken. Keep your generator outside, or in an outbuilding and ensure that you have plenty of ventilation.

– And finally, I am not a certified electrician, and while I will share with you how I have my system set up, I am neither advising or encouraging you to do likewise. Be careful people. The last thing you need is to turn an “emergency” situation into a tragedy by carelessness or neglect.

Alright now that the legal disclaimers are taken care of, let’s get the power back on. There are several different approaches to providing power to your home in the case of an emergency. These range from the very simple and automatic (ATS and a fully automated home backup generator system) to the crude but effective, albeit less convenient, approach of simply running a cord from the generator into your house.

Obviously the most simple approach to take is to power up the generator, plug in an extension cord or two and then stretch the cord into the house, plug in whatever, and go. The problem with this is that your overhead lights, well pump if you are on a well, hot water tank, etc won’t work. The solution to this inconvenience it so use a method called “back feeding”. What this entails is essentially disconnecting your home from street power and then replacing that with power from your generator. This sounds like a complicated solution, but chances are pretty good that you already have most of the necessary pieces of equipment in place.

To back feed your home with emergency power you need to have a basic understanding of how your home’s electrical system works. Power comes into your home from the street either overhead or underground, then passes through the electric company’s meter. After leaving the meter, the power comes into your home’s electrical system. Most homes these days have a circuit breaker box (not a fuse box) so that is the design we will discuss.

A fairly standard American circuit breaker pan...

Image via Wikipedia

After passing through the meter the electrical power for your home enters your breaker box and goes to your Main Breaker or Service Disconnect. This is typically a large breaker at the very top or bottom of your panel and it always has the largest amperage rating of any of the circuit breakers in your panel. This Main Breaker or Service Disconnect serves as the master overload protection for your home, as well as your main means of disconnecting your home from street power. Turning off “the Main”, will shut down (disconnect from street power) the whole house. Under typical operation, the power leaves the main breaker and flows through the panel through a system of metallic conductors called bus bars, then into your individual circuit breakers and out into your branch circuit wiring to the lights and devices in your home. Incoming power into your home is made up of 2 separate 120 volt feeds (often referred to as “legs”), a “Neutral” conductor that serves as a return path for voltage from a device and a “Ground” conductor for added safety against shock. The 2 separate legs of power alternate their positions in your breaker box so that every other breaker on either side of the box is on a different leg. Panels are typically labeled with numbers, odd numbers on the left, even numbers on the right. This being the case, as you look at the breakers in the breaker box, circuits 1 and 3 are on different “legs” but 1 and 5 would be on the same leg. Also, the breakers directly across from each other (1 and 2 for instance) are typically on the same power “leg”.  Understanding this design is important so you know how your system is working when you connect your system to emergency power especially if your generator is a 120 volt output only and does not supply a 240 volt output with two “legs” or circuits of power. Even if your generator only produces one hot “leg (120V) you can power the essentials by having the breakers for your essential appliances moved to the same “leg” of power in the panel. This can be done by moving the breakers around in the box if necessary. To back feed your home’s system, you simply turn off the main breaker (Service Disconnect), connect your generator to one of your home’s electrical outlets and let the power flow through your existing wiring. Simple enough right?!

Let’s take a closer look. The first thing to decide is where you will be connecting your generator to your home’s electrical wiring. Depending on the output of your generator (in terms of voltage and amperage) you may be limited to the number of places where you can make this connection safely. An electric dryer outlet, an electric range (stove) connection, or a connection for a Welder or other large 240V appliance is a great place to back feed your system. In my case my generator has a 30 amp, 240 volt receptacle on the side of the generator, so I need to match that to a minimum of another 30A 240V receptacle in my house. Now understand that the actual plugs themselves are not likely to match physically, but as long as the voltage and amperage ratings match you are in good shape. The exception to this rule is that if you would happen not to have a 30 amp outlet in your HOME but you had a 40 or 50 amp outlet that would be an acceptable alternative. You can safely feed your generator’s 30 amps of power into a 40 or 50 amp circuit in your home, but do not go the other direction.  DO NOT attempt to feed your generator into a circuit with a LOWER voltage or amperage rating than the rated output of the generator. In my case, here are a couple pictures of the receptacles on my generator and my home (actually my shop) wiring. In my case I decided to feed the power back to my house from the welder receptacle in my shop. This would allow me to store the generator in the shop and use it there without having to move the genset to the house. This would also allow me to run the genset in the shop in case of inclement weather without running the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Generator Receptacle (this is of the “twist lock” variety):


Welder receptacle in my shop:

Now that we have the design portion of the solution out of the way, let’s get the tools out and get our hands dirty. After determining the type of cord ends required for the installation, the next step in back feeding you wiring is to make the cord. In most cases, you will need 2 male cord ends, one for the receptacle on your generator and one for the receptacle in your home wiring system. In my case one end needed to be a 30A 120/250V 4 prong twist lock male cord end, and the other needed to be a 3 prong 30A 12/240V angled prong male cord end. I debated for a while about what to use for the cord, but I discovered a used heavy duty extension cord that I had forgotten I had. It was slated for disposal on a job site I was on due to having a nick in the insulation and a couple of bad cord ends. It was, to my surprise a 10ga 3 conductor cord, which was heavy enough to carry the load I was applying. A note here about wire gauge is to be sure that you are using a large enough cord to carry the loads you are intending to support. Click Here for a link to a handy calculator to aid in the selection of the proper size cord. The cord should be sized for the full output capacity of your generator. Be sure to account for the length of the cord, since it can drastically impact the size of the wire required. For my application, the calculator says that I am fine to use my #10 wire for a 30 amp load at 240 volts over a distance of 75 feet. You may wonder what I did for the 4th prong of the plug on the generator. This was intended to be the ground plug, but since my outlet in the wall did not have a ground, it would not have done anything anyway. Ideally, if I were to install a dedicated receptacle for the use of this generator, which I may do at some point, it would have all 4 conductors (2 hot legs, 1 neutral and the ground). The reality of it is that the generator is not “generating” a ground anyway, so in my mind, grounding the generator to the earth using a ground wire and rod, or similar system is a sufficient safety measure to prevent electrical shock.

The finished cord ended up looking something like this:

Now that the cord has been constructed it is time to try it out. This is where it important to ensure that you understand the electrical design we went over above. Failure to understand the design and take the proper approach in testing and using this system can be a dangerous proposition. Let me outline the steps that I used to test my system.

1- Because I didn’t want to fumble around in the dark any more than necessary, I started the generator with the shop lights on with street power.

2- Turn off the street power (in this case the power being fed to the shop from the house) by turning off the Main Breaker (Service Disconnect) in the breaker box.

3- Turn off the branch circuit for the plug that you are connecting to

4-Plug the cord into the receptacle in the wall (in my case the welder receptacle)

5-Plug the cord into the receptacle in the generator (note I didn’t do this first because if I did the exposed prongs on the other end of the cord could be “hot” with live electricity).

6- Switch on the 240V output of the generator.

7- Switch on the breaker for the receptacle you’re plugged into (again, in my case the welder circuit).

8- Bask in the glow of your off grid lighting and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you can generate your own electricity.

At this point you may notice that your lights are not as bright or even, especially if you are using fluorescent lighting like I am. This is mostly due to the fact that your inexpensive power generation system does not produce as “clean” a power as the multi-billion dollar system that the power company has designed and installed. This is to be expected and is nothing that you have done wrong.

Now while enjoying the comfort of your home brewed electrical energy, you may wonder, “How will I know if the street power comes back on?”, and this is a legitimate question. One way would be to watch for the lights to once again come on at the neighbors houses, or for the street lights to come back on. But if you live in a rural area like I do, and or your neighbors have their own generators, this won’t work. One way would be to have a qualified electrician install a small light onto the incoming power BEFORE your service disconnect. This is a little iffy by the electrical code since the circuit is unprotected, but you could install an inline fuse if you’re really concerned about it. Explain to the nice electrician what you’re trying to accomplish and they are likely to understand and help you to do this safely. One thing is for sure though, you don’t want your Main Breaker (Service Disconnect) turned on and your generator running when the power comes back on. The sparks will fly and you will let the smoke out of your generator. Putting the smoke back in the generator is an expensive proposition.

Once the commercial power comes back on, to transition back to street power you would use the following methods (essentially the reverse order of the process above):

1- Switch off the circuit breaker for the receptacle the generator is plugged into.

2- Switch off the generator’s electrical output (it’s not a bad idea to allow the generator to continue to run to cool itself down during the remainder of this process).

3- Unplug the the electrical cord from the generator’s receptacle.

4- Unplug the cord from the receptacle in the wall.

5- Turn the circuit breaker for the receptacle in the wall back on.

6- Turn on the Main Breaker or Service Disconnect in your panel.

7- Shut down the generator now that it has had a few moments to sufficiently cool itself.

This has been a bit of a lengthy post, but hopefully you can see from this that it is doable to use your home’s electrical system to distribute the power from your home generator in the event of an emergency.

Again, I am all about the DIY mentality, but if you are uncomfortable tackling an electrical project of this scale, it is best to consult the advice and expertise of a professional. When safety is on the line, it pays to have some qualified help.

Happy Generating ’til next time.


A beep in the night — Part 2

When last we saw our Stainless Steel, groundwater pumping hero he was resting quietly in his own storage tub. Let’s see what adventure awaits our hero in this installment of “A beep in the night”.

I don’t remember the events of the afternoon, as I am sure they paled in comparison to the mechanical symphony of creativity and forethought that was unfurled during nap time, but as all Saturdays do, this one came quickly to an end. Kids in bed, and off to dreamland I went as well, resting assured in the new found comfort of knowing that I was a rich man in terms of sump pump possession.

My slumber was rudely interrupted about 0200 hours when I awoke to hear a peculiar beeping sound emanating from somewhere within the premises. It wasn’t loud enough to be my alarm clock, and it had better not be going off at this hour anyway. It kept beeping so it wasn’t the coffee maker turning itself off after someone absentmindedly left it on. What was that sound? So I rolled out bed with a grumpiness that only 2 am and an empty bed affords, donned the house shoes (what!? All guys wear house shoes right!?), grabbed the trusty flashlight that resides on my dresser and headed down the stairs. It wasn’t coming from the main level. It sounded decidedly lower in elevation that that, so down to the finished portion of the lower level I went. Family room, nope, quiet. Utility room, getting warmer, but still not there. Aha! Crawl space it is. I opened the doors to the crawl space and to my surprise was greeted by about 2″ of water all over the entire crawl space floor. What the….!! So kicking off my house shoes, removing my socks, and rolling up the pant legs of my pajamas…. I fetched the tote with the sump pump in it, grabbed the end of the hose from the top of the plastic tote, dragged it to the nearest window, tossed it outside, pulled the pump from the tote, dropped it into the basin, plugged in the pump and once again, ‘VOILA! Pumping was able to commence within minutes of the need arising. The pump ran for close to 40 minutes before I was content that the crawl space was going to dry out alright and went back to bed. Luckily, earlier that winter we had the forethought to put everything up on used pallets in the crawl space so all that got wet was one or two boxes that were destined for a yard sale or thrift store near you.

The pump stayed in that basin for another 2 days until it was dry enough and the water was flowing slowly enough into the basin that I could investigate the cause of the issues with the permanently installed sump pumps in the crawl space. Apparently the beeping sound I had heard was the low battery alarm on the battery backup sump pump sounding because the gel cell battery in the unit’s battery box was shot and the pump was tying to run, but could not. The secondary sump pump was ruined, a hole rusted in the side of the case (I guess they should have bought a stainless steel model, huh!?). The primary pump a massive 1 HP model was, for some reason running, but not pumping anything. After removing the non-working battery backup and secondary pump, I was able to remove the primary pump and discovered a plastic square about 3″ by 3″ sitting directly below its inlet. As soon as the pump switched on, the hydraulic pressure would suck the peculiar square of plastic up against the bottom of the pump, effectively sealing the inlet and preventing the pump from, well, pumping anything. Add to that the fact that there seemed to be a strange fibrous material in the pump,  floating around the sump basin and on the floor around the crawl space and I slowly began to piece together my theory of what had happened.

The following day, I removed the cover from my in ground sump pump testing facility in the shop and discovered that it was EMPTY. Completely empty. Don’t get me wrong, it was still wet. Water could be seen weeping in through the block walls, but it was running across the floor and draining into, yup, you guessed it, the 4″ drainage tile.

At first I thought that the fibrous stuff I was seeing laying around was the fur of a long decomposed varmint of some variation. You see the previous owners had told us during our closing process that they had seen a rat in the house. This led to the wife and kids abandoning ship and literally moving out of the house to stay with relatives until the unwelcome intruder was euthanized (no joke, here). This, in turn, led to the father doing whatever he could possibly conceive in order to prevent the entry of said pest to the premises. He told me that he suspected that there was a 4″ drainage tile that led from the service pit in the shop and into the sump basin in the crawl space. Stated that he surmised that the rodent was using this as a means of entry to the dwelling, so he had “blocked” the tile. I naively assumed when we moved in that the cinder block that was placed against the opening of the tile in the service pit and carefully braced in place with a piece of lumber was the “block” to which he was referring. The fact that repeated efforts in dryer months to open the drain in the service pit had proven unsuccessful in opening it, also led me to believe that the rodent may have been trapped inside the drain and been sent to an untimely watery grave, thus clogging the pathway for drainage. All assumptions were close to the truth, but none was what I now consider to have been the case.

In my disgust (it IS after all rather disgusting when you suspect that you’re cleaning up the decomposed remains of a rodent from the continually wet sump basin in your crawlspace), prior to returning the permanent sump pump to its place, I had scooped the sand, silt and trash out of the basin and thrown it into a plastic bucket. The strange “fur” was thrown in the same bucket as was the peculiar plastic square that had served so effectively as a flapper valve on the inlet of my sump pump. All these things were taken out of the crawlspace together in the bucket and placed in my shop, still in the bucket. A few days or maybe a week later, after the disgust of the whole ordeal had faded to tolerable levels, I returned to find the bucket had dried out sufficiently to discard of the contents. The plastic square, it occurred to me, looked exactly like the black plastic “glue” traps that I have seen used for rodent removal. And that “fur”, after it dried had taken on a strange pink appearance. At this point I was starting to feel like a forensic investigator from CSI. Trying to piece together the “who done it” of my little flood. Further sifting through the debris in the bucket revealed the presence of some thick paper that was brown on one side, black on the other and had some of that peculiar pink “fur” on it. It was one of those light bulb moments. An epiphany in fact.

Apparently a few of my assumptions had been flawed. Here is what I now surmise to have occurred prior to that fateful day.

The previous paternal occupant of my property, having been continually thwarted by the rodent that had been visiting his dwelling had “blocked” the drainage tile leading from the pit in the shop to the sump basin. I had assumed that this was done with the block that was placed over the tile in the shop, but apparently this assumption had done what many assumptions do and made a, um, donkey’s hind end out of me. The fibrous pink “fur” I was seeing was, I now believe a ball of fiberglass insulation that had been shoved into the drainage tile to deny entrance to the unwanted pest. The plastic pad, was in fact a glue trap, undoubtedly set by the same wily, increasingly annoyed and lonely homeowner in an attempt to catch the intruder. When I had pumped the water out of the pit, I had loosened the clog, but not dislodged it. The emptying and refilling motion of the water being removed from the pit acting like a big plunger on clog in the tile.  As the pit refilled the hydraulic pressure in the drain increased until the clog could no longer hold back the water. The “blockage” was ejected from the tile into the sump basin in my crawl space, and was then followed by somewhere close to 800 gallons of cold and muddy ground water.  The sump pump (even a 1 HP model) never would have kept up with the water rushing in through a 4″ tile, but it was clogged with the Pink Panther’s favorite weather proofing and one exceedingly well placed “humane” rodent trap. Maybe if the pump had been constructed from some corrosion resistant alloy of steel it had, but ….nah, probably not, never mind.

The take away from this mildly dramatic and highly sarcastic story is as follows.

-Know the layout and design of your drainage system. You never know what surprises may await you if you aren’t aware of their design.

-Use the right materials for the job. Fiberglass insulation, as it turn out is a great way to clog a drainage tile, and a stainless steel bodied sump pump will not rust through (at least not as quickly) as will a pump whose body is constructed from mild steel.

-Check and properly maintain the batteries in your battery backup appliances. Those battery backup sump pumps, garage door openers and UPS systems on your computer are only as good as the batteries in them.

-Test your backup systems regularly. At the time that this occurred I wasn’t aware that there were three pumps in that basin, let alone that two of the three were not functioning.

-Be prepared for the unexpected. Look at your home and assess your biggest weaknesses and do what you can to prepare to meet those needs, should an emergency arise.

-Materials stored in basements or crawl spaces should be elevated above the floor to prevent them from being damaged by moisture and water. Skids (pallets as many call them) are an easy way to accomplish this.

In my case, it was a really good thing that I had prepared for the failure of a sump pump (even if it was only 12 hours before I ended up needing it) and that the materials in my crawl space were elevated above the floor 6″ or so. Since then I have also bought a couple inexpensive “Leak frog” water alarms. These are just one type of battery powered alarms that go off at the presence of water and are enough to alert you to a problem. Had the battery in my backup sump pump not been bad, I would not have discovered my water problem until it had risen to a level high enough to flood the finished part of my lower level.

Looking back now, I can see many places where it is apparent that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was (never mind the previous owner, we’re not going to talk about him right now…). A little bit of my planning payed off and saved me from a situation that was, at least in part, created by my own negligence and lack of understanding of my home’s drainage systems. Going forward I still have some work to do to improve the design and eliminate some of the liability of the current design from my property. One thing is for sure. I’m sure glad that sump pump is stainless steel! SHINY!

A beep in the night – Part 1

My recent post on prepping and my approach to it has gotten me started thinking once more about some things that have happened in the past year or so that have served to reinforce my sense of personal responsibility to be prepared. One such story, I feel is worth sharing. Hopefully you will enjoy it and allow it to motivate you to do what you need to do to be prepared for come what may. I know it still serves as a vivid reminder in my own mind of how important this thought process is.

My family and I moved into our current home in January of 2010. We had purchased the house and property knowing that flooding as a result of storm runoff had been a problem in the past. The previous owner had taken some steps to alleviate this risk and we felt comfortable with the status of the home’s drainage systems. The property is shielded from runoff by an earthen dam of sorts that diverts storm water runoff from the farm fields behind us and into a deep ditch on the road adjacent to our property. The home also has a working set of footer drains that drain into two separate sump basins that house a variety of sump pumps. One in the front (finished) portion of our lower level, and one in the unfinished crawlspace below the middle level of our tri-level home. The pump basin in the rear of the crawlspace portion of the house had not one, not two, but three sump pumps in a rather large basin. Two of the pumps were 120V plug in type units and one was a battery backup 12V unit that was designed to run for a while if the power was out. It didn’t take us long after moving in that we noticed these pumps in both basins could be heard running fairly frequently in the wet springtime months and during extended periods of rain in the summer or fall. It was at the realization of just how frequently these pumps were running that my wife and I began to discuss what an important role these systems made in keeping our home dry. It was as a result of this conversation that led us to the decision that it would probably be prudent of us to have a spare pump on hand in case one of them failed. This conversation happened in the time frame of the fall of 2010.

Things being what they are financially around our house (we are raising a family of 5 on one income) the spare pump never seemed a more pressing need than shoes for the kids, food for the table, or even a brief summertime camping mini-vacation. So, as do so many good intentions,  the spare pump got put on the back burner. Enter the spring of 2011. 2011 would end as the wettest year in Ohio history and it began with a mild wet winter, followed by an early and VERY wet spring. Several of our neighbors had issues with flooding and our yard was as soggy as a Louisiana bayou. There were areas of standing water in the front yard for weeks on end. The automotive service pit in my shop turned into a nice (albeit dirty) candidate for an in ground hot tub. It was, in fact holding about 48″ of water in a pit that is about 36″ wide and 110″ long. Despite the fact that we could clearly see a 4″ drainage tile that was supposed to evacuate the water form this pit, it was holding a LOT of water. Repeated attempts to clear this drain had proven unsuccessful, so the pit became a water feature whenever it rained. The sump pumps, however, just kept on doing their job and the house was nice and dry.

Well with February typically comes the annual process of seeing how much of our hard earned money Uncle Sam has elected to allow us to retain, and we in recent years have been blessed to be on the receiving end of the deal and get a decent tax return. Call it a benefit of living frugally on one income, or call it the blessing of the compound child tax credit (honest kids, we didn’t just have you for the tax write-off, although it is handy….). IN 2011 we were once again the recipients of a pretty decent tax return. This money is typically funneled into larger scale home improvement projects or is applied directly towards debt elimination, but this year there was a little money allotted for a sump pump. As luck would have it, the weather worsened and minor flooding struck a lot of neighboring communities, prompting an full out run on sump pumps at all the local outlets. So it was with our pumps happily spinning away and our tax return dollars in hand that we sat and waited for the local home improvement stores to re-stock with pumps.

One weekend shortly thereafter, my wife was out of town and the kids and I were faced with the prospect of how to spend our Saturday. After breakfast we decided to run some errands and stop by the big, blue home center to see if they had received their shipment of a certain sump pump that I had decided upon. Once again, as my luck would have it, they didn’t have the one I wanted. So with three kids quickly growing increasingly impatient with their father’s unreasonable levels of sump pump preoccupation, I selected one that was a bit bigger than the one I had initially decided upon. It, of course, cost a bit more but was a more durable pump, read: Stainless Steel (have I ever told you what a sucker I am for stainless steel?) . It also carried a lifetime warranty, so I felt comfortable spending the extra capital for my little investment. As I was thinking about the process of putting this pump into service, I made a crucial decision. I decided that in the event that the pump should be needed when I was at work or for some other reason absent from my household, that it would be easier and faster for my wife to put the pump into service if it had a flexible discharge line attached to it (smart, right!! I know! And I though of it all by myself!). So I purchased two sections of hose and the necessary couplings and hardware to put them all together into one section that would be more than long enough to reach either sump basin and stretch out a window into the yard.

Now the kids are getting peeved. “Hose, and fittings too Dad!? C’mon man! It’s almost lunch time now!” Finally we made our exodus and headed home to a gourmet lunch of only the finest peanut butter graced beautifully with strawberry freezer jam so red it makes Matadors angry. Pretzels on the side, only the finest di-hydrogen monoxide beverages, and the feast was served. Oh, yeah! That’s how dad rolls when mom’s not around. After lunch was finished and those non-sump pump appreciating kids were down for a nap (I don’t get why they don’t see them merit. It’s STAINLESS STEEL for Pete’s sake!) I headed to the shop to unfurl my creation. Sump pump, connector and Stainless Steel hose clamp, hose, coupling (Secured by what else? Two stainless steel hose clamps), and another section of hose. It was a beautiful sight. I plugged it in, removed the cover from my in-floor water feature and dropped it into my conveniently placed sump pump testing chamber (know to the untrained eye as a flooded service pit). It worked marvelously! It pumped for about an hour and completely drained the pit –No, I mean — testing chamber. This chamber was the self regenerating type that would quickly refill itself from the groundwater, but the pump worked like a charm.

A pump of this caliber demands a proper storage system, so a suitable round plastic tub was selected from my plevy of surplus storage containers . I placed the pump in the bottom of the tub, neatly coiled the hose and cord on top of the pump, carried it in the house and placed it in the crawl space for safe keeping. “There” I thought “that should really make it easy for my wife to use”. All that would be needed would be to grab the end of the hose from the top of the plastic tote, drag it to the nearest window, toss it outside, pull the pump from the tote, drop it into the basin, plug in the pump and ‘VOILA! Pumping should be able to commence within minutes of the need arising. It was probably about 2:00 in the afternoon.

Tune in again next time for the exciting conclusion of our story “A beep in the night”

To be continued….

Diesel Pro 6500 Watt Generator project

As I have mentioned previously, a couple weeks ago I purchased a non-running Diesel Pro KDE6500E Generator. It is a diesel powered 6500 watt generator with electric start, and as it was not running at the time of my purchase I bought it for the bargain price of $120. I found the generator via Craig’s List and went to look at it about 45 minutes from my house.

The gentleman from whom I purchased it said that he had loaned it out to a friend in running condition and had received it back not only in non-running condition but in several pieces. He said that the guy that he had loaned it to had put off road diesel in it and now it had no compression. Hmm, I thought, the off road diesel doesn’t have anything to do with it not running, but it certainly didn’t have any compression. It was missing a battery, the pull start was in pieces, the covers were all off the frame, it had parts that even the former owner didn’t know where they went, and as stated it had NO compression. Many small diesel engines (this one included) are equipped with a compression release valve to make them easier to crank and start. This valve blocks the exhaust valve partially open to prevent the engine from making compression. I had a hunch that it could be something simple that was wrong with this engine and it turned over smoothly and seemed “tight” so I took a bit of a gamble. I though if nothing else, I could probably sell the generator head or use it myself with a new engine. The gen head was worth what I was paying for the unit so I didn’t feel it was too much of a gamble. Besides He took my $120 offer when he was asking $150 for the unit. I was feeling pretty good about my chances. So home again we came with my new project in the back of the truck.

As a sidebar for those not very familiar with the design and function of a 4 stroke internal combustion engine the animation below courtesy of Wikipedia may provide a bit of insight into the function of this type of design. This animation is depicting a gas engine (as is evidenced by the presence of the spark plug in the middle of the head) but you get the idea. The piston travels up and down in a total of four strokes per cycle, thus the term a 4 stroke engine. The strokes are known as 1-Intake, 2-Compression, 3-Power (or Combusion), and 4-Exhaust. The blue indicates incoming air and fuel, the brown indicates exhaust. The difference in this animation is that this one shows small cams (overhead cam design) operating the valves directly whereas my diesel generator uses a traditional push rod design. More detail on these dufferences is for another time.

Four-stroke cycle (or Otto cycle) 1. Intake 2....

Image via Wikipedia

THIS animation and its accompanying description may provide a quick primer into the subject a little more insight into the design and function for those concerned with earning extra credit or just interested in learning more.

Once we were home again, the tinkering began almost immediately. The first thing I did was to pull the valve cover (this engine is an overhead valve design). When turning the engine over my hand, I could clearly see that the intake valve was moving up and down as it should be but the exhaust valve was hardly moving at all. The push rod coming up to the rocker for the exhaust valve was barely moving. Strange, I though. So The next step was to pull the cylinder head. Since this generator is of the  “IMPORTED” type (Made in China) and information was at a premium, I measured the torque required to remove the nuts from the head studs. This is an imperfect method of measurement, but it was better than having no idea what soever what the torque specs should be. After recording the figures, I removed the four nuts, the cylinder head, and the intake and exhaust valve push rods. Much to my delight, everything inside the engine looked really good. Little or no wear on the cylinder wall, the piston was in good condition, and most importantly, the cylinder head and valves were in good condition. I put the push rods on top of the lifters and turned the engine over by hand. I was able to get both push rods to move correctly this way so I felt confident that the camshaft and lifters were working properly.

Now ideally, after a good cleaning, a new head gasket would have been installed, but since parts are difficult to obtain for these MiC gensets, and since this unit uses a copper head gasket, I though I would re-assemble it and see if I could get it to make some compression. I thoroughly cleaned all the mating surfaces, then re-installed the head. It was difficult to get the valve push rods to line up correctly with the rockers and the lifter while holding the head with the other hand, but after repeated attempts I was able to get everything to line up. I then re-torqued the head stud nuts. Now with everything re-assembled and turning the engine over by hand I had LOTS of compression. So much compression in fact that it was difficult to turn the engine over by hand on the compression stroke. Now we’re talking! Valve cover affixed, oil level checked, fuel tank cleaned out and refilled, fuel shutoff on, attached a car battery to the leads, turned the key and “CLICK” was all I could get. To make short of an hour or more of continued tinkering,  let’s just say that the starter wasn’t working even after multiple attempts to get it to crank. The starter motor appears to have cranked its last. The pull start was inoperable as well since the shadetree mechanic that took it all apart lost the “dogs” that actually make the mechanism turn the engine over. Well Shoot! Now what? I tried turning the engine over by several different methods and was unable to get it to turn over fast enough to start. Did I mention that it had a lot of compression? Finally, in desperation I tried the old tried and true method of rope wrapping the flywheel thimble and giving it a good sharp tug. It turned over nicely by this method, but still wouldn’t start. Now typically I don’t like using ether in diesel engines (or at all really) but I do keep a can of it in the shop. A snort of ether down the intake and a quick tug on the rope, and would you believe it, it popped and fired! Now we were making some real progress.

It would run on ether (and WD-40 which is another diesel engine trick), but would die immediately once the spray was stopped. No fuel to the injector was the diagnosis. I removed the bolts securing the fuel pump and pulled the pump out of the block. I couldn’t believe my luck. Apparently someone had removed the pump in an attempt to “fix” the non running engine and had put the pump back in with the fuel shutoff in the wrong position. The fork inside the engine that was intended to operate the shutoff lever on the pump was in the wrong position to line up with the actual shutoff fork on the engine case. A quick flip of the lever and I was able to reinstall the pump. I turned the engine over by hand with the fuel line to the injector unhooked, and wouldn’t you know it I was pumping fuel now. So I hooked the lines back up, cracked the line loose at the injector and turned the engine over by hand once again until I had bled all the air out of the lines. Once that line was re-tightened, when I turned the engine over by hand I could actually hear the injector click when it “popped off” its spray of fuel into the cylinder. Another quick shot of ether into the intake, a few pulls of the rope, and lo-an-behold! It’s Alive!

So today on my way home from work  I stopped at our local power equipment dealer. This place is a locally owned, family affair in which the whole family is employed, so I try to support their establishment with my business whenever possible. I had talked to them a few days ago and they had indicated that they may indeed be able to source the necessary parts (namely the starter) for my little project. So I stopped in and showed them my parts. For kicks I had thrown the recoil starter assembly in the box with the starter just in case they could indeed get me those parts as well. As it turns out the Diesel Pro generator that I have is the exact same model that they sell under the name Eastern Tools and Equipment (ETQ). The helpful young man in charge of their parts department asked me an unexpected question when he said “Would you prefer new parts or would you consider a used starter?”. What’s that? A deal!? You bet! So a quick trip to look at a unit that they were stripping for parts and it yielded me a new (used) starter and the whole recoil starter assembly for the pull-it-yourself price of less than $100 out the door. I could hardly believe it.

So this evening after dinner, a few minutes of tinkering, a few nuts and bolts from my own personal stock and I was left with a nicely running generator that will start with the key or the recoil starter.

I took the time to put together a cord to connect the 240 Volt output of the generator to the welder outlet in my shop and the generator powers the entire shop with no problems. I connected a number of devices to the generator including lights and my 120V air compressor that frequently will trip a 20A breaker and the engine hardly bogs when the load is applied. Needless to say I am thrilled to have a running (diesel) generator has cost me less than $250 and a few hours of tinkering, which doesn’t really count anyway since this habit of tinkering is a hobby of mine.

Until next time: