Archive for the 'Useful' Category

Meskin Chiskin: Summertime Cooking is a Crock

Today, the Object at Hand, is my energy efficient crock pot and its summer use outdoors to produce “Meskin Chiskin.” Or Mexican Chicken, should you prefer to eschew cutesy neologisms.

One room in which keeping cool really matters is the kitchen. I don’t have central air. I grew up in a 1920’s house with window units in the bedrooms. I had no air conditioning at all in any of my college apartments where I cooked my own meals. And now in my 1890’s house, I again just have a few strategic window units. This situation helps keep me aware of how much it costs to keep cool; both in dollars and carbon. A refrigerator pumps out quite a bit of heat on its own. So in the summertime, we spend much less time and energy cooking indoors.

But first, some exposition about heat and efficiency:

In the air conditioning season, there is a particular penalty for using appliances. Every watt you use indoors (lights, TV, toasters, microwave, fridge, etc.) produces 3.4 BTU’s per hour. Then you burn another half watt or more to remove that heat via the air conditioner. So if you want to slow cook a meal with a 250 watt crock pot for five hours, you spend the 1.25 kilowatt-hours for the cooking, plus another 0.6 kilowatt hours to remove the heat. That’s assuming a high efficiency, properly cleaned and maintained A/C. Plus, it heats up the kitchen until the heat can get pumped back out.

Raw ChickenSo I decided to put out the crock. Yes, I fill it in the kitchen, then fire it up outside, where it bleeds its waste heat into the already sultry air.

To start:

  • Five small chicken leg quarters, skin and fat removed,
  • Two large onions, peeled and chopped into big chunks
  • A few cloves of garlic, peeled and broken.
  • Two cans of chopped tomatoes,
  • One can of mixed chiles and tomatoes
  • Three seeded hot jalapeño peppers (from a friend’s garden)
  • Cayenne, cumin, and pepper flakes to taste

And later added:

  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 12 oz chicken broth (should have had this up front)

Cooked ChickenSo I throw the first list in the crock and set it outdoors for five hours, giving it a quick stir every hour or so,

After 5 hours, I pulled out the bones, from which the meat has fallen, and added the rice and preheated chicken broth (because it didn’t have enough free liquid left for the rice). Another hour or two later, we have something like a risotto, but with a southwestern flavor.

And all those cooking BTU’s did not fill the house, nor require that much more energy to remove them.

Sash Above, Pole Below

When I was in third grade, in the 1960’s, I noticed that my teacher would open and close windows in peculiar ways during the warm part of the year. The early 20th century building had nice high ceilings with windows that went from the radiators up to nearly the top. Every afternoon, she would open the normal bottom sash about a foot, and then used a special pole to pull down the top sash by a foot. In the mornings, she would close them to keep the cool air in.

A few years later I got a vintage high school text book at a yard sale in which they suggest that the best way to cool off a room at night was to open the top and bottom sashes to let the cool air in below and flush the warm air out above. That made sense. But most people are not even aware that top sashes can move. Before that school year, I was one of them!

When I moved into an 1890’s home with 10 foot plus ceilings, I decided to vent the bathroom by opening the upper sash for much of the year. For many years, I would reach up over the top of the closed lower sash and push on the lower part of the upper sash vigorously with my crooked fingertips to open it a crack. Closing was much easier, using a broom stick or any convenient 3′ or longer rigid object.

But as opening was not a trivial task, the window often stayed open a few inches from warm-enough in the spring till getting-too-cool in the fall, with occasional shuts for really hot days. Not the most energy efficient air management.

Sash lifter hardwareFinally, I decided enough was enough, and went online shopping for a proper vintage sash lifter; today’s Object at Hand. A vintage cast iron pole tip was not hard to find, and the metal inserts to allow me to pull the upper sash from the top is still in production! So armed with these parts, I needed only to buy a pole. Fortunately, a 1″ diameter hardwood dowel at four feet length was conveniently available at a big box hardware chain store.

Sash Pole StainingSo I rounded one end of the dowel with a file and sandpaper, and tapered the other end with similar technique. Then sanding, staining, and varnishing took a couple of days of mostly waiting.

Then I drilled a hole in the old sash for the insert, mounted the puller on the pole. Now either I or my petite spouse can easily take the pole from where it hangs at the side of the window and pull open or push closed the sash at whim.

So here is how it looks in use on our 119 year old window. On the left, hanging on the old roller shade holder. On the right, in use, with a detail of how it fits in the socket.



My Biggest Fan

One of the energy saving measures that I grew up with was the use of a whole house exhaust fan on cooler summer nights. When I bought an old Victorian house, and didn’t yet own window air conditioners, this seemed an obvious expedient. Or a “Duh,” in the parlance of world weary (i.e: inexperienced) youths.

After a decade and a half, my first big fan wore out; a bearing seized. The big box hardware stores no longer seemed to carry such units, so I replaced it on the cheap, online. Much to my chagrin, it turns out that a) You get what you pay for, and b) There are no published ratings on consumer grade fans for how much air they move, nor how efficiently.

Where the UPS guy left it, without ringing the bell

Where the UPS guy left it, unannounced

I did some research, and ordered a more expensive commercial grade, window-mounted, whole-house exhaust fan. So today’s Object At Hand is a 20″ Air King Model 3C614/9166. It arrived in a few days. I suspect that our UPS guy is afraid of our doorbell, and is also too shy to knock. I am usually home, yet packages regularly materialize on the porch without any annunciation from their deliverer. So far, we have discovered them before local opportunists made off with them.

But this is not the point. I bought this fan in April 2012, the start of a record hot summer.  The nights last summer were never cool enough to use the fan (rarely dropping below 80 before dawn). So the fan sat in the attic in its box until this spring. That is when I found out that the western breezeway window that I’d used before was only 20″ wide; too small for this 20″ fan. My mistake was not realizing that, although a 20″ consumer fan is a fan in a 20″ box, a 20″ commercial fan means a 20″ diameter blade, plus housing.

My previous one must have been the 16″ model. Now with this post as documentation, my next one will be, too. So I had to use the larger southern window.

Dusty AtticLess dusty atticThe attic had not been cleaned in decades. So my first task was to vacuum a trough through the dry accumulation of dust that many years of pulling the household air through the attic had deposited.

I ran an extension cord from one of the ceramic light fixtures reachable only by ladder, so that we can turn on the fan by by pressing the light switch at the foot of the stairs.Fan installed I did have to reinforce the 115 year old, marginally maintained, double hung window frame to accept this heavy and almost too large fan. Luckily, the sash cords on this window had already been replaced by chains, so the window opens and closes fairly well.

You can see in this picture that the upper sash does not clear the fan area. What you cannot see is that I had cut away part of the metal fan frame in order to fit it lower down on the sill, rather than up in the raised sash guide area. But this monster does pull quite a bit of air from the far corners of the house.

Fan in use

Old Tube, New Life

As the final chapter in my starting-a-grill triptych, I will address the starter tube itself. So today’s Object at Hand is a starter tube brought back from the dead.

Grill Starting Supplies

It doesn’t look like much, sitting here with the subjects of my previous two posts. But this starter chimney has had a good life so far, and recently was falling apart. Sure, the tube is rusting badly. But it is not yet rusted through. The failure was that the rivets holding the handle had worked loose, and the ones holding the charcoal tray up had rotted clean off.

So I had to choose between spending a sawbuck or so on a new replacement, making a forever-lasting one out of titanium that MrTitanium happens to have on hand, or resurrecting this old and faithful servant.

Fortunately, I had some heavy duty pop-rivets on hand from recently repairing an aluminum ladder. So I spent an hour of delicate surgery aligning, clamping, re-drilling, and pop-riveting, and tightening other rivets with a hammer and punch. This rusty old wreck now performs as good as new!

One of my peeves is that they don’t only make these from stainless steel. They do exist in stainless, but are harder to find and cost at least triple. I grant that stainless at red hot does in fact stain. But the much slower corrosion of the tube, and the use of stainless rivets, mean these end up in estate sales rather than landfill.

Char Without Coal

As I mentioned in my previous post about an improved way to use newspaper to get a grill going, Today’s Object at Hand is a particular type of charcoal.

Grill Starting Supplies

Notice that the bag says “Lump” instead of “Briquette.” This indicates a significant difference in terms of ingredients. Henry Ford’s invention of the briquette revolutionized home grilling by standardizing the size and behavior of charcoal. It also created a market for his production scraps.

The down side is that the shape is maintained by adding coal tar or oil residue.
Here’s the How It’s Made short on charcoal briquettes:

Anyway, it is possible to find locally sourced non-petrochemical charcoal, as shown in my picture. This bag claims to come from a cabinet shop. But the telltale shapes amuse me. And truth be told, this amusement factor is more important to me than the actual absence of tar and oil in my grill. But both are good reasons to look for it.

Ready to Light

Stand by for a third entry in this series.

Doughnuts to Burn

I was lighting up my grill the other day, and I (as a gestalt) flashed on three different posts that I could hang on that action, using three different objects. To start with, I have been using chimney style charcoal lighters since the 1980’s. Sure, my father lit his hibachi with lighter fluid.

This is he. I am the wean with the camera in hand.

Anyway, I used about one bottle of starter (like I learned from my pop) before I switched to the chimney starter.

But I recently wised up about putting a wad of newspaper in the bottom: The point of the chimney is to let the air flow through, but most people start by plugging the bottom with paper.

Now I wad the two sheets of tabloid-size newsprint into long rumpled cylinders, and then twist them into a torus.

“Bull!” you say?

No a torus, or doughnut shape, is the perfect form for the task. This lets the hot flames flow up the center, rather than out the side holes.

Here’s how it goes:

Step 1, make a ring out of old newspaper (Today’s Object at Hand):


Step 2: Stuff it in the bottom of the chimney:

Step 3: Fill the top with your favorite charcoal (more about this in a later post):

Ready to Light

Step 4: Ignition from below:


Step 4: Wait the usual 20 minutes at the charcoal warms up, hydrocarbon free.


So today’s Object at Hand is a bit of twisted trash used intelligently.

Wired Again

WahrAs a guy with an electrical engineering degree, I do know a thing or two about wires. You may have read my earlier post, Is Penny Wisdom Plain Foolish? about fixing a nichrome wire with some brass. This is a similar post, but about using some black iron wire to assist my photography. So while the actual Object at Hand is this aged package of wire, the post is about using it to repair a tripod.

You see, I get a lot of use out of my tripods. My oldest dates to the early 1980’s; a lightweight travel model. It is aluminum and plastic. Well, most plastics don’t age well. The pivot head joint (to flip the camera sideways) is long dead and tied down. But lately the leg locks have been sliding. This is especially a bad thing for someone who does time lapse videography.

Carrying my tripod with stereo camera mount at Carhenge

Carrying my tripod with stereo camera mount at Carhenge

But I noticed how the friction cam joints were failing: The hinges were crumbling where they were stressed. So I thought, “This is a job for baling wire!

There, I fixed itBack when I studied silversmithing, we learned the best practices of baling wire. It was used to hold pieces together during soldering because the iron did not readily stick to the liquid metals. Also it didn’t melt at merely red hot, but it does loose its strength, its tension. We learned a trick for keeping it tight, in spite of that.

Today I wrapped a couple of loops of thin black wire around each end of the broken and breaking hinges, twisted the ends together, and then tensioned them in the way I had learned decades ago.

This last operation is the one most people miss: You can tighten the loop only so well at the twist. But that little zig-zag you see pulls it tighter, and acts as a tensioning spring to keep it tight. After finishing twisting the ends, just give a bight of wire a little twist with pliers.

As I carefully wired all twelve hinge ends I kept asking myself (as in the earlier post), “Is it worth it?” Had I been paid my usual wage for the time I spent, I could have bought a new tripod. Of course, I wasn’t paid. But I get to write about it! And it keeps another item out of the waste stream a bit longer.

And my again-trusty tripod can stand reliably on its own three feet.

Blinded by the Utility of Trash

I hate to waste anything. Granted, this is the battle cry of a problem hoarder. But I am one of those problem people, or fortunate urbanites, who pulls trash from the dumpsters to give some small fraction of potential landfill addition useful life. With so many apartments on the block, there is always someone moving out, discarding perfectly good items that they just don’t want to bother moving or selling.

Today the case in point, the The Object at Hand, is discarded mini-blinds. It doesn’t matter much whether they are pure vinyl, or coated aluminum. Both have their uses. Although the aluminum properly should be recycled, eventually.

Vintage grass shears make mini blinds into labels

Vintage grass shears make mini blinds into labels

As a gardener I find a couple of different uses for these usually dirty, bent, and/or broken window appliances. The cords and support ladders are polyester string, a strong and very weather resistant material; longer lasting than the more popular nylon or polypropylene for exterior use. Thus I extract and roll up the strings to use as needed; like to tie things up tree limbs, loose fence boards, sagging gates, hanging plants, etc.

But the pure gold of the mini blinds is that they make excellent plant labels. Anyone who lives with perennials has two needs for these. First, to mark where things will pop up. It is too easy to forget by springtime where the summer plants will emerge, and end up planting something else on top of it. And secondly to label all the plants that we have to divide each year to give or sell to new homes.

But, you may protest, labels are so cheap! True. My argument is that this is both an act of consumerist defiance, to use discarded material in place of virgin plastic, and a zen gardening exercise. When one tires of digging, weeding, tying, and sweating, here is a project — and excuse — to meditatively sit in the shade and relax.

I start by stacking a few blinds, and cutting points across the string holes. This gives me nice, consistent, short labels from the end pieces.

Cross Cut

In order to have uniform longer labels, I balance the remainders on the edge of the shears, and then cut. This particular set of blinds was perfect for these. Sometimes the center sections are too long for a single pair. Then I make a cross cut at the balance point, and then the balanced across cut.

Balance Cut

The final task is to write the label text. You may note the permanent markers that live in the mug with our now ready to use labels. And some labels from earlier blinds.

Ready To Use LabelsOh, you noticed the black one? For longer lasting labels, use aluminum blinds, and embossed Dymo (or equivalent) labels. I got an excellent vintage labeller at an estate sale, with interchangeable font wheels and carrying case. But you can still get them online. With these bright labels, blinds of any color will do. And when the label color fades away after a few years of sun, you can still see the raised letters, and even somewhat revive them by rubbing with stain.

The pure vinyl labels are fine for a year or two. But then either the ink spalls off (or fades away) , or the label itself breaks. We use vinyl to indicate to or from where things need to be moved, or as labels for outgoing plants.

Here is a simple comparison, one in a to-sell tray, the other in a keeper plot.
Compare Labels

Loose Screen? You Got Some Splinin’ to Do!

Splining ToolMy apologies to those who may note that this is the second pun title in a week. Also, my apologies to those who, on reading this title in puzzlement, simply missed the 1950’s cultural reference.

Anyway, I found myself holding today’s Object in hand, and the phrase crossed my mind. But I got busy with the project, and then other projects. So now here it is 13 months later and I stumbled across the snapshots I took when I first had the thought.

I had a 26 year old storm door in which cats and weather and the vicissitudes of normal use had demolished the original aluminum screen. It was in tatters. So I finally bought a roll of nylon screen, and it came with the necessary rubber spline cord material and this literally groovy insertion tool.

Splining the screenOne of the wheels has a groove to better grip the rubber spline. The other is convex, to let you push it “home.” Anyway, I just had to pull out the old spline and screen, line up the screen material and hold it up in place with some tape. Then press the new spline in over the screen and groove so that friction holds and stretches the screen into place. As you go around the opening, the screen is pulled tight. Easy peasy.

The final step is to cut away the excess. I used a box cutter, of which I have accumulated several styles over the decades of handiwork.

It is fun being relatively handy, and easy to amuse.

Back Up Again

Safe BackupNo, I did not have another computer crash, as I had reported in Surviving the Blue Screen of Death a couple of years ago. However, one theme of that post was the importance of having a good backup off premises. Today, I stopped by the bank to pull my offsite complete (but aged) hard drive copy from safe deposit, slip it in my back pocket, and bike back home so that I can clone my drive afresh.

So the Object At Hand today is actually the key to safe deposit storage rather than the pocket sized terabyte container of my whole computer’s soul.

USBDriveI do copy my personal data files, like pictures, videos, email boxes, web site files, and so on to a local external, isolated hard drive every few days using a USB adapter that is only powered up to do the backup, and then shut down again. This saves energy, and makes it immune to power surges up to lightning strikes.

This is fine to protect against power surges, viruses, or disk crashes. But a thorough burglary or fire would lose me this copy. Also, as described in my BSD article, a full clone gets you up and running ever so much faster than having to reload your O/S and all your software manually.

Cloning configurationSo tonight I will open up my tower (that is commonly erroneously called a “CPU” [which is actually the processor chip behind the fan], or the “hard drive” [which is the thing I’m working with at the bottom connected by wires], or even [for reasons I don’t apprehend] the “modem”), connect the hard drive to a second SATA port, boot to a CD with cloning software. I downloaded free EaseUS Disk Copy, but a techie friend prefers Clonezilla.  It runs overnight, as a terabyte (1,000,000,000,000 bytes) takes a while to copy even at direct SATA bus speeds. Tomorrow I can take an up to date version of my whole system back to the bank where it will survive anything but direct megaton hits.

At the core of the issue, the object is peace of mind.