Monday, January 26, 2015

Dealing With Snow

Or, The Shantyboat In Winter: Quest for Fire IV: Venomous Ice Ferrets and other delights.

Okay, so it's a silly, snowbound morning.

But I thought I would say a few words about what we've learned about dealing with snow aboard the vessel, especially about dealing with snow aboard a fabric roofed vessel.

Just in general, snow is pretty but a pain in the potoot.  It renders the docks slippery and dangerous, and adds appreciable weight and stress to the vessel (and especially to the membrane that comprises the roof).  The same would apply, thinking on it, to any soft-skinned structure, especially Bowtop Vardo wagons on which we based our roofline.

Yeah, it's pretty, but I'm ready for spring, folks.
So here's a couple of things we've learned and that hopefully you can apply:

The membrane, a UV resistant vinyl, is really slippery.  We've learned that if we keep it warm--that is to say keeping the loft heater or lanterns on--the ice and snow just slides off as it accumulates.  The noise is sometimes startling when it cuts loose, but it keeps excess weight from building up on the membrane.  If you do begin to get some buildup, a bit of gentle tapping on the underside of the membrane can usually make it slide off. (Just as an aside, I was just up on the docks fetching water and dumping trash, and despite several inches of snow on the pier, there is none on our roof).

We removed the screen from the sleeping loft window.  As it overlooks our solar panels, we can open the window and use a broom to clear off our solar panels periodically without having to go out on the aft deck.

Keeping these guys clear of snow means you get to still have power, usually a plus.
Keeping the foredeck swept periodically keeps the white stuff from building up and adding weight (plus sweeping is easier than shoveling foot deep piles of snow.)

We drape the front door with a curtain made from acrylic blanket during winter, so that when we DO have to open the door, there is less of a heat loss as the curtain falls immediately back into place, closing the opening, even if the door is still open.  We've found it effective, and it's certainly a cheap expedient.

Going into snow days, a bit of prior planning can make life a lot easier.  Looking at the docks right now, one of the last things on my "want" lists is to have to get up and off the vessel and walk down the snowy, slippery docks, up a snow covered set of stairs, and up to the parking lot to the car.  Yesterday was beautiful.  Yesterday we bought enough groceries, wine, kerosene, chocolate, and other assorted supplies to last us through the anticipated snowy days, so that we wouldn't HAVE to go anywhere if we chose not to do so.

As a result of all the above, I'm sitting here in a nice, warm room after a nice lunch, listening to WTMD on the radio (hey, check those guys out on the web if you don't know em.  Great station if you like new music), and waiting for my teakettle to boil.  Very pleasant when you consider all of the Unpleasant things I could have to be doing if we hadn't thought ahead a bit. I mean, lets face it, "It's really pretty out, please hand me another brandy" beats the hell out of "OMG we're out of kerosene for the heater and I've got to go OUT in that to get some," now doesn't it?

Stay warm and dry and happy.


PS check out our other blogs, Life, Art, Water and Onboard Cooking.  Leave us some comments.  We love hearing from you guys.  Hi to all you folks from China and Taiwan that have been visiting us lately on the blog.  Glad you stopped by.  M

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Discreet Charm of the Composting Toilet

Revisiting our composting head

One of the flatly most successful systems we went with aboard "Floating Empire" (and one of the ones about which we are most questioned) has been the system we use for dealing with waste.  Seriously.  I've dealt in my time with portapotti's with removable tanks, with bluewater buckets, and with blackwater systems.  Having now dealt for most of the year with a very simple bucket composter, I can honestly say I'll never have any other system in a vessel, and maybe not even in a house.  We did a bit of an entry early in the construction of the boat on the system we use, but I thought, at this juncture some 7 months in, it might be useful to revisit.

Our system has three very simple elements:  We have a lid and seat from "Luggable Loo", intended largely for camping toilets.  The system, intended for camping, consists of a toilet seat and lid designed to snap onto the top of a 5 gallon bucket.
The full Luggable Loo system from Reliance.
The full system includes the lid, bucket, liners and stuff to put in the toilet to deoderize, and runs less than $40 US.  We used only the lid, which can be purchased for about $15.00 from most sporting goods stores or on the web.

We cut the top six inches from a 5 gallon paint bucket and affixed the lid to it.  This enabled us to leave the lid and seat assembly attached in place in the head.  Since the buckets are tapered, the cut off bucket fits nicely into the top of a full and lined bucket in the box of the toilet. The original version had a urine diverter (the white hex in the front is the outlet), but we finally did away with it as more trouble than it was worth.
The head boxed in during the original construction.

The basic use of a composting toilet system is easy:  Line (or don't) the lower bucket with a biodegradable bag (we double it), put a couple of inches of dry composting material in the bottom, then every time you use the head, throw in just enough of the material to cover what you just did.  When it gets 3/4 full, dump the bucket into the compost, and repeat the process.  When the dump winds up in a dumpster (can we do that?  Where do you think all those disposable diapers go?), we double line the bucket with biodegradable bags.  If headed to a compost pile, it's really only necessary to "flour" the interior of the bucket to prevent sticking.  At first we used sawdust from our construction, but that soon ran out, so we hit on the happy expedient of using wood stove pellets.
Just make sure you get uncoated/unoiled pellets
The pellets are compressed sawdust, which expand when they get wet, absorbing the liquid.  They're far more compact than sawdust to keep around, and a bag lasts us months.  Other things work as well:  shredded wood compost, coir (coconut husks), shredded paper insulation;  it only matters that the material is dry and can absorb moisture.

We get asked all the time how often we empty the toilet.  It rather depends.  There are two of us living here (the cat having her own arrangements).  In winter, or during lousy weather, when we're aboard all the time, we find we empty the bucket about every five days.  In summer, when we're ashore adventuring or out on other vessels, it can be far less.  We have two buckets and a lid, so we can change out the bucket without absolutely having to truck it up and off the boat if inconvenient.  We just switch them out and empty when convenient.

There are a few things we've learned over the last couple of months:

In some weather conditions, there can be quite a bit of condensation from the compost, which usually winds up on the inside of the toilet lid.  It's just water, but it can be a rather unpleasant shock in the middle of the night.  Good ventilation or a moisture absorption material like "DampRid" inside the toilet chamber does a lot toward eliminating this.

Don't let dumping the thing wait.  It's HEAVY when completely full.  Thats why we have two buckets aboard so we can change them out at will and truck them ashore when we feel like it.

Separating urine can cut down on the number of times a month you'll have to empty the compost.  Many toilet systems use a urine separator, or just a simple urinal for the guys to use so that all the liquid doesn't wind up in the bucket.

Use a simple toilet paper that will break down.

Don't forget to add the absorption material.  Otherwise you get a puddle in there which CAN smell.  Keep it locked into the sawdust, and you'll have no problems.

It is such a simple thing, rather like emptying the trash.  It doesn't smell.  There is no pumpout involved, no combustion toilet, no water is wasted.  As water becomes more and more a commodity, I'm frankly thinking the humble composting toilet may be something we see in more and more homes in the future.

New stuff in our other blogs Life, Art, Water and Onboard Cooking.  Check em out.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Shantyboat in Winter

or Quest for Fire III: Survivor.

Over the last few months, we’ve had calls or texts from a number of our friends here at the Marina. “Are you guys okay?” They ask, “How are you dealing with the cold?  I hear the river is frozen.” and the like.  

We have some good friends here, but we’re just fine, thanks.

But I thought I’d put in a bit about living aboard during winter weather.
Yep, Ice.

The Negatives of which you should be aware:

Frozen, snowy, icy, slippery docks and decks can become a hazard.  Just getting on and off the vessel is made that much more complicated and, occasionally, dangerous.

Ice and snow load can increase the weight of the vessel substantially, making you ride low or less than level.

The cold can make unpleasant changes in materials.  Lines become stiff and unworkable.  Plastics—like our aft tuftex sheeting—can become brittle and snap unexpectedly.  

Ice can build up in the strangest places:  along the bottoms of hatches and ports, in the tracks for sliding windows, and along the tops and sides of railings and handholds, all of which makes normal operation of doors and windows difficult or impossible.

Most vessels lack substantial insulation and/or thermal mass, which makes them lose heat rapidly.  Cut off your heater, and the temperature plummets.

Normal outdoor maintenance and operations—running lines, pulling anchors, dealing with hoses and electrical wiring—becomes a miserable episode of frozen fingers and clumsy tool use.  

ANYTHING that requires you to put your hands in the water—if it’s possible at all—becomes painful and borderline dangerous.  I had to run an air line to increase some of our floatation and by the end of a three minute session my hands were screaming at me.  

Condensation in small spaces is an issue.  Your breath alone can cause water to collect on rooflines and windows.  Add to that moisture entering the cabin from cooking or composting toilets and you can literally create a rainfall in your living space.  We had an instance a few days ago which resulted in a literal rainstorm over the bed.  On an evening in the teens, moisture had condensed and FROZEN in a thin sheen of ice across the underside of the roof membrane between the membrane and the insulation.  Once the internal temperature got warm enough to melt the ice—which it did all at once—we had a bit of a flood.  Chemical moisture traps like “DampRid” and others do help somewhat, but your two main options are either running a dehumidifier—pricy in terms of power—or periodically opening the doors and windows to flush out the warm, moist air, which, of course, makes it cold inside.  Mostly, we just deal with the occasional drip.

Ice formation can be a threat to boat hulls, not to mention to docks, floats, fenders, lines, and yourself.

It’s freaking cold.

There are, however, some plusses that make this bearable.:

Boats, even large ones, are relatively small, enclosed spaces.  They don’t take much to heat, and tend to heat up rapidly.  Our kerosene heater can quite literally increase the internal temperature by 20 degrees F in a few minutes, and will easily hold that temperature in the coldest weather. . . .while the thing is running, of course.

Because of where boats tend to be moored, the Insolation, that is, the amount of solar impounding, tends to be substantial.  The moment the sun is up, our aft temperatures leap 5 degrees F almost immediately in winter, and on sunny days our south facing windows mean that the aft studio requires no additional heat.

Marinas tend to be quiet places in winter, with little in the way of wakes or noise.  It’s just one less set of irritations that make dealing with the cold that much easier.

Ice eaters and bubblers are spectacularly effective at keeping ice away from docks and vessels with very little effort.

With the boating lightweights gone, you have the place largely to yourself.  The quiet, and the beauty of winter on the water, is reason enough to be there.

On balance, we’ve enjoyed the winter here thus far (being about halfway through it).  It’s quiet, and after a busy summer, the solitude has been nice.

But We’ll be more than ready when spring comes.

New posts on our other blogs, Life Art Water and Onboard Cooking.



Supplementary Floatation made Easy

When we launched Floating Empire last June, we had a bit of a mishap getting her off of the trailer and into the water.  A bit too much pressure from a fork lift snapped one of the 2X6 stringers beneath the boat amidships.  There was plenty of other support, so we weren’t too upset about it.

But as we’ve sat here in the water, we began to notice that stringer subsiding a bit, and it became apparent that we needed to get a bit more support beneath it.  As it was, we felt we were a bit light, so to speak, in the floatation department.  The trouble is, it’s winter, and the river is iced part of the time.  Me swimming in freezing water to try to dive beneath the boat and install another barrel or make repairs just wasn’t going to happen.  Pulling the boat, putting her in the slings and taking her completely out of the water to make a repair, would be an expensive pain in the butt as well.  I was a bit stumped.

Going through my notes, I ran across something from years ago that they called a “Sea Cell” that is now referred to as Pneumatically Stabilized Platform (PSP) floatation.  This is basically an upside down, open container, the opening on the bottom, half filled with air.  The theory works like this:  The air provides floatation.

When wave action tries to lift the cell, the air acts like a vacuum, trying to lift the column of water in the bottom of the cell (at 8.45 pounds per gallon), making it virtually impossible to pull the thing out of the water.  Thinking on it, this seemed like a great idea.
Our Gonzo Sea Cells

We purchased four heavy duty 30 gallon bins, turned them upside down, and glued and zip tied two treated 2”X4”’s to each pair.  Once the glue had set, we ran a line from our floor hatches (we have 4) to the 2”X4”s, sank the rig, and then pulled it under our barrel floats and up snug against the stringers inboard of our existing floatation.  Then we ran an air hose down through the floor hatch and under the open lower edge of the cell and let air bubble up into the cell.  
Filling the air cell through a floor port.  You can see the line we used to pull the cells into place there on the left

Voila!  Instant floatation.  The air pressure forced the cells and their 2X4’s up against the stringers, locking them in place and supplying additional support and floatation.  We added a pair of floats to Port where the damage was, and then a second one to Starboard to balance the lift.  This has worked so well, we’ll be adding an additional four of the cells fore and aft in a couple of weeks to further stabilize the boat.

I love it when Things work.


Hey check out Onboard Cooking and Life, Art, Water, our other damp blogs.

Thanks for your Patience/Clearing the Backlog

Well we finally have access to the web here at the marina, and will be posting all the posts that we couldn't post because we didn't have the bandwidth, so we've got lots of stuff coming and lots of new stuff on just today.


The same goes for our other blogs at Onboard Cooking and Life, Art, Water, more stuff going on as fast as we can get it together.

Glad you could join us.


Of Health, Weight, and Exercise Aboard

(or, why I don’t weigh 400 pounds)

I was musing about this the other day: maintaining health and weight while living aboard.  Now if you were expecting an article bemoaning how much weight we’ve gained while living on this boat, I hate to disabuse you of that notion.  It’s not like that.

When we started this boat project, I had spent years on the road, both as a theatre geek and as a restaurant maven.  I’d had a lot of road food, a lot of car time. . . .not healthy.  My weight was up around 220, and I had a bit of a paunch.  I was greying rather rapidly, I was borderline hypertense, and the rest of my health, not too put too fine a point of it, wasn’t that great either.

My weight currently is around 185, my BP is well in the normal range, the rest of my health woes have seemingly evaporated, and my greying, strangely, has actually somewhat reversed itself.  Odd.

All this while moving aboard a 220 sq. foot space in the course of less than a year.  How is this possible?

There’s a couple of reasons.  First of all, think of the first time you spent any time aboard a boat.  I’m betting you sailed somewhere or motored somewhere, put out anchor, hung out, and then headed back home.  When you got there you were amazed at how tired you were, right?  I mean, all you did was sit on the boat, right?

Therein is a lot of the secret:  Boats move.  Even the largest, most stable vessel in the calmest, most protected waters, moves.  This forces you to maintain your body in a kind of coiled state of constant dynamic equilibrium, constantly adjusting for the shifting deck under your feet, holding yourself in place while doing work or even just sitting there typing like I’m doing now.  Unless some idiot goes by in a jetski at full speed, you’re barely aware of it, the shifting, but your body is still constantly compensating, moving, adjusting. . . .
Work, work work. . . .

Then there is the normal amount of work that has to happen on a boat:  getting on and off the vessel, going up and down stairs and ladders.  As an example, this morning I dumped the garbage, dumped our compost from the composting toilet, then went up and fetched water.  Each of these involved getting up and off the boat, going up the dock, up a hill to the parking area, lather, rinse, repeat.  Carrying water is a particular joy, water weighing some 8.35 pounds per gallon (1 Kg per Liter).  Hauling 6, one gallon water containers is hauling 50 pounds.  Add to this moving provisions and kerosene in from the parking area, and you’ve got a good deal of exercise that is organic to the boat experience.

And then there’s the stress thing, did I mention that?  Leaving Academe, leaving the corporate world, leaving the desperate would-you-like-fries-with that scramble to make ends meet for a simpler, far less expensive to manage life has made a world of difference.

As for food, as you may have noticed from this and our other blog Online Cooking, we’re foodies and former restauranteurs.  Both living in one place (and one that is occasionally difficult to leave it the tide doesn't cooperate) we get the opportunity to Cook, capitol “C”, using fresh ingredients to make satisfying things that are rationally portioned.

Besides, its yummy. 

Add to all this, the occasional walk to explore our neighborhood, hikes to the grocery store or the wine shop in good weather, and some general stretching, Qui Gong, and Yoga just to keep things loose, and you have a formula for a pretty active lifestyle as sedentary lifestyles go.  I like the way I feel now, and like the way I look a lot more than I did.

Just one more plus to life on the water.

Hey, check out our other blogs Onboard Cooking and Life Art Water.

more later


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Quick, Happy Announcement

We are very VERY pleased to report that we now have internet access at the marina, which will make our posts a LOT more regular, beginning with tomorrow.  Thanks for bearing with us.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Quest For Fire II

Well, being entirely happy with both our kerosene Butterfly cookstove and our borrowed kero heater, we bit the bullet and purchased a new 10,500 BTU kerosene heater (partly so we could return the antique one we were using to our neighbor here at the Marina....thanks guy).  The new unit is a Dura Heat DH1051, which produces both convection and some degree of radiant heat.  We've been very pleased so far.  We did an overnight test and had to turn the thing off because it got our 220 sq foot shanty boat uncomfortably warm.  As we are headed into temperatures in the teens, we'll give you a full report.

A few things you should know about Kero heating, if you're not familiar with it:

Does it smell? Not if it's working properly.  You may smell the kerosene briefly when the heater or stove is lit or shut off, but not while it's working.  If you do, something might be wrong.

About once a week, you'll need to "burn off" the heater.  This involves letting it burn dry, which then causes carbon and tar deposits that may be on the wick to burn off as well.  This DOES smell, and when it gets down that low, I'd recommend setting it outside until it goes out.  Wait an hour, then try to relight the wick without refilling it.  If it still burns a bit (it won't do it for long) it's burning off the last of the carbon deposits from the wick.  Then refill, give the wick time to reabsorb the kerosene (again, about an hour), and relight.  This will keep your wick healthy.  All this means, of course, that either you do it when it's warm, when you're out of the house, or with some alternative heat source available.  

In the US, Kerosene (K-1) can be bought prepackaged (spendy !) or at a pump at some gas stations.  Some of the Kero, by law in some locales, is dyed red so it can be differentiated from Gasoline.  This really doesn't affect the burn.  Water content, on the other hand, WILL affect the burn, and damage your wick.  Unless you're very sure of the source, I'd recommend getting a filtering funnel that removes water.

In Europe and other parts of the world, this is known as "paraffin" (in the US, Paraffin refers to wax). These heaters are really common in Japan and you can even get kero from vending machines there.

This is a very pleasant heat.  It's dry and silent and very, very safe (knock over the heater, and it shuts down instantly).  Kerosene is not volatile like gasoline, it is far more like lamp oil.  Unless dispersed by a wick, it will not burn. You could fill a bowl of the stuff and try to light it all day.  Put a wick in said bowl, and you have a lantern.

We've been very lucky thus far with winter.  Its been very mild, somewhat foggy, and entirely endurable.  It looks like mid-January will be far colder, but there still is no violent weather or massive snows in the forecast.

Lets hope.  Stay Tuned.

Hey, check out our other blogs:  Onboard Cooking has some great new recipes, and Morgainne's blog of art on the water Life, Art, Water has some great new stuff as well.

Stay Warm