Sunday, October 4, 2015

State of the Farm: The Revenge of the Two Cycle Engine

 (Picture from here.)

It's harvest time on our tiny, tiny farm. It was an interesting summer.

A woodchuck found its way into the garden and it took some doing to get him out. The old fellow was too smart for traps. We tried a few ways to just persuade him to go. Things like about a pound and a half of mothballs down the hole.

This didn't dissuade him. For all I know he absorbed the naphtha and became a mutant, inhuman, hybrid woodchuck. You wanted to know how the Aliens in Alien came to be? Naphtha and woodchucks. I'll tell you that for free.

Anyway, we finally did in the woodchuck but not before he managed to do in a lot of the garden. So most of the cold crops-- broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.-- are history. We've been waiting for the weather to turn to replant. It's not so productive to plant broccoli in 90 degree weather.

The beans and the corn survived. So did the carrots. The cold and wet June did in the melons. The woodchuck plundered the pumpkins but left the basil.

So we'll refer to this season as a "learning experience."

Made quite a bit of wine this year and ran into a couple of snags there, as well. We did three fruit wines this year: rhubarb, cornelian cherry and strawberry. The rhubarb came out fine. A bit dry and pleasant. Very nice. But the CC and the strawberry came out too sweet.

I thought it might be temperature. Last year I bottled a currant wine that was a little sweet and discovered over Christmas dinner I had created a currant champagne. I have been warned since to never open the wine at the dinner table again. Remembering this, I brought up the strawberry. No change.

I went over the log book and lo: I had added additional nutrients to the currant and rhubarb but failed to do so on the CC and the strawberry. Next one I'll add scads of nutrients and see what I come up with.

But it is now fall and we have to set up for winter.

About two years ago we had three large trees felled on the property. I gave them a measuring stick and a size and sure enough only about a third of the wood fit in the wood stove. We burned through it but had this evil woodpile in the front lawn.

It also turned out that we had to clear out from under the power lines. Ben and I tore at that last summer and dropped about twenty medium sized trees, exposing the power lines and (more importantly) the land under the power lines. We did this with hand tools because I don't like chain saws.

Not that I have anything against a device that ruin a human limb in a split second and cut it off in a few seconds more. What's not to love about that?

No. It's the dreaded two stroke engine.

Let me explain.

Your car has a four stroke engine in it. The piston goes up and comes down to pull in fuel and air. Then it rolls back up and compresses the mixture and ignites it. Then it comes down again and returns, this time pressing out the waste gases. The "stroke" means the travel of the piston: two up and two down. They are named:
  1. induction (down)
  2. compression (up)
  3. power (down)
  4. exhaust (up)
Also referred to as "suck, squeeze, bang and blow."

A two stroke engine does that in two strokes. That is, one up and down movement of the piston. Suck-blow and squeeze-bang. You can see it in the GIF above.

There are a lot of reasons to like a two cycle engine. Fewer moving parts means it's lighter. There's a very good power to weight ratio. The fewer moving parts means that it's cheaper to produce. Lubrication is by the addition of oil into the fuel.

But all of these things means that the two stroke engine has been the power source of choice for small fuel powered appliances: lawn trimmers, clippers, edgers and, of course, chain saws.

Because they are intended for a market that is very price sensitive (i.e., me and people like me.) they cut corners. In fact, they have cut so many corners on these products they could easily be called spheres.

So, I've never had a chain saw last more than a few hours. Never had a trimmer that lasted more than a season.

Now, there are reasons for this. Alcohol in modern gasoline plays hell with the cheap parts of these sorts of engines and turn the carburetor into a glue block. I've gone to alcohol free gasoline, run the unit dry and cleaned it thoroughly each time. But it costs money to rebuild the carburetor every season.

In addition, a chain saw is one of those essentials for a place like ours. If we're in the middle of Deep Winter and run out of wood, I can go out and cut a few trees with a handsaw. But I can't cut a cord of wood that way.

This year I had a nice unit I'd gotten from a friend and I babied it. Sweet store bought gasoline brought by angels. Oil produced by the finest crushed Cretaceous bees. Cleaned it every day. And it still crapped out on me. I tried cleaning the innards but no joy. Took it to a repair person I knew.

Glue block.

Plus the unit had low enough compression it wasn't worth saving.

So I went back home and rummaged around in garage. There, in smudged glory was an electric chain saw. Not very strong. But no two stroke engine, either.

I sharpened it up and went out to cut wood without much hope.

Two cords later I'd had enough and took it back to the house. This was promising.

Next time, I took it apart and cleaned it-- simple enough, really. Sharpened it up again. Two cords more. Then, three.

We have now about five cords in the shelter. There are a few pieces left but this has largely been a success.

Hm, I'm thinking. We went to solar a few years ago so using an electric chainsaw makes ecological sense. It's a lot cheaper-- a new electric chainsaw is about $50. A good gas unit is about $350. So I could go through one a year with no pain if I had to. But the way it's going, it doesn't look like I'll have to.

The long extension cord is a pain but so what? Finishing the day with the two stroke and having one arm longer than the other from pulling the start cord was a bigger pain.

Ecologically sound and easy? I'm sold.

And screw you, two cycle engine.