web analytics

I spent a large part of the last two weekends working on my woodshop.

Basically, it’s a detached garage. This is a problem.

When I moved in, the garage became a repository for EVERYTHING. I had boxes and plastic tubs of household… stuff… to sort through. I’ve ended up throwing a lot of things away, and storing what I can’t throw away in my root cellar.

This makes me a little nervous. The hot water heater currently resides in the root cellar. This is a problem because there has been (before I bought this house) a water leak that flooded the root cellar! So I’m definitely planning on installing an automatic sump and an alarm!

But now the garage is cleaned out. Mostly. Except for the lawnmower. And garden tools. And bicycles.

So this weekend I started tracing the electrical wiring in order to make sure my garage has power and lights.

Lamp cordThe wiring for the lights is okay. It’s not Romex, but it is the proper equivalent from the late ’60′s when this garage was built. The power AND the ground are correct, and they pass according to my circuit tester.

The wiring for the rest of the garage is… scary. There seems to be a mixture of Romex and 2 conductor lamp cord used to power the garage benches. That’s right – lamp cord. Like you would use to replace the cord in your table lamp.

So while wiring the good lighting cord from the garage light switch to two 4-way socket boxes in the ceiling, I’ve also been investigating where this other cord is going. And best I can determine, it goes to the Mother-in-Law addition to the back of the garage.

It’s got me seriously concerned, and I’m going to trace it down and pull it out even if I have to trace it all the way back to the breaker box to do so!

I’ve got a little more wiring to do this week to finish installing overhead lights. Once finished, I’ll have enough light to be able to work in the woodshop during evenings.

I think one of my first projects will be to build a garden shed for the gardening tools and lawnmower. I still don’t know how to store & shelter my bicycles.

So I’m still “fine tuning” the sprinklers / automatic drip system in the front yard.  Apparently downtown Fresno lacks some good water pressure.  I’ve capped off a few of the lawn sprinklers and replaced two of them with gear-driven pop-up oscillating sprayers that will cover 90 degrees of the yard each. I noticed an immediate improvement in water pressure, and the whole yard gets enough water.

I tested the automatic drip system all last weekend, and during the week too.  This has resulted in my tomato plants turning yellow and droopy.  Not good!  So I let them rest for two days, then gave them some water on Friday.  I’ve left them alone over the weekend, and will give them all water tonight, (Sunday).

The garage is my biggest problem now. It is still very much a garage, and not yet a woodshop. I’ve been taking down the previous owner’s “creative electrical wiring” (seriously, it is a fire hazard – I have no idea why it hasn’t gone “poof” and turned the entire garage into a framework of charcoal like some sad character on a Saturday morning cartoon.)

I’ve also been moving plastic tubs of my own junk, plus future garage sale junk into the root cellar for storage, all while making sure we have room for sorting canned goods there. This autumn we are going to do some real canning.

I’ve been taking down pegboards. Next on my list are the cabinets and bench cabinets that were built with whatever was at hand. These areas are poorly planned for storage and use, and they have seen so MUCH use that their surfaces look like the Seven Dwarves have been mining them. Their tops are rugged and oil-soaked. They will all be going into my truck bed and then I’ll take ‘em to the dump.

Speaking of “rugged”, let’s talk about the garage floor.

The previous owner dug an oil pit in the garage. Handy for working under your car, or changing your oil. The oil pit is clean, (of oil, if not of dust and cobwebs) and well made. It is obvious to me that the previous owners were able to keep the pit free of oil by allowing any wayward oil to spill on the floor of the garage. I see kitty litter in my future. LOTS of kitty litter! (Or whatever I find better recommended for removing soaked-in oil.)

And the garage floor is uneven. When the garage floor slab was laid, someone didn’t know how to correctly level it. It has a WAVE right in the middle of it, side-to-side. The front of the garage is somewhat flat, but sloping down toward the wave, then sloping somewhat up after the wave, toward the rear of the garage.

And if that were not trouble enough, the entire slab is cracked into 4 pieces, and one of the cracks is almost a quarter of an inch higher than the other. It reminds me of photos of “Dip-Slip Faults” in my father’s geology books.

Between the oil, the oil pit in the middle of the floor, and the concrete geological examples, I’ve decide I will just bury it all.

So I think I’ll install a raised plywood floor, something like this one shown on the “Woodwhisperer” web site. It’s a lot of work, but what got me interested is that I’ll be able to install under floor wiring which will allow me to power a tablesaw in the middle of the shop. The hard part will be leveling the batten boards and drilling their holes. I’ll need a hammer drill to do it.

I plan to put the new floor right over the top of the oil pit, and then leave a trap door for the pit. I have no idea what I’ll store down there!

So, lots of work ahead. I really want this shop to work!

The fruit trees are now in!

We got dwarf varieties of White Peach, White Nectarine and Pluot. These trees will have an average height of 14 feet, so they won’t overwhelm our poor yard. I’ve planted them all on the North side of the yard. Due to their small size, we may not bother with espalier training them.

Also, we got in 4 Lavender plants for Wendy.

My brother-in-law has been busting his tail on amending the soil in the front yard. The East and South gardens are now ready for planting. We’ve amended using peat moss, a garden mulch mix, cow manure, and perlite. The idea is to allow the soil to keep a lot of moisture because we will be rationing water this summer. California in general is experiencing a very bad drought, with no end in site. So I’ve also added drip irrigation to the front yard gardens, to further cut down on evaporation.

Layout of houseIn addition, to reduce evaporation and weeds, we will be laying a weed barrier, and planting vegetables and flowers through it. We will then use ground up rubber mulch on top to further trap the moisture, prevent weeds, and keep the insects out.

I’ve got a useful layout of the house that you can see here. (Click here to see it full size).  The layout shows you that the dog run is to the North of the house, and that the fish shed is in the Northwest corner of the lot.

The backyard is taken up by the Mother-in-Law apartment and the garage (which is now my woodshop!).  There is also too much concrete slab in the backyard, and I plan to remove some of it.

In July / August last year, we installed 6-foot tall Cedar fencing around the North, South and West sides of the lot.  I’ve also cut the driveway away from the garage with fence and a gate.  As you can see from my earlier post, we installed a 3-foot high fence to the Northeast side of the lot, to create a boundary to our yard and to better define the garden in that area.

From the layout, you can see where my 4 fruit trees are.  There is one other tree in the front yard that I haven’t identified yet.  Wendy and I are debating just removing it and replacing it with a nut tree of some sort.

There really is a LOT of concrete slab around my house.  But I still think we can find enough area to grow a LOT of food.  For example, the greenhouse will be 24 feet by 8 feet in size, and will be multi-level inside.  There is a 3 foot by 24 foot growing area on the South side of the house, next to the porch, along with the growing area in front of the house.  PLUS I plan to plant a “raised bed” planter on the porch facing South, to take advantage of all that lovely sunlight, and to keep it from coming into the house.

On top of all this, we’ve decided that we are going to raise quail and rabbits for meat for personal consumption.  And Wendy has suggested turning our root cellar into a mushroom growing experiment.

Next up – I’m preparing war against my arch-nemesis! The Argentine Ant!

So we’ve ordered 3 fruit trees for the front yard. A Pluot, a White Nectarine, and a Peach. These will be trained in espalier style along the fence on the North side of the yard.  I’ll also install a grape arbor in the corner where that fence meets the house.  I’ll be planting red flame grapes there.  (My favorite!)

This week, we buried schedule 40 irrigation pipe along the front (East side) of the house, and in the planter area along the South side of the house.  Part of the front yard will grow veggies.  I’ll put up a tomato trellis there too.  As camouflage from any overzealous city regulations, I’ll surround my veggies with Marigolds – which will help with possible bugs.

The front of the house will have several Lavender plants – as decoration and because my wife loves Lavender. I’ll have lots of Pansies of various colors in front of that, because I love that flower.

And then the South Side of the house… it won’t get much this year. I plan on adding planters to that side of the house. I’ll make those myself. But there is already an area for planting there. Who knows? We’re discussing artichoke for that area. Maybe potatoes too?

In the backyard, I’m still working on getting my wood shop put together. I got a lot done two weeks ago. Last weekend I spent most of my time bringing in soil amendment for the front yard. And PVC pipe for the drip irrigation.

I’m getting ready to rent a concrete saw to take out the large slabs of concrete that the previous owners installed everywhere. I’d like to lay my own slab – but the cost of concrete is kinda scary. So I will probably leave a lot of it “as-is”, and fix it later.

I’m certain that besides an aquaponics system in a greenhouse, I’ll also raise quail and rabbits. Both are allowable under Fresno law. (So are Muscovy Ducks, for some reason, but I don’t have room.)

But quail are great for eggs and meat, as are rabbit. I can harvest each several times a year, and fill up my freezer (and canning in my root cellar) pretty fast.

Oh, that reminds me. I got us a 23 quart canning pressure cooker for Christmas. Quart jars of fruit, veggies and meat are in our future. Next up, a better dehydrator.

Also there is a possibility that we will be allowed to do some gleaning from some nearby farms. My wife has an “in” here. She grew up in that area and has been invited to go gleaning before. We shall see, and I’ll keep you posted!

Still working!

So, no work on the fishery or the rest of the Aquaponics system as yet.  There was a lot to do otherwise on the house.

Items 1, 2 and 3 on my list have been accomplished.  Our shiny new guestroom was used to host my parents over Thanksgiving, so that was pretty successful.

Front yard fenceItem 5 is in work as I write.  Yesterday I (with my brother in law) added another water line to my automatic watering system.  This line goes down the North side of the yard, and down to the front sidewalk.  Later I’ll continue it to the front strip of land between the sidewalk and street.  But for the time being, several uprights from this line will feed drip irrigation to fruit trees, grapes, and veggies that we intent to plant on this side of the house.

Also, yesterday we almost completed the fence on the East side of the front yard. This fence will prevent people from walking through our yard and garden, will protect the irrigation uprights, and will mark off the property lines. You can see the uprights and the fence here.

Item 7 on my list is in work.  I’ve recently learned that the past owners of this house had a problem when a pipe burst and flooded the root cellar to the top of the cellar! I’m adding an automatic sump pump and alarm to my root cellar now. Also, much of the root cellar is being used as long term storage of many different items.

As for item 16, I think I’ll use the Grove system from Seeed. They have lots of useful sensors. And there is a good possibility of me adding a pH sensor to the system. Turbidity, water level, water flow, and water control through Arduino systems using various Grove shields and connected to a webserver that I can view and control through an iPad is my ultimate goal.

Meow Manor

Meow ManorHere is a project that I put together last fall for my outdoor kitties.  They needed a warm place to sleep, so I built them a mini-apartment complex that I call “Meow Manor“.  Click on the link or image to see the build details.

So what’s next?  I’ve moved into my new house, what am I doing?

I’m actually the property manager for the house I used to live in.  When I moved out, that house had to be fixed up for rent.  I spent a large chunk of the summer getting that house ready.  This is on top of finishing the fence for the house I’m currently in.  Doing both took a lot of my finances.  Between that, and the hot weather, I haven’t done much.

But now the weather is cooling, and I’m starting work again.  Here’s my list of things I need to do:

  1. My parents are coming to visit on Thanksgiving, I need to get the guest room cleared out of moving boxes, and put in a bed.
  2. The garage is full of “stuff”.  I need to sort it out, and put some boxes of stuff in long-term storage.  Other boxes of stuff I’ll put where it goes in the house.  Last stuff gets tossed, recycled, given away, or sold.
  3. The garage needs to be turned into a makeshift woodshop.
  4. Build more special purpose bookshelves
  5. Add more fencing to the front yard – to seperate my yard from my neighbors
  6. Plant trees and vines for food and privacy
  7. Set up the root cellar for canning and food storage.  Also home-made wine storage.
  8. The fish shed needs to be walled up, sealed, and insulated.  There will be a garden shed next to it, and a rabbit grow area near that.
  9. Start building the greenhouse – including a 330 gallon buried sump tank for the aquaponics system.
  10. Build a thermo-former to create my grow beds.  (I’ve got this great idea that I think will work)
  11. Install grow beds, IBC fish tanks, pump, and evaporative cooling system for the greenhouse / fish shed
  12. Turn the garage into a true woodshop
  13. Build a deck and pergola for outdoor entertaining
  14. Start building furniture
    • I want to build a crafting armoire for my wife
    • I plan to build an electronics “secretary” style desk for me
  15. Start working on my boat
  16. Put together an iPad-controlled automated Aquaponics control system.

The first 4 things will probably be done in this order – everything else… I dunno.  

But this means that you probably won’t see much in the way of aquaponics stuff until Spring.  And of course that means that I won’t have a real harvest in 2014.  I wish it could be otherwise – but buying this house and fixing up the rental was the top priority.

Okay, I’m making some plans for the new Backyard Crop.

First, last year my crop yield was terrible.  Plants died in the heat, there was no place to start plants, and the ants…. those ants got EVERYWHERE.
Bow roof style Stimson greenhouseIt’s obviously too late to start a crop this year, and my fishery and my wood shop are a disaster.  So I’ve decided that my aquaponics grow beds are going to be inside – in their own greenhouse.

Fresno has some funny laws about hoop houses and anything made with pipes and “tarps”.  But they are fine with greenhouses, and anything that looks like a shed.  It can be pretty large.  So after a little research, I thought I’d build a Stimson-style bow-roof greenhouse.  These things are pretty tough once all the pieces are installed.  They look something like this (image is just a general mockup – not a true blueprint).

Stimson, the inventor of this version of a gothic building, is a shipwright who found a way to make very inexpensive ribs for the structure that are extremely strong.  Large versions of this greenhouse have easily gone though 70 mph hurricane force winds.

Did I mention it was inexpensive?  The ribs and structure for my shed should cost less than $400 tops, and may be less than $250.  The plastic sheeting for the shed will cost more.

I’m planning on a 12 foot by 25 foot greenhouse, on top of a partly buried sump which will be used to feed the fish tanks and the grow beds.  The grow beds will be in the greenhouse, and the fish tanks will be in a covered shed.

The plan is to have a wall of growbeds on one side of the greenhouse, and a line of individually watered aquaponics pots on the other wall.  The greenhouse structure is physically very strong, so I will be able to hang grow towers for strawberries along the main ridge beam.

The most difficult part of building this structure will be in creating the form to turn out the 22~28 supports that I’ll be making.  Wood is important too… I’ll try it first with dimensional lumber ripped to the appropriate thickness, but I’m learning that much of that warps.  I might have to use something different than pine.  


My Raspberry PiAnother big problem I’m running into is one of running out of water in the sump.  If all the growbeds fill at once, and if my sump isn’t large enough, then the pump runs dry and starts to self-destruct.  Affnan’s bell syphons could allow the system to sychronize, and if my sump isn’t large enough…. bam!  No more expensive pump.

So I started looking at the cheap 3/4 inch water valves that go on yard sprinkler systems.  They need a low voltage to turn them on or off.  Two hooked into an XOR configuration, with one controlling input to a grow bed and one controlling the output would fill a grow bed and then at a command allow it to drain.  One command, two devices.

Plus, my pump delivers lots of water pressure – so I could also use these same electric valves on the grow towers and to the pots, using Rainbird style drip sprinklers.

This also fits with my long term plans to monitor water quality so I can figure out how my fish are doing.

So to make this all happen, I recently ordered a Raspberry Pi computer, and have been taking the online training course in Python at the Codeacademy website.  (Just a note, if you are familiar with programming in C, then Python won’t be very difficult for you.)

As you can see, I’ve got the Raspberry Pi online, and am running Rasbian Linux – and I’m actually surfing the net through my WIFI adapter!  The computer is everything inside that little red box.  Everything else, monitor, keyboard, mouse…. they are plugged in through HDMI and USB.

The idea is to create a WIFI computer in the fish shed that will monitor water quality and log it to a database online where I will be able to see at a glance what everything is doing.  I hope to see trends, graphs, charts… everything.  It may not happen very soon – I’m still building structure.  

Will I get a harvest next year?  I don’t know.  It’s too soon to tell if I will get everything done before planting season starts.  And it starts pretty soon!

But I own this house now – so there’s always 2015. 


Update: 12 July 2013:

I’ve updated the image of the Stimson Bow Roof greenhouse to show what I’m planning.  The greenhouse is 8 feet 5 inches wide, 24 feet, 3 inches long, and 10 feet high.  It will have a raised plywood floor on 4×4 runners.  There will be room for fans on one end, and louvers on the other.  I changed the width to fit my yard better (I really don’t need it to be 12 feet wide either).  

I haven’t calculated the cost yet, but I will post it when I get it.

It’s been three months since I last wrote, and big things have happened since then.

Front yard of my new house, just before I purchased itI’m now  the proud owner of a new home.

That’s a pretty big statement for me, I’ve never owned a home before in my life.  My late wife was very ill for most of our marriage, and our money went to medical bills – not to mortgages.  

Here is an album of images of my new place.

In the album of images, you will see that I have an add-on, which I’m currently using to house my breeding tanks.  And I have a shed at the rear of the back yard that I’m designating my “Fish Shed”.

But before I get back into aquaponics, there are some things I must do.  I need to tear out a bunch of stuff from the backyard, and put up new fencing around the house.  I also have to rebuild the garage into my new woodshop.

And Fall of 2014, or Spring of 2015, I will be adding a new roof to the house. 

Oh, and I guess I will be changing the image at the top of my website sometime soon too.

So while messing around with my aquaponics setup, I put my hand in the water and got a little tingle. The fish seemed okay, so I didn’t worry about it right away. I had to go to work.

That day, my wife was feeding the fish, and SHE got an electric shock when she put her hand in the water. She called me to complain.

That night, I went to work researching what could possibly be wrong. Right away, everyone I read said that my sealed pump was no longer sealed, that water had gotten into it and electricity was being introduced into my setup. The standard answer was to purchase a new pump, and to throw away my brand new (less than a month out of the box) $300 pump that pushed 3000 GPH. A pump I looked long and hard for, and which had great ratings by everyone.

IBC setupSo I did. I went out immediately and bought a 2000 GPH pump from a different manufacturer for the system. I removed the first pump, and plugged in the second.

And I immediately got a shock from it!

So my choices were that I had unluckily purchased TWO bad sealed pond pumps in a row; or something else was going on here.

My system is made of 4 IBC containers.  (See the diagram)  Each IBC is plastic, with the top cut off.  Each container is still sitting on the original pallet / cage that is made of some sort of steel.  I’ve grinded off the tops of the cages to make them even with the tops of the plastic.

I don’t get shocked if I place my hand in the water.  A shock happens when I lean on the metal cage and THEN place my hand in the water.  At first, I thought these cages were getting a ground from somewhere, and my arm was completing the path.  But a little testing with a multimeter showed me that was not the case.

I then took the first pump, dropped it in a 5-gallon bucket filled with salt water, and used my multimeter to try to detect a short between the 3-prong plug and the salt water.  If there is a break in the sealed casing, I should read some sort of resistance.  Since I felt a shock, that resistance is most likely to be under 100K Ω.  But when I tested, every reading I took showed infinite resistance – or an “open” circuit.  There was no short to water.  The sealed pump remained sealed.

So where did that shock come from?

I didn’t get shocked when the two pumps were not plugged in.  I also didn’t get shocked when I dropped in a 10GPH pump that I used on a wooden barrel pond.  

This was all very strange. 

There’s one other thing you should know about this system.  It is way out back in my backyard.  It is powered through a 50 foot long extension cord that has a power strip plugged into it on the side of the fishery.  The other end is plugged in at the house.  And this house was built in the 1940′s, and has never had its power upgraded from the original other than to put in an upgraded breaker box.  As far as I can tell, the home lacks an Earth ground.

So here’s what I’ve figured out.

My high capacity pumps use a huge coil of wire to run the magnetically driven sealed impeller.  These coils, along with the underwater length of power cord that goes from the sealed pump to the power strip, are the problem.  

What was happening is that electromagnetic energy is being capacitivly and inductively coupled from the big coil in the motor, off of that coil and off of the power cord, and onto the steel cage that sits around each IBC.  The charge builds up on that cage, and it’s looking for a discharge path.

By creating a bridge, with my arm leaning against the wet metal cage and my hand in the water, I’m creating a discharge path for this giant capacitor that is created by this system.  Those electrons run back to the water where they belong, giving me a non-fatal shock.  (I’m sure that under the right conditions that shock could be fatal!)

So how did I fix this?  

First, I purchased a receptical tester like this one.  When I plugged it into my power strip at the fishery, it told me that the hot and ground were reversed.  This was my first clue that unnecessary energy was on the ground.

Next I purchased a 15 amp grounding adapter and a section of 1/2 inch copper ground rod.  I also picked up a 1/2 inch ground rod clamp, and some 12AWG copper stranded wire.

I plugged the grounding adapter between the power strip and the extension cord, drove the copper rod into the ground at the fishery, and connected the Earth from the grounding adapter to the ground rod clamp on the ground rod.

When I turned on the system with my first pump installed again, the shock was gone.  I then checked it with my multimeter and read zero potential between the metal and the water.  The radiating energy from the pump is not inductively or capacitively coupling to the metal cage around the IBC tank anymore. Instead, that energy now has a path to travel to ground.

Oh, and the reversal of Hot and Ground shown by the receptical tester? Yea, the house doesn’t have an Earth ground, so there is some coupling to a wire that is basically hanging there like a receive antenna.

Yea, this house needs major electrical work… but it’s a rental, and I’m moving soon.

Now for the warning.

If you are experiencing the same sort of problem, DON’T FIX IT THIS WAY!  USE THE CORRECT METHOD OF REPAIR – the correct repair tool for this job is a certified electrician.

I’m just an electrical engineer who knows just enough to be really dangerous.  As described, this method of fixing a system is not the correct way!   (Maybe you actually have a broken pump, in which case this fix method will result in large pretty sparks!) 

I’m warning you, if you try this on your own, you will get electrocuted and die, your house will burn down, and everything you hold dear WILL be destroyed!


The only reason why I’ve described the problem I experienced, and my temporary fix action, is so that I can point out that everyone’s assertion that, “the pump is broken!” is not always true.  Under the right conditions, which are surprisingly common with a standard IBC setup, you could be creating a sort of battery or capacitor that has the ability to give you a bad shock.  

The correct way to fix this is to have a certified electrician run electricity to your fishery professionally.  This electricty should include a Ground Fault Interruptor, and the electrician may recommend a local ground too.  Talk to them about it.

This is what I will be doing with my next fishery!

And last, if you think your sealed pump has a cracked or open case that is allowing water to the electronics inside, there IS a way to test this.  Use my 5 gallon bucket full of salt water method.  Drop the pump into a bucket of very salty water, then use an ohmmeter between the water in the bucket, and the 3 prongs at the end of the power cord.  If any of those prongs gives you a reading – ESPECIALLY if that reading is under 500,000 ohms – then yes, you have an electrical path from your pump to the water, and you should throw it away.

« Older entries