Saturday, March 10, 2012

the straw chopper pt. 1

I can't remember exactly when, but i had a plane ticket waiting for me to return to philadelphia. As things continued to go well at aprovecho i was encouraged to stay for longer, so i wrote another proposal- work 4 days a week doing construction on the main hall, and one day a week on bike machines, for a year. It was accepted and so i stayed.

The project that i jumped into next would end up being the most significant work that i did while at apro. I didn't know that at the time. It was a loooong process, lots of experimentation, some false starts, and eventually a completely unique machine. I'm not sure of the exact amount of time that went into the straw chopper, but it was definitely several months. Far too much for a single post. Its going to have to be in parts.

So, part one.

Ash, a visiting natural builder, and Chris, the resident natural builder, independently and simultaneously came up with the same idea- what if there were a bike machine to chop straw for cob construction? (Straw is added to clay and sand to create a sturdy building material called cob) The current natural building industry standard was to stick a gas powered weed whacker into a metal trash can full of straw and cover it with a tarp. Loud, smelled terrible, and, well, not particularly in line with the philosophy of natural building. The more expensive alternative is a special electric machine designed specifically for shredding straw. It would be ideal if i could create a pedal powered means to achieve this same end.

Chris asked me to sketch up some ideas, i came up with something that looked a lot like maya pedal's corn de-kerneler except what sat at your side was a set of reel mower blades inside of a hopper. The straw would be fed from the top and shoot out the bottom onto a tarp, or into a bin. Ash and Chris took a look at what i drew, Ash suggested that it be designed like an electric coffee grinder- blades spinning fast at the bottom of a basin. We discussed how that might happen (keeping in mind that i was limited to whatever i could find in the scrap pile by the shop) and concluded that there probably wasn't a good way to do this without having to buy several significant pieces of the puzzle. We continued brainstorming and Ash said, you know, what you've drawn looks a lot like that chipper shredder that's sitting down in the bike shed. We discussed it for a little bit, Chris, looking uncomfortable, reluctantly said well it seems like that's the best thing to use. So that was the plan.

I pulled the chipper out of the shed and had a look at it. It had a hopper allright, and some blades too. Fairly complex in terms of the engine (well, complex for me). I wasn't quite sure how this was going to work, but i knew how to find out- take it apart.

The thing was heavy, too heavy for me to lift safely. So i made a ramp and wheeled it up onto a table where i could get better access.

It occurred to me that i ought to drain it of its gasoline before pulling it apart. Didn't seem wise to potentially dump a bunch of gasoline on the floor. Probably also wasn't wise to try to siphon the gas out of the tank. Especially since i didn't know what i was doing. I tried using a bicycle tube, bad idea, ended up with a mouth full of gasoline.

Knowing gas is bad for you in a general sense, i didn't want to take any risks, so i stuffed my mouth full of wood shavings to try and soak up whatever didn't get spit out.

But then i had a mouth full of wood shavings. So to get the wood shavings out of my mouth i tried rinsing it out with water. But the water was rain water in an abandoned coffee can, that had been sitting out for months. In my rush i didn't notice... its taste. So, apro has these composting toilets right, which are basically a 5 gallon bucket that gets emptied into a large composting bin. And its the emptying of the bucket that is the worst part of the whole process, particularly the smell. This water tasted like that smell. I assumed the worst and ran up to the strawbale to wash my mouth out with iodine.

I called the CDC. Which is crap, by the way, its just a stupid robot that tells you to look at their website. And the website tells you to go to a hospital. Fuck that, i'm poor. I'll ask Ash, he's an engineer. He assured me from growing up in Louisiana, and sometimes getting mouthfuls of gasoline, that i'd be fine. And i was. But i was also done for the day.

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