It’s currently hovering around 100F out (or, at least, was 100F this afternoon at the fair), so what better time to talk about two winters ago then now? It was a record setting winter of snow, and, to make things fun, our first winter in Idaho (well, my first - my wife has dealt with many out here, but not recently).
And everything got stuck. And spent a long while stuck. Even the tractor. Especially the tractor.
So, sit back, relax, and beat the heat wave with some stories about lots and lots of snow (at least, for an area not well equipped to deal with snow).
The problems faced mostly revolved around a comically atypical winter for the area. Usually, out here in southern Idaho, winters have “some snow,” and that snow doesn’t stick around terribly long. What you do pile up out of the way will typically melt before the next snow, and the snows are fairly infrequent (not “snowing nearly every day for several weeks”).
By North Dakota standards, or Buffalo, New York standards, we don’t get much snow at all. But, on the flip side, that means when we do get a lot, we don’t have the equipment to deal with it.
Snow is usually a few inches at a time, so an old tractor with a blade is plenty to clear the bulk of the snow off the driveway. The remaining layer of snow is thin enough that the sun gets down to the gravel, melts the remaining snow, and resets the driveway for the next snow.
So, of course, our first winter out here, everything seemed perfectly normal for the first month or two of the winter. And then it all went wrong.
Plowing the Driveway
The main area of concern for us, in the winter, is getting the driveway cleared. There’s about 1/8 mile of gravel driveway, uphill to the road, and it’s not a big deal to get up - most of the time. The main summer problem is that it washboards up pretty badly in some of the braking zones (the UPS trucks hauling batteries for me are probably at fault here), but that’s easy enough to level out.
One side of the driveway is a fence line with a bit of a rise, and the other side drops off down into a hill. So, for plowing, we always drag the snow towards the hill side. Start along the fence, drag the snow over with the tractor blade, go back up, do this a few more times, and the snow is in a neat windrow along the side of the driveway. So far, so good. In a normal winter, this melts, resets the whole process, and everything goes along smoothly.
The winter in question? Even early in the year, it didn’t quite melt down as it should have. This meant that the driveway got a foot or so narrower, each snow. Not usually a problem when you start with a 20’ driveway (fire code requirements, and not terribly cheap to do when putting in a house) and lose a few feet a winter. But, if you never have a chance to reset it (and don’t realize this early in the winter), this stops working pretty quickly as you run out of driveway to use.
I spent a lot of my winter seeing this particular view - the view forward from what was, at the time, not yet my 1939 Ford 9N tractor. Also, the view from behind the tractor, digging. And from beside the tractor, also digging. This particular winter is a big reason why I decided to buy the tractor and fix it up, because it just didn’t work well enough for heavy winter plowing. The fuel tank leaked, the carburetor was erratic, and midway through the winter, it just decided it was too darn cold to start. Of course, I found this out the morning after heavy drifting snow…
I’d like to tell stories of how I managed to get the old tractor to dig through stuff and clear out the driveway, but the reality is, around the beginning of January, we got a warmer day. And then a cold snap. What this meant, practically, was that the snow on the driveway started melting - and then froze into a solid layer of ice. Luggy tractor ag tires are designed to grip soft dirt very well, and they do a great job of it. They’ll grip fresh snow pretty well, as long as they can get down to dirt. They don’t grip ice well, and they especially don’t grip ice well if there’s a layer of fresh snow on top. They spin. If you spin the tires with a blade full of snow, you get stuck. Badly. It wasn’t fun. Tractors of this era don’t have a limited slip or locking differential. With an open differential, “limited slip” is the fact that you can apply the left or right brakes independently, and slow down the spinning wheel. It doesn’t work that well in practice on 75 year old hardware.
A neighbor up the hill dug us out once with a far more modern tractor with a bucket loader, and then I borrowed that tractor a few times to keep things clear-ish (also, to get a 4WD tractor stuck - because I got everything stuck that winter). The car couldn’t make it up the driveway, the truck could barely make up the driveway, and the Ural could barely make it up the driveway, but we could get out. We did tend to make large grocery runs, assuming that we might be stuck for a while after the next snow and drifting.
The main problem wasn’t actually the raw snowfall - it was the drifting snow! Being on a hill, with lots of grass and field below us, the normal driveway protection is things like the shrubs that grow along it (really, tumbleweed we haven’t cut back), and that normally does a decent enough job of keeping the buildup down. But, when you’ve been shoving snow along the side of the driveway and only have 8’-10’ of driveway left, those don’t matter. What you have left is a big mound of snow. When the wind comes, that forms a perfect drift-generator, and you get a nasty driveway of “I can’t really get through this even with a tractor.”
Things are not improved by tractor that Nopes right out and refuses to start. After getting up very early to clear the driveway one particular Sunday, I spent an hour trying to start the tractor, and failing. I then proceeded to get the Ural very stuck. Following that failure, I decided to try my truck, and… got it stuck. Fortunately, it wasn’t terribly stuck, and after quite a bit of a process that can be described as “bashing my way up the driveway,” I managed to get out. The ruts in the center are my differential housing, or oil pan, or some other part of my truck that really shouldn’t be dragging. I have nice 19.5” wheels, with highway use light truck tires, and they’re awesome, but they do not clear snow out of the treads very well.
Having just built my Solar Shed the previous summer, I got one heck of a winter to test it out! The propane burner was a late addition, and I froze through the first part of the winter realizing that solar panels, on dark cloudy days, don’t generate meaningful amounts of power. I also didn’t have nearly the battery monitoring I have now, so I was just guessing about state of charge and how badly I was draining the battery bank. In retrospect, I could have pulled more heat out of the system by running the batteries lower, but that still won’t heat me through a winter. Propane heat is needed, and I go through a few gallons a winter.
My deck box is not really that short… there’s just a lot of snow. Also, the propane tank on the right is not a 5 gallon tank. It’s a buried 9 gallon tank… The drifts were up to my knees back here.
Also, it turns out that my office was not as well sealed as I’d have preferred. This is what I found one morning getting into my office. I solved it with duct tape, and should really put a proper door sweep in one of these days. It was not a good winter for my office.
One thing I’ve tried to communicate to people who talk about “sun hours a day” in the context of “going off grid” (and I think I usually fail) is just how much winter sucks. An average of so-and-so many sun hours means absolutely nothing when it’s dark and snowy, has been dark and snowy for the past week, and your panels are producing nothing. I got pretty good at clearing my bank (use a 2x4 and don’t actually scrape the panel, but run it along the framing and the rest will melt off eventually), but this is what “solar winter off-grid” looks like. A generator, slowly melting down into the ground, with snow covered panels producing just about nothing.
Mornings in my office weren’t always particularly warm. This is the coldest I saw on a Monday morning - below freezing on the inside, and… well, an awful lot colder on the outside. I try to avoid letting it get below freezing in there, and I didn’t have any sub-freezing mornings this last winter. It was a warmer winter, and I added insulation that helped a lot.
No winter post would be complete without motorcycles! Right? Oh. Wait. No, most reasonable people put them in the garage.
I didn’t have a carport, shed, garage, or shipping container this winter, so my motorcycles spent the winter outside. Here’s what a Buell 1125R looks like, covered in a massive amount of snow. No, I didn’t ride it in this.
I rode my Ural instead! I talk more about winter riding in the link, but if you’ve got a sidecar rig with two wheel drive, why not ride through the winter? You get all the “You rode… in this????” credit, without any of the “If wheels slide, I fall over” problems! Just brush the snow off… brush more snow off… OK, melt snow off the cylinders… bundle up, and ride!
Or get stuck.
It turns out, I cannot judge the depth of snow drifts. It also turns out that the Ural is not a snowmobile. It gets stuck in snow of sufficient depth.
The main limit is the sidecar ground clearance. If you have two wheel drive locked in, the sidecar wheel is driven. This provides useful added traction - right up until the sidecar floats up on a snow drift, leaving you now in one wheel drive, with half the bike riding up on snow. That’s a good way to get stuck. Fortunately, you can stand beside the bike and back it out (it has a reverse gear), and that handle on the sidecar? Yeah, that’s a shovel. When the factory expects you to get stuck, well… you may as well get stuck! But, if I could get out of the driveway, I could ride.
Once spring arrives, you may as well make a Costco run in motorcycle gear - which, let me tell you, gets you some weird looks from the Costco cashiers!
A Stuck Truck
Trying to be helpful when some internet installers showed up (after a week of my other internet service having been entirely down - maybe 5% uptime), I moved my truck to the top of the driveway and… got it stuck too. And then tried to get it unstuck, and mostly managed to get it even more stuck. And very near a telephone pole.
Earlier, I mentioned my wife having grown up around here. She has far more experience getting things unstuck than I do, because she’s had far, far more vehicles stuck than I have. A (large) container of ferret litter and some digging later, and she’d created some paths I was able to get out on.
This is what a winter road looks like out here when the plows have broken down from excessive use. This is one of many reasons I’m skeptical about camera based self driving cars. If you had good LIDAR maps of the area, you could probably figure it out where the road should be based on telephone poles, mailboxes, and the like, but that’s an awful lot of data that would have to be collected before something could drive out here in the winter. And, for fun, toss a cow on the road somewhere. It’s possible, but I’m still teaching my kids to drive everything they can get their hands on - and that’s a pretty wide range of vehicles!
A Disappearing Moisture Sensor
One project that has fallen by the wayside is a solar and battery based moisture sensor I’m working on (and expanding into a more general property sensor module). It has a WiFi antenna. That antenna, at the start of the winter, was still quite visible.
By the end of winter… well, that antenna was mostly hidden. The unit actually transmitted throughout most of the winter! It was into mid January, and a month and a half of being covered in snow, before it finally stopped transmitting. Mostly, that tells me I had way, way too much battery in it. But, I’m working on it, and will hopefully have something useful before next summer with that unit. I’m just behind on projects…
Finally, a few interesting pictures that just don’t fit elsewhere.
Drift cuts! This is what happens after a very windy night and a lot of snow.
And a very full sliding door. You can see the snow outside the screen door, plus a large pile of snow inside the screen, against the glass. I’d never seen this sort of behavior before!
Spring Finally Sprung
And, after far too long of fighting the snow pretty much every day, things finally warmed up and started to melt. Or, since we didn’t yet have road mix around the house, turn into mud. Gloppy, sloppy, sticky mud. Which, of course, I rode through.
Last winter was far, far better. In addition to it being a milder winter, we had road mix (so around our house wasn’t quite as muddy), I’d worked on the tractor extensively to make it run reliably, and… well, I have Plan B.
And, again, if you live somewhere that gets a lot of snow, your reaction to all this was probably, “Huh? That’s barely any snow at all!” - and, yes, you’re right. But you also probably have proper snow removal equipment, which this area doesn’t. The nearby city started winter with 4 working plow trucks, and by the end, they had 1 working - 24/7 operation didn’t go well, and it’s normally not a problem that they have.
… also, no, I didn’t have any interesting technical posts completed this week. We’re still working out details of schedules with the new kid.