Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Right Choice - Hydraulics

There was a minute or two, at a certain point in time, where I actually said aloud, "worst case, I'll dig the trench with a pick axe." Then came the trench machine debate: would the machine handle our stony ground? should we get the largest ride-on model? And at the last minute, while on the phone last week renting the machine, the wise man on the other end said "I would rent a mini-excavator for this job." A backhoe. So that's what we did. And it was a damn good thing that we decided to.

Friday evening, I pulled into the driveway and there it was, parked. Minutes later, Erika and her mom pulled up. And 20 minutes after that, my parents and my sister Sarah arrived. It didn't take long for my Dad to get me to start up the machine, drive it 'round back and take a sample dig. Oooh, that was nice. Effortlessly, a 1' hole, large rocks and all.

Up and at 'em Saturday morning. My dad and I located where the main water pipe enters the house from the well, and dug it out a bit so we could see where it crossed the incoming trench's path. Then, Erika joined us for the staking out of the exact location of where we'd put the concrete slab for the furnace. We ran some string along the projected path back to the house. Next, the big ground breaking.

The backhoe took some time to get used to. For digging, there are two joysticks - one on each hand. Right hand out tilts the bucket out, right hand in tilts the bucket inward. Right hand forward extends the arm, inward retracts the arm. Left hand out raises the arm, left hand in lowers it. Left hand in and out swivels the entire cab up to 360 degrees. Mobility is achieved using the two levers, one for each tread. Once you get the hang of it, each hand is controlling two motions. Digging was slow-going at first, and the machine would bounce around, sometimes tipping up on its toes or back on its heels. Slightly unnerving at times, but you learn to work that weight. By lunch time, I was confident that we'd be able to pick up the pace and get the trench dug out in another hour or two.

3 feet is a deep trench, my friends. Doesn't sound too deep, but it is. And another thing: we've got rocks. Big ones. I don't think we'd have had an easy time lifting them up and over the trench walls if we were using anything else but this machine.

By the time the day was out, I was able to move the arm and bucket with good accuracy, working and picking rocks, scraping earth within a few inches of the exposed water line.

Erika's dad arrived late in the afternoon, and we all gave some thought to how we'd run the conduit for the water and electric to and from the furnace. Trench dug, we washed up and mom mixed up some margaritas and we had some snacks before cooking a whole bunch of chicken over the fire pit.

We got up early Sunday morning, had some eggs out at the picnic table, and put together the parts list for the conduit that we needed to lay in the trench. We were lucky enough to be able to buy everything we needed right down the road at the True Value hardware store. Those guys have been invaluable to us in terms of assistance, advice, and patience.

We also bought the cement for the 7'X5'X6" slab. Ideally, this would have been bought over at the aggregates place on the tracks, but for a few reasons (mainly mechanical) we didn't do it this way. So, we bought 30 - yep, 30 - 80lb bags and loaded 'em on the pick up. 100' of drain tile, 70 feet of plastic water pipe (conduit for the electric), rope for snaking, and Erika's mom and dad bought us some more required gear, like a step ladder, sledge hammer, and cold chisel. Yay! Thanks!

By the time we got back, Seth (Erika's brother) and Tammy (Seth's girlfriend) were awake and out of their tent. Seth and Marty started trying to punch through the poured cement foundation of the house (a task they'd later accept defeat over - and who could blame them? they hit a boulder lodged in the middle of the foundation) and my dad and I cleaned the trench, laid the conduit and snaked ropes through 'em.

Dad and Erika shoveled dirt and sod over the conduits to provide some padding for the heavy rocks that were definitely going to tumble down on top of them during the back filling, then I started up the backhoe and used the blade to bulldoze the dirt back down into the trench, over the conduit. Seth and Tammy took turns on the backhoe for a while too because who wouldn't want to ride this cool thing? Also used the machine to tamp down the area where the slab will go.

With the trench back filled, my dad and I started building the form for the pad out of scrap planks. Eventually, my dad and Marty took this job (they ended up using a sheet of plywood and some 2x4 pieces to build a more consistent form) while Seth and I unloaded the cement bags from the truck.

With the form built and leveled, the truck unloaded, and half the people in attendance already showered up and thinking dinner, we called it quits and got ready for the evening snacks and margaritas (thanks mom!). Erika's already filled you in on the amazing chicken and eggplant feast that ensued, and then we celebrated well into the night around a blazing fire.

We're so constantly touched, amazed, and grateful to everything our families are doing for us to make this project successful and fun.

- John

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