So I woke up at quarter to four this morning and immediately knew there was something wrong with the new space heater. It was noticeably cool in the bedroom, and you know, the space heater is supposed to make that not happen.
Since I had just replaced the propane bottle yesterday morning – the last time the space heater stopped working – and particularly since the bottle now in service was the brand-new bottle, I jumped to a conclusion as to what had caused this little problem. After getting Little Bear squared away I suited up and went out in the dark to exchange bottles. Again.
Good news/Bad news: The new bottle wasn’t empty. Guesstimating by weight, I’d say it’s completely full. Therefore something bad is happening. Something expensive. But to eliminate the bottle as a cause of the problem I went ahead and swapped them out, then went inside and tried to light the pilot.
Let it be said that this does not comprise anything like an emergency. The space heater was never intended to replace the woodstove. Heating the cabin as a whole is and will remain all about the woodstove.
But, especially since learning how useful a propane heater is when you get sick enough to be no longer capable of keeping a woodstove burning, I’m fond of that space heater. It has only one major disadvantage from an off-grid perspective: It’s full of machinery I really don’t understand.
Living off grid there is only one law. Murphy’s Law. It covers pretty much everything.
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Now, some people get Murphy’s Law wrong. It’s not a counsel of despair. It’s a directive. Since anything that can go wrong will go wrong, all objects fall into a series of categories determined by how you must behave toward them. For example:
Things that must work
Things you can get along without
The category “things that must work” then settles into a pair of sub-sets:
Things you can fix when they break
Things that must be replaced when they break
When you live off-grid in the boondocks, like it or not you are your own general contractor. Also, your environment is set on a malevolent mission to break all your stuff. You can expect to be called upon to fix things at any hour of the day or night and in all weather conditions, especially bad ones. This will either drive you so crazy you eventually move to Portland and bore big holes in your earlobes, or you’ll learn to relax and just sort of know where your wrenches are.
You can’t keep Murphy at bay, but you can plan things to make the battle against him a tolerable stalemate. Two principles: Simplicity and Redundancy.
Murphy’s Law could be re-stated something like, “The more things there are to go wrong, the more things will go wrong.” Keeping it completely simple isn’t always practical or desirable, but keep it as simple as practical. Example: If you’re supplying your own water, you will need some method of pressurizing the water to induce it to flow usefully through pipes. This can be done with an expensive and power-hungry pump and pressure tank arrangement, with a correspondingly complex system of pipes and valves. Or, if you have a hill, you can just put your water tank on a hill. I’ve seen it done both ways. They both work, but I know which way gets the most service calls.
This business of simplicity’s effect on reliability is hardly a new observation. It’s probably as old as the concept of machines. Marine engineer Alfred Holt said in 1877,
It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific …. Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity.
The desert has this in common with the ocean: It’s always trying to break your stuff.
In building stuff around the Gulch I try to keep this in mind: Keep it as simple as practical, and wherever possible stick to things I know how to maintain and repair. When I installed a vented, thermostat-controlled heater in the new cabin addition, I was aware that I was violating both those rules. So I fell back on my second principle for making off-grid life endurable…
I woke this morning to find bedroom temperature in the low forties. Since I had just installed a brand-new and untried propane bottle, I assumed that was the problem. (Corollary to the KISS Principle: In diagnosis, check the simplest thing first.) So I went out and swapped out the propane bottle. Could have been a leak had emptied the bottle (no), could have been a defective valve on the bottle (apparently no). The pilot light still wouldn’t light. Okay, possibly there’s a problem with the flexible pipe, if something crushed it. Could be a defective pressure regulator. I’ll check both those things when it warms up outdoors. I have spares for both.
I do not, however, have a spare gas valve or thermocouple, and a defect in either of those will turn off the pilot. I’ve never seen a gas valve fail (though if you believe it can’t happen, go back up and re-read Murphy’s Law) but I really should have obtained a spare thermocouple before now because they do fail. Bottom line, if the problem isn’t in the pipe or the regulator, I’m out of luck for luxurious bedroom temperatures for a while.
Then for a while I’ll just have to fall back on the woodstove, the operation of which is as simple as lighting a pile of sticks with a match. I have lots of matches.