Going Underground

The XYL is right (for once): I have done a lot of work since spring. First I finished the field day mobile mast installation in May. Early July I traded the X-frame base that holds a pole for a concrete foundation. Next I finished and installed the new small tilt over tower and *drumroll* I finally buried the conduit that takes a bunch of cables across the garden.

This last job was supposed to be done three years ago when we bought the extra lot. But the guy with the excavator broke his word and didn’t come before the new fence was installed. Once the garden was closed, there was no way anymore to enter with a big machine. That left me three options: do nothing, dig by hand or find a smaller mechanized-motorized alternative. The last option would have to be mini because even a medium sized machine would damage the garden.

I’m not afraid of manual digging and I have done my share. Even as a toddler I liked digging holes in my dad’s vegetable garden. Wearing a kid sized overall like the real workers. The record was as deep as I was tall. But this time it meant digging half a meter deep, thirty five to forty meter long through very dense and heavy soil. There are a few companies around that rent small trenching machines. That was it! The smallest fitted my trailer and could easily be driven through the gate and would not turn the lawn into a war zone. Another rental firm had a movie that showed the machine in action. A nice clean cut, a neat heap of loose excavated soil nicely on the side and apart from the trench, the lawn survived unscathed. Little did I know that this was quite a misleading infomercial!

I booked the machine for a day in June when both the XYL and me had a day off. I like some company and a helping hand. I booked the trenching machine for half a day. The trip to and from the company would take an hour to pick it up. And another hour to take it back. I planned an hour of digging and half an hour of pressure wash cleaning. I hooked up the trailer at sunrise and we left home early. We dropped the kids at school way before the bell rang. The forecast put showers on the WX menu but so far it was dry. All went according to plan and by 9 AM I had the machine in place in my backyard and the engine was roaring. It had taken me some time to figure out how to handle the beast but finally I was ready to lower the blade and slice through the dirt. And then it started drizzling. Which soon turned into rain.

To say that we had a wet spring would be an understatement. For a few weeks in May and June, record breaking showers brought liters of rain. This rendered the soil very wet up to more than half a meter deep. And the top layer was soaking wet. As soon as the blade descended into the hole I had dug as a starting point, the machine operator (that’s me!) descended into hell. Unlike in the movie, the machine didn’t bring up a nice portion of loose soil. Instead I got a sticky ball of clay. I hadn’t moved an inch and yet the machine was dirty all over. And dirt all over the lawn too. Faint heart never won fair lady so full throttle and let the blade grind. It started raining heavily so I knew I was in for a muddy ride.

Next problem: there was hardly a ride! The wheels did nothing but slipping over the soaked lawn. The wheels buried themselves instead of moving backwards to dig a trench. No grip whatsoever. I started, no: I exploded into a raging fireball of cursing and swearing. Nothing I could do but try to move a bit, then go back and retry. Soon there was more damage from the wheels than anything else. The machine just sank into the lawn, creating huge holes. Frustrating. Suddenly digging by hand looked appealing. I could do that whenever it was dry and it would have left the lawn intact because I could put the clods with the grass on top back and have a clean garden.

It was then I realized I had been misled by the accompanying video. It’s easy to dig a trench in light and bone-dry soil under a pleasant sun. Then shoot a movie to show how easy and clean it is. In the real world (the one I happen to live in) it becomes a mess when you do it in heavy soaked soil when it’s raining cats and dogs. But the machine was here, the damage was already done and I needed to hurry. Hurrying usually isn’t a good idea – more on that later.

I decided to move the machine to the other side of the garden, where I had planned to finish. That way I could take a clean start and advance in the other direction. The XYL kicked down an open door: “put some boards under the wheels”. As if I hadn’t thought of that myself but I didn’t have anything that came remotely close to use for this purpose. Except for the ramps I rented along to get the machine on and off the trailer. That was it! I took the two aluminum trailer ramps and let the machine drive on that instead of on the lawn. I had to move forward every meter and a half to relocate the ramps but this way the machine actually moved and didn’t dig itself into the ground. Once I had figured out the routine, I was able to finish the job in due time. Actually a little over the budgeted time but I had built in some leeway in the schedule.

During my muddy adventure the XYL had already installed the pressure washer. This was a vital tool as well. After all the terms of the rental stipulated I had to return it spic and span. It was a fairly new machine with the paint still shiny and clean. A least until I started my work. Now I needed to get all the dirt off and make it shine again. As with all jobs, this took longer than anticipated. The pressure washer only worked intermittently. I use this device only once or twice a year and just like always there were some small dirt particles clogging the nozzle. Poke it, wash it. Poke it, wash it. After a few poking cycles the nozzle got freed up and the pressure washer worked at full duty cycle. The dirt stuck stubbornly and huge chunks of lawn were flying around. Me: wet from the rain, wet from the washing, wet from the sweating. Once the trenching machine and the ramps were clean, I took a wet cloth and started wiping and drying the operating console and the joysticks. If I didn’t want to pay for a whole day, we’d better hurry and move the machine on the trailer and get going.

I turned on (or off – depending how you look at it) the ignition safety and pulled the cord to start the engine. It took two tries, I yanked the starter a third time but the engine didn’t start. Which was weird because it started right away the other times I had pulled the cord. I checked the fuel level – more than half full. I was getting pretty annoyed by the impending deadline to return this devilish machine. And so I pulled the cord with my typical enthusiasm and power. The engine didn’t start but I broke the starting cord. Yet another round of profanity for all to enjoy. Now what?

My wife asked from a safe distance: “Did you move that switch into the on position”? Of course I did. “Then why is it still off?”, she replied. Like a raging bull I ran to the machine, called her close and finger-pointed at the ignition switch which I had set in the on position. “No, not that switch, THIS switch here – it’s still off”. HUH? WHAT switch? As it turns out there is an emergency switch on the backside of the operating panel. I didn’t notice it and I accidentally must have hit it with the cloth when cleaning the console. I did wipe the backside clean but did not look at it. That’s why the engine didn’t start when I yanked the cord. But Lady Hawk Eye had seen this switch.

Returning the machine in time became impossible. Returning it at any point in time was impossible as long as the engine wouldn’t start. I can hold my own in French but this time I asked my sweetheart to do the call. I was too effed up to talk in French. The rental company is in the French speaking part of the country and they don’t speak any Dutch there. Hell, they speak nothing but French there. Apparently these guys weren’t too eager to send a repair tech. Soon the talk got too technical and the XYL handed over her phone and walked away. Left to my own devices. They wanted me to unmount the starter, go there for a repair, come home to mount the fixed starter, and then load up the machine and take it back. That meant the rest of the day commuting and burning diesel. I got some quick guidelines over the phone on how to dismantle the starter. They must have taken me for an idiot because all it took was loosening three M8 bolts and take off the cover. My area of expertise does not cover combustion motors and I certainly don’t perform surgery on a machine that isn’t mine but for which I did pay a 300 Euro warrant. As it turns out, the part they wanted me to bring in for repair was a small spool with a piece of rope and the other piece of cord that broke off. If this is all there is to it, it’s something I can fix myself. Err, no I can’t. Fingers too fat and rope too small so I called in the XYL. She tied the loose ends together and wound up the rope. I reassembled the starter and tried starting the engine. Nothing to lose. All I can do is win. This time with the emergency switch disengaged of course. It took a few pulls because the rope was now shorter and it was hard to get the motor over the critical point. But I heard the engine was eager to start. I couldn’t yank too hard because that would either break the cord again or loosen the knot. But then the engine started and I ecstatically drove it up the ramps and onto the trailer. In the end the company did only charge me half a day and did refund the complete deposit. Neither did they charge me for the broken cord. Which I guess is more the southern style of the country: laid back and relaxed. That’s why I forgive them their monolingualism ☺☺

As it turns out, as soon as the digging was done, the sky cleared up and it stopped raining for the rest of the day. Apart from the bad start I was quite happy. In two places I had to deepen the trench a few inches by scooping out dirt with a pickaxe. And apart from the place where I didn’t use the ramps to drive the machine on, the lawn was pretty intact. Now I needed to get the conduit in. I chose to put all the wire and cables in the conduit first before laying it in the trench. It was a gamble but I wanted to put as much copper in the 50mm tube as possible. That means: one RG-213, one RG-217 (1/2”), one 3G1.5, one 3G2.5 and one ‘two pair balanced audio’. A remainder of my career as broadcast service techie. This is in fact two shielded twisted pairs. Good to drive some relays or so. I have no clue what I’m going to do with all this. But it opens up perspectives now that all these cables run from the garage to the most remote part of the garden. Out of sight and out of reach. The RX loop antenna had booked one coax already.

All this copper makes for a long and heavy sausage. I had to call in the XYL a few times to squeeze this copper baloney through the conduit. In retrospect I shouldn’t have asked her that. She’s strong but simply lacks the muscles for this kind of job. And I get cranky because can’t see why something that goes for me doesn’t go for anyone else. We had to do this job two times: once to get the whole length into the conduit and then the excess length into another existing conduit that I put underground when we rednewed the terrace in 2009. Even my wife, who is always friendly, reverted to world class Olympic gold medal winning profanity while she was cursing me and I quote: ‘your F***ING cables’. I was proud that she finally swore along with me. I was the ‘swearee’ but that’s a small price to pay.

The cables terminate into a metal powder coated cabinet. This is put in the concrete floor of the dog’s kennel with four threaded rods size M8 and chemical anchoring. And two and a halve tubes of silicon sealant. I gave the cabinet two coats of quality paint and I put several cable glands on it. Even two big ones where I can put an RG-213 through that has a PL or N style plug already attached. That makes it easy to get runs of spare coax in and out of the cabinet without cutting and soldering.

My dad had half a trailer of dry, light and fertile soil in excess. I picked that up and distributed it on top of the closed trench and used it to fill the holes. This light dirt is ideal to get the lawn seed germinating. My youngest of four and a half helped me out to sow the grass. It took three weeks of daily watering to cover all the dirt with fresh green grass. Done!

This is one of the projects that take a huge amount of time to finish. I’m glad it’s finally done and I hope to harvest the fruits of my labor in the coming years.

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