Ice, Propane, Magma and Money

Reader Contribution by Staff
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I don’t make my living on the farm. It’s a good thing.

Last summer I installed automatic waterers — insulated ones with a float that closes the opening. When my livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, mule and donkey) need a sip, they push the float aside. The float not only insulates the water in cold weather, but the turbulence caused by the drinking animals prevents ice crystals from forming. A valve controls the water level.

My favorite waterers are made by a company called Miraco with plastic spherical floats that the animals push aside to get a drink. But if you make the mistake I did — setting the water level too low — the float isn’t high enough to close the opening.

My waterer froze solid.

I dragged an old trough out of the barn and hauled it out to the pasture. I untangled my stiff hoses and put them in the house to thaw and dribble muddy water on the floor. I didn’t actually notice the mess, but my wife did.

The cattle were thirsty. I decided I shouldn’t wait for the hoses to thaw. I got in the car and headed for town.

At the hardware store I bought a portable propane heater. The display model was on sale, so I bought it, took it home and unhooked the propane tank from the barbecue only to find that the attachments were different. I couldn’t connect my propane tank to my heater.

In the meantime, the hoses were soft enough to stretch them out, so I hooked up about 300 feet of hose. That brought me within about 20 feet of the pasture. I drove to town, bought a hose, brought it home hooked it up and started filling the trough.

Then I got back in the car and headed to the hardware store. Somehow, when they put my discount unit on sale they misplaced the attachments and now they couldn’t provide me with any way of hooking the heater up to a propane tank.

I drove to the farm store to find the attachments. Instead, I found a propane heater twice as big for just a little more money — and all the attachments I needed. Just in case, I bought a new tank full of propane.

I stopped off at the hardware store and got a refund on the little heater.

At home, the hoses had been running in to the trough for about an hour. That means it had been overflowing for about 40 minutes. The frozen pasture now included a quarter of an acre of semi-frozen manure gumbo. I shut off the water and set up my new propane heater in the ooze.

As you can probably guess, writing comes more easily to me than engineering (or farming, or car repair, or plumbing). That’s why it mystifies me that manufacturers so often redesign their machines, then don’t get around to updating their instruction manuals. I spent 45 minutes looking for the valve the manual told me I should use to ignite the pilot light on my new propane heater. Turns out, the contraption had been redesigned without a valve or a pilot and all I needed to do was open the valve on the tank and light the heater. The manufacturer could have changed one sentence. One sentence.

It was a cold day, of course, and by the time the propane heater was lit, the hoses were stiff again. It took about an hour to crease them into an awkward pile that I could drag back to the house. Whew.

Then I went back to check on the progress my propane blaster was making with the frozen waterer. One side of the black plastic shell of my new waterer had melted and flowed in a petroleum magma across around the base of the reservoir, exposing the insulation underneath. Inside, the water was still frozen solid. I turned off the heater and took it to the barn.

By this time, the cows had come up and had a good drink out of the trough. I went inside, turned on the TV and gratefully listened to the Weather Channel’s forecast: Sunny and warm tomorrow.

Then I did a little accounting:

Propane heater: $70
Propane tank: $28
Hose: $12
Three trips to town, 14 miles total x 35 cents a mile (conservatively), about $5.
Six hours x $6 an hour (I’m not worth it, but I would have to pay at least that to replace me), $36
Melted waterer: $640
Plumber to install new one: $400

That’s about $1,200 for my little error with the float adjustment, compounded by all my other mistakes. I wish I could say this sort of thing is unusual. I told my wife, Carolyn, about my figuring. She did this little thing she does where she stitches her eyebrows together without changing the rest of her face. It means she’s not going to say the thing she really wants to say.

The next day, I took a roll of black duct tape out and taped up the waterer. It looked almost as good as new. So I took $1,000 off my estimate of damages. Then I started thinking about all the times I would need a good propane heater in years to come. Good investment. The hose I obviously will need.

And some guys spend a bunch of dough maintaining their boats and golf-club memberships, right?

I went back and described my reasoning for Carolyn. She gave me a nice little pat on the head.

Photo by Bryan Welch