A good idea keeps us going all winter

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An internal-combustion engine can be difficult to start in cold weather. The oil in the engine thickens, and the engine resists turning over. Batteries deliver less electricity to starter motors when they are cold, and less electricity to turn the engine over compounds the starting problem.

Plugging in an electric engine heater will keep the motor and the battery warm, and the motor will usually start in cold weather. A weak battery can be recharged or boosted with a battery charger.

But when we took care of a cattle ranch in northeastern Oregon's Blue Mountains, we had no electricity, so engine heaters and battery chargers didn't do us any good. In the eight winters we lived there, we always had at least two weeks when nights fell to 40 degrees below zero, and many other below-zero nights. We tried not to travel in very cold weather, but it was sometimes necessary. I wanted to be able to start our pickup in any emergency.

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The big barn, about 100 yards from the house, had a dirt floor. I dug a ditch inside, extending out through the big double doors. I laid a steel culvert in the ditch, and I covered the culvert with dirt. I left an opening at the beginning of the culvert. When it looked as if cold weather would hit, I parked the pickup in the barn, over the buried culvert.

Cold weather hit. Our four-wheel-drive pickup sat high enough, so it wasn't hard to slide under it. I built a small fire in the opening in front of the culvert I had buried. At the other end of the culvert, outside the barn, I placed a stovepipe. I propped up the pipe and filled around its junction with the culvert with dirt.

I pushed the fire farther into the culvert. It began to draw air in for combustion. The smoke traveled the length of the culvert and exited through the stovepipe that extended about 10 feet above the ground, far enough outside the barn to avoid danger of fire from the heated pipe or from sparks exiting with the smoke.

I fed the fire more wood and covered the entrance to the culvert with some sheet metal roofing and then with dirt, leaving just enough open space so the fire drew air in and kept burning. I visited and refueled the fire several times during the night. Enough heat rose through the dirt over the culvert to keep the engine warm. In the morning, I pulled the stovepipe out of the way, started the pickup, and drove it out of the barn, then covered the hole where the stovepipe had exited. Laura, my wife, and Juniper and Amanda, our daughters, and I drove to town for supplies, for evening concerts, for church in a pickup that never failed to start.

I modified my fire-in-the-ground system as winter progressed. I placed wood, sheet metal, and cardboard around the front and sides of the pickup to keep most of the heat under the truck and to avoid its dispersion into the large, cold barn interior. I thinned the dirt over the top of the culvert so the heat lingered less in the soil and rose to the truck more rapidly. I extended the firebox to one side so I could feed it without crawling under the pickup.

Pine beetles had killed hundreds of cords of lodgepole along the ranch's west and south boundaries, and I had begun to cut that dead wood into firewood for our own use and to sell, to supplement the small wage I received as ranch caretaker. I had plenty of wood for my engine heater.

The next summer, I bought a propane-fired torch, a hose to hook the torch to a tank, and a five-gallon tank. I had agreed to pile and burn the limbs and tops of dead trees (called slash), that littered the ground after I cut and took away the firewood. The torch was the most effective way to ignite the piles of slash.

When the outdoors was wet enough or snow-covered enough that it was safe to burn slash piles, I lay the flaming torch in a pile and cut wood or piled more slash nearby so I could glance at the torch periodically while I worked. When the pile was burning well, I pulled out the torch and placed it in the next pile. The days of trying repeatedly to get a wet pile burning were behind me, and I was able to cut more wood while I burned slash.

The days of building a fire in my buried-in-the-ground heater in the barn were also behind me. I had enjoyed the process of building and using the heater, but the torch saved time and work, and I could heat the pickup engine enough to start it in an hour or two. I could also heat the pickup wherever I had parked it.

I slid a piece of stovepipe under the engine and placed the burning torch into the pipe, so the flame was shielded from direct contact with the truck. Then I leaned wood and cardboard around the front of the truck so the heat from the torch was not carried away too rapidly.

I walked back into the house, ate breakfast, helped everyone get ready to go to town, or whatever else needed doing for an hour or more, then walked out, started the truck, and put the torch and all my shielding materials away. We loaded everything we needed into the pickup, then loaded ourselves, and we drove warmly through winter weather for fuel to feed our kerosene lamps, for groceries to feed our bodies, for books to feed our minds, for companionship with other people.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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