At best, elective waterline work in Montana in December is risky, especially in light of the fact that said work has languished on my to-do list for at least two years. No matter, the excavator arrived early in the month, and we are now the proud owners of an earth-warmed, automatic, livestock waterer. This singular waterer does not eliminate the need for dragging hoses here and there and draining them twice after every use during most of the year, but it will reduce our power usage and our workload.
On the surface, the project was straightforward: dig a hole, install the components, attach water lines, and fill the hole. That simplification downplays the minefield of demon difficulties hidden among the details, beginning with our preliminary arm-strong demolition.
First, the old cistern shed, housing an unusable concrete water trough, a fatally cracked, concrete cistern, an electric fence charger and associated wiring, and decades of accumulated detritus, had to be emptied and torn down. Jim dealt with the electrical stuff, detaching wires, relocating and reconnecting the charger, and pulling an assortment of grounding rods, some of which required tractor power. I tore down most of the shed and the parts of two corral pens that we had built around the shed 30 years ago. That understates the physical labor. Suffice it to say that multiple hammers, crowbars, tamping bars, vise grips, screwdrivers, wrenches of all sorts and sizes were needed, often in tandem, along with brute force. Cans full of nails, spikes, screws, nuts & bolts, washers, and various home-built fasteners accumulated before we bared the foundation and were ready for machine demolition.
Although the foundational concrete had lots of cracks and heaved surfaces, its rebar reinforcement and heavy, thick construction made the excavator grunt, but at last we got down to dirt and were ready to work toward our two larger goals.
First, we replaced the leaking frost-free hydrant and installed a curb stop for it. The contractor supplied the new hydrant. I don’t know how deeply it was intended to be buried, but at the depth of our waterline, a ladder or stilts would have been needed for turn on and shut off. The need to replace that extra-tall version with a size-medium caused a two day delay to accommodate the supplier’s weekend hours. And, yes, we knew that December was marching on.
Second, we installed the waterer and its curb stop in those four simple steps mentioned previously. Annoyingly, each step called for creative adaptations and required trial runs—that is runs to town and practice-makes-perfect runs.
According to factory specs, polyethelene pipe was needed to carry water vertically from our main waterline through the interior of the waterer’s long earth tube to the valve at the bottom of the drinking bowl. The manual conveniently omitted psi specs for that pipe. To avoid bogging down in numbers and hyperbole, I again opt for understatement: A rating of 250 psi on the contractor-supplied pipe was monumentally too high, making it astronomically too stiff to work with! Substitution of impossible pipe with manageable pipe, in combination with all sorts of adjustments in fixtures and connectors to accommodate differing inside and outside diameters caused further delays . . . not fatal stoppages but, yes, we were keenly aware that winter solstice was approaching.
And then there was my calculation of the hole depth needed for installation. Based on my experience trying to teach junior high students to use rulers, I should have been skeptical of an eighteen year old helper wielding a tape measure. However, I’m cowardly about descending into or leaning over holes that might cave. As a result, we had to install the waterer twice. (Visualize lowering large-diameter, heavy, overlapping tubes to a recipient standing in a narrow, deep hole.) On Installation #1, the drinking bowl ended up at a height appropriate for giraffes or arboreal guzzlers. So we reversed the process: we hoisted the awkward tubes out of the hole, I double-checked my calculations, and the excavator went back to work for Installation #2. This time I kept track of hole depth and, indeed, 80” was spot on, yielding a waterer that protruded 20” above the surface before we top-dressed it with gravel. Perfect!
Now, a month later, the verdict on the waterer is still out. We’ve not yet had deep cold to test the limits of earth warming. The ground remains too soft to plant permanent posts for fences that will subdivide access to the waterer such that it can be used from three corrals, but temporary wire panels and metal posts will work until the disturbed depths settle. And yes, the ewes share with Dozer.
Just before Christmas, electrical issues got our attention. In hindsight, what seemed like a damned nuisance—a low-tire-pressure warning light on Jim’s car—became a blessing. When the shop air compressor refused to power up to give those tires a check, Jim took it to the garage to plug into another outlet. As the compressor again sputtered, kitchen appliances began beeping, surging, and cutting out. We unplugged everything and called Sun River Electric Co-op; a two-man crew arrived a short time later. Of course, snow was whipping in horizontally while the bucket man repaired the wind-fatigued grounding line on our main pole.
That, however, was not the cause of our surges and outages. Thankfully, the crew persevered and literally sniffed out the problem: old shop wiring had entangled, shorted out, and was charring the wall. They shut off the power to the shop but left the line attached in an effort to support the old power pole that was listing noticeably. Before they left, Jim soaked the charred wall. Later, we plugged in appliances, enjoyed our Christmas lights, and slept peacefully. Had the short continued, we would have awakened to a fiery disaster that would have consumed our shop and all tools within, the 4-wheeler, the skid steer parked in an adjoining lean-to, plus the old farm truck with its bulk fuel tank parked next door, as well as our adjacent winter firewood supply.
Now, during these first days of the new year, we are counting our blessings yet again. After the Co-op’s initial trouble-shooting two weeks ago, I monitored the old power pole’s evermore-apparent lean; three days ago, high wind warnings convinced me that we must buttress it with the tractor loader until our scheduled date with the electrician. Though our legendary Chinook winds pushed, sturdy loader arms resisted, hydraulics held, and the old pole stayed close enough to vertical to keep all three of its attached power lines aerial. Today, in the safe embrace of an auger truck, it popped out of the ground like a watermelon seed, riddled with rot and fractured just below the surface.