Exploring A Little Piece of Route 66 History

I’ve recently been thinking about New Mexico history and how quickly things have changed in the last fifty years.  We’ve lived here for over 20 years now, and it’s amazing how it’s changed in just that short time.  

So on a recent drive on 333 (along I-40) to Tijeras I noticed an area near the highway where it looked like an old road had been built.  I had been wondering if there were any traces of the original Route 66 between Albuquerque and Tijeras.  So I parked and walked up an embankment to the graded area and sure enough, I found an old road.

rt66-westbound

These photos show the East and West views from the road.  At first glance there’s no sign of a paved road, it just looks like a dirt road that goes nowhere, ending at the edge of the Sandias.

rt66-eastbound

However it didn’t take a long walk for me to find what looked like scrapped road materials, namely very dry and brittle gravel and tar, along with some steel cables.  

rt66-archeology

After the Federal Highway Act of 1956, construction of Interstate 40 through New Mexico started in the 1960’s, and was completed through Albuquerque in 1970.  I would guess that this stretch of Route 66 must have been cut off from the world sometime around 1970.

I’m not sure if all of this is really a part of the original Rt-66 entering Albuquerque from the East, but it would have made sense to build it here.  Perhaps someone remembers and can post a comment about it here.  

rt66-roadpiece

In any event here’s I little souvenir from the ‘likely’ Rt 66 I explored.  Just like that last can of anchovies on Futurama, it will be for sale on eBay in 1,000 years for a trillion dollars.  In the meantime close your browser, and go explore our amazing world!

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A Little Solder Keeps an Old E320 Running

Living the good life means helping things last longer. It feels good to keep something from having to be replaced, plus it’s good for the environment given the resources necessary to make something big like a car. Last weekend it was a 1999 E320 that I’ve been slowly bringing back to “kicking strong” condition. After replacing the transmission and steering rack (I didn’t do that myself), the old machine needed new headlights. A previous owner had replaced the factory units with these super cool looking ones that worked like … well they didn’t really as far as I was concered. They were actually dangerous to use at night at any speed above 50 mph, wait make that 40.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.50.48 PM

So I headed to eBay for some used original Mercedes headlights. I found a set for less than $140.00 with shipping, that were in fairly good condition. As you probably know, modern cars are required to use plastic lenses, and that plastic doesn’t hold up well to the Sun’s UV. So getting used headlights that aren’t completely “crazed” is a challenge. Fortunately some dismatlers (aka junk-yards) remove the parts off the cars they receive, then inventory and store them indoors. You pay a bit more than going to the open-air junkyard, but you’ll be more likely to get parts that have been basically “garaged” for the last decade or so.

I received the set and they looked as described in the Buy It Now auction. But one of the headlights had a surprise for me when I opened the back panel to check the bulbs. The wiring insulation was falling apart, and someone had previously used electrical tape to keep wires from shorting out. Cool, a new project!

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.12.12 PM

Car manufacturers experienced many problems when they transitioned to bio-degradable plastics in the 1990’s.  I’ve read that Mercedes was one of the first to adopt this practice and paid the price.  They lost a lot of loyal customers that had become used to the legendary longevity of their 60’s through 80’s cars.  Not only did the insulation fall apart after about a decade, but some car owners found out the hard way that rodents really liked the new flavors being used in the wiring. Many manufactures in an attempt to go green had used soy, vegetable oil and other natural materials in their manufacturing processes. The unintended consequence was that criters were finding a new mobile home with a good food source while the owner was sleeping.

I had to bring this unit back to like new condition before I was going to install it. Fortunately one lifelong hobby of mine has been tinkering with electronics, so I didn’t hesitate to pull out the solder and soldering iron. Since I was using non-biodegradable wiring from my used parts bin, my only expense other than time was solder and some shrink-wrap tubing. In a little over an hour I had replaced all of the wiring from the connector to each of the bulbs in this light assembly.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.39 PM

Now I have a vehicle with industry standard lighting that should perform as designed for many years. Had I gone to Mercedes for a replacement set I would have been out over a grand, and the wiring would experience the same issues in a decade or less.

So in effect I undid a bit of the “green” work originally done by Mercedes. But, one could say that by keeping this machine out of the landfill with just a little bit of effort, I’m reducing an even greater need for energy and resources to make another. I don’t really know actually, I’m not a manufacturing or recycling expert. All I know is that it’s a tiny amount of plastic to keep this machine out of the landfill.

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Great Photos from Apple’s Early Days

A snapshot of Apple’s early days with some rare artifacts.

Sam Hotchkiss

apple1This article from the SF Gate gives us a peek into the early days at Apple. A picture is worth a thousand words.

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Learn by teaching, even when it’s uncomfortable.

I can attest making a mistake in front of a classroom is very very uncomfortable. But one never forgets, and perhaps the class seeing the teacher being humbled might even be beneficial for them.

Sam Hotchkiss

If you need another reason to go speak at your local WordCamp or Meetup Group, try this one on for size: do it to learn something new.

I stumbled across this article from 2011 where Annie Murphy Paul talks about why we learn more when we teach.  There’s a deep level of satisfaction derived from teaching that is hard to get any other way, and it drives us to become experts in whatever it is we are sharing with others.

So don’t just teach for others, teach for yourself, and apply to speak at your local WordCamp!

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Simpler is Better with Solar

Our home is continually evolving in it’s energy efficiency, not by itself though.  Thankfully for it, I’m always looking for ways to reduce our dependence on natural gas and electricity by making as much use of the sun’s energy as practical.  So far I’ve installed a solar hot air system in the master bedroom and a solar hydronic system in the living room.  Together these systems have cut our energy consumption by at least 50% overall, but the lessons learned are important.  As a result I’m even more motivated to install a completely passive system than ever.

This year Albuquerque has experienced some large temperature swings.  Since December I’ve had to go on the roof to cover one of our home’s solar-hydronic panels on several occasions because it was too warm.  These panels heat water that in turn heats our living room floor.  My problem is that when it gets unusually warm the system brings in too much heat indoors, and makes the room too warm.  Also I get concerned that some of the synthetic tubing leading from the panels on the roof and under the tile floor could be damaged, even though it’s rated to handle very hot water.

Solar Hydronic Panel

Solar Hydronic Panel

Solar-hydronic systems are similar to nuclear reactors.  They both use a nuclear reaction to produce energy, which in turn heats water.  In both cases it’s possible for the coolant to overheat and cause damage to pumps and other components.  In my own design, I have not yet found an easy way to moderate the Sun’s output, so I’m left with needing to climb on the roof to put a shield between the Sun and my panels.

As we breach 400 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric CO2 in 2015 and continue higher, I wonder if this will be a more frequent occurrence.  Everyone has their climate opinion on this, but CO2 is CO2 at 400 ppm, and CO2 doesn’t care.  If climate science has any merit, I suspect I’ll need to build some sort of a louver or sliding screen that can be operated automatically when the weather gets to be too warm.  My goal of a simple system with few moving parts may be unrealistic.

Solar Hot Air

Solar Hot Air

Speaking of simple systems, I’m liking more and more the solar hot air system in the master bedroom.  This system uses hot air instead of water to transfer heat, and I can turn it off with the flick of a switch.  A 40 watt PV panel provides electricity to a 12 volt brushless motor that moves around 150 cubic-feet of air per minute (CFM).  There’s no sensors, or control systems, just a solar cell connected to an electric motor and a switch to turn it off in the summer.  When the sun goes down, the fan stops.  No need to worry about clearing snow of the PV panel to get the pump working as I do on my hydronic system.

Brushless blower motor

Brushless blower motor

I don’t recall when I built this but it was probably around 2007, so if I were to try and figure out how much energy we’ve saved with this system, I’m sure it would be impressive.  The air blowing into our master bedroom and master bath is warm enough to make that part of the house comfortable by 10:00 am most days.  The only downside, is that it quickly gets cold when the sun goes down.

This is actually what I like most about heating the floors using hot water.  The floor in the living room staying warm hours after the sun goes down is worth it, but I wonder where the trade-off is.  The moral of the story is simplicity probably beats complexity in the long-run.  So, instead of expanding the existing systems as I had planned, my next project will be building a totally passive system called a Trombe Wall instead.  Being a techie I may miss the technology, but after all I can always use technology to measure our energy savings and home’s reduced carbon footprint.

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No Need To Go To Mexico

After Saturday morning’s impressive snow fall in Albuquerque, people were cross-country skiing in the Sandia Mountain foothills.  We went on a very nice hike in foot deep snow.  Then just 24 hours later I was riding my mountain bike in the same area, wearing biking shorts and a t-shirt.

Sandia Mountain Foothills Saturday Morning

Seeing so much snow vanish in this timeframe caused a bit of mental dissonance.  While biking I thought about our hike the previous day, and remembered a trip to Mexico one winter.  Sunday afternoon it felt as if I had just debarked off a plane after flying for hours from the New England to Los Cabos, Mexico.  The contrast between Saturday’s snow and Sunday afternoon’s hot sun and the warm air was just as great.

Sandia Mountain Foothills Sunday Afternoon

So I decide that this was a gift from above in more ways than one.  We got to experience two different seasons during the same weekend and I got to participate in two really fun activities. The land and the aquifer both received some much needed water.  Once again I felt fortunate to live in a part of the country with such amazing diversity of culture, weather and outdoor activities.  This place really is The Land of Enchantment!

Mountain biking in Sandia Foothills on Sunday

Mountain biking in Sandia Foothills on Sunday

Saturday Hike With Dogs

Saturday Hike With Dogs

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Keeping the Cost of Automobile Ownership Low, Sustainably

This post is about one strategy to get the total cost of ownership of an automobile as low as practical, while being safe and environmentally responsible. Of course there’s more than one way to ‘skin the cat’ so to speak, so this is only one approach, but I hope you’ll find it interesting. Since you might be among those that don’t want to make car payments forever, this post will give you an overview of the lessons learned and provide some resources for learning more. You’ll also find concrete steps you can take to reduce your total cost of ownership (TCO) and carbon footprint to levels so low, you might expend more getting a motorcycle or a Prius. Oh, and one last bit before you read further, if you’re in a long-term relationship make sure you have your significant other’s buy-in before giving him or her the keys to something unexpected and a bit out of the mainstream. The cost of the divorce would otherwise offset any potential savings.

It could be argued that automobiles define a part of our culture, but there’s no argument that they are expensive and a significant part of most people’s budget. Our family has one for each member, and at times I’ll even purchase an extra vehicle when I see an orphan in need of a little love. That means that we bear the costs of operating, maintaining and insuring at least four vehicles. So for us to manage our TCO aggressively, is probably not a waste of time.  And the less we have to work, well the more time we get to visit really beautiful places.

New Mexico Road

New Mexico Road

First let me get some disclosures out of the way. I’m very opinionated about cars. I think there’s more effort spent on showing off wealth (real or not) than keeping it, or staying away from debt, both by the public and the manufacturers. I do have one advantage and it is that I enjoy fixing and maintaining things myself, and a family that doesn’t mind driving in nice but older cars.  But, while that’s a good way to reduce your TCO, it’s not the only way. Also interestingly perhaps, I’m a computer engineer and I don’t like computers … in my car that is. I’ll explain more later, but if you are enamored by today’s automotive technologies and are happy to pay for it, this blog post might not be for you. Also I’m not entirely rational in my auto choices. While I don’t like a lot of computers in my car, we once owned a 2007 Toyota Prius, with more computing power than a Hal 9000. The Prius has since been sold, but I’m still keeping a 1990 Jeep Cherokee 4.0 in the stable. Reason is, the Jeep takes us on some nice forest roads that I’ve tried with other cars and cringed the whole time, or gotten stuck. Don’t ask about our rainy-day trip to Chaco Canyon in the 1981 300SD. That day-trip turned into a day+night trip.

Chaco Canyon Wash

Chaco Canyon Wash

Speaking of memorable experiences if you currently drive a full-size SUV and you’ve been in an accident, you might shudder at some of the choices on Mr Money Mustache’s 10 Cars For Smart People. But that’s not entirely rational. I think that the Money Mustache list is one of the best. Most of these cars are safe, practical and reliable hatchbacks. The top three of the list include the 2009 Honda Fit, the 2007-2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring and the ’06-’09 Mazda 3, all fairly compact cars. Our family owns one further down the list, a 2003 Toyota Matrix. But while it’s true that size matters, driving defensively matters more. Stability control won’t make up for poor driver attention, and airbags won’t keep your neck straight in a rollover. A compact car is far less likely to rollover in an accident than an SUV or pickup-truck.  You know who currently has the best stability control and accident avoidance system is in the world?  You do, your brain.

Toyota Matrix

Toyota Matrix

There are very few « Smart » lists that include pickup-trucks. Unless if you’re in the ranching or construction business, it’s pretty tough to justify a pickup truck. Maybe you’re a guy that wants to attract girls that like guys in pickup-trucks, and that’s cool. But if it’s to haul stuff from time to time, did you notice that most truck beds are shorter than eight feet? Our Toyota Matrix routinely hauls back some 8-foot long items back from Home Depot, with the seats down and the rear hatch closed. What about that bedroom set you might purchase on Craigslist? Well for that I have a hitch on one car and a 8×4 folding trailer in the garage, up against the side wall. It gets used once or twice a year to haul larger items, and take stuff to the dump. Put it this way, I’ve never been in a situation where I wished I had a pickup-truck and had to rent one, which of course is always an option.

Now let’s get to the really cool stuff. Getting your total cost of ownership even lower than the cars on Mr. Money Mustache’s list. For that you’ll need to choose the drive-train first and then the chassis, and be maybe prepare for an alternative fuel lifestyle. By-the-way the drive-train includes the engine and the transmission. It’s no fun to have a vehicle with a fantastic engine and be spending a lot of money on transmission repairs. When you focus on the drive-train first you’ll find many models that share the same components but only look different on the outside. A nice example is our Toyota Matrix, that shares the mechanicals of the Pontiac Vibe. Both use the venerable Toyota made 1ZZ-FE four cylinder also used on the Corolla.

Mercedes

Mercedes

But the « pièce de résistance » is not the Toyota 1ZZ-FE, but a Mercedes OM-617 turbo-diesel. The OM-617 is a masterpiece of engineering from the 1970’s and 80’s that will put up with the harshest conditions and even neglect. According to Wikipedia “The OM617 is considered to be one of the most reliable engines ever produced with engines often reaching over 1.000.000 Km without being rebuilt and is one of the key reasons for Mercedes’ popularity in North America in the 1980s » But wait, there’s more … this engine will run on any oil, as long as the viscosity isn’t too high. Of course biodiesel, but you could also purchase a conversion kit to build a dual-tank system and run your car on used vegetable oil (VO). You read that correctly, you would only need regular diesel to start up on a cold day, and then drive using renewable fuel all day once warm. The OM-617 gets between 27-30 MPG combined, and when running on VO who’s counting? An experimental petroleum-diesel/VO hybrid trip to Las Cruces once when I wrote A Vegetable Oil Diesel Conversion Guide yielded the equivalent of 480 MPG on regular diesel. The MPG on VO was 27.5 MPG.

Running biodiesel or VO is sulphur-free, carbon neutral and certainly smells better. According to the EPA it’s also significantly less polluting.  While it’s true that we use fossil fuels for farming, the plants temporarily capture carbon that ends up in the atmosphere wether or not we burn the oil. The only way to avoid the oil decay process that puts carbon back into the atmosphere is to keep oxygen away from the oils, and that’s not easily done. Just ask the dinosaurs about anaerobic decomposition. Filtering oil can be the hardest part of the process, and there are not many businesses that offer used but filtered vegetable oil for refilling professionally. You can check the U.S. DEO Alternative Fuels Database, or find a licensed business that pumps filtered and certified straight vegetable oil (SVO) fuel.  The cost will typically be 2/3 of the price of diesel, and meet the strictest standards.  Some folks end up doing this in their garages, but what if you don’t have a garage? Fortunately there’s guidance from Tonya Kay here for you Running Your Car on Waste Vegetable Oil, but check your local laws first.

Now going back to the drive-train choice, don’t overlook your long-term needs when selecting the body style to go along with your OM-617, or whatever your research turns up as the most awesome engine/transmission. When I did so I was commuting to Santa Fe and thought a long-wheelbase car would be best. But that job didn’t last for long and I found myself wishing I had purchased a wagon with that engine instead. The venerable W123 wagon is what I wish I had purchased instead of the W126.

W123 Mercedes Wagon

W123 Mercedes Wagon

Mercedes-Benz W123 T-Modell rear 20090430” by Rudolf StrickerOwn work. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

I mentioned in the beginning of this article that I don’t like computers in my car, and I don’t think you will either in the long-run. Not only is it additional complexity and future maintenance cost, but there’s really a TCO disadvantage. Manufacturers used to place engine control systems in cooler places like the passenger compartment, or in a specially heat-protected enclosure. Today manufacturers are doing everything they can to reduce their materials costs, especially with copper wiring.  I have seen the Engine Control Unit on 2014 models installed in the engine compartment, just inches above the exhaust manifold.  Hmm, I wonder how long that unit will last?

Engine Control Unit

Engine Control Unit

Today most people think that the technology is necessary, but it doesn’t seem to have been applied in the right places, at least when it comes to fuel economy. A fews years ago I purchased a 1997 Mercedes E300D with the intention of converting it to run on VO while writing a guide to cover the steps involved. It was a very beautiful diesel, much quieter than my 1981. But wait, its MPG was about 27, and it had a hybrid vacuum and electronic control system that I felt I would not be able to maintain easily as the car got older. I sold it for the same reason I sold the Prius. I want a vehicle I can maintain myself for the next 20-30 years. So if I purchase a 30-year old vehicle it had better have a 60-year life expectancy. How many vehicles can you think of fit in that category?

Mercedes W126

Mercedes W126

So we still drive the 1981 Mercedes 300SD known as a W126, and although it is much bigger car than I would liked it gets decent mileage. In fact it gets better diesel city mileage than the 2015 Mercedes E250BlueTEC Sedan, which is also rated at 27 mpg.

Strange, no? How little progress we’ve made with technology after 34 years of diesel engine development!  Oh, and don’t tell me that other manufacturers are doing any better.  I used to own a 1986 VW Golf that managed 45+ MPG, about what today’s 2015 VW Golf model is getting.  The 300SD is an even bigger car than the E250, and mine gets 28 mpg around Albuquerque with a purely mechanical fuel injection pump and absolutely no engine electronics. I know that because I once drove back from Santa Fe with a dead alternator and a discharged battery. While a new car looks all shiny, why would anyone who cares about TCO purchase a new vehicle? Besides, if we get the Zombie Apocalypse I would place my bets with the 1980’s models.

With each passing year it seems that the 300SD purchase made in 1999 seems smarter. For one the resale value is basically unchanged, and has actually increased for some models.  At the time my new purchase had 110,000 miles, and today with 280,000 miles it is still averaging much less than $500 in annual maintenance, and that includes fluids, pads, oil changes, every kind of repair over 16 years of ownership including an unexpected major engine overhaul (due to a previous mechanic’s mistake). For comparison Edmunds TCO Maintenance and Repair Costs for a 2009 Toyota Matrix is $1,968 per year, after 5 years of ownership.  I’ve not found a single contemporary vehicle that I can keep running for less than $500/year.

Most owners ditch their cars after their first repair over $2000, but forget to average the cost over time. Even sticking with the higher maintenance costs of a more modern looking model from Mr. Mustache’s list, isn’t it better to make a car payment once in a while, rather than every month? But if you don’t care what people think about your old car, the biggest headaches you can expect with a 1970’s or 80’s Mercedes will likely have to do with window regulators, door checks and driver’s seat springs. I’ve since purchased another, a 1980 model. It also has the OM-617 engine with 120,000 miles.  Brand new basically.

W123 Sedan

W123 Sedan

The bottom line is don’t necessarily look for a 1970’s or 80’s Mercedes wagon, but look for something with an amazing drivetrain and a hatchback body so you don’t need a pickup-truck. Look for a super reliable machine that you can keep for decades, and since you’ll be buying something at least a decade old to avoid too much expensive and fragile technology, you’ll be needing a car with a 50 year life-expectancy. Oh I almost forgot, people ask me where I get parts for the 80’s cars, as if that was a challenge. I buy original new parts online and sometimes the dealer if for some strange reason I can’t find it on online. Once in a while there’s something being parted out on Craigslist too, and that can yield some amazing savings. No matter your source, it’s important to avoid cheap after-market parts in something you want to serve you for several decades. I see my 34 year-old car as being middle aged, and hope it serves me for another 34 years. Well, unless if I find a W123 wagon with an OM617 turbo before you do.  But you’d better hurry because I’ve noticed that prices have started rising quite dramatically, instead of falling as one might expect with a newer so called “modern car”.

If you have any cool ideas for reducing your own TCO, please leave them in the comments below.

Happy driving!

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