Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Out, damned spot!

OK all you millions of  hundreds of  four readers out there, I need your help.  On Eolian's decks hundreds of black spots are slowly appearing, and have been ever since we repainted the decks.  They don't grow fast, but they do grow.  Nothing seems to touch them - using straight bleach has no more effect than plain water.

My questions to you are these:
  • What is this stuff?  Is it a lichen of some kind?
  • Does anyone have any experience with it, or are we the only ones? 
  • Most importantly, how do we get rid of it?


Monday, January 26, 2015

Cable Neatenization

Is that a word?  I don't think so, but I'm using it anyway.

When last we spoke about the mutiny of our Radar Officer, I had gotten the new radar working in the cockpit. But the cables, tho strung to near their final location, were looped from inside the cockpit coaming in a decidedly NOT ship-shape manner. I mentioned that I had ordered a cable grommet - well that grommet has arrived, and it was time to finish up the installation.

All I had to do was make a 2" diameter hole in the top surface of the coaming.  How hard could that be?  I got out my trusty drill and a 2" holesaw and went to work, expecting to take maybe 15 minutes.

Getting thru the teak coaming cap was a piece of cake.  And I knew that the actual structural fiberglass construct was under the teak.  What I did not know was that it was a full inch thick of solid fiberglass - Downeast certainly cannot be faulted for skimpy construction!

My poor holesaw was really not up to the task.  The narrow slot that the teeth made did not clear itself of fiberglass dust well, meaning that as the hole deepened the dust accumulated...  and melted.  Stopping frequently (after maybe 10 revolutions of the saw) and vacuuming out the debris, followed by picking off the melted and now solidified resin from the teeth of the holesaw made for very slow going.  It was a two-beer hole. 

But patience and perseverance won out, and eventually the coaming was breached.   Yes, you can see that I drilled some holes down thru the saw cut in an attempt to provide a chip clearance path.  It helped, a little.  But I had to keep clearing out the holes too.  Like I said, two beers.

And there is the finished product.  Looks pretty good, doesn't it?

When the radar unit is dismounted and stored down below, the cables go back thru the grommet, inside the coaming where they are protected from the weather.  I will eventually re-route the GPS cable to this grommet too, but that means re-making more than a half dozen connections.  A good task to do while at anchor on a quiet sunny day next summer.

Oh, and the old radar unit has sold.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Of Sailing and Gardening

Sailors, it would seem, have little in common with gardeners.  But this time of year, in the Pacific Northwest, they are brothers and sisters under the skin.

It is a time when being outdoors is unpleasant.  It gets dark early, and light late.  It is cold and rainy outside.  For the sailor sitting in an open cockpit or the gardener in ankle-deep soupy mud, it is a time when each wishes that he or she was in a warmer climate.  And so neither ventures forth from their carefully-maintained bubbles of warm dry air.

But we dream.

With cruising guides and seed catalogs we dream of the coming times when the sun will be brighter, warmer.  When the thought of a breeze brings warm thoughts instead of a hood pulled tighter, and green shoots appear to commune with the sun.  Days spent at anchor in a deserted cove and afternoons lovingly coddling tender green plants, tho impossible now, fill our minds.

And so we bring reminders of those coming times indoors to enjoy, and to give us hope.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Propane and propane accessories

20 lb propane cylinder
A recent post got me thinking about propane. On the TV show, Hank Hill worked for a company that sold propane and propane accessories - if you watched that show, you're hearing that phrase and my words in Hank Hill's voice.

Propane is one substance that is present on almost every boat - large or small, power or sail.  In its own way, it can be quite dangerous.  But modern technology, techniques and regulations have taken the edge off of the dangers, almost to the point where people think it is a benign substance that is sold in grocery stores.  Oh wait, it is sold in grocery stores.

I think everyone carrying propane onboard should have some basic knowledge about this substance.  First, because knowledge is power.  But also so that they are aware of the consequences of violating those regulations or short-cutting those techniques.  Now those of you who know me know that I am no fan of regulations.  But those controlling the storage and handling of propane are one of the things that make regulations worthwhile.  Also, those cruisers voyaging outside the range of those regulations will find a different world - one where common sense is more critically relied upon - and here knowledge is crucial.

So what is propane?  First, it is a member of that class of chemicals known as LPG, or Liquified Petroleum Gas.  It's composition is CH3-CH2-CH3.  It is a hydrocarbon - that is, it is made up solely of hydrogen and carbon.  It is the third in the series of straight-chain hydrocarbons, after CH4 (methane, AKA natural gas) and CH3-CH3 (ethane), and preceding CH3-CH2-CH2-CH3 (butane, which you are probably familiar with as the fuel in, ahem, butane lighters).

Why is propane such a ubiquitous fuel?  Because it is easily liquified.  And liquid fuels under pressure do not require pumps for their distribution from a storage tank - they deliver themselves.  Also, because it is a simple compound, propane burns quite cleanly, which is why fork trucks running inside factories are frequently propane-powered.

OK, those are the basics.  But propane is a substance delivered in a manner that is unusual for consumer goods - it is a liquid, but it is under pressure.  To better understand what this means, an analogy is in order.  Everyone is familiar with another simple substance: dihydrogen monoxide - water.  Under normal ambient conditions, water is a liquid.  If you were to put water into a propane tank, and then take that tank to a hypothetical planet Hypethos where the ambient temperature is 350°F, you'd have our analogous situation.  Water cannot not exist as a liquid on Hypethos, unless it is kept under pressure, just as propane cannot exist as a liquid on Earth unless it is kept under pressure.  Once our Hypothetical tank full of liquid water reached equilibrium with the surroundings, it would be under pressure - about 135 PSI in fact. If you opened the valve on the tank, water vapor (AKA steam) would fly out.

Propane does this too, but at the temperatures we are comfortable with here on Earth.  At 75°F, the pressure in a propane tank is about 150 PSI.  If you leave that tank out in the sun, and it gets warmed up to say 110°F, the pressure climbs over 250 PSI.


Pressure gauges are really completely useless in showing how much propane is left in the tank.  At a given temperature, the pressure in the tank will be the same regardless of the amount of propane in the tank, as long is there is one tiny drop of liquid propane still present.  Once the last of the liquid has evaporated, then the pressure gauge will tell you how much vapor is left.  But by that point, you don't have enough propane left to cook dinner.  Aside from those transparent fiberglass tanks where you can directly see the propane, the only reliable way to gauge the remaining propane is by weight.  If you don't have a scale, you can get an idea of the amount of liquid remaining by sloshing it about in the tank.

OK, so the pressure rises as the temperature rises.  Then you won't be surprised to find that the pressure falls as the temperature falls.  At about -35°F, the pressure in the propane tank drops below 15 PSI.  That is, if you opened the valve, nothing would come out (remember, ambient atmospheric pressure is 14.7 PSI).  But actually it is worse than that.  Propane accessories (stoves, BBQs, etc.) depend on the pressure in the propane tank to deliver propane gas to the accessory.  A regulator in the circuit ensures that, regardless of the pressure in the tank, the appliance will see a constant pressure, and therefore flow rate to the burner.  But regulators can only work by reducing the upstream pressure.  If the pressure in the tank is below the regulator set point, the regulator cannot make up for it.  Also, regulators are designed for a "reasonable" upstream pressure.  As the propane is cooled, the pressure departs more and more from "reasonable", and the flow rate drops...  Your stove flame gets smaller and your BBQ refuses to heat up.

Fact #2

What might make the propane this cold?  Well, if you sail in the high latitudes, you could see temperatures low enough to impede or stop propane flow.  But even folks in the tropics can have problems.  Why?  OK, you have liquid propane in the tank, topped with a layer of vapor.  As you withdraw the vapor, more liquid evaporates, replenishing the vapor.  Ah, but evaporation (call it boiling, if that helps you to imagine what is happening) takes heat.  Where does this heat come from?  From the propane itself - it cools.  Now as the propane cools, heat flows into it thru the tank walls from the surrounding air.  You've all seen this...  First there is condensation on the outside of the tank (serving, by the way, as a pretty reliable liquid propane level indicator).  As the cooling continues, the tank wall could drop below 32°F, and the condensation turns to ice or frost.  (Please note that the propane is still liquid inside the tank.  For it to freeze, its temperature would have to drop to -306°F.)  But the accumulation of frost on the outside of the tank only impedes heat flow, the propane cools, evaporation slows, the pressure falls, and the flow rate drops.  And your Cajun burner goes out, ruining your crab boil even tho there is still propane in the tank.

Fact #3

  1. Liquids are virtually incompressible.
  2. Things grow larger as they are heated.
These two facts combine to make a propane tank filled to the top (or nearly so) a dangerous bomb. If a full or very nearly full tank is warmed and the small vapor space above the liquid is compressed to extinction, the tank will surely rupture, because the expansion of the liquid as it is warmed is as inexorable as the expansion of water as it freezes. And this is the worst kind of rupture - because the propane is not just a gas under pressure - it is a liquid under pressure that will rapidly flash to a vapor when that pressure is released, flinging shrapnel for long distances at high speeds.

How to make this understandable?  Try this.  If a standard 20 lb propane tank were filled with compressed air at 150 PSI, in its roughly 1 cubic foot of volume it would contain 10 cubic feet of air that would want to rush out if the tank were ruptured. But if instead it contained liquid propane, that propane would instantaneously flash to something like 270 cubic feet of vapor at tank rupture.

This is on top of the obvious fuel-air explosion hazard. This is the reason that Overflow Protection Device valves were added to the regulations concerning handling liquid propane in consumer tanks back in 1988 - to ensure that there is always an adequate vapor space above the liquid to accommodate liquid expansion.  An OPD is supposed to shut off the filling of the tank when it is about 80 - 85% full.  (Note that the little 1 lb cylinders do not have OPDs because they are not intended to be refilled.  There are several "prepper" sites out there that advocate the refilling of these cylinders - don't do this!  Because of the lack of an OPD, you could be creating a bomb.)

OK - now you know:
  • What propane is
  • Why pressure gauges don't tell you how much propane you have left
  • Why propane stops coming out even tho the tank is not empty
  • Why you should have an OPD on your tank


Monday, January 5, 2015

Nano-tech Experiment #3 (and reports on #1 and #2)

This is the third experiment with the Rustoleum nano-tech product called "NeverWet" - a super hydrophobic coating that can be applied from a spray can.  (Experiments #1 and #2 are here and here.)

For this experiment, we will be seeing how long the retained air film persists, and if the nano-coating has any anti-biological properties in sea water.  I think it might, since the retained air film could make barnacles and such uncomfortable, or might even prevent them from touching and attaching to the actual surface.  We'll see.  

Here's what I did:
  • I took a scrap of fiber-reinforced ABS plastic (left over from the refrigerator refurbishment) and masked off one side of it.  The other side got the NeverWet treatment.  I suspended it (from the hole you can see, partially covered with blue tape) in the water off our finger pier at Anacortes on December 21, 2014.  The finger pier is a floating one, so the coupon will never be exposed to air, except when I lift it up for inspection.

Report on Experiment #1

Experiment #1, as of Dec 2014

Experiment #1 began more than a year ago, in October, 2013.  For this test, I applied the NeverWet to our canvas sea hood. All was well until Nature's own nano-tech (pine pollen) arrived on the scene.  It coated and buried the NeverWet, and allowed water to once again wet the surface.  In an attempt to remove the pollen, I gently wiped part of the surface with a sponge damped in soapy water.  As you can see, that portion of the surface never recovered its hydrophobic properties.  Whether it was the mechanical action of the sponge or the surface tension-destroying property of the soap, I will never know.  But the portion of the sea hood that did not suffer from pollen accumulation or the soapy sponge is still every bit as water-repellent as ever.  From this I can propose that the coating is not strongly affected by UV.

Report on Experiment #2

Experiment #2 began in April of 2014, when I applied NeverWet to our dinghy propeller. It was amazing to see that the submerged prop looked like it was made of polished silver due to the thin layer of air it retained while submerged.

We used the dinghy normally for the entire 2014 season, giving no further thought or special attention to the prop.

By the end of the season, the nano-tech coating had ablated off the outer 1/2 of the propeller blades, but was still active on the inner half.

From this I conclude that NeverWet is not suitable as an anti-barnacle coating for boat props (guess we're still stuck with Barnacle Ban), but it could likely serve well on things that do not suffer from the abrasion of high-speed turbulent water contact.

The Future

It is the results of Experiment #2 that led to Experiment #3. Experiment #2 showed that the air film persisted while submerged over periods of days, and even in the presence of extreme turbulence. Will it be retained for months on end? And if indeed the retained air film is effective at retarding or preventing biological growth, NeverWet could serve for difficult-to-protect items such as depth sounder or speedo transducers.  And if the price could be gotten down low enough, perhaps NeverWet could even serve as a bottom paint alternative (for sailboats at least).

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