June 23, 2018
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It’s really cold — my tractor told me so

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — Winter, according to one of my favorite writers, Sinclair Lewis, is not so much a season as it is an occupation.

From where I am sitting here on Rusty Metal Farm, it’s a full-time occupation this year deserving of overtime, and I am quite certain my fellow Maine residents would agree.

This winter just seems meaner, angrier and well, downright crueler than years’ past.

Consider, in the three-day stretch between the record colds of last Saturday and Monday’s warmup, I recorded a 90-degree temperature difference here on the farm.

Frankly, I thought temperature extremes like that took place only between the light and dark side of the moon.

There is no fancy weather gathering data here on Rusty Metal Farm, nor do I have state-of-the-art computer modeling.

What I do have is a diesel-powered tractor and anyone who operated any form of machinery outdoors over the last week will tell you the same thing — it was bloody cold.

Diesel, you see, contains paraffin. As the temperatures drop, the paraffin starts to solidify, a reaction known as “clouding.”

When it gets really cold, the rest of the diesel fuel also starts to solidify, or “gel.”

This waxy-gelled diesel coats the fuel filter allowing just enough diesel through for the engine to idle, but not attain enough RPMs to drive the vehicle anywhere.

I discovered this on a very cold day when I started the tractor but every time I pushed the throttle, the motor sputtered and died out.

Three calls to three of my tractor expert friends gave me one unified response — my diesel was gelling in the cold temperatures.

I could not help, at that point, think about my mother and the many times she tried to teach me as a young girl how to make fruit jelly.

To her dismay, I never did master the culinary art of transforming blackberries, huckleberries, strawberries or raspberries into jelly.

But apparently when it comes to diesel jelly, I could win a state fair blue ribbon.

God rest her soul, I’m sure my mom would be so proud.

There are two ways to overcome gelled diesel — warm it back up or pour in special de-gelling additives.

Here on the farm, we did both.

A friend and I spent hours on one of the coldest nights ever wrapping the tractor’s fuel tank and filter in a heating pad, blankets, and jackets, and aiming a propane heater right at it.

My friend Alan also suggested dumping in some kerosene, a fuel which can actually operate a diesel engine and has a lower freezing point.

The diesel fuel and filter finally un-gelled, we put the tractor back to bed and I have been adding kerosene ever since.

This, then, is how I know about the dramatic temperature shift of last weekend.

Kerosene freezes between minus 50 and minus 60 degrees and on Saturday afternoon, the diesel in my tractor had gelled right back up again, meaning the kerosene also was freezing.

Since the tractor was parked inside and out of the wind, that meant the ambient temperature had dropped to at least negative 50 degrees.

On top of that, the battery in my tractor, according to Alan who has a far better grasp of such things than I, was never meant to turn over an engine at those temperatures.

Fortunately, there are batteries made to work in arctic conditions, so guess who’s going battery shopping this week?

But until I have a new, more powerful battery, we have enlisted a variety of electronic gizmos to keep the tractor warm and happy.

There’s the battery charger to boost the battery; the block heater to warm the fluids in the engine block, and finally, a new magnetic heater I can clamp on the fuel tank to warm the diesel-kerosene mix.

So, how cold has it been? Cold enough that I now need a power strip in the tractor shed so I can plug in all of those gizmos.

After all that effort, however, the temperatures here in the north shot up to 44 degrees on Monday.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to look at the negative 50 reading I estimated for Saturday, make some basic calculations, and arrive at that 90-degree temperature difference.

Of course, we all know what happened after Monday’s January heat wave. By that night, we were back to near-zero temperatures with subzero wind chills.

Winter will come to an end eventually here in Maine followed by spring and maybe even a glorious summer.

But until then we are occupied dealing with whatever Mother Nature is throwing at us like it’s our full-time job.

If Lewis was right and winter is an occupation, at least it’s a seasonal one.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other week. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

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