September - October 2011 Update
"Fort Mac" (Fort McMurray - the hub of oil sands development in Northern Alberta) and Fort Saskatchewan (a town downstream of Edmonton on the Saskatchewan River - home of the provincial jail, my great-grandparents' grave and current domicile of our daughter Becky and family) pretty well sums up our month.
Juanita went to Fort Saskatchewan to mind grandson Ezekial while his mother worked at her engineering job in Edmonton and his father worked at a shutdown at the Husky Oil refinery in Lloydminster on the Alberta, Saskatchewan border. In addition to minding Ezekial, she spend some time checking out Alton tombstones in the Fort Saskatchewan cemetery. One of my times out from Ft. Mac I went with her and we located my great-grand parents' grave. She came back to Meadow Lake to help celebrate Debbie's birthday.
I went north to Fort Mac to pick up a few hours work in the pipefitters' union that instrument mechanics work through. I had some hours left in the bank for medical coverage and I needed 57 more to kickstart earned coverage which would allow me to buy coverage and economical travel insurance for the following year after the earned coverage expired. It seemed like a nice little job bending tubing for a few weeks in a potable water plant on the Syncrude site.
Fifteen minutes out of orientation I was made foreman when the foreman quit. I had moved from supervisor to superintendent over twenty years ago so it was a new old experience being in direct supervision of trades men again. There were parts of the job I liked and parts I didn't. It certainly was a lot more stressful than just showing up and asking "what do you want me to do today?" followed by "where are the parts, tools, permits and everything else I need to do the job?" and killing time until the foreman provided them all.
The Tax Man
While web surfing my evenings in camp away I ran across an article about an amnesty from the United States IRS (Internal revenue Service) that had expired. It involved all U.S. citizens anywhere in the world filing reports of all their accounts and mentioned the penalties for not doing so. I called Juanita and said "you'd better look into this. It might affect you."
And every one of the more than one million other Canadian residents/citizens who is by birthplace, parentage, or other contamination considered a U.S. citizen by the IRS.
It appears U.S. citizens are supposed to report their bank accounts and RSP's to the IRS if the combined values reach more than a certain threshold. This includes accounts that have your name on them such as the power of attorney we gave our daughter on one account to be able to do things for us when were out of the country. It would include accounts where you are a signing officer for an organization or business. The reported amount is the highest value in the account for the year even if it came from one of the other accounts. With this double counting, the dollar penalty (so much per year - I think $10k for each year the form was not filed) and the penalty of 25% of the highest amount in each account for each year not filed it is not long before you could, in the worst case, owe far more than you ever had let alone could ever pay.
Much stewing ensued.
Disclaimer. I'm not an expert. Maybe I got it all wrong and it is not as absurd as I described it. Or maybe it's worse.
The spring shutdown I worked was much longer than normal. The Ft. Mac work was not something we had counted on me doing. In the feeling prosperous days in August before the tax man issue came up I was at the Drexel Axle dealer in Edmonton buying another set of bearings to replace the set I had used in pre-trip p.m's. I saw some heavy duty rims and asked about their pressure ratings. We had been discussing buying "G" load rated tires for the trailer, but they were pretty expensive in Meadow Lake and would need heavier duty rims than the ones that were on the trailer. The price of the tires and rims in Edmonton were $100 less each than the tires alone in Meadow Lake. Needing 5 tires and rims, I bought them. They gave me the invoice to take to the loading dock. They only had the one Goodyear tire and a bunch of Chinese knock-offs. They had more Goodyears coming in a few weeks and we agreed they would hold five for pick-up on one of my weekends off.
In a weekend in late September I came to Ft. Saskatchewan on Thursday night and spent Friday running around, picking up the new trailer tires, getting them balanced and going to the wholesaler for all the electrical stuff we would need to wire the shop/studio.
Going South was in doubt. If we did, we needed to get those tires on. If we didn't then we needed someplace to live. We have lived in the fifth wheel trailer at minus 20. It's okay for a few days with the temperatures in an upward trend in the Spring. A downward trend toward minus 40 would not work. Living in daughter and son-in-law's basement in Meadow Lake was an option. But that would get old for everybody pretty quickly. Trust me.
Friday, after Juanita's grandchild minding duties were done for the week, it was off to Meadow Lake with the tires and electrical stuff for a work filled weekend of getting the tires on the trailer and doing everything else we could so we would be prepared to leave or to stay.
The electrical contractor had run a single piece of conduit for the incoming power line and ran the ground wire for the service through the same conduit. The electrical inspector wasn't impressed with sharing and wanted it changed. He didn't care if the ground wire was in a conduit. It could run bare and zip tied to the outside of the power conduit but not inside it.
Simple task to do. On one of my weekends out I approached it methodically.
- Dig hole to reveal ground plate connection
- Go get screwdriver to remove screws holding cover on meter box
- Come back, focussed on screws hilding cover
- Step in hole
- Get out, check for broken bones. No. Good.
- Look around for spectators. No. Good.
- Remove cover off meter box.
- Remove knockout from box
- Install conduit for ground cable.
- Disconnect ground cable from grounding plate.
- Pull ground wire back through power conduit.
- Shove ground cable down new conduit.
- Reconnect ground cable to grounding plate.
- Refill hole.
- Replace cover.
- Next task? Weekend off, no time to waste. Stay focussed, but not too focussed.
In October, Juanita's sister in California died. Going from "I don't feel very good" to collapse to med-evac by helicopter to dying in a matter of hours.
The Other Tax Shoe Drops
While Juanita was busy getting together all the IRS paperwork and forms to send in we discovered another surprising tax rule and came to a realization that I should have been filing an annual report for our time in the U.S.
I was vaguely aware of a form for people there more than 183 days a year, but had always been careful to keep our time in Canada to over the 180 days needed to keep our government health care coverage. In early October we learned that the way the IRS counts things differs from the way we had been counting things. The days per year are not just this year's days they also include a third of last year's days and a sixth of the year before that. It doesn't take much for a snow bird to exceed the threshold and then it becomes a matter of convincing the tax man that your connections to Canada are strong enough to not be considered a resident alien for tax purposes.
I prepared all my forms, submitted them with an explanatory cover letter and purposed to reset the clock by not going south to the states this winter. One files the form by June for the previous year and it is too late to change what happened last year. It is possible to organize one's travel by timing and destination to not have to rely on somebody agreeing with you that your ties are stronger to Canada than the States.
A not quite as near death experience as feared
While all this tax stuff was going on I had also been pretty involved with wrapping up the potable water instrumentation and with one thing and another only getting about three hours sleep a night. By the last week in Ft. Mac I felt terrible like I had flu or a cold but not really that as much as pressure in my chest. By mid-morning of the next to last scheduled day of regular instrumentation work it felt like there was band compressing my chest. One of the other foremen drove me to first aid and the nurse hooked me up to a monitor and didn't like some of the waves and it was off to the Ft. Mac hospital in an ambulance for overnight observation and a cardiac stress test the next morning.
The doctors concluded that it had not been a heart attack. Most likely a return of my GERD (basically, acid reflux) which had bothered me ten or more years ago when I was working full time in a stressful job. At that time it had responded well to Ranitidine, a type of antacid. Over time and in the relatively non stressful world of retirement and occasional part-time employment I had ceased needing the Ranitidine and stopped taking it years ago.
By the time I got out of the hospital and got a taxi back to camp it was time to head home for the weekend, I talked to my boss and we agreed that somebody else could come back for commissioning and that I didn't have to return to Ft. Mac this year.
Juanita was in Cold Lake, Alberta with Debbie and the kids for the kids' music and gymnastic lessons. I drove toward Meadow Lake and they drove toward Ft. Mac. We met in Lac La Biche and Juanita and I shared the driving home.
Visits to my family doctor provided a prescription to Prevacid and scheduling for an ultrasound of my heart and being put on a waiting list for a scope down my throat. The echo-cardiogram showed the heart was fine. The scope thing will end up being scheduled in March or later unless I cough up $75 (so to speak) and get it done privately in Nicaragua. The way things responded to the Prevacid and a return to normal sleep patterns etc. suggests the scope won't find anything seriously wrong there either.
Big Blue is a 1982 Ford F250 (3/4 Ton) Pick-up. We've had it for years, buying it to pull the horse trailer when we had horses. It has seen better days and usually I license it for only a few weeks a year to haul gravel.
In August I moved it away from it's normal parking spot so it wouldn't be in the way of the track hoe when it came to install the septic tank. One of the other chores scheduled for the track hoe was to push over some dead and standing trees before they fell on anything. Well, the track hoe was busy all the time I was away in the north and it didn't come and push over any of the trees I had marked.
The wind did.
I didn't need another hobby and sold Big Blue for a tooney to a friend who was more than happy to have its 351C V8, Borg Warner transmission and 4 wheel drive. He put on his safety glasses and swept the glass off the dash and rode off being towed by his son's SUV happy in his plans to repair the truck and convert the engine fuel back to gasoline from propane.
Getting Ready for Winter
I guess we now know we are prepping only to stay, not to stay and leave. Nice to be rushing off in one direction not two.
We could live in our fifth wheel. At least until the temperatures are consistently below minus 20. Up until then the brave little furnace can keep up by running almost continuously and you do warm up somewhat in the truck on your frequent trips to town to get the thirty pound propane bottles filled. You may be almost bankrupt and the gel memory foam on the bed may have developed Alzheimers but down to minus twenty is something you can survive if not enjoy. Below that, forget it. At least in our fifth wheel trailer. Winnipeg in March at minus 24 proved that.
Actually you can go somewhat colder than that using electrical heaters to supplement the propane furnace. Not if you are off grid though. Using a gas generator to make electricity to run an electrical space heater is of the shoot yourself in the foot school of economic practices. We do use an propane powered space heater. We use it sparingly. It does a great job heating and an even better job of adding moisture to the trailer which promptly condenses on the aluminum frame members. Aluminum framed trailers are much lighter and easier to tow than wood framed ones. They have a serious tendency to sweat, though.
In October we are still waiting for power.
Early in the month of October I called the power company and asked after the status of our July application. "The engineer left a message on your voice mail on August 2nd." was the response. I guess it fell off the voice mail buffer while we were in Ireland. It appears the application has to go back to the end of the line and go through the engineering and costing process again and then I will get a quote and then if I like the quote do the legal stuff and then be scheduled for the installation crew. I call in a few favours from old work contacts in the power company to move the process along but my best guess is the end of November.
Juanita starts digging the ditch for the power cables. At least she starts the twenty-five feet closest to the house because it is no place you want an excavator to be digging and if we wait until they actually show up it will be all frozen and impossible to dig by hand and the excavator will be even messier.
Several years ago when we started building the shop/studio we had a sewerage lagoon installed. In addition to being connected to the building for future plumbing it was hooked to an RV dump station which got some use each summer. Our old house next door has had a lagoon for over twenty years. It has caused no problems for the former owners. ourselves or the current owners. Nevertheless when we went for a plumbing permit in July we discovered that a lagoon would not meet code.
After much discussion we were given permission to put in a septic tank with a pump-out out in the bush. If our soil conditions had not been as they are the alternative would have been a leaching mound at an additional cost of close to twenty grand. I would have balked at that and put in a holding tank.
Once I was back home the septic tank company started making serious noises about showing up. And then they did show up and install the septic tank, install a pump in the septic tank, build a mound a hundred and fifty feet from the house, trench from the tank to the mound and put a pipe from the pump to the mound. Even though the location of the mound is downhill the mound has to be high enough for the liquid to drain back into the tank when the pump stops This and the depth of the the trench should prevent freezing. It's only a 1 inch pipe, but it´s in a trench greater than nine feet deep. This depth and the weight of the septic tank require a very big machine. The machine needs a lot of room to work. It is big enough to push over the dead and standing trees I've marked plus a whole bunch of live and standing trees that were in its way but otherwise were just fine, thanks.
The machine may be big, but the operator is skilled enough to expose the existing pipe without crushing it. They cut in after the junction in the line from the house and the dump station. The whole job takes one working day and somewhat horrifies me in the things they do as a matter of course in their work. Things that would get them kicked off an industrial site. The same work would take no less than three days in an oil refinery. Maybe a week with permits and safety procedures.
There is a certain tension between goals. We need to get out of the trailer before it gets too cold. We want to avoid moving in any sooner than we have to so as much stuff can be done and as much of the dust and fibre work can be completed as possible. Once we are in there we don't want to be sanding drywall filler or eating fibreglas dust. We could move to town and live in our daughter's basement. That would create its own challenges. It would be inconvenient to them and mean we were commuting ten miles to the work site not twenty five feet.
Also there are a lot of what are called dependent tasks - things that cannot be done before something else:
The inner wall framing must be completed before the wiring can be done.
The wiring before the insulation.
The insulation before the wall board.
The bathroom flooring before the toilet.
The in-floor heating before the tile.
The shed before the water tank.
The crawl space heating and insulation before water into the plumbing
And so on.
Nothing is as simple as it seems it should be. Or maybe that should read ''even a simple task can be made more comple''.
I chose ceramic tiles for the bathroom floor because they are durable and inexpensive. This didn´t take into account that ''ceramic tiles are cold''. (solution: in floor electric heating cable (inexpensive)). It also didn´t take into account that laying ceramic tile on OSB is not advised. (solution: nail metal lath between the in floor heating cables - it's too late to go back to vinyl flooring. We own the tile and the heating cable).
- the 4 inch spacing listed on the package only applies to concrete substrate, wood substrates need 3 inch so the cable covers a lot smaller area than planned and requires a lot more planning to maximize the probability that the tiles that feet touch will be warm ones.
- the layer of thinset used to cover the cable and the lath mean the final floor level is probably too high for the toilet base we installed in August. Doubling the wax gasket seems to work. Nothing seeps from around the toilet base. No time to pull it up to check. A classic case of ''If you don´t have time to do it right when will you have time to do it over?''
A special spacer and gasket is purchased and tucked away in the vanity base for that glorious day next summer when it is warm enough to live in the fiftth wheel and use the fifth wheel plumbing and thus can lift the toilet base without creating a crisis.
Oh well the floor is still ''durable''. Unless I drop something heavy or there is frost damage during winter absences or the tile seperates from the OSB despite the metal lath or .... choose your item from the shelf in my anxiety closet.
It looks good. So far.
I had pulled an electrical permit for the house in September and pulled one for the water shed (see below) in October. For most of October it looked like there was not much happening in this area, but it was matter of working doing outside work on the good days and inside work at night or on inclement days. The first circuits to be run and terminated at both ends were the septic pump, the car plug-ins and the RV plug in. As other circuits were added the RV circuit could be used to backfeed the panel until the power company was ready. Once we were on grid it would be illegal and dangerous to do that. Somebody makes a nice little interlock kit that would make it safe, but they did not get Canadian approval so it can't be used in Canada. But I digress.
In the five summers parked on the property we have hauled water for drinking, washing and flushing. A fifth wheel toilet doesn't use much water and hauling about 30 gallons a week is not a big deal using a collapsible 40 USG water bag in the bed of the truck. Having even a low-flush toilet in the house along with a bathtub, and kitchen and bathroom sinks will change things a little.
Long term we had always planned on digging a well. If you are lucky a well is nature´s way of saying that you´ve got ten grand you don´t need. If you are not lucky that ten grand can be a mere toll payment to a road you wish you hadn´t travelled down. I had seen and heard enough to know it wasn´t a path we wanted to consider this year.
''So. Let´s put in a tank.''
''How about the crawl space?''
With the limited height of the crawl space and size of the man door into it there were no practical tanks available.
''So. Let´s build a shed!''
When we built the foundation for the shop/studio I put a piece of 3" ABS pipe under the footing for a future water line and the electric supply for a well pump. I marked both ends with re-bar. Could have marked the ends better, but we found them eventually. Gave me empathy with the inmates in "The Great Escape". I regret not putting in a long sweep PVC pipe all the way to the surface of the crawl space floor when I put in the chunk of ABS. It would have saved about three days work of digging and restoration. The outside end could have had the re-bar a bit closer to the surface, but that didn't slow things down much. A track hoe is a different animal than an old, overweight man with a folding shovel.
Still the line and the cable to a water shed got buried and the shed got started and its completion became a focus as long as the weather cooperated. The pictures above include`ones taken in Octtober, November and December.