trouble on the way to ratproofing
Monday, September 4 2023
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, NY
My big plan today was to drive over to the Brewster Street rental and seal up all the known varmint holes, including two known holes through the basement "slab" and a large rectangular hole connecting the basement proper to an extension added to the back. As you'll recall, the tenant there claimed to have seen a rat in the kitchen on Thursday, which is consistent with the size of the burrows I'd found coming through the slab a week or so ago.
Gretchen had taken the Chevy Bolt for the day (on Tuesdays she teaches creative writing in two different prisons in southern Ulster County), so that left me with the Subaru Forester. I loaded up two sacks of concrete along with tools, plywood (originally from a piece of triangular exterior wall surface beneath the shed roof of the greenhouse from the period before I added a second floor in 2012), two by fours, numerous five gallon buckets, and a big pan designed to make mixing water into concrete an easier procedure. I stopped on the shoulder of Dug Hill Road near where it crosses Englishman's Creek and, leaving the car running, went down into the nearby flood-prone forest to gather cobblestones small enough to fit into a 2.5-inch-wide rat burrow. I also gathered some smaller stones that might be useful to fill in spaces between such stones. With five gallons of stone, the bucket was heavy, and I stumbled a little coming back up to the roadway. In so doing, I brushed my thigh against a stinging nettle, which left a burning itch on one of my shins for a few minutes.
The Subaru was low on gas, so I stopped at the Stewart's in Old Hurley to fill the tank. When that was done, I went inside to get myself a medium black coffee and a bag of Fritos-brand corn chip ("that 70s' corn chip"). But then when I went to start the car, its dashboard lit up, the analog gaughes all flicked to 100% briefly and fell back, but the car didn't start. It didn't even attempt to start. Something was wrong, and initially I assumed it had entered some stupid computer-enforced shutdown mode, perhaps because I'd been ignoring messages to change the oil. Part of the problem was that all the icons on the dashboard were lit, and I wasn't sure if one of them was indicating an actual error or not. The one that was blinking depicted a vehicle sitting atop three round mounds, so I thought maybe if I could find out what the fuck that icon meant, I could override the shutdown. I tried looking up Subaru dashboard symbols, and the first hit was to a website that was trying to sell me services and that didn't seem to have any actual depictions of symbols. Falling prey bait-and-switch during a crisis is the sort of thing that immediately leads to despair and hopelessness. (It turned out that it did have such depictions, but they apparently don't show up on mobile devices; the icon meant "X-Mode," whatever that is, and it had no relevance to my ignition problem.) I tried resetting the computer back to factory settings, but of course the UI on the Subaru Forester's dashboard is so counter-intuitive that I accidentally set the language to French as I fumbled with the controls. But even after the factory reset, and even after I'd disconnected the car's battery to produce the coldest of reboots, the damn car refused to start. It was looking like I was going to need a tow.
I didn't have any of the insurance information necessary to get one of Amica's free tows, so I called Gretchen, who was working her Monday shift in the midst of a very busy Labor Day at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock. She sounded flustered, but she managed to get someone to cover for her while she went out to the Bolt to track down the Amica phone number and our policy number. It took her awile, but eventually she got back to me (a process somewhat frustrated by the car's insistence on sometimes and sometimes not channeling the conversation through the dashboard via Bluetooth) with that information, which I vowed to write on a sticky note and place in both cars after this crisis passed.
The pump where I was stopped was Stewart's northwest-most one, and it was at the top of a slight grade that seemed to be pulling me backwards towards the parking area of the nearby Old Hurley post office. If I could get the Subaru over there, maybe I could leave it parked for a long time (perhaps overnight) and deal with whatever the problem was in a more leisurely manner. So, once there were no vehicles refueling behind me, I shifted into neutral and let the car roll silently backwards. It developed enough momentum in this that I was able to turn the wheels (without power steering, this required some effort) to swing the tail of the car into the farthest (that is, the most-southerly) space in front of the post office. It wasn't a perfect parking job, as the car intruded slightly into the neighboring spot and the tail was a good ten feet shy of being backed into the space. But on a Labor Day, I felt like I could leave it there. In terms of what I needed to do next, it was looking like I was going to have to hike back home, a distance of nearly three miles (in what had become a hot summer day). But then Nancy (of Ray and Nancy) suddenly appeared like a guardian angel. She'd been driving by and seen me standing there in front of the post office with a phone pressed to my head and wondered if I needed any help. Did I ever! After she got herself a cold-pressed coffee, she gladly gave me a ride back home up Hurley Mountain. Along the way, we chatted some about my layoff earlier this summer. She told me that if my joblessness continued that Obamacare was a great option these days, that the prices on the exchanges had gotten cheaper and it really was fairly affordable.
Back at the house, I did some intensive research about why a modern Subaru Forester might not start. The most obvious culprit was the battery, but I'd tested that with a multimeter and it was sound. It turned out that there was so stupid computer-enforced shutdown mode. Something physical had to be wrong with the ignition process, and the most likely culprit was the starter. I actually have some experience with fixing a car with a failed starter while on the road. Back in late February of 1998 when I was driving the Dodge Dart to Malvern, Pennsylvania to fetch Jessika for what would prove to be her permanent move to Charlottesville (where she still lives today), the car failed to start after I'd stopped at a rest area on I-95 near Columbia, Maryland. Even back then, I knew enough to always carry a fairly complete tool kit in my car, and so I'd been able to replace the starter myself and get going again. The hardest part of that job was finding an auto parts store without the assistance of a smart phone. Of course, a 1975 Dodge Dart is a very different car than a 2015 Subaru Forester. Old American cars have lots of extra space under the hood, since they lack a lot of things we expect cars to have today. But they were also made bigger and their cooling systems weren't as efficient, so spaces for air had to be left around the engine. These same spaces come in handy when hands and tools need to access screws and bolts. With a modern Subaru, there's not a lot of room to work. I found some YouTube videos suggesting that replacing a Forester's starter was a job a normal human could do in his driveway, but it would require removing the plastic air box and reaching into a hard-to reach space to access the bottom nut holding the starter to the crankcase. Perhaps, though, I could get the starter to start just one last time if I knocked it hard with a hammer. I couldn't actually knock it directly, but I could place a piece of rebar against it and hit the other end of that with a hammer. This technique supposedly works a good fraction of the time, and yet I didn't have that filed away in my extensive database of technical tips and tricks. It had such a good chance of working that I decided to go try it.
I couldn't drive down to the Stewart's because I didn't have a car. So instead I took one of the eBikes. To help with banging the starter, I also brought a length of rebar, which I strapped to the rear panniers frame. It's an easy ride into Old Hurley on an eBike. First there's the plunge down Hurley Mountain, and then the bike will happily go at about 19 miles per hour with almost no human contribution at all. So the ride only took about five minutes and, in such gorgeous scenery, it was a pleasure the whole way.
Sadly, none of my knocking on the starter was able to coax it back from the dead. I tried pounding it in multiple places, but the behavior remained the same. I was able to hear a quiet clicking of a relay hidden somewhere near the fuse box (though, unlike any of the depictions I'd been able to find of the fuse box and environs, the ignition relay was not to the immediate right of the fuses. It was somewhere else that would require me to tear the dashboard apart to find. Since ignition troubles are rarely the fault of a relay, I opted not to pursue that search any further. Had I found that relay, though, I would've tested the voltages coming from it. As I did these things, some guy leaving the Stewart's asked if I needed help. I said no, the problem was the starter and I'd probably have to get a tow. "Did you try banging on it?" he asked. I said that I had.
Obviously, biking back up the mountain was considerably harder than coming down it had been. The eBike didn't have enough power to get me up that grade entirely on its own, but with my contribution, I was able to maintain a consistent pace of about four miles per hour climbing up the steepest part of the grade. This got my heart and lungs going, but it wasn't anywhere near as exhausting as it would've been had I had to climb the hill under human power alone. When I got to the top, I didn't need to rest all.
Further research suggested that it was best for someone to be hammering the starter while someone else was turning the ignition key. So when Gretchen came home at around 5:22pm, I had her drive me (and the dogs) down to the Stewart's so she could turn the key while I applied blows to various parts of the starter. I could feel the starter click through the metal rebar when Gretchen tried to start the car, which suggested that everything upstream of the starter was working correctly. But my blows still failed to achieve anything. I then tried jumpering the Forester to the Bolt so there would be more power available to the starter as we did this, but that didn't help. Out of options, we gave up and drove back home.
Belatedly, I then spent the evening doing my ratproofing task over at the Brewster Street rental. On the drive there, I stopped in Old Hurely to transfer supplies from the stranded Forester. Then I visited the Advance Auto parts in Uptown to buy a rebuilt starter for it. I wasn't entirely sure I would be able to install it, but if I couldn't, I supposed I could have a professional do the job. The checkout guy at Advance was kind of squirrely and a bit chattier than I am used to cashiers being. He told me the long-winded story of how a friend of his destroyed his BMW by trying to replace its busted starter. Evidently starters are very difficult to reach in that particular model, and he did the procedure all wrong. As I was leaving, I wished the cashier a happy Labor Day, and he acted as if he was unaware that that was happening today. He then joked about how he planned to wear white after Labor Day as some sort of act of rebellion. It seemed like a pretty weak form of rebellion to me, but okay.
Over on Brewster Street, I carried all the supplies (three of which were very heavy) to a side door and then let myself in that way. None of the tenants were visible on the first floor at the time, though it seemed at least one of them was home (judging by the imaginative bumperstickers on one of the cars on the street, one of which was "Parking Lot Seagulls Are So Mysterious"). My first task in the basement was to sweep up all the subsoil that the rats had excavated from their burrows (nearly five gallons of it), which they'd strewn in a wide swath in all directions (as opposed to building a mound around the burrow like ants would). This process of sweeping showed me that the concrete "slab" was in worse shape than I thought. I removed the smaller shards of it (all of which was about 3/4 inch thick, which is the reason I've been using quotes around the word "slab"). While I was doing that, one of the tenants came down to chat about the rat infestation. The most important new nugget of information was her discovery of a hole in the wall near the refrigerator's electrical outlet in the kitchen, the place where the only rat sighting took place. Already dripping wet from sweat, I followed her upstairs and saw the hole for myself. It was about two and a half inches wide, which I now knew to be typical for rats. "That's a rat hole!" I exclaimed. I told her I would be sealing it up immediately using steel mesh and pest-block spray foam. Clearly, I said, this was the means by which a rat had gotten into the kitchen and it was unlikely we had to worry about the cat door. But the cat door had a mechanism for making it into a one-way door, so I showed her how to make it so critters could only go towards the basement instead of coming and going through that door as they pleased.
The combination of steel mesh and spray foam worked so well that I wished I'd brought more mesh. After filling in the rat hole in the kitchen (during which time I met another of the tenants), I returned to the basement and used plywood and two by fours to block a fairly large square hole through the concrete blocks of the west foundation wall. This also required re-routing the dryer vent hose. I was able to attach the carpentry to existing wood along the top, but I sealed the plywood to the concrete blocks along the bottom using only pest-block spray foam. (Using a technique I'd developed while insulating the cabin's foundation, I used a two-by-four to hold the plywood firmly in place while the spray foam cured; it's not a bad adhesive.)
Then I mixed up the concrete in two batches, each from a separate 80 lb sack of dry concrete mix. After plugging the rat holes with cobblestones (shoved as far down as I could) and removing the loosest pieces of the old "slab," shoveled the wet concrete onto the subsoil and spanked it smooth. The second bag had a cantaloup-sized wad of hard concrete in it, leaving me to wonder if the remaining concrete was any good (I've used bad concrete, and it always ends poorly). But I shoveled it in anyway.
I added this fresh concrete in a number of places, including a large hole where the old fuel line from the old oil tank (which I'd cut into pieces and removed back in 2017) used to emerge. There was no evidence of rats in most of these holes, but who knows how the rats will behave now that I've sealed shut their main burrows. After I'd found a home for all the new concrete,
covered most of it with pieces of the paper bag that the dry mix had come in to keep it from drying out too quickly. I also unplugged a dehumidifier the tenants had been running.
With all that out of the way, I packed up what I needed to take with me and loaded it into the car. As I did so, I could smell the fresh scent of a skunk in the neighborhood. The tenants had complained about a skunk under their porch some months ago, but evidently that problem was fixed after Gretchen spread used cat litter under there. The skunk may have moved out from under that porch, but he or she is still around.
On the drive home, I stopped at the Mobil Station at the corner of Henry and Broadway to get the super-strong Sierra Nevada Big Little Thing (which comes in a purple can). After all that work, nothing is better than a cold beer.
Back home in Hurley, I updated Gretchen on my anti-rat measures and then chowed down on some mint-rice-with-curry that Gretchen had made.
It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the Forester's starter troubles were related to the high temperatures of the day. Perhaps it would start working again now that darkness had come and it was cooler. So I drove the Bolt down to the Old Hurley post office to try starting the car again. Amusingly, there was a couple parked right next to the Forester, and they were sitting on the down tailgate of their vehicle cuddling. They'd probably been kissing too until I rolled up. I didn't want to disturb them while they indulged their animal natures, so I did a quick test of the ignition, and when it failed, I locked the Forester back up and drove away.
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