Solar heating design for the Garden

Those that know me well, know that I am a big fan of solar. The idea that we can harness the sun for energy and other similar uses is great, in my mind! In particular, one area of solar design that has caught and held my attention for  a while is solar heating- harnessing the sun to heat houses and greenhouses, in the most efficient way possible.

In essence, as the diagram that I found on the web shows above , the solar heater principle is extremely simple in design- a slanted surface captures the sun’s heat and as it heats, it is vented into the house. Simple and effective.

However, with any solar heating project, regardless of the application or type of sunlight collector, there are two keys to success that will make or break any project:

  1. Adequate insulation
  2. Thermal mass

Usually, collecting heat and distributing it into a room is not incredibly difficult. What is more difficult is making it efficient. You want to retain the heat generated as long as possible, especially after the sun goes down.

Insulation is the first line of defense (and believe me, most houses , especially older one are lacking in this area, as are most greenhouse designs). It keeps cold air out, and keeps the warm air in. The more of it, and the greater the R value, the better.

Thermal mass is what helps maintain the air temperature after the sun goes away, and slows the natural cooling process. Basically you want a material that can absorb the heat from the sun, hold it in, and slowly release that heat energy back into the air after the air around it cools down. Black jugs of water and solid blocks of concrete or other masonry material are both good thermal mass materials.

These two keys are, from my study, essential to having an off-the grid greenhouse. Most traditional greenhouses require a heat source whether electric, wood or gas to maintain the heat levels after dark, which is a bit of extra energy to use. If these two principles are followed adequately, they will eliminate the need for a heater on the cool to cooler nights, and make the coldest nights less expensive in fuel costs.

For my garden, since we live in a northern, cooler climate, our growing season is not as warm or long especially when it comes time in early spring or late winter to start seeds for the summer and fall harvest. Since space inside is not available, I had to have a set-up outside to start my tomatoes, squash, brussel sprouts, etc. A common solution is a hot box, or as some call it, a cold frame. In essence, a wood structure with large windows at an angle, to create a mini greenhouse.

So in keeping with the above principles, this spring, I built two hotboxes that utilize these principles:


The backs of both are extended a bit from a traditional hot box design to allow room for the thermal mass, which in the case of the closest box is 4 gal buckets of water painted black. I also stirred a couple of heaping handfuls of rock salt in each bucket as an anti-freeze precaution.


The buckets sit and absorb the sun’s rays all day, and then release the heat back into the insulated box. The walls are wood framed,with foam insulation board and a waterproof draft block board, making the total width of a given wall around 3-4″ thick

IMG_20160406_082424202I have checked on them after dark briefly a couple of times, and a few times first thing in the morning and have been pleased to see that my design has worked well- the heat stays in the box adequately. The seeds I planted so far are thriving, and likely will be ready to plant in the garden soon. Now that it is starting to get warmer in the day, I need to prop the windows open most of the day, so the plants are not scorched, and close them up a few hours before dark, so the heat is still retained.

The materials for this project is primarily pallet wood, and some old, free windows I was able to get from a friend. So far, this excursion in solar heating has worked out well for the garden… I might build a green house in the future, using these same principles. If I design it right, I might be able to have fresh vegetables all winter long, which will be a major plus!


Basement Fireplace

When we bought our house last year, it came with a wide open, unfinished basement. Nothing but cinder-block walls and concrete floor, with exposed rafters. Not exactly the nicest area for a game room, or play area for the kids.

Needless to say, after more pressing projects were taken care of, the basement became a significant projects. Thanks to help from friends, and lots of drywall, the basement has been partially finished, with a large, mostly finished room (exterior walls are still just cinder-block and floor are just large area rugs over concrete) , and two smaller utility and storage rooms.

But, how to heat? Being the frugal guy that I am, it didn’t seem to make much sense to use electric space heaters. Too much energy used = money floating away.

My first idea was to make a solar air heater (more on those in a future post), but the opportunity to get a cheap propane fireplace came by and I jumped on it. The savings each year using it over an electric space heater would pay for the unit in a matter of a few years, so definitely a no brainer. Not to mention the ambiance it adds to the room!

A few evenings (ok, probably more than a few) on pinterest provided some useful design ideas, and it was off to the races….. well, kind of. This project ended up being a off and on project for most of this winter, though it was hooked up and running for most of the season, which was helpful some weeks!


Hooked up to the propane line, Set in corner on platform of 2x4s


Framing it in- Always make sure to frame correctly for proper clearance to combustibles!


Drywall….this below grade sheet is much nicer color than the last I bought at Lowes..that one was dark green


Layering the plywood for the mantel


Rocking the Harbor Freight tools- worked well for this project!


Faux hearthdetail


Next layer



Final layer and shelf


Altogether, 3 layers of 3/4″ plywood, and some ivy trim board across the shelf and hearth


The “finished” fireplace. Since this picture was taken, the top crown molding has been installed.

(The photos were all taken on my phone, so my apologies for quality.) The mantel was constructed of 3/4″ plywood, layered into desired shape. One 4’x8′ was adequate for the mantel, and a little bit of wood filler took care of the imperfections.

Overall, I am pretty satisfied with how it turned out, and it does a nice job of heating the basement, especially on game nights. Somehow, time with friends just seems that much better with a fire going…. well maybe. Enjoy!

Reboot Initialized…

As you are no doubt aware, it has been a long time since I have last posted. Too long, in fact. A little over a year, actually. Oops. So, it is time to reboot and revitalize this blog, setting a new course and direction to sail.


Image credit: Sira Anamwong

I do however, have good reason for my absence, though it is high time to get back in the saddle. Back last winter, my wife and I bought a house. The house was a bit of a fixer -upper, and it came with 1 acre of land. That same time, I discovered Pinterest, and yet another DIY bug bit…. hard. Winter led into spring, and I was working away at fixing up our house, spring led into summer,and I started our garden. Fall led into winter, and I wasted time on Pinterest added more projects to my to-do list.


Quite simply, my interests have expanded, and my list of projects to do quadrupled. So, with that in mind, what does that mean going forward?

This will still be a frugal DIY blog, but with a much broader focus. Garden projects, house projects, pallet projects, Homesteading off-the-grid projects, as well as game reviews and projects and model railroading will all get some press time, as I get into them.

Have no fear, fellow hobbyists- there will still be game reviews and thoughts, as well as thoughts from my model railroad experiences. But they will only be a part of this blog. But, if you like frugal DIY projects, game/hobby or otherwise, then hopefully you find some good ideas here.


Some of my new games…

As always, feel free to contribute your thoughts, comments, questions! Here’s to a more productive future!

What Makes a Game a “Filler”?

We boardgame geeks certainly have our own lingo when it comes to games- Euro games, point salad, deck drafting, Ameritrash, filler games, 4x games, etc.  To the non-gamers, it could be a bit confusing. What does it all mean?

Is it a filler game? A hand management game? A Card game?

Is it a filler game? A hand management game? A Card game?

Often, in regards to certain games (like my recent review of Yardmaster Express), the word “filler” is thrown around a lot. I am guilty of this as well. For some this could be a little confusing. What do we mean by the word “filler” What makes a game a filler versus the “main event”?

First, lets get some logistics of the term defined. When I (and most gamers) use the word “filler”, we are referring to a game that is short in play length, with little set up. Typically, these are the little games that might come out as a friendly diversion in between games of say, Caylus, or Puerto Rico.

So short, simple, and light game play…. It could be tempting to add many micro games to this category, but some of them are more complicated than say Uno, or Yardmaster Express, or Ratuki. So do they make the cut?

And then, there is the consideration of time. Some nights, all we have time for are “filler” games, though we would gravitate towards one that feel more like a bigger game in a smaller package. In that case is the filler game still a filler game?

Some nights, the filler game becomes the main event....

Some nights, the filler game becomes the main event….

Granted this is rather meaningless debate over definitions, but it does seem a little hard to define what a filler game is- It can depend on who is playing and the time you have whether Scrabble Slam is the main event of the night, or just an ice-breaker/filler for that bigger game like Pay Dirt.

This brings us to the point of why I really like these so-called filler games- they are so versatile. They can stand in for a bigger game when time doesn’t allow, or when people want something simple. They can fill in the dead spaces in between bigger games. They can be thrown in a pocket or bag and taken on vacation, or on day trips. While they may not be as long or as deep as the big ticket games, they have more openings to be played.

For me, I consider any game that is portable, and plays in 45 minutes or less to be more of a filler game (In the broadest sense). They have varying degrees of depth, but all are light, portable, fun games that can fill this dual role.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

  1. Station Master– This is one of my popular games in this category. It has slightly longer gameplay, 30-45 minutes, and is simple to play. DSCF3197
  2. Empire Engine– This is a great strategy game in a small package. Short gameplay under 30 minutes, more complicated to learn and master, but fun to play.DSCF3172
  3. Yardmaster Express– Arguably the simplest game on this list, this game is closer to Uno than say Empire Engine. But it is fast (10 minutes) and really simple, and addictively fun.DSCF3595
  4. Harbour– This is arguably the most complicated game on this list, but it is still relatively easy to play, and a lot of fun. It nicely boils down the big worker placement strategy games into a smaller, simpler package. This game takes about 30-50 minutes to play.DSCF3133
  5. Infection Express– While very luck dependent, this game is a fun challenge. It takes the experience of Pandemic (which itself is a shorter, simpler game) and makes it smaller. Gameplay is quick, usually 10-15 minutes, and like Yardmaster Express, you will find yourself muttering, “just one more game!” or “Let’s play again, so I can beat you now!”

    All is not well in Disney World

    All is not well in Disney World

Weigh in with your comments: What do you define as a filler game? What are some of your favorites? Let us know!


#30- A Look Back, and a Look Ahead


According to WordPress, this post is my 30th post on this blog. While certainly not a huge achievement, or an overly significant milestone, especially since it has been stretched out over many months. But, in my my mind, it is a milestone, and I am sure there is a philosophy out there that encourages you to celebrate every milestone, now matter how minuscule, right? Right….

So, what does one write for a 30th post?  I frankly have few ideas, so I decided to look back at highlights of these past few months, and then attempt to speculate what lies ahead for this blog.

So without further ado, lets look at some highlights of these past 29 posts:


1. The Most Controversial Post: Downsize Your Hobby: This post generated lots of comments of various reactions both here ont he main blog site, and on the forums I frequent where the link to this post was uploaded. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was more of a negative reaction from the board game crowd- It’s hard to argue with the Cult of the New.

2. The Most Overlooked Post: Unplugged Gaming – Taking time to unplug and spend it with friends is a great way to spend time.


3. The Most Popular Post: Idea #1 Find the Free Stuff!– This post really kind of kicked of my Low (or No) Cost Ideas Series. According to WordPress’s stats, this was the most viewed post. Hopefully you all found it helpful. This series has been for me  a great way to encapsulate my philosophy and my approach to my hobbies- the essence of being a Frugal Hobbyist.


4. The Best Board Game Review Post: If I defined best by “most views”, my review of Occupation of the Rhineland would easily take the cake. However, I think that my review of Pay Dirt takes the cake. This game has spawned more posts, or parts of posts than any other game, and has been my favorite game to review to date. Seriously, I think it is that good! Notable runners up in this category: Harbour, which really kickstarted this blog, Serica: Plains of Dust, and Yardmaster Express.


So, where do we go from here? That is where you, the reader comes in! I realize that I am pulling from two very different groups of hobbyists: Those who like trains, and those who like games. Granted some of you are probably like me and like both! But, I do want to cover both to the best that I can. So, if you have ideas of what you want to see discussed , or reviewed, let me know in the comments.

Now, I do have some ideas, and hopefully that work is slowing down for me, the next 30 posts will come at a faster speed than before. (but no promises!)For the next 30 posts, expect more of the same. More board game reviews, more updates on my train layout, and more ideas and opinions about how to enjoy both without breaking the bank.

Now, a word about board games: I would love to review more games. If you are a designer, promoter, or publisher, big, or small, I will gladly review a game for you. Simply send me an email, and we can work something out!

Yardmaster Express- an Express review

If you are anything like me, it can be sometimes hard to get people to play a new game. Especially if those people are more of casual gamers who are a little hesitant to try another new game of yours, especially since I like to play (and craft) complicated games. (Puerto Rico, Pay Dirt, Empire Engine, to name a few on my shelf)

However, some games are simple, and unimposing enough that the resistance is short lived. Once the game has been played, you all find yourselves shuffling up the cards….”Let’s play again! That was fun!” When that happens, I know I have found a good, short, enjoyable, simple filler game, that everyone can enjoy.

Now, I am not always a big fan of games in this category. Games like Uno, Phase 10 (which is really a LONG game), Blitz, Farkle, Rook, and Ratuki, etc. are fun, but for me are not a main event. I like to think and strategize typically. Don’t get me wrong- these are all good games for the niche they fill, and are fun with the family, but it is just not a niche that I need filled all that often. In other words, these are the games, I can get everyone else to play, but I personally am not as excited about.

So when I discover a game that meets those conditions, but also is interesting to me, and draws me into it as well, one that everyone, no matter their deep-thinking comfort level can enjoy, and is short and addictive (“Play again!” “One more time!” “Why not one more round!”), I take notice, and if I can, add it to my shelf.


Yardmaster Express is one such game. While a slightly larger micro game at 30+ cards, this is a good little filler game, that can be enjoyable in-between games kind of game, or if you are a little shorter on time, can be an enjoyable event to itself.


Yardmaster Express is a micro game from a small board game start-up publisher, Crash Games, who recently brought us Pay Dirt, which I have been thoroughly enjoying. My PnP copy has been seeing lots of use!


Yardmaster Express is also another recently funded Kickstarter project that is really a great game for the package. It is the express version of Yardmaster, also a recent Kickstarter project and a small game as well.

Players take the role of yardmasters (imagine that!) trying to make up a profitable train consist to send out. Each player has their own train they are hooking up car(d)s to based on type or value. Once the trains reach a certain car(d) limit, the game ends, and players tally up their points.


As with all it’s games, Crash Games generously provides the full color pdf files for Yardmaster Express on its game page on BoardGameGeek here:

As this games is all cards, it really is a simple, simple build. You print out the cards (5 pages total) double sided with the colored train cars on the front, and the grey wild cards on the back. Then I ran them through the laminator, cut the cards out, and rounded the edges. Other than making sure to keep the cards in order when double-sided printing so that the cards match up with their backs, this was a walk in the park, especially compared to some games I have crafted.


In one sense this game takes elements from 7 Wonders, Uno, and Stationmaster, and blends it into a nice, unique game. First, you draw a hand equal to the number of players in the game. This is a communal hand that gets passed around. On your turn, you draw a card to the hand, play a card either face up or face down, and then pass the hand to the next player.

The communal hand. I can choose to either play the red 2/2 card or the green 2/3 card...

The communal hand. I can choose to either play the red 2/2 card or the green 2/3 card…


This deck-drafting/communal hand mechanic is really neat, and while I am familiar with it somewhat with 7 Wonders, it really has a novel, unique feel to it.  Do I take that 4/4 card I can’t play, and bury it as a wild card in my train to prevent someone else from taking it, or do I take that 3/3 card in the hopes that the 4/4 card makes it around to me next turn?


Once a set number of rounds have been played (depending on the number of players), players tally up their points from the value of the cars added to the train. In addition, whomever has the longest run of a color gets extra points based on the number of cars in the run. You can also play with the caboose expansion which offers some variety of extra bonus points to earn by meeting certain conditions.


Admittedly this is a very simple game. This is a light filler type of game, and it makes no pretensions to be anything else. Even with that though, there is a little bit of strategy and planning involved, which I alluded to above. The sharing of a common hand makes this game really interesting.  The Caboose variants really make the game more interesting as well, and keep things different each game. These really help break up the monotony of always the same goal.



Yardmaster Express is really a great game for what it is intended to be. It is a fun little filler suitable for all ages. If you can play Uno, you can play this. Is this a deep game, or a gamer’s game? No, not at all. In one sense it feels a little more strategic than Uno, mainly because of the card drafting/shared hand mechanic, but on the other, it feels just as simple and easy to play, although it doesn’t feel like brainless play like Phase 10 or other games with little decision making…


In short, this game really is worth checking out. The retail version should be out soon, or you can always make the PnP version, which takes only a little work to do. Finally a game I like that everyone likes to play, not just my gamer friends and family. 😉


The State of the Layout Report

My work schedule has been a bit….different these past few weeks. But even with longer days, and odd shifts, I have still managed to start a few projects on my model railroad. There has been a road to be paved, trees to plant…and more trees yet to plant. And did I mention I am needing more trees! I vastly underestimated how many trees a small layout needs.

Once the scenery is complete, I need to get around to scratch-building the main station. I plan to have it be a focal point of the layout, with fully detailed interior, etc. After that, more detailing projects, and detailing my motive power fleet for modeling a freelanced Vermont subdivision of the B&M and CNR during the 60’s/ CR/CN during the 80’s. Plus other buildings to scratch build, and details, and the river to be poured….so in other words, plenty of blog posts waiting to be created and written, and photographed! (gimme a second, I am out of breath….)

What follows is a sort of picture report of those projects as well as the existing state of my layout as a whole, highlighting where it is at now, and projects completed. (ish)




The finally painted tunnel portal….yeah, I kinda procrastinated on it for a while, and finally just painted it.



Qui-gon Jinn on a walk through the woods…


















The newly paved asphalt road- actually tile grout, painted and weathered. Those Vermont winters are rough on these roads…


DSCF3500 DSCF3502





A look up the mountain… still pretty sparse, even after the 30+ trees up there.


These are cheap Christmas village trees with the snow cut off the branches, and stuck along the back of the mountain ridge to help give an illusion of distance. These are definitely background trees, but are the right price for the right job.




Looking down the mountain….eventually a spring will be flowing here…






The evening “mock up” passenger train makes a stop at the mock up station (cardboard and printer paper and tape is all there is to this structure–just a placeholder for now).


Now,I need to get back to more projects! As always, please subscribe!