Saturday, 29 November 2014

Stay Warm, Stay Safe

The other week there was talk in the Facebook group about fire safety (cheers Ian), and what people actually knew about it and tips that they could pass on. The only downside to something like that is that all too soon it disappears as new topics come up and push it further down the page. As it is such an important thing I thought that perhaps it might be worthwhile putting something like that in here, where it is easier to find. As we are approaching the winter it is possibly more important than at other times of the year. The days are getting colder, the nights colder still, and in an effort to keep ourselves warm we try to heat rooms in a variety of ways. Unfortunately with the heating attempts there is always the possibility of fire. Most of us have seen news reports about the devastation which fires can cause, but how many of us realise that we can actually take steps to help ourselves prevent such a mishap.

As many of you know we live out in the middle of nowhere, and if we did suffer the catastrophe of a fire by the time that the alarm had been raised and a fire crew had arrived on scene all that would be left of our home would be some charred timbers and smoking rubble. To our minds that is certainly a very valid reason for getting the house and contents insured. Hopefully it is something which we will never have to claim on, but for peace of mind it is a necessary expense each year. As I previously mentioned there are various steps which we can take to help minimise the risks. We do have the wood burners, but they are not our sole means of heating. We also have gas fires, oil filled radiators,electric fan heaters and circulatory fans built into most of the ceiling lights. One of my first jobs in the autumn is to make sure that everything is clean and that it works properly. If it has got a power lead, the lead is checked to ensure that mice haven't been taking bites out of it or that it is not damaged in anyway, paying attention to the plug. For the gas heaters the connection units are tested to make sure that they work properly, and in turn they are used to check that they cause the valve units om the gas bottles to open and close. The flexible rubber hoses seem to go a bit porous over the course of a year so I replace them and any worm drive clips necessary. The ceiling fans get switched over so they are now pushing the warm air from the light bulbs down into the room.    

Like many people though our prime source of heat comes from the wood burners, we have them at either end of the house. Every year I dismantle the flue pipes and check them, especially along the seams. If I am even slightly dubious they get replaced. The whole run gets thoroughly swept and cleaned, paying particular attention to the 90 degree bends. Bearing in mind that these flue pipes do get hot it is worthwhile taking your time when deciding where they will run. Even though it looks close to the wooden roof beam in the photo, there is about a two foot gap. Anyway I dismantle the flue pipes and clean them on roughly a six weekly cycle, depending on what I am burning, and how often the fires are lit. Talking of which try not to burn rubbish (especially plastics) and green wood in the fires.

People might think that wood is wood, and that it all burns the same. Fresh wood still has a lot of sap and resins in it, which is why you can smell freshly split timber. If you burn this fresh wood the fire is not as efficient. For one thing a lot of the heat is used to boil off the sap so that the wood becomes dry enough to burn. The resin and gases are carried along the flue pipes of chimney until they start to cool. At which point they will start to stick to the sides as a tarry creosote type substance. If you do that often enough and then burn good dry seasoned wood it is possible for the creosote to then catch fire and you end up with a chimney fire. Green wood is also harder to light and produces more smoke. It makes sense to get smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors fitted. Personally I prefer the battery powered ones as opposed to mains powered, as you never know when you are likely to get a power cut. Test them on a regular basis and keep spare batteries in stock. We can count ourselves as very fortunate in that twice we have been woken by them going off to find a house full of white smoke.

Its easier to see the funny side of it looking back on things, but at 3am wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of flip flops with all windows and doors open at -18C it was a definite sense of humour failure. Now we don't put any more wood on the fire after 9pm, and at bedtime all of the embers are raked together and then all the fire's vents and doors are closed. The good thing about our lounge being down in the cellar is that the stone walls are 2 feet thick and act as a night storage heater. Many of us live in traditional Bulgarian village houses which we have modernised. Perhaps the fitting of double glazing has cut down on a lot of the draughts which used to be there. Apart from being a pain in the backsides these draughts used to help start the fires with a constant air flow, now sometimes I have to open the cellar door or a window to create that airflow. Another reason could be that it is getting towards the end of my six week sweeping cycle and there could be a build up of soot. I now have a complete spare set of flue pipes, so in half an hour the old run is dismantled and the new lengths are fitted. I can then do my Black and White Minstrel audition up in the barn where its out of the wind and snow as I clean the old flue pipes at my leisure. If the glass is blackening then that could be another indication that you are in need of having your chimney or flue pipes swept.

When you look at one of these wood burners you can see that all they are is a metal box with fire bricks inside. Ours in the cellar also stands in its own metal tray. The heat is conducted down the metal legs and starts to warm up the metal tray which in turn warms up the ceramic floor tiles. No wonder that area is so popular with the dogs and cats.The heat from the metal sides radiates out and helps to warm the room, and due to convection the heat also rises straight up and the travels across the ceiling until it starts cooling. So that is how your room gets heated. Hopefully you can see why it is a good idea to keep flammable things a safe distance away from your wood burner. Logs might look good stacked up alongside in photos, but unless you are constantly moving and rotating those logs radiated and conducted heat are constantly drying them out. Logs are flammable, which is why we burn them in the first place, so always try and leave a sensible air gap between the fire and any combustable material.

You might even have heard about the traditional brick built Djamals, and how wonderful they are. They are very efficient burning at temperatures of something like 1000C, so there is not even any ash left, the bricks just act like a night storage heater. We have some Djamals in our house, and when we moved in we were told that they are perfectly safe to use. The one shown was in our kitchen, and we wanted to increase the size of the kitchen and let more light in so that wall and the Djamal had to go. Now I have no doubt that originally it was wonderful and probably provided all of the cooking and heating needs. However when we took the wall down we found so many burnt and charred timbers that it kind of put us off lighting any of the others, so now they are kept purely as part of the charm and history of the house.

The purpose of this article is not to cause worry, but hopefully to point out a few steps which we can all take to help make our winter evenings a bit safer. It is up to the individual how much attention they pay towards fire safety, and the steps that they take. We might well be the exceptions rather than the rule, but we also have fire extinguishers and a fire blanket up in the kitchen. Although we don't do fire drills we do know safe evacuation routes just in case the worst should happen. It always pays to plan ahead.

On the cold dark winter nights the wood burners do come into there own. There is so much rubbish on the TV that it kind of makes sense curling up in front of the fire with a good book. If the animals will actually let you get anywhere near to it.  


Friday, 21 November 2014

Enough To Drive You Crazy

I was speaking to a friend back in the UK the other day, when the conversation got round to the state of the roads. Both over there in the UK, and here in Bulgaria. It was also mentioned that previously I have mentioned about changing our UK Driving licences for Bulgarian ones, and getting the car sorted out for its MOT, but I haven't really said what it is actually like driving out here. So here are some of my observations from across the years, hopefully most will nod their heads wisely and have seen the self same things.

Firstly the roads get a lot less traffic than in the UK. There are the main arterial routes which are plagued by Turkish HGV drivers. They seem to totally ignore other road users, and their sole object in life is to get from A to B as quickly as possible. The roads here were probably not designed to deal with these huge trucks, and you will often notice wheel ruts running in great lengths in the road surface. Once your car's wheels are in one, it must be something like riding along in a Scalectrix car, as it will guide you round bends. That possibly doesn't sound too bad until you want to turn off somewhere, or you are confronted by half a shredded lorry tyre. During the height of the summer it isn't so bad as large HGV vehicles are restricted from the roads during the heat of the day.

On the whole the Bulgarians are very polite and well mannered. However, this all changes when they get behind the wheel of a car. I often think that they lose their common sense at the same time. I have lost count of the number of times that I have witnessed them overtaking in dangerous places. Blind bends and the brows of hills are popular, and weaving through the closed gates at level crossings. Often done at the same time as talking on their mobile which is clamped between their ear and shoulder, which allows them to swig from a 2 litre bottle of water. A worrying statistic which came out recently is that a lot of young Bulgarian men actually think that a few drinks makes them better drivers.

If you are out driving and someone coming the other way flashes their lights at you, there is a good chance there is a speed trap coming up. Or they might even know you. Just recently there has been various reports about some traffic police taking financial incentives to issues warnings rather than issue penalty fines. Even the Prime Minister has issued a statement saying that these practices will be clamped down on. Obviously one motorist didn't hear that bit and on top of his traffic fine now has another charge of trying to bribe a Police Officer.

Hopefully you will remember me saying about the early snowfall that we had. It was the wrong type of snow to quote one of British Rail's famous excuses. It was a damp heavy snow, and stuck to things, especially branches. This caused various branches to snap and to then hang partially across roads. Even a month after those early snows have disappeared it is surprising just how many of the branches are still about to cause potential hazards. These are not confined solely to the back roads, but can also be found on some of the major routes too. Unfortunately many of them seem to be about windscreen height, and I have yet to see anything like Autoglass round this way.

If I can I try to avoid driving on snow and ice, even with winter tyres. I might have preempted the conditions, but I can't say the same for everyone. I have even seen tyres which were so bald in the winter, that they could have been used as racing 'slicks'. Supposedly all vehicles are meant to carry snow chains during the winter months, but apparently 4x4s with Winter tyres don't have to. I am guessing that individual regions will have their own understanding of that bit of legislation. Every vehicle is meant to carry a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, warning triangle and high visibility jackets, along with spare bulbs and anything else they can dream up. Soon each vehicle will need to tow a trailer just to cart all of these items round.

The weather does play havoc with the roads surfaces. In some areas there is more hole than road. Many rural areas were earmarked for road repairs this year, but due to various floods damaging roads elsewhere they have slipped back down the pecking order. The rains cause just as much damage as the freezing temperatures. Kerb stones and drainage are often not used, so if you glance at the side of the asphalt you will often see what looks like small dry stream beds. Not the kind of thing you want to put your wheel down into on a dark night. What road markings there might once have been will have long since disappeared. Often this is the reason why people drive along the crown of the road, rather than on the right side.

Potholes are another reason, and often when you follow someone it is almost as though they are on a slalom course. Following someone on an unfamiliar road is helpful, as at least you know roughly where the worst areas are. You just have to hope that there is nothing doing the same thing coming the opposite way. During the drier months it is not so bad as at least you can see just how big an obstacle it is going to be. In the wet it becomes a whole new adventure.

The camber on the road is often not as you would expect it to be, which tends to push surface water every which way. What might look like an innocent puddle, might hold a nasty surprise for the unwary. Potholes like lurking underneath puddles,and the puddles are often like a muddy soup. With more hedgerows being removed, more fields are moving into roads when it rains. This is great for concealing a pothole which is just waiting for an unsuspecting motorist. The pothole might be six inches deep, or for all you know it could be the birthing pool of either Jaws or Moby Dick. You will be in the middle of a potholed stretch of road before you see the first road sign warning you about the 'Uneven Road Surface'. The majority of road signs seem to have been placed as after thoughts, and the only people who gain any benefits are the hunters who use them for target practice.

Living out in the countryside you have the added joys of goats, sheep and cows being driven across the road, often adding to the 'mud'. Then there are the flocks of Geese and Turkeys, and not to forget the packs of marauding Chickens, along with sundry dogs and cats which have been let out to forage. Dark nights and foggy days can also give rise to the problem of the locals in their horse and carts, none of which have lights, or even a reflector on. In towns you have people acting like Lemmings, they walk behind your car as you start reversing, they will walk in the road when there is a perfectly good footpath, they will try crossing the road without looking, and many will ignore a pedestrian crossing to walk 10 yards further up the road and cross there. So driving here you need your wits about you, a revolving head (constantly in motion) and the eyes of an Eagle. Patience comes in handy, I always leave a large gap between me and the vehicle in front, although some see that as a challenge to find out just how many vehicles will fit into that gap. As I don't really have to be anywhere by a certain time I just let them carry on and smile when I see them stopped at a speed trap. So driving here is an experience, but with the quieter roads its not too bad at all, and once the Bulgarians have reached their destination and stepped out of their vehicle they revert back to the happy smiling polite people we know them to be.

Friday, 7 November 2014

That Time Of Year Again

It has reached that time of year when the weather is predictably unpredictable. As is often the case we have had our first snow, although I am glad to report that it didn't hang round for too long. It was here long enough for me to break out my snow shovel and reacquaint myself with how to use it. Maybe its a bit like riding a bike, in that its a 'skill' that you don't really forget. The only problem with the snow and the rain, was the mud that got left behind in their stead.

Halloween has been and gone for another year. Luckily that awful habit of trick or treating hasn't made it out into the villages yet, but judging by the amount of bits and pieces being sold in shops, perhaps its only a matter of time. One of the heads of the Eastern Orthodox over in Varna was calling on people to turn their backs on this unChristian celebration. Although to my mind the church has no room for argument, as how many religious festivals have their roots in old pagan celebrations? Which were adapted slightly so new converts would still have the partial familiarity of their old ways. In certain groups Samhain is given a higher priority than either Halloween, or even All Hallows Eve.

Once the snow and the rain had cleared away, and things had slowly started drying out we had the usual thick fog. During the day it isn't too bad, but it isn't very pleasant driving home in it after dark. Fortunately we are quite used to the ridge road home, so we have quite a good idea about where the bends are, how sharp they are and the direction that they take. As luck would have it they have carried out quite extensive road repairs, so there was no requirement to try and second guess where potholes might be lurking, waiting to jump out on unsuspecting motorists. There is one area which has been cleared of undergrowth for quite a way, and that does throw a bit of a spanner in the works with judging your position.

This time of year also means that the car is due for its annual roadworthiness test. To a certain extent it is the equivalent of the MOT which we have all had to go through in the UK. Once I had arranged a time and date I then have to make sure that I have all of the required paperwork to hand. You need your identification, both the big and little vehicle registration documents, a valid insurance certificate, both bits of the old MOT certificate and the one that I always have to hunt for proof that you have paid the municipal car tax. So on the required day I left home, through the final mist patches as the sun warms the ground up causing mist wraiths to slowly spiral up into the air. Fortunately the sheep in the next village were well away from the roads, as they have no road sense, and it possibly isn't a good idea to go for your MOT with a startled sheep sat on your car bonnet.

On getting to the test centre, I just hand over all of the paperwork, make sure that everything is there and that they know where the first aid kit, fire extinguisher and breakdown kit are stowed then go and find a coffee. Everything is done on CCTV now so in theory all vehicles on the road should be roadworthy and legal. Maybe the test isn't as strinent as the MOT in the UK, but every other year I get the car fully serviced before the MOT. Its mainly for our own peace of mind. To kill two birds with one stone this year I asked to have the new winter tyres put on as tyres are one thing that does get checked in the test. The other things are steering, axles, wheels lights, emissions, brakes, and safety equipment. So now we are running on Pirelli Scorpions for snow and ice. Not only that as they are dedicated SUV tyres they are also rated for mud, which is a definite plus when you live out in a village. We do tend to find ourselves driving through more mud than we do snow and ice anyway, as if the roads look bad I do the same as the villagers and get the bus. The word from my mechanic is that with a 4x4 and winter tyres there is no legal requirement to carry snow chains, now watch them change that ruling.

One thing that I don't really miss from UK life at this time of year is bonfire night. Maybe it has something to do with me having bonfres in the garden throughout the year, and the locals setting off fireworks to celebrate name days and birthdays, births and marriages. It just doesn't seem the same, also the animals appreciate the peace and quiet. They are much happier sprawled in front of one of the fires indoors, with maybe a louder piece of music to disturb them. One thing that I was pleasantly surprised about was, the amount of my Bulgarian friends living in the UK who are familiar with the traditional bonfire night rhyme. Not just the opening verse, but also the other ones too which I had long since forgotten, it must be an age thing, or at least that is my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

One thing that I do miss is the service of Remembrance. The only really organised one which I know of over here is with the British Embassy up in Sofia. There is a meeting of various ex forces members going on in VT this year, and hopefully that will become a regular thing and maybe spread to other cities. In years past others have come up with the idea of observing the two minutes silence at their nearest war memorial. I can never work out whether to observe the silence at 1100 in Bulgarian time, or to use 1100 UK time. To solve my dilemma I do it for both time zones.