How my Marmot Precip and Membrain waterproof breathable jackets failed

I’ve been a loyal customer of Marmot’s waterpoof, breathable rain jackets for several years. I’m on my third (or fourth?) Marmot rain jacket currently and my wife and daughter have them as well. Everything wears out eventually. Here’s what happened to our most recent ones.

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Review of Extreme Bar Mitts versus original Bar Mitts

New for this winter bike commuting season are Extreme Bar Mitts. Like the original Bar Mitts the Extreme Bar Mitts are like mittens for your handlebars that stay on the bike. You operate the controls inside of them, possibly with additional gloves or mittens on.

dropping child off at day care by bakfiets, 35F and raining

I have long, thin fingers and tried many pairs of gloves and mittens looking for something that would keep my fingers warm for cycling. When I finally found Bar Mitts they made a huge difference for me, allowing me to ride at colder temperatures or with greater comfort than anything before. In typical winter conditions I could use lighter gloves– and sometimes no gloves– inside the Bar Mitts, allowing me to more easily and safely operate the shifters and brakes. I’ve been using the original Bar Mitts about four years.

Recently Bar Mitts sent me their new Extreme Bar Mitts model to try and it has finally been cold enough to put them to the test. I was concerned that Extreme Bar Mitts would be too warm, since I already found the regular Bar Mitts sufficient for me down to about 0F when paired with fleece-lined wool mittens.

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Winter Tips for Utility Bikers

If you are like many utility bikers, especially if you replaced your car with an electric cargo bike, not biking in the winter is not an option. No matter what the weather conditions, you still need to bike to take your kids to school, commute to work, and pick up groceries. Is that even possible in the winter? The answer is emphatically yes. You’ll find a bike can get you where you need to go in any weather, in some ways more comfortably, more quickly and more safely than other forms of transportation. Sometimes it takes a bit of a sense of adventure to get going, but once you do you’ll find dread of winter biking is misplaced. Here’s some tips to help you along.

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My DIY SLA Trip Batteries

Caution: shop talk blog post intended for do-it-yourselfers. For my recent 240-mile journey I created what I call my “trip batteries”—batteries that I can attach to my bike to augment my regular batteries, but that I don’t intend to carry around on a daily basis. As such, the main design criteria for these batteries is that they be inexpensive. I don’t want to pay the big bucks for a battery that I only use once in a while. The obvious choice is SLA (sealed lead acid) batteries. These are the same kind of batteries used in cars, and the technology is almost 100 years old. E-bikers out there may poo-poo this choice of battery. After all, compared to my lithium batteries, my SLA batteries are heavy (20lbs vs. the lithium’s 15lbs), not quite as powerful (600wh vs. the lithium’s 720wh), don’t last as long (300 charge cycles vs. the lithium’s 1,500) and they are dumb (that is, they don’t have a battery management circuit board in them to prevent human error from damaging them, although most controllers provide the necessary protections). But they are cheap. I can put together a 10ah 36v battery for about $120 versus a 10ah 36v battery for $600.

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Sweat Is Your Friend

This summer was one of the hottest summers on record. Several people have asked me how I managed to survive. My response: I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice it was unusually hot in spite of spending much of my time outdoors training for a marathon and doing my errands by bike. I didn’t notice precisely because, counter-intuitively, these activities caused me to sweat and my sweat kept me cool. How could this be?

For some reason our culture has an aversion to sweat. Our media keeps up a constant barrage of messages about how we must avoid sweating and that if we do somehow err by sweating we must hide it at all costs. Of course there is a place for personal hygiene and we must take care not to impose our old smelly sweat on our fellow citizens. But we sweat for a reason–to keep ourselves cool–and furthermore we are very good at sweating.

A recent Scientific American article described how one of the most basic ways our human ancestors gained an advantage over other predators is by our ability to sweat. No other animal sweats as well as we do. This ability enabled our ancestors to track large game until it fell over from heat exhaustion, a technique known as persistence hunting. Many other animals can outrun us for short distances. But we are the masters of long distance running on this planet. A human can run a marathon faster than a horse, because the horse will keel over from heat exhaustion before it gets to the finish line. And so how do we make use of this great ability of ours in modern times? Do we augment our ability to keep cool in some way as we have done with so many of our other abilities? No, instead we vilify anyone who sweats in public. It is outrageous to me that we subvert this great advantage we have for dealing with hot weather, then complain about the weather, then build big machines to make ourselves cooler, and finally watch complacently as these machines contribute to the very climate warming we were complaining about.

I propose that instead of looking at sweat as the enemy we learn to harness it for its intended purpose: to cool us down. It is much more energy efficient to cool ourselves individually (perhaps with motion or fans) than to use big energy-intensive machines to cool down entire rooms and buildings. And it is the height of hypocrisy and inefficiency that our cars are designed to be basically greenhouses on wheels. As a result they must carry massive air conditioning equipment to keep their occupants cool. Instead, cars could make use of our natural abilities to cool ourselves by sweating and combine that with the built-in breeze of their forward motion.

Air conditioning will be one of the first superfluous accessories jettisoned by our lightweight/narrow/slow cars of the future. What will replace it? Think about the vents cars have now and how they could be improved. It seems that no one in our bone-headed auto industry has taken the time to reconsider the simple air vent. What are some ways it can better put a breeze where it’s needed? For that matter, where is the breeze needed? Sweating effectively requires having airflow over one’s back. Current cars place your back squarely in a cushy seat with no possibility of air flow. What if for starters cars had mesh seats? What if we had the vents blow directly from the seat onto our backs? Or better yet, what if we had ventilated clothing that clipped directly into the car’s cooling system? And we won’t need any kind of sophisticated automatic temperature control. Just provide a steady air flow and your body will sweat or not as necessary to keep itself comfortable.

You are probably wondering “What if I don’t have one of those lightweight/narrow/slow cars of the future? How can I keep cool by sweating while traveling?” If such is the case I propose that you make do with an electric cargo bike, which is the next best thing to a lightweight/narrow/slow car of the future. Here are my tips for sweating more effectively in hot weather:

  • Use an electric bike. Moving on an electric bike is especially nice since it can provide a breeze without so much exertion. And if you are on foot, my experience is that someone can actually stay cooler by running slowly and efficiently rather than walking. The faster airflow from running combined with sweating kept me cooler than the slower airflow (but less exertion) of walking. However, running efficiently takes practice. It probably also helps to be thin.
  • Don’t wear a backpack while biking. Backpacks block air flow. Get a cargo bike so you can carry your stuff off your body.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Go shirtless. Don’t be a prude dude. Let the sweat out. But carry a jacket for when you stop.
  • Carry twice as much water as you think you’ll need. You’ll need it.
  • Only stay in the sun if you are moving. The airflow will keep you from overheating.
  • Cool down in front of a fan after biking. You will notice a surge in body temperature after you stop biking, with a corresponding surge in sweat output. Don’t waste that sweat! Cool down with whatever breeze and fan and shade you can find. Only after the sweat has completely evaporated should you take a shower if circumstances require.

So this summer by following these simple tips I actually looked forward to biking and running as an opportunity to go outside and cool down. I did not let the weather reports dictate whether or not I could go outside. Don’t believe me? Try befriending your sweat!

Solar Xpedition Day 1

The day began overcast. Not a good start for the Solar Xpedition. But by midday Mr. Sun broke through and the watt hours came rolling in. I ran with my solar panel connected to the working battery (rather than the spare). It was exciting to see the power drop as I went up a hill and then gradually be restored by the panel.

My power use went very well the first day. I didn’t even need to get out the spare battery. It’s hard to know how much of the 500 watt hours I used the first day was supplied by the panel since I don’t yet have a way to measure watt-hours output. But I estimate that the battery had 360 to start with, the solar panel added 70 and charging at a restaurant while eating dinner added 70.

Many things didn’t go well, in particular 7 flat tires and swarms of mosquitos at my campsite.

Stay tuned for day 2.

Pompey NY

the wonderful Erie canal trail

charging up while I take a nap.

My Solar Bicycle

I am anticipating peoples’ reactions:

“Why do you have solar panels on your bicycle?”

“What do you do when it rains?”

“Can the solar panel drive the electric motor directly?”

“Did you make it yourself?”

“What the…”

Allow me to explain. My vehicle of choice is a “stoked Xtracycle”. (For those of you not “in the know”, an Xtracycle is a type of cargo bike that has an extra long frame. And “stoked” means that my bike has a Stokemonkey electric motor that helps me out on the hills.) In general this summer I’ve been biking 10 to 20 miles a day and then recharging my battery overnight by simply plugging it into an outlet. However, next week I’m going on a 3-day 240-mile camping trip through the Adirondacks where I might not have access to an outlet. The solar panels will help extend the range of my bicycle. So to answer your questions:

“Why do you have solar panels on your bicycle?”

I use them to extend the range of my electric cargo bike for long trips (plus they were fun to make). I will carry two batteries on my trip, each giving my bike a range of 20 to 40 miles. On a sunny day the solar panels can recharge one of the batteries while I am riding, adding an additional 20 to 40 miles for a total range of 60 to 120 miles a day. I anticipate some hills and I’ll be carrying a load, so a 60-mile range is probably more accurate. I may need to pedal the last few miles on some days.

“What do you do when it’s cloudy or it rains?”

I plan to stay in a hotel some of the time and recharge my batteries there.

“Can the solar panel drive the electric motor directly?”

Not really. The solar panels don’t produce enough electricity instantaneously. For example the solar panels only produce about 40 watts of power at a given moment, whereas my bicycle needs about 400 watts of power to go up a hill. The main purpose of the solar panels is to charge the battery over time.  Since charging happens slowly, 40 watts is enough to charge the battery. It takes roughly 10 hours of charging to store one to two hours’ worth of electrified riding time in the battery. And one to two hours of riding translates into 15 to 30 miles.

“Did you make it yourself?”

I already had the stoked Xtracycle, which is described on my About This Bike page. As you can read there, an electric cargo bike can be had for $1000 to $3500. And I had already constructed the canopy frame for a previous project, the Bike Wagon Canopy ($150). I found the canopy was somewhat wobbly with the weight of the solar panels so I had to strengthen it with guy wires. It remained for me to add the solar panels and the electronics. I used maritime-grade solar panels that were designed to keep sailboat starter batteries charged up, so they are extra-sturdy and consequently somewhat expensive. I’ve since seen panels with almost twice the power at 3/4 the price. Cost of panels: $900 to $1200. I am using three 12-volt panels in series to produce the 36 volts required by my battery. I spent a lot of time researching what sorts of electronics I would need between the panels and the battery, and finally concluded that I can just plug the panels into the battery directly. (I plan to write more about this in a later post.)

Total cost for a solar bicycle: $2050 to $4850. Not bad for a vehicle that can get you both out of the car and off the grid.

How to Make the Bike Wagon Canopy for Xtracycles

Bike Wagon canopy

In a previous post I described a canopy that Thea and I made for our Xtracycle to protect her from wind and rain. It looks sort of like a covered wagon on the back of our bike. It was easy to build without special tools or parts, did not require modifying our bike and cost us less than $150 for parts. It weighs about 2 lbs. and we can set it up in less than five minutes. Here’s how to make it.

Materials You Will Need

Tools You Will Need

Ordering Suggestions

order from Quest Outfitters:

#1024 1.1 OZ SILNYLON 1STS , (Tan)…3 at $9.99 =  $29.97
#4060 TENT POLE W/ INS .625 18 inch Black…4 at $4.95 = $19.80
#4061 TENT POLE W/O INS .625 18 inch Black…1 at $3.95 = $3.95
#4018 TENT POLE W/INS. .340 18 inch Black…12 at $2.60 = $31.20
#4019 TENT POLE W/O INS .340 18 inch Black…2 at $2.20 = $4.40
#4055 TENT POLE ARCH-145 DEGREE .340 BLACK…4 at $2.95 = $11.80
#2000 WEBBING- NYLON MED WT 1/2 inch Black..25 at $0.49 = $12.25
#3026 SIDE RELEASE BUCKLES – 1/2 inch…4 at $0.39 = $1.56
#4200 tubing cutter…$7.95
#3235 grommet tool (5/16″)…$10.99
#3231 (10) 5/16 grommets…10 at $0.18 = $1.80

purchase at a hardware store:

(1) 7/8″ x 48″ dowel…$3
(4) 3/4″ long wood screws…$1
(4) #6 x 3/4″ machine screws and nuts…$1
25 feet of light tie-down cord such as cotton clothes line…$5

TOTAL: $145.67

How to Make the Canopy Cover

The rectangular canopy cover fits over the canopy frame and is secured at the bottom with tie-down straps. The front and back of the cover can be cinched up with a drawstring like a covered wagon. If you like, the cover’s size can be adjusted, along with the frame’s pole lengths, for different sizes of passenger. The size I give here is appropriate for a large child or small adult.

How to Make the Canopy Frame

How to Assemble the Canopy

CAUTION: do not leave your canopy frame uncovered. Without the cover it is only held together by friction. If jostled it could come loose and snap back with surprising force (and for example break a garage window as I learned from experience). DO NOT ride your bike with an uncovered frame (again as I learned from experience you don’t want to be picking up all 20 tent poles in traffic). If you want to use the frame for some purpose other than the Bike Wagon canopy, consider putting a shock cord within it or using external guy wires as I do for using it to support my solar panels.

Final step: do me the courtesy of sending me a photo of your finished canopy!

How to Cut an Aluminum Tent Pole with a Pipe Cutter

How to Add a Grommet to the Canopy Cover

How to Make a Canopy Sack

If you have enough cloth left over you can use it to make a canopy sack.

Bike Wagon Takes Form

Canopy on the Commons.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there seems to be a need for a practical bike canopy. My first efforts have been to develop a passenger-only canopy for Xtracycles. [Instructions for the finished canopy are now online in a later post.] My design goals:

  • protects an adult or child passenger from wind and rain and temperatures above freezing while giving them some visibility
  • can be set up in less than a minute
  • fits any Xtracycle
  • costs less than $100 for parts
  • is easy to build without special tools or parts
  • is easy to enter and exit
  • adjusts for differently-sized passengers from baby to adult
  • adjusts for different weather conditions
  • provides a platform for flexible solar panels
  • should weigh less than 10 lbs.
  • does not require modifying the bike
  • not necessarily aerodynamic
  • retains the Xtracycle Freeloader cargo capacity
  • presents a snappy appearance

Last February Thea and I constructed and tested a rough prototype. I am pleased to announce that after trying out many design variations and solving several engineering challenges, we’ve created a very pleasing and useful design as shown. Later this spring I intend to post detailed instructions so that anyone can create their own canopy. A historian writing about conestoga wagons wrote the following, which I hope also applies to my Bike Wagon canopy:

All chronicles agree that a fully equipped Conestoga wagon in the days when those wagons were in their prime was a truly pleasing sight, giving one that sense of satisfaction which ever comes from the regard of any object, especially a piece of mechanism, which is perfectly fitted for the object it is designed to attain.

Solar Power

Solar-powered bike wagon.
Solar-powered bike wagon.

I’m currently testing flexible solar panels mounted on top of the canopy. The solar panels should be able to double the range of my bike. And it may be possible that I can just park my bike outside and never have to connect it to an outlet again! A solar-powered stoked Xtracycle may very well be one of the most practical solar vehicles available, if you measure practical in terms of being relatively inexpensive, having spare parts readily available, and being street legal. It’s not speedy or futuristic-looking, but it’s here now.

My Next Canopy Project: The Micro Car

I plan a second canopy development effort in the fall. This second canopy design will be for both driver and rider. I intend for it to be mainly for winter use as a way to replace a car during that most difficult of biking seasons. I hope that people will think of it as a very small but practical car: a micro car if you will. As computer sizes fell from mainframe to mini to micro in the eighties, so I hope that car sizes will fall from the grossly gross SUV to full-size to mid-size to compact to mini to the delightful micro car. Here are my design criteria:

  • protects the driver from rain while giving full ventilation
  • protects the driver’s hands from wind and temperatures 10 degrees and above
  • gives the driver full visibility
  • insulated (perhaps with Aerogel batting) to keep an adult or child passenger comfortable at temperatures 10 degrees and above while giving them some visibility
  • only needs to be set up and removed at the beginning and end of the cold season
  • fits any Xtracycle
  • costs less than $1000 for parts
  • may require special tools (such as a welder) or special parts
  • is easy to enter and exit
  • adjusts for differently-sized passengers from baby to adult
  • can weigh up to 30 lbs.
  • may require modifying the bike
  • may have electrical features such as a sound system and lighting
  • may be somewhat aerodynamic
  • retains the Xtracycle Freeloader cargo capacity
  • presents an appearance that inspires confidence in the project

I’ve attached some sketches and photos of my Bike Wagon and Micro Car prototypes below, from past to present.