Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

And Then I Put a New Engine In It….

By Cam Mather

I’ve always wanted to be one of those “guys” that just “swaps” out an engine when it’s giving him trouble. Kind of like the NASCAR pit crews after a big wreck of a crash, who are able to rebuild the car in minutes and get it back on the track after only missing 2 laps. But alas, I am an electronic publisher with no real skills in this area. How does one become one of “those guys” with real skills?

Well I had no such skills, but moving off the grid and meeting a great coach like my neighbor Ken has given me a newfound confidence to try things I’d never have tried before. Building walls, putting in a new bathroom upstairs, putting up a wind turbine…

Last year I bought a new rototiller because my old one was giving up the ghost. I kept the old one for back up and it kept coughing and sputtering along. It’s handy for me to have a second rototiller because the berry gardens are a long way from the main garden, so it’s nice to leave a tiller over there and not have to drag the machine that far. One thing technology has taught me as well, is that a backup is always a good idea.

The old tiller was a Troybuilt, made in Troy, New York. My mom bought it secondhand 15 years ago and had it tuned up. She even managed to get the manual with it. Judging by the black and white photos of guys with long sideburns and narrow ties in the manual, it was made in the late sixties or early seventies. So it didn’t owe me anything. I got my money’s worth from it. Everything worked fairly well except for the motor.

Canada has a chain of discount hardware stores called “Princess Auto.” They sell stuff, cheaply. Amazingly cheaply. One of the reasons that so many Canadians have such well-stocked garages is because of Princess Auto. Michelle won’t even go into a Princess Auto store because the smell of new rubber tires and other caustic odors grosses her out, but I kind of  like it. It’s the smell of things being accomplished in shops.

Recently they had a 6.5 Hp horizontal shaft motor on sale for $120. It was a savings of $120 off the regular retail price, which is about 1/3 of what you’d pay for a new Honda engine. And yes, it’s not a Honda engine, but if it works… even for a while, is it worth the gamble? I really like having a back up plan, and a back up rototiller has taken on new importance with us running a CSA and growing produce for 12 families this summer.

So I took a shot and bought a motor. I decided that for $120 I’d risk it, and it didn’t fit, I’d leave it in Ken’s garage because sooner or later he’d find a use for it.

A couple of days ago I got out all my tools and took the old engine off. I’m good at that. In fact in Grade 9 Autoshop class I was excellent at completely dismantling our Briggs and Stratton lawn mower motor. But when it came to getting it back together… not so good. “Mr. Smith, it’s okay to have parts left over, right?”

I lucked out and the new engine fit the mounts perfectly. I took the pulley of the old crank shaft and put it on the new one, got the belt repositioned, tightened everything up and lo and behold, it worked! It’s like a new rototiller only this one doesn’t belch out all that blue smoke when the going gets tough. Yes Greenpeace, you can revoke my membership now.

My new Troybuilt rototiller I bought last year (with a Chinese-made engine) cost me about $900. My pretty good back up rototiller cost me $120, less the amortization on the tools I used to replace it.

I believe capitalism is ultimately responsible for the destruction of the planet we are experiencing right now. It’s this relentless march towards making more stuff, cheaper, that’s going to do us in. And while most of the time I try to remove myself from the lemming-like plunge off the consumer cliff, I joined the hoards this time and bought a new engine. A gasoline-powered one at that. I can rationalize it ‘til the cows come home (and since we don’t have cows this could be a while) since I’ll be using it to grow food, local food, that will reduce the carbon footprint of food brought from the southern U.S., blah blah blah) but I’m part of the consumer machine regardless.

Which brings me to the miracle of the whole episode, which is how do you make a motor like this and sell it for $120? The mind boggles! Look at this motor! It’s has steel that took energy to make, and to reheat and form into the engine block, and it has steel for crank shafts and dozens of other parts, and it has plastic that was oil and it has new paint made from petroleum. And someone had to design it all, very precisely, and ship all the parts from different places. And people had to put it all together, and test it. Oh, then they had to buy a cardboard box made from trees, and this box even had two chunks of Styrofoam in it that came from oil. For $120? How is this possible?

When I do this kind of consumer analysis I always think about the documentary movie called “Manufactured Landscapes,” much of which was filmed in Chinese factories. You see the people lining up in the morning from massive dormitories before work, and then the mindless, repetitive assembly work taking place on miles of workbenches. The scale boggles the mind. I’d last 3 days before I threw myself off a building.

And yet here I am with my new motor. Well to my fellow homo sapiens that made this marvelous machine I say “thank you.” I appreciate your hard work. I appreciate your craftsmanship and your efforts at building such a machine that will my life easier. I will use it wisely to try to ultimately grow enough food that many of us will live a little lighter on the planet.

I’m not sure what else to say. Sometimes we are caught up in a machine and a force that is far greater than us. I try to resist but often I’m just dragged along behind it like everyone else. The irresistible force paradox asks “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” If capitalism and consumerism is an unstoppable force, apparently I am not the immovable object I like to think I am!

Cam’s Note for Tim at the Video Store: Yes Tim, I am wearing that sweatshirt formerly owned by my mother-in-law with the pastel woodland scene on it! But I can wear stuff like this ‘cuz I can swap a motor out!





  1. Now that you are so accomplished, come over and do the same for my now defunct snowblower ( they quoted us 1200$ to replace they engine)

  2. Jeff Goodman

    Cam – great work. I see, however, that you have failed to reinstall the beer holder when you put the unit back together.

    • aztextpress

      Since Cam is not a beer drinker, it probably wasn’t an oversight…. 🙂

  3. Stan

    Cam drinks fermented compost tea.

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