By Dan Miller
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Ron Mielke's first shop came with a farm bought in 1990. It was a pole shed with a partial concrete floor and wood stove, and a multitude of mice. Mielke claims he bagged a thousand of the foraging varmints.
"It really was quite miserable," he recalls of the shop, outside Harrington, Wash., about an hour southwest of Spokane. "It was always, always cold. If I wasn't hauling wood in, I was hauling ashes out. But we felt we could get by."
And he did for many years. But growth eventually overwhelmed that pole shed.
Today, Mielke farms 5,000 acres with his wife, Linda, in the northern Palouse, a part of eastern Washington distinguished by a great sea of rolling hills and dryland farms. It's a place where generations of this family have farmed since the 1880s. With the added help from their adult daughters, Alicia and Veronica, who often return from their Boston home for harvest, the Mielkes cut good wheat crops grown in silt loam soils.
DREAM SHOP RISES
While Mielke once professed a level of acceptance with the pole shed, he admits he also dreamed about something better. "I was mentally putting away every shop I read about (or had seen)," he says. "I spent a lot of time in the tractor thinking about it."
As grain prices rose sharply in 2006 and 2007, an investment in a modern shop seemed like an idea whose time had come. Mielke's remote farm demanded repair capabilities and efficiencies only a new shop could deliver. He needed a weatherproof place to store his equipment and space to maintain his Caterpillar Challengers, John Deere 9770 STS combine, grain heads and wagons, and other heavy equipment.
The footings for a 120- by 60-foot building were poured in late 2012. By the time the final screw was turned and the last light hung, the new shop boasted an energy-stingy, heated repair space of nearly 3,200 square feet boasting five-bar cell service (by way of a booster) and Wi-Fi, and another 4,020 feet of cold storage.
Use -- The shop is divided into two spaces—a heated area (60 by 53 feet) and an unheated area (60 by 67 feet). An overhead, 16- by 24-foot insulated steel door separates one space from the other. It's a practical way to keep the maintenance work productive during the winter as winds blow drifts of snow around the yard. Equipment parked for the season is put into the cold-storage area. It's moved into the heated area only for repairs and maintenance. Mielke notes the cold-storage area isn't frigid. He plans to insulate the walls this year. With the natural heat of the earth moving through the 6-inch concrete floor, he believes the space will generally remain above freezing.
Materials -- The walls and ceiling of the heated area are finished with 5/8-inch sheet rock (the ceiling in the unheated space is plywood). Painted with semigloss white paint, the inside space is highly reflective and, Mielke says, easy to clean and, so far, maintenance free. The floor contains no steel reinforcement. Instead, the concrete pour contained fiberglass. It is promoted as a material that resists cracks and is an accepted replacement for steel rebar. The floor has 3 inches of rigid insulation underneath. The foundation walls have 3 inches of insulation down to the footings. The sheet rock is hung on 2 by 8 walls, with 16-inch centers, and is 18 feet tall. It is a home-like construction standard but necessary given the area's typical wind load. The roof trusses are on 2-foot centers. The side walls and attic are sealed with blown insulation. The shop ceiling has nearly 3 feet of blown-in insulation.
The heat source is electric radiant-floor heat. "We have a lot of hydro power in Washington state, so electricity is the cheapest form of power," Mielke says. There are four heating loops, each 500 feet in length. Loops placed by the workbench are closer than in the rest of the shop for added heat in that space. Floor-radiated heat is clean and does not require fans to maintain even temperature across the shop. Because everything is warmed—walls, concrete floor, equipment—the inside temperature recovers quickly after open doors are closed. Mielke says the heating system can recover 20 degrees of temperature within 30 minutes. He keeps the shop at 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The office, with an eating area, refrigerator and microwave, is kept at 72 degrees.
The shop space is wide open. Few pieces of equipment are hard-mounted to the wall or floor. Equipment and parts roll to work areas. The loft holds wire storage racks with wheels. There is space for bulk oil and hydraulic fluid containers, both plumbed to dispensing valves below. A workbench sits under the loft.
Efficient lights -- The high bays are lighted with T5 florescent lights. The loft, workbench and office have T8 fixtures overhead. T5s can cut electricity costs by 50% compared to the more traditional, high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps found in many shops. South-facing, triple-glazed windows over the workbench provide natural light.
The front of the shop is accessed by a 16- by 24-foot door and a 16- by 14-foot door. With the center door inside and rolled up, and a 16- by 24-foot door at the back end of the shop also opened, equipment traffic moves smoothly end-to-end. A 24- by 60-foot concrete pad out front extends the maintenance space to the outside when weather permits. Mielke installed a 220-outlet, compressed-air reel and retractable extension cord in the narrow space between the two front doors. A GFI outlet is located just outside for a power washer.
Mielke made a good investment in his compressed-air system. His 80-gallon, two-stage compressor is mounted on hard rubber blocks in the unheated portion of the shop. Compressed air is delivered through a dozen outlets in the shop. Hose reels are at four of those locations. Compressed air is delivered through a 3/4-inch RapidAir system. It's a cost-effective system that eliminates the need for connecting endless lengths of inflexible materials, such as black piping. The flexible nylon tubing is rated for 175 pounds per square inch (psi) and is available in lengths of up to 300 feet.
Mielke poured the footing for a crane. He doesn't currently own one but gave himself the option for the future.
"This isn't just for me," Mielke notes. "It's for the next generation or two. Everything I do on the farm is for the next generation." As for the mice, Mielke says he hasn't seen any: "I threatened the contractor. If I see one mouse, he's coming back."
Three Great Ideas: Ron Mielke, Harrington, Wash.
1. Air. Ron Mielke's RapidAir MaxLine, 3/4-inch compressed air system offers easy installation. Two layers of high-density polyethylene sandwich an aluminum layer to maintain hand-bent angles. The lines can be mounted on wall surfaces or behind them. A 1-inch line is available for buried applications. Northern Tool + Equipment sells a starter kit with 100 feet of line, connectors and outlets for $199.99.
2. Sheet Rock. Mielke hung 5/8-inch sheet rock on his walls and ceiling in the heated space. Taped and painted, it's a massive light reflector.
3. Footprint. The shop is part of a large lot that holds eight grain bins and a separate bulk storage area with fuel (12,000-gallon, double-wall diesel tank), fertilizer (7,800 gallons) and water (3,000 gallons), all accessible by a semitruck. The lot is adjacent to a county road and is serviced by 400-amp power and a 2-inch water line.
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