Magic Hot Springs Idaho, a lesson about the Value of “Hands On” knowledge in Alternative Energy.

Magic Hot Springs

Magic Hot Springs

Maybe you remember my Introduction to Jack Belk and his story about Magic HOT Springs Idaho?

It was a perfect example of smart men doing really dumb things, or at least really dumb according to my standards.

Since Jack’s original account follows, I will not go into detail, I only need mention that the latest building at Magic Hot Springs likely cost a fortune to build, and I doubt there was a single person involved in the project that had a clue about the valuable energy resources on site, and how to properly utilize them.  They spent a lot of money to design a near perfect hell for the inmates!

Imagine being miles from a nearest neighbor in one of the quietest spots on earth and being totally dependent on a roaring generator only feet from your living quarters wall!

Imagine, a sky so clear and bright and having to marvel at it all while listening to the roar of a 30KW generator plant set up out  doors spitting distance from your front door.

The owners of Magic Hot Springs have access to the Web  I’m sure, and no doubt they Google up MHS to see what’s there. No doubt they’ve read my stories, and those Jack Belk has told…The proof? They now copy his recipe for living off grid without spending more money than a Bureaucrat!

Ravens and Hawks travel even to MHS,  and they are keen to notice changes, a recent visitor noted an Indian made Lister CS clone belted up to a small generator.  It’s mounted just outside the main living quarters, out in the cold where the fuel guzzling  larger generators set.

Just down the hill is a generator shed, it’s plumbed with hot water geothermal heat, and there’s a mounting pad all set for a Lister clone and generator.

If you spent even a week in a biting wind well below freezing, would you pass up mounting your generator in a geothermal heated shed with a mount already to go, and even the wiring run back to the living quarters and shop?

It’s the DIYer who takes notice of his surroundings.  Having one old cowboy from these parts on the design team might have made all the difference.

The lesson ?  Spend most of your time planning  and involve people who know the country and the resources you are building in.  Imagine deciding where to put the door before you know where the snow drifts, and from what direction the wind blows.

Learn mistakes others make.. too big of generator set is often a larger mistake than too small. Jack’s story is an education..


Jack Belk

MHS- 2005

Who hasn’t wanted to shuck the bonds of civilization and run off to the mountains to be self-sufficient and independent? Who’s actually done it? Not many. I haven’t either, but I’ve come close.

Several years ago, while living the life of the typical American, yet another neighbor started building a house within sight of mine. To me this is ‘crowding’ and my comfort level began to decline. Even though my property overlooked the Snake River and was fed by artesian hot water and had everything I’d ever want, including a garage converted into a comfortable shop for my vast collection of cast iron machinery and hand tools, I woke up every morning to the increasing traffic along what had been an obscure dirt country road but had suddenly turned into an early morning thoroughfare for trucks hauling fish, hay, and other agricultural products. Necessary, I know, but to wake up every morning to increasing noise by others was not going to continue. I started looking for some place quiet, alone, and remote. I don’t mind dogs barking….if they’re my dogs. I don’t mind lawn mowers under the same circumstances, but when I hear somebody else’s stereo it’s time to MOVE!

The last straw came about nine O’clock one night when the Deputy said he’d had a complaint about me shooting my cannon across the river. That did it. Time to go.

Southern Idaho is blessed with a lot of natural hot water. From springs and seeps to deep wells drilled into the Rhyholite formations of the Snake River Plain, hot water, while not common, is, by other state’s standards, plentiful. The Kanaka Rapids house was one of six properties fed by a ten inch diameter, 735 foot deep well that supplied non-mineralized water at 60 psi and 92 degrees. While not ‘hot’ it was plenty warm to heat the concrete slab of a 2800 square foot house and supply water for eight small decorative ponds and a large swimming pool that was comfortable year round. Floor to ceiling plate glass all the way across the front of the house overlooking the river with free heat is very hard to beat.

Once you live in a house with hot water heat it’s very hard to go back to fossil fuels and the expense, variations and noise of burning energy and distributing it around the living space. I’m convinced the human body’s thermostat is in the feet. If the floor is warm the body is also warm. To heat a house by turning on a valve is the ultimate in comfort…, too!

I found a buyer for the Snake River house. It wasn’t hard to do. As part of the deal I got a year to move the heavy equipment out which I thought would be plenty of time to fine another ‘perfect’ spot to live. I was determined there would be no neighbors at the next place.

One of the very first places I’d thought of when I first determined to move I’d first seen while Chukkar hunting in the early ‘90s. At that time it was an abandoned and derelict old hot springs resort at the dead end of a long, dirt, desert road. A search at the court house gave me the owner’s name…..a corporation in Arizona. I called them and found it was for sale!! I didn’t ask the price, just permission to go look at it. When I’d last seen it there were a dozen or so old white cabins wreathed in steam and light snow on a December morning and seen from the tops of the surrounding cliffs. There were a few trees and a creek and an old hand-poured concrete dam that must have supplied some power. There were no power lines entering the property and it was 22 miles of desert road to get there. Perfect!!

The first visit was in May of 2003. My, how things had changed! All the old buildings were gone. In their place was a large, two story, log-sided building, a large metal building and several outbuildings that housed a well, two generators, and a couple with nothing but pits of hot water! It was obvious a LOT of money had been spent on a place that was again empty and abandoned. The Starlings and pack-rats had pretty much taken over in the absence of humans. It was quickly degenerating into obscurity again. A director of the owner corporation was sending a couple of his daughters down once a week to mow the place but according to the notes they left on a big blackboard they were less than thrilled at spending the night more than 20 miles from the nearest electric light and listening to big furry pack-rats racing around the attic and banging pots in the kitchen. I sensed a revolt in the labor force.

After a lot of research and talking to a bunch of people I learned the old resort had been bought by a group of local investors and the original buildings bulldozed. The new buildings were for housing juvenile delinquent kids. It had operated as such, and an extended school for several years before the State wisely discontinued the practice as dangerous and too expensive. The kids escaped anyway but were a lot of desert miles of prickly pears and rattlesnakes to the nearest town….and a juvenile delinquent without shoes after 40 hours or so on the desert was a teeny bit conspicuous standing around and thumbing a ride in the tiny border town of Jackpot, Nevada!!

I fell in love with Magic Hot Springs. It’s a quarter section surrounded by BLM land without a house or neighbor for about three cannon shots away. Access is doubtful much of the year and two flat tires will make you glad there’s a box of emergency supplies in the back at ALL times. There are no passers-by for months at a time.

It didn’t take long to find out the designers of the facility either had NO idea about using natural resources on the site or just plain ignored them. All but one of the hot springs had be walled up with poured concrete stem-walls to the point of preventing further flow. There was enough circulation to keep the water warm but there was no flow of water from the springs that left the concrete walls. The springs were quickly dying from the clay and debris that couldn’t escape the pits. The highest hot springs was still 18 inches *below* the level of the main building floor! Naturally heated hot water had to have diesel fuel running a generator to supply the electricity to run a pump to heat the building. I guess these ‘engineers’ hadn’t heard of gravity. Oh yeah, the septic system is UPhill from the buildings, too. Effluent has to be pumped!

The buildings were built according to ‘town’ specifications. NO effort was made to use anything but diesel fuel and propane to run the place…not even sky-lights or large windows to help with lighting. It was an industrial building built to use a LOT of electricity and two 35 Kw Onan diesels sitting just twenty feet from the main building supplied it. Talk about NOISE!!

The two thousand gallon diesel tank and three thousand gallon propane tank sitting out back were an indication of what it took to operate this joint. I found out later the fuel trucks came in once a MONTH during the time of operation!

Unfortunately, the owners had bought the place on the recommendations of people that had NO idea what was involved in running such a power hungry place and the problems it causes when every thing you do is powered by fossil fuels. The present owners had never actually used the facilities except for a short ‘test run’. The maintenance guy said he was way overworked and I can believe it.

I gathered together enough people to turn the 160 acres it into a club of sorts, but the money it would take to make it affordable and comfortable was about equal to the vast amount of money needed to buy it. It was too much money for me and we decided to abandon the project after several months of intense study and the refusal of a cash offer that seemed very fair to us but was less than a third of the asking price. I was crushed. I had studied the place from all angles and had some very good ideas of how to make it much easier to live in and I *wanted* to live there.

Come to find out….I didn’t have a #*&% CLUE how much work and misery somebody can put into a place that ain’t even theirs!!

Some history—–

By about 1870 the “Basin and Range” desert West had become an area of vast cattle and sheep ranges with ranch houses and corrals built on year ‘round water sources. The cattle, and sheep went to feed the miners pouring out of California and the East looking for more mineral wealth. Horses were ‘raised’ on the open range and sold all over the country once the railroads supplied cheap and fast transportation. Old ranch brands like the Shoe-sole and the Winecup were already established and had outpost all over northern Nevada and southern Idaho. The Snake River, running east and west about fifty miles north of the Nevada border was a dividing line across the north end of this range and mountain ranges running north and south divided the various cattle ranges into large blocks of sage brush basins with seep springs coming from lava beds and canyon walls. Ranches like the Point Ranch and Brown’s Bench Ranch and the Vineyard Unit and San Jacinto Ranch were active and profitable outfits all through the late 1800s and are STILL here and operating. Some very tough hombres rode this range and the old stories about Deadline Ridge which separated the sheep ranchers of the eastern ranges and the western cattle range, about six miles east of here, supplied plot lines for innumerable TV westerns. The Oregon trail and the California Trail runs through this part of the country but it sure doesn’t look like the ‘trail’ on the old TV series! Characters like Diamondfield Jack and Indian Mike’s band (two daughters named Snake and Lizard and their husbands, kids and several hangers on) were reproduced in Hollywood until the real folks that actually lived within miles of here have been almost forgotten. Indian Mike had a garden on Hot Creek but lived on a cold water creek. I’m still puzzling over that. I’d think he’d want to be as warm as his ‘taters anyhow!

About 1915 the first settler came to Magic Hot Springs. His name was Smith and, with help of several out of work cowboys built a couple of rock cabins on the site. He sold it and by the mid 1920s the property had been turned into a resort by a cowboy entertainer and trick roper named George Lillibridge. The first pictures of the “Mineral Springs Resort” were taken about 1923. Lillibridge built a small hotel and a line of tiny frame cabins overlooking a building housing a dozen soaking pits fed by the main hot spring. A concrete dam erected across Shoshone Creek backed up a small lake for fishing, canoeing and July Fourth “races” composed of canoes pulled by horsemen down the bank. They were interesting enough to be still remembered by the old timers in the area today.

During the decades before WW-II Magic Hot Springs was a destination resort serviced by stage coach, and later an open bus, from the railroad at Shoshone, Idaho seventy miles to the north. One tour involved a half day by coach from the railroad at Shoshone to the Shoshone Falls of the Snake River near the present town of Twin Falls, then on to Nat-Soo-Pah Hot Springs for the night, then another 25 miles to Magic Hot Springs to ‘take the waters’ for a few days before enduring the dust and heat back north to the rail station.

The post-war census taken at Magic Hot Springs showed 47 residents in 1945 and the dam was raised to deepen the pond which had become silted in. A new bridge of railroad rails on 12 inch centers set on a stone foundation spanned the creek. A small waterwheel drove a DC generator taken from a military bomber and supplied lights for the numerous cabins and a café beside the hotel. Remnants of that and a couple other power schemes still exist.

In 1957 a family living here were snowed in for more than two months. The man of the family made it out to Jackpot on skis and had a plane drop food while the snowcat from a miner in Nevada was trucked up to give him a ride back in. They moved that spring and the place was deserted for several more years.

The next owner decided to build extensive greenhouses heated by the hot water to supply veggies, especially tomatoes, to the casinos in Jackpot, (both of them). The vines grew to the roof and back to the floor and half way back to the roof, but they only put out plumb-sized tomatoes and not many of them. The canyon is almost oriented north and south. The sunshine is four hours short in this narrow canyon that’s actually a large crack in a much larger lava flow. There’s not enough sun to make fruit and the growing season at this 5500 foot elevation is less that sixty days. Alfalfa takes 64 days between frost and it won’t grow here. The greenhouses didn’t work out.

The next owner was one of the latter-day outlaws that flew a helicopter down to what became an early seventies equivalent of what it was during the Prohibition….a REAL good place to do anything you wanted to without worrying about neighbors, cops, or passers-by. I hear some very interesting stories about those days! I talked to that owner just before he died last year. He loved the place, too.

There was some tax trouble and some legal trouble that eventually caught up with him and he pretty much gave it away after being refused by all the ‘local’ ranchers at a selling price of ten thousand dollars. No stock watering rights, or grazing allotments, or agricultural water rights means it’s worthless to a rancher. The road pretty much prevent ‘normal’ car traffic so the resort thing is out.

A local church owned Magic Hot Springs but couldn’t get insurance to cover a kids camp and retreat. They sold it to the group that built the present structures that were well suited to the use for which they were built, but totally unsuited as a home. Who needs six shower stalls opposite ten sinks surrounded by eight toilets in the windowless downstairs, but has no running water or wall plugs in the upstairs ‘dormitory’ area?

So, after my house closed I was homeless and wondering where I was going to put all this ‘stuff’ until I find a place to roost.

Almost on a whim I drove to Phoenix and called the CEO of the organization that owned Magic and ask if I could care-take the place and try to improve it enough to make it easier for them to receive some of their investment back. He agreed. It was handshake deal with very few details worked out. We had a couple of rough months when tresspassers and old ‘friends’ dropped by to interrupt my solitude, but those were overcome with honesty and a willingness on both sides to see each other’s point. I put up a much stronger sign on the gate and had permission to protect the property (and myself) as I saw fit. Trespassing has dropped to zero and ‘word’ in the bars are that it don’t pay to get in trouble in a place with no phone to holler for help. A ‘bad’ reputation goes a long way with crooks so I take occasion to groom it once in a while.

Phase One—

I moved household stuff into Magic Hot Springs in April. The roads were muddy and the cowboys that have cattle on the range were totally confused by having someone going *out* in the mornings on the one lane crooked road they were used to going *in* to work their cattle on. There were way too many “hunt a ditch, and quick!” maneuvers at first. There’s nothing like meeting a diesel pick-up with a thirty foot fifth-wheel trailer full of yearlings on top of a muddy, blind hill with only one set of ruts to drive in. I plowed a lot of new ground that first couple of months. We’re good friends now, but the time all I knew was the color of the truck, not who might be driving it!

There was no fuel in either fuel tank but the propane would trickle out enough to eventually fill a 20 lb cylinder so I could cook spam on the gas grill that had been left on the front deck. I’m not bothered much by vegetables so I’d buy several pounds of fried chicken and eat out of the box until I got worried about it enough to quit. There was no refrigeration except an ice chest and that took 50 miles of round trip to buy ice for it.

No running water. The ridiculous system of pumping water from the well to a 40,000 gallons of storage tanks up the hill had given up the ghost and the turbine pump had fallen down the well.

One Onan 35kw generator had 21,000 hours on it and the other had 16,000. Neither would crank for lack of batteries and fuel.

None of the old soaking pits would hold water but two and they had no valve on them so hot water had been running for years into ancient concrete tubs with no way to slow the water input or plug the big hole in the bottom. They were a foot deep in green slime, leaves and goo.

Starlings had roosted in the attic and the dropping were sagging the upstairs ceilings.

I shot 18 pack-rats in a week.

When dark came it got as dark as the inside of a cow.

I bought a 4Kw Genrac gas generator from the return rack of Home Depot and a dozen solar yard lights from ebay and started to work rooting out a place clean enough to take a bath in.

In May the owners bought a thousand gallons of diesel fuel and a thousand gallons of propane and promised a well pump soon.

I soon found out the #1 generator would crank with the two new batteries I bought, but it burned a quart of oil an hour. It’s possible some rings got broken after sitting idle for several years, but I had pulled the injectors and oiled the cylinders and made sure everything was free before putting power to it. It could be just plumb wore out, too. I ran it for two months and fed it a prodigious amounts of 10w-40. One afternoon while running a weed-eater I heard a shot. I dropped the weed-eater and started for cover as more shots were heard. I got in a hurry. Then black stuff rained from the sky.

The #1 generator muffler had finally filled with oil and carbon and started erupting cinders into the sky with big blast and thunder. It set the grass on fire in several places and earned a retirement ceremony in less than two minutes of excitement.

#2 would start but not come up to 1800 rpm so voltage was low enough to be scary. It had to wait. Suddenly there was grass to mow and machine tools to move and windows to be fixed and bird doo to be shoveled before the weather got REALLY hot.

I repaired two old three by six foot soaking tubs enough to just trickle the 115 degree water in to maintain a perfect 104 degrees ‘hot tub’ experience. I used one to sit and stare at the stars in a truly dark place after a day of hard work and took a bath in the other one. For four months I washed my hair sitting out in the yard in a concrete hole in the ground and never did get used to it.

Between pushing a little string mower over two acres of rocky ground and eating nothing but my cooking and surviving on the best meatloaf sandwiches in the world from Helen at the Rogerson, Idaho store I got skinny and tanned, bug bit and calloused. It was easy to say it was the hiking and exploring and fishing that made me so tired, but I prefer to blame it on some truly hard work. The peace and quiet is worth the work.

Running water came in the form of a new submersible pump that put 35 gallons a minute up the four inch pipe to the storage tanks. That was on the last day of July and the hottest day of the year at 99 degrees. I carried a total of 85 gallons of Clorox up the steep, rocky hill to dose the two big tanks that had been sitting empty for four years. I had to run the big gensets to pump water because the 4Kw Genrac wouldn’t start the three horsepower pump. Even at 2,000 gallons an hour it takes a LOT of diesel fuel to pump the water up the hill to clean and then refill those tanks. It took weeks to complete the job. The hot showers and dish washing in the sink were sure a welcome change. A working washing machine was a marvel. Now I know why those pioneer pictures seems to always feature a woman that looked like she could kill a mule with her bare hands and rip the hide off without a knife. After washing and wringing blue jeans in a wash tub for four months I’d have welcomed the mule as a diversion.

I surveyed the entire property for boundaries and elevation in relation to the buildings. Actually, I followed the engineer’s lead and used the top of the well casing as +100 feet and then graphed out the fall of the creek and the elevation of the hotsprings and the level of the buildings with a fancy contractor’s level from ebay. Playing the role of the surveyor with the transit AND the dummy holding the ranging rod is a tough game. The wind blows in southern Idaho but it only seems to blow just as I’ve walked back to the transit level after walking two hundred yards down the creek and propping up the ranging rod in the sage brush. I look through the level just in time to see the rod fall over about three out of five times.

There’s something therapeutic about being so alone there’s no use losing your temper because there’s no one to blame but myself and cussing the wind doesn’t seem smart when you’re a long way from anybody to listen to it.

The results of the survey were depressing. There’s not enough fall in the creek to make it worth the cost of putting in a hydro-electric generator of some kind. The springs are mostly too far down the hill to keep a nicer swimming pool out of the floodplain. And the only buildings that were low enough for gravity-fed hot water had solid floors with no provisions for heating them except propane. The largest, a metal barn used as a gymnasium is not insulated in any way, but has a propane heater the size of an Italian car in the corner.

The pumphouse, which is ‘stress skin’ built building with six inch Styrofoam walls and an artesian well that runs 10 gallons of 105 degree water a minute had a propane heater on the ceiling, evidently to, ‘keep the pipes from freezing’? I call it the ‘Icon of Idiocy’.

The only thing salvaged from a dozen old cabins and all the other buildings that were razed to make way for the JV center was a stack of 4 x 4 inch by ten foot radiators. They’re heavy duty sheet metal heat exchange fins pressed onto inch and a quarter steel pipes. I strung one into the well overflow pipe and had the pumphouse heated long before cold weather hit.

It became standard to start one of the 35Kw generators early in the morning to run the water pump and do anything I needed to do with the power. There was plenty of it and even the giant fans over the commercial stove would start (and suck the spiders off the wall) without dimming the hundred or so fluorescent lights, exit signs and outside spotlights and such that are such a part of an institution. The power panel is 200 amp 240 3 ph. and nothing ‘grunts’ when a switch is thrown. There’s plenty of power with one of the big ‘uns running, but fuel is being sucked down like a toilet flushing. I saved all the fuel I could for winter. Looking back I sure wish I’d saved more.

Living without enough power—–

As summer wore on in 2004 I concentrated on setting up the shop equipment in what used to be a gymnasium. The flooring was a ‘Leggo’ plastic tile that snapped together into a blue floor. The floor had been put down on a foam pad that the mice figured out could be their roof if they tunneled under the loose tiles. There were humps and uneven places that made the floor pretty much useless for anything. It took several days to rip it up with a crowbar and haul it off. Underneath was a cracked and heaved concrete slab with few sections still level. Rolling a big round magnet across it showed re-bar was only strung on two foot centers and ultra-sound testing showed a total depth of concrete at only two and three quarters inch over much of the area. I decided to put the heavy lathe, milling machine, surface grinder and welder on the most solid portion and used the part nearest the creek, which was poured of fill dirt, as storage. Rolling the four thousand pound Gorton mill into place on pipes made the floor ripple and groan.

I used a bunch of old scrap tower frame sections as lighting supports hung from the walls so I could hang the florescent shop lights low enough to use. Running wire and setting up equipment took a month.

I found a 1975 model 15Kw Onan diesel genset on ebay with only 832 original hours on it but the seller advised the fuel was “black” and the engine wouldn’t start. I got it cheap enough to pay for shipment from its home in Rockford, Illinois (where it was a back-up genset to a county building) to Denver and then drove to Denver to pick it up. It sure was a cute little thing and I felt sure I could get it going without too much trouble. I’d already torn into the #2 35Kw and had it running at rated rpm and starting on the first revolution, so figured experience with one would carry over to the smaller machine. I had plans to power all the shop on my own generator so that if push came to shove and suddenly I was evicted I’d have a way to set up the three phase tools where ever I ended up. Ebay also became my primary electrical supplier with a power panel, plugs, wire and assorted stuff that drives a budget way over the top in a hurry if shopping at a retail outlet.

The first step was to try to figure out why the 15Kw wouldn’t start without trying to start it. I emptied the 30 gallon fuel tank and found nearly three pounds of sand and gravel at the bottom of a black sludge that smelled like diesel fuel. It had to be the remnants of asphalt chunks that had been put in the tank! I called the seller and he confirmed the genset had been housed inside but the fuel tank was outside and unlocked. I’m betting somebody sabotaged the unit with asphalt.

The fuel pump was jammed with sand and had broken the actuator link. The fuel filter was full of grit but the fuel injector pump was dark but clear of sand and gravel. I bought a Holley electric fuel pump and covered the hole in the block with a plate, replaced all the soft fuel lines and cleaned all the high pressure lines. The injectors were pulled and taken to a shop 70 miles away where they were tested, cleaned, then tested again. I bought a heavy duty battery and put all the pieces back together after changing the oil and making sure nothing was seized up and replacing belts and hoses and such..

On the very first try the thing started so fast it scared me!! It slobbered some oil for a time and smoked and bucked a little then settled into a satisfying roar. I had shop power and had suddenly reduced fuel consumption from nearly three gallons per hour with the 35 Kw to three quarters of a gallon per hour for “Little Enos”. It reminds me of the small guy in Smokey and the Bandit, dressed up just like his big partner. The 15Kw is just a miniature of the 35Kws in the shed.

With my equipment running I had the tools I needed to get more serious about trying to make Magic Hot Springs more livable and affordable. I ran heavy extension cords from the ‘shop’ to the main building and ran pig-tails with plugs on the ends from the main circuit breaker panel so I could power some needed circuits with the cheaper to run 15Kw.

When the nights got cool in September with frost nearly every night the building cooled to the point of being uncomfortable. The in-line pump mounted in a pit next to the hot spring house a hundred feet from the main building quit after an hour of running. The replacement was more than $1100!! I re-plumbed the pit and hooked up a $30 submersible pump from Home Depot to circulate the hot water through the building floor. The output was the same but I suddenly realized something was ‘different’ about the heating system than the place on the river that had ¾” copper pipes on 18 inch centers. It took some study and a lot of measuring, but I finally figured out what the “engineers” had done.

Post Mortem of a hot water heating system—-

The main building at MHS was fitted with a hot water heating system run by a central ‘computer’ that lost it’s memory every time the power to it was shut off. Through a complicated system of electric valves and thermostats different ‘zones’ of the building were activated as needed. With only part-time power all the zones were working all the time unless the computer had forgotten where it was…which was constantly.

The first of November I ran the big #2 generator for 24 hours straight trying to heat the building. The infrared heat sensor gun came in really handy to ‘shoot’ different places around the main floor to trace out where the water was circulating and how fast the concrete slab warmed up. It wasn’t good….not at ALL good. It took several hours for heat to show up anywhere in the main floor and it just amazed me that there were only four half inch diameter tubes running around the outside of the building’s walls. The entire center section of the main floor was unheated and acted as a giant heat sink. Some rooms had no heat in the floor at all.

I made contact through email with a heating engineer near Dallas that patiently lead me through many steps of keeping track of time and temperature of the spring water entrance temperature and exit temp to figure out the designers made multiple mistakes: Too few tubes of too small diameter run through an un-insulated slab probably meant the design was for a boiler system using 160 plus degree water instead of the 110 degree water from the heating spring. It was plain to see by early December that it would take a prodigious amount of fuel to run the pumps 24/7 to heat the building to comfort level. I didn’t have a prodigious amount of fuel and not near enough money to buy it. The winter was going to be long and uncomfortable. It was clear by the first of November I had to do something to make power more affordable.

Chapter 2 Intro: We need to pay close attention to what Jack finds at Magic Springs, and as you read along you can imagine the owners picking up the phone: “Hello, we have a bucket of money we want to spend, we want hot water heat and electricity”. This reminds me of the people who contact me wanting a ‘whole house’ generator. Sometimes it pays a good deal to educate yourself just a tiny bit before you go shopping. I still think the best advice utterpower ever offered is “follow the BTUs”, and of course, we learned that from other DIYers like Jack 🙂 With no further delays, here’s chapter 2. One note, Jack bought some stuff I don’t recommend, his ST generator was built by a company I have no respect for.. but Jack go it for a bargain basement price.

George B.

Chapter Two


I’m betting by now, if you’ve read this far, you’re wondering where this tale is going. I sympathize.

Magic Hot Springs doesn’t have enough sun for solar power, not enough water or fall for hydro and not enough wind for a turbine….. and not enough money to run a big genset long enough to stay warm. The $#&% engineers ignored gravity and the builders installed the wrong system in solid concrete. The vinyl windows leaked air like a sieve and the floor cooled off as soon as the power was cut. During the summer I had laboriously knocked out the concrete wall between the two old soaking pits making one large, warm pool big enough to stretch out in. It became my refuge to warm up. Inside the building temperatures hovered around 45 degrees unless a generator had pumped warm water for more than twelve hours straight….then it was almost sixty degrees for an hour or two. I worked hard at *anything* to stay warm.

THEN I found !!! I read of diesel engines built to last and run off just about anything and not much of it. I emailed George and met Joel through my satellite internet system. I was determined to make the next winter more pleasant through Lister power!

I bought bargain priced 6/1 Listeroid engine, with the express knowledge I’d be better off tearing it down and re-building it before serious use, the first week in November. It made a great winter project that I documented in a webshots album that George kindly made a link to at his utterpower site. (at this writing the album has been viewed 36,000 times, and all the traffic came from utterpower!

It was a big project that took longer than I calculated and the constant break-downs and maintenance needs of the property stretched it out over months instead of weeks. Of course I hindered the whole thing by breaking the oil ring on re-assembly, but it finally started and ran in early spring. What a TRIP!!! Thump thump thump instead of a constant roar. That it ran at all, since I’d been rooting around its chittlin’s for months, was somewhat of an amazement to me.

Let me say here that I’m not the typical ‘motor-head’ that’s always been interested in engines or even cars. I got totally involved in firearms at a very early age and except for tearing apart a bad lawnmower engine as a teen-ager and rebuilding an old I-H dumptruck engine one time, had never done much ‘mechanic-ing’. I knew the principals of the internal combustion engine and since NASCAR is the only sport, besides hunting and fishing, I’d ever been interested in, I knew how things worked, but had not been a hands-on hobbiest. I had *no* idea at all about diesel engines and was starting from absolute zero at MHS. Poor George and Joel became ‘professors’ to a remote student by email. They did a great job of answering my questions and surely must have thought, ‘Will this guy EVER get done with this project?’.

The large diesel tank ran out of its thousand gallons of diesel on March third with a foot of wet snow on the ground and the road closed (again) due to flooding and mud. I had thirty gallons of fuel in the 15Kw tank and several jerry cans with fuel, but the sense of ‘just about out’ was strong. I was tired of being cold and was more than ready for a more constant and affordable source of power. The Listeroid was running really good but the 5Kw genhead still had to be mounted, and a fuel tank and cooling system built. I got in a hurry in March, but nearly died before I even got started.

In early April, during a wet storm of freezing rain and big wet snow flakes, I was running the Listeroid at the garage door-way to the shop. It hadn’t been run much and was still slobbering some oil from the muffler which was about even with the doorway. I needed some cooling water so slogged through the snow to turn on the water hose. As I stooped to pick up the end of the hose just outside the door I was knocked out cold by an avalanche of ice from the metal roof. I woke up thinking the African Queen was coming up the creek. I was thinking ‘who could that be’ when I finally regained my senses and realized I was buried from the waist down in Snowcone ice. I was so cold I didn’t think I could move….but I did! I had black oil splattered all over me from the exhaust and was so wet my wallet contents had to be dried out. My shoulders and back hurt for a week or more, but a lot got done anyway.

When you live many miles from help and without a phone gravity and electricity are deadly enemies. I never work on wiring while an engine is running. I need to pay more attention to what gravity may squash me with.

After mounting the genhead I found it had a problem. The main shaft had .090 of slack and it caused the pulley to wander back and forth which immediately warmed up the serpentine belt. I took the genhead apart and machined a spacer to take up the space left by the Chinese machinist mistake. While in there I also re-greased the bearings and put it back together hoping it worked. Bundles of wires are NOT my strong suit. I had no idea how the thing worked, but it did. And I was very thankful for it. While the whole unit was chained to the shop floor for testing I wired up a small fuse box and hooked in a couple of extension cords to test output and fuel consumption. I was amazed! The Listeroid burned so little fuel and was so *regular* in it’s running it just brings constant grins from those who hear it. In May I had several old friends up to visit from Colorado and Florida. Even though the Listeroid was mounted 30 feet from the main building and the little pepper-can muffler was pointed straight at us it was comfortable to be around….in fact its so comfortable the slow thump can hammer your eyes shut for an afternoon nap!

In early June I took the back wall out of the small pump house and drilled holes in the slab for mounting the Listeroid for good. The move from the shop to the new home was about as dangerous as slapping rattlesnakes with the tiny casters trying to sink through the plywood I used as a ‘road’ from the shop to the pumphouse. Listeroids are notoriously top heavy and if it I had it to do over I’d take the engine’s head and cylinder off to reduce this hazard. It was probably the ultimate in stupid to make the move while alone, especially when I’d notice one wheel off the ground and the top waving around in the breeze when I was crouched down operating the come-a-long.

I wired the Listeroid into a sub-panel in the other side of the pumphouse and gained access to #8 wire running underground to the main panel inside the main building. I took these wires and fed them into another box on the wall which powers eight receptacles mounted next to the main panel. I took the circuits that were really needed, like heat, lights, computer space, chest freezer, and a few downstairs wall plugs and disconnected them from the main box and put plugs on the end. So now, the Listeroid will heat and light the whole place and give me power for battery charging, engraving, and such on less than three gallons a day…which is now about 16 hours long. For the first time in a year and a half I can keep frozen foods in the freezer. Pizza and lots of beef makes this guy very happy! I’m *really* tired of Spam and Vienna Sausages.

In the shop I have several wall plugs that I plug in lights and outlets to depending on which genset I have running. People that see the process I go through to get power to where I need it are sometimes glassy-eyed confused at how it’s all done. I call that ‘homestead security’. I’m now the only one that knows how this place works!

Operation cost of Magic Hot Springs has fallen from about $200 a day to less than ten. The only time I crank the 15Kw generator now is when I need a three phase machine to run. I’ve retired both of the 35Kws but will re-activate #2 before winter just to have a spare. The 4Kw Genrac I bought last year gave up the ghost in mid winter after about a thousand hours of operation. I’ll re-build it just to have something portable sometimes soon.

For now, I run the Listeroid from a nine gallon tank made from a propane tank. Soon, I hope, the big tank will get fuel and I’ll run a line directly to the Listeroid and Little Enos which will soon be moved into the same building with the Listeroid so both are heated with the hot well water. By using a diverter valve I can fill the smaller fuel tank with veggie or other alternate fuel for even more economy…..and more fun experimenting.

As I write this I can just barely hear the throb of the Listeroid about a hundred feet away. The exhaust is run into a section of concrete culvert pipe stood on end in a gravel bed with an old spare tire and wheel capping the top. The engine is ‘felt’ more than heard. I have to re-fill the fuel tank every three days or so and have only run out of fuel once.

I’ve simplified the oil system some with bronze pipe fittings for a drain and dip stick. I’ve found STP or engine assembly lube is great for the external pushrods sockets. Quite frankly the engine is so dependable and ‘regular’ it’s nearly boring. Three times I’ve spent a couple of hours pulling off the head and cylinder to clean the goop out of the exhaust galley and piston top. It takes a rag soaked in fuel to clean the bugs, cottonwood fuzz and oil vapors that accumulate on the flywheels and dribbles of oil that invariably seep from some parts. Oil is an integral part of engines with external parts operating and a can of oil dry is handy, especially at oil change time. (If you’re clumsy as I am have a sack of oil dry handy….I kicked over the drain pan last time!)

I mounted an old electric meter in series with the genset to keep track of Kilowatt hours it’s generated. Right now, after nearly four months of daily operation the meter reads just over 1200 hours. That’s not a lot. Normal load is only a thousand watts or so, but when the chest freezer starts it spikes WAY up….the same with the washing machine when it gets to the ‘spin’ cycle.

Plans call for moving the Listeroid one more time. Magic Hot Springs has tentatively been sold to a young couple as a future family retreat. They’ve expressed an interest in keeping me on and adding a greenhouse next to the pumphouse with storage for hot water that can be gravity fed to that area. That means all generators can be in a heated space and the irrigation and heating water can be taken from a common area and pumped to the main building by either electric pumps or more efficient diesel pumps which can run 24/7 and keep the building warm, even with the ridiculous heating system now in place.

If you’ve ever dreamed of designing an off grid home from the ground up….. If you’ve ever wanted to utilize a natural resource to run such a place….it’s a fun project, but much easier done from scratch than having to RE-design a place where such resources were miss-used or ignored.

I’m still learning and I’m still thinking of how to make what’s here more efficient and economical. Some things just can’t be fixed on my budget, but one of these days I hope to see better windows, extra heating radiators, sky-lights and such installed. For now, I’ll listen to the Lister and thank my lucky stars for, and those that contribute to it, for the best idea this place has ever seen.

Jack Belk

MHS 2005

Jack got spooked?

Above: Here’s Jack’s Address.

More from Jack Belk!

November 2005, the gear failure!

Desert Mysteries

MT II (Jack builds a new GenSet with what he learned form the first Lister type 6/1

Go to the Jack Belk page

More to follow? Stay tuned!


This entry was posted in DIYer Generator, Earth & Energy, Generator Realities, Inspirational People, Off Grid Power, Survival Skills and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Magic Hot Springs Idaho, a lesson about the Value of “Hands On” knowledge in Alternative Energy.

  1. Dave says:

    I have never been to MHS but have heard many of the stories and it sounded like heaven to me. Two summers ago I went on a ride to the Sawtooth lodge in Grandjean near Stanley ID. It is a large chunk of real estate carved out of the wilderness in the 1890’s by Emile Grandjean a Danish immigrant while he was mining/managing/establishing/working for the USFS in the early years. There is an old log lodge sitting next to the South Fork of the Payette River with hot springs running out of the river bank. It was a self sustainers no brainier. I hear a generator running so being my inquisitive self I wonder up to see what they had to power the lodge. Sure enough there was a big diesel gen set roaring away during the days that was shut down at night. I wondered over to a small shed near it looked inside to see what was up and to my surprise there was a nice big pelton wheel and generator sitting idle. I went around to find its power source and there was a nice 6″ steel water line crawling its way up one steep hillside to where it disappeared way up there. It is way up there! I didn’t know the head it had but it does not take a rocket scientist to see there was some major ass there. I went to the lodge and asked the manager what was up with it, and he told me they had had a rockslide several years ago and it disconnected the penstock up on the side of the hill. He said the owners had a consulting firm thinking over how to fix it. Well I went back this year figuring there would be no other answer than fix it and they would have free 24 hour quiet energy…….Wrong! They had un bolted the pelton wheel shoved it to the corner of the shed and placed a big (quiet) Generac propane powered genset where the old power maker sat…..They took the easy short term expensive way! The consultants must have figured people like to hear technology working for them…………I will never understand.

    • George B. says:

      Welcome Dave,
      Makes a guy wonder if the local diesel fuel distributor was hired to do the feasibility study on rebuilding the hydro? Even a few hundred watts of hydro could make for some comfortable living at a geothermal site.

  2. JuliLee says:

    My brother and I spent the most time in MAGIC Hot Springs while Pete owned it when it was in its pristine state. Before the idiots tore everything out and ruined it. We have pictures and stories. And know the former caretakers that lived there year round and cared for and loved it. It didn’t need to be “changed” with power and the fence with razor wire. What a travesty! Sounds like a complete MESS. What a disgrace. It had beautiful wonderful history. It still could. It needs to be restored to what it was. The river even had a working dam. What young couple “tentively bought it”?

    • John Brannen says:

      Hey! It really was magical wasn’t it. And we DID love it and it was perfect and very functional. It broke my heart the first time I went down and they had just bulldozed everything. So glad it is part of my history. Peace & love, John & Vickie

  3. Brian McKinley says:

    My parents, our two carts a dog, me and my best friends spent an entire summer when Pete owned it. Probably summer of 84? It was the most unique and life changing experience of my life, by far. I was 12 and my friend and I finished school early that year. We set out on the first of May. We fished and hiked in the day and sat around a fire under the stars at night. We saw what was to us a UFO, but in hind sight was probably the then top secret B2 stealth bomber flying low on a training mission.
    We washed out clothes in one of the outdoor hot pools next to the lobster pond before we cleaned each one. When we were there the place was a small town. With the main house, and a short street to the Green house with “cabins” on both sides. Pete had a weird idea to raise chukar birds so one of the cabins was really a bird house. My parents were already a bit, a lot eclectic and did their own thing most of the time. My friend, dog and myself would spend a few days in each cabin cleaning it and making sure it was sound. My parents lived in Pete’s renovated cabin, it was a gaudy kind of fur lined place that I never ventured into. Our kitties lived in the “Big house” where we would eat our indoor meals and listen to whatever radio we could get. Pete was an odd bird, I’m sure he was growing pot in the green house and he would fly in on his copter twice a month to collect, I assume. I was very ignorant to it all, just wasn’t supposed to go into the greenhouse and didn’t really care. It saddens me greatly that they tore down the cabins, I know they were old but ow what fun they were. One was sort of a bar on top and what I can only imagine was some sort of a lounge on the bottom. To say it was magic might be cliche, but it really was.

    I am blown away by all the apparent changes and the huge amount of work you have done. It saddens me to an extent knowing that the place I loved so much has been so changed.

    I would love any pictures anyone has of the place, form any era. Also I would love to visit again if possible. Any information would be appreciated on who owns it now, if it can be rented for a time? Or if We can caretake?

    Thanks much,

    • George B. says:

      It would be nice if this message got back to you, but I really think that one visit to magic had a profound effect on me. I can only imagine what it must have been like during your stay. I’m not so sure I’d like to winter there, but spring is a slice of heaven.

      • John R Brannen says:

        I spent the winter of 1979 alone and the hot springs was not very comfortable. Pete Link bought it in 1980, and I got married and my new bride and I, with Pete’s help, fixed the place up and it got real comfortable. We had a Blaze King stove that kept the house heated. At night you would throw in three big logs and shut it way down. In the morning I would jump out of bed in the morning and open her up and the house would get nice and toasty. We cooled the hot spring water which was delicious after it cooled down over night as the water has little sulphur in it. We had kerosene lighting. Propane refrigeration and cook stove plus propane freezer. Our large pantry was stocked with many months of food and we canned. My wife would leave her job in Jackpot for a couple of months in the winter and we would hold up, play backgammon, take hot soaks and have a three year honeymoon. People have no idea how wonderful it was to have no electricity or phone. Back then it was truly magical! Sorry you all missed it.

  4. Dela says:

    Just found you in the net.
    My dad and my family put in the dam in the creek back in the 1960s it worked great. I lived there for 11 years, then my dad sold to Ted Johnson. would like to see the place again, but would I am sure it would be disappointing from the way it was. Awesome place wish I still lived there.

    • George B. says:

      Dela, it’s quite possible that Magic Hot Springs became a prime example of what NOT to do.

      I give examples of how important it is to live on a spot of land BEFORE you make large investments, at least know from where the wind comes, and where the snow drifts. What was at Magic when I was there was grand in scale, and built in haste. The stories I heard were likely true, but a story just the same. It appears Magic was turned into a prison of sorts, where Idaho’s more troubled youth could be detained. I heard the idea came out of the fact that it was remote and a long walk to town. A diesel engine ran 24 hours a day, zero effort was put into using the God given resources that help make the Magic. The focus was on how much the State would pay to detain a child at Magic, and I think the structure and mechanical reflect a totally on grid mentality.

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