Dirt Simple Blog

How to Replace a Bike Chain

If you spend enough time around bikes, eventually you are going to need to replace a chain. It will wear out, get rusty, bent, or break. Chain replacement is not hard, but it does require a special tool called, appropriately enough, a “chain tool”. You can pick one up for about $5 – $10. You’ll also need a new chain. To find the correct length, count the number of gears on the cranks and rear wheel of your bike. Replacement chains are sold based on a range of gears or speeds they can accommodate. Multiply the number of front gears by the number of rear gears to find out how many speeds your bike has. For example, if you have 2 in the front, and 6 in the back, you have a 12-speed bike.

To do the job correctly, it is helpful to understand how a bike chain works. Unlike your typical chain made up of linked loops, a bike chain is designed to mesh with a set of gears, and run smoothly through a series of guides that allow you to shift from one gear to another. To accomplish this, it has a flat profile made up of 2 plates per link, connected with pins. In this respect, it shares more in common with a metal watch band than an anchor chain. The pins are what meshes with the gears, allowing you to transfer power from your feet to the wheels.

Now that you understand how your bike chain is put together, begin the replacement by setting your shifters so your chain is on the smallest gears front and back. If your bike is not ridable, you can get the chain on the proper gear by flipping your bike over or getting someone to hold up the back end, and then turn the cranks with one hand while shifting with the other. If your chain is broken or jammed, you can skip this step. It makes removal and replacement easier, but is not essential.

Now before going any further, take a few pictures of how your chain winds through the derailleurs (the guides near the gears that move the chain when you shift). This will give you a reference so you can make sure to reassemble it correctly later.

Got those photos?  Ok, now remove the tension from the existing chain by pushing the rear derailleur arm forward, which will allow you to lift the chain off the rear gear set. Now, grab your chain tool, which resembles a miniature vice. Its purpose is to push out the chain pins and separate the links of the chain. Use it to remove any convenient pin, then slip the separated chain out from the bike.

Lay the chain out on your garage floor. Line it up with your new chain and measure out the number of links. You must use the exact same number of links on the replacement chain or your gears will not work properly.

Again, using your chain tool, remove the pin on your new chain that mirrors the one removed on your old chain, so you end up with the same number of links. You may also need to remove a pin at the opposite end of the chain, depending on how it was packaged. If the opposite end is already “open you don’t need to do this.

Some chains also come with a “quick link”. In this set up one pin is fixed in place to each plate making up this special link. The other end of the plate has a slotted hole, so when the plates face each other, the pin fixed to the opposite plat can fit in the opposing hole. When tension is applied to the chain, the pins lock into the slots, securing the chain.

Once you have the correct length of chain, re-route your chain around the front gears and through the derailleur set, checking your photo to make sure you’ve done it correctly. Re-connect the ends of the chain using the pin removed from the new chain. Use your chain tool to push it back in place. (or link together your quick release link). Take the tension off again by pushing the derailleur arm, and loop the chain over the smallest front and back gears. Slowly release the derailleur arm while making sure the chain stays in place. Give the crank a few turns to ensure everything is moving properly. Then try shifting front and back while hand cranking, watching that gears change correctly as well.

If your chain came pre-lubricated you’re done. If not, follow the oiling steps in my blog on basic bike maintenance. You are now ready for your next ride!


Bonus Tip!:  When ever working on a bike chain, you are going to encounter grease. Wear work gloves or rubber gloves to keep the grease off your hands.  Forgot to do this?  Clean up with some WD-40 sprayed on a paper towel. You can scrub till your blue in the face with soap, but the WD-40 will get it off almost instantly.

How to change your 1st bike tube

Beyond general care for you bike, the first repair you are likely to face is a flat tire. Unlike a car, where you change the entire wheel, on a bike you replace just the inner tube. This is both economical and convenient because an uninflated  tube not only costs much less then an entire wheel, it also takes up a lot less space. That makes it easy to keep one on hand or carry it with you on the road.

You’ll need 3 things for this job.

  1. spare tube
  2. tire tools
  3. bicycle pump

To being with, you need to remove the flat wheel from your bike. In the case of the front wheel this is simple, just open the quick release by lifting the arm and loosening the bolt until your tire pulls easily off the forks. It’s also helpful to loosen the breaks by squeezing the calipers (the part that grips the tires) by hand, and un-hooking the break cable. For the back tire you first have to disengage the chain. Press the derailleur lever to create slack and lift the chain off the rear gear set. Open up the back breaks as above. You can then open the back quick release and remove the tire and gear set from the rear fork.

Once your wheel is off, you’ll need a set of tire removal tools to get the tube out. Please don’t use screw drivers or other improvised tools as you are likely to puncture your tire, or worse yet your hand. Tire tools come in a set of two, and look like a cross between a small wedge and a hook. Typically made of plastic, they help you carefully pry the tire from the rim of your wheel without damaging it or yourself. Still, it takes some force and fineness. Here is how its done.

Use one of the tools to pry up the tire by slipping the wedge end between the tire and rim, and levering a small spot on the tire up and over the outer edge of the rim. Leave that tool in place. Sometimes the hook is designed in such a way that you can put it around one of your spokes to help hold it steady. Next take the second tool and using the hook end, work it under the tire next to the firs tool. Then slide the hook along the tire, lifting it up out of the rim as you go. When you get all the way around back to the first tool, the tire will be disengaged from the rim.

You can now remove the old tube from inside the tire, pulling the valve stem free last. Your stem should have a small nut on the outside of the tire keeping it in place. Be certain to remove that before trying to pull out the stem.

Get out your new tube and open it up. Inflate it partially, just enough to give it some shape. This helps when inserting it into the tire. Start with the valve stem first, inserting it fully through the tire, and securing it on the outside with the new nut that came with the tube. Hand tighten only. Use of any tools is likely to over-tighten and rip the stem off the tube, rendering it useless. Work the rest of the tube carefully under the tire and inside the rim.

Now it’s time to put the tire back on the rim. Again use one tire tool to wedge one part of the tire back up and over the rim. Leave that one in place and use the second to work your way around the wheel. This can get pretty tight at the end so watch your fingers. If you find the tube is in the way, you may have pre-filled it to far. Just let a little air out and continue.

Once you have the tire back on the rim, you can completely inflate the tube, or do so after re-attaching the wheel. For the back wheel ensure you are inserting it on the forks with the gear set on the proper side. Tighten the quick release and loop the chain back on the gears. Give the crank a few turns to ensure the chain is on the proper gear for your shifter settings.

For the front, make sure you attach the wheel with the rotation arrows on the tire (if present) facing the right way. Hand tighten the quick release and press the release arm in. Be sure to have the arm in line with the forks, as this minimizes the chance it will snag on anything. Finally, for either tire, re-secure your brake cables on the caliper fork, and test your breaks to ensure they are functioning properly.

Your done! Your bike is now back in business and you can keep rolling along.

Why I’m Grounded By 2 Wheels

You’ll hear the virtues of bicycles espoused in many environmental circles; and with good reason. From both an energy and material use stand point, they truly are one of the most efficient forms of transportation. They are also, at their most basic, a simple technology that is in reach of most people to both afford and maintain. Bicycle use, along with dedicated lanes and pathways, are springing up all over the U.S.

I like bicycles for another reason as well. They connect you to place. The speed of bicycle travel is both fast enough, and slow enough, to cover reasonable distances while seeing and experiencing and places you are traveling through. I’ve learned the back roads, side roads, and country lanes surrounding my home by bike. I appreciate the topography better, and have taken in the vistas of the hills and farms because I’ve peddle up and down and past them on my bike. I’ve seen much more than I ever could have on foot (I’m not a marathon runner) and have been able to realize details I would never have by car. Things like who has eggs and straw for sale, the diversity of homes and properties, the course of streams, and the smell of fields and the soil beneath the vineyards. A bicycle is truly a gateway to connecting you to where you live, and grounding you with a sense of place.

Weather your passion is roads or trails, if you want to get out to explore and experience your part of the world from the saddle, you’ll need to keep that bike in good working order. Here are my basic maintenance steps to take before and after each ride.


  1. Oil your chain. A properly lubricated chain is essential for getting the most power, and smoothest ride, from you bike. First, don’t use WD-40. It’s a degreaser, not a lubricant. Use lite machine oil or specialty bike-chain oil. Run a few drops over the top of your chain, crank the petals about 1/3 of a turn, and oil the top again. Repeat 2 more times. This ensures the entire chain is oiled. Don’t use too much though or it will drip and collect dirt, degrading performance.
  2. Oil your front bearings. Just a drop on each side, applied between the rubber gasket and the front forks.
  3. Inflate your tires. The proper inflation range will be printed on the side walls. Depending on the terrain you will be tackling you may want to inflate toward the high end (smooth roads) or low end (rough surface) of that range. I never go to the max, always preferring 5 to 10 psi of margin for both un-anticipated rough surfaces, and to prevent blow-outs.
  4. Check your breaks. I’m assuming this is not a children’s bike and that you have hand breaks. To set them correctly you want them to clamp tightly when you have squeezed the hand lever to about 50% of its maximum travel. This will give you quick response at the maximum power point in your grip. Break cables all have small nuts at either end of the cable that can be adjusted to set the break point. If unsure about this, consult a few YouTube videos first before making the adjustment.
  5. Set your proper seat height and make sure the nut or toggle bolt is tight. You don’t want that seat twisting or collapsing mid-ride. (Or falling off. I’ll tell that story another time).
  6. Wear a helmet. Always. Period.



  1. Clean your bike. Your bicycle should always get some cleaning after a ride. How much it needs will vary widely depending on what conditions you encountered. Dry roads on a sunny day? You may just need to wipe of a little built up dirt and grease off the chain, and make sure no pebbles got stuck in your tires. Extreme off road? Then give the bike a good wash with the hose and soap you’d use to clean your car. Even if you never go off road you bike deserves a periodic wash. Treat it as you would your car.
  2. Degrease the chain. Any time you wash your bike you will need to clean and re-oil your chain. There are special tools for this, but here is the easy (and cheap) way. Pull out the WD-40 (yes, now it’s time). Fold up a couple paper towels and spray one side thoroughly. Turn your bike over so it’s resetting on the seat and handle bars. Grab the chain lightly with the folded paper towel in one hand, and turn your cranks slowly with the other several times. Shift to another spot on the towel and repeat. Keep up this process, changing towels as necessary, until you are satisfied you got most of the black greasy gunk off your chain. Then follow step 1 of the before tip to re-oil before putting your bike away. You want to keep that chain oiled to protect it from rust.


That’s it. My basic before and after rituals to keep a bike in good working order all season long. With these you should get may miles of enjoyment discovering new places and grounding yourself more fully in the town you call home.

The Easiest Green-House You Can Get

Many gung-ho gardeners yearn for a back-yard green house to extend their growing season, or to have a spot for starting those seeds and early spring greens just a bit sooner in the season. But before you build that back-yard hoop house, why not look to your own house, you know, the one you live in, instead?. Do you have windows? Is your house heated in the Winter? Do you have any house plants? Well why not house vegetables?

A small window garden is the perfect introduction to cold season gardening with minimal expense. At a minimum, every gardener should keep a few herbs and greens growing in a sunny indoor spot in the colder months. There’s no reason not to.  You probably have most of what you need in your garage or shed already.  A few small pots with basic potting soil and regular watering will provide you with fresh herbs in no more space than a couple of window sills or a small stool or table. Start with 3 or 4 favorite herbs, and then see if you want to set aside additional space for your indoor garden.

Several salad greens like arugula, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, and endive all do well in 6” pots. You can get 3 or 4 cuttings from each by harvesting the outer leaves, then replant. Start a new set from seed every two to four weeks from October to March and you’ll have fresh, indoor greens until you are ready to put in your early spring garden.

Want to go for something more exotic? Many gardening catalogs sell miniature citrus trees, often grafted with lemons, limes, and tangerines on one bush meant to be kept as an indoor plant. What could be better than picking fresh citrus from your kitchen for your favorite dish or cocktail garnish?

Yes, you can keep growing food all year, and you don’t have to take on a big building project to do it.

Simple Dirt

One of the best ways to create rich, beautiful soil, and make use of otherwise wasted resources, is to compost. Many hesitate however because of the presumed untidiness, expected smells, and effort involved in tending compost piles. So how to make use of all those kitchen scraps and yard waste you simply have too much of just to use as mulch? Simple – bury it.

Yep. You can just find a spot where you want to build some future soil and start burring the same stuff you’d otherwise pile up. Now there are some caveats here. Best to do this inside a fenced area where animals won’t dig things up, and you do need a patch of dirt that isn’t too difficult to dig into or it could be more work.

But if you have walk-ways between your garden beds that have already been mulched, or a place you want to expand your garden, just burring your kitchen compost with a little chopped up yard waste will get the fertility process started.

I used this method to build the habit of saving compostable materials before I was ready to tackle a traditional compost pile. You can do the same. And when you run low on decent burial sites, or are ready to create large volumes of compost for spreading, you can graduate to a dedicated compost bin or pile as well.

Meanwhile you’ll get benefit from materials that would otherwise would be waste, and maybe even start changing the way you look at stewardship of the earth and its resources.

It’s Easier to Come Clean Then You Thought

Once we’ve cut as much energy use as we can, it’s time to clean up the rest of the power that we use. We can do this by switching to renewables. The most effective way for most people to do so is with roof mounted solar energy. Clean, extremely local, and easier then you may think.

Today it is  extremely simple to get solar installed through a solar leasing company. They do all the hard work of planning, permitting, installing, and maintaining the system, and you just pay a monthly bill that may even be less than what you spend now with your utility.

I’ve put in leased solar on two homes, first in 2008, and just recently in 2016. It keeps getting easier and quicker, as so much of the process is automated. All you do is provide your address, answer a few questions about your current energy use, and you get a complete quote, design, and electric production estimate within days. If you are happy with the projected cost savings and design, you’ll have your system installed and producing in just a couple months.

Be sure you shop around with reputable companies. Look for large national chains or highly rated local firms who have been in business for 10 years or more. There is a lot of consolidation going on in the industry, and since you’ll most typically be signing a 20-year lease, you want the company you pick to have a good shot at being around that long.

So, what will you notice once your solar is installed and operating? Nothing. Your lights and appliance will behave as before, you’ll go about your daily routine same as before. You may have a slight grin however when you boot up that computer or open the refrigerator door knowing you’ve drastically cut your carbon footprint, and are powering your life from the sun.

To Save Time, Get in the Zone

There is a Permaculture design principle called zones. It basically says this; things you access most frequently such as annuals and herb gardens, get planted close to your house (Zone 1 or 2), and those that need less care including perennials and your food forest get planted further away (Zones 3 or 4).

This is practical time saving advice you can transfer from the garden to other areas of your life such as the kitchen, office, and storage spaces in your house.


In the kitchen begin your zone thinking by storing your everyday use items, including food, pots and pans, and utensils toward the front of your pantry, drawers, and cabinets. Eye level shelves are places to put your family favorite meal ingredients and snacks. Every day plates and cups, your favorite coffee mug, the containers for packing lunches; these all go up front. Rarely used baking items (you really have time to bake?), fancy gadgets you got as gifts, and the holiday dishes go up high and in the back. Pretty obvious, but how do we tend to arrange our cupboards? Grouping by type, rather than frequency of use. Keep the easily accessible areas for what you use most and you’ll save time both retrieving and putting these things away.


Dealing with bills and paperwork is never fun, so why not minimize the time it takes to perform these mundane but essential tasks? In the home office keep your desk, shelves, and file draw similar sorted by frequency. Not type, not alphabetical, not size or color. Write a lot of checks? Check book stays on your desk. Big on thank you notes? Keep the cards, envelopes and favorite pen close at hand.

Reference materials go on the far or low shelf, current work stays on the top. Here is another tip on filing; keep all your tabs for hanging files and folders in-line. I don’t care if it’s left, center, or right, but all the same. Don’t stagger them. It only took me 30 years to figure this out but here are the 3 advantages, which I’ll give to you in 30 seconds.

  1. If you want to add, remove, or re-order folders, you don’t have to play around with moving a bunch of tabs to keep them alternated. Left-cent-right, left-center-right, left-center-right. What a pain.
  2. You will find things faster, and not over-look folders, if you only need to scan strait back. No more moving your eyes back and forth across your files like you are watching a tennis match.
  3. You only need purchase and keep on hand one type of folder for new files, which saves money and space.

One exception to the zone rule in the office; even if you print frequently, place your printer across the room. It forces you to get up when you print, giving your body needed breaks from sitting. The health benefit is worth the time.


You probably already have this one covered, but I had to include it for completeness. Your hard to reach, out of the way storage spots are the place to keep seasonal items and memorabilia. Front hall closets are for everyday coats, umbrellas, shoes, back-packs and other items your family needs to take with them, well, every day. In-between spots are where you keep things needed once a week or less like spare light bulbs, batteries, cleaning supplies, etc. In between means somewhere between the attic and front door. Where that is exactly will vary from home to home.

The biggest trap with storage is of course storing to much. To cure this I recommend the book everyone recommends for this problem, “The Life Changing Magic of Tiding Up” by Marie Kondo. Yes the author comes across a bit OCD, but the approach works even if you don’t believe your stuff has feelings as Kondo does. My favorite tip, after how to get rid of stuff, is not to stack things. Place items vertically and you can see everything you have, and retrieve what you want, without having to move anything else out of the way.


If you’ve done this zone separation throughout your house properly, you’ll find daily tasks flow easier, you’ll misplace things less often, and you’ll save time doing the things you do every day.

Local Food for the Non-Gardener

As hard as it is for me to imagine, not everyone is into gardening. I know, a shocker. Well for those who want the freshness and localness of a garden, without all the time and effort, there I an alternative. It’s called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA for short.

A CSA is a local farm that sells a subscription-like service to its produce. Usually called shares, these subscriptions are either monthly or annual purchases that entitle each owner to a weekly portion of the produce form the farm. Each week a CSA member receives a delivery, or picks up a container holding an assortment of in-season vegetables, freshly picked from the local farm. In return, the farmer gets a steady dependable income from local customers. This exchange keeps money flowing through the local economy and reduces food miles at the same time.

CSA shares can vary in cost depending on the amount of food you get, and the frequency of payments. So, what are some of the advantages to joining a CSA?

  • You get great fresh, local, in-season food
  • You pay someone else to do the dirty work
  • You could still keep a small garden while expanding the variety or quantity of your local food.
  • You support local farmers helping assure long-term food security for your area

Being a member might also expose you to new varieties of vegetables, and inspire you to try new dishes you might not otherwise have discovered.

You will likely pay more in a CSA then you would for vegetables in the grocery store, but you are getting a much higher quality product. Most CSA’s grow organically, whether certified as such or not. The food will also be fresher and more nutrient dense, as it’s picked when best to consume, not best to ship.

If you want to give CSA’s a try you can learn more and find a CSA near you at https://www.localharvest.org.  Who knows, maybe a CSA will strike the right balance between local and simple for you?

5 Painless Ways to Save More Energy

Everyone has long ago changed their light bulbs to CFLs and now LEDs, knows to turn down their thermostat, carpool, and turn off un-used lights to save energy. Here are a few other easy ways to use less power, save money, and protect the environment.


No I don’t mean spend less time in front of technology (not that that couldn’t help). I’m talking about unplugging devices that draw energy even when “off”. Most of your electronics, from TV’s to game consoles and computers work like this. The easiest way to ensure these “vampire” devices aren’t sucking a slow stream of electrons from your wall when not in use is to plug them into a power-strip. Then turn off the strip. You should be using power strips to protect your devices from surges anyway, so this is not an additional cost. It’s cheap insurance for those pricy electronics. Then use that off button on the strip to protect your wallet from your devices.

Cut water use

This is less obvious, but saving water also saves energy. There is a lot of embodied energy in pumping, treating, and delivering water to your home. And of course, if you are on a well, there is a direct energy savings in using less water. Reduce water use in the following ways:

  1. Don’t water your lawn. It’s ok if your grass goes dormant. It will come back. And bonus – you don’t have to spend as much time (and energy) cutting it.
  2. Install low-flow shower heads
  3. Reduce the volume of water your toilet uses. Many toilet mechanisms have a way to set the fill level. Make this as low as possible. Even easier, place a full, disposable water bottle in your tank, making sure it doesn’t interfere with the mechanism. I twill take up space and reduce every flush by about 12 oz.

Where water and energy meet.

And finally turn down your water heater. Your really don’t need scalding hot water on tap. It takes a lot of energy to keep 20, 30, of 50 gallons of water near boiling all the time. Frankly it’s safer to not risk someone scalding themselves from your tap. So turn it down a couple notches. Experiment with how low you can go and still get a comfortable sower, and clean your dishes. You may be surprised how over-heated your tank has been.


There you go; 5 simple, and free ways to turn down your energy use, while turning up your environmental commitment as well.

Storing Herbs

There are many health, medicinal, and flavorful reasons to grow herbs in your garden. Plus they tend to be among the easiest plants to raise as they are hardy and prolific. These characteristics also mean you are likely to have a lot more then you can use during the growing season. So you are going to want to preserve them for use the rest of the year.

Setting aside the more medicinal preparations like infusions, distillations, and tinctures, let’s focus on two basic, simple preservation methods for cooking use; drying and freezing.


I’m sure you’ve seen homey pictures of a room full of bundled herbs hanging from the rafters in a old Colonial kitchen or farm house. While this works, it also takes a lot of time and space to tie up all those little bundles, hang them, and wait weeks for them to properly dry.

My method? Cookie sheets and an oven. Simply wash your herbs gently in a colander, spread a layer of paper towels on cookie sheets, and spread your washed herbs out on them. Remove excess stems and pat dry. Set your oven on bake at the lowest possible temperature setting (for me that’s 175°) and place the trays of herbs in for 15 to 20 min.  Check on them frequently to ensure they brown, but don’t burn. When the leaves crumble easily, remove and let cool.

After 5 minutes or so you should be able to grab the stems in one hand, and gently pinching the stem with the other, slide the pinching hand down the stem to remove the leaves. Do this over the paper towel on your cookie sheet. When all stems are de-leaved, place the stems in your compost bin and transfer the leaves to a glass mason jar by lifting the paper towel and pouring them in.

Common seasoning herbs you should dry: basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley.


The other way I like to preserve for recipes calling for fresh or green herbs is to freeze them. Start by gently rinsing and laying your herbs out, once again, on paper towels on top of cookie sheets, and pat dry. See how easy this is going to be to remember!

This time you need to separate the green leaves or chop your herbs first. Spread out the chopped herbs in one thin layer on your sheet. Avoid clumps if you can. Place the trays in your freezer for about 30 minutes. Remove and place the frozen herbs into resalable freezer bags.

The purpose of freezing them first on the trays is to avoid having one giant lump of frozen herbs. This way when it’s time to use them, you can easily open the bag and take out just what you need.

Good herbs to freeze: chives, mint, parsley, cilantro.


And there you have it. In only about an hour, you can have your herb bounty stored and ready for use all Fall and Winter until you can get them going again fresh next spring.