3D Elastic Storage, part 3: Five stars to U-Pack!

It’s been a busy month. We sold our house in Keene, NH, drove across the country, and rented a house in Santa Rosa, CA. A move like that entails plenty of physical, emotional, and financial stress. The last thing you need is trouble with a fraudulent mover which, sadly, is so common that http://www.movingscam.com/ needs to exist. Luann spent a lot of time exploring the site and Jeff Walker, its founder, wrote her a couple of really helpful and supportive emails. When we realized that a full-service move wasn’t feasible in our case, Jeff agreed that ABF U-Pack — the do-it-yourself company I’d identified as our only viable option — was a good choice.

I’ve chronicled our experience with U-Pack before and during the move. Now that it’s done, I’m wildly positive about the service. Every aspect of it has been thoughtfully and intelligently designed.

The non-standard size and shape of U-Pack’s ReloCube is, at first, surprising. It’s 6’3″ x 7′ x 8’4″, and the long dimension is the height. As Marc Levinson’s The Box wonderfully explains, standardization of shipping containers created the original Internet of Things: a packet-switched network of 20′ and 40′ boxes. Those shapes don’t meet U-Pack’s requirements for granular storage, transport on flatbed trailers, and delivery to curbside parking spaces. But while the ReloCube’s dimensions are non-standard, the ReloCube system provides the key benefits of a packet-switched network: variable capacity, store-and-forward delivery. In our case, we’ve now taken delivery of the two cubes that held our household stuff. The two that hold Luann’s studio remain in storage until we figure out where that stuff will land. Smaller containers enable that crucial flexibility.

Smaller containers are also easier to load. Here’s a picture of a ReloCube interior:

All the surfaces are nicely smooth. And there are plenty of slots for hooking in straps. But I wound up using very few straps because I was able to pack the cubes tightly. It’s easier to do that in a smaller space.

I also like how the doors shut flush against the edge of the cube:

When you lever the doors shut on a tightly-packed container they compress and help stabilize the load. That wouldn’t be a significant factor with an 8x8x16 PODS container but with the smaller ReloCube it can be.

On the receiving end, I wondered how the cubes would be positioned. You’d want them snug to the curb, but then how could the doors open toward the house? The video linked to this picture documents the elegant solution:

The forklift driver placed the cube’s edge on top of the curb. Not shown in the video is the final tap with the forklift that aligned the cube perfectly. These folks really pay attention to details!

I can’t say enough good things about our U-Pack experience. No conventional service offered the flexibility we needed so none was an option, but we did solicit estimates early on and they were astronomical: three to four times the $6300 we paid U-Pack to move four containers across the country and make them available to us on demand. (We’ll also now pay $100 per-month per-container for the two studio containers until we retrieve them.) There was very little paperwork involved. Every U-Pack employee I talked to was friendly and helpful. So I’m giving the service a five-star rating.

For me the experience was an echo of a time, fifty years ago, when our family moved from suburban Philadelphia to New Delhi. Here are some pictures of the “sea trunk” that was delivered, by bullock cart, to 102 Jorbagh.

Now the delivery vehicle is a flatbed trailer:

But the resemblance between our New Delhi sea trunk and our ReloCubes is, I think, not coincidental.

Actually the sea trunk trumped the ReloCube in one way. When it was delivered back home my dad arranged to keep it, and he turned it into a playhouse in the backyard:

3D Elastic Storage, part 2

Our U-Pack containers arrived on Thursday, August 21. We loaded them Friday through Monday, they departed on Wednesday, August 27. If your loading phase crosses a weekend you get 5 days to load. That’s enough time to consolidate and reconsolidate as you fill the cubes, and to make final decisions about what to take or toss as you go along.

I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of packing things into containers. It’s kind of like building a stone wall. You wind up with oddly-shaped spaces to fill, and you look for oddly-shaped things that will fill them.

In our case we had more odd shapes than normal. Luann collects, among other things, antique wooden boxes that she uses to frame her sculptures and jewelry. On the first iteration I nested them into one another and consolidated them into standard 6 cu ft boxes. The advantage of standard-size boxes is that you can pack them tightly into a container. But if there’s a lot of air inside those boxes you lose many precious cubic feet.

So we unbundled the boxes and began using them, instead of standard small (1.5 cu ft) or medium (3 cu ft) cardboard boxes, for all the loose stuff that wasn’t packed tightly in the drawers of Luann’s various cabinets of wonders. As we filled the wooden boxes we wrapped them with mover’s wrap. That stuff was incredibly useful! It comes in 20″ by 1000′ rolls, it’s cheap, and it’s wonderfully designed for the purpose. The plastic doesn’t shrink-wrap but it’s tough and sticks to itself. We must have wrapped more than a hundred boxes. As a bonus you can see into the boxes so there’s less need to label the contents.

Packing boxes of different sizes and shapes is like a game of Tetris, but in 3D and with irregular shapes. You pack as tightly as you can, but there will be gaps. Fortunately Luann’s studio offered another useful resource: collections of yarn and fabric. These were originally packed in plastic totes. But totes aren’t space-efficient so we tossed them, redistributed the contents into plastic bags of various shapes and sizes, and evacuated as much air from the bags as we could. The result was a supply of packing material to fill spaces and cushion the load. For the studio containers, in particular, we wound up using very few cardboard boxes. An unanticipated benefit of the wooden boxes: structural support. When you’re stacking into an 8-foot-high space cardboard boxes tend to crush, wooden ones don’t.

In the end we used all four of the containers I’d reserved. Containers #1 and #2 are now storing Luann’s studio, #3 and #4 are storing our household stuff. If we’d been really brutal about excluding furniture we could have used only three and returned the fourth unused at no charge. I liked the idea of starting from scratch with nothing but a table and the bed we bought last year. But it the end a sofa, some chairs, and a few other items came along for the ride.

The household containers held no surprises for U-Pack. But the studio containers, especially #1, raised an eyebrow. There are some heavy items in that load. So heavy that I wound up hiring Dave Gillerlain and his team at Affordable Movers to help me load containers #1 and #2. What weighs so much? Among other things, African trade beads. Luann’s been collecting them for a long time, and she put Keene on the map of places that traders visit. A couple of times a year, Ibrahim Kabba would show up in his van and stage a bead show in our house. The van always rode low, and Kabba wore a back brace to carry in his wares. A cabinet packed full of those beads is a surprisingly dense and heavy object.

Here’s container #1 nearly full:

I’d wanted Dave to distribute the heaviest cabinets between containers #1 and #2, but things went quickly and by the time we got to this point I realized #1 was going to be a beast to lift. A useful refinement for U-Pack would be to embed a scale in each container. That feedback would have helped us balance the studio load between #1 and #2.

We’d left the house by Wednesday morning when the truck showed up to fetch the containers. But I dropped by for a final check, just in time for the pickup. It was the same portly middle-aged guy who had delivered the empties. One person can do the job, but that person is heavily augmented with some serious exoskeletons. This time, I was relieved to see, the forklift was much beefier than the one that had unloaded the empties. Still, I was worried about #1. Sure enough, he’d gotten #2, #3, #4 loaded, had struggled with #1, and was about to reposition the forklift for a second try. “What’s in that one?” I explained as best I could, and asked if it’d be OK. “Yep, just need to come at it from another angle.” He was cheerful, like every U-Pack person I’ve talked to, but despite his optimism I couldn’t bear to watch and drove away. Nobody called from U-Pack, and an hour later the truck and all four cubes were gone.

We left Keene a week after the closing, on September 3, drove across the country visiting friends and family along the way, arrived in Santa Rosa on the evening of the 13th, and rented our new home yesterday, the 15th. It’ll be another week before we can move in, but it’s worth the wait. The place we’ve rented has enough space to unload everything and create a basic working studio for Luann. So we’ll be able to retrieve all four containers and end all the storage charges. But that’s an unexpectedly good outcome. This is the North Bay, space is at a premium, and the rental market is tight as a drum. We were prepared to rent a small apartment, retrieve only the two household containers, then later rent a separate studio and retrieve the two studio containers. Shipping a load to two unknown destinations, for retrieval on two unknown dates, with pay-as-you-use storage for each part of the load, was a tricky set of requirements. U-Pack has designed a really smart system that can, perhaps uniquely, meet those requirements.

3D Elastic Storage

If all goes according to plan we’ll close the sale of our house on August 27th and begin meandering across the country, visiting friends and relatives enroute to Santa Rosa. We’ve thrown all the cards up into the air. When we arrive we’ll look for an apartment in which to live for a year while we scope out the region. And we’ll look for a studio for Luann. Conventional movers aren’t set up for what we need to do: ship to storage, then retrieve from storage to several locations at different times. We got a few estimates just to see, they were astronomical, a PODS-style solution was clearly in order.

I spoke to a PODS representative who was so rude that I immediately began checking out the competition. United/Mayflower offers the kind of service we need, but they only use one container size, 8′ x 8′ x 16′. One wouldn’t be enough, two would be overkill. Also they don’t ship to Santa Rosa, so that was the end of that. I did appreciate their comparison between PODS and United/Mayflower containers. Both are nominally 8 x 8 x 16 but they’re right about those interior beams. As I learned when helping friends load a PODS container, they really get in the way.

Next I talked to U-Pack and, unless the response to this blog post reveals an alternative I haven’t considered, we’re going with them. Their elastic storage service had me at hello. Like United/Mayflower they only offer one size of container. But their “ReloCubes” are smaller: 6’3L” x 7’W x 8’4″H. I like that for a couple of reasons. It gives us more flexibility to divide the load into separate deliveries. And I think the smaller containers will be easier to pack well.

How many will we need? There’s no penalty for overestimating, but these are big boxes and we don’t want more in our driveway than necessary. So I want to measure the volume of our load as well as I can. There’s an online estimator but it’s geared toward a conventional household. In our case, more than half the load is Luann’s studio and it’s, well, take the tour and see for yourself. It’s more than an artist’s workspace, it’s really a museum of wonders. When she opens the studio to visitors people spend hours wandering around opening drawers and looking at collections of beads, rubber stamps, fabric, yarn, antique boxes, old tools, globes, maps, dolls. We can’t take everything but these collections are central to what Luann does and we need to recreate them as best we can.

The most generic feature of the U-Pack estimator is the Boxes section. You can enter a number for each of the four standard sizes: small (1.5 cubic feet), medium (3), large (4.5), and extra large (6). I picked up a few of each at Home Depot, assembled them, and begin using them as cubic measuring sticks.

A stack of printer’s type trays = 1 small

Six antique drawers = 1 medium

A lot of stuff like this will just get wrapped and taped. It doesn’t need to be in a box, we just need to know how many box-equivalents of space it’ll consume.

Three vintage suitcases = 1 medium

Luann has a whole collection of vintage suitcases. Now that I’ve accounted for their volume, we can fill ’em up.

ProPanels = 2 extra large

These boxes hold the ProPanels that form the walls of Luann’s booth at shows.

Booth floor = 1.5 extra large

These interlock to form the floor of her booth. Now that we’ve accounted for the volume, we can use them in various configurations to fill space as we pack.

Two shipping boxes = 2 extra large

These were used when she traveled to shows in Philadelphia and Baltimore. They’re perfect for shipping her collection of, wait for it, beaver-chewed sticks.

Box of antlers = 1 extra large

Admit it, this is cool.

I like this method so much that I’m now using it to estimate the household part of the move. It’s far less complex because we’re taking very little. The stuff in the studio is unique and special. The stuff in the house, for the most part, isn’t. We like funky second-hand sofas and chairs, but it doesn’t make sense to transport bulky items like that so we’re unloading most of them and Luann can enjoy reacquiring on the other end.

The U-Pack estimator lists all kinds of household items but in a generic way. How many cubic feet does your bed or chair or small dresser really occupy? I’m measuring in terms of box equivalents. Tonight I’ll compile the data, tomorrow I’ll call up U-Pack to reserve containers, when they arrive we’ll find out how well my method worked.