Rocket (stoves) here, rockets there, rockets rockets everywhere

We’ve built two sort-of rocket stoves (red and bell) so far … and they (though far from optimal efficiency) have been magical, pleasant and a godsend to our quality of life (being warm and comfortable in winter). Rocket stoves are simple (but not idiot-proof) technology, built from common and available materials, they are super efficient at burning wood and super efficient at retaining warmth. They are an organic joy to have in a space.

Which brings me to a funny story I’ve wanted to tell. When we were making plans to build our first rocket stove there was a gypsy working for us for a couple of days (he begged for work, and we decided to give him a try, and he stayed for only two days because he rested more than he worked). During his short stay he told us about his troubles … he lives in a one-room house with his wife and three kids, they have on light bulb (for the kids to do homework) connected to their next-door neighbors house (who rip them off by demanding they pay half of the electric bill). Also their (cardboard-ish) roof caved in and broke their heat stove. Aha … I thought to myself … and invited him to stick around, help me build the rocket and learn how to build one for himself … to which the cold, roof-less gypsy replied “but what will my neighbors think of me when they see a metal barrel in my house?”

Anyways, this is a remarkable technology which has already improved our lives tremendously. So far, to learn about rocket stoves there was only one reliable resource: Rocket Mass Heaters book. In our Romanian posts on rocket stoves we’ve gotten lots of questions from people who want to also build one. My reply (though Andreea tries to be more generous) is that before anything else you must first read the book. Period. After that you should start playing, reading online, watching videos … and eventually you’ll have enough knowledge, confidence and materials to build one that works.

It’s hard not to run  into Erica and Ernie Wisner when looking into rocket stoves. If you haven’t yet then you’ve been doing something wrong … and now that you’ve read this you have no excuse. They have some detailed plans for sale (which we haven’t yet seen but promise to be very educative) and they teach extensively, mostly in the USA. I have often wanted to attend one of their workshops … but living in Romania makes it complicated and prohibitively expensive.

However there have recently been two Kickstarted documentary projects which made it possible for us to partake in Erica & Ernie’s gifts. We learned about the first one in it’s last hours and supported it. Now Paul Wheaton of Permies has embarked on another, larger scale production including 4 DVD’s which cover a lot of things that are not part of the first production. I am especially looking forward to learning about “fire science” and about using rocket technology for hot water (which is the first time such knowledge is being made available and we plan to implement in our new house). So we’ve happily supported this project too.

While the book offers important theoretical information there are many details and intricacies which you can only really learn about through direct experience. I’ve been able to pick up many tips and insights while watching videos that are already freely available online (most of which, I believe, are thank to Paul Wheaton himself). So I’m looking for tons more insight from these two production projects.

We’ve invested ~ $170 dollars in these two ventures. It’s a substantial sum of money (for us, though it goes without saying, much cheaper then even the cost of a workshop, let alone flying to the USA to attend one) that we were soooo happy to give. We’ve already gotten so much knowledge from what Paul and Erica & Ernie have made available freely … making this a no-brainer investment, one that made an excellent return before we even made it. So we are grateful for this opportunity to support this work (hopefully making it possible for many others to learn about it), to enjoy its fruits and to say thank you … and this time we learned about in time to write this post and let others know about it … that goes out especially to all the Romanians who have asked … this is (for now) as good an answer as you could wish for 🙂

We Lost One Beehive

Yesterday while I was chopping wood outside on a surprisingly warm February day (of which we’ve had quite a few) Andreea called from far away Bucharest. She asked me to look in on the hives, she felt the bees calling for help. A few weeks ago we listened to the hives (but didn’t open them – so as not to disturb the bees) and both were rumbling with life.

I stopped, collected what wood was already cut and stored it and went off to have a look at the bees. I was sad to find that the first and larger hive had many bees that were all dead. It looked like they died of starvation (the combs they were on were emptied) even though there was still an ample supply of honey on other combs.
P1060164

P1060156

P1060157

P1060155

It blows my mind that this next image looks like it was taken from a living hive – yet all the bees were motionless. I am assuming they are dead and not caught in some kind of time-warp tarp … though I am not convinced … so I left them there as is.

P1060161

And there were quite a few combs with honey stores (more towards the front of the hive):

P1060160

P1060159

It would have so much “easier” to witness this had the honey-stores been empty … but we left them plenty of honey (all the honey) … and yet this happened.

I opened the second hive only shortly to find that is was vibrant with life. The bees were pretty aggressive and did not respond to the water spraying … so I made it a very short visit (I didn’t bring the smoker with me). I was surprised because it was the smaller of the two hives, where the bees were transferred (from a standard hive to the new top-bar hive) a few weeks after the first hive (both transfers were difficult to do – in the end the only thing that worked was shaking them in). In this hive the bees has less time to build new comb and collect honey.

A few more potentially relevant facts:

  1. The bees arrived during a difficult drought year where there was limited flowering. Still they seemed to build up quite impressive honey stores. The first hive (the one that got a head start) was almost full of top-bars (that we gradually added), many of them laden with honey.
  2. We didn’t collect any honey for ourselves from either of the hives (we were looking forward to the leftovers of spring).
  3. This winter started early – the first snowfall came in the beginning of December (which brough a snow cover we only saw at the end of January the previous year).
  4. This winter has been surprisingly warm. February is usually the coldest month yet this year, so far, days have seen above-zero temperatures (with some days as high as 7c) though most nights drop below freezing … and the forecast seems to be for similar weather in the foreseeable future.
  5. I’ve heard speculations that this mild winter may continue longer than usual (into April).
  6. In the first hive, because it was so alive, vibrant and full (literally of populated top-bars) I gradually shifted (in season) the bars around to get the leftover bars from the standard frames (that were chopped and cropped into the top-bar form) toward the back of the hive – so that they become honey-storage combs that we could gradually remove from the hive (to replace with properly fitting standard top-bars).

I am asking myself:

  1. What went wrong with the first hive? Was it starvation or could it be something else? My feeling is that I was wrong to intervene in moving the bars around. It seems that the bees continued to use the older comb for brood – and those bars ended up being at the back of the hive while the honey-stores were in front (that is how I found the hive yesterday). I am also guessing that the due to the warmer temperatures the bees have been less dormant and more active – causing them to consume more of their winter-stores. I am guessing the this combination of mistake & circumstance are what caused them to starve – though I am not sure.
  2. How should I have gone about moving out the chop-and-crop bars? The more I think about this question the more I become convinced that the best thing was, from the beginning – when we transferred the hives, to (1) give up all the brood that came with old hives that we purchase; (2) transfer only a few frames of honey to support the bees as they establish themselves in the new hive; (3) let them build new comb and grow new brood directly in place in the new hives.
  3. Would it be OK to move some of the remaining stores from the dead-hive into the new hive for the remaining bees to use? My instincts tell me that this should be OK. Both colonies came from the same keeper and lived together side-by-side on our property. They were exposed to similar worlds all along – so that “crossing honey” should not be a problem.

Update: I’ve posted a question on this topic at the Biobees forum.

Romania, the EU, Bees and Collony Collapse Disorder

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about potentitally destructive effects of EU “support” on Romanian beekeepers (with a followup on the overall effect of EU “support” in Romania). This morning I came across two more videos (on a thread at permies.com) on the subject of bees.

More pertaining to the subject of bees is the second movie in which there is practical advice on how to cope with the famed collany collapse disorder which also touches on the some of things I’ve talked about in the previous two posts and leads into natural beekeeping.

The second video is a full length movie titled “Vanishing of the Bees”. I have mixed feelings about it. The first half (give or take) of the movie offers a pretty good and moving description of the problem (collany collapse) with an occassional glimpse into alternatives – again opening a door towards alternative methods of beekeeping which are mentioned in passing. Then the movie takes what I can only describe as a false turn. It essentially moves the spotlight away from beekeepers and places a blaming finger (which the beekeepers happily embrace) on insecticides and pesticides (which due to recurring use on vast monocultures has attacked and weakened bees to the point of devastation).

The abusive beekeepers in the first half of the movie are suddently transformed into victims (complete with tears) who fight, like brave warriors, against pesticides and insecticides on behalf of society.

  • I cringed at every moment of the film in which these “would be warriors” were shown working with their bees – abusive, violent and agressive.
  • I cringed at the normative idiocy (regardless of the abuse towards the bees) of transporting beehives across the country on huge trucks to where pollination is needed. An all-around indutrialized machine operating at mind-blowing inefficiency creating incomprehensible waves of destruction (effecting soils, plants, bees, people …).
  • I cringed at the hypcocrisy of these beekeepers who never cared about the bees until it hurt their financial bottom line.
  • I cringed at the implied conclusion that if we manage to get rid of insecticides and pesticides the the beekeepers can get back to their abusive treatment of bees.

Still, I think the movie is worth watching. It shines much needed light on the awareness that all of life on this planet exists in a complex and diverse co-existence and that we, as human beings, are participants in this marvelous co-dependency (and not controllers of it):

This is the direction in which EU “support” is encouraging Romanian agriculture.

Bhudeva Tour 2012

In what may become a tradition, we are happy to once again, as another year of activity comes to an end and we move into a kind of winter hibernation, post some images from Bhudeva to remember, appreciate and share some of the new things we’ve been gifted with. In this post we will highlight the changes and additions so if you want to get a fuller picture you may wish to have a look at the 2011 tour.

We’ll start this tour just outside the house. A few days ago we were gifted with a relatively warm and pleasant day and Andreea embraced it and headed outside to butcher some of our roosters (inspired by this lovely woman). We had 9, way too many for our flock (we need 1 or 2 at most), we butchered 5 and will cull 2 more in the spring once we see how the remaining 4 behave and choose which 2 to leave. As usual, I did the slaughtering and Andreea did the butchering:

Which brings us into the hall/kitchen where you can see some of the chicken breasts being prepared for dinner. On the left you can see that we have really taken to hanging things to make better use of the space.

We also added some more stuff around the sink. A backboard right above the sink with a small shelf for sink-stuff and a top shelf with … yes … more hanging … this time for the pans.

I also built a second second door. The first second door is for the warm months – it has netting to keep out flies and friends. For the winter I built a door that has 5cm of foam insulation to keep the kitchen/hall from freezing. It’s still a cooler space (unless we allow some heat to pass to it from the new rocket stove in the living room …. see below) – but so far it has been much more pleasant then last year.

In the bedroom we added a headboard (the shape is inspired by a drawing Andreea made) and two small shelf-thingys on either side of the bed.

We fixed our first rocket stove replacing its metal top with bricks. We moved one of the large book-shelves from the living room to the bedroom.

In the living room the sofa was extended to fill the corner (and can be rearranged to form a double bed). Andreea added her touch by sewing pillow covers for the pillows.

We also replaced the old metal stove that was in the room (and we avoided using it due to its terrible performance = needs tons of wood to heat and keep the room warm) and built another rocket stove.

The rocket stove burning in the background is an audio experience (you don’t see a fire burning) … it’s a sound we have learned to love … however I never get tired of peeking inside and watching the remarkable quality of fire burning sideways.

So now we can (and do) spend days in the living room (last year we spent most of the winter in the bedroom), which warms up very fast (and stays warm)  … AND due to a tip from friends, we had an opportunity to purchase a good desktop computer from a company that was closing and selling its equipment, together with an office desk and drawers … and we added a chair … and we now have a decent work-station in the living room. I did not dream this would be possible, even when we decided to purchase the computer, we did so assuming there may not be space for it right now … until we moved one of the bookshelves to the bedroom – and here I am writing this post at it 🙂

Andreea begged me to let her bring Ricky indoors during the cold winter nights (and sometimes days) … she is a small dog and unlike Indy, she doesn’t have much body mass to deal with the cold.

I eventually caved and agreed to arrange a corner for her in the entrance hall/kitchen. And now, she has a very nice corner and the living room right next to the rocket stove … and whenever we open the front door and she feels like it (even if the sun is shining and its warm outside) … she waltzes in and takes a nap. I am ok with it because she knows her place and doesn’t travel around the house … though I am looking forward to the spring and her moving back outside.

The bathroom hasn’t changed much, except for a small electric boiler which we added. It provides us with 10 liters of hot water whenever we need it. We love it … it has been a huge upgrade to our quality of life. We can brush our teeth in the morning without heaving to heat water in the kettle AND we can wash our faces to … and doing the dishes doesn’t hurt at all anymore 🙂

Our pantry is once again filled with foods that will nourish us in the winter and through most of the spring until fresh foods grow once again.

This pile includes sacks of potatoes, carrots, beets, nuts, a few apples and some pumpkins:

A big project outdoors was our Sepp Holzer style Hugelkultur raised garden beds. They didn’t do well because of the drought. After harvesting what was there to harvest we cleaned and mulched them (covered them with straw) and they are now covered with an additional blanket of snow … and hopefully precious topsoil and biological  life is growing there right now … so that by next winter we will have good soil and enough water to survive the dry summer months.

We started implementing a mobile chicken grazing system this year. A mobile electric fence and a mobile chicken shelter (red-roofed thing in the image below) will enable us to move the chickens around different plots of land so that they continue to enjoy fresh green food and do not destroy one limited space.

I finally got around to completing our humanure hacienda. This was my first roof-build project, I learned a lot from it (though some of the learning is still in the form of questions) … and I am happy with how it turned out. I still have plans to put in rainwater collection into a barrel so that I don’t have to carry water to it. We have hay in the middle chamber. The left chamber has been resting since late March 2011 … which means that next spring we will have our first batch of home-made fertilizer. The right chamber is built up quite well and come spring we will complete a first full cycle – we’ll empty the left chamber of fertilizer, close off the right chamber and it will begin its year of rest. This is a sign that time is indeed passing with us here 🙂

We purchased 12 cubic meters of firewood this year. We were both kind of overwhelmed when it arrived and thrilled that I managed to make my way through it (chainsaw, chopping, moving, storing …). Most of is cut up and stacked and is slowly drying. We will only be using part of it this year. The rest should last us another 3 or 4 years (yey rocket stoves).

The solar dryers (which I really should write more about … so stay tuned) are still outside, we intended to stow them away for winter, but that hasn’t happened yet (they should be OK outside too). A couple of weeks ago they had about a foot of snow on top of them.

The bee-hives also seem fine (the snow cover they already had on their roofs also melted away). We haven’t checked the bees recently. We checked before winter arrived and they seemed to have an ample supply of honey (we didn’t take any). We will probably peak in once or twice more (on nice sunny days) to see how they are doing.

Last year was very intense. We had just a few months to prepare for winter and we had no experience with … pretty much everything. It was a tight race. The weather was on our side and let us work right up to Christmas (the first snows arrived after Christmas). This year was still a lot of work but less of a race. There was space to take our time, to enjoy the work, to explore, to pick and choose … things needed doing but there was much less urgency.

Last winter was not as restful as we had hoped it would be. We had quite a few problems (water system froze, car froze, chainsaw died, house almost burned down …). This year winter arrived much earlier (by mid-December we witnessed snow that we only experienced in late January last year) and it seems we are much readier (the water system has been insulated, we have a charger for the car to keep the battery from losing its charge in the freezing temperatures … and snow chains …) … so it looks like we will have definitely have a period of rest … which will hopefully lead us into one of the softest years of our life together … as next spring we plan to embark on a leisurely year of playing around in the garden, continuing to develop Cutia Taranului, planning our new house … and enjoying the passage of time 🙂

 

 

Fixing Our First Rocket Stove

Our first (bedroom) rocket stove worked really well … it literally saved us during our first winter here. We did not have enough wood prepared … and it’s super efficient burn-and-battery kept us warm. However there was one recurring problem. The top surface was made of metal. It was intended to both radiate heat quickly into the room and to provide a potential cooking surface. It was also an easy way to cap the brick tower. This metal surface responded to the intense heat of the rocket by warping which in turn placed pressure on the cob seams that sealed it in place … which in turn leaked poisonous gasses into the room. The temporary solution was to keep fixing it and adding more layers of cob to it (which we did all winter long). The long term solution was to replace the top.

I started by modeling the top and I opted to use rebar to support the bricks that would make up the new top. I didn’t want to mess with or work on the existing brick tower so as not to mess up the room (cutting bricks creates alot of dust). So I added half-height layer of bricks and notched it to accommodate the horizontal rebars.

Opening up the existing top was fairly simple since it was already coming apart. I took this opportunity to replace the insulation around the heat riser. When we built it we used ashes (which is all we had) and they settled quite a bit. I scooped and vacuumed out the ash insulation and replaced it with a perlite & clay slip mix (we managed to find perlite in preparation for the second rocket stove). Then a little bit of refractory (heat resistance) mortar and the rocket was fixed.

Later (this was done back in October, I just now got around to posting about it), when we got to work on the second rocket, Andreea added a layer of finishing.

I still wonder if there was an alternate solution, to somehow prevent the metal from warping …

 

Respctful Chicken Harvesting

Despite the overall vegetarian lifestyle we live, Andreea’s occassional consumption of (and love of good) meat and the fact that we raise animals (and intend to raise more) seems to have recently brought meat to these pages. On the heels of the beautiful people and work of Farmstead Meatsmith we came across Alexia Allen, another beautiful woman who does beautiful work … this time a wonderful demonstration of chicken slaughter and butchery. We picked up quite a few tips from this video and put them to use when, a few days ago, we slaughtered and butchered 5 roosters.


Ironically, to view the second video you need to prove to Google that you are over 18: