Water – Pumping

The best and probably most comfortable and sustainable water pumping solution is gravity – but that works only if you have a properly situated source on your property (a spring at an altitude high enough to provide water pressure). We didn’t have it this good but we had a well and we had to install some kind of pump to get water flowing from it to the house.

Our research led us to two kinds of pumps – surface pumps and submersible pumps. We chose a surface pump (see why below). I am not an expert on pumps but here are a few things we were able to pick up along the way.

Water Pressure

Submersible pumps seem to be able to provide a higher water pressure then surface pumps. They use different mechanical configurations to pump water which effects water pressure. This is in addition to a rule-of-thumb that says that the closer the pump is to the source of water the higher the pressure it can provide. Though we installed our surface pump close to the well, a submersible (immersed in the water) pump is closer to the water source then a surface pump.

Installation

A submersible pump should be easier to install then a surface pump – but we haven’t done this so we can’t vouch for it. A submersible pump is, supposedly, simply lowered into the well where its weight stabilizes it in the water. This of course assumes you have a well deep enough (during all seasons of the year!) to accommodate the pump.

A surface pump is more tricky to install. Assuming you want to have it close to the well you will need to make a space for it. As we live in a climate with a freezing cold winter this meant creating an underground chamber that drops below the freezing depth (more on this in the next post in the series).

Overall Water System

A submersible pump is usually part of a system where a large water tank is installed in or near the house and fed directly from the pump. Inside the tank is a water level sensor that, when the water drops to a set level, activates the pump until the tank is full again. A second pump is then installed to feed and pressurize the water from the tank into the house. This way the well-pump doesn’t need to come on whenever you open a water faucet. The water is taken from the large storage tank (which, if placed inside, can also double as a preheating tank bringing the water in it slowly up to room temperature). The pump only comes on when the tank needs filling. This prolongs the life of the pump.

A surface pump provides a more or less consistent water pressure (usually assisted by a pressurized expansion tank). It comes on when water is required and shuts off when the flow stops. You can then direct and split the water flow as needed (keeping in mind the overall pressure that the pump can supply).

Local Wisdom

Local wisdom indicates that surface pumps are better – this is what almost everyone here uses. It is rumored (meaning that I haven’t confirmed this myself) that submersible pumps are more prone to problems and more sensitive to fluctuation of water levels. Professional wisdom (at least that we’ve had access to) seems to indicate that submersible pumps are better as they provide better water pressure and are more reliable then surface pumps.

Price

Good submersible pumps (in Romania) are much more expensive (our research has shown them to be at least 4 times more expensive then the ubiquitous surface pumps) than good surface pumps. Both come with a limited 2 year guarantee.

Our Choice

We chose to go with a surface pump for numerous reasons:

  • Price was high up on our list of priorities. A submersible pump (let alone the entire system around it) was beyond our means.
  • Almost anyone we spoke to (in our village and others) who has a pump uses a surface pump and claims it is reliable.
  • Almost anyone we spoke to (in our village and others) said that submersible pumps are problematic unless they are installed in optimum conditions (we don’t know what these conditions are).
  • We needed a diversified water supply – 2 structures + 2 outside locations (making it difficult to include a water storage tank to supply all our needs).
  •  We did not have a winter-proof place to install the water tank needed for the submersible pump (creating one would have been complicated and expensive).
  • We preferred to start with a system we can scale up if needed rather then start with a scaled up system.

There are numerous brands of pumps available in Romania. Many of which are very cheap – we tend to avoid these. Then there are some very expensive brands (both submersible and surface). We chose to go with a reasonably mid-priced German brand – Grundfos. We hope this proves to be a good choice (reliable performance for many years). So far so good.

 

 

Earthships & Living Roof

Roof harvested rainwater is the primary (and often by design the only) source of water in an Earthship. One of the defining features of Earthships is therefore a sloped roof designed to collect rainwater. Water is accumulated in large underground (or sometimes indoors) cisterns, passed through a series of gradually refined filters and is then pressurized with a relatively small, simple and low-energy-consuming pump. This entire system can be complicated and expensive and is an all or nothing deal. There is no point in having a rainwater harvesting roof if you can’t store the water. There is no point in storing the water if you don’t or can’t use it.

We are questioning including this feature of Earthships in our plans and are considering in its place a living roof (earth and plant cover) as a preferred solution.

Roof Longevity

The primary function of a roof is shelter. It is so obvious that it is often compromised and overlooked. Most modern roof systems are actually very poor when it comes to shelter … they require maintenance and too often complete overhauling. Our architect took us on a day-trip which included very old houses with thatched roofs (once a common roofing practice, today a rare art) – If I recall correctly this roof was over 80 years old,s built of a natural and insulating material (straw) and can outlast the structure beneath it. Most modern roofs don’t come anywhere need this kind of longevity and require major maintenance every 5 to 10 years.

Earthships (especiall Global Model) seem to most frequently use something called “Propanel” roofing … which is basically a sheet metal roof usually made of steel with various protective (and rainwater safe) coatings. Some Propanel roofing even comes with 45 or 50 year warranties which is impressive. But the sheet-metal itself is just one part of the roof and even if, for arguments sake, they were to last 50 years, the longevity of the roof depends on the behavior of all the other roof elements.

The roof is subjected to some of the fiercest forces of nature – moisture, temperature, wind, etc. Assuming it is installed well (won’t blow off in the wind) and is properly insulated against moisture (won’t let moisture in and won’t trap moisture between its layers) it is left to the attacks of temperature. Here in Romania that includes a very hot summer and a freezing cold winter but most importantly it includes drastic temperature variations over a short period of time. Hot summer days can be followed by cool nights and both fall and spring bring intense freeze-thaw cycles.

Even though the sheet metal may be able to withstand these changes and variations it does not isolate the inner roof layers from them. What more, it may actually amplify them – it will reach much higher temperatures then the ambient air temperature in the summer and will freeze very fast in the winter and it will conduct those amplified variations to the roof layers beneath it. These layers will decay BECAUSE of the behavior of the metal roofing.

The metal roofing may last a long time but may contribute to destruction of the roof many times during its lifespan. A roof that needs to be fixed every 5 or 10 years is, in my mind, a failed roof. Or, put another way, I aspire for a roof I can forget about for the rest of my life.

Insulation

The second most important function of a roof is insulation. Since warm air rises from below (inside the house) and falls from above (outside the house) the roof is the most vulnerable escape of heat.

This insulation can be achieved by:

  1. Brute force – industrial insulation solutions – such as the insulation suggested and often used in Earthships.
  2. Natural Materials – materials such as sheep’s wool or hemp can be used as insulation when properly prepared/treated.
  3. Nature itself – a living roof offers (in our climate) three important layers of insulation: earth, plants and snow.

Of the three options I trust nature more then the others because it is a dynamic system that adapts to climate conditions:

  1. Earth – though it is a poor insulator it has good thermal mass. As such, it absorbs ambient changes and dampens the effects of those changes from the layers underneath. In the summer it heats slowly and depending on its depth will usually stay much cooler then the ambient temperature. In the winter, it again accumulates “coolth” before passing it through to the lower layers.
  2. Plants – in the summer, plants (assuming they have enough water) provide cooling – through transpiration – release of moisture to the air (sweating). In the winter they die back into a naturally insulating later. That layer will decay in the next spring/summer and nourish new growth.
  3. Snow – is actually an excellent insulating layer (insulation is typically created by materials that have pockets of air). The combined effect of snow, on top of dead plants on top of earth provides substantial insulation for the under-layers of the roof. In contrast, Earthships include a hot water system to melt snow and ice to harvest water – that generates water at the expense of insulation.

All this boils down to the one most important feature our architect pointed out when he introduced us to living roofs. A roof with an outer layer that absorbs climatic shifts and creates  relative stability  for the under-layers.

Water

Our main source of water is a well with a surface pump. However I do believe that water may potentially be a challenge in the future (I am thinking on a scale of 20+ years). I would love to be able to incorporate an independent water supply such as rainwater harvesting can provide BUT:

  1. The entire system (roof + drains + cisterns + filtering) is a very expensive part of an Earthship build. Since we are trying to create an Earthship that we CAN afford to build – letting this system go is very tempting.
  2. Harvesting rainwater while compromising and/or complicating the two core roof functions of shelter (see longevity) and insulation doesn’t make much sense and is not very appealing.
  3. I believe the best (and surely more affordable) way to filter water is through the ground itself (though we do have to deal with hard water issues).
  4. I believe that the best (and surely more affordable) place to store water is in underground aquifers and not in plastic containers.
  5. The way we, as humanity, are treating the atmosphere worries me to the point that I am not convinced rainwater can be a reliable long term source of water.
  6. I have doubts about the quality of rainwater as drinking water (the quality of the water is effected by all the materials the water meets on its way to the cup and can change its characteristics when stored over time).
  7. Our vision for our home goes beyond our house and we hope to create an ecosystem where more water is retained in the earth.
  8. We have drastically lowered our water consumption and continue to be very vigilant about it.
  9. We intend to build an outside shower for the warmer months of the year which will include rainwater harvesting and solar heating – so that too will reduce the “water load” in the house itself.

Rainwater harvesting from the roof simply doesn’t appeal to us. The lower cost, simplicity (though it needs to be done right to work) longevity and insulation performance of a living roof make it a more appealing solution.

We are considering some kind of cistern (1000-2000 liters) to both improve electric efficiency and if we manage to incorporate the cistern indoors and near the front glazing we may be able to bring up its temperature before it goes into the water heating system.

Structure

An extra bonus is that the structural strength of rammed tires seems superbly matched for the load requirements introduced by a living roof. The original combination of all-tire U’s and east-west orientation of root rafters make for an out-of-the-box-ready structural solution for a living roof.

I am assuming that we will need an additional structural face element to support the weight of the living roof above the greenhouse and corridor. I am thinking that beautiful natural wood posts will do the trick. And, ironically, to keep it simple, we may also embrace the raised front lip design of the original Earthships.

Water – Cleaning & Testing

Cleaning

The first task was to get the water clean to the point that we could use it at all. The water was unclean because some years ago there was a one-time flooding – so we had to have the well cleaned. We didn’t know quite what that meant and were happy to find a local who knew what needed to be done and did the work for us:

  1. He pumped out the water from the well. The pump was able to pull water out faster then it could fill from the spring. We tried to save as much of it as we could though I think most of it evaporated (you can see in the image the hole I began to dig where eventually the pump would be installed … he lent a helping hand as he was waiting for the pump to finish emptying the well).
  2. He climbed into the well and roughly cleaned the well from weeds that had grown on the walls.
  3. He loaded buckets of mud that were at the bottom that his partner,  a gypsy from the village he hired for the job, pulled up and dumped next to the well. They hauled out a lot of buckets … there was a huge pile of mud when they finished. He did this until (supposedly, since I wasn’t down there with him) the bottom of the well was once again tightly packed dirt.

  4. When the work was finished we had …. murky well water … We had to wait a few days until the well settled and the water became clear.
  5. The guy who cleaned the well instructed us, after the water settled, to throw in 10 tablets of chlorine. We purchased the tablets, then lost them and though have since found them, we have not (months later) yet (I wouldn’t hold my breath) thrown them into the water.

Overall I think they did an OK job. Since then we’ve hired help a few times and my overall impression with Romanian workers is that they work hard but they don’t strive (and don’t achieve) quality. They do an OK job. If you want quality you need to either do it yourself or be very demanding and very specific with what you want done. It can be hard to do without already having experience AND being a foreigner with a 4×4 parked near bye … but I have learned that common sense (especially my own after studying up) should not be ignored.

This is what it looked like mid-day – the workers, our neighbors and Andreea taking a break in the shade.

Testing

Officially we were supposed to do a lab test to the water, we intended to but we didn’t. To do the test you need to pick up a sterilized bottle, fill it (and another soft-drink plastic bottle) with water (after cleaning the well and after the water in the well has settled) and then bring it to the lab in the city within hours of filling. It costs around 200+ Lei to do the level of analysis we would need and the result should be specific instructions on what kind of filtering we would need for the water to be drinkable.

Getting all this done requires specific timing and though at first we tried to do it, it didn’t work out. By the time we had the well cleaned we decided to not do the testing (it was one of those things where obstacles kept getting in our way – and we are learning to read such obstacles as signs that maybe we shouldn’t go that way).

We also didn’t start drinking from the water for quite some time because it had (still has!) too much stone content in it – it is hard water. We now have a rock-salt kind of filter on the main line – it needs to be cleaned every few weeks for optimal performance. We also have a separate drinking water filter and we run the water that comes from it through another passive filter for any sedimentation that may be left in the water. We drink and cook with this water.

 

Humaure Hacienda

The Humanure Hacienda is a term coined in The Humanure Handbook to describe the place where humanure and other organic waste is collected and left to compost. It is a 3 chamber structure. Two side chambers are for alternate composting – one is filled for a year and then left to sit for another year while the other is filled. The middle chamber is used to store hay which is used to cover the compost piles – it can be a roofed chamber to both keep the hay dry and to collect rainwater which is useful in washing the buckets that are emptied into the compost pile.

By the time we moved out I had the instructions for building a humanure hacienda memorized. When I sat out to actually build it I encountered a series of humbling and priceless lessons. When I finally got around to building it we had already accumulated some waste (in an old wooden box that we placed near where the hacienda would be built) from the compost toilet which we had already built so we really needed to get it done.

Size & Location

We have chambers that are approximately 1.5 meters square. It seemed like an overkill (I was rounding up the sizes in the book as I was converting them from feet to meters) but it isn’t. We have been using the chamber for just over half a year and it has filled very nice. The pile slowly sinks down as the lower levels are decomposed but is still a hefty pile. Since we eat lots of vegetables we add to the pile a lot of organic food waste.

Taking out buckets of waste is something I do once every week or week and a half. It is a task that takes about 20 minutes. I usually make two trips: (1) two buckets of humanure; (2) a bucket of organic waste and a bucket of water (we still don’t have a water collecting roof over our hacienda). The location we chose took into consideration both the existing house and the new house we plan to build. It is a bit far (and a bit uphill) from the existing house for my liking, but at an excellent location relative to where the new house may eventually be. I have yet to travel to the hacienda in the snow … so we’ll see how that goes.

Another thing to keep in mind when choosing location is where you will be using the compost. We still do not have a clear view of what and where we will be growing things so we could not incorporate this into the location. It now looks like we will be hauling compost in a wheel-barrow. But, I am happy with the location because I didn’t want the hacienda in my face … it’s set aside in a functional location.

Excavating

The location for the hacienda is on a slight slope so some excavation was required to create a flat space. I began doing this by hand and that’s when the first lessons hit me in the face:

  1. I haven’t decided what is harder to dig out – impenetrable hard clay or wet, muddy and heavy clay. Both are very tough work.
  2. Digging is hard enough work, it is that much harder without good tools. At the time I didn’t know what good digging tools were and the ones I had were definitely not good. If you’ve never done this kind of work before you cannot begin to imagine what a difference good tools make. Also, at least here in Romania, good tools are hard to find … so that in itself is an undertaking.
  3. A tractor with a backhoe is a superior digging tool. It can do in an hour what would take two strong men (me does not feel into this category) a day to do.

Fortunately we had a tractor on site digging a trench for our water supply so we asked him to help out and indeed, in about 45 minutes, I had a level surface AND holes for the posts. These holes were another hugely humbling lesson. Reading the instructions was very easy … one of the steps was to dig 8 holes in the ground. In the spirit of reading (and maybe watching movies where other people dig) I was thinking “OK, no problem”. Then you take your lousy digging tools and poke them into the ground and the ground says “no thank you” … and you realize that one step “dig 8 holes” is about to become an unexpected project of unknown scope.

A large part of me – the part that spent a couple of hours of futile digging – felt like an idiot when the tractor came and leveled the ground  in no time. But fortunately there is still a part of me, no matter how small, that is grateful for the lesson learned.

Cement

To this day I have avoided working with cement. We’ve had to use cement but hired help has done that work, not me. I am turned off by it and though will eventually get around to working with it I am happy to have stayed away from it so far.

In the hacienda this will probably turn out to be a mistake – how big a mistake only time will tell. The instructions call for a cement mix to set the posts. I didn’t to this – the posts are simply buried in the ground. The instructions also call for a rot-resistant wood – we didn’t have any on hand so we had to use pine (which is abundantly available and used for almost everything here) General wisdom is that these posts will rot in a few years. I guess I am OK with that because (a) I think that the structure itself may continue to hold up because it isn’t a load-bearing structure; (b) I am pretty sure this can, with some effort, be fixed; (c) I am OK with eventually having to (re) build a new hacienda. I have learned that I do pretty much everything better the 2nd time around so … 🙂

Walls

We used almost all used wood that was either lying around or from demolition work we did around the place. We had only a little available at first so I put up just enough to give the structure support and to make it possible for us to start collecting waste.

I then added more as more wood became available.

Another precious lesson hit me when I got around to using some old beech (a hard and rot resistant wood) planks. I failed miserably at hammering nails into these planks. My first assumption (from above mentioned humbling lessons) was that I was doing something wrong … and I lived with that guilt for some time (because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong) until a neighbor mentioned in passing that it is almost impossible go hammer nails into dry beech. Hah!

Roof

I was really looking forward to building the roof over the middle chamber. It is a small roof and therefore a good learning project. I only got as far as putting up two girders to support the roof. Another lesson here – such things are better cut to actual size then planned size. I tried to be efficient and cut them in advance (according to plans) but I cut them to short.

I didn’t get much further because we didn’t have more wood on hand and then I didn’t have time to get around to it. So the structure is now pretty much closed (sorry I don’t have a recent image) off and roofless. We have nice pile of rich compost building up … we started it in June, we will switch over to the second chamber this spring and we will harvest our first compost in Spring 2013 🙂

Together with our composting toilet it is a superbly simple,cheap, sustainable and hugely rewarding method of handling with organic waste and converting it into a precious resource.

Shit

I think that on the previous time-line post I made an error. The first wood-working project was not the temporary poultry cage – it was our composting toilet.

It’s nothing glamorous but it was a huge relief to have a more decent and comfortable place to shit then the dirty wooden-shack-over-a-hole-in-the-ground behind the house (a common Romanian outhouse). It was dirt-cheap to build and to the best of our knowledge we are almost the only people in the village (a rather large village that does not have a sewage system, though I am guessing there are a few houses that may have septic tanks installed) who do not need to go outside into the freezing cold when we have to pee or poop.

This can be a long post, but I am going to try and keep it short … mostly because the sun is coming out today and I want to take advantage of it to make progress on our cabinet. The bottom line is this:

  1. We shit in a bucket set in a simple wooden box. There is no smell, no flies and most importantly no sound of fresh water being flushed at the end.
  2. A bucket fills in about 4 days.
  3. We have numerous buckets so they can be emptied once every week or two.
  4. The buckets are dumped into a composting … structure.
  5. I do try to pee outside as much as possible … good for the plants and less weight to carry away (pee is surprisingly much heavier then poop).
  6. We dump all of our organic waste there too.
  7. The structure has two containers. One container is filled for a year and then left to rest for another year during which the second container is filled.
  8. In two years (actually 18 months as we’ve been active for 6 months) we will begin to harvest excellent fertilizer.

The choice to use composting toilets kept us on edge for many months while we were planning our house. Though it made sense and seemed like the simplest and most sustainable solution we were very disturbed by it. Ultimately the universe solved the dilemma for us by placing us in a situation where we had no alternative other then building and using a composting toilet.

It wasn’t as easy to build as it should be because, like almost everything else here in Romania, we had a hard time finding materials we needed to build it. We do not have access to affordable plywood. We could not find properly sized, proportioned and lidded buckets. We could not find a toilet seat that would fit and seal. Anything we do here that is outside the far-from-sustainable main-stream requires much effort, time and patience. We eventually found plastic buckets that fit (though they need to be carried carefully  because the lids cannot be fastened down). We built the toilet from sanded OSB. We just barely found a simple and cheap toilet seat that didn’t have raised notches that would prevent a seal between the seat. and bucket.

We have done (and continue to do) much research and have pretty much come to know most of the available alternate solutions. If money is not an issue then there are alternatives that remove the need to carry buckets of waste to the compost pile. But for us money is an issue and more importantly simplicity and self-build are core values. So honestly, even if money was not an issue, we would mostly likely still be using simple bucket-based composting systems.

If you want to know all you need to know (actually much more then you need to know) then all you need is the “Humanure Handbook“. Other then maybe curiosity you won’t need anything else besides this book (probably only a third of it will do).

I will write a separate post about our Humanure Hacienda – that “structure” where  we dump all of our waste. It too is taken from the Humanure Handbook.

As I make the final edits to this post I am smiling to myself  … it has been a process of maturity and expansion that brought me to the point where I can freely write about “pee and poop”. Somewhere in the history of society (at least those societies I have lived in) we took a wrong turn and moved away from practical honesty for the sake of some superficial social appearances. We all pee and poop and we all do so on the same planet that we all must continue to be able to inhabit for a long time. I know what happens with my shit … do you know what happens with yours?