How Burning Works

There’s an interesting group called All Power Labs who research biomass gasifiers: in lay terms they make machines that can convert hay, wood chips, nutshells (a large variety of biomass substances) into clean gas products which can be used to power other things – such as a diesel engine generator (which they do). You can see this system at work here:

They got my attention because if/when we go off-the-grid we will likely need a backup source of energy in winter months – the simplest being a diesel generator. But that requires diesel. So the potential of a generator that can run on biomass of which we have plenty is pretty exciting and fills another gap in the sustainability puzzel.

Their CEO Jim Mason appears in a series of 3 videos (~2.5 hours) which finally provided me with an explanation on how burning works. I admit that parts of it were a bit beyond me but for the most part I was able to follow it and learn what actually happens when I burn wood for heat  (namely 4 processes: drying, pyrolysis, gasification, combustion).

It refined my understanding and appreciation of what goes on inside Rocket Stoves. Most  stoves or fireplaces are only able to burn ~20% of the potential energy in wood, most of the rest is released as gasses which for the most part escapes out the chimney unburned. A lose-lose situation: losing potential energy and releasing pollutans into the atmosphere. A typical rocket stoves will burn most (if not all) of those gasses – already making it 4 to 5 times more efficient then most wood burning stoves. Then, after a clean and efficient burn the heat that is generated is retained in a thermal mass … which easily brings them to 10 times better.

via Matt

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 🙂

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 …

 

Our Second Rocket Stove

It is almost the end of December and winter is well upon us. It arrived much earlier then last year (we are now experiencing snow and temperatures that arrived in late January last year). I am relieved that we got the second rocket stove done in time … it means this year we can enjoy life not just in the bedroom but also in the living room. We were able to find a barrel which means it looks (and works) more like a standard rocket stove. Circumstances still did not invite building a proper bench for thermal mass. So we opted to build another “bell” like chamber to retain more of the heat inside the space. We also experimented by building a small metal oven into the bell.

Despite a successful rocket construction during our first build, I was hesitant about this second build. While rocket stoves are a relatively simple, do-it-yourself technology, they do require a certain level of precision and accuracy in design. I am not really worried about efficiency (it’s so much better then standard stove technologies – that you really can’t go wrong with it. I am worried about smoke and poisonous gases leaking into the room. Two things can prevent that (1) a proper design (proportions of different elements) and (2) good finishing. I have proper design pretty much under control. Finishing was, and continues to be somewhat of a mystery. Our experiences with cob and earth finishes have been … well … mysterious. We are still not confident about it.

I was able to delay the project itself by two preparations that needed to be made. The first was to build some kind of small platform on wheels that would enable me to get the existing metal stove out of the way. Though this picture comes later in the time-line … this is the platform in action. Due to two wheels with brakes I was able to get the metal stove onto it and out of the way on my own (though the story of getting it out of the house took a funny turn):

The second preparation was to prepare the barrel. First I had to cut it open and then I had to burn the paint off it (so that no poisonous paint fumes would be emitted from it as it got hot on the rocket stove):

Because of my hesitance I started the project slowly, giving myself time to get back into the “rocket vibe” and to explore what I wanted to build. It began with a rough model that was constructed in the garage. I completely took apart and rebuilt the model a few times over many weeks. I spent quite a bit of time staring it, letting questions appear, letting solutions appear, moving parts around … I took my time with it … until I had a reasonable model … and restored confidence to start actual construction. I lit the model once to check for good draft … but given its design (round barrel meets square bell) it was kind of pointless since it was difficult to temporarily seal.

When I took the model apart I took a few images to document the different layers. I used those images to recollect and reconstruct dimensions during the actual construction. The construction began with a “subfloor” upon which I could build the floor of the rocket itself. The subfloor is built with mostly used adobe bricks. There are two ash-pits (the one in front and on the right is just under the feed chamber and the one on the left is under the future chimney exit) which are built with firebrick.

The floor itself is made of half-thickness firebricks.

Then came the first layer of the core. Though at the end of the day I decided that this would create a burn tunnel that was too deep so the next day I ended up taking apart most of what I built the previous day and removing this layer.

So this second layer was actually the first layer of the burn tunnel (though the picture still has the above pictured layer before I took it out)::

… and then on with the core including a (this time) brick riser (the oven is just set in place to measure precise location optimized for brick sizes), not yet built in):

… then a test fitting of the insulation container – rounded sheet metal tied in place with thick wires:

… and then a test fitting of the barrel itself:

with the core complete it was time to start building the heat-storage bell that contains the oven:

I then realized that it would be easier to continue building up the bell with the barrel in place (so that the quirky round-square meeting could be properly built). But to do that I had to first put in the insulation. The insulation is a mix of perlite and clay slip. It went all around the heat riser and almost all the way around the burn tunnel (no insulation was put in on the bell side of the burn tunnel).

All insulation openings were then sealed with a thick clay (cob-ish) mortar to keep the light and airy perlite from flying around.

Then it was time to complete the bell walls.

… and a concrete-slab we had lying around (of which there are more) was placed on as a cover (it was already fitted in place in the model) providing a lot of thermal mass (it was very heavy – a job for two) and an easy solution for bridging the wide opening of the bell:

The last part that was built was the ash collection pit/chimney exit chamber (on the left):

A few more cut firebricks were used to close the gaps between the barrel and the bell … including the installation of another clean-out opening that gives access directly to the passage-way between the two. Then all that was left to do was to seal all the opening with cob:

and install the chimney:

… and we fired it up and it worked like a charm. The immediate heating effect is new to us (in the first rocket we built where we didn’t have a barrel to radiate heat it takes time to heat up on the inside before that heat is radiated into the space. With this one the barrel gets hot within minutes (with still just the initial kindling wood burning) and quickly becomes too hot to touch. The room it was in was very cold since we had not heated it at all this season. We had a little smoke during the first firing (natural since the entire stove core is cold and damp) so a window was open … and the door to the entry hall was open and the hall itself was open to the outside … and still there was a very fast and noticeable heat throughout the entire space.

I never get tired of watching a hissing fire fire get sucked into the burn tunnel:

 

Then came the finishing stage. Despite numerous soil composition tests we seem to have ended up with cox mix that was clay rich. We were starting to run out of time (=running into extra cold) and drying the cob takes a good firing up of the rocket over two or three days … so I decided to risk it and applied the cob to the entire stove. Being clay rich meant that it contracted a lot … leaving a lot of cracks … which we could have dealt with … but is also pulled away from the body of the stove itself … and fell of in large chunks.

This is Ricky (in one of her winter outfits) making good use of the straw-bale we used to create the cob mix:

So we ended up pulling it all off and creating an alternate mix … a formula we learned of when we re-finished the north wall of the house. The base was a different clay earth … very sandy (10-15% clay and the rest a fine silt). At first we added to it gypsum as a binder (instead of aiming for a more precise clay-betonite mix). The resulting mix dried way too fast, so we added to it some hydrated lime to slow the drying. We ended working with a formula of 1 part gypsum, 1 part lime and 4-5 parts sandy clay. It gives a hard finish that had much better adhesion and seems to be heat-resistant. It did crack a bit, but that did not compromise adhesion. We will probably try to add another finish coat and maybe some color to it in the spring (all the soil is frozen now).

Initially we had to keep the rocket going for longer periods to really drive the freezing cold out of the room and the walls. The more regularly we use it the less we need to keep it going to enjoy a warm room. When the room is already warm it takes one feeding of the rocket to drastically boost the temperature in the room. It is crazy efficient.

It works amazingly well (to my surprise) as a cooking surface. The only limitation is that you can only cook on it when there is wood burning inside (and for a short time after the fire dies … while the barrel is still hot enough) which, because it’s really efficient, is not a lot of time. So to use it we need to consciously plan to do our cooking while we light and feed it.

The oven in the bell does not work. The rocket is so efficient in heating up the space that it simply does not run long enough to heat up the bell enough to get the stove warm enough to be useful. That’s the nature of this super-efficient stove!

There is more to be said about its performance, but that will come in a later post and after we’ve had some experience living with it. So far we are very happy 🙂

 

 

Water – Electricity

Despite the irony of the title – electricity was an inevitable next step in the water infrastructure. The basic needs was to get an electric outlet for the pump. However I decided to take it one step further and install additional power outlets that would be available in the fields (so that I wouln’t have to stretch out long extension cords). So I set out to put in power adapters in both the flow junction concrete box and in the pump concrete box.  Though it should have been a straightforward task I did run into a few difficulties and learned a few lessons worth mentioning.

Electric Cable

We purchased a 200 meter roll of three wire cable. I don’t remember the exact specification – but I do remember we chose the one with thicker diameter wires (also more expensive) that were rated for a higher current. I would have wanted to put in more then one supply cable – but the cost was prohibitive.

Much later I learned that there is a 5 wire cable which is usually used for three-phase electric installations. However, I believe it can used as if it were three separate electric cables bound into one. The ground and zero wires are shared and then there are three current supply wires.

I don’t have a specific short-term need for this in mind, however it isn’t every day that you dig a 60 meter long, 1 meter deep trench on your property. So there’s that 🙂

Burying Electric Cable

The cable was buried alongside the water pipe. To protect it we purchased a ribbed plastic tube (2×100 meters length) meant to protect it.

The cable was a perfect fit in the protective tube. As a result, getting the cable into the tube was hard work. Rather then going into the details of how we did it (hint: using a pull-wire and cutting the protective tube into manageable segments) I would suggest getting a more spacious tube. I thought about this when we purchased ours but I thought that a tight fit would offer better protection to the cable. I still think that too large a tube, with too much free space, may collapse under the pressure of the earth and may give out sooner.

Modularity

For the better part of a day I struggled in vain to get the electric-accessories (splitter box and sockets) installed. I wired them together indoors and then headed out to fit them into the concrete walls. Remembers this is work done in a confined underground space. I failed … completely. I couldn’t get is assembled in place.

After a long and mostly fruitless day I realized I had been going about this the hard way. It dawned on me that I could do most of the assembly work inside if I were to simply mount the electric-accessories onto a wood panel and then simply mount that panel on the concretewalls. So, the next day I tried this and it worked like a charm. I predrilled the panels in place and then worked comfortably on them indoors. These are the two panels prepared for installation.

The only electric fitting I had to do underground was to connect the ends of the buried cabled to these boxes. In the image below you can see that I left empty sockets on the left hand side – so all I needed was a screwdriver and a few minutes of work.

Since our electricity infrastructure is outdated and partially improvised this entire supply line is simply plugged into an existing power outlet.

 

Building an Earthship in a Cold Climate? STOP

… and read the book Passive Annual Heat Storage – Improving the Design of Earth Shelters by John Hait.

  • Should Earthships be insulated? Yes (but not in the obvious way it’s being done today).
  • Should Earthship floors be insulated? No.
  • Can an Earthship provide a comfortable (21c) climate using passive means during the winter season in a cold climate? Yes.
  • Can heat be collected and stored during the summer for a winter with very little (mostly cloudy) passive solar gain? Yes.
  • Can an Earthship be properly ventilated without having to sacrifice precious heat? Yes.
  • Are skylights a must? No.
  • Is the corridor wall (introduced systemically in Global Model) Earthships required in cold climate? Not necessarily.
  • Can an Earthsip be built in clay-rich expansive soil? Yes, if the soil kept dry.

When it comes to cold (moist and frozen) climates like ours here in Romania, there are quite a few things that felt, to me, incomplete, missing or even wrong in Earthship design (including the latest and greatest Global Model). To me what was missing most is the lack of explanations of how things work and why they are designed the way they are. I could not find satisfying answers in any of Michael Reynolds’ Earthship books (Earthships have evolved way beyond their description in the original Earthship books) nor online in many of the documented builds and open discussions about Earthships.

Then a few days ago I published this post about ventilation problems in an Earthship and began to compose my thoughts for a follow-up post. The solution seemed to come in the form of earth-tubes. The first resources I came across (pretty much as they were presented in the search results) were:

  •  Wikipedia – which provided basic technical information.
  • The Natural Home – which provided a convincing argument for earth tubes.
  • BuildItSolar – which raised some questions and left me with some doubts.

Luckily I stubbornly pressed through a few more pages of superficial search results and on the 3rd or 4th page found an article by John Hait inaptly titled Umbrella Home. The article blew me away. I ordered the book and couldn’t put it down – I read it word for word in just over a day and will be re-reading many parts of it again.

The book truly lives up to its subtitle “improving the design of earth shelters”. Not only does it open a door to a much deeper understanding of earth-tubes but to do so it introduces a fantastic concept of a large insulating/blanket which surrounds an earth-sheltered house in which earth-tubes can really come to life.

The core idea (backed up by accessible explanations and practical research) is to create an insulated and water-proof blanket that encompasses the house and a large area (~6 meters) around it (which can be achieved with more or less the same amount of insulation materials used for standard wall insulation).

This insulated umbrella creates a large body of earth which is dry and functions as a huge thermal battery attached to the house. The house itself acts as a solar collector to slowly charge the immense thermal battery during summer. Then, during winter that battery slowly discharges heat back into the house.

Earth tubes are used with this umbrella (in a way that could not achieved without the umbrella) to passively generate both ventilation and temperature regulation (cooling & warming) of the house. Because the earth-tubes run through the thermal battery surrounding the house they work as a super-efficient heat exchange system. A passive air-conditioning AND heat-exchange system that is simple and affordable.

 

As a cherry on top  – imagine running an uninsulated water supply pipe under the umbrella and having water preheated to 21 degress (celsius) during winter  (cold water supply has to be insulated under the umbrella). As someone who washes dishes with freezing-cold water (unless I fire up the wood boiler) I am watering at the mouth at the thought of washing dishes with passively heated (no additional energy expense or effort) warm water. Not to mention energy savings in heating bathing water.

This may cause a problem with Earthships that include rain-water harvesting stored in buried cisterns. The cisterns, if buried close to the house, under the umbrella will become a source of warm water. Cold water would have to be cooled somehow and I don’t know what effects this may have on the stored water. Since we’ve decided to forgo rainwater harvesting and put in a green-roof this is not a problem for us.

If you’ve already built an Earthship in a cold climate and it isn’t functioning as well as you thought it would I believe that at least some of the measures described in the book can be added to your Earthship to make it a much better home.

I don’t recommend trying to implement this from the basic information in the article. I STRONGLY recommend reading the book word for word. It is educating and empowering and fun to read.

I am now (again) heading back to the drawing board to revisit and rethink our house design. I feel I know better now and I am grateful to John Hait for his work and for making it available to others.