We want to have a really pleasantly warm house when it gets cold outside. Building with hemp insures that we enjoy a wonderfully insulated home. Now we need to deal with heat – which includes both environmental heating and water heating.
In typically built houses which tend to be cold when it gets cold outside it’s more a brute force challenge. With an ecological house it is actually more complicated because it’s easy to design a system that overheats the house. We still don’t have a clear picture or understanding of our heating needs – though we are working at it.
In the meantime I wanted to share with you some great resources that we are using to educate ourselves:
Stoves Online (UK) – it s great resource for learning about the different elements that make up a heating system with a very rich offering of solutions if you happen to live in the UK.
Boiler Stoves (UK) – seems like a sister website which specifically explains how boiler stoves work and can be incorporated into a smart and efficient heating system.
Radiant Design Institute – though not an appealing website has a lot of really well-grounded and useful information I believe can be very useful especially to do-it-yourselfers.
We just got back from a meeting at the school of architecture in Cluj. It was a good meeting with some followups to look forward to. But we did meet with some skepticism – “ecological building is a fashionable thing” … I agree that there is a lot of fashion in ecological building – even intellectual/academic fashion. I couldn’t possible put it better then George Carlin did:
But, I also think it’s important to be able to discern between the bullshit and the real shit. Ecological building should have direct impact on quality of life – otherwise it really is a fashionable indulgence. So I thought to take this opportunity to share some of the things I consider to be ecological in the context of building a rural house in Romania.
My general impression of homes in Romania (actually Israel too!) has been that they are cold in winter (public spaces are generally much warmer then homes I have visited). This is a combination of poorly insulated homes and fairly expensive fuel resources.
In cities gas is the primary source of heating energy – it is very expensive and building-blocks built of concrete are poor heat containers. We are struggling to keep our gas costs under control and can just manage to keep the apartment at 19-2o degrees celsius.
Village homes are usually poorly insulated (despite super thick mud-brick walls) and even though firewood is relatively cheap, it is expensive when you live on what you can grow … and you can’t grow money. So those that do have fire-wood used sparingly – again, just enough to keep out the cold.
Hemp is said to be one of the best insulating construction materials. This means that the same quantity of fire-wood that a village home uses ine year to just-barely keep the cold out can be sufficient for keeping the same house comfortably warm for 2 years (if not more!).
I’ve mentioned before that almost every apartment or house I’ve visited in Romania suffers from humidity problems. Humidity is locked inside the house and it’s walls (you have to see it to believe it – water running down the windows and accumulating in pools on the window-sills). It turns into mildew which leads to respiratory problems.
Hemp is also said to be a healthy building material. It creates a permeable wall that absorbs excess moisture on the inside and releases it on the outside. It does this without any insulation or sheathing materials. It is a natural quality of a properly built and well ventilated hemp-masonry house.
Self Grown Homes
Romania used to be a major supplier of hemp-fiber – which means that the land here is good for it. As a rule of thumb one hectare of land yields enough crop to build a house. Oh and hemp requires no herbicides or pesticides, kills weeds and renews the land in which it grows. Oh and it is said to have huge potential in world markets for zillions of applications. Oh and its seeds can be used for food and oils which are magically healthy.
Almost every Romanian farm has vast farm lands – which means that most Romanian farmers can potentially grow the hemp they need to build/rebuild their homes.
Simple to Build
Hemp masonry is poured around a wooden frame – which a small group of people with basic coordination and tools can build in a week or two. Romania is gifted with vast amounts of excellent and afforable wood.
Hemp building requires the most rudimentary frame building skills – many framing complications involving insulation and sheathing are completely obsolete do to the nature of hemp construction.
Bringing the Toilet Home
Our new friends, Ina and Sabine, eloquently described the challenge of reviving the image of village homes in Romania “Bringing the toilet – a freezing outdoor shack with a hole in the ground – indoors”. The ecological implications of technologies (they are so simple – that calling them technologies, though true, can be misleading) such as dry-compost make this easy and afforable to do. Running water is used to evacuate waste from the home and then a simpleto-install and super-easy-to-maintain mechanical system separates water and waste and converts the waste into dry and usable compost. So much cheaper and easier then digging a hole in the groun and installing a sceptic tank that needs chemicals, can demand unpleasant maintenance to run and a periodic evacuation service.
So, All Fashion Aside …
We are still beginners when it comes to ecological building – but we are committed to this path. We have a very limited budget to create our home. A limited budget comes bearing gifts of simplicity – complicated, expensive indulgent technologies are just not an option. Ecological means simple solutions, many of which are do-it-yourself (or do-it-with-your-friends), based on and respectful of natural available resources.
That’s it, direct simple things that come together to make life good.
IMPORTANT: this note was added after the post was published but seemed important enough to be inserted at the beginning of the post. I am just now realizing that my perception of heating requirements are based on experience of poorly insulated homes. This is why I expect stoves to be lit numerous times a day. But, in a properly insulated home the need for heating should eb drastically reduced. If this is true – then all our elaborate plans to use stove-heating may be irrelevant – since the stoves may not be lit long enough to generate hot water. Having a super-energy-efficient home may lead to us to simpler, existing ready-made solutions. We don’t know, and we don’t know yet someone who knows … so for the time being it’s all up in the air.
Some weeks ago we described an imaginary-heating system and since then we’ve come across numerous resources and refined our understanding a bit.
I think there are two core ideas that shape and guide our understanding and wishes of a heating system:
Most of the time we can shower when hot water is available – though it’s comfortable we don’t really need hot water to be available on demand.
Enough direct heat is generated by our wood-stoves to indirectly supply most if not all of our heating needs.
So what we can say about our envisioned heating system?
It will be an integrated water-based system – the same systems is used to generated running hot water and water for a radiant heat system.
The system relies as little as possible on electricity – we would like to have a warm house and hot water even during a complete power-out (though it may run better when powered with electricity).
The system will include an indoor cold-water container that will bring the water to room temperature.
The system will include a central hot-water tank (not a boiler!) that supplies both the radiant heat water and flowing hot water to facuets and showers.
The primary source of heat will be classic Romanian-village-style terracotta wood stoves. We expect to have one or two primary stoves in the living-space and kitchen. We both work from home a lot and cook a lot so these stoves will already be working.
We would like to design and build the wood stoves to include an efficient coiled water pipe that is connected to the radiant heat water circuit and feeds back into the central hot-water tank.
We would like to install a on-demand gas water heater on the running water hot-water circuit as a backup in case the water in the hot-water tank is not yet hot enough.
We are spending a lot of time looking at potential energy solutions – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal … anything and everything. There’s a lot of knowledge to be acquired and there are a lot of companies looking to sell their products and solutions.
The one thing they all have going for them is a promise of a so called better day – super efficient solutions to basic needs, making better use of the environment, lowering carbon foot print and what not. It’s all very appealing … but our overall impression is that most of these technologies are not relevant for us.
A lot of these technologies are still experimental – there simply has not not been enough experience with these systems to get a clear picture of what they can do, how well they can do it and for how long. If you factor in mind diversities such as climate, culture, lifestyle, natural resources … then the picture becomes even less clear and conclusive.
If you are considering such systems you are probably better off thinking of them as experiments rather then solutions. Experiments are a process of trial and error that may or may not lead to a workable solution. Make sure you have a capacity for experimentation – because no matter what kind of promises and guarantees you will hear from product manufacturers – there are more unknowns to their products then they care to admit.
A key factor in any solution we consider is both it’s simplicity. The simpler the solution the less likely it is to break down and the easier (and less costly) it is to fix when it does happen to falter.
When the luxury of electric windows started appearing in cars they failed alot which was very bothersome (not being able to roll-up or down a car window) and terribly expensive to fix. It took somewhere between 10 and 20 years to reach a point where the simple mechanism of an electric window became reliable.
In addition, the last 10 or 20 years of production seem to have suffered a drop in quality. There was a time when a washing machine was engineered to last 20 or 30 years, now most machines falter after 4 or 5 years. New machines are also so complicated to fix that often it is cheaper to throw them away and get new ones instead of fixing them.
This meeting of complexity and experimental doesn’t invoke confidence.
Most of the technologies are prohibitively expensive. We can’t help but feel that they are a fashionable indulgence more then feasible, ecological, responsible solutions to energy challenges.
Our meeting with these technologies (as is the case with most of the other people we know in this context) takes place in the context of moving into a simple and sustainable lifestyle – where do-it-yourself replaces consumerism, where money is a limited resource and where finance is not welcome. The price entry barrier is so ridiculously high that these technologies are simple not relevant.
Alternative energy home/residential products seem to be widely available in the USA and some developed west-European countries. They are not easy to come by in Romania (and I’m guessing in many other places) where they can be of great value (i.e. a self-sustainable village home).
This is another sign to me that these technologies are still more of a fashion then actual feasible solutions. They are highly available for the rich to play around with (and feel they all green about themselve as they consume copious amounts of energy) rather then where they can be best leveraged.
Looking at a lof of these solutions makes me wonder about how much ecological waste was created when they were produced. This is an often overlooked aspect of ecological solutions – they may run efficiently and saved you a lot of money – but how much of an ecological foorprint did they leave behind them when they were manufactured?
Overall it feels to us that this is not a good time to get involved in most alternative energy technologies. Any temptation to actually use them are tempred by the lack of clarity, complexity, limited availability and prohibitive costs of such solutions.
We will be looking into technologies which are simple, affordable, well established and relatively predictable such as photovoltaic and hydro-electric solutions.
We will be re-examining every aspect of our lifestyle to see where we can consume less and make the best of what we do consume.
This morning I walked into a cool Yoga room (we usually have in our house one room which is dedicated to Yoga, Meditation, etc.). It’s the coolest of the rooms in the apartment because it’s a corner room and extremely exposed to the elements (and probably not well insulated). This launched us into a conversation about options to optimize the heat in the apartment and that conversation led us into a wider exploration of heating solutions.
Local vs. Network
One quality of a heating solution is whether it is local to the space in which it is installed and operating or whether it effects other spaces in the house. For example:
A local system would be an electric heater that effects primarily the space in which it is activated.
A network system is the central gas heater installed in our rented apartment – it heats up water to a set temperature and that water flows through a network of pipes that lead into radiators ain all the rooms of the apartment. A single mobile wireless thermostat can be placed in any room and it trigger the central heater into operation. If it is placed in a cold room it activates the central heater until the designated temperature is reached – but it’s effect is felt everywhere as other rooms heat up as well (potentially beyond the designated temperature – as is the case with the poorly insulated Yoga room).
Any heating system requires an energy source. These can be gas,electric, fire wood, solar, infrared, geothermal … and there may be others.
The preferred source can be a function of:
Availability – gas pipelines are an established infrastructure in Romanian cities, less so in villages where you have to rely on refillable pressured-gas containers. There are relatively new technologies that make it possible to manufacture gas from animal feces (we hope to find more information on this).
Ecological effects (we don’t know enough about this yet)
To the best of our current knowledge there are three application for heat in a home:
We are not experts on heat and efficiency but common-sense indicates that efficiency is worth noting and can potentially be optimized. Some examples:
When the water heating source is far from the hot water faucet – there is some waster of flowing water until water is heated and reaches the faucet.
When the faucet is opened briefly (for example – rinsing the hands while cooking) and the faucet demands hot water – water doesn’t arrive in time but the heater is activated pointlessly – a pure waste of energy.
Pipes that connect radiators to a central heating system also radiate heat – probably not as effectively as the radiator.
Requirements of an Ideal Heating System
An ideal heating system for us would be a system that:
Can effectively heat any single space in the house (local)
Can effectively heat other spaces in the house (network).
Relies on an available and affordable (ideally – self generated) energy source.
Is multi-functional so that a single heat source can be utilized for other needs. For example, if cooking in the kitchen, that same energy can used to heat the kitchen and optionally other rooms in the house.
Can be targeted effectively depending on the need. For example, if cooking and there is no need to heat other rooms, do not let hot water escape unnecessaritly to other radiators in the house.
An Imaginary(?) Integrated Heating System
This potential system (imaginary is there because we have not yet encountered such a system) is designed for a village house in Romania. So if you live in a different climate with different needs it may not be ideal for you.
It is based on our common-sense understanding of how heating system work and our needs.
It is based on an aspiration to live in a self-sustaining how – which means as independent as possible in everything including its energy sources.
The primary heat source is fire wood. Fire-places are installed in every room which we want to be able to heat individually. Ideally this is an every room – though there can be joint-fire-places that are installed on shared walls.
A small gas-based central heater is used for hot water when only hot water is needed or during summer months when there is no need for environmental heating.
Solar panels are used for an alternative hot water source during sunny days.
All of the rooms (except maybe the living-room?) are equipped with water-based radiators that are hooked into a central house-wide network.
All of the hot-water faucets are connected to a separate (from the central network) one-way (no returning water) hot-water channel.
Each of the fire-places is:
Connected to (installed with?) an adjacent boiler which is connected to the central heating pipe-network.
Connected to the central house network with an open-close control mechanism.
Connected to the hot-water channgel with an open-close control mechanism.
A gas-based central heater is connected to the hot-water channel.
A solar panel water heating system is connected with open-close controls to both the hot-water and central house network.
What this creates is an effective heating system in which:
Any of the fire-places can optionally take the role of a central heating system.
The fire-places can work together for greater power and efficiency when they are used for heating.
Alternative heating sources can be hooked up to complement and support the system.
Such an ideal system is probably prohibitive to install (lots of piping, numerous boilers, etc.). A specific house-design can probably help to whittle the size of the system down by reducing the number of elements. But more importantly – with a good and accessible infrastructure in place it may be possible to gradually expand the system as needed or as if financially possible. It feels like one of those cases where a bit more thinking and design can lead to a better system with very little overhead expenses.