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.

 

Water – Installation Materials

If, like us, you are a complete beginner then figuring out what materials to use that this can be an annoying  obstacle. I was learning about these materials in English and then we (mostly Andreea) had to track them down in Romanian – so it was not just a technical barrier but a language barrier too. What follows are our choices based on the materials that are available here and within our budget limitations. We ended up going with the parts and materials typically used. There are other to choose from … but for all the right and wrong reasons we went with the typical stuff.

Outdoor: HDPE

Above and underground we used 32mm HDPE pipes (in Romanian PEID). This is a robust black pipe of which we purchased a 200 meter roll.  The fact that comes in a roll can be misleading as it is not very flexible – it can go around large corners but it definitely not flexible enough for you to bend to your will.

It was very difficult to lay in the long trench in the ground – as the roll is large and heavy. The  workers who helped took the entire roll to one end and rolled it out – very difficult. In retrospect I think that (a) the rolled pipe should have been placed on the ground at one end  of its path; (b) one person should have rotated the roll while (c) another person pulled the free end out and away from the roll and towards the other end of the path. I think this would have resulted in much less of a struggle. But I haven’t yet had an opportunity to try this 🙂

Easy to use T and corner joints and adapters are available – they are twisted open and closed by hand – you won’t need any tools to hook these up. There are also adapters to make the transition from HDPE to standard metal (aluminum / bronze) plumbing parts. The T and corner joints themselves come in different variations (male, female) which include the adapter connections. Please note that these joints and adapters are not too expensive but not too cheap either. You will need more of them then you think and they can add up to a substantial cost.

The pipe can be cut fairly easily with a hacksaw.

Indoor: PEX-AL-PEX

PEX tubes are a very popular indoor piping system. PEX is a kind of plastic tube. Pex-Al-Pex is a three layer pipe made up of a layer of aluminum sandwiched between two layers of PEX. They can be used for both hot and cold water supply and are fairly easy to work with. There are numerous brands of these  pipes and we chose (based on a recommendation from a professional plumber) to use 20mm “Henco” pipes which are better and easier (more flexible) to work with.

The connectors and adapters are fairly simple to use. The pipes need to be cut straight and clean (either with a specialized cutter or with careful attention using a standard utility knife). Then the end needs to be expanded slightly (either with a specialized tool or with an ad-hoc tool that fits tightly inside the pipe) and after that it is all you need is a wrench to lock it tight. The pipes are flexible and easy to work with.

To the best of my knowledge there are “systems” of PEX tubing which are assembled with pressure joints – this includes joints and adapters into which the pipe is inserted and pressed using a special tool. This is excellent for do-it-yourself work because it creates a perfect seal every time (no leak worries). We still haven’t come across such a system here in Romania. Though, from searching for the images above, it seems that Henco also has a pressure-fitted system – so we will definitely look into that in the future.

PVC

We used 40 mm PVC pipes for collecting and evacuating the water from the house. We have a fairly simple system where all the elements are close together and are collected to one exit point. PVC is pretty cheap and very easy to work with.

The pipe comes in lengths of 1, 2 or 4 meters. One end of the pipe is designed for connecting pipes – it has a slightly wider diameter and holds a plastic washer to achieve a good seal. Two important things to remember about PVC pipe are (1) that the up-stream pipe always goes into the down-stream pipe and (2) since they are usually gravity operated they should be set a 2 degree angle – which is about a 2.5cm drop for every meter of length.

If, for example, you need a half meter pipe you can of course cut it from a longer pipe, however the left over pipe-section will no longer have the connecting/sealing end. However you can work around this – a trick a local plumber taught me. You heat the end of the pipe for a few seconds until is softens and then insert into it another pipe which creates the shape of an adapter end:

Metal Adapters and Valves

The plumbing works included metal joints and accessories. There are quite a few of these and you will discover your way around them and how to use them. I don’t yet know enough about the variety to give a guided tour but there are a few things I can point out.

There are aluminum parts and bronze ones. The bronze ones seem much better in resisting corrosion – the aluminum ones are not very impressive. Yet some parts seem to be available only in aluminum and others only in copper – I don’t know why that is. I am also not sure what are the consequences of coupling them together (which we had to do).

Connecting them takes some effort – you need at least two decent monkey/pipe wrenches and you will need to learn how to work with them. I’m still a beginner. You will need some lining material  (silicon based thread or hemp strings). The most mysterious, to me, aspect about connecting them is when you want to achieve specific orientation. On the one hand they should be tightened all the way to get a good seal yet sometimes that will end up in awkward positions that don’t work out for the connections you want to make. My only solution was to use a good amount of lining material and tighten them as much as possible but not beyond the position in which I wanted them to be (I found that going past the preferred end position and then backing up a bit is a recipe for a leak).

You are going to need valves – probably more then you think – and this, like the HDPE joints and adapters, is going to pile up to a substantial cost. Basically you need valves to give you control of the system when something goes wrong and maintenance is required. The end result of good planning seems to be that  both ends of a pipe are typically controlled by a valve enabling you to isolate the section of pipe between the two valves. This is especially important in long pipes that may contain a large amount of water.

Valves come with different male/female fittings which you can use as you see fit. The long-handled valves are easier to operate HOWEVER they can be more cumbersome to install, especially in more complex assemblies. Remember that as you connect the pieces you will need to rotate them – so they need to be arranged in such a way that you CAN rotate them.  Also, if you purchase a vale with asymmetrical fittings (one side male and the other female) then that limits you in how you can connect it – so you may find yourself with a valve oriented the wrong way. This may sound stupidly obvious … but I put myself into a few tight corners by choosing the wrong kind of valve. So I’ve said what I have to say 🙂

 

Purpose Guides

Today the sun went into hiding and snow came falling down. Still very cold, and I decided to leave all the malfunctions and stay inside where its warm and cozy (though I did place some warm rags on our drain pipe exiting the house). But a neighbor came by to try and help me get the car started.

He came with a raggedy looking converter which connects to the power grid and outputs 12v DC … and it is hooked up the car battery to charge it … we decided to leave it until tomorrow morning and see if it helps. It has very loose connections so I need to keep an eye out on a small indicator light telling me its working – when it goes out I need to go and shake some wires around 🙂

He also took a look at our water situation and it is dire. He encouraged me to completely take out the pipe going into the well … and it is completely frozen (over 5 meters of ice). It is now in the pantry where we keep the temperature to a few degrees above zero … so it should defrost. But that is not the end of the freezing problem … nor is describing it the subject of this post.

The thought that we may not have running water until spring when everything thaws out (2 months at least) is disquieting. So is the thought of not being able to start the car (and drive to the city to pick up our chainsaw that is in repair). I have so far managed to contain the turmoil. Today I was reminded of how.

Just when our neighbor was arriving Andreea called on a break from her course (we barely manage to talk because my cellular phone is dying too and our cellular Internet connection blocks Skype).  She is in Bucharest teaching her 2nd Doula course in Romania. We spoke shortly because I needed to go out and meet our neighbor (the dogs were giving him a less then pleasant welcome). She was filled with joy and energy. 13 women made an effort to participate in the course … some had to travel with babies long distances by trains, in freezing temperatures and at the mercy of snow-storms. All the women made it, some at the last minute. They came to learn how to assist other women (and themselves) during birth.

This is why we are here. This is a powerful energy that we embraced into our lives and has carried us into this new (freezing, waterless, car-less) life. A few seconds on the phone with Andreea confirmed this. We are fulfilling our purpose. Personal frustration, worry and discomforts are brought into context by having a purpose and staying true to it. From afar it tells us which direction to take, from close up it supports and strengthens us.

Don’t get me wrong, I am dying for a hot shower and a flowing sink to do dishes in and not having to carry water from the well in these freezing temperatures. But, I was much less comfortable in a life where these comforts were obviously available and life was devoid of  purpose.

I’m off to  cook a simple dinner of rice with lentils and peppers. I’ll use only one pot so there isn’t much washing up to do … and it will be a delicious meal sprinkled with our secret ingredient – purpose.

Thursday - February 2, 2012

today felt like the coldest morning so far … very subjective .. but there you have it

it took longer then usual for the rocket to warm up the room …

I went out after 10:30 to feed the dogs and release the flock and ran back inside … I went out again only around 12:30 … by the sun had overcome the freezing temperatures  – probably brought them up to ~10deg celsius again 🙂

The guy with the milk arrived and tried to help me start the car with his battery but that didn’t work either … still local wisdom says its the freezing temperatures and so … we’ll see … another neighbor will try to come out to see if he can help me get the car started 🙂

So I spent the day cutting up more firewood from the scrap pile … and did some planing on boards that will become our bedside dressers … it isn’t an urgent project … especially in this cold … but the planer-dust/shavings are a bit urgent  as we are running low and need them for the composting toilets.

Went inside, feeling nice, got organized to do the dishes … still thankful that the plumbing carrying out of the house is still working … nearly got the washing done … until water started to backup … the exit pipe has frozen too (though I don’t know why … it’s exposed and lifted from the ground where the water flows out) – too late for that tonight … I’ll try to defrost it tomorrow 🙂

mucho mucho patience 🙂

rocket stove is burning and whispering, soup is warming up, dog food mashup is cooking, going to watch the other half of the movie I fell asleep on last night and relax … maybe do some more writing later … maybe not 🙂

Wednesday - February 1, 2012

It’s been cold here … physically and emotionally … the day before yesterday began with -17deg (celsius) and yesterday with -23. Peak temperatures, with a clear and sunny sky, have been -10 – though in the sun it can be quite pleasant.

Just to give you an idea of how cold … this is what the handle on the door to the house (leads into our unheated hallway / kitchen) looks like in the morning … an excellent lesson in thermal conductivity – metal conducting heat out and coolth in

and in that hallway/kitchen there were  two buckets of water (see below for explanation of why they are there) … the one on the tiles has already developed a thin layer of ice … the one on the carpet took a while longer:

Yesterday the car wouldn’t start when I wanted to go and pick up guests from the village. They had a pleasant walk instead. Then when they left the car changed mood (or got warmed up!?) and decided to start and ran quite fine. Today it wouldn’t start again and stayed that way … I had a long walk with Andreea as she had began her journey to Bucharest (where she will be teaching her second and sold-out doula course) … it wasn’t very pleasant because we were carrying bags, slippery ice is everywhere  and we set out as the sun was going down and temperatures come crashing down. For me it was a two way trip … on the way back I managed to almost strike up a conversation with a neighbor.

A few days ago we lost water pressure in the morning. After some fishing around it seemed that the pump was running but not getting up to pressure. First diagnosis is a failing return valve … we decided to call an excellent and friendly plumber … he came the next day and by then the pipes going in and out of the pump were frozen solid. So it probably isn’t the valve. He pulled the pump and parts of the piping that can be taken out and we placed them in the house to next to the rocket stove to thaw. He then instructed me us on how to get it back in working order (more on that soon) then told us that he wasn’t in the plumbing business anymore … so it was really kind of him to come out and help anyway (he is a really pleasant and positive individual). He has moved into the milk business … running a family business of 9 cows which takes all of his time. So we are now buying milk from him.

Actually he was supposed to deliver our milk tomorrow at the village bar. But we called him and said the car was not starting and asked to delay our order for next week. He said no problem, he will be coming over to deliver the milk tomorrow and will bring cables to help me start the car (it’s probably a run down battery issue in this cold weather). How super-uber-cool-and-friendly is that?

Today I spent the day getting the pipes next to the wall to thaw. I made some progress … managed to clear out the parts of the pipes close to the pump … but not complete. There is still ice in the pipe from the well to the pipe … I don’t know what’s happening further down the pipe going from the pump towards the house. I was busy all day wrapping the pipes with warm rags and pouring into them hot water. I insulated all the pipes, placed the pump back in place and covered it with insulation … then covered the  whole concrete box with hay. I tried to prime the pump with warm water but it wouldn’t go into the pipe going down into the well. I called it a day … we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

And finally our chainsaw has been in repair for over a week and the guy still hasn’t even looked at it. We really enjoyed purchasing from him but his service has been quite a bummer of an experience. It’s cold and we need to cut wood for heating and that’s hard to do without a chainsaw. Instead I’ve been working through our scrap wood pile … slow and unpleasant work …  lot’s of nails, odd shaped pieces … messy … but thankfully we have it available to us (we’ll be much better organized with wood for next winter).

I’m pretty pleased we didn’t get snow chains … that would have been an expensive insurance policy. It seems though that it would have been a good idea to get a car-battery and charger for these cold cold days.

I’m also trying to empty/arrange the garage so I can move the car inside … and I was looking forward to a restful winter 🙂

So no car, no running water and no chainsaw … and I am alone at home for almost a week … and … I am proud and happy to say that though there is some discomfort … all is good and well and for the most part there is a smile on my face 🙂

 

 

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One dollar, one vote. The industry cares now a whit about our tender feelings for the environment: The dollar we plunk down at the supermarket checkout is first and foremost a vote – for more of the same.

Monday - January 30, 2012

Freezing temperatures have arrived together with clear blue skies and a white blanketed earth. I took a walk up the hill today with Loui (who is still not completely at peace with a leash):

and this is what we saw

How to Pile Hay?

The other day Andreea decided to clean out the barn where we currently house our flock. She had setup it up with areas covered with hay which the flock really liked. Over time the hay accumulates moisture, droppings and food scraps and had become … less attractive. So she pulled it all out and dumped it outside (which turned into a magical playground for the flock who explored the hay as if it was heaven). Then she went to bring new hay from one of our piles … and then called for help.

The hay piles had accumulated a substantial snow cover. One of the piles, the one we made and also the one closest to the barn, was not arranged very well so that moisture (and now frost) had found its way deeper into it then the other piles. So it was much harder work then we thought it would be. We managed to get the barn re-done and I began to appreciate the skill that goes into properly arranging a pile of hay in such a way that it will hold, be protected from the weather, and comfortable to take apart. I still don’t know how to do this … and this post will not provide a thorough answer. However …

I then sat at the computer and decided to search for some information on this. The search results were astonishing:

  • First there was a generic and superficial article about hay at Wikipedia.
  • Then there was an article about how to stack bales of hay (which needs to be done properly so that the stacks do not collapse).
  • Then there was information (articles and videos mind you) about how to stack hay in Farmville (an online game).

Only after digging deeper into the search results did I find a photo-blog of someone who documented travels in Romania giving some information about how peasants make a haystack and how they take it apart. There is much more to it the these pages show … or should I say endless more details that are hard to describe unless you actually do it

The world has changed, and though I believe overall it has done so for the better, there a few weeds I would definitely pull out of the ground. Precious (as in the kind that feeds cows for meat and milk) knowledge is being lost and replaced superficiality and ignorance.

Our personal experience, so far, is driving a horse and carriage, loading it up in the field and unloading into a somewhat messy haystack.

I don’t know if our hay-skills will improve much as we hope to decrease our need for harvested hay, reduce the amount of land where it grows and probably hire machinery to cut it down and bale it for us in the interim.

Numbers in the Village

We went out to make a few arrangement in the village today.

300

We stopped in the village office building to pay our yearly taxes. There was an elderly man at the payment window. He was holding a thick pile of money all 1 lei bills. I am pretty sure he worked hard for everyone of those bills. His taxes came to just less then 300 lei. He was holding 3 packs of 100 1 lei bills. He handed them over to the lady behind the window and she began to count.

When the money was counted she handed him back his change. He was polite and humurous and said he had just enough left for a drink. She didn’t laugh.

We then paid our taxes and as she returned our change she said that there wasn’t enough for us to get a drink.

We then stopped at one of the bars to pick up a pack of cigarettes for our neigbor – and indeed the old man was there holding a drink.

We then went into a shop to get bread of our neighbor … and we decided to splurge and buy a (soft) drink too 🙂

6

Our yearly taxes came to a total of 1260 lei (it was actually a bit more because we got a few discounts for paying early in the year) which included:

  • Car: 936 lei
  • House: 6 lei
  • Yard: 71 lei (this supposedly includes some terrain around the house + the others structures on it).
  • Terrain: 301 lei (this includes the rest of the almost 9 hectares of land we own).
  • Fire Department: 12 lei (we’ve seen what looks like an old firetruck drive through the village center once or twice).

I am tempted to draw a few conclusions from this, but I am not interested enough to actually think them through and put them in writing. I leave you to it.

2

We then went to pick up 4 liters of milk – 2 for us and 2 for our neighbors (not the cigarette neighbor – different ones). The going village price of a liter of fresh milk (milked from the cow the same day) is 2 lei.

6000

We stopped at our neighbors to deliver their milk and chatted for a while. We are exploring with them a possibility to market their produce directly to customers instead of selling at the city markets (as they currently do). We learned that they pay over 6000 lei a year for renting a space in two of the city markets for 2 or 3 days a week. That probably accounts for at least 70-80 percent of their profits.

It wasn’t always like this. The markets used to be open-spaces where farmers paid a symbolic fee for selling their produce. Then the city decided to create better markets. It took away the open spaces, put them in the hands of private business-people who built closed spaces and now charge farmers a tremendous fee that eats most of their income.

You do the math. I started to, but I am to angered by it to actually sort it out and put it in writing. I leave you to it.

I can tell you this … if city people were to depend on me for growing food for them in this economic configuration, they would be going hungry.

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.