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.

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.

Earthships and Ventilation in Cold Climates – Problem?

Ventilation and air quality is one of the last and most problematic issues I’m left with in regard to Earthships in cold climates. Cold climate is what I’ve experienced in a mild Romanian winter which includes snow cover, continuous (many weeks if not months) subzero temperatures and no sunshine (passive solar gain) for two week stretches.

To avoid confusion (as I have encountered it myself in trying to figure out this issue) let me re-iterate: the problem I am trying to outline here is not heat but ventilation – the removal of stale air and it’s replacement with fresh air. There is no question in my mind that no matter how efficient a properly insulated Earthship can be, in our Romanian climate, it will require additional heating. However heat and it’s origin does effect the flow of air throughout the house.

In this post I will try to outline what I’ve been able to figure out so far. The bottom line will be that in cold climates there is a ventilation problem. I hope this post provokes further input and conversation through comments. I would especially love to hear from people who have lived in Earthships in cold climates and their experience of ventilation and air-quality. Then, in a separate follow-up post I will try to present what seems to me like a potential passive, energy efficient ventilation solution.

Classic Earthship

The classic Earthship ventilation theory is simple and straightforward. Fresh cool air enters from the operable windows on the front face. This air is heated by solar gain, warm air rises and escapes from the skylight resulting in a continuous flow of fresh air through the living space.

The ventilation problem is already present in this simple model. What happens when it’s so cold that operables and skylights (both covered by snow) are kept close to keep heat in (and snow out). To my understanding there is no air flow.

 The only way to get fresh air in and stale air out is to let the cold in. Earthship theory would say that is not a problem because the thermal mass of the house contains enough warmth to compensate for coolth that comes in through the openings. In our climate I don’t think will hold true. I think we will have to heat the house in addition to water solar gain (hopefully much less then a house built above ground) and ventilating would entail precious heat loss.

Global Model Earthships

The Global Modal Earthships make two distinct changes to the elements of ventilation (actually there is a 3rd which I will address separately, see earth-tubes below). The first is the introduction of the corridor wall which separates the living spaces from the greenhouse. The second is the skylight over the greenhouse which comes INSTEAD of a skylight in each living space (I wasn’t sure about this until I encountered this video from Earthship Biotecture). In this configuration the greenhouse has been described as an air-lock that supposedly provides better climatic control by isolating and containing variations between it and the living space.

 There are now two ventilation circuits in the house. The first is between the outside and the greenhouse and the second between the greenhouse and the living spaces. The ventilation loop between the outside and the greenhouse is obvious and is similar to the classic Earthship approach.

I have some doubts how well the ventilation loop between the greenhouse and living space will work. As I understand it, if passive solar gain is the main source of heat then the greenhouse will always be warmer then the living space. This means that there may not be much flow from within the living space (cooler and heavier air) to the greenhouse (the already warmer and lighter air). It seems to me that the flow in the greenhouse may over-power the flow from within the room. This may be effected/controlled by alternating openings (eg: first ventilating the greenhouse, then closing it and ventilating the living spaces) and height positioning of the ventilation passages between the corridor and living spaces.

As with the classic greenhouse I do not see any potential for passive ventilation on cold cloudy winter days.

When a source of heat is added inside the living space and the hot inside it becomes warmer then the greenhouse – there can be a ventilating flow between the two spaces (and of course heat will be lost from the living space to the greenhouse).

If, in addition to the heat source, the front operables and skylight are opened then there may be some draw of fresh air from the greenhouse to the living space (and of course heat will be lost from the living space to the greenhouse and then quickly to the outside).

So, it seems that any ventilation will come at the expense of precious heat.

Earth-tubes

Global model Earthships introduce another element they call “Cooling Tubes”. These are tubes that are buried in the ground (~20 feet) behind the house and penetrate the rear wall.

They are intended to provide natural cooling. Warm air in the greenhouse is released through the skylight this creates a draw pulled in through the cooling-tubes. Warm air is drawn into the tubes from the outside, loses heat to the ground in which the tubes are buried and arrives cooler into the house.

This solution addresses ventilation in a hot climate, it does not address ventilation in a cold climate. However, I do believe it points in the right direction. More on that in an upcoming post.

Strange and powerful day today … started out beautiful snow white and sunshine.

I brought in the chainsaw, sharpened it and went to work. Finished a tank of gas and went to reload it. Couldn’t get it going again … it started but shut down numerous times … then wouldn’t start. Not good! Read the manual, searched online … couldn’t get it fixed.

I spent some really pleasant time in the workshop. Months ago I found a couple of old hardwood boards in the barn attic and I carried one of them down. Today I simply spent some time with it … no agenda, no rush … just planing and sanding a beautiful peace of wood … revealing and discovering it. It was a first-of-a-kind experience in the workshop … and I look forward to many more like it … hopefully … a whole lifetime 🙂

I tried the chainsaw again … still no good.

Then at the end of the day I went to the summer kitchen to bring in some tea … and I found the large shelves filled with all of our winter preserves half collapsed. One side seemed to pull down on the whole thing … fortunately it was stopped by the large barrel of pickled cabbages. The shelves were loaded with ~150 jars of food.  Three bottles of tomato sauce is all we lost. It was divine intervention … we should have lost almost all of our winter preserves … and yet only 3 bottles broke. Amazing. We took down many of the jars … to the point we could get it pushed back into place. Learned a woodworking lesson (more on that in a future post) and gifted with another generous share of gratefulness.