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

From Earthship to Earthbags

This is a long overdue post and several external movement have prompted me to finally write it.

A while back I wrote how we moved from hemp construction to Earthships. Well the movement continues and we have moved away from Earthships too. This happened gradually and for numerous reasons:

  1. Expansive Clay Soils – we are proud owners of lots of clay-rich soil which expand when wet and contracts when dry. As I was doing research into Earthships specifically and underground houses generally this seemed to be a problem. Expanding clay soil can place tons of pressure on the walls of a house which can cause it to collapse. So for some time I lived with the question is it possible to build an Earthship in expansive clay soils? My conclusion was that the problems was not the clay soil but moisture.
  2. P.A.H.S – As I did more research I started to come across evidence hinting that Earthships do not work well in our climate (moist and cold). Just recently I came across clear evidence of this. I continued my research and was blown away by an old book called Passive Annual Heat Storage. The book introduced a method by which an underground house is insulated with the soil around it, transforming the surrounding soil into a huge heat battery that charges itself during the warm months of the year and discharges during the cold months. The book confirmed my suspicion that the problem with clay soils is indeed moisture and not clay. The “insulation umbrella” concept described in the book (together with other moisture related strategies) provides a solution to keep the clay soils surrounding the house dry – providing a resounding (even if for now theoretical) answer: yes, underground houses can be built in expansive clay soils by keeping moisture away and in doing so neutralizing the “expansive” quality.
  3. Tires in Romania – we could not find a feasible way to get used tires in Romania.

Empowered by the P.A.H.S knowledge I continued my exploration and started looking into earthbags (it’s a terribly designed and uninviting website but has valuable information). I loved the simplicity and ease-of-construction when compared to ramming tires with earth. I would not have considered it a feasible method of underground construction had it not been for the P.A.H.S. method. I do now.

… and so this is the house that we plan to build.

Of Earth Inside the Earth

The house will be completely buried in the ground except for the south-facing aspect. It’s intended location is on gentle south-facing slope. We will excavate for it into the slope.

Most of its walls will be load-bearing earthbag walls. Hopefully our clay-rich soil (that will be excavated to make space for the house) will provide most of the material needed for the earth-mix that will go into the bags. There is no material more local than earth.

The floor will be an earthen floor and the walls will be covered with earthen finishes.

The roof is an as yet unresolved challenge. It too will be covered with earth and will therefore need to carry a very heavy load (current estimation 1.2 tons per square meter). This weight will probably be supported by round timbers though this is not yet final.

Spacious

We are planning a house that will be ~200sqm. It is designed to spaciously accommodate a small family. It will have a main part and a smaller, attached living space for additional privacy.

P.A.H.S. – 21 Degrees Celsius All Year Long

Thanks to the P.A.H.S. insulation umbrella the house will (after 2 or 3 years of acclimatization) eventually settle on a steady all year-long temperature of 21c. During the warm/hot months excess heat will be stored in the huge earthen thermal battery. During the cold months heat will be drawn from the thermal batter.

This means that we will not need any additional energy input to keep the house warm. Even the water supply that runs under the insulation umbrella arrives at the house at 21c which means that less energy is needed to heat water.

The temperature of the house is a function of how much heat gets into the house (which depends on how much windows it has) and how much it can store (depends on numerous design factors). It is nearly impossible to change the temperature of the house after has been established. Any attempt to heat it will be futile because the energy will be drawn into the thermal battery surrounding it and you would need to invest a huge amount of energy to change that.

Imagine not having to cut down a single tree for heating!?

Rocket Stoves

We do expect to have at least one rocket stove for comfort … to boost the temperature to 23 -24 degrees when we want to … and to heat water during the months when solar-heated hot water is not available.

 Ventillation

ventilation is, we’ve come to believe, an important and often missed aspect. The air in the house should be regularly exchanged. Fortunately the P.A.H.S. strategy includes a passive ventilation system (no fans and no electricity to run it) that brings fresh air into the house all year-long at, you guessed it, 21c. The ventilation system also plays a key role in storing excess heat when it is generated (summer) and retrieving it when it is needed (winter).

The trick (and the one challenge that still worries me) is to build the house air-tight. You should not need to open/close windows in this house ever. During the summer months the passive ventilation system will draw hot air out and store the heat in the thermal battery (instead of letting it escape out windows). During the winter months the passive ventilation system will draw air in from the outside, running it through the thermal battery and bring it up to room temperature.

Imagine fresh air during winter at room temperature (and stale air removed) without losing heat to the cold outside!?

Passive Refrigeration

Michael Reynolds in his classic Earthship books points how ridiculous refrigeration can be: we build boxes to keep the cold out, spend energy to get those boxes warm then build smaller boxes inside and spend more energy to keep those boxes cool.

With a slight change in configuration, the same passive ventilation method that is used to regulate the temperature of the house can be used to create a cool space (let cold air in and warm air out). In the Romanian winter that cool is cold enough not just to refrigerate but also to freeze.

Our intention is to build an insulated (from the warmth of the house) space within the house that will harvest winter coolth. That coolth will be stored in water bottles that will freeze. The space will be divided in two. One part will hold a freezer that will be exposed to the natural freezing temperatures. A second part will hold a refrigerator. Both will be unplugged during the winter months. When spring sets on and the ice melts and there isn’t enough coolth they will be plugged back in and run on electricity (which is once again available as the days get longer and the sun shines through).

Photovoltaic Electricity

We would like to be able to live off-the-electric-grid. The first step towards doing that is by drastically reducing consumption:

  1. The house is naturally heated so that no electricity is needed for heating.
  2. Hot water is pre-heated due to the thermal battery, then heated with an efficient rocket stove during winter and with a solar-hot-water panel in spring/summer. Very little electricity needed for pre-heating small quantities of water.
  3. Refrigeration is designed to work on the naturally available coolth of winter when there is very little sunshine to produce electricity.
  4. Large south-facing windows and a one-room-depth house design provides plenty of natural light all year-long.

This leaves us with some lighting and other smaller electronic devices (computers and such). This should enable a photo-voltaic system that will provide all our needs in summer months and most of our needs in winter months.

Attached Greenhouse

The front of the house will be a large greenhouse that will serve multiple functions:

  1. Harvesting heat during winter months.
  2. Extend the growing season.
  3. Growing plants that can not tolerate the harsh winter (lemons? avocados? even bananas?)
  4. Having a pleasant green space to spend time in during the cold winter months.
  5. Consuming grey-water created in the house (this is much easier for us since we use composting toilets and do not have to deal with black-water).
  6. A transition space between the outside and inside (keeping the inside cleaner).

Rainwater Harvesting

For a long time we were faced with a dilemma:

  1. A standard roof that will harvest rainwater for the house but somewhat compromise insulation (all heat inside the house rises) and durability (all mechanical roofs are prone to deterioration and require maintenance).
  2. A living roof that will provide superior insulation and durability but is practically useless for harvesting rainwater (10-15% of a similarly sized regular roof).

After long deliberation we came up with a solution that will provide us the best of both worlds. The house will be built with a living roof (a relatively massive one) that will complete the insulation umbrella.

We will be building a “mirror” structure of the house slightly uphill. This will be a simpler and cheaper structure. It will include a workshop, storage spaces and an open yet sheltered work space for a summer kitchen and other outdoor activities (some of these functions are now unmet or just temporarily resolved). This second structure will have a metal roof for harvesting rainwater that will be stored in an underground cistern that will supply the main house.

Summary

None of these technologies are new. All have been implemented in one way or another. We do not yet know of a house that has been built using all these technologies combined in a climate like ours. It has taken almost 3 years of research by trial and error to reach this formula which has the potential to be an affordable, ecological, sustainable and scalable method of construction.

Scalable is an important quality worth explaining. From what we’ve seen most eco-houses fall into one of two groups. One are small hobbit-hole-like homes which are often the result of do-it-yourself builds with natural materials (these do not scale up very well). The other are large and expensive homes that rely on expensive and complicated technologies to achieve an illusion of sustainability (that often ignores their embodied energy and their technological dependence). We are trying to create something that is in between these two worlds. The P.A.H.S. method can be applied to any size home and it is a core component in the overall efficiency of such a house.

This will hopefully be a very-long-term house.

Weather Report Fall 2013

This is what it looks like outside at 07:30am here at Bhudeva:

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Ironically this marks, according to the forecasts, a period of 2 relatively sunny weeks. I have by now learned that at this time of year sunny means cold and cloudy means less cold (warm is pretty much gone).

Though this isn’t the first frost. There was a lighter frost a couple of weeks ago. The day before yesterday I drained water from the solar hot water heater and I’m glad I did – I think it may have been damaged by this frost (blown pipes). Though I am considering re-opening it tomorrow or the day after to work is a pre-heater for another week or two. After that I will probably drain the solar hot water system completely (tank and collector). It’s probably also a good time to re-insulate the tops of the two concrete man-holes of the water supply from the well to the house.

The cold came earlier this year. Most of september was surprisingly cold – a cold I that I remember arriving only in October in previous years.  It was also very cloudy … I didn’t get as much mileage as I wanted to from the solar dehydrators. The prunes took for over and I would have wanted them to dry a bit more – I hope they will keep well as they are. There is a batch of elderberrys that I haven’t checked on during the last week. If they got dry enough then they will be fine with this frost, if not they may have spoiled.

This is another confirmation that the more noticeable aspect of global warming is instability. Weather patterns are getting more erratic, less predictable and less reliable. They demand that much more resiliency be built into … everything.

This fall was also very rainy … the rainiest since I’ve been here (this is my 3rd fall).

The thermometer next to the window indicates 12-13c in the room (though its coldest next to the window). This is after charging the rocket last night … though not to full capacity. It’s probably time to start running it a bit longer. I also need to make a repair on the rocket. A lot of humidity is draining out of the vertical part of the chimney – this is more of problem with rocket stoves because the chimney is much cooler then regular stoves (most of the heat is retained in the mass of the rocket) – so what would would be vapor in a regular stove turns to condensation in a rocket’s chimney. This moisture is eating up the bottom of the chimney (cheap parts) and I think it is compromised and leaves an unpleasant smell (and can potentially let poisonous gasses into the room). It’s a recurring weakpoint I should probably fix. My plan is to replace the metal part with a small firebrick chamber which will not decay and will breathe any moisture back into the room.

I expect to see much more leaf-fall today and in the coming days. The frost does this. It is a spectacular and sudden change to find some trees all of a sudden bare and the ground around them covered with fallen leaves.

Also, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to lie down on the floor for Yoga practice. My winter-shopping list includes a combo of a small carpet with some underfloor insulation to place beneath it. I’ve finally settled into a regular practice these past months and already it is being challenged … savasana is very uninviting.

… and the tea is cooling much faster 🙂

Attending FanFest 2013

I decided to go to Rosia Montana by car. It isn’t too far from Cluj (~130km) and I had passengers with me to pass the time in conversation.

Arriving at Rosia Montana is mostly uneventful. We were suddenly there – another Romanian village. The main and most noticeable change are the brainwashing banners hung by the gold mining company describing the benefits to the locals.

The event is organized and operated by volunteers. This was my first time attending such an event and I was really impressed. There is a headquarters area where there is a large campground and kitchen that feeds over 300 people (volunteers and guests) 3 times a day (though food is not cooked on rocket stoves but on very wasteful fires).

From what I understood the event was originally entertainment-based (mostly music concerts) that was intended to draw youth to the place. It seems to be maturing to something more purposeful with plenty of sessions on many social subjects (mostly flavored with activism). Activities take place in many locations.

I felt welcome but not belonging. The food was really good and offered me plenty of support given how outside-my-element I was.

The rocket stove session drew quite an audience and I can only hope that many more small cooking rocket stoves are now built and working.

The first Yoga session drew a small group ~10 people. The second was much larger ~30 people. Both were held in an unsupportive space: outdoors, on a rugged hilltop, in the sun, with plenty of sound from all over the place. The second session, out of respect for those who attended the first, was faster – enabling the newcomers to sort-of catch up and then to move on. It was, for me, a magical session. People were attentive and put in good effort. When it was over I felt that the practice had isolated the hilltop from the surrounding busy-ness and transformed it into an island of peace.

I can say much more about the event, the place, the people … but I don’t feel like doing it and don’t feel it is valuable. But I do want to make a note of something about the overall karma.

I have great respect for the people who make this event possible. It takes huge commitment and tons of work to make it happen. Yet I have my doubts about the long-term effects of confrontational attitude that dominates the event.

The most poignant example in my mind is the smoking. People there smoke a lot and its young people – they are aware and know what smoking does – and yet they smoke … a lot. They smoke openly in the faces of non-smokers and they do so everywhere. And I wondered why do they think that it is OK for them to destroy their (and others’)lungs and that it is NOT OK for the mining company to want to destroy a mountain (interestingly: the lung destruction is already happening while the mountain is still unharmed). In my mind there a difference mostly  in scale. Both represent an attitude of destruction towards nature.

It is easier and satisfying to turn against an outside enemy then to look inside. But I believe that actions motivated by such perceptions have limited effect and are likely to have undesired consequences.

I wondered quite a bit about taking action with the gold-mining company rather than against it. I realize it sounds like a futile effort but I believe that in the long term it may be a valuable one. I believe that the “us and them” mentality is wrong (incomplete, misinformed, immature, etc.). I believe that for both individual and social growth there needs to be continued movement toward a “we” mentality. I am cofident that moving in that direction will take a very different kind of effort (then the kind required to produce the event) and cause an expansion of awareness. Maybe pursuing a connection with the gold mining company will cause many of the young people involved to quit smoking? who knows.

Since my visit to Rosia Montana there have been large and peaceful protests in Romania. It seems that the movement (which has many fronts) has been successful (at least temporarily) in stalling the daft destructive (on so many levels) act of gold-mining (despite a threatened undergound hunger strike by a whopping 33 miners who, of course, support mining).


An interesting and rare historical perspective on Rosia Montana.

Evidence That EarthShips Do Not Work in Europe

That title isn’t quite fair because it isn’t exactly true. But given the hype around Earthships I felt it is a deserved.

This short post was prompted by a longer article where the author inquires into the performance of Earthships in Europe. He raises exactly the same questions I encountered in my research. He made an effort to reach out to known Earthship projects in Europe to inquire about their performance and this is what I read between the lines:

  • There are very few Earthships in Europe.
  • Most European Earthships do not have permanent residents (if at all, cats do not count).
  • There is very little information on performance.
  • From what little information there is, it seems there are severe performance issues.
  • There is very little sense of joy from all this.

The author is less blunt then me. I’ve written before that I think the Earthship “formula” is wrong for a cold and moist European climate. I also feel that the knowledge around Earthships is incomplete because I did not come across any information on why they are designed they way they are,why they work where they do and why they do not work in the European climate.

I did however find the Passive Annual Heat Storage book where (1) I finally found explanations on how underground houses behave and (b) answers to all the questions presented in the linked article and then some.

Five Dead Ducks

This post on my personal blog was posted there because it felt to me more personal than informational. However it does have some practical information on our flock and electric fence and what not … so you may want to check it out.

Monday - September 2, 2013

Fall is arriving. This morning at 09:30 the car ambient thermometer registered 13.5c … had to put two more layers when I went outside. Sudden change.

Another round of winter preserves is just around the corner – should get started within a week or two. Drying is already well on the way (though becoming trickier as sunshine becomes less predictable – I’ve already lost a batch of prunes). Zakuska recipies are ready and pickling is just about ready to go.

It is now a recurring theme that at this time of year our exchange with Ildi & Levente changes from money into goods … and it is so pleasant  … for both sides. We are stocked up with honey for the winter (still not taking from our own hives) and hopefully in the coming weeks most of the veggies for Zakuska will come from them too.

I’ve improvised a shelter for wood with a large plastic sheet – two corners ties to the garage, one to a tree and a fourth to a metal post I put in the ground. It has a slope to drain water away and will hopefully hold out to the snows. I’m jut finishing cutting up for storage (in said improvised shelter) the wood from last! year. We should have plenty for this winter and then some left over. This year the wood will also be better seasoned (drier) so hopefully we will need even less. If time and money will allow it we may buy another batch this year to set aside for longer drying … so we would be set for 3 or 4 years with wood. The house porch is also fairly filled with wood that has been further cut (to rocket stove size pieces) in spring … I’ll cut some more in the coming months so most of the cutting for winter is or soon will be done.

Other then the Zakuska which can be an intense 2 weeks … this fall promises to continue to be mellow and relaxed.

As the temperatures are dropping I seem to be spending more time outdoors. Though I tend not to go outside unless the solar hot water boiler is hot or getting hot … my rule “if there aint hot water at the end of a day I aint gettin’ dirty” 🙂

I like this period of transition.

 

Fanfest 2013

For the past few years (I think 5, though I am not sure) there has been a summer event called FanFest in a place called Rosia Montana (~130km from Cluj Napoca). Rosia Montana is an area rich with gold and has attracted the attentions of greedy corporations who together with corrupted & ignorant Romanian governance have been working relentlessly to start mining operations that would have destructive consequences not just for Rosia Montana but the entire western area of Transylvania. I don’t know enough about the details of this long battle but my values put me on the side of nature.

A few weeks ago the organizers of FanFest invited to me come to the event and represent Cutia Taranului at a debate on social activism. I am a bit wary of such events since travelling, camping, festivaling and what not … are not in my nature. After a few days of consideration and a kind promise by the organizers that they would arrange accommodations (a place to sleep and food to eat) for me I opted to go.

300x250FanFest2013

Shortly after that I realized that if I am already there why not make the most of it? So it look like I will be quite busy at Rosia Montana:

  • I will be participating in the social activism debate.
  • I will be giving two “introduction to Yoga” workshops (Friday & Saturday).
  • I will be giving a workshop on how to build a 16 brick rocket stove and through it introducing the core concepts of rocket-stoves.

So I look forward to seeing you there, and if you are a reader of this blog please do come and say hello.

 

Australian Earthship Build Video

Dan contacted me and sent me this video of an Earthship built in Australia. The video includes image sequences that are packed with information. If I find any more information on this build with still pictures and words I will update this post with it.

Sheep Milking

After the spring sale of the young sheep the rest are grazing all around the place. They have a fenced roundup area which has to be moved periodically so that the ground does not get overcome with their urine and manure (just the right amount means it will flourish like crazy next year) … and they moved it right next to our place so one evening I went out to see their milking … it’s done twice a day 6am and 6pm. First the sheep are brough into the fenced area:

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The guy carrying the stick is the shepherd (Choban in Romanian). He seems slightly drunk most of the day and very drunk at other parts of the day. This is what he does. He gets paid per season (essentially a year, though he typically has the winter months “off”) per head.

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There are still a few suckling youngsters in the herd:P1060419

The milking process is efficiently executed using a smaller separate enclosure. They try to herd into it only those sheep that need to be milked though a few others slip in too and skipped (it is important not to miss any of those that do need to be milked). Ricky always gets very excited when sheep are herded and always wants in on the action … though not always useful:

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Once all the sheep-to-be-milked have been collected into the separate fenced area it is closed offP1060425

And then their only way out is through the milking station which stands between them and “freedom”P1060426

Hand are washed (the two guys on the right are the owners of the herd and the one on the left is the shepherd)P1060428

And the sheep start flowing through. Notice that the shepherd  is taking his time … he will start after the other two and his milking pot will be filled when the other two are only half full … he’s the professional in the groupP1060430

You have to be alert, the sheep are happy to just run through to their freedom without being milked. They are usually caught by the tale or a hind legP1060432

And milked. There’s isn’t much milk in a sheep … they milk ~130 sheep and will have a yield of about 40-50 liters total … these are grass-and-weeds-fed-only animals. I asked but my Romanian is not good enough to receive an explanation of the purpose of the cup hanging in the milking pot.P1060434

On the other side of the wall the sheep are so crowded that they are practially lined up to pass through

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Though there is a guy with a stick to prod and remind them and keep them packed against the two-passages. He can be (too!) fierce.

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And all three are in full-milking modeP1060441

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And slowly the herd flows from the smaller enclosure to the larger one (which is wide open … yet the sheep stay inside).P1060449

Clean shoes are awaiting their ownerP1060451

Knees are used to keep keen sheep from passing through before they are invited in.P1060453

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Beer is VERY big in Romanian villages … almost everybody drinks .. alotP1060459

But when you are the guy with the stick … you have to stay on the job otherwiseP1060460

When the milking pots are filled the process is paused and the milk is transferred into large (25 liter) aluminum containers

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And the guy with the stick gets “busy” as fewer sheep are left:

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And this happens twice a day

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Hands are washed   P1060477

The pots are also washed and the milky-water is given to the dogs who happily make it disappear really fastP1060479

Some males showing off malesP1060480

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The “structure” in the background is the “hut” in which the shepherd lives.P1060487

And this his dinner:P1060490

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Some of the milk goes to personal consumption (including ours) and the rest is sold (via collection trucks) to one of the large national dairy-producers. There are other flocks whos milk is processed into cheese products. The milk containers fit perfectly into the trunk of an old Dacia … as if its trunk was designed FOR the milk containers. The Dacia needs to push-(as in by people)-started

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Unlike horses and carriages (true 4×4) which for the most part start very reliably P1060495