Saturday, June 6, 2009

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Your correspondent's adventures continue at

Saturday, January 31, 2009


As of Jan 31, the Minnesota Econaut project is cancelled, due to um, lack of alignment with the mission of Happy Dancing Turtle.  I would like to thank Happy Dancing Turtle for the opportunity to do a permaculture design for this cottage, and especially for their support of implementing the first phases of it.  (Rumor has it that in permaculture circles, a lot more gets designed than implemented.)  

The solar water heat system is moving toward completion.  The plant bed system for wastewater processing is under construction in the green house.

It's the season for planning what to do for the coming growing season.  My recommendations would be as follows, assuming the goals from last year are still current.  Let's review them:

Campus-Wide Overall Purposes of Landscaping and Gardening:
Food production, long term, fruit trees etc - want to see focus here.
Food production, short term, just to eat right away.
Soil building
Water management
Experimentation and research - proof of Permaculture or other types of creation of healthy soils
Cut down on dust

If it were up to me, I would continue with the basic plan of establishing an edible forest garden on the 3/4 acre L-shaped area to the west and south. Actually I was going for a savannah mimic which is more open.  

Priorities for the outside:

1. Plant more nut trees
The original plan called for several nuclei of nut pines, oaks, butternut etc, and plum trees on the north side of the south berm.

2. Annual garden along path
The pathway should be extended farther towards the parking area and another fork towards the buildings to the north. The primary annual garden area should be along these paths. These garden areas need to be fenced for deer protection. It might be a good idea to angle the path more to the east so as to run along the berm we constructed in the fall to insulate the septic line. It's currently thickly mulched with wheat straw. If it was top-dressed with compost and good dirt it might make a very good garden area. Sort of a hugelkultur. (The most productive area of the west field was an edge where straw and composted horse manure were churned together by a caterpillar track. Big turnips.)

3. Stabilize and beautify ground adjacent to cottage
Mix some super-soil into the ground within 10 feet of the cottage and seed it with clover and wildflowers. This ground is on top of the horizontal frost skirt. The soil is poor and shallow and very subject to wind and water erosion. (The area to the west of the front door is reserved for a constructed wetland for a greywater processing experiment.)

Here is a survey of areas near the cottage which could maybe use some soil amendment such as your supersoil or composted manure. Most of them are sandy and prone to wind and water erosion. I had good luck getting some clover established last year in a small patch of pure sand, by mixing a couple of inches of supersoil into the top. I think it would be a good idea to move the summer parking area for the cottage back out to the original trailer parking area, and reclaim the entire trailer site (assuming its not being built on this year.)

4. Let the west and south field continue their soil building
They could use more nitrogen-fixing plants (I have a list.) Nitrogen-fixers require full sun, these areas are open and poor in nitrogen, so it's the right time for it succession-wise. The clover got a pretty good foothold last season. The soil should be tested again around May 20-27.

5. Crater touch-up
A lot of the area on the north is rutted and lumpy, I was thinking about dragging it with the bedspring so that it could be mowed. It might be a good idea to drag and overseed the crater with clover mix, give the ragweed some competition.

6. Irrigation tank
The water tower should be upgraded to a true rain barrel by installation of a gutter and first-flush rejecting contraption on the north edge of the roof. (It is conveniently located for watering the aforementioned garden areas to the east.)

7. Septic line
Sensor data indicates the freeze protection on the septic line (provided by the berm, mulch, snow cover, and 2 kWh/day heaters) is maybe just adequate. If any more digging is needed it should be done very early in the season so that plant cover can be reestablished.

8. Cob the soffits

9. The wood behind the solar collectors could maybe use some protection.
It's just bare plywood, I don't know how you'd paint or side it with the collectors up there already.

Priorities for the inside:

Reconfigure upstairs for more usable space.
I'd put a ceiling over the kitchen, expand the two upstairs rooms towards the middle, and give them both doors. The loft bridge would turn into a hallway right against the south wall where book cases could be placed. The stairs probably stay about where they are but need to be widened and not so steep.

Reduce the electric dependence of the cottage
or at least giving it a low-power mode. I believe there is a plan to add a solar electric system to the cottage but this should be accompanied by a load reduction plan. The nearly-completed solar heat system goes a long way toward this. The next step would be to change out the electric stove for gas. It could use a good recirculating range hood with carbon filter also.
There is a lot of other stuff that could be done. I still like the idea of

an upstairs water tank for passive shower capability,
and of

rigging up some way to use the outside cold for refrigeration.

It would still be a good idea to do a blower door test and tighten up the air leaks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Operation Biofilter

Well it finally cooled off a little, sheesh, I was wondering when that was gonna happen.  The air is pretty soft with any kind of positive double-digit Fahrenheit temperature.  This week it's mostly subzero which has a nice crispy bite to it.  Crunchy snow.  When the sun's out and there's no wind -20 really isn't that bad.  Sun down and wind up, though, you'll be like, Tommy Lee Jones what planet is this?  Where's my space suit?

Well, with Phase Drainback of the Solar Water Heat Project nigh complete, the next project for the cottage greenhouse is plant beds for tertiary treatment of the "overflow" from the compost toilet bin.  This is an upgrade over the current method of dealing with the overflow, that is, hucking it out into the yard.

The next phase of the Solar Water Heat system is hooking the solar tanks up to the domestic water heater and the radiant floor system.  Phase Heat Me, if you will.

I had a dream about it last night.  In the dream I tucked fifty benjamins under my pillow at night and waited for the Sugar Plumber Fairy to show up.  

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dear solar water heat industry

I think it's fair to say that on the solar electric (photovoltaic) side of things, that industry has its act together for grid-tied systems without battery backup, in that you can buy the panels, and one electronic magic box, and that's about it.  From my point of view these systems aren't really satisfactory because if the grid goes down you don't have power, no matter how sunny it is out.

I was working on planning a grid-tied battery-backup system for myself.  This was getting a bit complicated as there are several major components interconnected with various safety devices.  These are kitted in different ways and I was trying to figure out what was the most cost-effective combination and how much of the work I wanted to do myself.  It all became moot when I had to sell my PV panels to pay an insurance bill, ha ha, ain't that the oughts for ya.  

Anyway I was pleased to see that the solar electric industry is getting its act together on grid-tied battery-backup.  Outback has introduced a new product called SmartRE, which is the do-everything magic box, just add PV array and batteries.  It won't be available until the second quarter of this year.

On the solar water heat front, I think the industry has its act together on solar for domestic hot water.  You can buy a package.  Not so for domestic hot water plus hydronic space heat.  The solar loop part seems to be mostly figured out, drainback is the way to go.  But they do not really know how to size the storage tanks.  There is disagreement on system architecture - it seems there must be an anti-scald thermostatic mixing valve between the solar storage and the domestic hot water, but it's not clear whether the water for space heating should be the mixed water or the full-temperature storage water.  Also, as far as I know there isn't a controller smart and flexible enough to control this kind of system.  At the cottage here the system will have three pumps and three controllers to make it work.  The cost of these controllers adds up.  The installation requires a lot of skilled labor.  I wouldn't want to do another one the way we did the HDT cottage, with one contractor doing the solar loop and another for the rest of it.  It would be better to offer the whole thing as an integrated system.

Just to complete the system is costing about $14000.  Throw in what it must have cost to put in the solar panels and the radiant floor tubing  and I would bet you're up to $30000-40000.  I think the Passive House people are right, insulation and air-sealing are a cheaper way to solve the heating problem.  Unless the solar hydronic space heat industry gets its act together with slick package systems, I think in the future it will be a small, high-end niche business.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ditzy gizmotronics

Lately I've experienced a rash of failures in basic electrical equipment which really ought to be bulletproof at this point in history:
  • The Honeywell Winter Watchman line voltage thermostat locked on and overheated the root cellar after I changed the light bulb.  The thing rattles a little when you shake it and it may be sensitive to the angle at which it's resting.
  • One of the two Stanley Heavy Duty outdoor timers which are running the deicing cables in the septic line keeps forgetting its programming.  It's never really worked.
  • The compost bin vent fan quit.  I suspect the power pack.  It's putting out 24v and may have fried the fan.
These may be examples of quality fade.  That is when your overseas supplier cuts one percent cost out of the product every week until the product life drops to zero (one of the unintended consequences of globalization.)  Here's a good article about it.  

A lot of the commentary in the media these days assumes economic growth will soon be back on track, led by the developing world (BRIC.) This is commonly taken as an independent variable, an exogenous driving function. I don't know about Brazil or India but in the case of China this is clearly turning out not to be true. Because their growth was export-driven and those purchases were debt-financed, they were living in the same house of cards as us, next room over. Lately I've been noticing other articles about troubles in China:

Monday, December 15, 2008


So it got a little stormy there over the weekend, snowed about a foot.  I slept in Sunday morning so it was about 10 am by the time I noticed the potato emergency - the wind had blown the lid off my root cellar and the wireless thermometer was reading 8 F.  Supposedly the flavor of raw potatoes changes if they freeze. I brought them inside and thought "I'd better go ahead and cook some of these up,"  so I made a big batch of garlic mashed potatoes.  I decided to try using the pressure cooker, but that ended up taking even longer than boiling them.  It was almost an hour before it even got up to pressure, and then there was the cool-down time.  I can't tell for sure about the flavor change because I accidentally added way too much salt, like tablespoons instead of teaspoons.

Mostly the potatoes still seemed okay after they warmed up, I mean they didn't turn to mush or anything, so I put the whole thing back together today.  I changed the warmer to a 50-watt rough-service bulb (from 25 w), and put a rock on top of the lid.

It was clear and sunny today.  In the morning we had those whatayacallem, sun dogs or icebows on either side of the sun.  I went for a walk down the grocery store to test my winter wear.  It was about -10 F with a wind chill of liquid nitrogen.  The bike shop never did call back about the studded snow tires but I do have the neoprene face mask, and I thought the conditions might be good for a sort of dry run with a view to winter cycling.   I had two layers on my legs, three on my arms, and four on my chest.  From head to toe my kit was:

Blaze orange "Radar" cap
Positive mental attitude
Neoprene face mask
Long-sleeve flannel shirt
Polyester fleece sweater
Down vest
Short "redcap's" jacket
Polartec gloves
Heavy weight long johns
"Relaxed fit" jeans
Medium weight wool socks
Cross trainers

The idea was to try and stay warm enough while keeping arms, legs, and peripheral vision free. The "radar" cap is nice because it covers your ears and shades your eyes.   This outfit was more or less okay for my two-mile walk, but I could have used one more layer on the legs, like a pair of sweatpants.  (Also for cycling my feet would get a lot colder and I would have needed insulated boots and maybe electric socks.)

So I walked into the grocery with my black face mask and canvas bag, and Mr. Fellow Customer was like, "is this a stick-up?"  No, just heading for the dairy case there.

But that's not the funny part.  The funny part is, technically it's not even winter yet.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Root cellar energy use

I just checked the wattmeter on my outside aboveground root cellar, which is heated with a 25 watt bulb controlled by a thermostat set for 40 degrees.

It has used 11.75 kilowatt hours over 725 hours (30 days), or 16.2 watts on average (55.3 Btu/hour).   During this period the average outside temperature was 21.4 F, so the average temperature difference inside-to-outside was about 20 F.  The heat loss coefficient "UA" of the box is therefore about 55.3/20 = 2.76 Btu/h-F.

If I calculate a U value based on the outside surface area of the box, U=UA/A = 2.76/150 ft2 = 18.4e-3.  The R value is 1/U = 54 in English units (h*ft2*F/Btu.)  This is pretty close to the nominal R value of the SIP panels I made it out of.