Sunday, March 16, 2008

Observation of nature

Us permaculturalists are trained observers of nature.  (It's true y'know.)  Here is a lobular pattern I saw in the melting of a south-facing snowbank.  It is forming cup-shaped cavities, many with overhangs.  I think these are suntraps developing by focusing the light.

Maybe one of you natural building mavens could exploit this for making warm places for dwellings.  Building an earthen suntrap might be a good compromise short of full earth-sheltering.

Here is another pattern I saw on a north-facing deck.  See how the snow has melted above the spaces between the planks, forming tunnels.  I don't have a use for this one yet.

Cottage updates:

I want to speak again about the comfiness of this place temperature-wise.  My old house used to cool off pretty much instantly, in spite of my replacing all the windows and the month I spent crawling around in the attic fiberglass trying to seal it up.  This place is much more stable and has great ability to ride through a day or two cold snap, even with the hurricanes blowing in around the window frames.  Redbeard swears he's gonna fix that this summer, which should make things even better.  The in-floor heat is also a big plus.  I've lived in places with cold floors and they are not nice.  

The population of ants has increased, they cruise my kitchen cutting board regularly.  So far I've just been shooing them away.  Home remedies people have suggested are putting a line of salt or chalk all the way around the house on the inside.  In my old house I used to put out the ant baits.  These seemed to work but then the ants would be back next year, so I started to suspect they went away on their own and the poison had nothing to do with it.  I'm hoping that if I keep the kitchen clean to where they don't find anything to eat, they will give up.

The cob-crete floor of the greenhouse is definitely unstable.  Whenever you sweep it more of the surface comes off, and it kicks up a cloud of fine dust.  I got more mats to protect the surface.  I'm trying to use the greenhouse entrance mainly, because there is more room to take your shoes off, and a step up into the house.  Now that the snow is melting, the lifeless and debris-strewn sand around the place is exposed and wants more than anything to get tracked into the house.  The sand is very abrasive and I don't want it to damage the cob floor inside, which I think I've mentioned before, is not super tough.  Last week I noticed it was getting kind of blotchy, from which I surmised it was dirty.  It's clearly too rough to sponge-mop so I wet-mopped it with water and a big ole rag mop.  This made it more uniform in color, which pleased me.

On the pooper front, the installation of the fancy nimbus 2000 composting toilet is taking about thirty times as long as Pigpen's original estimate.  (Redbeard got called away urgently to work on preventing the collapse of one of the other buildings on campus.)  The snow ramp which I was using to wheel the bucket to the top of the outside compost heap has melted to the point of uselessness, so I am down to heaving it over the rim by main strength, which is quite a workout.  You young sustainable millennials may not understand, but us fatsos from the 20th century prefer to work in front of computer screens all day and have our workouts not accomplish anything useful, but take place in stylishly-appointed health clubs where the eye candy is better, and to which we drive, in our stylishly-appointed cars.  Shut up, I swear its true, you had to be there.

On the food-miles front, I have so far utterly failed to give up coffee, chocolate, Splenda, or caffeine-free diet Dr. Pepper.  I would buy this stuff if it came from Mars.  At this point I can't imagine how much it would have to cost before I thought twice about not buying it.

On the culinary front, my first attempt to pan-fry fish did not go well.  They wanted it coated with flour; I substituted pancake mix.  It did turn a lovely golden-brown color, but every bit of it stuck to the pan, real hard, and not to the fish.  I think the problem was the fish was not completely thawed?

Friday, March 14, 2008

March Madness

Well I haven't blogged too much as I'm working on Permaculture design for the cottage and adjacent grounds, which is a marvelous opportunity.  More on this in the next post or the one after.

The linseed oil smell from the floor is nearly gone.  I had a pancake breakfast last weekend, Iditarhoda was there, and the Skipper and Kimpossible (KP for short) came over from The Island (they are nearly off the grid out there.)  They said they could smell it still when they walked in but I really don't notice it anymore.  So it took like a month and a half to dissipate.

The population of those teensy pepper-grain flies is definitely on the increase as the meltdown has begun.  I see a lot of them around the windows, which makes me think they live in the straw bales.  Maybe they're just attracted to the light.  I also see them stuck to light bulbs.  They are hard to notice unless they're on something white like that.  Also there are some small ants crawling about my desk here.  I don't think this house has enough spiders.  My old house had many extremely prosperous ones.  

That noise from the rubber roof membrane flipping up in the wind is much more annoying now that the snow has melted off the roof.  It used to be kind of a heavy thump, but now it is more of a sharp slap.  It occurs completely at random and is somewhat keeping me up at night.

The new Phoenix composting toilet system came; Pigpen and Redbeard have been working on putting it together this week.  Just in time too: my snow ramp to the top of the outside bin is melting - there is now a two foot gap at the top and hardly any place to stand to dump the Party Pooper.

I've never before been both self-employed and living and working in the same place.  This is presenting quite a time management challenge.  It's a good thing I don't have cable TV anymore.  I'm in the habit of using a bound notebook and I've started noting down the times when I switch from one thing to another, but I haven't tried to hold a rigorous schedule.  The Blind Man was out here installing the new blinds, and he asks "how do you stay motivated to work instead of going up there and playing that guitar?"  And I'm like it helps that I have to climb a ladder to it.  But the kitchen's right there all the time:  "Mmmm is it lunch time yet?  Oh heck yeah I guess so."  There's also a sort of cabin fever effect.  When you commute, home can be like a sanctuary you go back to.  When you're halfway in the cocoon all the time it makes you want to get out.  

Note to self:  complain about the overenthusiastic snow removal on campus.  The way it is being done with the Cat is very disturbing to the ground.  This is a bad habit to get into.  If we ever get any plants to grow in this cropped-out sand and gravel we must let their tender roots overwinter in peace.

I struggled some days recently trying to figure out how to keep the books for my little sole proprietorship here, and in particular how to use Quickbooks to do it (I had downloaded the free version, as Missus Universe suggested.)  I was baffled at first and considered dumping it and making my own spreadsheets, but I'm understanding it better now.  I found Keeping the Books by Linda Pinson to be very helpful.  Also QB itself was teaching me, not so much from the help file but by how it worked, like what would show up on the reports.  Also I would be like, maybe I want to do this.  And the little dialog box would come up and say ah, no, you don't want to do that.  I also finally looked at the tax form, as Kimpossible suggested, and that also shed some light on why QB was set up the way it was.  I can hardly wait to show Worthington my first quarter P&L statement!

So I've been learning more how to cook.  I used to subsist almost entirely on Swanson and Wealthy Choice TV dinners which I would buy on half-price blowout special.  My sustainability heros KP and the The Skipper have influenced me on the home cooking.  They are super picky organic vegetarians.  I've had some success with following recipes as if they were chem lab experiments, now I'm trying to get creative.  So for you loyal readers who made it through the accounting paragraph, I have a special treat - a nacho recipe I call Not'Cho Daddy's Nachos.  But first I've got to tell you this little story.  The Skipper was telling me how much our pal Wiiz and his friends are into March Madness - they take a week off work and go in the living room with twelve-packs.  In the spirit of the season then, here it is:

Not'Cho Daddy's Nachos

Restaurant Style Blue Corn Chips
Smoked sausage, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces
Shredded Cojack cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro
Black bean and corn salsa, medium hot

Apply to platter roughly in the above order, nuke on medium high until cheese melts.  
Serve with an unsustainably indulgent aluminum can of DDP.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Comfy at -28 F

Wow, it got really cold last night.  My thermometer said -28 F at sunrise.  Inside it was a comfy 68.  In the greenhouse, low and outside was right at freezing and high and inside was 40.  The 5 kW infloor heat has been running continuously and has also been circulating in the greenhouse floor.  A nonfreezing greenhouse is a good thing.  

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Little Things

  • I think I've mentioned about the thumping noise when the wind blows, from the tail of the rubber roof membrane flipping up.  There is another noise from the roof when the wind blows, it's a high-pitched crackling sound, like crumpling a doritos bag.  I think its either the styrofoam flexing or maybe something to do with whatever that stuff is that was sprayed on the ceiling.  Very occasionally there is a startling scraping or swooshing noise, which I think is poltergeists pushing snow off the roof.
  • My desk is pushed right against the mud plaster wall downstairs.  Every half hour or so, a teensy little piece falls off.  I can hear them clink as they hit the top of my backup drive.  Fancy said it might be mice in the straw bales, but I don't hear anything else.  It seems to be less frequent now that the temperature is more stable inside.  The linseed oil smell is just about gone now, and I'm not ventilating with cold outside air.
  • There are a bunch of tiny little bugs around, about the size of pepper grains.  These seem to be increasing.  Some of them can fly.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Hating straw bale

So I've been chatting with Redbeard and Mr. Universe about straw bale construction.  They're like, "we don't think we like it any more."  I'm like, "why not?"  Composite reply:
  • If it gets wet, even once, you're screwed.
  • Very difficult to air-seal any butt joint, such as to a post or window buck.  We're kind of stymied here.
  • Dimensional instability - sagging and settling opening gaps.
  • Labor-intensive construction method.*

Redbeard's quite concerned about the air sealing of this cottage.  I have one half-assessed data point to back him up.  Thursday-Friday the inside temperature held pretty steady at 70 F with the 17000 Btu backup heater running flat out.  The outside temp was (I think) pretty steady around 20 F.  In steady state:

Q = U*A*(Tin-Tout)

17000 Btu/h = U*A*(70F-20F)

UA = 17000/50 Btu/hF

A=Awall+Aroof=2*(18*12+43*12) + 18*43=1464+774=2238 ft^2

U = 17000/(50*2238) = 0.152 Btu/hft2

R = 1/U = 6.6 hft2/Btu

R 6.6 seems pretty bad for a cottage with nominally R 100 walls and ceiling.  I think it is an indication of the awesome power of air infiltration to undermine efforts at super-insulation.  This is admittedly a crude calculation on a shallow database.  If you assume for example that half the heater power was going into the ground, you could justify R 13 for the above-grade structure.  La-de-da.

That R 6.6 is however, about three times better than the long term average R-value which Kimpossible and I came up with for Powerpole's more conventional type of house, based on several years of propane bills.  His nominally R 13-19 sort of house was effectively about an R 2.2.

*Postscript:  Your correspondent has struggled to understand why some people in the sustainability movement are so positive on labor-intensity.  To me it seemed like an obvious step backward.  My current understanding is that labor-intensive approaches make sense if your economy is bad and there is a lot of unemployment, such as in a lot of the third world and potentially in the first world, post-gridcrash.

Halting progress towards sustainability

  • I decided to give up bananas (which I like very much) because they have too many food miles to get to Minnesota.
  • I drove my SUV three hundred miles to a Permaculture meeting.  (What, what, did I say something funny?)
  • I've been walking to the little groceries in town instead of driving down to Cub in Brainerd, even though Cub has a lot better selection of organic stuff.  It occurred to me that Milk, Eggs, and Bread are usually near the top of the grocery list, and I should try to find local sources.  I do have a local Egg source which Iditarhoda told me about.  I'll check on this but I think it's called John and Theresa's farm on County Road 2.  There is a tiny sign "Eggs $1 dozen".  I stopped by today.  There was a gray cat sitting on the porch railing.  It fell in love with me right away. (This often happens to me.  I think cats can sense cat-people.)  In the one minute it took to buy the eggs, it had both front paws on my chest.  It followed me halfway out to the car.  

This house is too electric.

Right now this house is extremely dependent on electricity.  This is not very resilient.  Grid go down, me gotta leave town.  It would be a good idea over time to work on delectrifying it.  My take on its current situation:

Derogated electric uses:
  • Backup space heat
  • Septic line de-icing cable
  • Domestic water heat
  • Well pump
  • Dryer
  • Stove
Acceptable electric uses:
  • Hydronic circulation pump
  • Washer
  • Mood lighting
  • DJ sound system, disco ball
  • Internet, Tivo
  • Blender
  • Fridge
  • Microwave
  • Toaster
  • Coffeepot
The reason this place ended up so electric, I surmise, is the usual one - haste.  It was the quickest way to grab stuff off the shelf and get it functioning.  

The space heat and water heat situation should be improved when Redbeard gets the solar water heat hooked up in April (although now I think about it he did not say which April.)  We hope to abandon the too-shallow septic line as Pigpen gets some greywater wizardry in place.

Compost Toilet Update/Harangue

Well the Party Pooper System is working out pretty okay as an interim solution.  The Minnesada snow ramp consolidated after only a day and it wasn't hard to drag the bin up it.  The wood pellet horse bedding worked great for absorbency.  Most of it came out dry even though the bin was 2/3 full from the housewarming party and the day after.  (2/3 full is probably the practical limit for convenience of emptying.)  I had put in a whole 30-lb sack of pellets which filled the bin about 5 inches deep on the bottom, up to the wheel wells.  And I didn't have any more.  So at 6 pm Sunday, after emptying the bin, I called up The Skipper...

M.E.:  "Hey Skipper, can I have some of your sawdust?"
S.: "...What, like, now?"
M.E.: "Uh, yeah, now would be good."
S.: "...Um, doesn't HUG have some huge amount of it?"
M.E.:  "I don't like their sawdust, it's coarse and damp.  Yours is dry."
S.: "Well, okay, but it's self-serve, check the garage."
M.E.: "Thanks much!"

Fortunately his hound dogs remembered me and didn't try to eat me, much.  Well the bag I grabbed turned out to be more in the nature of fine shavings than dust, but it was dry.  I put a few inches in the bottom to start with and mixed the rest in with the damp stuff I had.  When I emptied the bin again after a week, the bottom layer was more damp but there was no excess liquid.  This third time I've started with half a bag of the wood pellets.

N.B.: Its pretty important that the top of the bin comes up very close under the platform - about as far as a toilet seat is above the rim of a regular toilet and for the same reason.   This requires some adjustment yet; I'm still shimming with planks which is yet another nuisance.

* * *

Thanks to commentator Laura for the link.  It looks like the urine diverter would work for men & women?

* * *

I've chatted with Pigpen, Miss Twiggy, The Skipper, and Mr. Universe, trying to explain why I think the bucket system is dumb even if you can make it mostly not-gross.  Let me try and lay this out:

Firstly, like I said before, clearly the reason people resort to buckets when taking up composting toiletry is that almost no existing bathrooms were built to accommodate the large bin necessary for in-place composting - thus the resort to collection and relocation.  Where I'm coming out on this is, using the toilet is something you do routinely, every day, twice a day.  This should be an efficient, low-overhead operation.  There's no excuse for the chronic disorganization of routine operations.  Now, if you want to be studiously and self-consciously Ascetic or Eastern about life, you know, "chop wood, pour water," that's fine, knock yourself out, but I'm saying I'm a Western Permaculturalist and I've got better things to do.  I don't need another firewood-stacking job, especially when it's hucking out buckets of poodust.  See what I'm saying?  

So, I argue the bucket system with manual relocation is too inefficient for such a routine operation, and relocation outside is particularly silly and irritating in midwinter Minnesota.  It's really just one step up from squatting outside in the snowbank.  (Hi Bear, hi Blue, 'tsup guys?) That said, I would also argue against going the other way to some kind of space-age extreme.  Right now I don't see the need for digital micro-controllers and internet monitoring for this kind of thing.  My sense is that some kind of hand-crank is about the right level of technology for this task.  

Pigpen is my favorite friend this week - he got clearance to order a real composting toilet for evaluation, brought a big bin of sawdust into the greenhouse, and fixed my leaky sink.  Strong work, bud.