Monday, April 28, 2008

This appears to be the mother ship of all peak oil web sites.  They cover all the related issues - climate, food & agriculture, transportation, housing, waste etc.  They have a most excellent primer, and news and perspective from all over the world.

Investment advice - sell gold buy lead (acid batteries)

As is, this cottage quickly becomes uninhabitable if the grid goes down. To celebrate Energy Independence Week this July 4, I want to be able to keep the place livable for a week off the grid, even if at a somewhat reduced lifestyle. I propose to do this with a battery-based solar electric and/or wind power system. I'll be dipping into my savings to buy it.

My budget is $5000. I know that the going rate for solar electric is about $10/watt installed, so I can afford about a 500-peak-watt system.

I seem to recall that the sunlight around here is the equivalent of about 5 peak-sun hours per day, so the system would produce at most 2500 watt-hours per day, or 75 kilowatt hours per month.

The average US household usage is ten times that, like 600-1000 kilowatt hours per month. So I have to reduce from that by 90%. People do this all the time for fun, it's called "camping." As camping goes, summer camping at home ought not to be too bad. In the case of this cottage, it helps a tremendous amount that a solar hot water system is already planned and partially completed. I think there's still an even chance Redbeard can get it built by the end of June. If only you can take a hot shower, you can put up with a lot of other stuff.

Energy Independence Week is only a stepping stone to Energy Independence Life. Over time it should be possible to increase efficiency and thereby improve quality of life (to more comfortable camping.) But we won't learn how unless we try.

To see what you can do with your 75 kWh per month, you do load analysis. I eliminated all forms of electric heat before I even started (water heater, dryer, oven, toaster, microwave, coffeepot.) After that, priority goes to any form of pumping, and the fridge. After that, the washer and other toys. Here is what I came up with, listed by energy use, highest first. Thanks to RREAL for the analysis format.


Amps (peak)











Hydronic Pump












Well pump
























Well controller






Compost vent fan






Toilet pump












Phone chrg.






Dryer (air fluff)












Yap, I'm over budget, and I've only got 20 watts of LED light and a half hour of TV a day. Notice that the fridge takes half the energy budget just by itself. Now ask yourself, what sense does it make to spend 500 kilowatt hours a year running a fridge in Minnesota, which has frost 200 days a year? I'll bet I could cut that in half by running a pair of air hoses from the inside of the fridge to the outside of the house.

The table above is sort an all-season analysis. In July I shouldn't need quite as much hydronic pumping. For the week I'm basically planning to cook outside on wood or charcoal.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Warning!! Bathroom humor

The final installation of the composting toilet system, a Pigpen-Redbeard joint venture, was marked by much yukking it up betweenst these forty- and fifty- somethings going on eleven- somethings. I wish I could remember the repartee, which seemed pretty funny at the time. Oh well, a lot of it was unprintable anyway. Montalban the carpenter, urbane sophisticate that he is, maintained his dignity throughout.

As I've mentioned before, composting is kind of a slow process, therefore there is a lot of "it" in-process at any given time, which requires a bin about the size of Magic Johnson's jacuzzi. But in this cottage, as in 99.999999% of U.S. homes, the bathroom is not designed to accommodate such a bin. The scheme Pigpen came up with was to put the bin in the attached greenhouse, and to put an upflush toilet in the bathroom, and pump the stuff up and over to the bin.  Let's tour:

Raised platform and drain pipe for toilet.

The completed bathroom setup.  The toilet is a Sealand 510 plus.
The macerator pump is in the utility room on the other side of the wall.  It sits in a homemade "just-in-case" tub of welded plastic.

The pump is a Saniplus.  Pigpen fondly calls it the "Dairy Queen machine". Some of you will get this right away but for my interplanetary readers I should explain: Dairy Queen is the only fast-food restaurant in town. They have a machine which exudes an ice-cream-like food substance, typically coiled into serving cups, where, if you had that kind of a mind, you might say it resembles fecal matter except that it is smoother in texture, delicious to humans as well as dogs, and the peanuts are added afterward instead of beforehand. Fortunately we don't have that kind of mind; we love the Dairy Queen and would never make fun of them.

The pump needs to be vented to the outside.  Here's the guys drilling a hole through the 3-foot thick straw bale wall.  They used a metal pipe with teeth filed onto one end.

Here's the completed utility room work.  The discharge line runs up the left.  It's translucent PEX tubing.  I can't decide whether to backlight it or wrap it with bunting.
April 24 was the inaugural flush.  We fed it water, then toilet paper, then a pear.  Pigpen declared operational readiness.

The compost bin is a Phoenix, out of Whitefish, Montana.  We have high hopes for it.  Pigpen says, "I've killed several composting toilets.  It looks like they've learned all the lessons in this design."  

The Phoenix is normally intended for use with a waterless toilet (direct deposit) or a vacuum-flush toilet.  The macerator combo we are using tends to use more water, and on installation day we soaked the pile with test flushes.  In the first 24 hours I probably flushed six or seven times more, not particularly paying any attention, and filled up the overflow catchbasin.  Since then I've found I can use a lot less water if I'm quick on the flush pedal, and the problem has not recurred.  That is good, because it turns out the floor drains in the greenhouse don't go anywhere.  One at a time these fascinating factoids come to light.

For so-called bulking material we used locally available coarse sawdust (half-rotted).  We filled the lower half of the bin, and threw in some finished compost to inoculate it.  The composting microbes need the right balance of carbonaceous and nitrogenous organic matter in order to do their jobs (live, eat, be fruitful and multiply.)  Pee and poo are too high in nitrogen, sawdust is a high-carbon material.  

The bin is vented with a 5W muffin fan.  So far there is no odor.  The fan needs to run anyway so that the microbes in the pile can breathe.  I threw a bucket of kitchen compost in there yesterday.  

At this point your Correspondent feels compelled to touch again upon the subject of Why Anyone Would Bother With A Composting Toilet. In a word, food. Here on the Hunt Utilities Group campus we are no longer willing to rely entirely on the grocery store, and the industrialized agriculture that supplies it, which is quite dependent on artificial fertilizer made from natural gas, as I explained in a previous post. We want to be able to grow at least some of our own food. Trouble is, our soil is pretty much no good. Any of you living in a suburban development built in the last forty? sixty? years are probably in the same boat - about that time developers took to scraping off most of the topsoil and selling it, leaving only a couple of inches. Therefore, we could use some fertilizer, and we don't want it to come from fossil fuel.  Under the current system, even crucial mineral nutrients that could be recycled are being treated like fossil resources.  Google "peak phosphorous", if you will.

The good news is, the makings of pretty good fertilizer come out of your butt. And uh, whizzer. The bad news is, it "needs some work." When fresh "it" is nummy food for various Microbes, most of which are Good, but some of which are Bad, that is, disease-causing. To fix this problem, it must be fed to Good, Air-Breathing Microbes until there is nothing left in it that any pathogenic microbe might want, then it is (almost) safe and ready for fertilizing plants. Municipal sewage treatment, septic systems, and composting all involve this reduction of "it" by Good Microbes. Only composting keeps the plant nutrients close at hand, in accordance with the permaculture principle of "catch and store". Consult actual experts for details, your Correspondent is an electrical engineer and has only glanced at the jacket notes on the Cartoon History of Biological Oxygen Demand For Dummies Kids.

According to Pigpen, the compost needs to "finish" by sitting outside a couple of months.  (The design of the Phoenix is such that the solid material, mostly the bulking, is stratified but the "liquid" recirculates to keep the pile from drying out.)  Most authorities caution against using it directly on annual food plants, but okay for orchards and cover crops or mulch crops.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Permaculture Design - Zone 2

And now we come to the design of permaculture zone 2 about the HDT cottage, which is mostly about food production. Let's talk some long term strategy here, and then work backwards to the short term.  

Your correspondent has been mostly reading Jacke & Toensmeier's Edible Forest Gardens and Solomon's Gardening When It Counts. EFG is focused on perennials, and GWIC is about annual vegetables, but these guys are all about the plants, and only the plants, for food.

However, I sense, central Minnesota is near the northern and western limits for productive horticulture. J&T:
"You can most easily grow forest gardens where forest, especially deciduous forest, is the native vegetation. This means a climate with ample rainfall during the growing season and relatively mild winters. This book focuses on the lands now and formerly covered by the eatern deciduous forest between USDA plant hardiness zones 4 and 7...those of you in the north, say, zone 3 and colder, have more limited species options, but you can still play the game."
Marc Reisner's classic book Cadillac Desert begins with assertion that North America west of the 100th meridian is "a semidesert with a desert heart." Solomon considers the rainier part of North America to be east of the 98th meridian. 

We are in zone 3, in a mixed deciduous and evergreen forest, at 96.7 degrees west, and about five counties northwest of the region covered by J&T's book. According to the Minnesota DNR, we get 9-11 inches of rain during the growing season, and the forest here is strongly dominated by jack pine.  Montalban the carpenter tells me that jack pine is the hardiest of trees, the last ones up at the tree line, before the tundra. They sure smell nice in the morning these days.  Anyways: Tricky area for gardening. (On the plus side, one of this region's great cultural strengths is the ability to talk big, Paul Bunyan and whatnot, and that ought to count for something.)

Long before propane, people lived in climates colder even than Minnesota, but as I understand it, not by eating plants. It seems that as the winter gets colder and growing season shorter, there just isn't enough energy for the plants to produce much in the way of a yield that is edible by humans. But ruminant herbivores like bison and reindeer have complex digestive systems and can eat very rough vegetation, so it becomes more practical to let them do so, and then eat them, instead of knocking yourself out trying to garden the tundra. Hence the old-time strategy of herd following. Actually I am not aware of any culture that succeeded by gardening the tundra. As far as I know, all the really far northern people ate creatures from the sea.

I imagine though, that herd following confronts you very directly with sustainability. Your tribe must not out-populate the prey herd, duh. Human fertility must be limited, or you're done for. I further surmise that this was done through social mores/commandments/laws that most of us disco ducks would find draconian. Nobody likes to talk about this. See the book Mother Nature, by Sarah Hrdy, about the history and anthropology of motherhood, for insight. Put yourself in the position of the Leader of the Great Northern Tribe. You might have to set a penalty of banishment for killing the wrong deer.

Vegetarians often point out that meatatarianism is a lot less energy-efficient, for the simple reason that the animals need a lot of the energy in the plant food to live their own lives. It's not so bad if they're eating stuff like grass that you can't eat, but feeding them rich food like corn, which you could just as well eat yourself, to fatten them up faster, is a big waste of energy and of their fancy digestive systems. This is a good point.

But at this point I ask, is that entirely applicable in a cold climate?  Here is a diagram to show what I think is going on:  

In a warm and humid climate, you have a lot of options for growing edible plants, so you get a lot of leverage from doing so.  You can sustainably support a large population of vegetarians, a smaller population of carnivores, or some combination.  In a very cold climate you can't support nearly as many people and might actually be worse off trying to garden.  I suspect Minnesota is in between.  There is still some percentage in gardening and eating a vegetable diet, but not as much as in a warmer, wetter place.  This is a rather academic way of recognizing that there's a reason this area is a big hunting and fishing ground, and is not an entirely agricultural area.  We should take this into account in designing our permaculture food system in this region. 

As we learn in The Omnivore's Dilemma, we humans do not have the specialized digestive tracts of true carnivores, nor the multistage stomachs of specialist herbivores.  As a matter of biology, we can eat both meat, and some kinds of plants.

I wish I knew more about how the Lakota and the Ojibwe ate, around here, back in the day? I assume whatever they were doing was more sustainable than what we are doing, but how many people did that support, ballpark?

Let me say again, in this moment, I am thinking of the long term.  Seven generations from now,  even by optimistic estimates, only small and hard-to-get reserves of fossil fuel will remain.  By and large, the seventh generation from now will probably be a solar-powered civilization, as were ancient Rome and China. I think the tradeoffs shown in the diagram are most likely to be true even if some nuclear energy or biotechnology is available.  Such inputs would shift all three bubbles to a higher sustainable population, but I don't think they would change the general picture unless there was some truly miraculous breakthrough.  

Even a miraculous breakthrough on energy supply might not lead to a world we would wish on our descendants.  As Richard Heinberg points out in Peak Everything, we have already run the free-energy experiment in the oil age, with the discovery and mobilization of vast amounts of energy at 100 to 1 energy profit ratio.  This resulted in huge population increase, and an avalanche of cultural and scientific achievements unprecedented in history.  Motown Records is one of my favorites.  But that high population is now bumping up against limits on other ecosystem services for which we have no replacements.  Heinberg concludes that a vast new energy source would not help at this point, because it would only result in further degradation of the environment on which we vitally depend.  The 1971 novel Half Past Human imagined a future in which nuclear fusion has been mastered.  The world population is in the trillions, but they all live in underground cities so that the entire surface of the earth can be farmed by robots.  It's not an appealing vision.  People eat a lot of gruel, and never get to go skiing.

Therefore I suggest we plan for a future solar-powered civilization.  Something along the lines of Plan 9 from Limits to Growth.  Post-carbon visionaries expect that the impending lack of cheap transportation fuel will throw globalization into reverse - it just won't make any sense to ship chicken feed from Iowa to Japan, as depicted in the recent Cargill TV ad.  A grass-roots movement for relocalization, food security, and anti-consumerism arises, as we speak.

I would bet you a steak dinner that our Brainerd Lakes region here is a net importer of food, even when it's not tourist season.

So, all things considered, what would be the best long-term food strategy for this little cottage in central Minnesota?  As a general matter I would like to follow the forest-gardening route, meaning most of the food comes from perennial trees, shrubs, etc.  Research-wise this will make a nice comparison to the adjacent field which is undergoing soil building in preparation for annual cropping of the organic kind.  Let me turn to J&T:
"In North America, savanna communities form the transition between forests and grasslands at the northern and eastern edges of the Great Plains...savannas have continuous grass and forb cover in the herb layer, scattered shrub clumps in the woody understory, and tree cover between 25 and 40 percent.  ... Some computer models indicate that this vegetation type may expand as our global climate changes in the coming decades. ... Mimicking such an ecosystem should be relatively easy with such useful trees [oak & hickory] as models.  Alley cropping and silvopastoral systems that mix trees with annual crops or pastures are two examples."
Silvopasture or agrosilvopastoralism combines forestry and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way, as Wikipedia puts it.  Some form of this sounds to me like the right thing to do in this region.  It dovetails with what I discussed above about the usefulness of animals in a cold climate, for processing human-inedible plants into yummy shish-kebab.

Let's talk about the plants first, then the animals, for our long-term situation, or what J&T call the "horizon habitat."  

Your correspondent is exasperated by gardening books which rave about the high percentage of your vegetables you can get from whatever method (not including staple foods.)  Well staples are by definition mainly what you need to live.  Sure the spinach and the carrots have vitamins galore, but if I don't get enough grams of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, I'm going to starve to death, and I was really hoping for died-laughing, mobbed-by-fans, or at least heart-attack-shoveling-snow.

Ahem.  Hence my interest in nut trees, which bear for many years and are good sources of oil and protein.  Good large-tree candidates for this area appear to be:
  • Whitebark pine Pinus albicaulis
  • Siberian stone pine Pinus cembra var. Sibirica
  • Limber pine Pinus flexilis
  • Korean nut pine Pinus Koraiensis
  • Bur oak Quercus macrocarpa
  • Silver maple Acer saccharinum
The Bur Oak and Silver Maple I believe are native.  The Korean nut pine is one of J&T's Top 100 species.

Hazelnuts are native and various berry bushes are also hardy here.  I haven't gotten very far in identifying candidates for understory plants, except for Groundnut (Apios Americana).  Does anybody know where we can get Groundnuts?

Let us now consider the animals for our ultimate agrosilvopasture.

As I understand it, the history of humans-eating-animals has basically followed a path of ever more intensive human management of the animal's life cycle, in pursuit of higher yield. Steps on the scale:
  1. Hunting of wild animals who eat wild plants
  2. Hunting of wild animals who are eating your cultivated plants
  3. Ranching of fenced-in animals who eat wild plants
  4. Pasturing of fenced-in animals who eat selected forage plants
  5. Factory-farming of boxed-in animals who eat prepared chow
Your correspondent is aware that the treatment of animals is a value judgment, and therefore political.  I observe that The Pope, and probably everyone to the left of him, is against this factory-farming.

This particular patch of ground under design is probably too small (1 acre) to support any large animals, but campus-wide (70 acres), no problem.  The nice thing about large animals is they can do some work around the 'stead too.  Rabbits might do nicely near the cottage.  

I have mixed feelings about chickens.  On the one hand, they are a well domesticated and understood species.  On the other hand, they are originally tropical forest dwellers, and are therefore kind of high-maintenance in Minnesota.  They need strong protection from the weather, and from dogs.  

It seems to me it might be better to eat the hardier native animals like deer and squirrel.  I'm drawn to something like level 2 on the animal management scale listed above.  I don't know the right word for this but I'm picturing something like beekeeping, where you provide nice habitat and plant forage, but the animals are otherwise free to do their thing, until hunting/harvest season.  When I describe this people usually call it "baiting" like it was a bad thing.  But I think you could also look at it as super-free-range ranching, I mean, there's no fence keeping them in.  This was actually one of the first things I thought about, from the point of view of turning a problem into a resource, since deer are such a plague to gardens.  This varmintkeeping may work better in the intermediate term than long, and is maybe better classified as a zone 4 thing than a zone 2.  

It will take several years for nut trees to get big enough to bear, and at least one year for the smaller perennial plants.  For the short term I envision a fertilized annual vegetable garden focusing on potatoes, along with hunting and fishing.  I think the overstory trees should be planted right away.  I see no reason to delay.  At savanna spacings there won't be a whole lot of them, so it should be possible to coddle each one of them with companion plants, starter fertilizer, and protective cages.

For the very short term I would put in a pantry and a root cellar, and start stocking up at the grocery store.

* * *

So far I have been talking generalities and working backward from the long-term to the short-term.  Let me now lay out specifics for the site, going forward from the present.  This is still somewhat of a laundry list of brainstorming ideas, and no visual aids yet.

Phase 1 (by 30 June 2008)

Soil testing
  • Compaction
  • Mineral
  • Life
Mulch depot on trailer site - L-shaped trellis to block view from drive (E and N)
PV array on trailer site.

Earthworks & irrigation
  • Decommission west side parking
  • Chisel plowing
  • Mounds and miniponds, clay lining
  • Berms and swales?, clay lining
Crater rescue
  • Fill/shallow?
  • Warm microclimate N side
  • Redirect runoff from driveway
  • Terrace?
  • Pond? (Koi, Firefighting)
Annual and Perennial plantings
  • Experiment split plots.  Different mulches, amendments, tillage
  • Spread out berm?
  • Plant fruit trees on berm?
  • Drivable ground cover in forklift exclusion zone - Dandelions, Clover
  • Mulch garden, over drainfield
  • Vegetable garden /annual crops, between drainfield and forklift exclusion zone.  Potatoes, corn, field peas, soybeans, flax, buckwheat, oats, squash, amaranth, lambs quarters, sweet alyssum.
  • Forest Garden, west field (perennials)
  • Tree layer: Nut pines, Bur oaks, Silver maple
  • Shrub layer: Hazelnuts, Berries
  • Herb layer: Prairie stuff, wild strawberry
  • Ground layer: Groundnuts
  • Mushroom logs, N side of cottage
  • Sunflowers bordering driveway, turnaround, mulch depot, skycrapper, pad 3
  • Perimeter hedge to keep deer out of forest garden - brambliferous berry bushes
  • Soil building perennials elsewhere, esp. pad 3.
  • Preliminary garden path design laid out in straw.  Keyhole beds.
Phase 2 (by 23 Sept 2008)
  • Implement plantings
  • Power from existing small wind turbine

Monday, April 21, 2008

Permaculture Design - Zone 1

In Zone 1 here I'm talking about the outside surfaces of the house, and the grounds within about twenty feet or so.  Goals addressed: access, storage for food and tools, water management, beautification, delectrification.  A design constraint this year is that because the cottage is not done done, most of the ground within 15-40 ft of the cottage must remain clear for forklift access.  Sorry no visuals yet.  Though its not needed until the fall, I'd like to highlight the importance of the root cellar.

Phase 1 (by 30 June 2008)
  • Cleanup (includes Zone 2)
  • Outside storage shed, 12x16 ft, N side West
  • Groundcover planted in forklift exclusion zone.
  • PV panels and ground-mount rack - Reuse house trailer anchors on pad 2?
  • Minor driveway reroute: end the driveway N of cottage, behind shed. Turnaround extends NW.  This frees up the west field for forest garden.
  • Preliminary path design laid out in straw: Cottage beltway; Patio; Extensions to parking, shed, and mulch depot.
Phase 2 (by 23 Sept 2008)
  • Root cellar, location TBD.
  • Roof fascia
  • Additional solar water heat panels
  • Finish cob on outside walls
  • Rainwater catchment for summer irrigation: Gutters; Outside aboveground storage 500 gal N, 100 gal S.
  • Outdoor room, N side East
  • Trellis extending N from NE corner, outside dripline
  • Flagstone patio
  • Charcoal grill
  • N side “ice cube tray” to catch snow slide from roof and freeze into blocks.
Phase 3 (by 14 May 2009)
  • PV carport N of shed
  • Annual/herb garden outside S. door

Permaculture Design - Zone 0 (The house itself)

The permaculture design is coming along.  I'll present the details here by Zone and Phase, starting from the cottage itself.  This is a draft, sorry not too many visual aids yet, but it might do for the on-campus discussion.  Within each phase the items are listed in order of priority (according to me.)

The elements listed for Zone 0 are mainly addressing the goals for the ARC building, namely that the building is self-heating, produces no sewage effluent, and facilitates growing your own food.  Due to lack of storage in the building I've added food storage and a few other in-house storage improvements.  I've also added elements in support of reducing the cottage's dependence on grid electricity, to where it at least has a "limp mode" that makes it livable with a modest battery backup solar electric system.

Phase 1 (by 30 June 2008)
  • Composting toilet hookup.  This is coming along nicely now (see photos below.)
  • Solar water heat hookup, for the existing panels (progress here too, photos below.)
  • Domestic hot and cold water tanks upstairs, with solar/hand pumping options.  This is towards my goal of spending one week off the grid by 4th of July.  The idea is to be able to take a hot shower or two without using electricity for either pumping or water heat.
  • Battery and inverter portion of a small solar electric (PV) system goes inside the house.
  • 110v well pump (existing pump is 220 vac).  This is also towards the off-grid goal.  It will be easier to get an inverter to do 110 than 220, I think.
  • Greenhouse edibles plant bed.  Plans are vague here but I do have some cilantro seed, and ideas of propagating perennials for the outside forest garden.
  • Greenhouse humidity sensor.  I have a dial gauge but we should get a sensor hooked up to the HUGnet datalogging.
  • Datalogging of house electricity use.
Phase 2 (by 1st frost (23 Sept 2008))
  • Improved air sealing.  The bottom sill, windows and clerestory are suspects, but I still recommend blower door testing before corrective action. I was picturing on doing it the way Energy Star professionals do, that is, they install a blower door which applies a certain amount of suction, and they measure the air flow rate as an indication of how leaky the house is overall. They also go around with a smoke stick to find out in detail where all the leaks are. After corrective action, the test can be repeated so that you know how much improvement was made.
  • Greywater system.  The plant beds for this will occupy much of the greenhouse.
  • Bathroom medicine cabinet.  Right now everything is in a sack hung on the doorknob, and I must poof my pompadour one-handed while holding a camp mirror.  
  • Small wood-gas cookstove, just a camp-sized thing.  This is to give another nonelectric nonfossil cooking option.
  • Greenhouse air circulation system (fan & valves).  
  • Temporary shelving, by E greenhouse wall.
  • Food pantry under staircase.
  • Clothing rack, N wall upstairs East.  
Phase 3 (by last frost (14 May 2009))
  • Counter/cupboards/sink, greenhouse E wall.
  • Built-in shelving, E&W walls upstairs.
  • Modify staircase to lessen the steepness, and free the upstairs south wall for bookshelves.

* * *

Here's the bin for the composting toilet going in.  It's nice to see Redbeard and Pigpen working so well together.

The bin has hand-crank tines, upper and lower, for aeration.

Progress on the solar water heat:  Here Montalban is building the insulated enclosure for the water tank, the white cylinder at his feet.

Redbeard whapped up a copper coil heat exchanger for the water tank.  In operation it will stand up vertical.  The wooden ledge holding up the tools on the right is actually an air plenum for the tubes which are to exchange heat with the ground under the floor.  There's another one on the left.  It took Montalban a solid week to build these.  They had to be done first before the compost toilet bin could go in.

The insulated closet for the water tank is partly done.