Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cob Spraying Day

It was a big day here at the cottage - Cob Spraying Day.  The straw bale walls have been waiting all year for their outside second coat.  The actual amount of spraying time was about five minutes.  The prep and cleanup took basically all day.  Redbeard showed up with two helpers and about sixty-one thousand dollars worth of equipment to do the job, including:
  • A tractor,
  • A PTO-driven cob-mixing vessel,
  • A peristaltic mud pump,
  • An air compressor the size of a chest freezer, and
  • Two Bobcats (one to load the mixer and one to load the mud pump)
He didn't actually get the entire cottage sprayed.  I'd say, maybe a fifth of it.  He concentrated on the east and west hard walls of the attached greenhouse (which needed their first coat of cob, and had been prepped with tar paper and chicken wire earlier in the summer.)  I dunno, it looked to me like the same number of people could have done as much in half the time if they'd just brought a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and a trowel instead.  I'd have to say it all went pretty smoothly though, I mean they knew what they were doing.  My contribution to the effort was basically to get my stuff out of the way, and to ask stupid questions.  I also lent them some tools, most of which I got back.

Let's watch the capital-intensive Kabuki.  One of Hunt Utilities Group's earlier development initiatives was around building printers.  It's pretty far back on the burner now, but they still have all this stuff around - might as well use it.  Gizmos are fun anyways, they make loud noises.

Screening the rocks out of the clay (very important.)

Wiring up "Huffpo", the mother of all 220v, 35cfm@100 psi air compressors.

Ms. Fancy, the Mixmeistress of Cob, supervises loading of the mixer.  There is some art to this - she explained later that she had a new/unfamiliar source of clay, which took a bit more time to get the mix right.  Incorrect proportions can cause sand to separate out in the hose and plug it solid.

Sprayable cob.  It has a consistency similar to Slurpee.  This is a special recipe with Enviro-seal (an earth stabilizer.)

Loading the pump:
Here's the nameplate on the peristaltic pump:

Next we have Redbeard in digital-camo bermudas, putting wand to wall:

Closeup of spraywand.  The peri pump controls the flow rate of mud.  The nozzle has about a 3/4 inch bore, on the inside of which is a ring of angled air jet holes.  Compressed air blasts the mud out the nozzle.  The operator has an air valve on the wand.

Troweling smooth:

Cleanup and more cleanup.  The mixer, the pump, the hose, basically everything the mud goes through has to be flushed out.

Again, what do I know, but it seems to me that in order to really justify this level of equipment you'd need to have straw bale cottages going by on a conveyor at the rate of four a day or something like that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Turnip Soup

Here is an example of the permaculture principle of productive edges.  Loyal readers may recall that I seeded the field next to the cottage with Deer Forage Mix, which included some turnip and sugar beet seed.  On most of the field the tubers are I'd say golf-ball to tennis-ball sized, but there is an edge where they are larger, softball-sized.  This productive edge developed alongside a rut created by the skid-steer track as it drove over a pile of straw.  I don't understand why but you can see the extra-lush greenery and fat turnips jumping out of the ground even in this crummy cellphone photo:
The biggest of them was almost the size of a cantaloupe.  The deer are eating the greens but leave the tubers alone.  I decided to try and make a turnip soup.  You can see how big the thing is next to my six quart crock pot there.

The soup turned out not bad.  In addition to the turnip I used two onions, a bunch of potatoes, chicken and chicken stock, and a tablespoon of Mrs. Dash.  

It turns out turnips have mainly carbs.  They are filling and nutritious and it's better if you eat the greens as well, according to  They don't taste as good as potatoes but are hardier and easier to grow I'd say.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lengthy and fascinating septic system story

Once upon a time in these parts, the ground would freeze in the winter to a depth of about five feet.  Accordingly, people buried their septic lines and drain-fields six feet deep.  Then global warming began and annoyingly made it drier in the winter here, meaning less snow cover.  Without the insulating blanket of snow the ground began to freeze seven feet deep causing untold misery of drains frozen for weeks on end.  It became evident that septic lines should be buried eight feet deep however, in the meantime, concern had also arisen about the danger of groundwater contamination from deeply buried drain-fields, and recommended or regulated practice had changed to shallow or mound-system drain-fields.  The combination of a deep line and a mounded drain-field requires a lift pump.  Said pump is obviously, you know, mission-critical.

Nobody likes these things due to the expense and reliability issue, but the idea particularly irked the designers of this cottage - to put such a high-tech, energy-sucking thing into what was supposed to be a low-energy mostly-natural building.  So they ended up putting both the line and the drain-field shallow so that it would gravity drain.  There have been freezing problems in both winters since it was installed.  Insulating it by placing large straw bales on top of the line was successful the first time but not the second time, and they had to be removed in the spring in order to allow the ground to warm.  This is a lot of wasted motion.

This past spring, the installation of an electric heating tape (gutter de-icing cable) saved the day.  These things however also suck a lot of power, six watts per foot or so and the line is 170 feet long.  In order to detect when de-icing is needed, today we installed several temperature sensors alongside the septic line.  

The line comes straight east from the cottage for 100 feet and then turns south, another 70 feet to the tanks.  At the turn and on much of the N-S leg, the line is only one shovel deep.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sparing you the leaky toilet photos

Back in March was it? we retrofitted a composting toilet setup out here, by installing a huge Phoenix compost bin in the greenhouse and a small Sealand marine macerating toilet into the tiny bathroom, which pumps up and over to the compost bin.  This toilet has a sort of ball valve in the bottom of the bowl.  The toilet is no longer holding water, the valve hasn't been sealing.  The thing came with a little seal-cleaning brush - I tried this according to the instructions and it didn't work.

Gloving up, I determined the problem.  The valve was not closing all the way.  It needs to tuck under the seal but was stopping at the edge of it.  This allowed water to leak down and gas to leak up.  Nice.  

As a temporary workaround I found that spraying the valve with Pam allows it to close properly, at least for a while.  There may be a looseness problem between the valve and the pedal that actuates it.  Maybe I can talk Pigpen into looking at it, I've had enough of the dratted thing for now.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Solar Water Heat

Awhile back I began to argue that whereas, this cottage which is owned by Happy Dancing Turtle has a half-completed solar water heat system, and whereas the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance is in the business of providing such and is located within 500 feet of HDT, therefore be it resolved that maybe they should work together to complete the solar water heat system.

I'm happy to report that this has now been agreed to, and to brag that, due to my awesome diplomatic prowess, the negotiations were speedily concluded in only five months.  

Here is the system schematic.  It is a drainback design that will provide both domestic hot water, and space heat via the in-floor hydronics.  The parts that currently exist are the electric water heater, boiler, and radiant floor loops on the left, and the solar panels on the upper right.

This is essentially a tailored version of the design recommended by the solar collector manufacturer (Solar Skies.)  There is an extra 120 gallon heat storage tank because of the large solar array (ten 4x8 foot panels.)  In this design the large storage tanks could function as the domestic hot water supply, but because there is already a small electric hot water heater, the main tanks will serve as a preheat for it.

Here are some ballpark calculations I did on the heat demand, supply, storage, and distribution.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Minnesota dreamin'

You'd be safe and warm, if you was in Pine River in a straw bale cottage...Minnesota dreamin', on such an autumn day.

I'm pleased to report that I haven't had to turn on the heat yet, though the average temperature these days is only around 50 F.  As in the spring, the attached greenhouse on the south side works very well to heat up the house on sunny days, if I remember to open the door.  One thing about thermally massive construction is that it does more good if you can let the inside temperature vary somewhat, warm it up during the day so that it doesn't get so cold at night.  By letting it vary between about 62 and 78 I've been able to avoid turning on the heat.

At the current outside temperatures it would take about three cloudy days for the inside temperature to drop into the 50's.  It helps that the cloudy days tend not to be as cold as the clear days.

I don't know how much longer I can hold out.  November tends to be cold and quite cloudy around here.  

Friday, October 3, 2008

Blasting the financial elite

Back on May 27 I posted a comment, actually more of a rant, to this article on CBS Marketwatch.

These Wall Street shenanigans have me in a ranting mood so I'm going to repost it here:

"In my humble opinion, we are caught between: 1) the rock of oil depletion, meaning that cheap energy is gone for good (while vast resources remain, they cannot be extracted quickly or cheaply enough to lower prices,) 2) the hard place of global warming (we cannot afford to continue burning fossil fuel at current rates without frying the planet,) 3) the knife to the gut of unsustainable agriculture (the Green revolution relied on fossil fuel derived fertilizer and crops bred for that input,) 4) the gun to the head of Islamic extremism (again, in my humble opinion, it is fundamental to Civilization that words be answered with words, and hits be answered with hits; the extremists persistently answer words with death threats and bombs; we must stand against this. Beware anyone who is convinced they KNOW how to MAKE a heaven on earth, and justify atrocious means by that end.) Most political affiliations make light of at least two of these four, I find them all compelling concerns. The Fed's massive "liquidity infusions" (money printing) may be necessary to prevent immediate collapse, but they are not sufficient. Issues 1-3 require us to transform the entire physical basis of our civilization. By us I mean all the bottom-up searchers, not the top-down planners. The recession is an indication that the economy is focusing on the wrong things. Just guessing here, but I suspect we need less airlines and more railroad, less croupiers and more farmers, less personal injury lawyers and more nut tree breeders. I beg the government: no Marshall Plan, no Apollo Program, no Manhattan Project. Just set the big picture goals, free us by 20% and we will find the wedges, the silver buckshot, the silver bolos, to save our towns and our country. If you, our elected representatives, were of the generation that authored those grandiose proposals, you might have some credibility, but you are not. We have only ourselves to blame for electing twits whose best efforts are brain-dead, DOA ideas like, outlawing high gasoline prices, suing OPEC sovereign nations in US courts, and subsidizing corn ethanol. Your greatest service at this point would be, as Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan might say, to know your limitations. Talk to the geophysicists, and get us on the right glide path - how many parts per million carbon dioxide, how many barrels of oil per day. Let us work out the details. As for our vaunted masters of the financial universe, I say to Alan Greenspan: forget about it, stop trying to defend your legacy, you will be reviled in history as the architect of the housing bubble, who seduced us into borrowing a trillion dollars to build energy-sucking housing in the early 2000's when the end of cheap energy was credibly predicted in Scientific American in 1998, based on fifty years of petroleum geology. I say to Ben Bernanke, dude, for ten years I socked away fifteen percent into the 401k like they said. Thank you, I think, for not trashing the dollar to where I'm much below break-even, I know you're in a tough spot. To the mutual fund industry I say, let me get this straight, if I'm understanding Jack Bogle, Warren Buffett, and Paul Farrell correctly, suppose the economy grows by 1.5 % in a given year, you guys have all the assets under management, and your fee is 1.5 % of assets per year. Therefore the Wall Street cut of all the wealth created in the economy that year is 1.5/1.5 = 100%, that is to say, all of it, and the Main Street cut is 0%. Do I have that about right? You want all the money? I think everyone from Lou Dobbs to James Carville would tell you, you've got a choice, you can let the middle class live, or you can spend so much on walled compounds and private security that 2015 upper class will feel like 1965 middle class. Your choice, Masters of the Universe, what do you do? What do you do?"