TSL Homestead and Air Conditioning

So here in Kansas the seasons can turn pretty rapidly. Last year we went from freezing cold straight into 90 plus degree days (we’re still Fahrenheit here in the U.S. in case you are keeping track) and it was a very strange gardening year. Really didn’t have much of a Spring at all and it showed. Tomatoes struggled, they are the Divas of the garden anyway, and everything else needed regular watering or it scorched. The Cucumber beetles and Squash Vine Borers ate everything else that wasn’t protected. Overall, not a year you look back fondly on if you’re a Mad Farmer.

This year it was cold, Winter had snow more like I remembered from my childhood, more years ago than I care to discuss, and Spring was definitely coming in like a lion. Lots and lots of storms, Tornadoes in Missouri and lots of wet and chill. For all the folks out there screaming “See!!!! Climate Stuff!!!!!” there is a scientific explanation for at least part of it. The Mad Farmer is not on the anti-climate change wagon, I’m sure that people have some impact on their environment, both good and bad. I’m also not a “climate denier” whatever that is. Climate is weather and environment – good or bad, it’s climate – I guess you can “deny” it if you want but I don’t think climate cares. Personally my feeling is, if we caused it, we can probably fix it but we better make dang sure what we are fixing or it could be worse.

Anyway, the science stuff that explains a bit of it is that according to what I’ve read* there is El Nino and La Nina, basically wind systems that pass over the Pacific Ocean. Depending on which way they go they have a different effect on climate. Every few years they switch as Primary and Secondary systems and whichever is the Primary system impacts where tornadoes and storms appear. When La Nina is strongest Tornado alley shifts South and East, causing more storms and tornadoes in places like Missouri and Louisiana, where there typically aren’t as many and reducing those types of events in the Northern parts of the U.S. where they tend to be more usual.

Anyway, this post is not a climate change discussion but the weather does have an impact here in Kansas. It had been cold and wet for most of late Winter and early Spring and there was very short period, maybe three days, where the temperatures got up into the 80’s. Your humble Mad Farmer really doesn’t mind those kind of temps for the most part, he was born on the first day of Summer, but Miss Mercy is a different story. The Mad Farmer is cold when the temperature is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and Miss Mercy is hot when it’s over 80 degrees. We’ve had many a discussion about where we might be comfortable together but all we’ve determined so far is it probably won’t be California – all other options are still in negotiation, including Kansas.

So, to make a long story longer, which is the Farmer way, the furnace filter was changed and we tried to start the Air Conditioning to prevent the upstairs bedroom from being overly warm. We got a limited amount of cold air coming out of the registers, not enough to effectively cool anything. At this point I’m really wishing we lived in a WOFATI (check it out here https://permies.com/t/wofati ), but we don’t so I contacted my brother, Jack of All Trades, and asked him for the number of the HVAC Wizard. We had the HVAC Wizard repair the furnace at our previous homestead and, like all wizards, he is mysterious and his ways are not the ways of mortals but he is effective and reasonable is his pursuit of coin.

The Mad Farmer was hoping that the HVAC Wizard would be able to perform his magic before the Summer heat of Kansas began in earnest. Sadly, it was not to be. The HVAC Wizard was plying his trade magicking the Heating systems that are the “HV” portion of his trade. Eventually, after several weeks of chill temperatures and lots of rain, the weather in Kansas finally decided to give Spring a miss and go straight on into Summer. At that point it became more urgent to contact the HVAC Wizard so through the magic of “texting” the Mad Farmer was able to gain an audience with the Wizard. The Wizard was able to fit a visit to the Farmer homestead into his busy schedule and just like that, he appeared.

Just like Merlin, the HVAC Wizards coming and goings are mysterious. He reminds this farmer of the long ago Shaolin Monk, Kane, wandering the earth and fixing HVAC problems instead of fixing the problems of individual villagers. However, I digress. The Wizard appeared and within moments had diagnosed the issue, acquired replacement items from his traveling warehouse (sometimes referred to as “a truck”) and repaired the Air Conditioning system, accepted a reasonable amount of coin in exchange for his labors and was on his was his way.

The Mad Farmer learned three important lessons from this experience. First, there is a component on the homestead unit called the starter kit. This is an important component that allows your Air Conditioner to actually start, it is a good thing when this works correctly. The second thing learned is that you should always hose off the exterior AC unit to prevent build up of dirt and anything that might impede air flow. The more air that can get past the cooling “fins” on the unit to the interior cooling core the more efficient your unit will operate. The third thing I learned is that buying inexpensive filters and changing them more often will save more coin than buying more expensive filters and changing them less often.

The ultimate take away is that if you don’t have the skills to resolve an issue yourself, it’s good to know who to contact to and that you trust that person. The homestead could have contacted a more commercial wizard and probably had a fine resolution, but it is satisfying to do business with local contractors that you have built a relationship with over time. The other take away is that when Miss Mercy can sleep easily at night, the Homestead runs more smoothly. A Happy Spouse makes a Happy House.

*Disclaimer: The Mad Farmer is not a weather expert and does not play one on the interwebs.

Rocket Mass Heaters and Ianto Evans

I just finished reading what is probably the original Rocket Mass Heater book, “Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

In case you haven’t been a RMH geek for a long period of time you may not know that Ianto Evans is regarded as many as the “Father of Rocket Mass Heaters”, at least that is my understanding. Ianto has been working with fire, building stoves and working with associated natural building techniques like cob, for decades. The biggest current names in the RMH field, like Kirk “Donkey” Mobert, Ernie & Erica Wisner, Art Ludwig and Paul Wheaton have all collaberated with Ianto, taken classes from Ianto or used Ianto’s designs as the basis for advancements in the science (or perhaps art) of Rocket Mass Heaters.

Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition is not a long book, it’s only about 120 pages but it is packed with information, pictures, drawings and case studies. The book goes into exactly what makes a Rocket Mass Heater tick, how to build one and what materials to use. Rocket Mass Heaters in a nutshell consist of several main parts: The Burn Tunnel, Heat Riser, Feed Tube and the Mass or Thermal Battery and the exhaust pipe or Chimney.

One note of caution that comes up again and again in the book and should be noted by anyone thinking about building a RMH is that these heaters  burn HOT. A typical wood stove will usually burn around 500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the relatively low temperature is what makes them so dangerous, they don’t burn hot enough to burn off all the creosote and gasses and the typical temperature exiting the chimney can be in excess of 300 to 400 degrees. In a Rocket Mass Heater the temperatures in the  burn tunnel can reach 1500 to 2000 degrees. That is hot enough to burn creosote, smoke and anything else that can cause a problem and the typical exit temperature at the chimney is around 150 to 180 degrees – much less likely to start a chimney fire. The high temperature burn is what make them so efficient but anytime you are working with fire pay attention!

The book starts out with a description of what a Rocket Mass Heater is, how it functions and outlines what they are and what they aren’t. It’s pointed out if you are looking for a “throw some wood in and leave for the day” fireplace then a RMH is probably not for you. The middle section of the book discusses in detail how to build a RMH, what kinds of materials you can build it with and the care and feeding after you have it built. The final section covers safety precautions, case studies of actual RMH builds and information on additional resources.

At $20.00 this book is a must have if you are interested in Rocket Mass Heaters or just want to read about cool things you can build that involve fire. I highly recommend it.

 

 

Mother Earth News Fair – Kansas

For those of you who might now be tired of the Mad Farmer’s adventure in Montana we will go ahead and shift topics for a bit to the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. If you are not familiar with Ogden Publications they are a publishing company based in Topeka, Ks. They publish magazines like GRIT, Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, Capper’s Farmer, UTNE and several others. They have been proponents of homesteading,  green living and regenerative agriculture for a lot of years and possibly one of the best kept secrets in Kansas. Ogden Publishing shouldn’t be a secret of Kansas but we’re considered a “fly-over state” so some of the really cool things that do go on here seem to get overlooked by some of the snobbier states (take notice Oregon and Washington, it’s not just you greening up the desert anymore)!

Anyway, the Mother Earth News Fair is a homesteading, back-to-nature, gardening, beekeeping, sustainable-living jamboree of vendors, presenters and small business folks that get together to put on a event several times a year in various locations around the country. Currently there are six fairs a year and Ogden Publications started having one in their own hometown in 2014. It looked interesting and it was local so we attended the first one they had in Topeka, Ks and had a great time.

As near as I can remember the Mother Earth News Fair, speakers and topics being presented is how I got into being interested in Permaculture and sustainable living. Jessi Bloom, author of “Free-Range Chicken Gardens” and “Practical Permaculture” (an excellent book) was there, Joel Salatin, author of “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” and “The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer”  was a keynote speaker, Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist extraordinaire and many others were at the fair giving presentations on tons of homesteading and sustainable living topics.

It’s hard to believe that I blogged about the last fair only a year ago. A lot of the bloggers and podcasters I follow have had dozens if not hundreds of articles and podcasts in that time. I’ve posted far fewer than that and hope to be better and more consistent going forward. So, moving down memory lane to the present this year’s fair came the weekend after I got back from Montana. Having just spent several days with some pretty awesome innovators I was pretty stoked to attend the fair when I got back. An added bonus was that Uncle Mud was going to be there with his family presenting on a number of topics.

Miss Mercy (the most tolerant, long-suffering , Mad Farmer’s wife on the face of the planet) and I were hoping to get together with Uncle Mud and family prior to the show  (okay, it was really just me hoping) but they were late getting in so I didn’t to get to see him until his early Saturday presentation.

Wheaton Labs and the Fisher Price House

Our second day of the tour started at what Paul and Jocelyn call the “Fisher Price House”. The Fisher Price House (FPH for short) is a double-wide mobile home that has been basically permanently installed on a granite slab that was cleared in the side of a mountain. It’s mostly made of plastic and chemicals, hence the moniker FPH. Paul also calls it “an air-tight baggie” because all of the doors, windows and joints are sealed so tight there is almost no air-flow in the house.

There was quite a bit of discussion while I was there about how homes should “breathe” and how after years of mandating minimum levels of insulation and tightening up on home regulations the government finally got some studies done that showed there really should be a minimum rate of air exchange to keep people in structures healthy and reversed their policies. All of that was mostly an aside, the air-flow discussions primarily centered around the effect of proper air-flow and draw to keep Rocket Mass Heaters working correctly.

There is a beautiful proof of concept Rocket Mass Heater in the FPH.

FPH Rocket Mass Heater

The barrel on this RMH is made of stainless steel and is really quite striking. The thing about this RMH that makes it special is it is the first “pebble style” RMH build. For those not familiar the “Mass” in Rocket Mass Heaters is used to store the heat produced by the system and release it slowly over time, that is part of what makes them so efficient. Typically the mass is made out of Cob, which is a mixture of sand, clay, straw and water. In a pebble style heater the mass is primarily large-ish rocks that are surrounded by pebble size rocks contained in a wooden frame. Paul’s also has a granite top to the mass “bench” so it also looks very nice and is useful at the same time. I’ve been told in the winter they put their clothes drying racks above the bench (Permaculture function stacking at it’s best)!

When Paul, Donkey and Ernie Wisner built the FPH RMH (how’s that for acronyms?) they originally tired venting it out the wall, just to see if it could be done. It turns out it can, but it did not draw well on cold days. They re-routed the chimney through the roof, as is typical with most wood stoves, and that did the trick. Paul figures that his pebble style bench and the stainless steel barrel make this stove about 30% less efficient in actual heat generation and retention than a cob style with a normal metal barrel but he still typically only runs it a few hours every couple of days in the middle of a Montana Winter.

We spent a bit of time in the house, firing up the Rocket Mass Heater, and discussing design tricks and I can personally attest that it didn’t take long for the room to be cozy and it stayed that way long after the fire was out.

Wheaton Labs Ants, Oehler and Base Camp

Paul Wheaton has an several on-going experiments about building community through natural building, shared ideals and the limitless possibilities of Permaculture. One of Paul’s on-going experiments is Ant Village. Ant Village originally started out as  the Ant Challenge where a minimum of six “Ants” would pay a minimal amount of rent for a one acre plot for a year. The Ants would have access to all the rest of his property to use for resources to build their own shelters, gardens, graze livestock and anything else they would like to do within a certain set of parameters of the challenge. The parameters included no “off-site” commuter jobs, no paints, toxic chemicals or insecticides and using natural methods as much as possible for building and heating.

As I understand it the people participating were called ants based on the “Ants vs. Grasshopper” parable. The reward for winning the challenge, which was basically who had the most complete, livable plot after a year, would get a “deep roots” package which is basically lifetime rent on the acre and continued access to all the other property.  Structures could be wofati’s, or other natural building styles approved by Paul. One of the Ants who has since moved along built a Mike Oehler-style structure.

Oehler-Style Cabin

The cabin is cozy inside, probably less than 200 sq. feet,  more like a tiny house. The bunk is right up against the ceiling, pretty narrow and requires some acrobatics and the ladder leaning against the wall to get to bed – I would probably do something different, but I’m considerably older and less agile than the person that built it.

Oehler Cabin Inside

There is a tiny wood stove inside, that Paul approved with reservations because he was told that it would be replaced with a Rocket Mass Heater.

Wood Stove of Death

Apparently it heats the space okay but it doesn’t hold any heat and the design of the stove is not really intended for extended use. Personally I think I would have it out of there pretty quick, but in the interest of full disclosure, I probably would have gone with a different design for the whole project. That being said, it was built by hand, by mostly one person and I have yet to do anything quite that elaborate in round wood timber framing so, “kudos to you” Ant Who Built the Oehler cabin.

Later that evening the participants of the tour gathered at Base Camp for a Pot Luck meal that featured Jocelyn’s “Spaghetti Flavored Cake” (that’s lasagna to the uniformed) that was fantastic and side dishes and bits and bobs that were provided by the folks who attended.  Arlo and Jenn, a couple who are homesteading in the Washington area cooked up a fresh salmon in the Rocket Oven and it was very tasty. Overall a nice end to a long day and eventually I got a ride up to the Cooper Cabin where I was staying the rest of the trip.

Paul has recently changed his policy on the Ant Village tying it closer to his bootcamp program. You can read about that here.

Wheaton Labs Tour Willow Feeders and Stuff

So at Wheaton Labs they encourage you to do your number one “bidness” anywhere on the property to return the nitrogen and minerals back to the environment. They also ask that you eat organic or better especially while you are on property for myriad and various reasons that you can look up on their website at permies.com. For your other functions there are multiple locations on the property that have various different types of “willow feeders”.

Willow Feeder

The concept behind the willow feeders is that willow trees and cottonwoods love excess nitrogen. After human byproducts are stored long enough to kill all the pathogens the remaining composted nutrients left behind are still too “hot” to put around most plants and most people have a natural aversion to composting in the garden with human waste (even though that was the practice in Asia for thousands of years and still is on-going but that is a discussion for another time).  Turns out however that willows and cottonwoods will take as much of that kind of stuff as possible and turn it into oxygen and wood and such.

So the “willow feeders” at the Labs are more efficient than an outhouse and I can personally attest that they don’t smell and they are very clean. I’ve probably used more out-houses and porta-potties over my lifetime than most  folks and I can tell you personally that the willow feeders are way more civilized than anything else of that nature that I have ever used.  The biggest hassle factor is having to get mostly dressed if the weather is not good to use them.

We also got to take a look at a project that was built by a couple that was staying in the tipi. Yep, you read that right, Paul has a tipi on his property that is available for rent and contains a rocket mass heater.

It’s a full size tipi and has a rocket mass heater and circular thermal mass bench inside. Paul told us the first year it was on a property a couple stayed in it over the winter. One morning they got up, put on their outdoor clothes, came out side and found out it was 25 degrees below zero! Inside they said they had the Rocket Mass Heater going the previous day and when they got up it felt like 50 – 55 degrees out. They were shocked by the outside temp. And that was in an uninsulated tipi with canvas walls. Pretty amazing stuff!

Anyway, while the couple was staying onsite they wanted to practice their round wood timber framing skills so in their own time they built a skiddable “bee hut”.

Bee Hut

There are a lot of black bears in the area and black bears love honey, so they added a solar panel and an electric fence around the structure that is powerful enough to discourage bears without permanently hurting them. The straw bales you see around the hive are in preparation for the coming winter to help the bees maintain the temperature in the hive and make it easier on them. It also cuts down on the wind and the roof cuts down on the rain and snow. Bees typically maintain their hive temperature in the 90 to 95 degree range all year round so cutting down on wind, rain helps a lot.

We then moved on to the allerton abbey wofati.

Allerton Abbey

Allerton Abbey was to be the primary focus of the upcoming Natural Builders week and there were some really cool people coming into work on that and I will cover that in a future post. On this day I got to fire up the Batch Box style Rocket Mass Heater that was in the abbey. It appears the trick to successfully starting any Rocket heater or stove is to start a small fire in the back to warm the heat riser and then build the fire more towards the front (batch box) or add more wood to the infeed (J-Tube) once the unit is drawing well. If you don’t, you’ll get smoke (and Paul will explain why that is bad and look at you funny).

Batch Box Rocket Mass Heater

This particular heater is built with a glass top from a regular stove so you can see the fire and uses a pyrex casserole dish lid as the fire feed door. Without a door on these style Rocket Mass Heater/Stoves they are not finished and will not operate properly – that is one of Paul’s biggest pet peeves with this style. People start building, don’t finish or build it wrong, then say “Rocket Mass Heaters don’t work”. They do work but this style build is not for the novice, so it’s recommended you do others before you tackle this type.

I will say you could see the fire through the glass cook top and it was wild to watch it burn sideways, then roll towards the center of the chamber in elongated tubes like sideways fire tornadoes. Erica Wisner explains  about Fire Science on their website and she also has a booklet called “The Art of Fire” that you can purchase that is super informative and interesting about how fire behave in various environments and conditions. I learned a lot by seeing all of the different Rocket Mass Heaters and Stoves and I am super glad I made the trip.

 

Wheaton Labs Tour Cooper Cabin

Paul’s property certainly has it’s share of beauty and charm. The area where the labs are located is somewhat on the side of a mountain, at least that’s what people from Kansas would call it, maybe in Montana it’s a big hill? A portion of it overlooks a steep slope down to a river and on the mornings I was there the mist and fog as you came out of Cooper Cabin was surreal and quite an experience.

Anyway, the tour continued with a visit to the interior of Cooper Cabin.

Cooper Cabin Interior

The front wall of the cabin has mostly glass so there is a lot of light coming in. The floor is finished in wood, although Paul hopes that eventually that will be converted to a Linseed Oil floor. I need to do more research on that – anyone familiar with that type of floor?

Batch Box Style Rocket Mass Heater and Cooktop

There are actually two experimental Rocket Mass devices in the cabin. The first is a Batch Box style Rocket Cook Stove.  Batch Box RMH’s have a door and have a different internal configuration for gas pathways and such. Paul is not a huge fan because they are not as simple as a “J-Tube” type (we’ll get to that in a moment) and typically require more “fiddling” to run well. If you are interested in listening to experts discuss it there is a podcast here.

The second is what would be considered a “normal” J-Tube style Rocket Mass Heater with a Cob Bench providing the “mass”.

Rocket Mass Heater

They are called “J-Tube” style because the wood feeds in vertically in the front (you can see the fire and wood feed towards the bottom of the picture above) and the burn chamber inside runs horizontally and then connects to an insulated vertical heat riser contained inside the barrel in the picture above. It is really a trip to watch flame burn sideways along the bottom of the burn chamber. The whole burn chamber is encased in cob and there is exhaust pipe that goes all through the bench to heat up the mass. Rocket Mass Heaters if running correctly burn between 1200 and 2300 degrees, burning up all the smoke, creosote and everything else combustible and then releasing some CO2 and water vapor that vents out the chimney.

The heater pictured above is in Erica and Ernie Wisner’s Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide which is probably the most definitive guide on Rocket Mass Heaters currently available.

 

Paul Wheaton and Permies.com

For quite some time now (at least two years) I have been participating/lurking at the largest Permaculture site online, Permies.com. If you are not familiar with the site Permies is run by a gentleman by the name of Paul Wheaton who in his own words is “bonkers about permaculture”. No less a permaculture dignitary than Geoff Lawton named Paul “The Duke of Permaculture”. Permies is a fascinating place to hang out. There are forums for almost every subject related to permaculture and regenerative growing that you can imagine, forums for raising animals, creating berms, hugelkultur beds and everything else you can think of.

Paul also has a YouTube channel and over 400 podcasts on a mountain of different subjects. Paul has just completed successfully getting funded for his 7th Kickstarter project. The current project is going to be a 2 hour DVD explaining what a Rocket Oven is and how to build one. For people not familiar with Rocket Mass Heater / Rocket Oven technology it is a super-efficient way to heat a space, in case of the Rocket Mass Heater, or cook with, in the case of the Rocket Oven. The Rocket Oven burns a small amount of wood and functions like a normal oven, only more efficiently. I am a supporter of this particular Kickstarter and am looking forward to building one of these ovens and trying it out. Those of you who know me, and those of you joining us on our journey through a Tiny Sustainable Life, know I love projects and I am really looking forward to this one.

I’m currently in the middle of building an ornamental pond in our back yard (more on that in future posts). What are you building/making? How about projects you started but never finished? What happened with that?