Friday, January 10, 2014

Revisiting My Strategic Homesteading Goals: Productive Shelter, Part 2

This is the long awaited (by me, at least) continuation of Part 1 of this topic.  Long ago, in 2012, I revisited the first of the strategic homesteading goals I wrote about in 2009.  Near the end, I mentioned that I would discuss heating and cooling and my strategies for reducing the amount of energy I would need to accomplish these things.

With my current plan of homesteading in the Pacific Northwest, likely somewhere in the Columbia River gorge area, there are a few geographical considerations.  Cooling the house is probably not going to be a huge expense, as the summers in the PNW are usually somewhat mild.  However, considering for the likelihood of warmer summers each year, I plan on building in some backup cooling that might become useful if things progress as they seem like they will.  With all that said, I think heating the home during the winter might be the more "expensive" endeavor for at least a few years still, and it is certainly the more potentially life-threatening annual extreme here in the PNW.  So, let's talk about what kind of structure I'm planning on living in, then we'll talk about cooling it first, and then go into the more in-depth ideas I have for efforts at heating.

When Kelsey and I buy land, we'll at first likely be living in a trailer, tent, or off-site until the main structure gets built.  Our ideas for the main structure have circled around quite a few plans, but for at least the first structure we've settled on building a yurt.  Not just any yurt, of course, but a really nice one that is built right here in Oregon, by Pacific Yurts.  Go ahead, take some time to ogle some of the pictures they have of the beautiful yurts people have built with their kits.  I'll wait.

Ok, now that you've had time to soak in what a cool structure a yurt is, let's talk about cooling.  In the hottest part of the year, the part of the Columbia River Gorge where we'd like to buy land can reach into the 90's and occasionally into the 100's.  This will be slightly exacerbated by the fact that I'm going to make sure we get south-facing land, so we've always got a good aspect on the sun for growing plants. Temperatures in the 90's can be uncomfortable, but are not usually fatal, so active cooling isn't too much of a concern.  First of all, a nice big deciduous tree like a maple, placed where it can shade out the house during much of the late-morning and afternoon sun, will do quite a lot to block the heat and direct sunlight during the summertime.  Next, Pacific Yurts come with the option to have a ceiling fan hanging off of the dome, and Kelsey and I will certainly go with this option.  Open a couple of windows in the shady parts of the yurt, turn the ceiling fan on so it blows up and out of the roof, and you have a low-powered system that blows warm air that's rising to the ceiling up and out of the yurt, and is thus replaced with cool air from the shaded open windows.  It might not be a system that keeps the house 65 degrees when it's 95 outside, but it'll keep it cool enough to sleep comfortably.

Now, on to heating.  First of all, let's revisit the deciduous tree on the south side of the yurt.  It's wintertime, and our nice shady maple has dropped all it's leaves.  The sun can shine right through the now bare tree branches and help warm the yurt on sunnier days.  But this is the PNW, and sun during the wintertime is a rare commodity.  Enter the Rocker Mass Heater floor.  If you don't know what a RMH is, get started by watching this.  Rocket Mass Heaters have been anecdotally known to reduce wood use to as little as 10% of what you'd use in a regular wood stove heater.  They heat using radiation, convection, and conduction.  The materials are cheap and easy to find, and eco-friendly.  They're not really child's play, but they're easy enough that any diligent person can build one.  And because they're not industrial (yet) they're completely custom.  You can build your mass into just about anything, including a floor.

Now that you have a good idea about RMH's, check out this photo album to see where I got my inspiration to make the floor of a yurt out of one.  Yurts use a space-blanket like technology in the wall and roof fabric to hold heat inside, and as far as I know it's rated R30, which is very similar to the pink, nasty, itchy insulation that most houses use.  Having a floor that is kept heated throughout the day by a Rocket Mass Heater will radiate some of that heat into the air inside the yurt.  If the walls and roof work as well as advertised, it should be relatively easy to keep a 30 ft diameter yurt, with thousands of pounds of warm cob and gravel radiating heat up into it, at a comfortable 65+ degrees all winter long.  I'm not yet sure how much wood it might burn through in a winter, but if it's anything less that 2 cords, it's likely I'll be able to harvest clippings and trimmings on a 15+ acre lot, and use that as my firewood on a yearly basis.

As a side note, I even have some plans to turn the barrel of the RMH into an electricity producing device, kind of like this camping stove, just on a MUCH larger scale.  The engineering still has a long way to go, but as I get land, time, and money to pursue these projects, I'll keep this blog up to date with all my accomplishments and setbacks.

So, that's the heating and cooling as we see it now.  I have some more ideas for a yurt constellation, connected by greenhouse hallways that help heat during the winter, and are shaded out by vine plants during the summer, but I think those ideas and my other ones probably warrant a post of their own.  Until then, thanks for reading!

Monday, January 06, 2014

Planning for Spring

I just received the Territorial Seed Company 2014 Spring Gardening catalog in the mail.  This means it is already time to start planning out not only my spring garden, but my spring in general.

With all the freedom and extra time I have right now, I think this year will easily sport the best garden I've ever had.  I may or may not be able to eat vegetables out of it every day, or even every week after food starts to ripen, but I'm certainly going to try in the tiny 35 square feet or so that I have at my apartment complex.  I'm going to try to focus on fermentable vegetables this year, as I'm taking an interest in fermented foods and their health benefits.  Cabbage, beets, cucumbers, garlic, onions, and plenty of others I don't even know yet will go into the garden this year, and I look forward to them very much.

Why the interest in fermentation?  Well, as any good permie has probably already guessed, I recently picked up a copy of The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, by Bill Mollison.  I haven't yet started reading it, but it's high on my list for the remainder of this winter.  As soon as I read it, not only will I be using what I read to start planning my garden, by I'll also try to do a chapter by chapter review of the book, and help you decide if it might be something you're interested in.

So what else am I planning for the spring?  I'm likely going to apply to become a carpenters apprentice this March, as carpentry might become the single most important skill I could learn at the beginning of the homesteading once we purchase land.  I'm still toying with ideas of self-teaching some of the basics, but being a licensed carpenter is another avenue for income that will help the homestead come sooner rather than later.

Finally, I'm planning on doing my best to take a PDC this year.  I'm keeping my eye open for the next time Geoff Lawton does an online PDC, and I'm going to try to sign up for that before it fills up.  Online classes and learning tend to suit me quite well, and Geoff Lawton is the best there is.

More to come as all these plans unfold.  Thanks as always for reading, and have a great 2014!

Friday, January 03, 2014

Thoughts On Climate Change, Delayed Suffering, and 7 Generations

Today I want to talk about responsible resource use, and share a thought that I recently had about how what we do today impacts future generations.  It may end up seeming like a somewhat disjointed post, as my thoughts keep shooting out in different directions that I feel are related... but I'll try to keep it sensible and make a solid point if I can.

The Law of the Conservation of Energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but that energy can changes forms and flow from one place to another within a system.  For example, a ray of sunshine might contain x calories of energy.  When that ray of sunshine hits the green leaf of a plant, through photosynthesis the plant converts the sunshine into x calories of carbohydrates.  The plant uses those carbohydrates to grow fruit to procreate or more leafy surface area to be able to capture more sunlight.  Along comes an herbivore (lets say a cow) that eats the leafy plant, and eventually converts the plant's carbohydrates into animal protein.  Now that cow contains the x calories of sunshine in the form of protein.  Finally, a human comes along and eats the cow, using the x calories of sunshine contained in the animal to plant a garden that has plenty of leafy green surface area to capture more rays of sunshine and start the process anew.

This simple (and yes, obviously, oversimplified) example demonstrates one cycle through which energy can flow... changing form and function each time, but always containing the same amount of energy, even if that energy is parsed out and spread around.  Generally, the only way for the energy in sunshine to leave the isolated system that is the Earth is if it is bounced directly back into space (as in when it hits a reflective surface like snow or ice) or through gradual heat loss via the upper atmosphere.  If the Earth had less of an atmosphere (or no atmosphere at all) and could not support lifeforms that could capture and use its energy, it would be a very barren place, like Mars or Mercury.  If the Earth had too thick of an atmosphere, and captured significantly more of the sun's energy in the atmosphere than it already does, it would heat up and become inhospitable to life as we know it, like Venus.

According to the biogenic theory of petroleum formation (which is the almost universally accepted theory about fossil fuel formation, and the one to which I choose to subscribe), millions (and possibly billions?) of years ago, plant life was capturing the energy in sunlight in much the same way as it does today (different plants, but same concepts).  That energy flowed around via the animal life at the time just like it does now, and eventually much of it "pooled" together underground and after much time and pressure from geological forces, became the petroleum we know and are addicted to today.  Essentially, a barrel of oil is hundreds if not thousands of years of stored and converted plant life, which really means hundreds or thousands of years of stored and converted sunshine.  The same is true for other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal... different geological circumstances lead to different forms, but they all derived from sunshine which was "captured" in the lifeforms of the day, which fossilized and was stored and converted over very long periods of time.

This leads me to the thought I had last summer, and how it got me thinking about a certain way energy flows through our systems, and how we choose to handle it.  Ultimately, it got me thinking about what impact our energy use will have on future generations, specifically 7 generations out from us, people we will never meet.  This is a very specialized case, and it doesn't hold up in all conditions, but it gave me a thought model that allowed me to project empathy 7 generations into the future.

My thought process started last summer in Portland.  My apartment was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, which for my partner Kelsey and I is borderline uncomfortable.  On a sunny day it can reach over 90 degrees in our apartment.  Kelsey and I have a small window fan that we turn on to try to blow the hot air out of our apartment's front (south-facing) window, and hopefully create draw through our bedroom (north facing) window to pull in the cool air on that side of the building.  It nominally works on most days, and during the hottest part of the day we can typically cool it down inside by a few degrees.  I've done no calculations, so pardon my rough estimations and guesswork, but I imagine that the energy required to run the fans in our house amounts to a one or two gallons of oil equivalent per year.  I would also estimate that a gallon of oil contains the accumulated energy of hundreds if not thousands of years worth of plant life.  This ancient plant life's carbon was converted via time and pressure to the fossil fuels that we are burning to generate the electricity that runs our fans.  The carbon in those fuels goes into the atmosphere somewhere, and stays there until it is recaptured (also known as sequestered) by some other plant life, as described by the carbon cycle.

So, we are burning thousands of years worth of stored energy in the form of plant carbon to cool our place temporarily, and that carbon is being released into the atmosphere.  Collectively as a species, we are burning millions of years of stored sunlight and releasing the carbon into the atmosphere each year.  That carbon only comes out of the atmosphere when captured by a plant through respiration, or by the ocean through similar processes described in the above link.  At the rate at which we are burning through the carbon, it is hard for the carbon cycle to keep up with us, and so more and more carbon dioxide is staying in the atmosphere.  I realize that for many people the theories of anthropocentric global warming and/or climate change are controversial... but it is indisputable that we're putting more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere all the time, and one only needs to look at Venus' atmosphere to admit that it could be a bad idea to pump known greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

So, finally, the "point" that my brain made to me that flipped a bit of a switch for me.  I do believe that humans are responsible for the warming trend our planet is experiencing, at least in part.  By burning fossil fuels in order to temporarily cool off my apartment, I am essentially saddling that heat onto my progeny.  Obviously the heat isn't 1:1, as I am just cooling off my apartment and the impact is spread out across the entire planet.  Unfortunately, much of the rest of the country and the developed world is also burning fossil fuels to try to cool off their abode, so it's a stronger impact on the future than just my apartment.  And the metaphor holds... in order to cool off my place, I'm heating up the future.  In order to cool off all of our places, we're heating up the world for our children and their children.  (I'm also aware that the elegance of this analogy breaks down when talking about wintertime rather than summertime, but it still struck me profoundly.)  By cooling myself now, I'm warming my children and grandchildren.  And, though a discussion of peak oil would make this post FAR too long, I believe that my descendants won't have the fossil resources to "control" their climate and cool themselves off that I now enjoy, especially since they'll need more of those fuels to bring themselves down to the same comfortable temperatures that I enjoy.  When this thought struck me, I went around the house and turned off the one light and the two fans that I was running.

Obviously, turning off the lights and the fans will do little to help the big picture, and it's not the whole solution.  And compared to most Americans, I'm doing pretty well with limiting my energy consumption, so getting it slightly lower by turning off the fan isn't even doing as much as it might sound like.  I take public transportation nearly exclusively, and I'm even reducing that as much as I can by riding my bike more and more.  Kelsey and I pay extra to offset our electricity use with electricity sourced entirely from renewable resources.  I haven't been able to find out exactly how it is that my electric company does this, but it's something.  So what else can I do?  What else can we all do to try to help?

As part of an answer, next Friday's blog post will resurrect an old series of mine about my Strategic Homesteading Goals.  This part of the series will be about my ideas for alternative housing, particularly how I plan to heat and cool my house.  If you haven't read part one, you can go to it here, and you'll be caught up enough to follow along on Monday.

As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year, New Opportunities

2014 will bring a slew of new opportunities for me and the Permiehomestead Blog.  My partner graduated nursing school last year, and is working full-time as a nurse now, which not only means I'm not a single income, but that her income alone is greater than our combined incomes have ever been.

One thing this means for us for now is that we'll be staying in Portland.  We wanted to try to move out to the Columbia Gorge, which is where we think we ultimately want land.  But the job she landed is in Portland, which means I can keep my current job, but I don't have to work so many hours in my current nearly minimum wage position.  (OK, it's not as near minimum as it could be, but it's really not far off.)  I'm going to be taking the extra time I have after stepping down to part-time and write more, work on more projects, and take care of the household.  I consider it homesteading lite.  I'll get to cook almost every day, I'll get to experiment with homesteading skills like brewing beer and wine and preserving food more often.  I'm also considering getting a carpentry apprenticeship in order to develop a very useful homesteading skill.  Finally, I should have the time, and we should have the money, that I should be able to attend some workshops and get some certifications.  All of these things mean that I'll have much more to write about.

I'm planning on trying to write about 2-3 blog posts per week.  I have a couple of other writing projects I'm working on, so I may miss some posts here and there, but I think 2014 is the year that I finally stick to writing consistently.  I've always suspected that not having enough to write about that falls under the scope of this blog has been my biggest hurdle, and this year I suspect that hurdle will be removed.

Keep your eye out for more content.  If you haven't already, follow my blog on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter, and as always, please make sure to participate with comments here on the blog. It always makes it more interesting when it isn't just a one-way conversation!

Thanks for reading!