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!

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