Passive Annual Heat Storage

When most people hear “free heat” they think of passive solar systems.  The sun comes in in the winter and heats the home.  If it is too sunny, it can get too hot.  If it is too cloudy, it can get too cold.

But one brilliant guy in Missoula came up with an entirely different approach:   store the heat from the summer to warm your house in the winter.  And he did a lot of experimenting and managed to optimize it to something pretty simple.Montanageodome

Consider for a moment the “earth berm” house or the “underground” house.  The temperature down deep is a pretty steady 54 degrees.   So these designs shoot for homes that get close to the 54 degree mass with the idea that “it’s easier to heat a house starting at 54 degrees, than to start at, say, 10 degrees.”  But what if we can take that idea just a little bit further and change the 54 degrees to 72 degrees? Then the house stays 72 degrees year round and we don’t have to heat or cool at all.

In passive heating/cooling systems, energy storage is based on a difference in temperature between the storage medium and the energy source. John Hait (Rocky Mountain Research Center) uses the earth to store solar heat and has termed this technique Passive Annual Heat Storage (PAHS).   PAHS uses dirt to surround a dwelling as part of the strucuture’s thermal mass, insulating it from the elements, but not from the walls.  (I have come to think of the phrase “Annualized Thermal Inertia” as a more accurate description, however, since passive annual heat storage doesn’t hint to the cooling effect that occurs in the summer).geodome_current_gazebo

According to Hait, the tremendous mass of the building and surrounding soil in the PAHS design (a volume  of about 45,000 cubic feet (1,800 tons) for the 20 feet beside and below a  30-foot-diameter home) allows the interior temperature to vary only a few degrees  throughout the year.   He claims it will typically float between about 76 degrees Fahrenheit in the  summer and about 70 degrees in the winter without any additional form of heating or cooling required.

By the way, the images in this post are of two homes in Missoula that use this technique.  I would love to visit these homes ….  should anybody know how to get in touch with the owners!

On one of the posts, a member gave a pretty good description of John Hait’s technique, based on his book:  “How it works: Earth is actually a very bad accumulator. Add to that, that it heats and cools very slow. With PAHS John Hait supposedly created a system that makes use of these “bad” qualities. Any temperature difference between mass and air will start a transfer. This transfer will travel inward in the mass like the waves on a pond, when you drop a stone. A short impulse will fade out, a hot summers day will create a heatwave travelling several meters into the mass. When winter comes, the waves will switch and the heat is drawn back. But because the warmth moves slowly in the mass, you cannot “empty” the store quickly. It takes time. Which means, that – when your thermal mass is constructed correctly – it will give you warmth back all winter long. The tubes ensures that no heat is lost with air supply. Insulation ensures that no heat is lost through the walls. Of course there will be a loss. Your thermal mass should compensate only that. And according to John Hait’s house in Rocky Mountains, it works.”

Another technique, known as annualized geo-solar, is similar to passive annual heat storage.  Don Stephens, living in the often cloudy Northwest, realized the need to store the more plentiful summer heat (as did Hait) but his design stores the heat directly in the earth beneath the dwelling, where the heat rises in the winter through floor surfaces.

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Reversing Desertification

In order to understand how to reverse desertification, we first need to understand what desertification actually is.   And why do we even care?  Isn’t it a problem in the desert environment, not in the Northwest?

I believe that most of the greenhouse gas problems come, not from people driving cars, but from desertification … where once there were trees but now there is a desert.  Desertification arises from the removal of trees, often for agricultural practices, the ensuing soil erosion and washing away of topsoil, leaving a land that is unable to retain water. And all those trees that used to act as carbon sinks (thus helping to reduce the greenhouse effect) are gone.

Geoff Lawton, Director of Permaculture Research Institute (PRI), has been focusing efforts in the Dead Sea Valley (Greening the Desert) to reverse the desertification of that area.  I have produced numerous podcasts in discussion with him (also, he gave a TED talk!)  If we can understand how to reverse desertification in the Dead Sea Valley, or the Sahara, can’t we use those same ideas in our own farms and gardens at home in order to have more productive crops?  A major part of my work and focus here in the Northwest is doing just this: replacing irrigation with permaculture by using various methods including swales, hugelkultur beds, mulch, and paddock shift grazing.

According to Allan Savory, farmer, scientist and founder of Holistic Management International (HMI), “it isn’t climate change but our management that is causing desertification … and desertification is a major component of climate change.”  Savory suggests that livestock, when properly managed, are essential to land restoration – that raising cattle can be used to combat global climate change.  The science and experience behind Savory’s innovations, citing his work in Africa using elephants as the primary tool to heal the water cycle and reverse desertification, is presented by Savory himself in this short but informational clip:

Many others are continuing the work of reversing desertification, such as Owen Hablutzel, a Certified Holistic Educator with HMI as well as Director of Lawton’s USA branch of the Permaculture Research Institute.  Hablutzel also trains farmers and ranchers on keylining - an approach to farm and ranch planning featuring a sub-soil plowing technique.  Hablutzel describes keylining as a low-cost investment with a high soil fertility return across the landscape.

Look at this before and after picture.  The left picture is a farm in New Mexico.  The picture on the right is the same land, only with very tall weeds growing a year after Hablutzel keylined there.  He applied only one technique – keylining:  no seeding, no irrigation.  Pretty impressive.

Here is Hablutzel talking on water and transformation on dry land systems, resilience science and keyline application:

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Is Black Locust the Ultimate Permaculture Tree?

photo by: Gary Gregory

You can spot where the old homesteads are in Montana as you will likely find a stand of black locust trees.  I’m surprised we don’t see more black locust here as they have to be one of the most useful trees ever.

They are famous in permaculture circles as a “nitrogen fixer.” Another way of looking
at this is that they provide free fertilizer to neighboring plants.    They have tiny leaves which create a dappled shade under the tree – perfect for other plants that choose to grow
near a black locust.  Plus the leaves come out late in the season, allowing time for the sun to warm the soil in the spring.   In other words, this tree is excellent at caring for other

The wood from the tree may very well be the best wood that can grow in our area for anything outdoors.   Fence posts, patio furniture, sheds, trellises, animal shelters …  can all last for a hundred years without any paint, stain or other wood preservative.  Far longer than cedar.

As this video points out, black locust provides excellent bee fodder, grows rapidly, and  even makes excellent tools (isn’t Brian’s hay rake awesome?)  Note, because it doesn’t rot quickly, I don’t recommended it for the inside of hugelkultur beds but I have used it for the borders.

When folks ask me about what to use for a raised bed border, I always say “stone.”  And if that is in short supply, I have a long list of what not to use:  railroad ties, treated wood, cedar, black walnut ….  but in this scenario black locust is the mystery jewel.  In fact, because it lasts so long, farmers called it “stone wood.”  I use it for my raised beds.  We know it contains 4% fungicide by weight so often the concern is whether it is safe for whatever is growing in one’s beds, but the natural fungual component is pretty tightly locked up inside of the wood, keeping the growies happy.

Missoula’s Mark Vander Meer says that black locusts are under-appreciated trees.   Yes, they are exotic and invasive though not too invasive here.  He shares that they are tougher than hickory (so use the wood when half green, too aged and you won’t be able to drive a nail through it) and, black locust makes great firewood, buring clean and hot.

It is certainly known to have several toxic components that affect the gastrointestinal and nervous systems … which is why concerns over animal safety often accompany this tree.  In my experience, if critters have lots of other things to choose from, they will eat that which is best for them so having black locust trees in the area isn’t a huge problem.  Our friends at Inspiration Farm have managed their goats, exposing them to small amounts of the black locust tree leaves, bark and branches, to no ill-effect.  This is one of those complicated things where it has been proven to be toxic and at the same time, it has been proven to be an excellent feed source to certain animals.  Identical to another legume, alfalfa – alfalfa has been proven to be toxic but is also one of our primary feeds.

I strongly suggest that people collect a handful of black locust seeds and plant them on their land.

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Washing Dishes by Hand versus Dishwasher

I had a painfully awkward week.  In one week five different people told me “the fact” that dishwashers use less water than washing dishes by hand.    I  wanted to say that I think I use less water than a dishwasher, but in all  five cases I was immediately hushed and reminded that this is “a fact” therefore not open to any discussion.

After the fifth time, something fun popped into my head.  I remember somebody, somewhere, saying “never argue with somebody that buys ink by the 55 gallon drum.”  And, as it turns out, I buy ink by the 55 gallon drum.  Anybody need some empty drums?  Well, okay, there really isn’t any ink – but I’m not sure how to phrase the equivalent in internet bits.

So I made this video.  I just had to.  I needed to express my position.  I needed to prove my point!  Proof dammit!

So I set up my camera and proceeded to wash a load of dishes by hand. And when the
dishes were clean, I used the dishwasher as a sort of drying rack.  And PRESTO!   I crushed a lame, so-called “fact”.

The common misconception, that washing dishes with a dishwasher (versus by hand) saves on water usage, is an excellent example, in my mind, of how some of the greenest people succomb to the greenwashing of Madison Avenue.  The doing-it-by-hand technique that beats the most eco dishwasher under any  circumstances is pretty simple:  use a dishpan and  run just a tiny amount of water  (quarter cup) to wash the first thing.  Then use a tiny amount of water to  rinse that one thing, with the rinse water running into the dishpan.  As you are  on to the fifth thing, you have a bit more soapy water in the bottom of the  pan.  So you can start washing bigger things.  By the time you are done washing  and rinsing everything, there should be about two quarts of water used.

Eco dishwashers set to eco mode use about 9 gallons of water and usually  don’t get the dishes clean unless you clean them first.  Granted, it is  possible for a person to wash dishes by hand where they leave the water running  and waste lots and lots of water.  I am certainly not advocating that.  There are some new dishwashers that will use only 3 gallons of water, but these are very expense and there are still some who say they don’t do a good job of cleaning.

I do agree with those who say washing by hand, or not, can also be just a matter of personal choice.  Beyond the water usage issue, I prefer washing dishes by hand for many other reasons:

A)  I like to wash dishes by hand because when I am done, the dishes are all done.  I am not burdening my future self to finish loading.  Or to unload.  Nor am I leaving a “to do” for somebody else.

B)  Each piece meets my cleanliness standards.

C)  It’s the way my grandad did it – and I’m always keen on doing things the way my grandad did.

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Horticulture of the United States of Pochahontas

This is fiction.  I made it up.  Mr. Rogers said it was okay to do this.

My fiction starts with fact.  In 1608 a boat comes to the shores of what is now known as the United States of America.  Then comes my fiction.  Rather than things working out the way we now know, things go a bit … different.  Pocahontas turns out to be a bit of a warrior
genius and next thing you know, the Europeans decide to not stick any more flags in this soil.

Continuing my fiction, the centuries pass and the borders for “The United States of Pocahontas” just so happen to be the exact same borders that we now know as the USA.

There is trade between the USP and other countries.  And the USP has values that are a bit different than other countries.  Especially when it comes to agriculture.  Before Pocahontas, agriculture was practiced.  And permaculture is a lot like that.  And when folks outside the USP said “hey, this plowing thing is awesome, you should try it” the folks in the USP said “that seems like a practice that is disrespectful to mother earth – we choose to not do that.”  Similar sorts of things happened with petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides.

The culture within the USP evolved a lot, but these values about respect for the earth remained.

In my imagination,  the amount of food produced per acre is far more than what other
countries can accomplish.  Plus, the lifespan and overall health exceeds all other nations.  The #1 industry in the USP is a sort of health tourism – when people come here, their ills tend to just fade away.

I am curious to know what their practices are.  Since this is all in my imagination, I am the only one that can possibly paint this picture.  Oh sure, other people can take this idea and paint their own pictures, or send ideas my way about what I might wanna put in my picture.  But overall, I am trying to express something that is in my head.

For the last two years I’ve been thinking a lot about the USP and agriculture/horticulture that happens there.  And how we might accelerate our learning about permaculture to end up some where way beyond permaculture.  So I’ve decided to make up a new word:  “husp.”  This is actually an acronym for “Horticulture of the United States of Pocahontas.”

Considering today’s reality, I wonder a fair bit about how we might go about re-creating HUSP 2012.  Since I don’t know what that is, then I know I need far more knowledge than I have now.  And I need to accelerate the collaborative innovation of millions of people over the last 404 years.  The foundations seem, to me, to smell a bit like permaculture, bio-dynamic, respectful harvest and an overall more symbiotic relationship with nature.  As opposed to the current model which kinda seems like “make nature my personal bitch.”

Here is a graph I made to illustrate what is in my head:

I wonder ….  what if there was a plot of 2000 acres that was broken into a couple dozen chunks.  Some chunks might be 200 acres and some chunks might be 2 acres.  And folks keen on permaculture were put on some chunks and folks keen on biodynamic were put on other chunks and folks keen on native plants were on others.  Each person is looked at as sort of an artist, and is asked to construct their masterpiece in seed and soil on their chunk of land.  And every few months, these people gather, visit and see the art created by the other artists.  Thus allowing a sort of “cross pollination” of knowledge.

Perhaps, in time, we will get closer to husp 2012.  Thank you Mr. Rogers for convincing me to create my own land-of-make-believe.

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Humanure and Composting Toilets

The topic of composting toilets and managing bodily fluids comes up again and again and it is one that I’ve touched on in numerous podcasts over the years.  But just recently I visited Missoula’s wastewater treatment plant with Heath Carey, a local environmental scientist who spearheaded the Missoula Hybrid Poplar Demonstration Project (while a graduate student at the UofM), which focused on the reuse of treated wastewater as a source of irrigation and fertilization for a 1.6 acre poplar plantation – and way to reduce the amount of “poop Kool-Aid” going into the Clark Fork river. We recorded a two part podcast, in which Heath and I talk about the plant, the energy and money needed for its maintenance, and the negative effects of wastewater on waterways due to their pharmaceutical, heavy metals, chemicals, and nutrients content.  We also discuss the alternative idea of poop beasts,  trees (such as poplar, cottonwood and willow) that use the nutrients for growth, binding chemicals and pharmaceuticals and building soil over time which in turn will be able to take in more water and nutrients.

The huge volume of water that is used in sewer treatment plants is another concern when thinking about waste management.  Reducing the amount of water going into the system in the first place is a good first step.  Even better would be to use a composting toilet with urine diversion and a greywater system which would eliminate the need for sewers altogether.

But, when composting people poop, or humanure, many factors come into play. Odor, concern over mixing pee and poop, venting, adequate heat … all considerations when switching the old outhouse into an effective composting system … and there are loads of alternative approaches.  The video below is a tour of four outhouses – the last one is a piece of art and is a fully water tight system.

All of the systems in the video minimize pee. There is no pee diverter, just the request that pee go elsewhere when convenient (easy for the guys, and with a little knowledge, relatively easy for the gals).

Urine-diverting systems can be purchased or made.  Carol Steinfeld, author of Liquid Gold, shared her experience, in a post, on how to make a urine-diverting composting toilet:

…after making these, you’ll see the value of the manufactured diverters. However, a funnel can be just fine. Make the diverter with an auto parts store large funnel or with a cut bottle. You can make a waterless urinal out of a bottle or funnel or purchase the oil-trap versions or the no-trap versions. I install low-cost waterless urinals with no trap when then drain to a graywater system or gravel trench. Urine is a great additive to a graywater system because it adds nitrogen to the carbony water that is graywater, creating a more complete diet for microbes and plants. Much of this is shown in my book, Liquid Gold, and somewhat in my books, The Composting Toilet System Book and Reusing the Resource.”

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Compost-Based Bio-Energy Systems

When done properly, composting creates a great deal of heat – heat that can be harnessed to heat water and create usable energy. To capture this heat, the late French innovator, Jean Pain, developed a technique (Jean Pain Method) harvesting energy from composting materials, ultimately providing 100% of his household energy needs.  He experimented with looping pipe throughout a compost pile and running water through it, as well as distilling methane to run a generator and use for cooking.

I visited Brian Kerkvliet, of Inspiration Farms in Washington, to see his version of a compost based bio-energy system.  Brian used about 100 ft of 1/2 inch poly-pipe coils through the pile, looping them back and forth through each layer as they built the pile  lasagna method.  Cold and hot water pipes led to their outdoor shower where hot water started out at 160 degrees (thus the need to temper with cold water) and ended up heating to about 90 degrees by the end of two months.  So for about 1 1/2 hours of labor (building the bed with the help of farm interns) they got two months of pretty unlimited hot showers.  After the hot showers, he also had a lovely pile of compost and the moisture from the shower fed mushrooms … Hot water, compost and mushrooms … Permaculture!

In this podcast, I talk to Zane, at a Permaculture Design Course in Dayton, MT, on making a Jean Pain compost pile.

Two of my other podcasts mention the Jean Pain technique:

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