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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Subterranean Heating and Cooling

Installing a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System

Last night CTD commented on my post "If I could design a system from scratch...," saying:

You may have already thought about a subterranean heating and cooling system, but if not, here's a couple of links. I'm considering one of these for its year-round efficiency (off grid if I can get the math to work out) and possibly a small rocket mass as a supplement for those really cold stretches...

Such cool stuff! The subterranean heating/cooling system is primarily three layers of Underground Air Circulation Tubing (UACT), 4 inch thin-walled perforated drainage tubes (less than $6 per 10 foot length at Home Depot). The tubes are spaced about every 2 feet horizontally in each layer, and the UACT layers are each a foot deep. The tubes are connected to a plenum (e.g., a 55-gallon drum) at each end, and a fan blows the entire volume of the greenhouse through the underground tubing every 10 minutes.

During days when it gets toasty in the greenhouse, air enters the system warm and moist and comes out cool and dry, leaving the moisture and heat energy in the soil. When the greenhouse air gets colder than the soil (e.g., winter nights), the fan pumps cool air through the ground and it comes out warmer and moister.

John Cruickshank of says he's created greenhouses in Zone 4 (average minimum temperature of -25 degrees F) that maintain a Mediterranean environment all year round without any supplementary heat.

I still want to include a rocket mass heater. One, I like to burn things (wood). Two, I like to cook things (pizza...). Three, my greenhouse isn't a double-glazed marvel of heat retention, so it will probably need supplemental heat, even though I'm in Zone 7 (average minimum temperature of 5 degrees F).

Here are some sketches of how I think I could have both a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System (SHCS) and a Rocket Mass Heater (RMH).

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rattlesnake Mountain

Marriott Ranch is a 4200 acre cattle ranch near Rattlesnake Mountain, about an hour from Washington, DC. I had the chance to accompany my autistic daughter on a youth trip there during this past week.

About 150 youth spent three days re-living the Mormon handcart trek - no cell phones, no computers, no microwaves or ovens, no flush toilets. I didn't take a camera, so the image above is a shot from the internet showing the views near Hume, Virginia, and looks like the blue skies and green landscapes we saw.

We pulled handcarts along the trails south of Rattlesnake Mountain. One stretch we will all remember was the ascent of Killer Ridge - where the men and boys were pulled away and forbidden to talk with or help the girls. I'd heard about the "Women's Pull," but it was another thing entirely to experience it. The way was full of rocks, eroded trail, and tree roots - entirely difficult even had it been flat terrain, much less the steep side of a mountainous ridge. Because the weather was lovely, they had us go all the way to the top of the ridge. It was intense in a good way and possibly the most physically challenging thing I have done short of un-anesthetized childbirth.

As we camped by the river the second night, most were thinking how hard it had been for those early folks who settled the Western United States. I was thinking about how life is now for so many who don't have access to electricity and plumbing, and how life will be in a post-oil era, whenever that might happen. But there was also the wonder of walking within feet of longhorn cattle (without an intervening fence), watching a crane soar through the sky over our camp, seeing the blanket of stars above us as our campfires died out, and washing in the sparkling waters of the Rappahannock River.

Towards the end of the last day, my daughter told me, "Momar, I don't think I want to do this after all." But that was when we were already on the track home, walking towards the cars that would take us back to our electricity-served modern lives. And it was really the only time she complained, beyond the constant refrain of "My feet are starting to get tired, Momar."

One of the girls captured my feelings well when she said "It was a cleansing experience."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Aquaponics Association Fundraiser

The Upcoming Aquaponics Association Conference

Recently Sylvia Bernstein announced an Aquaponics Conference in Orlando, Florida, during mid-September. Murray Hallam of Practical Aquaponics will be there, and Sylvia will be launching her new book, Aquaponic Gardening.

I volunteered to build an aquaponics system in an hour, and explain the improvements I've made to make the system quieter and more robust. I suggested we could do a silent auction for the system during the conference, since I already have a system.

This weekend Sylvia contacted me about the idea of using the proceeds from the auction as a fundraiser for the Aquaponics Association. The Association will promote the benefits of aquaponics, create educational materials, and, eventually, advocate for legal and business standing for those wishing to grow using aquaponics.

Why is an association needed?

Because aquaponics growers currently run afoul of laws and regulations that were written for livestock. Food poisoning can result when E. Coli bacteria from the feces of warm-blooded animals gets into the food supply. So the standard for Food Safety Certification reads: "The presence of animals in the growing area is an automatic (complete) failure of the food safety audit."

Because fish are not warm-blooded they do not carry E. coli internally. But it was easier to write the standard using the term "the presence of animals" than type "the presence of feces from warm-blooded animals and/or humans."

Aquaponics, the most elegant, ecologically responsible form of agriculture, is currently damned by the laziness of legislators. [Damn as in the Latin damnum, meaning damage, fine, or harm.] For more, check out Sylvia's recent blog talking about aquaponics, safe food, and public perception.

Anyway, I am completely in favor of this Aquaponics Association. I'm pleased that proceeds from auction of this system can help further the aims of the group.

On a separate note, Sylvia suggested that instead of a silent auction, we have Murray Hallam auction the system off during dinner on Saturday night (September 17th). I adore Murray Hallam, and the room will be full of Murray Hallam groupies. Need I say I'm geeking out at the idea of Murray auctioning off my system?


By the way, Sylvia was highlighted as a "Hero Entrepreneur" on blogtalk radio on 16 June. You can pre-order Sylvia's book and save 30%.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Look what Netflix Recommended...

A Crude Awakening

Since I've indulged in several documentaries talking about peak oil and food issues, Netflix now highlights other, similar, movies for me to consider. Today's recommendation was A Crude Awakening. This is not a comfortable film to watch, but it's interesting to see that it came out in 2006 - the same year world-wide oil production peaked.

If documentary films about the screwed up food/energy/carbon situation depress you, don't watch this one. But if such documentaries energize you to live sustainably and work towards a peaceful post-oil future, then feel free to flex your brain with this particular offering.

From a film student perspective, it's interesting to compare the 2006 A Crude Awakening with the 2004 documentary The End of Suburbia. The two films cover similar ground and lay out almost the same facts. But I think the 2006 film is better. More terrifying, but better.

The 2004 film End of Suburbia

When I am old and [more] gray, it will be interesting to look back and see how the reality compares to the messages we are being given circa 2011.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Auto Top Up

The Dial Float Valve

Murray Hallam shows a cool doo-hicky for automatically topping up a tank in his video Aquaponcs: The First 12 Months. Looked like an old-fashioned toilet bulb, but mounted differently from a toilet bulb.

I went to my local hardware stores and failed to find anything that seemed to work "right." So I came up with my 5-gallon water-cooler approach to keeping my tank full.

Except that it's high summer now. I'm having to fill the 5-gallon jug every couple of days, instead of once a week or so. It's still less water than I would use to water this many plants in a conventional garden, but it's irritating.

Then tonight I was talking to my Mom on the phone. Turns out the float valve Murray had in his video is a standard component in evaporative coolers (aka swamp coolers). The reason I'd been unable to find the piece is that swamp coolers don't work in Virginia because water doesn't evaporate terribly well in Virginia's humidity. Therefore big hardware stores in Virginia don't stock parts for evaporative coolers. They don't even let people in Virginia (and presumably other humid regions) find these parts on the websites, since it isn't a part they bother stocking in their online shipping depots.


Now that I know what to call the thing, I could order one on eBay. Sweetness. Even better, my Mom is willing to jot down to her local hardware store and pick one up for me. In turn, she's asked me for a bag of my bacteria-impregnated rocks, to help get her aquaponics system started. Kind of like how neighbors of yore used to lend each other a cup of sourdough starter.

So there'll be one "Dial Evaporative Cooler 1/4" Brass Float valve " headed from Utah to Virginia, and a pint of damp hydroton headed from Virginia to Utah.

In the mean time, you now know what to look for on eBay, should you want to set up such an auto top-off system for yourself.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Greenhouse Layouts

The Royal Victorian 10' x 15' Greenhouse

I have a relative who happened into a fair chunk of cash and bought a million-dollar home. Before the market fell, it was a multi-million dollar house. But the market has fallen, plus this house doesn't face the street. The other day it occurred to me that a lovely greenhouse could improve the curb appeal of this house.

I mentioned the idea of a greenhouse to my relative, and they were interested in considering something like the Royal Victorian. They even have waste heat that comes out that side of their house, that they could divert into the greenhouse during the winter.

So I got thinking about how I would lay out an aquaponics greenhouse, if I had a 10-ft by 15-ft floor to work with...

Possible Layout for 10-ft. by 15-ft. Greenhouse

Even though my relative can direct heat from their house into the greenhouse, I took the liberty of putting a Rocket Mass Heater into the layout. The beauty of the Rocket Mass Heater is it can augment the greenhouse temperature if the waste heat from the main house isn't adequate.

I'm not sure how much exhaust piping a Rocket Mass Heater can drive, or if my two-exhaust concept is viable. But it would be nicely symmetric...

But what about adding a BioSand Filter to produce drinking water from a rain barrel or stream?

10-ft by 15-ft layout with BioSand Filter

The beauty of having a BioSand Filter in a heated greenhouse is it wouldn't freeze up in the winter. Your fish and pets could have clean water no matter what ice storm or flooding or water main break might happen.

But what about those of us who can't afford a Royal Victorian greenhouse?

First I modified the layout to fit a 15-ft by 8.5-ft greenhouse footprint. You could make one of these out of EMT conduit, like the one I have in my backyard. This aisle is wide enough to allow wheelchair access (36-in).

8.5-ft by 15-ft layout with BioSand Filter

The vents from the Rocket Mass Heater would be pretty close to the fish tank and sump, but the Rubbermaid tanks can withstand 190 degrees Fahrenheit. This assumes my idea of splitting the outflow isn't fundamentally flawed...

Next we look at what could be done in an 8.5-ft by 12-ft footprint, close to what I have in my back yard:

8.5-ft by 12-ft layout

In the 8.5-ft by 12-ft footprint, I don't have room for the BioSand Filter. The rocket mass heater is at the end (which is a mere 3-in from the wall - presumably constructed from non-flammable material in the vicinity of the heater). I've moved the growbeds so they overhang the sump and fish tank by a few more inches. This will make it a little more difficult to access the fish and pump, but the beds will be stable on the cinder block supports, and there is still adequate space to reach the fish and pump.

In the last layout, I thought about how I might accommodate a Rocket Mass Heater and a BioSand Filter in the large Harbor Freight greenhouse (10-ft by 12-ft):

Layout for 10-ft. by 12-ft. Greenhouse

This shows a more traditional (i.e., proven) run for the exhaust from the Rocket Stove.

So... I have a plan to propose should my relative decide to go forward with the fancy Royal Victorian greenhouse. I also have a plan for how I could at least accommodate a Rocket Mass Heater and wheelchair accessibility in something close to the footprint I've currently got in my back yard, if I decided to make the necessary modifications.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Carbon Offsets - the 1% Solution

Buying credits at Carbon Trade Exchange

The average American creates 20 metric tons of carbon emissions per year. These are 20 metric tons above and beyond the kind of necessarily carbon-neutral lifestyle our ancestors lived in the 1800s.

20 metric tons can be offset with a mere $500 investment in green projects. If I earned the US median average income of $60,000, that's less than 1% of my gross income.

Starting now, I will spend 1% of my gross income to eliminate my carbon footprint. That's an easy thing to do so tomorrow's world will be less carbon-reliant.

If you don't feel you can afford 1% of your income to buy carbon neutrality, look into the 'anatomy' of your carbon footprint and see what you can do to directly reduce your carbon emissions.

Below is my investigation into how much my various life activities contribute to my 20 ton carbon footprint. To significantly reduce my footprint, I would have to go radically 'green,' give up my car, and refuse to travel. However, given my current responsibilities at home and work, I cannot realistically give up my car or refuse to travel. So it's easier to simply pay.

What's in a Footprint, from December 14, 2010

Our Footprint

I talked about how 69% of all available fresh water gets used to irrigate plants, and how food travels 1300-1500 miles from farm to your plate.

You'd think these factors would make unwise food choices a big issue, when it comes to carbon footprint. I mean, all that water needs to be treated, and the vehicles transporting the food need fuel.

It turns out that if I just ate, with no thought to how far the food travels, whether it is in season or organic, and ate lots of red meat, my carbon footprint would be 1.6 metric tons per year.

It appears the maximum annual amount of carbon dioxide we can emit per individual without incurring climate change is 2.0 metric tons. So wasteful food practices consume 80% of our allowable emissions.

However, we have a much bigger issue than our food practices.

We in America emit 20.0 metric tons per individual per year.


A family with two cars each driving the average 12,000 miles per year emits about 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The folks put in a 1.0 ton penalty per car to account for emissions that went into making the car, amortized over the life of the car. If your two cars are Hummers, that's a whopping 16.5 metric tons per year. If your two cars are Priuses, it comes down to 6.5 - still way too high.

If you pay $200 per month for electricity, add another 2.8 tons per year.

If you're a fashion-conscious consumer, add 2.3 tons.

If you take a single round trip plane ride across the country, add 1.0 ton.

Plan to overcome your excesses by recycling? If you composted and recycled everything you use, it would only "save" 0.1 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Here's what my family might look like (ahem...):

Here's the picture of what contributes to the 20 tons of emissions:

And here's what the emissions look like for someone who only uses public transit, cuts electricity use by 70%, and eats/shops in an eco-conscious manner (we assume they also recycle):

It can be done.

Living may be Hazardous to your Health

The Raccoon

I set up my first attempt at a biosand filter last night. Alas, it isn't flowing well, so I see minutes, even hours, of playing in the sand, trying to rectify this situation. Shucks...

In the mean time, I went to the internet, to see if there was a quick explanation of why things aren't working. What I came across was information that fine sand (3.5-1.5 mm average size, with a reasonable amount of uniformity) should work.

But I also came across big red additions to one page, warning that you can never know if water from a personal biofilter is actually really safe, particularly if it sources from a roof. The most worrisome issue for the webmaster, it turned out, was the tiny eggs that are found in the leavings of raccoons.

Coons have it great. There is a nematode/worm that lives in their gut (70-90% of coons are so affected). The coons aren't apparently bothered by this worm, but other species who ingest the eggs can suffer weakness and even death. Which means good eating for the fortunate coon that is able to overpower a weakened animal.

Sometime in the mid 1900s, a scientist opined that it would be possible for humans to be affected by this parasite. Since then a dozen or so cases of the illness have been documented, along with five deaths (according to Wikipedia) - allegedly all from toddlers who had played directly with raccoons or raccoon fecal material. It takes a couple of years to kill, but cannot be prevented unless treatment starts within 1-3 days of ingesting the coon poop.

It's a terrible thing for a small child to become weak and slip into a fatal coma. Because this is possible, should all people of all ages across the entire country eschew nature? No home gardens, no playing in the yard, no camping or walking or breathing? That's what it would take to completely and entirely avoid any consequences of injury from nature and the pollutants we humans have introduced to the natural environment around us.

Five deaths were caused by these raccoon-native nematodes over the past forty years. By contrast, road accidents kill about 40,000 people in the US each year. Falls kill 13,000. Drowning kills almost 4,000. Shall we therefore avoid roads, gravity, and water?

By all means, if you find your toddler playing pat-a-cake with a coon or munching on coon scat, do take them to the doctor. Wash their hands after they've been playing in the dirt. Explain to them that sucking on their filthy hands might cause slow brain death, so you'd rather they didn't do it.

But the chances are pretty low of your child getting to be one of the US's 2,000 annual toddler deaths (ages 1-5). And at that they are a thousand times more likely to die from the flu than from coon worms.

In the mean time, I am reminded of Jesus' saying, "Blind guides - you filter out gnats, but swallow camels!" [Matthew 23:24]

And tonight I'll work on why my sand filter is filtering so thoroughly that it's only passing a few ounces per hour, instead of the 10-20 liters per hour that is supposed to be possible.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Community Gardening

Sustainable Tucson (Arizona)

Had the chance last night to host a couple of folks from Sustainable Tucson who were visiting the DC area for a conference.

The idea behind Sustainable Tucson is to create a city system could continue to function and sustain itself, if external oil and water were to be interrupted or end.

According to Tres (pronounced like 'trace') and Paula, the average water use per person is something like 600,000 gallons annually (drinking, bathing, agriculture to grow food and wearables, water used in manufacturing). Rainfall in Tucson provides a mere 80,000 gallons per person per year.

Their ideas involve such things as conservation, but also community gardens. And that is where the aquaponics comes in, because aquaponics is so much less water-intensive than other gardening techniques.

I showed them around the place and they took lots of pictures of the fish and the siphons and the plumbing. Then we had a nice dinner which included a green salad fresh from the garden, home-made rolls with herb butter (garden again), and generally had a very pleasant evening.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Off-grid pumping?

A lady over at the Aquaponics Community asked about how it might be possible to pump the water for an aquaponics system in a rural setting - India, I believe.

That got me thinking - seems to me that adding a water tower (of sorts) in addition to the sump and constant-height fish tank is part of the answer. But how to get the water up into the water tower?

Windmills are an obvious answer - kind of. But I'm always about figuring out something elegant from commodity bits. So wildeyeUK's video of his water wheel got me thinking.

What if I drove the wheel with wind energy, rather than a stream? And what if I was drawing water from the fish tank with multiple 'scoops,' so the drag from any individual scoop was low? [Found quite a treatise here at]

Here's another "Perpetual Motion" water wheel that fires the imagination. Bicycle wheels are commodity items that are highly tuned for minimal drag.

Here's a completely different concept:

And here's a new hand pump that could run off wind, once primed (this is the first video of four - watch all four videos if you have time):

But this is the funnest video - Ben (aged 6 years) making a piston pump. Purpose? To have fun.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fresh Water Monsters

River Monsters with Jeremy Wade

A friend insisted I sit down and watch a few episodes of River Monsters, one of her favorite shows.

Wow. Seriously fun show.

In the mean time, my little monsters appear to have given up their piscivore habit - no new victims despite the fact I was on travel last night and my delegated fish-feeders forgot. [Late or missed feedings in past have resulted in floating victims...]

Meanwhile the little bugs are gone. I sprayed them off physically with water, then applied an organic pest control for caterpillars and bugs made from common kitchen staples (check out Organic Garden Pest Control).

You know, a reason I have time to watch River Monsters and blog is my fish and garden take practically no time to maintain. Toss some food to the hungry fish, glance around the garden, ooh and aah at how much everything has grown. That's it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

If I could design a system from scratch...

A Perfect Day

If I could design a system from scratch, and if I didn't have any constraints, I would:
  • Use a bell siphon for my ebb and flow (already in heaven on this)
  • Use locally sourced expanded shale aggregate for my grow medium
  • Site the greenhouse in a clear area with only norther shade
  • Make the walkway 36" wide and paved, so it is wheelchair accessible
  • Sink the fishtank and sump so the growbeds are about 30" high
  • Install a rocket mass heater under the walkway for winter
  • Install a rain catchment and storage system
  • Install a biosand water filter
  • Install a windmill and solar panels for power
  • Have a nifty greenhouse (like this Royal Victorian)

The Royal Victorian 10' x 15' Greenhouse

In the mean time, I have a wonderfully robust system where the plants are exploding, from which I'm already been able to harvest lettuce, beans, peas, strawberries, mustard, and basil.

Last night we had homemade pizza with pesto sauce made from basil in the garden. So I'm already in heaven!