Archive for the ‘alternative energy’ Category

Shane finished up the solar panel mounts a little while ago. They’re looking pretty good. Can’t wait to get the panels up there and whole system hooked up but I’ll have to a while yet with the number of projects on the go.



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Fer fack’s sake. We’re back on researching power. Have I mentioned how much I hate researching off-grid systems? There’s a ton of information to take in. Generally I’d class myself as an intelligent person. I find after about 8 or so hours of this kind of study I feel like I have the intellectual capacity of a rock.

The other thing that bothers me about this field is that I am cheap by nature and there is no ‘cheap’ solution to going off-grid. Correction, there is no cheap solution to going off-grid and not living like a hobo. Alright, and by ‘hobo’ I mean person who lives without computers in addition to basics like refrigeration.

Having said that, I think we may be close to a solution. We are currently considering a 24 Volt system and 6  x 230 Watt solar panels. The specifics of said package would include:

The Outback Flexpower One

The Outback X240 transformer (so that we can power our 220 Volt Grundfos well)

6 x REC-230 solar panels

A 6 circuit solar combiner box

A 15 Amp DC breaker

2 x 70 foot radox solar cables

3 or 5 battery connection cables (see below)

and either: 6 x 4 Volt Surrette batteries or 4 x 6 Volt Surrette batteries

We’re not sure on the batteries. We’ve pretty much settled on Surrettes for a number of reasons (thicker plates, lead acid, longevity, excellent warranty, made in Canada, etc.) but can’t decide whether to go with 6 Volts or 4. The 6 Volt batteries are the 6CS17PS and the 4 Volt are the 4 CS17PS- both industrial (as opposed to commercial), so 10 year warranty and 3200 cycles rated at 50% depth.

For the whole system- from solar panels to batteries- we’re looking at about fifteen grand. I kind of feel like I’m going to puke just thinking about it. It helps a bit to consider that if we were to spend $100 a month, assuming prices on gas and electricity don’t go up in the next decade (hahahahahahahahaha!), we’re looking at about twelve and a half years to see a full return on our investment. Still, it’s a lot of money to plunk down- about three times the cost of the house itself. It’s going to hurt- no doubt about it.

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Rocket (cook) stoves are as cheap and easy or as expensive and full on as you want them to be. Our first one was made using materials on hand: a coffee can, two progressively smaller cans, and a couple of handfuls of diatomite. It was never intended to be anything more than an experiment, as evidenced by the fact that I left it outside to rust for the last year, though it did come in handy when we lost power and wanted hot tea.

The basic idea behind the rocket stove is to use minimal (wood) fuel to heat a concentrated area. The stoves are generally meant for outdoor use as they don’t include a chimney. I did, however, find a video online for an industrial size rocket stove with a chimney and have posted it below. A person could scale down the design and make a reasonably sized rocket stove for indoor use based on that design.

For those of you who just want to get started though, and intend to use the stove outdoors, here is a list of what you’ll need: a large can, and two progressively smaller cans, some scrap metal, clay (optional), and some nonflammable material for insulation like industrial vermiculite, perlite, or diatomite.

For the sake of this article, I’ll assume you’re using a large coffee can for your main barrel. It’s the perfect size for a starter project. (Personally, I’m planning to use a 5 gallon canister for my next effort. I like the size of the surface.)

Basically what you’re looking to do is connect your two smaller cans so that they form an “L” shaped elbow and house this configuration inside of your largest canister. Insulation is packed inside the large can, keeping the heat isolated to the inner sleeve. Your wood is inserted in the horizontal portion of the elbow on a piece of metal used as a ledge.

Your smallest can needs both ends removed- easy enough with a can opener.

Then make a hole in your mid-sized can. You’ll want to make this on the lower portion of the can, right near the bottom, so that when you insert your smallest can, together they’ll form an elbow. You’re going to trace the hole to cut from your smallest can since that’s what it will need to fit.

Then take your biggest can and trace a hole in the side a couple of centimeters above the bottom using your smallest can. (I’m assuming you’re using a coffee can for your largest container, if you’re using something bigger adjust your measurements accordingly.)

On the lid of the coffee can, trace a circle the size of your medium can and cut this out.

Get your insulation ready.  Use a light, non-flammable material such as vermiculite, perlite, scoria, diatomite or even wood ash.

Insert your medium can into larger so it is vertical with the open end up and the hole you cut facing the hole in the coffee can. Now insert the smallest can through the coffee can into the can in the middle. This will form the elbow within the coffee can. Pack underneath and around the elbow with insulation.

Now push the lid of the coffee can into the top of the coffee can until it rests on the top of the elbow inside. Be careful, there are sharp edges.

Finally, take a piece of metal scrap the width of the smallest can and insert it for use as a shelf for the fuel. You don’t need too long a piece and can even use the lid you removed earlier if you don’t have any scrap.

The basic shape of a rocket stove

Rusted, but still usable in a pinch

That’s how to make a very simple rocket stove. You can see that by applying the basic premises though, you can build a larger stove or a considerably more fashionable one with just a bit of effort. We went super lazy on our first one and it was still useful when push came to shove and we needed boiling water. I’ve posted a video of a considerably more polished version that I found on YouTube below.


Here is a video displaying two models that are very similar to our own first effort.


Finally, the video for the industrial size rocket stove with chimney. (Note: this is part 1 of 8 videos available in this instructional.)


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The pocket rocket is a brilliant little invention that Ianto Evans and Larry Jacobs came up with some time in the late seventies, early eighties. (Yes, I did mention to Ianto that he might have thought of copyrighting that name before another, ahem, ‘invention’ made use of it. Hindsight, eh?) We built one for use in our sauna last year, to try out both earthbag building and rocket stoves at the same time. We went out in January to test how it would stand up to colder temperatures and within under ten minutes, we had raised the temperature from -15 C to +35 C, a 50 degree difference!

It requires only a few easily scavenged materials and is a great ‘starter project’. You’ll need a 30 or 55 gallon drum- one with a detachable clamp-on lid is great for a pocket rocket. And a couple of pieces of pipe- one for the feed tube and one for the chimney. That’s it. A little mortar for around the pipe and you’re ready to roll.

Start by burning off any paint on the barrel. We just stuck ours in our firepit and let it go for a while. While you’re waiting for the drum, cut two holes in the lid- one to fit each of the pipes. (Note: if you want to use the top of your stove for heating water, you’ll need to position those holes with enough room for a kettle or pot.) We didn’t cut our holes to the exact size of the pipe- we cut them slightly smaller and then cut tabs to fold up along the pipe for a nice snug fit.

When your barrel has cooled, dust off any remaining paint. Place your rocket stove somewhere away from anything flammable. (Seriously- this thing heats up like crazy!) Put the lid back onto the barrel and position your feed tube. It should be a few inches from the bottom of the barrel. Place your chimney in the other hole. The chimney (exhaust) only needs to go into the barrel a bit, several inches should do you.

The rocket stove prefers small diameter, straight wood. Gather some up and test drive! It’ll sound like a rocket when it fires up- that’s the draw. If it’s roaring when it starts- you’re good. Wait until it cools a bit and then mortar around the pipes. If you’re not getting the draw you want, fiddle with the feed tube a bit until you get it to just the right height. It may take a bit of patience, but this is a stove you can build in a matter of hours, so it’s worth playing around with to get just right.

Have fun- and let us know how it works out for you!

NOTE: If you want to preserve some of this heat, you could easily cob around the lower half or two thirds of the barrel. Otherwise, be prepared for some incredible radiant heat!

DISCLAIMER: This isn’t something you want to be building in your traditional home, as it would be a fire hazard.

Barrel for the rocket stove

top of barrel, with holes for connecting pipe

basic pocket rocket

pocket rocket fired up

A couple of rocket stove mock-ups

A basic pocket rocket used for interior heat

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We finally placed the windows this weekend. It was a pretty exciting milestone. As mentioned, we’ve lost about 6 weeks of our already short building season to extremely heavy rain so getting the frames in has seemed a long time coming.

The windows are interesting. We’re relying on solar gain as much as possible, while being mindful not to lose too much heat via unnecessary openings so it took a bit of planning. All of the kitchen and living room windows are oriented south. They’re also “regular” glass, as opposed to low E, which (surprisingly) took some tracking down. It seems the new standard is now low E which would entirely defeat the purpose of having south facing windows.

The plan for the living room, which has a total of 3 sizable windows, is to create a sunspace that will house an indoor greenhouse area. The greenhouse will both extend our growing season and provide additional heat to the home by virtue of its design. The garden will be several feet wide, about waist height, and have sliding windows on the interior for easy access.

The kitchen windows are also standard glass. We’ve oriented these south and slightly southwest to provide light and a certain amount of heat to the areas in which we’ll be most active.

We’ve recessed the windows so that we get the most winter sun as possible, while limiting the amount of summer sun. We were pretty happy the other day when we were able to measure the amount of afternoon sun permitted indoors and, with the protection of the overhang, it didn’t reach very far into the domes. We get some decently hot summers and it’s important that the house stay relatively cool. (On that note, we’ve also strategically placed vents in our design for a good cross breeze and ventilation- something not taken into consideration in the design of our current ‘traditional’ house.)

The only other windows in the house are one in each of the two bedrooms. The master bedroom faces west and the smaller room faces north so we went with fairly small windows and the low E option as we only need them for light and want to minimize the amount of heat loss through those openings. The only other window is in the front door which faces east (slightly southeast) and again, we went with low E as we’re not going to get a lot of winter sun through that opening. There are no windows in the pantry/system room (a dome divided in two by a wall) as we want this room to remain temperate throughout the year. The north side, which houses the pantry, will additionally be bermed up to maintain a consistent temperature.

Windows were an interesting exercise because I’m not used to thinking of them as anything other than aesthetic. I tend to like a lot of very large windows. The more windows, the better- on every side of the house. And I love, love, love skylights. I’d hoped to incorporate at least one into our design. Upon researching solar gain and heat loss, it quickly became evident our (my?) plans would have to change.

The skylight was out- pretty much immediately. We’d get the most light out of it during the summer, at which time we’d also be broiling, and we’d risk losing heat in the winter. And my dream of being surrounded by big windows- also out. According to every knowledgeable natural builder we reviewed, limiting the number of windows that are not south facing is an absolute must.

It kind of makes you rethink the way that you use a house. I have the tendency to use most rooms the same. I carry a laptop from room to room, or my books, or paper for writing, I eat wherever I find myself… This design causes you to evaluate how you use certain rooms. We only really need the bedroom to sleep in. And for other, well, activities that don’t require a lot of space or light. I never actually look outside when I’m shampooing my hair, I just like that I have the option should I ever be so inclined. I don’t need to type/write/read in the kitchen. It would be just as easy to sit in the living room. And the living room does tend to be the hub of all activity most nights, though we have an additional 7 rooms to choose from.

It’s just habit, I suppose, and a good dose of socialized thinking that I’ve come to expect that every room can be a ‘home unto itself’ and should, therefore, provide me with all the creature comforts that a home should- good lighting, lots of space, aesthetic value, and comfortable seating. This design caused me to review what purpose each room is actually intended to serve. Interesting concept.

Anyway, lots of noteworthy concepts incorporated into the design of our little dome-home, and I’ll try to touch on as many as possible over time. Our heating and cooking systems using only natural fuels is one that I’m very excited about. It looks like the rain is letting up though so time to head to the site and see what kind of damage I can do today, if any. Several inches of rain in the last 24 hours and another several predicted so it could be a slippery one. Ciao for now!

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