Posts Tagged ‘alternative heating’

5000 litre cistern

In all my years as a city girl, it never occurred to me that not everyone (in Canada) has access to good, clean drinking water. Water has long been my favourite of all beverages and all I’ve ever had to do was turn the tap. That’s not been the case since moving to the country. Our well water is heavy in both iron and salt. The iron can be filtered -more or less- easily enough but the salt would have to be distilled out. I can’t stand the taste of it, even in tea, so I don’t drink it. I drink rainwater that’s been boiled and filtered instead and, with our long winters, I won’t have access to that pretty soon and will have to drink bottled water until the temperatures rise again in the spring.

I’ve been assigned the task of researching our ‘water options’ for the new home. (Shane has taken on the altogether easier task of ‘power’- generating it, storing it, distributing it, determining how much we need, possibly learning to build a wind turbine to accompany our solar panels, redundancies in the system- for back up support, etc… Like I said, easy.) I’m already feeling a little overwhelmed by my assignment. Fortunately, this is old hat for me. Feeling overwhelmed that is. At least since moving to the country…

comic relief in trying times

Our well ‘blew’ this summer and we had a period of about 10 days without access to well water. It was quite the experience. Initially we found ourselves impressed by our ability to carry on. I reveled in the feeling of being like a pioneer, hauling water from our cistern for everything from drinking to cooking to bathing. That lasted until about day 3. By day 7 I was getting a little testy, and by ‘testy’ I mean very near to having to hold back tears and making snappy comments to Shane, who I felt was handling not having a hot shower better than I was.

And then I left the tap on the cistern open overnight and drained it completely, necessitating going to the dugout down the road, about 800 meters, filling the buckets and climbing back out, wailing the whole while… Anyway, I’m getting off track- I’m in charge of water for the new place, right…

Some of the decisions that I have to make are: how much water do we want to store indoors and in what kind of containers? I do want to be able to access rainwater throughout the winter, so storage is a biggie. Besides which- we can’t count on the well working all the time, obviously. And where exactly do we plan on storing the water, and exactly what kind of ‘space’ are we talking about, bearing in mind that I was hoping that my building schedule would be lighter next year? (Hahahahahahahaha! Ha! Ya, it’s not funny.)

How do we want to heat the water? Electric heat is too ‘expensive’ in terms of power consumption, wood heat is a little impractical given the lack of trees in the region, propane just strikes me as not an altogether good long-term plan, and solar hot water is kind of expensive at the outset, at least the kind of system that works well in our climate… But right now I am leaning towards solar water heating, maybe with a preheating mechanism in place, maybe by building pipes into a heavy mass structure behind glass… (You can see how one bit of research can lead into a tangled mess of ideas that also require research.) Then again, manure is plentiful in the area, maybe there’s a way to build an efficient heater powered by cow poop.

There’s distributing the water, i.e. the pipes and pressure tank or combination pressure tank and gravity feed. And pumps of some sort, that use little or no power-which I have to constantly keep in mind is limited- to dispose of the water. (Whoa- any idea of how many options there are on that front? Pressure tanks and pumps alone? Good grief.) Which I also want to reuse, cycling it through some sort of graywater system, that will function even at 40 degrees below. And then what type of graywater system? How big? Indoors or outdoors, or both? And again- more building? You’re f*cking kidding me, right? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinking that at least if the water was confined to a single room it’d be an easier plan. Like, say, we do the dishes in the greenhouse/bathroom/laundry room/graywater recycling plant? I’m not sure if Shane’s raised eyebrow was tacit approval or skepticism when I threw it out there.

And then there’s filtering and/or distilling the water for drinking… There has to be an easier way. We have a Berkey, which is a lovely little unit but it gets a little slimy when I pour unfiltered rainwater into it and it needs to be washed too often. It removes the iron from the well water just fine but not the salt, so it’s still not entirely potable. Shane drinks it but his taste buds are questionable. So I could prefilter the rainwater but how much prefiltering needs to be done? And what’s my best way to do that?

Yup, so there are ‘a few’ decisions to be made, and loads of research to do prior to making any decision. There’s nothing like planning to go off grid to make a girl feel like a total idiot. I miss coming up with the ideas and having staff figure out how to implement those ideas. I miss tasty tap water. I even sometimes miss the misguided simplicity of just paying for whatever I need. But I suppose I don’t miss that feeling of being trapped…

scenic little dugout

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We fell in love with Ianto Evans’ rocket mass heater the first time we heard of it. So much so that we booked a trip to Oregon to take his course. What isn’t to love? The idea is so ridiculously simple and immensely practical it’s amazing that we haven’t been using these all along. Rather than burning a fire in a traditional fireplace and allowing much of the heat to escape straight up the chimney, with a bit coming into the room and quickly dissipating, the chimney is built into the furniture. Furniture that is built to store the heat. Additionally, it’s built in such a way that it uses way less fuel than a traditional fireplace.

If you don’t already own a copy of “Rocket Mass Heaters: Super-efficient Woodstoves You Can Build“, it’s worth picking up. True, if you’re using anything other than an eight inch system (we went with a seven inch) you will need to adjust your calculations, and the pictures are not altogether fabulous if you’re hoping for a step by step pictorial to accompany the tutorial, but the basics that you will need to understand are in there. Understanding the ‘whys’ of how the system works was critical, for me anyway, and helped with a somewhat finicky build.

The critical measurements are the feed tube, the burn tunnel, the riser and insulation, and the space between the top of the riser and the barrel. Of course the size of pipe that you decide to go with will affect those measurements. Less so, but still factoring in, are the bell chamber and the length of the run.

If you are planning to build one of these, I’d suggest leaving yourself a little extra time for fiddling around. You may have to raise or lower your barrel a little to get a good draw (and the amount of heat you want on the top of the barrel) or make other adjustments to the system. We ended up shortening the burn tunnel and widening the feed tube a little from where we started. Don’t apply your final mortar or mudding in until you’re certain the system works.

In the first pictures that accompany this article, you’ll see that we used papercrete blocks against the wall- behind what would become the bench. Less visible is the papercrete that we built into the floor (about 6 inches worth) along the wall. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t losing any of the heat to areas that don’t provide any value.

We didn’t use cob for the bench- we went with a mix very similar to that which we used for our bag work, just a little wetter. (Gravel reject: clay/soil: touch of cement. No- I didn’t keep exact measurements.) We used quite a lot of rocks in the bench. Rock stores heat more efficiently than cob, or in our case ‘mix’, so it makes for a better battery to have lots of them.

Our stove pipe will end up being eight inches from the surface of the bench. We don’t want it so high that the top super-heats and we want to ‘charge’ as much of the thermal battery (the bench) as possible, so that the system continues to release heat over a longer period of time. As the bench was put together post-building season we were short on time (it’s now freezing every day, and snowing) so we built the system to where it will work and provide heat to the area and will finish it off come spring.

The stove takes amazingly little wood. I’m impressed by how little fuel it takes to fire this puppy up and heat up that amount of mass. Although the bench isn’t done, it’s already several tons of material. Another impressive feature is how efficient this thing is. I’d seen it work at Cob Cottage, but I have to say- when I went outside and put my face to the vent to find steam being released- and not smoke- I was just thrilled. Still, we’re interested in using as little wood as possible so we’ll work on some possible biofuel alternatives over the winter.

So there it is- the basis of what will be our primary heating system for the living room area. Come spring we’ll finish building the bench and punch a hole lower in the wall so that we have a more direct fresh air intake (we’re connecting to one of our vents right now). In the meantime- we have heat! 🙂

papercrete blocks & floor fill

mudding over the papercrete blocks

insulation shroud placed & ready to be filled

feed tube, burn tunnel & riser w/shroud

riser & insulation shroud: top view

insulation packed around riser

riser w/insulation & brick platform

custom cut barrel, ready to be placed

barrel placed & ready for mudding

note the gap underneath the barrel

the run all laid out to confirm placement

building the bell chamber, note the clean out

the somewhat tricky bell chamber

note the clean out on the side

checking for level on run

lots of nice big rocks in the bench

first section of bench started

almost done- what a lot of mix

bucket over brick feed tube

the cats, enjoying the warm bench

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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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Long cold winters are a major consideration when building on the bald ass Alberta prairie, where we live. It is not at all unusual to hit temperatures as low as -40 C for extended periods of time, sometimes even colder. Even a slight wind at temperatures that low can bite, but we don’t get slight winds– we get strong, sustained winds and sometimes dangerous gusts. A calm day around here sees winds of less than 20 km/hr, but not much less than that. Warmth in our new home during the long cold season is paramount.

Thermal mass has its benefits but is not the obvious choice for an extreme climate such as our own. It was suggested that we might choose a different building method for our home, straw-cob and straw bale being the favourites, but we were determined to go with earthbags for several reasons- ease of construction for first time builders and (very) low cost topping that list.

With that in mind, we’ve tailored our plans to accommodate the weather. The first consideration was to keep the rooms small. That in itself is an interesting concept given our propensity for big, open spaces. For big, open spaces we’ll have to go outdoors; a new habit that- to me- meshes well with our new way of life. I like the idea of spending more time outdoors and good thing, because we won’t have the power capacity to sit in front of the computer or television what with going off-grid.

Windows are an important aspect of our plan. The bulk of the windows are south facing and low in the building, to best maximize our winter solar gain. They are regular glass, as opposed to the ever popular low e variety, in order to make the most of solar heat. (And here’s one area thermal mass has the advantage, absorbing and storing the heat for slow release later.) The couple of windows (in the bedrooms) that are not south facing are low e, however, and very small. As we wouldn’t be getting much solar heat gain from either of these windows, it’s important that we minimize heat loss.

Landscape features further protect our building. The backside (north side) of the building will be bermed to near roof level, and we have plans for a surround-garden on the south side to window level. (The house itself is also sunken into the ground several feet.) The south facing garden has the additional advantage of being a slightly different zone than the rest of the property- because it wraps around so much mass- and we’re quite excited to see what we can grow.

A section of the living room has been dedicated to a greenhouse/sunspace and will be double glassed (i.e. we will have sliding glass windows on the inside of the building to access the garden). This will add to the natural warmth of the living space quite nicely, as well as extend our short growing season.

Also in the living room, we will build a rocket mass heater to wrap around the entire north wall. If you haven’t heard of these entirely efficient stoves and heaters I highly recommend you read Ianto Evans book (Rocket Mass Heaters: Super Efficient Wood Stoves You Can Build), or better yet- head to Oregon and take a course with the man himself as we did (visit http://www.cobcottage.com/ for information on courses, or to order the book). The mass heater will serve as a toasty and comfortable sitting area. If you live in a standard construction home, as we currently do, you can quite possibly imagine how nice it would be to heat your body rather than the air around you and this is one of the advantages of a mass heater. I’m always amazed at how often our heat kicks in and how cold it remains in the house- one of the (many) disadvantages of a forced air heating system.

The kitchen will house a wood stove. Not nearly as efficient as a rocket stove, but it throws a lot of heat. We are considering putting in a small rocket stove in that room as well, for days when we don’t want to use the wood stove. The plan that most interests us for the kitchen can be seen at http://cato-projects.org/ArLivre/EN/RocketStove3.htm .

Finally, there’s the roof. Admittedly, we’re fly by the seat of our pants kind of people and this whole thing has been a great big experiment- on us. So some things we’ve come to late in the game. Originally we had planned on building earthbag domes. There’s easy, cheap and require absolutely no construction experience. Roofing a structure requires a little more skill. But at this stage of the game, we are leaning towards roofing at least the larger (18’) rooms. Primarily because so little of the building is actually exposed to the elements that should we add a highly insulated roof, there really is nowhere for the heat to go during the winter. Sure, it will bleed slowly through the walls- but it’s a bleed so slow that it’s negligible. If we continue on with the dome plan, there will be considerably more space to heat and more room for heat loss.

That’s not to say that we won’t change our minds- again. We do have all winter to consider our options. If we do revisit the idea of domes though, it will be with a plan of having a second floor in each of the main domes and plenty of insulation. Another option that we’ve all but ruled out is scoria filled bags. If you live in an area where scoria is cheap or reasonably priced (we don’t), scoria is excellent bag fill for providing that little bit of extra insulation without changing your building plans.

So that’s the plan as it stands and how we intend to deal with our extreme climate. Build small rooms, sink the house into the ground and berm as much as possible, maximize solar heat gain by keeping windows on the south side plentiful, place only two windows that aren’t south facing and keep them small and low emissivity, have a sun space for additional heat gain and a nice garden area, build a rocket mass heater for the living room, use a traditional wood stove in the kitchen, and keep the roof low and well insulated. Ah, and we’ll tint the finish lime plaster a darker shade, in order to further enhance heat absorption. Our house is not simply a shelter, but a system that needs to consider and work with all components.

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I love living in Canada, wouldn’t trade it for anything. Oh I enjoy traveling, for sure, and could spend months on end in Mexico alone but I always look forward to coming home. At least now that we’ve abandoned city life. It does, however, present its share of problems for natural and conventional builders alike- namely climate.

Here on the prairies our temperature ranges from as low as -50 C to as high as +38 C or so. The heat I can handle, and a few well-placed vents and windows with overhangs will go a long way towards keeping a house comfortable on those long summer nights. Cold on the other hand- now that can be a problem. Having said that, a good plan and some common sense go a long way.

Currently, we live in what (by conventional standards) is considered a quite comfortable home. We have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, large kitchen, living and laundry areas, a sunroom, and a full basement with attached garage. There are lots of large windows for light and expansive views. Sounds wonderful, right? Well, in summer it’s not too bad (save for those ridiculously hot days when it’s clear no one was thinking of a cross breeze during design). In winter, it’s an entirely different story.

There are entirely too many windows in this home. The windows on the north and west sides do nothing to contribute to comfort, they are an aesthetic addition. We lose a tremendous amount of heat through our windows in winter, which brings us to heating… Forced air heating has got to be one of the most impractical inventions ever conceived. Not only does it make me sick, gasping for air after a ‘good’ night’s sleep, it’s so temporary it has to run all the time to maintain a steady temperature. And still I’m not warm. Traditional heating is inefficient, unhealthy and irresponsible. Add to which it keeps us tied to the grid, so tied to traditional work to pay for the ‘luxury’.

So what does a natural builder do to combat these issues? Well, for starters, we build small. I’m far from the view that a person can live comfortably in a single room home like some natural builders would suggest- at least not this person. But I do believe a large amount of space is wasted. Our demonstration home will be small relative to traditional housing and maximize the use the space with storage built into the structure itself, underneath and behind furniture, and overhead. Additionally, we will simply have to adjust to the fact that we can no longer house the junk that we’ve accumulated over the years, nor can we afford to continue to collect it. (Stay tuned for my “Lament for Shoe Storage”; I’m a work in progress.)

Secondly, we will orient our building solar south and strategically place our windows. By orienting our building south, we maximize our solar gain. Windows will be expansive on the south side only, with smaller windows to the east, a much smaller window to the west (where the only solar gain would be in the summer, when heat is already at times unbearable), and none on the north side. The main living area, which all of the additional rooms will connect to, will be partitioned to include a small south facing greenhouse. The greenhouse will provide not only additional food, but (because it is double glassed) provide considerable heat (in the form of solar gain) to the living area.

Thirdly, we will build heavy. There’s no sense in planning around solar gain if there’s nothing to absorb the heat. Heavy clay-sand walls and thick earthen floors and plasters absorb heat quite nicely, and are slow to release it. And this is where heat matters most, in the areas that a person has contact with, not the air as it drifts by. I’m reminded of this now, as I sit next to the heating vent and warm air is hitting the side of my body but I don’t dare yet put my feet on the floor.

On the subject of mass, we’ll build “rocket mass heaters” into the design. If you haven’t yet heard of these, see the pictorial below, or get a copy of the book from Ianto Evans if you intend to build your own. They borrow on the efficiency of rocket stoves and take it to the next level. Basically, it is an extremely efficient wood burning ‘stove’ with a long run of venting built right into the (cob) furniture. It requires ridiculously little fuel and (because mass retains heat so nicely) provides an exceedingly cozy sitting area. And, because of the genius design, it burns clean. I don’t blame you if you’re hesitant to believe these claims (I was) but build yourself a very basic rocket stove for all the proof you’ll need.

Finally- we’ll insulate the heck out our building. As our intention is to build as naturally and cheaply as possible- and use recycled materials wherever we can- we’re going with papercrete. The entire building will receive a papercrete plaster about 8” thick, topped with lime. Additionally, the sub-floor will be made of papercrete. (*Note: there are some problems associated with papercrete and mold in humid conditions but we happen to live in a drought area. I wouldn’t suggest papercrete as a sub-floor in damp environments.) The R value of papercrete is cited ~2.5 per inch, dependant on the mix (the higher the paper content, the higher the R value), so at 8” thick will more than provide for our needs.

So that’s the plan for surviving the Canadian winter, and I dare say we’ll do so more comfortably (efficiently and cheaply) than we currently do.

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Barrel for the rocket stove

top of barrel, with holes for connecting pipe

rocket stove inside of dome

inside of dome

lit with Caragana branches


rocket water heater at Cob Cottage

Fuel feed for water heater


New water heater being built at Cob Cottage, OR

rocket water heater


Rocket mass heater, Cob Cottage, OR


very cosy mass heater bench

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