Monday, November 30, 2015

Rocket Mass Heater - We Have Begun!

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!  We had a grand one (five pies, even!), so to to help ourselves recover from days of cooking, eating, visiting, and imbibing, Brandon and I began one of our most ambitious projects - a rocket mass heater.  If you've traveled the interweb in search of alternative solutions to heating your home, you've probably seen references to this type of do-it-yourself wood stove.  It's supposed to be super efficient, heating a small well insulated home, like ours, with a fraction of the wood needed for a traditional wood stove.  It's also a snugly stove.  Because it has a big thermal mass in the form of a bench made of mud and sand, it's made to be a warm seat, which I hope will be perfect for reading books, drinking tea, and cuddling the cats.  Now, with winter knocking on our door, we're trying to get this stove installed in the house.  The picture above is the mock up we built outside for our test run.  It works!  

Brandon marked the bricks and made some drawings of our mock up so we could re-create it inside.  So far, the most challenging part of this project has been finding the materials.  Since we are lucky enough to have friends who are potters and kiln builders, we were able to get some good fire brick to build the burn chamber and heat riser.  

We dug clay from the yard, and also used some potters clay to make a brick mortar with sand we bought from Lowe's.  

The instructions in the book suggest using your hands to mix the clay and sand.  A drill with a mixer attachment works well too.  

The yard near the barn resembles a brick yard right now.  It also rained the entire weekend, so the recent excavations Brandon made for some electrical work have turned to muddy trenches, and the frequent trips out for materials during this project made a muddy mess of the yard and the floors in the house.  We haven't even begun mixing the clay, sand, and straw to create the giant thermal mass bench, and this is already a messy project!

Why is that no matter how careful we plan and measure, nothing ever works exactly like we thought?  Despite Brandon's careful drawings, the mortared structure isn't exactly like our mock up.  Cross your fingers that when we finally light this thing in the house, it drafts like we hope.  

In this photo you can see that we used non-flammable cement board on the floor, then a layer of insulating soft brick used in kilns.  The inside of a pottery kiln can get thousands of degrees and the brick stays cool enough to touch on the outside.  These brick are really light and porous.  The third layer shown here is made from the hard fire brick, and this will be the bottom of the burn chamber, where the fire lives.  

The sides of the burn chamber are fire brick mortared together.  Nice and level, and square.  

The mortar Brandon is using is the potters clay mixed with sand.  Brandon had to fiddle with the amount of moisture to get it to stick to the bricks.  We've never done much brick work before, so this was a new experience for us.  Brick laying is heavy work!  

On the left side of this photo is the hole where the fire wood goes in (straight down).  On the right side is the hole where the hot gasses go up.  In the middle is the brick work that makes the top of the burn chamber, since the fire burns horizontally in this type of stove.  This is the part that didn't fit together the same as our mock up.  We knew how big to make both of the holes, but somehow the brick layout between these didn't fit together like we thought it was going to.  This makes me nervous that the stove might not draft as well as our mock up.   

Have you ever used perlite before?  It's the little white stones that are in potting soil.  It's a light porous rock that not only helps with soil compaction, it also is used as insulation in masonry projects.  To protect the wall and to prevent our hard earned heat from seeping into the wall, we put a piece of cement board along the wall with a gap behind it, and filled this gap with loose perlite.  

The exhaust pipe for this stove is eight inch duct work, that will run along the floor in the dining room, against the insulated wall, and be covered with cob, a mixture of mud, sand, and straw.  

Right behind the burn chamber, where there will be burning sticks, we also put a layer of soft brick against the wall.  

This is the semi- final layout of the brick work for the burn chamber.  Fire wood goes in on the right, near the wall, flames go through the center, and hot gas and bits of ash go up on the left into the heat riser.  

The next step was the mortaring of the heat riser.  This is a short tower of bricks that direct the hot gasses up.  

We tried to make sure the inside of the heat riser was as smooth as possible.  And even though we checked for level as we were building, somehow in the end, it's off level by at least a quarter inch.  Sigh.  What to do?  We decided to ignore it and hope it doesn't matter.  Good idea!

Despite the rain, we kept a fire going outside using wood scraps from the house renovation, and burned the paint off of a fifty gallon drum that was used for spaghetti sauce.  This metal drum is a critical part of the rocket mass heater.  

After the paint was mostly burned away, Brandon used a sanding pad on his grinder and gave the drum a cool looking sheen.  

As you can tell, the cats were very excited by the prospect of a rocket mass heater.  Snore.  

We put more concrete board on the floor were we think the exhaust pipe and the cob bench will be.  Stay tuned for the next installment of Rain and Brandon build a rocket mass heater! I know you are on the edge your seat.  Me too!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Solar Powered Cat Warmers on the South Side

We've got solar powered cat warmers!  The windows on the south side of the house are really appreciated by the cats for their warm winter sun beams.  Unlike the windows on the north side, which only let in drafts.  The cats spend the day while I'm at work in the front room, snoozing on blankets in the windows or watching the birds in the pear tree.  

If I can't find the cats there, then there's a good chance they are upstairs in the bedroom soaking in the sun on the bed or on the carpet.  So far, the upstairs room of our house is always warm, even without any heat.  When we were tearing out walls during our house renovations, we knew that removing the walls and doorway from the stair well, and raising the upstairs ceiling, was going to make it hard to keep all the warm air from just rising to the top of second floor.  We did it anyway, so I'm curious to see how the winter plays out.  If we spend all our time upstairs this winter because it's too cold downstairs, we may have to consider some options for changing the air flow.  

I really love the way the upstairs ceiling looks with the sloped wood ceiling and the exposed beams - but what do I do to block the view?  I hang wet laundry up there to dry.  Doh!  Oh well, only when the weather forecast says it isn't a good idea to use the clothes line outside (so practically all winter, right?).  I just can't resist those beams which are perfect for supporting a rod to hold the wet clothes, and all that dry heat and solar exposure dries the clothes well.  

The only downside to this system, other than marring my view of the pretty ceiling, is lugging baskets of laundry up the stairs.  I made a point of storing all our clothes downstairs when we were planning the use of this house, because I wanted, for once, to have a bedroom that didn't include a laundry pile laundry baskets and didn't want to carry laundry upstairs to put it away, and now I find myself taking laundry upstairs and then back down again.   I don't mind it though.  And the cats think hanging laundry in the house is a great game.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Baskets of Pears

Just look at all those pears on the ground!  I try not to feel wasteful when I see so many pears not being eaten by humans, because I know that there are a host of other creatures that enjoy the pears too, including the pear tree itself.   I'm sure this pear tree is so productive because the soil is enriched yearly with a massive load of organic matter from it's own branches.  It's tempting to rake all the spotty pears into a compost heap somewhere out of the way, but this year, I've decided to let the spotty pears lay where they fall, and move our activities away from the pear zone until next spring, when they will have decomposed.  

I do sweeps through the pear pile searching for sound ones.  If I were hungry, I'm sure I would collect pears with more broken or black spots, but with so many to chose from, I just get the pretty ones.  Waiting until they fall to the ground is the least labor intensive way to harvest, but I've read that the best way to make sure pears don't spoil for long term storage is to not let them touch dirt before they go in the cellar.  Most of these have a bad spot, and I try to turn the spot to the sky when I'm searching so I don't keep picking up the same rejected pears each time I go collecting.  

Did Papa Squirrel, Mama Squirrel, and Baby Squirrel have a snack together here?  

The mole focuses his attention under the pear tree too.  I'm sure all those decomposing pears make for rich soil with lots of earthworms.  The mole is smart to set his worm trap tunnels here.  

Squirrel nibbles or chicken kisses?  

The mole's excavations are even burying some of the pears.  I hope those weren't pretty ones.  

One for my basket!  I have to be careful when collecting, because there are yellow jackets, giant brown hornets, and wasps feasting on the pears too.  They tend to like the mushy ones best, so we don't fight over the good ones.  

I made a trip to Goodwill searching for materials for window coverings,  but when I saw the giant pile of inexpensive baskets, I couldn't resist buying some for pear collection.  And you know what?  Collecting pears is more fun if I use a pretty basket!  Why is that?  

I'm still working out of town, and I didn't put pear basket maintenance on Brandon's to do list since I know I was over loading him with guinea keet care instructions, so I'll probably come home to some rotten ones.  I've found that if I go through the baskets frequently and pull out the ripest or the ones that are getting a rotten spot, this keeps the whole basket from going bad and motivates me to eat some pears or make a pie.    

How many pies will I have to make when I get home to catch up with the pears?  Tis the season, right?  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Weird Room, and How to Clean a Guinea Cage

I've been reading about insulated window coverings.  Exciting, I know.  But I got interested in the idea after reading a book called Green Wizardry just as we had several cold nights.  Our bathroom, which is on the north side, is the coldest part of this old house.  If you remember, this was the room that was added on to the house, with the very low ceilings, four really old windows, and a very short ill fitting door to the backyard.  We tiled the floor, which makes the cold seem even more intense if I don't have my shoes on.  According to the book, a single pane window has a an R-value of one, and a double pane window is only a two.  To have four large single pane drafty windows in a small room on the coldest side of the house, makes for a chilly space.  Especially since the old door to the outside in this room is thin and leaky.  Covering the windows and the door seems like an easy way to save some energy.  And, it gives me a sewing project! 

Before I begin sewing though, I've been experimenting with different materials I have on hand, and I've found that plastic table clothes, with the fuzzy backside, of which I have several, work pretty good to block the cold.  I've fastened them in place with wires and clothes pins for my trial runs, but I've read that velcro is a good way to make them seal to the windows without gaps.  

Currently, the bathroom is hosting a cage with five messy guinea keets.  It's handy to be able to dump their dirty woodchips in the composting toilet, and to be able to rinse out their water tray in the shower, but their presence has motivated us to begin construction on a sturdy brooder that can shelter baby birds in the barn.  Since this is the second winter I've found myself with unplanned birds who need to stay warm and safe, I think a brooder is an excellent idea for the future.  Because this room is home to a chest freezer, washing machine, wooden dresser (our future bathroom sink vanity, if all goes as planned), a homemade composting potty, a cage of guinea's, a door to the outside, a shower stall, hot water heater, and currently has folded mis-matched plastic table cloth's over the windows, it's a weird room.   

 And a chilly room.  The electric wall heater we installed can heat this small space up in a jiffy though, which is great for taking a shower.  Now that I've started messing around with window and door coverings, I think we may be able to change our chilly north side into a toasty warm space, without wasting too much energy.

I know I told you about how hard it is to catch a frightful guinea keet since they can fly like birds and seem to be terrified of everything.  Thankfully, I figured out a way to clean their cage that doesn't cause us much stress, although it's not as exciting for the cats.  The keets are stupid in the dark.  If I cover the cage with a cloth, and turn out their light, I can reach in and capture them pretty easily.  I place them in a box with a towel over the top, clean their cage, and then reach blind into the dark box and feel for them to put them back.  They don't even resist.  

I'm writing this today from my hotel room in North Carolina.  It's raining buckets outside my window right now, so we're taking our time getting started with the days field work.  Other than my normal complaints about spending so much time cramped up in the truck with my coworkers and all our gear, and eating out for every meal, this job isn't bad.  At least our work is during the daylight hours, and our hotel has WiFi.  It's funny though, that looking at these pictures of our odd bathroom and those weird guinea's and silly cats makes me homesick.   I didn't know I could miss our weird cold room.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Mysterious Creatures and Gravel Dreams

Check out the big stick insect found on the door to my office a few days ago.  How does a vegetarian insect with no wings end up on the glass door of an office building in a concrete jungle?  Did it know that our office was full of biologists who would think it was super cool?  

It was trying to hide by pretending to be a twig - see how it has it's front legs extended up by it's antenna?  Unfortunately this trick doesn't work as well on glass as it does on a tree limb.  I remember the first one I ever saw, when I was a little kid climbing a little walnut tree in the front yard.  I couldn't have been more surprised and disturbed had I found an real live elf or a fairy.  Who knew a stick could sprout legs and a head and look me right in the eye?!  And it's body was squishy!

Speaking of mysterious creatures... why do my chickens want to lay their eggs in an old garbage can in the barn instead of the perfectly nice nest box I built for them?

These days, it's like a daily treasure hunt as I watch to see which way the hens go when I let them out of the coop in the morning, and then seek out their hidden nests.  I see you hidden behind all those heavy things, chicken.  I think she likes to stare at her reflection in the big glass table top that's leaning against the wall while she lays her egg.    

It took several days for me to find this hidden nest, but look at all those eggs.  Omelets for dinner, please.  

Egg hunts aren't the only exciting thing happening around the farm.  With the threat of the approaching winter weather, we decided to splurge on a couple of loads of gravel for our driveway.  This was the first time we ever ordered gravel by the load before, so it took many conversations with fellow gravel driveway owners before we figured out what to order.  

To save on the amount of gravel we need, we asked that they only place the gravel in the two established ruts, and to not cover the grass in the middle of the drive.  I wasn't there when the delivery was made, but Brandon tells me they have a metal flap that covers the center of the gap in the back of the truck so that the gravel only spills on on the two sides.  Once the gravel was spilling out, the driver kept a steady speed and laid down a nice even coating.  He had to go pick up a second load and finish the job.  

The big dump truck that would come to empty our dumpster was making a big muddy rut in the driveway, which made it hard for me to drive my little car over (it got a little easier once that piece that was hanging down got ripped off! I hope it wasn't important...).  We thought we were smart and scheduled the last dump of the dumpster and the dumpster pick up before the gravel was delivered.  So of course, they didn't come when they said they would, and instead came the day after the gravel was delivered, and scraped a nice muddy hole in the new gravel after the first day.  

I found this piece of paper that the delivery guy gave Brandon.  I'm not sure what it all means, but I think it says we got two loads, and each load was 8.64 tons.  Wow, that's a lot of weight.  Our farm just got heavier.  We would really like to get two more loads, and fill in the rut again, and gravel our parking spot and the approaches to our barns.  But, we will have to wait until we recover from the expense of this first delivery.  Maybe next year.  Gravel - the stuff of dreams, right?  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Keets Can Fly!

Caught you!  Who knew guinea keets could fly at four weeks old!? 

Joe and I each bought five baby guineas from the farmers whose greenhouse we dismantled recently.  I wasn't planning on having guineas, but once Joe said he was getting some, and that they were only four dollars a piece, I couldn't resist.  Since they are still babies, they are living in a cage in the bathroom.  

My mom has been doing some research about guineas, and she tells me they are from Africa, eat insects, and can get along with chickens except during their mating season, when the males get aggressive with the roosters.  I've also heard that they are extremely hard to catch once they are out and about on their own, so I won't have to worry as much about predators eating them.  I also can't get my heart set on where they should roost, since they tend to make up their own mind about where to sleep.  

Since mom told me how wild they are, and encouraged me to work on taming them, I decided that I should spend some time holding them and getting them used to me.  So far, they practically bang their little faces off trying to fly into the cage when I come near.  It's giving me a complex.  But I didn't realize they could fly so well!  I opened the cage, tried to grab one, and it took off through the house!  

Oh, boy!  Ditto, my usually timid cat, thought this was the best thing since catnip, and went leaping through the air with claws extended trying to help me catch it.  I had to tackle him to the ground to keep him from snagging the fluttering bird, and only managed to catch the baby bird when it wedged its self between the bed and the wall.  Whew, too much excitement!  I was panting, the bird was panting, and the cat was panting and frazzled looking.  

Puck was un-impressed with our show.    

Maybe I shouldn't try holding them until they learn to like me a little better.  The farmer who sold them to us told Brandon that guineas could be tamed with millet.  I made a special trip to the co-op for millet seeds, but as far as I can tell, the keets don't really like them.  I had a little better luck with a cut up boiled egg, but they still don't trust me enough to eat it in my presence.  I think I'm going to take their food bowl away from them for a little while and see if hungry keets are more willing to take food from a stranger.  
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