Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Rocket Mass Heater - A Beautiful Mud Pie

I think our rocket mass heater project is nearing completion.  Thank goodness!  This project has been lots of fun, but we're ready to take a break from playing in the mud.  

I took the picture above from my pillow on a recent cold winter morning.  There was frost on the grass and mist in the air, but the early morning sun beams were lovely to wake up to.  I can't wait until I can start a fire on chilly weekend morning like this one.  

I spent a few hours one weekday evening rebuilding the clay ring that connects the barrel to the exhaust.  This is the part that we let crack by stoking the fire too hot during our first in-side fire.  This time, I made the first layer much thicker (about three inches), and made the cob quite sandy.  I still think this is the most likely spot for failure.  We've tried to prepare ourselves for someday having to chip the barrel out of the cob and re-design this junction.  Maybe a shorter heat riser and a longer barrel would be better.  We'll see. 

Brandon and I have perfected our cob making technique.  We pour a bag of sand on the tarp, then put three of four shovel fulls of soppy wet clay, and then Brandon pulls up the edge of the tarp to roll it all together.  

I, wearing my muck boots, stomp the sand and clay pile flat, then Brandon lifts the tarp and rolls it together again.  While I'm stomping, he moves to the other side of the tarp and we do the roll and stomp thing about six times before we add a little straw and mix and stomp some more.  By the time the batch is done, Brandon's arms are tired, my thighs are burning and my heart is pounding, so I need a moment to catch my breath while Brandon puts the finished product in buckets.  Making cob is a good workout.   

The chickens make sure the straw is mixed up good, and that there are no extra seeds in the mix.  Good chickens.  

On top of the first three inches of sand and clay cob, I added another four inches or more of sand, clay, and straw cob around the base of the barrel.  

More cob went in in and on the bench, along with as much rocks and rubble as we could fit in.  

I used a bunch of salvaged bricks along the floor, with more cob between them.  I think the bricks give it a tidy edge, and hopefully will make it easier to mop the floor without getting the cob wet.  With all the bits of straw sticking out, the stove looked more like a woolly mammoth than a dragon.  

Brandon and I were talking with someone who dreams about having a wood stove someday.  We briefly described our project.  "You're using a metal barrel, and mud?" he asked.  And then dismissively "If it's not beautiful, my wife wouldn't have it".  I think the implication was that our stove wouldn't be beautiful!  What's not beautiful about fire, earth, and steel?  

To give it a less woolly appearance, and to make the surface nice and smooth, we're adding a layer of wet sand and clay cob to the whole thing, and smoothing it out.  Like putting icing on a giant mud pie.  

My mom gave me a box of assorted marbles.  Marbles seem appropriate for a stove made of fire brick and clay, since they are made of glass melted in a kiln, right?  It's fun to find places between the bricks to stick them.  

Once Brandon finished smoothing the finish layer of plaster around the fire box, he added a fossil and some glass pebbles.  I thought it looked even nicer after the cat took her turn decorating with her paws.  

Once I finished adding a row of bricks along the base, Brandon used a piece of a plastic cutting board to smooth the finish layer around the base of the barrel.  We haven't decided yet how to treat the surface once it's all dry.  Some people use linseed oil, and others have used an olive oil based soap. Maybe stucco?  

Monday, December 14, 2015

Rocket Mass Heater - A Ton of Work

If you remember, in my last post about our rocket mass heater adventure, we had an encouraging, semi-successful, first firing.  But, because we had only a thin layer of cob connecting the burn chamber to the exhaust system, and got it really hot fairly quickly, the cob cracked.  We planned to just patch the cracks with more cob, but worried that this might not work, since the cob was so dry.  Just to make sure we had it right, we decided to redo the cob around the base of the barrel.  How hard could that be, right? 

Brandon used a hammer to break apart the mostly dry cob, and put the pieces in a bucket to take outside.  We decided to reconstitute the cob, and reapply it.    

Turns out, it wasn't that easy!  At least not with the method we invented.  Brandon used a sledge hammer to break apart the big chunks, while they were in an empty plastic bag.  Then he would pour the busted up small pieces into a bucket with some water.  

We left the chunks to soak in the water over night.  This worked well.  The next day we added a little more sand, and now those buckets of reconstituted cob are patiently waiting for me to re-create the burn chamber to exhaust "gasket" again.  Yay... sigh...

Our weekend was filled with visits from friends and family, including my parents and nieces, who came for their fist sleep over in our new place.  I managed, despite the exceedingly messing project underway in the dinning room, to get my holiday decorations unpacked so my nieces could help decorate the tree.  I even wrapped presents, and got all the surfaces dusted and floors clean at the same time.  It only lasted for about ten minutes before Brandon started smashing dirt from the rocket mass heater, but I enjoyed every minute of it!  

Ho! ho! ho!

On Sunday morning, with friends and family there to help and encourage us, we commenced building the cob bench that will be the thermal mass of the stove.  We've been collecting blocks, bricks, rocks, and pieces of old sidewalks to use as filler for our mass.  Blocks were stacked two high in all the places they would fit, and the holes in the blocks were filled with rocks and cob (clay, sand, and straw).  

The big chunks of old side walk were busted up with the sledge hammer.  Someone mentioned that they can see why they always show prisoners busting big rocks into little rocks in the movies - this is a punishing job!   

All that heavy stuff had to be carried into the house and fitted around the exhaust pipes, and all the chinks filled in with cob.  Our mass is going to be massive!

We had a pretty good method for mixing up the clay, sand, and straw to make the cob.  The sand and clay were put in the tarp, and one person stomped it together while the other person pulled the tarp up and flopped the mixture onto itself to get stomped some more, like folding dough and kneading it.  Or like stomping grapes to make wine, only not as sexy.  

I've read that some people use horse manure in their cob - thankfully we don't have any so I wasn't tempted to try it.  Once the river dance music was blasting, the cob production was happening so fast that we used up all the sand Brandon had purchased for the day, and more had to be fetched.  

I was frequently distracted by food preparation, but every time I tuned back in to the progress, I was amazed at how much was accomplished in such a short amount of time. And, all that weight didn't collapse the house, so that's good. We placed the heavy cob bench so that it crosses all the beams that support the floor, and when we were repairing the floor from the termite damage, we added extra supports in this area, because we knew the bench would weigh a ton.  

There have been lots of things about this job that were strenuous, and I think one of the most back breaking has been putting all the bricks, blocks, stones, and pavement chunks, into the bench.  It required a lot of bending and lifting, which ain't easy.  

Having the tarp on the floor while we were working helped with the mess.  Sort of.  

After we finally called it a day, Brandon and I were soaking our weary bones in the hot tub and reminiscing about the days work, when Brandon said I should put it out there in the universe of the internet that building a rocket mass heater is "a shit ton of work".  It literally is a ton of work!  We knew it was going to be a challenging project, but in his fatigued state, he was adamant that the books and the personal experiences we've read on-line do not really emphasize how much strength it takes to build one.  Every shovel full of sand and clay is handled multiple times (especially if you decide to re-do parts, like we did), so it's physically hard to do.  Lifting, stacking, bending, getting down on the floor and back up over and over.  It's hard.  I sort of love that about it, but at Brandon's request, I'm putting it out there.  It's a ton of work.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Rain Likes rain

A couple of weeks ago, we got a lot of rain.  I like rain.  Who doesn't like Rain rain, right?  I rarely sing Rain Rain Go Away, Come Again Some Other Day, although lots of people sing it to me.  Strangers are inspired to do it, even, when we're introduced.  It's kind of cool to have a theme song, I guess.   

We had so much rain, that there was water over the road near our house.  I got real excited when I saw this, because I was convinced that if this road was un-passable by my little car, then the alternate route to work, which even has signs warning about water on the roadway, would also be under water, and I would get to call in work with a solid excuse.  Can't come - the road is flooded! Yay!! I mean, ... it's really too bad... just so unfortunate... but you know what they say about Mother Nature...  I had to go anyway though, because the other road was fine.   

It rained for so many days in a row, that I started to feel house bound, and decided to spend the few fleeting minutes of semi-daylight that I had after work one day, exploring the drizzly wet farm.  Each blade of fescue was lined with perfectly round water drops, conveniently placed to make my ankles wet.  

Come on, Puck, just a short walk down the driveway to experience the mist.  Puck did not want to get his belly fur wet, and he wouldn't budge past the mowed yard.  Wimp.

I like it when the fog is thick like this, and all the sounds are different because of the moisture in the air on the world.  It helps me feel alone in an Andrew Wyeth sort of way.    

For the first time, I noticed how curly the leaves are on the broom sedge.  An entire field of golden curly locks.  

This is the route I take everyday to work, just past our driveway.  Someone cut the side off the big ceder tree to make room for the road.  

I took this photo from our driveway, and I thought the oncoming vehicle was the school bus.  I live in fear of passing the school bus on this narrow road.  It's only happened once so far.  I was on the phone, and the bus driver didn't even slow down.  By the time I figured out how to panic, it was over, and I lived to tell the tale!

This is where we dug the clay for our rocket mass heater.  It's a baby pond!  It filled with water when it rained, and has been holding water ever since.  The orange flags are where I want to put the swimming pool, and that's why we dug our clay from this spot, since some soil will have to be removed to get the pool level.  Maybe I should skip the pool and just go swimming in the pond! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Cats Like RNA Smoothies

Look, kitties, this smoothie matches our walls!  Cool, right?  No..? 

It's that time of year.  The candy jar at work is filled with irresistible chocolates, Brandon is already planning to make his holiday peanut butter fudge, and my shopping list this week includes all the ingredients for Brandon's mom's famous magic cookie bars.  Yum.  With all this in mind, I've been trying to get back in the habit of making a daily smoothie.    

I've added a new ingredient to our smoothies too.  Mom and I recently watched an online presentation where this chiropractor claimed he was having success treating patients with sleep apnea using RNA supplements.  What?!  I never knew there was such a thing as an RNA supplement, or that RNA was something that when consumed had an effect on the body.  I've had a few genetics courses, and learned about DNA, RNA, and all those little bits that make us who we are, but never remember hearing anyone say that consuming RNA could have an effect on health.  Turns out, our bodies incorporate microRNA fragments into our cells from our food, just like vitamins and minerals - RNA molecules are taken from the food we eat, and then used to build our bodies.  Maybe even change our bodies, depending on who's RNA we are eating (hmm... maybe there's something to the genetically modified food argument, after all?).  So, since I take all my medical advise from random chiropractors on the inter web, I decided to see if there's a natural way to increase our RNA consumption.      

My research landed me on this green powder, called Rejuvenate (with an !).  And we all know how much I like a green powder calling itself a superfood.   I've already talked myself into drinking grass juice, algae, and even strange African plants sold at jewelry stores, so I was immediately on board.  

Just look at all the weird things in this - kelp, dulse, spirulina, chia seeds, nutritional yeast, and the list goes on.  It smells like something that's good for you, for sure.   

Baby spinach is still our favorite green to use in a smoothie because it tastes so mild.  With some frozen berries, a banana or two, and scoop of magic green powder, I should be able to eat peanut better fudge without getting scurvy, right?  

Whoa, that's green.  Whoa baby, that tastes green!  Maybe I should add a few pears to sweeten it up.  

Help me! I'm drowning in green sludge!  I rarely have as much empathy for a fruit as I did these pears.

The best way to serve a green slurry is in a fancy glass.  Anything in a fancy glass tastes good.  Notice that Brandon gets his served in a old peanut butter jar.  Should I feel guilty? 

I'm not sure which of the long list of strange ingredients captured the cats interest, but they stalked me while I was making this smoothie, and Newt even had the audacity to jump on the kitchen counter while I was standing there!  Normally, they have enough manners sneak and do this when I'm not within swatting distance.  

I had two cats perched on me while I tried to enjoy my tasty treat.  And really, it was pretty tasty.  Those sweet ripe pears were the the key.  The poor cats wanted it so bad I let them lick the glass.  Who knew cats liked smoothies?  

Newt, is your tongue numb?  

Ditto looked so silly licking his chops after his taste of smoothie that I wanted to take his picture with his tongue out.  Lick.  Click.  Missed!  Lick, click.  Click.  Click.  Lick.  Click.  Doh!  Is he intentionally being uncooperative?!  Click. Click. Lick.  Ah!  I give up.  Twenty pictures later.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Rocket Mass Heater - It Burns

Sunday was the big day - the first burning of wood in the rocket mass heater while it is in the house.  I was nervous.  I kept telling myself that other folks have reported that when the heater is new, cold, and damp, it doesn't always work right away, so not to be discouraged if we fill the house with smoke and the stove doesn't draft right.  No worries though - it worked! For a while at least.  

We started by lighting a piece of newspaper and cramming it in the firebox.  I like that Brandon decided to wear his home made camouflage shirt (painted and drawn on with a sharpie for a brief flirtation he had with turkey hunting) on the rocket mass stove's first day.  What was he thinking, right?   If ever there was a day for photos, this is one!

We intentionally didn't mortar the last layer of brick around the firebox because we found out during firing the mock up, that this is the dimension that makes all the difference when it comes to getting a good draft.  Just a few inches can change the entire air flow.  It didn't take very long before we found the brick arrangement that had our flames and smoke being pulled horizontally into the stove, just like we hoped.  

Wow!  It's working.  The barrel got warm right away, and soon got too hot to touch.  The exhaust pipes took a while to heat up, and after three hours, were still only really warm about half way down their length.  Slightly warm the whole way to the wall.  What was coming out of the stack outside was white, like barely warm steam, which would quickly dissipate.  We noticed water dripping from some of the seams in the exhaust, and figured out it was the moisture from the wet clay as it dried.  

After about four and half hours of having wood burning in the firebox, the house was too warm (yay!), the dragon on the top of the barrel was beginning to make some steam, and cracks began to appear in the clay around the base of the barrel.  Uh oh.  

Along with the cracks, came smoke.  Not just from the cracks themselves, but also from the firebox.  We lost our draft.  I think it was because of the cracks and not because it finally got good and hot.  We turned on the vent fans, opened the windows, and covered the firebox to put out the flames.  The house smelled liked smoked ham for the rest of the night.  Actually, I probably smell like smoked ham right now, but I've gotten used to it.  I'm sure we shouldn't have kept it burning for so long without the rest of the cob installed, but we couldn't resist the fun.  We have a plan for patching our cracks and building the bench.  

After the fire was out, heat spewed from the firebox for hours.  We could hold our hands above the brick and feel the heat from three feet away.  I'm sure that tower of fire brick that makes the heat riser stayed hot for a long time.  Even with the fire out for the evening, night, and all the next day, I think the house was warmer.  I'm encouraged, despite the smoke.  
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