Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Back on our feet

Ernie is home, yay! 
Still sleeping a lot as he recovers from the combination of infection, hospital stay (with sleep loss and enforced inactivity), and the current anti-biotic regime he's on.  Follow up in 10 days (April 3), to see if he's finally kicked it out. 
I gather cellulitis can recur, but it's been 8 years since the last round so hopefully he'll lick this one for at least that long again.

He declined to let me get a picture of him in the hospital, so here is a GIF animation of his old self being discovered by an over-15-foot-tall polar bear:

"out-take" from the Kickstarter video work 

We are finalizing details for travel with several workshop hosts, two in Canada and more in the US.  If you want to join us somewhere this year, now's the time to save the date: www.ErnieAndErica.info/upcoming_workshops.
(The boat-related events are mostly wishful thinking, but we save space for them anyway.  If we had an extra $5K right now we'd be helping Ernie's dad put engines in his boat.)

We have a couple more publishers interested in the Builder's Guide, and our Kickstarter video is just about done!  So now we have to decide whether to proceed with the Kickstarter launch now, or give the publishers a longer window to make their minds up first.
 (letting them complete their schedule for the release would allow much more accurate delivery dates, and probably better pricing for our Kickstarter supporters than I can find through self-publishing presses).
(but launching now would take better advantage of the buzz from Paul's work, and our recent supporters, and we'd be able to do some stretch goals BEFORE it goes into final formatting which means we could get some of the results into the book....)

Too late tonight for decisions on it, but progress is happening.  If I want to call the publisher in the UK tomorrow morning, sleep seems like a priority.  It already IS tomorrow morning there.  ....

Meanwhile I'm exploring Twitter as a medium. Any of my friends who want to post rocket mass heater pictures with the hashtag #RocketMassHeater, it could be nice to build up an exquisite little library where we can then offer links to the book once the Kickstarter goes live.

Erica and Ernie Wisner

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Equinox II: Urgency and Importance

So Ernie says I tend to talk more when I'm stressed.  I think it applies to writing, too.
Hence my "quick equinox update" has turned into two posts, both plenty long enough. 

Especially when stressed or feeling a sense of scarcity, it's easy to get tunnel-vision.  The perceived scarcity hijacks the mind, causing us to focus on immediate, urgent concerns, even when they're not the most important.  (I really liked the book "Scarcity" and its insights into these problems.)

Urgent is time-sensitive: paying the bills, getting more wet cat food (even when there's plenty of other things to feed the cats, including mice).

 Important but not urgent might be taking more steps toward a sustainable and satisfying career, deepening relationships with loved ones, managing chronic health conditions, or getting out from under a high-interest debt.  It's easy to put things off if they don't come with a specific deadline, but the cost can be high.
Splitting the wood - 2013-14

One classic example is laying in fire wood.
Lighting the fire today feels urgent. (I have not been running the heater as much since we are down at the hospital for Ernie's care.) 
Today, I grab enough wood to start the fire, and stay warm. I split just enough for today.

Important, but perhaps not urgent, is drying enough firewood this year to provide for next year.  If the wood I split still feels tough and clingy, not yet fully dry, I set it aside.  (My fault for deciding to stack whole rounds instead of splitting earlier in the year; now that they're split, they'll be ready for next year.)
I take a moment to bring in a few wet logs that have been rolling around since last year's harvest, and stack them on the empty side of the shed along with the new-split wood.

I also find, just peeking up above the current stack, a little stash of kindling Ernie left when we stacked the wood last summer.  Normally he splits kindling every couple of weeks through the winter, and we have a little shielded cubby for it near the stove.  But while I was telling the guys to just stack rounds, we can always split it later.... Ernie laid aside a few days' worth of kindling way back in the woodpile, just to make life easier some day in the future.  And that turned out to be a blessing this week.
A Providentially-timed gift from our past selves: Ernie taking care of things, whether or not he's able today.

Firewood is a great example because like so many concerns, the earlier you address it, the more effective your efforts are.  If you harvest green wood in winter, it takes more than twice as much to stay warm.  If you store 4' logs instead of 15" splits, it may take ten times as long to dry.  If you are burning split cordwood, it is easiest to split either fresh and green, or bone-dry and checked - in between it turns all leathery and tough.

Burning wet or green (uncured) wood forces the fire to boil the wood dry before it can burn, and the evaporation uses a huge amount of the heat from the fire. Sometimes the resulting steam puts out the flames causing half your fuel to follow it up the chimney unburned as smoke or creosote. 

Whenever people ask about burning whole, long chunks of logs, it makes me think they are focused on the urgent, just-in-time method of wood harvesting.  Logs don't dry well, so you need a lot more storage if you are going to wait until they are dry to burn them.  Or you need to haul about 4x the weight to compensate for the reduced efficiency and the water weight of the wood. (Roughly 2x to 3x by volume.)

How much storage do you have for logs? In wildfire risk assessment, standing-dead fuels are rated as “1-hour, 10-hr, 100-hr, and 1000-hr” meaning it takes that long for them to adjust to the surrounding moisture level, and become more or less likely to ignite. I would roughly double that time if what you want is a clean, efficient fire with no smoke.

A set of fuels with similar traits. Fuels are categorized as herbaceous or woody and live or dead. Dead fuels are classed as 1-, 10-, 100-, or 1,000-hour timelag fuels, based on the time needed for fuel moisture to come into equilibrium with the environment:

1-hour timelag fuels: Dead fuels comprised of herbaceous plants or woody plants less than about 0.25 inch (6.4 mm) in diameter and the surface layer of litter on the forest floor.

10-hour timelag fuels: Dead fuels comprised of wood from 0.25 to 1 inch (0.6-2.5 cm) in diameter and the litter from just beneath the surface to around 0.75 inch (1.9 cm) below ground.

100-hour timelag fuels: Dead fuels comprised of wood from 1 to 3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm) in diameter and litter from around 0.75 to about 4 inches (1.9-10 cm) below ground.

1,000-hour timelag fuels: Dead fuels comprised of wood from 3 to 8 inches (7.6-20.3) in diameter and the forest floor layer >4 inches (10 cm) below ground ( National Wildfire Coordinating Group, Incident Operations Standards Working Team 1996).”

1000 hours is roughly 40 days, a month or two. 

So when I see a pile of 3 to 8” logs on the ground, being carefully kept moist by a tarp over top of them, I think, “There is some wood that will grow mushrooms before it ever gets dry enough to be worth burning.”

That's an old rant, and one you've probably heard from me before.

The bottom line is, if you can stay focused on handling the important things, a little bit each day, instead of waiting until they are urgent, you will save time and effort in the long run. 
If you put a few of those logs to work as a good woodshed, and fill one side as the other one empties, you will probably only need about half the fuel each year.  That's a big savings.

I think the same principle will apply to doing little tidbits of work from the hospital, the boat, or wherever you happen to be, and hoping it all adds up to being in a better place when we come out again.

Erica and Ernie

Equinox: Sun and Cellulitis

Equinox is here, and things hang in the balance.
This week is a great time to re-orient yourself to the cardinal directions and priorities.
Amazing print done with a pinhole camera in Tijeras,
showing sun angles from summer solstice (high arc)
to winter solstice (bottom arc). From NOAA, 3/22/2015:

For us, most projects are on hold due to Ernie being laid up with a cellulitis infection in his bum leg. Instead of chopping firewood, he gets twice-daily IV antibiotics. We hope for improvement in the next few days, but nothing's certain.

This sort of setback always makes me reflective. Am I staying tuned to what's important, or just reacting to what feels most urgent? (More on that below).

I wanted to put out this update today, somewhat urgently, because I think passive solar is very cool, and it's important, and it's easy to neglect planning for it until it's too late.  This (the week of spring equinox) is is a good week to take some relevant observations.

You can do a lot of fancy math to figure out the optimal sun angles and thermal mass to match your heat loads.  This site has a pretty great library of resources: http://www.builditsolar.com.

However, nothing beats direct observation, and now is one of the key times to observe.

A solid equinox sun-path, and a second one (sun and moon) from close to the solstice, can let you skip a lot of the maths and work directly from your site data.

 You don't want to stare at the sun directly, but watch how the shadows or sunny patch moves along the ground and floor and other objects.  A vertical stick, or an angle wedge like the dial on a sundial, will make a shadow you can trace.  If you already have a building, just watch the sunny patch from a window as it moves across the walls and floor.
I made this papercut to watch its shadow trace the sun's path.

If you are modifying a building, adding a sunroom or whatever, you might rough in a frame and hang up some cardboard to represent the future walls and roof, so you can trace the patch from the future windows.

(The full moon is roughly opposite the sun, so a summer-solstice full moon traces a similar path through the sky as the winter sun. 
You can double-check it six months later if time allows.  Since most people only get a few solstices to observe while planning a building, and some of them might be cloudy, it pays to double up at each opportunity.  The Stonehenge builders sank dozens of log post markers before placing the permanent stones. )

At equinox, March 21/Sept. 21, the sun rises due east and sets due west.  If you are not 100% sure of the N/S axis of your property, this is one way to find it (not counting nearby hills).

Equinox also marks the average day length and sun angles for every place on the planet.  Winter days will be shorter, summer days longer.
Summer sun rises higher in the sky and traces a longer path.  The winter sun takes a shortcut, low across the sky. Shadows are longer in winter, and sunbeams slant almost horizontally.

In the northern hemisphere, the summer sun rises north of true East, circles clockwise across the southern sky, and sets north of true west. The winter sun makes a shorter arc, from southeast to southwest, staying lower in the sky.  
(In the Southern hemisphere, it's almost the same but swap the north and south directions: the sun still moves east to west, but counter-clockwise.  Australian winter days are all north-oriented, summer days have a long SE to SW arc with a northern noon.)
In the equatorial regions, "summer" and "winter" may not mean much. Your temperatures stay closer to optimal year-round; tropical conditions warrant a separate discussion.

So in the temperate climates, where most people need heat:
We can orient windows and sunrooms to admit more light in winter, less in summer, which is exactly what we want in a temperate climate to offset our seasonal extremes. 

Sunroom: vertical windows let in more winter sun, less in summer
Skylight: lets in the most light, but more in summer and less in winter.
If you are setting up a greenhouse or attached sunroom, it really pays to think about your goals.
Good insulation, thermal mass, and passive-solar sun angles can help you create a more moderate environment (protected from overheating and from frost). 
Too much glass (not enough walls) can cause overheating in summer and heat loss in winter, but it does let in more light for plants.
Different plant species have different light requirements and tolerances for extreme temperatures, as do fish, poultry, and other common indoor-outdoor livestock.

The Bucket Test:
This week is a great time to get out in your sunroom with a bucket or chalk and see where the sun actually hits throughout the day. I like using a 5-gallon bucket because it's about the right height for a seating bench.  You want the winter sun to hit that vertical face for best heat collection. So you want to get the sides as well as the top of the bench into the sunny spot.

If you place thermal mass along the shady side of the sun/shade line, it will get some sun in winter, but none in spring or summer.

If you place it a few degrees to the sunny side of that line, it will get sun through about 3 seasons but not too much in summer.

You can also do this test with a camera – set up a tripod or put the camera on a ledge, and take a picture every 2 hours or so from sunrise to sunset. Makes a good record that won't get messed up as you build things.
Our clients in Chehalis are doing this in preparation for adding a rocket bench to an indoor/outdoor patio space.

Speaking of Chehalis, please check our schedule for upcoming workshops. We have two in Canada and three in the USA between now and June.  As a change of pace, we're throwing in some natural building and plasters as well as rocketry at the Ecological Living Summit in Montana.

Please keep your fingers crossed that Ernie's infection will resolve quickly and he'll be released to fully enjoy these workshops.  Since his 2008 injury, we pretty much consider Ernie as a special volunteer, and any work he is able to do as a bonus.

We have delayed the Kickstarter launch for the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide because of this situation and other reasons. Hoping the fallow time will turn out to serve its purpose, and there will be some benefits from it.  For example more and better connections to help us, and I can keep working on more rewards to offer as incentives once we do go live.

So if you'd like to help, and have good resources to spread the word, please remind me that you're interested. questions@ErnieAndErica.info

Erica and Ernie

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Paul Wheaton's Kickstarter is live!

Our friend and collaborator Paul Wheaton is doing another set of 4 DVDs, and we're featured heavily.
If you like seeing our faces on film, this is another great opportunity to do so.
If you'd rather wait for the book kickstarter in less than a month, that's fine too.

Our only percentage kickback comes from selling these DVDs ourselves, so don't get confused about which Kickstarter is which.  We are in a mutually beneficial relationship in so many ways, we definitely want both efforts to succeed.

One thing I'm learning is that I will definitely want a group of collaborators to meet with, or conference-call with, to brainstorm more ideas for how to promote our Kickstarter to its best potential.

And of course, having more supporters looks good even if you stick with the $1 minimum pledge on both.

(Full disclosure: if you click through from this blog, it may or may not result in a trackable sales number that Paul can reward us for.  So we may or may not be affiliates benefitting directly if you click through and put a dollar in from here.)


 Another place you could go to click through, if you want to take a little extra trouble and make sure Paul can see that we've sent him your business, would be our website at ernieanderica.info.

I've just posted the links along with a longish article there, answering some questions about RMH efficiency.  The same objections often come up when Paul asks us for numbers, then uses them to emphasize the difference these stoves can make to household and global welfare.  These numbers often sound "too good to be true" to people trapped in conventional approaches to heating.

Here's the article:

Monday, February 16, 2015

Puppy and productivity

Puppy being sent off to play with Ernie, week 1.
Paradoxically, a puppy can have positive effects on productivity, despite requiring time and attention in itself.

It's partly due to starting the morning early: this little fellow-being starts twitching at dawn, and you can either go outside and play together in the morning light, or you can try to sleep through the lavish attention-getting efforts, and the implied threats of soiled floors and ravaged rubbish.

He's almost house-trained, and still managing to fit himself through the cat-door most days, so I could roll over and hope for the best.  But he doesn't really come with a "snooze" button.  Except sometimes if we go outside and then come back in while he's still sleepy enough to snuggle. Once he's fully awake, he needs to play hard for a while.

Sunset puppy kisses
If Ernie or I gets up every few hours to play outside and tire the puppy out, I can then focus on work for a couple hours while he's sleeping.  This makes routine non-urgent work into something that needs to be done within a specific time window, specifically NOW, while the puppy is being entertained elsewhere, or asleep.

And getting up every few hours reminds me of my own biological needs, which means on balance I probably spend more of the work day well-fed, refreshed, and able to focus on work.  It makes me realize just how often I doggedly kept trying to muddle through tasks in a low-blood-sugar fog, or with a pissy attitude.  News flash - it's hard to concentrate on anything when you need to pee.

We'll see if the effect continues as he grows, and needs to be trained or given distracting tasks instead of naturally sleeping so long.

The next couple of months are going to be important ones for productivity.
Our friend and collaborator Paul Wheaton has launched his Kickstarter, which means we will launch ours in less than a month, if we keep all our ducks in a row.  (We coordinate the timing to enjoy the full benefit of Paul's considerable online promotio resources.)
 While we don't directly benefit from his current project, we are featured in it, and his success is likely to lead to more resources coming our way in the very near future.  It's a series of videos covering the recent work on 10 different rocket stove and rocket mass heater projects at Wheaton Labs.  We designed and led the work crews on at least half of these projects, so this will be another Ernie-and-Erica showcase.

We are getting things together to improve the video for our upcoming Kickstarter as well.
We had Chris McClellan print us a proof copy of the book, and Bryce Phelps did a little video segment showing turning the pages.  Nothing like a little extra "real-ness" for the video.  The actual book may go through a whole 'nother layout process, but at least you can see it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Puppies and Mailing Lists

Since there's been some talk about newsletters lately, I thought I'd mention again that we have one too.

Unlike this blog (which combines family and work life), there's a bit more focus.
It's mostly rocket-mass-heater-related updates, especially workshops and events we're involved with, but I do share other things we're particularly excited about including boat stuff, appropriate technology, and permaculture.
So far the newsletter has been sporadic, but we just crossed into pay-as-you-go numbers (we had been hosted for free until now).
So we hope to get up to once-a-month posting or so, maybe even more in the coming months when we launch our Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide on Kickstarter. 
Here's the link to sign up for our newsletter if you're interested: ErnieAndErica Mailing List Signup

If you'd rather just browse our past updates at your convenience, we have a blog called "Ernie and Erica's Joint Adventure" at ernieanderica.blogspot.com.  We post here more often than we release the newsletter.
Our general schedule is at:
I was quoted this week on a cool architecture blog called "Misfits," which inspired me with visions of ancient Persia.  The middle east contains working examples of utterly amazing pre-industrial civilizations, or maybe early industrial depending on whether you define it by repetitive specialized processing, or by the use of fossil fuels. They made full use of solar and wind and radiant cooling and gravity-fall power, to the point where they had "passive solar" (actively human-managed) ice houses in the desert.  Fuels were scarce and therefore not widely used to solve problems that could be handled with other methods.

So if mud fences, plus bubbling fountains, plus ice cream on 100-degree-days, plus waterproofing with edible materials is your idea of permaculture, take a look at these "It's Not Rocket Science" topics.

Further Puppy Updates

This puppy we found east of Omak is a remarkably good dog, with potential for farm or family jobs.  We hope that it's just a question of finding the farmer who was starting his training a little early.  I'm coming to understand that puppy-dumping is all too common around here, despite the free availability of spay/neuter assistance through the cat shelter.
Ernie and I have travel commitments for at least 2 plane trips this year, so even though we appreciate this dog's excellence, we could not responsibly care for a dog without help.  Please me know if you might want to be a second home (or the primary home) for a smart puppy with good small-stock-dog or family-dog potential. 
My best case is that his owners call in about a week, after we've had a chance to enjoy him but before he interferes with other work. 

My next-best case is that someone we know adopts him, and we can visit; I'd like to see him settled with a regular family or some farm work to keep him useful.  I think I'd keep him if I can figure out how to do it without seriously stunting his lovely personality, nor shirking our work.

Puppy Profile:

Ernie guesses he is about 6 weeks old, currently 8 or 10 lbs - about like a big cat. We plan to give the owners a couple of weeks to claim him before finding him a permanent home. 

Puppy might do very well with some work to do, small animals to herd, other pets or kids to play with.  He's remarkably easy on car trips (falls asleep, or cuddles), and likes to lie near but not under my feet.

Behavior so far suggests a "beta" personality - smart, good at taking orders, a nice balance of curious and mellow.  Sociable with strangers, but knows who he's with.  He romps a little and sleeps a lot, I guess that's a puppy for you.  Time will tell whether he needs active challenges, or if he's content to become a sleeps-at-the-feet office dog.

So far he has not shown the hyper-OCD personality of some full-blood border collies, he's just alert and observant when he's not asleep.  But he does seem to pick up on "the rules" pretty quickly for a crittur who still doesn't know what his tail is.  Our cats have taken an interest in his training (by means of the velvet-gloved fist), and he learns quick.  Everyone is getting along pretty well. 

My only concern would be what he has learned from his first adventure on the highway.  The venture has brought access to Ernie's cooking and a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of dust bunnies to play with.  
He might not learn his lesson, and be prone to go exploring.
He's very good at fishing out odds and ends from 3-year-old Christmas crafts from among the baseboards.

My floor has not been this clean in years.  ;-)
p.s. Anyone who knows just how much we travel for work can see our dilemma. 
This little guy has already handled meeting strange people, about 8 hours in the car without complaint or accident, cats as big as he is, a change of diet, snow-camping toilet conditions, and sleeping through the night by himself in a strange place. 

And while we're far from puppy-proof he is batting over 500 on playing with appropriate stuff.  Which, in a 6-week-old puppy, seems a minor miracle. 

I do think he has some Border Collie in him.  He seems to have an instinct for rules.  While he doesn't follow them 100%, he tends to pick things we've approved for play in the past, like sticks and orange peels, over things we've disapproved, like electrical cords.  It's a challenge to me to be consistent, to think through what rules I need him to learn if he were to stay with us.  He'd need to get along well on farms, or with a family, given that our travels involve both.
So if we were ever going to get a dog, this may be the ultimate candidate.

To train a good dog into an excellent one, we'd need more than dog-sitting - we'd need some time-share puppy buddies, who could continue with training and care while we're gone on any trip that can't accommodate a puppy.  Or a new, permanent home where he can be loved and useful, and we can visit. 
If he is Border Collie, he might need some small livestock to herd around, or a similar job to do, to be as happy as a smart dog deserves to be.  All we have for small livestock around here are cats and ageing biddy hens, and one horse.  But he seems more mellow, with shorter hair than the Internet's border collie puppy pictures.
Same cute nose, though.

I'm hoping his original owners get ahold of us, because it's going to be a tough decision otherwise.


"I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make
it shorter."
- Blaise Pascal, 1657

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bad Hobbits

A friend is contemplating how to make a real, working version of the round hobbit-doors shown in the Lord of the Rings movies:

In order to post pictures to that forum, I need them up somewhere on the Interwebs first.  So here they are: