Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spring and Tides

We're pointed toward the ocean this month.  Seeing the waves and abundant shore life is some compensation for missing part of garden season back home.

We are musing on a couple different science topics.
Animated real-time global conditions at
One is coastal changes.  Ernie is still passionate about the massive changes that are happening, and likely to increase, along our beautiful coastlines.  It's not just a question of who gets beachfront property; the coast is always eroding, but even a small change in sea levels could massively change the current coastlines, affecting agriculture, fisheries, harbors, tides and currents, and the weather.

While the weatherman may not be able to tell you months in advance which particular spring day will be fair for your wedding, you used to have pretty good confidence in which month to plant peas vs. beans, or use a tide chart to time your way through a tight spot, and know when and where to expect tuna, salmon, or crab season.  Changing ocean currents sometimes move fish runs hundreds or thousands of miles off course (if the fish are surviving at all, which we devoutly hope they are).

In the face of all this change, reclaiming predictability is pretty attractive.  I think that's part of what drove our ancestors to make a religion out of calendars in the first place - Stonehenge, the Celtic sun-mazes, Mayan temples, the Egyptian pyramids, built on carefully-surveyed celestial axes and bearing enduring witness to the passage of the seasons as well as the ambitions of mortal man.

This is not the first time change has confronted us.  Our ancestors lived through ice ages, droughts, floods, fire, and plague; what's a few breadbaskets turning into fjords compared to historic miseries?  But you can see where there is a very strong human resistance to change, and a craving for predictability and reliable rules for dealing with complex things like weather, growing conditions, and morality.

One of the most popular, and misunderstood, elements in nature are the effects of the moon and tides on the living, breathing Earth.  (By which I mean the biosphere: the plants, animals, soils, swamps, reefs, and skintillions of tiny unseen beings who make up the growing, living, dying, feeling skin of this blue planet.)

Many people understand the tides as caused by the moon pulling on the earth.  That's somewhat true (both moon and sun affect tides).  But I think we assume the timing is simpler than it actually is, because we are used to relying on the moon and sun as the main cog-wheels of our calendar.

The waxing and waning of the moon is a great way to set rendezvous and festival dates in low-tech societies, because everyone can synchronize their schedule without a watch alarm.  Rendezvous are not just for wild parties or philosophical societies: the longer "day" can be used for coordinated work like plowing, haying, and harvest home.  Some almanacs or systems such as biodynamics give ever-more-complex ways to organize the growing calendar, defining certain days and even hours as "seed days," "root times," and fallow times. 

Having a schedule that reminds you what kinds of activities you might need to do this week, and helps you pick a time to do them, is very useful, especially in a situation where your normal instincts about weather can lead to undue optimism and early planting. 

However, I get a little twitchy when people justify these schedules because of the "tides" or the "pull of the moon." The majority of calendars reflect the waning and waxing light, and basically ignore the tidal forces.  (The full moon and new moon are both aligned with the sun to produce higher and lower tides, compared with the out-of-alignment quarter moons). 
It's conceivable that the moonlight may affect some types of plants.

But what really prickles me is that this simplified "explanation" for lunar influence, "just like it pulls the tides," ignores how complex and rich a pattern the tides actually are.  The tides are different from one place to another, even from one side of an island to another.

If you don't have any idea of the full complexity of the tides, which after all are basically just sloshing water, how much more are you likely to mis-understand the intricate forces that coax many different kinds of plants to their best growth?

People with woo-woo garden theories nevertheless often have spectactular gardens, possibly due to caring enough to pay close attention to their plants.  "Listening" and "talking" to plants, whether there is any scientific basis for it or not, seems to open the mind up to notice what's needed and support the plants in a timely way.  Sceptics who don't garden are not well-positioned to offer advice.  But it's still annoying to be quoted pseudo-scientific justifications for folk practices, whether they work or not.  There's been a lot of bad science done around biodynamics, in particular: biased studies or compilations that only list favorable outcomes; claiming statistical significance by growing large numbers of seedlings at the same time, but without controlling for other variables like weather or temperature, or by comparison to any other years.  Bad science doesn't disprove a pet theory, but it doesn't prove it either, and it often grates on science-minded ears as an annoying waste of time.

I am not a biology buff, and my garden is far from exemplary. 
But I have been learning about the tides, and it's fascinating.

If you look at tide tables, the most extreme tides are generally at the new moon, when moon and sun's pull line up.  These will be the "spring" tides, both highest and lowest tides.  The full moon has relatively regular tides. During the quarters in between you can get uneven tides where one low or high will be different than the other for that day. 

You can look up tides for different coastal areas here:  (they can be off by several hours for places under the same moon phase, due to differences in the shape of the bays and basins and coastline.)

The tides don't actually race around the world keeping up with the moon - water waves simply can't move that fast, they would have to go over a thousand miles an hour.  Instead, it's more like a dancer spinning plates, where repeated motions create a sloshing effect.  If you want to play around with this, the easiest (and most fun) way is to sit or lie in the bathtub, then rhythmically flap one hand back and forth in place.  Sometimes nothing much happens.  Sometimes if you hit the right rhythm, the whole tub starts sloshing water out both ends.  If you shift position (sit up, or lie down), the rhythms change.  Your body is like the coastline and undersea shapes that define the basins, or "bathyscape."  Your flapping hand is like the regular pull of sun and moon, working the waters into a sloshing rhythm.

The ocean tides get nudged into circular currents, or sloshing extremes, or pivot points of near-perfect stillness, based on the shapes of the continents and ocean basins.  Some areas, like Alaska or New Zealand, have extreme tides.  Some, like the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, have almost none (that's part of why hurricane storm surges are so devastating in the Gulf, their coast is not adapted to sloshing water). 

The tides have patterns, and the patterns tend to mostly repeat with the lunar cycles, but they are a complex dance.  The tides don't simply 'wax and wane' like the Moon's light.  The ocean does get pulled by the moon, but it doesn't bulge at full moon and shrink during the new moon.  There's always the same amount of water, and it returns roughly to its own level one way or another. 
You can have big influences due to current weather (storm tides), undersea earthquakes, or big ice-sheet or land slides even.  "Tidal waves" are more often called "tsunami" now by scientists: these are seismic-driven waves due to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or big land-slides, with no tidal influence involved.  However, tsunami are big and broad, and they drop and flood into harbors like a very fast and extreme tide, rather than being a surface-level curling wave like wind-driven fetch.  Storm waves batter and froth; "tidal waves" can funnel into certain harbors like a tidal bore, as if the ocean had changed its mind about where to allow a shoreline.

The tides are wild and mysterious, and hard to predict without a chart.  Those charts are based on years and years of experience, records going back centuries for many ports.  But once you are tuned into your local tides, you may be able to use your own observations to take a guess at the current tide based on the time of day and phase of the moon.   I feel pretty good if I can get within an hour or two this way - that's close enough to schedule a harvesting trip or keep me out of trouble on a coastal hike.  The tide charts are way more reliable, but it's worth trying to learn the local patterns if you're interested, in case you are ever caught without a current chart.

If the tides don't line up from one coast to another, I don't imagine that all plants will respond the same way to the "lunar pull" across continents and climate zones.  Or for that matter, that they would respond more strongly to "lunar pull" than to the sun's stronger pull, or the Earth's even stronger gravitational pull.  If I had to guess, I would imagine that the plant feels a very slight fluctuation in the earth's effective gravity.
 If you're just talking about upward 'pull,' the sun has 175 times more pull than the moon.  And they are both pulling on us at all times, sometimes up and sometimes down.  It's just relatively the same across all the earth.  The daily small difference in pull, as our side of the Earth turns toward or away from the sun, is about 44% as much as the moon's difference in pull.

The strongest pull would be when the moon is closest, and when it's lined up near or exactly opposite the sun, at the same time: 'supermoons'.

Factors like temperature have a much more measurable effect on plant growth (and insect and fish maturation - to the point where hatcheries and stream volunteers talk about "degree-days" to maturity).  Weather affects temperature.  Some animals definitely can feel and respond to barometric pressure, as do some types of plants (Ernie has a "weather leg" that pains him with pressure changes, and he recalls some type of orchid that opens and closes with changes in the barometric pressure).

Some flowers called "moonflowers" are just round and white; a few of these (and others) bloom mainly at night.  A very few are said to bloom mainly during the full moon.  However, there's a good argument to be made that this behavior could evolve to attract specialized night-flying pollinators, like the more common night-blooming behavior.  Some pollinators may be particularly active or accurate in finding the flowers with more moonlight.  The idea that it's moonlight, rather than some kind of gravitational pull, that sets the cues for this dance would be reinforced if the plants could be mis-cued by artificial light, or by variations in day length.  There are a handful of such species I found mentioned online (on a less-than-impressive eHow post , or the more ordinary evening- and night-blooming flowers listed here on Ava's Flowers  All three of those said to bloom best in the full moon (datura inoxia, one of several plants commonly called "moonflower;" night-blooming jasmine or cestrum nocturnum, and night scented stock (Matthiola longipetala) are tropical or subtropical plants, which prefer roughly 6- to-12-hour days with warm or hot temperatures.  The last one is a desert plant blooming mainly in spring and fall (12-hour days).

I'm impressed by serious gardeners in any case - and these plants appear to have a lot of strict requirements besides the lavishly regular lunar cycle. 

However, one thing that excellent gardeners often share, and I fall short, is a reliable sense of time and time management.  If gardeners sometimes build mystical stories around their all-important calendar or almanac, a little poetry to get the juices flowing and help you stick to your plan, there's nothing wrong with that (unless it makes you less open to reliable, proven methods that might be of more help).  So if a lunar planting, weeding, sprouting, and rooting cycle is working for you, keep doing it. 

 Lunar cycles are a good predictor of changes in animal activity levels (including humans), possibly due to availability of nocturnal light and enhanced twilight.  This light/activity connection, which also affects a LOT of nocturnal pollinators, could be one reason why some very successful gardening methods and guides have used the moon.  Full moons have been used historically for extended work hours during harvest, and for festivals where participants might travel and celebrate longer together without fear of being caught in the dark o the way home.

Many gardeners are women, or live with women; our menstrual cycles famously synchronize with the moon.  It is worth tracking our own cycles. Any given woman may feel more productive in certain lunar phases than others - though I would expect this to vary person to person.
I have had some difficult years when somehow EVERY heavy-lifting workshop and over half our air-travel dates managed to line up with the wrong "time of the month."
While some ancient cultures put taboos on menstruating women participating in certain activities (cooking, handling sacred items, etc), these may be related to harmonious concentration, intense arguments, or the possibility of blood stains attracting scavengers.  In the modern context, menstruation cycles can usually be managed, they're just an extra burden to bear while working on a time-sensitive project.

However, there's one more reason why lunar cycles might be a popular element in garden planning guides and almanacs.
The moon has strong mythological connotations, and has been part of both calendars and legends for longer than we can remember.  It's attractive; it's sexy; it's mysterious; it's a little risque.  And in the world of marketing, sex sells.  A calendar that marks out the full moon, or gives poetic lunar instructions for getting through the tasks of the week, might simply be more interesting.

I'd rather take my poetry at full throttle, with moon and flowers fleshed out in beauty, scents, strong feelings, and layered symbolism reflecting my human needs and longings.  And I'd rather let my science explanations stand or fall on their own merits, humble as science should be, proven or disproven by results over time.

If the moonflower likes moonlight best, so be it.  If it's happy with a 12-hour daylight cycle, a little evening coolth, and maybe a grow-light boost when I want to party out of season, then we can have fun together that way too.

And if planting your seeds on Monday and Tuesday this week, but not until Thursday or Friday of next week, works for you, then do it.

I find that my seeds get planted "now" or not at all.  There are enough challenges in semi-arid gardening while working out-of-town gigs; I don't need a mystical schedule to tell me I'm doing it wrong.
From what I've seen, plants grow very well for people who pay attention to their individual needs and their common routines (like water, temperature, sun and shade).  They can also grow well for people who believe in all kinds of moons and fairies, as long as they also get out in the garden regularly and give the plans good physical care.

But for those who, like me, are juggling too many interests and obligations to regularize our garden time, there's a risk that a demanding garden schedule could become an excuse not to plant anything at all.

If you don't have any of those challenges, and you see some difference between Tuesday's and Thursday's plants despite perfect control of water and temperature, then you have the luxury of refining your methods on your own terms.  I have had a few personal experiences with "talking to plants," or more specifically asking permission and listening for an answer, that take the edge off my skepticism about this whole sort of thing.  But I'm still 

I'm a sailor in training, and an incurable science geek.  Being 'in tune with nature' feels good in any case, but it matters even more if you're surfing the tides in and out of harbors, and trying to keep track of wind and current effects on your course.  Sailors can get pretty picky about the accuracy of their nature-based information.

I've been learning boatloads of this stuff lately.  It's amazing.

Erica W

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Final 24 hours on Kickstarter.

All the Goodies!

It is hard to keep straight all these Kickstarter reward packages.
What is everyone else doing?

The most popular reward level is $35.  At that level, you get:

"The Book"

+ the "Fire Starter Rewards"

FireStarter rewards - now with pictures!
In other words, you get:
  • - The Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide, paperback first edition
  • - The Art of Fire ebook
  • - Fire Science DVD, streaming version
  • - Care and Feeding of Rocket Mass Heaters micro-doc
  • - Builder's Guide to Mud ebook
  • - 3 mini-stoves under $3 ebook
  • - 3 mini-stoves under $10 ebook
  • - Simple Shelter ebook
  • - Teeny Tiny Mass Heater Plans
  • - A new DIY project each month for 2016 (8 projects from May to December)
  • - Recipes for Ernie's fabulous chocolate truffles

More than double the value of the book.

A lot of folks are upgrading to the $50+ levels, to get the stretch goal bonus items for serious builders (Bitter Lessons eBook and Innovators' Cookbook).  Or maybe they are just stretching toward Shrimp, Fish, a Fat Rabbit, Mysterious Manifolds, Rocket Wood Cook Stoves, and

Rocket Wood Cook Stoves and Heaters: The Cleanest, Greenest, Most Elegant Wood Burning Stoves in the World

Delivering all these new goodies is going to keep us busy from now til Christmas.

Don't wait.
 Click here for the Kickstarter:

You should read Update #12.

Modular (!) Rocket Mass Heater
by Abrahamsson

Thanks for reading,
Erica W

Seeking builder or owner information for the double-rocket Plancha Kitchen
P.S: If you know the owners or builder of this beautiful rocket kitchen island, please help us find them.  Rumor says it's in Brazil.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

48 Hours, Pie in the Sky and Nudes on Earth

48 Hours on the Kickstarter: Click Here!

This is a tiny graphic of the Fire Starter rewards, for visual people.  Every backer at $10 or higher gets all these things, plus the specific stuff it mentions in the reward level, plus stretch goal bonuses.

There are going to be a LOT of stretch goal bonus eBooks, because we have hit a LOT of stretch goals.

Shrimp: Compact cooking rocket
The outside looks almost normal.
Inside, there is a 4" batchbox,
which gives a 6"w/12"d/9"h oven;
a curled-up heat riser (!) and insulation.
Thick steel tray holds oven heat.
Optional range cover traps some heat
(like a Dutch oven).
For tight clearances (insulated)
the outside dimens. may be about
15" wide by 24" tall, and 24" deep.
With a rear chimney port it could
possibly be coupled to a bell for
a mass-heater extension - first,
we must see how it burns.
Teeny Tiny Mass Heater Plans.
Bitter Rocket Mass Heaters: Lessons from the Dark Side (or something like that)
The Heat Riser Cookbook, and Innovator's Cookbook, and if we hit our next goal we also release Mysterious Manifolds.
I spent Hour 52 to Hour 50 doing a concept drawing for the Shrimp on a brown paper bag this morning.

I'm adding the Shrimp as an unofficial stretch goal at $40,000.
(I'm planning to finish prototyping it during the Alternative Tech course in June, so you can always come and see it then. 
If we cross $40,000, I will make sure all backers get the plans and progress notes, as well as two other plan sets to fulfill the Teeny Tiny Mass Heaters goal from before.)

Also, we have some beautiful rocket kitchens from recent years, with a quick online search.  I'd like to do an investigative tour of those, and get the inside scoop from from their builders, as our pie-in-the-sky $50,000 stretch goal.
Batch-box cooking rocket in soapstone (by Hendrik)

Brazilian kitchen with two Plancha-style rockets

I love the creative inspiration, and this is a new milestone for me as a small business proprietor.  The potential budget for this year's projects is heartening.

Ernie was disappointed to realize we don't get to keep ALL the money - a lot of it goes to pay for books, shipping, content delivery, payment processing fees, and other costs.  Yet this is still a HUGE step forward in our goals for this year.

As we sell more books at once, we also get a better per-book rate from the publisher, which adds up to thousands of extra dollars (beyond the margins we calculated to conservatively cover all the costs).

Satamax's rocket retrofit project from France
Thank you to everyone who has supported and endorsed and edited and encouraged this project.

We have been trying for years to convey how warm and decadent it really feels to enjoy one of these heated benches, plus the radiant warmth from that blackened-steel barrel.

It rarely comes across in pictures.

It becomes more obvious when you hear about Mongolian women sitting on the bench and giggling together as their undersides warm up.

Or our friends from a nature education center report, "you should warn people these things are an aphrodisiac." They had 3 new pregnancies the winter after installing their first rocket mass heater. (Apparently, the ladies on staff had been tolerating a chilly office and cold feet for a LONG time.)

A few years later, the same conversation led to a creative photography session between two talented ladies, and the raw image here, showing a lovely mama enjoying warm cob in Montana in October, without a stitch on but her hair.
If you prefer imaginary nudes,
you might enjoy imagining them
in this rocket sauna.

Nude on a Rocket Mass Heater (NSFW)

Not Safe For Work. You been warned.
Some call it Art, others may find it objectionable.

She looks pretty comfy, doesn't she?

The lovely and talented Katelin, besides being a figure model, is raising a wonderful son, and can cook Paleo meals for 50 in an ordinary home kitchen with a rocket spare-burner out back.
She had the courage to put up with some flack about this already, and confirmed she was comfortable with releasing the pictures.  If you choose to look, please be mature about it.

Katelin and photographer Priscilla Smith ( created this photo to convey the earthy sensuality of the warm bench.  I suspect Priscilla will work this photo over at some point, and turn it into grainy, painterly art - check out her other pieces if you want a lovely visual break, mostly SFW and sometimes surreal.

Ernie also used to model, incidentally, for art classes.
Maybe I should get Priscilla to take Ernie nude pics on the same rocket, for equal rights.

OK, Mom, I have officially sold out.  Not sure how much farther we can go to demonstrate the luxurious comfort and clean-living benefits of these heaters.

Luckily for you, in 48 hours we go back to our "normal" lives.  We'll stop saying "Kickstarter" and post more pics of me in gumboots stocking the woodshed, baking duck-shaped cream puffs, practicing tadelakt on rocket hammam (sauna) benches in a Moroccan village.

You know.




Less Than 48 Hours on the Kickstarter!
Click Here:

Friday, April 1, 2016

Appropriate Tech: Branching Out

Well, now that we've got the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide off to a decent start,
(Kickstarter! Click Pledge Share!)

what shall we do next?

The obvious answer is to double down and teach a lot of rockety stuff, maybe cash in on the book promotions by starting some online courses or something.

But we're your crazy R&D people.  We like developing new things more than we like marketing proven stuff.

One thing I'm excited about this year is learning more tech tricks.

Ryan Chivers polishing a tadelakt bowl (Denver Post)
I got to take my first tadelakt course this winter.  Ironically, I may get to use it for the first time on a return trip to Morocco.  (Yeah, they could get the expensive guy in from Marrakech... or they could see if the American novice can pull it off, third-hand from Canada and Colorado back to its ancient origins.)

One of the project ideas is a rocket hammam (like a Turkish bath, a heated steam-bathing room).

I am so excited by the idea of a soapy-smooth sauna-like bench, which if it all goes well would be waterproof enough for anyone.   I am eager to try, despite my very beginner experience with the tadelakt process.

I would also like to stop waiting around with my hands in my pockets when I need help welding or pipe-fitting on the stove prototypes.

If I had realized earlier that I would want this skill, I could have learned from my late grandmother Enid, who was a top-grade welder in Portland's Swan Island shipyards during the war effort.  (She claims she only made the top-six list for her yard because "they didn't know if Enid was a man's name or not.")

Or I could have asked my father-in-law before his eye problem which left him, as he puts it, "blind in one eye and can't see out the other."  He is a bit embarrassed by the rough quality of his work nowadays, and I guess that makes me embarrassed to ask him (he puts in a ton of help on our projects anyway, whether we ask or not).

I bet it was Priscilla Smith
who made him look all dreamy like this...
big vision, black fingerprints,
that's Tim all the way.
One of the handiest welders I know is Tim Barker, who is normally in New Zealand.  But he is potentially coming back for a PDC and Appropriate Technology course in Montana this June.

Between Morocco and our book events, the PDC is a conflict for me.  But if I squeeze, I can get in there for almost the entire AT course.  Get that Shrimp heater prototype of mine up and running, and maybe we could even plumb and seal the darned hot tub.  Or build a new darned hot tub (if you have never tried to 'rescue' someone else's abused redwood, it's a real tragedy).  Maybe I can tadelakt the hot tub!  But wrestling with a hot tub all week could be a waste of time, when there's so much else to explore.

Others will be presenting solar, power generation, pumps, all kinds of DIY tech.  I can earn my keep with some rockety demos, and maybe show off my softer side with some fiber-based structural tech like wattle work, pole lashings, sewing.  (I did learn that from Gran'ma Enid, at least!)
Or bring the physics side with passive solar, heat transfer, simple machines. We haven't hit the details real hard yet, just excited to get the team together!

So jump on that early bird registration, and convince these Australians we want them out here already.  They've got a superb forest gardener, and Howard Story of Permaculture Asia, also lined up for the courses.


Back to the Kickstarter:  To keep knocking down those stretch goals, please keep sharing.  We have 10 days left, and while the initial popularity has been amazing, it does take creative repetition to keep bringing in the newbies right up to the last bell.

We've just announced our stretch goal for the $25,000 mark: if we reach that level, we'll write up a brand-new e-book on a topic we don't normally share with the public: Bitter Lessons from Rocket Mass Heaters: Hopes, Misconceptions, and Faceplants.  Or something like that.  Basically, all the 20-20 hindsight, terrifying prototype moments, and surprise errors behind the simple-sounding rules in the Builder's Guide.

Serious builders, given a chance to set down together, swap these stories of nightmare jobs and near misses like a private currency.  So we're planning to put that bonus out for backers at $50 and up.  We figure that's the "serious builder," book-plus level, where you appreciate our work that much more because you have seen the dirty-hands workshop videos, or maybe have built a few home-built projects yourself.
And in any case, those backers have gotten themselves a copy of the "how-to book," can't blame us if they build a "bitter" project for their own stubborn reasons.

We have more than enough personal embarrassments to fill the whole book, but I'm considering letting our top boosters and colleagues submit a story or two, just to add to the feel of it being a coffee-klatch.  We certainly won't name anyone else's names without their express permission.

Whaddya think?  Sound more exciting than a teeny tiny mass heater plan?
Kiko's mini-masonry heater
(one possible example of a
Teeny Tiny Mass Heater)

(The good news is, if we hit $25,000, we make both.)

As a sort of bad-planning April fools' joke on myself, the North American book is going to print this weekend, a full week before the Kickstarter closes.  I'd love to be sure we can order 500 to 1000 books, for a much better per-book rate, as soon as possible.

So please send in all that last-minute support you can muster, and consider April 3 as this week's "last minute."

Send us other stretch goal ideas, or creative marketing.

Or just sign up as a booster and do your own creative marketing, and take full credit.

Thanks again for keeping our lives exciting.

Erica W

Monday, March 28, 2016

Approval for heaters in USA, Europe and Canada

We had a lovely, brief email exchange this past winter with Pat Amos, who was gearing up for his W.E.T.T. inspection in BC, Canada.
He passed!
Owner-built masonry stove in Canada
His home-built heater is based on a Vortex stove.  Not a rocket as such, but a DIY-friendly, smaller masonry heater design, set into a non-combustible brick enclosure (from a previous fireplace or stove, I believe) and finished with a lovely earthen plaster.
The original design was discussed here: 
and Pat's variant here:

The Batch-Box and Sidewinder rocket designers are turning out some interesting bells, benches, and cooktop masonry cubes, as I showed toward the end of the October 2015 post, "Pyronauts in Montana."

We know of a handful of classic rocket mass heaters (J-style firebox, barrel and all) passing inspection, and plenty of other DIY masonry heaters as well - reports filtering in from Oregon, Georgia, New York, Michigan, BC, Ontario, Vermont... the precedent is mounting.

For the present, however, the vast majority of DIY builders are choosing the path of least resistance, and not asking permission.  That's a risky path for people who have a mortgage, and may be obliged to maintain home insurance.  Some will build in an outbuilding or greenhouse instead of the main house, losing much of the people-warming efficiency that we're after.

Let's encourage each other with success stories.
If your DIY masonry heater was approved, please tell! 
If you've had a productive conversation with local officials, that stopped short of official approval, or led to a different design choice, we'd like to hear about that too.
(We've had at least 4 after-the-fact inspectors give an unofficial response of, "Cool.  I have no problem with this," and no further action taken, even if they weren't quite clear on the legal process for official approval.)

Let's address any obstacles together, above and beyond the clearance and code info that's already in our Builder's Guide.

Builder's Guide Update (order your copy now!):

April Fools!  The North American first edition of our new book is going to print this weekend, the first of April, a full week before the Kickstarter actually closes.  Please pre-order your copy on Kickstarter ASAP!  (Click here.)

We would love to sell 1000 copies by April 1, and get our per-book costs way down for this first edition printing.

We are looking forward to signing and hand-delivering these first-edition books to our backers in the Pacific Northwest, and around the world.

If you're interested in helping us, please spread the word.  Consider signing up as a booster to receive a referral bonus with every pledge you send our way.  We did the math; the per-book cost makes a bigger difference to our budget than the referral incentive - so please sell books and claim the bounty!

Calling EU, Commonwealth, and International Builders

Adiel Shnior came from Israel to study with us,
then took the skills back to his local team,
with great results.
We have an opportunity to write an EU appendix for our book - but it needs to be turned around FAST!

Physics works the same across most of the world, but building materials and local regulations can be very different.

If you are a builder or future builder from the UK, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand (or anywhere outside North America),

please take a moment this week to tell us about your experiences.

Portrait of a heater completed using Bonny 8" plans
If you purchased our plans and previous books, have they been easy to use? 

What else should we know about? 

Any obstacles to overcome?
Moroccan project
with improvised perlite-adobe bricks
(local low- fired brick
proved unsuitable for the hot, clean firebox conditions.)

Thanks again for everyone's support for our Kickstarter for the new book.
Please keep sharing it with your friends - we appreciate every new pledge, in any amount.

Permanent Press says we may have preliminary cost data for distribution in the UK, EU, Australia, and New Zealand, by the end of this week.

Erica and Ernie Wisner

More brainstorming questions below.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Spring Cleaning (wood-lot finesse and wood-shed style)

This is the time to check your wood shed.

Most of you, I'm sure, are checking your garden seeds, and frolicking in whatever flowers you can find.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it's not quite time to forget winter yet.

While you're waiting for the right day to garden without compacting the earth, don't forget that next winter's chores need to be done NOW, too.
This is the last season for responsible wood-burners to lay up the full supply of fuel for next winter.  Depending on climate, you may already be running a bit late.

As we've discussed before, dry wood is the only wood that can be burned efficiently, and dry wood is not generally found in nature (especially not during mid-winter storms). It takes planning ahead.

A pretty decent woodshed
for very cheap (almost free). 
Think of your wood shed as a similar structure to a food dehydrator.  It has openings above and below the wood, keeps rain off while letting sun and wind have access to the stack.
The more effectively it circulates air around the wood, the more wood you can dry efficiently, and the less wood you'll need to burn. 

Wood over 6” to 8” diameter, in wildfire trainings, is considered “thousand hour fuels” or longer - meaning that it takes months for the moisture level to change significantly.

If you do need to “emergency dry” some fuel for the end of winter, chop it down to about 2” across will help it dry faster (weeks, as opposed to months).
You could chop it smaller yet (pencil-sized fuels dry within hours), but running an ordinary woodstove on nothing but kindling-wood is an easy way to over-fire and void your warranty.

It's much better to put up seasoned, dry wood, well in advance. Gathering it can be part of your winter cleanup and garden prep. 

Our current woodshed (December weather)
If you don't have a good wood shed yet, this might be a great time to pick up a few extra pallets from the home-and-garden supply or nursery, and get cracking.

There are a number of good designs that are simple to build; the following are just a few ideas.

It's hard to beat the basic, time-tested woodshed design:

- a nice big weather-proof roof, with overhang to protect slat sides.

- space for at least 1 year supply (preferably 2 years, if you cure your own wood rather than buying it cured).

- racks or poles to allow air flow under the wood
- ventilated sides or air holes top and bottom (if the shed has solid sides, racks or spacers can help encourage air flow along the sides too).

You can get all fancy and re-invent the concept, adding a clear roof for solar dehydrator effect, or a loft for tools, or side sheds for garden tools and lawn equipment. I have never seen anybody complain about too much shed space.  It does pay to consider the location before building (about 30 feet from the house, or 50 feet if you plan to store flammables and chemicals, and live in an area where wild fires are common).  Consider truck access to load and unload wood and other gear, and the role of the shed as a collection point for clutter (so you can keep the rest of the yard, and view, looking nice.)

A simple but super-effective woodshed: divided,
each half big enough for one full year's supply,
with room for tools & chopping.

A pretty decent woodshed for very cheap (almost free). 
A portable version could be skidded out to the wood lot,
then trailered back in once the wood is dry.
A drawing of our 1-year woodshed
(same as the photo).

This was our wood shed for 1 year.
(It might have lasted longer
if we knocked the snow off the roof more...
but it did the job until we could build better.)

In a few climates you can get away with a wood "rick", a pine-cone stack, like a haystack.  Not ours.

And if you are tempted to do something with tarps as a temporary solution... mostly, just don't.

Unless you can get substantial air movement under the tarp, and keep any condensation on the tarp from running right back down into the end-grain of the wood, a tarp is more likely to make a mushroom-farm than to help your wood dry.
An intelligent, but not sufficient, attempt
to get some wood-drying function from a tarp.
(If the tarp sides were lifted away from the wood,
so condensation and rain runoff would have somewhere to go,
this high-string pup-tent might work.

Fungus reclaiming log rounds left on the ground
(The fungus is not only eating some of the fuel value,
but it will also enhance the wood's ability to hold moisture.
Great for nurse logs, not great in a fuel wood pile.)

Ever come across the solar-distiller survival trick?  If you are in a desert without water, you can try picking a sunny spot, dig a shallow pit, and fill it with green branches.  Seal the top of the pit with a plastic sheet, and place a little cup under the low spot to collect the condensation.  (The transition from hot days to cool night is useful for helping the water condense as the plastic surface cools.)  I don't know that I'd expect it to work terribly well, in terms of collecting enough water to be really useful in a survival situation, but it could be a lot better than nothing.

However, it also illustrates why putting a tarp over a green woodpile can actually slow its drying.  You basically collect all the moisture from the wood (plus the damp ground), and make sure it rains back down right on the woodpile instead of escaping into the air.  Waterproof plastic tarps are sometimes used when cultivating mushrooms, to ensure that the wood does not dry out too fast for the mycelia to take root.  In other words, a tarp over wet wood keeps the wood wet.

If the wood is not wet when the tarp goes on, a few weeks under a leaky tarp, with ordinary ground dampness, and condensation collected by the tarp, will make the wood wet.  The Chimney Sweep Online gives the analogy of leaving a sandwich in your fridge in a plastic bag, or just sitting out on the shelf with no baggie.  Which one will dry out?  Which one will rot into unrecognizable goo?

A tarp can be useful for fending off a nasty sudden downpour (hint: for about half a day, following which you need to remove the tarp again to let the wood dry out)  or possibly as a door-flap for a structure with a solid freestanding roof.  We did use ragged old tarps to make sides for our pop-up-tent wood shed, but we kept the wood well back from touching the sides.

Turkey tail fungus,
a common inhabitant of damp wood piles
(and incidentally, rumored to be a medicinal mushroom)
Otherwise, skip the tarp, put your rain coat on, and load that wood into its proper storage sooner rather than later.  In the balance of things, a half-day getting wet while being loaded into the proper woodshed is not going to hurt your wood that much - not compared to spending the 3 dryest months of summer growing mushrooms under a tarp because you left the job "for later".

Cut the wood to length now, as well, since the end-grain does most of the work of wicking moisture out of the wood.

Damp wood can hold 50% of its own weight in water.  It takes a lot of energy to boil-dry a few extra pounds of water out of every load in your wood stove.  That is energy that could be heating your house.  So by securing your wood now, and getting it properly dry, you can cut your wood consumption by more than half (compared with burning nasty, wet, green wood). I will always load the full annual estimate into the wood shed,  based on that first year when we had to fall-source our wood.  But the earlier I do it, the more is left for next year.

As a chronically lazy person, that is a savings in time, labor, and resources that I can't ignore.  It is well worth skipping the pleasures of procrastination in order to do less total work, not to mention that it's less weight to haul, and easier to split the wood and kindling once they're properly dry.

Who's burning what?
(note multiple plumes across valley,
rainy days are popular burn days)
Most of the Western states will be under burn ban by June, with restrictions on running a chainsaw or other power tools in the woods.  So now is also the time for Western homesteaders to do their annual forestry: tidy up those dead-and-down trees, limb up those trees that are ready for ladder-fuel reduction.

This is a little more than
"one 4-foot pile with 1 person supervising"
Instead of burn-piling it, and making a nasty pall of smoke to dinge up our fresh spring air, bust it into 15" lengths and put it aside for your winter woodpile.
This winter's storms
dropped several trees.
The storm-damaged logs more than
cover next winter's fuel needs.
 And one final thought: I was super-grateful to find these little surprises in our woodpile last winter, when Ernie was in the hospital.

So this year, I'm making a few of them for both of us... or maybe for his folks, who knows.  For whenever they're needed.   Country "sick days."
Country "sick days:" Ready-made kindling,
stashed in the woodpile.

These can also be used as "vacation days," keeping Mama happy while you're gone fishing.

March 24 wood progress.
Front-right is the dry stuff
from inside the pinecone stack,
right rear is the wetter stuff
from the outside and bottom.
I've gotten a lot farther on stacking the woodshed.
As of March 24, this was how far: three rows, just over half a cord, of Ernie's pinecone stack outer layers in back, and the good stuff (dry interior) on the front-right for this year's remaining fires.  We are down to burning every other day, roughly.

As of April 6, I now have all of Ernie's pine cone stack (the wood from the outsides and bottom, that was too wet to burn right now) on the right.  It's a little over a cord, so probably enough for next year. 

I've started stacking this year's windfall on the left.

We found somebody's treat collection in the bent cardboard tube, while cleaning up that left side.

Truffles?  Puffballs?
These dried squirrel-snacks
nearly filled a cardboard tube
we had stored in the woodshed.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

We Are Doing It! Kickstarter Thanks, Teeny Tiny Labs, and a Pine Cone Wood Stack

First, thanks for helping us reach our make-or-break funding goal on the Kickstarter!  From here out, it's real: we can expect to collect those pledges and deliver those rewards.

In case you're curious (or jealous):
In business speak, the big numbers you see are "gross" not "net."  That $13,147 you've all graciously pledged is not just spending money.  It includes the daunting costs of international shipping, per-book costs for every printed and eBook (as "Author Copies" from the publisher), and data delivery costs for the self-published digital rewards. 
In order to move our plans forward, and maybe even give ourselves some 'back pay' for the past decade of R&D, writing, and coaching, we need to keep going.
Two cream puffs, ready for breakfast

So we will keep drumming up as much business as we can for the remaining 24 days.  I'd like to sell over a thousand books, and get our per-book costs way down - it would save us something like $8 per book to order 1000 copies instead of 100!  Which adds up to real money, really fast.

But let's not forget to celebrate how far we've come.  It's a big deal to be officially "funded," many projects never get this far.  So...
 Yay!  Basic Goal Nailed!  Cream puffs for everyone*! [*who is currently here at the Wisner family homestead]

Our first stretch goal:  $20,000 = Teeny Tiny Lab

GlowBug - photo by Priscilla Smith
We always need more funds for research and equipment.  If we reach $20,000, everyone who backs the Kickstarter will get designs for a Teeny Tiny Mass Heater (such as you might be curious about for a well-insulated Tiny House, shop, or live-aboard boat).

There are more details on the Kickstarter updates, and you may also remember seeing some tiny heater prototype designs at the 2015 Innovators' Gathering. This stretch goal encourages me to finish testing and write up those designs, so you can replicate them and try them out.
(I have older mini-mass-heater designs already available, if not as rigorously tested, so I can fulfill this reward either way.  Just saying, you might get more than one mini-heater design if the response is good, and always assuming I get a chance to sit down this year.)

The main idea of this funding goal is to have fun giving us a teeny tiny lab upgrade, so we can do more Mad Science!

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge a few friends.

- Our friend Paul Wheaton, the brilliant and despotic overlord of and  He has been sharing all kinds of support and tips and encouragement, despite being laid up with a nasty health crisis.  His lessons from previous Kickstarter campaigns, both good and bad, have been invaluable. 
He also has been generous in other ways - like one time he got tired of watching us thumb-text and gave us a fancy second-hand phone.  It has saved our butts this month, since just before your big launch is a crappy time to have your pit-bull-in-law develop a taste for phones.

- Our new friend Priscilla Smith, who came out to Paul Wheaton's place and got some excellent photos of everything - three of which are in the book, and others are being used as "don't-try-this-at-home" eye candy for the promotions.  She is generous, talented, and a kick in the pants.

- Our new-and-old friend Chris McClellan, aka "Uncle Mud," has been promoting the heck out of our Kickstarter, and may be helping us print another self-published run of The Art of Fire.  He's currently #1 on the Kickbooster stats - as he has been since about 4 hours after he signed up.  And his "dad humor" and unique rocket experiments keep cheering me up just when I need it.

(Paul Wheaton may not be catching up yet from flat on his back, but is our biggest non-boosted referral source, right after "no referrer data" and already beating Kickstarter itself.  If you'd like to try signing up as a Booster and track your influence, not to mention get a referral bonus, please do: This can be a fun "egg money" option for creative, modern homesteaders.)

- Our chance-met friend Matt Powers just keeps on being a wonderful human being.  I hope he and his son James can wander up to Oregon in June and hook up with us for a clamming expedition or a bonfire date or something.  He anticipated our launch by about 24 hours with his fast-turnaround podcast featuring me as a guest, and Barbara Greene's photos of her permaculture homestead's fortune-favors-the-prepared survival of the 2015 Okanogan fire-storm.

- Barbara, Leaha, Ton, Karen, and all of our Permaculture Study Group friends from the Okanogan - invaluable moral support, brainstorming and occasionally physically helping me get past stuck points, and keeping me healthy and active with mentoring in fire fighting, land stewardship, and local culture. 

- Extended family: reminding me again and again why it's so great to have a clan at your back, and to re-discover your siblings as creative, intelligent, capable adults.  Together we are more than we could ever be alone.

- I'm gonna plug my other half here, and say Ernie continues to impress me.  He rarely self-censors on Facebook for anyone's comfort, which occasionally makes me cringe - but that honesty is refreshing to a lot of our die-hard DIY fans.  Then I notice yet again how much he does without words, when I am fluttering around in a verbal blizzard of writing or publicity projects.

This is his "pinecone stack," basically a wood haystack.  This is an experiment to try and replicate a method he remembers seeing from Uncle Les, one of the forest-homesteaders in the Coquille Valley rainforests.  (His family has been managing the same forest, for timber, for over 150 years, and it still has mother-giant nurse trees on it.)

The stack is busted open so you can see the inside, because it was put to the test this month.  While he was stacking roughly a ton and a half of wood just for fun, I was neglecting my summer woodshed-filling chores, working on the book manuscript, and learning to play fire fighter.

The partially-used stack. 
The bottom row is intact
because it was snow-saturated.

Interior - note the "nest of approval"
The bottom row has some sacrifice wedges to start the stack tilting inward.
Each course is built in rings that tilt inward, like a haystack.  As much as possible, the logs are tilted to lap slightly over each other, like shingles.  The bottom row is tilted up on wedges to make for a stiff, tilted arrangement.

Getting an earlier start on my chores this year:
filling half the woodshed, so we can cycle each side.
When we busted into it for emergency wood supplies, the outer bottom course was completely buried in snow, and those logs are still pretty soggy.  I've been moving them to the woodshed to dry for next year.  The upper sides, on the outside, had 2 feet of snow on them, and I've been moving them to the wood shed too.

But the inner layers, protected by those sacrificial ones, are about as dry as you could hope to find in a coastal woodshed. Not quite as bone-dry as things get in a drought summer around here, but way better than the icy punk we gathered before buying a load of decent wood that first winter.  The "nest of approval" is some synthetic blanket stuffing that some critter apparently found in the trash pile, and dragged into the dry center of this wood stack to make itself a cozy den.  I can just imagine a pine squirrel opportunistically pretending to be a "snow beaver."

When we are rushing around in spring and fall, doing workshops and site visits, or attending to Ernie's leg's medical demands after an ambitious travel season, we don't have the luxury of a normal, seasonal homestead season.  Two of the 4 years we've been here, we've had to "winter in" by mid-August.  So I am learning to treat wood storage as a spring chore, or to try and get in 2 years at a time so I can slack the next year.
(Tried that this year, almost made it.)

The wood had been in the woodshed long enough, still gappy between the rows for air flow, that some other pine squirrel had decided to pile a bounty harvest of fir cones in between the rows.

While Ernie is celebrating the success of his lumberjack experiment, I have been hauling in some of the bounty of fir-cones, and chipping down knobby branch and stump pieces, so we have some dry material to mix with the slightly-damp stuff.

I've also been splitting down some of the almost-dry wood as I bring it in.
Wood over 6" diameter is considered "thousand-hour fuels" in fire fighting, meaning it takes months to appreciably change its core moisture levels.
So if I can get it down to 2" chunks, it becomes "100 hour fuels," and I can expect it to be reasonably dry in less than a week indoors.

Still not a great process.  I'll do better this year.

In our next blog post, I'll show some good woodshed designs, and some good and bad ideas with tarps.

Happy Almost Spring!
Thanks again for supporting our book launch, in so many ways.
If you haven't done so yet, please check it out: