Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review copies of our book, anyone?

Wow, it's been a long time since I posted.  This is my confession (for those who don't follow with bated breath) that I am back-dating a few posts to describe all the marvelous things that have been keeping me away from my desk - but there really was a gap from March to November ! (yikes!)

The question that drives this post is:

Where should we send review copies of our book?

There are two criteria:
1) The reviewer needs to already have an audience.  A blog or email list with, say, 1000+ readers would count, as would regular book review columns, local newspapers, etc.

2) There should be a reasonable chance that they would actually review the book. Even better if they might like it. For example, they have reviewed other books, host natural building workshops or sell books, or might have an existing bias toward rocket mass heaters.

If you read book reviews on alternative living, how-to, appropriate tech, survivalist tools, or sustainability, please let us know some of your favorite book reviewers!

If you have an audience of over 1000 people, who might enjoy hearing your opinion of the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide, would you like an early copy of the book sent right to you?

Oh, and we'd need a mailing address.  I think our publisher would be especially happy to get copies of the review, if/when it comes out.

Who knew it could be this easy to get an early copy?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Pyronauts in Montana

We had an amazing time, again, at Wheaton Labs near Missoula, Montana.  All of last year's innovators made the trip again, despite some crazy tight schedules in some cases, and there were some tremendously interesting projects.  Here are some quick highlights from the last couple of days:

Mini Mouse, exterior
Peter van den Berg set the tone with his whimisical names for two small space-heaters, with 4" J-style and batch fireboxes set into a larger barrel.  These had a surface temperature safe enough for relatively low-clearance installation, and could be lowered even further (and made to hold heat for longer) by filling the space in the barrel with brick.  Unfortunately the second load of reclaimed brick turned out to have bitumen paint all over it, which melted and contaminated  the barrel, so despite everyone's best efforts at cleaning up the mess, he was not able to get a true reading of the emissions performance on that project before the end of the week.
Mini Mouse interior - 4" J-style firebox.

Fat Rabbit - and
what is Peter looking at?
(see end for answer)

The Minnie (Mini) Mouse - 4" J-style Dragon Heaters core, sawn-off heat riser, in a 55-gal (200-liter) drum, with 5" stovepipe.

The Fat Rabbit - 4" batch-box made by Peter from vermiculite board, in a custom rolled-steel cylinder designed to mimic a larger-size shipping barrel that's commonly available in Europe (but not in Montana, perhaps due to the very long distance between the Rockies and most shipping ports).

So Ernie named his project with the recycled quartz-glass test tube,

The GlowBug.
Dis-assembled Glow Bug, showing nice simple manifold. The special glass tube, blackened with smoke, is in the background.

The Kitchen Rack
left: oven,
center: hot water,
right: covered griddle / BBQ smoker
I don't know if Tim Barker bothered to come up with a name for his 3-in-one kitchen: a scale up of his previous 3-function cooking experiment, this time with a custom rack hosting a rocket oven and a rocket griddle with separate, removable fireboxes, and both exhausts feeding to a central rocket hot water heater for comfortable washing-up.

I suspect it will just be called "The Kitchen," soon enough.

I spent the whole time noodling on two designs problems - one a submersible heater for a rocket-fired hot tub, the other a portable, small-space heater suitable for boats and camper-caravans.

I got paralyzed not knowing how small I could make things, and decided to take some time off and just make something TOO small.

Improvised 2" rasp for interior of heat riser.
We had some unusual insulating brick, made with diatomaceous earth, that was hard enough to hold shape but soft enough to work with hand tools.  Fun stuff.  It was good we could cut it with hand tools, because at that point, we did not have a tile saw or wet saw on site, and people were queueing to use all 3 grinders, continuously, for both masonry and metal work.

The first version of the firebox, we cut into 4 bricks; the second version (shown) was extended a bit using scraps of insulation board, for a longer firebox and longer chimney.

Names for this 2" batch box ranged from Peter's offer to transfer the title of Minnie Mouse; or to christen it with an even-smaller new name such as "The Roaring Flea," or "Barking Flea," to which Tim Barker could not resist returning,
 "More like 'the farting gnat.'"

If you look closely you can see
the intact ash shape of
a hemlock cone
just inside the mouth.
Big ambitions, small but shiny achievement.

The 2" core burned surprisingly well (that is, it did actually burn at all), and we learned some very useful things about what does and doesn't scale.

Insulation doesn't scale.  I carved a cute little pinch-point handle in the vermiculite-board-scrap door, and almost burned my fingers trying to use it.  Turns out, 1/4" of vermiculite between you and a 1200 degree fire is still 1/4" of vermiculite board, no matter how cute the firebox is.  In fact, you could argue that insulation scales inversely: if you want to make a functional firebox half the size, and you would usually use 1" of insulation, you may need 1.5" or 2" to get the same performance from the smaller firebox because it will lose heat more rapidly due to greater surface area compared with the volume (and weight) of the fuel.

Fire doesn't scale.  You still have to light a real fire even in a miniature firebox.  We got it down to about 1/4 sheet of newspaper, a full load of matchstick-sized kindling, and then promptly refilling with "big" wood (short-sawn pieces of medium kindling, less than one stick in some cases made a full fuel load).  Not surprisingly, fire also doesn't burn very clean when you only use 15 minutes of kindling, the dirtiest phase of the fire.

I suspect the flame length doesn't really scale, either, or at least not linearly.  We did a to-scale 9" heat riser at first, and the flames came out the top a couple of inches.  Then we put on a couple more feet of various-sized heat riser using the smallest stovepipe on hand (3"), and the flames filled the whole stack and came out the top by about a foot.  I think there may be some maximum flame length that all fires can achieve, forest fire fighters will estimate flame lengths at about 4x the height of the fuel, and putting a chimney on it draws this up a bit longer.  But I don't think even a small fire can be expected to burn clean with less than about 2 feet of total flame length, or some equivalent stay-time at adequate temperature.

Wood racks do scale nicely, however.  You can stack a lot of 4" to 6" kindling in a cute little tangle of wire, and it's very nice to have it handy as your matchstick-tinder "kindling" burns down very fast before you can prepare "big"-kindling-wood.

And Peter's double-vortex, or rams-horns, does seem to scale even down to this tiny size.  We were able to get it going in the bottom of the heat riser, but even that wasn't enough to guarantee a clean burn.

I spent some more time noodling on the boat-stove design, and didn't make much progress. 

I laid up an elaborate design including a 1-loaf oven, tilted heat riser, 4-french-toast griddle, and double insulation on the sides.  I was enjoying the symmetry and multi-function, and excited to see if it worked as a cooker/baker that could burn clean.  I considered calling it The Shrimp, as the firebox-and-kicked-heat-riser reminded me of a curled whale-tale only much smaller.

But it seemed like even so, it was getting too big, with multiple insulating bricks on each side, and more courses in height than I had hoped for.  It seemed it would be difficult to stabilize and make shock-proof. 
I invited three of the experienced sailors in the group to critique it.  After beating about the bush a bit, they basically agreed that in order to survive life on a boat, the stove should basically be able to be bolted down, turned completely upside-down and end for end, and continue to function (ideally throughout the process, but certainly after being turned back right-side-up). 
There was much gesturing of the shimmying, juddering, jolting drops that happen when a boat is wallowing and running her nose ahead of herself in heavy seas.  (And that's considered recreational sailing... a "bad day" at sea can include a complete capsize and self-righting, which is not the same as a shipwreck, on account of sometimes you can still collect the broken pieces and motor home by yourself, and on rare instances with over-built rigging and zealous furling, you may even be able to continue sailing after the storm passes).

So my design would need to be re-worked to meet the newly defined, upside-down-drop-kick standard of ruggedness for marine applications. 

I think something similar may be required of stoves for campers, which, though they rarely undergo complete capsize, are sometimes seen to wallow and jolt their way up winding mountain trails where a sensible person would not take a donkey cart.

I switched tracks to the submersible heater, and may have accidentally solved both problems. 

Peter helped simplify the design - I'd been thinking about a refractory-lined pocket rocket, maybe casting refractory into barrels, or using a combination of brick, cob, and a cast-refractory or tile feed.

Background note:
Pocket rockets are a scrap-steel proof of concept for rocket thermosiphon fireboxes; their main drawbacks are that the fire is hot enough to chew through about a third of the metal feed tube in a matter of months, and few barrels last more than a year - I think about 3 or 4 years is the max.  A stove that eats itself is not a safe thing to install in your home, nor is it particularly appealing to a dedicated environmentalist like Paul Wheaton, which is why they've been banned from the labs after a winter of far too many excited, and terrifying, experiments.

So my goal was to make 1) a pocket rocket that didn't eat itself, and 2) could be safely lowered into a container of water as a dead-simple immersion heater.

We did some preliminary figuring and realized:

1) it would be nice if, in case the barrel might rust through and admit some water leakage, nevertheless the lining material or metal outer layer should not explode from trapped steam when a fire is lit inside.  This suggests either a double-lined metal construction with an easily-inspected-and-replaced outer barrel, or at the very least, not using any of the castable refractories that are noted for steam spalling.

2) It would be nice if, when lowered into the water tub, the heater did not float up and tip itself over, swinging its hot chimney about in a terrifyingly random orbit, and/or drowning its own fire.  This means the weight needs to be about the same as the barrel would be, if filled with water - for a 120-lb grease can, about 100 to 120 lbs.  (Peter calculated it independently with a metric tape measure at 50 to 52 kg, which is pretty darn close.) 
That's a reasonable two-person lift, but tends to rule out doing any much bigger versions as a lift-in, lift-out heater.

Tim suggested we could do a couple simple things to get around this - mainly to make a separate side tank or barrel, and plumb it to the tub with a thermosiphon so that you would not need to move the immersion heater every time you wanted to warm up the tub.  This is an excellent and civilized notion, which would require me knowing rudimentary plumbing skills, or assuming I could pick that up from present company, also would require me having the foresight to order some parts for the purpose.  Neither of which were particularly the case, and I was getting tired of hanging around asking present company for ideas and help.  So I regretfully rejected the solution.  But I did take his idea far enough to use a barrel of water for the testing vessel, since we were also having difficulty re-assembling our second-hand redwood hot tub enough to re-create its alleged, former capacity to hold water.

Peter pointed out that casting things was a complicated way to make a first prototype, in any case. 
Much simpler to line the thing with fire bricks, and see what happened.  We tried a test-fit, and it looked like 8 or 9 split firebricks would line it pretty nicely, with room for a dividing wall of full brick.  We cajoled Paul into buying a masonry wet-saw (at substantial expense) so I could cut 20-degree angles on the corners of a large collection of split firebrick, completing the shape with a couple of angled full-brick wedges. I would prefer a symmetrical feed and firebox, but this is a good tight fit and much simpler.  (Peter kept encouraging a tighter fit, and suggested changing the orientation of the lapped joints so that the bricks really helped jam each other in there.)
Larger opening on left is updraft, small on right is feed.

Detail showing brick joins (no mortar)

Caddisfly beside its insulated water-tank for testing
(got up to about 140 F in a few hours,
sounds nice and hot, until you think of
how much water a hot tub contains -
mix that half-barrel of nice hot water
into a hot tub full of cool, and
you are still a long ways from luxury.)

The Caddisfly (or Nymph), named for a small elongated larval creature that glues rocks to itself and lives underwater.

We lit it, and it burned so clean, so quickly, that I did not look up in time to see any smoke.  it's possible it smoked for a moment, but it was cleaner than most pocket rockets I've ever lit, which is already clean compared to most improvised wood-burning stoves.

The surface was a disappointingly warm temperature - hot enough to be quite comfortable standing next to, and even to touch briefly, but I was concerned that it would not put out enough heat to do much good in the big hot tub.

Peter was ecstatic, however, pointing out that this was a very excellent solution to his original problem, and my earlier one, of a small, compact space-heater with safe temperatures for reduced-clearance installations.

It turned out, the bricks were fit so tight, that we could move it on a hand truck at 45- degrees or more, with no noticeable shifting.  So with a good clamp-on lid and flexible top shim, we may be close to solving the upside-down-drop-kick criteria for boat and camper stoves, too.

The Caddisfly doesn't have the cooking or baking capacity I was hoping for in a tiny-space heater, at least not in this version, but it may be possible to add something on later.  Some kind of plug or shelf in the feed tube, or even a cleverly designed feed door, could give some pot-heating capacity, and there might be a way to add a chimney-stack oven on to the back end.

The stove does put out too much heat out the chimney for true efficiency, so some kind of compact chimney-heat-extractor would complete the puzzle.

Lasse, pronounced like NASA

Sidewinder with warm bench and happy campers

Further out in the yard, while all this was going on, Lasse Holmes and his fellow Alaskan Greg were steam-rolling through a demonstration of his Cabin Heater which tried out a new stock door (not his favorite, as the air feed wasn't adiequate), and a new small warming-oven feature, and showcasing some prior innovations with adobe-block cob bench construction, and the side-winder adaptation of the batch box which allows a compact block design with a bigger cooktop. 

Ernie had a simultaneous team working on a rocket kiln, or roasting oven, of some kind.  I don't know if either of those had cute names, but they were impressive anyway.  Nate, Steve, Thekla, and Glen worked on those with great dedication in teams over two weeks.
Kiln in progress

Kiln completed-
(and what happens when you thicken plaster with extra clay.)

And Weston was building timber-framed skids for the future hot tub platform.

And Randall was welding custom parts for Peter and Tim.
Why is this handle on fire?

On a different note, the morning after the longest night of work and play at the end of the week, we saw sobering evidence of a near escape:

At some point in the past year, someone attached wooden supports to the temporary door, made of refractory insulation, on Peter's 8" batch box beastie (a big heater prototype from last year's event).  With this temporary door propped in place, it has been run as the main shop-heater for most of the year. 

This event involved a lot of extra shop hours, plus evening hangout time in a warm space, and it may have been run as much as 16 hours on that last, long day and night of work.
(Peter generally recommends stopping after 4 hours or so; the permanent designs have thermal mass to carry you through between firings.) 

Someone left it running with the door slightly off-center, which exposed a screw to the full heat of the fire, which resulting in this dramatic charring of the makeshift handle, which was still smoldering the next morning. 

Jocelyn and I were very, very glad that the crew had swept up most of the sawdust piles after Tim's comments about the fire danger of combined wood-working and metal-working shops (sparks from grinders and welders, plus sawdust; and sawdust fires are notorious for subtly smoldering  a long time before they finally catch).

A sobering reminder that just because a prototype works for a while without incident, doesn't mean it's "safe."  Fire is never safe - but it can be used safely.  It's like Gandalf: the most dangerous thing in the room.  The important question is not whether it is dangerous - of course it is - but whether it is friendly.  Or in the case of fire, whether you have reached a mutual understanding.

The 8" beastie needs a permanent door, usually a $500 or so job for a good craftsman.  It's not an innovation, just a completion detail.  Failing that, it needs a better temporary door (with no wood involved). 
Or does it?
Traditional ovens had wooden doors that were soaked in a pail of water, then used just for the baking cycle, then replaced when they charred beyond usefulness.  But traditional ovens were not left in the hands of inattentive visitors, who are accustomed to self-tending stoves and furnaces. And they're traditionally outdoors, away from other things that can burn.

When firing a heater long hours into the night, would you expect a gathering of "pyronauts," no matter how tired or distracted they may be, to have the common sense to notice the door is on fire? 
Would you have noticed?
It may never have burst into flame; the fire would have started as an oxygen-starved coal right around the metal screw, and could have continued undetected long after the fire was out. 

Our token efforts at cleaning up flammable debris are the only defence I can raise that we ought to be trusted again with someone else's shop space.  Luckily, in this case, that token defence was sufficient to prevent the fire spreading.

And ... and ... and ...

It was impossible to take it all in, nearly impossible to concentrate with all the interesting things going on in every corner, yet all these new things were made which clearly required great concentration. 

Some worked perfectly as planned, a few prototypes were discarded unfinished or fell short of their original goals.  Both failures and successes also impressed us with new lessons and new discoveries (both promising and dire).

I give full credit to Daniel for trying to get cameras on everything at once.  He even had a flying camera drone, and his pilot's license to operate it.

(And that's what I think had caught Peter's attention, way back at the beginning.  Either that or he is doing math again - which is often accompanied by a tremendously amusing ticker-tape "blooplooplooplooplooploo" sound effect from his mouth, which probably stops people interrupting him while he is working on the answer to their prior question.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Morocco: the Center of the World

 We have done international work before, but were still extremely excited to get our first invitation to North Africa.
(Technically, I think it's our first actual trip overseas - we've consulted on projects from Costa Rica to Mongolia, but many of them drew the line at paying our travel costs to come help them in person.)

Our hosts in rural Morocco did pay the plane fare, and put us up in some lovely, new, earth-walled buildings on their farm.  Which also has 100-year-old olive plantings.  They have been there 3 years so far, and hosted 15 different international experts in permaculture and sustainable technology to give courses, here on the farm, and in at least two different villages in the region. 

The first step (aside from a crazy 3-taxi fiasco of a trip from the airport, and being served a bunch of good food) was to look at the local materials, and see what could be done with them.
See the cracks in the fired bricks (top)
from one long test-fire.  Our perlite-adobes
(lower down) seemed to hold up better.
 The pink, hand-made, low-fired clay bricks that were the closest thing to split fire brick that our host was able to find locally were not high-temperature material. Nor were they square enough to stack on edge.

The villagers can make better brick than that by hand.  So we did.  We robbed a bit of nice local clay and finely-chopped straw from the plastering team, and mixed it with perlite to make an experimental "vernacular insulative ceramic," to be stacked raw and fired in place.  The first test fires were promising, with a solid "tink tink" terra-cotta fire on the inside, and fiber remaining intact (lending strength) on the outside.  So we used this improvised refractory insulation to build other heaters in both villages.  We are devoutly hoping that it holds up as well as we think it will.

Abdilah, Zacaria, and a mysterious hand
checking dimensions
Our expert translator had a schedule conflict, so we made do with my two years of high school French, the locals' 4 to 12 years of school French, and of course our hosts and some other European guests put us to shame with 4 or 5 languages apiece.  By the end of our two weeks there, we had a working pidgin of French, Darija (local Arabic), and Franglaise (English-with-a-French-accent) covering most of the essential building terms.
"Tobia" is a brick or block. (D)
"Traub" is earth. (D)
"Tain" is either clay, or clay-plaster. (D)
"Mizem" is measured - mizem l'ma, water level, mizem al height, plumb bob, "mizem?" "is it measured?" (D)
"Melange de perlite" was the word we coined for our insulating mixture (Ef)
Our host graciously informed me about halfway through the workshops that I was saying "noon" when I meant "half," but other than that, it went pretty well.

We make a muddy but functional mess,
and they keep serving me elegant tea.

I was sometimes not sure how to act: we don't have the rich traditions of hospitality and courtesy to guests, and I'm also used to leading by example in mixed company.  The farm crew was accustomed to mutual respect between the sexes, unlike some later city encounters, but there was still some times when I was self-conscious about being the only woman in the room.  When I did go play with the women, as one morning helping make raiffe for breakfast, there was a huge language barrier and we had to get by with grins and shrugs and pantomime.  Once I started working with mud, and we could make jokes about my "cooking" things you can't eat, it seemed to go OK.  (There were women on the local plastering and gardening crews; one of them, a deaf-mute, was one of the easiest people to understand our whole first week there.)

Our youngest crew member, Miryam,
and the client (her mother)
I also enjoyed playing with the kids at one of the village project sites, Zacaria's mother's house.  After playing an extended game of "please sit down" in pantomime, Zacaria's little sister Miryam showed some interest in plastering, and once I got her started, he pulled out some classic big-brother teasing of the best kind (faster, faster!  More water!  Gotta get it done!")  He and another worker shoveled plaster in her direction, and showed her the ropes, and the bench accidentally got plastered a full day earlier than planned. 
Gratuitous picture of a donkey (still the main transportation in these parts).
This is a light but awkward load, apparently one donkey can carry almost as much as the roof rack on my Geo Metro, if you can get it lashed on there. After a few minutes trying to secure it, we just carried the longer pipes on our shoulders and let the donkey carry what fit in its baskets.

Our host's courtyard in the village
- pomegranates, limes/lemons, and figs are common. 
There was exotic scenery along the way.  Patient beasts of burden, plastered haystacks, traditional earthen-floored courtyards.  I noticed very few fences, certainly not the miles and miles of hog-wire that we have in the rural American West.  Instead, there were "drover's fences" of thorn-bush or cactus lining the main routes, with a few patches of wire, wood, or masonry fence here and there.

We also saw drover's bridges over the highways: long ramps where livestock could be led or herded over the pedestrian bridge, between fields and forests of cork-oak.  Donkeys or other beasts would commonly be hobbled or tethered, left to graze with their saddles nearby in "donkey parking" areas outside the farm or village.

My sister Corinna remembers this cactus
being called "foreign girl" in the Berber dialect,
the same word sometimes applied to her
while she was in the Peace Corps there.
The more impressive vegetable gardens would have rather stout thorn fences and a gate with a latch or rope tie; a lot of fruit trees grew "indoors," in the home courtyard (pomegranates, limes and other citrus, figs, some magnificent grapes). They would be economically watered with dish-water, or hand-washing and other light cleaning done with a jug of water directly over the planter bed.

There was plumbing to the kitchen, courtyard, and washroom in one village.  In the other, the well project had failed, and most water was carried by donkey or hand from a more distant well shared between two villages.  People were generally very conscientious about water for drinking and "impure water" for washing or irrigation, but I still had a little difficulty adapting.

A few hours away by elegantly-maintained taxi, our second destination was a village school overlooking a magnificent mountain valley.
It took a little longer there for the crew to gel, and to establish communication (since our working pidgin was, after all, almost entirely invented amongst ourselves in the first group).  But we gained the help of a masterful local builder with a good eye for equipment - he would raise an eyebrow and bring us his magnetic level, or a good steel tape measure, any time he saw us making do with an inferior tool.  I think his family had originally built the school, a generation or two ago, and he was taking a keen interest in the remodel and revival of it.  It didn't hurt his motivation when his grandkids dropped by to see what was going on, either.

All in all, our crew and students built 5 working heaters in just under 2 weeks, and each one fired up like a charm.  They sent us home exhausted and inspired.
The off-duty school teacher surprised us
with Raiffe pastries for afternoon tea.

We did our share of ordinary touristing too - with just enough clean clothes left to stand up in, we visited the old market at Casablanca, and indulged in some olive-and-craft shopping.
The longest casual conversation I had was with my translation-buddy, Abdileh, whose home we stayed in during our time in the second village.  He has been to university, how much I don't know, and serves as the groundskeeper and permaculture educator at the village school.  As I understood his french, "the kids get tired of being inside with the lady teacher, and they come outside, and then I get to show them things."

That whole school is based on voluntary attendance: there is a public school in the village, but for kids who want an alternative, they can drop in and learn at this new school.  It reminded me of the kind of excellence I had to learn working for OMSI: in that case it was paying customers, and our exhibit design team told us we had 3 seconds to about 30 seconds to engage someone's attention before they would go elsewhere.  If your audience is not interested, they just walk out.  There is very little coerced attendence, aside from the occasional parental encouragement: there is no truancy officer, no principle's office to send unruly students.  The main hold the teacher has over the students is that natural authority that comes from continuously proving yourself worthy of your students' respect, time, and attention.  Those accustomed to enforced authority may find it surprising how much can be taught in this way, even topics considered too difficult or "boring" for regular school.

I got some perspective on Abdileh's life over lunch at Zacaria's house one day, during our third project.    During lunch I had tried to excuse my awkward learning phase in Moroccan-style table manners.  I bragged in broken French that I can "eat with sticks like the Chinese," trying to make the point that I know new things take practice, while gratefully declined their prompt offers of a separate plate and spoon.  (Shoukhram, saffiit.  Thank you, this is enough.)

Abdilah told me of some friends from university who studied Chinese - he went to that course for a few weeks, but his friends stayed for 3 years, and now they are in Peking - you know, the Capitol of China?

He was obviously proud of them, but made it clear that he is not jealous.  "I am content with my situation here - I learn a lot from these visitors, the work that goes on at the farm and the school is very interesting." 

Pointing to the center of the symmetrical tablecloth after the meal had been cleared, he explained:
La table, c'est le monde.  Et ici
(where the beans are in this picture),
c'est Maroc.  Tu comprends?
"Morocco, you understand, is the center of the world."

With a twinkle in his eye, he continued,
 "Our cuisine is African, European, Arabic.  All the ancient empires were based in the Mediterranean - the Romans, the Ottomans, the French, even the British hold onto Gibralter.  And now that America is a big power, true, it's over there across the Atlantic, but where does send its ships when it goes after oil in the Middle East?  Right past our gates."

I couldn't argue with the history; not even the modern part (knowing Navy veterans whose "Mediterranean tour" included time in the Gulf wars).

So why should Abdileh not be content?
One day, he might consider travelling.
But for now, the world comes to him.

It is certainly humbling trying to teach anything, even a new thing, in a context where the collective memory may be comparing you to recollections of Rome.  On the way home, we passed briefly through Fez, home to the oldest university in the world.

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:
(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:

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.

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

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: