Monday, September 16, 2013

The Pesto Incident

Why you should NEVER
stick anything
in the blender
while it's running
(luckily, the blender still runs,
the spoon still spoons,
and the glass didn't break)

Why you should especially not do this
while making pesto
as "one last thing I'll do before bed"
at 01:00 am
(but yes, I am VERY glad I cleaned it up while fresh, including the laundry.)
And the Ultimate Survival Bundle
is now online and selling. 
We get a commission on our sales only, so wish us luck!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Summer Speeding On

Isn't time supposed to be God's way of keeping everything from happening at once?

Is there a tech support line for when that's not working?

My purpose in finally making it back to the blog is to share some of what's been keeping me away.

We were invited to contribute to the 'Ultimate Survival Bundle,' a special offer of wide-ranging resources that will sell for one week starting Sept. 16th.  This is a chance to get resources on homesteading, food preservation, wilderness skills, and of course our heating books and plans, for a ridiculous discount off the cover prices.  Something like $700 in value for $29.  The catch is that we only see any proceeds from it for the bundles we ourselves sell - or for the 'upsell' package, which includes two of our most popular plans.  So you can rest assured, I will be putting the appropriate link up here with our affiliate ID all over it, just as soon as I get it.

And of course, I did not want to give away our big-ticket stuff in case the whole thing gets pirated by some trust-fund Robin Hood (that's why the oven and Cabin 8" plans are in the spendier 'upsell,' not the basic bundle), yet I definitely wanted to be in there.  So I put in a couple of our smaller books and plans (including the Art of Fire, which I am happy to report is getting compliments from a number of people I admire).
Simple Shelter - Debris hut photo by
The Ultimate Survival Bundle organizer didn't have a good resource on shelter, which seemed like a pretty important part of survival basics.  Way more useful than, say, guns, for the vast majority of situations.
     So in some weird universe in my head, it made sense to just write up something new that I could justify 'giving away' and then continue to sell after the bundle is done.  Our friend Tony gave me the cover picture for this little guide called 'Simple Shelter.'

I think it's a form of productive procrastination, the number of small books I've written this year.  The outline for "The Book," the Builder's Guide, is over two pages long, and completing it (while not repeating myself too often) has become a brain-boggling chore.  So whenever I sit down "to write," and something comes across my desk that justifies writing something easier, well, that's what happens.  At least when they turn into booklets, I can sell them later, which is more than can be said for uber-long blog posts and emails.

Speaking of selling things, both DVD projects are wrapping up.  Paul Wheaton's 4-DVD set from the 2012 Montana workshop is already being mailed out to contributors, and Calen Kennett just visited us for his final, final additional footage session on the Instructional DVD and has two assistants helping with the editing.  It includes hand-drawn animation fades, and while we have very little confidence in the delivery timeline at this point, we are looking forward to exquisite results.
   We have some neat shots from both of them, and we have copies of Paul's DVDs for sale if you want them. 

The Garden Assistant - and his handiwork.
Harvest season is accelerating in the garden.  Luckily, the grasshoppers and deer are picking up my slack on that one.
   Being 2000 feet above the valley in elevation, we are about a month behind their growing season, so I'm on about my third pick of ripe tomatoes while they've been in the farmer's market for a month or more.  I'm just about breaking even: collecting seed from the veggies we like, enough to plant a little more next year.  Every couple of weeks, I go down the hill and help out at a prolific organic farm, bringing home armfuls of 'seconds' and slowly replenishing the freezer.

Ernie's latest hobby. 
The day the 'split' woodpile
finally got taller than the other.

Ron and Ernie cleared some roads on the property this year, plus we got some seasoned firewood from a vacation-cabin neighbor who got tired of splitting more than he needs.  Fuel is piling up in the sun, waiting to go into the woodshed, which has been storing project parts for all the other items on the to-do list.

Ernie is working on a pole-building to house materials, tools, and his boat(s).  He picked a building method so elegant, Ron and I are teasing him he should just turn the whole thing upside down and call it the boat. It's based on the 'Stimson shed' idea, 1x4 bent trusses forming a cathedral-like Gothic arch shape that handles a lot of load for its weight. 
Think of Ernie as a 2-meter yardstick for scale. 
The boat shed is occupying a lot of Ernie's time, but help just arrived in the form of our former apprentice, Kyler.  Ron and Jeanine declared that since his apprenticeship is over, he officially graduates to being a WIT (Wisner In Training).  He's a tremendous help, very cheerful, two years more experienced at construction than when we last enjoyed his company.  He's also helped with the garden, the barn, and anything we can point him toward, and is a great excuse to make and eat some delicious meals together. 

The only drawback to spreading the load is that I am in the office more and out of the loop.  These pictures were taken almost a month ago, and I haven't been over to see the progress on the shed in at least a week and a half.

I've been busy working on "The Book," the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide.  Here's a dummy cover - what do you think?

Version 3 - Cabin 8" layout.

Version 1- More Bricks 6"
I'm trying to convey that this is the step-by-step, professional-friendly version.  The existing book has great explanations and a definite eco slant (or more to the point, rant).  Ours will fill out some technical and mechanical information for people who are more interested in dealing with the building code, using actual math, and/or doing things once.  It's a gamble - we hope there will be more people in this 'mainstream' audience, and that they still will have enough do-it-yourself sensibility to read their local building codes instead of suing us for not knowing.  Can't be all things to all people.

For the cover itself, can you spot the differences?  I'm torn between using the actual 8" system that we diagram in the book (versions 2 and 3), versus using the 6" layout (version 1) because I just think it looks cool.  I like having more brick, and the squarer channels; it looks more like the masonry heater diagrams that inspired the layout.  I guess I could just count the cover as a 'bonus' design in addition to the ones in the book.
Version 2 - vertical 8" layout

Any comments on the cover design are very welcome.  I can change anything at this point, though of course I hope to be done soon.
I used the marked brick for the title texture because I want to convey how specific we are about how to do it: get this standard firebrick, cut it here.
  I still need to find a printer, but I want a rough page count before I have those discussions.
  I am leaning toward using Kickstarter to fund the initial print run - it beats putting up all the money it out of pocket, but it will also set things back at least a month over the timeline we would otherwise prefer.  (If I'd started two months ago, we'd be in great shape ... but there is one more photo sequence I want, and I want it in a particular setting, which is still under construction....)

And I want to wait until our friend Paul is done with his Permaculture Playing Cards Kickstarter, since he's a huge promoter of our work when he has time.  If you would like a deck of these cards for your Christmas present, speak up soon, as I'm debating getting a brick before the Kickstarter ends in 3 days.  Also, I kind of like the stretch goal of doing a few new face cards.

And I want to get the book out in time for the heating-season rush of interest.

This is about the time of year that we start fielding a higher volume of enquiries from people who, like me, have discovered that Summer is Almost Over.  In their cases, this means it might be time to get that heater done before winter.   We get a lot of last-minute invitations to run workshops and work-parties, and there's almost never enough time to take them up on it even if they are interested in paying all the expenses.
I am almost ready to follow Art Ludwig's approach, and respond only to checks received rather than 'quick questions' that aren't.
(One of those miracles of the English language, that the fastest words to say are the ones with the most complicated meanings.  Love.  Bread.  Fire.  Trust.  You think you know what it means, but try explaining it to someone who's never encountered it.  A six-word bread recipe can produce anything from pancakes to baguette to chicken-feed.)

For free heater advice, I heartily recommend searching the online forums at, specifically the rocket stove forum.  We spend a lot of our free time there giving advice, and the reason we give free advice in public is so it's still available to everyone when we aren't.
If, however, you want to send me a check for a private consultation, I will bump you right up my list of people to talk to today....

I suppose I could do the Kickstarter, have the PDF ready by the time it's fully funded, and send all the donors the electronic version while the print run is still in progress.

It's thundering again.  Now that we've had a couple good rainstorms, we're not so terrified about wildfire, but it's still a constant awareness in the region.  We had over 10,000 lightning strikes from one storm system a while back, and they spent several days putting out a fire near the Oroville Airport across the valley.  We are under a burn ban across the region, and have been super-careful to avoid the least mischief during fire season.
The electricity in the air may be part of the reason I get so anxious about unfinished projects this time of year.  But it used to happen in Portland too, and there I blamed the heat.  (It's already starting to cool down at our elevation, a mixed blessing given how much snow we have to look forward to.)
Lightning just flashed within line of sight of my desk, but receding ... four or five miles away.  The thunder rolls on and on in these mountains, echoes I suppose.  

   And I am reminded of the lateness of the hour, and the importance of sleep before another long drive tomorrow.  This one, finally, is not a workshop - Ernie and I are going to celebrate the 5th anniversary of our belated honeymoon with a couple of days' escape from all our projects to go camping.

If you want to catch us on one of our next tours, we are looking forward to being in Ontario later this month, and ...
now it's directly overhead ...
Montana in October.

This is Hobo, wandering grandaddy
of most of the cats on our mountain.
I think I'll wander a little further from these enticing conglomerations of copper wires for a while.

and remain warmly yours,
Erica (and Ernie)

p.s. Even the cats are tired.  Of keeping me up all night in thunderstorms.
Good night!

Friday, June 7, 2013

On the road again

Just heard that our first video is almost done... the Fire Science one, we're looking forward to it very much.  All 4 from that set are supposed to come out this summer, and I think the Fire Science one has probably got the most editing time invested.  Looking forward to sharing it at future workshops.

In other news, Workshop Season is officially started.  Check the schedule if you'd be interested in catching us sometime.  

We're looking at dates around June 20-22 to have a book-release party in Portland for the Art of Fire, on our way back from the Ashland workshop.

 If you know anyone in Oregon or California who might want to get in on a rocket mass heater workshop this year, please point them toward the schedule pronto.  The Ashland-area workshop may be the only one we have in Oregon this year.  We are also doing a private project in southern California next month, but probably not driving down since it's almost to San Diego.
In other news, we put the last tiles on our rocket mass heater at home last month, in time for Paul's visit.  It makes a pretty good bookshelf too.  Now it's just a question of deciding what kind of paint or plaster we want on the wall behind it.  Something dark down where the tools hang, I'm thinking.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

This Is Really Hot (especially for geeks)

ImageShack® - Online Photo and Video Hosting

I finally found a good chart for color temperatures.

The German chart is based on tool steel.  It shows working temperatures for blacksmithing on the left, and the tempering range on the right.
Left: Incandescence: These glowing heats include the red-hot working range for iron and steel, and the yellow where steel tends to burn and then melt.  Incandescent light bulbs, tungsten filaments, and distant stars also follow roughly this range of colors.  Eventually, the colors shade through into white and blue-white.

Right: Iridescence: The lower-temperature colors are not glowing, and you would see no effect on plain black iron.  But on polished steel or sheet metal, you can see a surface iridescence when it's heated... weird rainbows with red in the middle.  It's due to very thin films of oxidation, which interfere with light much the same as a soap bubble or wet-parking-lot oil films.

And then I found this very simplified color temperature scale:

This appears to be what photographers and interior designers are currently using as a color reference: a sort of re-calibration of what used to be called 'warm' and 'cool' light effects.
This scale is interesting to me.  It acknowledges that the 'warm' colors like candles and low-watt bulbes are actually cooler than the 'cool' white lights like tungsten-filament theatrical bulbs.  But it also includes the diffuse light from the blue sky as a 'high' color temperature - when the sky itself is not particularly hot.  So it's loosely based on current physics, but somewhat arbitrary when it comes to actual temperatures.

Then there are the charts of star temperatures.  Most list red as under 3000 K (2700 C, around 5000 F), with yellows and yellow-whites in the 4000-6000 K range.

This puzzles me, because both stars and iron are classic textbook examples of 'blackbody radiation.' Yet the stars appear to be much hotter in the same color range, compared with the numbers given for steel or iron.  Are the visible colors of the stars merely surface temperatures, and star charts estimate the (hotter) core temperatures for the same stars?
  Or is it just a case that actually measuring these extraordinarily hot temperatures is difficult if not impossible, and different theories give different estimates?

Why do I care?
Well, for starters, being a geek means I'm allowed to care about things even if it's not normal to care about them.
  I like colors; I like art and science; and knowing about color effects helps me do both.
 I can stare into the fire and estimate how hot it is.  I can watch a steel can heating up and estimate how hot it is - and how soft it would become if I cool it quickly.  I can make art by heating polished steel, or make realistic drawings and paintings of fire.

And I can guess how hot my copper kettle got last time I left it on the stove with no water in it.  (Classic absent-minded professor move, that last one.)

On another practical front, we are looking into testing equipment for measuring the interior temperatures of our rocket mass heaters.
   Refractory materials to handle 1000-2000 F are pretty widely available, and firebrick can handle up to something like 2700-3000 F under reasonable conditions.   But if we use better insulation it doesn't just improve combustion efficiency, it also pushes temperatures upward.  If we use insulation rated to 2600 F, for example, it might melt around 3200 F.
   Testing thermometers include $4000 thermocouple probes (accurate temperature at a specific point, sacrificial tips for higher temperatures); and $800-2000 infrared thermometers (they are more easily confused about whether you are measuring the brick surface or the flame itself).  And $4000 infrared cameras, which would give a portrait of the heat at many places at once.
   We have a grant application out for some of this equipment.  We may be doing some fundraising soon for the rest of it, and we're also very interested in finding collaborators who have already invested in similar tools and would be willing to rent them out.

All this research may shortly be leading to some EPA independent-lab testing, and to more technical builder's guide.
It's easy to get into abstractions and learning for its own sake, and get distracted from the main project.  If I write up these 'sidetracks', it frees up space in my head.
You might think of it as 'outtakes' from our new book.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Quickening

Great Things happening this week.

The quickening is how our neighbor in-laws refer to springtime. The snow and ice are thawing, roads turn to mush for a few weeks (the mudholes creep up the mountain, with lower roads re-graded as soon as they're dry).
Raised garden bed inspired by Paul's article
We had a visit yesterday from our friend Paul Wheaton, who introduced us to some new friends and got us all excited about some next steps for rocket mass heater development.  Prototyping again this month and next, and look for an announcement soon about that.
Paul's Kickstarter for the video from our October 2013 Montana workshop is doing tremendously well. He's announcing a stretch goal of bringing in $100,000, which would not only pay for us to attend a 'premier' / Missoula reunion and document those projects more thoroughly, but will also mean that for the first time Paul is actually making something from our work together that's almost comparable to the value he provides by promoting sustainable technology.  There are about 3 days left, so please join the excitement!
Wood-burning-stoves-2.0: The DVDs
We did the voiceover work for Calen Kennett's video last week, and it's looking gorgeous as well.  Great documentation of the cob bench style of rocket mass heaters, showing the building of one of our best examples to date: the Bonny 8" Convection Bench, a raised heater that cut fuel usage to 1/4 of previous winters for a 3-story, multi-family house. Video preview (funding closed)
Photos by Adi Segal,
We also received some lovely pictures and videos today from recent students.

Our eager assistant from the Montana workshop, Adiel from Israel, is on his 4th or 5th rocket mass heater.
(We've heard about all of them, including some teething problems related to test-firing cold, wet stoves during 75-degree outdoor temperatures).
He had a friend do the plaster and mosaic on the latest one: it is GORGEOUS.

We also got a copy of a video by a visitor to one of our workshop sites - a lovely summary of one woman's relationship with her rocket mass heater and sustainable living in general. In upstate New York. With icicles.

AND I just submitted a grant proposal today, on time down to the minute. This is an opportunity through my alma mater, Hampshire College and the Roddenberry Big Impact grant program, hopefully to fund some testing equipment and/or EPA lab fees for quantifiable data. The procedure, apparently, really is to take a stove that's exempt by weight to a certified testing lab in order to obtain a letter of exemption. We should be able to get emissions testing as well as letting them weigh the demonstration prototype.
Hopefully that will happen this summer on one of our visits to Portland. If you know any other folks who might be interested in sponsoring this kind of work, we will also need some private contributions or 'crowdfunding,' and we have some fun ideas about how to make that happen. Especially if you know a university with quantitative data analysis tools for emissions and temperatures over 3000 F, we'd love to get some help with preliminary analysis.
Plus, Ernie and I have a dinner date with a new friend in town. She already introduced me to her local art club, and might know someone who can help with reception as we get busier and travel more.

Very exciting week!

Keep an eye on our schedule for workshops - I firmly believe we'll have firm dates soon.

Warmly yours,
Erica W

p.s. Edit: 4/8/13: We just had another 2" of snow.... but it was warm snow!