Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Where does all our water go?

I found a nifty site today, called All About Toilets. Charming, huh? I wish I could cut and paste their chart. They have a great graph of Daily Residential Indoor Water Use (which I would retitle, "Where does all our water go?") According to their statistics, in homes that do not conserve water, 26.7% of the water used goes to flushing the toilet. That's 91 gallons a day for the average American household.

So let's just start there. Because some of you will be surprised by the feature of our home that I'm choosing to share about today, and maybe that statistic will help you understand our choice a little bit better.

A visitor to the bathroom in our home is quick to notice unfamiliar territory: that of the composting toilet. Look carefully. See, no handle to flush?

Our unit is manufactured by Clivus Multrum, a leader in the composting toilet industry for over fifty years. Their toilets have been used in parks, commercial buildings and homes.

But what is a composting toilet?
It's exactly what it sounds like. It's a compost pile for people waste that is given the right conditions (temperature, moisture, time, etc.) to allow the material to break down fairly rapidly.

The composter tank itself is the holding tank in the basement. Two chutes (one from the first floor bathroom, one from the second) channel bathroom waste into the tank. We add wood shavings; an automatic sprayer adds the right amount of water; air is constantly pulled through with a fan. Bacteria and beneficial organisms convert the "organic material" into a much smaller volume of compost. Aerobic decomposition at its finest. It's a simple process.

(Please excuse the plywood. We're in the middle of a project.)

(Photo from the front of the tank. The black square door is the access port to the compost pile.)

There are three common questions we get about our system:

Does it smell?
Hard to imagine that it doesn't, isn't it? But it doesn't! Remember---you only get a smell of decay from anaerobic decomposition, when something is stagnant and not exposed to air. On this unit, there is a fan pulling air through the chamber 24-hours a day. That constant motion of air keeps things breaking down aerobically and there is no buildup of odor. Phew!

How often do you end up emptying the tank?
I can't truly answer that for this specific tank, because it's been a year and a half, and we're nowhere ready to empty it. When Fred and I had a smaller model composting toilet at Terra Dei, we emptied it out after a few years. Know how much compost came out? Less than two buckets.

What do you do with the compost?
Fair question. I know some people are cringing in front of their screens, thinking, "I'm never eating anything from her organic garden again!" Relax...
---First, I would never put compost of this nature on any food-related plant. It's just a mental turnoff. (However, just for sharing's sake, the Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis carried out extensive tests on Clivus systems and end products. The bacteria found in the end product are the same that you find if you go dig a shovelful of dirt outside your house.)
---Second, we have a contract in place for a waste management company to come remove the compost from the chamber every few years. This was required by our sewage enforcement agency when they agreed to approve our application.

We realize that not everyone will be able to embrace the idea of the composting toilet. What if you happen to fall into that category, but still care about the environment and want to reduce the amount of water you flush down the toilet?

Thanks to the writers at the National Wildlife Federation, here are some tips for saving water in your home:

"You can save water wherever you live. If the owners of a typical 10-year-old home installed water-efficient toilets, dishwashers and clothes washers, they could save 18,700 gallons yearly, the U.S. Department of Energy says. Also, every month a family of four can save the following amounts by:

Fixing leaky faucets and toilets that flush themselves: 500 gallons
Running your washing machine only when it is full: up to 2,400 gallons
Keeping your shower under 5 minutes: up to 1,000 gallons
Installing low-volume toilets: about 480 gallons
Installing a low-flow showerhead: more than 2,000 gallons
Turning off water while brushing teeth: 800 gallons
Ensuring that your toilet flapper isn’t sticking when flushing: 900 gallons or more
Turning off the water while you shave: more than 400 gallons
Total saved monthly: more than 8,500 gallons"
(Source: www.nwf.org)

Thanks for visiting!

Clivus Multrum Incorporated
15 Union Street
Lawrence, MA 01840
(As always, you may assume that I was not compensated in any way, shape or form for writing this post. I am thrilled with our installed system, and just wanted to pass information along. Thanks!)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Cisterns: Pros & Cons

(Illustration of the hydrologic cycle by Tre` Arenz, taken from Rainwater Collection For the Mechanically Challenged.)

Very few things in life are 100% positive, cisterns included.  Way back when I first started writing about our homestead, I vowed to be upfront with the good, the bad & the ugly.  Here's what Fred and I have compiled:  the pros and cons of catching your rainwater in a cistern.

* * * * * * *

1.  Independence from public water supply. 
We are 100% on our own, which means that we control what's added---or not added---to our water.  When you turn on a faucet in our home, you are not greeted with the smell of chlorinated water.

2.  Cost
After installation (which is comparable to drilling a well), monthly cost to filter the water is minimal.

3.  Ability to avoid polluted groundwater.
This one is big for me.  Pennsylvania is currently going through the growing pains with drilling and fracking our Marcellus Shale layer.  There isn't much legislation in place to govern the drilling companies and mandate responsibility to the citizens of our state regarding the cleanliness of our drinking water.  And while contamination from fracking fluids isn't terribly common, groundwater is a tricky thing to keep track of, impossible to control.  I'm able to avoid having to wonder if my water is contaminated, simply because my water doesn't come from the ground.

4.  Soft water
In terms of hardness/softness, rainwater is on the softer side.  In addition, we're able to avoid common well problems such as iron or sulfur.

5.  Access
I have access to water, even if the power were to be out for quite a bit of time.  Even if I needed to collect it by hand from the tank and boil it on the stove in an emergency situation, I would still have access to water.  (As an aside, since we have a waterless toilet, we can still use our bathroom even if the power is out.)

1.  Cost
Initial cost, depending where you live and what pieces of the system you need to purchase, can be the same as the cost for drilling a well.  In our case, we spent $7,675.00.

2.  Responsibility
No two ways about it, you need to be responsible individual if you want to harvest rain as your only supply of water.  Each job is small, but needs to be done if the system is to run properly.  Filters need to be changed monthly.  Gutters must be cleaned out, so excess gunk doesn't try to wash into the tanks.  pH needs to be monitored.  The roof washer must be emptied out in preparation for the next rainstorm.  You need to keep the weather forecast in mind---if it looks like the weekend holds the largest storm for the fall, you had better be at home to open and close the roof washer, to catch every precious drop of water. 

* * * * * * *

There you have it---the ups and downs as we see it.  As with everything, there was a bit of a learning curve, but we are very pleased with our rainwater collection system.  Our cisterns have been a fantastic investment in a system that will work well for many years to come. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's it going to cost me?

Boy, that could be the title for so many posts!  I wanted to do a short post on the cost of our cistern setup.  Because let's face it---either you find catching your water appealing or not.  And if you do, one of your first questions needs to be, "What would it cost for me to set up a water catchment system?"

Keep in mind, these numbers are from two years ago.  The number one rule in construction is that prices are constantly on the rise.

Four fiberglass tanks, 1,500 gallons each---$5,700.00  ($838.00 of this was freight charges.)
Roof Washer---$875.00
Filters/UV light---$500.00

So starting from scratch, our system cost $7,675.00.  Yes, that's a lot of money.  You have to factor in that at the time of construction, we were comparing the cost of a cistern to the cost of drilling a new well.  A few of you have mentioned having stone cisterns on your property.  Your investment cost would be a lot less, considering that you don't have to buy storage tanks.

To be continued.

Coming on Sunday:  Costs vs. Benefits of Catching Your Water in a Cistern

Thanks for visiting!

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Okay---yesterday I left with the promise that I would share our "water splurge".  Ready?

During construction, Fred and I put a Jacuzzi in our bedroom.

I know!  Totally inconsistent with the "good-for-the-environment" side of me.  Doesn't really fit with the "saving water by using a composting toilet", except maybe that it helps me justify having it.  ;)

Here's the thing:  I believe in splurging from time to time.  Before Fred and I had children, we had an overnight getaway each winter.  Sometimes it coincided with cross country skiing.  More often than not, it involved a nice hotel room, complete with a whirlpool bath.

When we were looking to build our home there were many areas where we cut costs, but we decided to allow ourselves one splurge item.  Different people choose to splurge on different things in life---travel, cars, appliances, computers, etc.  Our splurge was to purchase a Jacuzzi.

This nook of our room is still under construction.  At some point, the concrete board in the picture will be tiled.  We have the tile.  Now we just need the time!  Another note:  just because you want to splurge on an item doesn't mean you need to pay full price.  We only paid 1/2 the retail cost by purchasing the Jacuzzi at our local Builder's Surplus.

Because we depend on a cistern system for water, we are judicious about our water use.  Jacuzzi use is somewhat seasonal, more readily available in the spring and falling-into-winter months.  

It's why you won't ever catch me complaining about rain.
Water is a blessing.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Water, water everywhere

It's absolutely ironic that I opened my mailbox to see the title story of On Earth, "Running Dry:  From Lima to Los Angeles, the survival of great cities around the world depends on sources of water that are dwindling at an alarming rate."

Ironic, because for two days, we have had nothing but rain.  Until it began snowing.  You get the idea---lots of precipitation!

Water is among our most basic needs as humans.  From the earliest cultures who toted water from a nearby river or stream---to today, where many in our country rely on the convenience of a faucet and a public water supply, water is the one resource we simply cannot do without.

When Fred and I were in the planning stages for Haven, we played around with many ideas for reducing our daily impact on the environment.  One idea that stuck was the idea of using a cistern, a way to catch the water from our roof and store it for future use.  We had seen cisterns during our trip to Bermuda, where catching your rainwater is the norm, but we knew nothing about the logistics---or legal issues---surrounding cisterns.  (Here in Pennsylvania, no one cares if you harvest your rainwater.  In some western states, where water is a very precious commodity, laws have been on the books for the past hundred years addressing water rights and prohibiting rainwater harvesting.)

Our biggest hurdle was learning about the ins and outs of rainwater collection.  What type of roof would we need?  How much water would we need to store?  Where would we store the water?  And in what?  How would we treat the water for safety?

Most of our answers came in the form of wisdom from Suzy Banks and Richard Heinichen, from their book titled Rainwater Collection For the Mechanically Challenged.  That was us!

Suzy and Richard's book walked us through building our system from start to finish.  They explain how to plan for storing an adequate amount of water and help you decide which type of tank to install.  Suggestions are offered for the site (location) of your collection tanks, and overviews are given for different pumps and filtering systems. 

How does our cistern actually work?
When it begins to rain at a conventional home the water is collected into gutters, travels through the downspout, and is funneled away from the foundation of the home.  Here at Haven, it is the opposite.  Our water collects into gutters, travels through the downspout, and is funneled into holding tanks in our basement.

At the start of a rain shower, the water is funneled first into a tank called the roof washer.  (Any pollen, caterpillar poop, etc, gets washed in there too.) This gets all the crud off the roof before we begin to catch the water we'll be drinking. Once the roof washer is filled, the water begins to collect in the four tanks. Each tank holds a maximum of 1,500 gallons, where it is stored until we need water somewhere in the house.  (After the rain is over, the roof washer is drained by turning a valve, making it ready for the next shower.)

(Roof Washer)

When we turn on a faucet, the pump kicks on and starts pulling water from the tanks. First, the water is drawn through a cotton filter to eliminate any particulates. Next, it is pulled through a carbon filter for taste. Last, it passes through a UV filter, where bacteria and viruses are killed instantly.

(Filter/UV light battery)

Quick Answers to Big Questions:

What kind of roofing material works best for collecting rainwater?
Hands-down, a metal roof is your best bet if you're collecting drinking water.  If you collect off asphalt shingles, you need to filter out small particles that break down as your roof ages.  If you have real wood shingles on your roof, the chemicals used to treat those shingles are a huge problem for drinking water.

How much water does a person use in a day?  How does that translate to knowing how much water you need to store?
Consider all that you use water for each day:  drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, showers, washing clothes, etc.  In a conserving household (where you turn water off when you brush your teeth), the average person will use between 25-50 gallons a day.  We estimated that each person in our family would use an average of 25 gallons per day, taking into account our composting toilet.
25 gallons/person/day x 4 = 100 gallons/household/day.

Looking at weather patterns over the past hundred years, we realized that we wanted to be able to store enough water to last our family for a two-month stretch at a time.  (Two months was the longest western PA had gone without a good-size rain.)

So...100 gallons/household/day x 60 days = 6,000 gallons

Each of our four tanks holds 1,500 gallons of water, so we are able to store 6,000 gallons at full capacity.

(1,500 gallons in this tank as of this morning!)

What are options for water storage?
People have created cisterns out of many materials.  Historically, stone cisterns have been very popular.  Today, that is a very expensive option.  More affordable, cement tanks often have an aftertaste.  Ready-made tanks of metal, polypropylene and fiberglass are more affordable and easier to transport.  We chose tanks of fiberglass because I happen to be very picky about the taste of my water, and fiberglass was the best option for fresh-tasting water.
* * * * * * *

Thanks for visiting!  Tomorrow:  our water-related splurge!

For further reading:

American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association

Suzy Banks and Richard Heinichen, Rainwater Collection For the Mechanically Challenged  (Texas:  Tank Town, 2004)  ISBN#:  0-9664170-6-2

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pushing the Envelope

(In order to appreciate the events from this past weekend, the reader will want to remember that our straw bale home is currently heated by our backup system, a radiant floor fueled by propane. It's a great incentive to complete our Finnish masonry heater this summer for use in Winter 2010-2011.)

It was inadvertent that we were able to test the passive solar and insulative values of our home last weekend. We really meant to order the propane last week. Really. But it's getting to be good maple weather, which means busy times at home and work.

So we called for propane on Saturday. Sure, they'd be willing to deliver, for an extra $150.00.

Ah. Okay then.

So Saturday began with a feeling of regret that quickly turned into opportunity. As I've mentioned before, the insulation value of the walls of our home is quite high compared to conventional construction. We've created an efficient "envelope" (highly insulated walls, floors, ceilings, windows & doors.) We have a nice amount of passive solar gain through our south-facing windows and a decent amount of thermal mass in the floor. (In layman's terms, thermal mass refers to the ability of a material to absorb heat, to be radiated out over time.) But here's the thing---even though we theoretically knew the insulative value of our home, we had never tested it directly by turning our heat off---until this weekend.

By Saturday morning, we knew we needed to get through two days without using much propane, so we turned the radiant floor system off. (The radiant system works through a thermostat that measures the floor temperature and uses hot water---heated by propane---to keep the floor a constant temperature. The heat from the floor radiates upward and heats everything in its path.) The nice thing is, we can adjust the thermostat to decrease the temperature of the floor, but it also has a switch by which we can simply turn it off.

Looking back, I wish I had treated this weekend more scientifically and taken air and floor temperatures each hour. But anecdotally, here's what happened: we had typical maple weather all weekend, so outdoor temperatures climbed to around 45 degrees F during the day and dipped below freezing at night for both Saturday and Sunday. Each day, the passive solar energy raised Haven's interior temperature to around 69 degrees. Overnight, the air temperature in our home came down to around 64 degrees.

Overall, we were extremely pleased with how we fared at Haven this weekend. There were a lot of variables at play, such as the fairly pleasant March weather with sunshine. (Certainly, if we hadn't had sun, the house wouldn't have been as warm each day.)

So what are the potential implications of our inadvertent experiment? My conclusion is that since I am home during the day, I'll be able to monitor the outside weather and adjust the thermostat on our radiant system accordingly to greatly reduce our demand for propane on sunny days. It makes me think back to a Cape Cod we used to own, to times when we considered ourselves lucky to be able to turn the furnace off toward the end of April. What a great opportunity to be able to reduce our fuel use a month and a half earlier! It also brought me back to our time at Terra Dei, learning to build smaller fires each day as Spring progressed, so as not to waste wood and overheat the house.  It reminded me that life it built on a learning curve.

The owner of the propane company personally made our delivery yesterday. Having helped Fred choose the size and site of the tank for our proposed radiant heating system, he was curious as to how we made out this winter. I described how pleasant the floor was to walk on, then related our "experiment" from turning the system off this past weekend. He smiled ruefully, saying, "Well that's great for you, but not good news for me!" Though I kept quiet, I was dying to say, "Just wait until our masonry heater is in place next year!"

Instead, I chose to smile and wish him a good day.

Thanks for joining me along our journey!

Monday, February 15, 2010

"10 Outrageous Homes" (again!)

A friend sent me a link this morning that I'd like to pass along. If you are a fan of straw bale construction, you'll want to take a minute and visit this slideshow of ten beautiful homes. I found the spiral house in Denmark to be especially interesting.



(*My apologies for anyone who visited earlier. The link was not correct, but it has been fixed!)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Snow and Solar Gain

We woke yesterday to eighteen fresh inches of beauty.

Many posts ago I made the promise to tell you what we would choose to do differently if we were to build Haven again.

Here's the first thing I would consider changing:

Now, not the steel roof itself. I love the steel roof! I still adore the color I chose. (Which is good, since it will last a long, long time!) What I might modify is the cut we made in the roof along the front of the house.

Living in PA, we need every spare ray of sunshine to come inside our house (in the winter) for reasons of warmth and sanity. So we made the cut in the roof to allow the sunlight to travel in through the top row of windows.

However, it may have been a mistake to cut in as far as we did. In the winter, the roof warms up slightly, and the snow slides right off in one gigantic avalanche, resulting in a mountain of snow right in front of the French doors. (Note: we don't really use the French doors in winter. It's more just the point that we don't want snow piling up against any part of the house.)

But, coming back to our original reasons for cutting the roofline, if we had extended the front roof to match the overhang that surrounds the rest of the house, I wouldn't be blessed with this:

Gorgeous sunshine and deep windowsills! Could there be any better place to curl up and read? (Or sleep, if you are our cat!) I guess sunshine and passive solar win out, especially when I have a wonderful husband who is willing to move mountains for me!

For those of you who have some, enjoy the snow. Maple season is just around the corner.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On the Horizon: Straw Bale Workshops

While proofreading the newsletter for the environmental education center at Lutherlyn, I was thrilled to note that plans have been set in stone for three straw bale workshops this spring. Lutherlyn is in the process of building its second straw bale structure, a worship and music center. (Terra Dei was Lutherlyn's first straw bale building, to which we credit our early straw bale experience and where we lived for four years.)

March 21-27, 2010: Join us for an Alternative Spring Break focusing on straw bale construction. This week-long program will introduce students and campus groups to the basics of straw bale construction and earth plastering.

May 14-16, 2010: We will be offering a combination Straw Bale Construction and Earth Plastering Workshop. This event will cover the basics of design, construction, and finishing of straw bale walls. It will include plenty of hands-on experience.

May 22-23, 2010: Come for our Straw Bale Work Days! These days will be spent stacking and plastering bales. All volunteers are welcome to attend.

(On a side note, yours truly will be helping teach these events. I can't wait to get my hands on that earth plaster!)

For more information and to register for these events, please contact the LEEP office:

Lutherlyn Environmental Education Program

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Making the Move!

Last we talked about the straw bale chicken coop, Fred and Granddad had put the metal roofing in place. It was Thanksgiving. Winter decided to arrive in earnest the following weekend:

So after the big push during October and November to get the coop done, we were unable to move the hens down to Haven after all. Everything came to a very cold standstill. (Cold and dark, but oh-so-beautiful!)

Our driveway is about 1/4 of a mile in length. Not a big deal; actually, a pleasurable walk to the mailbox. But without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, winter becomes a test of patience. I have a tendency to get vehicles stuck in snowdrifts, so I park up at Great-Grandma's on the main road instead of getting stuck in our driveway.

But the early grasp of winter always gives way to a January thaw, which hit last weekend. We had a nice stretch of days ranging from 25-35 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that most of the snow melted. It was time to move the girls!

I wish I could say they were excited for their move. They weren't. We moved them five at a time in a cardboard box, with lots of squawking for effect. But all that seems to be forgiven and forgotten. They are glad to be home!

See how excited they are? (I know, chickens don't often get too excited, unless it involves treats.) A better word to describe them is content. They are content to be scritching around in the earth without a fence.

Here is a picture of the interior. The right side features food, water, and roosts:

The door opens to their nesting boxes on the left:

Yesterday was their first day to run free for hours. They were as happy as could be. Due to the large overhang of the roof, they found a dry, dusty spot. For a better part of the afternoon, all ten chickens were crammed into four square feet of dust:

Some of you may remember that we actually have 12 chickens. Two chickens opted to stay up at Great-Grandma's. My sweetest little chicken has been picked on by the largest hen. (And therefore, by all the others. They don't call it a "pecking order" for nothing!) Unfortunately, the flock has pulled out a good many of her feathers on the back of her neck, around her tail, and on her lower back. We thought that warranted a break, so she and a friend are going to stay at the other coop for some well-deserved rest time.

You can see from the pictures that we still have work to do on the coop, even though the chickens are living there. Two major improvements still need to take place. The first is to apply the rest of the mud plaster to the outside of the coop. I should be able to finish the two unplastered exterior walls with two good days of work. The second improvement is to run permanent electricity and lighting to the coop. For my friends who don't do chickens, egg laying drops dramatically in the winter if you don't have an indoor light to help them out a little. Electricity would also give us the option to use a heated waterer during the coldest months. We have to run electricity to the garage anyway, so it will be just a small job for Fred to extend that to the coop.

So for now, until winter comes to a close, that means taking warm water out to the girls a few times a day so it doesn't freeze. Compared to the 1/4 mile I was carrying water to their other coop, this is a dream. It makes me very happy to open my door and hear them calling to one another. It makes our homesteading life seem just that much more complete, to have our girls with us under their own little blue roof.