When Are We Going to Have a Real Shower?

There is an ancient charm to heating and cooking with wood.  The irresistible draw of tending a fire on a cold winter day, and the cozy warmth of our natural home encircling us, gives us pause to be thankful and to feel the connection to our ancestors through our contact with the land and nature ~ through the straw, mud, rock and wood of our home and hearth.

tie dye fire 2

We have always wanted to use the wood stove to fire our hot water.  We wanted to use the wood we burn wisely and efficiently and always thought we could get more out of the wood we use. When heating our home, there is always heat on the stove top, which allows us to cook soups and stews and stir-fry veggies.  Inside the wood stove, we cook potatoes or cobbler among the coals. Still, couldn’t we devise a way to capture heat for our hot water tank, so that we could shower and bathe from the wood heat?  Of course, this has been done by others in different ways, but we wanted to do it affordably and with little, if any, electrical output.  Up until a few years ago, we heated the water in our water tank with propane.  We always knew that was a temporary solution, but once you settle on one way of doing things (especially a way that requires no work, other than the monthly service fees, ad infinitum!), it is harder to find incentive to change it. 

Nature is Perfect

When we lived in the tent (back in 1994) and for many, many lovely summer evenings over the years, we used black camp shower bags down the trail, which was definitely more work!  We had to think ahead – plan our day, refill and hoist the bags full of water over our heads, and give them time to heat up. The beautiful part of this method is that the sun heats the water in the bags and, by virtue of natural law, gravity allows the shower water to flow effortlessly over us.  Nature really is perfect. We try to respect and take advantage of the laws of nature in a lot of what we do.

The “Simple Life”

Oftentimes, the “simple life” is romanticized by those of us who yearn for times unencumbered by modern (in)conveniences.  The truth is, the “simple life” ain’t really that simple!  It can be a lot of work, but it can also be satisfying and full of joy.  This applies to our desire to bring awareness to natural resources and how we use them.  In the summer, to keep the house cool, we shut off the propane stove in the house kitchen, and our Summer Kitchen is open for business!  Thanks to the beautiful nature of straw bale and earth architecture and some well-placed fans and shades, our home stays pretty comfortable year-round, even in winter and in summer. Outside in summer, we use a propane camp stove, the cob oven, the sun, and a campfire for cooking or any hot water needs.

Kitchen 1

But what about hot showers and baths?  For the summer, we cool off in the pond or the pool.  We also enjoy hot-ish to cool showers, and for that we will stay with outdoor shower bags until we come up with a solar batch heater that is pressurized and heated by the sun. We also have our hillbilly hot tub, in which we can enjoy hot, therapeutic baths under the stars, even when the evenings are quite cool.

hillbilly hot tub 1     hillbilly hot tub 2

But during the autumn, winter and spring, we wanted to use the residual heat from our wood stove for our indoor shower.  And we had special encouragement.

We decided not to change anything until our propane water heater broke, because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  It’s hard to tell just how many projects and how much child-rearing and cooking was accomplished in those 13 years that our propane tank worked for us, but we can say unequivocally – a lot!  It worked well for us – and for that we were very appreciative – but it was time to move on and do what we had always wanted.

The Complicated Life

Once the tank gave out, our showers consisted of hanging a shower bag over the bath and drawing it up or down with a rope and pulley. We heated water on the wood stove during late fall, winter and early spring to fill our shower bag. During the times of year with no indoor wood fire, we heated a kettle up on the propane stove in the kitchen or on the camp stove out in the summer kitchen and brought it into the bathroom to fill the shower bag. Taking showers inside the house had replaced our outdoor camp showers over time, due to convenience and the fact that our trees have grown bigger over these 20 years, and the showers down the trail had become more shaded!

Now, inside the house, our family of 4 became accustomed to heating water in a large pot and showering with 1 to 2 gallons of water per person ~ now that sounds efficient!  But unfortunately, that meant very short showers, and no one but Rex was real happy with this!  This was a temporary (almost two-year-long!) solution, which allowed us to continue all of our day-to-day activities and still be able to shower.  We all tried to be game for this new adventure, but on occasion there were a few refrains heard around here, such as “When are we going to have a real shower”?

All the while, we toyed with different ideas for heating our water.  We didn’t want to go back to propane, and most of our options carried with them some major drawbacks.

Pros & Cons

402px-The_Thinker,_Auguste_Rodin small Weighing the pros & cons went like this:

  • A regular propane water heater was certainly the easiest option and had the least start-up cost, but it would have kept us dependent on (“Frack and Iraq”) propane, which is a 50/50 blend of natural gas and crude oil.
  • The tankless propane heater was the next easiest option, but it still uses propane and has to be cleaned out every 6 months to a year due to the lime build-up inside the narrow tubes.
  • Solar Thermal 1 bending aluminum absorption plates smSolar thermal was our choice at first – Rex and two friends, Barry and Paul, built a solar thermal panel for just this purpose. While solar can be a great option, there were some big drawbacks for us. Our one-or-two panels would only pre-heat the water in the winter; we would still need a back-up system, as most people have unless they have several solar thermal panels.
  • We considered the heat wand, a $600 copper tube that goes down into the electric tank. Checking the rated BTUs per hour, it seemed like it wouldn’t get the water hot enough just on its own by the sun, and a few of us like really.warm.showers. You can buy tanks that have internal heat exchangers built in, but they run about $1500. Another option for solar is an external heat exchanger.  For us, being off-grid, these external heat-exchangers require more electricity than we would prefer to use.  If we had grid-connected solar, we might be inclined to rethink this one.  Our goal is to still use the solar panel/s in conjunction with wood-fired heat, if we can work that out.  Otherwise, we will use it during fair weather on the summer kitchen or one of our other part-time buildings.
  • For wood-fired heat, the biggest hold-up for us was where to place the hot water storage tank.  We needed for it to be up in the air to take advantage of natural convection, but we didn’t think we had enough room with a conventionally-sized hot water tank. However, once we found the tank we were looking for that would fit, it was smooth sailing.  🙂

And the Winner Is….Efficient Use of Wood Heat for House and Water!

Ultimately, there was enough heat coming from the wood stove during at least 6 to 7 months of the year, and we wanted to be able to use it, allowing it to perform triple-duty heating the house and the water and cooking some of our food. Ultimately, this also ended up being our least expensive option, we have no monthly fuel charges, and we live in the forest (with lots of dead wood available). We wanted a smaller electric hot water tank, one that was shorter and would fit into the space we had envisioned, so we had to purchase a new tank. We went with 30 gallon capacity, due to the tank’s size dimensions.  The copper pipe was the only other big expense for this system.

We made a thermosiphon loop of copper coil spiral-wrapped around the stove pipe. Rex forming coil  The key to the coil is: cold water goes in at the bottom of the coil – travels up the coil via natural convection, heating along the way – and hot water goes out and into the top of the water heater tank for storage. A big part of the thermosiphon loop lay in the placement of the hot water tank, because it needs to be high enough in the air to receive the heated water from the copper coil. A real bonus is the fact that this system requires no moving parts, which means there is less opportunity for mishap and it won’t be a constant drain on the electricity our solar PVs produce!

Hot Water Tank 2

We elevated our tank above the bathroom sink and just above the thermal mass brick wall dividing the wood stove and the bathroom.  We built a cob wall between the stove pipe and the water heater to allow heat transfer but to also protect the wood framing and equipment from excessive heat (see photo with coil below).

bathroom thermal mass 2

Water in the coil rises due to the natural flow of heated liquid in a thermosiphon loop.  The heat from the stove provides the mechanism to move the water upward.  This really heats up the water in the tank – really hot…which is why you want a Temperature Pressure Relief Valve (T & R valve), so that you don’t have an explosive situation on your hands! Unfortunately, a mixer probably would not work well in this system, due to the fact that internal mixers work with stable temperatures; whereas, our stove temperatures vary, based on how much or little we feed our fire.  ***Therefore, with our system, we have to mix hot and cold water manually. Turning on hot water at the faucet must be done thoughtfully so as to not get scalded! 

coil stove 2

We have been using this system for a year now, and it works great!  We have modified it, with the most notable difference after insulating and covering the copper coil recently, during this really cold winter.  The unfaced  fiberglass insulation (“unfaced” so that it has no paper backing to be a fire hazard!) allowed us to better capture and hold heat from the stove pipe, raising the pipe’s temperature significantly! The insulation did not diminish the heat radiating into the house; quite the contrary, heat actually radiated out further into the room than before! It also caused our fires to burn much more cleanly and efficiently, with no noticeable creosote build-up in the stove pipe now.  

Also, our initial concern about using a 30 gallon tank instead of a 40 gallon has not been an issue, because water in the tank reheats pretty quickly, especially now with the insulated coil. With a hot fire, we easily get 5 luxurious showers and can also do the dishes!  We will probably have to clean out the copper tubing at some point, just like the tankless propane heater, but all other factors make this a very promising solution for people who heat their homes with wood. 

As long as there is a fire in the wood stove, the water continues to circulate and heat up. Even a small fire provides enough heat on a marginally warm day. What would have been wasted heat going out the chimney, has now become an efficient use of the energy embodied in the wood, now heating our water for a delicious shower or bath. Expectations exceeded!

wood fired heat 1

**We will cover more detail about the copper coil wood-fired hot water system as well as detail about the solar hot water panel in upcoming separate blog posts.  🙂  Happy Adventuring!

Straw Bale vs. Cob Building

What is the difference between cob and straw bale building?

Cob  Good question – we get it a lot!  Give a Lift web large

We assume you want a comparison of building method, insulation, and function/wear.  There are several aspects that need to be addressed to answer this question.  Basically, a home can be built with either cob or straw bales, or both. Their function is different, though.  Straw bales are insulators, holding in the temperature and keeping the interior of your home warm or cool, depending on time of year.  Cob functions differently, not as an insulator but as thermal mass, in that it absorbs any radiant heat or cooling and then slowly releases it as it cools off.   

When you are building with straw bales, you are essentially using the bales as your framework, especially when building a load-bearing, Nebraska-style structure.  Straw bale building is done with straw bales (not hay bales), which then need to be covered – usually with earth plaster, lime plaster or cement stucco**.  A covering is just that – a cover material (generally, layers totaling about 1″ or so thick) that protects the bales.

Cob is a lot like earth plaster, although it is much more specific. You want the right amount of clay-soil (binder), sand (aggregate), water, and straw or horse manure (tensile strength).  Cow manure also makes a nice additive binder to clay-soil, creating a nice texture that functions differently from horse manure, more as a binder but not a strengthener.  You want your mix to hold together, for the individual clay platelets to cover each of the tiny bits of sand. Clay binds it, sand (or other aggregate) keeps it from cracking, and water makes it all possible. Straw/manure/fiber makes it stronger.  You want to get your cob mix right so that it doesn’t crack too much when it dries out.  If you rely on water to bind your materials without getting the mix right, you might be disappointed with the results.  Also, clay and water is really pleasant to work with, but too much clay and not enough aggregate will definitely crack too much and fall apart.  You have to have a lot of aggregate – a lot more than clay, generally 2 or 3 parts aggregate to 1 part clay-soil.  All of this specificity is important when building a cob oven or something structural.

When building with cob (or cobb, as some refer to it), you are making the balls or loaves into the actual building material, essentially sculpting your house with no framework; the cob is the framework.  Cob can also be used within framework, such as within stud walls.  One application might be to use cob in a south-facing wall for heat absorption when the sun is lower in the autumn, winter and spring, allowing for slow release of heat on cool nights. Also, cob can capture the cool of a summer night and slowly release that cool into your home during the day.  With these bitter cold Missouri nights, a really good application is to use cob on the interior of your straw bale house – in the form of a bench or trombe wall – capturing and absorbing the sunlight pouring in through your south-facing windows.  An earthen floor will also capture solar gain.  Everything works best if your foundation is well insulated, as well as good ceiling insulation and weatherization techniques.

Straw bale building really performs optimally.  We personally love the marriage of straw bale and cob architecture. You can have the insulation you need for colder winters by building with straw bales, and cob can be used on your home’s interior for absorption/thermal mass, to round out straw bale walls and/or to add sculptures and depth.  How you use these materials just depends on the climate where you live and the dreams you want to manifest.  Missouri is the perfect place for a marriage made in heaven, a love between two “naturals” – clay and straw.  🙂  

 decorative_sun**About Cement Stucco:  We aren’t really recommending cement stucco for covering bales anymore, now that we have more experience and knowledge about the function of earth plaster vs. cement stucco.  Here in moisture-rich Missouri USA, large roof overhangs or a covered wrap-around porch adequately protect straw bale walls from water. Further, if earthen walls become moistened/wet, the hygroscopic properties of the clay/earth kicks in. Clay gets wet and tiny clay platelets expand; as clay dries out, platelets shrink. If your bale wall takes on some moisture (using precautions mentioned), the clay will literally suck/absorb any moisture back out of the bales. This is the “breathing” process often referred to – straw bale walls need to be able to “breathe”so that moisture doesn’t get trapped in the straw, causing rot. This is why you do not paint with synthetics on your interior walls (see Natural Paints and Finishes).This is also why we would not now recommend using cement stucco as a cover material for straw bales (or cob or anything natural, for that matter). Cement will absorb water, but it does not release water very quickly or in the same way that earth plaster does.  We have cement stucco covering our house – so far, so good, but we live in a protected woodland, and our house has large overhangs; due to Missouri’s moisture, we would recommend having an earthen exterior. Even though clay/earth (not topsoil) is well suited to absorbing and releasing water, you still need to have good roof overhangs (approximately 2 feet). As a final cover, lime plaster (with or without colorant) will give a lot of added protection to your walls. 

Workshops 2013 with Silver Seed Farms

I like to play in the dirt

There is a lot of excitement building for more sustainable housing and living, as we become aware of the hazards of acquiring, manufacturing, and using modern building materials. Also, when we develop an awareness of the beauty of what Eckhart Tolle refers to as “chopping wood, carrying water” – that is, appreciating the beauty of life in the simple things in the moment – we feel closer to life itself, which gives us a feeling of wholeness. We started on our path of sustainability (it really is a path to be enjoyed, not so much just a goal to attain) over 20 years ago, when sustainability was more of a “fringe” idea, left to idealists and survivalists.  Now that many in the mainstream are beginning to see the pitfalls of “The American Dream”, more and more people are moving towards a strong environmental ethic and humanitarian concern – The New American Dream.

With all of this in mind, we are excited to announce our current slate of workshops for the 2013 year!

In addition, if you have a workshop you would like to host and for us to teach, please contact us at silverseedfarms@gmail.com, and we will work with you.

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Belmont oven finished!

Cob (Earthen) Oven Workshop ~ May 3, 4, & 5, 2013 ~ Class will be held at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri.  On-site camping, showers, meals and book included.  

For More Detailed Information

See the Flyer

To Sign Up

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Cob Elements:  Sculpting With Earth ~ June 2013 ~ At Silver Seed Farms, Leasburg, Missouri.

For More Detailed Information

To Sign Up

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natural plasters and finishes

Natural Paints and Finishes ~ July 13 ~ Class will be held at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri.

For More Detailed Information

To Sign Up

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Solar Photovoltaic Energy Introduction ~ July 27 ~ Workshop to take place at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri.  This class is prerequisite to the Advanced Solar Installation July 28-31.

For More Detailed Information

To Sign Up

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Charge Controller and Inverter 2 (480x640)

Advanced Solar PV Installation Workshop – July 28, 29, 30, 31 –  Follow along and help install a 3,000 watt grid-intertie, battery back-up system.  Free Photovoltaics book, camping, outdoor showers, all meals included.  Workshop will be held at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri.  Prerequisite: Solar PV Energy Introduction.

To Sign Up

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Straw Bale Building Workshop ~ October 4, 5 & 6 ~ at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri

For More Detailed Information

See the Flyer

To Sign Up

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Gravel Bag Foundation Workshop – October 3 – Workshop will be held at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri.  Come learn the skills to get your foundation right!  Free with Straw Bale Building Workshop.

Living Roof Workshop – October 19, 20 ~ Free with Straw Bale Building Workshop.  Workshop held at EEC Teaching Center, Bourbon, Missouri.  

See the Flyer

To Sign Up

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For info on straw bale building or natural building in general, go to our website.   

To see the full natural building offerings (including Building a Cordwood Sauna) at EEC, go to their website at environmentalenergyconsultants.com.

Check out our website, and let us hear from you.

🙂  Happy Adventures into Sustainability!