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!

Creating Solutions Through Sustainable Landscapes

Rex waterfallAccording to a recent symposium of Landscape Designers and Architects (link below), water is the critical issue facing humanity. Water resources are becoming increasingly burdened, with high population growth, water shortages and changing climate. I would also add that soil is paramount as well. We have lost much of our topsoil already, and water and wind erosion contribute greatly to our loss; however, soil loss and water run-off is really about our (human) practices. This, we can change.

Each of us must learn about water resources and make some changes: in how we use water and, in what water-intensive resources we use. We must also teach our children – well. Begin to implement small changes at home – by collecting rainwater for watering gardens and by using permaculture techniques, which protect water and soil. Educate ourselves about the manufactured products we use, the amount of water and chemicals inherent in their production.  Opt for recycling and upcycling wherever possible.  Choose wisely.

If you live on some wooded acreage, allow leaf mulch to collect and leave some standing dead wood and some fallen wood on the ground.  This is good for the decomposers, birds and mammals, and erosion control.  If you graze animals, please use good stewardship practices, such as grass finishing and pasture-rotation.  Try to grow native too!

Wildflower creek walk 2013Keep in mind entire systems – how everything works together.  I like to think – how would Nature do it?  Truthfully, if we do nothing, nature will take care of itself. However, we like our veggie gardens, shrubs and flower beds, as well as pathways that are not only aesthetically pleasing but that serve a purpose – allowing us to walk unimpeded by ticks, chiggers and snakes (at least, here in the country!).

2832917We now also need to remove invasive species of plants in order to help our natives survive and thrive , which includes some selective harvesting of trees.  My treehugging soul has fought admitting this for many years, and I still prefer to err on the side of keeping the trees and weeds as much as possible! Thankfully, Rex is patient with my process, always balancing our ethic of helping the earth with our ethic of “do no harm”. 🙂   Go here to see our Rogue’s Gallery of invasive plants.

rudbeckia and echinacea (640x480) (2)I would also suggest that big yards should be a thing of the past, opting for encouraging our vital pollinators with native – and sometimes ornamental – flowers and grasses, and importantly, for growing some of our own food plus a little extra. After all, more than six billion people rely on food grown on about 11% of the global land surface!  (from National Geographic “Our Good Earth”, September 2008).  Why not be a little independent of the box stores by growing our own greens?  Of course, try to buy at your local farmer’s market or small local stores when necessary.

U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The history of every nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil”.  And Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1746, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”.

Let us all determine ourselves to be part of the solution – for the water, for the soil, for ourselves and for each other.

~ Lorian

For more information on the water resource symposium, read up on it in The Dirt. http://dirt.asla.org/2013/04/24/what-is-the-most-critical-issue-designers-dont-even-know-exists/#like-13588.

Peas Please Me

The peacocks and chickens love to free range on this beautiful mid-winter day in Missouri. They particularly enjoy hanging out in front of our south-facing glass on the sunny patio.


Our straw bale cottage forms a barrier from the northerly winds, and the sun shines happily.  That’s why our patio is so feathery! Yes, we do give it a regular spritzing-off.  In the summer, oregano and small stray petunias grow between each of the flagstone pieces – happy – thanks to what our feathered friends leave behind. It’s all part of the natural cycle.  🙂

February Landscape Tasks for Nature Lovers

February is an excellent time to work outside – cool temps, no bugs, no hurry.  Here in Missouri Zone 6, in the time of Imbolc (an ancient Gaelic celebration of Spring), just after The Day of Marmota Monax (according to him, Spring will be early this year)

Imageand well into the Mayan New Year,Image the sun is shining, the temperature is in the upper 40’s, and it is quite pleasant. Which brings us to how now is a good time of year to do a few things for your landscape, and your trees and shrubs will thank you.

Prune for Structure

If you haven’t already done so, corrective pruning works well now because the plant’s energy is still in the roots.  It is much less stressful for the plant or tree if you do a more vigorous pruning when the plant is dormant.  You can easily see the branching structure of your trees and shrubs, and at this time of year, you won’t have to dispose of all the leaves.  Be careful that you do not cut off your spring flowers, because many of the spring flowering plants are budded and just waiting for enough warmth to open up.  These particular plants (viburnum, lilac, azalea, etc.) should be pruned after flowering.  So, you don’t want to tip-cut the early blooming plants like this, but it is okay to remove old canes that are less vigorous. Cut those canes back as close to the ground as you can.   Keep in mind that maple pruning at this time will cause a lot of sap loss, unless you want to collect it in a bucket and cook it down for maple syrup!  It’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for dead wood and remove it when you see it. Dead limbs provide an entry into the live wood for insects and rot.

Cut Back Grasses

Now is a good time to cut your grass!  Ornamental grasses (such as liriope/monkey grass, maiden grass, fountain grass, etc.) should be cut back to about 6″ from the ground for larger grasses and about 2″ from the ground for smaller monkey grass.  When the dead or old grass blades are gone, the soil will warm up faster; the plant will begin to grow sooner Liriope Muscariand will look lovelier.

Transplant Plants

The spring digging season is about to begin.  Now is a good time for transplanting deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, and to make arrangements to plant larger trees and shrubs that will be field dug at the nursery.  This timing will help you get better choices, as quality plants can get picked over by spring.  Also, early planting eliminates transplant shock when no foliage is exposed.  You will also be able to take advantage of the spring rains and have less watering and maintenance work.  If you have very little experience, I recommend you consult a Horticulturist for advice on transplant information regarding your specific plant or tree choice and your location and/or help in accomplishing your goals.

For the DIYer, some things to bear in mind, which is not total but will give you a good start when planting a new nursery tree or shrub:

1)  “Call Before You Dig”, that is, dial “811”;

2) Be certain that the plants you have chosen will work well in your landscape – Does it need well-drained or moist soil? Will the plant like the intense heat/sun on the western side of your house or does it prefer the sunny south or cooler north side, or what?

3) The width of the new hole you dig should be twice the size of the root ball, and the depth should be a little bit shallower.  If the root ball is planted in too much depth, the tree could drown; too high, it could dry out.  Create a little ring of dirt around the root ball that will bring some water to the roots and not dry out too fast.  Mulch and water it in.

4)  When digging out a shrub, keep as much of the soil and root base intact as possible.  Move root ball and place it in a newly dug hole that is well-aerated and larger than the root ball.  Then, you can fill it in with amended soil, if the original soil is not adequate.  Keep the base of the plant slightly higher than the surrounding dirt.  Mulch and water it in.

A Word About Natives

We really want to encourage  native plants and edibles instead of large areas of mono-culture non-native lawns.  In fact, check out this blog about starting a veggie garden (with great resources too!).  Also, read this article if you would like to know “How to Start an Organic Garden in 9 Easy Steps”.  Try to buy or grow as many native plants, shrubs and trees as you can; rudbeckia and echinacea (640x480) (2)they will attract all manner of birds, butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, will resist drought and require less water once established, and they do not require chemical inputs to survive.  Many natives are perennials or will reseed, giving you years of enjoyment from the original plant or seed.

Take Time for the Small Pleasures

Implementing these suggestions now will help you stay caught-up in your landscape gardening.  Instead of hurrying through spring with the usual business of over-burdened schedules and appointments and last-minute gardening, you can approach the excitement of spring in an unhurried manner, able to pay full attention and smile. 🙂

Sunny Skies and Off-Grid Living

It’s not for the faint of heart, but living off grid can be very satisfying.  All you need is the Sun (and the equipment, of course!).  Even with the diffused lighting of a cloudy day, solar panels will produce some energy.

solar panels web small

Having your energy produced by solar panels is environmentally friendly, renewable, sustainable, and by being off-grid, you don’t have the additional monthly “service availability charge” coming in from the electric company.  Besides, you’ll need that $25 per month when you have to replace your battery pack!  Battery replacement varies, but the average batteries will last 3 to 6 years in an off-grid situation.  To be off-grid, you have no electric lines running from your house to your utility company.  We will also touch on grid intertie and grid-interactive systems, but since we live off-grid, that’s the perspective we’ll share for this article.  Now, contrary to what you may have heard, solar is a very cost-effective way to reduce your energy costs and your carbon footprint.  Check out this blog at Earthtimes.org to learn the top 5 myths discouraging homeowners from getting solar panels.

To See the Forest for the Trees

We always knew we wanted to be powered by the sun, even after having enjoyed the pleasure of lanterns for a couple of years, but when we realized that we needed to allow 30,000 square feet of forest clearing (1000’ x 30’) to allow for the power lines (never mind that coal is the main driver for electricity in this state), that did it for us.  We didn’t want to use coal, and we didn’t want a view from our house of a cut-out swath of forest and electric poles and wires.  Destroying all those trees for our electric consumption seemed sad, considering that we moved to the forest because of the trees.  You do, however, have to have a clearing for your panels to receive sunlight, and we deal with this continually, living in the forest.

forest for the treesOur panels have a “window” of about 6 hours of sun per day, which is about as small a window as you would want.  It’s too hard to part with the trees!

It’s a Battery Life

The winter has the largest effect when being off-grid, due to increased cloud cover, shorter days, and colder temperatures influencing the battery pack.  So, the batteries react much the same as the batteries in your car; when the temperatures drop, they have less capacity to hold energy.  Battery storage in a warm spot is helpful.  Just remember, they do produce hydrogen gas when charging, which is explosive, so they need to be safely vented.  It has become a real household occupation to check the voltmeter inside the house to see our battery charge.  It lets us manage our battery bank; you really want to keep your batteries above 50% capacity for their health.  And speaking of health, you have to tend them gently every so often with a dose of distilled water in each of their little cells…Now, we know if we can watch that show, if we should turn off the frig for the evening to preserve power, if we need to use the generator, or if we should just chill out and use our DC lights to read a book. It all depends on us.


battery bank wired in series

An interesting sidebar about solar in winter due to a chemical process involving how the silicon reacts to temperature, the coldest sunny day of the year will give you the highest voltages coming off your panels.  We have to design the system based on this, because you can damage your charge controller if it hasn’t been sized for this higher winter voltage.

Here in Missouri, you can have many days in a row without sunshine.  So, what do you do?  Some people try a hybrid system of solar with wind energy.  Wind energy is site-specific, and there isn’t that much wind on this eastern side of the state.  We mainly get it in the spring.  It can be a help, but it won’t give you everything you may need to fill in the gaps.  A wind system needs to have a tower where the bottom part of the blade is at a minimum of 30’ above the nearest obstruction, such as buildings or trees.  For us, this would mean having a wind turbine blade’s lowest point starting at 110′, since our trees are easily 80′ tall.  Another option is charging your battery pack with a generator, which is loud, polluting and somewhat expensive (depending on your circumstances and how much you have to use it), if it’s a gas generator.  A diesel generator that can run off of WVO (waste vegetable oil) would be the optimum choice.  Batteries will always need an equalization charge approximately every month, which can be done with a charge controller, but a generator is *almost* a necessity for an off-grid system.

E = Efficiency

The key to off-grid living is to use as little power as necessary year round.  Efficiency everywhere – lighting, appliances and usage – is essential.  When we go to bed, no appliances are on, except for the refrigerator, which cycles periodically.  No chargers are plugged in; all phantom loads are off, due to power strips.  Our normal-size Energy Star refrigerator (with small freezer on top) is our biggest load in the house; it uses an average of 1200 watts per day.  Probably everyone’s biggest energy consumer (besides heating and air conditioning or the Jacuzzi)  hmmm, maybe we’ll do another post about the pleasures of a hillbilly hot tub  is the hot water tank.  Starting out with a propane hot water tank seemed like the best option for us back in 1994, but when the tank broke last year, we had options!  In order to not rely on fossil fuels, we now heat our water with a wood-fired hot water system, soon to have a solar aspect to it for summer use, which we will cover in another blog post, along with photos.

Are you a Candidate for Off-Grid Living?  Compare the Options

Being off-grid makes sense for people who are off-the-beaten-path, Imageor if you already like your privacy and your view and don’t want the trees cut down.  Now if you want to go solar, but have access to or already are grid-tied, then a battery back-up system will give you security when the grid goes down. You can include your essential loads such as a refrigerator, well pump, some lights, and computer on a subpanel that will always be fed through the inverter via grid power or solar power.  Know that most standard grid-intertie inverters are required by law to shut down when there is power outage, so if you want to stay powered when the grid goes down, you will need a battery backup system.  If you aren’t concerned about losing the grid, then pure grid-tie is the least expensive route to go, allowing you to make your energy during the days, then use that energy throughout the month, basically off-setting your electric usage with solar.  In Missouri, we hope to go to a yearly net-metering plan, but right now it’s based on one month.  This means that at this time, we cannot use the excess energy from summertime to offset the darker months of winter.

Ultimately, you can power anything you want with solar, if your pockets are deeper than your desire to be more energy efficient.  It is much more cost-effective – and you’ll greatly reduce your carbon footprint – to become energy efficient, and then use solar to power your lifestyle.

Warmer Days and a Happy Tree Frog

Warmer Days and a Happy Tree Frog

All holed up in our warm straw bale cottage on this *very* cold January afternoon, and in temporary avoidance of some of my home duties, I find my thoughts going to hot summer days and festive evenings when we light the torches and swim with Tree Frogs in the moonlight.

Now, we do not have air-conditioning, since the straw house stays fairly cool during the Missouri summers, peaking at 83 degrees inside when it’s 103 degrees of sustained heat outside. However, we feel most comfortable when we can cool our body temperatures down by swimming or just lounging for a bit in the lake down the hill or up here in the little pool. Of course, the walk uphill is less desirable in the heat of the day, so the pool ends up being our next-best-thing to air-conditioning. It turns out that frogs feel the same way we do – desiring escape from the heat, the pool is a very convenient body of water. We find little Spring Peepers and Tree Frogs who spend the day peeking out at us from in the liner of the pool (in our daughter’s photo: under the side rail where you see the frog sitting), and they spend the overnight hours swimming, mating, and laying eggs. In the evenings when we swim, the frogs are hanging out on the rails, floating on the pool mattress (imagine that for a moment!), propelling themselves through the clear water, or are attached to the sides of the pool, all joined together in their chorus of song. Often 10 or 15 of them! They do not worry about us, and we enjoy their serenades and little froggy antics.

From this vantage point and looking out at the frosty gray-blue sky, I am enjoying memories of and looking forward to the long summer days punctuated by iced sun tea, cob oven pizza and bread, cool garden salads, and refreshing dips with some of Missouri’s cutest amphibians.

We have been involved in some fun and exciting projects, and news of these will follow soon. Right now, it’s good to dream. 🙂