Friday, February 24, 2012

The one about... Rocket Mass Heaters

Let me start by saying that I have no experience whatsoever when it comes to either building or using a RMH. Yet. And I can't possibly say anything better than those who came before. That's why I'm taking the sensible (and easy) way out by simply linking to those who know. The only original comment I can offer is this: I want one. They look freaking awesome. I want one. And now over to the experts...

Ernie and Erica Wisner of say:

"Rocket stoves are a type of fuel-efficient device, named in the 70's, but dating back millenia in concept.  A super-hot chimney right above the fire draws not only smoke but flame up  quickly, blending hot fuel and air into a quick, hot, clean-burning fire that takes little wood, leaves little residue, and has lots of uses.
The Rocket Mass Heater takes this useful, clean-burning heat, adds a self-feeding wood box, and channels the exhaust through touchable thermal mass (as seen in Roman hypocausts, Chinese 'kang' stoves, northern European masonry heaters, and ancient masonry dwellings and hearths)."


Ianto Evans, Leslie Jackson, Ernie Wisner, Kirk Mobert, Paul Wheaton, and other friends are among the researchers developing efficient, clean-burning, affordable stoves for a variety of heating and cooking needs. This group developed and published the current editions of Rocket Mass Heater, or Rocket Masonry Stove, designs. The technology combines an innovative clean-burning combustion chamber, with an earthen masonry thermal mass, resulting in extraordinary heat capture and low waste from an incredibly small amount of wood.

Paul Wheaton, starts his extensive article on the RMH by saying:

rocket mass heaters in a nutshell:
heat your home with 80% to 90% less wood
exhaust is nearly pure steam and CO2 (a little smoke at the beginning)
the heat from one fire can last for days
you can build one in a day and half
folks have built them spending less than $20

And going with the whole 'picture is better than words' thingy here are a couple of explanatory pics stolen from the links above. In these examples the brown butt-warming area is made of cob, which is a mixture of clay, sand and straw

In theory

In practise
I finally kicked my own ass and ordered the Ianto Evans' book Rocket Mass Heaters: Superefficient Woodstoves YOU Can Build (and snuggle up to) which should be arriving next week. I can spend the summer experimenting outdoors and hopefully by next winter we may have a new house built on a concrete slab with a special section reserved for a RMH.

All links posted so far have a ton of information including text, diagrams, photographs and video. Ernie and Erica have even started selling detailed plans via their site. If that isn't enough, there is also this subforum largely dedicated to the RMH and there is always good ole google if you're still hungry for more.

One way or the other I've got to have me a rocket mass heater.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Working with logs

Aside from a 3-day break to heal a sore back, I've spent the last 10 days or so focusing on collecting logs to use as building materials. I have a lot of building projects to keep me occupied, and with more time than money it makes sense to use our our woodlot's sustainable supply of pine/spruce/fir to this end.

Temporary, haphazard workstation

Woodman's Pal for removing branches, drawknife for peeling the bark

The collection begins

And it keeps on growing

I would guess it has taken perhaps 30-45 minutes per log on average to get it from forest to workstation and peeled, and the logs are all 9' or 5'.

My first two projects are a two-bin compost system like the one below but with logs instead of boards and saddle-notched corners

And a goat shelter that may end up looking like either this one

From the wonderful 5 acres and a dream blog
Or this Sepp Holzer shelter

For now, just getting the logs ready for building is enough. I'll figure out the whole 'construction' side of things when I get there.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My bread recipe

1.1 kg of flour ( I do 925g of white and the remaining of whole wheat)
35g of vegetable shortening
35g of sugar
15g of salt
20g of quick dry yeast
675g of warm water (2 minutes in my microwave is perfect)
2 egg whites

Use a large mixing bowl for this recipe. 
First I mix the fat with the flour and break it up in tiny pieces.  Then I add the sugar, salt and quick rise yeast. **If you use traditional yeast, mix it in the warm water and wait a couple of minutes until it gets a bit frothy.**

Make a well in the middle, poor in the water and the egg whites and throw your hands in there and mix all ingredients until it forms a ball of dough.  Then throw the dough on the table and knead for 5 MINUTES.  Throwing flour in there once in a while to keep it from sticking.

Sprinkle some flour in the same bowl. Put the ball of dough back in the bowl, and put the bowl in a plastic bag (I use the same Wal Mart bag every time).  Put the bowl in your oven with the light on, the temperature should be right about perfect.  Set the timer for 45 minutes (55 minutes with traditional yeast).  

Now think about something that makes you mad and give a good punch in the middle of the over-inflated ball in the bowl.  Put the dough on the table and work it a bit to remove the air and roll into a cylinder. 

Ok at this point I'm doing a little something because the recipe is a bit too big for three loaves.  I chop the dough in three pieces of about 600g, and a 4th nubbin with the remaining dough.  Work the dough into balls and put into bread moulds. Let rise at room temperature for 10 minutes (15min with the traditional yeast).
While you are waiting, boil a kettle.
When the time is up, press the dough into the moulds to level it.

Warm up the oven just a little bit (around a 100 F) and put a pan of boiling water in there to take care of the steam effect. Set the timer for 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven 5 minutes before the end and preheat the oven at 400F.

Bake 40-45 minutes.  Remove the small loaf 10 minutes before the end or it'll over cook.  Eat the little one warm with butter.  Let the other loaves cool down on a rack, slice and freeze.

VoilĂ !

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Garden planning...

It's that time of year again.  Along with the income tax forms to fill, it's time to plan what we'll plant and where we intend to do it.

First, I have to remember last year's garden and think of a way to make it 100% different.  Crops need to rotate.  Secondly I look at my updated list of seeds and I decide what I'll plant.  Slowly but surely, things start to fall into place just following logic.

Last year, my tomatoes gave me an ok yield but were pretty sick and it is highly suggested to not plant any tomatoes in that location for a good three years, so I aimed at the furthest location in my garden from the problematic one.  I placed the potatoes in a new area of the garden, where a huge amount of aged horse manure has been dumped.  Potatoes need a lot of compost, they'll be happy there. Beans and cabbage are going in last year's potato patch.  The rest follows the same type of logic.

I used a large piece of cardboard, with my garden's measurements on the sides.  With a pencil I simply drew on there until it looked right.

Mother Earth News has a very cool planner that can be used, free of charge, for a full month.  I had lots of fun last night setting it up.  Took me about 15 minutes.  With a bit more time, I could set it up much nicer but I'm not one to go for the look, I prefer the practical use of the tool.  And now, I can share it, which is really cool. Here it is:

If you click here, you'll see the whole final results, with expected yield and planting dates.  Awesome!

Monday, February 13, 2012

There are other ways

I have never been very good at doing what everyone else does. As if you didn't know that already. Part of it is rebelliousness, I admit. But mostly, it's because what is considered 'normal' by most of us first-worlders is plain bloody stupid. Please take a look at Derrick Jensen's A New Declaration and tell me if you can disagree with any of those statements? Yet for whatever reason, we find an excuse we can hide behind and we go along with it, failing to question the fact that we simply cannot justify our way of living much past the point of 'yeah well, we're entitled to it'.

Rocket Mass Heater with cob bench

I consider myself fortunate that the American/English/Canadian dream never did much for me, so I'll pass on that one, thanks. And though I didn't expect to end up as an aspiring self-sufficient homesteader, I knew I wouldn't live a 9-5 suburban existence. I was good at my office jobs back in the UK, and for a couple of years I managed to successfully portray myself as yet another anonymous suburban drone "chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need". So much of what goes along with that package is wrong. It's wrong, and at the same time it's unquestioned by the majority. It is supposedly the only way of doing things. It is supposedly what everyone wants and aspires to have.

Humanure toilet

Well, I don't want it. And thankfully, there have been thousands of people who came before me, their quiet voices fighting against the all-conquering mass of 'normal', who have gradually built a network of alternatives for those of us who refuse to flop comfortably into the warm, fluffy mould of ignorance.

Simondale House

We're already considered weird by a lot of people for daring to even question where our food comes from. We're crazy for choosing to grow our own food and raise livestock rather than munch away on the so-called 'food' from the grocery store. Because chemicals and factory farms are... a good thing? I have no idea what they will think of us after my next few posts because I'm thinking of doing a series on things like rocket mass heaters, humanure toilets, cob, earthships and compost. Fascinating, right?

Michael Reynolds: Garbage Warrior (awful title, awesome documentary)

There are other ways of doing things, and I intend to explore the options to find what works for us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hoping to start saving my own seeds

Ever since we got here, it's been on the back of my mind to attempt and save the seeds from the garden bounty.  I bought the book Seed to Seed, literally the bible of seed savers, I also found  a good amount of information online but chickened out the first year when I was knee deep in the harvest/canning season and seed saving was relegated to future projects. Last year I also ignored it when I didn't have a root cellar to bring my root veggies to the next planting season, when they go through the second part of their biennial cycle.

The first year I still attempted to save cucumber seeds (because it's like the easiest vegetable) but the seeds weren't viable the next year when I planted them. I suspect that 1) the cucumbers most probably cross-bred with their squash neighbours in the garden 2) the pollination didn't happen because we just don't have any bees around here 3) the seeds were too dry.

Last year, I saved some runner-beans seeds. I still don't know where I will plant the seeds because don't want my bean crop to fail if the seeds aren't viable, so I might just try them in a pot. I also saved my potato harvest to use as seed the next year.

So I'm slowly learning about making sure my plants don't cross-pollinate with other plants of the same family. Which reduces the variety of veggies I can plant in one season. I either limit myself to one variety in each family or scatter the planting to make sure they don't flower at the same time.

So this year I'm taking this seriously as I'm planning my garden. I will plant only one variety of the annuals like tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuce and broccoli.  But I might plant 2 varieties of each of the biennials (I have the seeds) like carrot, turnip, beets and onions, and see how I do.  This way I could see which one does best in the garden AND in the root cellar. And next year, plant the varieties of biennials that did best for the flowering/seeding season.

And another added bonus this spring is the arrival of our bee hives, and my mom and partner are moving in.  Their added help and support will be greatly appreciated and our seed saving ambitions might become possible.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My grandmother's squares... updated version

Whenever my grandma shows up at a family party, she always brings a tin container full of baked goodies for the host.  If the host is a kind, generous soul, they put it on the table and everybody digs in there like rabid animals.  All the host gets are crumbs.  When my grandma comes to my place and she graces me with a tin of miracles, I snatch it out of her hands and hide it in the freezer.

The main reason I'm so selfish is because there are always a couple of my favourite ones in there.  And I couldn't bare the sight of someone else eating one, leaving possibly none. "those-squares-with-the-fruit-and-the-coconut", the unnamed bite-size food of the gods...

According to my grandmother, the original recipe was lost so she doesn't hold a copy.  When she cooks up a batch, she relies on her ageing memory and awesome as she is, she nails it every time.  I finally found the courage to ask her for the secret recipe so I can try and make my own stash of squares.

And I made some, and now I'm happy to share them.

First, line a 8 inch dish with parchment paper and preheat the oven at 350

1/3 cup soft butter
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup white flour

cream butter and sugar, mix flour in.  Then cover the bottom on the baking dish and bake 10 minutes in the oven.

2 eggs
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 tbs white flour
2/3 cup coconut
1/2 cup candied fruit chopped (dates, cherries, raisins, cranberry, pineapple...)
1/3 cup chopped walnut, pecan or almond

mix well and poor on the crust.

Bake 30 minutes, let cool on rack, cut into squares.

*UPDATE  -- Now don't substitute ingredients.  The first time around I couldn't wait to put my hands on proper nuts and I substituted with sunflower seeds and salted peanuts and the taste was a bit off.  You don't want to add any salt or it'll taste funny.  I made it with walnuts, less cherries and more raisins and cranberries and it's absolutely divine !


Home schooling on the farm

A few years back, before farming was even an embryo of an idea, we shopped around to find a proper daycare to put our kids in so that the husband could get on the band wagon and get a day job.  We were on the verge of breaking under pressure and adopting a lifestyle that we didn't like, just because "that is what everybody else does".

There wasn't much shopping to be done.  In the city, all the daycares were full and had waiting lists.  If you could get your foot in the door with a first kid, the other children to follow have a better chance of getting a spot in the same daycare.  But finding two available spots for the twins was very complicated and to top it off, our kids were considered "different" because they weren't babies anymore. Apparently, it is best to start daycare before one year old, or the children kinda need to be broken in...

The whole concept was making me cringe and the best place that we could find was in a "family" ie: the basement of some lady's house.  The basement was filled with toys and the lady had about 10 kids under her care.  They stayed indoors all morning, watched an episode of Barney, had a nap after lunch and then played out in the yard in the afternoon.  The lady would choose her own 2 weeks of vacations meaning the daycare would be closed yet we would still have to pay during that time, as well as being expected to continue paying if we took the kids out for our own vacations.  The shear amount of cash that was going to get sucked in this crappy lifestyle for our children, along with a car which would become essential, was going to cover most of the income that Gary would produce.

This was one of the main events that promoted our change of lifestyle.  We kept the kids at home and slowly incorporated home schooling into our daily lives.  Reading to them, making them read and write words into their little exercise books.  Doing art projects and getting them involved in farming duties.  Teaching them about life cycles, nature, science and geography.  Recently they were introduced to the computer through math games and they loved it.  We watch documentaries together about dinosaurs, forests, sea life, lions, history, etc.  We pause and explain, we point on the map, we answer multiple questions and interrogation.

We also play board games, we play outside, we walk in the forest, we cook, we sing and dance, we throw balls, we play hide and seek....  And it feels right!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Step 1) Own land

We think this is coming along nicely at the moment. A couple of days ago it appeared to be a slow process requiring patience that I just don't possess, yet last night there was an update suggesting this step could be completed quickly. And by taking the ballsy move to throw logic out of the window, I am going to wholeheartedly believe the latest update until the deed is signed. Or something changes and I can sink back into my pit of despair.

Step 2) Get a team together

We had a family day of fun yesterday: 2.5hr meeting with the log house suppliers. The kids were awesome, crayons stayed in the coloring books, no 3rd degree burns or bathroom incidents. They actually let us talk to the log house dude without interrupting. It freaks me out to write that because clearly that means there is something wrong with the kids, right? I mean... that's just not what kids are supposed to do.

Anyway. The meeting was great. We're happy with the product. They're happy with the project and our bags of cash. Everyone's a winner. They're going to price in all of our changes to the plan and get back to us with a final price, while at the same time sending the final design to the builder who will give us his price.

Septic, foundation, surveyors, and well-drillers are still to be found. None of them can give any firm prices until we have the land in our name and they can inspect it once it is no longer buried under 3ft of snow. So another 3 months then.

Step 3) Can we afford it?

Probably. Adding up the high-end estimates, it appears that we can afford to get just the completed house. No barn. No fencing. But those were high-end estimates, and most of the changes we have made to the house plan should bring the cost down in terms of both material, and build cost. We've got to have that barn, so if needs must I can always don my 'crappy handyman' hat and offer to help out on the build itself, as well as taking on the finishing of the house myself. Everything from drywalling to staining the external logs. Laying floors, hanging doors and painting walls.

For now, it's all baby steps. The quiet, yet anxious moment before the flood of decisions and deals that need to be finalised. There is a crap-ton of research to do, as well as keeping everything running in our current location in the meantime.

Baby steps.