Self Watering Containers


Today, something for our apartment homesteaders. If you’ve got a patch of sun and want to grow some food crops container gardening is the way to go.

But container gardening has several drawbacks. Containers dry out quickly and if you forget to water, especially with vegetables, you can easily kill your plants. In fact inconsistent watering is probably the number one cause of container plant failure. Container gardening also uses a lot of water and can be messy, as the excess water flows out of the bottom of your pots leaving muddy stains on decks and balconies.

Thankfully, there is an elegant solution in the form of self watering containers. The principle is simple. Rather than having a hole in the bottom of the pot, there is instead a reservoir of water. Potting soil is suspended above the water reservoir by means of a perforated barrier. Circular “wicking chambers” reach down into the reservoir and draw water up to the plant’s roots. The reservoir is refilled by means of a pipe that comes out of the top of the pot and the soil in the pot is covered with a layer of plastic that acts as mulch. Depending on how deep the water reservoir is, it’s possible to go many days without having to add water. This arrangement, combined with the mulch layer on top prevent wasteful over-watering that can occur with conventional pots.

Best of all, while commercially made self watering containers such as the Earthbox® are available, it’s possible to build your own with these detailed instructions (warning–long pdf) by Josh Mandel. Or take a look at our how-to video:

We built our self watering container with an old plastic storage bin. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket also makes an excellent choice. Clever and water-wise folks may want to pimp out their self watering containers with overflow tubes to carry excess water out of the drainage hole and into a plastic milk bottle. Instructions for doing this can be found here (another pdf), and this might be wise for those considering placing these things on a roof.

Speaking of roofs, one drawback to self watering containers is that they are heavy once filled, so make sure that what you put them on can support the weight. Also, fill them with soil and water only after you have placed them where they need to go, since they can be a bitch to move once full.

Now, we don’t have much sympathy for the aesthetically minded, but some might consider a bunch of five gallon buckets or plastic tubs ugly. Personally we like the meth lab/cannabis farm chic this type of gardening suggests, but for the yuppies out there it’s also possible to put your home brew self watering container within a larger and more attractive pot if you’ve got the dough to blow. Fill the extra space between your self watering container and the pot it’s sitting in with gravel. Check out our instructions on how beautify your self watering container.

Now, apartment homesteaders, get out there and grow your own damn food!

The Tiny House

One of the ongoing struggles of eking out a living in any of the world’s big cities is the shortage of affordable housing. Houses and condos are out of reach of many, and apartments are expensive rent plantations run by greedy and evil landlords. Meanwhile, in rural America, most new housing consists of trailers, euphemistically known as “manufactured housing”. Trailers offer interesting possibilities, even for urbanites. But while it’s possible to pimp out an old trailer and make a decent living space, it’s hard to escape the fact that these structures were meant to be hauled down a highway and used for camping. Trailers often have a transient and less than homey vibe.

Between the extremes of conventional housing and trailers there is an interesting, and revolutionary alternative. In 1997 Jay Shafer took it upon himself to try an experiment in radical simplicity and create the smallest possible living space he could. Measuring just 100 square feet, his tiny house violated local building codes for the minimum amount of living space required for each occupant. So Shafer attached wheels to it and called it a trailer. But unlike a trailer, his house and subsequent houses he designed have an attention to detail, and a coziness not found in your typical Winnebago. His first tiny house has a kitchen, bath, and upstairs sleeping loft. Subsequent designs even have room for stacking laundry.

His passion for living on a very small footprint became a business, the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which now sells both competed units and plans for do it yourselfers. We particularly like the look of the X-S and the X-T house.

While certainly not for everyone, we like the flexibility that these building have. Put wheels on them and you can move your house with you. They are small enough to fit behind someone else’s house allowing for the possibility of both renting a small space and owning your own building all in one cozy package. If you can find a vacant lot, such a small house could be the ideal start of your urban homestead, leaving plenty of yard space for growing your own food.

And these small building literally sip utilities making them ideal for hooking up to solar power and very cheap to heat and cool. They are also expandable as your needs or family grows. And perhaps most importantly, they prevent expansion of all the things we don’t need, the giant plasma screens, the inflatable Christmas decor and all the other clutter causing detritus of our consumer culture.

For more information on the tiny house movement, author Shay Salomon and photographer Nigel Valdez will do a free slide show and talk about their book Little House on a Small Planet as a part of local permaculture expert David Khan’s introduction to permaculture on Saturday January 20th 2007 at 10:00 am at the Audubon Center at Debs Park:

4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031

Salomon and Valdez will also be appearing at the L.A. Eco-Village on Sunday January 21st at 8:00 p.m. ($10 sliding scale okay). For reservations for the talk at the L.A. Eco-Village call (213) 738-1254 or [email protected]
. The L.A. Eco-Village is located at 117 Bimini Place.

Buddy Burner

An easy craft project for the family survivalist, taken from the brilliant 70’s Mormon classic: Roughing it Easy, by Dian Thomas.

A buddy burner is a heat source for camping or emergencies made out of a tuna can, candle stubs and cardboard. It acts like a Sterno can, will burn for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, and can be recharged and reused.

To make a buddy burner you need to gather: a clean tuna can, a piece of corrugated cardboard, a bunch of candle stubs, and a soup can or something similar to melt the wax in so you don’t get wax on your cookware.

Cut the cardboard into strips as wide as the can is deep. Cut across the corrugation, across the ridges, so that when you look at the edge of the strip you see the open channels. Capiche? You are going to coil the cardboard in the can, so you will need maybe 3 or 4 feet of cardboard. One Amazon mailer made 3 BB’s here at Survive LA. Roll your strips up like a sweet roll and tuck them into the can. It does not have to be tight, but you do want to fill it up.

Pile your candle stubs next to the tuna can to get a sense of how much you need. The wax soaks into the cardboard, so you always seem to need more than you expect. Don’t worry about the wicks, dust, soot, those little metal things–the purity of your wax doesn’t matter.

Melt the wax. If you melt your candle stubs over direct heat the wax will burst into flame if it gets too hot. Therefore it is safest and best to use a double boiler set up. Now, if you own a double boiler you probably don’t want to coat it with wax, so use a tin can to hold the wax, and place the can in a saucepan of simmering water. Here we balance the can on a metal cookie cutter to keep it off the bottom of the saucepan.

When the wax melts it will liberate bits of old wick. Fish these out first and tuck one or two or three between the cardboard layers to help with lighting the burner. Then pour the hot wax slowly into the can. It will fill up fast, then the wax level will sink as the cardboard soaks up the wax. Keep adding wax–you want to be sure the can is absolutely full of wax and the cardboard completely saturated.

To cook with your buddy burner, all you have to do is figure out how to elevate your cooking pot above it. You could use your fondue set up, or perhaps stack up some bricks on either side, or best of all, make a stove for it out of a big #10 can. That will be the subject of another post.

To light the BB, light the wicks and turn the can up on its side so that the cardboard catches fire too. The cardboard is a huge wick. That inferno effect is what you want. Control your flame by making a damper out of a piece of aluminum foil folded into a long rectangle three or four layers thick and as wide as the can, but much longer so that you can use the excess as a handle. Slide the foil back and forth to expose or repress the flame as needed.

To recharge the BB, place chunks of wax on top of the BB while it is burning. The wax will melt down and refuel it. The wax will always burn at a lower temperature than the cardboard, so the cardboard should last a long time.

UPDATE – 7/1/08

Reader Michael writes:

“Hey! I love your site. But some thoughts on Buddy Burners! I made SOOOO many of these as a kid growing up (Mormon, y’know?), but they are not safe anymore. Most aluminum cans are now fully lined with plastics and other coatings (to prevent botulism, yay!) but they cannot be burned (boo!). Please please please do not suggest people make these as burning the coatings can be TOXIC.”

I’m beginning to wish we had a science lab here at the Homegrown Evolution compound to test these sorts of problems. I’d add to Michael’s concern that these plastic coatings leach estrogenic compounds into our food. BooII! See this alarming article from Cornell University on the connection between plastics and breast cancer.

Free Introduction to Permaculture

Local permaculture expert David Khan will be presenting an introduction to permaculture on Saturday January 20th 2007 at 10:00 am at the Audubon Center at Debs Park:

4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031

After the lecture author Shay Salomon and photographer Nigel Valdez will do a slide show and talk about their book Little House on a Small Planet.

SurviveLA attended Khan’s introductory lecture last month and found it thought provoking and informative. Here is Khan’s description of this brief introductory talk:

Using ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food, shelter, renewable energy and community. Permaculture is the perfect solution for creating sustainable lifestyles in the city. Learn how to cope with peak oil and the energy descent society of the future. Become the solution! Learn how LA can be a model for sustainable cities.

This Free Introduction to Permaculture Class is an outline of the science and art of Permaculture. It will define the term, its history, its founders and the curriculum of the design course certificate, its ethics and foundations. It will describe the benefits and show some of the most important work undertaken by permaculture designers.

Reservations:

www.sustainablehabitats.org
323.667 1330
[email protected]

Rain Barrels


Constructing a cistern large enough to supply potable indoor water is an ambitious project involving pumps, filters, UV purifiers, and very large and expensive tanks. We don’t want to discourage anyone from making an attempt at it, but for most urban homesteaders it won’t be economical or practical given the space requirements and weight of thousands of gallons of stored water. Thankfully, there are simpler strategies for harvesting rainwater.

Rainwater used for irrigating plants does not need filtering or purification, and since outdoor watering accounts for the number one household water use, you’ll be using that water where it is most needed. Now, once again at the risk of sounding like a broken record, our strict rule around the SurviveLA homestead is that all irrigated plants must be useful, i.e. you gotta be able to eat it or make tea with it. Priority in our plantings goes to useful plants that don’t need additional water once established. But it’s still nice to have citrus trees, salad greens, rapini, beets, and other fruits and vegetables that do need supplemental irrigation. For these types of plants it’s possible to supplement municipal water with rainwater collected in barrels.

You can purchase commercial barrels made of this purpose, but it’s also possible to construct your own using surplus barrels with the same improvised bulkhead fitting we described in our post on washing machine greywater harvesting. In fact your rainwater collection barrel is pretty much the same as your washing machine greywater surge tank, but instead of being connected to the washing machine, it’s connected to your gutter downspouts. Depending on how much rain you get and how many loads of laundry you do, it may be possible to double up and use the same barrel. And, just like your greywater surge tank, it’s best to elevate the rain barrel to let gravity do the work of getting the water where you need it and thereby not have to deal with the cost and complexity of pumping water.

Some precautions–your rainwater barrel should have screens over the inlets to prevent mosquitos from breeding and it’s wise to rig an overflow pipe at the top of the barrel to channel water away from your homestead’s foundations. You will also need to clean the barrel periodically, and where it freezes it may be necessary to turn the barrel upside down for the winter.

Sizing your rain barrel system, or determining if using a rain barrel is worth the effort, requires going back to the formula we discussed earlier. But instead of figuring out how much water per year your roof can collect, you need to consider the amount per month. Monthly rain data for cities in the US can be found here. Rain barrel harvesting makes the most sense in places where it rains throughout the growing season, with the barrels providing additional water to bridge gaps between rains. In a place like Los Angeles where all of the rain is concentrated at one time of the year, rainwater barrels may not be practical.

To size up your rain barrel collection system it’s possible to daisy chain several barrels together using yet another bulkhead fitting towards the top of the barrel and pvc pipe to connect them together. There is also a commercially available kit for this purpose. Remember that bulkhead fittings are notorious for leaking, so be precise with your improvised plumbing work.

SurviveLA believes that all greywater and rainwater harvesting systems should be kept as simple as possible since most folks are lousy at doing any kind of maintenance (when was the last time you drained your water heater?). And, with the low cost of municipal water, even a simple system built with surplus parts probably won’t make sense from an economic standpoint. But, aside from being just generally groovy, rain barrel water collection could be an insurance policy for the uncertainties of global warming. Someday water may be more valuable than oil . . .

The Survivor

We interrupt this dull series of articles about rainwater harvesting for important breaking news at our urban homestead–the development of the SurviveLA signature cocktail–the Survivor.

For a long time we’ve cursed the previous owners of our compound for their useless, inedible landscaping. One of the plants they left us that we’ve lived with for all these years is an ornamental pomegranate tree (Punica granatum) that, while attractive, we had previously assumed was useless due to the very small fruit. We’ve tried to eat them, and found the flavor a little too tart, and the seeds difficult to extract. Thanks to a tip on the internets, we discovered that the answer to using ornamental pomegranates is to juice them.

The fresh juice was surprisingly sweet and flavorful, leading us immediately to grab the cocktail shaker and develop the long overdue SurviveLA cocktail:

3 oz pomegranate juice (from your own tree, of course)
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1 oz citrus vodka

Now, we’re more the stern gin drinking types around here, but the citrus vodka seemed to provide the right note of tartness to balance out the sweet pomegranate juice. The name, Survivor, is in part a dedication to the plant itself. Pomegranates can survive with little or no water in terrible soil and never seem to need to be fertilized.

As a symbol the pomegranate can be found in all of the cultures of the Mediterranean. From the Wikipedia entry:

In the sixth century BCE, Polykleitos took ivory and gold to sculpt the seated Argive Hera in her temple. She held a scepter in one hand and offered a pomegranate, like a royal orb, in the other. “About the pomegranate I must say nothing,” whispered the traveler Pausanias in the second century AD, “for its story is something of a mystery.”

We propose that Hera ditch her scepter and instead grasp a cold martini glass containing the newest cocktail of 2007, the Survivor.

Rainfall Harvesting Math


Our next step in designing a rainwater harvesting system is to figure out how much water your rooftop will provide.

To do this measure the outside perimeter of your roof–you need not take into account the pitch or slant of the roof, since this does not affect the amount of water collected. Next, use the following formula:

collection area (square feet) x 0.6 x collection efficiency factor x rainfall (inches) = gallons per year

The collection efficiency factor is basically how good your roof is at shedding water. Metal roofs are the best and have the additional benefit of reflecting the heat of the sun and being less prone to leaks. Figure on a efficiency factor of .95 for a metal roof. Pitched asphalt shingle roofs are next with a efficiency factor of .9. Tar and gravel roofs are the least efficient with a factor of .8. Both tar and gravel and asphalt shingle roofs retain a fair amount of water after a rain, but they will still work fine for rainwater collection.

Data on both yearly and monthly average rainfall can be found on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration website.

For our house here in Los Angeles, we have a collection area of 992 square feet, a pitched asphalt shingle roof and an average of 15.06 inches of rain a year. So the average amount of rain we could collect in a year would be:

992 x 0.6 x 0.9 x 15.06 = 8,067.34 gallons.

If we lived in Atlanta, where the average annual precipitation is 48.6 inches per year we could theoretically collect 26,034 gallons of water a year.

With these numbers in mind we can begin to answer a few questions. Does rainwater collection make sense for your climate and living circumstances? If so, what kind of system will work?

In the Gutter

Our roofs, of course, are another impermeable surface that prevents rainwater from going where it should go–to our edible landscape. We can minimize the surface area by living in as small a house as possible and trying to maximize open ground. At our own compound we’ve even gone so far as to remove some previous resident’s bad addition and reduce the footprint of our house. So called green roofs, which have soil and plants growing on them our an option for the wealthy, but at present are still rare in the US. Most of us will still be dealing with conventional roofs.

Now assuming you’ve got a roof we will hope that you have gutters. Gutters have two purposes, to channel water away from your fragile and very expensive to repair foundation, and to channel it to where that water can be useful, to your edible landscaping. As much as we support self-sufficiency, putting on gutters is a job we think is best left to professionals, specifically professionals who produce seamless gutters with a machine like the one pictured above. Putting up gutters yourself can often be a frustrating experience that you must perform while balanced high atop a ladder. Gutters must have the correct slope or water will stagnate and create the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. If they leak you run the risk of rotting out your fascia boards. By all means, if you can afford it, hire a professional for this job. If you can’t afford it go sell some crack on the street corner until you have enough money. The do-it-yourself gutter systems available at home centers, especially the plastic kind, look like crap even in the off chance that you install them correctly.

While we’re big believers in sloth and idleness, one task that absolutely must be performed at least once a year is to get up on a ladder and clean out the gutters. Otherwise, you will be attempting this task, as we have on several occasions, during a downpour at midnight, after the downspouts have clogged up sending a cascade of water over the damned up gutters.

Two simple bits of technology can make gutter cleaning easier. We have inexpensive strainer baskets made out of 1/4 inch hardware cloth in each of the downspouts to keep them from clogging up. Some may wish to consider leaf guards which run along the top of the gutter to keep out leaves and other debris. The problem with leaf guards is that in order to clean out your gutters you must tediously remove the guards along the whole length of the gutter while, once again, balanced precariously on a ladder. While leaf guards catch large leaves, smaller stuff can still get through, so you might as well just stick with the strainer baskets in most situations.

Gutters are just the first step, however. Downspouts must be incorporated to carry that water from your gutters to where you can put that rainwater to use.

Water Conservation


“the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life — we went soft, we lost our edge.”
-Frank Herbert Dune

SurviveLA was planning on discussing rainwater collection today, but we realized that we would be getting ahead of ourselves without first discussing what we call BOC, or boring old conservation. So before delving into greywater and rainwater harvesting it’s time to assess where your household is in terms of water consumption and see if that level can be reduced. It’s generally far easier and less expensive to conserve resources than it is to resort to the latest techno-eco-gadgetry.

So let’s count down the major sources of domestic water use (according to percentages calculated by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation) and consider how to conserve:

58.7% Outdoor Water
Clearly, the place to start with water conservation is outdoors, in designing a landscape that doesn’t need supplemental irrigation. Our rule around the SurviveLA compound is, once again, if you gotta water it you gotta be able to eat it. The vegetables that we grow are irrigated with a water-saving drip irrigation system that we’ll describe in detail in a later post. We have no lawn, and other than the vegetable garden, all the other plants are either natives or from the Mediterranean, many of which are also edible. Reusing greywater from your shower and washing machine can also reduce the amount of outdoor water usage. Above all remember that lawns are the wasteful and evil thought-spawn of generations of golf-obsessed Republicans. Replace them with edible landscaping, or decomposed granite.

10.8% Toilet
All toilets should be low-flush, and todays low-flush toilets are considerably better than the first generation. A low-flush toilet uses less than 1.6 gallons of water compared to 3.5 to 5 gallons for an old toilet, which many municipalities will give you a substantial rebate for getting rid of. If you live in an apartment or don’t have the energy to dump the old crapper, it’s possible to fill a plastic water bottle with stones and put it in the tank to displace and thereby reduce the amount of water used to flush. Don’t use a brick for this purpose since it can kick around and damage the flushing mechanism.

And remember the charming slogan, if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down. The mellow yellow strategy can save hundreds of gallons a year. This idea can be automated with a so-called dual flush toilet. These toilets, common in Europe, have two buttons–one for pee-pee and one for poop. Most dual flush toilets use the standard low-flush rate of 1.6 gallons when you hit the #2 button, but use only .8 gallons when you hit the #1 button.

And don’t use the toilet as a trash can. Not only does this waste water, but it puts an additional burden on sewage treatment plants. Having visited a sewage plant in person, SurviveLA can personally attest to the depressing sight of witnessing hundreds of plastic tampon applicators afloat in a vast sea of poo.

8.7% Clothes Washer
Wash only a full load. Run the waste water outside to irrigate your landscaping using either a surge tank, or directly.

Adventurous homesteaders, willing to put in the extra labor, may wish to consider a James Washer, an electricity free hand washer, commonly found in off-grid households, where you put some hot water in and agitate the clothes for a few minutes with a lever on the side. A hand wringer is used to dry the clothes before hanging them on a clothesline. A simple drain line can be hooked up to a hose and run out to the garden.

6.8% Shower
Shower less and celebrate your body odor–pretend you are the type of person Andy Warhol used to lovingly refer to as Eurotrash. Barring lifestyle changes, install a low-flow shower head. Also consider a shower head with a cutoff valve to allow stopping the water while soaping up. Use a bucket to catch the water that flows before it heats up. Use this water for plants or to “bucket flush” the toilet.

It’s cheating somewhat, but take your showers at the gym and let someone else pay for the water.

6.3% faucet
Turn off the water until needed when brushing teeth or shaving.

5.5% leaks
This is a no-brainer, but something everyone seems to forget. Fix leaks immediately! The knowledgeable folks at your local hardware store (not the idiots at Home Depot!) can tell you how.

.6% dishwasher
Run your energy efficient dishwasher only with full loads. And incidentally, a study conducted by the University of Bonn in Germany concluded that dishwashers use half the energy, one sixth the water, and less soap than hand washing.

One last sobering statistic to remember–the average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons per person per day, with the higher consumption coming from folks living in the dry Southwest. The average African uses 5 gallons a day.