Extreme Low-Tech Communication

PowerSupply-large

This has to be the ultimate achievement in low-powered long-distance communication. Ham radio operator Michael Rainey, AA1TJ, transmitted a message over a distance of over 1,000 miles by yelling Morse code with his own voice into this primitive home-made transmitter, nicknamed “El Silbo.” No power was used other than that generated by his own voice vibrating the microphone (which was a re-purposed speaker).

If you want to build your own here’s the circuit schematic and more details.

And here’s Rainey, back in 2009, using El Silbo:

On a side note, can we please apply Ham radio’s level of detail and open source spirit to the world of backyard vegetable gardening?

It’s official: I’m a Ham

How blog posts will be issued from now on. Image: Library of Congress.

How blog posts will be issued from now on. Image: Library of Congress.

It’s been on my to-do list for years–get my ham radio licence. I took a six week class offered by the Pasadena Radio Club to study for the technician class licence and on a whim crammed for the general class. I passed both tests and as of yesterday am now also known as KK6HUF.

Many thanks to W6MES, who volunteered his time to teach the class and to the major memory system for helping with all those numbers. It was a lot of fun to review basic math and electronics.

So why do this in an age of Skype and cellphones? I find the DIY ethos of ham radio empowering. We are surrounded by electronic devices and it’s good to know a little something about what’s going on “under the hood.” I wish I had discovered amateur radio when I was younger–I might have struggled with math less had I had a hobby to motivate studying.

My interest in appropriate technology was another reason. There is a ham I met online who is constructing a website that will be of interest to readers of this blog–he was inspired by John Michael Greer’s writing on ham radio. I’ll share that website when it’s ready to go public.

Passing the test was easy, but I’ve got a lot of work to do. I have no radio, nor do I have any experience using one. And I’d like to learn morse code. I’m all ears if any of you have advice.

Primitive Grain Storage Technique

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 11.17.50 AM

When thinking about technology, I like to play with the idea of what is the absolute minimum you need to get the job done.  This may be because I’m not very handy at building things, but yet have survivalist tendencies. So while I’m pretty sure I’ll never actually have any need for these skills, it’s fun to think about how I’d get by in a DIY world.

So I was delighted when I ran across this minimalist grain storage technique on the BBC documentary series, A History of Celtic Britain (2011), hosted by Neil Oliver of the Delicious Scottish Accent. (I am watching it on YouTube. Fingers crossed the BBC will not take it down before I finish it!)  I love this technique because while it is simple, it is far from stupid.

The technique is described by the Dave Freeman of the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where they’ve been experimenting with grain storage iron-age style (c. 400 BCE.).  Turns out all you need to do is dig a pit in the soil. The pits they dug are circular, and look to be 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 or 4 feet deep.

So you may ask, how can you pour grain into a hole in the ground and expect it to keep? The secret is a clay cap on the top. In the screen grab below you can see the cap and some feet for scale:

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 10.39.12 AM

If you go to YouTube,  you can watch this sequence starting around 52:36, but what Freemen says is that when the grain goes in the pit and is sealed with a clay cap, the clay blocks out moisture, air and light. Moisture is still available at the sides and bottom of the pit, of course, especially as they are in green Hampshire.

The grain touching the sides of the pit sucks the moisture out of the soil at the edges, and uses it to attempt to germinate. The germination process sucks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, effectively clearing the chamber of oxygen. At that point, as Neil puts it, “Time stops.” Nothing can grow, nothing changes. The grain cache keeps for at least a year, perhaps two years, and provided a very handy safety backup for hard working iron age farmers. And some very basic appropriate tech for modern armchair survivalists to ponder.

Farm Hack

farm hack

Farm Hack is an innovative blog that synthesizes high tech and low tech in the service of growing food and community. The blog is run by the National Young Farmers Coalition. While geared towards agriculture, many of the posts will be of interest to backyard gardeners. Recent subjects include a project to develop an infrared camera to monitor plant health, smartphone tools for farmers and open source appropriate technology resources. It’s exactly this kind of innovation that gives me great hope for the future.

Thanks to Tommy Berbas for the tip.

Bushcraft Video

Now that we’re car-free, we may be spending even more time together then we already do. How will we keep succumbing to cabin fever, prairie style? (Prairie style means “with axes.”)

Well, while Erik obsesses on those pernicious skunks and even more heinous texting-while-driving music video producers, I’ll be laying low, watching bushcraft videos on YouTube.

We may as well give up our Netflix subscription because this YouHole is bottomless. I’ve discovered there are hundreds of men roaming about the woods with their video cameras in one hand and their survival knives in the other, ready to share their knowledge with you. And they are almost all men. I’ve only found a couple of women who put their adventures on video.

I’m not sure why this is such a male dominated field, except that it is greatly fueled by the love of pointy implements and the display and discussion of such implements–which seems a very masculine past time. But that’s generalizing, because I can attest that around our house, I’m the one with the fetish for sharp blades. And fire. And making things out of tin cans.

Anyway, there are many bushcrafters on video, but only a few rise to the top. Many–many–are hampered by poor sound quality and camera work. Their info may be good, but if I can’t hear them, or see them, I’m clicking on down the road.

In my journey of a thousand clicks, I’ve discovered many nice surprises, and I’ve learned things, too. These video makers are spread all over the world, so it’s a really nice opportunity to see different natural landscapes, and learn how people work in them. Winter survival skills may not do me a lot of good here in LA, but I do love watching video of the snowy Alps.

If you fall down this YouHole, you may find yourself gravitating toward a bushcrafter who lives in your climate zone, or one who shares your world outlook. As for myself, I’m pretty much all about watchability–yes, that’s a word–and that leads me to a couple of recs.

Continue reading…

The Sundiner–A Groovy 1960s Era Solar Cooker

Sundiner solar cooker

Backywards beekeeper Dennis of The Buzz in the Dale, was nice enough to gift me his vintage Sundiner solar cooker that he found at a garage sale a few years ago.

Sundiner solar cooker

Resembling a cross between a portable 1960s record player and a satellite, the Sundiner is compact, light and easy to carry.

Sundiner solar cooker built in thermometer

A built in thermometer lets you know when you have hit cooking temperatures. The unit is so efficient, that when I set it up at noon it hit 350° F within minutes (in February!).

Interior of Sundiner solar cooker

The Sundiner has one big disadvantage. There’s only enough space in the business end to fit a 9 inch square shallow baking tin. And that tin, depending on the time of day and year, may be at a steep angle. Thus the Sundiner is more of a solar grill–anything liquid will ooze downwards and make a mess of the difficult to clean, unidentifiable space age insulation material. Grilling is really not the best application of solar energy–you lose the smoky flavor and grill marks you get with fire–which is probably why the Sundiner never caught on. More recent solar box ovens that I’ve seen, both commercial and homebrew, have shelves with adjustable angles, making it easier to use them as crock pots.

Nevertheless, I admire the efficiency of the design–the legs also double as a handle and the panels unfold and snap together in seconds. It’s easy to aim. The instructions are even printed on the back of the panel that covers the reflectors.

Sundiner solar cooker instructions

More info via the April 1963 issue of Desert Magazine:

Here’s a new product that suits desert living as few others can—it collects and concentrates the heat of the sun and allows outdoor cooking without fuel or fire. They call it the Sundiner. The technical description is “Solar Energy Grill.” Sundiner is a compact unit, 17-inches square and 6inches tall. Fold-out mirrors are metalized Mylar plastic, supported by polypropylene holders. The mirrors focus the sun’s heat on the lower section of the cabinet, where heat slowly builds up to a maximum of about 450 degrees—plenty to cook with. Directly below the apex of the mirrors is an oven enclosure. Plastic foam insulation and a pair of glass plates prevent excessive heat loss. The solar energy grill works in this simple way: point the mirrors toward the sun for a few minutes until the right temperature is reached (built-in heat indicator dial) and pop a tray of food into the oven. There is no fire or fuel to handle. Sole source of cooking stems from the collected, concentrated rays of the sun. Here is a sample of how long various meats take to cook: Hamburgers, franks, and fish, 15 to 20 minutes. Steaks and fillets, 20 to 25 minutes. Quartered chicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Temperature variations are possible by turning the Sundiner toward or away from the sun. The advantage of the Sundiner is that it can be used as a safe substitute for a fuel-fired stove on beaches, parks, decks of boats, and other restricted areas. Carrying handles are standard. The price is $29.95. From Sundiner. Carmer Industries. Inc., 1319 West Pico Blvd.. Los Angeles 15. Calif.

A DIY Whole House Fan

Our DIY whole house fan.

How hot is our unairconditioned, uninsulated old house? Kelly has temporarily banned bread baking and I’m thinking of opening my own Bikram hot yoga franchise.

But seriously, a few summers ago I decided to install a whole house fan. What’s a whole house fan? It’s a large fan, mounted in the ceiling, that pushes hot air into the attic while simultaneously drawing cool air in from the outside. You turn on a whole house fan when the air outside is cooler than the air inside the house, usually in the evening. It works best in climates that have hot days and cool nights–like Los Angeles or many other parts of the Southwest.

Diagram from Gear Hack.

Whole house fans are usually placed in a ceiling towards the middle of the house. For us that’s the hallway. Unfortunately, between the attic access door and the intake for the central heater, our hallway ceiling had no room to fit a standard whole house fan. And I’m cheap. So I decided to make a DIY version.

I picked up a shop type fan and installed it in a 3/4 inch piece of plywood cut to fit the attic door. It was a simple project and saved a lot of money. I think I spent around $30 for the fan and used a piece of scrap plywood. I added two handles to make it easier to remove the fan/door and access the attic. The final touch was to install an outlet in the attic wired to a switch hidden in a closet so that I can turn the fan on and off. When cooler weather comes around I simply swap out the attic fan for the normal attic door. Would a commercial whole house fan work better? Yes, but I try not to let perfection be the enemy of the good around here.

An attempt to use a bike pump as an air conditioner. Hot cat in background.

It’s still damn hot at Root Simple world headquarters during the day. So maybe I will open that combination bakery/Bikram yoga franchise where you can eat buns while you tone your buns.

Book Review: More Other Homes and Garbage Designs for Self-Sufficient Living

If I could have only one book on my zombie apocalypse bookshelf it would be this one. Though it has to be one of the worst book titles ever, More Other Homes and Garbage: Designs for Self-Sufficient Living, by Standford University professors, Jim Leckie, Gil Masters, Harry Whitehouse and Lily Young has everything you need to set up your off-grid compound. This book, first published in 1975 and revised in 1981, grew out of a heady period in appropriate technology research and DIY hippie experimentation that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. In some ways it’s the rural version of the original urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City.Both books, not coincidentally, share the same publisher.

Feeding the digestor on the homestead. An illustration from More Other Homes and Garbage.

More Other Homes and Garbage covers alternative architectural materials, passive cooling and heating, home power generation, solar water heating, methane digesters, sewage reuse and disposal, water supply, small scale agriculture and aquaculture. All topics are covered in great detail with, as is expected for a group of engineer/authors, lots of formulas and tables. While some material is out of date (Art Ludwig has taken greywater well beyond what’s in this book), most of the 374 pages of More Other Homes and Garbage are still very useful.

I especially like the can-do DIY tone of the introduction which describes a middle ground between “terminal pessimism” and “technophilic optimism.” What’s depressing, in fact, is that a lot of the topics in this book have not received much attention until very recently. The frivolous 80s and 90s were simply not the time for More Other Homes and Garbage. Thanks to the great recession, however, this book is relevant again. Get your copy before vengeful Mayan time travelers zap the interwebs in December.

Update July 31, 2012
A Root Simple reader, Lisa, pointed out that you can download this book for free here. Thanks Lisa! 

Our New Earth Oven and How We Built It

Untitled
The almost completed horno–waiting for its final plaster coat in a few weeks.

Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher taught an amazing earth oven workshop at our house this weekend. Keep your eye out for classes these guys offer if you are interested in earth ovens, adobe houses or earth plasters and finishes. Contact information is below. Here I thought I’d briefly describe the process with a few pictures.

One of the nice things about this oven is that it was almost free. The only two expenses were for sand and some bags of gravel. The clay we mined from the backyard and almost everything else was scavenged. Total cost was less than $200 and most of that was the delivery charge on the sand. If I’d had a pickup truck I could have loaded the sand myself for much less.

In our backyard the ground beneath the top level of organic matter is almost pure clay. I found that a 50/50 sand/mined clay mix with just a bit of chopped straw thrown in for stability seemed to be about right for making adobe bricks. There’s no recipe for building with earth. You have to get to know the clay content of the soil you’re working with and test how much sand to add to it to make a solid brick. Ben and I made quite a few test bricks to come to this formula. Then I made 100 adobe bricks using just a simple wooden frame as a mold.

Untitled
A simple gravel pad.

To build the horno we started with a gravel foundation held within a border of treated wood. The base of the oven was made from adobe bricks that I made over the past few months and cured in the sun. I’m a big believer in adobe. Making so many bricks familiarized me with the soil I was working with and put me in touch with the original building material of the American Southwest.Though we only used half of those bricks, I’m happy to have some left over for other projects in the backyard I’d like to try. Also, after all of our lead trauma, its great to put the soil from our yard to good use. This was a healing project in some ways.

Untitled
Base nearing completion.

Untitled
Bottles acting as an insulation layer. We should have had Sierra Nevada sponsor this oven!

Once the base was built we filled it with leftover gravel and adobe bricks. The top layer of the base is a mix of clay, straw and beer bottles. This acts as an insulation layer to keep the base from soaking up the heat of the oven.

Untitled
Laying the oven floor.

The floor of the oven is made of standard red bricks set in a thin layer of sand. Fire brick is recommended for this application, but in Kurt’s experience it’s not really necessary. Plus fire bricks are expensive and we had a lot of red bricks laying around that we wanted to use. Again, we wanted to build this oven without having to buy a lot of materials.

Next we sculpted the shape of the oven in wet sand. This form will allow us to shape the clay dome and will be scooped out later.

Untitled
Kurt points at the completed sand form.
Untitled
Packing on the thermal layer.

With the base completed, on day two, we started to work on the dome. We packed a four inch thermal layer of more clay, sand and straw over the sand. Next came a insulation layer with yet more clay, sand and a lot more straw. The dome layers are cob–stiff and very difficult to mix. I think if I were building a house I’d use adobe bricks which can be made with a concrete mixer. At the end of the day we scored the dome to fit the door.

Untitled
Carefully cutting open the door. This is the completed thermal layer. The scratches in the clay will help the next layer adhere.
Untitled
Starting the insulation layer over the thermal layer.

Untitled
Stinky fermented cactus juice is added to give strength to the final plaster coat.

On the third day Kurt cut open the door hole and carefully removed some of the sand from the dome. In a dry climate all the sand might have come out on that day, but we decided that the dome was still soft and decided to leave most of the sand in for another week, just to be extra safe.

Next we mixed a coat of earth plaster–again, basically the same ratio of sand, clay and straw we used for the adobe bricks–with the addition of two stabilizers to help repel water: fermented prickly pear juice and wheat paste. The prickly pear juice we made by chopping up some cactus pads from our front yard, adding water and letting it sit in a five gallon bucket. The finished material is lurid green, slimy, and stinks to high heaven. The wheat paste is just flour and water.

We’re going to let the oven dry for a few weeks before applying the final earth plaster layer. That one will be as smooth as we can make it. And we’ll need to sand the dome opening to fit the door. Once that is done, we wait some more. The oven can’t be used until it is completely dry, which should take about a month.

Untitled
Applying the first of three earth plaster coats.

I find earth building, while labor intensive, very satisfying and meditative. It’s also something that is much better to do in a group. So thanks again to all who helped helped: Kurt, Ben, Brian, Jenny, Connie, Laurie and Leslie. We’ll post some more pictures when the oven gets its final coat of plaster.

For more resources and classes on how to build with earth see: