Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.

Dry Climate Vegetables

roguenewze

Here in Arrakis, I mean California, we’re in the midst of a terrible drought. And unfortunately, most of the seeds we buy for our vegetable gardens are adapted to require lots of water. One solution is to find veggies that have reseeded accidentally without supplemental irrigation. Here’s a short list of reseeding rogue veggies from our garden that have thrived with just the small burst of rain we got last month.

Continue reading…

What the Internet Will Look Like After the Zombie Apocalypse

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Enterprising amateur radio operators in Texas, over the past several years, have created a wireless high speed data network, called HSMM-MESH or Broadband-Hamnet, completely independent of the internet. The map above is the network built by HAMs in Austin, Texas. Basically it’s a bunch of hacked Linksys routers connecting wirelessly over a wide area. Plug a laptop into any of the routers and you can trade messages, files and live video back and forth.

This is possible because it just happens that the frequency range of off the shelf wireless routers overlaps with amateur radio frequencies making it legal for HAMs to boost the range of these devices. That and the fact that several models of ubiquitous Linksys routers are cheap and easy to hack.

All you do is take your Linksys router, screw in a better antenna (note the one above made with a tin can), load some open source software on to it, scatter them around town and you’ve got a wireless data network. Note that the routers in this configuration are communicating with each other. To hook your laptop into the network you have to connect it via an Ethernet cable to one of the nodes or set up a wi-fi network at a node. The routers can even be powered by small 12 volt batteries or solar panels. To be clear, this is a wireless network that is independent of the internet (though you could route the internet over it). Such a network could be used in an emergency such as an earthquake or weather event to send digital messages. It’s also the means by which I could continue to send out cute cat photos even if things go full-on Cormac McCarthy

You could use this same hack, not exactly legally, to solve networking problems in a large house, business or rural property. And the same method has been used to set up data networks in developing countries. In practice it’s doubtful that the Man would ever get around to busting someone without a HAM license from setting up a network or routing the internet over it. As long as you’ve got line of sight between your antennas it’s possible to send information over impressive distances–with the right antenna, some HAMs have managed to get the signal out as far as ten miles with a stock router and no boost in power. And the network is self healing. If one router goes out the other routers take on the traffic.

For more info on how to set up a network like this see www.broadband-hamnet.org. or watch this series of videos. There’s also a free e-Book: Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

Cat photo kidding aside, this relatively simply hack has potential to help a lot of people.

This post was inspired by a lecture given by Gary Wong, W6GSW at the Pasadena Radio Club.

Free Laundry to Landscape Plans

LaundryToLandscapeDiagram

Judging from our blog comments, the drought here on the west coast has people thinking about greywater. We’ve blogged about it many times before, but it’s worth repeating. Greywater expert Art Ludwig has excellent free plans on his website for putting together a laundry to landscape greywater system. I put this same system in at my neighbor Lora’s house a few years ago and just finished replacing our older greywater system with the one on Ludwig’s website.  It’s easy to install, inexpensive and legal to do without a permit in California.

Greywater Design and Installation Workshop

almaden reservoir car

Learn how to install the popular “laundry to landscape” (L2L) greywater system in this design workshop presented by Laura Allen of Greywater Action and Leigh Jerrard of Greywater Corps.

Laundry to landscape greywater systems are simple, affordable, and easy to maintain. With your own L2L system you can irrigate your landscape each time you do laundry, saving you water, time, and resources. Experienced instructors will lead you step-by-step through the design process, tailoring a system to fit your home. This system is legal to install without a permit, just follow 12 basic guidelines you’ll learn about in class.

Learn

  • How to design a system for your home and landscape
  • How to build a system- you’ll create a “mock-up” of a real system with real greywater parts
  • What parts you’ll need for your home
  • How much greywater you produce and how many plants you can water
  • What soaps and detergents are “greywater friendly”

Tour

  • Real L2L greywater system
  • Gravity “branched drain” greywater system from sinks

Date: February 22, 2014 – 10:00am to 12:30pm
Location: Los Angeles EcoVillage 117 Bimini Place LA, CA 90004
Cost: Sliding scale $15 to $40, limited work trade positions available

Register HERE

Bring: Photographs of your laundry room and landscape. Site plan of your yard.
For more information on an L2L system refer to the SF Graywater Guide for Outdoor Irrigation, downloadable HERE

Please join our mailing list to be notified of upcoming workshops.
A long-submerged abandoned car is exposed at the bottom of the now-dry Almaden Reservoir
(January 16, 2014. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle)

What laundry detergent should I use for greywater applications?

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When your laundry water is going to the soil instead of to the sewer (or a septic tank) you need to make sure that detergent is friendly to soil life. Your big brand detergents are a no-go. And even the various eco-detergents, even ones marked “biodegradable”, are not appropriate for the soil because they are essentially salt-based. They play well with aquatic life, bless them, and they’re a great alternative to more toxic detergents if your laundry water is going to the sewer, but they aren’t good for soil microorganisms. Surely you’ve heard that salting the land is a bad idea? You don’t want to salt your garden. Those salts will build up in the soil and can cause salt burn on tree leaves. (This appears as leaves with browning tips, as if they’ve been sunburned.)

It’s worth adding that the drier your climate, the saltier the soil, because there is not enough rain to help percolate it away–so if you live in a dry climate it’s even more important to be careful with salts.

Homemade detergents–the ones based on soap and washing soda–are also not an option, again because of their salt content.

This leaves you with two options, at least as far as we know. If you know another detergent which is specifically formulated for greywater use, please let us know.

1)  The first is a laundry detergent called Oasis Biocompatible, sold by Bio Pac. This is what we use. It’s a basic, colorless, odorless, super concentrated liquid detergent, specifically formulated for greywater use.  It works very well, but doesn’t have the bells and whistles of “whiteners” and “brighteners” found in grocery store brands. To me, this is a plus.  It is not found on supermarket shelves. I have seen it in some health food stores, but we order it online. This is not too bad of a deal because it is concentrated, so a gallon bottle lasts a long time.

2)  The second option is soap nuts. Soap nuts are the dried fruit of the soap nut tree–they look a little like a cross between a date and a hazelnut. They are full of natural saponins (soaping agents) which are released in the wash. These saponins have been tested and don’t harm soil life.

You just drop 3 or 4 of the nuts into a little muslin bag (which comes in the box), and throw that bag in the wash with your clothes. They activate better in hot water, so some people will opt to soak the bag in a cup of hot water first–like making tea–and then dump the water and the bag into the wash.  Other people stew the nuts in water and make soap nut tea, which can then be used like liquid soap, for both hand washing and laundry. There’s lots of info online about soap nuts if you poke around a bit.

I just remembered that I posted here back in 2010, asking for feedback on the nuts, and got lots of it. So you might want to check that out.

If you’ve never heard of soap nuts, the whole idea might seem strange. But remember, all soap really does is help water work better, and they release soap. The real washing power is the agitating water in your machine.

Incidentally, both Oasis and soap nuts are fine for HE washing machines.

ADDENDUM: Option #3:  Thanks to commenters Kay and Matt, I’m going to add a 3rd product to this list: Ecos  Laundry Detergent. It claims to be greywater safe, I checked the ingredients and saw no salts, and Matt says he’s used it for a year successfully. Sounds good to me! Also in the plus category, this Ecos seems easier to find in stores than Oasis. Addendum to the addendum: Ecos contains sodium coco sulfate which some folks do not consider biocompatible.

Also:

Pure castile soap, like liquid Dr. Bronners, is okay for the soil, but it doesn’t really work as a laundry detergent. You can use it as such for the occasional load, but you will find your clothes turning grey with extended use. Sometimes, however, if I’m dealing with a musty or stinky load of laundry, I’ll put a squirt of scented Dr. Bronners into my machine along with my Oasis or soap nuts, since Oasis is odorless, and soap nuts have a bit of an organic scent (which doesn’t linger on the clothes).

Laundry additives:

You also need to be careful with laundry additives when your laundry water is going to the garden. No bleach, obviously. Bleach alternatives, like OxyClean, are also suspect because they are often based on sodium percarbonate. Check the ingredients and scan for the word sodium. If you see it, it’s best to avoid the product. For this same reason, no baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) either, or washing soda (a sodium salt of carbonic acid).

Vinegar is okay, lemon juice is okay, and I don’t see how small amounts of hydrogen peroxide would hurt anything, though I’d want to do more research if I made it a regular part of my laundry rituals.  I’m suspicious of the various specialty stain removers. If you’re just squirting one spot on a shirt, obviously it will be greatly diluted in the wash water, but really, who knows what is in these stain formulas? When you use greywater you really learn the meaning of “closed loop” — you have to live with what you put out there. So, the decision is yours in the end.

So how do you use your “nuclear option” type laundry additives? Read on, dearies.

The Importance of a Three Way Valve:

It is well worth the time to install a diverter valve by your machine which allows you to choose whether your wash water will go to the sewer or the garden. If you have one of these, you can do loads with bleach or what-have-you and send that water to the sewage treatment plant.

Also, if you are washing diapers, this valve is an absolute necessity. All diaper wash water should go to the sewer. Soil is a great cleanser, but you don’t want to push your luck by depositing fecal matter around your garden.

(Addendum here, too: I spoke a little too absolutely above. It is possible to reuse that water, but you need to do so very carefully.  Diaper water is blackwater, not greywater, and needs to be handled in specific ways  Perhaps we’ll do a separate post on that later.)

Finally, during periods of heavy rain you may just prefer not to send any more water to the garden, and this allows you to make that choice.

A few words about other greywater applications:

If you’re using greywater from your shower, most soaps and shampoos are okay. Though again, I’d remember the closed loop principle and try to use soaps and shampoo from the more natural end of the spectrum.  Again, good ol’ Dr. Bronners, soap or liquid form, is something I’d feel good about sending out to the landscape.

Bio Pac also makes a concentrated soap which is a sister to the Oasis Detergent called Oasis Dishwash/All Purpose Cleaner. This is an all purpose soap that you can even use in the shower. This would be a good product to use for more casual water recycling–so when you’re cleaning house, say, you can safely dump a bucket of dirty water outside and know that it won’t harm your garden.

California’s Drought and What To Do About It

dune-poster

By this summer, due to the worst drought in memory, California will resemble the desert planet Arakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. Not only will we be watering our lawns less, we’ll be drinking our own urine. Knife fights with a bikini clad Sting will break out and we’ll be trading our bikes for rides on the over-sized worms emerging from our compost bins. But I digress. Let’s cover what we’re doing at the Root Simple compound.

  • We’ve expanded our drought tolerant plantings over the past few years. These plants use less water and encourage beneficial wildlife. I consider them part of the vegetable garden, in a way.
  • I just made a major change to our laundry to landscape greywater system–more on this in another post.
  • I’ve consulted historical irrigation data to more intelligently program our drip irrigation system.

Keep in mind that 77% of California’s water use goes to agriculture (the media tends to forget this). Residential water use is a small part of the total. That being said, there’s a lot more we can do–the residents of Sydney Australia use half as much water per person as Californians in a similar climate.

I’m fairly certain we’ll eke our way out of this crisis but I’m not sure about the next one. In the meantime I’ll be walking without rhythm so as not to attract those big worms.

What are you doing to deal with the drought? If you’re outside of California, how are you surviving those arctic vortexes?

How To Calculate Anything

Another way to remember those pesky formulas . . .

It needn’t come to this! (Though we think this is pretty cool.)

Need to calculate Ohm’s law? Convert women’s clothing sizes? Calculate the area of a circle? Figure out whether its better to buy or rent a home? It’s all at www.calculatoredge.com.

The site has lots of formulas for the urban homsteader even if you never have to perform a Sallen-Key Butterworth Low Pass Filter equation (except, perhaps, for recreational reasons).

Thanks to Bruce Nolte, N1BN for the tip.

The Energy Environment Simulator

Energy-Environement Simulator Tenntronics

Photo: Niklas Vollmer.

Sometime in the mid-nineties I was thrift shopping in San Diego with my friend Niklas Vollmer. I can still remember the moment we stumbled on the Energy-Environment Simulator. We couldn’t stop laughing and we realized that we had to buy it. How often do you run into an Energy-Environment Simulator in working condition? t’s been the centerpiece of Nik’s living room ever since, even making a cross country move.

The device demonstrates energy inputs and demands. Depending on how you turn the knobs, you can either engineer a future of never-ending power or, on the other extreme, your own personal zombie apocalypse. One of the energy sources is labeled “new technology.” This could either be solar or that UFO doughnut from the Thrive movie.

The only info we have on it is that it was manufactured by Tenntronics, a defunct company that was in business from the late 1960s through the late 1980s. It came with a handsome storage cabinet that also serves as a pedestal.

Energy-Environment Simulator Tenntronics

Photo: Niklas Vollmer

I’m guessing that the Energy-Environment Simulator is a relic of the 1970s oil crisis and I respect its creator’s attempt to demonstrate the interlocking feedback loops of systems theory in the pre-personal computer era.

Since we all didn’t learn the lesson back in the 1970s, perhaps it’s time to take the Energy-Environment Simulator on the road. Coachella and Burning Man here we come.

If you have any info on this thing or remember seeing one in action, please leave a comment.

Update: Reader Maribeth found the patent for the Energy-Environment Simulator, dated October 8, 1974. From the patent description:

Each participant makes policy decisions to adjust energy demands and energy source allocations and observes, in compressed time, the consequences of their decisions. The time element is adjustable by means of a variable system clock, typically one simulated century passes each minute. The natural energy reserves are simulated in an analog computer circuit and the rate of depletion may be regulated according to well-established data as to quantities and the foretasted rate of depletion. . . . The participants operate the simulator as a game where the objective is to see how long one can keep the society powered adequately without excessively polluting the environment and without exhausting all of the energy reserves.

Here’s the kicker:

The present invention was made during the course of, or under, a contract with the United States Energy Commission.

I have a feeling the game is rigged–I bet you have to crank that nuclear knob in order to keep the lights on.

Bread Ovens of Quebec Free e-book

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North American has two regions famous for oven building: New Mexico and Quebec. The design of the ovens of Quebec have their origin in much older French ovens. The Canadian Museum of History has posted an amazing, out of print book, Lise Boily and Jean-François Blanchette’s 1979 book The Bread Ovens of Quebec, in its entirety online. The book includes the history of the Quebec oven, how to build an oven, bread recipes and even “popular beliefs, spells, incantations, and omens” associated with ovens.

I’m really happy with the adobe oven we have in our backyard–it has produced many a tasty pizza and I look forward to having people over to give me an excuse to fire it up. Ovens, in Quebec households were associated with life itself and I understand why.

If you’re interested in more information on DIY ovens, I’d recommend The Bread Ovens of Quebec along with Kiko Denzer’s Earth Ovens and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders (brick ovens).

If you’d like to see an oven built in the Quebec style, these folks have posted their experience of building one.