083 Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine

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Our guest this week is journalist Kris De Decker, the creator of Low Tech Magazine, a blog published in English, Dutch and Spanish that covers low tech solutions in great depth and detail. Without exaggeration, I think it’s safe to say it’s my favorite blog. On the podcast we discuss high tech problems, Catalan vaulting, fruit walls, Chinese wheelbarrows, open modular hardware, fireless cookers and alternate forms of the internet.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Low-Tech Magazine

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Chinese wheelbarrow with sail assist. Image courtesy of Low Tech Magazine.

Yesterday, Erik and I had the privilege of interviewing Kris De Decker, the creator of one of our very favorite Internet resources, Low-Tech Magazine. Those of you who know Low-Tech will understand our vast excitement. To make it all even happier, he seems like a really good guy.

If you haven’t heard of this blog, believe me, Root Simple readers, if you like what we do here, you’ll love Low-Tech. This is the sort of site you fall into and stay for days.

Our interview with him will appear on our podcast next Wednesday, but in the meantime I suggest you whet your appetite by reading some of our favorite articles:

How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

How to Downsize a Transportation Network: The Chinese Wheelbarrow

If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots?

Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, Not Spaces

Recycling Animal and Human Dung is the Key to Sustainable Farming

Announcing Our New Solar Cooking Initiative

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Last December, when the summer heat finally subsided, I decided that since Los Angeles has become the capital of the planet Arrakis, we may as well as make hay with the sunshine. I decided to learn how to cook in a solar oven, and more than that, I wanted to learn how to do it really well.

We have made and used and written about solar cookers here,  and here, which are reflective surrounds for a cooking pots, and which can be quite effective under the right circumstances, but we’d never played with a solar oven, which is, in its basic form, an insulated box with a clear lid. Solar ovens reach higher temperatures than cookers, and can be used in less ideal conditions. But we’d never invested in a solar oven because they are rather pricey, especially for an unknown quantity. Would they really work? Could we make good food in one? I certainly didn’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an oversized rice cooker.

Wait! I almost forgot. We do have a solar oven in our garage! And if I don’t mention it, the Internet will make me a liar. Erik posted on it back in 2013. He was gifted a Sundiner, which is a 60’s era solar oven. We never use it because, being a product of the 60’s, it has a very small, shallow cooking box, suited only for cooking hot dogs and frozen dinners.

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So, anyway, being cheap and not fond of TV dinners, I decided to make a proper, box-style solar oven (there are a lot of DIY plans out there) and test it out come the equinox, when the days are longer and the sun a little higher. Then, just as I was about to start construction, the good folks at a sun oven company called Solavore contacted us and offered to loan us their oven, the Solavore Sport, for an extended trial period. It was one of those moments where the universe seemed to be conspiring to help us along, so I answered, “Funny you should offer…”

A few happy emails later, and now we have a shiny new Solavore Sport to explore. In the spirit of DIY, I will still make an oven later this summer and report back on that process, and I will also run a comparison between the commercial oven and the homemade oven and see how they stack up.

But my primary goal in this season of solar cooking is to figure out whether, if properly used, a solar cooker can create meals of the same quality as those I turn out with my kitchen stove. Not “It’s not bad for solar” but “Hey….this is scrumptious!” More than that, I want to figure out what solar ovens do better than real ovens. I want to master the vocabulary of solar cooking.

I figure the learning curve is going to be high–it’s like having to learn how to cook all over again–but I’m excited to have the Solavore Sport on hand for these experiments, because I can focus on the cooking itself instead troubleshooting my construction techniques.

Throughout this short winter I’ve been looking at fusty old solar cookbooks from the library and poking about on the Internet for inspiration, and frankly, most of what I found has been pretty bleak. A lot of the recipes seem outdated or just out of step with what Erik and I like to cook and eat. But, in all my looking somehow I never stumbled on the Solavore website. It turns out they have an attractivecollection of solar recipes, so that is where we will be starting out.

I’m calling this series Solar Oven Summer, and no, I do not find the acronym S.O.S. pessimistic. And yes, it is summer here now, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll tag all these posts so you can find them all at once. In our next post we’ll take a close look at the Solavore Sport, and then we’ll begin learning how to use it, one recipe at a time.

Are any of you solar chefs? Any advice? Horror stories? Favorite resources?

Organize Those Drip Irrigation Parts!

IMG_0772Behold: an ordered toolbox full of irrigation parts. Now this could be one of those self-aggrandizing homesteady posts were it not for the fact that it took me fifteen years to organize my drip irrigation parts. I spent those previous years fishing for parts in a partially collapsed cardboard box. Take my advice: if you own a house, are an avid gardener and use some kind of timed irrigation, thou shalt organize all those parts.

Maintaining an irrigation system is, unfortunately, not a build it and leave it proposition. Inevitably, a shovel slices through a line or a surprise freeze bursts a pipe. More importantly, a garden changes over time. For instance, a drip line under a tree needs to be expanded as the tree grows or maybe that group of natives you planted has matured and no longer needs irrigation.

“All is change” as Heraclitus once said. And I’m sure that because of his philosophy of impermanence, Heraclitus carefully separated and organized his drip irrigation parts.

How to Make a Simple Paint Can Rocket Stove

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Update: Root Simple reader Ruben questions whether it is possible to build a true rocket stove out of metal. Ruben sent me to a Facebook post by Benjamin Rosen who says, speaking of another metal rocket stove, “Actually, you can say that this is not a rocket stove. A rocket stove gives great heat from a small amount of fuel because it burns very efficiently at high temperatures. This is achieved by having a ceramic lining in the combustion chamber that permits very high temperatures because it insulates the combustion chamber, and because it absorbs and returns the heat to the chamber by glowing white hot. A metal lining, as we see in this design, will shed heat to the environment and therefore cannot reach the high temperatures needed for a true rocket stove. Metal, in any case, would melt at the temperatures achieved in a true rocket stove combustion chamber.

Rocket stoves cook food with small pieces of wood efficiently and with much less smoke than conventional wood burning stoves. They also help prevent deforestation since you can burn small twigs trimmed off a tree rather than burning logs. Search the interwebs and you’ll find may different designs. But they are all based on burning wood in an “L” shaped tube to create a chimney effect. Insulating the tube increases efficiency.

A friend who lives in a remote part of Southeast Asia is visiting us this month and we wanted to come up with a design for a rocket stove that could be made from commonly available materials with nothing more than hand tools. Our goal was done rather than perfect. Here’s how we did it:

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