Camping and Solar Cooking

I’m a big fan of backpacking sufferfests, which often involve a long drive followed by hiking thousand of feet up and over challenging, rocky terrain. The sense of accomplishment and breathtaking scenery is always worth the effort, but something is also to be said for an alternate camping scenario we’ve taken to recently, involving loading up our cargo bike (the amazing Xtracycle) and biking to our destination, all the while carrying almost as much as we would car camping. After rolling into our campground, we’ll spend the weekend kicking back at the campsite, taking it easy and pretty much not going anywhere or doing anything. With the carrying capacity of the cargo bike, we can get fancy with the food and libations, allowing us to skip the usual dehydrated camping chow.

These sittin’ around type of trips, or even a lazy Sunday afternoon at home, are the perfect occasion to deploy a solar cooker. Best of all you can build a solar cooker yourself for pennies out of cardboard and aluminum foil. For some foods, such as rice, it’s actually easier to cook with a solar cooker than it is on a stovetop. Put some rice in a pot, place the pot in the solar panel cooker, stick it out in the sun and two hours later you have lunch.

Read the rest at The Cleanest Line via the Patagonia Company.

Rainwater Harvesting and Beyond

If you live in a dry climate like we do here in Los Angeles your bookshelf should have a copy of one of Brad Lancaster’s amazing books. Through very simple techniques, most of which can be executed with a shovel and a free afternoon, Lancaster shows you how to turn a barren landscape into a Garden of Eden. Lancaster empasizes earthworks which capture and channel water where you want it to go, instead of uselessly sending it down the gutter.

For those of you in Southern California, Lancaster will be delivering a free talk at the Santa Monica Public Library Monday September 15th at 6:30 p.m. More info via Westside Permaculture Gatherings.

If you’re not in SoCal, you can get more information about Lancaster’s work and order a copy of one of his books on his website, www.harvestingrainwater.com.

Greywater Guerrillas in LA this Weekend

With the prospect of at least ten more years of drought here in California, greywater is a hot topic. This weekend Oak-town’s fabulous Greywater Guerrillas are heading down to Los Angeles for a weekend of talks and workshops. If you’re not in Southern California, make sure to check out their informative website and their new book Dam Nation. We especially enjoy the GG’s project examples.

Here’s the 411 on their LA appearances:

Saturday July 19th: Hands-On Greywater Installation Workshop.

Time: 11am-3pm
Location: Silver Lake (You’ll get an email with directions once registered)
Cost: $30-$40 sliding-scale
To register: email Matt Moses Space is very limited so register early!

Workshop will include a presentation on greywater reuse, the design process of the system we’ll be building, and the construction of a greywater system from the washing machine to ornamental of plants. Activities will involve digging, measuring, cutting pipes, observing, and more!

Sunday July 20th: Presentation: How to Disengage from the Water Grid: With Greywater, Rainwater, and Composting Toilets.

Time: 7:30- 9:00
Location: LA Ecovillage 117 Bimini Place, Los Angeles, 90004
Cost: $10 (no one turned away)
For more info contact Lois at the LA Ecovillage 213/738-1254 (www.laecovillage.org)

How to Disengage from the Water Grid- with Rainwater, Greywater, and Composting Toilets. We will connect the water in our lives to local and global water struggles, look at rainwater as a resource, explore options of reusing greywater, and contemplate waterless (composting) toilets. From the apartment, to the house, to the city, ecological sanitation offers a path to a sustainable and just water future.

Monday, July 21; Greywater Design Workshop.

Location: 3983 East Blvd. Mar Vista, CA 90066
Time: 7-9pm
Cost: $25
To register: email Ray Cirino 818-834-7074

Greywater Design Workshop; Interested in reusing your greywater? Want to learn more about it and how to build your own system? Come to our design workshop. We’ll present you with information on the most common, low-tech, low-cost, effective, residential greywater systems. Then we’ll break into groups and help you plan a system for your own home. Participants will be emailed a greywater planning sheet, that you’ll fill out and bring to the workshop.

Monday and Tuesday (July 21st and 22nd) Greywater Consultations.

If you are interested in having a consultation and/or system design for your own home, please contact Laura Allen at least one week before the consultation dates.

Appropriate Technology

Our rocket stove, pictured above, was mentioned on BoingBoing last week and we thought we’d use the occasion for a brief roundup of similar “appropriate” technology concepts. The term appropriate technology evolved out of political economist E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful and is easier to show rather than describe. While not always low-tech, appropriate tech concepts feature elegantly simple (but not simplistic) design, efficient use of energy and are usually aimed at poor countries. What Homegrown Evolution would like to prove is that these technologies have a place in developed western countries as well. Here’s three of our favorite appropriate tech ideas and websites:

1. Rocket Stoves: our brick rocket stove and a link to a video on how to make a simple metal version.

2. The glorious Solar Cooking Archive which has links to dozens of simple solar cooker plans that you can build yourself. We built our cardboard and aluminum foil Pavarti cooker with plans from the solar cooking archive.

3. AfriGadget. The subtitle of this blog says it all, “solving everyday problems with African ingenuity.”

Rainwater Harvesting with Joe Linton

With the driest spring on record here in Los Angeles, water and where to get it ought to be on all of our minds in this drought prone metropolis. Thankfully, artist, author, Los Angeles River expert and co-founder of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition Joe Linton will be teaching a workshop on rainwater harvesting at the Los Angeles Eco-Village on Saturday, June 14, 2008 from 9 am to 3 pm at L.A. Eco-Village (Directions)

Here’s a description of the workshop from the Eco-Village’s website.

This workshop is part of a continuing series in “hands-on” urban permaculture and includes:

  • An overview presentation on Los Angeles water issues, including local multi-benefit watershed management efforts.
  • A tour of Los Angeles Eco-Village stormwater harvesting landscape features, including the Bimini Slough Nature Park.
  • A hands-on workshop to build terraced swales to detain and infiltrate storm water
  • This workshop focuses on building earthworks that gather and infiltrate rainwater in the landscape. It does not cover rainwater harvesting with cisterns, which we anticipate will be the subject of a future hands-on permaculture workshop, hopefully in early fall 2008. Watch for details.

Fee: $35 (sliding scale available) – bring a bag lunch.
Registration required: 213/738-1254 or [email protected] (workshop size limited)

About Joe Linton
Joe is an artist and urban environmental activist. He’s been involved for many years in efforts to restore and revitalize the Los Angeles River, including writing and illustrating the guide book Down By The Los Angeles River (Wilderness Press 2005). Joe is a long-time resident member of Los Angeles Eco-Village and a co-founder of the LA County Bicycle Coalition.

Cooling with Beer . . . Cans

Root Simple dropped by Houston’s famous Beer Can House, created by John Milkovisch in the 1960s and 70s. We won’t plumb the messy depths of the meaning of “visionary art”, the academic art Mafia’s euphemism du jour for this stuff–we’ll leave that to our art bloggin’ amigo Doug Harvey.

So sidestepping the whole debate over the intentions of its creator, we’ll point out that all of Milkovisch’s house mods have both aesthetic and practical benefits. The beer can cladding that covers the entire exterior of the house means never having to paint the underlying wood. The concrete yard means never having to mow a lawn (we’d prefer vegetation but Milkovisch’s concrete work is, like the rest of the house, magical).

But on to our favorite detail. It’s damn hot in Houston most of the year, and to deal with the blazing sun on the south side of his humble bungalow, Milkovisch crafted this intricate, shimmering screen made of beer can tops and bottoms that hangs from the roof line like an aluminum grass skirt. Not only does it shade the windows and walls, producing a dramatic decrease in cooling bills, but it also functions as a pleasing wind chime.

We’ve been thinking of doing something similar on the hot south side of our house, except with deciduous vines. That way, we’ll let light in during the winter and have a living shade wall during the summer. Perhaps we’ll grow beans and become Los Angeles’ Bean House.

The Beer can house is located at 222 Malone Street in Houston, Texas and is lovingly cared for by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

A Parvati Solar Cooker

Damn, is solar cooking easy! Put some rice in a pot, place the pot in this simple panel cooker, made with cardboard and aluminum foil, stick it out in the sun and two hours later you have lunch.

We built our “Parvati” solar cooker with plans designed by Shobha Ravindra Pardeshi that can be found here. Pardeshi, who runs an “appropriate technology” company with her husband in India has another design for a similar dish-shaped cooker here. We found both of these cookers (and many more) via the amazing Solar Cooking Archive.

For the Parvati cooker, we cut the cardboard according to the plans, and affixed the aluminum foil with spray glue. For our first pot of rice we used a black enamel pot to better absorb the heat of the sun’s rays, and wrapped it in a roasting bag to increase the efficiency of the cooker. A five gallon bucket made a convenient stand and did not have to be rotated in the two hours it took to cook the rice. Longer cooking times would require re-aiming the cooker as the sun moves across the sky. Temperature in the pot quickly went over 180º F, the point at which food begins to cook. The two hour cooking time is much longer than it would take on a conventional stove, but with a solar cooker there is no danger of burning, making the process, in our opinion, easier than stove-top cooking. Consider a solar cooker a kind of low-powered crock pot for lazy and cheap people–good for things like rice, beans, soups and stews, but not good for sauteing. Just remember the oven mitts–this thing gets hot!

When the sun gets higher in the sky, as we move into summer, this cooker will reach even higher temperatures. We don’t remember where we read this but some folks say that panel cookers like this one cook best when your shadow is shorter than you are which, here in Los Angeles, is right about now. We tried this cooker back in January and it performed well, but did not get above 140º F, which is not hot enough to cook.

Perhaps here around the Root Simple compound we’ll get around to turning our Parvati Solar Cooker into a low rent attraction. Just add some ostriches and we’ll repeat this early 20th century tourist trap in nearby Pasadena (click to biggify):

Planting a Mini-Orchard

Ignore the bucket in this illustration! See update below.

Update 3/13/2011: I met Brad Lancaster last night and he told me that he and Art Ludwig no longer use the upside down bucket described in this post. The reason is that detergents can build up in the hole. In my experience the bucket was also an unnecessary step. While I have a clay soil, the hillside drains fairly well. A properly sized mulch basin should suffice to allow greywater to infiltrate. Also, the new generation of washing machines use a lot less water than the old one that I still have. Other than the unnecessary bucket and the persimmon tree (died, for some unknown reason) this greywater application has worked very well. Our fruit trees are lush and happy.

With the news that Lake Mead could go dry by 2013 we figured it was about time to figure out how to grow food with very little water in a Mediterranean climate that gets on average 15 inches of rain a year (3 inches last year). Our water worries sparked the beginnings of our draught tolerant mini-orchard. Thankfully greywater and some tough, water sipping trees make it possible.

Step one was figuring out how to reuse our washing machine water (read our earlier post on the washing machine surge tank we built). Step two was matching that washing machine water output to the right kinds of plants for the mini-orchard. We settled on the three “Ps” — pomegranate, persimmon, and pineapple guava, plus a mission fig tree to replace the substandard one we cut down (even though God Hates Figs!). The advantage with these four trees is that they can survive, once established, should we find ourselves unable to use any water due to the aforementioned bad-ass draught scenarios.

Our house sits on a small hill, with the front yard sloping down towards the street. We placed the trees at the top of the slope and made mulch basins like the one illustrated above. The outlet chamber consists of a upside down three gallon bucket with a bunch of holes punched in it. The purpose of the outlet chamber, which is buried in the mulch basin, is to help the greywater infiltrate our heavy clay soil. To use it we simply place the hose coming from the surge tank into the hole in the top of the outlet chamber. We cover this hole with a brick when not in use. The photo below shows the digging of the mulch basin and the installation of the outlet chamber in progress:

The completed mulch basin and (hard to see) pomegranate tree to the right. We used straw for mulch We use wood chips for mulch (replaced the straw):
These craptacular photos don’t show the details very well, but the mulch basins were dug in such a way to also catch rainwater as it flows down the hill. Both rainwater and greywater work their way into the soil and slowly move down the hill over the course of many months. Since installing the greywater system we’ve seen previously sad plantings we did years ago of rosemary, wormwood and Mexican sage thrive. And we’ve got lots of nopalitos coming our way from the prickly pear plants.

For more information on these simple, water saving strategies see Brad Lancaster’s excellent book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands.

Greywater Linkage

Outlaw water activists the Greywater Guerillas have added a nice set of examples to their website showing some creative greywater strategies. As figuring out how to get greywater out to your garden depends a lot on, say, if your shower is higher than your bamboo grove, it’s great to see some real world examples.
Next step around our little crackhouse will be to figure out how to reuse our shower water. The GGs have given us some ideas . . .

Using Greywater from your Washing Machine

With our current bad drought conditions it makes no sense to pour perfectly good water down the sewer. So we just joined the greywater underground with our illegal washing machine surge tank, and the installation was a piece of cake.

We built our washing machine surge tank based on the design in Art Ludwig’s book Create an Oasis with Greywater. The purpose of the surge tank is to prevent the built-in pump in the washing machine from burning out, which might happen if you tried to pump the water through pipes. The tank also slows down the flow of water going out to the garden, allowing more time for it to percolate into the soil. In addition the tank lets the water cool a bit, should we run a load in hot water.

Bottom of barrel showing fittings

Top of the barrel where the hose from the washing machine comes in

For the tank we picked up a used and cleaned 55 gallon plastic drum with two “bung holes”, and plumbed it based on a design from Aquabarrel.com. The folks at Aquabarrel offer kits or a DIY video. We put our barrel together ourselves with a couple of common pvc fittings from the hardware store and omitted the overflow pipe, since our washing machine load will never exceed 55 gallons. The basic idea behind the Aquabarrel design is to turn the barrel upside down and use the preexisting threaded bung holes to connect up a garden hose. It took just a few minutes to complete, and our washing machine surge tank was ready to use. We highly recommend the Aquabarrel design, and you could combine a washing machine surge tank with a rain barrel with the addition of the overflow pipe and a fitting for the gutter.

When we do a load of laundry the waste water that collects in the barrel flows immediately out the garden hose and down towards the front slope of our little compound. Ludwig warns against keeping grewater around as it will quickly turn septic. We use Oasis Biocompatible detergent which is manufactured specifically for greywater systems. Regular “eco” detergents, while not harmful to aquatic plants, often contain substances that will kill terrestrial plants so you must use a greywater specific detergent.

Our next step will be to figure out some plantings that will take advantage of our laundry schedule, and to construct some simple earthworks and mulch basins to accommodate the water flow. Right now we just let the water percolate into the front slope, and our rosemary and Mexican sage look a lot healthier for it.