DIY Outdoor Shower

Photo by the MacAllen Brothers

Showers are overrated. The first step in considering whether to build an outdoor solar heated shower is to take a step back and consider boring old conservation. Shower less and make sure that your domicile is equipped with a low-flow shower head. Not only will you be saving water and burning less fossil fuels to heat that water, but your body odor will soon separate your real friends from superficial hangers-on.

But we urban homesteaders don’t need to be stinky since it’s possible and easy to build an outdoor solar shower. There are two reasons this makes sense, particularly in a place with as warm a climate as LA. First of all, you can direct the water straight into the garden and in so doing irrigate some plants and keep that water from uselessly running down the sewer line. Secondly, placing the shower outdoors makes rigging up a solar heating system somewhat easier and less expensive. Of course, the solar heating part isn’t completely necessary, and it’s possible to run the hot water line out into the garden, especially since you don’t need to worry about the pipes freezing here in sunny LA. One thing to remember–however you rig the shower, make sure to keep the water directed away from your foundation.

Let’s say you’re ready to build your own solar heated shower and you’ve overcome your fear of being nude under the all seeing eye of LA’s police and media helicopters, what we like to call our “ghetto birds”. We’ll start with the most simple solar shower designs and proceeding to the deluxe models.

First off is the camping shower in a bag concept. The principle is simple–you fill a black bag with water, leave it out in the sun, and hang it somewhere for your very brief shower. We’ve not tried one of these things, but we suspect that the result would be less than luxurious, and after all, part of the reason to bathe is the relaxation it offers. But, for the mortifier of the flesh out there, one of these things might just suffice. They are certainly cheap at around $18. If you are really cheap, you can improvise the solar bag shower by filling a car inner tube with water and leaving it out in the sun.

A variation on the bag shower can be constructed out of inexpensive black ABS pipe. Basically you construct a square out of pipe, put water in it and let the sun heat it up for a few hours. Your shower lasts as long as the amount of water contained in the ABS pipe. Plans can be found here. ABS is easy to work with, and this particular design could be scaled up for longer showers. SurviveLA will run some experiments with this design and let you know about the results.

In terms of other do it yourself options several folks have experimented with simply coiling up a length of black garden hose on the roof. A nice example can be found here, and also at the Path to Freedom. The problem with this approach is that when the water is out of the hose, that’s the end of your hot shower.

A more advanced DIY solar shower that resembles commercially available (and expensive) solar water heaters can be made by constructing a glass covered collector box containing a manifold of copper pipes that feed into a used water heater. Hot water contained in the copper pipes in the collector box rises up into the water heater that is kept above the level of the collector. Hot water rises just like hot air and the cold water from the tank sinks back into the collector thus forming a circulation loop–this phenomenon is known as thermosiphoning. Some plumbing skills, are necessary, but it’s relatively easy to learn how to sweat copper pipe. We’ve used a system like this provided by the National Park Service on SurviveLA’s trip to Santa Rosa Island. The nice thing about storing the water in a tank is that you can take a shower well after the sun goes down. Plans for this project can be found on the Mother Earth News website.

Whatever approach you try, the key thing is to keep the costs down and to use as many found materials as possible. The water and gas savings per year are minimal, so in our opinion it does not make sense to buy expensive commercial outdoor showers (like the one made by Hammacher Schlemmer) when you can make something yourself.

An excellent roundup of DIY solar projects including water heating can be found at Build It Solar.

Leaf Litter


My people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots. Every wrong idea which has ever been expounded was theirs. Among them was the doctrine of cleanliness, to say nothing of righteousness. They were painfully clean. But inwardly they stank. Never once had they opened the door which leads to the soul; never once did they dream of taking a blind leap into the dark. After dinner the dishes were promptly washed and put in the closet; after the paper was read it was neatly folded and laid away on a shelf; after the clothes were washed they were ironed and folded and then tucked away in the drawers. Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. The present was only a bridge and on this bridge they are still groaning, as the world groans, and not one idiot ever thinks of blowing up the bridge.
-Henry Miller Tropic of Capricorn

SurviveLA’s approach to our small patch of land has been slowly evolving over the past year towards integrating permaculture principles. One of our favorite notions in permaculture is the idea that “work makes work”. An example used to be the annual fall cleanup after our two large trees dropped their load of leaves in the back yard. Dave Jacke, author of the massive two volume permaculture guide, Edible Forest Gardens puts it this way,

Simply relinquishing a need for “order” and “tidiness” in your garden will make a huge difference. . Order and tidiness by definition reduce structural diversity in ecosystems. Structural diversity provides shelter for many animals for many purposes.

In short, when it comes to fall leaf raking, just say no, be a slob and be proud of it.

The mulch created by leaf litter serves multiple purposes. All those fallen leaves provide shelter for beneficial insects, reduce water usage by preventing evaporation, prevent weed growth, inhibit soil erosion and may even stop acid rain from penetrating soil. For these reasons SurviveLA says banish your leaf blower! In fact, when planning a garden around permaculture principles you may want to consider plants that produce mulch, and placing them where the mulch will benefit your landscaping. Remember though that some trees such as black walnut and eucalyptus produce so called alleopathic chemicals that kill neighboring plants and hence would not be good candidates for mulch production. With the exception of these alleopathic plants, there is simply no good reason to rake up leaves.

Blow up the bridge, let the leaves fall, let nature do its thing, and join the SurviveLA idleness non-revolution (as the folks at SoapboxLA would say, it would take too much effort to start an idleness revolution).

Showers to Flowers

Here’s the truth, I’m lazy. So when it comes to the aforementioned greywater strategies such as bucket flushing and siphoning, while we might try them for a while we’ll most likely quickly tire of all the repetitive effort barring some apocalyptic water shortage. SurviveLA agrees with Art Ludwig, author of Create an Oasis with Greywater that the best greywater systems are the simplest, and involve the least amount of effort and maintenance.

One of the easiest and more permanent greywater solutions is simply rerouting your shower straight out a pipe and into the garden. Here’s how to do it:

1. Confirm that your shower is higher than the point you are watering. The minimum fall for waste pipes is 1/4 inch per foot — any less and you’ll risk a backup.

2. Cut the waste line from your shower, making sure that you are cutting the pipe before the point it meets up with anything coming out of the toilet. Remember you don’t want blackwater in your garden. If possible (i.e. if easily accessible via a trap door or some other configuration), install a three way diverter valve like the one pictured above, so that water can be shifted back to the sewer, if needed, such as during a long rainy period. Keeping the minimum fall rate in mind, run the pipe out to where you want to water.

3. Choose plants whose watering requirements match the amount of water coming out of your shower. To do this you’ll need to estimate how many showers and how much water you use per shower. Odds are it will be water hungry plants such as banana trees.

4. Create a mulch basin around the plants you are watering. The mulch could be gravel, wood chips or leaves. The mulch basin has multiple purposes – it slows the flow of greywater, preventing runoff and it stops greywater from forming stinky pools. Mulch also prevents contact by kids and pets and helps keep down the mosquito population.

5. Some precautions – put a screen over the end of the pipe to prevent rats and other critters from climbing up the pipe and surprising you in the shower. Keep the destination of the pipe well away from your house’s foundation, especially if you have clay soil.

Siphon Your Bathwater

So it’s back to greywater today with a tip on siphoning your bathtub water. The concept goes like this. When you take a shower keep the plug in. Yes it’s a bit gross at first, but you get used to it. When you are finished, submerge a length of tubing in the bath water. Hold your finger over one end and pass it to an accomplice waiting outside in the garden. As long as your bathtub is higher than the part of your garden being watered, you will have created a siphon and the water will drain out of the tub.

Now if this sounds like a pain in the ass, or if you have no accomplices there is (or perhaps was as the website does not seem to be working) a siphon device on the market for just this purpose. Called the “Ban Beater” this siphon pump was being sold in the UK as a result of the draught that struck south-east England this year. However, this greywater siphoning tool is on the expensive side and it’s hard to justify spending a lot of money just to save a few cents worth of water, especially when the siphon devices themselves are produced with plastic and other petrochemical products. Devices like these suddenly become popular when governments institute water rationing as did the British earlier this year. There are less expensive siphoning devices available in hardware and auto parts stores made for siphoning gas, but SuviveLA has not tested them yet.

If siphoning is too much effort for ya, it’s time to move on to more permanent solutions involving rerouting your plumbing that we’ll get into in subsequent posts.

Polyculture


Here at SurviveLA we are experimenting with something called polyculture in the the garden. We read about it first in the worthy permaculture guide, Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway.

Polyculture is the practice of planting a community of interrelated, interdependent plants, mimicking in your garden (in our case a raised vegetable bed) the complex relationships that are found between plants in nature.

In the case of food crops, a polyculture tries to set up conditions where you can eat almost continually out of a garden bed filled with different varieties of plants maturing at different times. The faster growing plants protect the tender ones from the sun. The thickness of the planting virtually eliminates weeds, and also functions as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and cool beneath a carpet of green. These beds look quite different than the tidy rows of carrots and cabbages one sees … well, one does not see vegetable gardens anywhere if one lives in LA. One remembers them from illustrations in Peter Rabbit.

Okay, you want specifics? Here is an example of a professional polyculture bed out of Gaia’s Garden, one which creates salads, cabbages, and beans. It is written for people who live places with cold winters (as are most gardening books, alas). So Angelinos wanting to follow his plan can start this earlier, perhaps in March. The SurviveLA polyculture that will be described after was started in October.

Polyculture from Gaia’s Garden, attributed to Ianto Evan:

After the last frost cover your garden bed evenly with a light broadcasting of the following seeds. Don’t mix them before broadcasting because they will fall differently according to their weight., and so separate out in the throwing. Spread one type of seed at a time, aiming for an even distribution of each type of seed all over the bed. Sow: radish, dill, parsnip, calendula and many types of lettuces, late and early harvesting types to extend the length of your season. Cover the seeds with 1/4 inch of soil.

Meanwhile, start cabbages from seeds in containers, early and late maturing varieties.

4 weeks after sowing you can pull some of the first radishes, because they grow fast. As you eat those, put the cabbage seedlings in the holes.

6 weeks after sowing you can eat the lettuce. First as a baby lettuce mix, later in its more mature leafing form. Pull out entire plants to make space, so things don’t get too crowded.

Continue this way until the soil warms up. As you eliminate lettuce plants, begin to put bush beans in their place. The dill and calendula will start coming into their own, and the early cabbages. The beans will be ready by midsummer, and the parsnips and the rest of the cabbages will follow in the fall.

So you see, the secret is in choosing plants with staggered harvesting times, so they don’t come in all at once, overwhelming you and competing with each other for space, and also in choosing plants that are not all from the same families, so they don’t compete for the same nutrients. The beans in the polyculture above help replenish the nitrogen in the soil that the other plants drain out. Very clever. With little effort compared to normal gardening, you will be harvesting veggies from one plot all year long.

SurviveLA’s Impetuous Salad Bed

Now the SurviveLA bed is not so well organized, because we don’t know as much as these permaculture folks, but it has been very successful so far, meaning no pests, no weeds, low watering, and tons of salad.

This bed was started in October, as soon as the weather had decidedly shifted toward the cool. In LA, it makes sense to grow tender salad greens and the like in the winter, when the the sun is low, the climate is gentle, and our only rains fall. Lettuce loves that kind of thing, and hates hot sun. If you plant lettuce in LA in the summer you are in for a world of sorrow.

As above, we broadcast the following seeds evenly over our 4′ x 8′ foot raised garden bed. It is set up with fancy new drip emitters for lazy watering. In the past, we’ve watered this bed with the more casual but quite functional soaker hose. Both are preferable to standing around with a garden hose, and the plants like it a lot better too. FYI, plants prefer occasional deep soakings to brief daily showers. However, while the seeds were sprouting and delicate we did water from above with a hose set on gentle sprinkle.

Not knowing all of the habits of these plants, many of which are from growitalian.com, we just threw them all in to see what would happen. When the coldest nights are over in a couple of months we will plants some beans, as above, for nitrogen fixing. For now, these things are growing in a riotous mix:

Green chicory
Red chicory
Radishes
Carrots
Wild fennel (non-bulbing variety)
Common cress
Arugula
Lettuce mix (various types in one package)
Rapa da Foglia (leaf turnip)
Green onions

We’ve been eating all of it in its infant form, except the radishes, which have markedly hairy leaves that you don’t want in your salad. Just lately the leafy plants have become easily distinguishable from one another, and are taking on their full flavor. To keep up with the thinning which is necessary at this stage SurviveLA must eat at least one salad a day. But it is no hardship to eat greens so fresh and tender–once you grow your own salad, you will feel cheated each time you have to eat salad from a bag.

In the photo you will see how tight the planting is in the bed. It is perhaps a tad too tight. We are eating as fast as we can, pulling whole plants for the most part, shooting for the ideal of giving each remaining lettuce and chicory a space about the diameter of a cereal bowl for itself.

When the lettuces are full grown, you can harvest leaves off the individual plants instead of harvesting the whole plant, thus just five or six mature lettuce plants can provide salad for two people a few times a week, leaving lots more room for other plants. Beans will come in the spring, and also some yet to be decided crops which we can expect will do well in the heat of early summer.

Greywater Precautions

Before we continue our greywater series, we have a few precautions to lay down. The dangers of greywater have been exaggerated in the past and it’s important to remember that nobody in the US has ever gotten sick from exposure to greywater. The plumbing codes in this country are overly cautious in their restrictions on greywater use, as the Man, quite simply, wants you to throw perfectly good water down the sewer. On the other hand, a lot of hippie types have been a little too loose with greywater and nasty bugs like e-coli, pictured on the right, remind us we need to be careful. So here are SurviveLA’s rules to follow when using greywater:

  • Do not apply greywater to crops that you will eat raw, such as strawberries, carrots or lettuce. Using greywater on any vegetables is somewhat dodgy in general for heath reasons, but greywater is fine for edible plants such as fruit trees where the crop is far from the ground and the risk of direct contamination by contact with contaminated water is low.
  • Do not apply greywater to lawns (lawns are evil anyways) or to the foliage of any plant as this can cause a microorganism growth party. Remember that greywater is treated by moving through soil.
  • Greywater tends to be alkaline, so avoid using greywater on acid loving plants such as citrus, ferns and other forest plants (pretty much anything that grows in the shade).
  • Occasionally irrigate your plants with fresh water to prevent the buildup of salts from soaps and detergents.
  • Do not distribute greywater with a sprinkler as you don’t want the potential bad stuff becoming airborne.
  • Do not use the water from your washing machine if you are washing diapers (gross!).
  • Do not allow greywater to stand as it will quickly become the perfect habitat for anaerobic bacteria which will quickly turn it into a stinky, mosquito and fly infested pool of blackwater. Plan a system that will, ideally, use your greywater immediately.
  • Use only detergents and soaps designed for greywater systems such as Oasis Biocompatible Cleaning Products.

Bucket Flushing

SurviveLA is researching greywater systems and today we’ve got our first tip on recycling your water. First a definition. Greywater is the waste water that comes out of your shower, sinks, and washing machine. Blackwater is the icky stuff that comes out of your toilet and because of the risk of contamination it should not be reused. For now we’ll lump the kitchen sink in with the toilet since food scraps, particularly for meat eaters can quickly turn your greywater into rancid blackwater.

Greywater systems range from the simple to the complex and we’ll start with the cheap and easy — bucket flushing. Simply keep a bucket next to the shower and collect the water that you run before the shower gets hot. Since you haven’t even stepped into the shower this water is pure water, and not even technically greywater. You can use this water on plants or to flush the toilet manually by pouring it directly in the bowl.

It’s also possible to disconnect the bathroom sink from the sewer system and send the water into a bucket that you keep under the sink. This water is greywater since it’s contaminated with soap and toothpaste, so don’t let it sit around for long or it will get stinky. If you disconnect your bathroom sink, make sure that you keep water in the trap (that u-shaped pipe), otherwise unpleasant sewer odors will fill your bathroom. Alternately, you can cap the sewer pipe or install a diverter valve.

One last warning. Apparently around twenty-five kids drown in buckets every year in the US, so don’t leave buckets unattended if you have little ones, though the danger is mostly from larger five gallon buckets.

So flush the SurviveLA way — bucket flush!

Be Idle

Homegrown Revolution attended a talk at the Eco-Village by Cecile Andrews, author of Slow is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure and Joie de Vivre and Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. Part of the Urban Homesteadin’ thing involves simplifying one’s life, but we just can’t get behind the all the deprivation and mortification that often goes with American’s puritanical approach to the new simplicity. A compelling speaker, Andrews echoed our wariness and used the Slow Food movement as an counter-example to the pitfalls of the simplicity movement.

The Slow Food movement began in Italy as a reaction to the invasion of American style fast food which threatened Italy’s rich culinary traditions. The genius of the Slow Food movement according to Andrews, is that it linked the pleasures of good food with the issues of knowing where our food comes from, supporting local farmers, and caring about the environmental implications of agriculture. In other words, Slow Food is not about deprivation, but instead it’s about pleasure, kicking back with friends, and general celebratory idleness. So with the Slow Food movement, or with a pleasure based simplicity, while we pursue environmental justice we should also be having a damn good time. In so doing, happiness becomes both the pathway and the result of our life journey.

Life is too short to be miserable. A kitchen disaster this morning with a terrible granola recipe from Frances Moore Lappé’s book Diet for a Small Planet, reminded us that while the thesis behind that book, that modern agriculture is causing tremendous harm, is more valid than ever, the solution offered by the food activists of the 1970s, namely a bland vegetarian diet is just no fun at all. So in the spirit of the Slow Food movement, SurviveLA would like to share one of our favorite recipes, from Lynne Rosetto Kaspers’ book The Italian Country Table. Kasper discovered this linguine with pistachio-almond pesto on the island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily and SurviveLA suggests that you make up a pot, have some friends over and celebrate idleness by eating, drinking and generally doing nothing. We like to use mint that we grow in the garden — mint is one of the easiest herbs to grow and we recommend that everyone have a patch or pot of it on their homestead (it tolerates shade, but it can be a bit invasive so stay on top of it or make this recipe often!). We’ve also substituted basil when we have that on hand.

1/2 cup unblanched whole almonds, toasted

1/2 cup shelled salted pistachio nuts, toasted

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 large garlic clove

Pinch of hot red pepper flakes

2 1/2 to 3 1/2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste

40 large mint leaves (a blend of spearmint and peppermint if possible)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound linguine, spaghetti, bucatini, or other string pasta

6 quarts boiling salted water

1 1/3 pint baskets (1 pound) flavorful cherry tomatoes, quartered

1. Mix the cooled toasted nuts. Coarsely chop about one quarter of them and set aside.

2. In a mortar (a processor is second choice), pound (or grind) the garlic to a paste with the hot pepper and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Work in the remaining whole nuts and a little more than half the mint leaves until the mixture looks like very course meal, with pieces of nuts at about 1/8 inch. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Tear up the remaining mint leaves.

3. Cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often until tender yet firm to the bite. As the pasta cooks, gently blend the pesto, tomatoes, and 1/2 tablespoon of the oil in a deep pasta bowl.

4. Sim off 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the pasta water just before draining, and drain the pasta in a colander. Add the pasta water to the bowl. Add the sauce, pasta, chopped nuts, and salt and pepper to taste and toss. Then toss in the reserved torn mint. Taste for seasoning, adding extra oil, mint, salt, and/or pepper if needed. Serve hot or warm. No cheese is used here.

Free Permaculture Class

Today SurviveLA passes on an announcement for a free permaculture class taking place tomorrow – hope to see some of you there:

The next Free Introduction to Permaculture Class

Place: Audubon Center at Debs Park (http://www.audubon-ca.org/debs_park.htm)
4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031
(323) 221-2255

Date: Sat Dec. 2nd 2006

Time: 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM

We are living on a planet in crisis; often individuals feel powerless to effect change but Permaculture offers positive solutions to the problems facing the world; using ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, technology and community development, you can learn to create a self-sustaining environment, on a farm or in your urban backyard or apartment.

The Permaculture Design Course is for anyone interested in gaining skills and perspective for sustainable living and productivity. A Permaculture Design Course is a way to share
accumulated information with others.

This Introduction to Permaculture Class is an outline of the science and art of Permaculture. It will define the term and its history, its founders, 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.

For More Information contact:
David Kahn 323 667 1330 or [email protected]

www.sustainablehabitats.org

Rats

SurviveLA just sustained $198 worth of damage to one of our appliances due to an invasion of rats which brings us to the topic of how we deal with pesky rodents. As you can see in the photo to the right, the answer will burn our bridges with the PETA folks.

The classic rat trap is one of those inventions like the bicycle that is elegant, simple, cheap and effective. We recommend placing the business end of the trap (the part with the food) against a wall, as rats and mice tend to travel along walls. Put it in a place that can’t be accessed by nosy dogs, cats or kids. We’ve had the best success with using dried fruit as bait.

But let’s look at the alternatives. Yes there are so-called humane traps that capture the critters alive. We have two problems with these. First they just don’t work all that well. Secondly, what do you do with the critters once you catch them? We can think of some real estate agents we would like to give them to, but the rats would probably just run into some other poor sucker’s house.

Rat poison is a really bad idea. First of all it is deadly to pets and native animals that might find it. Secondly it can kill a predator such as a hawk or owl, that might prey on a poisoned rat. Lastly, poisoned rats have a bad tendency to climb into a wall and die leaving an inaccessible, stinky mess.

SurviveLA would get in big trouble if we failed to send a shout out to our cat friends. Some cats are good at catching mice and rats, but unfortunately those same cats are also good at catching native birds. Now if we weren’t in enough trouble for advocating bad-ass rat traps, we’ll get in even more trouble for suggesting that folks keep their cats indoors. Indoor cats will catch the rodents, they won’t kill the native wildlife and they’ll live longer by not getting hit by cars. We would have a cat ourselves if it weren’t for our doberman who would, unfortunately, prey on the cats, thereby setting up a predatory hierarchy we would rather avoid. Dobermans, incidentally, make lousy mousers though ours will follow rat scent for hours (dobermans are great, however, for deterring Jehovah’s Witnesses, but that’s another post).

As far as rat prevention goes, it’s really important to harvest all fruits from the garden before they drop on the ground. Our rat problem this winter may be due, in part, from our laziness and failure to harvest the fruit of our prodigious fig tree in addition to the foundation work we’re having done (thanks again to those realtors we want to sick the rats on). Other deterrents include not leaving food around and getting rid of wood piles. Rats are also one of the reasons not to put meat in the compost pile, though I’ve found them in our compost pile in spite of the fact that we only put vegetable material in it. It helps to turn the pile frequently and not add too many kitchen scraps at one time.

Of course, being SurviveLA, we need to mention the fact that rats are edible. Now it’s fashionable to make fun of French people for stuff like this but SurviveLA thinks applauds any kind of resourcefulness, particularly if it yields something tasty. From the Larousse Gastronomique:

Rodent, which was elevated to the rank of comestible during the siege of Paris in 1870, and which is eaten in certain regions. The flesh of well-nourished rats can be, it seems, of good quality, but sometimes with a musky taste. Rats nourished in the wine stores of the Gironde were at one time highly esteemed by the coopers, who grilled them, after having cleaned out and skinned them, on a fire of broken barrels, and seasoned them with a little oil and plenty of shallot. This dish, which was then called Cooper’s Entrecôte, would be the origin of the Entrecôte à la bordelaise.