Friday, December 28, 2007

How To Heat Your House

There are three viable heating sources for a sustainist. Wood, passive solar and diesel are the only heat sources that do not rely on external production and delivery systems. Viable in this sense means that you can gather or produce the raw material to heat your home without relying on electric or petroleum based products. A good reliable heating system will incorporate at least two of the three methods listed.

Wood Heating

Bear Ridge is heated with a small wood stove. I love heating with wood, it is relative cheap, renewable and gives off a good quality of heat. Wood can be gathered from anywhere including scrap piles for nothing except a little work on your part. Unlike petroleum based fuels, which are expensive and have long unreliable supply lines, wood is everywhere.

The ash is a great cover for your composting toilet and a wonderful nitrogen supplement for the garden. Anything cooked on an oven can be prepared on a wood stove including bread. The heat is great for drying cloths and the flames produce useful light in the evenings.

On the downside you have to cut the wood which can be tremendous work especially in cold weather. Wood stoves need filling every few hours. My stove can hold heat for about two hours on one filling. Not a problem during the day but at night it get really tedious. Every hour and a half my alarm gets me up to fill the box. Also you can't leave the house for an extend amount of time without the fire going out and it can take a few hours to completely get the house warmed up when starting a fire.

A good secondary heat source addresses the above problems without creating an unnecessary reliance on petroleum based fuels. Water heating and cooking need to be addressed with the secondary heat source if possible.

Passive Solar Heating

If possible orient you house to the south and put it on a thick concrete slab. Passive solar heating is free and very effective. A think slab of concrete exposed to the southern sun with glass windows will keep your home pleasantly warm throughout the coldest winter night.

Water can also be warmed in the slab and stored in a preheat collection tank for showers and laundry. Specially designed solar collectors can easily heat water to scalding temperatures during the day.

For centuries people have been preparing a large variety of foods in solar ovens. These cookers are inexpensive and can be purchased or built with relatively ease.

My problem is that the cabins design does not allow for easy retrofit to passive solar. And although I have added large southern windows there is no thermal mass to store the heat through the night. It does quickly warm the house in the mornings and keeps it nice throughout the day.

Diesel Heating

Fuel oil is another name for diesel fuel. This petroleum distillate has been heating homes for years. It heats well but is expensive and has all the baggage associated with other oil/gas based products. BUT here's the cool part, diesel fuel can be made from any organic oil heavy plant product. This is called BioDiesel and with some inexpensive equipment and training it can be made easily by anyone.

The military has been using small diesel units for years to heat tents and temporary shelters. Homes across America have been heated for the last sixty years on diesel. This fuel can be expensive but unlike propane or kerosene it is readily available at any gas station. It is easily purchased until you can start producing your own.

Diesel units can quickly warm a room, heat for extended periods of time unattended and with large fuel storage tanks can last all winter on a single filling. Diesel is not free like passive solar but you can easily retrofit a home to utilize this heat source.

There are on demand water heating unit that run on diesel. These run from high end equipment designed for large homes to small less expensive units made for RV's and yachts.

You can also purchase diesel cooking stoves designed for yachts that can prepare food and heat a small home.

Diesel will be the back up heating source for Bear Ridge. Although I like passive solar better it will be easier to retrofit the cabin for diesel. And when I start producing biodiesel it can be traded or used in diesel fueled trucks and generators.

Other Heating Sources

At this time propane is a tempting choice because it is cheap and the heating hardware inexpensive. This will change as natural gas passes it peak production. There is a reason utility companies are spending billions to build thirty some off shore natural gas terminals. America is running out of domestic natural gas so cheap propane's time is also running out. As we start importing natural gas from overseas the price of domestic heating and electricity will skyrocket. You cannot produce propane on your own and it should never be used for heating your home.

Electric is out of the question for heating. A large percentage of domestic electricity is produced with natural gas turbines. As natural gas goes up in price so will electricity.

Pellet and corn burning stoves make great heat but you are relying on external supply sources out of your control. For this reason I can not recommend them.


The primary heating system should be either wood or passive solar with diesel used only for backup. These recommendation only apply to rural homes. City living creates its own unique set of heating problems that will be discussed at a later time.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Full Moon

Full Moon on December 23, 2007.

We were frantically gathering firewood when I noticed the moon rising in the east. My partner and I always spend Christmas at the cabin and in a rush to leave the house we forgot the chain saws. It was bitterly cold, I usually just start the kerosene heater until the wood stove warms up but fuel was forgotten with the saws. So we cut up enough dead wood for the night with a life saving bow saw.

Monday morning a friend of ours from town brought us out a load of firewood. It was the first time I every purchased firewood and I loved it. I will never cut wood again.

We had a great time after the house warmed up and spent a few relaxing days enjoying the peace and quiet. We ate, drank, entertained some friends and pretty much had a wonderful Christmas.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wine Making

Well it's more like a hooch.

Here is the super secret recipe for Bear Ridge Blue.

Take one gallon of Ocean Spray Cranberry/Blueberry drink. Heat to boiling and add 2 cups of white sugar. Pour into the fermenting carboy and let cool to room temperature. Add one half tea spoon of regular baking yeast and cap with an airlock. Let the stuff sit for about a month then drink.

The sweet tasting wine will knock you on your butt.

This recipe is very close to prison toilet hooch but I use real yeast instead of moldy bread and a clean carboy in place of the toilet bowl. It the little things that make all the difference.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Budget Survival - Basic Food Storage

Hardcore survivalists say you should store one to three years worth of food for each person in the household. This means nothing to the average person. We are going to look at some realistic numbers that will help you visualize and plan for the amount of food you should store and how that relates to your daily nutritional requirements.

We use 5 gallon buckets for storage. They are easy to move and hold a considerable amount of food. Here is the math 1 gallon = 16 cups so 5 gallons = 80 cups of whatever you are storing.

Rice Stocks

Lets say you eat one cup of dried rice per day. This is a common high energy food so one cup a day would be reasonable. That's 365 cups of rice per year or 22.8 gallons. Lets round that up to 25 gallons for the sake of easy math which gives us five-5 gallon buckets per person annually.

Note that it takes about 30 pounds of rice to fill a 5 gallon bucket. It will cost you about $60 for your 150 pound annual rice supply.

One cup of dried rice will make 3 cups of cooked rice with a total of about 650 calories.

Bean Stocks

You should eat one cup of dried beans every day. Beans have a very high nutritional value and one cup should do. That's 365 cups of beans per year rounded up gives us 25 gallons or five-5 gallon buckets per person annually.

It takes 32 pounds of pinto beans to fill a 5 gallon bucket. This will cost you about $90 for your yearly supply. I would recommend purchasing several different types of beans for variety. Do not mix the beans in the buckets, each bean type needs its own container. Pinto beans are used in this example because they are a good average bean. All varieties will have roughly the same caloric values.

One cup of dried pinto beans will make 2 1/2 cups of cooked beans with a total of about 620 calories.

Flour Stocks

Using the following simple ingredients you can make one loaf of bread; 3 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons of salt, 2 teaspoons (1 pack) of yeast and 1 1/8 cup of water. There are roughly 14 fat slices per loaf and you will eat 4 slices per day totaling two loafs per week. Our 5 gallon bucket of flour holds around 26 loafs of bread. At two loafs per week our bucket of flour will last 13 weeks.

You will need four-5 gallon buckets of flour per person annually. Now lets throw in an extra bucket so you can make bread for trade and possibly some cakes, that brings our total up to five-5 gallon buckets for one person every year.

Every bucket holds 25 pounds of flour and 26 packs of yeast. Just put the packs of yeast in with the flour this keeps everything that is necessary for the bread together. A five bucket supply will cost you about $82 per year per person.

One slice of bread contains 110 calories four slices per day contains 440 calories.

Other Stocks

Additionally you will need spices, sugar, barley (for beer), powdered milk and instant potatoes. We are not going to delve into amounts or costs of these items because
they are not necessary for survival and will vary greatly depending on personal preferences. You should also stock a several year supply of multi-vitamins.

The base stock of food will fill you up on 1710 calories per day, not nearly what Americans normally consume but nutritionally adequate. Personally I would recommend augmenting this plan with some dairy (powered) or egg products (freeze dried) and some Twinkies.
Only purchase dried foods that will not freeze, no canned food. This storage plan does not cover infants, growing children or people with special dietary needs. An adequate water supply for food preparation is necessary and not addressed in this plan.

Everything here can be prepared on a wood stove or in a solar over. The list is meant to hold you over until your garden can start producing. The basic one year per person supplies listed above will run you around $230 total, on a personal note I am ashamed to admit that I have spent more than that on a single meal. Think about how much we currently spend on food as a society and how many people that would feed world wide using this plan.

After analyzing the needs addressed above I realized that my partner and I only had about six months worth of food stocks rather than the one year supply I had originally assumed. Over the next couple of months we will be up stocking our supplies to total about two years worth of food. In January I am also going to attempt to live off the supplies listed above minus the Twinkies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Acupuncture and Herbology

As medicines become to expensive and traditional western doctors are exclusively retained by the elite the common people will once again turn to the ancient arts of Acupuncture and Herbology.

I was talking to this kid a few weeks back about his majoring in information technology at college. He was interested in my twenty plus years of experience in the field and wanted to know what I thought of his career choice. My response was simply that information technology is a dead industry and that he should go into nursing.

In retrospect I should have pointed him to either acupuncture or herbology. These two proven areas of health care have been around for thousands of years and are only discounted by corporate medicine because they cut into profit margins. It is not good business sense to tell a depressed person to go eat a fifty cent raw potato when they are feeling down when you can hook them on antidepressants at forty dollars a week for the rest of their life. Would you go to Walgreen's and buy an eight dollar tube of burn ointment if you could break off a piece of aloe vera plant growing in your back yard and sooth the burn for nothing. Where would the drug industry be today if you could replace most of their products with plants grown in your home garden?

I have two small dachshunds that I love very much so when a friend of mine told me her small wiener dog Joey hurt his back and could not walk it put me in a slight panic. She took Joey to the vet and was told it would run about twenty five hundred dollars for surgery which, she was informed, might not work. The vet suggested putting the dog to sleep. My friend then took Joey to a pet acupuncturist to see if anything could be done.

Now I admit that when she told me this I dismissed it as grief. A month later after four visits and four hundred dollars Joey was running and playing like nothing happened. He was cured without invasive surgery or extensive drug therapy at a fraction of the cost. Think about that.

The next time my back goes out rather than spending a week laid up on muscle relaxers and pain drugs I will be going straight to the acupuncturist. My partner had a recent health expo at his office. They had an acupuncturist there who stuck some needles in his ear for "general health". Now at first I thought this voodoo but he did not catch this flu bug I am just now getting over. I am becoming a convert.

My point is that Acupuncture and Herbology are two areas that will thrive in the coming years and if one could master these skills they would become indispensable to any society.

By the way that potato thing really works. Just get a raw baked potato, wash it and start eating. Something in the vegetable puts you in a much better state of mind.

Rule of Three for Survival

I just find this real interesting

You can go 3 minutes without air
You can go 3 hours without shelter
You can go 3 days without water
You can go 3 weeks without food
You can go 3 months without love

Sickness and Medicines

I have been sick a lot this fall and just got over the flu or something. My recent illness made me think about how I would deal with health issues living at the cabin. Not that I am worried about getting to the hospital or anything like that, I have great neighbors, but what about healing and for that matter getting sick in the first place.

Would that fresh cool air of the San Luis Valley help with getting over the bug? Would a healthy diet lacking fast food and 7-11 snacks aid in the recovery? The cabin has a little box full of the basic health care needs; Imodium, Tylenol, ibuprofen, Benadril, couple of different cough syrups and a big bottle of multi vitamins. Occasionally a pharmacist is necessary for proper drugs, what is a good general antibiotic that's easily stocked? How do you get prescription medicines with out proper prescriptions?

Personally I feel that a shot of whiskey, a cup of chicken soup and a few hours laying in the sun is the best remedy for anything that afflicts you. If not cured then at least you are in a much better mood. Sometimes I take a handful of vitamins if it seems to be real bad.

I work in a very unhealthy environment. My office is in an old raised floor server room located in a windowless basement that I share with about eight other people. The office is cold, dark and has its own air handling unit designed for server rooms, it cools without adding fresh air from outside. The job is tedious, depressing and if one of my co-workers gets sick invariably we all get sick. On the upside the work does not require a huge emotional investment and pays really well until I can move to the cabin full time.

The holiday season also forces us into revoltingly social situations surrounded by people coughing, sneezing and oozing various mucal substances. They all want to touch you and being somewhat introverted this can be quite stressful. Don't get me wrong I am not an isolationist I just want to be more selective with my company.

So, will being removed from this squalid mass of disease reduce the frequency of illness? Will living in the relative stress free alpine freshness of the San Luis Valley benefit my health? I am planning to move to the cabin in late May of 2008 let's hope I make it till then.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Evolution of an Idea

Its time for some honesty. In January 2000 when I first thought of purchasing land a sustainable lifestyle did not even enter the picture. I was living in Denver and tiring of the city life. Don’t get me wrong, I love Denver, it is a great city with a large and diverse gay population. I was really quite happy there. But being somewhat of an introvert I longed for solitude and seclusion. I wanted a place where I could run naked, have trees, a mountain view and no one around. They tend to frown on that running naked thing in the city.

So the criteria list of was a short three items: naked running in the trees, located close to Denver and reasonably priced. Well, there is no land close to Denver that is reasonably priced. After broadening the search I happened on Bear Ridge in the San Luis Valley and fell in love with it.

That first night camping on the ridge was incredible, I had never seen so many stars. There was a warm tent, a roaring campfire; I was naked, alone and it was great. After a few hours nature called. As I was squatting there chuckling to myself about a bear shitting in the woods I made a couple of life changing observations.

First, I wanted to live at Bear Ridge not just on weekends but full time, this was to be my home. Second, I would need a few modern conveniences because that whole squatting thing would be old real quick.

Over the next couple of years I built a super little cabin on the hill side with a stunning view of the mountains. During that time I learned a great deal about designing and building in a self sustaining manner. The cabin is completely off-grid and yet very comfortable with many “normal life” conveniences such as running water, a shower, lights, a stove/oven and even small hot tub out under the stars. The cabin is heated with wood and passive solar the power is generated with solar panels.

Now I did not set out to build a self sustaining cabin, it just evolved out of necessity. Had I planned self sufficiency from the beginning I would have chosen land that was flat, close to power, had shallow well depth an unobstructed southern exposure and employment opportunities. Also soil quality would have taken precedence over privacy. As it goes I am on the northern slope of a very secluded ridge at the end of a lane five miles from the nearest power with a four hundred foot well depth. Additionally, Costilla county is one of the poorest counties in the country with no industry other than potato farming, which I admire greatly.

Even though my little patch of mountain paradise is not exactly easy to maintain I would not trade it for anything. I now see the benefits of the sustainist movement; from the land, to the cabin, to me it all has to work together if a self sustained life experience is to be realized.

It’s the challenge that makes this whole life project interesting and fun. Check out my cabins website if you are interested.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bad Solar Oven

Alright, I built a solar oven last month and have tried in vain to increase the temperature. It gets up to a high of 170 degrees which is hot but not hot enough to bake bread. Beans were cooked in the oven a couple of times and they turned out good but I am concerned about not boiling them, they had to cook all day to be edible.

The problem appears to be the large design of the thing. It is a two by two foot square that one foot deep with a glass cover. The inside is lined with black sheet metal backed with half inch polyurethane insulation. The whole unit is tilted to align with the sun. There are no mirrored collectors on the front.

I will rework the unit with a smaller interior area and external collectors to see if that makes a difference.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bear Ridge Brewery

It was not the plan to make a dark beer but hey we got one.

Bear Ridge Black is our latest offering. This is a hardy dark beer with a robust swarthy aroma that stimulates the senses and enslaves the soul. The bubbles rising through the dark ale reminds one of stars filling a moonless mountain night. Best enjoyed on cold winter evenings in front of a roaring fire curled up with your partner naked on a bear skin rug.

If you prefer your beer light, Bear Ridge Morning Wood is an airy light brew whose fragrance and color reminds one of sunlight dancing across a dew covered stack of mountain pine at your local lumber yard. This energized lager can take the edge off the most difficult roofing project or lubricate the social wheels of any outdoor occasion, especially camp outings and rugby matches. It should be enjoyed in jeans and work boots…shirts are optional. This was previously brewed under the name Bear Ridge Bush Beer.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Update on the Farm

This is just a quick update on how the farm is coming along. The big planter in the foreground has two bean bushes and a pea plant. The far container holds three tomato plants started in mid October. The lower flat hold the rest of the tomatoes.

On Sunday more of the tomatoes will be replanted into larger containers. There are three tomatoes per container. Hopefully the fourteen inch planters are large enough for that number.

The rest of the farm is located in another south facing window in the other room. Grow space is becoming an issue and some shelves are going to be necessary in the next few weeks. The above plants are located in a south window on the back porch. There is really good sun but no heat in that part of the house so those plants are brought into the kitchen at night and sit for a few more hours under a low wattage plant lamp.

The beans and peas are now being started by placing them in a folded warm,wet wash cloth. They germinate within twelve to twenty four hours then are planted in the growth cups. The peppers, onions and carrots are still problem children. And the broccoli is coming along nicely.

A small herb garden was started in the eastern kitchen window and is come along nicely with parsley, rosemary, mint and oregano. They are being grown in small eight inch pots.