Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Adventures in Composting Human Waste into 'Humanure' Fertilizer

One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. — Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King, published in 1926

Recently I came across a spate of comments about “humanure,” or the composting of human waste. I thought I would share the experiences of our friend, Gus, in California who has been creating humanure compost for over 5 years.

But first, we have to recommend Joe Jenkins’ classic, The Humanure Handbook for anyone looking to pursue this wise practice. It is the seminal resource on the topic and available for free online (also available in print for purchase in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store).

Why Make ‘Humanure’?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already on board with humanure. But here are a few obvious reasons: clean water savings, infrastructure savings, and the transformation of waste into a resource. If you’d like more details on benefits of creating humanure, check out Joe’s book.

The house Gus bought 5 years ago was a super fixer-upper. Plumbing and toilet issues were one of the things he had to tackle right away. He decided early on that he wanted to make humanure, so in a sense, this streamlined his remodeling process.

How to Make a Humanure Toilet

Instead of new pipes and toilet in one of his bathrooms, he built an open-bottomed box with a plywood lid with a hole in it that just fits around a 5-gallon bucket.

On top of the lid, he mounted a toilet bowl lid with hinges. A little paint and voila! This is simple carpentry that just about anyone can do.

 So, the toilet is in the same spot as the original but is just a box and bucket now. He did keep a functioning toilet in his other bathroom, because it already worked and it’s nice to have the option for guests.

It takes his family of four about 3 to 4 days to fill the bucket. After each use, he adds a scoop (16 ounces) or two of “duff” — a mixture of about 16 parts sawdust and 1 part ashes. He’s learned that the ashes do a great job at mitigating any smells, of which there is surprisingly little.

When considering composting and the ratios of browns (carbon-rich materials) to greens (nitrogen-rich), the mix of human waste and duff is at a good ratio. And, he added, he also tends to pee outside and his kids are happy to do the same, so there is generally less urine in the mix.  He thinks this also keeps odors to a minimum.

How to Compost Human Waste into Humanure Fertilizer

When it comes time to empty the bucket, he brings it out to one of his compost bins specially reserved for humanure. His bins are about 4 by 4 by 4 feet in size, and he has five of them. He digs a small hole in the existing pile (and rotates where that hole is) and dumps the contents in. He covers with straw, any weeds nearby that can be easily pulled, and a shovelful of earth. He rinses the bucket, pours that liquid into the same pile and sets that bucket aside to dry and disinfect in the sun. It takes him about 6 months to fill a bin up to height.

He has just two buckets for the one toilet that he trades out each time. So, with five bins in rotation, the humanure composts for about two-and-a-half years — more than enough time to transform into amazing compost.

How to Fertilize Plants with Humanure

Gus uses the finished product — which is black and rich and has that wonderful earthy smell that tells you that you have a bit of gold in your hand — on his perennial crops, including trees, berry bushes, grapes, and so on with great success.

Permaculture Principle Number 6 is: “Produce No Waste.” With a bit of effort and a change in habit, he has transformed his waste into a valuable resource just like the Chinese who did the same for 1,000 generations.

A final note: Gus recently had his garden soil analyzed and assessed by a local professional composter and the compost master wondered whether Gus had even been using humanure, because the results were so comparable to gardens he manages.

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen is a tinkerer, natural builder, and community organizer in Reno, Nevada. He and his family run the Be the Change Project, a fossil fuel-, car-, and electricity-free urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service and simplicity and inspired by the principles of Gandhian Integral Nonviolence. They were honored as one of MOTHER’s Homesteaders of the Year in 2013. Read all of Kyle’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Green Clean Your Kitchen After a Remodel (with Natural Dish Soap Recipe)

Green Kitchen 1

After we remodeled our kitchen, everything was a dusty mess. While the countertops and appliances looked amazing, it was overwhelming to see the new kitchen dirty, dusty and covered in plastic. From the floors to the ceiling, I had a lot of work to do to transform the newly renovated kitchen of my dreams into a kitchen I could actually cook in—a place where I could serve my family healthy meals.

If you have just remodeled or you’re about to start a big kitchen renovation, here are some pointers for green cleaning your kitchen afterwards to save you time and money. There’s no need to hire someone to come in and clean up the contractor’s dust — you’ve got this!

Clean methodically. Work top to bottom, inside toward the center or from the right in a clockwise motion. The idea is to avoid spreading the dirt and dust around.

Use a natural cleaner. Have your sponges, rags and homemade green cleaning dish soap handy, because all you need is natural soap and some water for the basic cleaning of nearly every kitchen surface. See my favorite green cleaning recipe below.

Sweep first. Do not bother wiping down the kitchen, the sink or any appliances until you’ve done all of the sweeping and vacuuming. Dust will fly around as you sweep and vacuum, so you will just end up having to clean your kitchen twice if you don’t do those first.

A new use for tennis balls. Put a tennis ball on the handle end of your broom and use it to erase any scuff marks on your floor from equipment or moving furniture.

Clean your sink last. After you’re done cleaning everything else, you’ll want to make your new sink nice and shiny. Just sprinkle baking soda in your sink. Cut a lemon, lime or orange in half. Using your half-cut citrus fruit, scrub your sink well. Rinse with hot water and your sink will be clean and shiny. For step-by-step directions, including how to clean other stainless steel appliances, read this article.

Expect some lingering dust. Be prepared to see dust for weeks. Even after you think you’ve cleaned it all, you’ll notice that dust will appear where you may have missed it. Expect this for a few weeks and before you know it, it will be gone. Just keep sweeping, vacuuming and wiping!

Green Kitchen 2

My Favorite Green Cleaning Dish Soap Recipe

Ingredients:

• 1 ½ cups of hot water
• 1 Tbsp (or up to ½ cup, depending on preference) of Castile soap, grated
• 1 Tbsp white vinegar
• 1 Tbsp washing soda
• 2-3 drops of tea tree oil

Directions:

Mix all of the ingredients together in a small pan. When you add in the Castile soap, keep in mind how thick you want your homemade dish soap to be. The less Castile you add, the thicker the dish soap will be.

Add hot water and slowly cook on low until the soap is completely dissolved, stirring continually. Let cool before use. I favor this recipe because it cleans well, smells great and does not have too many suds.

With a good attitude, a great vacuum, and a few rags soaked in your homemade dish soap, you’ll have a clean kitchen in no time at all. The best part of our kitchen remodel is that my home value increased and I now love spending time in my kitchen. It was a huge investment, but every time I see my shiny sink, I know it was worth it.

If you’re thinking about a renovation and not sure where to start, Home Depot and Coldwell Banker’s Ultimate Guide to Planning a Kitchen Remodel can help. For more remodeling inspiration, you can check out this infographic from Home Depot and The Daily Meal.

Sommer Poquette is the Green and Clean Mom who enjoys providing eco-friendly tips for cleanup activities around the home. Sommer’s advice for post-renovation projects will make your kitchen area shine while also reducing your environmental impact. Sommer writes online for The Home Depot, where you can review a wide range of kitchen renovation ideas here. Read all of Sommer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

5 Ways Hiring an HVAC Professional Can Save You Money

HVAC Technician Testing Heating

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) projects may not seem all that difficult. However, many homeowners opt to hire a professional to ensure quality results on their HVAC system maintenance and upgrades.

Have you wandered the aisles of your local home improvement store trying to determine what you need for your home’s air conditioning or furnace? If you are unsure about what is wrong with your equipment, get a professional’s opinion or you could be spending money unnecessarily.

Even if you have considered replacing the system yourself, talk to some HVAC professionals before you go down the DIY road. HVAC professionals are the experts for all things HVAC. It is the job of the HVAC professional to know what to do and how to work with your HVAC system. Here are 5 ways hiring an HVAC professional save you money.

1. Before you make that first call to an HVAC professional, write down all of your questions and concerns. If you want to know if you should replace or upgrade your system, be sure to note your questions on the list. If you want to see if your system can handle central air conditioning, write it down so you remember to ask.

Having your questions written out allows you to take notes when discussing your potential HVAC project with the company. Some companies may not do what you need or want done. It is best to know before hiring a company that they can only do a portion of the needed work for your job. Having to hire an additional company can increase the overall cost of the job and prolong the completion of the project.

2. Select three HVAC installation companies in your area. Check their websites to make sure they are licensed, bonded, and insured (regulations and licenses vary by state). By making sure they are properly licensed, bonded, and insured, it protects you, the homeowner, from injuries or mistakes made by the contractor while on your property.

Read the reviews for all of the companies on the Better Business Bureau’s website to see what previous customers’ experiences have been with each company.

3. Ask for a written quote from each HVAC installation company you contact. This allows you to know exactly what costs for parts and labor will be before the job is started. When comparing the three price quotes, look at how much each is charging for parts and labor.

Jay Ellis of Halo Heating and Cooling said “The most common way customers overspend on HVAC installations is by not getting a fair fixed rate price.”

Is it a fixed price for the project or is it by the hour? Per project rates mean the clock is not being watched. Per hour rates mean a 2-hour job could turn into a 6-hour job, sometimes due to unethical business practices. When in doubt, call the company back and ask for a more detailed quote and explanation of their charges.

4. HVAC professionals work with HVAC and electrical systems daily. It is what they are trained to do. While DIY techniques may work for some areas of the home, let the experts repair and replace the HVAC in your home or business.

5. Hiring an HVAC professional and having a professional installation of your HVAC equipment usually gives you a warranty on the equipment along with labor, depending upon your contract. Be sure to ask the questions before agreeing to the installation or repair work.

HVAC repairs and installation are not without some cost. The cost comes from the equipment being installed, the labor to have it installed or repaired, and the warranty for the equipment and possibly labor to have it replaced.

If you are in the market for an HVAC equipment upgrade or you know yours will need repairs, make the calls today for repair or installation quotes. This allows you to save if needed and to add the costs to your household or business budget.

Photos by BigStock.com

Adrienne Z. Milligan is a Certified Square-Foot Gardening Instructor and is known for taking too many photos of her own garden. As mother to a gluten-free family, Adrienne loves to try new recipes and find new products to share. Growing up near Mt. St. Helen's (and remembering when it erupted in 1980) has been part of the motivation for Adrienne and her family to become more prepared for emergencies. Find Adrienne on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her bio page for more places to connect with her on the web.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Building with Physical Limitations

Even in our modernized age when almost everything is done at the click of a keyboard, being able-bodied is still an essential part of building your own house, starting a homestead, and keeping it going. But what do you do if certain health problems interfere with your homesteading goals? Should you accept that some things just aren’t meant to be – like building with your own hands, for example?

It is my belief that there is an alternative way to do pretty much anything, and even to profit from the seemingly untoward circumstances that might seem as a death certificate to your dream.

When my husband and I began working on building our cabin, there were certain setbacks which threatened the whole project. My husband has spinal disc herniation, and is unable lift anything heavy. I was pregnant at the time, which obviously meant I needed to be extra careful about what I attempted to do.

Our work-in-progress cabin

The interior of our cabin - work in progress

Living with back injury is a constant struggle for everyone, especially someone aiming to homestead. Even a simple thing such as getting a sack of chicken feed out of the car can be a problem, and we often ask a neighbor for help with that. We have a gas heater rather than a wood stove because chopping wood just isn’t something my husband is up to. So building?

Still, we plunged in and made it, and our cabin is now nearly completed. Here is how we did it – and how you can, too.

Build small

Our cabin is about 700 square feet – a compact, efficiently utilized space which is going to serve as a cozy home to five people. Building small means you need little to no special equipment or heavy machinery.

Almost all the work can be done manually, with simple tools that can be easily operated by anyone, even with no prior building experience.

Build Slow

I realize sometimes things need to be done fast – for example, a structure raised before winter – but for us, building slow and tackling one thing at a time meant being able to do more ourselves, rather than hiring workers for everything from start to finish.

After the main structure and the roof were completed, we could take our time for anything that needed to be done on the inside.

Appreciate your Community

We had plenty of opportunities to do that, as our friends and neighbors stepped up to the task with the generous gift of their time, skill and sweat. Many work days were completed with now one friend, then another, lending a hand. It was a hot summer, and several times a day I cruised between our rented home to the building site across, bringing bottles of cold drinks and platters of chilled watermelon.

It wasn’t just work – it was a time of getting together and strengthening community ties. We were all in it together, and had lots of fun along the way, too.

Hire More Hands

In our case, there was no getting around the need of hiring workers. Most of them are people who live nearby and whom we know and appreciate, so this means our money went towards supporting local economy. Some workers, especially during the summer, were high school kids looking for a few days’ or weeks of work. For the most part, they were thrilled to be actually doing something meaningful – building a real house for a real family. Much better than working for a fast food chain!

Of course, we took every possibly safety precaution and paid everyone fairly. The teenage boys had lunch with us every day (and let me tell you, it gave me some practice at cooking large batches), which created a personal connection and plenty of interesting conversation around the table.

Our house is no less our own because we didn’t actually do everything ourselves. We still poured our efforts into planning, supervising, selecting and ordering the materials (or looking for recycled ones) and whatever work we were physically able to do.

An important thing to remember is, even if you begin your homesteading journey as young, physically capable people, it’s a long haul and a lot of things can happen along the way. A neighbor of ours, a young man in his twenties, severely injured his arm during a work accident. People from the neighborhood stepped up with any help that was needed, from chopping firewood to bringing meals for the family.

Back injuries are a common plight with people who do hard physical work; and, of course, people age and have to re-evaluate their abilities as the years go by. This doesn’t mean you have to give up on living the life you love – just that you do things a little differently than you might have done otherwise.

With realistic evaluation of your possibilities, some thinking outside the box, and a network of caring, supportive friends, homesteading and building a sustainable, economical home are still possible, even if you can’t actually do everything with your own hands.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook, find her as SmallFlocksMom on Earthineer, and read more about her current projects on her blog. 


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Considerations For 'Going Green' at Home

 

Have you made the commitment to go fully green and pursue a sustainable lifestyle from now on? Then my friend, you have made a serious commitment. Going green is more than a cliché. It’s much bigger than recycling and taking your own eco-friendly bag to the grocery store, or simply buying energy efficient light bulbs.

While those actions are praiseworthy, going green is a choice — one that requires a dramatic shift in how you live your life.

Understand the Meaning Behind “Go Green”

Going green means reducing our negative impact on the environment and embracing a consumption level that can be sustained by nature through time. As Sustainable Baby Steps confirms, going green is about “creating a lifestyle that works with Nature, instead of against it, and does no long-term or irreversible damage to any part of the environmental web.”

For homeowners, going green not only involves investing in energy efficient materials and appliances, but also taking deliberate “green” actions in the little areas of their lives.

Evaluate Your Home’s Energy Expenditure

If you're concerned about climate change and want to do your fair share for the environment, then your home is an excellent place to start. But how do you know where to start when you can’t identify the problems? Getting an energy audit is the answer. An energy auditor will inspect your home, using diagnostic equipment to identify where your building is wasting energy. This process should include:

• A blower test to determine whether doors and windows seal properly;
• A thermography test to pinpoint areas of heat loss;

• A visual inspection of HVAC systems, including crawl spaces;

• A moisture inspection to locate water leaks and moisture deposit;

• An appliance and lighting inspection to assess their energy efficiency.

As Energy.gov explains, an energy audit “is the first step to assess how much energy your home consumes and to evaluate what measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient.” Homeowners who follow the recommendations made on the audit can save up to 30% on their energy bills.

Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

Knowledge is power and when it comes to going green, knowing your options can greatly help you to prioritize and invest smart. Besides researching for green alternatives and learning all you can about pursuing a green lifestyle, you can also calculate your personal carbon footprint and start making small changes right now.

Calculating your carbon footprint will enable you to see the amount of greenhouse gases your household contributes to the earth's atmosphere each year. The figure is generated based on a number of factors such as where you live, how local power is generated, what kind of car you drive, and whether or not you recycle. You can then plan your home renovation around the energy audit and the carbon footprint result to assess the effectiveness of your home improvement and stay on track.

It’s Not All About Your Home

Going green at home is a noble quest. However, one thing to remember is that your home is not everything. Living is also about cultivating green habits and educating those around you.

Let your home be the headquarters of your “going green” mission and spread the love for Mother Earth from there!

Paul Kazlov is a metal roofing expert and has grown Global Home Improvement to be the Mid-Atlantic's largest installer of residential metal roofing, saving the everyday homeowner money on energy costs. He has installed more than 1,000 metal roofs and more than 2 million square feet of standing seam, metal slate, and metal tile, helping the Philadelphia-New Jersey-New York area. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulKazlov. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Better Wood Heat: Rocket Mass Heater FAQs Answered

Rocket Mass Heater In TP

What Is a Rocket Mass Heater?

First, let me just start off by saying that as a full-time resident of a very rural community in hardiness Zone 3b, heat is a priority for me — a big one. However, as a working mother of an adorable tornado of a toddler, time is limited, and I just don’t have all summer and fall to help my husband gather and split wood anymore.

Simply put: I love rocket mass heaters. I love the idea of splitting less wood. Of doing less work. There, I said it.

Rocket mass heaters are essentially a wood-burning stove, but with a few interesting adjustments that make it crazy efficient. These heaters can burn up to 90% less wood (seriously, these things runs off of twigs). And thanks to the addition of thermal mass, they’re wonderfully effective at not only heating a space, but keeping it warm long after the fire goes out.

How Do Rocket Mass Heaters Work?

Rocket mass heaters burn a little differently that a typical wood stove, and by that I mean they burn sideways. Yep. Sideways fire. It’s pretty cool.

The rocket stove itself is essential a burn chamber that extends horizontally into a vertical stack inside of a large insulated barrel, which we call the core of the rocket stove. This core is super insulated, which creates a strong draft to pull the flame back into the core, and keep smoke from backing up into your house.

As that smoke is pulled into the barrel, it’s rapidly cooled, heating the barrel itself, which can be used as a cooking surface at that point. Now, here’s where the magic happens.

From the barrel, rather than just going up and out a chimney, the smoke weaves and winds its way through a circuitous route of exhaust piping, typically wound through a thermal mass.

Rocket Mass Heater Diagram

The idea is that, most often in a conventional wood burning stove, most of the heat of the fire is actually lost in the exhaust, and just goes right up and out of your house — what a waste!

With this design, every iota of heat is collected and transferred to the living space, and as a result, what eventually comes out of your chimney is incredibly clean smoke — almost steam, so there are very few pollutants that wind up being emitted as a result of trying to stay warm.

What’s the Difference Between a Rocket Mass Heater and a Rocket Stove?

If you’re new to this idea, I want to make sure I cover this topic top to bottom. There are a lot of exhaustive books on the design and function of rocket mass heaters, but let’s get back to basics here.

Firstly, what is the difference between rocket mass heaters and rocket stoves?

Simply put, they’re essentially the same thing, one just has an extra component. The rocket stove itself is the wood stove with the sideways-burning chamber and insulated barrel.

What makes a rocket stove a rocket mass heater is simply just the addition of thermal mass — typically a hand-sculpted cob bench — built around the exhaust piping.

What is Thermal Mass?

A big part of what makes a rocket mass heater so incredible is its integration with a thermal mass. The result isn’t just wildly functional and efficient - in many cases, it’s downright beautiful.

A thermal mass is essentially any dense material that has the potential to hold onto heat energy because of its mass. Think about when you touch a stone in a fire pit after the fire’s gone out — it’s still warm. That’s because even after the fire goes out, that stone is still holding onto and slowly releasing the heat energy of the fire.

The idea behind using the right thermal mass with a rocket mass heater is that your heat doesn’t just blast at you all at once — it’s stored up gradually in that mass, and is then gradually released back into the surrounding cooler air, adjust temperature gradually, and holding indoor climate at a stable level for longer.

Like I said before, many people choose to build a beautiful cob bench or bed around their rocket stove exhaust, as in the picture below, but there are so many possibilities with a design like this, and thanks to its relative newness, there are so many opportunities to innovate.

Maybe you need to heat a fish pond for an aquaponics system? Maybe you’re trying to grow lemons in Montana and need an auxiliary heat source? Rocket mass heaters can do it, and for a fraction of the wood expenditures that you would normally see with a conventional wood stove.

Can I Build a Rocket Mass Heater Myself?

Yes! This is the really cool part — even though it’s rocket stoves we’re talking about here, it’s really not rocket science to put one together.

Now, that being said, I’m a mom, so let me mom you for a bit with this warning: when putting things that you light on fire in your house, do your research. There are plenty of resources out there available for this type of project, with experts to give you all the information you need to create a safe and effective rocket mass heater in your own home. Don’t be sloppy or haphazard — become a student of the rocket stove if this is something you want to build.

There, lecture over. Now the cool part.

The thing is, rocket mass heaters are still relatively unheard of where mainstream heating is concerned, so there’s a lot of room for fresh professionals to rise to the call and continue to innovate alongside industry experts like Ernie and Erica Wisner and Paul Wheaton.

Not only can you build one yourself, but if you’re really ambitious (and really good at it), you might even be able to make a career out of it. Dare to dream, right?

Where Can I Learn How to Build a Rocket Mass Heater?

Okay, now for a list of all of those handy-dandy learning resources:

Better Wood Heat: DIY Rocket Mass Heaters (4 DVD Set)

If you’re a visual learner and need to see one of these in action, this DVD set from Paul Wheaton over at Permies.com is a good way to get a feel for how these things work are put together. The set covers two different styles — cob and pebble — and also features a DVD all about the core itself.

Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide by Ernie and Erica Wisner

This is a brand new book put out by touted experts and MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR speakers Ernie and Erica Wisner, and is full of design information, as well as pro tips from the duo to help ensure a greater chance of success for you.

Rocket Mass Heater GIF Animation 

Photos courtesy RichSoil.com

Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Using Rainwater in the Laundry Room

Back when every home had a wooden barrel stationed below the rainspout, our grandmothers knew rainwater was a must for washing hair. Grandma probably even knew why water falling from the sky felt better than that pumped from the ground. Admittedly, I didn’t know the benefits of cleaning with rainwater until going off-grid with my laundry duties.

1937 laundry ad

When we tested our well water for impurities, the only bad mark we received was in that our water was extremely hard – containing heavy calcium and magnesium mineral deposits. So what, I thought. Well, as it turns out, while hard water is safe to drink, it interferes with every cleaning process because it does not dissolve soap. More soap (or, worse yet, chemical detergents) and hotter water are required to get clothes clean in hard water, neither of which appeals to my frugal, environmentalist nature.

Below is a map depicting water hardness prepared by the United States Geological Survey from rivers, creeks and streams tested in 1975. The more milligrams per liter, the harder the water. Hardest waters (greater than 1,000 mg/L) were measured in streams in Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona and southern California. Water from drilled wells is almost always harder than that taken from surface rivers.water hardness map

I learned in my 1909 copy of “Household Discoveries” a simple test for discerning at home whether water is fit for laundry purposes:

Test for Water Hardness

Simply dissolve a dab of good white soap in rubbing alcohol. Put a few drops of this mixture into a glass of water. “If the water is pure, the soap solution will be dissolved and the water will continue limpid, but if it is impure the soap will form into white flakes which will tend to float on the surface.”

To test this, I used two glasses of water – one from our drilled well and the other from the stock tank below the rain gutter. The soap disappeared immediately in the rainwater, but never dissolved or made suds in the hard water. After an hour, the well water glass also had a scummy ring on top.

water hardness home test

For years, I accused my electric washing machine of doing a second-rate job of cleaning our clothes. Who would have thunk it was merely a water issue? Now that I wash with rainwater, our laundry is no longer crispy-crunchy or besmirched and grey.

Using Rainwater in Electric Machines

Before actually going off-grid, I ran a garden hose from the rain tank outside to our electric washing machine in the basement just to see if the machine would launder better. It did, and I no longer had to add borax, washing soda or vinegar to the rinse cycle. While these additives are natural and relatively inexpensive, it is one more step to perform (and remember before the spin cycle ends).

For such a system to work, the rainwater source must be higher than the washing machine to gravity-feed the water. Or, a pump must be installed. Elaborate plans are available online, although the simplest (and most labor intensive) is to pour buckets of rainwater into the machine to fill it. Depending on the machine size, this could be 15 gallons per cycle.

“Household Discoveries” lists several ways to soften water, but also acknowledges that rainwater is absolutely best for cleaning anything, even without soap. In case of drought when a sufficient supply of rainwater cannot be obtained, however, here are some old-time methods for softening water:

To Soften Hard Water

“Bring the water to a boil and expose it to the air, which may be done by pouring it from some height into a tub or other vessel, and afterwards letting it stand overnight.

“Or boil it with the addition of a little baking soda, and afterwards expose it to the air.

“Or place a quantity of clean wood ashes in a tightly closed woolen bag and immerse the bag in a tub of water. The required amount of ashes can be ascertained by experiment.

“Or use chalk, which may be put into the spring or well or used in a tub or bucket, the proper amount depending upon the extent of the impurities, and to be determined in each locality by experiment.

“Or add a small quantity of borax or potash or soda lye, but care must be taken not to use too much, as otherwise the alkali they contain will injure the fabrics.

“Or add 1 to 2 tablespoonfuls of quicklime to each tubful of water. Slake the lime with a little warm water, stirring it to a cream, pour it into a tubful or boilerful of water, and let stand overnight or long enough to settle to the bottom. Pour off the clear water, taking care not to disturb the sediment.”

These water-softening tips make collecting rainwater much more appealing, don’t they?

Girls with laundry basket

Rainwater's Cleanliness

We do not live in an industrial area or have large tree limbs overhanging our roof, which is metal.  As such, we have only an ordinary mesh screen over the rain tank to keep out bugs and other debris.   If the roof is asphalt or other airborne contaminants are a concern, the first few gallons of rainwater can be diverted away from the cistern (referred to as first flushing). 

Where pollution is heavy, the water can also be filtered. A free-standing drip filter such as the Katadyn Drip Gravadyn can be easily installed in a rainwater harvesting system.  And here is information about an old-time rainbarrel filter.

Rainwater Collection Resources from Mother Earth News

MOTHER EARTH NEWS has many wonderful articles about collecting rainwater. These were useful to us when we set up our own “cloud juice” system:

1. Build a Rainwater Harvesting System

2. Build a Rainwater Collection System

3. Harvesting Rainwater: How to Make a Rain Barrel

4. A Better Rainwater-Harvesting System

Photos by Linda Holliday, U.S. Geological Surveys, "Household Discoveries" and National Archives.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump. Read all of Linda’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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