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

Should We Be Unplugging Our Electronics?

Electrical Outlet Plugged In 

Here in the Midwest, outside of Oklahoma, we don’t really see many power surges and/or outages. When I was living in Thailand I noticed that everyone unplugs everything after they’ve used it. The TV, coffee machine, fans, and cell phone chargers all get unplugged, no matter how inconvenient it is. It didn’t really seem like an inconvenience to them either, simply a way of life, a habit.  I was curious to the reasons for doing this and what were all the benefits.

In Thailand I did experience a fair share of power surges and once one of the electrical boxes at the school I was teaching at caught fire. So, I knew that unplugging things can help to prevent fires but is that it? I reached out to my social media community and found that a friend, Robin, unplugs anything with a light or display, saving her 40% on her monthly bill. 

My tv and cable box are pictured plugged in and then unplugged. I have become more aware of being intentional about unplugging them when I leave home or before I go to bed, along with other devices in the kitchen that have a light or display. 

Watts, Watt-hours, and Kilowatt-hours

Lets remember the distinction between watts (W) and kilowatt-hours (kWh). A watt is a unit of power (1 horsepower = 746 watts).  Here is an example, a 100-watt light bulb uses twice as much power at any given moment as a 50-watt bulb. To determine how much electricity the light bulb consumes, we need to know how long the light was left on (watts x hours) to get Kilowatt-hours, simply divide the watt-hours then by 1000. 

  • Watt and Kilowatt-hour (kWh)
  • Your electricity provider charges you 11 cents ($.11) per kWh.
  • You have an Electric Heater that consumes 1500 watts (1.5kw). You use the Electric Heater for 3 hours everyday.
  • For 3 hours it will cost you 1.5kw x 3hours = 4.5kWh x .11 = .495 cents (50 cents)
  • Over a month it will cost you .495 x 30days = $14.85

Source: TipsandTricks

Now that may not sound like a significant amount at first but it adds up, fast. Especially when on average we each have about 40 products constantly drawing power according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL). Look around you. What is plugged in?

Individually, the electricity flowing to a TV that's been turned off or a microwave is extremely small, but together, these sleeping devices may account for as much as 10% of household energy use [source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory].

However, because so many devices have become computer-controlled, everything from your washer to your toaster oven to your hot water heater is benefiting from those efficiency gains, sometimes reducing standby power by as much as 90%. [source:Reviewed] Revealing to me that watching the products standby power consumption is important. Replacing older appliances with newer, more efficient models (ones with the Energy Star) allows you to get a return on your investment too. It’s a wise purchase. Changing any incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, which use less energy and last longer is wise too. 

It feels good to incorporate intentional practices to decrease my household energy consumption and to see a decline in the utility bill is helpful during these times. 

NaQuela Pack is a volunteer manager, TEFL teacher, mindfulness facilitator, reiki practitioner, community advocate, and nonprofit board member in Wichita, Kan. Following a year living in Thailand, where Naquela researched the science of mindfulness in adults and in youth in the public education system, created the virtual space Insight 2 Heal a platform to connect and expand mindfulness, movement, and self-care practices. Connect with NaQuela on Facebook and with Insight 2 Heal on Facebook and Instagram. Read all of her 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.

Why We Chose to Dig a Well and Use ICF Construction

Hip Roof All-Round 

In this installment, I wanted to share with you why we chose to have a dug well versus drilled and why we chose an ICF constructed house on our final homestead. Let’s talk about our choice of water well and home construction.

Dug Well Versus Drilled

Back over 40 years ago when I first started homesteading in Maine, I had a well driller come in and bore a hole in the earth for our water. We had an awesome, reliable water source that never ran out on us. For that well, I had a traditional deep well hand pump set atop the casing and I also added piping direct to the kitchen sink in the house with a shallow well hand pump for our “running water.”

In Maine, we had areas of exposed ledge rock so it would have been a poor site to try digging a well either by hand or excavator. When we moved to the wilderness of Saskatchewan, we added an electric shallow well water pump to our experiences and sucked water initially out of the lake. Years later, we hand dug our well closer to the house which was made possible because we were sitting on a sand knoll compliments of the last glacier to sculpted the area.

On our Nova Scotia homestead, we had the choice of a machine dug or drilled well. It was a no-brainer to dig it with an excavator. First off, our land has a thick layer of overburden which is the material which sits on top of the bedrock. So other than large boulders and rock that might be encountered, we were confident we could excavate deep enough to hit a good supply of water.

Excavator Dug Water Well

Add in the fact that we are sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean 200 feet away and one takes a costly chance of drilling a deep well with the potential for salt water intrusion into the well. And finally, the area we live is known for gold production and elevated levels of arsenic can be found in the ground. No need to bore a deep hole exposing us to higher levels of arsenic if we can help it.

So thus far, we have a dug well supplying us with our daily water needs which has worked out great.

Framed Home or ICF?

My first house in Maine was the typical framed construction. The difference was I had never built a house before, I used 2-by-6 wall studs and all the lumber used to frame the house came from our property and was sawn using a portable sawmill.

That house is still standing and was a great learning experience. It was built rugged with storm corner bracing chiseled and set in each corner which made for sturdy construction. Maine is a cold climate but then when we made the move to the wilderness of northern Saskatchewan, we stepped the cold environment up a few notches, to the tune of -57 degrees Fahrenheit one winter.

We were well aware of that trait of long, cold winters and I wanted to have a warm, efficient house. I had logged for 20 years in Maine and can cut firewood in a hurry but I didn’t want to be spending all my time cutting and lugging firewood. So I pondered how best to build an energy efficient home.

I didn’t like the current construction methods and we had the additional burden of having to fly all building materials in to our remote lake front site. The following excerpt is taken from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

“Because of the potential for such extreme cold, when I was engineering the house years ago, I wanted the home to be super insulated, so I searched for appropriate construction methods. After spending time researching the topic in the construction trades section of the library, I was uninspired by what I found. The basic principles for a warm dwelling are insulation, minimal thermal bridges between inside and outside, and eliminating drafts and air exchange as much as possible. The concepts are simple enough, but incorporating those various elements into a building would be more involved than I expected.

We ended up with a house with 10-inch-thick insulated walls, with minimal studs. Even wood conducts heat, albeit poorly, so the fewer studs reaching from the inside of the wall directly to the outside of the wall the better. Our walls have very few studs making direct contact from interior to exterior. The vast majority of the studs in the wall are made up of pairs of studs with an insulating strip of blue board between their narrow face (two 2-by-4s arranged this way to create one 2-by-8 equivalent). That strip of blue board breaks up the direct transfer of heat from the inside to the outside. We inserted fiberglass insulation in all the wall voids and then sheathed the interior wall with a layer of blue board Styrofoam. In my research, I couldn’t find anyone designing or constructing walls the way I did.

Ventilation and Insulation

One of the smartest things we did was to properly install a plastic vapor barrier. This is just heavy gauge plastic that comes on a roll. Extra hands really help to hold the plastic in place during installation, especially when covering the ceilings. We taped all seams of the plastic barrier with a special ultra-sticky tape made for that purpose. In a typical house, a great deal of air infiltrates the dwelling through all the outlets, so we installed plastic inserts into all the outlet and switch openings located on the outside walls. These plastic inserts were manufactured products made for just this purpose.

We also taped and sealed their seams. Windows and doors also have some leakage, and the trick is to minimize all of this air flow. The end result is that we now are basically living in a large plastic bag. With a house so tight, there are no drafts, and interior temperature is constant regardless of room or corner. At -57 degrees F, it was easy to keep the house warm that day.

However, ventilation is necessary. It’s nice to be airtight, but we still need to breathe. We don’t live out here with a permanent tinge of blue on our faces due to a lack of oxygen. To that end, we installed ventilation tubes through the walls, both upstairs and downstairs. Ventilation tubes are a commercial product that allows a homeowner to control the venting of their house very easily. They’re adjustable, so you have a great deal of flexibility with how much outdoor air comes into the house. It’s better to have a tight house and be able to control what air enters than to have a leaky house over which you have no control.

Another key for a warm house is the attic insulation. Normally, the roof rafters come down and rest on the top wall plates, tying into the ceiling joists. The weak link in the attic insulation is down in the area where the roof rafter meets the wall, the space in the attic right over the exterior walls. In order to create more insulating space, we put another plate on top of the ceiling joists and then put the roof rafters on top of that. Doing this allowed us to stuff insulation into the area uncompressed, which gave full insulation value.”

Three years ago, we left the wilderness to build our last homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia and the main concern wasn’t cold winters but exposure to winds.

ICF Building Blocks

I am quite confident I could have taken all the knowledge from our first two home building projects and built a safe wood frame home here. But there was a relatively new technique we chose to use. ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) It’s an interesting idea. The form is thick foam insulation that sandwiches a 6 inch core of reinforced concrete. The concrete is the super structure and the foam insulation provides the insulation value as well as the vapor barrier. There are some pros and cons with this. Obviously it produces a very sturdy structure but running electrical wiring and plumbing on the exterior walls is more of an ordeal.

I tend to over engineer things so the roof was framed with purchased trusses in the shape of a hip roof all round. That shape will shed the wind the best. Those trusses had hurricane ties not only on the exterior, but I over killed it by putting hurricane ties on the inside as well. Then I sheathed the roof by first using a premium glue. Then the sheathing was screwed down and for good measure, I nailed it as well.

Roof Sheathing

We aren’t worried about the concrete structure withstanding a CAT 5 hurricane (which is unlikely up here), but the roof is the weak link and I didn’t want to look stupid doing a lousy construction job and then watching the roof as it blows off into the woods in a light breeze. I am quite confident the house and roof will withstand anything the weather cares to throw our way.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors of The Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Home Waste-Reduction Options: Beyond Recycling or Donating (Video)


We know that recycling is the easiest way to ensure that some of our household waste, doesn’t end up in the landfill. But recycling isn't an option for a majority of our household waste, like food, clothes or furniture! And in some localities, once commonly recycled items, like glass, are no longer being accepted for recycling, because it’s become cost inefficient.

This year I learned that trying to figure out what to do with old household items was no easy task. It was time to finally replace my living room sofa and love seat. Knowing that it would just end up in the landfill, I tried to research ways to donate it or to have it recycled…with little success. In the end, my old sofa finally ended up on the driveway with a “free” sign attached to it. Luckily some neighbors took the furniture home with them to be re-used. Whew!

How can we re-purpose household waste other than recycling or donating?

Did you know that a major furniture company will actually pay you for your old furniture? And that there are many other ways to purge your old clothing instead of donating them (which may just end up in a landfill) or using sites like Craigslist to sell them? Coffee doesn’t just perk you up, but that its grounds can be repurposed for the garden and as a beauty ritual.   

This short video offers five unique tips on how to give a second life to some of the most wasteful household items (food, clothes, and furniture).

Whimsical Home Building with Lightweight Concrete

Outside view of the house. What will someday be the front door is presently bricked up forming a niche inside. The studio is in the background. Note the re-bar sticking out to add on the second floor later.

The following is an excerpted from Home Work: Hand Built Shelter (Shelter Publications, 2004) by long-time MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor Lloyd Kahn. The book features more than 1,500 photos illustrate various innovative architectural styles and natural building materials that have gained popularity in the last two decades, such as cob, papercrete, bamboo, adobe, strawbale, timber framing and earthbags. If you love fine, fun or funky buildings, you will want to own this splendid book.

Author’s note: I ran across Steve Kornher’s work on the web. Steve has been building for 30 years, 15 of those in Mexico. He’s worked with adobe and rammed earth as well as various types of concrete masonry construction. He is now “completely in love with lightweight volcanic aggregate.” Here is his account and photos of his latest work.

My wife, Emilia, and I live on a 2-acre ranchito about 25 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains of central Mexico (6,200 feet elevation). Our home is a work in progress: built Mexican style, pay as you go, and leave the re-bar sticking out for future additions. We built the house and large warehouse over a period of two years, using two (sometimes three) masons at a time. Building slowly is a lot more enjoyable and you can be more creative, since you can think things over and make changes.

The house presently has about 1,200 square feet (110 square meters) of interior space with plenty of terraces for outdoor living. Most of the first floor is of adobe construction. Later, additions and roofs were added made of lightweight volcanic aggregate. South-facing windows and an overhang provide passive solar heat in the wintertime. All roofs are masonry vaults with shell motifs. Mexico has some great masons, and I owe a lot to the knowledgeable maestros who have helped me figure out how to do this wild and crazy stuff.

I originally came to San Miguel for a 2-week ceramics workshop, got into potpourri and botanical exporting (all legal), then flower and seed production, and am now back at construction. I’ve been in the area 18 years and have lived at the ranchito for eight.

We have almost one hectare (two acres) here. About half is in flower production for my wife’s store in San Miguel and the other half is largely native plants. It’s a jungle during the rainy season. Between the flowers and natives, I’m shooting for 400 species.

Former bedroom, now the living room. We keep adding rooms whenever the budget will allow — cash construction.

Cash Construction Must Be Flexible

One of my main goals is low-cost building construction that lasts 400 years. To accomplish that in this climate, you need to build self-supporting structures and use masonry construction adobe, lightweight concrete block, reinforced concrete columns, and other features. The roof is the key to long building life, so it needs to be self-supporting, roundie-curvie — and not flat. Self-supporting vertical walls by nature want to be roundie-curvie. You go on from there and pretty soon everything is roundie-curvie.

When you start to think about a long-lasting house, it’s best to build so that remodeling is possible (probable). With adobe and/or lightweight concrete construction, you can hack out a doorway later on. With hard concrete, this is an almost impossible project.

Living room ceiling. This was the first brick boveda roof my maestro or I had built — a challenging project.

Roofs for Concrete Homes

I have worked with a lot of different forming systems for different roofs. The largest to date is approximately 6 meters by 6 meters. Small roofs can be supported from above during construction, but larger roofs need some center support.

Designing a smart roof shape is one key. Roofs in barrel vaults, modified domes, and especially seashell shapes (my favorites, and actually quite easy to do) are all very strong in compression. Because the roofs are self-supporting in shape and poured slowly, very little reinforcing is necessary. Once a lower form mold is made-up — typically pieces of 3/8-inch re-bar or welded wire — it can be easily moved in sections to form an identical roof.

Roofs are all built with an initial 3/8-inch shell poured on plaster lath on top of a metal framework (which is later removed and reused). This shell stiffens everything up for the pours of lightweight aggregate which follow and lets you see what the roof will look like. Changes are easy at this point. After the roof pour (4 to 6 inches thick), you can move the form again in five or six days for the next roof.

I’m a big fan of reusable and movable formwork, usually 3/8-inch re-bar and/or #10 or #6 welded wire. These days, I'm very excited about quick, low-cost barrel vaults.

Building Concrete Walls 

Walls are typically 6 to 8 inches thick in my environment, built from the same volcanic aggregate. At first, I poured the aggregate into forms: 8-to-1 ratio of aggregate-to-cement by volume for walls; 5-to-1 ratio for roofs. But now blocks are being made locally and because they are quicker, I use them for even roundie-curvie walls.

Books that have influenced my construction: The Owner-Built Home by Ken Kern has great alternative ideas about using concrete. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Any book on Antoni Gaudi — Gaudi of Barcelona is a good one.

Stairway built of lightweight concrete at Bonnie and Haden Kayden’s home in San Miguel de Allende. We have since built a railing but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Home-Building with Lightweight Concrete

Concrete is strong in compression. The best way to take advantage of this property is by building structures that are inherently self-supporting and don’t need a lot of iron reinforcing. Because most building here in my part of Mexico is with concrete, it is easier to let your imagination go wild. Local builders have been working with ferro-cement, wired Styrofoam panels, plastered straw bales, and soil-crete.

I have had the most success with lightweight concrete. Lightweight concrete differs from heavy concrete by its use of naturally lightweight materials (aggregates), such as pumice (volcanic stone) in place of the sand and gravel used in ordinary structural concrete mixes. It weighs only half as much: 50 to 80 pounds per cubic foot.

Not all concrete is ugly, hard, cold, and difficult to work with. There exists a whole range of lightweight concretes “which have a density and compressive strength very similar to wood. They are easy to work with, can be nailed with ordinary nails, cut with a saw, drilled with woodworking tools, and easily repaired. We believe that ultra-lightweight concrete is one of the most fundamental bulk building materials of the future.” (A Pattern Language)

Some form of suitable aggregate is available most everywhere in the world. Our locally available aggregate here in San Miguel is a type of pumice or scoria, called espumilla or arenilla in local Spanish, which we typically mix 8-to-1 with cement for walls or 5-to-1 for roofs.

Most lightweight concrete has a good R-value and is a good insulator of heat and sound. It is used as soundproofing in subway stations. It has tremendous sculptural possibilities and is ideal for monolithic, wall-roof construction.

I feel that we need more intelligent building systems. I’m looking for a home that lasts several hundred years, that you can maintain and remodel easily, and that uses mostly locally available, abundant materials. Lightweight concrete fits the bill. 

Photographs by Steve Kornher

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home WorkTiny HomesTiny Homes on the MoveShelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitterand Facebook, and 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.

6 Ways to Get Sanitation, Personal Hygiene Products on a Budget


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Access to cleaning supplies and home goods is especially tricky right now. Grocery stores are selling out of everyday essentials like toilet paper, disinfectant and other sanitation products. Even beauty supplies and personal hygiene items like shampoo can be hard to find. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased interest in self-sufficiency. Households seek out creative alternatives to common disinfectants, and some people are even buying their own egg-laying chickens and making sourdough bread. 

If you live in the country, you may be well-acquainted with the one major grocery store in town, or the best discount place to purchase bulk Lysol wipes. However, if you're looking to purchase sanitation products on a budget, there are a few options available.

Here are six budget-friendly ways to buy home cleaning products and personal hygiene items when everything in the grocery store is sold out.

1. Discount Stores

Discount stores tend to have off-brand items available even when big box stores are empty. Bargain stores and salvaged grocery stores are fantastic resources for products that may be nearing expiration or items that stores overstocked. When it comes to personal hygiene products, some bargain stores will have bulk options available from merchandise overstock orders and mislabeled packages. 

2. Wholesale Online

If you prefer to order online rather than go to a physical store, wholesale resources are a great option. You can order bulk products or stock up on essential ingredients for your DIY project. While you may have to wait patiently for your products to arrive, buying wholesale is often cheaper than getting a single product. Just make sure you have some extra space to store that pallet of Clorox that you ordered!

3. Community Networks

If you're older or immunocompromised, you may be tentative to check out local stores. If you need items you can't find online, see if your local community has any resources on where to find products. Many rural areas have community outreach programs and can help you find the supplies you need. You may even find that a local citizen has organized a distribution network, as many people search for solutions to help the at-risk population during this time. 

4. Local Feed Store

Sometimes the most unexpected places have the most vital items. If you live in a rural area, you may be surprised to find that you can buy personal hygiene products at farm supply stores. Many grain mills and other agriculturally-focused enterprises also carry household necessities like toilet paper, shampoo and dish soap. 

5. Make Your Own

Making your own supplies can be a cheap alternative to buying sanitation products if you have the time and resources. DIY cleaners can be just as effective as store-bought brands and offer families a budget-friendly solution. You can make homemade cleaners for laundry detergent, stain remover, dish soap and tile cleaners!

6. Find a Friend

Connect with a local sales network and see if anyone you know has extra product they are looking to get rid of. You might be surprised by how many people are distributing essential goods. If you live in the country, you're probably accustomed to neighbors helping each other out in times of need. Right now, especially, people seem to be doing everything they can to assist their community. 

Bargain hunters have stocked up on everything from hand sanitizer to mascara, and you might be surprised to find that your neighbors are willing to share their garage full of toilet paper. 

Accessing Essential Goods 

It can be difficult to access essential home goods like sanitation products. For rural communities, grocery stores have seen unprecedented demand and limited stock. For individuals looking to buy personal hygiene products, a little creative thinking may be required. Thankfully, there are plenty of options available. 

From making your own disinfectant spray to finding a local support network, you have options if everything is out of stock at the grocery store.

Empty shelves and low supply is spurring people to be more self-sufficient. Plus, you may find that making your own hand sanitizer is easier than you thought. At-risk individuals may also be able to find community resources to make sure they get the supplies they need.

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living, sustainable consumption, eco-friendly practices and green energy. In the past, her work has also been featured on GRIT, Mother Earth Living, Blue And Green Tomorrow, Dwell and Houzz. To read more from Kayla, follow her productivity and lifestyle blog, Productivity Theory, and read all of her 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.

How to Build the Watson Wick Alternative Septic System

Simple bucket toilet.

Humanure composting is an adventure.  There’s the buckets of waste and sawdust to take out every few days, no excuses. There’s the three or more compost bins to build and finding sources of sawdust. There’s ventilation in the bathroom and maybe adding ash to mitigate smells. And urine: to collect separately or to let it all mix together? How long to compost? Two years? More? What about guests? How will they feel about having just a bucket under their tuckus?

The upshot is that, in order to make humanure composting a success, it takes equal parts work, gumption, and creativity. But it also yields amazingly good compost for perennials, keeps nutrients close — real close — and transforms what would otherwise be a gross, intensively-treated waste product into a valuable resource for your soils and garden.

At my friend Gus’ place, he’s done this successfully for seven years. But as they started welcoming kids to their space through camps and programs, they realized they needed a standard flush toilet to ensure everyone was comfortable and there weren’t any issues with kids and parents and a bucket in a box. Their solution was the alternative and technologically appropriate Watson Wick Septic System.

I learned of this system from a friend in New Mexico who learned about it from Tom Watson himself, maybe 20 years ago. She wound up installing a Watson Wick System in her urban home about 15 years ago, and it’s been functioning perfectly ever since. The design is simple, the setup is easy and low-cost, the function is hassle- and worry-free, and the results are marvelous.

After hearing about it, I started researching online and found very little out there; this article from Oasis Design, the greywater folks, is the best available and has good drawings. With this and help from my friend, we were able to build one at Gus’ place.

Standard septic system with infiltrator leach field. Photo by Topanga Soils and Septic

Septic Systems

In your average septic system (see diagram above), the waste and water is flushed into a septic tank where it sits, decomposes anaerobically (septic comes from the Greek meaning “to rot” or “rotten”), and drains into the subsoils. The tank has an overflow opening where waste water, or effluent, flows out when the tank fills up, because solids go to the bottom and liquids to the top. This effluent goes into a drain, or leach, field which uses perforated pipes or, more commonly nowadays, many infiltrators on a bed of gravel to spread the effluent around a couple feet beneath your grass.

The idea is that the effluent is purified by the soil and microbes as it makes it way down to the water table or is utilized by plants above. A new system might cost about $5,000, will have to be pumped out every few years and will limit what you can plant on the ground above it (check out this primer from Virginia Tech).

How to Build the Watson Wick

The Watson Wick System takes a plumbed flush toilet and directs the goods through 3-inch ABS or PVC pipe directly into an infiltrator (or several) with no septic tank. In this system the infiltrator sits on top of a bed of pumice rock — the “wick” part of the system — on grade, not buried below the surface.

The one we installed used about 25 feet of 3-inch ABS to get out and away from the house, about 8 bags of pumice from the local hardware store, and one 4-foot infiltrator (our friend in New Mexico uses two infiltrators). Total cost was about $350.

First, we cut a hole in the bathroom wall that was high enough so a 3-inch drain pipe could make a right-angle turn from the bottom of the bowl and out the wall. In this case, it raised the bowl almost 11 inches above the bathroom floor (see photo). We ran ABS pipe from the toilet to our drainage and wick area.

Raised toilet going to Watson Wick system.

Next, we dug a hole 18 inches deep by about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide. At the high end, we poured out the pumice on which we set the infiltrator. The hole started about 10 feet from the house and we made sure it sloped downward and away from the house.

Then, we made a permeable barrier out of rigid foam insulation (we happened to have a sheet sitting around) by drilling many holes in it and set it upright in a couple feet from the infiltrator. We filled the rest of the hole on the other side of the barrier with lots of woodchips. The pumice was pricey, and we thought wood chips would serve for the secondary wick.

Fourth, at the low end of the woodchip section, we dug out a 1-foot-wide drainage trench that ended near some un-irrigated trees in case of overflow from the wick.

Last, after tying in the pipe to the infiltrator (it just slides into a hole on one side) we covered it with soil, woodchips and dirt. We added a “cleanout wye” along the run for potential clogs, too.

Infiltrators are used because they have thousands of tiny holes along their curved surface that let air permeate but keep bigger particles, like dirt, out. This allows the poop that’s flushed into the infiltrator to compost aerobically on top of the pumice and under the roof of the infiltrator, thus creating a healthy microhabitat rich in beneficial microbes, earthworms and other decomposers. The liquids drain through the pumice and out to the woodchips and adjoining soils where they are purified by microbial action.

Infiltrator with cap and punch out holes for pipe. Photo by The Septic Store

Maintenance and Function

There have been zero issues since the install nearly two years ago. No smells, no backups, no excess water. We took a look into the infiltrator through a little inspection port using a headlamp and the first thing we saw were earthworms frolicking atop and within the pile of goods. Our hearts soared.

Gus has cleaned out and replenished the woodchips once in the two years he’s had the system in operation. They break down over time and make a good mulch for his trees giving another useful input to help his plants and soils flourish which would be lost in a standard system. He also commented that in this process he cut back a lot of roots making their way toward the pumice field which is probably a good thing for long-term system functionality.

After the install, he also added gutters to his nearby roofs to divert rain runoff away from the system so that it doesn’t get overburdened from a heavy rain.

When I last visited, there was a thriving forest of nettle and currants and gooseberries around the wick and milkweed and sunflowers on top of the wick and infiltrator. It was a glorious example of permaculture design principal Number 6: Produce no waste.

The system helps Gus transform urine and poop — what are normally considered waste products — into rich resources, right on their own land. It’s an elegantly simple, slow and local, inexpensive and democratic (accessible to all) solution. And, maybe as importantly, his bathroom no longer grosses out his visitors.

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 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.

From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 7: Building with ICFs and Air-Source Heat Pumps


Photos by Adam D. Bearup

Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.

I called the owners and told them about the good news from the power company and that the price to get electricity down to the barn was going to be less than it could have been (see Part 6 for that backstory). I called the solar installer and told him what our plan was.

We created a plan where he would bring a trencher for the conduit that he had to bury and when he was on site, he would make a trench for us so that we could bury the big 200-amp service wire that went from the house down to the barn. We were all excited that we could get everything done in one trip. He would be down in a few weeks to do the trenching, so we had the time to connect with the electrician and get the big wire ordered.

The excavator had finished digging our footing and foundation trenches, so Bob and I focused on getting that work done. Before we could start working on the footings for the east and north side additions, we had to build forms to pour concrete around the corner of the existing barn foundation walls.

The structural engineer said that these large blocks of concrete would be used to prevent lift in the barn in case of a weather event. As Bob and I were building and pouring those corner forms, we kept saying that we wondered what kind of weather event that he was thinking of because they were so massive. The corners of the east and north additions also had big cubes of concrete on each corner to prevent lift in those areas. Again, we commented on how big of a storm it would take to need something so large on the corners of the buildings.

Building with Insulated Concrete Forms

After we built and poured all of the footings that we needed for the project, we began to stack the Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) for the frost walls of both additions. When I drew the building plans, I asked the structural engineer if it was OK to use ICFs for those frost walls. I told him the we wanted to pour our concrete slabs on top of the concrete core of the ICF and leave the exterior foam of the ICF higher to insulate the outside of the slab. He told me that it was OK to do that and that he liked that idea as a way to insulate the heated slab.

When the frost walls were poured, I called the excavator and asked him to come and backfill the frost walls so that we could pour our concrete slabs. I had to make sure to ask him to backfill everything with sand instead of the clay that was everywhere so that we could have a better chance of combating the frost during the winter time.

Taking out floors.

Considering Geothermal and Air-Source Heat Pumps

The owners and I spent a great deal of time trying to determine what heating and cooling system would be the best fit for the Wellness Center. I originally met the owners through an email that they had sent me asking my opinion on geothermal. I told them what I had thought about geothermal heating and cooling systems and then asked them if we could use the same amount of money as geothermal but to allocate it in a different way. That is when we started to talk about increasing the size of the solar array and using more electricity in the Wellness Center.

Ultimately, the owners chose a radiant heat system on both floors of the Wellness Center and to power the boiler for that heating system with propane. The thought was that the Wellness Center was going to have spray-foam insulation so the demand for heat wouldn’t be as great. This also left an option to switch the boiler to electric some day if that made sense and maybe even revisit geothermal as the heating source if the propane boiler became too expensive.

The Wellness Center needed a cooling system and also an air exchange system so we decided that combining those systems would make the most sense. In addition to the radiant-heat system, there would be two air handlers (basically furnaces but without the burners in them) that each had an air-source heat pump that would sit outside.

The air-source heat pumps would provide cooling during the warm months and also provide heat during the cold months when the temperature was within a certain range. When the weather got really cold, the air handlers would be able to provide heat by way of an electric heat element in each air handler. We chose the electric heat elements because of the large 20-kilowatt solar array that was going to be onsite.

The Wellness Center layout required us to cut doorways through the existing foundation walls. We had to use a gas powered concrete saw and sledge hammers to break through the old, hard concrete. After we had the door ways cut in, we laid down the two-inch foam board and I called the heating contractor to come out and install the tubing for the in slab radiant heat.

While we were laying the foam board down, the solar installer arrived and started trenching for the conduit for the large solar array and, as promised, he made us a trench for our 200-amp electrical service wire.

Pouring Concrete Floors

The heating contractor came out and installed the tubing for the in slab radiant-heat system. After the mechanical inspector approved the tubing, we scheduled the concrete floors to be poured.

Bob and I poured and finished the concrete slabs for the additions and we had a local concrete company do the larger floor inside of the existing barn. Bob and I poured an exposed aggregate concrete floor where the entry way of the Wellness Center would be. The owners gave us special stones to toss around in the floor and we were excited to see how great they looked as we washed off the top layer of concrete to expose the stones.

After the concrete floors set up, we started to build the first-floor walls of the east addition. This addition was exactly the same width as the posts that held the roof that we had removed. This was one of the stipulations from the township, that we had to build within the existing footprint of existing barn.

Replacing the Barn Roof

We were following the same plan that I had told the structural engineer: Build the main floor walls, set the floor joists and subfloor, build the second floor walls, and then remove the east side of the existing barn roof. We had to remove that section of roof so that we could create a large open area between the existing hay loft and the upper floor of the addition.

We always keep an open mind as we approach work that we have not done before. Removing the barn roof was going to take a process that we hadn’t figured out yet. We had an idea of what we wanted to do and changed that approach after we looked at the details that I had drawn and thought about the way the barn roof was supported.

We decided to build and secure the new roof system to the old roof system using the details that the engineer had described to me. We did this so that we were absolutely sure that the roof system was supported and safe. After we finished connecting everything together, we cut out the east roof of the existing barn.

One by one, we removed the lower portions of the barn roof trusses and as each board came out, our confidence increased.

Bump in the Road for Solar

As a favor to the solar installer, I contacted the building inspector to let him know that the solar installer would be submitting a building permit for a solar array at some point in the next few weeks.

The building inspector said that solar arrays were not allowed in the township. I asked him if he was joking, because I had passed a roof-mounted solar array that morning on the way to the jobsite. He said that he wasn’t joking and that roof-mounted solar arrays were OK but that the Township did not allow ground-mounted solar arrays. He suggested that I call the Zoning Administrator for clarification. I called the owners and let them know the news — they were noticeably frustrated, as was I.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. 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.

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