Thursday, December 9, 2010

Power Tools Trial and Error

Before I had the opportunity to work on any of this stuff I used to spend a lot of time planning how it would go.  I spent several years looking for websites of other people who may have done something similar so that I could hopefully learn from their successes and failures.  Since the point of all this is how to spend as little as possible, I thought I would go ahead and document my "investment" screw-ups.  So if you are about to spend a bunch of money on tools... this is for you.

So I had some land, but would not have power for quite a while.  With this in mind I decided to get a bunch of rechargeable tools.  My general policy is to go ahead and spend extra to get tools that will last (within reason), so I bought mostly Dewalt 18 volt since they seem to be the top on the consumer line and generally had good reviews.  My first mistake was buying them in pieces.  I needed a reciprocating saw while I was clearing land so I got that.   Then I discovered that the battery only lasts for a couple of minutes of run-time, so I got a couple more batteries.  Then I needed a drill so I got that.  In the last couple of days I needed a circular saw.  Luckily my dad gave me an extra black and decker 18v... so at least I did not have to buy one of those.  Buying these in pieces at the local Lowes was my first mistake.  If you get them as a whole set you will pay a lot less.  Also Amazon is about 30% cheaper.

Some tools work very well off batteries.  You can accomplish a lot with a Dewalt 18 volt drill.  Other stuff I have to conclude was not really meant to be cordless.  I would say reciprocating saws and circular saws fall into this category.  With a new fully charged battery I get about two minutes out of the reciprocating saw... which is not great, but may be worthwhile as you can cut a lot of limbs and small trees with two minutes of run time.  The circular saw (Black and Decker) however is almost completely worthless.  Basically on a full charge you can cut an untreated 2x10 about 6 times.  I spent the last four days cutting steps out for a staircase to the trampoline.  The reciprocating saw could have done it but it is hard to make a straight cut.  I cut a few out with a hand saw but for some reason all my cuts ended up bending as I went.   In the end it took four days to do a 20 minute job because I had to keep driving 15 miles to recharge a battery to make six more cuts.

Having now spent over $500 on rechargeable tools I can think of a few alternatives that may have been better.  I would probably still get the cordless 18v drill.  That works great.  Instead of the reciprocating saw I would have just got a $20 axe or machete.  After that there are a couple of good options:

1. Get a Generator:  These can be found surprisingly cheap. has a variety of sizes but a 2200 watt generator which should run almost all power tools is about $300.  Then you can get the other tools you need used or at a pawn shop for almost nothing.  Also when all the building is done, you never know when you might need a generator.

2. Get an Inverter:  You can get a 2000 watt inverter for about $160 also from which you then hook to your car battery and let your engine idle.  Then use corded power tools from this.  If you plan to go off the grid at some point you are going to need one of these eventually anyway.

To find the max size inverter or generator you will need multiply the amps used by your biggest tools by 120 and add about 10%.  You will need at least that many watts.  2000 watts will run anything up to about 15 amps.

3. Get a bunch of old used rechargeable tools and "zap" the battery.  Last week we threw away about a dozen 14.4 volt battery packs that would no longer hold a charge.  Then a couple of days ago I find this:  I have not tried it yet but apparently you can revive an old nicad battery to where it is almost as good as new by briefly running a bunch of high voltage power into it.  The voltage needs to be DC and about twice what the battery capacity is.  This can be done with a bank of car batteries in serial, or a welder (about 40ish volts), or a capacitor from a disposable camera.  My brother has a battery that will soon be dead so I will let you know if it works.  BTW: be careful if you do this as the battery could explode.

Other possibilities that you can find fairly easily with a google search include modifying an old battery so that you can hook the rechargeable tool with a cord to your car battery. Or making an adapter so that you can use cheaper batteries from other manufacturers on whichever brand you end up going with. Both these really only require a little cutting and soldering and broken parts to accomplish.

One other thing I should probably mention.  If you are going to be ordering a bunch of stuff you might want to become an "Amazon Prime" member.  Basically for $80/year you get free second day air shipping on everything that is "prime eligible" which is everything shipped by them and some of their associates, which is basically most stuff.  I actually bought the $250 trampoline from them which weighed about 130lbs and they had to ship it free second day air.  I am fairly sure shipping for that was more than the cost of the trampoline.  Had I been feeling especially nasty I could have upgraded that to next day air for $3.  For people in rural areas this can save a lot of time an money in the long run.  Also now you get a bunch of free online videos with it... kind of like netflix.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Small Papercrete Mixer Version 1.

Behold my first papercrete mixer!  Well... actually the first was technically a five gallon plastic bucket and a paint mixer attached to a little cordless drill, but this one is a lot more impressive.

It started when my father showed up with this gigantic drill.  This thing is so huge that you would have to be somewhat insane to try to use it on just about anything.  The drill by itself weighs about 40lbs.  The new version seems to have a lighter casing.  This one is all cast-iron.  I am hoping some day someone asks me if I have a drill they can borrow to put in a few screws.  I can't wait to pull this out for them.

Anyway, I was getting ready to make a tow-mixer and was kind of wishing I had something for medium size batches that I would not have to drive around when drillzilla showed up.  $10 on a metal 55-gallon drum and some welding and I now have this thing.  Basically I put a bolt in the bottom of the drum facing inward, put a couple of washers on the bolt then welded a couple of lawn mower blades to a pipe to put over the bolt.  Then a bolt in the other end of the pipe for the drill to hold on to.  The rest is just a frame to hold the drill in place.


The first test lasted about 10 seconds... my welding around the bolt that the drill attached to broke and I had to reinforce that. On the second test it seemed to be going pretty well until the entire barrel started spinning and lurching all over the porch. I guess the torque from the drill was too much for the weight I had in it (about 15 gallons at the time). Like an idiot I grabbed the barrel while it was flopping around and forgot that the edge was sharp. I now have three impressive cuts on the ends of my fingers.

I decided the blades were probably too long so I cut the ends off, then I decided it was not mixing fast enough so I welded them back on at an angle. I am fairly pleased with the final result, it does not throw the barrel around when you turn it on, but it still mixes pretty quickly. It will probably help if I wet and tear the papers into strips before I throw them in instead of just throwing the dry papers in. They tend to get wrapped around the shaft if you do that.

Now as soon as we get power and water at the property I will have a lot of mixing to do. Since I doubt anyone would want to buy a $700 drill for this, the same thing could probably be accomplished with an auger powerhead for $200

Dome Progress Dec 8, 2010

Well... there it is. It is waterproof, strong, tight and looks like crap.

I was kind of hoping this shrink wrap stuff would look a lot nicer when done but that does not seem to be the case.  Again, if I had done this right from the start things may have been different.  The issue is that with the bolts sticking out the wrap gets hung up on them even when they are padded which prevents even shrinking and causes it to get thin and tear.  If I were doing this again I would have made sure the bolts were facing inward and the pipe ends were all rounded off so that the plastic would slide over the joins.  I would also have wrapped the entire thing before I tried to shrink any of it.  I would fold, cut and tape all the excess material and then tape all the seams before I started to shrink anything.  Maybe if I had done all this it may have turned out cleaner.

The gun did work a lot better, but I still managed to melt a lot of holes with the result being that there is now a bunch of duct tape patching all over the place.  So it looks like I am going to be using a lot of papercrete in the near future.  First I will probably go around the base to seal the dome to the deck on the outside and inside, then I will make panels to put between the structural triangles on the inside, then I will probably spray papercrete on the outside and paint over it.

A lot of this depends on how well the papercrete can be sealed against water.  I have some test samples drying at the moment, but it will probably take a week or so for those to dry in the current climate.  Were I doing this again I think I would probably skip the shrink wrap and try using pallette wrap... basically big rolls of saran-wrap that are about three feet wide.  Since I am going to have to papercrete over it anyway, this would have saved me a couple hundred dollars on the shrink film and $360 on the heat shrink gun.  Ah well...


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dome Progress Dec 1, 2010

DomeWell... the trampoline is in, that went very nicely.  The shrink wrap has been problematic however.  100ft by 20ft of 9mil fire resistant shrinkwrap was $270 including shipping.  This did not seem too bad.  The special propane heat shrink torch was $350 to $1000 however... which is bad.  My theory was that surely I could use something else to basically blow a lot of hot air.  My theory was wrong.

I tried everything.  Starting with a forced air propane heater.  This kind of worked, but very slowly, it also had to be inches from the plastic and tended to touch it occasionally with the heater rim which melted holes.  I spent a couple of hours doing a 10x8 ft section and it looked pretty bad.  The leaf burner and the blowtorch caused it to shrink very quickly but only in a one inch wide strip... also melted more holes.  I made a custom tip for the blowtorch out of copper pipes with a bunch of holes drilled in it to try to spread the flame into thin even strip, but the regulator could not be adjusted and it would not burn well.  I even tried boiling various water / salt / sugar solutions to see if I could just throw hot water on it.

In the end I had to break down and buy the stupid heat shrink gun.  It should come in tomorrow and better be a huge improvement... I don't know what I am going to do with it after I have finished shrinking everything, but for $350 I am definitely going to use it for something.  Maybe a water heater or home-made rotissary.  This is the cheapest heat shrink gun I could find:




So I heard about this stuff a while back, and did not think much about it until recently. I was looking into ways to insulate the dome and was considering putting fiberglass insulation on the outside and another layer of shrink-wrap around that, or cutting foam panels into triangles and attaching them inside. Both options would be about $300. Being fundamentally cheap and since I am quickly running out of cash I decided to look into other options which brings us back to papercrete.

Basically this is like a large cement spitwad. You mix newspaper with water and blend it up into an oatmeal like slurry then you add portland cement powder. There are variations on the recipe, but the most basic seems to be equal parts by weight of dry newspaper to dry cement powder. You can pour this into blocks or molds or forms, or spray or plaster onto screens, or walls. One bag of cement will produce about 40 large blocks which will weigh about 3 lbs each. It apparently has an r-value (insulation) of about 2.5, by comparison the foam panels are about r-value:3. It is also basically fireproof and can be made waterproof by painting it with masonry sealer.

Any type of paper can be used, but newspaper is usually available for free in bulk from the local newspaper printing company or recycling center.  The blocks are strong enough to drive over and will not shatter but will compress like a really stiff sponge.  They can be made stiffer and more fireproof by the addition of more cement and sand with the trade off being greater weight and less insulation.  Some people suggest adding borax to prevent mold and to further increase fire resistance.

The finished product can be cut with woodworking tools and will not fall apart even if it becomes wet.  People have made ponds with this stuff.  The real draw for me is that along with being practical and easy to work with, it is really cheap.  The only thing you have to buy is cement and $10 worth of that will get you over 40 large blocks.

I plan to pour it into one inch sheets then cut into triangles to put on the inside of the dome.  I have a batch drying at the moment and I made a small scale mixer out of a 55-gallon drum and a huge drill.  I hope to make a tow-mixer this summer for making blocks, but this should get me through the winter at least.  I will post more pictures of the test-blocks and the mixer later.  I am currently testing different mixes portland / masonry cement / sawdust / polyurethane / leaves etc.  The blocks in the picture are still very wet but quite hard, they have been drying for about 5 days now.  Winter is probably not the best time to be doing this.

More info:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Progress Report Nov 22, 2010

DSC07007Things always take longer than I think they should. I ended up replacing all the bolts, doing that and tightening it all down took almost a week. This would not have been the case had we done it correctly in the first place.


Lessons Learned:
1. Use big bolts... 1/2 inch would have been nice. Make sure the bolts have a square head that you can put a socket around... not a screwdriver head.
2. Start at the center and build out, tighten down every time all the pieces are together, when a layer is done lift it up on sawhorses and continue.
3. Go from the outside in with the bolts, so the nut is on the inside.
4. Don't color code with paint unless you plan to repaint the entire thing when it is done, use colored tape instead.

Unfortunately I screwed up on every one of the above with the result being that it took a lot longer than it should have.

I left it all loose with the idea that it would leave some give for minor adjustments in the end... instead the weight pulled it all out of alignment once it started getting fairly large.

I used tiny bolts. They seemed big enough in the box, I did not realize that these things were going to do more than just hold the pieces together. In actuality they will bend and twist the flattened pipe ends into perfect alignment. Unless they are too small and break while being tightened. I used bolts with a Philips head ... which of course got stripped out whenever I tried to tighten them too much.

I painted all the pieces different colors to aid assembly. This would be fine if you are going for the exploding rainbow look, since the pipes are all visible when inside the dome. I ended up spending another several days and 25 cans of black spray paint to paint over everything.

I put the bolts so that when they were done there were sharp ends poking out into where the plastic shrink wrap would go. I don't know why.

But in spite of all this, the door is now on and it is almost ready for the cover. It seemed like the door would be kind of a pain, but it was actually really easy. We built a frame out of 2x12 treated wood and pre-installed the door in the frame. Then stood the whole thing up where it was supposed to go and roughly cut the pipes a little longer than the outside of the frame. The frame then slid into place (moving the ends of the pipes out of the way) and I drilled holes in each pipe that was touching and used a deck screw to fasten it to the frame.

Next is the trampoline ring which I will fasten with cables to the frame. Then the cover. I borrowed a forced-air propane heater from my brother which I will hopefully be able to use to shrink the cover. This is to avoid buying the $400 heat gun that I am supposed to use to shrink this stuff.

One thing I am still debating is how to insulate it. I could either use fibreglass rolls of insulation around the outside and shrink another layer on top of that. Or I could get sheets of extruded polystyrene (the blue styrofoam stuff that costs about $12 a sheet), and cut it into triangles to fasten up inside. It seems the cost will be about the same... at the moment I am leaning toward the latter.

Living in a Truck for Two Years. Part 2

I thought I would finish this up before I totally forgot what I was going to say.   If you missed it, part 1 is here.

I am not sure about the best way to approach this so that it will tie together in the end... so I am just going to make a big list of things that may be useful to anyone thinking about doing this.

1. You cannot legally park most places.  Apparently "normal" people don't like homeless people, and tend to get laws passed in order that those they don't like looking at or thinking about will go somewhere else.  For this reason you cannot park on the street, in an empty parking lot, or basically anywhere that is not going to try to charge you a lot of money.  This even extends to private property where you have been given permission by the owner.  My original though was that I would find someone with an empty yard that would be willing to let me park there for $100 a month or so.  While this is possible, it is still technically illegal.

2. Campgrounds are not inexpensive.  In Little Rock, AR there are a number of rv-parks, and campgrounds both private and government.  For a crappy looking rv-spot with water and electric in an industrial section on the outskirts of Little Rock it was $400/mo.  For a camping spot in a state park it was about $30/night or $600/mo.  For this you can get a pretty nice apartment fairly easily.  There may be cheaper options, but I was not able to find them, I even considered renting a mini-storage and just staying there.

3. Some businesses allow RV's to park in their lots overnight.  These include Walmart and Cabellas and maybe others.  They do this because people traveling in RV's have money and buy stuff in their stores.  So they want you to have an actual recognizable RV, not a slightly modified truck.  They also do not want you to do this for more than a few days at a time.

Basically, if you decide to do this you need to understand that if people notice they will generally disapprove.  They will likely not care if you are trying to pay off debt or save money, they already have a long list of prejudices that they will apply to you.  This means you will probably have to be sneaky and willing to be a little legally ambiguous.  You might get harassed, you might get fined.  I doubt much else would happen.

My solution was just to drive around in a wilderness area about 20 miles away and find fishing ramps.  Some of them had fire rings so people occasionally camped there.  Fishermen show up at 4am and can also be out late, so a car parked by a fishing dock will generally be assumed to belong to a fisherman somewhere nearby.  I found 5 different spots and rotated among them so I was not in the same place every night.  In the two years I was there, I was never questioned.  A couple of times people in 4wd trucks came through making a lot of noise but that was about it.

Other options would be to just buy a piece of land.  If you have the money it is at least a pretty good investment.  Some people sleep in motel parking lots, hospital parking lots, 24 hour grocery stores, anywhere they won't be noticed.  This is definitely not legal, but if you are sneaky about it and don't stay at the same place more than one night in a row, you can probably get away with it for a long time.  If you get caught you would likely get a warning or at worst a small fine.

One suggestion if you have a van is to make it look like a commercial vehicle, even disguise it with ladders and signs to make it blend in.  Then you can probably park behind stores as long as nobody notices you parking and not getting out.  Get there late, and leave early.

4. You will need a fitness center membership.  These are usually about $30-$50/mo.  But will give you a place to shower which is fairly important if you are working.  I usually would just hang around a coffee shop or book store after work.  You will probably find yourself with a lot of time to kill so find some places to go when you have nothing better to do.

5. Winter - I actually prefer the winter, it is easier for me to deal with cold than heat.  I had a good down sleeping bag from hiking the AT , and at least in AR I was easily warm enough in the winter.  The car was usually warm by the time I parked, so I just had to get into bed within a few minutes and all was well.  It is important to have some kind of insulating mattress in the winter.  A normal mattress would be fine, I used a thermarest car camping mat.  Which is basically a very durable air-mattress.

6.  Summer - Summer is a little more complicated.  It gets very hot and humid here in Arkansas and I don't do well with that.  I experimented with a number of ideas in order to stay cool without AC.  Most of them did not work, so I will just talk about what I ended up with that did work.  Basically, since I was not trying to be especially sneaky I kept a window down in the summer.  I got a piece of fine netting to keep the bugs out, and tied some coins in the corners to weight it down. I would throw this over the door before I closed it so that it would hang on the outside and cover the window.  I then got six computer fans (the type they put in the power supply), tied them together with zip ties at the corners added a power switch and hung the whole thing from a string so that it was in front of the window about 1ft from me when I was sleeping.  The idea here is that they are very low power (about 0.05 amps each) so they can run all night on the car battery without draining it.  They are also very quiet and durable.  This was probably the single biggest factor to being comfortable in the summer.  It also had the added benefit of killing all the mosquitoes that managed to get in while I was closing the door.  I have the finished fan packed away at the moment... I will dig it out and take a picture if anyone is interested.

The final step worked great until it broke.  Basically I got a cheap backpacking style tube air mattress and filled it with water.  This ended up being about 200lbs of water much to my surprise  (the one I used was a lot lower quality than the thermarest I linked to but basically the same idea). The idea was that while the fan kept the top of me cool, the bottom was still well insulated and hot on a mattress.  Some people seem to be able to get a cot inside to compensate for this.  Having a thin piece of cloth under you is a lot cooler than a heavy mattress.  I did not have enough room for a cot though, so I thought I would make a water-bed with cool water under me.  If it was especially hot I would freeze (at work) a couple of two-liter plastic soda bottles full of water and put them under the water-mattress after work to cool it down.  That way it would be cool by the time I went to bed.  This worked really well until the mattress started leaking a few months later.  I am not sure why it started, but once it did it was leaking all over.  I think I would try to fill it with a non-organic water based gel if I do it again.  It may have just been a low quality pad.  By the time it was leaking though, the worst of the summer was over.

I think that about covers the basics.  I am not sure how much interest there is in this so feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Giant Robot Project.

Up until yesterday I thought I had some pretty strange and ambitious plans.  Then my brother tells me about some guy on youtube who is building a giant robot and all the associated fortress / workshop / laboratory etc.  He is doing all this on the top of a mountain out in the woods in Vermont (I think).  He even has a giant geodesic dome made out of pipes with a trampoline on top, with lots of videos to demonstrate how it is all done.

Ah well... I am content to be the second crazy guy to build a dome with a trampoline out in the woods.  So go check out Jaimie Mantzels Giant Robot Project:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Update: The dome structure is complete.

IMG_20101105_123152Just wanted to add a quick update to show the completed dome sturcture.  Basically we finished to first two outside layers and then worked from the middle outward (as seen in the previous post) then lifted it up and attached it to the base.  This worked fairly well, except that we left all the bolts loose so that we could adjust it at the end.  Turns out that this makes the dome twist in strange ways when things start to get heavy, which makes everything not fit right in the end.  We used the board in the middle of the picture to lift the entire dome so that the tension in the frame could redistribute which helped a lot.  The dome structure actually weighs about 400lbs at this point.  We also ended up having to use bigger bolts (1/4 inch) since the smaller ones were getting all bent up.

A lot of the smaller bolts did not want to tighten at the end, there was too much tension and mostly just stripped out when we tried to drill them tight.  We started replacing them one at a time with the larger bolts and then just decided to drill another larger hole beside the first and leave the small bolt in as well as adding the larger one.  I expect to have it all tightened down by Monday.

The next step will be adding a door frame and then putting on the first layer of heat-shrink wrap.  The wrap came in today so hopefully I will be able to mess with it some this weekend to see how it works.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Progress Report Nov 3, 2010

It has been a while since my last post, so I thought I should give an update for the 15-20 people who seem to be reading this.  I went part time at my job at the beginning of October so that I could spend the mornings working on these projects.  Progress has been good since that point.  I spent a few weeks clearing land, pulling out thorn vines and digging up trees.  I made a big pile of the thorns and brush and after it had dried for about a month we had a bonfire... it is worth noting that dry thorn vines burn really well.  The flames reached about 35 feet. We had a helicopter do a flyby about 30 minutes later.

FlickrDroid UploadIt is starting to get colder here in Arkansas and since I need to be out of my current home in the next couple of months I decided to build a "geodesic yurt".  This will function as a temporary house so that I will have more time to work on the earth-bag dome/terrace/hot-tub without having to rush.  The basics of the dome are here: geodesic dome introduction, I will write a more detailed report when it is done, but I thought I would post some information and pictures now.

I am calling it a "geodesic yurt" because it is intended to be a semi-permanent structure.  Most conduit domes made this way are intended to be temporary for events like burning man.  This one is more yurt like in that it is intended to be a primary dwelling for several years.

dome-color-fixed-diagramThe reasoning behind this is that it is fairly cheap (less than $2000), can be built in a few weeks, and will be useful later as a storage shed / guest house / chicken coop or whatever.  It will be 19 feet in diameter which is about the same size as the earth bag dome so it will provide a preview of what living in the dome will be like.  Also, it will be practice for the greenhouse I hope to build later which will be about 70ft in diameter.  Since the ground is sloped where I am building it, I made a wooden deck to put it on.  The boards for the deck come in 10ft lengths so I built it 20ft by 20ft so that I would not have to cut anything besides the posts.  If I end up taking this down when the earth bag dome is complete then I will be able to use the deck material to build a porch for the dome.

FlickrDroid UploadThe construction of the deck was fairly standard, with a few concessions made so that I would not have to cut any boards.  The cost of the material was about $800.  One person would be able to build it in about a week I think.

I am using the more heavy duty 3/4 inch galvanized steel electrical conduit for the dome.  This comes in 10ft lengths and costs about $4 per piece.  The dome used about 50 pieces so about $200 in pipes.  The smaller 1/2 inch conduit is more like $2 a piece so it could have been done for $100. This will be a two story dome with a trampoline base that I will use as a bed for the second story, so I wanted it to be strong enough to support the second level.  It may have been strong enough with 1/2 inch, but I decided to overbuild just in case.

FlickrDroid UploadIt took about a week to cut, flatten and drill all the pieces.  For the most part there were two of us working on it for 3 hours a day.  We used a metal cutting disk on a cheap miter saw for cutting the conduit, then flattened it with a four-pound hammer on an anvil, then drilled it with a drill press.  Most of this could have been done a lot faster with a full day to work, but there is a limit to how much a person that is not used to it can swing a four pound hammer.  My forearms are still sore.

We color coded the pieces with spray paint, they were six different sizes.  One mistake we made here was not using the same colors in the diagram.  I would suggest that you check the diagram at desertdomes and use the same colors to avoid confusion.

IMG_20101102_121129FlickrDroid UploadThe dome is mostly assembled at this point.  I added an extra ring at the bottom to give it another three feet of height so it is not exactly according to the plans at desertdomes.  I have a couple of volunteers helping me put this together which is a great help.  I would suggest anyone dong this have at least two people to assemble the dome, preferably three.  One person could do it, but it would take a lot longer.  We did the bottom couple of levels first which brought it to about 6ft high, then we started assembling from the center out.  The idea is that when we have done the center we will lift it up and join it to the bottom.  I am not too sure about the wisdom of this plan since it will weigh about 150lbs but I imagine we will get it done somehow.

I have been through a number of ideas for the covering of the dome.  The original idea was to use cotton drop cloths painted over with polyurethane floor sealer (like on gym floors) or fiberglass resin. One complication of this plan was that the cloth would need to be cut to fit the shape of the dome which is not a simple task, and it would be fairly flammable when done.  Then I found out you can get heat shrink fire-retardant plastic fairly cheap.  They use this stuff to wrap buildings at construction sites, or boats for transport.  I got 100ft x 20ft 9mil white for $270 here.  It should come in this friday.  Basically it is like thick plastic sheeting that shrinks when it gets hot to about half of it's original size.  So I should be able to just drape it over the dome, fasten it down at the ends and have it shrink to fit.

IMG_20101102_121152I had planned originally to make two domes, one inside the other leaving about a six inch gap for insulation.  But now with the heat shrink wrapping I am going to try just making a single dome, wrap it, add a layer of fibreglass insulation and wrap it again.  It will probably not be quite as well insulated, but will be a lot easier, and less expensive.  I will still probably put a layer of polyurethane and sand on the outside to seal it completely... then will maybe paint it.

So far the biggest expense has been tools.  I will probably have spent about $2000 on tools when this is done but I expect I will get plenty of use out of them in the future.  I will provide a complete list of tools, parts, and expenses when it is done.

Hopefully this will be complete by the end of next week and I can start moving in after that.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Living in a Truck for Two Years. Part 1

2The motivation for a lot of these projects comes from having spent six years doing nothing but paying off debt.  I had a good job as a programmer in Little Rock, was living in an apartment and was making slow but steady progress towards paying it off.  The problem was that at the rate I was going it would take about 10 years and I did not want to spend that long.  I always liked the outdoors and camping, when I was living in Kenya I was in a canvas tent for a year and then a mud and stone building for the next five years or so.  In my mind a "house" was a place to sleep and store stuff.

Immediately prior to paying off this debt I had decided to hike the Appalachian Trail.  This is basically a footpath 2100 miles long from Georgia to Maine.  It took about 6 months to hike the entire distance back in 2004.  I loved it... all I had in terms of "stuff" was what would fit in a backpack, and yet I did not feel that I was lacking anything essential.

I came to the conclusion that life could be much simpler than it currently seems to be.   All we really require is food, shelter, and water to sustain ourselves.  These can be easily obtained with almost no effort in America.  Having accomplished these basic requirement we should be able to spend the rest of our lives doing whatever we want -- reading, travel, art, working on project we enjoy.  We complicate it by turning and artificial "standard of living" into a requirement.  This then drives us to turn something as simple as shelter into an elaborate shrine to consumerism that we spend the rest of our lives working to maintain.  Some people, when they reach the end of their lives and are looking back on the enormous volume of possessions that they once consumed and passed on to their heirs will be satisfied ... I am not one of these people.  When I see the stress, and fear and hopelessness that pervades much of our society I wonder if slavery ever really ended.

So sometime around 2006 I found myself with a 98 ford explorer, a pile of stuff, an apartment, a bunch of debt and an ideology at odds with my lifestyle.  I started looking at my truck.  I discovered  I could fold the seats down to make an area in the back of the explorer that was three inches longer than I was.  This left a fairly large area in which to store stuff... certainly more than I had in my backpack on the AT.  I did not spend much time in the apartment anyway.  Usually spent the evenings reading in a coffee shop or visiting friends.  Once I got over the idealogical hump and started considering living out of my truck as a possibility  the advantages (paying off my debt twice as fast) seemed to clearly outweigh the disadvantages (the comfort of having an apartment full of stuff).

I started looking for other people who had come to the same conclusion and found this:

TEN CONSECUTIVE YEARS LIVING IN CARS: Living, Traveling, Camping, Attending College, and Performing Surveillance in Cars--and Loving It!Then did some research and ordered this book.  I found out it was not a very popular choice, but it had been done.  My friends pretty much thought it was a terrible idea but eventually stopped trying to talk me out of it.

I had a few months left on my lease, so I started to get rid of stuff and make plans.  In the end I learned quite a bit, had a few surprises and saved at least $12,000 over two years.

To be continued: here

Earth Bag Hot Tub

So far everything I have listed has been done by somebody and documented somewhere on the internet.  This is an exception not because it is particularly complicated, and I imagine it has been done... but so far I have not seen any accounts on how it worked out.  Therefore, if anyone knows of anything similar please leave a link in the comments.

The end goal is to have a workable hot-tub that requires almost no maintenance or chemicals.  As a friend pointed out: hot tubs are not usually thought of as minimalistic, however I believe that this will use less water overall than a standard shower... and will be more fun besides.  I want to use earth bags to build most of the structure, all the stuff in brown in the diagram is to be made from earth bags.  This will then be covered with a water barrier, cement, and a waterproof paint.

The idea is to make a kind of simulated creek.  The sand filter at the top will consist of several levels of terraces each containing vermiculite, sand, charcoal, and gravel.  I will probably plant something like bamboo or river-cane or sorghum in the terraces for both privacy and to remove nitrogen from the water.  The vermiculite will maintain some moisture for the plants, the sand will filter sediment, the charcoal will remove chemicals and bacteria and the gravel will help drainage.  The water will flow into the hot-tub from here, will be heated by the rocket stove, and will then overflow into the storage tank where it will be pumped back to the terracing at the top of the hill.

During the summer it will not need to be heated, but when it is there will be a valve between the sand filter and the hot tub that can be shut off.  This will cause the water level to rise until it flows through the bypass leaving the hot-tub and the stove isolated so that I am not trying to heat the entire system.  It is not shown in the diagram, but the chimney from the rocket stove can be run through the bench of the hot tub so that it heats the water more efficiently.

Another possibility would be to use compost to heat the water.  Apparently a compost heap can reach internal temperatures of over 160 degrees F.  This would basically be a pile of green wood-chips soaked in water for a few days and then shoveled into a cube made out of hay-bales until it makes a pile about 6ft tall.  You run pipes through the compost and then pump water through the pipes to collect heat.  From what I understand, this will continue to produce heat for several months at a time and you are left with a bunch of useful compost.

When not in use the water would be continuously cycling through the system providing constant filtration.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Outline of my personal projects.

I think I mentioned some time back that this was a group project.   There are parts we plan on collaborating on as a group and other parts that are just mine.

The aquaponics and most of the general farm/garden related stuff will be a group effort.  This part is pretty much my own pet project.  The 1.3 acres or so that I bought are on a hill so imagine the dotted line being the peak of the hill, where the tree is (the gigantic pine from earlier pictures) is on the level top of the hill, the rest is on the slope.

The idea is to make as inexpensive and permanent a setup as possible to provide a comfortable and independent lifestyle at a minimum of expense and maintenance.  When this is all done the whole thing including the land should cost less than $7,000 and should last the rest of my life.  I also don't want to have to spend much time maintaining it and want to be able to leave it for long periods without worrying about anything.

Long term I would like to make several of these in different locations.  This one is in Arkansas, which is as close as I get to a "hometown".  While spring and fall in Arkansas are incredible... summer (now) and winter leave quite a bit to be desired.  It would be nice to have a similar setup in places like Colorado, Montana, Maine, Florida, Oregon, British Columbia.  I envision hauling a bunch of solar panels and whatever I have that is valuable around with the seasons.  Hopefully I can build a few of these... maybe I can convince a few other people (hint, hint) that it is a good idea and we can perhaps form a group where we can loan out the spares to each other.

I would like to think that the structure would not present much of a target for vandalism or abuse.  There is nothing really valuable that could be taken, it cannot be set on fire, it is too solid to be damaged much.  All factors that make leaving it for months at a time in the middle of nowhere a little more practical.  Then again my optimism in humanity has not been very justified lately, so who knows.

The basic idea here is to eliminate the need for utilities as much as possible.  In the short term I expect I will just get standard water / electric utilities, but I would like to do away with these eventually by substituting solar for electric and catching rainwater.

Solar means that there can be enough power for lights, fans, a computer, and small appliances, but not enough for standard refrigerators / freezers and air conditioners.  There are some smaller fairly expensive refrigerators for the RV industry that can be used with sufficient solar power, but standard air conditioning is out.  Some years ago I spent a couple of years living out of a truck and learned some ways to make this work, but I think I will save that for another post.

Water can also be conserved greatly by a few simple changes that in my mind fall into the minor inconvenience category... most peoples opinion on this probably differs.  I grew up using a outhouse in Africa, it never seemed to be much of a problem to walk a little ways to go to the bathroom.  In America I used them while hiking the Appalachian Trial.  Most people I talk to dismiss them immediately because of bad experiences with poorly maintained outhouses or "porta-potties".  In reality "composting toilets" can be very clean, comfortable and not smell bad with some minimal maintenance.  This eliminates one major use of water.

The other major water consumer would be showers.  While it is possible to stay clean by taking a sponge-bath using about a half-gallon or less of water, it is not ideal.  What I am going to try as a solution will be a large outdoor hot-tub.  I will go into more detail on this later, but the idea is to combine some of the aquaponics with earth-bag construction with a rocket-stove water heater in order to make a controlled creek with a swimming hole.  In the diagram you can kind of see how this works if you follow the arrows.  There is one electric pump which constantly pumps water from the holding tank at the bottom through the terraces and back into the hot-tub in an continuous loop.  The terraces will act as a giant "sand trap" filter, and this along with the plants should clean the water enough that it can be continuously re-used.  Water will have to be added periodically to account for evaporation, but hopefully the rain will be sufficient for that.

I also plan to do away with "running water" by having a water-barrel that I can periodically take somewhere and fill for drinking water and dishes.  This with a nice metal bowl seems to suffice for most of the world.  I don't foresee the slight inconvenience as sufficient to justify chaining myself to the public utilities.

Well... hopefully that gives a "birds-eye-view" of where I am going with this part of it.  I will go into more detail on the hot-tub design and some of the things I figured out while living in my truck in later posts.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rocket Stove Introduction.

I was fairly skeptical about these things at first. I suppose I still am and as a result I am eager to actually try it. The short version is that it is a large (several tons), cheap, easily constructed wood burning stove that is extremely efficient. It has two fairly unique properties. The first is that the design allows for a horizontal chimney that can be run as far as thirty feet or more. The second is that it burns extremely hot, so hot that it totally burns all the gases that come off the wood to the point that the only thing coming out the chimney is basically warm water vapor.

I want to use this for two reasons, heating the earth-bag dome and heating the hot-tub. This is where the 30-foot horizontal chimney comes in. In a traditional fireplace the majority of the heat goes up the chimney with the smoke. With a rocket stove the design produces a forced-air effect once it heats up and essentially pushes the exhaust through the chimney. In an earth bag dome the chimney can be buried in cob or cement and made into a bench running around the interior perimeter of the dome. The heat conducts through the metal chimney pipe into the thermal mass of the bench and uses the bench and the dome itself as a kind of heat-battery that then slowly releases heat into the dome for long periods. By running the chimney a sufficient distance through the bench most of the heat from the exhaust gas is removed leaving the water vapor coming out end of the chimney only slightly warm.

In the hot tub, it would basically work the same way except that the bench will be underwater and will heat the water as well.

The materials needed are a large (55 gal) metal drum, a small (20 ish) gallon drum, a few firebricks (15 or so), some high temperature stove pipe and a bunch of regular chimney pipe.  The diagram above shows a simple design.  The air and wood go in the small drum (not shown) then into the burn chamber this heats the insulated steel stove pipe causing an updraft in the heat riser at the top of which it hits the 55-gallon drum and starts to cool as it goes down the other side and out the chimney.  The whole thing is plastered in cob or cement to hold it together and absorb the heat.  The top (or the bottom of the upside down 55-gallon drum) can be used as a cooking surface or a boiler or whatever.

There is an excellent book on the whole subject available on amazon with much more precise instructions and other variations.  There are also a large number of websites and videos demonstrating the construction process I will list a few here:
video - dancing rabbit

Friday, July 16, 2010


Essentially this is hydroponics (growing plants without soil), except instead of mixing chemicals with the water you stick some fish in it.

The short version is that the fish eat whatever you give them and produce waste in the form of ammonia which is then turned into nitrates and nitrates by bacteria in the water.  These are then consumed by the plants.  This cleans and aerates the water for the fish and provides the plants with everything they need to grow.

The advantage of aquaponics for plants is that you can grow them in a more controlled environment (without bugs).  They put more energy into the fruit instead of the roots, since the water brings the nutrients to them.  And it eliminates soil borne disease and pests (since there is no soil).  There also seems to be much less maintenance when they are set up properly, this is the main appeal to me.  Mainly you have to add water as it evaporates and pick whatever it produces.

2009-12-20 09.26.56When it is balanced properly it solves most of the problems associated with having fish, you never have to clean the tank or change the water and it does not smell bad.  It also produces a bunch of food in a small area, like an apartment.  I have not changed the water in two years, and I don't use any filters (other than the growbeds themselves).  I do have to add about five gallons of water a week to keep up with evaporation.
2009-12-20 09.27.04
On a large scale you can use something like tilapia, or another edible fish in a large pool to provide enough nutrients for several greenhouses.  For example a pool 6ft deep with a 5ft radius would have a volume of 471 cubic feet.  You can have one tilapia per cubic foot, they mature in 6 months which would produce about 1000lbs of fish a year along with a greenhouse full of food.

So far I am on version three of this system after two years of messing with it.  The room I am currently in has no windows which makes it impractical from a cost standpoint since I had to use artificial lights.  Apart from that though it has been fairly successful.

Version One was built on the top bunk of a bunk bed.  It had 4 medium sized plastic bins as grow beds and used a fairly complicated system of bell and loop siphons to produce an "ebb and flow" cycle.  The idea was to have each of the beds completely fill then completely drain over and over in order to provide nutrients without leaving the roots constantly in water which can result in rot.  I have three 10 gallon fish tanks containing bait-store minnows  (about 10 in each tank).  There is a water pump from a cpu cooler that is still going strong after two years of continuous use that pumps water from the tanks to a reservoir that slowly fills then totally drains with a loop siphon into a PVC pipe will holes drilled into it to trickle into the four beds.  Each bed has a bell siphon that allows it to fill to a point and then they each drain independently back into the fish tanks.

It worked fairly well for about six months.  I grew basil, cilantro, lettuce, oregano, and tomatoes.  They all came up well, then the tomatoes grew over and killed everything else and produced no actual tomatoes.  Turns out that without insects or airflow you have to manually vibrate the flowers to pollinate the tomatoes.  I also did not provide adequate drainage and every once in a while one of the siphons would fail and dump water all over the bottom bunk which was my computer desk.  This was not ideal.

This system is really designed for a much higher water flow than I had.  The siphons need to get to a tipping point in order to engage and if the water flow is insufficient they seem to just dribble a little instead of producing a sudden gush of water.  You can compensate for this by using smaller tubes and siphons.    But I think it would be much more practical in a larger system.  There are several you-tube videos demonstrating hydroponics with bell siphons.

2009-12-20 09.26.32
2009-12-20 09.26.03
Version Two was much better.  I built it on a heavy duty steel wire shelf system and did away with the siphons entirely.  The grow medium I am using is pebbles on the bottom and a few inches of vermiculite on top of that.  Vermiculite is essentially puffed rock, it wicks moisture really well.  The intention was to have the water pumped out of the tank into bed one on top.  It would then trickle down to the pebble layer at the bottom and would wick up into the vermiculite above.  After filtering through this it would drain from holes in the bottom into bed two below and do the same before finally dripping back into the fishtanks.  One complication was keeping the water levels even in the three 10-gallon tanks at the bottom.  I used a system of vacuum tubes, one big tank would have been much better.

I grew the tomatoes off to the side this time and kept them trimmed back.  I also used cherry tomatoes which seemed to fruit without the need to vibrate the flowers.  The top bed contains a couple of types of lettuce, cilantro, tomatoes, and chives.  The bottom one has more lettuce, and a couple types of basil and mint.  I put some pitcher plants, venus fly traps, and sundew plants in both to get rid of the gnats that I think came from the pebbles that I picked up outside.  The lettuce, mint, chives, pitcher plants and tomatoes did really well.  The basil, sundew and venus fly traps did not do so well... I think the light was insufficient.  With good sunlight I expect a system this size would produce enough for 5 small salads or a couple of big ones each week.

I planted the bulbs of a pack of grocery store chives after cutting off the green part to eat and was a little amazed to see it immediately start growing about two inches a day.  The stump of a head of lettuce from the grocery store also grew really well.

I stopped maintaining it about 4 months ago, and now let it grow wild to see what will happen and to keep the fish happy.  Again I need to improve the drainage... something like a small french drain made out of PVC pipes would probably work better.  The vermiculite compacts over time, and roots plug things up.

2010-07-16 11.03.32.jpg
Version Three is my attempt at making the whole thing as small as possible in order to make a kit that I can sell or give away to friends of mine with a south facing window.  It is still a work in progress.  The current version works pretty well, I just need more time to see if issues occur.

With the first two I was not concerned at all about appearance, but this one is supposed to be slightly decorative.  It is basically a big glass bowl on top of a glass globe.  The glass bowl is the growbed and has a couple of holes drilled in the bottom of it.  The globe is the fishtank.  It has a copper pipe going through the center that uses an airlift pump to dribble a stream of water over the vermiculite.  It then drains back into the globe through the other holes in the bottom.  There is also a larger copper pipe that goes through the center hole that I can use to feed the fish.

The growbed has the same gravel in the bottom, and this is again covered in vermiculite.  The vermiculite wicks water from the point it is dribbling out and stays constantly damp all over.  The plants can be added anywhere in the top bowl.

The hardest part is drilling the holes in the glass.  There need to be about three of them, and they need to be about 3/4 inch in diameter.  To do this you need a drill press and a diamond drillbit.  Which can cost a couple hundred dollars.  The trick is to do all the drilling underwater (fill the bowl with water while you drill the holes)  otherwise the glass gets hot and the bowl cracks.  The biggest surprise so far is that for some reason you seem to need a bubbler to aerate the water sufficiently.  In the other systems I was able to have about five times the suggested fish density without any aeration.  The water flowing through the growbeds was sufficient.  In the small verison this does not seem to be the case.

The airlift pump seems to work particularly well for this.  Basically you bubble air partway up a submerged water filled tube.  The bubbles force some water up the tube as they rise.  It seems that with some one-way valves you can lift water quite high with this, even though I only need a few inches.  I found out about it here: it allows the motors to be external to the system so they are not visible and it provides the small amount of water flow needed to maintain something this size.  I also expect that since there are no moving parts it will need little maintenance.

I expect that not counting the tools, the raw materials are about $60 with a couple of hours labor.  Not bad for a low maintenance year round herb-garden and fish-based entertainment center.

The plan for the property is to build a large version.  I hope to make a 70ft diameter geodesic greenhouse with a 10ft diameter fishpool in the middle.  But that is still open for debate.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tick fever... you don't want it.

So the first thing I did before starting this project was take a quick walk around the bit of land I was about to buy in order to "ponder".  Well... in 15 minutes or so I noticed a bunch of ticks... I ended up picking off over a hundred of them from that little walk.  I thought I got them all.  Later that night I woke up scratching and felt another tick, so I pulled it off, tore it in half and went back to sleep thinking nothing of it.

Three weeks later (apparently it can take months) I became sick.  The symptoms of tick fever are as follows: fever, joint pain, sweating, shaking, headache, rash.  The headache and joint pain were pretty much constant, the fever, shaking, sweating would go in about an 8-hour cycle.  The rash came after about four days of this.  Apparently if not treated this can go on for years and can also include paralysis and death depending on the type.

I have a friend that had this and said it was the worst thing he had ever experienced.  In my experience it is about the 4th worst thing.  My personal misery scale is as follows:  1. Malaria, 2. Heat Stroke, 3. Food Poisoning, 4. Tick Fever.  Of course if it had gone untreated my ratings might change... especially if the death part was involved.

Progress has been slow the past several weeks because of the above mostly, also because July in Arkansas is miserable.... August is not much better, but some progress is better than none I suppose.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Geltaftan - How to set your earth bag dome on fire.

I was just talking to a friend at lunch and he mentioned that he had read about something similar to earth bag domes except that the entire dome was fired and glazed to produce what is essentially a giant clay pot.  While the result is appealing, it seems like it may be a lot more work than I am ready to do at the moment.  Still, something worth thinking about.

I was not able to find much information but it looks like the same guy that pioneered most of the earth bag stuff Nader Khalili is the same guy that is trying to set them on fire.  Below are a few links I found (let me know if there are better ones).


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Geodesic Dome Introduction

While my primary goal over the next year will be the construction of an earth bag dome, there is another better known design that has been around since about 1926.  This would be the geodesic dome that was popularized by Buckminster Fuller.

As a home I think the earth-bag dome will work best, but the geodesic dome does have a few advantages.  Some of these are as follows:
1. Also inexpensive, can probably be built for under $1000
2. Can be very large.
3. Can be semi-transparent (greenhouse)
4. Are relatively lightweight so can be moved.
5. Can be built quickly.

The structure of interlocking triangles make the geodesic dome the strongest possible structure for the material used.  As a result they are good for large open areas that contain no internal supports.  Apparently Buckminster wanted to put an entire city under one in order to maintain warm temperatures during the winter.  A sphere also provides the most volume with the least surface area, which in theory provides the most efficient use of resources.  This is why they use geodesic domes in places like Antarctica.

In practical terms they do have a few issues.  Using standard building materials (such as wood) they are almost impossible to build.   Every angle is different, there are lots of joins which all have the potential to leak and nothing that you buy at the local home improvement store will fit as there are no flat walls or 90-degree corners.  They also amplify sound so everything inside becomes very noisy.  These issues can be mostly avoided if you buy one as a kit, but then it is very expensive.

However, if you think of it more in terms of a yurt or permanent tent than a traditional house.  Things become much simpler.  Basically you use inexpensive metal galvanized conduit pipe, flatten the ends, drill a hole and join them with a bolt.  Then you cover it with some kind of tarp.  This has been mainly used for making temporary shelters for events such as burning man.

For my purposes I want to build a smallish (25ft diameter) version as a test and to use as a temporary shelter while I build the dome.  Later we may make a guest-house, storage building, or chicken coop out of it.  In any case it will be semi-permanent and will need to be waterproof.  The covering then becomes the most complicated part.  Usually people use a parachute, or make their own cover out of some kind of plastic.  Because of the shape this can be kind of complicated.  There are patterns which can be sown to fit, but this is a lot of work.

My plan (and I don't know if this has been tried) is to cut a cotton or Tyvek drop cloth into circular bands that are cut to fit the contour with a slight overlap on the bottom of each.  Then "paint" over this with polyurethane floor sealer (the clear plastic stuff on gym floors) or fibreglass resin.  Then while it is still sticky throw on some white sand.  The idea is to make the fabric stiff and waterproof and a little heavy so that it does not flap in the wind.

Hopefully if this works out then we can build a much larger version for the aquaponic greenhouse.  In my opinion this would be the most cost effective and practical option but since this part is going to be a community effort I will have to convince everyone else that is involved.  I would estimate that a 70ft diameter dome could be built for less than $2000, which if true would be far less than using a traditional design.

I expect my small 25ft version will be less than $1000 and will be two stories which the top story being a trampoline base.   The reason for this is that I am used to sleeping in hammocks and they are a lot cooler in the summer.  A mattress acts as a huge blanket on one side so air conditioning has to be used to compensate.  A thin fabric does not insulate well so will be much cooler.

Useful Links: