Category Archives: Earthships

Parent category for all earthship related posts.

Martin Earthship Pack-out

It’s been well over a month since my last post and I’m sure there are people wondering what is going on with us. Fortunately, I have some Earthship related news this time.

Last Saturday (July 15th) we trucked down to Mallorytown (near Brockville, ON) and helped out at the Martin Earthship. It’s a full three hour drive for us to get there, so we were up early and out on the road to make it there for 10am.

We had been down there last year, helping to pound tires. This time, we were doing pack-out. For those not familiar with pack-out, this is what we call the procedure by which we fill in the spaces between the tires after they have been pounded with dirt. I talked about this extensively during our trip down to Salida, Colorado, so I won’t go into too much detail.

We had a really decent day for this, as it was partially cloudy, but no rain. Jay and Erin (the owners) also have these portable tent-like shades that we moved around the site to keep the sun off us as we worked.

Here is the first picture of us all looking very busy.

They only have three full courses of tires completed, with a fourth partially done, so it didn’t take us long to move down the length of the wall.

Here you can see the basic idea of what we’re doing. The idea is you throw in a blob of concrete (after wetting the surface of the tires first – very important or your concrete won’t stick) and then put an aluminum can in the space.

Cover the first can with more concrete and then put two more cans in. Add more concrete and by the time you have that all covered, you should be coming out pretty close the the outer edge of the tires. The purpose of the cans is to save on concrete, so they’re really just spacers in this case.

Here you can see Kat hard at work testing out the hammock.

By the end of the day, we had done the pack-out from one end of the house to the other. Here you can see me. It kinda looks like I’m looking for an offering with my hands out like that, but really I’m carting a handful of concrete over to the wall.

Overall, it was a great day, we accomplished things, met some new people, shared our ideas and generally had a great time. Jay and Erin are always great hosts.

Something to note on Earthship pack-out: if you wait until you have the roof on before you start doing pack-out, you can use adobe or cob instead of concrete. This may or may not be cheaper, depending on how easily you can get your hands on clay. You don’t want to do adobe/cob before the roof goes on though, otherwise, if it rains, it’s all going to fall out. Related to that, any tire wall that is exposed to the outside (like wing walls, for example) must have concrete for pack-out for that same reason.

If you’re wondering where we are at with our own Earthship, we still require an engineering stamp for our plans. We have found a local engineer who is himself building an Earthship so that is a big bonus. Unfortunately, he isn’t fully certified yet as he will be sitting his last exam in August, so we’re in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment.

A few words about composting toilets

I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while, and since we aren’t doing much around the trailer right now, I thought this would be a good time to cover this topic.

Composting toilets are very often lauded as a more environmentally friendly option for dealing with human waste and this is the subject that I would like to address here.

There are many different kinds of composting toilets, from the home made to expensive contraptions. Kat and I decided to go with the non-electric version of the SunMar Excel, pictured below.

SunMar_Excel

We didn’t know much about composting toilets when we bought it, but now that we have been using it for about eighteen months or so, we have a pretty good idea of how it works. We also have had to deal with some issues.

Our toilet has a simple drum chamber where the solids collect. There is a screen that allows the liquids to drain into a dehydration tray. You add bulking material and spin the drum using a crank handle to mix up the contents. Fairly simple stuff. After a while, you move some of the material from the drum into the “aging tray” at the bottom and let it sit undisturbed for about six weeks and then, according to the manual, it should be ready for use as compost.

But is this system more environmentally friendly than using a conventional water-based toilet? Let’s look at the details.

First, construction. Most conventional toilets are glazed porcelain. When they break, there really isn’t any way to fix them, so they usually end up as waste at the landfill. This is not a good thing. There have been some articles I have read that say the porcelain can be crushed and used as aggregate for concrete, but I don’t know how often that actually happens.

What about our SunMar composting toilet? Well, it’s primarily made of plastic. There aren’t any recycling symbols stamped on it, so when the toilet breaks beyond repair, it too will end up in a landfill. Both the porcelain and the plastic will last seemingly forever, in terms of breaking down. No one really wants a compostable composting toilet.

Okay, so you aren’t really gaining anything with the construction, at least with these commercial versions. How about daily usage?

Water, of course is always the biggie. Conventional toilets use water as their transport mechanism. Most toilets today are low-flush, meaning the amount of water they use is less than in the old days, but you’re still using fresh water (in a conventional home) to flush your crap away. Depending on the size of your family, this can account for a large majority of the water being used.

With the composting toilet, you don’t use any water at all. However, you do use bulking material. Our SunMar toilet came with a bag of this stuff and you can buy more bags from the store. Their recommended bulking material is 40% peat moss, 60% wood shavings. A bag of this stuff runs $20 and it will last roughly 2 weeks for two people. That’s in addition to buying toilet paper, so now you have additional charges for using your composting toilet. On top of that, peat moss is a controversial material as far as the environment goes as it has been debated just how well it can recover after being harvested.

What we ended up doing is ditching the store bought bags of bulking material and just using wood shavings, which I can generate in large quantities using our planer. We also stopped using that aging tray mentioned above. Once we did that, we eliminated the gnat problem we were having during the summer. Which is another issue you generally don’t have to deal with when using a conventional toilet: insect infestations.

So, the purchased variety of composting toilets can end up costing you more per daily use, if you strictly follow the recommendations from the manufacturer. On the other hand, if your house is connected to a municipal water grid, you will likely have a water bill as well which your conventional toilet would be a prime component of, so it may equalize out in the long run.

How about electricity? Our toilet is a non-electric version so we don’t use any electricity at all. Your conventional toilet will use some electricity to run the pump to refill the tank. There are also compositing toilets that use electricity to run fans and a heater to speed up the composting. With those, expect to use way more electricity than your conventional toilet as using electricity to generate heat is not very efficient.

Now there are simple, homemade composting toilets. These might be a simple outhouse style or even just a bucket-loo. The bucket toilet is about as simple as it gets: you have a bucket with a toilet seat attached to it. Add your bulking material as you go and when it gets full, you need to dump it somewhere. The best option we have found for this is to get a big plastic barrel with a lid that can be sealed. Put the contents of your bucket in the barrel and when it fills up, seal it and start another barrel. Let sealed barrels sit for a year to digest and after that, you’ll have perfectly usable compost.

Composting toilets, no matter what kind you have, are a little more hands-on than conventional ones, which can turn people off. Of course, some are more hands-on than others. All for the sake of saving water. It can be argued that the composting toilet gives you access to the end product which you can then use to grow plants. A conventional toilet hooked up to a septic system will end up putting the materials back in the ground, but you don’t get to put those materials anywhere you want. If you live in the city, well, your crap just ends up in the sewer and eventually the sewage treatment plant. Who knows what happens to it there. I can probably guess they aren’t growing plants with it, though it would be really awesome if they did. Unfortunately, a lot of people like to flush things down the toilet that they shouldn’t.

Let’s consider the toilet situation in a conventional Earthship. Water in an Earthship is used several times. It’s first use is when you take a shower, do your laundry or wash the dishes. As the water goes down the drain, it is sent through the planters in the greenhouse at the front of the house. At the end of the greenhouse, there is a small well where water that has traveled the length of the garden will gather there. That was two uses, if you’re keeping count: once for the initial washing, then feeding your plants.

The water that gathers in that well I just mentioned is the water that is used to flush your toilet, so you aren’t using fresh water for flushing, you’re using your grey water after it has been filtered by the plants. That’s usage number three of the same water you used to do your dishes. With this system, you get all of the ease-of-use and benefits of the conventional, low-flush toilet, but you aren’t using any fresh water to make it work. You will still need a septic tank, which people who use composting toilets will say is one of the benefits of them: you don’t need to spend several thousands of dollars putting in a septic system to use a composting toilet.

You don’t have hands-on access to the effluent that comes out of the septic tank, like you do having access to the output of your composting toilet, however you can still use it to grow plants if you put a botanical cell between the output of your septic tank and the leech field. This works great in the desert to create lush jungles around your house, however up here in Canada, it would only be a seasonal thing as the ground is frozen for half the year.

In the end, having and using a composting toilet seems mainly focused on saving water. In some places, this is an absolute necessity and so are highly suitable for those locations. But depending on the style of composting toilet you have, it may be using way more power than a conventional toilet so it is a debatable to say that they are really more environmentally friendly.

All I can say about ours, is if we were to do it all over again, we probably wouldn’t buy the expensive, fancy plastic version. It’s way cheaper and easier to build your own and you don’t have to worry about parts breaking that you can’t replace.

Voyages on this Earth

Earth
Our common frontier
These are the voyages of the Earthship Walden
Our five year mission
To explore strange building concepts
To seek out new life in dead architecture
To boldly build what Mike Reynolds has built before

Captain’s Log, Earth date: Two zero one six point one one point zero five. With the cold weather increasing, we constantly worry about attack. We have many projects to help us with this, but progress seems to have slowed down.

Kat-Hura: “Captain long range forecasts indicate White Klingons are closing in.”
Captain: “White Klingons? I hope we’re prepared for that. Captain to Engineering.”
Scotty: “Scott here Cap’n.”
Captain: “Scotty, how is that new shield coming.”
Scotty: “Already installed, Captain.”

snowshield01

Captain: “Will that hold off the White Klingons, Scotty?”
Scotty: “Aye, Cap’n. We tested it last year and she worked a beauty.”
Captain: “How about the energy storage compartment? Did we get that closed up?”
Scotty: “Prrrrr, prrrrr…. GET OFF THE BLOODY COMMUNICAT… @#($&^#*#!!!…”
Captain: “Scotty? Everything okay down there?”
Scotty: “Aye, the dang cat walked across the console again.”
Captain: “Well, try to keep the hair balls down there to a minimum.”
Scotty: “Aye…”
Captain: “About the energy storage compartment…?”
Scotty: “Oh that sir! That’s also finished.”
Captain: “The energy modules are secured?”
Scotty: “Aye, snug in their own little box.”

batterybox01

batterybox02

Captain: “Did we managed to seal it off.”
Scotty: “Aye, did that too. Even put on an access hatch so we can get in easily for doin’ maintenance.”

electricalcompartmentdoor01

electricalcompartmentdoor02

Captain: “Good work, Scotty. That should work quite nicely.”
Scotty: “Thank ya, Cap’n.”
Captain: “Captain out.”

Captain: “Well, it seems we’re quite well prepared for those White Klingons. Nothing to worry about, Kat-Hura.”
Kat-Hura: “Yes, Captain.”
Captain: “Now, if only we could get to putting the bulkhead panels back on the walls in my sleeping quarters.”
Kat-Hura: “That work is still underway, but some progress has been made, Captain.”
Captain: “Really?”
Kat-Hura: “Yes, Captain.” (Brings up the view of the Captain’s quarters on the main screen) “As you can see, we have started with the section around the new porthole that was added.”

trailerpaneling01

Captain: “Well, that’s looking much better.”
Kat-Hura: “That’s not all, Captain. We have even put on several coats of paint.”

trailerpaneling02

trailerpaneling03

trailerpaneling04

Captain: “Wow, you guys have been busy.”
Kat-Hura: “Also, some of the detailing around the porthole has been completed as well.”

windowdetailing01

Captain: “I’m liking the pine, it adds a nice touch.”
Kat-Hura: “Agreed, Captain. It will go well with the deep green colour.”
Captain: “Any other surprises, Kathura.”
Kat-Hura: “Just one, Sir.”
Captain: “Well, spit it out.”
Kat-Hura: “We also insulated and put a finished panel over the step up to your sleep quarters, Sir.”

stepcover01

Captain: “Hey, that’s looking snazzy.”
Kat-Hura: “We also stained it for you sir, so it will match some of the other decor.”

stepcover02

Captain: “Well, I’ll be worn out dylithium crystal. Things are progressing quite nicely around this shuttle craft. Is there any word from Earthfleet about getting started on the Earthship?”
Kat-Hura: “Unfortunately, Sir, they want us to have some engineers look over and approve the plans.”
Captain: “Dang them and their bureaucracy. Hopefully we can deal with that this winter so we can stay on schedule to begin next spring.”
Kat-Hura: “Yes, Captain. That would be ideal.”
Captain: “I guess we’ll just have to deal with it and keep on going.”
Kat-Hura: “So it seems, Captain. So it seems.”

Discovery of a New Earthship Neighbour

We’ve been up here in Maynooth for two years now and the number of great people we have come in contact with is amazing. We found it very promising when we first got here that we could tell people we were planning to build an Earthship and we didn’t have to explain too often what that was.

Anyway, after having met so many people and having conversations about Earthships, you end up hearing about others who are living off the grid in alternative housing. Or, in this case, an Earthship itself.

We kept meeting people who told us about this other couple who are in the area building an Earthship, but we hadn’t quite made that connection yet. Fortunately, we managed to garner some vague directions from someone and we went out on a search today.

And we found them, after a lovely drive down a sunny country road.

This is Dash and Y.P.’s place.

dw_earthship01

As you can see from the photo, they are building what is referred to as a simple survival model Earthship. It uses domes instead of the log roof. The front is framed in similar to a global model.

dw_earthship02

We only met Dash today, his partner was in Toronto which is their home base. He told us about what they were doing and how long they had been working at it (several years).

dw_earthship03

Dash said he will be here a little longer and then will shutdown the build site and head back to Toronto for the winter. Construction will continue in the spring.

It was great to see and great to meet other Earthshippers in the area. That’s now four of us who are either planning, or in the process of building, an Earthship that we have met in the area.

Rock on!