Category Archives: What is an Earthship

Posts that describe in detail what an Earthship is and how it works.

What is an Earthship

Considering how often I run into people who have never heard of an Earthship, I thought I would make a separate space here on my blog to address that question. If you haven’t visited my About page, you might start there for a general description, or you could head over to wikipedia and read their article on it.

The purpose of this section is to address the six main building principles in more depth so if you want to know more how an Earthship is implemented you can get some idea. The six principles are listed on those other pages I linked, but just in case you don’t want to go check them out, I will list them again here.

  1. Building with Natural & Recycled Materials
  2. Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling
  3. Solar & Wind Electricity
  4. Water Harvesting
  5. Contained Sewage Treatment
  6. Food Production

As I fill in the section for each principle, I will update that list with links on each article. If you have any questions regarding any of it, please feel free to leave a comment.

Building with Natural & Recycled Materials

Building with natural and recycled materials is the first principle when constructing an Earthship. Using recycled materials is often expressed by using what is lying around that has usually been tossed away into a landfill. Automobile tires are probably the signature item that everyone thinks of when Earthships are mentioned.

Why would you want to use tires? How about these two pictures for some motivation.

Humans have made so many tires now and after they wear out they end up in huge tire dumps because we don’t know what to do with them. That is starting to change as we are slowly finding ways to reuse tires, but building houses with them is just another item to add to that list. We have a LOT of tires lying around, billions of them. In fact there are now so many junk tires lying around this planet that you could almost call them a natural resource that we can use. It’s a funny way to think about it, but it might just stop you in your tracks to consider that we may have more junk tires on planet Earth than trees right now. That’s a disturbing thought.

Another natural resource used is dirt. Plain dirt, not pure sand or clay, but your run of the mill pile of dirt that is a mixture if things. You don’t want organic matter in your dirt, but other that that, most dirt will work.

And what do you do with that dirt, you may be asking? You pound it into the tires with a sledge hammer.

I’m not going to go into the process of how that works here, but if you want more details you can check out my other post on pounding tires.

Another really popular material used in building Earthships is beverage cans.

When Michael Reynolds was first experimenting back in the 1970’s with alternative building materials, he started with cans. This is long before Earthships had been conceived and also long before there was any such thing as recycling. Placing cans in concrete to build a wall means you need much less concrete to form the wall.

These days we do have recycling programs and beverage cans are recycled all the time. This may lead one to ask, why bother using cans when you can put them into the recycling and have them made into something new? First of all, cans are free and there are a lot of them. It’s difficult to pass up free building materials. Secondly, let’s consider a scenario where we take said cans and recycle the aluminum into some other building material, nails or flashing or whatever. The big difference between using the can as-is and using the remade building material is energy used. Using the can requires no additional energy, but there is a huge energy usage when recycling aluminum. By using the can you save that energy cost.

Not all recycled materials are purely functional. Glass bottles are used to create very decorative and amazing pieces of art. This is a bath tub in the Phoenix Earthship in the Greater World Community of Earthships down in Taos, NM.

Here is a bottle wall under construction at the Towers, a two storey Earthship down in Taos.

The glass bottles have their necks/tops cut off. You then find two bottoms that match and tape them together forming what we like to call a bottle brick. Similarly to the cans, these are placed in concrete. If you’re good, you plan it ahead of time, have the right colours and you can make some really awesome designs.

Some other natural and recycled materials being used are straw and clay for making adobe, cardboard for putting in the bottom of the tires so the dirt doesn’t fall out the bottom when you start pounding it with the sledgehammer and old pallet wood that is repurposed into making kitchen cabinets.

Earthships do use some conventional materials, like lumber, concrete, rebar and glass (windows) but the idea is to only use those things where necessary. What constitutes “necessary” will vary according to your design, location on the planet and what rules your municipality impose.

You may be wondering why go to all that trouble of pounding dirt into tires and putting cans into concrete. The answers to that and other questions will be handled in the Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling post.

Stay tuned 🙂

Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling

In this article we’re going to talk about how heating and cooling works in an Earthship. An Earthship uses passive solar energy to accomplish this without the need for big furnaces or air conditioning. First, let’s talk about something called Thermal Mass.

Here is a scan I took from a page out of the Earthship Vol I book. Click on the image for a larger version.

After reading about the jars experiment, consider how most conventional buildings are constructed: they are insulated boxes of air with thin walls. There has also been a concerted effort in construction to try to make houses as air tight as possible, which has also lead to requiring elaborate venting systems to get fresh air into the building. This is all in an effort to try to keep the air inside at a stable temperature.

Now following what was discussed in the jar example, it would seem to make more sense to incorporate more water in our buildings. Unfortunately, humans don’t thrive so well in an aquarium, so Earthships use compacted dirt and concrete. They’re more easily formed and they don’t make your bread all soggy, cause who likes soggy bread.

Here I have included a section (side) view of a typical global model Earthship, with some extra labels that I added. The front of the Earthship (the part with the glass) is on the right side.

During the winter time, the sun will be low, around 20° above the horizon for our latitude. This means the sun will shine deep into the Earthship. Here is a picture I did in Sketchup to give you an idea.

The Earthship has a massive tire wall at the back, where each tire has been filled with compacted dirt. You pound it in with a sledge hammer to make it nice and firm. Behind the tire wall is another section of compacted dirt that is about 1m (3′) thick and goes from the bottom of the tire wall to the top. This adds more thermal mass to your wall so it is, in effect, almost 2m (6’6″) thick. You’ll notice from the section drawing above that after the compacted dirt comes insulation. There isn’t much point in having all of that thermal mass if you don’t insulate it.

If you live in a part of the world that experiences snow during the winter, have you ever parked your vehicle so its windshield is facing the sun during a really clear, cold day? If you get inside, you’ll notice that the interior of your vehicle is much warmer. This is because the sun is shining through the window and heating up all of your upholstery and other bits you have inside your car. This is the same type of effect we are using in an Earthship.

The sun shining in the front of the Earthship will bring a lot of heat with it and that heat will be absorbed by the thermal mass. Remember those can and bottle walls we talked about in Building with Natural and Recycled Materials? Those will also hold temperature. Your floors will also have thermal mass: concrete, adobe, brick, tile, flag stone or similar earthen type covering. This is so they can also absorb the heat coming from the sun. You don’t want wood or carpet as those things are insulators and will prevent the sun’s energy from being absorbed by the mass. This would defeat the purpose of having the thermal mass in the first place.

From a physics point of view, if the air in the room is +1° warmer than the mass surrounding it, the heat will move into the mass. If the mass is warmer than the air, the heat will move into the room. So, if the sun is shining during the day, the thermal mass in the Earthship will absorb all that heat. When the sun goes down at night, that heat will be released into the room. There have been comments made by people who have stayed at Earthships in the winter about the fact that the “furnace came on around midnight and it got really warm”. There is no furnace, that is just the heat coming out of the wall.

So, what about summer then? Obviously, you don’t want to be storing all of the summer heat in your house, you would be cooked.

During the summer, however, the sun is really high in the sky. About 70° off the horizon up here. This means the sun is only going to shine into the green house at the front.

So the front green house will be pretty warm with all of that sun, you might think. However, due to the fact that the glass on the front of the Earthship is angled so as to be at 90° to the sun during the winter, the summer sun shine will be hitting that glass at a fairly oblique angle. Because of this, much of the suns effect will be reflected away from the Earthship.

Not all of the sunshine will be reflected, obviously, and the sun is quite strong during the summer. This is why there are also skylight vents in the roof above the green house, so you can naturally vent out that excess heat from the highest point in the Earthship.

Behind the angled glass of the front face there is another wall of glass that separates the green house from the interior. This creates a buffer zone that keeps the areas where people are the most stable. At the top of this second, vertical glass wall are openable vents. The purpose of these will be discussed shortly.

Going to the back of the Earthship, if you refer back to the section drawing, you’ll see that outside the layer of insulation, you have your cisterns (which will be covered in Water Harvesting) that are completely buried in an earth berm that reaches to the edge of the roof at the back. Buried at the bottom of this berm are several steel culvert pipes that are referred to as vent tubes.

With the greenhouse at the front of the Earthship heating up and venting that air out the ceiling, new fresh air must be brought in to replace it as it will cause a drop in air pressure. The vent tubes allow fresh air to pass through the berm and into the back of the Earthship. Once you dig down far enough into the earth, you will reach a stable temperature point of about 15°C (68°F). Now imagine pulling air from outside on a hot 30°C (85°F) day through that tube. The air will be cooled down by this action so when it enters the back of the Earthship, it will feel like air conditioning.

This is where those vents at the top of the vertical glass wall come in. With those open, the hot air escaping out the ceiling of the green house will cause fresh air to be pulled through the vent tubes into the back of the Earthship, creating a natural cooling convection current that uses no power and only natural processes.

Here is a diagram.

The cool air comes through the vent tubes, hot air is vented out the top of the vertical glass wall into the green house, which is then vented out the ceiling. A simple solution and it doesn’t have any moving parts so it won’t break. No having to call the heating/cooling techs to come fix your Earthship.

I’m going to take a moment here and talk about hemp-crete, as I have been asked about that a lot. It also so happens that this was talked about when I was down in Taos, NM doing my Earthship Academy session 1.

Many people think that replacing the concrete with hemp-crete would be a much more environmentally friendly thing to do as the energy requirements to make it are far less than that of concrete. However, you would be making a HUGE mistake if you were to do that. First of all, hemp-crete does not have the same structural properties as concrete, so you’re not going to get approval from the inspector to replace your footings with it. Secondly, and probably most importantly, hemp-crete is an insulation, not a thermal mass.

What do you think would happen if you did all of the pack-out around your tires and poured your floors with hemp-crete? You would be insulating all of that winter sunshine AWAY from the thermal mass of the tires. You would also create a day-time oven in the winter and you would freeze during the night as there wouldn’t be anything to absorb that heat during the day; it would just accumulate in the rooms making your type-writers melt.

This, in fact, happened at an Earthship build down in Australia. Obviously, Australia doesn’t have the winters that we do here in Canada, so being able to shed heat would be important. However, this one was being built by someone who was an intern for a short while at Earthship Biotecture and then went back to Australia, found a client, and started the build. They had domes in this design, but they replaced all of the concrete with hemp-crete. What they ended up with was building a huge oven. It was so hot inside it was unlivable. Do not make this same mistake.

This same type of mistake can even be made in conventional housing that is built (or converted) to take advantage of passive solar heating. You can have a whole bunch of windows facing south to gather sunlight during the winter, but if you don’t have any thermal mass to absorb some of that, you’re going to be too hot. Yes, the sun is that powerful.

If you have any questions regarding passive solar heating and cooling, please feel free to comment.

Solar & Wind Electricity

It’s time to talk about using electricity in an Earthship. From the title you can probably surmise that this is about using solar and wind to generate electricity, and you would be correct.

I should add here that renewable energy sources, in general, are what is desired. If you live on the coast and can harness tidal power, that is equivalent to what I’m going to talk about here. Similarly, micro hydro and geothermal would also fall under this category. Solar and wind just happen to be the two most common renewable energy sources.

The vast majority of people these days are familiar with solar panels and wind turbines, at least to a point where they understand that they can be used to generate electricity. There are a number of details to be aware of.

First and foremost, as mentioned before in other posts, an Earthship is designed to be independent. That means not connected to an electrical grid. This independence arose from the basic principle of wanting to create a building that could be built anywhere in the world, regardless of available infrastructure. The advantage to this is that if the grid goes down, you aren’t affected. Conversely, if you have issues with your electricity, you aren’t affecting anyone else. Considering how many times a year we have weather that knocks out the power grid, this can be a big advantage.

Once you start down the path of generating your own power, you need to take on a certain amount of responsibility for that. After all, when something goes wrong you are the one who will have to deal with it. There are some companies that will sell you all of the equipment and hook it all up for you. If something goes wrong you can call them, but you should be aware of what you are buying and what you are getting yourself into. It just makes sense if you want to get the most out of generating your own power.

Solar power is pretty ubiquitous these days. If you are interested in solar, some basic things you should research are: the average number of sun hours per year in your area (called insolation), what your power requirements are, what kind of sun-based view you have available to you and what type of system you are looking for.

When generating your own power, you have basically three options in terms of how to set it up: completely disconnected from the existing electrical grid, grid- tied and a hybrid of the two. Off-grid is pretty self explanatory: you are not connected to the existing electrical grid at all. In the case of being grid-tied, this means that all of the power you are generating is being fed directly back into the grid; you aren’t using any of it yourself. The electrical company pays you for the power you generate and this shows up as rebates or credits on your existing utility bill. The advantage to this is you don’t ever have to worry about using too much power. The downside is, if the grid goes down, so do you. It could be a beautifully sunny day, but if the grid is down, you have no power and you aren’t getting paid for all that power the solar panels are generating because the grid is offline.

A hybrid system is where you have battery backup and if the grid goes down, you still have whatever power you have stored in your batteries to use. It seems like the best of both worlds, but this is also the most expensive way to do it as you need more hardware to handle it all. You also need to have a grid line close by to tap into.

Solar panels come in lots of sizes and power ratings. You should probably aim for getting enough panels to generate a little more than double the power that you plan to use on a daily basis. This will help to compensate for cloudy days.

Wind turbines are a whole different ball game. I don’t have any personal experience with my own turbine, but I have done a fair amount of research and talked with those who have tried it. My biggest piece of advice to anyone wanting to try out wind power is to live on the property where you are planning to install it for at least three years (probably five is better) before getting a system. This will give you some idea as to what the wind is like over many seasons. As always, there are exceptions, such as if you live in a coastal region or the prairies where it is windy all the time then you probably don’t have much to worry about. But in areas like where we live (forested hills) wind is hard to come by a lot of the time. Most of the people I have talked to in the area, including some who have turbines, say it’s not really worth it in our area.

Some other things to consider with wind turbines is that they are motors in motion and as a result of that, they will wear out and break. Solar panels have no moving parts so they don’t have that problem. Also, there will be times when there isn’t enough wind to turn the blades as well as times during storms when there is too much wind and it may destroy your turbine. Remember this if you are in tornado alley.

The vast majority of wind turbines are the horizontal axis kind. Those are the ones with the blades all facing into the wind, like in the picture below.

These are generally speaking the most efficient, because their blades are facing directly into the wind. They also get the most wear and when really strong winds come up, most susceptible to damage.

The main other type is the vertical axis wind turbine. Here is a picture of one they have at Earthship Biotecture in Taos, NM.

These ones are less efficient in terms of the amount of wind the blades capture, as only one side of the axis catches the wind and the other pushes against it. There are lots of online articles about them and I’m sure the technology has changed over time, but this type of turbine are favored by Mike Reynolds. According to him, they take less wind to start turning, don’t spin as fast in strong wind because of that push back effect and last longer without needing repairs. If this is true, then if you amortize the average power generation over time between a vertical and horizontal axis turbine, taking into account down time for repairs, you might come out ahead with the vertical axis turbine simply due to the fact that it doesn’t break as often.

Of course, no discussion of off-grid living would be complete without talking about batteries. Your basic battery used for power storage for an off-grid home is the lead-acid battery. These are the same type used in golf carts and marine settings (boats). These are the cheapest, but by no means are they bad. They do require maintenance, however. You need to keep them topped up with distilled water as the electrical reactions use up the liquid over time. I do our battery maintenance once a month.

You can get sealed batteries and they have gel batteries as well. You may have heard about the company Tesla coming out with a battery solution of their own using Lithium-Ion batteries (the same type in your phone). I have looked into this somewhat as it seemed like a nifty thing, but it turned out to be not as nice as I would have hoped. First, it is not just a battery, as it includes a built-in charge controller, inverter and computer to control the whole thing. This isn’t very convenient if you already have an inverter and charge controller. The system is meant more for a backup/hybrid grid-tied setup. Also, it requires a connection to the internet to function (so they can give you over-the-air updates and monitor your usage). Ummm, no thank you.

There are other options out there as lots of companies are working on battery technology. In the end, it usually boils down to what you are looking for, what is available and what you can afford.

These are all the types of things you get into when you start thinking about going off-grid. For some people it is very interesting and they jump right in. However, there are many others who don’t want to be bothered with it all and just want power when they flip on the switch. Personally, I like knowing how much power we’re making and using and we manage our usage to match what we make.

We have been running our solar off-grid system now for over two years and we love it. We do have a generator as a backup for those long stretches of cloudy days during winter. We wouldn’t need it as much if we added more panels to our system. That will happen eventually when we get our Earthship up and running.

I do apologize for this article taking so long. I have worked on it several times, but it was degrading into long descriptions of Volts, Amps and Watts and I was trying to keep it a little simpler. If you do have any questions about this, feel free to leave a comment.