Sunday, March 2, 2008

A superabundance of plethoras

Sorry to be gone so long; a combination of barriers kept me from getting up the steam needed to write here.  Chief among them- A) This is getting to be a really busy time of year; we're planting stuff in the greenhouse, every day; which means the greenhouse needs tending, every day.  In case you ever thought about running a greenhouse business- it's as much work as milking 50 cows.  Crazy.  B) I had to head off an attack by barbarians on my business last week; exhausting; but the hearing at the state senate went in my favor.  C) Every time I'd think I was ready to do the next post here; I'd get distracted by another topic.

The news is just crammed full of great stuff to write about.  Over-crammed.  Plethorical.  It's been kind of hard to focus on a target, when so many float by.

Like this one: Still No Aliens? My own answer there is- if the aliens are INTELLIGENT - why, on Earth, would they want to talk to US???  No, really.  I could elaborate.  I'm seriously tempted.  But I won't.  Today.

Time, I think, for a "green living" post.  A few back there, Segwyne, who is working on a house someday, asked "What are some of the things that maybe wouldn't immediately come to mind to someone who has lived in apartments for the last 20 years? "

When I first read that, I pretty much grinned - thinking "sure, in my spare time... write another book...";  which is exactly what it would take.  And it wouldn't be enough.

The list of ways to screw up is pretty much endless; and wildly variable by latitude, longitude, taste, and microhabitat.

But- it made me think, and nagged away at me, for a long time.  What could I communicate that would be generally useful there; that wasn't just a list of "don'ts".  And, something finally occurred to me.  So, here we go-

A) I'm tremendously flattered, but I can't be your building consultant- too much time, too many unknowns, too many differences in my experiences and your needs.  It's really not possible for me to give you good specific advice.    Can't do it.  But- 

B)  I can give you a few specific examples of my own stupidities and regrets (not going to get encyclopedic about it, though), which might help point the way.  And-

C)  (We'll get to C after B.  C is the biggie.)
So; some specific stupidities-  

Now, you'll probably think it's stupid that my solar panels are up on the top of the roof, and I have to climb up there periodically to sweep snow off.  (Incidentally, that's not smoke; it's steam coming out of the chimney; it's cold.)

But that's not the dumb part.  It's not fun, or easy; but it's not dumb.  You REALLY need to put your solar panels in THE place where they will provide you with the most power.  That means TWO major considerations; sun; and distance from the batteries.

All the neighbors thought we were crazy when we built the Little House - um, in the woods.  At the end of a 1/3 mile long sod road.  The local culture wants you to put your house as close to the blacktop as you can get it; then plant trees for windbreaks.

I WANTED the distance from the roads, as I've mentioned here; because I'm lazy...; and by putting the house 100 yards into the woods, we already had a great windbreak (that's a big deal out here on the edge of the prairie).  And I had other reasons for wanting the house where it is; it has a fabulous view in the winter of the nearby bluffs; I like trees; and, I wanted the house to have its footings on bedrock.  100 yards away, uphill and out of the woods- the bedrock is 20-30 feet down.  Long, expensive piles/footings.  Here on the edge of the bluff, in the woods, the bedrock is 2-4' down; easy to put piles down.  A log cabin without firm feet can settle and float and wander all over the place.

So the house is in the woods- and solar power was not an option, nor a thought, when it was built.   Could we put the panels out in a field; where there's better sun?  Yeah, but it's a hundred yards away.  12vDC power hates long distances like that; basically you'd rather not have to run 12v much further than about 15 feet.  And that's pushing it.  You can compensate by using bigger wires- gets expensive.  To cut the transmission losses over 100 yards, you're looking at copper cables about 2" thick.  :-)  Riiiiiight.  Thousands of dollars.   

Another real option- put the batteries out by the solar panels.  And, an inverter; so the wires going to the house are carrying 120vAC.  Possible.  But we'd have to build a freeze-proof battery box here; because sometimes your batteries are going to be discharged, yes?  Then they freeze, and burst, in good Minnesota winters.  And, running the wires through the woods- expensive, no matter what- aboveground- cheap, but branches will fall and take them out; belowground, way more expensive....

And on, and on.  Yeah, I thought about the options a LOT.  (There's a good rule, Segwyne...)

Decision was, can't afford the fancy stuff; put the panels up high on the roof; more sun there, and the wire run to the batteries is only about 12'.  (The batteries are inside the house- they can't freeze there, and the worry about hydrogen exploding from an array this small is WAY over rated- it's only a little hydrogen, and it dissipates very fast- pretty hard to ignite it even if you tried.  FAR more likely we'll burn the house down with a chimney fire.   :-) )

So.  Panels on the roof.  Kind of fun, in a warped way, to have to climb up there and sweep them - oh, 8 times a winter, or so.  Many days, the snow comes off on its own, anyway.  If it's VERY cold, the snow will blow or slip off; if it's sunny and warm, it'll melt off quickly.  It's only a few days when conditions are just wrong that I have to sweep.

Here's the problem:

In good cold weather, the snow brushed off the panels causes an avalanche on the roof; and clears the snow off the roof, too.

This is a problem?  Oh, yeah.  That lovely couple inches of snow on the roof almost doubles the insulation there.  It makes a HUGE difference in how much wood we're burning to keep warm, and how comfy it is inside at night.  (We put 8 inches of fiberglas batting in the roof, which was above standard at the time.  It's not really enough.)

I wish- I REALLY wish I'd built the roof at a much different angle; one that didn't shed the snow so easily.  It's cost me hours and hours of work to cut more firewood; and will cost more.  And many nights where it gets pretty darn cold inside.  In below zero weather, it's common for the cat's waterdish to freeze on the floor.  Unless there's snow on the roof.

How did I wind up with this very steep roof?  Partly chance; but partly conscious (and wrong) decisions.

The chance part is; when Spouse and I started building, we intended this to be a weekend retreat; strictly one story.  With a relatively low angle roof.  But as we got further into the process, we were also realizing we didn't really want those PhDs.  And we had to alter the house with much of the bottom already built.  We knew we were going to need more space, and the best way to go was up; so we added a sleeping loft to the picture.  Basically; we wound up plopping an "A-frame" cabin on top of our log cabin base.  Relatively inexpensive in terms of materials and time, relatively a lot of usable space.

And- I did think it would be a good idea here to have a roof that shed snow.
Talking to the old-timers here; yep, the snow gets deep in these parts.  And it does, too.

But- even in the early years here, there have been like 2 or 3 times when it was so deep that I might have wanted to go scrape some off the roof.  Over 30 odd (ha) years.  That means times when the snow on the roof might have been over 2 feet deep.  There have been far, far, far, far, far, far, far more times when a not-so-steep roof would have retained snow, and saved work.  Way far.

Basically, my grasp of the climate here was superficial.  I relied on hearsay (oh, yah, ve got deep snow most vinterss) - failed to discount the foibles of human memories (as Dylan Thomas put it "I can never remember whether if snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights, when I was six.")  People LOVE to exaggerate their winters, all around the world.  There ARE records on snow cover; I could have dug them out.  But I didn't.

It would have been considerably more expensive to build the second story with straight walls, and a flatter roof; quite a bit more material needed.  But I really wish I had.

Meanwhile; back at the THWASPCO - I made exactly the opposite mistake.

The potty house roof doesn't shed snow worth a darn, and I wish it did.  Thing is, it's clear fiberglas, and is supposed to help heat the thing with solar gain.  I have to stand behind it and try to sweep the snow off, all winter, if it's cold.  This year, we've had real winter; basically we haven't had more than a couple moments of thaw weather since November 15 or so.

It's not a huge deal; but it's annoying to know that the potty house would be uniformly more comfortable if I'd put a steeper roof on it.  That steeper roof would collect winter sunlight better, too.  And the glass roof is not nearly as strong as the house- deeper snow would need to be removed much more often.  (except we don't get it much anymore.)

This boo boo was mostly a matter of not thinking it all through.  Well, and kind of expecting the solar gain through the south wall to MELT the snow off the roof more often.  It doesn't.  Extra materials cost here would not have been much; benefits would have been considerable, including less damage to the fiberglas roof from dropping acorns and branches- which have punctured the roof occasionally.  A steeper roof would have bounced them off better, too.

I'm not sure anyone could have foreseen this one- this is such a unusual building, in such an unusual place- visitors mostly just goggle at it, and don't really understand how it works.  (It works great, for those not initiated.)

I could go on.  Gosh, yeah, I've made more mistakes than these.  But a catalog won't really help you that much.

Which brings us, FINALLY to:

C.)  Ask the local folk; particularly the OLD-timers.  Get them to come, and look at your plans, walk over your ground with you, and ASK them- "how would this work?"

As an old friend of mine used to say, "you just put your nickel in, and they'll talk on and on..."  And they're priceless.  No book can ever come close.

No, they're not always right; they gave me misleading advice on the house roof; but I really count that as my fault; I wasn't thinking about what they were saying; nor WHO was saying it.

Some of my other mistakes have to do with drainage from rainstorms.  Any good thoughtful local builder would have seen those coming immediately.  I didn't (I would now.)

My best example is a local practice I've never seen discussed anywhere.  When the Little House was partly built, the word got out that "a couple hippies from the city are building a log cabin in the woods!" (no, we weren't ever hippies; we were grad students- but the locals hadn't ever seen either) - and, a couple REAL old-timers came to see.  They'd built log buildings when they were young, and were feeling nostalgic.  The only information available at the time on how to build was in the Foxfire Books- not exactly Minnesota.

These two old Norwegian bachelor farmers hung around, and looked, and commented.  It was delightful, really.  And eventually, out popped 3 pieces of information that were priceless.

"How ya gonna chink it?"  "Well, haven't really decided.  Some kind of mortar I think.  Don't know much about it.  How'd you do it?"

And we got a) their recipe for log cabin chinking mortar (mason's mortar with a quarter-to-third of the mason's cement replaced by portland cement; makes it sticky.)  b) the information that the oldtimers would hammer bent junk nails into the cracks- where the mortar would hide them- as anchors for the chinking.  

And c) the information that "oh, they'd never chink inside and outside the first year.  Soon's you get heat in there, them logs'll shrink.  What they always useta do was chink just the OUTSIDE the first year.  Let the building dry and settle over the winter.  Then if ya can, chink the inside - and repair the outside - long about freeze-up the next fall, after you've been heating for another month or so.  Cuts the work way down."

Totally true; I've really never had to patch the inside chinking; and rarely the outside after the first year.  (The chinking does NOT go all the way through; there's an airspace in the middle, packed with loose fiberglas insulation- to cut heat conduction.  Not an oldtime practice; but a good one.)

The minutia of construction are absolutely critical.  And so is the local expertise.  So, seriously- ask the local oldtimers to come to your site, and talk about it; at length.

And DO make an effort to find the SMART and experienced oldtimers.  There ARE dumb ones out there, too.  :-)


A couple days after the post, this showed up in the NYT: Roofs Collapse-
So, I wasn't SO silly to worry about too much snow.  Still!  Some middle ground would be great.


Segwyne said...

Thank you, Greenpa, for taking the time to answer my question. I have looked over some of the housing plans at and read about thermal mass, southerly facing windows, and such, and then you wrote about your windows that open up all the way and make summer cooking more comfortable. I will definitely look for the old-timers in whatever community we end up in. Thanks again.

Crunchy Chicken said...

I had another weird dream last night that we came to visit you and Spice. Except that you guys lived in some weird, small rammed earth house on the University of Washington campus and had all these students milling about outside. You couldn't stay to talk as you had to go teach a class.

Anyway, if we ever do come to visit during the winter, I'll stay in the potty - it sounds warmer.

And hopefully Michael Pollan won't be there lugging wheelbarrows full of cabbage and Ed Begley's head.

DC said...

"My own answer there is- if the aliens are INTELLIGENT - why, on Earth, would they want to talk to US???"

Yep, I'm pretty sure all of our SETI radio messages are going directly into their spam boxes and are automatically deleted after they are ignored for a few days. I'm guessing the intelligent aliens probably also have lasers set to blast any of our future spacecraft that approach their planets -- they couldn't possibly want Wal-marts in their solar systems.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this blog.

I think it's kindof cool that you shared some of your mistakes here, so that the process of living in the woods isn't made out to be easier than it is! (though I suppose, who would think it was easy).

I like the last principle on your list.

Thank you, and I'll definitely keep checking this blog!

Walking Green said...

I am a lurker, but this post reminds me so much of my grandfather and great-uncles building a log cabin down on the family farm. We used it for hunting, trapping, family get-togethers and as a place to get-away. It contains some of my fondest memories of my youth.

It's still there and from what I hear, in good shape. It's been up for 27 years at least--possibly more maybe 30. Unfortunately, it's not been used in at least 15 years. When my great-uncle who owned the family homestead fell ill, he didn't have the mental faculties to finish his wishes--that we all had access to the cabin for use. So, his son has it, and none of us are allowed to stay (or even go to the homestead) and he has allowed it to fall into disrepair. It's a shame.

I miss that place. Being completely off the grid. Cooking and baking with a wood stove. Cooling in a creek box. Coffee in a percolator, not an electric coffeemaker. Everything done under your own steam. The bathroom was an outhouse (or slop pail) and the way you have heated yours--genius!

I am working my way slowly to the same lifestyle. It's going to take time and saving more money (we are looking for land--but it's pricey at best in our area), but I will get there.

You inspire me. Thank you for sharing all that you do.

Ryan said...

If insulating the roof is good, why not insulate it or super insulate it and have to cut a lot less wood? I have read of larson trussed houses that are insulated so well they no longer worry that the windows are inefficient.

Greenpa said...

Ryan- the cabin roof is of course, insulated, as you really can tell from the fact that the snow on it does not melt. It's just that more would still be better; and free.

When I built the cabin, the housing industry standard around here was to insulate roofs with about 4" of fiberglas batting. I put in 6". Which cost, both in framing lumber and fiberglas, a good deal more than twice the norm. Which is why builders would prefer to skimp- since they aren't paying the heating bills.

If I were doing it again (which I may, yet) I'd put in 12", and try to use something even better than glas batting.