Category Archives: Power

Summer 2015: Rainwater Cistern Construction

light-posts-comparisonBefore delving into the big project of the summer, the rainwater cistern, I decided to finally bury the electrical and network wiring running to the cabins in flexible conduit.  I also put in 4 cedar light posts that also act as junction boxes.  The lights are attached to a light activated timer that turns the path lights on for a couple hours after it gets dark.  There’s also now a light in the composting toilet that’s got a timer switch so it can’t be left on.

Eric helped a lot with digging the trenches for the conduit.  The project cost a lot more than I’d hoped.  Thick copper wiring and conduit are expensive.  They also get you with all of the connector pieces.  Outlets, junction boxes, a breaker box, breakers, etc. It all added up to a pretty penny.

cistern putAfter that it was on to dealing with gaping mud pit that the cistern hole had become after 3 years.  Last Fall we spent a lot of effort cleaning it up again only to have the monsoons this Spring deluge it and cause the sides to collapse.  Any hope I had for letting it dry out to make work easier evaporated unlike the water in the foot or more of clay mud at the bottom, so we sucked it up, pulled our shoes off and jumped into the muck.

It took Eric and I probably 2.5 weeks of hard work to get it all cleaned up and leveled out.  The next step was laying sub base gravel for underneath the concrete slab.  The cistern will hold almost exactly 4,000 gallons or 16 tons of water, not to mention the weight of the concrete-filled cinder block walls and wooden cap, so having a thick sub base and thick foundation slab were important.  We tamped down and leveled 8″ of 1″ minus gravel (~10 tons).

cistern leveled with sub baseNext week built a square form for the slab using 2x8s, bracing the corners and putting stakes in to hold the sides in place.  We had to get it pretty level for the concrete, and we also needed to leave as much space as we could around the outside to remove the frame and be able to maneuver.

We then used a couple of pipes and an angle grinder to cut and bend the 1/2″ rebar so that base and the walls would be tied tightly together. We used broken bricks and rocks to hold the rebar up off the ground so it would end up roughly in the middle of the slab.  We used wire to hold the rebar together where it crossed and held all of the ribs upright by laying down a piece of rebar on the ground with screws in it that we could tie each piece of rebar to.

pouring cistern slab concreteAt last it was time to call in the cement truck.  We had to drag a bunch of tables and other things out of the way and clear out some brush to make a path for the truck.  I believe I calculated that we’d need 3 yards and it turned out to be almost exactly right, with just a little left over to spare.

We let the slab set for a week or more before we started in on the block walls.  I should have gotten concrete blocks not cinder blocks since cinder blocks contain fly ash which is toxic, but I didn’t realize it until I’d already bought, hauled, and unloaded all of them.  To get around that I’ll be putting several more coats of potable cement coating than I’d planned and then do testing before I use the water.

cistern block mortared wallsI’d never mortared blocks before and Eric had only watched, so the first few courses were slow going.  Getting the right amount of mortar on the blocks to keep it level without too much overflowing, and also getting the mortar to be a good sticky consistency were the main tricks that we had to get worked out.  We used Type S mortar, which is essentially a mix of cement and hydrated lime.  It probably took us 3 weeks to do the walls.

Ultimately I believe we used about 8 90-lb bags of mortar mix and a pick-up load of masonry sand.  I believe we used about 300 cinder blocks altogether in the 12 courses of the wall.  We turned 2 half-blocks on their side, one a couple feet down which will allow the 3-inch PVC inlet pipe in and the other is in the top course for the 3-inch overflow pipe.  I also used a masonry bit and drilled about a 1-inch hole 2 feet down to run the outlet pipe from the cistern into the common house where it wouldn’t freeze.

cistern cement paintOnce the blocks were in place we filled in all of the block holes with concrete that we hand-mixed.  It took us 4 days to mix and fill all of the blocks.  We also placed some anchor bolts as we went to attach the wooden roof cap later.  I also went around the outside of the cistern and put 3 coats of potable cement paste on the outside of the cistern to minimize any toxins leaching out from the cinder blocks.

Next we back-filled dirt around the cistern to about 2 feet below the surface.  The frost line in our area is about 20 inches, so I want to make sure there’s good drainage down to that point to avoid wet soil freezing and pushing against the cistern, potentially cracking it.  Once we got the ground back-filled and tamped we made sure that it was all sloping down towards the lowest corner and then dug a trench from there downhill and put in a loop of 4-inch perforated drain tile around the cistern to collect water and then non-perforated drain tile to carry it from the lowest point out and away downhill.  At this point in the year Eric’s time was up so I carried on by myself for a few weeks.

cistern backfilled with insulation, gravel, and drain tileI used some 2″ extruded polystyrene boards that someone gave me to insulate the outside of the cistern from 2′ down and up to the top of the cistern.  This is to help keep the water from freezing.  After getting the insulation in place I back-filled with 1″ clean gravel on to the drain tile so water would drain down.  Once I got that tamped down to a little above ground level I put landscaping fabric down and then piled up dirt against the side of the cistern.

That’s as far as I got with it this summer.  I laid some boards across and then put plywood on top of that with an empty 55-gallon drum on it and then tarps laid over that so the rain and snow would run off.

The plan for next year is to build an insulated wooden roof cap over the top, which will essentially act as the floor of a gazebo.  I’ll put several cedar post timbers in and then a gable roof with galvanized steel roofing on it.  This will protect the roof cap and also provide a nice flat outdoor space for people to do yoga or other activities.  I’ll also add some retractable clotheslines.

After that I’ll need to add the system that filters the water coming off the roof by filtering out bigger debris like leaves and sticks, and then dumping the first 20 gallons, which is the dirtiest.  Then the water will go through a couple of fine screens before entering the cistern.  I’ll describe that system more in a future post.

 

 

Me, Whish, and Eric

Spring 2015

The summer solstice has arrived and it’s hard to believe the days will already be getting shorter, unfortunately though they keep getting hotter for another 2 weeks. The big story lines of this Spring have been the large amount of rain, a bumper year for fruit and vegetables, tree clearing, mushroom logs, a hippie reunion, and a new urban homestead. Not to mention I also got engaged! More on that later.

Soaking mushroom logs

Photo Credit: Amber Garrett

I spent the early part of the Spring nearly clear-cutting about a quarter of an acre between the common house and the campground area. Not exactly my favorite task, but I’ve replanted the area as a nut orchard with blight-resistant chestnuts, hazelnuts, and hickory/pecan(hickan) hybrids. Processing the chopped trees took a lot of doing. The 4″-8″ diameter pieces were cut into 3′ sections for use as shiitake mushroom logs. I cut the thicker pieces into 16″ and roughly split a large portion of it to speed up the drying process and stacked some of it round. Green wood can be harder to split, but I find that oak splits pretty well even when green. I now have enough firewood to last me probably 3 years.

With help of my volunteer, Whish, we made about 50 shiitake mushroom logs. I tried a different method this year that involves a little more equipment, but is ultimately cheaper and faster. Using an angle grinder and a special attachment drilling the holes is sped up probably 4X. Then instead of using the plug spawn we used sawdust spawn, which is significantly cheaper, though you do need a special plunger tool to press the spawn into the holes. I’m also using a combination of paraffin wax/mineral oil(3:2) to seal the spawn in and to seal the ends and that seems to give it a good enough flexibility that it doesn’t just chip off.

StrawberriesThis year’s Midsummer Mayhem, what I hope will be a summer solstice tradition, got postponed until the weekend of July 17-19 because of the nasty camping weather. As storms rolled through this morning I realized I’d made the right decision. In the last month we’ve gotten 12″ of rain and it’s very muggy whenever the sun is out.

The plants are loving it though. I’ve seen whole varieties of trees flower this year that I haven’t seen in my previous 6 years here. The fruit trees and berry bushes have been productive thus far, and a heavy crop of peaches is weighing down many branches in the food forest right now. I also had far and away the best strawberry year so far, and the blueberries, gooseberries, blackberries, and raspberries all seem to have gotten the memo too.

Me, Whish, and EricI have a volunteer from Connecticut, Whish, who is handling a lot of the garden management this year. She’s kept an eye on plant pests and diseases, and she also helped make a large number of metal plant markers from roof flashing and marker flags for the garden. She is just now getting into the canning and pickling portion of the season, but she’s been dehydrating plenty of herbs and other produce.

My other volunteer, Eric, from Vermont has helped out a lot in the garden too. The extra rain this year has made weeding a bigger chore than normal, though I should have put down more rotted straw for mulch.  Anyway, Eric is going to be helping me more with the construction this year that we’re just now gearing up for because of rain delays.

farm reunionIn the middle of June, some of the original members of the land trust got together in Columbia and then came out for a tour of the new happenings at Maya Creek and to see what remained from the old buildings that were here.

It was nice to put faces to names, hear so many stories, and to see old friendships being renewed. I was also glad to see that they were all excited by my new endeavors out on the land they helped to purchase back in the early 70’s.

CARE CCUA strawbale cob benchRight after the reunion, my volunteers and I spent a couple days working with a group of young people working with the C.A.R.E. gallery, a summer program run by the city of Columbia and the Missouri Arts Council, to build a strawbale/cob bench at the main CCUA(Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture) farm in Columbia.

I was excited to do this project, despite a busy June, as I’ve wanted to contribute my skills to the CCUA for awhile. The materials were not ideal, but the group did a good job working with what we had. I’ll be going back later in July to show them how to mix and add a finish coat to the bench.

TaoSephhouseI also closed on a home in Columbia at the beginning of May. Not to worry! I’m in no way giving up on my work building Maya Creek, but I’ve been wanting a crash pad in Columbia for some time and boy did I find a nice one. I’ve already gotten an energy audit and started making easy efficiency upgrades like adding LED lighting, a hot water insulation blanket, and an efficient front-loading washing machine. I’ll be adding more attic insulation soon and somewhere between 2-4 kilowatts of solar panels next Spring.

Only a few weeks after closing on the new house I asked Persephone to marry me. I was beginning to think I’d never find someone to share my life with, and just as I was giving up I meet the woman of my dreams and I couldn’t be happier! She is kind, altruistic, funny, and vivacious, with a beautiful and intelligent head on her shoulders. Her eye for style and design compliments my utilitarian engineering mindset wonderfully and the future is full of possibilities.

For now the house in Columbia remains mostly her domain, though I’m there nearly every weekend and help when I can. I spend the rest of my time out at Maya Creek continuing to build what I hope will become a wonderful institution for learning self-reliance and communing with the natural world.

Duplex Disaster and Recovery

We had a serious failure in the duplex, but were able to save the vast majority of the building thanks to some helping hands.  The following videos cover briefly the cause of the fire and then the reconstruction results. I took more footage of the recovery process, but I will save that for a longer length video at another time.

And now the recovery.

Lumberjacking

It’s not fun to cut down trees, for the trees or for us.  No one likes using a tool as noisy, smelly, and dangerous as a chainsaw, but this last month has been packed with tree felling and processing. We’re clearing out our construction sites for this year, and turning the trees into firewood, mushroom logs, and we’ll be milling some of the trunks into lumber.

We’re also culling some cedars, trimming them up, and peeling them for use as posts in the shed and strawbale duplex.  They’re rot resistant, beautiful, and plentiful here.

In exchange for harvesting some trees we’re taking on the responsibility of protecting the other trees on the property and providing for their survival.