Tag Archives: composting toilet

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.



Workshops Posted

Update: The date for the Primitive Skills Primer is actually June 16, NOT June 19.

We’ve finally settled on the workshops and the dates that we’ll be holding them this year.  We chose these based on how much experience and success we’d had with each of these topics.

All of the workshops are free, but we do ask that you register ahead of time so we know how many people are coming.  We doubt that we will have too many, but you never know.

We’ll be hanging flyers around the area, specifically in Columbia.  Although if anyone wants to print some out and hang them around their areas we can either give you some or you can print your own from this pdf.

Looking forward to seeing some of you there!


Rainwater Hand Washing Station

I finished up the rainwater hand washing station that’s attached to the composting toilet.  I put up a gutter covered with windows screen to keep debris out a several weeks ago, and John built the bucket/soap platform.

Today I added the downspout and secured a piece of window screen over the top of the bucket as a secondary filter and to keep mosquitoes out.  I drilled a bunch of tiny holes in the back side of the bucket near the top in order to keep the max level of the water lower than the window screen, otherwise mosquitoes could still lay eggs in the water.

I also added a little carabiner to hold a hand towel that Jesse put down there.   That water can be pretty cold, so drying your hands helps a lot.  There’s nothing but a couple inches of mulch catching the water.  If it becomes an issue we may dig a small french drain.

The Rise of Tarpopolis

The Big Board

Once people began arriving out on the land things began to pick up and time for blog writing quickly vanished.  Liz got here about 2 weeks ago, my dad and Charlotte just left after spending a week here and bringing lots of tools and goodies as well as helping out a lot, building a solar oven, mulching, etc.  We’ve also met a great couple that lives right in Fulton, Melainia and Justin.  They’ve got a composting toilet in their house, keep chickens, and have a garden.  They both work at MU and Justin is in plant science and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of plants.

There have been a number of large developments.  First, the driveway has now been graveled.  We still need another load which we’ll spot place on the trouble spots and use for some other projects as well as using it for the rubble trench foundation of the straw bale building.  No more stuck cars!  I just wish the gravel came from a dry creek bed instead of a quarry, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The composting toilet is now basically complete.  I would still like to add a hand-washing station on the side and I’m going to paint the front white so it matches the vinyl wrapped around it.  It seems to be working great, no smell or flies.  I’ve emptied the buckets into a simple pallet compost bin near the garden and it doesn’t even resemble… poop.  Just some brown sawdust textured material.

The Composting Toilet

Thanks to dad and Daniel the paths are quickly becoming mulched and are now mostly mud free.  Although we are going to have to dig some french drains, or ditches filled with gravel to keep them open, around the bigger communal tarps to divert some of the water that runs down and soaks the ground and makes things muddy.  We also need to patch some holes in the tarps.  There’s still a lot of brush to be mulched, especially for the garden, but we’ll get there.

There are now 3 tent platforms, Daniel moved into the 6-man tent my dad and Charlotte left for us and put his mattress in it.  Then there’s another platform that hasn’t been nailed together yet, and needs a tarp, but it’ll be used for visitors who camp out.  I also hung up a giant 15’x40’ billboard vinyl that now houses our nice kitchen setup and new screened-in picnic table.   I’ve taken to calling our little settlement Tarpopolis as the tarps spread through the forest.

Tao and the Rhode Island Reds

Liz built a chicken tractor and as of today we now have 4 Rhode Island Reds, 3 hens and 1 rooster to help expand the clan.  That brings our current population to 7 full-time residents.  We also picked up 6 fertilized guinea hen eggs, which we’re going to attempt to have the chickens hatch.

We really want the guineas because they eat a lot of ticks and range far and wide.  The problem is that adult guineas tend to leave and return home, normally you want them from babies and train them to come home to a coop at night for a feeding.  Another cool thing about them is that they can fly and so you can build an open-top fenced in area where they can fly into and be safe at night.

So we’re going to get the hens to hatch the guinea eggs we’re going to wait for the hens to lay a few of their own eggs and then switch them out with the guinea eggs because they take a week longer to hatch and then a week later we’ll put those eggs back.  At least I believe that’s the plan. So, if all goes well, the tick population is in for a massive decline and it couldn’t happen any sooner.

Wonder Wash and Eco-friendly detergent

The solar shower is the next big thing on the list, and I’ll be heading out to get some pieces I need and working on that tomorrow.  Clothes washing was another big thing that we didn’t have answer for until Melainia and Justin offered to let us use their little hand crank “Wonder Wash” machine that does a small load by turning a crank.  We haven’t tried it yet, but I think it’s a good temporary solution.

After the shower gets done we’ll be getting the garden going.  It seems like a million little jobs creep up on you and makes getting the main projects completed take a lot longer.  It’s all good as long as we can get started on the actual straw bale structure soon, hopefully in the next week we’ll be breaking ground.

So that’s it from here.  If anyone wants to come out we’re giving tours every Saturday at 2pm and we had our first meetup group meeting today which had a total of 6 people at it.  I think she’s planning on having the next meeting on May 23, but I’m not sure on that.

Slow but Steady

Liz should be getting here tomorrow evening sometime.  I’ve been missing her even with the video chatting at night, not to mention I’m starting to get a little lonely.  It wouldn’t be so bad if I could go into town, but the truck is stuck in the mud.  I was hoping that would be over by now, but the gravel people still haven’t come and the truck is only 2-wheel drive.  I spent 45 minutes getting it out earlier, moved 10 feet and got stuck again so I decided to just wait for the ground to dry out.

Truck in the mud

The truck itself is really nice.  I can’t thank my step-dad Gary enough for trading with me.  I’ve got a list of things I need to get with it and the trailer, but it’ll have to wait at least until tomorrow, maybe the next day even.  My life has never revolved so much around the weather before, and although it can be a little frustrating, it seems natural and right.

For instance, I knew it was going to rain for a couple days so I threw out some cover crop in the area where the garden will be.  Mainly I put the cover crop seed down where I didn’t think we get to making garden beds this year.  I went out there today and I could already clearly see the stuff shooting up.  Pretty impressive, especially since there are quite a few native grasses, herbs, and flowers already taking over.  I’m still a little concerned that the cover crop won’t be able to compete, but we’ll see.

Composting toilet frame with bark

I had planned on going into town and picking up a bunch of pallets and stuff for the composting toilet today, but the truck was still stuck.  So instead I did what I could on the composting toilet, which wasn’t too bad.  I sunk the remaining 3 cedar posts and got the pallet which will be the sub-floor raised, leveled, and nailed in.  I also stripped the cedar bark off the posts, which I probably should have done before hand, but it didn’t seem to want to come off then.  Once I finally got it going it was like pulling string cheese apart.

I’m pretty proud of the little stand I’ve got so far.  It’s sturdy and I think it looks nice.  I’m going to try to find some sort of recycled wood to make the walls out of, but I’m going to buy some more plywood to make the actual toilet part out of.  We’re gonna be pooping in style in no time.

Debarked composting toilet frame

The other thing I did today was take down a couple trees out in the garden area that needed to come out because they were seriously blocking southern exposure.  I also widened the access way so that a truck can get back in there now, although it’ll need some gravel on it too.

There’s a ton of brush everywhere, big piles of it along the driveway, in the garden, and on the building site.  It’s really a 2-person task making mulch.  It would really help to have one person preparing the wood so that it would fit into the chipper and the other person feeding it in.  There’s a lot of it that needs to be done, and I don’t think we’ll need to mulch all of it.  There’s a good bit that’s too big to be mulched and too crooked or small to be used for anything else so we’ll have a good ol’ fashioned bonfire here at some point.  Although I do plan on leaving a few small piles of brush here and there as wildlife habitat, especially around the garden.

Things are definitely taking longer than I expected, even with anticipating that it would take longer than I expected.  We’re probably not going to really get started on the straw bale building until the middle of May.  That’ll be alright though, we should have a nice base camp by then and that still gives a month of flex time on the construction.

Day 3

It’s day 3 and I’m finally spending the night in a tent.  The car was fine the first night but the last 2 were pretty uncomfortable.  I wanted to wait until I had a tent platform built, which I had done by yesterday evening but then got caught up video chatting with Liz until it was dark and then I didn’t feel like setting it up with a headlamp.

I’ve already started to fall into a groove.  I go to sleep early, like around 10 and get up with the sun around 6-6:30.  Nothing is open so I can’t make calls or go get supplies, and I don’t want to break the still of the early morning with a generator or chainsaw so I’ve been clearing brush in a few spots I’d like to have people camp.  It’s probably the only time I’ve ever felt like George Bush.

Then I’ve been running around like crazy getting things from the storage unit, the hardware store, and picking up free pallets, and billboard vinyl wraps, and sawdust.  I’d read and heard that these things were easy to get but hadn’t really thought they would be.  I called a custom cabinet place nearby and they had bags and bags of sawdust, so I went over and grabbed 2 40lb bags for the composting toilet.

Tent on pallet platform

The pallets are everywhere once you start looking.  They’re hiding out behind lumber yards by the hundreds.  I bought a couple pieces of plywood and screwed them down to some pallets, and poof, a tent platform.  I also put a water sealant on it so it’ll hopefully last longer and didn’t nail the pieces together so each piece of plywood is on top of 2 pallets and can be easily dragged individually by one person if they need to be moved to a different camping spot.  And, I screwed the plywood on so I could easily take the plywood off and use it for something else if I needed to.

It’s really nice inside the tent.  I don’t have to worry about things falling over.  I feel dry and warm, and the floor is nice and smooth, no twigs or roots poking me in the back.  I’m looking around on craigslist for all kinds of things, but one of them is a twin and queen mattress.  I’ll put the queen in Liz and I’s tent and when she gets here, and just get the twin in the small guess tent for whoever.  Now that’s camping in style.

I also drove down toward the Lake of the Ozarks today to pick up some old vinyl billboard wraps.  It was a little farther than I expected, but I at least got to see some of Jefferson City and the touristy Osage Beach area.  I haven’t even looked at what all the vinyl wraps say yet.  They’re pretty massive and the bigger ones are hard to lift.  The one I did open had SUVs on it.  Who knew they were good for something?

Vinyl billboard wrap

I’m planning on putting them up over the tent platforms so everything stays nice and dry.  I’ll probably have to cut the bigger ones.  They’re like 16’x40′ and super thick.  It’s funny you can even see the photoshop .psd filename on the outer edges that are normally hidden from when they printed it on some kind of massive billboard printer.  I’m going to try to find somewhere closer that I can get them from, and also I’d like to see if they have any of the plywood panels from the older type billboards.  The place I went to today had some I saw over in a pile but they looked like they were in pretty rough shape having been left outside uncovered.

I got stuck in the mud a couple days ago, but managed to rock myself out.  I called the gravel people to come out and they said I needed to clear out the driveway so that their was 12′ of clearance both horizontally and vertically for the dump truck to dump the gravel.  So that’ll be another half day or so of brush clearing.  It’ll be nice not driving through all the mud and ruts when it’s done though.

Tomorrow I’m going in to Columbia to see about this 8 hp wood chipper I found on craigslist.  If it goes well I’ll be able to mulch that brush and use it for the garden and the paths around the campground.  If there’s room I’ll probably pick up another 55 gallon drum or two while I’m in Columbia.  There’s a recycling place there that sells them for $6.

Composting toilet initial stages

My other big project is getting the composting toilet built.  I’ve already sunk one of the 4 cedar posts that’ll hold it up off the ground and form the frame for the walls.  It’s quite a task, but enjoyable work.  I find building stuff in general, especially something as environmentally friendly as a nice composting toilet out of recycled materials very rewarding.

The journalism students came out on my first day and interviewed me and I gave them a tour of the property.  They were here for hours and they even came back to re-shoot some stuff the next day.  It went well and the story is supposed to run in the Missourian some time next week.  I’ll post a link to it when it comes out.

Showing them around made the need to clear up the tour route very obvious.  I’ll try to get to that somewhere between getting the garden going and starting on the straw bale place.  I’ve pretty much decided to give one tour a week on Saturdays at 2pm.  It’s quite a walk and takes awhile so I don’t want to be doing it all the time.

The creek was higher than I’d ever seen it when we went walking around and it was beautiful.  I don’t think I’ve ever been out here during Spring as an adult.  I’ve always come during the heart of summer, but there are quite a few flowers, both on the ground and on the trees.  You can also see a long way off without all the leaves on the trees.