Tag Archives: mortar

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.



Plaster, Compost, and the beginnings of a Forest Garden

Since my last post Dakota, Emily, and I have finished the discovery and infill coats of earthen plaster on the house.  Others participated in various plaster parties and I’d like to thank them all graciously, but I especially want to thank Dakota and Emily.  The infill coat was a herculean task, and took just over a month to complete.  I’d guess we mixed a couple hundred batches of plaster in the cement mixer altogether, but the really time consuming part was smearing it on the walls and smoothing it out.  The walls look relatively flat and it just generally made it look like a serious building.  Tom Mudd, a local housing contractor, came by earlier today and told me it was “professional”.

There’s still a thin coat of lime plaster to put on before the walls are totally complete, but that’s going to wait until after the granite chunk footing goes around the very bottom of the walls.  I’ve been picking up loads of free granite chunks from a counter top maker in town and I’m going to mortar the chunks together with a lime mortar.  Functionally, it protects the gravel-filled bags that make up the stem wall from degrading in UV.  It also acts as a splash guard and a moisture barrier for the bales and clay plaster.  Aesthetically, I think it’s going to make it look kick ass.

We’ve also set up a basic tarp storage area outside the house to get all of the tools and supplies out of the house so work can start on the earthen floor.  There are a couple of things that need to be done inside before the floor can start being poured, but that should begin within the next few weeks.

The garden is in decline.  I knew it at the time, but I really should have done succession planting so I wouldn’t be swamped with different crops all at once.  The tomatoes have come and gone, and without a solar dehydrator many of them either rotted or were given away.  Emily is working on an Appalachian style solar dehydrator, which ought to be completed in relatively near future.  Many of the turnips and beets went bad before they could be eaten as well, so food preservation and succession planting are the name of the game for next year.

I spent this last week weeding and working on the garden.  It had been badly neglected because of all the work on the house.  The flowers I’d planted had overtaken large swathes of the beds, and so had inadvertently become a kind of weed and so were trimmed back hard.  I also put a bunch of compost and mulch around the fruit trees and berry bushes, as well as laying down some paths.  I’m essentially going to sheet mulch 3/4 of the area around the vegetable beds and plant a whole range of useful plants in the under-story of the fruit and berry bushes.  I did roughly 1/8 of what needed to be done, but it’s certainly a start and it felt good to improve the garden after all the neglect.

The majority of the work in improving the soil involves importing organic material.  I’ve used compost and manure from a number of sources, some were good and some weren’t.  Right now my main source is William Woods University’s horse stalls.  The fine people there load me up for free, and it’s only a 15 minute drive away.  The food forest section that I sheet mulched used basically two truck loads of material.  Once all of the soil has been improved though, I won’t need to be trucking in material any longer as long as there’s a closed nutrient cycle and all of the waste and humanure is composted and returned to the soil.

I also spent this last week making two large compost piles, improving on my previous straw bale system.  The original pile I made didn’t get compost in the very core of the pile.  It just wasn’t wet at all because the mound shape had hardened and redirected all of the water to the sides.  My new piles were slightly rectangular to handle the full truck load and be flat on top so the water would soak in more evenly.  Also, I layered the horse manure/bedding with weeds and other garden wastes which are high in nitrogen.  Horse manure by itself has the perfect C:N (Carbon to Nitrogen) ratio for composting, but with the wood shaving bedding material added it puts more carbon in the mix, so the greens help to balance that out somewhat.

I also sprinkled a shovelful of finished compost on each manure layer and wetted it down thoroughly.  Then I topped the whole thing off with several inches of straw to stop it from forming that hardened surface and to hold the moisture in better.   I stuck my soil thermometer in one of the piles and by the 3rd day it had reached 140F.  It’s cooled a little since then, but I think that’s because it didn’t have enough water.  Because it got so hot I decided to build the 2nd pile with humanure in the core to sterilize it.  If a compost pile spends 24 hours above 121F it will kill all the harmful pathogens in the poop.

The two piles should give me enough compost to give the vegetable beds a good layer and re-energize them for another productive year.  I’ll continue expanding the sheet-mulching of the food forest as I have time and available helpers.

I’ve got 4 new guineas in the guinea house and I’ve moved the lone chicken up by my camper as a personal tick guard.  I’m going to go get her a friend soon though.  I think she’s starting to go a little crazy by herself.  The guineas should provide excellent tick clearance, but really I haven’t even so much as seen a tick in more than a month now.

As far as community goes, Justin has begun work on a tipi he plans on trying overwinter in.  He had originally planned on making a type of yurt but has scaled back his plans as winter looms.  He’s cleared out a space in the main community field and has already collected the majority of poles he needs from the surrounding woods.  He’ll use the billboard tarps to make the covering.  He’s also discovered a vein of paint rock, basically a type of mineral ocher that can be used as a paint, such as on a lime plaster to make a type of fresco.

Patrick has downgraded his plans as well and is going to make a simplified geodesic dome assuming he has time.  He’s also cleared out a space in the central community field.  He’s had some transportation issues that have been slowing him down, along with other projects he already has in the works.

Dakota and Emily left last week for a 2 week trip to visit Emily’s friends and family in Columbus, OH, but they’ll be back this next week.  Dakota will probably be leaving a week or so after they get back, but Emily plans on staying until the weather heads south.

A new work exchanger, Joanie, should be arriving this coming weekend for several weeks to help out.  Also, Jessica, who’s actually from Fulton has been camping out in her van for a few days.  She’ll be leaving for California in a few weeks, but is hanging out until then.

The weather has been getting progressively nicer.   It’s not as hot or humid, and there have been plenty of blue skies filling up the battery banks.  It’s actually been kind of nice needing to use a blanket on some nights.

I know I’m missing a lot of different things that have happened, but I’m going to make it a priority to post once a month. So stay tuned, and check out the flickr feed for more pics.

A Little Bit of Everything

As usual, sorry for the blog hiatus.  Time has just been zipping by, but that’s what happens when you’re busy from sun up to sun down.  So, let’s see what’s new.

I’ve planted a ton of new fruit trees and berry bushes in the garden.  At the last minute I decided to try some blueberries and put three plants in this evening and added some sulfur to acidify the soil and mulched them with dried out cedar needles.

I also planted two different varieties of Goumi, which fixes nitrogen in the soil and grows an edible berry.  It’s related to the Russian Olives that grow here wildly so I figure it’ll do fine.  I planted them in among the fruit trees so that when I cut it back its roots will die back and feed the fruit trees.

The garden looks amazing and the first thing I do every morning is go check on it and just soak it all in.  The sugar snap peas have started coming in full tilt and there’s more lettuce and spinach than I know what to do with.  The first little green tomatoes have appeared on the early variety tomato plants, and there’s already some little zucchinis in the making as well.

I have a work exchanger from Nebraska who I’ll call “Dan” for privacy’s sake among other inside joke reasons… He’s been helping me since early May.  He’s staying through the 4th of July weekend when I’ll be holding an earthen plaster party and having a large bonfire down at the lake.  If you’re interested in coming just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll get you info.

Mid-way through May I also had a couple visitors from St. Louis who stayed for a week and helped me raise the wind generator.  I would’ve raised it sooner but it had been far too windy, and now that it’s up the wind hasn’t come back.  I’d like to have gotten higher above the trees but it just wasn’t easily done without cutting a bunch of trees and having a lot of ugly guy-wires all over the place.  I may have to cut the tops off a few trees to get some better air flow, but it still spins regularly.  I’m thinking about getting a small solar setup to augment it in the meantime.

Dan and I have gotten a lot done on the interior of the roof, and tomorrow we’ll be filling over half of it with cellulose insulation made up of recycled paper.  I also put quite a bit of alpaca wool scraps in there, but it was nowhere near enough and apparently all the other alpaca farmers sent their scraps to the gulf to help with the oil spill.

I’ve also installed the basic wiring for the house and put in the breaker box.  I used the chainsaw to cut out the depressions for the switches and outlets, and then attached the boxes to a plywood wedge and pounded it in between the bales to secure it.  I left them jutting out a little over an inch so that they’ll be flush once the wall is plastered.

With the help of my dad, Charlotte, Jessica, and Dan we’ve also got a bunch of mushroom logs inoculating.  Right now there are 3 different kinds, shiitake, chicken of the woods, and reishi.  I have another large bag of plug spawn for maitake(hen of the woods), which I need to get plugged in the next few weeks.  I won’t actually have any mushrooms for at least 6 months, possibly a year.

The main trees that needed to be removed from the dam have been cut down and piled up for the bonfire on the 4th.  The roots can penetrate the heart of the dam and cause leaks.  There’s quite a few more trees that need to come out though and there’s already enough wood down there for several large fires.  While I was clearing one day I almost stepped on a fawn in the reeds by the lake.  It was clearly scared, but just hoping that I didn’t see it or would ignore it.  I somehow just expect animals of that size to run, even if they’re small.

We also cleared the tour route and cut back the grass so ticks won’t be a big issue when I give tours.  The ticks haven’t been bad, and the only reason I get them at all is because Pink brings them in on his fur and they fall of in my bed in the camper.  I’m working on getting a lavendar oil/water mix to spray on him so that hopefully the ticks won’t hold on to his fur.  The mosquitoes are just now getting kind of annoying and aren’t nearly as bad as they were this time last year.

I’ve got 200 pounds of hydrated lime slaking in preparation for making lime mortar, i.e. lime putty and sand, which I’ll use to mortar rocks against the foundation wall of the house.  I’d come up with the plan of using the rocks surrounding the foundation wall at the old cabin.  My dad told me that they actually got the rocks from an old farm house that had been on the property so far, so this would be the 3rd time they’d been used.  However, I passed a granite counter place in Jefferson City that just had piles of broken granite pieces and I’m talking to them trying to see if they’ll sell or let me have it.  In which case I might have a really pretty foundation wall material, not to mention a great material for mosaic counter-tops, furniture in-lays, etc.

I took a fantastic trip down to a place called Jack’s Fork in south east Missouri.  It’s actually in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.  We went canoeing one day, and exploring water falls and springs the next.  There also a bunch of really interesting caves.  Surprisingly, the water was almost perfectly clear.  I have a bunch of fun and interesting stories from the trip and I’m contemplating whether to post that kind of stuff on the Maya Creek blog.  I know I make this pretty personal, but it has a pretty specific scope.  Let me have your input on whether I should branch out or not.

I’m having a hard time believing it’s June already.  I still think I should have everything done to live in the house this winter, but I’m getting a little anxious.  The trip to Jack’s Fork this last weekend and the wedding I’m going to in North Carolina this coming weekend have me feeling like I’m not getting enough done.  I had a couple other trips planned later in the summer, but I may have to cancel them depending on my progress out here.  I’ve definitely got one new work exchanger coming out at the beginning of July from Ohio, and very possibly a second one from New Jersey coming at the same time.  Having help is fantastic. It’s great to get so much done, but also to have someone to hang out with.

Hopefully, I’ll be getting back to my regular 2 week posting rate, but we’ll see.