Last Few Week’s Projects

Being with Cows

A couple of weeks ago, we were at a cow retreat, helping to clear some oak woods and juniper bushes to expand the grassy meadow for the cows.

Sally with the log piles

Through doing the tasks, we intuitively learnt how much firewood weighs, how much effort it takes to transport them and the angle of the land that makes access a challenge. Due to the large size of the land and the time constraints, we burnt all of the sub-firewood branches, which was admittedly quite good fun. But I couldn’t stop thinking how a wood chipper could be used to break the branches down and quickly return them back into the eco-system as nutrients, or perhaps as a lifetime’s worth of fuel for a rocket mass heater.

We really understood how valuable it is to have a forest for firewood higher than the house, since moving logs down is ten times easier than moving them up, especially if you plan to do it with minimum use of fossil fuels. It’s an obvious point but these things often slip off our minds.

The magnificent view from the top of the land with the Pyrenees mountain range spanning the horizon

After helping out at the retreat for a couple of weeks, we took the weekend off to hike and climb deep in the mountains.

Stop Over

We then stopped over at Thebeau’s farm for a few days to help with inoculating some mushroom logs but we ended up helping with some harvests and learnt a fair bit about composting too. Thebeau is someone with a very similar geeky nature and it’s been quite fascinating to pick his mind on this subject. Composting is a massive subject with many different methods, and since soil improvement is such a crucial knowledge in a world where there’s only enough topsoil for 60 to a 100 harvests, I will be writing a separate post about it.

Sébastien’s Place

This week, we’ve travelled deeper into the mountains to a lovely market town of St. Giron. The host Sébastien used to work for the Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontiéres) and now lives in an old converted barn higher up in the mountain. He’s done a fair bit of renovation on it, including insulating the stone building from the outside, and installing many DIY systems which I found super interesting.

One of the ideas I think worth noting here is his hot water heating system using copper tubes wrapped around a chimney. I’ve seen something similar to this online but I have never seen one in action with an opportunity to hear a detailed long term review from a user.

The fireplace is in the living room/kitchen area about a meter below where the copper piping starts. According to Sébastien, it’s not a good idea for the water to start boiling inside the pipe, so it’s best to keep a little distance from the actual heat source. Apparently, there are two different types of copper pipes and one of them bends pretty easily. He simply put a large log inside the chimney pipe to help withstand the force and to prevent buckling and bent the copper pipe around it. The tank is on the third floor and the convection is enough to keep the water circulating and achieve on average 50 to 60 degrees. It’s one of the systems that Sébastien is happy about and would do it again if he ever built a house.

The fascinating thing is that this chimney is not insulated here, nor on the third floor and works as a simple central heating going up in the middle of the house. This does not seem to affect the draw of air, the condensation within the chimney or the soot build up, since he only cleans the chimney once a year and have found the chimney to be pretty clean every year.

I am currently thinking about how this hot water heating system could be incorporated into a rocket mass stove that I’ve written about a few weeks ago. As rocket stoves burn at much higher temperatures than a normal wood burner, the pipes will probably need to be placed further away if I want to avoid the water boiling in the pipe. How far away though? And how will I create a vertical height difference for the convection to take place? Will an hour or two of burn be enough to warm a full tank of water? Or does this system require a longer, steadier temperature to heat the water up slowly? Still quite a lot of research to do.

Will the barrel be too hot for heating the water??

I plan to use a solar hot water heater as my primary source, which is incredibly efficient and long lasting. My grandparents had one installed in the early 80’s and it was able to get the ice cold spring water to 35 degrees on a cloudy day in the middle of the winter (and its still works today!). If the solar system can get the water to 30-35 degrees, I suspect that an evening burn of the rocket mass stove for an hour or two could bring up the temperature to a shower/bath level or higher.

How to Split Large Logs

Today, we began working on the land with the main task of splitting some large diameter logs. I’ve split a fair bit of logs in my life but I’ve never had to work on big ones like these. It’s slightly more time consuming and a little more energy intensive than splitting smaller diameter logs but I was surprised to find that it can be done with very basic tools and without taking too much time.

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