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Conserve Water

Many people feel that an adequate supply of clean water will be one of the most significant issues of the future, and I have no reason to doubt that. The United States has been blessed with an abundance of good water, and we have gotten used to having it at the twist of a faucet handle. It can be a shock when water supplies diminish and water has to be rationed, or if the supply gets contaminated and is no longer available for potable use.

Water agencies always advise conservation; they know how precious and limited the supply is. In fact, many plumbing codes now require that new installations of toilets be low consumption models and that showers be fitted with restriction diaphragms to limit the flow of water.

Other strategies for conserving domestic water tend to be rather controversial. The reuse of gray water, using rain water catchment systems and composting toilets all conserve water but may be frowned upon for various reasons, mostly to do with health concerns. In many places these practices are flat out illegal, even though they have been shown to be safe and effective when utilized carefully.

Recycling gray water (from the drains of baths, showers, washing machines and bathroom sinks) is very tempting because it seems so benign and obviously of value. Black water waste (from toilets, kitchen sinks, garbage disposals and dishwashers) is more clearly of dubious value because of all the organic material it contains and the potential for bacterial contamination. About 2/3 of all the water used inside a typical house could be diverted for the use of watering plants, flushing the toilet or washing clothes.

Here are some guidelines for gray water use: never use for direct consumption; don’t use directly on anything that might be eaten; don’t spray it; never reuse water from washing diapers or cleaning meat or poultry; occasionally water plants with fresh water as well to leach away any buildup of toxins, and use biodegradable soap.

Because of continuing drought, California legalized the use of gray water in 1992. However, it was only legalized for subsurface use, either with drip systems or mini-leach systems. Drip systems require the use of a surge tank to clarify the water, where leach systems may use the gray water directly. In either case the water must be introduced at least eight inches below the surface.

This below-ground cistern is being installed to store rain water.

Rain water catchment is definitely gaining popularity throughout the U. S. , with an estimated 250,000 cisterns in use. There are many places where it is the only way to get decent water. Again, these systems are not without some health risks, so care is advised in setting them up. Rain water can be used directly without treatment for evaporative coolers, toilets, car washing, chlorinated swimming pools, and surface irrigation. For other household uses, it is advised that the rain water be disinfected.

Roofs made of metal, clay, tile, or slate are often used to catch the rain; other types of roofs might leach harmful components into the water. A clever way to capture the initial rainwater that might contain bird droppings, dust and debris, is to employ a standpipe where the first water fills the pipe, and then the overflow goes into a cistern. This standpipe is then drained after the rained has stopped. It is recommended that about ten gallons be diverted for every 1,000 square feet of roof area. The cistern or storage tank should be situated as close to the downspout and at as high a level as practical. Of course during seasons subject to freezing weather, the system must be protected from frost damage. Also a sealed tank will keep the water cleaner.

The above photo shows a little water fall and pond arrangement that was where the overflow water from the cistern pictured earlier discharged.

Sometimes water is captured from paved areas, and that is best used for watering plants. A considerable amount of water is typically used for watering landscaping, especially lawns. It takes about 660 gallons of water to put one inch of water on 1,000 square feet of lawn. When my wife and I were living in a bus conversion motor home, we managed to accommodate all of our domestic water needs (including showering) on about 20 gallons a day, so that bit of lawn watering would have provided us with about a month’s worth of water! If you must have a lawn, just water when it really needs it, or better yet, let it go brown during the dry season. Other strategies for diminishing outside water use include mulching plants, using drip irrigation or soaker hoses and planting indigenous, drought-resistant plants.

Now comes the touchy subject of compost toilets. People either love the idea or hate it; I’m somewhere in between. My wife and I have lived with a compost toilet on several occasions, so I can speak from experience. The first one we used I built copying the design of the Swedish Clivus Multrum system, and we used it for a few years. It’s a pretty clever, low maintenance design, where the waste material slowly slides downhill so that the finished compost is available at the bottom of the tank. A network of pipes provide air to the composting mass to assure aerobic decomposition, and a large insulated vent stack carries any fumes outside the building. It actually worked pretty well, but occasionally flies would set up camp in there and that was a problem. Also periodically cleaning the thing out was no fun.

The next composting toilet we used I installed in our bus. It was a commercially made Sun-Mar boat and RV toilet. It also worked, but we had two major problems: the fly situation became intense at times, and unfortunately the capacity of the collection drum was not great enough for the two of us using it full time. Thus I had to clean out the tank before the waste material was fully composted; that was really no fun! So if you’re interested in pursuing a composting toilet, I suggest that you carefully size it to your needs, and be prepared to deal with the very organic nature of it. If you are good at keeping a garden compost pile cooking along, you might enjoy using a composting toilet.

Water conservation is partly a matter of consciousness and partly a matter of having appropriate systems. It is obvious that we can get by with a lot less water than we typically use, so why not start using less now and be prepared for possible shortfalls?

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Making Retaining Walls with Earthbags

I recently received this question about using a particular commercial product for making retaining walls:
“I’m ready to do an earthbag-style retaining wall project at the end slope of my front yard. I’m looking at an earthbag-style product called Flex MSE, which is basically UV-safe PPE material that can be sliced open to insert seeds or native plants. Flex MSE apparently strengthens as a retaining wall as vegetation becomes established. But the bags are specially formulated and have aforementioned UV-blocking properties, which is opposite of the much more affordable PPE earthbag that has to be shielded from the sun. The result of putting plant matter in a small slit in the Flex MSE bag is that the vegetation spreads and covers the bag, which makes UV protection unnecessary so long as it is fully developed in cover. Do you know of anyone who has cut small slits in plain earthbags for inserting plant matter? Would you recommend against it? I assume that plant coverage could protect a plain PPE bag from the sun, just as long as it is a vine or perennial that doesn’t recede during winter months (Zone six Western Pennsylvania here).”

“Plain earthbags would save us hundreds of dollars here on our retaining wall, as the Flex MSE product is just about $4 a bag; we need 128 for the project, plus a proprietary interlocking plate product that would act as the barbed wire does in a traditional earthbag setup to hold the bags tight to one another, working in tandem with gravity. The plates are about the same price per unit and are used in a 1:1 ratio with the build style we’re using for our retaining wall, although I feel that using barbed wire instead would be just as effective and so much cheaper. Let me know what you think.”
So I wrote back:
I don’t believe that there is a completely UV-proof Polypropylene material. The coatings that are used do have a lifetime, and they are usually measured in a matter of weeks, or months at the most. I would not trust the coating to protect the bags for very long. On the other hand relying on plantings to ultimately protect the bag material from sunlight is equally uncertain; as you know, nature never provides complete and uniform cover.
As for slitting the bag material in order to directly seed the soil sounds counter productive to me. Such cutting of the bags can only weaken the integrity of the matrix that creates the monolithic nature of the earthbag retaining wall. And, as you point out, replacing the barbed wire with specially fabricated connectors just adds extra cost to the project.
If I wanted a green retaining wall, I would use standard earthbag methods and protect them with stabilized plaster, then add a secondary commercial green living wall system, similar to what is shown in this article. By doing this you would create a more durable and likely less costly retaining wall.

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Recovering America

The late Malcolm Wells was a writer, artist and architect who was a vocal advocate of underground building since the early 70’s, having written nearly twenty books on the topic. He wrote in a humorous, personal, eloquent and inspiring style. His books are completely written by hand in pen and ink, and are liberally illustrated with both photographs and watercolor sketches.

Two of his books that I found most intriguing are titled “Recovering America: A More Gentle Way to Build” and “Infra Structures: Life Support for the Nation’s Circulatory Systems.” The first one is based on a trip he took across America with camera in hand to document the extent to which our country has been covered with concrete and asphalt, killing the wildness of nature that is always attempting to erupt. The other book documents how the roads, bridges, ports, airports, etc. are all disintegrating, and in need of more than repair: they need to be re-conceptualized. Malcolm’s solution to these dilemmas is to put it all underground!

In response to these books, I wrote to Malcolm, “I have been wrestling with the whole question of how to remediate the architectural and infrastructural atrocities that have been committed in the name of progress, prosperity and domination over nature. Your vision of putting it all underground certainly has its appeal, but to me it brings up a slew of other concerns. Could we afford the enormous acceleration in the release of carbon dioxide? (They say that the manufacture of every ton of cement releases another ton of this gas into the atmosphere) The embodied energy in your suggested remake of America is truly staggering: fuel to make all that concrete and steel, dig up the earth, make the supporting structure and then cover it all back over with soil. The structures themselves would have to be extraordinarily massive to sustain the loads you envision. I know it is possible, but would it be worth it? Would the resulting increase in vegetation absorb enough carbon dioxide to make the proposition a net gain for life on earth? Is there enough fossil fuel left to do this?”

“Another concern is aesthetic, and is not directed at you personally, but at the whole direction of western architecture over the last century or so. If you look at most of your lovely drawings of how it will look after the whole mess is put underground, it is instantly obvious where the man made stuff is. It is obvious because it is comprised of straight lines. Most of the designs are based on rectilinear concepts. If we are to emulate the works of nature, shouldn’t there be more curves? I know that Mother Nature delights us with an occasional linear sunbeam, watery horizon, or tall tree, but these elements are used sparingly. Most of nature is elegantly curved.”

“Thank you so much for getting me thinking about what should be the next step for humanity, and can we make it lightly enough to take the next one after that? I don’t think anybody really has the answer to this question, but at least we are beginning to ask it. Your thinking is decades ahead of its time. Thank you for pointing the way.”

Malcolm wrote back to me: “As to whether underground architecture has a net positive or negative effect upon the world environment, (a) It’s such a miniscule movement it won’t have any effect for decades, and (b) If you factor-in its centuries-long prospects for survival, you can perhaps make a case for each building’s positive total.”

“In spite of all the touted benefits of underground architecture (permanence, thermal efficiency, fire resistance, silence and ease of maintenance,) I have never really cared about any feature other than the building’s ability to restore life to the land on which it was built. The green “footprint”–the restoration of a native landscape, on and around it, is what I aim for.”

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