Sunday, May 24, 2020

Hardscaping and Homesteading

My new site presented a lot of challenges in that it was a virgin hillside full of weeds. And in the winter the mud. So my first order of business was to lay stepping stones and provide cement blocks as boot scrapers. I then discovered a pile of shredded wood chips at the bottom of the property that I was free to use. Pushing them up the steep hill provided me with leg strengthening exercise.

I also wanted to create a garden and had seeded a semi-circle of fava beans just to see what would happen to them. Those that survived the slugs provided a row of beans that was also in effect a fence. The gophers bit through one bean stalk and left the rest alone. The deer didn't seem to like them either. I also had plants I brought from my previous space, agave succulents mostly and a bucket of soil in which I had mixed bokashi poop mix. This bucket provided me with a brace of tomato seedlings and I decided to build a planter of the scrap redwood cut-offs I had been saving from the rebuilding of my mother's deck a few years ago.

The planter was a mathematical challenge so I eyeballed it and was pleased with the resulting planter tower reinforced with hardware cloth on the bottom to ward off gophers. Having fended off the gophers I also put up netting to fend off the deer. As the fava beans came to maturity I seeded some scarlet runner beans which are barely making it through the slug fest. In my hopes I took out some landscaping poles I had long had in storage and lashed together a bean teepee.

My gardening attempts were proving to be a wonderful pastime during this stay at home quarantine, giving me something to look forward to checking on every morning as I monitored the gopher activity and collected the soil they mounded up. It took over ten buckets of this collected soil to fill my planter. I filled the planter with tomato seedlings and had more bean seedlings of another variety and assorted other seedlings in my homemade newspaper pots.

These pots turned out to be a good choice. The seedlings thrived in them and their roots easily found their way out of the bottom of the bots so were not root bound.

I disassembled the toilet after months of looking at it as a discarded toilet as a note of irony from living with a composting toilet. It had come out of my landlord's bathroom when he remodeled.

The upturned toilet had a certain sculptural kneeling temple elephant look to it.

Before the ground could dry up much more I decided to mulch the patio area in front of the tiny house where my battery bank lived thinking to plant camomile between the pavers, but the ground was already too hard for much more than one.

I also got it into my head that I would recycle all the tree clippings from my fire maintenance chores last fall by incorporating them into a hugelklutur bed which I dug out on contour just above the incline of my field. Cutting up all the little branches was time consuming, but was a meditative activity and it was done in a couple of days. This activity also allowed me to get to know the neighbors as they walked by with their dogs on this busy corner. One even remembered he'd seen me on TV. And another complemented me on my homebuilt planter tower. Just about everybody has made me feel at home in this mountain retreat full of DIY homesteading sorts.

With all this activity I was exhausted, but happy wth my plant companions.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Mail Ordered Accessories For Full Time Living

Like many home bound shelter-in-place people I took to mail ordering items to upgrade my existence. Now that I was cooking a lot more dinners at home with the Farm Fresh To You delivery of vegetables Catherine and I were sharing I had enough food waste to warrant a composting system. I didn't have an area protected from marauding beasts so I ordered the system offered by the same Bokashi company where I had bought my pet waste system. The idea being that you fill the two buckets with kitchen waste that when sealed begin to work their fermenting magic assisted by the bokashi bran provided. There was also a faucet at the bottom of the bucket to drain off liquid that could then be used as a fertilizer. I already had a built-in niche for my indoor composting bucket which hadn't seen much use until now so it was a perfect match.

I also ordered a Scrubba, a traveling washing machine suggested to me by a mud hut sister in Bangkok who read about it on a blog. This turned out to be quite useful as a pre-wash device that could also tote my wet shirts to my support house on laundry day. It has an internal washboard which I didn't find particularly effective so I brought out of storage my Amish glass washboard and used the Scrubba to soak my clothes in first. Then I pulled out a sleeve or a collar that needed attention and applied some scrubbing with the glass washboard. Since I was using a non-biodegradable soap I just poured the soapy water into the Scrubba bag for portage to the washing machine at my support house. So the Scrubba proved useful as a missing link. I'm a firm believer in missing links solving problems to keep an existing system simple. 

The Scrubba was also useful for washing a few items between my two week laundry visits. It was quite fun like kneading bread.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Shelter In Paradise

Shortly after I returned from Thailand having already gotten a taste of the mask wearing pandemic response in Bangkok, the Bay Area became the first lockdown area in the United States. At first I tried to commute the half hour drive to my support house as usual, but it soon became apparent that this was impractical and anxiety provoking for the household especially for the new housemate who didn't know me and had issues with my coming and going. In the 3 years I had lived in the tiny house I had not really lived in it full time. I was really only there for bed and breakfast as I spent a lot of time on the road going to clients and then having dinner at Catherine's house where I would cook for the both of us or she would.

Once we decided it would be best if I stayed at the tiny house I asked my friends who lived down the street from me if they would host me for showers and laundry. They were happy to and I would return the favor by making a meal for us all every now and then. The local country store had also re-opened with new owners so the town felt self-sufficient again. Once I settled in I felt enormously blessed to be in such a beautiful environment.

I had hiking trails I could walk to straight from the property that were not closed to residents and the views from on high were spectacular stretching all the way to the ocean.

Living full time in the tiny house became my sanctuary. I really had everything I needed that it made for a very efficient living space.

I just needed additional seating especially for zoom calls. I had two classes that would keep me in this chair for four hours at a time once a month.

For company I had my friends on FB to show off my endeavors. One of the friends commented that it was my smugness that made my reports so endearing so when John Kernohan and his wife Fin of United Tiny House Association invited me to participate in a video they were making which would require me to choose one word to describe how I felt while sheltering in place in my tiny house. I set about to show off my location with the new solar panels and my solar oven opened up to signify my off-grid independence. I chose the word "smug". It was my little inside joke to myself.

Posted May 24th. Backdated to keep timeline.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Tiny House Presentation at EM Workshop, Saraburi Thailand

In February while visiting Thailand my farm partner Clasina suggested we go to an organic farming workshop on effective microorganism technology or EM as it is called. EM technology was the game changing piece I had implemented for my composting toilet poop processing. This was the method that had allowed me to dispense with the required dedicated outdoor humanure composting bin and instead bury my fermented poop directly into the garden. I had been doing this successfully for two years now so I was eager to share my experience with this professional EM workshop being given at the International Kyusei Nature Farming Center in Saraburi just an hour and a half from Bangkok.

This university level facility with its modern buildings and extensive campus included a working farm. Clasina was particularly impressed by the sparkling clean bathrooms. The program was created in collaboration with the Japanese EM industry (so they would not be teaching us how to make EM ourselves, just how to use it as much as possible so they could sell product). Indeed the Japanese EM technology was being quietly introduced to all of Asia through such outreach while being offered to the public through spas, hotels and wellness centers with EM fertilized organic food, lush gardens and EM disinfectants and cleaners. It was through such a wellness center in Hawaii that a friend had heard about it. The same friend who insisted that I trade out my traditional composting toilet method for this superior (and faster) EM technology. Instead of waiting a year to season a humanure composting pile, the EM process only took 2 to 3 weeks to reach a pathogen free state.

EM was a disinfectant we learned. It was spritzed into the air daily to fell harmful bacteria. It was made into non-toxic household cleaners and hand sanitizers. From the first day we were given our choice to use EM hand sanitizer or the usual alcohol based ones to fend off the virus.

The center was part of the Asia Pacific Natural Agricultural Network and our workshop was attended by a huge group from Malaysia, but also Myanmar and Japan along with one other woman from South Africa and me the lone representative of the U.S. Lectures were given in English with detailed powerpoint presentations in the air conditioned fully technical lecture hall. In the afternoons we boarded a people carrier much like a an amusement park train to tour the working farm. Students showed us how mushrooms were cultivated and served vegetable roll snacks. We saw how biochar was infused with EM to make a more potent fertilizer. We toured the lush fields of vegetables and the chicken and pig houses. I was bowled over by the use of EM technology in animal husbandry. There was no odor at all not even in the pig pens. 

EM was also added to the animal feed as a probiotic supplement. The EM infused feed kept them healthier and they grew bigger than with conventional methods. Every time their pens were sluiced down the pigs came running to slurp up the EM infused waster. Their waste was washed away into large concrete pits where the mixture became fertilizer (just as my own poop did inside my three gallon bucket). Imagine such a solution putting an end to those problematic lagoons of manure that stink for miles and sometimes blow up like a geyser or overflow into waterways choking fish with algae blooms. EM worked in the same way I understood my composting toilet to work. The effective microorganisms ate all the harmful bacteria and were then eaten themselves in a probiotic fermenting process that ate up all the pathogens. This process was given the Japanese word bokashi. “Bokashi!” we shouted in every group photo.

We also saw how food scraps were treated with EM in 50 gallon drums from which the liquid was collected for use as a plant feed. This you can do at home too in smaller buckets. Hands-on demonstrations had us shoveling and mixing together ingredients so the EM infused bran could ferment the compost. The following day we returned to find that the piles were so hot they would turn our hands red and I wondered aloud if I could heat my tiny house with such piles or at least heat water. For fisheries EM could be made into softball size balls and thrown into the ponds to keep them clean. We had great fun seeing how far we could throw when we were all offered a turn. The EM balls reduced sludge at the bottom and had other applications including the clean up of latrines. In shrimp farming the shrimp poop is food for the microorganisms so EM made the water clear and cut down the stench. The meat of cows raised with EM technology was lower in fat and higher in vitamins.

We concluded our workshop with a visit to a recycling plant in Bangkok. Here the use of EM cut down on the biggest neighborhood complaint—the smell. Plus they were able to make toilet cleaner and dishwashing products from fermented rice water and other captured waste products. No harsh chemicals were used at all in this recycling and green waste processing. EM technology had also been introduced to the Thai military and was adopted as a method for large scale clean-ups. In the city it was offered as a drain cleaner in one of my friends apartment building. All of these projects had support from the Thai government which gave grants for outreach into the community to teach people how to make organic fertilizer from their kitchen waste. And because the late King Bhumipol had long been an advocate of a self sufficient economy and had been voicing his concerns about global warming since 1989, the reduction of carbon in the air through the use of EM technology and the concept of zero waste was considered a project of the King. This had enormous appeal for the Thais giving them not only a shared mission, but a way to further implement the King’s legacy for the good of the country.

In the evenings of our 4 day workshop participants representing EM companies made their presentations touting the benefits of their product while farmers showed their agricultural projects. I gave my tiny house presentation on the second night. I had rehearsed all my jokes and had enough pictures to show the whole tiny house trend to an audience unfamiliar with this American phenomena and its California origin.

I also explained about the composting toilet being a key feature of most tiny houses. They loved it. Having sufficiently explained why such a house needed to process their own waste, they had no questions about my EM methods so I was clearly doing it right. But the look of incredulity on the face of a Japanese woman who represented a health supplement company told me how out there I was. When I told them that in the course of a year I had buried 11 buckets of my EM composted waste they applauded. I have no idea why this single fact garnered such appreciation.

None of these professional EM distributors had thought of using EM technology in such an application. They did not know about the pet waste disposal system I was able to purchase in the States and asked how much I had paid for the kit. ($100). Like any other first world society it had never occurred to them to dispense with the flush toilet. Nor were they about to. Some teased me about it later, but I was happy that I had earned my place in the EM technological revolution. It was by far the most fun presentation I had yet given on any topic. 

Posted May 24th. Back dated to preserve timeline.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Leap To Solar

While I was preparing to move, PG & E was subjecting the state of California to mandatory blackouts to relieve themselves of liability during fire season. My new mountain town suffered the bulk of these and it inspired me to think of going solar. And being 250 feet away from my landlord's house would mean daisy chaining three extension cords together to get power as it was. I didn't fancy this at all. The hillside I was on faced south so was perfect for solar. My landlord had himself wanted to try solar and readily approved my idea. With the help of a Kilowatt, I added up my power usage from my freezer (1Kw/day) and my toaster oven, electric kettle, stockpot, computer and lights. It came to a total of 4250 watts if I didn't count the stockpot which I only used to cook beans once a month. As it happened there was a man on craigslist selling a complete set-up that was just about the right size for a tiny house with four panels for a total of 1040 watts of power generation and a 235 amp hour battery pack. All for $1400 with a Flexmax 60 charge controller and 24 volt pure sinewave inverter. And it all fit into my Prius.

I delivered the panels to the site, hid them in the bushes for a few days, then screwed the sides to pieces of lumber using ordinary angle brackets that I had bolted to the holes in the solar panels. Two panels screwed to three lengths of wood. Three 8ft lengths of pressure treated 2 x 4's cut in half. I used my stash of conduit pipe legs from another project to shore up one side. It was a little wobbly but would suffice. Later I would add an 8ft piece to the top of the frame to stabilize the structure and keep it from sagging in the middle.

 I just needed a battery box so I dragged an old metal bathtub up to the site. It had been left over from a remodel and was just big enough to hold all four of the golf cart batteries. 

I got rid of enough books from my offsite storage to liberate a shelf so I could build a bench for the charger and inverter. 

Several you-tube tutorials later I was confident I could put the system together. I just followed how the wires were used by the previous owner. His battery pack must have been quite a distance from the charger so I cut the wire down to size. The wires from the panels were just long enough to reach once I angled the tub closer and pulled the panels up a bit.

And the hole where the stopper control was installed was perfect for the extension cords and the cable wires from the panels to enter into my ad hoc battery shed. I put it all together and had power. Such a quantum leap in off-grid living yet so simple. I needed 177 amp hours, 252 if I cooked the beans, but I could do that with my solar oven. I also purchased a mini coffee maker to heat water that used 600 watts as opposed to the electric kettle which used 1500 watts. Once hooked up the 235 amp hour battery pack just barely met my needs, but the owner assured me that the panels could handle another set of batteries in this size. So this project will be ongoing. I am also in the process of fabricating a cover for my battery box that would allow me to view the read-outs on the equipment. 

Prep For A New Location

Over the summer I learned I would have to move and spent 6 weeks searching high and low for another location. The drama of which I blogged for my friends. Thankfully I did find a mountain town to move to. It added some to my commute, but it gave back in a community full of DIY spirit and live and let live sensibilities.

My new parking spot was in an open field 250 feet from the home of my new landlord. It was beautiful, but would require the creation of a firm parking pad from scratch for the hillside was so full of gophers they would soon bury my wheels in the soft dry soil. I set to work right away and spent $100 renting a van to pick up free concrete from across the bay where a homeowner had been busy liberating his yard by jack hammering up the poured concrete. This concrete not being as thick as what would be poured today. It was the thickness of pavers, was not nearly as heavy and made nice pieces to work with.

My landlord gave me a roll of weed block landscaping cloth to lay down to create a barrier for both weeds and gophers.

I hired my handyman Tim to help me level the parking pad which required diligence and some spadework. Then he packed it down by driving his truck over it repeatedly. It took us three days and two truck loads (using his truck) of gravel and another run for concrete rubble and concrete driveway pieces I had scavenged for a project at my previous location. Tim used those to create a retaining wall on the downhill side. We then lay concrete rubble (picked up from the same guy) and a half ton of recycled concrete road fill from Lyngso a landscaping supply yard.

I love the rough mosaic of the pieces. It reminded me of what a Roman road might look like. We had enough pieces for the bulk of it and what holes were left in the middle we filled with the much thicker driveway pieces.

Once I swept the gravel into the cracks the surface was stabilized. It was ready for landing the tiny.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My TV Appearance On The 11 O'clock News

In conjunction with my being a speaker at the Tiny Living Festival John Kernohan asked me if I was willing to be interviewed by KPIX as an example of a tiny house dweller in the Bay Area. Of course I said yes. I love to give tours on camera. So I got a call from Susie Steimle the housing advocate on the program “Project Home” which airs every Monday and Wednesday on the 11 o’clock news. A commendable program of investigative reporting with a social justice component. My appearance appears in this segment for those who want to see it right away.

She brought with her Brian Yuen her cameraman with the largest camera I have ever seen. I’m glad I cleared off my dining table so he could set it down. I cleaned out a lot of accumulated clutter while I was at it. Just in time for my upcoming move. It’s still too cluttered for most, but Brian made it look good by avoiding my cluttered desk and such. His camera showed a lot of detail, but he also wasn’t invasive steering clear of personal stuff. And he had an eye for visual symbolism i.e. a doorknob as a symbol of home and security. He also made sure to get footage of everything I mentioned.

When she arrived Susie told me that her piece was going to be about tiny houses as a solution to homelessness because she was also going to interview a man who wanted to create a tiny house development for homeless vets. While Brian went to get his camera we had a chance to talk about my feelings about tiny houses for the homeless. 

“They should just build more low income housing,” I said and she agreed that was the crux of it. 

After my experience helping with a project in San Francisco involving tiny houses for a homeless woman I was left very conflicted at what was being offered as a solution. So I had a lot to say on camera about the whole homeless situation. Too much so Susie came back to the subject asking me to just talk about the tiny house solution and I was able to give her a more concise response.

I was trying to make the point that what is being offered with tiny houses as a solution is substandard housing for people who are priced out of the market. I think its condescending of a society to ask marginalized people to live in situations that they wouldn’t tolerate themselves. There are laws requiring landlords to have adequate bathrooms. When I said my line about asking your friends if they would give up the flush toilet both Brian and Susie held their reactions as though I’d just said something totally off the wall. But later I realized they were practiced enough to recognize a good soundbite when they heard one and give it air space. 

Meanwhile I was showing how I myself lived in substandard housing because I wanted to as my own personal experiment in reducing my consumption of resources. I’m glad Susie let me make this point about tiny house dwellers being innovators. The pair spent an hour and a half with me as I put the house through its paces. I even got Susie up in the loft so we could experience it as a living room and show off my closet which I claimed was the biggest tiny house closet I’ve seen. 

When Brian asked if she wanted to be in the shot when I got into my hammock she declined. “I like you,” she said, “but I don’t want to get intimate with you”. And she winked at me. Ha ha. I love it when a straight woman is not afraid to flirt with another woman.

I was nervous about how I would come across in the piece especially because I think tiny houses are a great solution if done right. What I left unsaid inspired me to really think about why I am conducting my tiny house experiment. The crux of it is that we who are fortunate enough not to end up homeless can be housing innovators and show that living simpler is a social justice choice. It is not fair to force the poor to live this experiment while the rest of society sets a cultural standard for a very high standard of living that is so expensive it is no longer a given that the poor will even have housing. It is this social justice component to the tiny house movement that inspires me as well as being able to live affordably myself. Tiny houses are the glamorization of simpler living much like the Tesla glamorized and elevated the electric car as a social status. Living simpler as a social good is the point I decided to make in my talk at the Tiny Living Festival the following Saturday.

I was very pleased with the piece and it was fun seeing myself on a news program. I liked that the report allowed people to decide for themselves if tiny houses were a viable solution. The footage of people in sleeping bags lying on the street making it obvious that anything would be better even the bunkhouses they showed. So many homeless people have mental illness and drug addiction issues that is compounded by lack of residential services for such people so the situation is more complex than just lack of housing, but housing is key to their recovery as Susie points out. But given the direction we’re going with the wealth gap more people will be made homeless who are not thus challenged. And our capitalistic society seems to be ok with this. Many people have suggested to me that tiny homes are a good solution to homelessness, but they don't usually want "those people" in their neighborhood. They don't even want tiny house homeowners in their neighborhood. Susie didn't talk about this in her piece as an issue and I wasn't quick enough with the soundbites to point it out, but then I decided it was better just to let people think that tiny houses are allowed in backyards. It will normalize them. And I liked how she pointed out that the housing crisis is so bad in the Bay Area you can now rent dirt for what an apartment would cost in more reasonable parts of the country.

Catherine’s favorite line is when I say I’m a housing rebel at the end. I don’t even remember saying this. But paired with the shot of me going in the door and shutting it with a thunk to punctuate my statement made a nice light hearted ending.