Sustainable City Living

A Makezine blog has a call for questions for Scott Kellogg, founder of Austin’s Rhizome Collective regarding the book “A do-it-ourselves guide for Sustainable City Living

I included the following in a response:

One thing we all need is a way of keeping food and medicines cooled or frozen. Root cellars provide an almost forgotten way to store foods but in an urban area it’s not always practical to build one.

In the 1920’s electric refrigerators won out over ammonia absorption refrigerators primarily because of the big money put into advertising by well funded companies. The absorption style refrigerators couldn’t compete.

Today, refrigerators used in typical recreational vehicles and kerosene refrigerators used by Amish are based on the absorption technology. Very few companies build these refrigerators and are not particularly user-friendly toward individuals making home repairs. The gases are under pressure and the ammonia can be lethal without proper handling.

How are you addressing the universal need for refrigeration when electricty may not be available? Are you aware of any open-source efforts to provide plans for do-it-yourself methods to build refrigeration systems?

When looking to the future sometimes we should look at the past. As with refrigeration system technologies sometimes great potential becomes abandoned because of public perception, costs of resources at the time and hazards. One technology that seems to be gaining attention is steam energy. Water and heat provide an incredible power source.

As with the refrigeration comments, I’m interested in open-source technology for building steam powered equipment. I believe that sustainability should include the ability to build the tools and systems you need.

Are you working to capture waste heat from other systems and appliances at your facility? Do you see steam power playing a role in your facility as a power source for generating electricity, mechanical power to operate tools and machinery, distillation of safe drinking water or heating living spaces?

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The Worms Have Arrived

Fertile soil, recycling trash and garbage, self reproducing, doubling in quantity every 3 or 4 months, easy to care for, silent and $25 per pound; whats not to like about earthworms? When researching alternate energy sources I remembered how my grandfather always had a worm bed out behind the house. Vegetable scraps from our meal and coffee grounds they even like paper and cardboard, all were taken out to feed the worms. My grandfather always a ready supply for fishing.
I picked the worms up as they were being harvested. One of the things I wanted to ask the worm farmer is what they do to manage their worms in the winter time around here. Well, that was answered when I got directions to the farm. It is in an underground cave, one of the industrial sites where they’ve mined the limestone that stays the same cool temperature year around.

The worms are in their new home now. It didn’t take much time before they started diving below the surface. They were fun to watch. I was impressed with the teeny tiny little baby worms. The farmers said to keep a bright light over them for a day or two until they get used to their new surroundings otherwise they might try to run. So far they seem to be staying where they belong.

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Should Our Quest For Knowledge of Science Be Censored?

I checked the HMS Beagle Science Store blog at today and they have a good article about “Home Laboratories Under Attack”. Their blog makes a good point about the importance of home based labs, particularly with the home school groups. The blog makes more good points that we should contact our law makers to encourage their support and let them know that not all home based labs are for illegal activities. Robert Bruce Thompson, author of “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments” has an interesting look at the demise of the chemistry set. You can find his blog and video presentation at

I started a topic today in the Yahoo Group for MaterialsScienceTeachers regarding an article I found on Makezine about “The Golden Book of Chemistry” being banned in the 60’s. If you follow the article far enough you get to a web site where you can download a torrent file with the book as a PDF file. This is a great book and such a lost treasure.

I found another gem from the past courtesy of Bre Pettis on Twitter who passed along a link about the ABC TV show “Why Is It So” which started in the 60’s. The link to this article is Bre produces videos for Makezine and is a member of the NYC Resistors hackers club. You can follow Bre on Twitter @Bre

Continuing with my research on trying to live off-grid one item that we need year around is refrigeration. I was looking for a means of keeping foods cooled or frozen and possibly some kind of air conditioning. Humidity gets so high in the Ozarks region that swamp coolers used in the southwest parts of the country are ineffective here. When I visited with an Amish family a couple weeks ago they said they use a kerosene fueled refrigerator. The kerosene refrigerators are very similar to the kind used in recreational vehicles. They both use an ammonia absorption method. I have an old RV fridge that’s not working and I want to inspect it closer to see how that technology works. I bought a book titled “Modern Refrigeration and Air Conditioning” at a thrift store a few months ago and it is helpful in explaining the conceptual technology but not specific enough to build one. What I really wanted to find was some kind of Open-Source DIY instructions on how to build a refrigerator.

One article that comes close is the solar ammonia absorption ice maker, this looks interesting. It uses a large solar collector for its heat source. Another article, however, caught my attention from a group called Needful Provisions and it describes the Adsorption-Desorption Solar Refrigerator This method uses the mineral Zeolite which has the property of being absorbent at room temperature and releases moisture at a higher temperature. According to the article this material is abundant and is used in products to clean spills, and absorb odors. I spent a couple of hours trying to find the mineral Zeolite in consumer products in an auto parts store’s oil dry, pet store’s kitty litter, the big box home improvement stores and the crafts stores for absorbents and dessicants without any success. Most items had clay or other fibrous materials like recycled paper or corn cobs. I expected to find the real stuff at the HMS Beagle store and sure enough they had what I wanted. I got some of the Molecular Sieve and want to experiment with its moisture absorbing and releasing properties. I would also like to compare its abilities to some of the consumer grade items that are more widely available.

Hmmm, Experiments… Experiments to understand scientific principles while using chemicals and materials. Should I try to understand more about material science and refrigeration principles or give up on the idea because some government authorities may freak out as pointed out in the HMS Beagle Store blog previously mentioned?

Using Google Notebooks for Quick Research Notes

Since we don’t have electricity on our property, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Internet while I’m in the city about ways to reduce or eliminate dependence on the electric company. Earlier in the week I visited a lot of sites but didn’t record all of the interesting web addresses. I’m not particularly fond of the Bookmark features in the browsers and I’ve used shortcut icons on the desktop before but I prefer Google Notebooks as a way to store interesting links with comments. So, I started recording many of my links using Google Notebooks. Google has a way of sharing contents with others, so here is a link to my Alternate Energy Research notebook: AlternateEnergyResources

I’m using the Firefox browser now instead of Microsoft Internet Explorer and have good results. My computer is set up to dual boot with Ubuntu Linux and Windows so Firefox is convenient when switching between operating systems. I downloaded the Google Notebook Firefox Extension from and it really helps the note taking process. There is a “Open Notebook” icon at the bottom right corner of my browser. Another good feature is when I select text from a web page I can right click and select the “Note This (Google Notebook)” option and it creates a new item in my notebook.

This works great while connected to the grid and Internet but what about those off-grid times. Google Notebook has a “Manage Notebooks” option that displays a list of your notebooks. There is an “export” tool that lets me export the notebook with the “Document” option. That creates a Google Docs file which has an option under File->Download File As->PDF option that I like to use or select other word processing document formats. I’m using OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Word so I can save to the ODF (Open Document Format) if I choose. Now I can open any of my notebooks without being connected to the Internet. I really wish the Linux program Tomboy which is similar to Google Notebook had a synchronize feature.

WWTAD – What Would The Amish Do?

I’ve been back in the city for several days and researching many items on alternate energy. It was hot and uncomfortable while I was there so I wondered how the Amish survive in this heat. Before leaving for the city I stopped at one of the Amish farms to get some vegetables to bring back. I noticed they were using LED lights on their buggy and I was curious about their battery management techniques. I have a similar problem trying to keep my digital camera and laptop computer battery charged while off grid.

I wish I could post some pictures here but I didn’t want to offend them by taking any. I haven’t had any breezes at my place but it was cooler at their farm. The farmer told me there is an art to selecting the right place to build a house. They found a good location, part of my problem is being buried in the forest of trees where the wind often doesn’t get to the ground level.

I asked how they keep their batteries charged and he took me out to one of the barns. Inside some of his older children were busy on woodworking projects using a lathe. This lathe and other power tools were powered from an underground jack shaft with belts attached to turn the machines. Outside the barn a diesel engine was running that drives the jack shaft. He bought the old diesel engine from a scrap yard and said that he got it for next to nothing. The diesel engine has a generator with battery for the starter motor so they use this circuit to keep their buggy’s batteries charged.

Sitting beside the diesel engine was an old refrigeration compressor attached to another end of the jack shaft. There was a compressed air line running around to a large household sized propane tank. This tank was used as their air storage tank and supplied air to their shop inside. They also have a water well and he has an air bubbler jet well pump to supply water to the house,  livestock, and irrigation for their garden. A setup like this would solve many of my similar problems particularly when electricity is needed for a water well pump. Of course I am needing a well drilled first.

I asked one of the Amish women how they keep the eggs and produce cooled. She said that they have a root cellar and a kerosene refrigerator. I grew up with a cellar at home and they work very well keeping things cool in the summer and storing potatoes and canned vegetables throughout the winter. I’m imagining suitable places on the property to consider building a root cellar when I get back down there.

Because of this I have been doing a lot of research into how living with a reduced electricity demand could be possible. One of the biggest energy demands is from running electric motors particularly those attached to compressors like chest type freezers, refrigerators, and air conditioners. Staying cool in the summer is a concern but before long the problem will be staying warm in the winter.

I am working on prioritizing the things that I can do in the short term. One thing I would like to do is start preparing some soil for a garden in the future. Something I can easily and hopefully inexpensively start is a vermiculture compost using earthworms. I am starting a profile on the vermicomposting web site at I  started the plastic tub method to get my worm bed going. I have ordered worms from a company in the Kansas City area at

I appreciate the time this Amish farmer took to explain things to me. It gave me many things to think about. We discussed their lifestyle and how they survive. It is their community that helps them exist. Many helping each other when needed. Our culture doesn’t always work that way where we often have to find ways on our own and struggle for our existence. One thing the Internet can do is to help bring a community together based on our interests. Many sites have helped in my research and I hope that I can help others. I miss the Internet community when I’m off grid and find high speed broadband Internet access is sparse. Sometimes I find living in the rural Ozarks area is like living in a third world country where Internet access options are sometimes better there.

Always Home

The nice thing about having a motorhome is that it doesn’t matter where you are around the country it feels like you are always home. You always have your own bedroom, kitchen, bath, and living area with you. My wife and I have lived in this bus for a couple of years but it has been sitting vacant over the last three years. Any time you are remodeling or building a house and trying to live in it at the same time it is difficult. The smaller size of a bus makes it increasingly difficult to finish the interior while living there too.

Always Home

Always Home

A few details about the area. Our property is adjoining a beautiful clear water lake most noted for fishing and sailboats. Although today the wind is calm making it hotter on the hill to work around the bus.

Lake View Toward Property

Lake View Toward Property

Lake View Closeup

Lake View Closeup

These lake views are shot across the lake toward our place on the hill. The temperatures have been in the upper 90’s this week making it difficult to get much work done on the bus. Night time temperatures inside the bus have dropped down to 96 degrees making sleeping inside difficult too.

One of my first projects is to fabricate window screens so I can leave the bus windows open without letting insects inside. I have started making a template of the window’s shape for my new window screens.

Window Shape Template

Window Shape Template

Spider webs, ticks and critters.

I made it down to our property. There is a tree down in our driveway but the nice thing about having a jeep is it can go around and over things a normal car can’t. The jeep was packed so full that I couldn’t get much anything else in here. I’m making my way through all the spider webs. The two things that seem to grow well on this property are trees and tics. We haven’t been around for so long I’m hoping that some other critters haven’t decided to make their home in the bus.

Tree down in driveway

Tree down in driveway

The jeep was packed full from front...

The jeep was packed full from front...

Packed from front to back.

Packed from front to back.

One good thing about being down here. The gas is 40 to 50 cents cheaper than Kansas City. The prices here are $3.36 today.

I brought my tools that are important to the work I’m doing on developing educational robotics workshops. Not that a band saw, drill press or routher are going to be much help for a while. We don’t have electricity here any more and no phone service to get on the internet.

I’m starting to clean up our bus (motorhome) this afternoon trying to get it into shape to at least sleep here
tonight. It was 100 degrees inside the bus this afternoon. With so many trees around it doesn’t let much of a breeze come through.

I’m in town now at the lundromat to get some bedding washed up. Its been over three years since we were living in the bus full time. Kind of feels nice to get back here. Will try to find wifi access when I get done here.

I learned that there is a new comunity grocery store in nearby Fair Play. They opened up earlier this year. They are closed on Sundays. That will be quite convenient.