Sunday, June 28, 2015

Wash Cycle

This idea grew from the Corvallis Bicycle Collective at a time when we felt a need for a way to wash our greasy rags. It has developed into a companion for the EcoPot, but I must admit it hasn't been built yet, though I've seen prototypes of each of the elements.

The system begins with a hose or pipe carrying tap water into the lower opening of a solar batch heater built from the tank of an old electric heater. The tank is painted flat black and enclosed in a triangular box. The glass face is exposed to sunlight while the other two faces and both ends are insulated, as is the pipe leading from the top of this tank to the washer.

An old front loading washing machine must have all parts functional except the motor, which is removed. It sits on a pallet straddling an old bathtub full of stones, sand and topped with wood chips inoculated with oyster mushroom spores. The washer drains into the tub, whose contents will clean and filter the wash water, while producing edible mushrooms. Water exiting the drain can be captured for reuse. It should be drinkably clean.

The washer with no motor is driven by an old bicycle that has been made stationary by optionally welding the fork to prevent the front wheel from moving and elevating the rear wheel as on a track stand. The tire and tube are removed from the rear wheel and replaced by a belt that drives the washer pulley previously moved by the motor. Both bike and washer are anchored to keep the belt tight.

The person pedaling the bike can use gears as appropriate to maintain a steady pace. The washer should be run through a standard hot wash cycle before the clean cloth is hung out on a solar dryer (aka clothesline).


As global climate changes, we reconsider the inappropriate technological choices that have led us down this path. As a society, we need to stop digging up and burning fossil fuels and begin to efficiently utilize the natural abundance of sunlight. As individuals, there are three specific techno-mistakes we must, IMHO, let go of – cars, TVs, and flush toilets. This article describes a simple modern replacement for the third of these, the crapper.

Water is beginning to be recognized as a precious resource. Humans are the only land animal that routinely defecates in water, an innovation of urbanization in Europe that was foisted upon the world in colonial days in the name of sanitation. It doesn't make sense today. Besides wasting fresh water, this practice pollutes natural waterways and robs nutrients from the soil. A simple dry composting system restores the nutrient cycle while minimizing pathogens.

People have been crapping on the ground for so long that if we fail to squat for a minute or two each day, our lower backs get tense. The problem is when we live in dense communities, we tend to step in each others' poop before it has a chance to turn into healthy soil. Short circuiting fecal microbes can cause disease, biologically designed to limit our population.

Aerobic composting with an appropriate carbon to nitrogen balance can restore the vital bioculture in soil which can sequester massive amounts of carbon, repairing the damage done by humanity over the last century or so. If we understand this natural cycle and work with it, very little effort is required. A cubic yard of feces composting aerobically will naturally host thermophilic microbes that kill pathogens. Nested in straw, humanure can become soil with no muss or fuss.

I've been imagining the Cascadian Composting Crapper, a dry porta-potty with a strong, lightweight structure, designed to be put in the yard of any home where the residents don't want to use a flush toilet, but prefer to recycle their waste nutrients safely into soil. The CCC can accommodate any number of people indefinitely.

The framework is a welded lattice of 1/4” rebar (almost 50' total) based around a geodesic half of a dodecahedron – 18 edges 18.5” long support 10 triangular faces on a pentagonal base about 4.3' wide. A toilet seat is mounted on the top face. This structure is covered with a fine mesh (22 ft2) to keep insects in and bigger critters out. For privacy the dome is surrounded by a seven pole teepee (1/2” furniture grade PVC tubular poles range from 10' - 16') offset from the dome by 30” rebar ground runners, two of which are doubled to create an entryway. About 368.5 ft2 of light canvass covers the teepee in an involute spiral from about 1' above the ground to 1' from the apex. Two normal people should be able to lift the complete unit and plunge the 6” rebar anchors, which extend downward from each of the five outer poles, into the soil wherever they have prepared a nest of small sticks and straw.

Two of the 16' poles suspend a broad triangular waterproof sheet above the entire structure, which is roughly 12' wide by 12' high. The broad, sweeping roof funnels rainwater (or hose water in a pinch) through a simple mesh filter into a two gallon tank built into the south wall. The tank has a variegated, flat black surface exposed to sunlight to heat the water a bit and gravity feeds into a small wash basin inside the teepee, which drains through a hose fitting outside just tall enough to fit a five gallon bucket under it, so grey water can be stored or used for drip irrigation easily. At initial set-up the prevailing winds are taken into consideration while orienting the entrance, solar tank, and rainwater collection sheet.

The waste chamber is about one cubic yard, cross ventilated through insect proof mesh. The outer shell with no door provides constant airflow to prevent any smell or flies. Ideally, there is a nest of sticks and straw in the bottom of the chamber, which sits on top of the ground, no pit. The design will facilitate aerobic decomposition. Each time a person enters, optionally latching the string with the “occupied” sign, dumps a load, covers with straw, and washes up at the sink.

Besides the sink and toilet, there could be a baby changing hammock and three storage spaces inside. One is for clean diapers, cloth sanitary napkins, and assorted butt rags. There's a removable bin for used cloth (ask about design for the Cascadian Clothes Cycler washing machine) and a space for straw, which is used to cover each deposit in the toilet. Toilet paper is optional. Another option is a magazine rack and a fiber optic solar reading light, but we don't want to get carried away.

The unit is lightweight (probably less than 20 lb) so that when the chamber gets full, it can be lifted off easily. Just drain the water tank, lift the whole thing off the waste pile, sink the anchors around a new nest of sticks and straw, and hose it down if you want to. Within six months without any further attention the old pile will be usable topsoil. An attentive observer will note that the pile gets warm, similar to fever in eliminating pathogens. If dogs or other critters might dig in it, you could set a second mesh dome, without seat, sink, or teepee, (24.5 ft2 mesh + 30' rebar) around the pile as it works naturally.

The soil built with the EcoPot is ideal for no till permaculture. When you move the dome off, as weeds begin to set root, you can plant the pile with a collection of compatible vegetables seasonally appropriate for your location. For example, I might plant spinach, onions, beets, cabbage, carrots, strawberries, and tomatoes, mixing seeds randomly. Soil should always be covered with diverse plants or mulch. If you can see bare soil, the microbes in it are starving. Healthy soil will absorb floods, withstand drought, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, but the microbes need a constant diet. 

Building and using a composting toilet is one important step toward a world that will provide for our progeny. Together we learn to grow our own food, pedal our own bikes, and care for our neighbors.


Here on Earth, energy flows from the sun and diffuses on a predictable pattern affected by the rotation of the planet and its revolution around that sun. Life has adapted to exploit this energy flow very effectively. Every green plant turns sunlight into carbohydrates. This process is so efficient that, over the centuries, stores of energy – so called fossil fuels – have built up below the surface of Earth.
Our diverse ecosphere had shaped itself an accommodating climate long before humans evolved. Fungi shuffle minerals to where they are needed, building up soil that supports levels of vegetation which exhale the oxygen upon which animals depend, as well as producing their fuels. As animals, we humans have vast stores of plant energy available at every turn to fuel our natural machinery.
We are a tool making species and we have had some remarkable successes. Look at the way a bicycle allows the rider to use her own body to propel herself at the speed of a cheetah. Marvel at our communication capabilities that allow people from around the planet to exchange multisensory experiences with minimal time delay. These great tools have been won only at great cost. Most of our experiments have failed.
People have taken great advantage of the planet that birthed us with little regard for the long term consequences of our behavior. For centuries human development has expanded inhospitable desert regions. We have covered vast areas of fertile land with impervious pavement, severely disrupting the hydrological cycles upon which life depends. We have dug toxic minerals from deep stores to spread them across the surface with predictably negative effects upon life. Worse yet, we have fabricated new toxins, even new elements such as plutonium, and allowed them to kill ecosystems.
I do not believe that people have the power to destroy life on Earth. We do have the wherewithal to make the planet incompatible with our own species and many others. Right now species are becoming extinct at a cataclysmic rate and it is not unreasonable to expect this trend to continue until the source of the disruption – humanity – is eliminated. But life will adapt and continue no matter what we do. Mushrooms, insects, and microbes will collaborate to utilize whatever mess we leave to them.
It would be fulfilling for humans to survive. To accomplish that, we must learn from our experiences. When a human system is at odds with a natural system, the human system must change. Natural evolution is generally slower than social, but much more definitive. When the balance is upset, cataclysm may precede the new equilibrium. If we ignore the balance of natural forces, we risk extinction. We play with forces beyond our comprehension.
Exploitation of fossil fuels is a failed policy. Yes, it has catapulted humanity through a series of changes, from which we can derive lasting good. But now that half of the oil is gone, we must realize we are burning it at a rate millions of times as fast as the planet can create it. This is not sustainable.
The industrial era was driven by fossil fuels and built upon a foundation of Cartesian logic. We dissected and examined every part until we finally developed systems theories that incorporate the synergies of holism. As our factories cranked out standardized widgets, we attempted to standardize our schools and farms, until we realized the strength of diversity. We sought to build an unshakable fortress until we learned to flow with the inevitable changes. We have learned, but can we utilize our knowledge?
It would be nice if world leaders saw the simple truths in this article, but that does not appear to be the case. We are in a car plunging over a cliff and the driver appears to be unconscious. While yelling at the driver, I say we jump out and roll before it’s too late. I write my observations to Members of Congress, executives in the Obama Administration, and CEOs of corporations every day, but I have lost all hope that they will respond in time.
Change comes down to me. How can I wean myself of petroleum? First step was to quit using cars. Living car-free has been extremely fulfilling, improving my health and allowing me room to travel more broadly. Surprise! It’s easier to get around without dragging along a ton of steel and vinyl. Refusing to own a car was the wisest decision I’ve made in my half century on Earth.
I’m not oil-free yet. Fossil fuels were used to manufacture my bicycle, which uses chain oil at about one ounce per thousand miles as it runs on impervious pavement. I still use plastics and depend upon items imported with fuel. But I’m so much healthier than when I owned a car!
I’ve become a bike-evangelist, promoting bicycles at every turn. Between cross continental rides with Bike4Peace, I’ve helped to organize the Corvallis Bike Co-op. I truly believe that bicycles are the transformative tool needed to save America from itself. Human powered transportation gives me hope for human survival.
Diet is also key. The primary human energy need is food. We must stop eating petroleum and develop our local plant resources – not through corporate monoculture farming, but through sensible permaculture. We can thrive by fostering an ecosystem to which we are naturally adapted. Imagine simply picking your meals where they’ve grown. A raw vegan diet grown within a walk of where I live is a goal toward which I strive.
Another great tool is the attached greenhouse or sunroom. Besides capturing free heat from the sun, thus reducing our use of electricity from non-renewable sources like coal and uranium, a greenhouse enables us to grow tropical plants in temperate climates. Humanity evolved in the tropics and our bodies appreciate these local extensions of tropical conditions.
It is tempting to be fatalistically negative about our prospects. It’s too easy to blame them for ruining our lives. But it’s more fun to dance among the ruins, learning from everybody’s successes and mistakes, while spreading the seeds of a brighter future. Dance with me!