Notes from Windward: #64

Why we're installing the Non-Potable Water System

What new options does it open up for Windward?

Why is it such a big deal?

     Windward's goal is to research and build working models of sustainable systems acting in concert to provide a healthy and harmonious environment. Our path is that of the steward who husbands the land's natural resources in order to insure that the land, animals, plants and people can all live in balance. The steward also cultivates the land's resources in order to ensure that tomorrow's potential isn't sacrificed to the needs of today.

     Perhaps the most critical resource we rely on in our quest for sustainability is water, and developing ways to use the water we have more effectively will always be a top priority for Windward. Some of those uses are obvious, such as watering the gardens during the dry season, but other, more subtle uses are important as well.

     When the current work is completed we'll have two independent but parallel systems operating to efficiently meet our water needs. While the two systems serve similar purposes, they do not intersect; indeed, the systems are designed such that there's no way that water from one system can enter the other.

     Our primary system delivers "potable" (i.e. drinkable) water drawn from a drilled well. That well is sealed thereby insuring that no surface water can enter the system thereby introducing the potential for contamination.

     Our secondary system will draw water from a dug well that is open to the surface. Actually, there is a steel cover over the well, but it's still classified as an open well since the water it collects is surface water instead of "deep water" that's pumped up from a hundred feet below ground.

     Our deep water tastes great and we delight in using it for drinking and cooking, but there's a limit to how much we can pump from that well in the dry months; which is why we're developing this additional resource. We could have a well drilling company drill one of our drilled wells down an additional 300' or more, which is what some of our neighbors have done, but water from that depth doesn't taste as good. Also, it takes a good deal of energy to pump water up from that far below ground.

     Fortunately conservation doesn't mean doing without; it means using what you have efficiently. Using premium drinking water to do laundry or wash out animal pens just doesn't make much sense.

1)      Increased garden production

the npws line passing through
the perrenial garden area

     Windward's elevation is 2,000' so our soil is slow to warm up. Consequently, planting most crops outside before the middle of May isn't very effective, although there are some notable exceptions such as spinach and potatoes. By the time things warm up, we're well into the dry season, and facing the reality that without watering, the gardens just aren't going to produce.

     The soil under Windward is generally about six feet deep, and that rests on top of a basalt slab. Rain water seeps down through the soil until it hits that slab, and then starts to seep off down hill. It's that seepage which supplies the dug well with water throughout the summer and early fall. What this secondary non-potable water system will allow us to do is to capture a portion of that seepage before it heads downhill for the river, and use it to keep our gardens moist and growing.

     Growing our own is important to us, but more than that, it's far easier to can your own fruits and vegetables as they ripen than do a marathon trying to process a pick-up load of gleaned produce before it spoils.

     A key component to our approach to sustainable living involves developing systems which work at a slow and steady pace, what we call "a walk in the park" pace, rather than systems which place heavy demands on our crew. For example, we buy our hay from a supplier who creates bales that weight around eighty pounds, instead of another who creates the "dairy" size bales that weight around a hundred and ten pounds each. While an eighty pound bale isn't exactly "light", it's a whole lot more manageable than the bigger bales. If the bigger bales were all we could get, we'd find a way to cope with the extra weight, but we rather than strain ourselves, we just make sure that we access bales that are more suited to our situation.

     By growing our own produce, we can maintain a steady progression of vegetables from the garden, through the dehydrator and into storage, all without it being perceived as a burden.

2)      Increased fruit and nut production

the new entrance

     Fruit and nut trees constitute an important component of any sustainabile agricultural program, and one which so far has gone undeveloped here at Windward. The primary reason for that is, you guessed it, a lack of water.

     It wasn't so much a matter of not having enough water to carry the young trees over through the dry months, but rather a matter of not having water readily available where we wanted to grow the trees. Even before the start of the new water project, we had put in a half-mile of water lines, but given the scale of what we're doing here, that's not all that much, especially since that work was focused on indoor plumbing rather than outdoor gardening.

     Windward is a hundred plus acres of land that rises more than two hundred feet between our lowest point down at the dug well and the highest point on the ridge behind the dining hall where the new non-potable water tank is located. Most of our potable water system lies west of the ridge, whereas the new system runs southeast from the ridge, and it's this area which is most suited to the development of Windward's fruit and nut orchard.

     The area where our new entrance is located is an especially good example of land that's too hilly to mow (i.e. to use to grow hay), but that would be very productive if planted in fruit trees. Consequently, we're installing a spur off the main water trunk so that we can use drip irrigation to get an orchard of fruit and nut trees established.

3)      Increased forage production

the NPWS line running down the middle of the pasture

     One of the corner stones of sustainable agriculture involves the use of ruminants (goats and sheep) to convert food that humans don't want to eat (grass, weeds and bugs) into things humans do like to eat (milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt), as well a range of ancillary products (meat, leather, down and wool).

     One reason for relying on goats and sheep is that their annual cycles are synchronized with nature. They give birth in early spring, and then the kids and lambs put on weight quickly as their mothers process the lush spring growth into rich milk.

     The problem is that our water runs out before that process is completed. In an earlier time, herds would just move up into the hills and graze the high valleys during the dry days of late summer, but that options isn't available within the context of landed, as opposed to pastoral, agriculture.

     As a result, since we can't take the goats to the water, we need to bring the water to the goats. The NPWS's main three inch diameter trunk line is being installed with a two inch outlet located very fifty feet. That will allow us to pump water from the dug well up to the storage tank, and when it's full, to use the gravity-fed pressure to irrigate the main pasture during the dry months of August and September.

     Pasture is, by definition, three or more types of forage being grown together. The reason for having more than one type of forage out there is that each type responds differently to a variety of conditions. Some plants, such as winter wheat, grow right through the winter; as long as they can see sunlight, they're growing and will provide early grazing for the ewes and does.

     Other forage types such as orchard grass do well in the early spring when the ground is moist and the nights are cold. And others, such as alfalfa, really like the heat and don't get serious about growing until June. Alfalfa has roots which can go as deep as seven feet in a search for moisture, but unfortunately, the roots can't find what isn't there. By being able to deliver water to the alfalfa later in the year, we can enjoy the benefit of increased production of forage, and consequently, an increased production of sustainable products.

4)      Low-grade geothermal heating and cooling

     Those familiar with the concepts of sustainable stewardship know that much of the work involves shifting things around from where you have too much to where you have too little. Year round, our average temperature is about 55° F., which all in all, is a fairly comfortable balance between the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The problem is that for a couple months of the year, i.e. the dead of winter, outside temperatures drop to decidedly chilly levels, just as the temps can become most uncomfortable on a sunny August afternoon.

     It's helpful to think of the earth as a thermal flywheel that stores up the heat of summer, and then releases it during the cold of winter. Most of this dynamic occurs at the surface, with less and less of a temperature swing happening the deeper you go into the ground. While the surface does freeze here in winter, the frost depth is less than a foot at most, and by the time you get two feet down, there's not a lot of difference between January and July.

     Most of the NPWS action will be happening in the main three inch trunk line, but we're also installing a secondary line that's three-quarters of an inch in diameter. At each end of the line there's a set of valves which can be configured so that the water in the two lines can circulate in a loop that's some three quarters of a mile long. That adds up to a whole lot of heat exchange surface.

     The new woodshop is being built using a hydronic-slab floor design; i.e. the slab has 5/8" tubing running through it. In winter, the building can be kept from freezing by running 55° water through the slab; won't be toasty, but when the outside temps are below freezing, that's thirty degrees of free heat that will keep the building from freezing up when no one's using it.

     Then, when there's work to be done in the wood shop, it will only need to be heated up another fifteen degrees to be comfortable, a task which is a lot easier and a lot quicker than having to deal with a frozen building. This "no colder than" setup is especially helpful in that it will protect things that do not stand up well to being frozen and then thawed out, things like paint and glue.

     And then, when it's hot outside and you're trying to find a cool place to work, the ground-water loop works the same way, only in reverse. By keeping the slab floor at 55 degrees even when the temps are pushing a hundred outside, the woodshop becomes a comfortable retreat where one can work through the heat of the day without having to bear the high cost of air-conditioning.

     Root cellars are another good example of how having a geothermal groundloop is real handy. There are many things which store best at a temperature of between 35° and 45° F. Apples and potatoes are examples of foods that needs to be kept cool but also need to be kept from freezing. By circulating ground water through an automobile radiator, and by blowing the room air through the radiator, the room can be kept at just the right temperature while using no more energy than it takes to power the fan.

5)      A greatly expanded intranet

     Back when we started developing this property, the internet was a curiosity, not the irreplaceable necessity it is today. As we expand our housing and operational options, we believe that it's important to keep upgrading our informational systems so that we can simultaneously optize both our organizational efficiency and our fun, since the goal of efficient and effective systems is to get to do more of what you want to with what you have.

     Consequently, we're incorporating an additional conduit in the NPWS trench to carry data lines from one end of the system to the other. While a wireless network will certainly have some application here at Windward, given our topography there are parts of our community which will only be reliably served by a land-line, be it twisted pair or fiber optic. Since some of what we want to do would be best served by twisted pair, and some applications lend themselves more to fiber optic, we're just going ahead and installing both.

6)      Hydro-electric power generation

the catchment dam near the mailbox

     The primary need driving the NPWS is that of having adequate water resources to support our operations forward through the dry months, but it's important to remember that it's only dry here during late summer. By contrast, it's can be quite wet here during the fall and winter months, so wet that we often have a noisy creek running along our eastern boundry.

     And it's hard to hear all that water rushing down hill, and not feel an urge to put it to productive use.

     During the summer months, the sky is clear, the days are long, and we have enough room to set up enough solar collectors to be able to generate as much electrical power as we need to operate the community. But, come the winter months, we can be socked in with clouds for weeks at a time, and need to cultivate alternative resources in order to meet our need for energy during those times.

     During the wet months, we don't need the main NPWS line to move water from the dug well, up to the storage tank and then back down to irrigate the pasture. Consequently, we're designing the main water trunk so that it can be used during that time to bring high pressure water to a hydro-electric generating station down by our new entrance.

the bottom of "power lane"
this is where we'll site the Pelton wheel

     The first step in this project was to create a new dam up by our mailbox to catch the creek water and funnel it through an 18 inch diameter conduit. From there, the water will drop down through a trash screen and into three inch pipe that runs along the side of the hill to a point where it intersects with the existing NPWS line.

     From there, the diverted creek water will flow down the NPWS line to a generation station located at the point where the line crosses the new entrance. There we'll use a Pelton wheel to generate electricity. While it's an energy scenario that will only be operational for two or three months a year, the great thing about hydro-electric is that it runs around the clock, not just when the sun shines or when you have time to stock the boiler with another load of wood.

7)      Wind Power / Hydrogen generation

the run up to the top of the ridge

     The NPWS runs from Windward's lowest point on up to its highest elevation, and that's the best place for us to locate a wind generator.

     For the most part, wind is more of a liability than an asset; consequently, we located Windward behind a ridge that protects us from the prevailing winds. On the one hand that makes the ridge a pretty good place to locate a wind generator, but the downside is that the ridge is at least five hundred feet away from where we would want to use any energy that we were able to capture from the wind.

     Electricity is a really easy form of energy to use, but it doesn't store or transport very well. Transporting low voltage electrical energy is merely wasteful, whereas high voltage electricity can kill you (sort of the ultimate in non-sustainable practice).

     One option is to generate low voltage electricity and immediately convert that into a transportable form by electrolysing water into hydrogen and oxygen. Once the energy is converted into a gaseous form, it can be easily and cheaply stored on site and then piped from the ridge down to where it can be used when needed.

     The key thing is that with the trench open for installing the NPWS, it's easy enough to throw in two runs of conduit to pipe hydrogen and oxygen down the hill to where it can be used to in traditional ways (such as burning the hydrogen in our Onan generator to run our power meter backwards, or using the oxygen to increase the ease of operation and efficiency of our woodstove), but the ultimate goal is to use those gases as part of the methanol project, our long term plan to bring on line the technology involved in converting wood chips to automotive methanol, thereby ending our need to purchase fuel to power our vehicles.

     Well, I hope all that conveys why we're so excited about getting the Non-Potable Water System underway, and why its development marks a real milestone in Windward's commitment to become energy self-reliant and to model such systems for others. It's a grand adventure, and an exciting thing to see coming together.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 64