I know… I haven’t finished the bathroom walls yet. It has been years since I had any time or energy to attack the building of the bathroom. We have showered outdoors through another two Winter’s of cold wind and frosty toes. However… the chook house needs to be built, and I really want to build some fire resistant animal shelters. Once it is rendered, earthbag walls are fire proof and roof structures can be made fire safe (if not totally fire proof), so I decided to build with earthbags again.
The basic chook house design criteria is as small a building as I can make and still be functional (I only want to keep a few chooks now we are using fewer eggs). I decided on a curved shape (like half an egg) with a high ‘window’ for the chooks to get in and out of, and a small, tight fitting door on the Southern side (facing the humpy) made from thick, solid wood. I will probably make a space in the wall that can be accessed from the outside as nesting boxes (with a solid wood, tight fitting hatch) and include some pipes near the ceiling with wire mesh covers to act as ventilation. This will be a fairly dark, dim space for the chooks to sleep in and lay their eggs, which is what they prefer anyway, there should be enough light to see when dawn comes though.
I decided to use a rubble/rock stem wall, just because I wanted to see how it will perform with earthbags stacked on top. I spent a few days collecting rocks from our property, then my daughter and I dug a shallow trench in the shape we wanted the chook house to be.
Hopefully the earthbags will lay on the top of the wall, this should be high enough to keep the rain water off the earth rendered walls. The gaps between the rocks will allow mice and snakes to get into the chook house (to be avoided if possible), so I am planning on rendering over the rocks with something that will seal the gaps, maybe a cement based render?
The floor of the house will probably be an earth floor, similar to what we will have in the house. It will give me a chance to play with the concept and learn how to make a good, hardwearing floor.
I am planning on a living roof on the chook house, this will hopefully insulate the chooks inside from heat and cold, be more fire proof and will allow me space to plant pumpkins. I will have to find a way to seal the eaves of the roof so they are less likely to burn, but that problem is in the future. For now, I have finished the stem wall, the bags for the wall come next, then I have to think about how to frame a door, an access window and nest boxes.
I don’t know about you, but I love incense (it hides a multitude of house wifely sins). We have many, many animals living in our humpy, both by invitation and without; we have the chooks and ducks in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) who are inside while being healed from various bodily woes, or are long term guests because of an injury or birth defect, we also have an indoor aviary that houses many small birds (rescued and found) who can’t be released for one reason or another and we have three dogs who are no longer young, we have skinks, geckos, mice and the odd snake, finally we have three humans (who may be the smelliest of all). Although the animal enclosures are cleaned regularly (daily for the messier ones) and we do our best to keep our own mess under control, the humpy still smells like a zoo (naturally). So, every now and then I like to burn a heap of incense to lighten the mood.
Incense is expensive and I am never sure what it is made from, so I guess it is time to find out how to make my own. I have been making loose incense for many years, but that requires a charcoal block to burn it on. Charcoal blocks can be hard to find in our area and tend to absorb moisture from the air and be hard to light. Incense cones seem like the obvious solution, and they can just be set on a plate and lit, so are convenient too.
I found this easy to adjust recipe at Permacrafters.com and decided to give it a go as it uses easy to find in my kitchen/garden ingredients.
Traditionally, incense is made by mixing herbs, resins and oils with a powder called makko (which is made from the bark of several trees). I haven’t got any makko as it isn’t used in making loose incense, but I feel that the ingredients need a bulking and binding agent to help make my cones. This is (of course) different from the recipe. The principle attribute of makko powder is that it is made from an easily combustible bark that does not smell strongly when burned. I reasoned that gum tree bark is also very combustible (as the annual bushfires prove) and the smoke has a pleasant smell. I trotted off outside and picked up some shed gum tree bark.
This bark was popped into my trusty coffee grinder (which needed a good scrub after the ordeal) and ground into powder. Ta Da!!!, true Australian makko.
Next I ground up my incense in the coffee grinder;
5 tspn makko
1 tspn frankincense gum
1/2 tspn acacia gum
1 tspn cinnamon powder
1 tspn cloves
2 tspn dried rosemary leaves
Then I added;
2 tspn raw honey
3 tspn water (I added the water a tspn at a time and mix until I could see the consistency)
The mixture was kneaded in the little bowl until it could be formed into cone shapes that stick together well. This lot made 12 cones of fairly large size.
I left the little cones on a tray to dry out in the kitchen. They apparently take a week to dry enough to use and need to dry very slowly to avoid crumbling.
They smell like honey and cinnamon sitting on their tray, a not unpleasant smell to have hanging around the kitchen. I hope they smell as nice when they are burned.
I know the recipe is different from the one I found, I really just used that as a guide to make my own recipe.
I will post a note here to let you know what the results are…
I couldn’t wait, after just one night I decided to try out the incense. It took a long time to light up (probably because it’s not fully dry yet) and had to be relit twice. The smell is really pleasant, weirdly it smells sort of vanilla like, I really like it. The gum tree bark doesn’t add a bushfire smell to the incense, so I think that is a success. I guess I will have to wait a few more days to see if the extra drying time will make it easier to light.
Recently the biogas started to smell a bit, it had the particular odour of sewage when the burner was lit. This is not what you want to smell when you put the kettle on for your morning coffee. The smell means it is time to change the gas filter, luckily I had ordered a kit months ago. The gas filter is a plastic pot filled with activated charcoal, the pot has holes in the top and the sides so gas can travel through it. A rubber seal around the pot makes sure the gas has no option but to travel through the charcoal filter. They are fairly easy to change, having been designed that way, but there are some important things to note when doing this routine maintenance.
All you really need to do when changing the gas filter is;
remove the stickers from the new filter canister.
lever the lid of the gas collection pipe up until you can open it.
pull out the old gas filter using the handy rope handle.
place the new filter in the gas collection pipe.
replace the lid of the gas collection pipe.
open the old filter and add the charcoal to the compost pile or the worm farm.
However… I made several mistakes that led to us having no gas for several days and smelled fairly bad too.
My first mistake was not looking to see which way up the rubber seal on the gas collection pipe lid went. In fact I mistakenly threw the seal out as I thought it was from the old canister at first. This seal stops the filtered gas from escaping into the atmosphere, so it’s pretty important. The seal is contoured, so it needs to face the right way.
My second mistake was to try changing the filter when the balloon was full of gas. Nobody wanted to use the burner because of the smell, so the balloon was very full of lovely methane (and sulphur compounds). I levered off the gas collection pipe lid and got a face full of smelly gas as the balloon deflated entirely.
Other than those two mistakes, the whole process is fairly easy and no fuss. Next time I will change the filter as soon as I get a tiny whiff of smell and make sure to use all the gas before I change it. I wish I had taken photos of which way the seal goes in the lid, but I didn’t. Instead I took a screen shot from the assembly app to remind myself which way the rubber seal goes.
This system is so easy to assemble and maintain that I wonder why everyone doesn’t have one. It needs a little bit of maintaining now and then, but what system doesn’t? The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience.
The toilet is going to need a new water pump seal soon and the chlorine filter for the effluent needs replacing too, I am hoping those go as easily (but with less mistakes) as the gas filter change.
Lately, I have been forced to slow down and look at the ground more (to avoid falling over a lot), that has led to noticing a lot more of the small and unnoticed flowers that grow here. I don’t have any idea whether most of these are native plants or not, I don’t know what they are called at all, but they are beautiful. I thought I would share the beauty with you. If you know the names of any of these little beauties, leave a comment.
And a few from my garden (I know what these ones are).
In some ways, I am grateful for my dizzy spells; they have let me slow down and really see all the beauty that surrounds us again. On the other hand, it will be wonderful to be able to move around fast without falling over again too.
We have needed a new sink unit for a long time. The one we have is a second hand unit with no doors that we got from a local school when they were upgrading their kitchen. It is made from chip board and has only one door. Recently we found a really good deal on a new but unwanted stainless steel commercial sink… so we bit the bullet and bought it. Now we have to put the new sink in. One afternoon, after the day’s work, we decided to attack this easy project…
I emptied the old sink cupboard and removed all the shelves. Then we disconnected the water in and the water out pipes (more complicated than I had imagined) and moved the old unit out. The cupboard part was a lot heavier than I anticipated, it was damp and smelly and there was a space under the base that specialised in collecting dust bunnies. Once it was out and the elephant sized dust bunnies were collected up, we started putting the new unit together (of course it was flat pack).
Putting the unit in place was, in fact, the easy part. Connecting the water inlets and outlets proved to be a bit of a mission. We were all tired and wanted to sit down by the time we got to water connection, but the job had to be finished because washing up waits for no man.
The holes for the taps had to be drilled into my pristine stainless steel sink unit; I was very nervous and there was much discussion about hole sizes and which drill to use. The holes were drilled and the taps put in without any problem and we were on to the water connection bit. The water inlet had to be screwed onto the tap pipe, which (as it turned out) was nicely hidden by the sink unit itself. My partner couldn’t get his (admittedly large and clumsy) hands into the tiny space, luckily my daughter has much smaller hands which did fit into the space, but it took a very long time to tighten up the connection as she couldn’t see what she was doing and had to rely on touch alone.
Next was the drinking water filter unit. We took the opportunity to change the filters on the unit while the unit was free. This unit just bolts to the wall under the sink and the filters need to be changed every six months. That job went smoothly, but seemed to take forever and the filters were housing a well advanced culture of bacteria and general slime.
With all the essentials connected up, we stacked all the essential stuff that usually goes under the sink (cleaning stuff, tea towels, soap, etc) into plastic containers and shoved them under the sink on the handy shelf. At long last we were ready to relax for the evening.
Now we have a new, easy to clean sink and our kitchen is complete. This kitchen will move with us to the house when it is built, so we consider it an investment to buy long lasting units.
The actual house building is going to take a while as we are still struggling to find the funds to build. If you have advice or ideas, feel free to let us know.
TMI WARNING; In this post I will be talking about toilets and what goes into them. If you can’t talk poop…read another post.
When I started using the camping bidet (henceforth known as the bidet) instead of toilet paper, one thing I was not happy about was the wet and dripping behind. While it is a small thing to deal with in the face of a global pandemic it is slightly uncomfortable. As usual, I turned to the internet to research a work around. I had considered family cloths as an answer to the toilet paper problem, and decided they were too much work; with soaking and rinsing and individual washing, not to mention the smells (of which we have enough already). However, using family cloths to dry the bottom area after a good hosing with the bidet, that seemed to be an easily implemented answer.
From what I have read, it seems that all I need is some relatively soft fabric, capable of absorbing fluid and preferably made from a natural fibre. I looked through my fabric stash and found a likely candidate… an old flannelette sheet. I cut out some smallish squares (15cm X 15cm) and overlocked the edges to prevent fraying.
Next I found a container to hold the clean ones in the toilet and a bin and cloth bag to hold the used ones until wash day. The cloths will be washed with the underwear in a warm wash with soap nuts and lime essential oil.
This little project couldn’t have been any easier. Within an hour I felt like I had solved the problem. This is one easy way to solve the wet bottom problem.
The whole toilet paper panic buying thing has largely passed us by; we buy in bulk as a rule. We buy the WhoGivesACrap brand of toilet paper, by the carton. We still have 20 rolls left and we use about 1 roll per week. However in a bid to reduce our usage (and maybe stop using it altogether) I decided it was time to give the bidet a try.
TMI WARNING; If you are easily disgusted or offended, please go read another post.
The idea that we may not be able to buy more toilet paper when we need it (although not very likely) gave me the inspiration to look at alternatives. I researched family cloths, and decided that they are just a bit too much work for me (and it would be me dealing with it). As I browsed through lists of plants that can be grown to provide toilet paper alternatives I realised that I needed to plant them two years ago to be able to use them now. Eventually, I came across references to the bidet and camping bidet in particular.
Since we put in the biogas toilet we have been using recycled toilet paper as it breaks down faster than other kinds. Too much paper in the system can slow down the methane production and even clog up the pipes (to be avoided at all costs). Paper is also very carbon rich, it doesn’t produce as much methane as nitrogen rich material (like poop); so we want to minimise paper input.
I looked around at all the bidet units available, some of them use electricity or need to be connected to pressurised water inlets (neither of which we have available). Eventually, I found the whole range of hand held, portable bidet units (and ordered them online). They are sold as ‘camping’ bidet; we have quite a few ‘camping’ options in daily use in the humpy.
The camping bidet is essentially a water bottle with an angled spout. You fill up the bottle (which has a valve in the bottom so it doesn’t lose pressure as it empties), then use it to wash your bottom clean instead of wiping with paper.
I was nervous that the water wouldn’t clean everything off and that I would be left with an uncomfortably wet bottom even if it worked. The first use was a pleasant surprise; The bottle, even though fairly small, was enough to clean everything very well (and I have a lot of ‘everything’). The water was not uncomfortably cold, and the pressure created by the bottle and spout was like a mini high-pressure cleaner on the offending body parts.
The only problem I am left with is a wet and dripping nether region; to answer this I decided to sew up some family cloths, which will be used to dry the area only. This means that there will be no more poop, pee and other nasties on the cloths than there is on our underwear and towels. That way I can wash the cloths in the same load as underwear.
The obvious problem of increased water use also needed to be thought through. As it has been raining fairly well since the end of the fires, we don’t have to be worried about water use at present; hoever, when the rain stops again (and it will) we will have to re-assess. One up-side of the extra water use is that I don’t have to top up the toilet flush bucket as often because the water in the bidet is enough to flush the toilet with. The water in the bidet is fresh though, while the water in the flush bucket is recycled (collected from the kitchen sink from hand washing, vegetable washing, unfinished water bottles tipped out, etc).
The end result is that I love the camping bidet, it leaves me feeling like I just had a shower, it reduces my workload (slightly) and reduces the bulk of material going into the biogas system. My partner however, doesn’t want to try it. He is set in his ways and doesn’t like new things… I will keep trying to convince him.
With the nice bit of rain that fell in mid January came flies. Many, many flies… so many that the buzz from the sheep shelter can be heard from the humpy. So a project that has been sitting on the bottom of the list, suddenly came to the top; an enclosed dish drainer for the washing up.
Living with nature (in all her adorable, but messy incarnations) requires us to make a few adjustments to the way things are done; we let go of socially held expectations somewhat; like having clean floors at any point, like being the only being on the bed at night and like using harsh chemicals to clean anything. One problem with having animals (other than humans) in the humpy and not being able to seal all the holes in walls, is that we have many flies in the humpy in Summer. The washing up (which I habitually air dry) is then sitting out in the open for the day and flies crawl all over it (not ideal). There is a clearly identified problem here that has a neat solution.
For years, I have wanted to install a Finnish Dish Draining cabinet, and this fly invasion (which is more extreme than other years) is the push we needed to do it. As usual, we had to do things the hard way; instead of buying the chipboard and wire modular units available, we decided to go with a steel cabinet (to match the new kitchen and to make sure it lasts) and replace the shelves with the drying racks.
We bought a cheap steel cabinet in powder coated steel (black, of course) and some dish draining racks, roughly the same length. My fairly handy partner put it all together one morning while I was doing the washing.
He screwed some structural ply over the wall frame behind the sink and screwed the cupboard onto that.
Next, he scratched his head for a while about how to fit the dish drainers in. Until finally he came up with the idea of fixing a thick piece of wood on the inside of the cabinet to provide an anchor for the drainer. The dish drainer units were about 5cm shorter than the width mof the cabinet.
Then he put the doors on for me and we were set to go.
As an added bonus… my in-the-good-books partner also screwed the peg board onto the wall.
I think this really adds to the usability of the kitchen.
The drying cupboard is used to store the equipment we use on a daily basis; coffee cups, plates, bowls, baking trays, etc. Only a few of each and only what we use daily. That way, the majority of the washing up goes straight into the cupboard and is protected from flies. It also frees up the other cupboard shelves for more storage. Our cupboard doesn’t have an open bottom (flies and lizards) instead it has a tray in the bottom to catch drips. This tray is emptied daily. There is enough air flow to dry the washing up and not enough space for critters to enter.
Since the toilet is up and running, we need to get the mulch pit finished. At the moment it is hard to concentrate on any project. The constant threat of fire and the despair that comes with knowing that so much of our ecosystem is destroyed keeps us in a constant state of depression. It is hard to concentrate on anything except watching the media releases about the fires all over Australia. However, it is important to keep working towards the future we want; how else will we reach it? In between the fire threats and increadibly hot days we made a plan that involved digging a pit to drain the effluent into then covering the lot with gravel, wood chip, soil and mulch.
The biogas system continues to impress me, the only down side I have discovered is the flammable nature of methane (which is kind of the point) and the fact that we can’t move the unit away from the house in the event of a bushfire threat (we are at a count of three direct threat situations so far in the last twelve months). We have countered this by releasing the methane into the atmosphere when there is any risk of fire. There is a handy tap that allows the gas to be vented easily. The refill time is getting less every day; currently the tank will fill in about ten hours and the effluent has proven fairly easy to bucket into the old toilet pit on a weekly basis.
Since the effluent is from human poop, it needs to be handled carefully. The effluent is passed through a chlorine chamber before it emerges from the unit. Treatment with chlorine is the accepted way to treat human effluent, it kills off a lot of nasties and oxygenation and exposure to sun takes care of the rest. After it emerges from the unit our effluent goes into a bucket, which is then emptied into the old toilet pit (which helps the waste in this pit continue to decompose). It is time to put in a hands free option for handling the effluent. In our situation we have several options; we could feed it into our septic system (except we don’t have one), we could build a dedicated transpiration pit or we could build a mulch basin. We went with a combination of the transpiration pit and the mulch pit ideas.
First we (and by ‘we’ I mean my hard working partner) dug a pit that was about 40cm deep.
Then we put in a layer of gravel in the bottom. This layer is about 5cm deep. The plumbing part of the project was then completed before the pit could be filled up all the way.
Next step was adding a straw layer to slow down the migration of soil into the gravel.
After that there is a layer of wood chips (to soak up any nitrogen rich moisture that makes it that far) and a layer of soil to seal the pit off from the surface.
After that I planted the passionfruit vine I bought to (hopefully) take advantage of all that moisture and nutrient. I mulched around the vine, then realised that it is now a fire risk and would be raked away when the next fire threatens. To counter this a little, I buried the mulch under a deep layer of soil again. I hope this will protect the mulch from ember attack in the event of a fire.
So now we have a new garden bed that doubles as a transpiration pit. Hopefully the roots of the passionfruit won’t bung up the draining system and hopefully the buried mulch will be safe from ember attack (I am thinking that this method might be good for the new vegetable beds when we get to that). We, like most of Australia, are still in shock from the magnitude of the fires this year. We fear that next year will be more of the same, so everything we do from now on needs to be focused on fire safety and how to keep our family safe.
We are finally home from being evacuated. There was a blessed rain event on December 23rd-25th which allowed us to assume that the fire is now under control (along with a few other factors). We came home with everyone, only to find that we had to go straight back out again for a medical emergency. I am trying to capture the events here as I know how our memories play tricks and re-arrange things. Here is the sequence of events as I remember them now;
We had settled in to the regular work of being in the evacuation centre; walking dogs, feeding sheep, cleaning cages, feeding animals. We were making multiple calls every day to my partner, who was still at home defending the humpy. One morning, my partner (who never misses an opportunity to shop) called to say he had been looking for a farm 4WD to convert into a ‘Black Ops brigade‘ fire vehicle (unofficial fire fighting crews). The house building account was already under seige due to having to use some of it to buy food for my eldest daughter and I while we were in exile, buying fire fighting equipment and now we were looking at having to dip into it to buy a 4WD.
To cut a long story short, we ended up buying a Mitsubishi Triton that is close to being a registration failure. We had to borrow about half the money to buy it, leaving us with more debt (sigh). My partner arranged for an obliging nephew to pick him up and take him to pick up his new partner in fire fighting (he also did the initial check over of the vehicle, thanks Matt). Now it was time to outfit the old girl as a fire fighter.
We have already bought two fire fighting pumps, two 1000 litre pods and many metres of fire hose to help set up our fire defense system. We have also bought sprinklers for the roof and walls and my partner set them up in a watering system that covers the entire humpy area (now all we need is enough rain to fill the tanks). One of the pods and a pump with hoses will go on the back of the ute (she needs a name now), along with a box for the chainsaw and various other tools, such as a few water backpacks, a McCloud tool or two, shovels and rakes.
Before the pod and pump went on the ute, my partner was using it to patrol the fire front closest to us. He did regular night time patrols while a neighbour (whose property the fire happened to be on) did daytime patrols. Not to be political at all, but the RFS have been in short supply ever since this whole thing began. Let me be very clear here; the RFS is doing it’s best to fight the fires. There are just not enough resources to go around. When our little area was under direct threat they showed up with a bulldozer and pushed multiple fire breaks both around dwellings and through the bush at seemingly random intervals. They were around to do occasional patrols of the fire front and the planes and choppers flew over almost daily. The fire jumped over the first fire breaks that were put in because there were not enough patrols to observe and black out the slow moving fire that reached them. As soon as he had a vehicle capable of driving around the fire lines, my partner and other local people made sure there were regular and constant patrols on our section of the fire front. I think this has allowed the fire to be bought under control.
On the morning of the 23rd December, we decided that it was time to go home. The fire was reported as under control on our Northern side, and my partner considered it under control on our Western side, and we were feeling VERY homesick. So we packed everyone up (except the sheep) into their travelling cages and crammed them into my car, my partner’s car and one of the trailers. We set off for home like a travelling circus (or maybe like Ma and Pa Clampett), and reached home by mid morning. I quickly unpacked everyone from my car and set off back to the evacuation site to finish cleaning up the shed.
After hours and hours of scrubbing cages and cleaning out the caravan, I was ready to drop, but I kept going until my partner got there to pick up the sheep. We took the trailer up to the yards and spent some time chasing Kracken around and around as she had apparently decided she liked the lodging and wanted to stay a bit longer. Eventually we managed to drag her into the trailer and I decided to leave the cleaning until the next day. We went home for one blissful night in our own beds with our animals all around us.
The site of the humpy still standing bought me to tears. It may just be a little, rough shed in the bush, but it is our home. I was overjoyed to see the animals that live wild around the humpy still in residence. The big open area around the humpy had been widened considerably, and the chook pen and Hugelkultur garden beds had been pushed away by the bulldozer to make the humpy more fire ready (thank you RFS). The yard fences had been partially destroyed by the dozer too, and all the shadecloth awnings around the humpy had been taken down. It looked bare and strangely neat, but it is still home.
The next morning, my daughter came to me with Prim in her hands. Prim was struggling to breathe and could not talk to us at all. We took off for the vet (2 and a half hours away) and reached there with her still struggling to breathe. The vet put her in an oxygen tent and recomended that she be transfered to the Gatton animal hospital. I didn’t feel able to make the drive, so we rang my partner and got him to drive up to Killarney, pick up my daughter and Prim then drive to Gatton with them. Meanwhile, I drove back home to watch over the animals still there.
Prim died that night in the animal hospital. There are no words to tell you how grief striken we are. I will write a seperate post to honour her death. The next morning, my daughter and partner drove home to bury her. The work of settling into the humpy again begins…
NOTE: My mother lost her home and farm buildings in this fire. A fact that still seems unreal to me. However, I am not posting about my reaction to this event or any other information as it is not my information to share.