Aquaponics update- the system is cycled and ready for A*****e to move in.

It has taken many weeks for the system to go through it’s ammonia-nitrite-nitrate cycle, but it is finally ready to house A*****e. Today is the day we move him to his new pond.

The lettuce and spinach are growing really well; I have been harvesting them consistently.

This is the lettuce the day I planted it.
Doesn’t the lettuce look healthy?

When I first turned the system on, the sound of running water outside sent me into a near panic every hour (the water cycles through for fifteen minutes every hour) when I heard the sound of our precious water running away. Drought does that to you. Now I am used to it, I find it relaxing and calming; splashing water is such a rich sound don’t you think? (drought does that to you too)

I have continued to add occasional fish food to the system to give the bacteria some ammonia to work with and I added a cap full of Seasol to the water to feed the plants.

Three weeks ago I tested the water to see if it was ready to accept fish in the system; it was not. Water testing is a big part of keeping an aquaponics system healthy (not to mention the fish). Fish can die very easily in high ammonia and nitrite water, so it is important to wait until the bacteria colonies are established before adding an ammonia generator (which is what fish are). Below are the results of the test from the first week;

The pH was 6.6…it should be around 7.3
The ammonia was 2.0…it should be 0.0 (or close to it)
The nitrite was 1.0…it should be 0.0 (or close to it)
The nitrate was 10….it can be quite high

The fact that there is a nitrate level to read shows that both the bacteria that turns ammonia to nitrite and the bacteria that turns nitrite to nitrate are there, living in their little clay ball cities. I just had to wait for the populations to grow enough to get the nitrite and ammonia levels down to almost nothing.

Two weeks ago I tested the water again;

The pH is getting higher.
The ammonia is lower.
The nitrite is very high.
The nitrate levels are high, yay!

Not ready just yet. We will wait another week.

This week I tested again and found a surprising result;

The pH is going in the wrong direction; it is 6.0 when it should be 7.3
The ammonia is close to 0.0, yay!
The nitrite is below 0.25
The nitrate is around 80…perfect level

To begin to change the pH I added 1 teaspoon of aglime to the water and retested after a few hours. I also began to acclimatize A*****e by getting my daughter to put him in a bucket about half full of his water then I poured water from the new pond into it at the rate of 1/4 cup every 15 minutes or so. After a full day of this he was ready to be poured into the pond.

He’s in there somewhere.

My daughter also moved over some sand, weed and a floaty rock thing for him. He seems very happy in there so far. The water test after three days was encouraging, except the pH.

pH is still 6.0 to 6.4
Ammonia is 0.0
Nitrite is 0.0
Nitrate is 80.0. Plenty of plant food.

My next move is to add another grow bed. I am really enjoying the mad scientist element of aquaponics; test tubes, coloured chemicals, wild solutions.

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Home Biogas system – a BIG step forward (part one)

We have been trying very hard to move away from using gas to sustain our daily life. We have historically used gas for running the fridge and for cooking and heating water on the gas stove. Recently we have upgraded our gas fridge to an electric fridge (solar powered) and now we are adding a biogas unit to the mix. This means that we will no longer have to buy gas bottles (yay!!), this is the final step away from using bottled gas.

Bottled gas or LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) is produced during oil refining and given the temporary nature of our supply of oil on this planet, we need to be looking at ways to move away from our reliance on it (not to mention the huge environmental cost of using it). LPG contains propane in Australia, in other countries LPG can be a mix of propane and butane.

Biogas captures methane and carbon dioxide (methane mostly) as a result of decomposition of organic matter. That is why the discovery of methane on Mars was such an exciting thing; where there are dead things there were once live things (usually, although not always and probably not in this case). I became interested in biogas many years ago (after watching an episode of The Good Life) and decided to work towards setting it up in our humpy. The idea that we could use our waste (of all descriptions) to generate some of our energy needs was very exciting.

The idea has been sitting on a dusty shelf at the back of my mind for years. Other, more attainable, goals have been on the work table of my mind. Six months ago (approximately) I stumbled upon a post advertising a biogas system designed for home use and the idea suddenly moved to the front of my mind again.

We eventually decided to go with a Home Biogas unit from Quality Solar and Plumbing

They are the only company selling these units in Australia and they are relatively close to us (only about three hours drive way). We saved up (in tiny increments) and finally, with a windfall of back pay, we ordered the unit. We also managed to add a toilet unit to the order. As soon as this unit is set up we can start to generate our own cooking gas (although the Year three student who lives in my head can’t help making jokes about cooking with farts).

As soon as the order was placed we realised we needed a site for the future toilet/gas generation unit. Then we need a shed or some kind of building to house the toilet and a pad for the gas unit to sit on.

A gratuitous ocean shot from our long journey to Mullumbimby to pick up our biogas system.

The first part of our biogas adventure was picking it up and touring a working unit while we were there. The very helpful Brian at Quality Solar and Plumbing gave us a tour of the biogas unit he has set up at his house.

This is the working unit. It was really exciting to see one working.
You put the food scraps or animal manure into the black pipe at this end…
and gas and fertiliser come out this end. How amazing is that?
This is the stove unit that comes with the kit. There is no smell at all to the gas and this burner obviously gets a lot of use.

We have our unit home. It is sitting in it’s two little boxes, waiting for us to make it a home and set up the toilet. I can’t wait to get it going.

The two boxes in the car constitute the entire kit. I was amazed at the small size of the whole thing and how light it was to haul around. It will be much heavier once the bottom of the digester is full of water.

The kit is supposed to include everything we need to put it all together. We will see…

Using soap nuts for washing clothes

Recently I started thinking about more ways we can save water, because there doesn’t seem to be any rain on the horizon. One way I came up with is to somehow cut out the rinse cycle in the washing clothes procedure. Thinking about it, I decided that the reason we rinse clothes after washing is to remove soap residue. Following that logic I decided that I needed to find a way to wash without adding laundry gel.

Several options popped up in my Google search;

Laundry eggs using ceramic beads

Soap nuts

Magnetic laundry balls

I decided to go with the soap nuts option, because that was the cheapest (and it is plant based, which I like and understand). I searched online and found a company that sells soap nuts and are based fairly close to me; Biome soap nuts

The soap nuts came in an attractive little calico bag and includes a tiny little calico bag for plonking into the washing machine.

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I read the instructions carefully, popped five nuts into the little bag, threw it into the first load of washing and hoped. There was a very small amount of froth, maybe from the residue left in the clothes. The clothes came out of the spinner looking and smelling clean.

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The soap nuts turned into mush in the bag after seven loads of laundry. So five nuts washed an entire week’s worth of clothes, towels and sheets. I am impressed by the economy of soap nuts.

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I pegged them out and folded them when they were dry (all in the same day!!). The soap nuts do clean the clothes, I saved about 100 litres of precious water and I am satisfied that I now have another dry weather strategy for saving water. I wonder if I could use them to wash dirty fleece?

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The tree responsible for the miracle that is soap nuts is Sapindus Mukorossis; the soap tree. It is an Asian subtropical tree so should be fairly easy to grow at the humpy. I haven’t had any luck finding seeds though. I will continue to search for seeds or a seedling tree to plant here, it would be amazing to be able to pick our laundry and washing up liquid from the garden.

Twin tub washing machines save water

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We use a 10kg twin tub washing machine to wash our clothes (and everything else). I find it saves water and is much more flexible than a front loader. It is terribly dry here (and everywhere else) at  the moment and we are struggling to save every drop of water. Along with our policy of tipping animal water pots onto deserving gardens or trees before refilling, we also recycle our washing water onto the garden, a twin tub allows us to do that easily (relatively).

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Top view of the spinner

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Top view of the washer

The procedure is as follows;

  1. Sort all washing carefully into piles; first by colour and use, then into cleanest to dirtiest.
  2. Resort after various family members add their assorted contribution to random piles. Sigh, and try not to swear.
  3. Fill the machine to it’s highest level and throw in some home-made washing gel.
  4. Fuel up the generator and get partner to start it for you (or a daughter in a pinch).
  5. Throw in the first load of clean-ish washing and wash for 6 minutes.
  6. After the wash is done put the clothes in the spinner, making sure the drain hose takes water back to the washing tub. Throw in the next dirtiest load and continue.
  7. When all loads are washed, drain the washing water into buckets and carry out to the garden while the tub refills with rinse water (to which I add a cup of vinegar).
  8. Rinse loads of clothes, being sure to return rinse water to the washing tub for each spun load.
  9. When all loads are rinsed, drain rinse water into buckets and carry out into the garden to slake the thirst of garden beds and trees.
  10. Peg out the weekly accumulation of clothes, towels, sheets, dog bedding, cleaning rags, etc.

I know this seems like a lot of work, and it is, but it completes two tasks at once; washing clothes and watering the garden. The machine takes 100 litres to fill for washing and the same for rinsing, so in total I use 200 litres of water per week to do the washing and the garden gets 200 litres of water to help keep it alive and growing.

I don’t enjoy washing; I would prefer us all to wear nothing and air dry after a shower, but it is a fact of life and must be done. Doing it this way means we can live on much less water (which is a valid currency in the bush) and also get my load-bearing exercise for the day to help prevent osteoarthritis (not to mention the water for the garden). Did I mention that I hate to waste anything?

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This is what 100 litres of water in buckets looks like

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This is the weeks total of washing

How much water do you use doing the weekly washing?

 

Building a laundry/bath house with old tyres, eco bricks and mud/cement – part one; planning

We need a real kitchen…at the moment our kitchen is cobbled together from bits of unused furniture (my bench space is an old massage table) and a sink unit I was given. My partner’s brother was given an old modular kitchen (from the 70’s, so it will have some interesting colour combinations) which he is storing for us, but we can’t put it in the humpy until we have a floor to put it on, which involves moving the current bathroom out.
The current bathroom has a floor made from an metal old window shade (one of those industrial metal grid things) with sheets of aluminium screwed onto it and lino over the top. This all has to come out (as well as the bath) and a new tire and ply floor go in. This means that we need a new bathroom away from the humpy while we build.

This is the current floor, you can see the metal frame around the lino. Not pretty, but it works.

The bathroom floor (please ignore the dirty shower curtain) 

The plan is to build a laundry/bath house up the slope from the vegetable growing area so that all that lovely (nutrient rich) water can use gravity to find it’s way back to the Hugelkultur vegetable beds, instead of being carried out in buckets which is how I do it at the moment. Eventually there will be a shower in the house also (for those cold winter nights), but until then we will have the bath house. I want to have a go at building with old tyres and my eco bricks, because we have plenty of them around and because they create a negative carbon footprint when reused for building.

My plan so far is very simple;

 As usual my madness is being fueled by Youtube and internet research;
The plan is to use a small excavator (hired for the occasion) to dig the foundation out (amongst other things), put the strip footing (tires and mud) and the four corner poles in. Then we will put up the pole frame and the roof. After that comes the corrugated iron outer walls, the floor and the bath put in (complete with outlet to drain to the vegetable garden). The first layer of eco bricks will go in around then too, but we will have to keep chipping away at the inner walls as eco bricks become available (we only make one or two per week). Getting water into the laundry for washing is easy; we will tap into the pipe running from the header tank up the hill to the humpy, and let gravity do it’s thing. Getting water for the shower is another story as the fall is not great enough to gravity feed water to an overhead shower. That is a problem for part two.

Next comes getting the shower operational and putting up a new clothes line. Look out for part two.

                       

A new tank water level indicator

Today we (and I use the term loosely) put in a water level indicator on the new header tank. I wasn’t much help as I damaged my knee putting the header tank in and am currently wearing a very fashionable leg brace. My partner found an indicator kit online, it’s Australian made and owned and uses about 50% recycled items. He is so impressed with it that he is going to stock them at work (Rural Energy Supplies).

This is what came in the kit, along with some clear, easy to read instructions; fishing line, a sinker and a fishing line guide thingy.

Then the instructions are pored over by all involved.

The basic idea is to take a coke bottle and a milk bottle; seal the coke bottle up so it’s air tight and fill the milk bottle with sand and water.

The coke bottle is properly sealed up with silicone
The milk bottle is filled up with sand

The sand-filled bottle is then topped up with water

Fishing line (supplied) is then passed through the little guide thingy (supplied) and one end of the fishing line is passed through a pre-drilled hole in the top of the tank. As our hole in the top of the tank was on the opposite side of the tank to the inspection hole we had to spend a long time swearing and cursing while trying to hook the fishing line inside the tank with a piece of bamboo.

The fishing line end inside the tank was then passed through the handle of the milk bottle and tied to the coke bottle float. The milk bottle was then lowered into the bottom of the tank.

The coke bottle float in the tank

Finally the sinker was tied to the outside end of the fishing line so it hangs at the current level of the water in the tank. To avoid frustration it is really important to remember/write down/tell someone what the measurement is when measuring the water level inside the tank so it can be transferred to the outside of the tank.

Measuring the current water level

The final result.

Now I can check the water level of the tank as I walk home from work, instead of climbing the ladder, unscrewing the inspection hatch and looking in, or smacking the side of the tank; I am very impressed.

Upgrading water storage capacity

It hasn’t rained for a while here and the big (22000 litre) header tank is empty. We still have two 4000 litre tanks full, but things are getting desperate. A lot of our neighbors are already buying water, so I consider us lucky to still have as much as we do. The header tank being empty means we have had to go back to bringing all water into the humpy in a bucket; bath water (3 buckets a day), washing up water (1 bucket a day),clothes washing water (12 buckets a week) and then carry them out again to put onto the garden. I had forgotten how convenient it is to have a tap in the house. My partner has been avoiding putting the new header tank in for some time, but a week of carrying his own water in and out of the house convinced him to take action.

As the header tank is empty, we thought we would take advantage of the opportunity to replace it with the 27000 litre tank we bought (second hand) from a neighbor a few months ago. The old header tank (22000 litres) is destined to be moved down to the humpy to provide western shelter to the living area and to take full advantage of the harvesting capacity of the roof. The actual process of juggling tanks was long, drawn out and frustrating;

The green tank is the old header tank (22000 litres) and the black one is the new tank (27000 litres).

The first order of business was to move the old tank out of the way. We tied a strap around the top of it (after all the pipes were disconnected) and pulled it over with the car.

The figure of eight knot my partner used to be sure we could get the strapping untied again after the job.

Ready to be tipped over

The tank tipped over and ready to be rolled away to it’s new home.

After much maneuvering we managed to get the new tank into position; now to tip it over onto it’s base. 

The old tank rolling away towards the humpy (causing much ado with attendant swearing, running and flapping of hands). We stopped it with a conveniently placed tree.

The second attempt at flipping the tank over onto it’s base. There were many more. Eventually I had to drive the car while my partner levered the thing upright with brute strength (which I greatly admired).

Upright at last, still with the rope attached’

The tank was then towed, via a rope around the base, back to the tank pad of sand the old one had been sitting on.

My handy partner then attached all the attendant pipes and we were ready to pump up the 4000 litres from the house tanks.

We have water in the header tank again. It should last us another month (at the rate of 1000 litres per week).
A storm is threatening as I type, but as yet there is no rain.

While we were fiddling around with the tank I had the opportunity to watch cicadas metamorphosis from an underground dwelling beetle-like being into a flying insect. I got photos in between exciting tank chases and tank tipping exercises.

At this point she was just emerging, wet and raw from the shell of her old body.

A side view
Another one, fully emerged and waiting to dry.

They will be noisy in the bush by December; thousands of cicadas calling for a mate, hundreds of birds feeding young off the bounty of a cicada hatching and one or two hawks, goannas and kookaburras feeding off the baby birds. What a rich ecosystem we live in, even when it’s dry.

Is it dry in your area? How do you cope with the shortage of water?

Dry days of spring and Hugelkultur update number two

The hot, dry, windy months of spring are here. I am using lots of water on the garden and there is no rain in sight to refill the tanks. I water the garden with the water from the washing (about 160 litres a week) and from the chook and sheep water buckets when I refill them (about 30 litres); I also use about 20 litres a day straight from the tank to water the seedlings and potted plants. I am happy to be re-using the water from the washing and animal waters but I think I need to start putting a plug in the bath when we shower too, so I can scoop it out and water more. This drying wind really affects the vegetables.
In an effort to save my seedlings and tender plants, I have been covering the seedling hardening off area with old sheets to conserve water and provide a little shade. 

My seedling raising area.

Happy seedlings in pie trays to give them time to soak up the sprinkle I give them every day.

In the Hugelkultur beds everything is growing well. I still only water these beds once a week with the washing water (about 80 litres). This bed badly needs re-mulching to further conserve water (that is my goal for this week).

I know it looks dry, but the soil under the plants stays reasonably damp.

In the hugelkultur beds I have……
zuchinni

Roma tomato, just little fruit at present.

Cabbage

brocolli, just starting to bud.

And good old silver beet.

The trailer bed has broad beans and some really late snow peas; so I covered it to provide some protection from wind and sun. We might get lucky and get a crop.

The heirloom lettuce in the trailer bed is going well and we eat off it every day.

We are looking forward to beetroot soon, but in the meantime the leaves are added to stir fry and salad (when my partner isn’t looking)

Hugelkultur update

The Hugelkultur beds (stages one and two) have been in for a month now, so I thought it was time for an update.

The beds themselves look great; there has been minimal sinking and the soil below the mulch layer is moist despite only having been watered twice and rained on several times. So the moisture holding capabilities of this gardening method are proving to be exceptional.
The seeds of beans, peas, tomato, lettuce and cucumber have failed to come up so far, that could be the age of the seeds though. The seeds of grain amaranth and fenugreek that were strewn over the beds as a green manure crop (and to clear them from the seed packet container) have sprouted extensively so there will be a carpet of green on the beds within the next month, which should help to hold the soil together and prevent too much erosion if we get the wild spring storms common to our area.

You can’t tell from this distance..but things are stirring in there

One tiny plant coming up….possibly a tomato

I also bought some seedling in from our local nursery; broccoli, cabbage, zucchini , tomato and lettuce. I planted these out in the Hugelkultur beds too and so far they are doing Ok.

Zuchini in the Hugelkultur beds
Cabbage in the Hugelkultur beds

I have also had some success with planting in the trailer bed; with everything I have planted in there growing wildly.

Strawberries are going well in the old trailer bed

The broad beans are trying to make up for a slow start by growing really fast

Some late calendula is growing well, destined to be ointment one day

 So that is the extent of my garden at the moment.
Work continues on stage three of the Hugelkultur bed and on the half tank herb bed; both of which are still at the ‘collect a heap of old wood’ stage. I try to collect at least one wheelbarrow full of wood every day I have at home, but have been sadly lax lately. The beds will be built, even if it takes until next school holidays.

Thinking about water use

I was just reading a post from one of the blogs I follow,

http://sustainaburb.blogspot.com.au/

It’s all about water harvesting and daily water use. It started me thinking about how we use and conserve our water. So I thought I would share the broad details of our water harvesting and use here in the humpy.

When we moved here we had one 1000litre tank which harvested water from the roof of the humpy (about 6 x 9m then). There is no mains water here, if you want it, you have to get it yourself. We have gradually increased our storage to 5000 litres on the humpy (in the form of two tanks) which are pumped to the top of the ridge into a 22000 litre ‘header tank’ which gravity feeds back to the humpy.

The drinking water tank; 2500L

The ‘pump up’ tank; 2500L. The pump is that thing under the tin in the front.

The green one in the front is the header tank. The black tank is the new one (yet to be installed)

This provides all our water needs; washing, drinking, garden and animals. I did a quick calculation and discovered that we use about 143 litres a day, including the garden. These are the figures I used;


Water use
Litres per week
Showering  (15 L x 24 showers)
360
Animal watering
70
Garden watering
140
Clothes washing
320
Drinking and cooking
30
Washing up
70
Total
1000

Of course in dry weather our usage goes up as the garden uses more and the animal water needs refilling more often, I would add another 100L per week to the tally for dry weather use.

Because we have had good rain over the last five years it doesn’t seem as important to conserve water at the moment, but the one thing you can count on in the bush is that there will be drought (and fire and flood and locust plague). With this in mind, we recently bought a larger header tank (27000L) and plan to move the old one down to the humpy so we can harvest every drop that falls on our roof. With all that storage and at current usage, we should be able to survive for a year without rain.

How do you rate your water usage?
What do you do to conserve water?

I can always use more ideas?