Category Archives: homesteading

On the Tinker Mentality

Sometimes this approach (LINK) is right on (tinkering/self reliance). Other times, I’ve found it is better to think “group” or “team” and let someone who already has expertise do the work. Specialization can still be useful in a Post-Whatever world. Still… I think the message can be the same. Find a person fix something rather than tossing. I’d rather pay for someone’s time than pay for some material junk.


1. We just had a storm door installed. I could definitely have done it, and am not afraid to do it, but I think it would have taken me 4 times as long and it didn’t cost too much to have it done.


2. Lawn work. One could “calculate” that my time would be better spent coding rather than mowing or spreading mulch or compost. But it is satisfying to me to at least be able to do a certain amount Organic Lawn upkeep. Plus, the kids love love love helping. Something REAL! With tools! And dirt!


3. Busted GFCI circuit replaced by electrician. I’ve done these before, but it’s also quite inexpensive to have electrician’s help. I’ll take the help! Changing the oil in a car is another. Done it a million times, but can’t say I much care for it. Jiffee Lube.

I don’t think there is a clear rule of thumb to this — self vs help — but I think there is a place for both. Probably depends on one’s interests more than anything. Some “self reliant” tasks will appeal more to some people than others.

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Taylor Wilson

(I would personally spend my time tinkering with solar energy, but hey ok, to each their own!)
(as read on Google+)
Taylor Wilson

At 10, he built his first bomb.
At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of plutonium on the Internet.
At 14, he made a nuclear reactor.

Wilson got his start on, a website where nuclear hobbyists who call themselves “fusioneers” fill message boards on topics that would enthrall only the geekiest subset of society, like “So where can I get a deal on deuterium gas?” The goal of every fusioneer is to build a reactor that can fuse atoms together, a feat first achieved by scientists in 1934.

“I’m obsessed with radioactivity. I don’t know why,” says Wilson in his laid-back drawl. “Possibly because there’s power in atoms that you can’t see, an unlocked power.”

Taylor Wilson (born 1994) is an American nuclear scientist who was noted in 2008 for being the youngest person in the world (at age 14) to build a working nuclear fusion reactor.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Energy offered federal funding to Wilson concerning research Wilson has conducted in building inexpensive Cherenkov radiation detectors; Wilson has declined on an interim basis due to pending patent issues. Traditional Cherenkov detectors usually cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (USD), while Wilson invented a working detector that cost a few hundred dollars.

In May 2011, Wilson entered his radiation detector in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair against a field of 1,500 competitors and won a $50,000 award.

The Boy Who Played With Fusion

Tayloy’s website:

You can choose to believe that this child is special and especially gifted, and that may be so. I choose to believe that this means that children should be allowed to specialize at younger ages… They should be taught how to get the answers they might need for themselves, not from teachers.

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Filed under contrarian, creativity, erik-green, globalization, homeschooling, homesteading, kids -- freedom and responsibility, solar, Sudbury Schools and Sudbury Valley School, unschooling

More Woodworking with Kids links

Since we (as in… the world) is going to be in an ongoing struggle between globalization and re-localization for the foreseeable future, along with it’s impact on the education of our kids and ourselves, here are a few more links on the topic of woodworking with kids that I started back here. Nothing compares to the thrill my kids get of doing real things with their bodies — skiing, cooking, gardening, sawing logs, etc. (Except Minecraft. And Wild Kratts. And… well, you see the issue.)

So here we go.

Kindergrarten Shop Class –

Mar 30, 2011 – Teaching children construction is gaining momentum across the country as a way to develop imagination and confidence

– If you’re in the Boston area, Wood is Good occasionally offers classes for kids.

– And The Eliot School, Boston MA offers endless courses for kids including “Very Beginning Woodworking – age 4-6”

– In NC, go to “summer camp” with a 5-day workshop from Roy Underhill. Here’s an example


– Shop Class integral part of this private school for boys

– A great 10 minute video about…
The Blue Ox Mill and Community High School, Eureka CA
A custom mill and woodworking classes for kids and veterans
Eric Hollenbeck

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Filed under alternative education, education, globalization, green, health, homeschooling, homesteading, kids -- freedom and responsibility, local, makerspace, mentoring / apprenticeship, minecraft, Sudbury Schools and Sudbury Valley School, unschooling, video games, woodworking / shop class

Small houses for families or multiple families WITH KIDS

Get real people.

1. It’s a mess out there. I believe I read recently that there has been a substantial percentage increase in the number of families doubling up — Kids (and families) moving in with parents or grandparents. Duh!

2. All the small home books show houses typically designed for a couple. Or maybe one neatnik toddler. And that’s it? The (sole?) exception being Little House on a Small Planet, 2nd: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities
I liked that book.

OK, so what makes a small house design workable when there are 8+ people (especially with kids) living under that one roof? This post will collect my ongoing thoughts on the topic.

Topics to be expanded upon someday, perhaps. Biased toward northern homes:
– design patterns. loops are important with kids. this is counter the idea of getting rid of wasted hallways spaces but I have thoughts on that. (Namely, do it anyway, a little)
– winter months are brutal indoor times
– huge mudrooms. kitchen and bathroom right off main entrance and key.
– laundry area with ample drying space. as in basement. (upstairs closets are no good unless you have giant bedroom spaces wasting away)
– more small rooms is better than 1 bigger room, I think
– noise between bedrooms. cellulose in the walls? separate bedrooms by bathroom?
– get real. There is probably a TV and laptops, game machines, tablets, etc. in your future. Where will it/they go? I am not personally a fan of having this stuff in bedrooms away from action. So where does the action go?
– basically the issue is balancing public and private space. And open space vs some small rooms.

Gotta run. Watch this space.

See also:
Here are endless articles on the “move in with parents” theme from recent months/years from the NYTimes

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OK, this will be a running list of the things I would do if I were a SVS student or if I someday find myself independently wealthy or at least caught up on todos around the house!

1. Examine the 50/200 Simple Moving Average buy-sell indicator strategy. I am convinced it is better than buy and hold just by looking at it. But what am I missing? Maybe the returns aren’t that much better, but risk-adjusted they must be!

2. Windsurf and/or sail (or surf?) more

3. Ski (downhill) more

4.1 Solar: Build a “deployable doubt dispeller”

4.2. Solar: Add solar siding to the house and battery backup to our PV and lots of temp sensors

4.3. Solar: Visit the forgotten solar houses in MA that still around and working from the 80s and write a paper about them for Solar Today magazine.
And likewise talk to some people who have abandoned solar in their homes.

5. I am determined to get a marble pusher made out of legos to work! (see youtube) Argh!!!

6. Discuss

7. Vegetable garden

8. learn more vegan/Fuhrman style recipes

I notice that I don’t have exercise (like running and such) on this list. I think I’d usually rather do things like windsurf or play water polo or something I guess rather than “just” run or swim.

OK who am I kidding… I have time to do all of the above already!

Last updated: 9/12/2011

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Power tools for kids

A few thoughts on the subject…

Minecraft and the Tinkering School (it’s a camp) have me inspired to use power tools and knives more with the kids.

Dad gave us kids toolboxes and tools and wood and glue as kids and that was cool. We all had swiss-army knives when we were little too.

Here is an example of tools and a workbench on offer at day care. Cool. I mean, as a SVS-aficionado and all, I think it should be up to kids whether they want to do anything with any of it, but having it available is nice too.

Ah well, anyway, I just wanted to collect a few links and articles and ideas floating around in my brain. Kiddos (all of us!) just love doing stuff that is REAL so much, that’s basically all I wanted to acknowledge. This is (one of the many) beauties of things like SVS, and cohousing. Can’t get more real than that! People living and doing stuff. Awesome!

Life Size “Lincoln Logs” – still contrived. fancy “forts”? life-sized Magnatiles?
The Agenda Restated by James Kunstler
– MAKE and Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World
Story of building a harpischord at SVS (The Kingdom of Childhood: Growing Up at Sudbury Valley School By Daniel Greenberg, p136)
11 tools to get for your kids — a good list! – has some nice beginner plans for woodworking
simple solar projects are good places to start for DIY solar (see for more…)


Filed under community, contrarian, erik-green, freedom, homesteading, kids -- freedom and responsibility, minecraft, Sudbury Schools and Sudbury Valley School, woodworking / shop class

VS: home heating — heat pumps vs wood (or solar)

There are many in green circles — superinsulated/zero energy home/passivhaus circles — who think that heating with electricity (ideally with an air-source heat pump) is the ideal way to heat a house with solar electric (PV) panels on the roof (well, or yard). Example link

As someone with a house that is exactly that, let me chime in.

Heat pumps: PROS
1. No hole needed in house for exhaust or air intake
2. No air-quality or safety concerns since no burning of wood or fossil fuels in the house
3. Math is easy if you are trying to be net-zero. If everything is electricity, then there is no complicated math to do converting gallons of propane or cords of wood burned into KWh. (not much of a reason)
4. Now you have AC too. OK, so you saved a few bucks. Window ACs are only $80 though. And you house probably doesn’t need much more than one of those. Really.
5. No baseboards taking up space. But there are other approaches (forced hot air and such) to deal with that.
6. Quiet inside. Wow, very very very quiet. No furnace, furnace fan, or boiler making a racket. (Aside: And no humidifiers in winter… thanks to the tight superinsulated house part…)
7. Electricity tends to be price-stable vs the price of propane and heating oil which seems to whip-around a lot.
8. Usually a bit cheaper to install vs a “central” system esp in a very small house. But add in the price of the HRV or ERV stuff if you have that too.
9. Point source: I list “point source” below as a con too. Some like point source heat since it allows zoning, getting cozy by the “fire” and such. Flip side to everything.
10. Future safe. Electricity can come from many primary sources.

Heat pumps: CONS:
1. Can be a bit loud outside (well not LOUD, but there is a fan running, like for central air-conditioning, all winter) So if you are noise sensitive maybe there is a quieter heating approach? Not sure what qualifies as the quietest. Radiant floor heat?
2. PVs should not be thought of as anything more than an offset in my opinion. Don’t think of that electricity your panels made as yours. Who cares WHO uses it. The point is to reduce CO2/greenhouse gases overall. In other words, if you make electricity, dump it into the grid for your neighbor to use, and burn some wood to keep warm instead, then you are ahead (in my eyes) of someone using that electricity directly to heat their house with a heat pump.
3. In very cold areas, you will need either a HYPERHEAT model that keeps up with sub-0F temps, or some back up (maybe electric space heaters). Most other air-source heat pumps drop their output by a lot when it is VERY cold.
4. Power outages. You will have no heat. Now, that might not matter as much, because your superinsulated house has a certain amount of “passive survivability” built into it with all that insulation, but if we are talking comfort here, then grab a wood stove or a propane heater needing no electricity to run. There are a few!
5. “Non-traditional” Looks: Some might think they are ugly. I don’t mind them. Just different. And controls. Our Mr Slim one has a “remote” vs a traditional thermostat. And the model we got doesn’t control all 4 internal heads. So like a house with zoning, you have to walk around and set each individually.
6. Point source: We have 4 of these inside “heads”. One on a wall on each floor (basement, 1st, 2nd, 3rd (attic)) But there is not heat/coolth pumping into every last room. Doesn’t matter much, but bedrooms are a little cooler — 5F? Coldham/Rocky Hill study seems to say. Ask google.

Wood: PROS
1. Local
2. Carbon neutral
3. Ambience
4. Simple technology (especially if not pellets and not catalytic)
5. No electricity needed (heat when power outages)

Wood Stoves: CONS
1. Lugging stuff
2. Might be difficult to vent properly in a very tight house. Indoor Air Quality risk. Especially with a pellet stove which loses electricity.
3. Even the smallest pellet stoves will overheat some houses that are superinsulated. But big whoop. Run it on thermostat-mode. And open the window if you must!
4. Particulate pollution. You might live pretty near other people or in a town or city that prohibits wood burning.
5. Related… Gotta know what you are doing. (slow-burning, smoldering wood stove fires pollute like crazy and smell up the neighborhood.)

Solar Thermal Heating: MIGHT BEAT WOOD IF…
1. You have sun
2. You have a spot to put the solar thermal panels and a HUGE 1000 gallon tank in your basement
3. You have already done energy efficiency fixes — insulation, CFLs, etc. (see
4. CON: Up front cost is going to be higher than the wood (at least a pellet stove vented out the side of a house) unless you are a DIY person (see

Prius: PROS (W/holistically speaking, maybe this is a better place to start…)
1. Do the calculations in KWh. If you cut the number of gallons of gas you use in half by driving a hybrid or electric car, how much is that in KWh?
2. Energy Independence: coal and nukes (for making electricity) are “local” to the US, vs gasoline comes mostly from other countries. Propane is 90% from US. Natural Gas is ???
3. Use as a backup generator for house

So what would I do?
Well right now we use an air-source heat pump to heat our almost passivhaus ZEH. But I hope to do more solar-thermal heating in the future. 5 days of storage would get you to 97% solar “if cloudy days are like coin flips”. And the no-electricity propane heater is intriguing, especially for a little backup. Check back in a year!

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Filed under contrarian, erik-green, erik-VS, futuresafe, heating with wood, homesteading, house, HVAC, passive house, simple, solar, superinsulation, zero energy home

Backyard Sustainability

Kinda interesting interview with this guy (Scott McGuire) who wanted to see how much food he could grow in his 1/3 acre yard.

“It’s a group thing… You can’t have a local food supply by yourself. It has to be done with other people.”

Article: Self-Sufficiency Versus a Backyard CSA


This is not news to anyone, but clearly being green in a holistic sense has to involve getting more local and more solar (ala Michael Pollan) in many ways, and food is one of those ways.

It’s also exploring community/CSAs vs rugged individualism/homesteading.

– Great website: One Straw – “Growing Real Food in Real Spaces” / Yardening / Suburban Agriculture
Shelburne Falls Food Security Plan

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Passivhaus comments and observations

We are nearly done with our house construction and basically done with any of the details which will affect the results of our house’s “performance” and results of our analysis using PHPP. (PHPP is the software… a gigantic excel file… used to help design and analyze the expected energy use of a planned or existing house.)

So a few comments about passive house / passivhaus.

There are some people who think the passivhaus requirements are too difficult for new england, the upper midwest, and maybe pheonix I’ve heard (on the heating end of the sprectrum). But I personally disagree. If people want to live in extreme environments, then I see no reason why they should be let off the hook.

What I would say, is that it really is quite reasonable to take an 80% or 90% approach. Well, or 50% is good too! In other words, if one can get to within 90% of a passivhaus, then gosh, that is quite an amazing house you’ve got there. Getting all the way there is trickier in harsh climates. That said, I think it is a valid complaint that there are a number of very low cost things which people can do when building or renovating a house that people just don’t do and also that one can think “I’m going to do some PH things, but not all” and think you are going to get very close (let’s say 80% there) but in reality… you are only 40% there if one ran the numbers in PHPP and monitored the actual usage. So that’s a shame too. Valid point.

And also in the US … it’s harder (more expensive) to get the HRV/ERV and windows one needs. I say that, but perhaps it’s not so bad. Maybe the high VAT (sales tax) in many European countries means that effective prices aren’t THAT much higher here for a fancy window imported from Germany for example.

However, I still wish we could do things more locally.

I guess what I’m saying is… I think there is a place for:

1. People going all out and meeting PH with imported products and maybe some non-typical building products or techniques (this helps informs builders and future custom home or renovators to what is possible) . We need people to push on the edge of what people have done before so we can learn.

2. Sticking to only what is in a typical budget but nailing all the “low hanging fruit” — the cheap stuff. It’s a no brainer and not expensive to build a tight house and one with 2-3 times more insulation (using dense packed cellulose). And there are some quite good and not that expensive triple pane windows out there (like Paradigm in ME).

3. Somewhere in between… using PHPP to analyze, and monitor the house, but don’t go all the way with imported products. This is still great because it helps to validate the PHPP software as a accurate model of “reality”.


4. The usage of a house matters a LOT. If you aren’t careful with electricity usage and hot water usage… it’s been found that people can easily use 2 or 3 times much as another similarly sized family (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen analysis of this with comparably built homes and family sizes at cohousing developments.)

5. I think of PVs (solar electric panels) as an offset. Especially if you have net-metering, it shouldn’t really impact one’s choice of how to heat the house or hot water. IOW, prices being equal… it’s not really any better to use a air-source heat pump that 98% efficient propane hot water heater for heat. That’s based on average utility company mix of using mostly fossil fuels. If you have hydro or a “green up” option on your bill, I think the balance tips to the heat pump approach.

6. Holistic thinking… OK, so nice house. Do you eat meat? What MPG does your car get and how many miles do you drive? These things matter a lot too. Especially relative to a house operating very efficiently. A vegan driving a Prius (or living in the city and walking) maybe has a smaller carbon footprint more than someone living in a small passivhaus. I don’t know! But it’s not too hard to run the numbers. Gary Reysa at does this. See his “half” project. Marc Rosenabaum at does this if you are designing a house or cohousing community or fixing up an office building or dormitory, etc.
If I buy a lot of stuff and fly in airplanes a lot, my passivhaus doesn’t matter so much any more.

7. Related to #5 above… I also think “Zero Energy Homes” are cool too. I mean, zero is better than not zero. A passivhaus can more easily become a zero energy home because there is less usage to offset with PVs. And not everyone has a sunny climate or a sunny lot. And insulation doesn’t break or wear out (if you build it right). Whereas solar electric panels (PVs) do.

8. Burning wood is good. Solar is better obviously, but come on… wood is very good too. So is a greasecar (modification to run any clean TDI diesel using used vegetable oil). Not as cool as a hybrid, but in the end, who is using more fossil fuel? The hybrid!

9. I’ve said this elsewhere, but we are right about at the point that without even factoring in tax credits, etc… a grid-connected solar electric system on a sunny roof is cheaper than paying electricity bills. Prices have come down quite a bit. At least in MA with net metering and high electricity prices.

10. If it’s energy independence that you care about most, improve your car first (or if you have oil heat). Coal etc is not primarily coming from other countries.

If you like math, you can compare all these things! It’s all just BTUs and KWhs and some arithmetic and adding things up! PHPP is really just an incredibly detailed version of this same thing (for just the house).

So let’s all get to 80%! That’s way better than a few going all the way and everyone else feeling put off or excluded because it’s too expensive.

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on self sufficiency in the 21st century

“Part of the point of being self-sufficient is to get away from the experts.  Look at the mass of people in cities: they live in houses designed by experts, they go to work in vehicles made by experts along roads laid out by experts, they make things designed by experts and sold by experts, they eat a meal produced by experts and they are entertained by yet more experts.  All they do for themselves is sleep.”

Andrew Singer, in “Methane, Fuel of the Future” (1973) as quoted on pg 300 “Solar Energy” (1976) by Daniel Behrman

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