Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Simple Greywater Systems: Detergent, Bleach, & Fabric Softener

Last week I posted a description of our laundry-to-landscape greywater system. I talked about how I hooked up the washing machine to receive fresh water and drain the waste water. Today I want to talk about what I put *into* the machine. When you start using a greywater system you have to make a mental shift and start considering everything you put into it. Namely because everything you put into it is going to come out of it, in this case right onto your landscape (soil, trees, garden, whatever). There are three different products that people typically use in their washing machines: detergent, bleach (or bleach alternative), and fabric softener.

Fabric Softener
I will say right now that I think fabric softener is a horrible product that coats all of your washables with a terribly water-repellant coating that smells of chemical perfumes. Yes, your towels are luxuriously soft but they do not absorb water so you basically just smear the water around on your body and are left damp-skinned and laden with chemical residue. (Goodness, I hadn't realized just how strongly I felt about that.) So scratch the fabric softener. Let's move on to bleach and bleach alternatives.

Bleach and Bleach Alternatives
I have never used bleach on a regular basis but I do recognize that there are things that need an occasional bleaching for sanitary purposes. (Like my moldy shower curtain and all those old rags I used in the chick brooders that got chick poo all over them.) Because I don't want to send bleach water out into my yard I use a 5-gallon bucket to soak items that need sanitizing. Then I dump the dirty bleach water on my driveway where it evaporates before reaching any soils. Another alternative would be to dump the bleach water down the toilet where it would be sent to the septic system or sewer. (You don't want to send too much bleach water into an aerobic septic system but a small amount is okay.)

After I remove the items from the bleach bucket I give them a good rinse and wash them as usual in the washing machine. Bleach alternatives such as Oxyclean or Clorox II should not be used in greywater systems, either. If you are trying to brighten your whites the best thing you can do for them is to hang them out on the clothesline on a sunny day. The sun works wonders on whites and even removes certain stains. (The sun totally removes breastfed baby poop stains from cloth diapers. It's amazing. Just remember that you can't wash poopy diapers in a greywater system, though.)

Laundry Detergents
So we can't put fabric softener and bleach into greywater systems. What about laundry detergent? I have done a lot of reading about appropriate detergents for greywater systems and most sources point to just one product that is completely safe: Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent.

Regular laundry detergents, even the biodegradable or "free" kinds, contain sodium. Sodium salts your soil, which is bad for plants. Many detergents also contain boron and/or chlorine and those are also bad for plants. The Oasis Biocompatible detergent is the only laundry detergent I've seen or heard about that doesn't contain sodium. The manufacturer claims that it breaks down into plant nutrients, namely potassium and sulfur.

The best source for Oasis detergent that I have found is iHerb. One gallon of detergent is currently $25.10 and if your order totals $40 or more you get free shipping and pay no sales tax. So I order two gallons for a total price of $50.20. I use 2 ounces per load of laundry (if you have a high-efficiency machine you can use just 1 ounce). That is 64 loads of laundry per gallon for a cost of 39 cents per load. (That is only 20 cents per load for those of you with HE washing machines!)

I should mention that I only recently started using the Oasis detergent, which means that I was using regular laundry detergent in my greywater system for about a year and a half. I did make sure to use detergents that were free of perfumes or dyes or bleach alternatives. Because I move my drain hose frequently and have a large area available to receive the drain water I was less concerned about salting the soil. Also, I was not watering any valuable plants or a vegetable garden. I did worry that I couldn't continue to use sodium-based detergents forever, though, so I made the switch to the sodium-free detergent.

In case you are wondering why I didn't just start using borax or washing soda instead of laundry detergent, it's because those chemicals harm the soil, too. Borax is sodium tetraborate decahydrate and washing soda is sodium carbonate (sodium again!). They are great options for a regular laundry system but not for greywater systems. 

So here are my brief guidelines for safe greywater washing:
1) Use Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent
2) If you have to bleach something, use a bucket
3) Don't use fabric softener

That's it! Happy washing!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Two More Baby Chicks!

Here is what's new at our place:

Banty mama with the first chick to hatch

Our favorite of the two chicks

Fierce mama hen with her two babies

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Opting Out of Consumerism

A box full of homebrews
I love makeshift solutions. I love the ways in which people improvise solutions for the problems at hand. I often avoid the easy consumer solutions, which are so easily obtained here where we have access to nearly everything imaginable. If we can't find it in the store then we can certainly order it online. We can purchase specialized products for nearly every situation. But the key word there is "purchase". Because we have limited funds, when we purchase one thing that naturally means that we won't be able to purchase something else. And what if that "something else" is actually more important to us? We often don't even realize the trade-offs we make every day with our dollars. We buy goods we don't really need but then tell ourselves we don't have the money to pursue our t­ravel dreams, our hobbies, or our true passions in life. We do not spend according to our true priorities. This is something I am struggling to change in my own life and I know other people are, too. 

Roasted carrots harvested from our backyard garden
One way to free up money for our dreams, our priorities, is to stop spending so much. One way we can do that is to stop looking for easy consumer solutions and start solving more of our problems with materials we have at hand. To do this on a regular basis requires a mental shift for most of us. It requires us to be resourceful, "able to meet situations: capable of devising ways and means". We don't often need someone else to solve our problems for us. We can do it ourselves with a little bit of thought and some creativity. Indeed, the definition of "shift" is "to assume responsibility" and to "change direction". We may live in a very consumption-oriented society but we do not have to live high-consumer lives. We just don't. We can opt out. And when we opt out of the crazy consumerism we are opting *in* to resourcefulness, greater self-sufficiency, more personal responsibility, tighter community ties, and (I believe) a greater satisfaction with our lives.

So let's make use of what we have and not worry about what we don't. Let's look for homemade solutions. Makeshift solutions. Let's devise ways and means! 

Mr. Chanclas doing Crossfit in the yard with scavenged weights

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Simple Greywater System for the Washing Machine

Let me tell you about my washing machine. 

When we moved into this house two years ago we knew that there was a “slow drain” in the laundry room. We didn’t realize just how slow. We hooked up the washing machine one night during that exhausting first week in the house and I shoved a load in it. Fifteen minutes later gallons and gallons of dirty, soapy laundry water were pumping out the back and all over the floor. After consulting with two different plumbers we learned that the laundry room drainpipe was broken and that it would take at least $2,000 to repair it. Not only was the pipe broken but it was broken underneath the concrete slab right under the kitchen cabinets. To repair it would mean tearing out the kitchen cabinets and jackhammering through the Saltillo tile and the concrete slab. I knew that those crappy kitchen cabinets would not withstand the move.

I used the laundromat for a few weeks while we pondered the situation. The laundromat is a major outing when you wash 10 loads of laundry per week and have two small children in tow. (Not to mention the expense!)  I quickly realized I needed an alternative solution so I decided to rig a greywater system for the washing machine at home.

The dirty water that drains from washing machines, showers, bathtubs, and bathroom sinks is generally considered "greywater" and does not necessarily have to empty into the sewer or septic system. Dirty water from toilets and kitchen sinks is called "blackwater" (aka sewage) and must empty to sewer/septic for obvious reasons. (Washing machine water is considered blackwater, too, if you are washing poopy diapers.) Folks sometimes divert their greywater outside, using it to water trees or other plants outside the house. You can do this by simply running a hose outside or you can make a more complicated setup with holding areas or pools or even an underground filtration systems. Some folks install diverters in their indoor plumbing so they can choose to run greywater to the conventional septic system or, by turning a knob, divert the water outdoors via another series of pipes. Our greywater system is much simpler (and more makeshift) than that.

I found a very helpful, detailed description of the “Laundry to Landscape Grey Water System” here. That site is a great place to start when figuring out your own greywater system because it includes diagrams, photos, installer tips, and videos.

The first thing I did was move the washing machine from the laundry room (in the center of the house) out to the workshop (which is a partially enclosed section of our carport). I chose the workshop location because I needed access to a water hookup (the hose bib on the back of the house) and an outdoor area capable of receiving the waste water (the back yard). I ran a regular 5/8" garden hose from the hose spigot outside to the washing machine's cold water hookup. No adapter is needed for that; the garden hose screws directly into the black rubber hose on the back of the washer. I don't have access to hot water out there so our machine is only capable of cold-water washing. (This is sometimes a hassle since cold water does not remove oily spots on clothes very well.) 

For the waste water hookup I connected the washing machine’s drain tube to a garden hose and ran it outside. (The washing machine’s drain tube is that fat black hose with a crook in it.) I had to go to Home Depot and buy 3 adapters to connect the washer’s drain tube to an industrial sized (3/4”) garden hose. The first adapter has a plastic barb that you shove into the washer's drain tube. The other end is threaded and screws into adapter #2. Adapters #3 and #3 are both threaded on both ends and serve to make the opening the proper size for attaching to the industrial garden hose. Figuring out which adapter doodads I needed kind of made my head spin but there was a guy working at Home Depot that day that helped me find what I needed. I think the industrial garden hose I used is about 75 feet long.  Probably the most important thing I read to do was make sure you hang the washing machine drain hose so that the crooked part is just a few inches higher than the back of the machine. To hold the drain hose at the proper height I suspended it from a screw in the wall with a piece of string. You could also hook it onto a metal elbow screwed into the wall at the proper height.

Black drain tube, gray barb adapter, white adapter, brass adapter, industrial garden hose

Drain hose hanging at proper height behind the washing machine

So that was it. We had a working greywater system for the washing machine. We had a terrible drought in central Texas that first summer and it seemed like every living plant died or was dying. But all the plants within 75 feet of my back door looked great!

Industrial garden hose carrying waste water out into the yard
After one year of using the greywater system outlined above I burned out the pump on my washing machine. I suspect that this happened because my drain pipe (the 3/4" garden hose) was too narrow and too long, which made the washing machine pump have to work too hard to get the water out. I knew that that was a possibility from the start but I took the risk anyway. I had read that a 1" diameter tube was much better and would reduce wear on the washing machine pump. I bought another used washing machine for $150 and tried to reconfigure the drain hose on my system. (The previous machine was a $200 Craigslist deal.) I took the industrial sized garden hose off and replaced it with 2” and 1.5" flexible PVC tubing that I scavenged out of the trash. That did not work well for me just because I didn't have the appropriate connectors for attaching the different sections of PVC hose, which meant I was getting lots of water leaking into our workshop. So, for the time being, I am back to using the industrial garden hose, even though I am running the risk of burning out another pump. I am going to give the PVC tubing another try when I locate the appropriate connectors for it. Another thing I may try is simply cutting the industrial garden hose to a much shorter length. Seventy-five feet is an awfully long run and I think I could cut it down to about 20 feet and still be able to get the waste water far enough from the house.

It has been interesting working out the specifics of our greywater system. It is definitely one of the more makeshift systems at our house. It cost me very little to set up and the greywater has been put to good use outside. I also like having the washing machine outside instead of inside the house because it is closer to the clothesline than the clothes dryer. That makes it easier for me to hang clothes outside to dry (and more likely that I do so).

See my next post on greywater systems: Simple Greywater Systems: Detergent, Bleach, & Fabric Softener

Friday, April 19, 2013

Update On The Spring Garden: Phase 2

It has been one month since I posted the first photo of our Spring Garden. There wasn't much to look at then since I hadn't planted anything, but all of my seedlings and seeds went into the ground shortly afterwards. Here is what it looks like now:

The herb bed doesn't appear in this photo because it is next to my feet but you can see some tomatoes in the foreground. Behind them, in the upper bed, are the beans, squash, cucumbers, melon, and a lone artichoke plant. The two old baby gates are serving as trellises for the green beans.

I found those old baby gates in the trash during my bulky trash scavenging binge in early March. Last month I let the kids each pick out a packet of flower seeds. Big Sister chose marigolds and planted them in these clay planters. They are looking good!

The mint is growing out of control in this pot, which is wonderful. Everyone loves mint tea.

And this tiny seedling is the first potato sprout in the tater tire setup! I was excited to see it.

And finally, that show-stealer, the tomato. I already have a small green tomato on the vine. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for those tomatoes because they look a bit leggy. I suspect they are not getting as much sun as they would like.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Camping Out in the Backyard

Last weekend our dear friends C. and M. and their kids came over and camped out in our backyard with us. We had a blast. When you have small children it can be hard to get quality time with friends because the kids usually need to go to bed right as the adult conversation is getting good. Camping is a wonderful solution to that problem! Mr. Chanclas and I both like to camp out but we hardly ever do it. We are more camping followers- we need someone else to lead the charge. But I have realized that while organizing a camping trip for a family of five at a campground can feel overwhelming (even impossible at times), a camping trip in the backyard is perfectly do-able. I think my favorite part is the lack of planning necessary for backyard campouts.

Earlier this spring, after I failed to organize a promised spring break camp out, we invited our dear friends Justin and Sarah over for a backyard camping expedition. We had so much fun and the kids slept surprisingly well despite the fact that the roosters started crowing at 4:45am. We ended the festivities with a front porch haircut (Justin's) and a lot of great memories but very few photographs (oops- I'm trying to take more photos). So this time around, with C. and M. and family, I remembered to get my camera out.

Setting up the tents in the backyard
Our friends brought dinner fixings and we made hamburgers on the grill. That was easy and delicious. Then we set up the tents out back and fixed up our fire pit in a clearing. There was a pile of old bricks and a pile of sand out there from who-knows-what old project so we used those to make a fire pit. Thankfully we have had some rain recently so we were not under a burn ban (the drought in Texas has meant open fires are banned most of the time). I always forget how magical a fire feels. There really is nothing quite like sitting around a fire with people whose company you enjoy. Of course, we made s'mores.

The kids got tired and went to bed at about 10pm and the adults stayed up talking, knowing our kids were sleeping just a few yards away. It was great. I didn't have to pack the car with sleeping bags or food or pillows or anything. I just dragged a few sleeping bags and a couple of quilts out of the house and we were good to go.

We all slept pretty well despite the fact that the roosters started up at their usual time of about 4:45am. I think maybe C. wanted to strangle Floyd, who is the largest and loudest rooster. We got up and decided another fire was in order so we sat around the fire drinking coffee and eating eggs and homemade sausage (which we conveniently cooked in the kitchen). Not a bad way to start the day!

"Mama, the sky is moving!"
The point of me blogging about this is because it was such a fun and easy way to grow community. It is really important to me to feel a sense of community- it really helps me to feel like a happy and well-rounded person- and so I am always looking for opportunities to experience that. I want my children to be part of a larger community because I know the time will come when they need to look for guidance and mentors outside our nuclear family. They (and we) need to connect with friends and other family members and feel ourselves as part of a bigger community.

The backyard camp out doesn't cost anything and it doesn't require much advance planning or special gear. You need a tent unless you want to sleep under the stars. Sleeping bags are handy but you could just as easily use comforters and blankets from the house. If you have a fire you need a few sticks or logs but those can frequently be had for free (as ours were). The only thing you need to budget for is graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows, because you absolutely cannot have a camp fire without s'mores.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Quote of the Week: Self-Sufficiency

"It is neither possible nor particularly desirable to be entirely self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency implies a willful separation from others, whereas husbandry is all about sharing the work and sharing the knowledge. I love books, but the best advice will come from your neighbour, who has actually done the things that you want to do."

-Tom Hodgkinson, Brave Old World: A Month-By-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself, p. xv

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Growing Potatoes in Old Car Tires

I'm making Tater Tires. Let me explain. I've had a number of small- to medium- sized gardens over the years but I have never tried growing potatoes. I recently read, in several different books, how you can grow a LOT of potatoes in a small amount of space by using a stack of car tires or a feed sack or anything else that will allow you to grow the taters vertically and deep. Potatoes develop under the ground so they need lots of loose, deep soil. This is a challenge, especially here on the edge of the Texas Hill Country where I have approximately 0.5 inches of top soil (I wish I were kidding). Even in my garden, where the soil has been built up, I only have maybe 6 inches of the stuff.

My favorite description of this method of potato production comes from Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen's book The Urban Homestead (Expanded & Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City. (They also have a great blog called Root Simple.) To make Tater Tires you need 3 or 4 old car or truck tires of about the same size. You lay the first tire in a good sunny spot and break up the ground beneath it a little bit.

Then you fill the tire with a bunch of soil or compost or potting soil. Apparently the potatoes are not particular, they just want it to be pretty loose. I read somewhere else that you can even use rotting leaves. I happened to have some half-rotted compost so I used that.

I have to admit that I'm a little nervous about this compost mix because I've been throwing the soiled pine shavings from the baby poultry on this compost pile for the last week or two. I know that fresh bird manure will burn plants, so I worked the shavings into the compost pile pretty well, hoping to avoid the dreaded "burn". The shavings did give the compost mix a nice, workable texture, though.

After I got the compost pushed down into the tire, being careful to fill under the edges, I picked out a couple of Yukon Gold seed potatoes that I recently bought at Home Depot. I'm sort of horrified that I bought seed potatoes because I could've just used a couple of old potatoes that had started making eyes. But, alas, I was seduced by the little bag of seed potatoes.

I dug two little holes and planted the potatoes with the eyes pointing up, about 3 inches deep. When the plants grow tall enough to clear a second tire I will throw another tire (and more compost) on the pile. When they've grown enough to clear a third tire I will add another, and possibly a fourth tire later on.

By covering the plant as it grows I'll be forcing the plant to grow an extra-long taproot and thereby produce far more potatoes than it would have normally. At the end of the growing season, when the potato plant turns yellow or dies back, it's time to harvest the potatoes. "Punk rock style, you can just kick the whole stack over, revealing the entire tater treasure within", say Kelly and Erik in The Urban Homestead. They also say that a yield of 20 pounds of potatoes per stack is common!

I'll keep y'all posted on my Tater Tires. And maybe later I'll talk about how I got the tires in the first place. I have a feeling I might have trouble wresting the other three tires away from the kids...
The tire jump after I forbid them from jumping off of the full, wobbling stack!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Upcycling in the Kitchen

Before I get to what I really want to talk about, let's talk about upcycling. Maybe I should start with how much I hate the word "upcycling". Did we really need a hip new word to describe something as common-sense as reusing stuff you've got on hand? Using things you already have on hand is at the heart of making shift.

The Wikipedia entry for upcycling defines it as the "process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value". The authors of the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. These two definitions differ slightly, the first one implying that the materials are made into a higher-quality product. The second definition implies that the already-existing materials can take the place of new materials but makes no value judgment on the "quality" of the materials. This second definition seems to suit my purposes better. I reuse things that already exist in order to avoid using (and buying and maintaining) new materials. My uses of these materials may or may not add value to them but they certainly serve as suitable (and often equal) replacements.

And this brings us to what I really want to talk about. Upcycling in the kitchen. Specifically, I want to talk about drinking glasses and Tupperware containers. A couple of years ago I was rinsing out a glass jar for recycling when I had a revelation. I was about to throw out this perfectly good glass jar, a jar that was the same dimensions as my drinking glasses. And I was running short on drinking glasses. I had planned to buy some more at the thrift store soon. Yes, I was going to recycle the jar, so it would eventually be made into other glass things, but it had only served ONE use thus far. It had held olives or salsa or something else I had bought at the supermarket. It seemed ludicrous that I would cast off exactly the same material I was about to turn around and purchase at a store. And I realized that plastic storage containers (such as Tupperware) are the same story. We throw out or recycle our sour cream and yogurt containers and then turn around and buy the exact same things for storing leftovers in the fridge.

I haven't bought a drinking glass since then and the only storage containers I've bought are a couple of those specialty compartment ones for my kids' lunches. We now have an eclectic assortment of drinking glasses and I think we all have our favorites. I like to use real drinking glasses (not plastic ones) for my kids, even my 3-year old, and when you are using old jars it is not a big deal if one gets broken. In addition to supermarket jars I also hang on to canning jars (Ball and Mason jars), which are especially nice because they have standard sized lids that are easy to replace. Plus, canning jars have a nice heavy feel to them.

If you balk at the idea of using jars as your regular drinking glasses you might still consider using them for your kids for the reasons mentioned above. Jars with lids that seal well also make good water bottles, especially if you don't like using plastic. (And you don't have to limit them to holding water. You can carry homemade tea, smoothies, or anything else in them.)

As far as plastic storage goes, we go through a lot of yogurt around here so I have plenty of large (24-32 oz) yogurt containers to use. I use them for storing leftovers in the fridge but, like all plastic containers, I always transfer the food to a glass dish for reheating in the microwave. I also use yogurt containers for holding bathtub toys, rinsing the shampoo out of kids' hair in the tub, holding cleaning supplies, making sand castles, holding nails and screws, and holding small amounts of chicken feed. They make great scoops. When they get cracked or nasty I recycle them.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why We Eat Our Chickens

Some of my friends and acquaintances are surprised that we eat our chickens. And I suppose that there are folks that keep chickens as pets and therefore would never consider eating them. But our chickens are not pets, even though a few of them have names. They are here because they have work to do. All of the hens lay eggs, the roosters guard the flock from predators and fertilize eggs,  a few hens are good broody mamas, and they all provide meat sooner or later. When I look at my adorable, fluffy yellow chicks I can't imagine them as food on my plate just because they undergo such a physical transformation. By the time they are big enough to slaughter (around 20 weeks of age for a non-hybrid breed like these) they will have changed from cute fluffy chicks to awkward, ugly teenage chickens, to big and (increasingly) aggressive cockerels. When they get to that age it will be time for them to go. 

Hatcheries have to kill thousands of male chicks because there is almost no market for them. Commercial chicken producers raise only one type of chicken for meat: Cornish hybrids, which can grow to butchering size in just 7-8 weeks. For all of the other (dozens) of breeds, there is simply no market for the males. Hens don't need roosters in order to lay eggs and many cities prohibit keeping roosters, so backyard chicken enthusiasts rarely keep roosters at all. Country folks with large flocks can only keep a few. So I feel good that these 8 male chicks that we got will get raised up in a pleasant environment with plenty of fresh air and green grass and bugs. They will get 5 months of living like real chickens (unlike factory birds) and then we will butcher them as humanely as possible and not a bit of their meat will be wasted. And my family will be fed on food we raised ourselves. I think it is a win-win situation for us and the birds.

Update on Chicks: One Week

I had forgotten how much work baby chicks are. I have to change their water and check their feed and litter three or four times a day. We lost two of the freebie chicks in the first couple of days but the rest of the birds seem to be doing great. We have only had them for a week and they are already noticeably bigger. The chicks and guineas are already getting some real feathers on their wings. This is especially interesting on the baby chicks because they all started out yellow but their new feathers are different colors. Eventually I hope to figure out what breeds they are, just out of curiosity. The guinea keets are far noisier than the chicks and ducklings (although, to be fair, they only make a lot of noise when they are upset). The ducklings are perhaps the most adorable because they shake their tail feathers just like a big duck and make adorable dabbling sounds when they drink water (which is nearly all the time). I clip little pieces of fresh green grass and sprinkle it in their water and they go crazy over it. I can only imagine their joy the first time they get to swim. I have to let them get older and more fully feathered before I let them swim because they can drown or get chilled at this early age.

I have found the forums at Backyard Chickens to be a really great resource for anything poultry-related. They have over 180,000 members and many of them are very knowledgeable. If you are considering a backyard flock I'd really recommend checking out their site. If you are looking for a good book about chickens I'd recommend Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow. If I could only own one poultry book it would definitely be that one. Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks and Storey's Guide to Raising Poultry are also excellent resources.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Baby Poultry Photos from the Weekend

Lulu the duck with a male chick

The chicks have been doing a lot of this

Guinea keets at about 3 days of age

Maggie the Khaki Campbell duck