This is what it looks like some mornings when I arrive at the coffee shop. Plugged in to this single outlet are my laptop, phone, my ‘big light’ power brick, and the battery for my cordless shop vac.
Interestingly enough the shop vac battery charges fully in roughly the same time as it takes to discharge it in operation: 20-25 minutes.
For as many windows and skylights as this cabin has, the sleeping loft puts the small living space beside the front door under a permanent umbra. It’s not that it makes this part of the cabin uninviting but rather illuminates (pun intended) what could become a serious problem once the shortest days of winter are here. Olympia sits at 47 degrees north in latitude so our weather is only half as crazy as it is in Alaska, the land of the midnight sun. Light becomes as important as warmth in certain seasons.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing. The lack of daylight in general and our modern human predisposition to expose ourselves to less daylight than our bodies evolved to expect creates a depressive psychological effect in some people not to mention the various imbalances resulting in a lack of vitamin D, which requires direct exposure of skin to sunlight to metabolize in the body. Some people purchase light boxes for therapy. Others make subtle changes like using full-spectrum light bulbs or basking more frequently in the glow of a warm fire. The wood stove is warming but built tight as a drum, without even so much as a window. I’m going to need a source of light as well if I’m to maintain my cheery disposition all winter, in the season my German sister in law refers to as Die Eishöhle, or the ice cave.
Right now of the five circuits I’m going to need to build three of them are for lighting. The other two will power the 12v pump in the water system and eventually an interior pure-sine power inverter to charge computers, phones, and occasionally my juicer. Luckily in the age of LED I’m able to positively flood the cabin with light without drawing bupkis from the (prospective) battery.
The three lighting circuits will consist of:
- Four or five paper lanterns stretched across the cooking/dining area, with bright warm white LED bulbs wired in. This circuit will run through a wall switch (I’m leaning toward old-school brass marine switches) and feature a dimmer knob.
- One bright hanging fixture in the living area, casting a bright light up and down but shading all eyes from bright direct light. This circuit will run through a wall switch (I’m leaning toward old-school brass marine switches) and feature a dimmer knob.
- One gooseneck switched reading lamp at the head of the bed in the sleeping loft. This circuit will run straight to the distribution panel and not through the switch/dimmer box.
Once I’ve got these in and get a sense of how my battery life holds up to regular use I might add an outdoor light outside the front door and another over the back deck.
The current lineup of the ‘big light’ and an array of oil lamps, candles, kerosene lanterns, and a couple of battery-powered string lights are about all I have for lighting right now. Even in sum they’re not entirely suitable for all but the most intimate types of entertaining, let alone entertaining or anything other than spot-work the ‘big light’ can cover.
Q: What do you do with your pooo? How do you handle your number twooos? Whence do you scoot when your bowels are looose? What do you do with your pooo?
A: Right now we’re using the tried-and-true repurposed containment method, which is to say the latrine here consists of a big white pickle bucket nestled under a purpose-built toilet cabinet. Primitive as that may sound, there’s a bigger picture in mind.
My first project on arrival was to replace the rickety old roof over the latrine’s location along the rear of the cabin. The old one was a couple of lathes with some clear plastic and the ‘chickenwire treatment’ on it (the ‘mossification’ method of choice here). It hung so low it was unavoidable when standing after a visit, which defeated the whole ‘keep dry’ mission of the structure. The dripline it generated was also too close to the latrine structure itself, putting knees at risk and splashing dirt up on the latrine itself.
The reason I’m keeping the latrine system is because years and years ago I read the good words of Joseph Jenkins in The Humanure Handbook. The truth is despite the best efforts of our digestive system the stuff that comes out of our bums is full of highly valuable nutrients. Of course it’s also full of stuff that makes humans sick so we have to be careful how we unlock those nutrients for reuse.
Jenkins recommends the addition of rotted sawdust to the raw humanure to add an easily-digestible form of cellulose to the mix to recreate in your bin the same conditions one finds in a healthy compost or animal manure pile: a thermophilic reaction that raises the temperatures inside the pile to a level so consistently high that over time almost all of those parasites and intestinal bugs get killed.
Jenkins recommends an annual cycle. Last year’s section in the humanure bin (a two-stall affair) ages, mellows, and digests itself into a fine crumbly brown nutrient that’s perfect fertilizer for indirect nutrient generators like orchard trees or berry bushes. I’d plant berries here by the house but the deer would make short work of them. My eventual nutrient product I’ll likely just add to ferns around the house to make them even more prehistorically enormous than they already are.
There are no openings in the structure along the East wall (outside of which the latrine sits) so intrusive odors are never a problem. I’m going to rebuild the base underneath the latrine structure itself so it’ll hold together over winter. Right now there are a lot of old rotten pallets along the East wall acting as a sort of base for some of the fixtures out there. There’s plenty of lumber in the shed (and mains power for sawing/predrilling) to rebuild it properly. A paint job is in the works too, to make it a little easier to clean.
Q: How do you handle your household waste like trash, food scraps, and wash water?
A; This is where the ‘reduce’ part of ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ comes into play. Sometimes packaging is unavoidable but buying bulk and cooking with fresh ingredients (remember, there is no refrigerator here at the moment) reduces so, so much of the sheer volume of unburnable, unrecyclable waste I generate. Paper packaging gets chucked in the wood stove and periodically burned on a cold morning. Non-recyclable packaging goes into a kitchen bin liner hanging in a mouse-inaccessible spot in a reusable (and washable) shopping bag. At the end of the week when I head into town to work I carry the trash with and add it to the first garbage can I can find. Recyclables go with me to Seattle and get added to the appropriate streams at my Mom’s condo building.
Food waste is where the forest floor shines. The sheer biological activity of this land –the countless thousands of banana slugs, snails, and crows let alone billions of hungry bacteria, yeasts, and molds– almost instantly reduces organic waste to a healthy combination of slug poo and fuzzy green bits on the forest floor. I eat most of what I purchase and the forest eats the rest. It’s uncanny. I asked my landlord Alban what he does and this has been his answer for 20+ years.
I live in the midst of a massive, powerful, vibrant ecosystem. This represents the sum of Alban’s aim for this place as I understand it: the husbanding and preservation of all this resurgent natural power. I get it. Wilco.
The only current built-in amenity at the cabin is a Magic Chef RV stove/oven (with the oven inoperable). Some online investigation has shown me that this specific model of stove/oven often has problems with oven lighting but I haven’t been able to devote the time and resources I need to sussing out the solution. Come winter I’ll wish I had an oven for all manner of warming foods, but come winter I’ll be able to use the wood stove & Aunt Itsy’s skillet (really a dutch oven) in combination to handle a lot of these tasks. Getting the oven operational isn’t near the top of my list. I’ve even considered the wisdom of switching to a cooktop only situation to claw back some shelf space in the kitchen.
I bought a radiant propane shop heater to provide spot heat on the coldest mornings and was the proud recipient of a rechargeable handheld DeWalt shop vacuum for my birthday this year so we’re able to add significant points to the comfort and cleanliness gauges.
The radiant heater has been useful in drying out the floors after my initial bout of hot soap scrubbing, and will be an especially welcome addition for newcomers who might not be used to the chill of a Northwest morning.
The little shop vac allowed me to vacuum surfaces that had never been vacuumed before: floors yes but also walls, joints, concealed surfaces, and all those little nooks & crannies full of two decades-worth of dead spiders and the hair of long-departed tenants. Dust mites, surreptitious mouse turds, sand, and cobwebs all sucked up and neatly containerized. It might be psychosomatic but the house just felt cleaner after a week of daily vacuuming projects.
One major additional benefit of the rechargeable shop vac (and the reason I never let it run all the way down if I can avoid it) is its perfect utility as a collector of ginormous spiders of the sort that wander in from the forest if I leave the place open to the breeze. Having dealt with forest spiders in Virginia during grad school my general rule of thumb is if the spread of its legs is bigger than a quarter it has to go. Too many mornings with spider bites…to many times awakened to feel some bold arachnid scurrying across my face. There’s a chance being sucked out of your web and hurled at high velocity down a tunnel into a hard plastic container will kill the spider but absent this solution there’s a 100% chance the spider dies via a rolled up New York Times magazine or something. The use of vacuum technology as a way to avoid having to get close to them and/or killing them makes me feel a little better…a little less eek-y.
But how do you recharge the battery? you might ask. Every day I come into town to conduct my affairs, usually involving a stop at a favorite coffee shop for an hour or two to get my connected work done (e.g., emails sent, online shopping done, research projects, professional tasks). On arrival while I’m plugging in my laptop I also plug in the cable of whichever recharger(s) I brought with me that day. Sometimes it’s the vacuum. Sometimes it’s the drill. Sometimes it’s the 18650 battery charger that reliably powers so many of my household items (e.g., high-intensity LED flashlights, holiday light strings, a wireless clip fan &c). All but the 18650 batteries charge in less than an hour and two hours of charging those, even if it doesn’t show me the green ‘charged’ lamp before I leave, is going to be sufficient to get me through the night at least.
The first project combines relative ease of completion and maximum lifestyle improvement. I don’t mind hauling water but a supply of running water will later, on the addition of the photovoltaic system, facilitate the addition of running hot and cold water both to the sink and the outdoor shower.
Running hot water you say? At a remote cabin you say? That’s the plan. The reason I have to wait until I add solar power is the location of my water reservoir –a 275 gal. IBC tote used once to transport non-GMO organic fructose syrup to a cannabis edible manufacturer– in its preferred location will only generate 6.495 PSI. Manufacturer’s specs for most of the instant propane water heaters I’ve seen requires a minimum 20 PSI for safe operation. A 12v inline kicker pump –drawing electricity only when in operation– will solve my PSI problem without wrecking my battery levels.
There is really no levelling or prep required at the tank site. My landlord Alban’s aesthetic sense for the land insists that the tank be conclealed from view so once installed it will receive ‘the Treebeard Treatment’ (to wit, a layer of chicken wire with moss and ferns intertwined into it). I want to keep the water temperature as low as air temperatures will allow so I’ll probably overdo this step and use some opaque gardener’s plastic as an underlayment to the Treebearding, which will have the twin effect of obscuring any high-albedo bits of white plastic or aluminum that might otherwise give lie to my efforts at concealment.
Outflow adapters with valves are commercially available to replace the rudimentary valves included with IBC totes so to save time and guarantee durability I’ll invest in one of these new. These adapters are usually threaded for standard ¾” garden hose so I’ll purchase a lead-free adapter to fit the PEX I intend to use as my main outflow to the house and eventually to the 12v kicker pump once the solar power is in. I am considering purchasing a length of used, discarded fire hose to use as sheathing for the main PEX water line. I worry about rodents more than rot where PEX is concerned.
We’ll run the PEX up to the back of the house under a cover of soil and forest litter (there’s no digging through roots this heavy without power equipment) and split the cold water flow, capping one outflow for an eventual run to the instant propane water heater. The open end will divert cold water via smaller-gauge household PEX through existing wall cuts into the sink fixture (and eventually an outdoor shower fixture out back), leaving enough room for the eventual addition of the hot water tubing but secure from critters in the meantime. This will satisfy my main objective: adding running fresh water to the cabin. A little work aforethought will facilitate the later addition of hot water, and later a nice outdoor shower.
The previous tenants created an outdoor shower setup consisting of 6” PVC with the bottom end capped, then drilled and threaded for an on/off valve and shower head. It’s clunky, cumbersome, and ultimately unsatisfying to all purposes except fundamental cleanliness. The siting of the shower off of the back deck cluttered some of its usable surface and created perfect conditions for rot on the deck members below it. Neglect having been one of this cabin’s ‘problems’ on arrival, much of the work I’ve done since I moved in has been aimed at reversing as much of this neglect as possible. Hanging the future outdoor shower below the edge of the deck will allow me to keep the deck surface clear and mitigate potential causes of rot.
There’s nothing but bare soil around the cabin so the drainage for the outdoor shower will occur through the proverbial box of rocks: a likely collection of round, flat stones from the local beach and stream contained and isolated from the mud by a wood box, probably 2’x2’ in size: smaller than that pictured at right but not by much.
- If you’re going to Craigslist to look for a used IBC tote (which I heartily recommend) make absolutely certain the container was used for food-grade contents only. These totes are also sometimes used to deliver chemicals, pesticides, and solvents that should permanently disqualify them for water storage purposes. They can’t be cleaned. Choose food-grade containers only.
- Consider whether any/all of the materials you intend to use are intended for use with potable water. Are your fittings lead-free? Is the piping you intend to use susceptible to mold or rot?
- Freezing is seldom a problem for us this close to the sea and sea level but depending on where you are you’d likely be well-advised to factor freeze resistance into your strategy to a greater extent than I have here.
QUICK CABIN FACTS: I’ve calculated the enclosed square footage of this cabin as 273’ sq., including the loft and the ‘sun room.’ The construction is rough-hewn post-and-beam with kiln-dried members interspersed. Insulation unknown. Exterior cladding of shakes over marine plywood (of which I am suspicious). Interior floors of smooth-worn marine plywood just begging for me to find some nice, cheap oriental rugs. No indoor water except what you haul. All indoor lighting is either rechargeable or a combination of oil and candle lamps. There is no power at the cabin. Upon occupancy the cabin had not been thoroughly cleaned in years, and certainly never vacuumed since completion.
The improvements I’m set upon are in keeping with the limited scope and scale of this cabin and the ethos of the property as envisioned by the shepherd of this place, my landlord Alban.
- I want hot and cold running water indoors and at an outdoor shower site formerly located below the cabin deck, on its south face.
- I want to be able to flood the interior and proximate exterior spaces with light for living, entertaining, and winter sanity-preservation purposes.
- I want to be able to charge a phone or laptop; maybe even power the odd low-wattage household appliance (e.g., immersion blender).
- I want to build an two-part enclosure to process the cabin’s humanure (as recommended in Jon Jeavons’ The Humanure Handbook).
- I intend to repaint the cabin’s outdoor toilet and rebuild its foundation.
- I want to extend the beach-stone ‘walkway’ up and away from the cabin to provide downhill traction in wet months.
- I am already collecting & cutting 1” sections of found wood to assemble into a corduroy footpath for some of the boggier spots on the 100m+ walk up to the cabin.
- If I can locate an inexpensive source of sheet plexiglas or similar clear substance I want to build a small passive solar feature into a south-facing windowsill in the ‘sun room’ to help preserve the exposed window frame and shelter a section of the south wall of that room that shows a certain amount of past infiltration of water.
- I intend to finish a cut and discarded piece of logwood by installing slabwood shelves, finishing with spar varnish, and securely mounting it to the corner of the deck.
Some of these projects appear pretty low on the list, as things that would be nice if I can get to them before winter. This cabin being the builder’s first, there are some fundamental mistakes that require thoughtful remediation if this is to remain a healthy place to live. Most important is to have spotted the problems. The ability to combine solutions for these with certain of the new projects listed above reflects my thorough, reflective nature and personal mania for efficiency.
The first project –the one I’m in the midst of now– is bringing water to the cabin, deeper analysis of which I will leave for my next post.