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off-the-grid and interconnected


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Lessons Learned

Our interns Julia Neish and Rachel Brylawski made this seven minute video as an independent project during their time at Ampersand.   What a beautiful way to explain their learning experience. We are so proud of them!

Find out about our fall work-trade natural building opportunities here.

Hope this finds you all happy and cool enough!

Best, Amanda Bramble

 


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Video and Summer Schedule

Here’s a little video to celebrate the gifts from the sky! Our water tanks have been full through the Winter and into the Spring. And we are enjoying some wonderful Spring wildflowers.

We are also introducing our Summer schedule of classes below. They are all held at our sustainable site near Cerrillos, NM.  Please RSVP Thanks!

Video by Amanda Bramble

Ampersand’s Summer Schedule

May 22  Solar Cooking and Sustainable Kitchens

May 28  High Desert Gardening

June 5   Natural Building and Earthen Plasters

June 18  Rain Harvesting and Greywater Systems

June 26 Arid Land Restoration

July 10  Open House

 

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Tinkering for Hot Water

We love the sun! The way we appreciate this gift of nature is by harvesting it whenever we can. One way is by heating water.

We have three solar water heaters that we cobbled together from items at salvage yards, auto part stores, as well as manufactured solar collectors. One is made from a pigmat (I’ll explain below), one includes an imported Swiss panel with a selective surface (I’ll explain that too), and they all can heat water to scalding temperatures. Thankfully we have cold water too.

There will always be a special place in my heart for my first solar water heater, so I’ll start with that one.

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Way back when our bathroom was made of pallets wrapped with plastic!

My first was a batch heater, made in 2004, our first year on Ampersand’s property. At a salvage yard in Los Alamos, the much beloved Black Hole, I scored a tank. Ten gallons, black, no leaks. And I was glad to find an already constructed box to retrofit as the heater’s shell, because my carpentry skills at the time were minimal.

Some call this design a breadbox heater. The design is simple, much like a solar oven. A dark tank holds the water. The tank is housed in a box, with a window, tilted towards the south. The box is insulated. Simple, right?

A ten gallon tank was perfect size for us. We’re frugal with our water. And the smaller the tank, the less time for the sun to heat the water.

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Salvaged materials, whenever possible is one of our key design principles. A salvaged double paned window retains heat. We also insulated the inside of the box with two inches of foam board. Then we lined the inside with reflective mylar. Sun shines through the glass. That which doesn’t hit the tank reflects off the mylar towards it. The dark tank absorbs all that heat.

When I show this to folks on a tour of Ampersand, they usually ask How does the water get into the bathroom?

People see that the water heater is below the window and they wonder how could there be any pressure when it comes out the tap. Here’s the secret. The water line feeding into the bottom of the batch heater actually originates way up the hill at our large rain catching cistern. The bottom of this cistern is above the roof of the bathroom. The water line is buried underground to prevent freezing, so it’s not visible. But there is plenty of pressure that goes right through the heater into the bathroom just from using gravity.

A few details worth sharing. The pipes in and out are wrapped with insulation. The pipe out from the heater goes through a wall into our community bathroom, where the water is used. We installed a valve and a drain on the inlet. In case the tank should need to be drained for repairs or any other reason.

A couple years ago Passive Solar architect Mark Chalom (who has supported Ampersand for years) donated a sheet of selective surface for us to install on our batch heater. A selective surface is a material with high absorbence (of sunlight) and low emittance (of heat) applied to the surface of solar absorbers. In this case, that’s the water tank. It increases the efficiency of a solar heater. This selective surface came as a film and it required a high temperature adhesive to install. We wrapped the tank with the selective surface and, lo and behold, the water temperatures increased.

This batch style heater is still not as efficient as our thermosyphoning ones. But it was easy to construct with salvage materials and a few extra plumbing parts.

Reflectors would increase the sunlight and therefore the heat entering the water tank. I keep thinking I’ll build reflectors for it, someday. Ones that can withstand our high winds

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I recently inspected the batch heater to get started on the reflector project, but then realized other work was needed. The wooden box needed more screws to hold it together, the window was sagging. Basically there were air gaps where we were losing heat. And the hose connecting the heater to the bathroom plumbing inside? That needed better insulation. When we have bitter cold spells in the winter, down to 10 degrees F or below, this is where the water freezes. When it does it blocks the warm water in the tank from coming inside. So that was the last round of repairs for the batch heater, and again I postponed the reflectors.

Over the years, we’ve upgraded this heater bit by bit. And I’m impressed that it has served us for so long. In the summer it provides hot water pretty much all the time. In the winter you may have to wait till noon if you want your shower hot.

The winter nights are so long and the outside temperatures are so cold that the heater will lose much of it’s heat by morning. Removable insulation helps retain that heat. In the past we’ve just thrown a blanket over the heater at night. That does make for earlier hot water. But we didn’t always remember to remove it in the morning. And then, when that happens, the blanket doesn’t help at all! It’s a ten gallon tank though, so it heats up pretty quick once it gets some sun.

With anything solar, placement is important. Tall structures that cast a shadow will decrease the amount of solar gain available. We constructed a garden arbor nearby, with some interns and used that task as a design exercise. Together we calculated how to not obstruct the early morning winter sun.

That’s a lot of solar design for one day, but there’s always more. Here’s a glimpse of our fancy thermosiphoning solar water heating systems, a whole other concept.

this thermosiphoning

Six years ago Steve Baer and Zomeworks helped us install a solar thermosiphoning heater on our main house. Thermosiphon is a way of saying that water rises from the panel into the tank above by using the natural qualities of water as it heats. IMG_3358There is no pump needed to circulate the water. It happens on it’s own because heat rises.

This panel also has a selective surface. Our friend Steve Baer imported it from the Swedish company Energie Solaire. It’s not sold by that company to install the way we did. But Steve is a solar pirate and he helped us get it together anyway.

At low pressures (under 32 psi), the Swiss panel (as we like to call it) can freeze and expand with water in it without breaking. That means no need for glycol solution and a heat exchanger, which many solar heaters employ. If the Swiss p045anel is frozen outside, we can still access the hot water from the tank indoors (a re-purposed 20 gallon electric water heater tank) just by turning on the tap. Once the sun comes out again, the reflectors around the distribution tubing (we used truck radiator tubing) help the ice to thaw and permit the thermosyphon to work again.

The black pigment has worn off over the many seasons. This year I repainted the panel with high temperature barbeque paint. It’s important that 008the panel rest on a layer of insulation so that it doesn’t lose heat to the ground through the back.

We love the Swiss panel. This photo of our on-demand propane heater, the backup water heater in the house, should explain how well it works. Honestly we have not turned the propane on once since installing the thermosiphoning heater.005 (1521 x 1140)This is our other thermosiphoning water heater. We use it in the summer for outdoor showers. It’s a great system for demonstrating the thermosiphon set-up because you can see it all in one place.

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The panel is below the storage tank. Whenever the sun is shining the water in the tank gets hotter and hotter. This mold for producing this panel was originally constructed to warm nursing sows, that’s why we call it the pigmat. The white tank above058 (also a re-purposed 20 gallon electric water heater tank) is the gravity feed tank. The hash marks on the vinyl tube tank gauge mark one gallon of water, allowing those using the shower to track their water usage.

I know many of you will want to know how to get the pigmat or the Swiss panel. All I can say is to contact Steve Baer at Zomeworks. I can’t guarantee he will be able to help you, but the inquiry will put a smile on the face of this true solar inventor genius. He will be pleased to hear that there is interest in these simple products, and happy to know that people are interested in using direct sunlight rather than focusing on photovoltaics and pumps when they are not needed. I’ll leave it to him to tell you about the downfalls within the solar industry and why these simple products are not readily available. Happy tinkering!057

Ampersand has posted our Spring Schedule!  We are excited to offer a Geology Hike, Archeology Hike, Floodplains and Flowforms Hike (new!), as well as Picnics, a Volunteer Day, Homeschool Day, and an Open House. We would love to see you!

Written by Amanda Bramble (with help from Andy Bramble- any incomplete sentences are included because he insisted)

 

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Rainy Day Reflections

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Sometimes I forget how nature can swoop in and save the day. A good rain recharges not only my cisterns, but also my sense of abundance.

It started a couple days after our mushroom cultivation workshop. We had set up some oyster mushroom mycelium to grow out of coffee grounds indoors, and we also installed three storm-water-harvesting mushroom beds. I came out of the weekend a bit overwhelmed with all of my new responsibilities. Not just with learning to maintain the environments for our new growing creatures, but also dealing with the five syringes of liquid spore culture in my refrigerator. They need to be transferred to sterilized medium within the next couple weeks. Add that to the maintenance and repairs of going into winter on the homestead, and I assure you it’s a formidable list.

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Then the rain came. It was a gentle one. Like music. I could hear the water seeping into the land, into the plants. It brought a deep sense of well being, and even relief. I’m not saying my list got any shorter, but watching the new mushroom beds fill with storm water was quite fulfilling. This rain was not only gentle, but there was a well timed pause in the storm too. It cleared up long enough to walk out along our dirt road and arrange the erosion control rock work I’ve been meaning to do. The ground was soft as pudding and I didn’t even need a shovel.

I do forget sometimes how the whims of nature can make life easier. Despite the reality of living off rainwater and sunlight, so much of the time it seems we must swim upstream against the entropy of our environment.

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But this time the message was clear. We’ve been meaning to fill in some flood scoured holes in the restoration project since August. This latest flood was a reminder that nature is sometimes indisputably on our side. The whole flood path in our restoration project filled with a new fine silt and no signs of erosion anywhere. I’ve been waiting for this moisture to transplant some wild cuttings out there. So I’ve started filling in the bare areas with a variety of floodplain plants in our new soft moist soil.

There’s nothing like the meditation of tracking flood patterns through a landscape. This time I learned that I can use a shovel in one hand while holding an umbrella with the other. And after too many times of wandering out in the rain longer than expected, I’ve learned the benefits of rain gear. My wet clothes are dry now after an afternoon of sun. Thank you sun. Thank you rain. It’s a good life.

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Written by Amanda Bramble


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Cold Frame Saga

It’s a little bit sad. The old cold frame was the biggest hit on our Ampersand site tours, and we have dismantled it. It was amazing in many ways. It provided a great environment for growing greens in the winter, it had a ready made structure for throwing shade cloth over in the summer, and best of all was the Passive Solar Cold Frame Tender that opened the lid by itself, just with the pressure that was created by the light of sunrise. And it closed all by itself in the evening, all just with this contraption of bottles and tubes that we assembled. I wrote a blog post about it in 2014.

And I tended it well when we lived in the little cottage down the hill. Now I have to go out of my way to see how my garden grows. And the overhanging lid has also discouraged me because of the crouching and ducking necessary for gardening in that spot. So everything is changing.

When I noticed recently that the main bottle for our passive solar cold frame tender busted from ultraviolet exposure, I was gifted a new bottle immediately. This was a clear message that the solar tender must be used somewhere else. And I’ve got some amazing and artistic plans for it. But you will have to wait for that.314

Perhaps you have already seen the new cold frame that our interns made. Maybe you read my past blog post about our friend Clair Gardner’s Water Wise Planter that she has developed. We generally followed her instructions and made one of our own.

After the interns left the tending of our various garden beds was left to me, I knew it was finally time to discontinue use of the old cold frame. So I transplanted the kale and chard into the new cold frame.

Clair Gardner recommends just using the cold frame for baby greens, and I will, but first I needed to save my mature greens from my own neglect. And I had some onions grown from seed in the greenhouse just waiting for more growing room. So quickly my new garden took shape. I did plant lettuces in the understory of the more mature plants.

A couple weeks later, I’ve made a substantial harvest from the cold frame, and watched some seeds germinate. And I only watered it a few times. I’m making kale chips regularly so that I can actually end up eating all the greens I grow. They will last that way.  I’ll talk more about how at the dehydration class through Homegrown New Mexico.

I’m excited about this new year-round growing bed. Thanks to Clair and the interns for helping this happen!

Written by Amanda Bramble


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True Love and Restoration

Recently I was asked to give a talk on the subject of love. Strange as it may seem, the first love I turn to is the love bunch grasses. They hold the soil together on the hills of my home terrain. PDC visit 036

The New Mexico feather grass has one big seed with a really sharp point and a long feathered thread attached to the top. As the seed ripens and dries, the thread, sometimes 6 inches long coils and creates a spiraled feather. The grass seed detaches from its perch and floats away to a bare patch of ground. The sharp end of the seed drops to the ground. The spiral feather catches the wind and winds around in circles, drilling the seed into the Earth. It’s perfect and beautiful. This is what I love.

I have a great love for the body of the Earth, her crevices and critters, and for the dance of interdependence; the ritual of transformation and harmony throughout her oceans and landscapes.img_5567

Many people have lots of passions. Me, I really just have this one. My love of the living being of the Earth.

I have this memory of when I was seventeen years old, interviewing for colleges and being asked what I saw myself doing in the future, what I wanted to study. I can still see in my mind the vision I had of this ditch in the ground. I was looking down at a gash of bare soil. I knew that it needed healing, but I didn’t know what the problem was or what the solution would be.

Well, I continued down that path. And now I know not only the problems, but also some of the solutions. And that is how I have constructed my life.

The solutions begin with the grasses. The blue grama holds the sloping soil through floods, the stands of alkali muhly grass with their massive trailing root systems help soak the water deep into the ground. All the grasses in these hills create a welcoming habitat for wildflowers when the weather is right.

But the grasses are just the beginning. Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center IMG_0290started with land full of grasses and also a few of those gashes in the landscape that need healing. And we have learned about the many aspects that healing takes.

To embody my love of the earth I have always striven to live like a creature – wild and interconnected.

So at Ampersand, we create our shelter out of the Earth. Our buildings are burrows carefully designed to harvest the sunlight when we need heat. And to create cool shade when we don’t.

We grow food and gather what we can off the land. We catch rainwater and live year round off of this sacred gift. Over the years (and we’ve been building and tending this land now for eleven years) we have created quite the compound. We have our physical space, the East sloping hill where we have perched our lives. We have the yurt, the tipi, the strawbale cottages, the outdoor kitchen and our main house, along with the winding pathways, the homemade technologies, the water harvesting garden patches, the lush hiding spaces and grand overlooks. IMG_0320_renamed_31891

As we have grown as a learning center, people have inhabited these spaces we have co-created with the land, and we have discovered more of the dimensions that make up a healing space. The physical spaces themselves of course can be healing to the land. We create oasis environments that add to the fertility of the land and wildlife. But through careful design we are also healing another important part of the Earth, ourselves.

I feel the earth needs us to notice her and to speak with her through our actions, and she does respond. I’ve seen the more we participate in this dialogue, the more we realize the intelligence and magic of the Earth. She does respond, with spiderwebs floating in the descent of the evening air, and she speaks through our neighbors and comrades.

This business of healing the land; the Earth’s time scale is larger than we can imagine. She will certainly survive and adapt through this phase we are in.

I know this, but still I am called to that bare dirt ditch, and doing what I can to heal it. But now I know that I’m feeling the Earth’s instinct to heal herself. The work we are really doing is restoring our relationship with wildness and harmony and vitality and even death.

This time of year we host the internship at Ampersand. Eight curious and dedicated human creatures inhabit our outdoor kitchen, our green hiding spaces, and overlooking outposts.photo

Although I’m a leader in this group, everyone is equally attending to this healing process and it turns out it includes things like chore wheels, tracking water use, and saying I’m sorry.

So while my love of the Earth still starts with the grasses I’ve witnessed it grow to embrace thIMG_0427ese strange human creatures because that’s where the most powerful healing potential is. Restoring our dialogue with the Earth through the actions in our lives very well may mean planting grass seeds, but it might be also in recognizing the wildness and interconnectedness between us all, here, right now.

Written by Amanda Bramble

Interested in Arid Land Restoration?  We have an class coming up on Saturday, June 13th.


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Rain Life

The storm approaches

The storm approaches

Their eyes go wide. Their jaws even drop a bit, sometimes.

“Really?” they say every time.

Yup.

We live off rain catchment.

Really.

It’s not that big a deal.

When we turn on the kitchen sink, water comes out, just like for anyone. Only ours is rainwater. We have enough for washing the dishes, doing laundry, and having gardens and guests.

And no, we have not resorted to dustbaths. We shower with rainwater. It’s quite luxurious as our neighbors with wells put up with water that smells like rotten eggs and haul in filtered drinking water from the city. Our water is tasty, clean, and local.

How do we do it?

It rains.

It rains.

Living off rainwater means having a big enough roof to catch a bunch when it rains. It means having big enough tanks to catch enough to last us through the dry months.

We re-use all of our water in the gardens and greenhouse. We built our greywater systems to drain automatically into planted beds. We only use certain soaps and detergents that we know won’t harm the plants. And we have sculpted our land to harvest seasonal floodwater that runs down the hillsides.

The big secret to living off rainwater?

Treating this precious resource as the special thing that it is. You know how special it is when you have none.

We keep track of how much we have, and how much we use. Having our main storage cistern outside our front door makes it easy. We installed a tank gauge that through the use of two pulleys, a float, and a weight, it dangles a marker on the outside of the cistern right where the water level is inside. That way, even though the tank is opaque, we can tell at a glance how much water we have. Sometimes we track our water use by putting dated stickers where the gauge hangs. This way we can easily calculate how much water we are using per day and per person.

Just like we track our expenses to live within our financial budget, living off rainwater means that we have to live within our water means. Do you ever take money out of your account and throw it in the trash can? We don’t either, and we don’t turn on the faucet without using the water before it goes down the drain.

Rain runs in the gutters and the earth works.

Rain runs in the gutters and the earth works.

It’s not hard to get. But for people who don’t have the infrastructure that we do, where we can easily track how much we have and how much we use, it can be more of a challenge to feel the water that comes out of the tap as valuable or sacred.

Australia is dry. And has been dealing with drought in a serious way for some time now.

In Brisbane, water use was reduced by 60% during drought. Some of this was due to hardwired structural changes –things like low flush toilets – and the rest was due to changes in behavior.

After the drought, behavior didn’t revert back too much. Water use leveled at 50% of what it had been before the drought.

We experienced this too at our little homestead. We have an outdoor kitchen where the sink drains into buckets. Before the buckets overflow we hand-water the nearby trees. That extra step has shown us how much one does naturally conserve when there is an immediate physical incentive/feedback.

Everything slick, shiny, and wet.

Everything slick, shiny, and wet.

And when we moved into our newly built house with plumbing instead of a bucket system, our water use increased. Just because we were one step removed in the system.

Systems drive behavior. We feel for people who rely on larger governmental systems to conserve and protect this resource for their area. Folks seem to be waiting for leadership that is just not showing up.

We can track and conserve on a household scale. That’s manageable.

Most people don’t seem to realize that they can do that too. Folks in the city may not have the same at-a-glance system for tracking water. But most dwellings have a meter that they can learn to read and track.

Where’s your water app?

Written by Amanda and Andy Bramble

Our cisterns fill. One week later, the water level is still high due to our actions and our infrastructure.

Our cisterns fill. One week later, the water level is still high due to our actions and our infrastructure.

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