Posted on Leave a comment

Appropriate Technology – Ram pumps for low head applications


About the author Tim Barker

Tim has come a long way since his days as a diesel fitter mechanic and now spends his time between Australia and New Zealand as a semi professional pyromaniac and mad scientist teaching people how to burns stuff and make really cool machines and devices for low carbon living. He currently teaches Appropriate technology for the Koanga institute in New Zealand and Eternity Springs farm in Australia.  His rocket stove and char making powered hot water systems, ovens and cookers reflect his passion for elegant simple and durable combustion technologies, other projects include gravity powered water pumps, solar thermal cookers and dryers , Pedal powered washing machines, cargo bikes, hovercraft, wooden boats and aquaponics. Upcoming courses that Tim will be teaching are  a rocket hot water system and  oven workshop for VEG (very edible gardens) in Melbourne on the 26-27 April at Darren Doherty’s farm. A PDC for the Living in peace project in Karamea on the south Island in New Zealand from the 5th-19th May and  another PDC and appropriate technology workshop at Eternity Springs farm 17-30th of August. Early next year he will also be delivering his usual hands on appropriate technology workshop and internship for his home away from home in NZ the Koanga Institute.

People are always fascinated by ram pumps. I think partly because they achieve the seemingly impossible task of pumping water to a higher height than the water supplying the pump and they do it for no added energy input. This is often misunderstood as needing no energy but even a casual understanding of the laws of thermodynamics tells us this is impossible. You will notice I said no added energy input because fundamentally what a ram pump does is harvest the energy of a lot of water flowing through the pump from a low head source, to pump a much smaller volume of water to a higher head. Head being the height of the water relative to the pump.


Imagine if you will a pipe with an internal diameter of 100mm with water flowing through it. If the pipe is around 25m long then the weight of the water in the pipe is close to 200kg remembering that one liter of water weighs 1kg. This is basically one of those large oil drums full of water.

EmGv66Water is basically incompressible, meaning that you can’t fit more water into a container by cramming it in under pressure than you can just by pouring it in. So lets imagine 200L of water in an oil drum free falling under the influence of gravity. Next, lets imagine it hitting a concrete floor. For one thing the stop would be sudden and the force and the noise would be great. This is exactly what a ram pump does, the water falls through the pump gaining velocity until that velocity is sufficient to flip the waste valve shut. Suddenly you have a lot of water, which was an instant before travelling at quite a speed, stopping instantly. As you can imagine with nowhere to go (like the concrete floor in our example) we have a lot of energy to dissipate.

By putting a one way vale in a much smaller line coming off the main pipe we can use the energy in the main flow of water like a battering ram to punch the water past the one way valve and up the smaller pipe.

The energy of the sudden stop starts to dissipate as more water is pushed up the small pipe. Eventually the energy is exhausted, the water flow stops and at this point the one way valve shuts, trapping water in the smaller supply pipe waiting for the next hammer blow of our watery battering ram. At this point the water in the main (drive pipe) is totally stopped and even starts to “bounce” back just a little from the shock wave of the initial “hit”.

It is this reversal of flow which creates a small negative pressure in the pump that allows the waste or Clack valve to drop open via gravity and start the process all over again.Now I want to go back to the point in the cycle where the water is pushing past the one way valve and go into a little more detail, as I have, for the sake of clarity, left out a vital component of the system.

Attached to the outlet side of the one way valve and branching off the delivery line we have a tank with air trapped in it. This tank’s job is to act as a shock absorber and smooth out the pressure spike of the ram. Without this tank the pressure spike can be so great it will impact on the service life of the pump. After the one way valve is shut the pressurized air in the tank re-expands and continues to push water up the delivery pipe greatly increasing the efficiency of the pump. Those tempted to do without the air tank be warned. Just to see what would happen  ran a 100mm diameter ram with only 1m fall and a lift of 3m and managed to tear a 50mm check valve to bits. Now the valve was a good quality glass reinforced plastic one rated to over 100psi. While I should have been mortified at the destruction of the valve, I couldn’t help but feel an evil glee at the clear demonstration of the forces involved.

This short animation on Youtube will help make things a little clearer.

If ram pumps have a downside, the one that most often comes to mind is the need for a certain amount of fall under which they wont operate. Depending on size and other factors minimum fall is between 500mm and 1000mm. We also need to realize that when it comes to energy there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, so how much fall we have directly effects how high we can pump. Typically most commercial rams are quoted as being capable of lifting water ten times the fall so 1m of fall will give you 10m of lift. It also stands to reason that the higher we pump the less we will pump as we are having to use more energy simply overcoming the  greater weight of water in the delivery pipe.

Recently I was presented with a challenging site where the creek the client wanted to pump from had a maximum fall of 1m and the height we needed to lift the water simply to get out of the creek gully was 20m. From the numbers given earlier, the upper range we could hope to pump to with a 1m fall is 10m so it usually wouldn’t have been deemed possible. Add in the factor that I was hoping to build the ram pump myself and that performance figures for other homemade rams were generally given to be  in the region of 5m lift per metre of fall and the task looked all but impossible. The icing on the cake was that the creek was prone to flash flooding and to get any fall at all the pump would have to sit directly in the creek bed right in the way of logs and such when it flooded.

It didn’t look good till I hit on the idea of staging two pumps to get us up and out of the gully.

The idea goes something like this, first we use our low fall (1m) to run a large ram pump and pump to a low delivery head (5m) and then let it fall through a smaller ram pump from the height of 5m back to the creek. This effectively gives us a small pump running with a fall of 5m, which even on the lower end of the drive to head ratio (5:1) gives us enough to get up and out of the gully

Luckily I even had a small pump I had built previously and tested, that I knew would do the job with the given fall. Perfect.

All that had to be done then, was work out the volume of water required to run the small pump and then build a bigger pump to supply that volume with a little spare capacity. After a lot of research and some mid range number crunching (not one of my strengths) I came up with a pumped sized to use a 100mm drive pipe. My target was 40 liters a minute delivered to 5m above the creek.


In the photo above you can see the pump design I came up with. Ram pump size designation normally comes from the diameter of the drive pipe in this case 100mm. Going from left to right we can see where the 100mm drive pipe attaches then the main body of the pump (big steel box) and then the waste valve (square opening) on the right.

An important design consideration is that we want the water to gain the greatest velocity we can as, the faster the water, the more energy. This is especially important when we have very low falls as we have less energy to start with so an important consideration is a straight flow path from the drive pipe inlet to the waste valve outlet. 90 degree turns and such will rob energy. Also we want the waste valve outlet to be at least as big as the pump inlet (remember we want maximum flow for maximum energy). To do this I worked out the cross sectional surface area of a 100mm pipe(78.5cm2) and then cut the waste valve hole to be slightly bigger 100mm x 100mm (100cm2). I did this before actually getting the pipe and because we were using scrap when it turned up it was actually 112mm internal diameter which is 113cm2 cross sectional surface area. Unable to resist getting the absolute best out of the pump I remade the waste valve and opening larger, so that once again it was larger than the inlet, so no flow restriction.

Again under the theme of getting the most energy, a waste valve that shuts early won’t allow the water to gain the greatest velocity, and as we already know, we have limited energy to start with, so anything that interferes with that is a big no-no. To that end we need a waste valve we can tune so that it closes just as the water is gaining it’s maximum velocity.  Anything less is wasted energy.


It’s a bit hard to see in the photo, but our waste valve is a heavy steel flap hinged at the bottom so it lays back into the oncoming flow of water. You can see the row of four small shiny bolts in the square waste valve opening -these attach the valve plate to a stainless steel door hinge. The valve drops open under gravity because the plate it is bolted onto is angled back. The adjusting bolt simply passes through the center of the valve plate(single big bolt in the square opening) and can be adjusted so the angle the water passes over the valve plate can be adjusted. We’ve all stuck our hands out a car window and made those wavelike motions up and down and you will have noticed its easy to keep you hand horizontal to the air flow but the instant you angle up or down a larger force flips you hand up or down rapidly, this is exactly what happens with our valve.

Of equal importance to all I’ve written about so far is the need to use rigid materials for the drive pipe and the pump body. The reason these pumps work at all is to a large degree due to the incompressibility of water. So imagine our 200L liter barrel falling towards the floor except this time its a large tractor tube filled with water. For a start we will get more of a splat than a crash, and there wont be any chipped concrete, that’s for sure, and that’s because the energy of the falling water is, to a great degree, dissipated by the elasticity of the rubber tube. So it is with our drive pipe and pump body. If we make them out of materials that have some “give” in them, then we are wasting energy by flexing those materials. You will see lots of ram pumps on the internet using plastic parts for the drive pipe and the pump bodies and these certainly work well if we are in a situation where we have enough energy that we can waste a fair bit of it . Ultimately however, if we are talking maximum efficiency, then rigid materials like steel are best. In the end it comes down to what you need and what it costs. For us we needed steel because of our low head and also for durability as this thing will, over the course of its life, have whole trees coming down stream and smashing into it, so plastic pipe just doesn’t cut it.

Most of the designs you will see on the internet tend not to be designed to sit right in the stream bed and certainly most aren’t designed to have logs and boulders crashing into them. They tend to have air tanks that stick straight up from the pump-body so they can trap air in the top of the chamber to act as a shock absorber, generally with a device called a snifter valve that lets a tiny gulp of air into the chamber each time the pump cycles. This is so air under pressure isn’t gradually dissolved into the water in the pump (just like CO2 into a bottle of soft drink) . This would then make the pump act like it had no air chamber with the result of lower performance and far greater stress on the pump parts.  Anyway, as you can imagine, in a flood, air chambers that stick up will tend to get damaged far more easily than ones that lie flat -so we designed ours to lie flat. This required that instead of a snifter valve, we trap air in the chamber using a different method, because for one: a snifter valve doesn’t work well with a low air chamber. Secondly, our pump is sitting right at water level so the minute the water level rises and the snifter valve goes under, the air chamber will fill with water and the pump stop. We got around this simply by filling a car tube with air and stuffing it in our air chamber so the air was trapped in the car tube and couldn’t dissolve away with the result that the pump will continue to run under water as long as we still have sufficient fall.


The air tank in the photo is salvaged from an old LPG vehicle tank, and before you ask, the fitting on top of the tank is just the original from when it was in a car and is retained purely to seal the tank. You can also see water starting to build up velocity as it exits the waste valve.Another important factor in getting the most out of a ram pump is the length of the drive pipe -too short and you don’t get enough mass going . Think of it like this: you have two battering rams, one is a power pole and the other is a pool cue. Both are made out of wood but we know which one will bash down a door. So you need the biggest reasonable mass of water you can. I say reasonable because over a certain length and you will actually start to lose performance again. It’s a Goldilocks thing, not too big, not too small, but just right. This has to do with the interactions of the various shock waves travelling up and down the pipe and certainly is not something I’m going to go into great detail. Luckily we have a rule of thumb calculation we can use to come to the correct lengths. Take the internal diameter of the drive pipe and multiply it by 150 and that will give you your minimum length. Next take the internal diameter of the pipe and this time multiply it by 1000 which gives you your maximum length. Now, if you have a longer drive pipe run because of site conditions don’t fret.  You put a stand pipe which is simply a pipe coming vertically off the drive pipe. If we do this towards the effective maximum length of the drive pipe as you’ve calculated it, then this will allow the pressure waves to dissipate and the pump retain its maximum efficiency.

Lets recap regarding factors effecting efficiency

Fall. Get the maximum fall of water into the pump, at 1m we’re right at the bottom of what is considered viable. In fact for 100mm ram pumps, generally 1.5m is considered the minimum viable fall.

Rigidity. The pump body is vastly overbuilt because the scrap steel we had was very thick (12mm) so is very rigid. However, other factors can effect rigidity. Any leaks in the drive pipe and the material the drive pipe is made of . Here we had some issues. Firstly the gasket material for fitting between our lengths of drive pipe was salvaged conveyer belt and was too hard and didn’t seal properly. Also after our initial run the pressure spike in the drive pipe found some internal weak points where the pipe must have been nearly rusted through. every time the waste vale shut we had water from various leaks shooting skyward. We have better gasket material ready for instillation and our local scrap guy has his eye out for some replacement pipe.

Tuning. We have adjusted the long bolt so the water builds to nearly maximum velocity before shutting. A simple test is to observe how far the water is gushing out the waste vale with the valve held fully open with a stick, this is our maximum velocity. Next observe how far the water gushes out when the pumps running. If its substantially less than when the waste valve is held open then adjust till it’s nearly as much. Too much though and it won’t shut reliably. A word of caution, don’t hold the waste valve open with you finger, here we can go back to my original analogy and imagine what would happen if your finger was caught between a falling  200kg drum of water and a concrete floor. Ouch!

Drive pipe length. Here we’re actually under our minimum length and as already mentioned the pipe is leaking so definitely sub optimal. Waiting on our scrap guy!

Pressure/Air tank. Here we’re good. Best practice is to size the tank to 50 times the pumped volume of one cycle of the pump, which, for this size pump, is around one litre. The tank is about 60L, so all good.

I suppose the next question is how did it go, considering our target of 40LPM and a few suboptimal factors.

As I stated at the start, due to boyish enthusiasm we fired it up prior to finishing the air tank and destroyed the check valve, so we knew we had harnessed some substantial energy. Or should I say we hadn’t harnessed it, hence the rupture. Once the air tank was finished and installed we primed the pump and started it up. A flow test at 5 meters gave us 36LPM. Considering the performance tweaks we know we have to address we will easily hit our target of 40LPM. Happy is not the word. We were stoked!


Next we installed a pressure gauge in the delivery line to see what our maximum delivery pressure was. We topped out at over 70 PSI ( sorry for the imperial measurement but I’m a PSI kind of guy).

This gives us a maximum theoretical pumping height of 49 meters. This means we could actually get up and out of the gully in one lift. Before you get too excited though, it is still to be assessed wether we could match the flow rate of the second stage pump to get the ultimate flow rate we required without the staging. But if its over 4LPM we’re in business!

It was about this time that a loud whooshing sound was heard and the Air tank took off down the creek spraying a jet of water out the back. We had salvage the old damaged valve and put it back together and under the strain of the pressure test it finally gave up it’s life for the greater good. A quick trip to town and a nice new brass valve was soon installed.


This shot shows removing the gauge after the pressure test. The water was shooting at least 15m vertically.

Considering all the adverse factors here, some of which we will shortly correct, I think it’s fair to say that the pump construction and instillation is and will be a resounding success and a vital part of the property’s infrastructure.

On my next post I want to explore some intriguing possibilities for ram pumps. Hint. What set of circumstances would allow you to take water out of a creek or stream and yet increase the volume of water flowing in the creek?

Posted on Leave a comment

Permaculture and managing holistically

timTim is a qualified diesel fitter who has been learning and experimenting with permaculture  and holistic management for over 30 years. He tutors at both the Koanga Institute in New Zealand and the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia. Over the years he has run a farm, environmental adventure tourism businesses, and contracted for the Environmental Protection Agency on large projects, all the while continuing to create his own projects from a hovercraft to a home aquaponics system. His current big project is designing and building a rammed earth home for his family in Morten Bay.

I’ve been wanting to write this article for some time, but, have been hiding behind the excuse of “I just don’t have the time”. I suspect though, it has been because what I want to talk about is probably a contentious issue for some and I’m generally a placid soul who doesn’t like to ruffle feathers.

Why then write now, some will ask? Well, I love teaching and more particularly, I love teaching Permaculture Design Courses (PDC). When someone turns up at a PDC they are there because they realize that there is a bigger picture at play in the world and they want to be part of it. They are ripe for change and if you do your job right, you can literally alter their lives. What school teacher could hope to have such an incredible dynamic going on in the classroom where everyone is buzzing with excitement for their new-found knowledge? It’s heady stuff but it also means there is a huge responsibility to do the best possible job you can.

Anyway, I’m always looking for ways to improve or better integrate the information in a PDC so that students can get some leverage on the Permaculture design process and really make it work for them. I, like most other PDC teachers, I’m sure, am always considering different exercises to better illustrate points, or on the hunt for the latest information to bring into the teaching room.

Over the last year or so, there has been much discussion between the practitioners of Permaculture and those that manage holistically, with both sides talking past each other and failing to even recognize they are making fundamental errors in defining what the other actually is. A comprehensive look at what Permaculture and Holistic Management are and are not, is a subject for another time — what I want to discuss now is that each side, in pointing out their differences, has failed to consider the similarities, synergies and complementary nature of Permaculture and Holistic Management.

Leaving aside all other considerations, at its core Permaculture is a design process which uses ethics, principles, patterns, strategies and techniques to achieve certain design goals.

Holistic Management is also a process, but in this case, it is a decision making process whereby we use a very similar set of ethics, principles, patterns, strategies and techniques to help us make complex management decisions while addressing environmental, social and economic outcomes.

It’s about now, someone usually insists Permaculture is about growing food and someone else insists Holistic Management is about grazing cattle. While it’s true these are common techniques of the respective processes, they do not define those processes and we do ourselves a disservice if we insist on limiting our view simply to strategies and techniques.

Regardless, we need to step back for a moment and consider that here we have a process for design and a process for management that are in no way contradictory. In fact PC and HM offer very valuable insights and perspectives into each other.

…Just as it’s a permaculture principle to value edge as often the most fertile and productive areas between two ecotones, so we should value the fertile edge between these two processes and embrace that which comes from it.

There has always been somewhat of an unspoken assumption in some circles that Permaculture doesn’t work. Now whether or not this criticism is valid and I fully believe it isn’t, it can be argued that for every functioning project there seems to be at least as many dysfunctional ones.

I’m sure this will bring howls of outrage from some, but bear with me — I am not criticising the Permaculture process, I am merely pointing out that there are quite a few examples where for one reason or another, the act of turning the process into reality fails or is poorly carried out.

The reasons for this are many and varied and directly correlate with the many and varied people practicing permaculture. More than a few will assert this is mainly through lack of practical experience or knowledge and I won’t disagree. However, I also believe that lack of experience and specific knowledge aren’t necessarily impediments to good design. Experience and knowledge can be gained — we all start from zero at some point. The important thing is to recognise this.

I believe the problem lies with the fact we all have different strengths and weaknesses and various biases and blind spots and it is these factors that ultimately influence how we make decisions. It’s these biases and blind spots that give us definition and make us who we are, so I’m not arguing against these things, simply stressing that we need to be well aware of them when we make decisions that have potentially large consequences. It’s also why I think that those people who have designed and managed highly functional permaculture systems would very likely do well regardless, as they tend to be good observers and as we should all recognize:

-a good observer tries to neutralize all cognitive biases and prejudgment so they have the greatest pallet of possibilities to work with.

David Holmgren always emphasises the trap of starting to design before we have simply observed, free of any value judgments. Another trait of a good designer is the joy and fascination in the learning opportunity of a good mistake.

While most of us downplay our mistakes, a good PC designer relishes them as true learning.

Now, if you are struggling somewhat with the concept of your making poor decisions, then it is highly likely you’re right in the middle of a cognitive bias. We tend to be blind to our own faults but find it much easier to see those faults in others. Those that find this hard to agree with, I simply direct to any search of Cognitive Bias on the internet which will bring up a huge number of biases that have been consistently and replicably shown to exist in humans. There are probably a large number of readers now vehemently denying this, but I would like to throw the challenge out there, that true intellectual honesty comes not from just questioning others, but yourself also.


Holistic context

This is where Holistic Management can be of great benefit. As stated earlier, to a large degree HM is a decision making process. However, before we start making decisions, we have to work out what we are making decisions about and what those decisions are for. Without this, we are like a ship without a compass. Very, very briefly, a HM practitioner first creates a holistic context, (previously, this was referred to as a holistic goal but context is a much more apt description). As my trainer, Brian Wehlburg of Inside Outside Management, puts it “Think of context as the umbrella under which want to operate”. Ultimately creating a holistic context is a clarifying and empowering process that helps us articulate our heart’s true desires and this is the engine that drives the whole process.

Define the whole

The first step in creating our context is to define the ‘whole’ under management. This is simply a recognition that nothing works in isolation and everything is connected. No one element can be truly understood as individual components, but rather only in how it operates within a functioning system. Interestingly, the systems thinking which undergirds Permaculture was itself derived from holism.

So in defining our ‘whole’ under management we look at the system we want to manage. It might be a business, a farm, a government department, a town or your life and your family’s life.

The decision-makers

We then list our decision-makers. These are simply all the people who from day-to-day make decisions in the ‘whole’ as defined, from the most mundane to the most far-reaching. So for a business, it’s everyone from the CEO to the person serving in the cafeteria. For your family it will be you, your partner and the kids. In this category, we also include anyone who has the power of veto or can alter your decisions.

The resource base

Next, we list all the physical resources available to us to help us achieve our context. Though we don’t yet have the context formed, we should have a good idea of our resources. So it may be a car, machinery, land, a house or in fact any physical thing we have access to or use of. We don’t even have to own whatever it is, merely have the use of it, so it can also include things like other people, the internet, libraries etc. Be creative here because the more you list the more potential resources you have to help you achieve your context.


You may be tempted to list money in your resource base, but we tend to list it separately. Again don’t limit yourself to what you actually have, but also potential sources of money. Here is where you put down savings, precious metals, stocks, bonds, etc., but also money that can be obtained from bank loans, grant money, social security and even money that can be generated by things in your resource base.

Statement of purpose

Depending on the ‘whole’ you are managing, you can have a statement of purpose. This is a preface to setting your holistic context and serves to focus you on what you are actually trying to achieve. It should be only a sentence or two. You could almost call it your mission statement.

Quality of life statement

Here we are attempting to express what we really want out of life — what excites us and motivates us. This statement has to reflect the desires and aspirations of all the decision-makers as listed earlier. If your holistic context is the engine which drives the process then your QoL is the fuel. It’s what gets you up in the morning, eager to move yourself closer to your context. Here it’s important to drill down to the root of what motivates us, so instead of saying things like “I want lots of money”, we would ask why do we want lots of money? We very often find that words like security, prosperity or stability pop up, so it’s really important to get right down to it. We also find what most people really want, tends to be universal, regardless of race, gender or creed.

Areas to consider are:

Economic well-being
Challenge and growth
Purpose and contribution

We all want freedom from financial woes, we all want to love and be loved. We also know with challenge comes growth and we all seek purpose and the possibility to contribute and have meaning in our lives. So approaching writing your QoL statement by using the above categories can be very helpful.

You want to be using short simple phrases — it doesn’t have to be long and beautifully written  – indeed this can block the process somewhat. Try to express these things using emotions and try to express them as you want them to be, not how they are now. An example might be “I have loving relationships with my family”, “I feel secure and prosperous”, “I am well respected” “I enjoy challenge and the growth that comes from it”, “I am happy and healthy”. Don’t get too specific, it should be about how you want to feel, not how you are going to achieve it. That part comes next.

Forms of production

This is where we look at the various parts of our Quality of Life statement and match it with a means of producing the listed desirable outcomes. Again, we don’t want to be too specific but we want to address those things that will either block or assist us in achieving our quality of life. Remember we are talking holism here, so there is always going to be some overlap, with with some forms of production addressing multiple areas of our quality of life statements. For instance, the form of production for “loving relationships” might be more open communication or better time management or work/life balance, which might also be forms of production for “being respected by and involved in my community”. -If I had put down “More time” instead of “Better time management” I wouldn’t have been addressing the real issue, as we all have the same amount of time — some just manage it better than others.
The forms of production for “feel secure and prosperous” might be “sound financial planning” or “Community involvement”, remembering that to prosper doesn’t necessarily mean to profit.

Future resource base

The final step in setting your Context is to describe your future resource base. Here, you describe how your resource base has to be to support the forms of production that in turn will give you the quality of life you desire. Again, use the present tense as though you have already achieved what you are describing. Describe the people around you, your land, the infrastructure, the ecosystem health, your community. Terms like “supportive community”, “rich black soil”, “high biodiversity” are what you’re looking for. Describing and imagining things thus is incredibly motivating.

So, that in a nutshell, is the Holistic Context forming process. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this is just barely skimming what is at times a challenging but ultimately incredibly empowering process. To imagine and then describe those things we most desire and in terms that imply that we have them, is truly uplifting.

Testing decisions

To run through the whole HM process is simply beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to quickly highlight that once we have our context, which greatly clarifies what we truely want in life, we can start to test decisions to see whether they align or are in conflict with our context. As discussed earlier, we all have numerous cognitive biases and that’s okay as it makes us who we are. However, having poured our hearts into describing what we want out of life, we don’t want to sabotage ourselves by making decisions that seem right but are distorted by those various biases. To do this testing, we have a series of questions which we run our potential decision through. Using this process we can make complex decisions while always taking into account and balancing social, economic and environmental imperatives. In case there are those inclined to see this as being all Spock-like and hyper-logical, relax, there is even a question that basically asks us “how do you feel about this decision?” Ultimately it’s to achieve our heart’s desire, so surely a little structured thought isn’t a bad thing. What this process does, is allow us to see past the clutter of complexity and personal biases and make long term decisions that continually move us towards our context.

Finally having made a decision: we implement it and assume it’s wrong. That’s right — assume it’s wrong! When dealing with complex systems, especially natural ones, we have to assume we got it wrong. This stops us falling into the trap (bias) of looking for evidence supporting our decision when often the quickest way to the truth of something is to look for evidence of being off track. It is far better to make small, early, corrections to our course than to assume we are heading in the right direction, only to find much later we are far from our goal and have to cover a lot of extra ground to get there.

Now, the best way to do this is to work out what would be some early indicators of problems and monitor for them consistently and regularly. If we are starting to drift we then implement controls and continue to monitor. Then if we find we are still not getting the results we want, we can re-plan and continue to monitor. The take-home from this is the minute you have a plan it’s useless unless you are constantly monitoring, controlling and replanning. In managing holistically, ‘plan’ is a 24 letter word. Plan, Monitor, Control, Re-plan.

Now as I’ve stressed already, this is skimming over a lot of ground quickly, and just like a few thousand words does not a PDC course make, neither does a short article highlighting a small part of the HM process make one a Holistic Manager. There is much more to the process than meets the eye and I certainly encourage interested people, particularly permaculturists to get themselves on a HM training course or a PDC that incorporates it.

So far I have written quite heavily from the perspective of what HM can do for permaculture because most of the audience reading this will be reasonably well acquainted with permaculture. Having said that, there is a lot that permaculture can offer HM, particularly in the area of understanding and using ecological principles to design supportive ecosystems.

While HM does, in fact, talk about various ecological principles and has some great tools for insight, like the Four Ecosystem Processes Model (a topic for another time) it is not as wide-ranging or as comprehensive in this area, instead directing us to look for those answers using our ingenuity. I have written about this before, but one of Permaculture’s great strengths and often one of its great weaknesses (especially when trying to describe it to someone in a nice concise sound bite) is that it’s not so much about specific information as it is about how to arrange and use that information. So if new information comes to light or old information is found to be incorrect, we can delete the old and plug in the new, but the organizing framework remains. So for a permaculturist, HM is just new information to plug into and for a holistic manager Permaculture is human ingenuity distilled.

I often feel when discussing HM with Permaculturists and Permaculture with HM practitioners that there is altogether too much interest in the idea that one system is subordinate to the other in terms of relevance and it is somehow important that one is the bigger idea. While certainly a large part of this has to do with prior personal investment in either idea, I believe it is very much a human tendency to try and categorise or rank things. Me, I’m just grateful I have more information to work with, fresh perspectives and a strengthening through integration of two vitally important bodies of knowledge.


Posted on Leave a comment

The solar dryer

marcoMarco has come to Koanga from Tauranga with his wife and six-month-old baby, to do a three-month appropriate technology apprenticeship. The solar drier is just one of many projects he has thrown himself into….

As part of our Appropriate Technology course we made a solar drier to harness the sun’s energy for   drying and preserving some of our excess fruit and vegetables so we can eat them throughout the year.
The basic design is a radiant heat solar drier. It is a really easy design, but works really effectively.
Basically there is a layer of glass that is propped up on a timber frame, and two layers of corrugate iron.  The sun shines through the clear glass at the top of the drier which then hits the black painted corrugate iron that heats up the metal.
drid tomsThe heat from the underside of the metal then heats the food below in a stainless mesh tray, causing  it to lose moisture and dry.  The moisture leaving the food flows out under the screen and up the sloped air channels. The cool air comes through the corrugate troughs and draws the hot air and moisture out leaving behind tasty dried food.
You can dry all sorts of fruit and vegetables. Depending on the size of the fruit and amount of sun, the drying process can happen in a day or two.  It would be advised to put the produce in on a sunny day and to cut it quite thinly.  As you can see in the photo above, we have wild blackberries, alma tomatoes (which are specific for drying), elderberries and peaches.
solar groupWe have made a large solar drier to suit the community, but you could build a much smaller one for home use out of pallets, for example.

Here is our design draft:
Solar drier sketch

Posted on Leave a comment

Low mass insulated barrel oven

Some may remember I did an article a while ago on white ovens. If you haven’t read that, now might be a good time as this article follows on from it. Those that did read the article may remember I foolishly made a prediction on how hot I thought the oven I proposed to design and build would get. The magic number was 300degC, as the oven would at times be used for cooking pizza and also large amounts of food for catering purposes.

So lets go through the building and testing process and see how it all went. One of my main design parameters (apart from the hoping it would work) was that the oven could be built using fairly simple tools and without much engineering skill -so no welding at all in the construction. A much modified 200L barrel forms the heart of the oven. These are easy to come by and if you follow a few simple steps are easy to open up and clean.

Car workshops are a good place to get the barrels, as they will usually only have had clean oil in them. I then usually tip them upside down over a container and let them drain for 1/2 an hour and then give them a couple of washes with hot water and dishwashing liquid. Whatever you do, don’t use a drum unless you are absolutely certain you know what was in it prior. I once was invited to give an oven workshop and when I turned up all the barrels  that had been collected were ex-herbicide and pesticide barrels. Big no no!

The next thing to do is remove the ends. For this you only need a small angle grinder. Firstly use all the appropriate safety gear when using any power tools (You have been warned!). Simply grind evenly all the way round on the very end of the barrel and eventually you will see a line appear, stop grinding on this spot and move along till the line continues all the way round the drum. Then just tap around on the inside of the end of the drum with a mallet and the end should fall into the barrel where it can be retrieved. If the end is a bit stuck then note where its not moving down and give it a bit more of a grind. Do this with  both ends and save them.
1. exposed seam

Next put one of those thin steel cutting blades on the angle grinder (I love those things, they are so handy) and cut the drum in half so you basically have two round steel tubes. Each will have a thick lip on one end that corresponds with the top and bottom of the barrel.
Next take one of your steel tubes and fit what was originally the lid of the drum into the end without the thick lip and drill and pop rivet it in place. It should be a neat fit. Oh, by the way, the lid of the drum will usually have two screw-in bungs, one big, one small,  remove these and take the black “O” rings off and refit the bungs. This way when the oven heats up you won’t be getting smoked out from melting “O” rings.

You now should have a half height barrel.
2. half height
Next take what was the bottom of the barrel and cut it as shown in the photo, add two hinges and pop rivet the smaller piece into the end of the barrel. You now have your inner cooking chamber with door.
3. completed inner

We then take the remaining steel “tube” and cut it vertically from top to bottom and stretch this and place it around the inner chamber. A picture is worth a thousand words so have a close look at the next  couple of photos and you will see that I have drilled through both the outer and inner chambers and installed bolts and nuts in three places on each end so that the outer cover is held in place and a gap of approx 50mm is maintained between the two steel tubes. This is where our hot gasses will flow.
4. spacer arrangement

Next step is to make a base. In this case a heavy but cheap plywood bench was made and a hole cut to take the oven assembly.
5 oven in base

Being in NZ we have heaps of pumice lying round everywhere so I filed some pieces flat and used them to space the barrels away from the ply so that the base was well insulated from the oven.

We had some insulation batts made from recycled glass left over from another project so we used this to insulate the outer steel tube. You could use some perlite mixed with clay or even a clay sawdust mix as an insulating layer but we had the batts handy and they make a very big difference to the performance of the oven. Over this we put an outer cover of some thin aluminum sheet and pushed cob into the gap. Again we had the sheets lying around but you could use the skin of another barrel. Note that the extra metal layer is to stop the outer cob layer squashing the insulation flat. If you use the perlite or sawdust mix mentioned earlier the you don’t need the metal layer just cob straight over the top.

In this shot you can see the cob being pushed into the gap in the insulating layer.

This shot is from the back of the oven and you can see I have also plugged the gap between the inner barrel and the outer barrel leaving an exit hole for the exhaust gasses at the top.

A shot from the front showing the gaps between all layers filled.


Here we see the combustion gas inlet from below. It’s just a hole cut in the outermost skin of the insulating layer. You can see the inner barrel through the hole.

I then built an insulated heat riser for the rocket stove using crushed pumice rammed down between two different sized flue pipes and capped in place with cob. Next I cut slots in the ends of the outer flue and bent the tabs over to lock everything permanently in place.

I then built up a rocket stove body out of old bricks.

I wanted to have a test run with and without baffels to measure what effect having baffles in the outer chamber would make to the oven performance. So without cobing in anymore of the exterior we fired up the oven and took some temperature readings.  Fifteen minutes after lighting the oven with no baffles installed it hit  217degC and in the next 15 minutes went up to around 265degC and stabilised there.  Pretty good for a first run.

The next day we removed the cob mix from the rear of the oven where it seals between the inner and outer barrels. Baffles were made from some of the scrap fiberglass insulation wrapped in aluminum foil and then inserted into the gap between the barrels so that the combustion gasses had to follow a convoluted path to get out, hopefully giving up more heat to the inner barrel in the process.

We then reassembled everything and fired her up again.

It’s here that I have to digress a little and set the scene. I had been working with the Koanga Institute on site for nearly a year and the day in question was to be my last full day, I was due to fly out very early the next day. As you can imagine things were pretty hectic. Cleverly a week earlier Kay had said we were going to have a pizza night for my sendoff so guess what? First I had to make the oven! So there we are at 4pm in the afternoon and we haven’t hit our target of 300degC and we’re supposed to be cooking with the oven in a couple of hours. Anyway in the first 15 minutes we passed 265degC and in the next 15  we passed 400degC. The highest temperature later in the night with all the cooking done reached over 500degC. To say I was stoked would be an understatement. Of course there are lots of things I could have done better, as it was a bit of a rushed job.

On my return to teach at the institute’s next PDC some six months later the oven has had some major improvements, most notably a new experimental coat of paperdobe (paper and silt/clay) and some improvements to the baffles which were found to have slipped. Brad who did the work had found that the old baffles had slipped down, probably from heat distortion and so had constructed permanent steel ones instead. The modifications make the oven much more durable and the Paperdobe is proving to be quite a good insulating outer layer.

All in all the oven is proving very fuel efficient and easy to use and is in near daily use at the institute cooking up lots of yummy food.

Tim is a qualified diesel fitter who has been learning and experimenting with permaculture for over 30 years. He has tutored at both the Koanga Institute in New Zealand and the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia. Over the years he has run a farm, environmental adventure tourism businesses, and contracted for the Environmental Protection Agency on large projects, all the while continuing to create his own projects from a hovercraft to a home aquaponics system. His current big project is designing and building a rammed earth home for his family in Morten Bay.

Posted on Leave a comment

Throwing the BTU’s out with the bath water

Okay so on my wood fire hot water heater post I said  that we  could get up to a 30% energy saving on heating water and the hint was, what do we do after we’ve just spent so much time and energy getting it up to temperature? The answer as everybody knows is we let it run down the plughole in an attempt to heat the sewer or septic tank or whereever it is your waste water goes. Lets face it, rats and microbes should be entitled to a hot bath too! Seriously though its crazy, we just let it go, the waste!  I’ve long thought we could do better but the pattern in general has been to concentrate on generating the heat directly not on waste heat recovery, its just not as sexy as the burning wood bit. I’m always on guard against falling into the pattern of …well… falling into a pattern!  You know the old saw about when you have a hammer the whole world looks like a nail. Saw ? Hammer? What? What I’m trying to say is don’t always try to solve all your problems with those solutions you most like or are identified with. Case in point I always ask students what is the most efficient rocket stove? I get many and varied replies but the correct answer is “the one you don’t have to light” People like burning stuff so we tend to gravitate towards solutions that favor this but honestly if I can get the same result with less wood burnt then I’m very happy.  So I think the goal of using up to a third less wood for the same end result is a great one to pursue.

Of course not burning any wood to heat our water is even better and we will get to that in a future post.

Now first the concept of the heat exchanger,  the radiator in your car is a heat exchanger. Water heated by the engine is piped through the radiator, air is drawn through the radiator by the fan and the air picks up the heat from the water in the radiator and carries it away. The copper coil inside the hot water tank in my last post  on wood fired hot water systems  is also a heat exchanger, the heat in the water outside the coil passes through the wall of the copper pipe and into the water in the pipe. So a heat exchanger is a device that removes heat from one fluid and conducts it into another.

A few factors affect how well this can happen:

How good a conductor the material that the heat exchanger is made of is. Copper or aluminium would be good, whereas plastic or wood would be bad as they seriously slow the passage of heat.

The temperature difference between the hot and cold.   If we have water at 70 deg c on the hot side and 50 deg c on the cold side were not going to get as much heat transfer as if  we had 70 deg c water on the hot side and  10 deg c water on the cold side. Think of it like this, the greater the temperature difference the greater the ( to use a word incorrectly but descriptively) “pressure”.

The surface area, the larger the area of contact between the hot and cold the greater the heat transfer.

The time. The longer the hot and cold sides are in contact the greater the heat transfer.

So within reason we want heat exchangers that have a large temperature difference between the hot and cold sides , we want the exchanger to be made of the most conductive materials possible , we want the largest surface area we can and we want the fluids we are exchanging the heat between to be in contact for as long as possible.

Back to our shower.  Water flows into our hot water system at ambient temperature which will depend on where you live and time of year, for arguments sake let’s say 15 deg c. The water is then heated to a maximum of 80 deg c . The water passes through a tempering valve and comes to the shower head at a maximum temp of 55-60 deg c. By the time it hits our body and then the floor of the shower its at about 40 deg c. It then runs down the drain and is lost.  The trick is to use this 40 deg water to heat up the water flowing into the hot water tank at ambient which as mentioned is 15 deg. As a side note, in winter because the ambient temp of the water is even lower it will give us better heat recovery due to the higher temperature difference. Now that doesn’t mean it will use less energy to heat the water in winter, just that we will recover more waste heat due to the greater temperature difference. One important thing that hasn’t been mentioned and is very close to criminal is not insulating the pipe from your hot water system to where you are going to use it ,this is a huge waste of precious heat so if you haven’t done so, do so, pronto!

Now if we are using off the shelf equipment to build our heat exchanger then the humble copper water pipe is hard to beat. For a start its designed for potable (drinking ) water, its readily available and copper is a great conductor. Now the easiest system is simply to have the copper pipe feeding your hot water system take a detour along a section of your drain pipe. Typical drain pipe is around 40-45mm so the 13mm copper pipe will sit nicely along the bottom of the bigger pipe .From experience a 5 or 7 mtr length will give approx 50% heat recovery. Now don’t go getting all excited and think you can just double the length and get all the heat out.  The universe has specifically been designed so that you can’t.  As Robert Heinlein once wrote T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).The energy recovery is exponential which means that the next 5 mtrs will get you an extra 25% the next 5 , 12.5% and so on.

If we harken back to one of our factors affecting heat transfer, the greater the temperature difference the greater the heat transfer. Now imagine our drain pipe with its 40 deg c water and the water in the heat exchanger pipe flowing in the same direction, the drain water loses a little heat, the water in the exchanger gains a little heat, they flow on a bit more one steadily losing temperature the other slowly gaining. What is happening to our temperature difference? All the time it’s steadily decreasing till at some point the temps are the same. Now imagine the identical situation except that the water flowing in the heat exchanger pipe is flowing the opposite or counter to the flow of the drain water. You now have a counter flow heat exchanger. This time as the drain water loses heat it encounters cooler water in the copper pipe the further it flows, conversely as the water in the copper pipe follows the drain it encounters progressively hotter water. This means we are maintaining as large a temperature difference as we can and so we are transferring more heat.


Now a few real world caveats, the first being that shower drains generally get lots of hair and stuff down them, so while having a spiral of copper pipe or some other high surface area arrangement will recover more heat it will also block more readily so be happy with the straight copper or if your a bit handy I’ve always thought it would be great to make a shower base out of an old copper hot water tank or sheet of copper with a large coil of copper pipe soldered to the back and then down the drain. Commercial units are available that have a spiral of pipe around a section of large diameter copper pipe through which the drain flows and this is ideal and can fairly easily constructed by those with access to welding equipment.

water flows

The second caveat is also about blocking but this is concerned with where and how your copper pipe enters and exits your drain pipe. If you drill the holes in the drain pipe in the top of said pipe then again it will almost certainly block due to the copper pipe hanging down into the drain so while its harder to seal its far better to have the pipe enter and exit from the bottom.

Now if your talents lie in other areas, as stated earlier commercially constructed units are available and are generally well engineered, but will cost you. If you’re like me though you wont be able to resist the temptation to tinker.

Happy Thermodynamics !


Posted on Leave a comment

A Whiter shade of pale by Tim Barker

Some may have read my earlier articles on constructing simple efficient wood fired ovens and water heaters. To date the ovens i have described are what are commonly known as “Black” ovens , now the mental image that  the description “black oven” conjures up may not be particularly appealing but the reality is i assure you far from it. Basically a black oven is one where the food being cooked is exposed to the combustion gasses of the wood so technically a wood fired pizza oven is considered a black oven. Now most i’m sure will agree that a good wood fired pizza is a beautiful thing. Having almost exclusively used a black oven these last three years for all my families roasting and baking i can attest to how tasty food from one of these ovens can be.

There are a number of broad differences between white and black ovens and i’m going to generalize here so professional pyromaniacs and oven builders please remain calm. Generally black ovens are stored heat ovens ,that is you burn wood in them and the mass of the oven stores the heat of the fire. You then clean the ash out and put your food in, be it pizza, roast or bread (again i’m glossing over a vast body of information here) and it cooks, all the while slowly losing heat. Now we’ve all seen wood fired pizza ovens where there is a fire going in the chamber. This is merely an adaption to the need in a commercial situation to cook for extended times or for ovens without adequate mass to store enough heat in the first place. Where my black ovens differ is that there is no attempt to store heat. You cook while the fire is burning with little or no need for preheating.

Funnily enough though one of the most commonly asked questions is “doesn’t the smoke taint the food “ well to be honest i like the flavor it imparts to the food but by and large if the oven is well designed and tended then there is very little “added” flavor.

As i mentioned earlier we bake in ours, cakes, scones, biscuits lots of things with delicate flavors that wouldn’t benefit from a smoky flavor. You’ll notice i added the caveat “if well designed and tended”.  If its not well designed and smokes then it will taint the food ,ditto for wet or green wood or of particular horror if the wood is treated or painted. This cannot be overstated  Use Only Untreated Wood. And of course some people simple don’t know how to start or tend a fire (i would hazard to say most) so if the fire is poorly tended again it will smoke.

Now if your with me on this you’ve probably already guessed there is such a thing as a white oven and yes a white oven simply keeps the food and the combustion gasses separated. Now compared to the black ovens i’ve designed using old electric or gas ovens the white oven is a slightly more complex beast to construct. Firstly we have to have a gas tight inner chamber where the food cooks, this is then surrounded by a chamber where combustion gasses flow and heat the inner chamber through conduction, convection and radiation. In the interests of efficiency we also can have an outer insulating layer to trap and make better use of our heat.

So to recap we have black ovens where food is in contact with combustion gasses and these fall into two main categories and one sub category, those that cook with stored heat(mass ovens) those that cook with direct heat(Insulated ovens) and the third category being those that combine a bit of both (mass ovens with a ongoing fire).

Guess what ? White ovens fall into two main categories with a third sub category. Those that cook with stored heat, those that cook with direct heat, and those that do a little of both. Now when i talk about mass ovens and insulated ovens i don’t mean that mass ovens have no insulation, in fact the best most efficient ones do. However the insulation goes outside the mass and keeps the captured heat from escaping to the environment thereby staying hotter longer. By contrast an insulated oven has comparatively little mass and uses the heat of combustion as its produced.

White ovens that use mass to cook use ….well a lot of mass ! This can make them quite an undertaking to construct and because of the long preheat time removes a lot of the spontaneity that is the spice of life. As previously argued they are also very inefficient when used in the wrong context. So setting this type aside for a future date i want to concentrate on low mass insulated ovens.

But first a quick look at our sub category of mixed white ovens (some mass and ongoing heat).

Mixed white ovens have been around for some time and seem to often incorporate 200l barrels (44 gallon in old speak and 55 gallon if your from the US). I think that this is purely because they lend themselves so well to the concept and are cheap and easy to get.

rocket oven and barrel ovenAbove we see a more recent design by Max and Eva Edleson of adapted from similar ovens they saw in South America which use some mass and ongoing heat.

Interestingly enough the ovens don’t appear to use any insulation as such and so must lose a fair amount of heat to the environment. However because of the slow heat transfer rate of the Adobe bricks around the barrel  and the large fire chamber, more than enough is soaking into the barrel. Also of interest is that the fire is a traditional sort in that logs are piled in, a fire lit and off you go. As a person who has spent a fair amount of time over the last few years mucking about with rocket stoves the design cries out for a big dose of efficiency in the shape of a rocket combustion chamber, less mass and better insulation.

barrel oven


This Photo is of one of the oldest barrel ovens i know it dates from the 1940’s and is at Moreton Telegraph station in Far North Queensland Australia. Note the similarities to the much later design above. These were know as Ant bed ovens as they utilized the material from termite mounds broken up and mixed with water to form the outer shell. You can clearly see a layer of ant bed (think cob) packed in between the inner and outer drum to create a space for the hot combustion gasses to flow around. It was probably this oven that really sparked my initial interest in wood combustion back in the mid 90’s.

This leads us by a long and tortured path to the brief for my latest design which is a white oven with as little mass as possible using a rocket stove as the heat source. Combining these two features should i hope produce an oven that is very quick to heat up and is very frugal in its use of wood. Its always a mistake to pre-empt a design but i’m guessing this oven should hit 300 deg c (great for Pizza) on very little wood. Stay tuned.


Posted on Leave a comment

Transport in a Post Peak World

Let me just state right up front , for the record . I love fossil fuels , i can hear the howls of protest now  but there it is, i think their great.  As an exercise imagine if all the products and services provided by fossil fuels vanished from your life right now.  For a start you wouldn’t be angry with me for saying i love fossil fuels because you wouldn’t have a computer to read it on,  you’d also probably find yourself sitting on the ground because most if not all of your house just vanished and you would be wondering what the hell was going on !  Or maybe your feeling a little smug right now because your in an all natural building and so almost nothing came from fossil fuels. Did you dig the clay literally with your hands ? Or did you use a shovel made from steel ? Used your hands ? Im impressed  but i still got you cause your still reading this on a computer.

The point of the mental calisthenics was to point out that we’ve got to get away from the whole us and them mindset.  Us being the side of right who know that the current way we run our society  is totally unsustainable , that fossil fuels are evil  etc etc etc  and Them being the evil fossil fuel using society around us. People, hate to break it to you but  we are all Them.  As part of my work at PRI Australia and now The Koanga institute in New Zealand it’s been my privilege to meet all sorts of amazing young people from around the world and i must say i’ve had some fun pointing that out to them but the brutal fact of all this is that  we need to accept that fact and get on with  the first steps in moving towards a more sustainable society. Note i didn’t say sustainable i said more sustainable  because we simply don’t know what exactly that is , unless of course somebody wants to be dropped off with a tribe of Kalahari bushmen or some other increasingly rare group of hunter gatherers.  See the romantic notion of the wholly sustainable life is at the moment just that ,  a romantic notion.  Theres growing food because its good for you and the environment and it strikes a blow at the heart of the big multinationals and then theres growing food because your life depends on it.  The two are light years apart and so is the current hijacked concept of being sustainable and the reality that we don’t have a clue how we are going to achieve it and the fact that life is going to be a lot harder and dirtier and a hell of a lot less convenient.


Right about now is usually when the author says”but” and launches into an optimistic pep talk about how our lives will be better, fuller, richer etc. Sure they will be, no arguments but it will also be bloody harder !

So on to our main topic ‘Transport in a post peak world.’  Now if your not up with the concept of peak oil then i will direct you to my good friend Wikipedia for a more in depth explanation but simply put Fossil fuels are a finite non renewable resource. They are also incredibly energy dense ,we have built our entire civilization around them,  they are getting increasingly harder to find and more expensive to extract.  The whole project of Globalization was only made possible through cheap transport fuels so as these fuels get more and more expensive this system will simply seize up and with it industrial agriculture.  Not convinced ? Fact is for every calorie of food we consume in the developed nations Ten (10) calories of fossil fuel are used to grow it package it and ship it.  Now even a small child will quickly figure out that that little equation is not sustainable.  In fact its not a little unsustainable its almost as though someone sat down and carefully engineered it to be as unsustainable as possible.  Added to that, for every kilo of food we grow using modern methods we lose between 6 kilos (in the USA) and 11 kilos (China) of soil forever.  So that which cannot be sustained will not be sustained, meaning our food production system will be coming a lot closer to home (Less food miles) and will be primarily along organic lines.  And if anyone cares to try and argue those points they can take it up with the laws of thermodynamics i’m just the messenger ! Of course what applies to transportation of food also holds true for all other goods such as flat screen TV’s, Ipods and such that are produced overseas and shipped to market.  Ditto the mined raw materials to produce these things  and Ditto the fuel hungry mining process itself. For interesting developments in the revival of sailing ships for goods transport check out  The sail transport network

Now we’ve discussed transport of industrially produced food and goods a little and i’m not going to say much more except that people really need to consider supplying most of their  non negotiable needs themselves (see “Walking the middle path”). But i suspect where most people will (at least initially) squeal the most is the effect these unfolding events will have on personal mobility.  Leaving aside the complex knock on economic effects of peak oil its a sure bet that transport fuel will be harder to afford be it from increases in price or a reduction in peoples ability to afford it.  And you can read into that what you will, but it seems to me to be baked into the cake.

Of course nothing is simply going to stop, its just gradually going to get harder and harder to sustain current personal transport habits.  And its the changing of personal habits that is our first line of response and also that which has the potential to give us the most bang for our buck. Recent studies have shown that simply by being more organized and more mindful we can reduce the kilometers we travel by a third without any real loss of quality of life. Im sure we all know what i’m talking about , the quick trip to the shop because we’ve run out of milk, the two or three trips by different family members to get different things or because they didn’t want to wait for the other, or the classic shopping two or three times a week rather than once because we can’t be bothered planning out our meals. It all adds up. Taken a little further think of the benefits of coordinating with  friends to shop together, the money saved in fuel can pay for a nice cup of coffee or better yet when they get dropped off you get to pop in for a coffee.






Of course don’t overdo it !


Not only are you saving fuel your maintaining and strengthening social ties !


Join a car pooling club or co operative or a ride share scheme. Our cars spend most of their time parked in our driveways doing nothing except quietly but rapidly depreciating. Depending on your situation public transport might also make better sense.


Below are links to a few of the ride share schemes in NZ and OZ

And then of course there is the humble bicycle one of our most efficient transport machines. Here not only do you get cheap transport but time to think,  and a free workout . Cargo bikes are big at the moment and for good reason, here you can take the little ones for a ride or bring the groceries home. I want one badly in fact before leaving Oz i was part way through building my own. See for great DIY instructions.

fossil fuel





Many cities in both Europe and the US are now running  bike share schemes to ease parking and traffic issues in the inner city

peak oil






And of course electric bikes are now readily available and coupled with the cargo bike concept are able to move fairly large loads over extended ranges.

aprop tech







While on the subject of electric vehicles i must say i’m not a fan of Electric cars. While i believe they have their place in the mix we must not use them to try and prolong  “business as usual “ Business as usual is going away.  We are far better keeping the cars we already have going as the massive amounts of energy that have gone into their manufacture is highly amortized  whereas new cars be they super efficient or not have a huge energy cost to manufacture.

As Dmitry Orlov says “The idea of making cars more efficient by making more efficient cars is sheer folly.”

Of course the Elephant in the room is Air travel particularly International Air travel.  Air travel is set to become something that only a few very well off people will be able to afford. For all the reasons previously laid out.  And yet the alternatives are few in fact i can think of only two . The first is don’t and the second is sea transport in general and sail transport in particular.

And in point of fact  passenger sail transport networks whereby tens of thousands of individuals travel between countries already exist.  Web sites where individuals can sign on as crew for a share of costs such as are constantly matching yacht owners needing an extra set of hands with people wanting the adventure of ocean travel . Im sorry theres not more to say here on the subject of flight except that fantasies of cheap flights using Bio fuels or such are just that Fantasies.

So while this is just a quick summary of potential transport issues and solutions heading into the future we all need to take a good look at where we live and how we are going to get by on less more expensive fuel. Questions like How far do you commute to work?  How many cars do you have? Do you live far out of town? Where do the kids go to school ? Where is your food going to come from? and can you afford it. All these are question people are only now starting to ask and unfortunately  due to the way we’ve designed our living arrangements predicated on cheap energy the answers aren’t good.

Its going to be an interesting ride !

Posted on Leave a comment

Walking the Middle Path

Some of you, having looked at the title may be going ”uh oh“, some may be going “great something about buddhism“ still others may be going “whats he going on about?”. This story is for everybody. I don’t know much about Buddhism except that as religions go, it seems pretty balanced. In the area we used to live, the kids did buddhist studies at school and a lot of what came home seemed to sit well with how we, as a family lived. Getting back to my knowledge of buddhism, as I said  its pretty thin, except that the term “walking the middle path“ which is a central concept of Buddhism, just so happens to pretty much perfectly sum up my personal philosophy on dealing with the challenges in my life and the changes afoot in the wider world. Now don’t get confused and think I follow the Buddhist middle path, but that simply the term fits well with how I think and that certainly my middle path and that of Buddhism are ultimately about balance, self honesty and a healthy dose of critical thinking.

Now those that know me will know that  one of my central themes is not falling in love with any one idea or fix, as “The solution”. I think its a trap when we identify with, or are identified with, an idea, a movement, or a technology so strongly that we are trapped within that frame of reference and so miss other ideas or solutions other than those we are familiar with. Having said that, its why I identify so strongly with the permaculture movement. Without going too far into it, to me the strength of permaculture and the very fact that can make it so maddening to try and describe it to others, is its vigorous adoption of new ideas without diluting its core concepts. Its not an idea so much as an idea about how to arrange ideas. Confused ? Me too. I did say its maddening. Think of it this way, permaculture is both a bookshelf and the system of how we arrange the books on that bookshelf, its not the books themselves. So on our bookshelf called Permaculture we have such titles as, organic gardening, biodynamics, solar passive design, composting, holistic management etc etc etc. As new titles become available and/or we have new updated editions of our existing books, our library grows. As our library grows we begin to rearrange where we place our books on the shelves as the information contained within links with and forms synergies with our other titles. What is not Permaculture is when the authors or fans of a particular book insist that it’s the bookshelf, or at least the most important book in the bookshelf. As a permaculturist (or a follower of the middle path) I’m pretty promiscuous. I don’t care where or who the book came from. As long as it works for me it goes on the shelf with all the other books.

Anyway the trap as previously identified is falling in love with one title and constantly retracing the same familiar paths contained therein without questioning what is valid and what has merely become habit. We’re now approaching our central theme and while I’ve strayed far, I hope I’ve laid sufficient groundwork to illuminate my point.

Suppose we absolutely loved a book called  “Civilization is going to collapse and millions are going to die” or conversely a book titled “Renewable energy will allow civilization to continue on as usual” (I’d like to add at this point that the last title is a much edited and updated version of the classic “Fossil fuels are forever”).  At this juncture, I’d like to leave the whole book analogy behind as its getting pretty tiresome and I’m sure we all get the point.

The trouble with whichever story you believe is that its maddeningly difficult to predict the future and that even if you could, it completely ignores the possibility (nay probability!) of both futures and any number of variations in between unfolding simultaneously in different parts of the world. What I’d like to propose is that we take  the middle path and accept that we can’t accurately know the future beyond some very broad brush strokes (e.g Fossil fuels are running out, we’ve overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and “The Hobbit” will be a box office success) and get on with doing those things that work no matter what the future holds for us.

For example within the school of thought that says the global economy is falling apart (of which I’m one) there are two main sub groups, the deflationists and the hyperinflationists and every variation in between (who is right, I could care less). What I’m interested in is what will work no matter who is right and get out of the predicting the future game entirely. So the deflationists say money will be scarce and whoever has it can purchase what they want (cash is king) while the hyperinflationists say we will be flooded with money which will destroy its purchasing power, so load up on gold . If you choose to believe one story over the other, then you immediately expose yourself to the risk of choosing wrong. Refusing to choose one or the other is of course not the whole strategy – our next step requires us to look to the implications of both competing points of view and seeing what core issues they have in common.

As a general theme, if what you decide to do reduces your dependence on others (be they individuals or companies) for the necessities of life (food water shelter etc) then you have chosen the middle path, an action which immediately makes you more resilient to the vagaries of live no matter what they are. In fact what you will find, is that the same actions keep cropping up no matter the potential problem you are trying to circumvent .

This is why growing your own food is such a powerful act. It works and has huge benefits  whether or not the global financial system is falling apart, whether the inflationists or deflationists are right. Take our earlier example – the deflationist with his wad of cash and the hyperinflationist with his bag of gold. They both have to eat and if they are trying to buy food from someone who is also hungry, then I don’t care how much money or gold they have, they are going to be hungry. We do have to present both sides of the argument and so yes, growing food is a big commitment if you are doing it well. It also has lots of nasty side effects like increased nutrition from eating nutrient dense, toxin free food and increased flexibility from having to actually move your body, not to mention that members of your family may follow you outside from sheer curiosity and then you might actually have to talk to them instead of sitting in front of the TV watching Survivor or some such reality show. While food is a biggie, it is only one of a number of necessities in our lives that if we reduce or remove our dependence on others for, has vast benefits plus some possibly nasty side effects as previously mentioned. Where the middle path doesn’t help is if we are confused about what is essential and what is not. The trouble being, in this day and age we tend to get our wants very much mixed up with our needs and consider things like flat screen TV’s and i phones as not negotiable, a fallacy that can be quickly dispelled by a couple of days without food or having no home.

As a further example, take the typical modern house. Statistically they are getting bigger, the number of people living in them is getting less and we are spending less time in them. A thirty year mortgage paying off a $400,000 loan to get that house will keep you working for the best part of your life and see you paying much more than you borrowed. Now lets build a very modest house, small, recycled and local materials, no toxic substances like off gassing plastics, solvents or glues etc. I’ve known a few people do it for around $10,000. What would you do with all the spare time and/or money if you weren’t working to pay off in excess of $800,000 debt? You could have some nice holidays, that’s for sure!

Now why don’t more people do this? Well? Could it be that we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that we deserve it? That we need to have it, that it must be this way because everybody else is doing it? Convinced that we need to work for thirty years as a slave to a bank, that if we don’t have a vast house we might actually die, that people will actually look down on us if we have a small cheap sustainable house. My advice would be send them a nice postcard from wherever you’re next holidaying, or wave at them from your tiny house with the big garden and the solar system on the roof that supplies all your energy as they head off to work .

So what would I do? Nail down the essentials, grow as much of your own food as practical, get out of debt and reduce your dependence on anyone who is providing anything to you for a profit, especially if it is considered a need. Following the middle path, consider if what you do for a living  is resilient to things like economic downturns, get involved in community. Above all, learn to think critically and don’t fall into the trap of automatically believing those things you most want to happen.

Live life, be happy!
Cheers Tim

Posted on Leave a comment

Draft: Natural Building & appropriate technology’s blog 21

Article 21 of Natural Building and Appropriate Tech Internship

So frankly we have a lot of different projects and sometimes we aren’t very well organised. Sometimes we begin one project and don’t finish it or want to begin a project but don’t know where to begin. So Angry Ben created a list of all the projects and how they are link to each other. Then he wrote down basics steps to take the leadership of one project. Like speaking to Bob and Tim for the brief, locating the materials, checking how many people are associated to the task etc. It is a very empowering process to have created this project poster. It directly had an impact on the motivation of us all. Boosting our will to take more responsibility of the projects.


Angry Ben’s posters. Thanks you so much!

A group went on the plastering of the seed room. They created a number of different mixes to see which plaster works the best. They used paper pulp for their mixes which seems to have done a real good job.


Paper pulp getting mix.

Another group is the building group. Time to set up the rafters! A big step towards the roof. Standing on the floorboards of the mezzanine, they lifted up a big log to put it from the front wall to the back wall. It has been very enjoyable to see how the structure is advancing step by step.


The first rafter being set up.

Today, I went with the ram pump group! A perfect sunny day to set up our pipes to see how well it is working. We went to the creek and lay down the pipes. First we had to build a little dam in the creek to raise the head of the water. Then connect the metal pipes that are bring the water from the dam to the pump. This is the primary check in and…

Water Pump

It is working!

Then we needed to climb the slope with a pipe and see if the water is going up. So we climbed approximately 30 meters higher than the top head of the water and it is also working! Amazingly well. I definitely advise any one reading these articles to check more info about ram pumps on internet.


You can just see an orange and a blue shirt on the picture. It is the very bottom of the creek where the pump is. And just with the flow of the stream it is pumping the water all the way up here.

~Oscar Morand, 25 March 2013, Natural Building and Appropriate Technology Intern