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Underground house help

 
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I am a fifty year old woman. I have been homeless  for two years this October. I am also jobless so funds are nonexistent except for $194 per month in food stamps. I have lived in a 2001 Oldsmobile mini van. It no longer runs therefore it will not work as shelter for another winter. I have found a place to call home. And now I am trying to get something built by October. Today I started digging what will be my underground/earth berm house.
I am going to continue to dig until I am unable to go any further. At the present time it is 8x16. I am planning on digging down about 6 feet and berming the north,east and west walls. I was going to dig about 3 feet down on the entire length of the south wall and making a porch and the entrance. I am in zone 5. We get 44 inches of rain per year. Our water table is not very high. I do plan on having electricity to have some type of sump pump and maybe a French drain in case there is moisture
Could anyone offer any suggestions? The soil is solid with absolutely no rock. Would it be possible to use the walls as they are or do I need to consider PSP construction? Could I use some type of adobe to coat the walls? The roof will not rest on the walls. I am going to use 4x4 posts to support a shed type roof.
I also am going to dig deep enough to put four 250 gallon totes to store fresh water,grey water and produce biogas. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I do not have help nor a lot of tools. This is definitely a low tech,low budget project. I do have clay soil available for cob if that is something I should consider. I do also have access to logs. I am not planning on building this to last indefinitely. This is a down and dirty solution to get out of my car. Thank you in advance for the help.
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pollinator
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Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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Candy Johnson wrote:
Could anyone offer any suggestions? The soil is solid with absolutely no rock. Would it be possible to use the walls as they are or do I need to consider PSP construction?

Could I use some type of adobe to coat the walls? The roof will not rest on the walls. I am going to use 4x4 posts to support a shed type roof.

I also am going to dig deep enough to put four 250 gallon totes to store fresh water,grey water and produce biogas. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I do not have help nor a lot of tools. This is definitely a low tech,low budget project. I do have clay soil available for cob if that is something I should consider. I do also have access to logs. I am not planning on building this to last indefinitely. This is a down and dirty solution to get out of my car. Thank you in advance for the help.



I wouldn't feel safe myself unless I used PSP construction.  My soil is very heavy clay and I dug a huge pit in my yard for a future project.  The walls can be cut straight up and down here but they do eventually erode to some degree and there is a lot more earth in the bottom than there was when it was dug.

I have several books on grey water systems and all are very clear that you should never store grey water.

What climate are you in?
 
gardener
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Location: Upstate NY, zone 5
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Judging from the photo, "Zone 5", and 44" of precipitation, the climate sounds like it might be similar to parts of upstate New York, or some of the Midwest.

The land in the photo looks close to dead flat. What kind of slopes are nearby? I would not trust any below-grade dwelling without the ability to drain from below floor level to above ground downhill. Electricity has a way of going out at precisely the times when you might need a sump pump, in the middle of a big storm. Well drained soil and a low water table do not negate the possibility of water moving horizontally through the soil and into your underground space.

I second the need for structural walls, as dirt in a damp freezy climate is guaranteed to slump eventually, even if you can dig a vertical-sided hole.

I agree that storing graywater would be bad; it needs to flow through treatment media pretty much as it is generated, except what you might be pumping up for reuse if any. Are you planning a toilet, or a composting system? I have doubts that one person's waste could generate enough biogas to be worth the effort, though I don't have documentation on just what is possible. Storing fresh water (rain from roof?) is quite reasonable, though I think it would be best stored as high as you can get it below the collection level, to allow some amount of gravity feed. Also, trying to bury a 250 gallon tote in the ground below a floor risks the earth pressure collapsing it. There are tanks designed for burial, but totes are not.

We really need more information about your ground slopes and drainage possibilities before giving more specific advice. What possibility do you have for harvesting small trees for posts and roof beams? A good sharp bow saw is not expensive and can cut a lot with minimal effort. Even an old-fashioned carpenter's saw, if kept sharp, can do wonders. Watch the movie of Dick Proenneke building a cabin in Alaska (excerpts here) for some inspiration.
 
Candy Johnson
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Thank you all for the responses. I do have a slope falling away to a small creek. The drainage line will have to be assisted by a solar or battery powered pump.. I am planning on using the PSP methods discussed here. I'm also doing the project alone and completely by hand. So the depth is still questionable. I do have a neighbor that built an earthbermed house on the same land but his is just bermed on three sides. Open to the east and totally buried on the back except for the roof. He built it forty years ago. I planned on opening the south side by digging down and putting stairs and a small patio. I think the walapini greenhouse is my instpiration. JUst need technical advice as the project progresses.
Also the grey water storage idea was similar to an rv tank. Just planned on storing it in times when drainage would be an issue like winter. Also this maybe a total failure but anything is better than another winter in my van.
 
Candy Johnson
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Thank you all for the responses. I do have a slope falling away to a small creek. The drainage line will have to be assisted by a solar or battery powered pump.. I am planning on using the PSP methods discussed here. I'm also doing the project alone and completely by hand. So the depth is still questionable. I do have a neighbor that built an earthbermed house on the same land but his is just bermed on three sides. Open to the east and totally buried on the back except for the roof. He built it forty years ago. I planned on opening the south side by digging down and putting stairs and a small patio. I think the walapini greenhouse is my instpiration. JUst need technical advice as the project progresses.
Also the grey water storage idea was similar to an rv tank. Just planned on storing it in times when drainage would be an issue like winter. Also this maybe a total failure but anything is better than another winter in my van.
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Location: Montana
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Check out Mike Oehler's website undergroundhousing.com for books and DVD's and plans on building your underground house. They should answer all your questions on best use of your property.
I will say that his invention of the PSP method works. To this day, his original underground house,that he lived in for over 25 years, is in excellent shape, very livable and cozy.
Also note that his first experiment with underground housing was on flat ground and guess what....although his PSP method is in place, flooding is an issue. Must read, $50 & Up Underground House Book.
 
Glenn Herbert
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Location: Upstate NY, zone 5
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I'm glad you are planning on a solar/battery pump which, if the battery is sufficient, would be able to continue running during a severe storm. The only other question about that would be, what is the pumping rate compared to the possible inflow rate... this can only be known for sure with experience. You might go five years without a major rainstorm, or you might get a cloudburst with six inches of rain in an hour like I got 25 years ago. I would want to have sufficient gravity drainage to eliminate the threat. How far away is the slope? With a level and a straight 2x4, you can get quite accurate information on ground levels.

I would advise digging down as little as possible to get the earth to berm up around your walls. You may even be able to set your fresh water tank on existing ground level while inside the insulated enclosure.
 
Todd Parr
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Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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Alexandra Clemow wrote:To this day, his original underground house,that he lived in for over 25 years, is in excellent shape, very livable and cozy.
Also note that his first experiment with underground housing was on flat ground and guess what....although his PSP method is in place, flooding is an issue.  



Could you elaborate on this?  From my understanding, Mike's first underground house experience was that original house he built, as outlined in his book.  It wasn't on flat land, and as you said, his original house is still standing.

Regardless, Mike's book is fantastic and if you have the opportunity, I would certainly read it.
 
Candy Johnson
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I have bought both Mikes book and Bill Mollisons. But those i lost when i lost the house. I do have more than adequate fall but it is about 100 feet to the creek. Also I am going to bury it all of the way to where my roof would start. If I have to use a pump to deal with drainage I will just have to do it. I do not want to deal with another cold winter. I have always wanted and underground greenhouse.
My parents(about 3 miles away)had a stick built house (built rather poorly) but they did build a full bathroom with a shower and a huge jacuzzi tub. They had the the concrete broken up and they put a sump/trash pump put in to empty into the septic system. They also had dirt work done to make it a walk out basement. It was below grade so it had steps going from ground level down to a large patio door. Their sump pump did have to run when we had heavy rains.
I am making my house 8x16 with an 8x16 green house. I  do believe I have decided on Mike's PSP design. If I use extra posts to support the walls would lining the walls with rigid Styrofoam and vinyl siding work? I would only use that for the greenhouse side. I am thinking pallet wood over the Styrofoam. Would Styrofoam be best or is there something else to insulate it? I was thgoingg the mylar bubble wrap with waterproof tape might also work.
I am planning on using a composting toilet. A shower is the only reason I would even bring water in other than the greenhouse. Also this is totally experimental. If it doesn't work its still got to be better than living in the car.
 
Posts: 60
Location: North Texas
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You mentioned inspiration from the walipini, and desire to have a greenhouse. If so, you may want to consider a design closer to your neighbor's with three sides bermed and the south wall not underground so it can be more exposed to the sun. Why do I suggest this...? Here's why...

The walipini or pit-greenhouse design comes from the Benson Institute and was originally built for 16 degrees latitude (La Paz Bolivia), where the solar elevation at noon in mid december is close to 80 degrees. At that high angle, the sun can penetrate into a pit structure like a walipini.

I'm guessing from your USDA zone and rainfall information that you're north of 40 degrees latitude, where your solar elevation at noon in mid december is closer to 25 degrees. At that low angle, the sun will penetrate very little into a pit structure like a walipini. At noon when the sun is highest, the south vertical wall would cast a shadow about twice as long as the height of the wall, likely shading most of your interior floor. In this situation you'll do much better with an exposed vertical south side with windows.

If your interest in a greenhouse is secondary to simply getting something built then this may be irrelevant, but if the greenhouse is important to you then be sure to consider the sun angles before digging a pit that will shade most of itself in your northern lattitude.

For further details...
The Benson Institute walipini paper is here: http://www.solaripedia.com/files/1257.pdf
For the solar elevations above, I used rounded off figures from the NOAA solar position calculator here: https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azel.html


 
Todd Parr
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Candy, if I were in your position, I would build a PSP structure following Mike's plans exactly.  If you have a slope, and it seems you do, then there should be no reason you need a sump of any kind.  The layout of the house and the uphill patio should take care of any drainage issues.  If you build to Mike's specs, there is no siding, no insulation, just the structure and a small wood stove.  I would build and finish that to be sure I had a warm, dry place to spend the winter.  If I had time after that was complete, then, and only then, would I work on anything like a greenhouse.  All that being said, it is absolutely your choice and having some kind of attached greenhouse would be awesome.  

Ashley, great points about the Walipini and our climate.
 
Glenn Herbert
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It seems the building site itself is flat, and the slope for drainage is 100' or so away. I just think it is a bad idea to intentionally depend on an electrical appliance to ensure the house will never flood.

You want your house underground... do you mean completely surrounded by dirt with a green roof? Or fully bermed with a metal roof that can serve for water collection? A point to remember is that you don't need to dig down 6' to have fully earth-covered walls. If you dig 8'  x 16' x 3' deep, you will have enough dirt dug up to berm three sides another 4' up, or 7' total walls, which is plenty for a one-person dwelling. Roof slope will make most of the space considerably taller. In your situation, I would make the bermed walls maybe 6' tall, with decent roof slopes making the high point(s) something like 9' or 10'. Digging for a sunken porch or a greenhouse on the south side will increase the available berm material with even less digging down.
 
Candy Johnson
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Every response has been awesome! I knew I was asking the right people. I will take all the responses and do some serious research over the weekend. I will post pictures and progress as this evolves. Thank you all!
 
Todd Parr
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Candy Johnson wrote: I will post pictures and progress as this evolves. Thank you all!



Please do.  I love seeing the awesome things people come up with.
 
Candy Johnson
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My biggest issue is climbing a ladder. Second biggest is summer is hot and humid. My third biggest issue is winter is long and cold.
Let's be honest. We are not Amish. Electricity will be available in my lifetime(I am 50 and I already am a subscriber to an established coop. They suck but they are here) and I will always have to pay them at least $50 for the privilege of paying $6000 to get power.  
I want a tiny, efficient house cheap and something I can build basically by myself. I have lived in a van for two years so my needs are simple. Just trying to figure out how to get it done by the time it's too cold to live in an unheated van. How tough could this be?
 
Candy Johnson
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And could you please all stop trying to sell me another book. Unless there is a herd(flock or bevy) of elves in there to do this NO THANK YOU. I have already spent thousands of dollars to see how others did it. Time to get away from the keyboard and Just do it!
 
Candy Johnson
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Glenn Herbert wrote:It seems the building site itself is flat, and the slope for drainage is 100' or so away. I just think it is a bad idea to intentionally depend on an electrical appliance to ensure the house will never flood.

You want your house underground... do you mean completely surrounded by dirt with a green roof? Or fully bermed with a metal roof that can serve for water collection? A point to remember is that you don't need to dig down 6' to have fully earth-covered walls. If you dig 8'  x 16' x 3' deep, you will have enough dirt dug up to berm three sides another 4' up, or 7' total walls, which is plenty for a one-person dwelling. Roof slope will make most of the space considerably taller. In your situation, I would make the bermed walls maybe 6' tall, with decent roof slopes making the high point(s) something like 9' or 10'. Digging for a sunken porch or a greenhouse on the south side will increase the available berm material with even less digging down.


Don't an on being"one person" forever.
 
Posts: 38
Location: Missoula, MT
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hugelkultur tiny house solar
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Candy Johnson wrote:I have bought both Mikes book and Bill Mollisons. But those i lost when i lost the house.



Hi Candy, I just found my second copy of Mike's book. I had replaced it because I thought it was lost, but in sorting my books in preparation for going to the ant village I just uncovered it. I would like to send it to you. Would you pm me some address or po box I could send it to? I need to pare down as much as possible, so if I don't send it to you I'll have to throw it out, and the thought of throwing this piece of gold away is just too much for me
 
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Glenn Herbert wrote:It seems the building site itself is flat, and the slope for drainage is 100' or so away. I just think it is a bad idea to intentionally depend on an electrical appliance to ensure the house will never flood.

You want your house underground... do you mean completely surrounded by dirt with a green roof? Or fully bermed with a metal roof that can serve for water collection? A point to remember is that you don't need to dig down 6' to have fully earth-covered walls. If you dig 8'  x 16' x 3' deep, you will have enough dirt dug up to berm three sides another 4' up, or 7' total walls, which is plenty for a one-person dwelling. Roof slope will make most of the space considerably taller. In your situation, I would make the bermed walls maybe 6' tall, with decent roof slopes making the high point(s) something like 9' or 10'. Digging for a sunken porch or a greenhouse on the south side will increase the available berm material with even less digging down.



I totally agree that minimal hand digging is the way to go. If you have machinery what Candy is talking about is one or two days work at most even including the ditch to the creek Candy should also put in a back exit (ALWAYS have two ways out!!!).
Without Machinery going down even just 3 foot for a 12 by 18 (you need a little clearance to initially setup the poles and shoring after all, for a 8 by 16 building) that means moving 648 cubic feet of earth. My back hurts just thinking about it. To go a full 6 foot down means 1296 cubic feet of dirt. AND you are that much lower than the surrounding land, and have to dig the drainage ditch that much deeper, etc, etc. A cubic foot of soil supposedly weighs between 74 and 110 pounds......

Me? I rented the machinery to dig out a 6ft by 48 by 48 foot hole into the side of a hill for the house, plus another 8ft 50 by 50 hole on another side (for the garage shop) PLUS an 1/8th of a mile of road and a cistern of about 12 by 16x16x  Took slightly over a week of 12-14 hour days running the rented bobcat. But came out almost exactly as we wanted. Still haven't finished BUILDING anything in any of the spots yet.  We tried to clean up  just a couple dozen cubic feet of one of the excavations - it took at least 6 weekends to do that with my self and a child working at it - until we said good enough, and decided any further clean up would take the machinery...
Candy, if you can find anyone who would cut you a deal on the excavation machinery usage/rental/hiring, you might want to ask for that help and pay $100 or so for their time. If you go the more bermed than buried route, even including the drainage ditch (for future putting in a pipe for example) to the creek It doesn't sound like it will take them too long at all.  My rental place is about $200/day but has much better weekly rates ($1000/week) and partial day rates, or I can find one of the locals to dig for me at varying costs (from a couple of six packs plus fuel in one case, to $200 per hour for hire from the so called 'pro' ...)

Vinyl siding isn't terribly strong against bending in my experience so you might want more poles or other reinforcement. But other than the strength issue it should actually be  a good choice for in ground usage (water resistant, wont deteriorate or rot unless exposed to light, etc.)

Prepare to deal with pests by getting what is called hardware cloth 1/4 inch opening max, and screening near all opening or ground level things like wood, plastics or vinyl that can be chewed on.
 
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@Candy.  Hope this finds you well. I appreciate your tenacity and drive. I'm looking to build my own earthbermed home in Oregon. I have the land. It's sloped, there's a natural pond though it needs something to seal it. I'm still looking for OS "real" information on earthbermed building start to finish. Too many scams out here. I too, am cash poor. I still wouldn't pay for something I can do myself.  I too have oehlers book. Can send you a copy . Message me if you want it. I don't throw anything out.
 
Posts: 137
Location: Maritimes , Eastern Canada
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Hope Candy got "dug in" before winter.

As I have promoted elsewhere, Concrete block with rigid foam against the ground , preferably on an insulated slab very economical, solid, fireproof , mould resistant and certainly rodet proof.

Building with concret block is easy (lego for adults) and cheap. Especially if you mix your own mortar using concrete or masonry sand and portland cement (1 cement :3 sand.) Depending on skill level /level of madness, roof structure can be a slab or vault . The whole thing can be easily waterproofed with liquid rubber and or blueskin or the like. The welded modified roofing membrane is the best.

If people can build using stamped earth, hay bales or stackwood they can build using blocks which are cheaply available everywhere in the world. They are also fast.

I'm a mason by trade so I'm biased, but putting those walls up quickly and cheaply will be important for most people. I put up the 3 walls of a single car garage in 2 workdays, which is a similar build to a small house bermed on 3 sides. Just for example.

I have a small house plan in exolated stuccoed block , its intended for above ground but could easily be bermed at the rear.

The great architect Hundertvasser did a great job on housing in hillsides, he made them look like giant eyes looking out.

He built everything in concrete, block and brick . Real solid work. They also repurposed alot of old demolition brick .

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Mark Deichmann
Posts: 137
Location: Maritimes , Eastern Canada
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Here are som more relevant photos, taken north of the polar circle in Norway.

One is a reconstruction of an Iron age house, one is a german bunker from ww2 (possibly converted root cellar) and third is old stonebuilt rootcellar covered with earth.The galvanized arch was somebodys later idea.

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Ironage replica house
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German bunker
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ancient root cellar, mortared granite core
 
Joseph Yarbrough
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@Mark.  That is awesome! I had CMU in mind after emailing bldg inspector at Klamath Falls. At the time. I was looking at a nanotech company that was using nano liquid to make CMU's out of the dirt. They built homes in Mexico above ground using these. I have psi specs that can be modified by using a different mix ratio. He said I could use it if concrete filled.  CMU's make sense for me as I have a little experience with it. I think I would definitely get some more exp before I felt like I could manage by myself. I'm going to the property to dig some dirt, do more measuring for property lines and hope I can find the original markers.  I'll take some painted rebar stakes with me. Need to soil test. Got any dyi advice? Looking for Architect and Engineering in Oregon too.
 
Mark Deichmann
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Location: Maritimes , Eastern Canada
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Hundertwasser , the Austrian architect and artist . Worth looking up . Taschen put out a big book on him.


Joseph , I would say most important to do good prepwork on the base, rent a small compacter and run it over ,if you can get hardpack gravel delivered would be ideal.

Compact no more than 6 inches at a time. One layer is minimum on existing ground, if its soft you will need more layers.

On top of the compacted base you can spread out your rigid foam  on which you can pour your slab remembering to lay any pipes or conduit you want underneath(optional)  

Use reinforcement mesh with 6" mesh laid flat with small spacers under before you pour concrete min 4-5 inches thick.  

Always wise to let foam extend past the slab and the slab can extend a bit past the walls.

Construction blocks should only cost about $2.50 each.  YOu can t make them that cheap.

Save on concrete and mortar by getting concrete sand delivered , about $15.00/ton  and buying bags of portland cement.

If a steep site and hard to get to rent a tracked powered wheelbarrow. They will enable you!!
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Joseph Yarbrough
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@Mark Great! Thank you!
 
Mark Deichmann
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Location: Maritimes , Eastern Canada
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Most important.  Don t buy the portland cement until you need it. Keep it wrapped/covered well on a pallet off the ground or it will get ruined. Also check it out for freshness when you buy it, as it is often waterdamaged or old.

Good luck !
 
Joseph Yarbrough
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@Mark. Yep. i apply this to everything. Ever since I learned that "fresh food" being put out by my grocery store could be 2 weeks old already, I started checking everything I put in my cart. I wish my aquaponics would start doing better. I'm making a major change in two days, so fingers crossed.  
 
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A rocket mass heater is the most sustainable way to heat a conventional home
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