Erica Wisner

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since Feb 10, 2009
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Erica Wisner currently moderates these forums:
<div class="cimgsec"></div> Was born, raised, and turned loose on an unsuspecting world. Originally an educator, now growing into writing & publishing, fire fighting, family care teams, and mountain ecological maintenance. Prone to extended explanations. (I like to explain things so that a 5-year-old and her PhD grandparent can both enjoy and 'get it'... no offence meant if you're somewhere in between!)
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Okanogan Highlands, Washington
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Recent posts by Erica Wisner

Lisa Sture wrote:

Toko Aakster wrote:
It's about managing the land in such a way that your use of it is sustainable long-term... and even restorative.


Thankyou for this lovely and thoughtful post. I like the sound of rivercane. I live in the UK and had never heard of it. I am wondering if some UK/EU folks have some good examples. We have lost a huge amount of our wetlands here - they are not even wet anymore. If someone has wet areas I can think of reeds and bulrushes for wet areas. Actually there are a lot of wetland plants that are edible as well.
The driest and dustiest areas are the farmed areas where the soil has died.
Your post has certainly given me food for thought.

There are comparable plants in most places - but a significant issue is that they do tend to proliferate, making them invasive.  

The UK considers Phragmites australis a native reed, though it is acknowledged as invasive; some other sources give a different origin from central/southern Asia originally, but it's common enough worldwide now. Phragmites species are traditionally used for thatching in the UK and elsewhere, and work great as a thatching material.
The Strawbale Studio folks are very careful not to transport seeds when they use it for thatching demonstrations.  Many Midwestern states are publishing information about how to get rid of it, how to distinguish it from the native Midwestern US version it is rapidly displacing. etc.
Phragmites are being credited with mitigating storm surge in the Missisippi delta, with uptaking excess nutrients, pulling down carbon, etc. in other research.

I'm often tempted to support the traditional craft materials that I might want to harvest.  Yet in todays society with little time for traditional crafts, those plants may not be a good fit for a balanced, varied "zone 5." River grasses, reeds, and other prolific plants that can handle repeated harvesting for crafts do unfortunately also tend to be invasive - they are simply fecund, and that can become a mixed blessing (a solution looking for a problem becomes a problem...).

Even if they're locally native, not everyone is going to be happy about seeing them spreading everywhere:

Here's one site that shows many UK species for both wet and dry wildlife areas.

You might want to find local experts for your specific area, since there's so much variety in soils and plants.  A nearly identical site for the London wildlife trust:

Natural doesn't mean non-toxic, and native is not a guarantee that a plant is non-invasive or cooperative with other native species.  I'll put an old favorite story about English ivy down below, for those who haven't heard it here before.

I spent a few years teaching people to weave baskets from English ivy, usually harvested on site - and then realized that when you teach people to use and love and harvest a plant, you don't get less of it - you get more, if they have any common sense.  They get fond of it, and like to see it around, and notice if it's missing.  So I started incorporating other common, less-invasive plants that are also great for weaving simple baskets, and encouraged people to 'graduate' from ivy if they ever had the lovely problem of ivy-free landscaping.  The wild forage we used to harvest mostly didn't get exterminated by the people who ate and used it - very often, draining the marshes or enclosing the grazing meadows was a way of driving those people out, and taking over the land for an entirely different form of production.  There are a few exceptions for rare medicinal plants of great value, but by and large the plants and animals that humans find most useful also tend to get rewarded by being spread, cultivated, and protected.

Not all grasses and reeds are prolific enough to tolerate extensive harvesting.  The traditional basketry and thatch plants tend to be among the more prolific plants in an area.  If you don't have a robust community of thatchers or weavers, maybe look at coddling some of the less-aggressive meadow plants, as a special pet, or finding out what sorts of insects and small animals are endangered in your area.  A butterfly garden or songbird garden could be exquisite.  Hedgerows have been a subject of conservation interest, as they often preserve last remnants of former forest expanses.

There sure are some beautiful plants out there for 'waste' land.  Sometimes you can do better by getting a bucket of mud from a 'healthy' pond or marsh than by all the careful plant ID and expert advice.


The English Ivy story:

As with English ivy: it's terribly invasive here, and tends to cause our skinny deciduous trees to either die from being shaded out, or fall down due to having unaccustomed windage during winter storms when the soft soils are sodden.  It also tends to out-grow our skinny coniferous trees.  It is highly recommended to cut a foot-wide gap all the way around the tree so the stems die back, which reduces the amount of it seeding way up high; and on the ground, parties of volunteers and park staff will do "ivy rolls" where great mats of it are uprooted to make room for other plants.  This is only practical where naturalists roughly outnumber the green spaces; in other areas, you just try to keep it from climbing everything in sight (it tends to seed from heights, so keeping it low also tends to confine the infestation instead of birds spreading it to new places).

So one day I called my English farmer great-uncle to see what kept it under control in England.  As it turned out, he had recently taken a semi-retirement from farming, letting the farm rest as part of an environmental restoration program, so he was having this conversation a lot.  Generally he was favorable to the program, but lamented the environmental students telling him not to cut back the English ivy because it is native and doesn't kill the trees ... "But it does kill the trees," he said with resignation.  

Reflecting on all the holidays where ivy is peeled up, used to decorate, and then thrown on the fire - at least one per quarter of the year, more counting weddings - I concluded that the natural predator to keep English ivy in check is the English peasant.  Or in my uncle's case, persistent gentleman farmer.

Erica W
1 year ago
I've been happily out of the dating scene since I married.  
But in the few years leading up to it, I experienced frustrations and doubts similar to what many people are reporting here.

I don't shop on the Internet if I can find what I want locally.  
If what you want is for the pipes to fit, you can do OK.  Once you get something home, it is almost never what you hoped - different size, different fit, materials not as nice as what was described.  If what you want is for it to 'feel right,' it's almost always better to hit thrift shops or a high-quality local retailer.

Internet "society" is some of the most strident, fake, and provocative behavioral excess you can find anywhere.
Online photos are misleading, and I can only imagine how much worse that is when you combine several popular flavors of click-bait (attractive people, drama, negativity, sex).  
If you believe what you read online, every family is in the middle of some desperate scandal, every relationship is about to be Dramatically Betrayed, every puppy is about to get stolen and killed by PETA.  And then there are lovely havens where people talk about chicken farming and refurbishing old mechanical contraptions, but they are rare and bring people together from all over the world.

It's got to be particularly deceptive trying to find love online.

For myself, I can predict conversational compatibility OK online - I've really enjoyed meeting some Internet friends in the real world.  But romantic/sexual attraction, for me, is much more of an in-person thing.  How a person smells and moves; how they handle things - tools.  None of that comes across well online.  It takes a Hollywood film crew to make someone appear more attractive on video than they are in person - for most ordinary people, the video falls far short of the reality.  And a perfectly attractive person who looks good in a photo, and is charming in person, can still lack that certain 'something.'  Expectations - ambitions - ethics - religion or other beliefs.  Sometimes if the attraction and shared values are strong enough, you can ignore one or two incompatibilities, and work through them.  But someone who is 100% compatible on paper, and no physical attraction - that's not what I was looking for.  
I wanted a relationship that would include both initial romance and long-term fidelity.  For me, selfish creature that I am, that meant I wanted to be head-over-heels enough that I would remember the feeling, even after it faded.  If I ever had a crush on somebody else, I would know it wasn't worth leaving over.

We met at a city event, in a city with a fun singles scene.  Although I had lived in that city as a young adult, he wouldn't have done so except for medical necessity, and was glad to leave when we got the chance.  So it's possible to meet a partner who will be happy to retreat back out to the country with you, while using the city singles scene for dating.

I got a lot of value out of the old advice, "Don't worry about finding a date.  Go do stuff you like to do, but do it with a group.  Take a class or join a club.  Sign up for events.  You will meet people who like the same stuff you do, you might be able to date them, but in any case you had fun, made friends, and spent the time doing things you enjoyed."

Although I've been happily homebody-ish both before and after marriage, it's hard to meet people that way.
In my case I took classes in martial arts, worked and volunteered with some not-for-profits that supported sustainable, community-oriented events and science education.  
There are lots of other classes that might appeal to a homebody who is exploring socially: cooking classes for ethnic cuisine, first aid or CPR classes, farm skills classes like grafting or conferences showcasing new cash crops.

Consider taking classes that appeal to people of the sex you are interested in.  Although neither of us picked up dates that way, my husband cross-trained as a ballet dancer for many years, and went along on modeling cattle-calls with friends for a lark.  I work and volunteer in various male-dominated fields; if I wanted to start dating again, I'd have lots of options.  "The odds are good but the goods are odd," as they say.  A male homebody could do worse than take some classes on knitting, canning, or fiber arts where it's likely to be mostly women.  Females can do worse than learn to fix your own equipment, take some engineering or tech courses at a local college, or volunteer in disaster relief or emergency response.  Don't fake interest in order to find dates - but if you're interested, and normally uncomfortable being the only person of your gender in the room, it's worth giving it a try.

I generally don't date at work if I can help it.  The few times I've made an exception, there was some embarrassment as a result.  I don't tend to burn bridges with exes, but if you do, workplace romance is an even worse idea.  Dating work-mates can easily create problems both legal and social for you and your work team.  Don't use hiring or employment as an excuse to meet people.  I would recommend don't date at work unless you're willing to give up your job over it - and if there is a power differential where one of you is the other's boss/supervisor, giving up the job first and then exploring the romance would be the ethical way to do it.

I sympathize with folks that are mostly homebodies but still want a partner.  That does make it harder to find someone who genuinely wants a similar lifestyle.  
But I still think it's worth trying the "meet people by doing things you like" approach, if you're not having much luck with the Internet dating thing.

One other insight about social networks comes to mind.  For everyone, chances are if you have a 'friend' on Facebook, they have more friends than you.  Likewise in real life.  This is especially true if you are more introverted or have few social connections - almost guaranteed your friends have more friends than you.
So if you are getting burned out on trying to find the right match for yourself, consider enlisting a couple of well-connected friends.  Ideally, friends you can be honest with - "I'd love to meet other singles in the area, but for goodness sake, please don't make it weird."  

You could invite your friend to bring their friends and family over for a farm party at your place - tamales, cider pressing, sheep-shearing, canning, barn-raising, music gathering, whatever makes sense.  You can also go to these kinds of gatherings that others host.  Often there's one or two farms that host a really big party each year for the homesteader types, might be a harvest festival, winter solstice/new years', whatever.  Ask around where local homesteaders shop or eat.

If nothing else, getting out into the local social scene will be a good reality-check on all the exaggerated, unrealistic, and unpalatable Internet weirdness.  

Good luck.  I hope it happens for you in a lovely, healthy, and memorable way.
The most interesting project that Ernie has been nibbling at involves creating wildfire training modules within video games that already have good terrain modeling.  We noticed on a workshop trip to the American Southwest that the terrain modeling in the game "Fallout New Vegas" is eerily accurate to the real area.  

The Fallout series game developers have made parts of their code open-source, allowing fans, players, and third-party companies to publish "mods" that change or expand on gameplay.  There's a Weather Mod, for example, that allows you to have somewhat realistic and random weather and try the same scenario under different conditions (with factors like visibility or cold that might affect outcomes).

We got very interested in exploring this platform for interactive wildfire-fighting scenarios.  These could be fun, raise awareness, and if carefully designed with attention to details like tactical rules of thumb, might also serve as winter training / recruitment tools for actual wildland firefighters.

The modding community has been playing with this idea at Ernie's request.  But in attempting to make something that looks and feels realistic, they repeatedly come up against limits of processor power and graphics.  Fire modeling at scale tends to crash either the player's computer, or the game server.  

I've been encouraging Ernie to start with the basics - use known methods of simplifying the fire behavior for notepad calculations, and don't worry about the accuracy of the graphics.  Develop something that is tactically useful and accurate enough to get the wildfire community interested, if not as graphically impressive (think Minesweeper or Atari game graphics).  

The fire incident command teams have been faced with this problem for a long time (predicting fire behavior, at least on a gross scale, effectively enough to allocate resources and plan daily tactics).  Prior to the widespread availability of handheld computers (smartphones) and apps, a lot of this was done with pencil and paper, and those reference tables might be a reasonable place to start for a simplified ruleset.

The three main factors are terrain, fuels, and weather.
Terrain (slope) affects fire speed and behavior, as well as crew work speed, risk levels, and escape speed.  Radiant heat trapped in canyons or chimneys; safety zones, road access, backup routes, community assets and hazards, etc.

Fuel types affect how fast fires move, how much heat is produced (risk to structures & permanent assets), how tall/long the flames are, how fast moisture levels change, and how long the fire burns intensely, all of which have to be considered for effective strategy and tactics.  

Weather affects fire speed, drying conditions, crew work pace (heat illness), etc. Accurate 3-day weather predictions are a critical tool for planning large-scale fire incident response.
Here are some existing tools from a cursory search:
Very simplified FLAME model (4 fuel types):

Standard fuel model (13 types) and factors for slope:

Existing computer-based tools:
BehavePlus fire behavior modeling:

There are also recommendations for homeowners on preparing their homes for defensibility.  Though this might be less exciting for the usual Fallout audience (consequence-free mayhem is kind of the market niche for most first-person games), preparedness "contests" could be strategically more relevant as a public take-away from this effort.

There are also courses, intended for command and meteorological staff, on fire behavior calculations: S-390 and S-490 in the NWCG training catalog.  We could probably get access to course materials for programmers interested in working on efficient modeling for training scenarios.

Knowing these details gives you very meaningful trigger points and goals - "stop the fire before the wind change" or "before it reaches the other side of the valley (slope/wind alignment)" or "before it escapes from the forest into the grassland."  

There are many thousands of wildland fires every year that don't make the news, because local forces stop them quickly and effectively.  Most of the state and national forestry agencies I've worked with in the West have targets like keeping 97% of fires to under 1/4 acre - which they routinely meet and exceed.  Mini-games with modest-size fires (less than 1/10 acre) could be a good starting point to practice specific tactics, such as working from the heel of the fire toward the head (anchor and flank), or structure protection, or tactical prioritization that could be roughly turn-based (so many hours to order a dozer vs. going to resupply with water vs. time it takes crews to dig fireline by hand).

It's a game.  These things won't be perfect, but they could be a fun and interesting contribution to helping communities respond effectively to potentially devastating risks.

You can PM Ernie Wisner if you're interested in playing in this space.
2 years ago
Do you know any structural engineers who might be interested in developing a side specialty working with firefighters' training towers?
This is extreme engineering, for conditions and activities that are designed to break apart ordinary structures to put the fire out.  And routine and damage inspections to keep them in good safe working order and compliant with NFPA standards.

Do you know any mechanical engineers who want to develop a niche in rocket mass heaters or masonry heater planning and permitting?

Do you know any other engineers who would like to hear a permaculture mission?  I can think of some for civil, electrical, and software/networking engineers to name a few, but they don't all have to do with fire.

If you know someone interested, whether they're licensed in my states (OR/WA) or not, please put us in touch.
2 years ago

Nicole Wesley wrote:Hi! I am new to this whole online chat thing. I want to know the best ways to grow my own stuff from home, and in my limited research I came across the topic of hydroponics, however I didn't dive too deeply. I will do more research... but in the meantime does anyone know of a product that can help me grow my own stuff in my home because I am not crafty like Christopher is.

Welcome to the forums, Nicole.
I would second James' cautions that hydroponics is a relatively fussy and expensive method for someone with limited growing experience.  If you're not up for cutting a barrel in half, you could also get frustrated trying to maintain pumps for aeration, or find the right fertilizer mix for each type of plant, let alone disposing of concentrated (and sometimes toxic) leftovers if you get tired of the project.

I find that planting things in dirt outside is far easier for me to keep plants alive.  If you are limited to indoor space, potted plants are relatively easy. All you really need to grow some easy plants is a pot with holes, and a dish or tray to catch water.  Most plants you can buy from a garden center or nursery will already be in a pot, and you can find a dish or bowl to catch water under it.  Then you water it when the dirt gets dry, and occasionally feed it some fertilizer or compost.
Hydroponics basically use porous rocks or foamy stuff instead of dirt, which means you have to constantly provide a nutrient supply along with the water.  The things I've seen grown hydroponically are out-of-season, high-value plants, like hothouse tomatoes, marijuana, or winter salad mixes.  People who want to raise aquatic animals, like fish, shellfish, or ducks, often have a surplus of dirty water that they may want to feed to plants, and may need to create a controlled environment for this to happen all winter.  An experienced grower can fit more plants in a small space this way, especially if you are also depending on artificial grow lights, but it's way more labor intensive.

It will help to define your personal goals, and stay focused on what's achievable with your lifestyle and experience level.  Do you want herbs for cooking?  Food plants?  Just something beautiful and pleasant to tend?  You probably won't be growing cash crops in a small indoor space, though some people do grow their own drugs or medicinal plants.  Some plants survive better indoors than others; you might ask local friends if they have healthy houseplants ready to divide.  Or if you want food, in a small space, maybe consider herbs, bean sprouts, hanging tomatoes, or edible flowers/garnishes.  Just one pot of cilantro or parsley can be a happy-making thing for elegant dinners; mint is nice for summer drinks and desserts.

I googled "hydroponic micro systems" and found a range from $25 to $150 or so, with options that would fit in an ordinary window or shelf space.  

3 years ago
On our mountain in the Okanogan Highlands, where we lived for 7 years, there would often be black bears hibernating under trees out back on our property, and times of year when you'd potentially see scat or tracks of bears coming down to the pond for water.  They were pretty discreet; many locals liked to hunt bear in season.

We composted using steel tumblers (the larger kind, about 2-3 feet diameter, that can get a little hotter than one-barrel tumblers for our shorter, alpine warm seasons).  They were generally located at least 20-30 feet from the door of the house, to provide some maneuvering room in case we surprised a bear investigating them.
The only time I ever personally saw a bear at the bin was a triple error day: I had dumped a big bag of freeze-damaged apples (basically applesauce still in the skins), a month or so after harvest season, and left the lid open.  I didn't know that Ernie had also previously dumped some stale pork chops from the fridge.  You can't really blame a scent-sensitive scavenger for showing up for pork chops and applesauce.  The encounter was after dark - I had to use a flashlight to see what it was.  And I was able to scare it away without leaving the doorway.  I think it had eaten what it wanted already, when I came out and started making spluttering upset-ape noises at it.  It was just curious about my grunting and banging, but when I started scolding it in real words it seemed to realize I was serious, and backed off into the woods.  (Maybe its mama warned it about humans when they heard people talking growing up ...)

I generally didn't compost meat scraps, though Ernie apparently did (from what I found while processing the compost).  We both preferred to give the dogs and chickens first crack at things, to keep the attractive smells down.  Our dogs were not unusually big, but we always had two at a time. Just regular sized breeds such as border collie mix, labrador, black-mouthed cur, and pit bull.  Great Pyrenees are awesome guardian dogs, but a hefty feed bill if you don't need them for precious critters like kids, lambs, or children.  A mid-sized dog that suits your lifestyle (good for playing with kids, hiking, or whatever) can be effective.  A pair or pack of them can make enough noise to deter most predators, especially backed up by full sized adult humans who are prepared to listen for "three alarm" predator alerts.  And all of these options are more effective deterrents when combined with a low return on effort (not enough food to justify repeated risks).

We did see more persistent visits from all wildlife when local creeks dried up or froze, and our pond was the biggest water source for a mile or two.  Deer, elk, moose, coyotes, coy-dogs, the occasional wolf or bear.  But our bears were some of the most discreet of the bunch.

We had neighbors in that area who put out more food, like using a cooler in the creek for a "fridge," and got robbed repeatedly.  They also got some great game-cam footage of a repeat-visitor bear settling down to his "picnic lunch" out of that cooler.  When they stopped putting food out in easy-access containers, the bear stopped coming by.

Bears are pretty similar in tastes and calorie needs to people, though they love to enjoy food that is a lot more rotten than we can tolerate.  If you wish you had eaten it before it spoiled (ice cream, lasagna, chicken soup carcasses, eggs, etc), putting it out in easy-access piles or containers seems like a great way to develop trash bear problems.  Letting the dogs and chickens have first crack at these things seems to solve multiple problems, not just bears but rats, raccoons, coyotes, etc. plus slightly reducing your feed bills.

On a visit in the Lake Tahoe area, we had much more aggressive/persistent bear encounters - a smaller bear, possibly one whose mother had been taken out of the picture recently, and/or was raised by a trash bear mother.  I'm ashamed to say we contributed to its delinquency by leaving snacks in our car, not something I was super conscious about at that point on a long journey. It got into multiple cars, some due to windows rolled down, and once through an open hatchback while someone was packing for a trip.  It did a fair amount of damage trying to get out of the hatchback car before the owner got brave and opened the door for it.  It ran away pretty fast once it was free.  
Leaving snacks/groceries in an unattended car definitely not recommended.  

In places like that, where trash bears are common, they make thicker steel bins for trash, with specially designed lids - sometimes using "bear resistant" catches designed to be hard to operate with claws, since a bear is perfectly capable of learning to open an ordinary lid.  I've seen folks in areas with dog pack or rat problems create steel mesh ventilated doors for the catchment areas for their composting toilets, however these seemed to be a persistent mess to deal with.  And I've heard of some of the larger bears clawing right through thin sheet metal if they are motivated enough.  Concrete walled structures do seem to keep most anything out, however, in case someone is super determined to turn around a trash-bear situation such as an ill-guarded local midden or dump.

If you have a trash bear problem, there is probably also a community-feeding-the-bears problem.  
Vigilante attacks /shooting of bears, especially by people who don't have the knowledge or patience to ensure they are removing the correct bear and not leaving unattended cubs to turn juvenile delinquent, are not that helpful.  Irresponsible human aggression can escalate the problem, as injured, irritated, or bereaved bears may become more aggressive as they persist in trash-bear lifestyle.  
Problem bears can be removed by various wildlife authorities, though I sympathize with the folks living near where tagged bears may be released.  Presumably the tag lets them identify repeat offenders, but I'm not sure what the politics may be as far as when/whether to kill a repeat problem animal.
In some areas, hunters can get bear tags/licenses, and bear meat makes good sausage (especially if they've been feeding on relatively clean sources, like farm waste).  If you like the idea of turning problems into ultimate solutions, you can drop a hint through local networks, and try to find a hunter skilled and responsible enough to be worth inviting onto the property.

Ernie and his dad both find black bears easier to "shoo" away than your typical stray dog.  They are not that much bigger than a dog, and typically smaller than an adult person, so we're scarier to them than they are to us.  Top predators usually have better things to do with their day than get in a lose-lose fight with another top predator. So you can generally bluff them into wandering off, especially with a Plan B like being able to get inside and shut the door if it turns out your particular bear is a weirdo.  Be wary and report any bear that approaches or seems aggressive, as this is not normal behavior for bears.

3 years ago
Ah, understandable confusion.

This Manual is only the fill-in-the-blanks owners' manual, not the full Rocket Mass Heater Builders' Guide.  That 400-page book is under license agreement with our publishers, and we can't resell it digitally independently.  

If you wish to purchase the Builders' Guide, here is a link to find it on our publishers' website:
Amazon sometimes has cheaper deals on it, if your budget is tight.  However, we like to support our publisher, and using the above link also supports the best author royalties for us.  Thanks!

However, there are a few pieces of this project that we wanted to make more easily available to those who don't want or need the whole book.
When we wrote the contract with the publishers, we reserved the right to continue selling previously published documents, including this brief Owner Manual.  
The most up-to-date version we had self-published at that point was Chapter 4 of the draft, a very similar manual is now Chapter 5 of the published Builders' Guide.

We felt it was important to encourage the good practice of builders providing as-built drawings and operators' instructions to their clients, and to make it easier for DIY builders to document their work in case they ever needed to share the details with kids, guests, or new owners.
An Owners' Manual shows that your heater is not just a haphazard jerry-rigged contraption, it has known best practices and a conscientious manufacturer and installer.

So this is like a little workbook section, which you can purchase very affordably compared to the other books and videos out there.  
Regardless of whether you use the Builders' Guide, videos, workshops, or some other resource to build your heater, we hope this fill-in-the-blanks manual will be a good resource to help you document the project.

If you don't wish to purchase a downloadable PDF for this purpose, we recommend the following documentation:

- Floor plan and detail drawings, including diagrams showing cleanouts, firebox shape, and any special features such as heat shielding.  Draw to scale if you are able, using graph paper or other drafting tools; or you can take a photo or pencil sketch and draw/write in the important dimensions (with arrows).
- Photos of the project showing stages: foundations, insulation, firebox coursework, heating channels, layers of masonry and finishes, cleanout cap locations, chimney/attic installation
- Materials sources in case of repair/replacement: take photos or save labels/receipts from things like color tints, local stone or clay suppliers, refractory brick and insulation.  Even with site-sourced materials, you may want to keep a small bin of color-matching plaster samples for chip repairs, and note where these are saved (usually in a closet or garage along with other household paints and trim pieces, labeled).
- Operating instructions (we include a printable pocket card with standard lighting instructions that you could place near the heater for guests or house-sitters).  Some stoves have special instructions, such as how to load local fuels like coal, buffalo chips, and pellets; air controls or safety doors; chimney dampers or bypass controls; etc.
- Maintenance instructions and log.  How, when, and where do you remove ash?  What is the best way to inspect the chimney? Some owners may also note goals for firewood harvesting, cleaning/inspection before first lighting in fall, etc.
- Fuel usage log - Just as you might track mileage on a vehicle to have a baseline performance and detect problems early, you may wish to log your fuel usage and stove performance over the first full heating season.  Some owners will continue this habit regularly, others will let it go unless they have reason to be curious or question the later performance (especially during unusual weather).  
- Tricks and Tips: Sometimes efficient mass-accumulation heaters are too efficient for their own good, and may have quirks like not wanting to light on warm afternoons or during certain kinds of wind events.  Documenting your own personal tips and tricks for operating the stove, and especially for lighting it safely from a cold start, can be very helpful in case you have to go away for a while.   Or if you have repeatedly observed the same problem, e.g. the stove gets plugged up after someone burns a load of old office paper, note these types of problems and the easiest way to fix them.

Making your heater a good "baby book" is worth every minute you spend on it, as it can save you and future residents many hours and days of frustration later on.  It makes all the difference to your project having a long and useful service life.

Builders or owners who created a digital "baby book" or owner manual using these suggestions, it would be awesome if you could share examples or links in this thread!

Erica W

3 years ago
You are probably most familiar with Ernie and Erica Wisner for their decade-plus of permaculture work, specializing in rocket mass heaters and related appropriate technology.  Ernie and Erica's workshops always start with introductions and fire science, to help build resilient communities.  This work has taken us to mountains and deserts, across borders and overseas, where we have had opportunities to work with many remarkable people.

Ernie Wisner's background and knowledge go much deeper in the maritime world.  On boats from infancy onward, Ernie's first 30+ year career was mostly on the seven seas: as a fisherman's kid, Navy ABE, ocean explorer, and unlimited-tonnage merchant marine seacaptain.  The "seven seas" are of course all connected; the whole thing is one system, a vast and massively changing one, and Ernie's family has sailed most of it since Noah was a babe.   They have records of Wisners in the maritime provinces before the arrival of the Mayflower; of a Wisner with letters of mark from King George; and the name Wisner (Veis-Neer) appears in the Viking sagas as well.
Ernie's personal career as a sailor started in childhood, first being dumped in a fishhold for a toddler playpen (a clean empty one, his dad's boat had two so he could take the toddlers along).  Ernie earned enough money working his dads' and other fishing boats to buy his own commercial salmon troller at age 14, and focused on small-volume, high-quality catch such as salmon trolling and sushi-grade tuna.  When he was old enough, he joined the Navy and served four years on aircraft carriers as an ABE.  Later, he returned to school for a Bachelor's degree in botany, specializing in bryology: bryophytes are nonvascular plants (such as algae, mosses, lichens, and liverworts - and almost all types of seaweed, a useful foundation for coastal ecology surveys).  

Ernie was deeply interested in sustainable ecosystems management and traditional life ways, but most of his working career was based in conventional, modern industrial practices and professional training.  A moment of clarity in the early 1990s shook him up.  This was before polar swims were common; corporate morale-boosters could still argue to multi-generation Arctic sailors that there was some controversy about climate change warnings, and that producing what people need and want was more important than worrying about the consequences.  Then Ernie's exploration fleet navigated all the way north - to the pole - in open water, with no ice breakers.  Seeing the disturbing retreat of sea ice, and discussing what he saw with other longstanding Arctic families, Ernie realized that the Arctic was warming in unprecedented ways (at least, as far back as local knowledge could bear witness for the past 5000 to 10,000 years).  He started a lifelong quest to find work that wasn't self defeating, to protect his beloved waters if it meant fixing the whole landlubber mess to do it.  

This commitment led to a series of conversations around the world, and recurring phone calls to the local natural building school in Ernie's hometown of Coquille, Oregon.  Expatriate Welshman Ianto Evans' work to revive earthen building for maritime climates, and to help people get off the treadmill of corporate wages and debt, seemed like another piece of the puzzle to Ernie.  Although at the time he was comparatively wealthy, he knew it wasn't likely to last.  He had watched fishermen work all their lives to pay for children and ex-wives they rarely saw, and end up retiring to a trailer on a patch of dirt they could barely afford.  He joined the Cob Cottage team in 2004, serving a two-year apprenticeship and service as cook and site caretaker.  During this time he and Kirk Mobert (Donkey) became fast friends while experimentally testing hundreds of troubleshooting prototypes for the expanded Rocket Mass Heaters book (Evans/Jackson).  
The rocket stove work, and the relevance of natural building to sustaining coastal communities, seemed like an answer to his lifelong concerns.  Reduce carbon output, so that reefs and shellfish can thrive.  Help people to gain financial and physical independence, so they have more choice in their lifestyles, including spending less of their income on industrial fuels if they don't love being part of that problem.  Help off-grid homesteads thrive, so the homesteaders and gardeners can put down roots and develop that sense of caretaker connection with their patch of dirt.  Ernie's "ownership" is not specific to any one patch of soil - he is not a gardener or horticulturist, but can spend hours observing a single wood-ant nest, or decades as a caretaker and hunter-gatherer across the vast realms of sea, sky, and rainforest "reefs" of wild coastal greenery.  Our work with fire science has underlying goals of helping people to get to know not just symbolic vocabulary, but a working feel for the physics, fluid flows, and temperature gradients that drive massive weather systems and ocean currents, and the artfully balanced flows of heat and smoke in efficient masonry heaters and chimneys, and in efficient and well-ventilated homes.  

I came along in 2006; we met in Portland, OR at the Village Building Convergence, a week that ended with Ernie suffering a devastating permanent injury in a car-vs-bystander collision.  As he watched his athletic and able-bodied careers vanish, we started rebuilding a path forward and he put his recovering energies into a teaching and mentoring role.  We taught our first workshop together that same year; worked well together.  Were married in 2008.  We spent a few years trying to combine boatbuilding, rocket mass heaters, and other types of workshops; but then with our move to the inland Okanogan Highlands, the rocket mass heaters became the main focus of our business for about seven years.  Working with regional and international teams such as Wheaton Labs, Regenerative Design Institute, Shikari Trackers' Guild, TrackersEARTH, Local Living Project, DreamSeeders, Uncle Mud, Straw Bale Studio, and many others, we helped build hundreds more prototypes, and dozens of full-scale installations.  We also collaborated with the Permies forums and other permaculture networks to contribute to digital resources, and served thousands of clients and collaborators with plans, consulting, and on-site project leadership.  
As we had hoped, our own technical manual (The Rocket Mass Heater Builders' Guide, 2016 New Society Press) has helped thousands more people to succeed in building their own rocket mass heaters - sales have just passed 10,000 copies this year.  It means we don't need to be on the road as much, and when we do, we get to take our workshops and conversations to the next level and help with projects that continue to advance the development of appropriate uses and clean-burning alternatives for solid fueled heaters.

And it leaves us time to reflect on our original priorities: a livelihood compatible with life on earth.  Sometimes we follow the science - doing more to support climate change mitigation, coastal disaster relief, or public information.  But on our best days, we leave the rationalizing arguments to others, and explore ways to actively participate in and support healthy culture: local knowledge, livelihoods with deep roots and a long memory for sustainable, adaptable traditional skills, deeply connected to the living world.  

We have been working our way back toward Ernie's maritime roots these past couple of years, because life is short, and his bucket list includes prototyping permaculture guilds for sea vegetable gardening, working with (and eating a lot of) sustainable seafood, and passing along nautical traditions and lore that he received as other sailors' living legacies.   As I've shopped and cooked with this sea-bear, I've come to describe him as basically an Arctic marine mammal, and he's been housed in inland zoos for a long time now.  It's time to return him to his natural habitat.

We'll be posting more about that here, and on Ernie's Facebook and our websites, in the coming weeks and months.  We appreciate everything that the Permies community has done to support our efforts thus far, and hope you'll enjoy the "Coastal Repatriation" phase.

For now, here are a series of images to share Ernie's work, and some links to support it in various ways.



Permies Digital Marketplace:

Donate ("coastal repatriation fund"):

We also accept working boat parts, oilcloth, and pie.

3 years ago
I do think that for your climate, the 8" heater would have given more insurance on those really cold nights. But you can probably still improve the situation with more insulation (we did R30 walls, R40 ceiling and crawl spaces ), maybe weather sealing, and by firing more often.  Try four hours morning, four to six hours evening, if it's not too inconvenient.

The 6 inch systems were originally developed as comfort heating for small huts and single rooms in milder, coastal climates. They do not typically burn enough wood to heat a larger space in more severe climates.

The choice to include Portland cement (which we don't typically recommend) may reduce your options to recycle the cob into a larger replacement system.

I also want to confirm that you insulated around the heat riser with some kind of refractory insulation. If it's just bare fire brick, I am not clear why it would be working at all, so I hope you already did this and it just doesn't show in the pictures.

If it really isn't working, one other option might be to look at removing and replacing the fire box with a rocket batch box. It is more costly to build, and takes more special tools and parts, but can burn more than double the wood, dramatically increasing your heat output. Look for discussion of these by Peter van den Berg and associates, on these forums here at, at proboards, or at

Before investing in big changes, you might check your heat loss situation to ensure that double the heat would do the job, or if you need o go even bigger.

You can check your heating situation on paper by using a home heat calculator like the ones at, but a better reality check is to compare interior temps with desired temps, or to get ahold of an IR camera  and do a home energy audit. Or see if your county offers energy audits - some do, for free.
You want the IR camera to check for warmth escaping the building, which may reveal areas of preventable heat loss around windows, doors, rafters, ceiling and vents, etc. A better heat seal on the building could offer long term benefits, both for comfort and to reduce the total fuel burden for years to come.

Hope this helps. When you do find a good solution, please keep us posted!
4 years ago
Brick barrel vault ovens are lovely, but the proportions and performance are going to be different from a dome oven.

I would suggest looking into plans or books that are intended to be built with the types of bricks you found, as that will likely be far easier to build, with more predictable results, than adapting our dome oven proportions.

Building a dome oven with brick involves a lot of carefully angled cuts, and again, a plan that's been tested for those sized bricks will be far smoother to build.

If you have fewer than 200 free bricks, you could also consider just using them for the floor (alternating the wedge angles up and down so the result is flat on top) and following the original plans for the earthen dome.

For an example of differences in proportion:
Kiko Denzer worked out that the door height should be about 62% of the total interior height of a dome style earthen oven for good heat capture.  I don't know what proportion should be used for a barrel oven because the proportions of volume to surface area above the door would be different. A lot of barrel ovens I've seen don't even have a separate height door lip or end wall, it's all just the same height tunnel, and the door covers the end.
I think barrel ovens were more common historically in places that were doing high volume baking, and would have cared more about quantity than precision. One advantage of the barrels' rectangular floor footprint, without any restrictions from a smaller door frame, is it's easier to slide trays and paddles in and out quickly.

Also, our plans discuss the catenary arch shape for strong, self supporting masonry. But a lot of brick barrel ovens are a simple radial arch, which is easier to make with factory brick wedges. These circular shaped arches may need a little bit of extra weight or thicker side supports to balance outward thrust at the bottom (feet) of the arch.

Here is one forum where folks discuss a lot of different, modern backyard wood fired ovens, where you.might pick up some relevant search terms:

Or you could just whack them together without mortar, light a fire in it, and see if you get roughly the results you want. Bricks are endlessly recyclable. Plaster some clay mud on the outside if you need it more airtight for a fair trial.  You can do this on a few square feet of non-combustible dirt, with a few more feet of safe space in front of the door to scrape out live coals.

I might suggest using your biggest pan plus at least a couple of inches as your minimum floor proportion, about 4 inches extra space at the door end to allow for different doors. Or look up standard catering/cookie sheet sizes if you hope to bake bigger in future.

Erica W
4 years ago