Erica Wisner

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since Feb 10, 2009
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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!)
Okanogan Highlands, Washington
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Recent posts by Erica Wisner

Did get the design worked out, eventually, but didn't get to try installing it.

If boat shopping, the biggest feature to look for is hull insulation, or the possibility of adding it.  
If your fresh water tanks are isolated from the sea water temperature on the other side of the hull, you have an isolated mass, and lot of options to warm that mass up, whether or not you install additional mass.  (If you have multiple fresh water tanks and can keep some of them cool and algae-and-scale free for drinking, even better.)  

If your living space has only a conductive skin between it and the briny deeps, you are now plugged into the largest thermal mass on Earth.  But Mother Nature controls the thermostat, and laughs at your puny efforts to warm the sea.
3 weeks ago
Thanks for the herbal remedy recommendations.

Other things I do during wildfire season:
- Shower regularly.  It's not much, but the shower does clean the air, and also provides welcome humidity to help my lungs.  A few years ago when the smoke was super thick, I found my hair getting stickier from creosote, and getting all that off your skin and clothes seems worth doing.  Terrible to imagine the lungs struggling with the same stuff.
- Make sure and eat my leafy greens, blueberries, fresh eggs, and other healthy foods.  It can be tempting to go to junk food, or binge on tomatoes for three days, when cooking is not fun.  But I feel my energy is better if I'm getting those nutrient-dense foods, and healing is probably better too.
- Bandanna, filter mask, or respirator: An old cotton bandanna, cowboy-style, is some help during really bad smoke.  I don't usually use masks except when I'm actively working on a wildfire, but I probably should.  I would recommend them for those who may have greater susceptibility to respiratory problems.

- Pray for rain!  We just had our first sprinkle here, barely enough to wet the ground, but it's a welcome sign that relief is coming.

3 months ago
also, this long series of posts may be relevant for you:

"So you want to buy land in the Okanogan..."

Okanogan County also has a useful page of tips about things to be aware of before buying a little slice of Heaven up here (or at least, a rocky scarp that has the night sky for its nearest neighbor...).
There's a link to the County's website from one of the posts in the "so you want to buy land in the Okanogan" thread.
5 months ago
Indeed, some very beautiful work is being done.  I hope the performance is even better than the hype!

However it appears the domes are not finished, and fake Photoshop skylights (and fake pond and fountain images) have been added for the promotional photo.
(It doesn't look like a design image, because it's based on the real photo of the partially completed structures.... so do all these expensive lessons about mistakes have a happy ending?  Or not yet?)

Is the advertised course part of a plan to complete the structures?  

What other aspects of the project are unfinished, or still unproven?

(As someone with a lot of unfinished projects, I don't mind learning from works-in-progress, but it bothers me if they are faked.)

Erica W
5 months ago
After 4 years in fire service, I still feel like there is way more to learn than I have already learned.... or am likely to learn in one lifetime.

The last two springs have brought flooding, road wash-outs, and a marvelously full pond recovery.  
Cat-tails and bulrushes we transplanted are now drowning 7-15 feet below the surface, and new shoots are sprouting on the former rim of the pond (now a shallow ledge under a few inches of water).  
The one surviving willow on the island is now poking its green head up above the flood; the island itself was submerged in mid-spring, much to the consternation of the Canada goose who had built increasingly elaborate nest architecture on its dwindling crown.

Every year has been "a good year" for something, and it might be years before the same stuff pops back again in full force.
Year 1 (2012 spring) was a great year for shooting stars.
Year 2 or so was a great year for false hyacinth (only we thought they were wild garlic or onions or something, didn't get properly introduced until later).  They were all over the area near the driveway; now they seem more sparse there, and more plentiful down below.
Last year was very good for our apples (fall 2017), and the first good crop of Asian pears although they did not fully ripen before snow came.  I don't remember the spring wild flowers... didn't even get my yarrow harvested that spring.

This year (2018), there is a red something going nuts all along the driveway; dandelions into July; and a LOT of a "spring" green, sharp-edged grass, making billowy hillocks down in the pine woods.  
A big broad area of cat-tails in the valley in Oroville seems to be dead, with the occasional sprout here and there where it should be full growth right now.  Not sure if it's damage from the flooding, or some kind of overspray/pesticide, or what.

Most years have been good for arrowleaf balsamroot, further down the hill; and for lupine.  And for rhubarb and horseradish, in my garden.  And yarrow, most springs.

If anyone wants to do pond cultivation with this variable snowpack and rainfall, I think I would lean toward smaller ponds with spillways.  With the aim of having at least one pond that consistently has some water in the shade, and a depth variation of only a few feet.  (A lot of things can grow between submerged 3 feet and exposed (wapato) or a few inches to 4 feet (cattail, can tolerate occasional exposure and/or re-seed); but depth changes greater than 5 or 8 feet seem to really set things back for aquatic plant cultivation.)  
Seasonal wetlands and swales and so on are fun while they last; water-and-mulch catchers around trees seem worth trying, and swales to improve water penetration for young tree establishment.  As long as they are not so deep as to cause risk of blowout in wet years.
This "deep pond" with artificially steepened sides has made it more of a struggle - not enough water reaches higher plants in dry years, too much inundates the lower plants in wet ones.
This is the first couple of years that it has really filled back up; we'll see if my sailors' hopes come true, and it maintains this higher level more effectively now that it's here.  It's still brimful and over-the-brim in early July, which is notable around here.
5 months ago
We're still having meetings, the most recent of which I just missed (pot luck at Ken's place, to meet his new trees).

Please continue to email Barbara when you want to be informed of current events.  The email announcements get a lot more detailed than these occasional online posts!

You might also look at the Okanogan Highlands Alliance events, particularly the Highland Wonders series.  
They are regularly scheduled; consistently lovely and informative, with good presenters; and sometimes even useful.  (Usually hikes or natural history lectures, with the occasional volunteer project excursion.)

5 months ago
Are you aware of the earth-sheltered micro-development being built by Bob and Jane Thompson, just north of Tonasket as you go out - on the left before you pass the high school softball fields, if you were going toward Sitzmark ski area  /Havillah?  Or better, watch for the curved roof on your right coming back into town that way, just past the school zone, where the speed slows to 25.

If you are potentially interested in being closer to town, and sharing resources such as a commercial kitchen, small greenhouse, small guest suite, and meeting room, instead of building it all yourself from scratch, this would be well worth taking a look at.

Even if you'd prefer to be further out, they have over 30 years' experience building earth-sheltered structures, and have worked out a lot of the preventable problems to the point where they are now doing gorgeous structures, to code, that can coast into winter without turning the heat on as late as November.  Nor need AC in summer.  Well worth a look - they sometimes share open house or tour invitations through the Okanogan Permaculture Study Group email list,

Erica W
5 months ago
Word to the wise about mixing natural materials with conventional, particularly milk paints:

Even finish materials have functions.  For home interiors, drywall is 'expecting' a coat of latex paint, to complete its function as the interior vapor barrier/vapor retarder.  
We did most of our bathroom ceiling in gypsum instead of green board (an iffy choice), and did not initially install a vent fan (recommended).
Then, we used milk paint instead of latex on most of it.  
Now that we are using the bathroom more for physical therapy/soaks and long showers, we have a major mold problem in the ceiling, that will be a pain in the butt to fix.

Options for improving it:
1- Toxic gick retreatment: Bleach to kill mold, then latex paint, to see if the original drywall would have been fine if we'd finished it 'properly.'
2- Conventional upgrade: Mask up, tear out the moldy drywall, replace with green board (a water-resistant and mold-resistant sheet material, similar to drywall or cement board), then paint with a vapor-retarder paint.  (Could go to linseed oil instead of latex at this last step, if we want a more costly / more natural finish layer in our space with us.)
3- Old-school upgrade: Replace or treat and cover the moldy drywall with tile backer, and tile the bathroom with ceramic tile.  Could try a lime grout instead of plastic goop, but would want to research that option thoroughly so we don't end up with mold again.
4- Casbah natural upgrade: Replace the moldy drywall with cement board, or lime plaster-and-lath (both water-resistant, and firm).  Plaster with lime, finish with burnished lime 'tadelakt' made with local dolomite and type S lime, and natural soap.

(0) - do nothing.... mold is 'natural,' right?

Decision criteria:
Time & money: We have already purchased the vent fan, which was about $100, and the wiring and switches to install it.  Awaiting a final decision about ceiling replacement to proceed with the whole project.
1) looks like about 1 day's work, 1 person.  Maybe $50 in supplies.  
2) looks like about 3 days' work for 2 people, maybe $500 in supplies?
3) Looks like about a week's work for 1-2 people, depending on skill, and maybe $2000 in supplies?
4) Looks like a week or two of work for 2 people, high skill level to accomplish crack-resistant and water-resistant detailing; maybe $1500 in supplies?  (plaster & lath is more time & skill vs. cement board which is more conventional coatings)

Budgets are very approximate.  Things usually take longer, and cost more, than you think.

Natural materials that will handle the levels of humidity produced by warm indoor showers, without growing mold, are a bit of a technical specialty.  
Let alone how to handle flexing (which happens with heat, moisture, & building movement) without cracking, peeling, or delaminating.

When looking at returning to 'natural' finishes and materials, it's worth looking at the traditional lifestyles that accompanied them.

Most pre-industrial areas did not have anything like our warm showers.  Bathing (if it was regularly practiced at all) might be by washcloth and rinse, or by sit bath, or by a full-immersion pool.  
Some cultures (medieval Europe) believed bathing was unhealthy; possibly due to disease transmission in public baths.  Some cultures (various native American, middle Eastern) believed in daily bathing, which might be anything from a dip in the river to a scented indoor wash.  a "japanese bath" is a tiled area where you sit or squat to bath, pouring water over yourself with a dipper; variations on this method have been used in many areas including Moroccan village-style 'hammam', American pioneers with washtubs by the fire, and re-invented by campers and RVers wherever the main source of warm water does not come through a tap but through a fire or stovetop.
Separate buildings or areas for bathing were and are common in many parts of the world (sauna, sweat lodge, hammam, 'Turkish' baths, Roman hypocaust baths, mineral hot springs, etc.).  In some cases, this separation was known to alleviate concerns about fire, steam, hot water, etc. which might be expensive or dangerous to handle for ordinary homes.  A bath attendant and/or maintenance specialist could assist in making sure both bathers and building had their needs met.

For our purposes, to maintain a walk-in shower that allows a 6'6" Ernie to stretch his injured leg under warm running water, we will probably be fitting out most of the bathroom in mold-resistant materials, one way or another.
Because the bathroom has suspended floors over drainage, as an addition, we will also need to pay good attention to frost protection for the crawl space plumbing, repair/replacement access for when attention falls short, and detailing corners and joints so that any flexing of the wood-framed building does not crack brittle finishes, allowing water to enter the walls and condense against colder surfaces.

Similar issues arise in greenhouses, especially those connected to living spaces.  And, to a somewhat lesser degree, in kitchens where cooking and washing produces a lot of steam.

The older and more experienced I get with buildings, and their building issues, the more I respect the skills and knowledge embodied in a traditional trades apprenticeship (3 to 7 years, in Europe), and the value of experts' time and attention.  
Sure, you can spend less money at a time to alter things yourself, but you might cause permanent damage/degradation, and dramatically reduce the lifespan of the building.  

According to "001 The Perfect Wall," the priorties for any shelter are:
1) Control water - Keep out rain and snow, control drainage and groundwater exposures
2) Control air - Keep wind out or allow cross-breeze, manage ventilation, separate indoor air from structure ventilation (wall, attic, crawl space).  This step also implies controlling critters: mice, spiders, bats, etc.
3) Control vapors - they move water and other stuff into/through your walls; all walls need at least 1 way to dry out, preferably 2 ways.
4) Control thermal transfer.  If you don't  have all 3 of the above handled, insulation won't do much for you, and may become an attractive nuisance/trap for condensation, mold, & critters.

The roof and foundations are your primary tools for #1.
The walls, ceiling (sealing!), trim, and finishing materials can all be important for #2.
The finish materials, including plasters, paints, drywall and its finishing, contribute to #3. (Unfinished wood may warp or crack, causing it to be useless as a wind/vapor barrier; so finishes to wood are also functional at this stage)
Thermal materials generally means insulation (foams, fiber, board or batt, straw-clay, or blown materials such as cellulose or chaff); but the construction and thickness of walls, ceiling, roof, and foundations can also play a role in final results.  

Any given building material has a function - for example 'siding' generally is a weather- and UV-resisting layer, with good ventilation, that goes over the rest of the wall.  So swapping an oil-painted wood siding for vinyl can work out fine.
Plasters are generally a wind and vapor barrier; they require fairly dry conditions for good performance, and if plastering both sides of a wall, you want to be sure you know how any trapped vapors are going to escape.   You also need a decent roof overhang to protect most types of exterior plaster, if it's the kind that can dry outwards it can also suffer from excessive weather trying to penetrate inwards.  (If it's not the kind that allows water to dry outwards, a new, impermeable exterior plaster can cause major damp problems inside of cold-climate walls.)
So replacing siding with plaster might be asking for trouble, unless it's the perfect match where their different functions are not critical to building performance.

Roofing materials have specific types of slopes, weights, and support systems.  
Replacing a lighter roof with heavier (slate, tile) or with something that holds onto snow and moisture more (living roof), you'd need to give some consideration to the roof and building structural/load bearing capacity.
Steepest to shallowest, I'd guess the order is something like thatch, wood shake/shingle, slate/tile, metal (wide range), asphalt shingle, membrane /living roofs.  
There's a lot of overlap, but if you try to put thatch on a flat-roofed building you will have a non-functional mess, or you'd have to build a new, steeper roof over the old one.

There is at least one good thatching training program in the US, Deanne Bednar at Strawbale Studio in Michigan hosts workshops and internships where folks can learn a lot about these methods (and help keep invasive Phragmites reeds in check).

As my own house shows, there are significant gaps in my understanding and workmanship.  
I'm not claiming to know better than anyone else - just learning from the pitfalls of my own former optimism.

Houses are expensive.
One other thing that people used to do differently, was to have more adults sharing a home.  That would in theory also provide more hands, and/or more income, to share the burden of housekeeping, maintenance, and repairs for a given house.  
Being the 'head of the household" was a position of added responsibility and status.  
I find the cost of repairing/remodeling daunting in both time and materials, but it's hard to convince Ernie (or any of our other relatives who also feel the pinch) to combine households.  
Culturally, that seems to imply some sort of social failure.  "I'm not 20 anymore."  

But by living alone through our most productive years, and only rooming together when we are very young or old - is our reluctance to live together a sort of social failure in itself?

Shared bath-houses had a lot of social functions, as well as the basic function of keeping people clean and healthy.

Food for thought, anyway.  

5 months ago
I'm wondering what this floor is for?  Living space, indoor/outdoor entertaining, existing or new building?

How fancy does it need to be?
How consistently will it be heated?
What are the chances that there will be wet conditions?

Laying tile (or hanging any thermal mass) over wooden joists does sound like a bit of potential trouble.  Wood and masonry move differently.  

There's a chance that if the wood bows or sags, your tiles' edges might fall or wedge on one side of the wood, as well as the possible cracking you mentioned.  
Filling the wood with sand/earth may make it more rot-prone, too. "Breathable" suggests you may be drying out any underfloor moisture (or spills) by evaporation through the floor.
I would want careful attention to proper drainage and water exclusion before even attempting a floor of the proposed mixture of materials.
That's not even considering whether your heaters (presumably electric?) would be affected by moisture.

Depending on the context, I'd be tempted to pick one dominant method, and stick with more typical/traditional detailing.
Either go masonry/patio style: skip the wood joists and just lay your heaters and flags directly on sand/fill;

OR go wood style: skip the flags and sand, raise the joists up a bit, and make it accessible through a crawl space below the floor.
You might also consider making the original wooden floor removable in sections - maybe something like 4x8 plywood sheets, but of floor boards or parquet.    

The manufacturer of your floor heating units probably has some well-tested methods for using them.  
If all their methods involve concrete, you might call or write and ask them why, and what alternatives they could see for a more natural and flexible setting.
If they have a method for heating under a wood floor, that might be closest to your original design ideas, and they could give you good advice about heat storage options and proper detailing.
5 months ago

John C Daley wrote:I am now aware that external tanks may freeze solid in parts of the continent.
I just can't imagine living in such a location.
Anyway, I see that foundations need to go below the freeze thaw line and in some areas, that enables a basement to be established.
The thaw line being from 6 to 72 inches.
Would it be practical to design a basement to hold large water tanks in the basement?
Would the benefits of rainwater collection be greater than the issue of going underground?
Poly tanks could easily be installed during construction and I have been involved with concrete tanks that have been set in the ground and had a house built on top [ in Australia ]
to save space on a house block or create a taller building for a view.

Most Australians can't imagine living where it freezes - even Californians struggle with it.  
Which explains why neither Tim Barker nor Art Ludwig have provided fully optimized designs for freeze-protected water systems: hot, cold, nor greywater.

Gutters are not common in the mountains here, because they fill with ice, then slowly rip themselves off the building (sometimes taking shingles along).

Basement or below-ground cisterns might make sense if the building is built with them in mind.  If not, that could be a lot of weight to add after the fact.  
There is a chance of cracking the foundations, causing all manner of structural problems and increasing the likelihood of leaks and flooding.

Then there is the question of how to tie the frozen world above down to the tank below... do you continue to collect rainwater/snow melt water as it becomes available?  Any receiving pipes will plug almost instantly in very cold weather, probably crack... and then you're leaking near-frozen water into your basement as the thaw cycle starts.
On the other hand, it's not hard to bring water indoors to cook ... you just break off a chunk and carry it inside.

If you're going to do that much work underground, with that much risk of costly leaks, a drilled well does start to look reasonable.  
The water way down there stays liquid year-round, and a well casing and pump provides access to near-infinite water.  Well housings are below ground or insulated (and sometimes heated); pipes are buried below frost depth, which can be 4-5 feet in some areas.  Protecting those pipes within the building can be a challenge too, especially if you go on vacations in winter.
The most common outdoor farm water fitting in the northern US are "frost-free" hydrants, which have a pinhole below ground at a below-frost depth, that drains the pipe when the handle is turned off, so the upper parts don't freeze solid and bust the pipes.

It doesn't take much to set back your plumbing in expensive and frustrating ways.
A few of my neighbors still use an outdoor 'tap' or pump to a cistern in the house, rather than deal with digging in plumbing and freeze-protecting it.

Solar water heaters are another problem for freeze protection.  Some use less-freezable liquids like ethylene glycol or oil as a heat-exchange medium, but even so, most have a thermostat-controlled "drainback" system that allows the liquid to drain to a protected tank (underground or insulated)

Dealing with frozen water is a reality in much of the US and Europe.  Even the sunny inland areas can get extreme cold at night, and in season.  
So if you were wondering why more people here don't collect rainwater, or for that matter make solar water heaters and greywater systems, this is one big part of the design problem.  
A solution that's almost universally workable in Australia, turns out to need a lot of TLC to work even halfway effectively in the northern and western USA.

Soil-based water collection neatly avoids this problem.  Frozen, wet soils just squeeze water out into nifty frost art, they don't "break" and need "repairs."


Regarding the asphalt shingle water collection - in areas with low rainfall, I've noticed my runoff water from an asphalt roof has a yellowish tinge.  And sometimes an unappealing smell.  I think it would be wiser to stick with water collected from metal, tile, or glazing, even a plastic greenhouse roof membrane would be more palatable.  I still use it for some of my gardens, though.  It has to go somewhere.
5 months ago