Brad Vietje

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since Jan 15, 2013
Country boy science geek trying to grow, can, dry and store food through Permaculture and Hugelkultur.  15 Acres in northeastern VT (zone 4) with western slope, spring, stream and waterfall.  Land is 2/3 wooded, with a few old sheep pastures.  New straw bale house (2011) with recycled 160-year-old timber frame from a house that was being torn down.  Wood heat supplemented by passive solar design.  I'm also an experienced woodturner, telescope maker, and astronomy teacher.
Newbury, VT (Zone 4)
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Recent posts by Brad Vietje

Meant to attach a photo, but had trouble... maybe things will work this time

Our house was completed in 2010, a straw bale wrap with a reclaimed timber frame from an 1850 home that was dismantled about 35 miles away in New Hampshire.  Passive design (needs lots of active management in this climate!) with black stained radiant concrete slab.  We use roll-up thermal shades to manage heat loss through the large south windows.  Nothing hooked up to the radiant tubing at the moment; we’ve been heating with a small wood stove.  Fuel consumption is about 2 cords against about 8200 Heating degree days.
1 year ago
Hello Jim and Bob!

I wanted to chime in earlier, but couldn’t remember my password after a hard drive crash 🙄

I’ve lived in a straw bale home in Vermont for 9 years, with the bale/plaster work done by the authors of The Natural Building Companion — another great book in the trade.

I haven’t seen Bob in many years, but waaay back in the mid-sixties, we were next-door neighbors!  What are the chances that 2 random kids start life in a tight little neighborhood (Gerrymander Drive, if you can believe it 🤪), grow up, live on opposite coasts 3000 miles apart, and both end up involved in straw bale homes?

I’m no expert on the matter, but have learned s good deal working through design and implementation issues.  My involvement in solar energy systems led me to work on a team offering design, engineering, and construction management for clients looking to create zero energy buildings.  That partnership has dissolved, but I’m still working in solar electricity.

I wish you great success with your book, and many sunny days to come!
1 year ago
Darryl and Sean have raised some excellent points, and I’m glad Bob Theis chimed in what I was going to add.

Moisture management is everything in straw bale structures.  You might be wise, in the long run, to hire a consultant with expertise in thermal envelope performance, moisture management (incl. drainage planes, condensation issues, capillary breaks, etc...) PLUS the needs of straw or light straw clay.

Maybe this forum could help you find a skilled person, or a green building group near you that could help.  Otherwise, you could end up with brick walls surrounding a pile of compost 😨
1 year ago
Very Basic Info On Off-Grid Battery Banks:

Marine "deep cycle" batteries are adequate (and far more affordable) for many very small systems, but they are not true deep-cycle batteries, but rather a compromise between auto/truck starting batteries (give a brief, but huge pulse of power to start a cold engine), and true deep-cycle batteries (designed for a smaller load over a longer time period).

For systems powering household items like a refrigerator, furnace fan, or other larger loads, real deep-cycle batteries like Trojan T-105, or L-16H (and many other options) will work better.  These are often used in 6V units instead of 12V, though really big systems are often designed with 4V or 2V batteries, strung together to achieve 24- or 48-volts to the inverter.  BTW:  for systems larger than tiny ones, and those using AC power (inverter systems, instead of 12V DC), if you have the option to use a 24-volt inverter (or 48 volt) there are advantages in efficiency and wire costs if power needs to travel over long wires.  You have to configure your batteries to match the inverter voltage (so you might need to trade in 4 or 8 batteries at a time), but for full-time off-grid living with medium loads, there is often an advantage to this.

BUT -- to achieve the staying power of true deep-cycle batteries, you usually need to perform routine maintenance, including replacing lost water, checking specific gravity, and equalization (and venting the fumes and sopping up messy acid spills).  For a decent almost maintenance-free alternative (at much higher cost per Ah), you can consider AGM batteries (Absorbed Glass Mat).  They don't need water added, don't spill, and don't need to be vented, but you'll spend 2x as much for 1/2 the capacity to get there.  For AGM batteries, you'll need a charge controller with at least enough sophistication to have settings for the different charge rate of Gel, AGM, or flooded batteries.  Cheap-o controllers can shorten the life of some batteries, and for flooded batteries, usually don't offer an EQ charge (not needed for Gel or AGM).

I've advised most of my off-grid customers that if you live there full time, year-round, you need to get a good MPPT charge controller, and you should consider getting the messy flooded deep-cycle batteries, if you can deal with the maintenance.  If only for summer use, or a low latitude (lots of sun and not much cold) you may not get much benefit from the MPPT controller, which really earn their keep in colder conditions.    MPPT stuff:  Cold ambient temps => higher voltage from the solar array, which is converted to higher amperage at a voltage just above the battery bank for fastest charging.  Extremely useful for cold, cloudy places, where you want to get the very most out of every minute of sunlight.

Clear skies,

Brad Vietje
Newbury, VT
4 years ago
General note about micro-hydro power:

You are much, MUCH better off with a small flow and large head, than large flow and small head.  The only equipment that can tackle high flow and low head are expen$$$ive, industrial, commercial, municipal-scale plants that just don't make any sense for an off-grid application.

And -- it's all about the loads.  If you use very little juice, you have many more options.

There are low-head options for heads of 4-10 feet and relatively high flow rates, like the ES&D LH-1000, and some low-efficiency home-brew options (search Home Power for articles), but the tiny ES&D Stream Engine, Water Baby and Water Buddy are all tried & true commercial products:

I've only helped install 2 systems (micro-hydro is all but impossible to push through permitting here in Vermont, so don't-ask-don't-tell off-grid power is about it), and both came from ES&D.  Those crafty Canadians have some really good stuff.

Clear skies,

Brad Vietje
Newbury, VT

4 years ago
NOT addressed to any particular person or post:

What we can see here -- very much like the past election cycle in the USA -- is that there is a lot of "information" out there from questionable sources, taken out of context, or just plain wrong, but strongly pushed by a group with an angle and an agenda.  The take-home lesson is that just because we see a fascinating post with really grabby graphics on social media, we still need to take the time to verify the source and validity of the information.

In one article cited, as soon as I saw reference to "massive subsidies" going to wind or solar, I knew I was reading an opinion piece written by someone with an axe to grind.  There certainly are instances of misused and maybe unwise subsidies, but since the fossil fuel industry gets the vast majority of the subsidies in the USA, not to mention the security and imperialism by the world's most powerful military (somehow always missing from those subsidy estimates!), I'd say RED HERRING to that one.

BUT, we really do need to look at not only the EROEI, but the life cycle costs and the environmental costs of making these various gizmos -- including the keyboard beneath my fingertips and the "cloud" that hosts all this information.  There are very real energy and environmental costs to all this.

There's just too much half-true or completely false click-bait out there, and you may regret having your name attached to it!

Clear skies,

Brad Vietje
Newbury, VT
4 years ago
Nice video!

Here in Northern New England, Morels are up a bit later -- usually found around mid-May to late May -- sometimes into early June. A good indicator in our area is Apple flowering -- Morels tend to be up when Apple trees are in flower. I have found them under/around Ash and Elm trees. Some people report Apple trees to be a host, but I've never found that to be true.

Here in Northern Vermont, I start to look for stands of Ash now, when there are very few leaves out. Ash trees leaf out last (except Bl. Locust, which rarely form a stand in the woods), so as the other species leaf out, you can often spot an Ash stand from a distance, when surveying a panoramic view -- they're the only ones with no leaves. Both Ash and Elm have distinctive bark and distinctive forms. Ash leaves are large and compound, so the twigs need to be strong to support them. Thus, Ash trees have no small twigs, only "fat fingers". Elm bark and the form of the trees are pretty distinctive, too, but many are dead or dying. When Am. Elm trees are clustered in the woods -- often around old cellar holes and abandoned farm sites, that's another great place to look. Here's a big tip: the pattern of White Ash bark and White Morels is really quite similar!

True Morels are not slippery or slimy; they have a very firm texture. If you find something that smells bad, it's not a morel -- some Stinkhorns have vaguely similar-looking, phallic shapes, but they are usually found later in the season, and they stink. False morels look disorganized and can be slimy, and the stem is not hollow with thin walls, like the true Morels. I saw a big bloom (flush?) of False Morels on a log landing after lots of trees were removed and the ground was covered in wood chips from all the tops/slash. 50 or more popped up the following year - haven't seen them since.

Last year we found a lot of White Morels -- 2 of them were about 10" tall! Black Morels are much less common here, and usually smaller. I'm told they are sometimes found near Aspen/Poplar trees, and a bit earlier in the season -- haven't found enough to confirm that. Maybe I just haven't learned to find them as well as their larger & easier-to-spot White Morel cousins. Unlike the West, we almost never find Morels associated with evergreens; not enough experience to know if burn sites are better than not.

I find that they can be tough to spot against the leaf litter and forest duff, but that getting your eyes down low -- close to the ground -- can help because you can see things sticking up a lot better, and get a better 3-D view of the forest floor. Remember to be careful of the $@^#%^ ticks -- they are bad, and only getting worse as our climate warms >

Safe, fun 'shrooming...

Brad Vietje
Newbury, VT
5 years ago
OOPS! Correction Time...

I thought the Bob Wells 5-part biochar series was from a workshop he held in Western Mass., but I was entirely wrong. It was done at Living Web Farms, in Mills River, NC.

Nonetheless, he gives a great deal of detail on how and why to make and use biochar. Too bad that the two main speakers are also in the business of selling biochar products, but since they give away the basic trade "secrets", they are also helping all of us on limited budgets to make our own. Many Permies will decide to make their own, while commercial farmers, strawberry growers and nursery owners might opt to buy the stuff. I'm keeping my eyes out for barrels and stovepipe to build my own retort.

As for the charcoal in the Amazon and the formation of Terra Preta, that will work -- obviously, since it is now an accepted historical fact -- but it could take a very long time to reach maximal benefit, and burning the wood in air puts more pollution into the atmosphere than burning off the gasses to make true char.. The ancient people who built up those soils may have done so for hundreds, or even thousands of years. We don't have that much time. AGW and Climate Chaos is already upon us, so I favor making clean biochar instead of charcoal since 1) we know how; 2) it's pretty easy with some tweaking; and 3) its really inexpensive, or even free if you are a good scrounger and have access to woody biomass.

6 years ago

Attempting to quote John Elliot here -- not sure I'm using the Quote function correctly:

3) When you rake leaves or trim brush, throw it in the swale and let it dry out. Then burn it (assuming you are in an area where the local fire department won't have a fit). Get a good bonfire going in the swale and let it burn down until it is mostly coals and not much flame. Like when you get ready to barbecue. Then douse it good with the hose. By not letting the fire completely burn out, what you have done is to create a lot of biochar in the swale. If you pile the brush and some pieces of scrap lumber 18-24" high, it will burn down so that you may have 3" of charcoal (biochar) in the bottom of the swale. Making biochar really reduces the volume of biomass.

UM, while I like your method of making shallow swales, I'd say that's not really biochar -- that's charcoal. By burning the wood in open air you're getting aerobic combustion, and not forcing the gasses out, burning them, while leaving the cellulose structure. Lots of CO2 and smoke released, too.

To create biochar, here's one simple way:

This is a workshop held in Western Mass (Northfield or Colrain Elementary School??) by Bob Wells, who has a whole series of videos and pretty regularly runs workshops about enriching soil and sequestering carbon with biochar. Not the only way to go, but certainly something any of us could do on our homesteads, community gardens, etc...
6 years ago

Dave Redvalley wrote:The biggest difference is the depth of discharge (DoD) that you can achieve with these batteries. Lead acid batteries should really only be discharged to 80% max, while the NiFe's can routinely be drawn down to 20% with no damage, thus the 3 times smaller battery bank, with better performance. I do like that math by the way, I see now problem with it at all! LOL. The only reason I have a 24v system vs. 48 or 12 is that is what it was when we bought the place. I would rather spend the money on the batteries than on replacing all of the inverters and switching gear. The 24v seems to be working good for us.


I have no doubt the NiFe batteries can take a lot of pounding, and can survive extended discharge without damage (no small feat at all!), but what you wrote is not technically true. BTW: 80% DOD and 20% SOC are actually the same thing -- these terms are inversely related.

Flooded (true) deep-cycle lead-acid batteries (like Trojan T-105, L-16, etc...) are designed to withstand a depth of discharge -- or DOD -- of up to 80%. That means a state of charge -- or SOC -- of 20%, but they should be promptly re-charged, and the longer they sit in a discharged state (below their float voltage), the more sulfation occurs. Sulfation is normal, and can be reversed if the batteries are charged soon after discharge, but the sulfate crystals become more permanent the longer they are allowed to sit on the plates. After a while, they are more or less permanent, and can lead to reduced storage capacity and premature battery "death". If you size the solar array and so your loads only discharge the batteries by 50%, the batteries will last a lot longer. Another critique of the flooded lead-acid batteries is that even though the can handle this rough treatment, the more often it happens, the sooner they die. Sealed lead-acid batteries, either AGM or VRLA, are more like what you describe. They should never go below 50% and really should stay at 70% SOC or higher (30% DOD or lower) for good battery life.

NiFe batteries can be very deeply discharged, and can be left at a low SOC for extended periods without significant damage, and that is a really big deal. They are clearly better batteries, and we do need more companies to manufacture them.

As for the question about the battery bank voltage: most inverters are more efficient at 24 volts, and even better at 48 volts. Higher battery voltage affects the way the solar panels and batteries are wired, but higher voltage systems need smaller gauge wires and smaller gauge battery cables, and smaller gauge wire means a lot less copper or aluminum. If your solar panels are a long distance from the batteries and charge controller(s), you can save a LOT on wire by designing your system to operate at higher voltage. I have a few customers with solar panels about 300' away from the house, and when voltage drop and all that are factored in, they saved about $1000 on copper wire by using a 48-volt inverter.

6 years ago