Carl Nystrom

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since Sep 03, 2020
Homesteading on 80 acres of forest in the northern Willamette valley. We have year-round streams, steep slopes, and acidic clay and silt-loam soils. We have dry mediterranean summers and winter lows in the 20s most years. We get about 50 inches of rain.
Clackamas County, OR (zone 7)
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Recent posts by Carl Nystrom

Can a person stack 3 cords (384 cu ft) of wood in a day if it is seasoned, cut, split and dumped in a heap right next to the woodshed? Sure. A reasonably fit person should be able to stack a cord in about half an hour or so.

Could a single person fell, buck, split, haul, and THEN spend an hour and half stacking up heavy wet wood in a woodshed? Maybe if they were a character in a Jack London novel. Or the proud owner of a firewood processor; where you just load the logs onto a deck with a skidsteer, and the diesel engine does all the rest of the work. I know I couldnt do that much wood in one day.

With a mini excavator and a tractor I can get a cord of wood out of the woods in about 5 hours of work. Granted, my terrain is steep; a lot of the wood needs to be dragged around with chokers just to get it to somewhere that the tractor wont get stuck or roll over.

I can haul about a quarter cord on the cart, and it takes maybe 30 minutes to cut it up, so 2 hours per cord just to cut it to length. Splitting with an axe takes another 2 hours per cord, give or take. So adding some time for hauling and stacking it up, I figure I can do a cord from standing on the stump to the shed in 10 hours.
11 hours ago
I am in a different climate out West, but I am a firm believer in beans. When I first started out I was shelling them by hand, which is a real chore if you are growing 50 lbs or so. Now I cut the plants and leave them in the sun on a tarp for a couple days, stomping them and turning them a few times. Then you just toss all the stems, and winnow what is left in front of a fan. They are not the most space efficient crop, and I do need to water them in my climate. But, I have also never had any pest problems. If you can keep large animals from browsing on the leaves, they are basically bulletproof; as once the beans start to ripen, nothing around here will eat them. It is very frustrating to have a whole field of nearly ripe grain be decimated by birds and squirrels.

I used to grow a lot of potatoes, but with how hot and dry our summers are getting, I am having a harder time with them. Sweet potatoes, though, thrive with more heat. I also like that with sweet potatoes you can propagate plants from clonal cuttings, which reduces the amount of tubers you need to set aside for seed by a considerable margin. 6 small sweet potatoes can easily yield enough plants to plant the same area that you would need a 20lb crate of seed potatoes for. Curing the sweet potatoes before storage is a bit of a hassle, but they have always kept really well for me.

I tried cowpeas several years, and they do not seem to thrive here. They taste more or less like beans to me, anyway.

Corn will do well here if I grow a short-season type, and get a jump on the season by starting them in newspaper pots to be transplanted out. I have been really enjoying a popcorn variety called Dakota Black that I want to say is 90 days to maturity. So far nothing has bothered the corn - my garden is in the woods - so I am at the mercy of any marauding wildlife that can get over or through a 7 foot fence.

Winter squash is also good, but it is a little harder to save seed from if you have multiple varieties growing close by.

Also, if you want a bounty of easy calories for not much work, do not forget about fruit trees. And especially dont forget about your neighbors fruit trees! I could get as many free apples as I could ever hope to make cider from, and I picked almost 80lbs of cherries this summer that would have otherwise just have gone to the birds.
2 days ago

- earth walls have high levels of lateral pressure  

I would say that earth walls CAN have high levels of lateral pressure. If your engineering firms reputation was on the line, this building method would never fly. I suspect that this design COULD work. I imagine that underground storage was probably done for eons in your area, right? Are there extant buildings that use this building method that would give you some ideas about what methods were used in the past and have stood the test of time?

I have stayed in some old buildings in Italy that were built using the same technique that you are suggesting to use. As we were hanging up salamis in the basement, I asked the farmer, "What happens if there is an earthquake?" Matter-of-factly he replied: "Siamo tutti morti."

Knowing that something might kill you is not necessarily enough reason not to do it. Those old houses were beautiful. There are safer alternatives, though.
1 week ago
Heavy clay should be advantageous to what you are planning. I dug a tunnel into clay in the woods behind my parents place when I was a kid, and it is still standing 20 years later. Also, your stone wall will not really hold pressure like a masonry wall would, so hydrostatic pressure would likely just push out the clay instead of moving the stones. If you extend the waterproof membrane out over the walls like an umbrella, that will help a bit with keeping the moisture at bay. Sounds like a fun project, post some pictures when you get underway!
1 week ago
What is the soil type you are working in? I think your plan sounds good - you are suggesting doing a cut-and-cover method with drainage "to daylight" which is great. When building things underground, water intrusion is an issue. If you are at the toe of a slope, there will be more water than if you were higher up. How much area there is upslope, how much rainfall you get, how fast your soil drains, and how deep the water table is will all be important to know.

I am not a structural engineer of any sort, but I would be wary of building my walls out of field stone and clay. A buried structure will have to carry the load over it on the roof, but there can also be "squeezing" forces that will try and buckle the walls at the invert (floor).

You will not be deep enough to develop a zone of arching, but imagine all the dirt on either side trying to slide down a wedge and into your excavation. How much pressure will there be? Without an engineer, youd only be able to guess. Some soils are very cohesive, like heavy clay, so they would resist lateral movement. Some soils are loose, and would be hazardous to even dig in. So while clay will hold its shape, it also does not drain quickly. If water can build up on the back side of your walls, because the backfilled soil is less dense for example, then you will get hydrostatic pressure that will try and push the walls in at the bottom. If you have ever seen concrete bow out the bottom of a form, you will know that it does not take a whole lot of depth to create some very large loads.

I would suggest you make the walls stiff. Concrete block with rebar-reinforced pillars within some or all of the cells would likely be plenty. Also, put some drainage at the base of the walls on the outside, and backfill with something permeable.
2 weeks ago
Nice looking root cellar you have built! It looks like the roof is made of wooden timbers that span the concrete walls, I am wondering why you opted not to pour a concrete lid for it? I built a cellar with very much the same design, only a little smaller. Mine is only like 6 feet wide, so with a 4" slab with LOTS of rebar, I piled about 3 feet of dirt on top.

I too have been thinking a lot about cellars as fire shelters. One thing I would like to point out: you should make some provision for what you are going to do if a tree falls on that outer hatch. Electric chainsaw, maybe? In a pinch, you could chop away at your ceiling with an axe, maybe?

Anyway, on the topic of fresh air in confined spaces; I have done some reading. The general consensus seems to be that CO2 concentrations will kill you faster than lack of oxygen. From what I gather, this guy got most of the details about right:
He uses 30,000 ppm as the lethal cut-off, but i found some other sources that said that this is likely too low. It would probably take closer to 50,000 or 5% CO2 by volume to cause incapacitation in about half an hour. In general, his numbers check out, and can be simplified to this: every 10-15 cu ft of air will last you about an hour. Counting your blocks, it looks like you have an 8'x12' space with 8' ceilings - so 768 cu ft. Using a fairly conservative 15 cu ft/hr, one adult should be able to survive sealed up in there for over 50 hours. 2 people could easily go a whole day. This volume will decrease as you store stuff in there, so dont forget to take that into account. I have never experienced a forest fire firsthand, but I understand that they burn through an area pretty fast. I suspect you should have no problem at all sheltering in there for several hours. I think if you could seal off the air inlets from the inside you should probably be fine.

Another thing worth mentioning is about fires "consuming all the oxygen." From what I have read, fires in solid materials need a certain oxygen content to even burn. If the air becomes too depleted of oxygen, the fire will go out. This might be different for gaseous fuels, so dont store any gasoline in your shelter! It sounds to me like a human can survive on less oxygen than a wildfire can, but having a way to seal yourself off from the fire seems like the best bet. There is also going to be an insane amount of smoke, so really get after all the cracks with some duct tape. As for the scuba tanks, they are going to buy you a few hours, at best, right? A more compact method would be to store ordinary welding oxygen. An 80 cu ft tank costs like 20 bucks to fill, and should be enough for 1 person for 4+ days. You would then need to also scrub CO2 out of your air, but CO2 scrubbers can be put together out of Ca(OH)2 with a trace of NaOH on it. You can buy 50lb bags of slaked lime at home depot for 12 bucks. I forget how much CO2 that would remove, but it was a lot. Youd need a fan, and some sort of container to hold the little clumps of co2 adsorbent. Youd also need to be a little careful here about raising the O2 content too high. I would not suggest you try that without a dependable O2 meter handy.

Anyhow, I am chipping away at a new cellar project. I will have to put together a post about it when it gets a little farther along.
3 weeks ago
Wow, nice garden! I am jealous that you still have green grass in August. We have had no rain for about 70 days, so everything is brown and dead around here. I am curious if you have made any attempts at quantifying your calorie yield before? By adding 30% to your bed area (2.5*12*60= 1800sq ft) to account for the paths, I come up with about 1/20th of an acre? With the crop mix I am using, I figure I would likely need 5 times more space to get to a million calories, and that would probably assume I irrigated all of it at some point. If anyone does manage to do this one, I will be really curious to see how much space it took.
3 weeks ago

paul wheaton wrote:I want to talk about things we can do, in our backyards, to make a better world.  

Some people say ...  well, most people say ...  that there is nothing a person can do about it.  And I think that any one person can, pretty easily, cover their own footprint and the footprint of another.   And an industrious and generous person can cover the footprints of a dozen people.  It's all about giving those people a list of recipes.   And this thread is the foundation for those recipes.

I have been thinking about this concept a lot lately. How does an individual make a meaningful dent in a problem that is so mind-bogglingly big and complex. I wanted to find some numbers to sink my teeth into - hoping maybe that somewhere there was a figure that one could latch on to as the "low hanging fruit" - if only we could deal with X, then everything else should fall into place... I started reading but it just makes the problem seem more intractable.

What dawns on me is that what we really need is cultural change. I know you want to focus on things we can do, right now, in our own back yards; but maybe the best thing that we could do is to convince as many people as possible that there is a path to a satisfying fulfilling life that does not require using so much $%&#ing energy. I think there are a lot of people who are desperate for something that they can do to make a real contribution - what if that contribution was simply this: spend a weekend, or a week, or a month working on something in your back yard that does not require any fossil energy, but makes your backyard more beautiful, more productive, or even just more fireproof, and then: convince 2 other people to do something similar. If the issue that needs to be solved is that everything that people currently do uses energy, then it doesnt actually matter what people do. So long as it doesnt use fossil fuels of any kind, then they are offsetting whatever they would have otherwise been doing. The clever thing then would be to have a giant online community of people who could showcase ideas of what people could go do. If some of the projects were things like planting trees, you get double points, as they are now also sequestering carbon. If it happens to be an apple tree, even better, because now they are also growing food (although it will likely produce only cider apples). When its time to prune that tree with a scrounged pair of hand tools, they could burn the branches in a pit and make biochar. There would have to be some way to have it be fun and satisfying enough that people would want to keep participating. Monthly prizes to whoever gets the most votes? A point system? Lots of praise?

I have long ago realized that I will never fix the problem alone, but I do think you are right about each of us being able to cover our own carbon burden. The real problem, I believe, is recruitment.
What you are basically talking about making is a DC generator. The voltage does not really have anything to do with efficiency. I would say that if your plan is to burn gasoline in a small engine to produce power, then just buy a generator and an AC-powered battery charger. You will lose efficiency in the conversion from AC to DC, but your system is going to be a lot easier and much more flexible. Really though, there are much better ways to produce off-grid energy than by burning gasoline.

I suggest you look into a small battery system with some solar panels to get you started. If you dont get enough sun, then you can add a back-up generator with a charger.

To size your batteries you are going to need to figure out how much power you are hoping to use. Look at all the nameplates on the items, they will tell you the Amps, which you multiply by the Volts to get the Watts. Multiply the wattage by the hours you want to run it, and you get watt-hours. Add everything up, and then you have a baseline for your daily needs. Remember that inverters draw power just idling, so say it has an idle draw of 20 watts, that is 480watt-hours per day. Batteries are rated in Amp-hours, so multiply that by the voltage to get the watt-hours. For example a 225AH lead acid battery at 12v has 2700wh of energy storage. Lead acid batteries are terrible, so you can only draw them down about 50% unless you want to be replacing them every year. So really the 225AH lead acid would only be able to give you 1350wh before it needed to be charged back up.

As for using hybrid batteries, this will likely be quite complicated, and not very cost effective. Early Prius batteries were Nickel Metal Hydride, and the newer ones are some sort of lithium ion chemistry. I do not remember which one. They are high voltage, I want to say around 200v, so you would need to break the whole thing apart into smaller modules and then reconfigure it to a voltage that will work with available inverters and charge controllers and such. Also, despite having a very high power output capacity, they store very little energy. I think the usable capacity of a gen2 prius is only like 1500wh. Lead acid batteries are very tolerant of abuse, but NiMH and lithium have more exacting charging requirements. Some lithium chemistries also suffer from thermal runaway phenomenon, so they need sophisticated battery management systems to keep them from bursting into flames from being overcharged.

I would suggest you get your feet wet with some cheap flooded lead acid batteries, and then go from there.
4 weeks ago
Yeah, I will also agree that survival crops are not going to be one-size-fits-all. Also, it takes a lot of land to grow a years worth of calories - I figure I would need a quarter acre per person of decent, irrigated land to grow a million calories. I have often thought about what I would grow in a real dire emergency, and I think beans are at the top of my list. Beans do not yield tremendously well, and they do need to be watered in my climate, but, one huge advantage that I have found is that NOTHING wants to eat raw dry beans! I planted hundreds of row-feet of buckwheat this spring. I was thinking mostly of just letting it be a cover crop, but I wanted to go grab a few pounds of the grain to keep for seed. Nope. Ground squirrels got into the garden and they cleared out thousands of square feet of grain in a few days. In an emergency, I could have slept out there with my air rifle and eaten plenty of squirrel, but it is very nice to plant a crop that nothing is going to mess with. Squash is also easy like that. You plant it, hoe it a couple times, give it water once a week, and then come back and harvest.

Really though, anyone who is serious about surviving off what they grow is going to need to dial in simple food storage. Unless you live in a tropical paradise, you will need to grow enough crops to get through the unproductive time of year. The early days of the pandemic was really eye-opening for me. We started shopping once a month to cut down on trips to the store - and it was insane how much food I would buy just for a family of 3. You really would need to have enough food on hand to get you by to your next planting window - which might mean almost a full year. If TSHTF in September, I would have to coast through until May before I could get crops planted, much less harvested. That basically means that if you are not growing and storing nearly all your own food already, you very likely will starve before you could get your production up to 100%. Thinking that you can simply keep a bucket of seeds that you will just trundle out when the disaster strikes is a recipe for starvation.

I think in a true crisis, fruit and nut trees would be invaluable. Persimmons ripen in November here, and one tree yields a crazy quantity of fruit. I rarely pick even half of it, and most of that I sell. Having a few mature fruit trees that ripen at different times would really help stretch the other food you grew. You would really have to be on top of pest control, though. A few squirrels can strip a mature walnut tree in a weekend, and they will not wait for the nuts to even fully ripen.

Edit: I guess jokes are off limits, so maybe just grow the fava beans. They really are a good crop, and since they overwinter so well, they can be done without irrigation and potentially another crop can be planted behind them in the summer.
4 weeks ago