Tag Archives: sustainability

Passive Solar Water Heater/Shower

Oh boy, here goes another  dense, boring how-to post, you think. Great. Why can’t we have more stories about your ex, or Renaissance faires, or something cool and fun? But bear with me here, because I’m about to show you how to build your own solar shower. And there’s PICTURES! Even one of me demonstrating the shower! (Sorry, it’s pretty g-rated.) The instructions given here will help even the most distractible person with zero plumbing knowledge (that’s me!) build a working solar shower. A shower built with the dimensions specified will hold about 7.5 gallons of water, enough for a decent shower including washing your hair. It won’t get hot, but it will get warm enough to be nice on a cooler summer night.

But wait, excited readers, before you get started you will need some tools and materials. Tools for this are pretty simple: you will need a power drill with a 1 1/2″ hole saw bit and a star bit for driving screws, an adjustable wrench, pencil or other marking tool, 60-grit sandpaper, channel lock pliers that will accommodate a 3″ object, and I think that’s it. For materials, you will need:

10′ section of 4″ diameter ABS pipe (the black plastic stuff)

1 1/2″ ABS female adapter

1 1/2″ ABS cleanout plug

2 4″ rubber end caps for pipes

Metal pipe hanger strapping– you can also buy this as individual pipe hangers with a loop for the pipe to go through and a screw to hold the loop shut, I recommend getting them in this form but can’t find the right part on the Home Depot website.

3/4″ bulkhead fitting (ABS, of course. This might take some searching around.)

6-10″ garden hose (don’t just cut a length from a longer one, make sure it has the adapters on both ends.)

8  1-1/2″ self-tapping screws

Dramm sprinkler head and shut-off valve (product #10-12365 and #10-12349 in their catalogue.) Don’t try to use another type of sprinkler head-this works best for low water pressure.

Nice big tube of flexible watertight caulk (I used Through The Roof) and caulk gun

Roll of pipe thread sealing tape

Can of ABS glue (do NOT use glue designed for PVC pipes!)


Ok, first order of business is figuring out where to hang your water heater. Choose a location that will get lots of sun during the day, and provides a mounting point at least 8′ off the ground. Now, you’re going to make a hole for the fill cap. SLOWLY drill a 1 1/2″ hole in one end of the pipe with the hole saw; if the drill bogs down in the plastic, just back off a little. Clean up the edges of the hole with sandpaper to remove little plastic shreddies. Now, put the female adapter over the hole-this is going to be your fill hole. See how it doesn’t sit flush over the hole? We’re getting to that. Now, wrap the sandpaper over the pipe with the gritty part facing up. You’re going to run the female adapter over the sandpaper until you sand enough of a curve into it that it sits flush over the pipe. When that’s done, put it over the hole you drilled, making sure there’s no gaps between the adapter and the pipe. Now, glue the adapter over the hole, using the ABS glue. Make sure to carefully follow the instructions on the bottle-that stuff sets FAST! Also it’s quite toxic, so keep kids and pets out of the way. Once it sets up, paint a thin layer of glue on the outside of the joint. Let dry undisturbed. Once this is done, screw the plug into the adapter-you now have a filler cap. IMG_20160717_145815282_HDR

You’ll end up with…this.

Now it’s time to assemble the hose end. Screw the shutoff valve and sprinkler head together, then attach them to the hose. Unscrew the two halves of the bulkhead fitting. The sticking-out bit (for lack of a better word) that screws into the round bit will be the part that passes through the rubber cap. place this part towards the bottom of the rubber end cap, trace around it, and cut a hole for it with a sharp knife-make the hole slightly smaller than the fitting. Push the fitting through the cap so the threaded part is on the outside. The hexagonal bit should be on the inside. Also note: there are two gaskets in the fitting, make sure one goes inside and the other goes outside! Tighten the bulkhead fitting as much as you can-you may have to grip one side with the channel-lock pliers and turn the other part. It’s threaded backwards, so turn left to tighten and right to loosen. When the fitting is tight as it can go, run a bead of sealer around the edge, between the fitting and the cap. You will probably need an adapter to attach the hose to the bulkhead fitting; take both parts into a hardware store and they should be able to tell you what part you need. Put pipe thread sealer tape on the threads of the fitting and the end of the hose. Then, take the rubber cap and put it on the end of the pipe, tightening the bolt on the little metal band around it as much as possible. Once it’s all attached together it should look like this-


Put the other cap on the filler end of the pipe, tightening the metal band with the adjusting bolt as far as it will go. You’re now ready to hang up your solar shower. Put the 4 pipe hangers in place around the pipe. Next, mark off where you’ll hang the heater. You’ll need it to be at least 7-8′ off the ground to get a good flow. You will also need to hang it at a slant. Mark off the position for the fill end 3-4″ higher than the drain end. Space the pipe hangers out evenly, making sure they have a solid support to go into, like joists or a trailer frame. Line up each hanger over a support, and mark out spots for 2 screws in each hanger, marking through the holes in the hangers with a pen or pencil. If you’re putting this on a trailer, line each hanger up with the metal bars that make up the frame. Next, take the heater down, and drill pilot holes for screws. Put the heater back up, making sure the hangers are lined up right. Rotate the pipe so the fill cap is facing up and the bulkhead fitting/drain is facing down. Have someone hold the heater up for you while you drive the screws in. Don’t let go until you’re sure the pipe will stay put! IMG_20160717_145831834_HDR

(I actually attached mine to the roof. If you do this, put a bead of sealer around the screws to avoid leaks.)


Congratulations, you now have a solar water heater! You can fill it with a bucket and a funnel, or run a garden hose directly into the filler cap. IMG_20160717_145928590_HDR

And here’s the shower in action! Happy summer, everyone!

I Moved!

I haven’t been posting anything because I’ve been busy because…I MOVED! I’m now living on the grounds of a local resort that’s been closed for years. Some of the buildings are beautiful and up to date, but many are dilapidated and decaying, giving it a crazy awesome air of mystery. There’s also miles of hiking trails and lots of gardens, some of which I’m going to be taking care of. I’m basically doing a work exchange in return for staying there. I’m helping with the veggie and flower gardens, doing a little night security, and occasionally testing the pool. The owner is hoping to fully refurbish the resort as a center for workshops on Eastern philosophy, qi gong, yoga, and meditation; my friends who work there convinced her to let me stay on the property in my trailer. She was interested in my goal of a low-impact life. I’m still a little in disbelief this is finally happening, and I’m really grateful to my friends who convinced the property owner. Here’s a day of my routine there:

Wake up, turn on my little stove, fry a couple eggs, and brew up a pot of coffee. Sit in my canvas chair drinking coffee and eating eggs on bread, still half asleep. Fill my water bucket and my solar shower from the outdoor tap on a cabin 10 feet away from my trailer. Stumble down to the tree where I’ve rigged my aerial silks, stretch and do a few tricks-I might have to take it easy, as my hands are pretty sore. Walk to the garden, passing a giant raspberry bush and pausing to eat a few berries…spend about an hour yanking weeds  from between the herbs. It’s slow going, the sun is hot, and I’m getting a blister from weeding; still, it’s satisfying  to see the herbs freed up from their weedy tanglement. As I walk back to the trailer, I cross a field of thyme, its aromatic purple flowers visited by numerous bees. It’s good to be back in the shade under the tree where I’ve parked; I do my dishes from breakfast, only using a little water. I spend a lazy few hours reading, including a book on bike repair. I think I’ve finally figured out the brake problem on my bike. I tinker with the brakes until they’re properly aligned, slapping away bugs the whole time. Before I know it, it’s time to grab a quick avocado sandwich before heading off to work, which turns out to be 6 hours of grinding boredom; not too busy, but not slow either. After work, I’m drained. I’m also jonesing for a pizza and some mindless Netflix, but it’s too late at night for one, and I don’t have electric or internet for the other. On the other hand, I’m getting a fair tradeoff, I think, looking around at the property under the light of the quarter moon that hangs in the sky like a flake of gold. I splash myself off with tepid water from the solar shower, brush my teeth, and head off to the mansion to retrieve the keys from the key safe. My first stop is the back of the mansion, where I lock up an open door and turn off some errant lights in the beautiful wood-paneled library. Then, I slip quietly through the dark to the pool building, and check up there; the pool is beautiful but spooky in my lantern light. I make sure the sauna and lights are off, then lock up. I walk across the property to the presentation hall, AKA the Tally Ho, passing the tree where our resident owl roosts. I check for its eyeglow in my lantern light, but don’t spot it. One door of the Tally Ho is open to the night air (and marauding bugs) so I close it, suppressing a little shiver as I walk under the creepy horse head sculpture mounted above the fireplace. After finishing my rounds, I put the keys back in the key safe. My exhaustion begins to settle in for good now. I walk past one of the most extraordinary view s I’ve ever seen, the mountains to the north framed by trees and lit by the moon and stars. I wish Tim was here, but I have to leave that thought be for now, and I’m just too tired to deal; back in my trailer, I sink into bed and fall asleep ignoring the buzzing of a mosquito in my ear.

The trailer by the numbers: living in the Mothership

I was introduced to “tiny living” when I worked for an Americorps trail crew in Vermont. We lived in tents at a remote campsite where we had to canoe in with all our gear. Personal belongings were limited to what could fit in 2 backpacks, and sleeping space was a 3 person tent shared with a co-worker and her gear. We all cooked and ate communally, and most evenings were spent sitting around a campfire. Definitely a different arrangement than living alone in a trailer, but it introduced me to living on less, in a small space, with the trees as my walls and the stars as my roof. I had to be more conscious about water use, and washing, and not leaving leftovers when I ate-among many other things. In some ways it was harder to live on less, but in other ways it was very freeing: not constantly worrying about paying bills and rent (and having great hiking and swimming less than 50 feet from where I slept) made up for bug bites and occasional wet feet. I’ve decided to take that philosophy a step further and live in my own more permanent dwelling, a 6×12” cargo trailer converted into a living space.



The Mothership is a completely self-contained, off-grid tiny house built in a converted 6×12 cargo trailer. That’s the short answer. The long answer is-it’s been a long, crazy adventure of almost  4 months, an  extensive construction project, and a journey of self-discovery and learning.




Off-Grid: The Mothership needs no utility hookups. Light is provided by solar-powered LED lanterns and natural daylight, water can be filtered on-site, and heat is provided by a tiny stove that burns scrap wood and small branches. I’m also planning to install solar panels for another source of electricity.

Reused materials: An estimated 25-40% of solid waste generated in the US comes from construction debris; much of this can be re-used. About 80% of the materials in the Mothership are scrap or reclaimed. I’ve sourced materials from barns, attics, secondhand stores, junkyards, dumpsters and abandoned buildings. I also tried to plan the construction based on the materials at hand, rather than making a rigid plan and buying materials to fit that. This construction method minimized the amount of waste/scrap material the project generated.  

Small Size: the house’s tiny dimensions mean it’s less resource-intensive even without trying! It takes less wood to heat, less electricity to light, less water for cleaning and other tasks…

Can be parked anywhere with a decent view (or not!): No need to clear land to build a house; the tiny footprint of the trailer means it can fit in just about any corner of the world, and it’s fully mobile. That also means I can park it somewhere that will minimize my commute to work, friends’ houses, stores, etc.

Less Stuff: The lack of space in the house means I have to be very conscious about owning and acquiring possessions, and not own any more than the minimum of what I need.



Any flat area with enough room for a 6×12’ trailer, truck, and room to turn the truck around. Preferably somewhere with sunlight, as the solar water heater needs it to make hot water for showers.



Water: I don’t anticipate using more than 10 gallons of water on any given day. The solar water heater has a capacity of 7.5 gallons, and daily cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking needs shouldn’t exceed 2.5-3 gallons. The sink has a water storage tank with a 5-gallon capacity and a grey water storage tank with the same capacity, so unless I’m showering a lot, I shouldn’t have to get water a lot, so it’s OK if I’m not immediately next to a water source. My grey water should be safe to dump in a sump hole or even use to water plants, as I plan to use only nontoxic and biodegradable cleaners and not dump anything down my sink like paint, glues, solvents, etc.

Electricity: I don’t need an electric hookup; my lighting is provided by natural daylight and solar-powered LED lights. Eventually I plan to install a rooftop solar array with battery storage for other electricity needs, which will be minimal-maybe a power source for my laptop and a small fan for ventilation. I don’t have refrigeration, and any foods I need to keep cool will be stored in a small cooler with ice. However I’ve found it’s surprisingly easy to live without refrigeration if you are careful about food preparation and consumption. Eating mostly vegetarian food helps. Produce can be stored at room temperature for 5-7 days, eggs and cultured dairy products for 3-4 days, and butter and many condiments for even longer.

Laundry: I plan to use whatever local laundromat is closest, and I’ll try to air-dry my clothes when weather and space allow. 

Toilet and shower facilities: I have a solar water heater on top of the camper with a shower attachment; the black plastic pipe soaks up heat from the sun, warms the water, and gives me a way to enjoy a nice warm low-flow gravity fed shower outdoors (so it would probably be best that I parked a little out of the way…) If the weather gets cold, I can also use the shower at the gym where  I’m a member. As for toilet facilities, I didn’t have room to put a composting toilet in the trailer, so I figured I would just use the bathroom at work or any other nearby facility, and in an emergency, I’d resort to the old strategy of peeing behind an out-of-the-way tree.

Cooking: I have a 2-burner camp stove to do my cooking on, and a small sink with gravity-fed running water from a tank. Grey water storage is below the sink.

Trash, recycle, and compost: I compost food scraps, and would be happy to contribute my compost to any gardening going on wherever I park, especially if it’s something like pumpkins, which love compost. I have 2 bins for recycles (plastic/metal and paper/cardboard) and would not produce more than a few pounds of each type of recycle per week; I also generate very little trash (due to re-using plastic bags and avoiding packaged food or any item with lots of packaging). My total output of trash and recycles would be about 5 lbs/week, probably less. Compost might be a little more due to high water content.

Heating: For heat, I’m installing a small tent stove designed to heat an 80 square foot space with minimal insulation. This stove is made by the Three Dog Stove company and is a clean-burn, airtight stove. It can burn wood from downed trees, brush, or unfinished, untreated scrap wood. I don’t think it would get cold enough in summer to need it, but I would want access to a supply of scrap wood/firewood just in case.

Storage: Everything I own is going in the trailer, no exceptions! (except maybe a lawn chair and a couple potted plants.)

Slash your Trash-the 2nd minimalist challenge

Humans produce way, way too much trash. and when I say humans, I’m definitely including myself. This really struck home when I opened the door of my new (OK,  used, 14 year old) Tacoma to find the cab cluttered with paper cups, receipts, and all manner of detritus. When I think about the enormous amount of energy that went into cutting and pulping the trees, making paper, pressing it into cups and  rolls, printing my receipts, drilling for the oil that became the plastic bottle holding my juice, etc. etc. it just boggles my mind. The amount of energy used today to make things that will be used once and thrown out is staggering. And there’s also the problem of things that won’t biodegrade, like most plastics. In fact, plastic items have an annoying tendency to blow away and end up in the ocean where they get eaten by all manner of critters, from sea turtles to shore birds-none of whom can digest plastic. In fact, by 2050, scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Obviously this is not an ideal situation, unless you have some kind of rare mutation that allows you to munch on a plastic water bottle like it’s a grilled cheese sandwich.  So you and I need to find ways to reduce our trash output.

Which leads to this: the Slash your Trash challenge, or, how to cut your trash output down to a minimum. I’m going to try to follow the steps in this challenge over the next month too, because I’m starting to notice a pile-up of trash in my life resulting from ‘trashy’ habits.


  1. Stop using disposable napkins, dishes and silverware (or plastic ware, I should say.) This is a huge problem for me, as someone with a spotty schedule, a commute that takes me far from home base, and a weakness for two-eggs-on-wheat and a monstrous morning coffee. You can reduce your to-go ware output by several methods. One is to cut back on takeout, probably the easiest way in theory. Buy food like dried fruit and nuts that’s easy to carry around in reusable containers for unexpected attacks of munchies. Or start packing your own lunch if that’s applicable. Another way is to eat more sit-down meals, but I understand that’s not practical for some (or, hey, let’s be honest, most of) us. Another strategy is to have a designated fork, travel mug, and cloth napkin that you can carry around in your car, bag or backpack. Then you can use your mug for to-go hot beverages and you won’t need to ask for napkins or forks when you get takeout.
  2. Implement strategies to reduce food waste. A staggering amount of food in the world gets wasted. If you’re an average American, almost almost a quarter of the food in your fridge will end up getting thrown out (curse you, slimy greens and overripe avocado!) If you’re into in cataloging and quantifying everything, there’s apps available to track your food purchases and remind you before they expire; some are mentioned in the linked article. Alternatively for a low-tech solution you could split your grocery shopping for perishable items into several smaller trips during the week, increasing the chance you’ll eat rather than forget your purchases. Sticking to a planned menu and buying ingredients specifically for it also helps. If you are a restaurant owner, the EPA has published a guide to reducing food waste in your business, including resources such as a food waste tracker.

3. Eat food with less packaging in general. You’ll notice this forces you to eat a lot healthier, unless you’re really into home baking…in which case, bake your heart out. Homemade cookies can be whipped up in 20 minutes and taste way better than the kind that come hermetically sealed in 6 layers of plastic. Also, consider bulk-buying options for ingredients like sugar and flour to reduce packaging even further.

4. Carry a reusable bag around with you so stores don’t constantly try to foist plastic scraps of crap on you. This company sells bags  that fold up tiny enough to fit in your pocket, and you can also order stuff from them customized with a logo/words. (Warning: cheesy, buzzword-packed website.)

5. Why the heck would you throw out your perfectly good lawn trimmings and buy garden mulch? I have occasionally wondered myself. According to the EPA, 13.5% of waste in landfills is…lawn trimmings! You can use these to mulch around plants in your garden, I’ve tried it on my kale and it seems to keep the weeds down and protects the soil from drying out. Grass clippings also generate heat while decaying, and you can use their heat to heat a mini greenhouse in spring. Put pots with germinating seeds on top of a good layer of grass clippings, and their heat will warm the soil. My mom does this at her flower farm.

6. And since paper makes up another 27% of waste, it helps to be vigilant about recycling…and using both sides of the paper…and using the backs of one-sided printouts for scrap paper.

7. Finally, planned obsolescence is an actual conspiracy happening right under our noses, so buy things built to last if you can at all afford it.

And that concludes my trash challenge! I’ll try it myself and report back.

Why live tiny?

For me, it started out with being angry about paying rent. At one point I was shelling out $750 a month for four rooms, not including gas, electric, internet, and phone bills. This may not seem like much, but it’s quite a stretch on a cook’s pay. I didn’t want to choose between working 70 hour weeks driving myself crazy with no free time and driving myself crazy having to pinch pennies but working more reasonable hours. With a tiny house, my only bills would be phone and vehicle-related expenses (which I would have to pay anyways). If I built a trailer for under $5,000 and figured I was saving at least $500/month on rent, the trailer would pay for itself in under a year. Plus, I was getting sick of moving in and out of my parents’ places when I couldn’t manage to make ends meet on my own.

Then I realized how massively I would be shrinking my carbon footprint. Americans, per capita, have one of the highest carbon footprints in the world, second only to tiny, landlocked Luxembourg. (see this great website for a detailed breakdown and data visualization: Carbon Footprint Of Nations)

And I’m no exception to the profligately carbon-spewing American standard: I own and drive my own car, eat meat, drink coffee from paper cups, take lengthy showers, and park in front of a computer screen when I’m bored.  As you can see, most developing countries, such as in South Asia, Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, have relatively small per capita carbon footprints. But what’s even more surprising is that many developed, fairly wealthy countries, like Sweden, Germany, and Japan, have far smaller per capita carbon footprints than the US. And these smaller-carbon-footprint countries have equal or even better quality of life. So this brings me to my first point: it’s possible to live on less and still be happy-or if you do it right, even happier. And it doesn’t have to be viewed as giving up things, it can be viewed as unburdening oneself from the weight of wasteful excess. After all, keeping up appearances takes lots of effort. Why would you work to pay for an enormous house that you can never enjoy because you have to work overtime and weekends? For that matter, why waste gas and energy mowing a uniform green lawn, when you could be using that time to weed a garden that produces delicious vegetables? Follow down this path and you come to a place where you can naturally live more efficiently and at the same time be more relaxed, just by being more conscious of how you use the world’s resources and less self-conscious about keeping up appearances. In my tiny house, I’ll be limited to what possessions I can fit in a 70 square foot space. I won’t have internet, or even electricity until I install solar panels. Heat can be provided by a tiny wood stove burning scrap wood, and water use will be limited to less than 10 gallons a day (by contrast, the average american uses 10 times as much.) To cure my bad habits, I’ve put myself in a situation where I have no choice but to make the right decisions.


Anyway, back to the resource-frugal folks in the developing world: there’s a lot of concern, with climate change and the depletion of resources such as arable land and fresh water, how we can feed everyone as the population continues to grow. Which leads to concern about population growth. Surprisingly (or maybe not so), the areas with the highest population growth rates pretty much overlap with the areas with the lowest carbon footprint per capita. So while population growth stresses the planet, we shouldn’t be panicking about it as much as about the wonky distribution of resource use: a little population growth in the developed world stresses the environment disproportionately. For humanity to be able to move ahead into an uncertain future, 2 things need to happen: a massive shift in the developed world in how we use the world’s resources, and for the developing world to learn from the developed world’s early mistakes and be able to develop infrastructure and industry without causing massive environmental devastation.


So, you say, how is living in a human-sized Habitrail going to help the world? Can’t I just take a 2-week service trip to Thailand to assuage my guilt, then go back to sipping lattes from paper cups and upgrading my laptop every 6 months to a thinner version? Not so, dear reader-you’ve come too far to turn back now. I used to feel this way too, but deep down some snarktacular little part of my subconscious was saying, Hey, this just smacks of privilege and resume polishing bullshit. My snarky streak was satisfied when a few months ago, a good friend posted this article on her Facebook. It turns out I was at least somewhat right, which brings me to my second point: to really help out folks in the developing world, the vast majority of us are better off fighting for what’s right on the home front. In other words: instead of wasting fuel flying halfway across the world to provide unskilled labor and get Facebook likes, downsize your lifestyle at home and reject the consumer paradigm. The choices you make every day affect the whole world (and you thought you weren’t important!). But how does me not impulse-buying a flatscreen TV, or eating something besides cheesesteak, affect the world, you ask? I can’t see giant piles of industrial waste outside my window, so everything must be ok! Nope. Here in the developed world, we’ve gotten pretty good at outsourcing the nastier parts of our consumer lifestyle somewhere else. A few examples:  Amazon deforested for cattle farmingpeople fight & die over minerals in your computerelectronic equipment dump in GhanaPacific garbage soup. Anyway, enough moralizing from me. Here’s a quote from the original minimalist to wrap things up:514_400x400_nopeel

That’s it, folks! Go play outside!