Archive for the ‘Homesteading Skill & Tech’ Category

Clean Water for Health: Filtration & Herbs

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

Aysgarth Close Up Waterfall

Clean Water For Health:


by Sam Coffman

As healers, herbalists have a responsibility to address all causes of illness including diet, lifestyle, and environment… and to recommend treatments and remedies besides herbs when appropriate. Access to clean water is one such problem that Plant Healer’s can’t ignore, as brought to light by recent events such as the contamination in Flint, Michigan pipes and the pollution of sources by the annually increasing number of floods worldwide. The following article is an excerpt from the Summer issue of Plant Healer Magazine, offering important information and materia medica for those of you not yet subscribed to our quarterly. Its author, Sam Coffman of the Human Path School, brings a wealth of practical info and beaucoup  experience to this and other vital topics.


Water is vital to life, as we all know.  Often, for those of us living primarily in a first-world environment, we take water completely for granted.  Turn on a faucet and water appears as though it were magic.  Flush the toilet and it just disappears.  Where it comes from, where it goes to and what happens to it in the meantime are all processes that are – most of the time and for most of us – completely disconnected from our daily lives.  Between our disposal of wastewater and what we pull from the tap, water in our first world, urban environment goes through filtering processes, destruction of all biological, living material, accumulation of numerous pharmacological and chemical toxins that aren’t filtered out, deposition into ground water and eventually back into our kitchen sink.  This is a far cry from the wild water coming out of a spring in the ground (which may have its own set of organisms that could overwhelm our body), and there are many humans –particularly in our country – who have never consumed any kind of water except the kind that comes out of a tap somewhere after being on the aforementioned journey through a public water system.

Flint Water Protestors

Whether wild water or tap water however, there are several important points to ponder on the topic of water and health:  What is the state of our water (i.e. quality and quantity) both in this country (USA) and around the world?  What can we do on a personal level to enable better water quality and quantity? How can we deal with water-borne illness? The World Health Organization estimates over 800,000 deaths per year due to water-borne diarrhea alone.  

When I first started doing medical work in developing nations it struck me as odd that a medical  mission would involve treating diseases that were obviously related to the quality of the water (e.g. parasites, kidney and urinary tract diseases, liver issues) without even so much as considering the need to address ways to change the source of the problem.  I saw so much of this that I realized any realistic health care effort in any community (anywhere on the planet) has to include water quality.  To take it to the next level, if you want to set up any kind of clinic and provide any kind of meaningful health care as an herbalist, you absolutely must have clean water at your disposal.

Sam Coffman Water Purifying Project

As herbalists in the USA this may not seem that this is an issue for you.  You can buy distilled or filtered water and have exactly what it is you need (whether to drink or use for medicine making) right at your fingertips.  However, herbalists have the extra responsibility of understanding health from the most organic and basic fundamentals.  This starts literally with at least knowing something about the source of healthy food and water.  Water quality (and quantity) plays a central role to any clinic you set up – whether in the middle of an urban area or in remote wilderness.

This article will focus on water purification methods and herbal strategies for water-borne diseases. The means to purify water are numerous, and depending on what kind of technology is available to you, can vary from primitive to advanced. Purification methods can be chemical (manufactured or even phytochemical), heat-based, radiation (UV) based and particulate filtration. One of the most reliable methods is heat.  Roughly speaking, if you can heat water to over 160 degrees F for at least 30 minutes, or above 185 degrees F for 5 minutes, or bring water to a rolling boil at all, you have created enough heat to purify water.  However there is at least one caveat to this.  You still should clean the particulate matter (turbidity) out of the water as much as possible before heating.  The clean the water looks, the better the results will be that you achieve by heating.   Another note about heating is that this will probably not remove chemical contamination.  The purpose of heat is to kill pathogens.Water borne Bacteria magnified

Aside from heat there are many other methods of water purification:   These include reverse osmosis, ultraviolet, ozone, ceramic, ion exchange, copper-zinc systems, distillation and more.  Many of these systems rely upon technology in order to be effective to any scale and are outside the scope of this article.

However, I would like to briefly cover one of the simplest and most effective water purification methods I know of that can be implemented even in a completely off-grid environment.  This method is called slow sand filtration and is a way to filter water very sustainably for a home, a clinic or a small community.

Slow sand water filtration is the type of system that the non-profit organization we work with and support (Herbal Medics) has built in villages and urban and rural clinics in Central America.  These systems are bulky and take a bit of labor, but they can be easily constructed using local materials just about anywhere in the world.   Building one together with a community is an excellent way to teach others how to set up their own sustainable water filtration system, because anyone helping will know how to do it for themselves by the time you are finished setting up the first system. The most difficult part of building slow sand filters is finding clean (food grade) water barrels and some kind of piping such as PVC.  We have set up prototype systems using tubing that consisted of bamboo connected by bicycle inner tubes, but PVC makes a much longer lasting and robust system of course.

There are a few critical concepts involved in the construction of a slow sand filtration system.  First, the most active part of this filter (within about 3 weeks after running water through it) is the biolayer of the filter.  Once this layer has formed, you do not want to starve it or dry it out.  Second, the vertical column length of sand is important.  Skimping on this distance will greatly diminish the quality of your filtration.  Finally, the flow rate (drip rate) of water through your filtration system is critical.  If water percolates too quickly through the filter, the amount of filtration that occurs will be greatly diminished.

So what are the details of these critical concepts and how can we make a slow sand filtration system?

At its most basic level, the slow sand filter consists of a single container (a 55 gallon, food-grade barrel is perfect) that has enough height to allow for at least 30” of sand.  From top to bottom, the filter has sand for at least 30” and then gravel (pea gravel size) for the bottom several inches.  The gravel at the bottom is primarily to keep the plumbing from becoming clogged with sand.

Sand Filter poste

At the bottom, we have to have some type of outlet for the water to come out.  The best way to do this is by using PVC pipe and drilling holes in it.  Making a “U” shaped PVC collector at the bottom using ½” or ¾” PVC works well. This then merges to a single pipe that exits the barrel (along the side) an inch or two above the bottom.  From here, the drain pipe needs to make a 90 degree turn back up to the top of the barrel on the outside.  This allows for a pipe (1” – 2” diameter) that we can fill with small chunks of charcoal.  A screen on either end of the pipe fittings keeps the charcoal from coming out into the water.

The important idea here is that the drain pipe final level (back near the top of the filter) is between the top of the water and the top of the sand.  In this manner, the top layer of sand should always be under water.  This allows our biolayer to form.  The term “Schmutzdecke” (also called “filter cake” in English) is a living layer of organisms that form within about 21 days after running dirty water through the filter.  This living layer of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms, eat the pathogens that are in the dirty water coming into the filter.  I would note however, that even without waiting 21 days for the filter cake to form, I (and my teammates) have drunk absolutely noxious water (prior to filtration) that has been filtered through the sand filter, and have never suffered any ill effects whatsoever.  This has been necessary from a liaison perspective.  When we set up a slow sand filtration system for a community somewhere, it’s not very effective (socially) to tell them that in 21 days everything will be fine, while waving goodbye.  I have to demonstrate the effectiveness of the filter before we leave if we are to have any credibility as an organization.  Once we have run about 100 gallons through the filter and the water is clear coming out, it’s time for me (and whoever is in charge of the primitive engineering team, at a minimum) to do a “bottom’s up” raising of the glasses and drink away!  This is usually followed by a lot of laughing and joking and everyone else drinking water from the new filters.  I am never worried about the locals, as they’re getting far better filtration even without any biolayer formation, than they were getting prior to us setting up the filter in the first place.

Slow_sand_filter diagram 1

In order for the filter to work correctly, the flow rate needs to be kept between 3 and 5 gallons per hour.  This limits the amount of water that a community can draw from a filter.  The maximum that a filter like this is good for, is about 120 gallons per 24 hour period, and in order for there to be 120 gallons per day, it is necessary to add a couple of pieces to this filter setup.  

First, a raw-water (pre-filter) container is necessary.  This is where the dirty water is pumped or scooped into, and can be any size.  The larger the better, and in a typical gravity fed system of course its outflow will have to be positioned slightly higher than the filter’s in flow.  The manner in which the water flows into the top of the filter needs to be controlled so as not to disturb the top of the sand too much.  This is normally done using baffles (PVC pipes with holes drilled in them something like drip irrigation systems).  We usually take a few $8.00 float valves with us when we’re setting these up, as it is the easiest way to control the flow between the raw water container and the filter.  There are certainly other ways, but the float valve makes everyone’s life easier and is so simple to install as a valve that opens and closes based on the level of water in the filter tank itself.

Slow-Sand-Filter diagram

Next, a final collection tank is necessary if you want a 24/7 water filter functionality.  The collection tank is fed directly from the filter.  This means that the full filter setup is a 3-container system:  A container for the raw water, the filter itself and a collection container for the water that has been filtered.  To use the system, a person first takes the water they need from the third container in the system – the collection container with clean water in it.  If there’s not an automatic system that fills the raw-water container, that same person can get the same amount of water they just used and put it into the raw-water container.  For instance, pulling it from a well and refilling the raw water container after taking the clean water from the filtered water container.  This ensures a 120-gallon per day maximum capacity of the water filter.  Calculating 1 gallon per person per day drinking water only, this system can serve over 100 people in a community.  However, we usually set up one filter for every 20-30 people, which allows for a minimum of 4 gallons of filtered water per person per day.


This approach gives me, as an herbalist, an entirely new approach to working with a community where a hugely disproportionate percentage of the population has the same health issues that are obviously related to poor water quality.  Between fracking, coal mining, corporate agriculture and political corruption (i.e. Flynt, MI), water quality is not something that is limited as a problem to only developing nations.  So if you are researching the health issues of a given community and are facing some type of water-borne epidemiological syndrome, then following along the same logic that a clinical herbalist should be using (work with the core problem whenever possible rather than just palliating the symptoms), this may give you another tool in your toolbox to consider using.

Let us address water-borne disease now, and some of the herbal approaches to resolving these disease states.

First, what are the common water-borne pathogens?  We can become ill from water that contains viruses (for example: hepatitis A and E), bacteria (for example: cholera, shigellosis), protozoans (for example:  giardiasis, cryptosporidium) and helminths (for example:  roundworm, tapeworm).

While it is possible to run down a list of specific pathogens and cite studies (whether valid studies is a whole different question) as to the effectiveness of a particular herb used for a specific pathogen, I think it is more effective to start the discussion with some of the general approaches we can take in the case of exposure to water-borne illness.  

First, the ubiquitous, acute onset of gastroenteritis that probably comes to everyone’s mind when discussing water-borne illness.  Narrowing down a set of options is a lot easier to do once we have gathered some information using even as simple of a mnemonic as SAMPLE:  Signs and symptoms, Allergies, Medications, Last known intake (food and water) and last known menstrual period if appropriate, Events leading up to the illness.  In addition to SAMPLE we can also use OPQRST to narrow down specifics on pain or discomfort:  Onset, Palliate/Provoke (“what makes it better or worse?”), Quality (“throbbing,” “sharp,” “burning”), Radiate (“does the pain radiate to other parts of the body?”), Severity (“on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life…”), Time (“how has the pain changed with any of the previous questions, since it started?”).

Bear in mind that beyond just working with one individual, you may be watching for patterns in a clinical environment.  After the third or fourth person comes in with the exact same symptoms, you have to start addressing community health questions.  How you go about doing that can range from quarantining (in the case of something like cholera) and helping set up water-treatment & hygiene plans in a remote or post-disaster community, to contacting local (e.g. county) health officials in a more first world setting.


In acute presentation of gastroenteritis, the herbal protocols are often going to be symptom-based.  Is there nausea and vomiting?  If so, can they keep anything down at all?  Dry heaves?  Blood? Diarrhea?  Color and consistency of the diarrhea if so (e.g. “rice water,” bloody, mucous, etc.), cramping?

Our primary concerns in the case of an acute onset of severe gastroenteritis (assuming that the herbal approach is the only option for whatever reason) are to prevent the patient from dehydration and support the recovery of the gut mucosa.  The latter is simple in theory but not always in practice.  Some of the most effective approaches involve helping clear the gut of what is causing the problem and reducing the inflammatory responses.  

Activated charcoal is a very useful substance in the initial clearing of the gut.  Whether toxins (e.g. food poisoning), bacteria or even protozoan infections, charcoal adsorbs and also helps to slow diarrhea.  As an initial protocol before giving any herbs, charcoal can often be very helpful.  The dosage can range as between one and two grams of charcoal per kilogram of body weight, every 4 – 8 hours.  Be aware that the person’s feces will likely come out black, and it should slow diarrhea somewhat.  Normally (in the absence of diarrhea), it is important to note that charcoal can cause constipation.  Note that we would not want to ingest charcoal at the same time as any herbs we were taking.  Much of the herb would bind with the charcoal, rendering both the charcoal and the herb ineffective.

Moving into herbs, what are some of the primary considerations?  We want to reduce gut inflammation.  We want to help restore normal gut mucosa function.  We want to overwhelm or kill off causative pathogens.  We want to support liver and kidney function (detoxification and elimination).  We want to palliate symptoms like cramping and nausea.  We also want to prevent dehydration, which involves both a rehydration solution as well as helping the gut absorb the fluids.  

“Gut inflammation” is a sort of generic term given to the physiological set of responses by the gut to a disruption in healthy function.  Pathogens have many various methods of fulfilling their own life cycles in their own quest to survive, colonize, feed, reproduce and find more hosts.  During that process that may be happening in our own gut, there is inevitably going to be an inflammatory response by damaged tissue of the gut.  Anything that reduces the pathogenic potency, increases our own tissue healing curve or both is going to reduce gut inflammation.  

Most berberine-containing herbs kill handle many of these aspects of dealing with gut inflammation.  They provide an astringency that helps reduce water loss.  They tend to have a directly anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.  They are usually anti-microbial.  They are also usually stimulate and support liver function.  Herbs that fit into this category are the Berberis and Mahonia species.  Other herbs include Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Chinese Goldthread (Coptis chinensis).  My favorite herb to use for acute gastroenteritis is Algerita (Berberis trifoliolata).  The root of this plant is intensely bitter and yellow with berberine, while the leaf is somewhat sweet, a little sour, and an excellent anti-nauseal.

Another herb that is highly anti-microbial, astringent and wound-healing on the gut is Walnut (Juglans spp.).  I use the Juglans microcarpa here in central TX but the most commonly used medicinal species is the Juglans nigra.  I like to mix the unripe (but just starting to soften) hull with the leaf of this tree, about 50/50.

Juglans nigra Eastern Black Walnut

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) is not a North American plant, but can be grown here in the most southern climates, or grown in pots and wintered indoors.  It has been referred to as the “king of bitters,” and for good reason.  Aside from its overwhelming bitter qualities, it is another herb that is highly antimicrobial and has an astringing, anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.

I like to use Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) as well as its milder cousin, Western Mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana) for acute gastroenteritis as well. Both are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory to the gut tissue, bitters and cholegogues. Both are also decent anti-nauseals, even when a person is already vomiting.  

Another antimicrobial that is also a superlative smooth muscle relaxant for cramping is Silktassel (Garrya spp.).  I know of herbalists who have used the leaves of this plant to mix with water as a form of water purification.  While I have not used it this way, I do use it quite often as an anti-spasmotic for smooth muscle throughout the body, to include the gut.  I use the leaf and bark of this plant, tinctured fresh.  I usually harvest it by pruning a bush and taking all the leaves and bark off of what I prune.  This usually comes out to being about 70% leaf and 30% bark.

Any mucosal vulnerary is going to have a soothing, anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.  This can include Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) root and leaf, Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.) cactus flower, Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis) leaf (if you don’t have a problem with the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which another topic), Plantain (Plantago spp.), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.) root and many others.  These are best prepared as a cold infusion, which also helps with hydration.  If you are preparing a rehydration solution anyway (1 teaspoon salt, 6 teaspoons sugar per quart of water is one of the most basic formulas), you can put it all together in a mucosal vulnerary rehydration drink.  

As a side note, Prickly Pear cactus can be used to filter water as well.  Fillet the pad and chop it into small pieces so that lots of surface area is exposed of the demulcent, gooey inside of the pad.  Put those pieces into a container with the water you wish to clean (pre-strain to clear as much turbidity as possible).  Shake, let it sit about 30 minutes, shake again and strain.  It is not anywhere near the filtration of a slow-sand filter, but the Prickly Pear pad is a flocculant and will stimulate aggregation of small particulates (fomites – homes for pathogens to live on) into larger particulates while adsorbing the same.

In a pinch, the Prickly Pear cactus pad can even be used to boil water!  Take a large pad, cut off the pointier end, fillet down the center very carefully to within about an inch of the edge (from the inside).  You can prop the sides open at the top using a small stick and pour water into the pad.  Water can be heated to easily 160 degrees for about 30 minutes in coals, without burning through the pad

All of the antimicrobial herbs mentioned above are going to give relief and help the body cope with a protozoal infection such as giardiasis or cryptosporidium.  Another strong antiprotozoan for those two infections particularly, is Chaparro Amargosa (Castela spp.).  



Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) is another anti-protozoal and one of the primary ingredients in formulas I have used to work successfully with cutaneous leishmaniasis infections, which are protozoal.

With any case of infectious gastroenteritis, it is imperative that the liver and kidneys be supported as well.  Support of the liver should be gentle to help it detoxify waste products that make it into the hepatic portal system.  Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) seed is of great use here.  Also helping to support liver function gently are Chicory (Cichoreum intybus) root and Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) leaf.  I like to use Burdock (Arctium lappa) root and Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) root a lot as both gentle liver support as well as gentle diuretics whenever helping the body deal with toxins, pathogens, infection, lymph stagnation or other disease processes that increase the body’s need to deal with and excrete waste products. 

Parasites (helminths) are another topic that is a discussion on its own.  There is generally not going to be a singular herb or even a set of herbs that are anti-parasitic for all parasites across the board.  However as a rule, some of the general anti-parasitic herbs that work in formulas either directly, or supportively, are: Any of the aforementioned berberine-containing herbs, Elecampane (Inula helenium), Horse Radish (Armoracia rusticana), Black Pepper (Piper nigrum), Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum spp.), Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) Garlic (Allium sativum) and Cayenne (Capsicum annuum).

The importance of clean water cannot be overstated in the full spectrum of holistic understanding of our health.  In the case of infectious disease, it is paramount that we have a clear understanding of both the epidemiology of the area as well as the tools we can implement to create better preventative health for a community.  Once we have helped create sustainable, clean water, we can continue even better than before as herbalists and health care providers.


(Share freely so others can benefit)

Solar Electricity – Viable Now, Potentially Crucial Later – Parts 1 and 2

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Viable Now, Potentially Crucial Later

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Solar electricity is more affordable and practical then ever these days, powering remote rural homesteads like the Anima Sanctuary, enabling urban dwellers to actually sell wattage back to the power companies, and helping prepare us for the time or times when there may very well be no functioning grid or other national power source.

I never tire of the dance of the first morning’s rays across the welcoming features of this canyon sanctuary, lighting first the tops of its pine stalwarts and orange and purple cliffs, then frosting in sequence the leading edges of glinting stone, and igniting one after the other its brilliant seasonal flowers.  For awhile, the deep river canyon bottom is as a long bowl carved out of ruddy metamorphic rock and ghost white cottonwood trunks, holding like some dark soup the last of the night until it, too, is drained of all opacity, giving way not to emptiness but to clarity.

The canyon’s seeming pleasure, is mine as well, and we seem to share a common covenant.  In my heart is a morning song not unlike the birds’.  I arrange my body so as to soak up the comforting first rays, while somewhere in the canyon a black bear is doing the same, initially stretching out to warm its back, then rolling over like an overgrown puppy to make available its characteristic belly.  As the moth-pollinated Datura blossoms begin to close for the day, I join in the motions of the wild Beeweed and medicinal Mallow, with the many hundreds of other native and often rare plant species here that lean and tilt, rise and swoop, tracing the arc our days in our favoring of the sun.

The sun is, for most of us, a joyous thing.  As often as I hope for the wild storms that quench these mountains’ thirst, it is not the covering of the sun that gladdens my heart but its certain reemergence.  Nor does it take a sufferer of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” to deeply, bodily sense its many benefits.  And of late we are seeing new scientific data suggesting the importance of sun-provided Vitamin D in preventing an ever larger list of common modern ailments.  The sun provides not only warmth without which this planet would be iced over and lifeless, but also the immense usable energy that life itself depends and draws upon.  Since oh so long before there were cleverly engineered solar electric panels, made of monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon and running the laptops of spoiled backwoods scribes like me, there were already innumerable species of plants from simple algae to complex conifers harvesting the sun’s bountiful wattage through a still not fully understood chemical process called photosynthesis.  Without these oxygen producing plants, the planet would lack the exact atmospheric mix that animal life including human depends upon.  The sunshine that these plants feast upon comes to us courtesy of a fortuitous, natural nuclear reactor an approximate but nonetheless crucial 93 million miles away… much further away, and it would be too cold on Earth for most or all life forms to survive, while a great deal closer and we as well as the green beings we partner with would most certainly be burned alive.

What is especially amazing to remember is that – unlike the coal fired power-plants that are the primary and most affordable source of electricity in the United States – there is only moderate pollution associated with the production and eventual disposal of solar panels, and none with their use.  And unlike the otherwise practical nuclear reactors that have been built, there is no tradeoff with either long lasting hazardous wastes or possible disastrous meltdowns.  It is, in fact, an undeniably sustainable power source, at least until the star’s projected Red Giant phase some 5 billion years hence.

The estimated 15 terawatts of total electrical use by people at this time, is only 1/6000th as much as the approximately 89 petawatts of sunlight bathing the Earth’s surface.  This isn’t to say that solar or other so called alternative energy technologies are anywhere near currently able to meet the immense and ever increasing electrical consumption of technologized Americans.  They can, however, be immediately put to use by the urban home or apartment complex owner to offset the rising cost of grid supplied power, or in some areas to harvest enough electricity to sell it back to the very companies we’ve been indebted to.  The initial cost of a grid-tie system is slowly made back in this way, while the absence of electric company bills makes remote or stand-alone systems seem more affordable.  Solar equipment is more affordable than ever, dropping from in its early per watt cost as production and sales have increased.  And of late, both State and Federal tax incentives and rebate programs have brought the prices down even further.

When the power in the nearby town of Reserve goes out as a result of heavy snow or a lightning strike, we never know it until we drive in for groceries and see the gas stations closed, un-fueled cars parked alongside the only road, and the lone grocery store running a loud gasoline dependent generator to keep the meat in their freezers froze.  Through it all we continue to make use of our modest but unhampered power supply, submitting our articles to magazines via a solar powered satellite internet connection, lighting our evenings with the soft but adequate glow of low-draw LED bulbs, to the odd world music emanating from the 12 volt stereo speakers.  So would it still be if we had no money to pay a provider, or in the event of a terrorist attack on the power stations, or if civilization itself were to collapse as a result of the manipulations of unscrupulous banking elites, all out war or the assistance of unforeseen natural disasters.  While not immune to the effects, we would still have the possibility of recording our impressions and insights on the illuminated screens of Apples for at least for the life of our deep cycle batteries, and to what could prove to be an oddly affirming Gothic-Americana ballad.

Increased self reliance is available to almost everybody, and in the case of a family’s electrical usage, it can purchased for the cost of a solar system.


Part 2:
Empowering Anima – Experiences With a Remote Solar Electric System

Outfitting what has become Anima School and Botanical/Wildlife Sanctuary with a functioning solar electric was never in question, even if it’s been an incredibly slow process.  Being situated seven river crossings from the nearest power pole, the only option would have been a gas or propane powered generator, and I loathe the tedious industrial noise of such engines even more than than the hassle and smell of regularly refilling fuel tanks.  Plus we being in the mountainous Southwest, we are blessed with more daily solar gain than the majority of the country, really only losing half a day average during the late Summer monsoon season, and seldom more than three consecutive cloudy days throughout the Winters.

I was a 26 year old man when I moved here, having sold the engine out of my hippie/biker/artist school bus home for the earnest money to start the purchase of this land.  That bus, minus its engine and axles, had only a single deep cycle battery for power.  I allegedly earned the respect of most of my county’s few residents by carrying the 40 pound power storage on my young back for the 20 mile round trip sojourns to buy food and get the local gas station to put it on fast charge.  While I enjoyed the recognition such feats provided, I was nonetheless extremely grateful for the gift of my first solar panel.  Forget that it provided no more than 30 watts at 12 volts DC, requiring several hours of sunshine for every hour of playing my Credence Clearwater Revival cassette tapes.  And never mind that I always suspected my Luddite friend with the felonious tendencies might have “liberated” it from a highway billboard, one no doubt selected because of its shameless glorification of Chinese-stocked super stores or investment firm propaganda.   It wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep a small incandescent bulb going inside of a disassembled automotive tail light, dimly illuminating the paper I was hand writing pieces of my first novel on, an unimposing glow nearly imperceptible from outside.

Over the course of the next two decades I traded my artwork for additional panels of varying size and output, then added a few more with the help of one of Anima School’s first financial Sponsors.  My initial solar education came one mistake at a time, as I miswired, bought incompatible elements, and depended on aged batteries intended as trolling motors on small bass boats, but somehow I managed to not only wire our cabins but keep enough electricity stored for the growing needs of computers and peripherals.

Households investing in solar usually have the daunting task of designing and installing a system that can handle the lion’s share of their exorbitant daily usage.  Since most every appliance and many tools that people use are 110 volt AC (alternating current) and draw a lot of power, a large number of batteries and panels are required as well as an inverter that will convert the DC (direct current) power from the panels into the required AC.  I had no such challenge, starting with nothing but a single car tape deck for tunes, and making sure that every electrical item bought thereafter was DC.  This meant stereos meant for mounting in cars, or else “portable” boom boxes that run on “D” batteries, and whose battery boxes I could wire to run direct off the growing 12v system.  DC lights that we changed first to less amp hungry halogens, and then to LED once their brightness was improved substantially in the 1990s.  For years I wrote all my articles and books on a manual typewriter, taking the sheets into town and paying someone to enter them into a computer, until finally getting one of our own.  In the case of computers, too, we avoided the need for an inverter by using laptops intended for mobile and remote use, first a horrid PC with a screen with no backlight, then a series of Macs beginning with a classic Model 160 and leading up to our current MacBook Pros.

These days we are not simply entertained and illuminated thanks to solar power, but also dependent on it for our very work.  Publications that once required typed out pages, now accept submissions of writing as digital attachments only.  Only bills are sent to our Post Office box and no one ever writes us a “snail mail” query letter anymore, making emails the only way that we communicate with the world.  This includes book manuscript submittals, answering folks asking about wilderness retreats, exchanges with our Home Study students, writing and managing the Anima and Healing Arts blogs, and organizing and promoting the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference.  We are reaching and aiding more people than ever, through a satellite internet box that is one of our only 110v contraptions, thanks to two sets of purchased and donated batteries, a controller, seemingly miraculous solar panels, and above all the glorious and advantageous sun.

Unfortunately it seems I made yet other serious mistakes in the system’s development, requiring yet another upgrade and reconfiguration.  First, the potpourri of panels we’ve accumulated are of drastically varying output, when it is ideally recommended that all panels in an array be of the same make, type and size.  Secondly, we have been combining two different kinds of batteries, confusing the controller and making ever completely charging them impossible.  Thirdly, the batteries are prone to sulfation of their plates and thus early demise, for the lack of periodically administering a high amperage equalization charge.  And lastly, time on the online NAWS Solar Forum revealed that we have only half as many panels as what our total number of battery storage requires.  The result is the splitting up of our dissimilar batteries, and the upcoming purchase of two superior controllers, two important battery system monitors, four additional 120 or 130 watt panels and much larger diameter wire all around to better carry the juice… especially in Winter..

The expense of this upgrade is difficult for us at best, but is absolutely essential, inescapable, and will power our place and work for possibly decades to come.  In support of our School and conservation work, the kind manager of Northern Arizona Wind and Sun – a reputable low cost supplier – has offered to provide everything we need at considerably less than their asking price, only 10% above their cost plus shipping.  To help cover the expenses, we’ve initiated a Solar Fund and invited earmarked donations, ably spearheaded by our enthusiastic 9 year old daughter Rhiannon.  We are very fortunate, as well, to have the able services of friends Don and Daniel now, professional electricians giving their labor in trade for an old Willys Jeep that I loved but didn’t really need.

A lot of time and attention has had to go to the system remake lately, but it has also meant my reading a lot on forums and elsewhere to further my knowledge, and inspired me to share some of our experience with you, as well as some of the particulars of building your own solar electric system (coming next week!).



(Please feel free to quote, forward and post this piece… with credit and Anima URL of course)

If you are interested in the particulars of putting together a Solar Electric System of your own, watch here next week for Part 3: Basic Elements of a Solar System

For general details and suggestion regarding solar electric systems, you can go to the NAWS Information Page

For an in depth discussion of all solar topics, I suggest the many alternative energy forums online, including the one I’ve personally learned the most from (featuring independent moderators not employed by the host company) the NAWS Solar Forum

Other articles of Wolf Hardin’s on homesteading will also be appearing as part of the upcoming ReWilding magazine/website