To put everyone out of the suspense left after my last post, I’m going to show the starting point of the mystery image. Thanks to Carolyn for having a go at the identification.
As you can see it’s an image of the slates on our cowshed roof, but what made it interesting to my eye was firstly the Larch needle grouting of the slate joints, which only happens fleetingly most autumns if we have a strong South Westerly wind as the needles are shed. And also the fascinating effect of a heavy dew which is sufficient to lead to water droplet trails running down the slates. Rotating the image by 90 degrees, before tweaking it an a photoshop programme does seem to confuse the eye, or is it the brain? I regularly play around with abstract pattern based images, putting them through the four 90 degree rotation options, and often find that a particular option ‘clicks’ and appeals much more dramatically than the remaining three options.
It seems that we’re programmed for pattern recognition, since most natural or animate objects have a great in-built pattern or symmetry, often bilateral. Over millenia it’s probably a helpful survival trait to have acquired an instant ability for our brains to try to quickly ascertain what an unusual visual stimulus actually means – threat, or no threat.
In the garden at this time of the year, light effects and patterns seem to attract the eye even more, with less in the way of dramatic colour to distract one’s attention.
The other subject to update on, as an ongoing major garden project, is progress with heating the greenhouse using an external compost bed. I hinted to Rinka in a comment last post, that learning how to optimise this system will probably take ages. We’ve had our great ESSE Iron Heart stove for nearly 9 years. And still I’m learning.
Although the oven has a temperature dial, it has also upper and lower adjustable air inlets and 2 hob lids which can be raised or lowered. Do you want to cook, and if so a slow casserole or bake some bread? Heat the house quickly, or just chug along with background heat? Then there’s the issue of depth of ash pile for a fast or slow burn. Choice of wood has an effect – mainly willow, alder, hazel, hawthorn, larch or ash for us here. Then the size of the wood – length, thickness of log, and whether it’s been split. And how dry is the wood? We aim to have at least 3 year’s worth under cover, but it still benefits from extra drying time by the stove, if possible. Its eventual moisture content when burned will have a big impact on how much heat is generated. Then the weather conditions – still, wet, windy, cold, which all have an impact on how much heat you might need to generate from the stove. Simple it ain’t, but satisfying it is, particularly at this time of the year, when you can gaze into the flames.
BUT, flicking a switch, or turning a dial which, I guess, is how most readers will alter their home’s ambient temperature or cook is a heck of a lot easier and gives you much more free time.
To DO or to THINK?
How come no-one spotted the major design flaw in ‘The Reactor’?
First, I’ll whizz through the set up now inside the greenhouse, before giving some early temperature readings. (This will turn into my longest ever post, so either cut to the snowdrop picture, or don’t say you weren’t warned! And Carolyn and Michael, look what ripples have developed from the pebble you dropped, on the other side of the pond).
(Addendum: – There are a lot of posts now about how this idea has developed and its implementation. If you want to find the other posts quickly, then Click here).
Fiona always reckoned we should have had mains electricity installed when we had the greenhouse put up. And of course she was right, but at least we had the line of the buried water pipe to follow, in order to get the armoured cable out to the greenhouse before the freezing temperatures arrived.
Inside, I’ve mounted one axial 20 Watt fan vertically, and joined it up to the top of the reactor spiral pipe where it enters the greenhouse, and then taken an outflow on into the inner insulated zone for another metre or so.
The other end of the spiralled reactor pipe is also located in the inner insulated zone. ( see my previous post for external design). So in theory, air should be circulated and warmed as it passes through the external compost bed.
Since I’ve had to install electricity, I’ve also added another 20 watt axial fan (along with the pipe for ‘The Reactor’ spiral, this is the only new purchase for the project) at the apex of the greenhouse. This connects to the vertical black pipe at the greenhouse gable end, and then underground to a perforated soil pipe and rubble heat store beneath the central path. Originally the idea was to move warm air into this heat store with a battery operated fan, charged from a separate solar panel. Now the mains supply makes it much simpler.
Both these fans are run through timers for now. So here’s the first issue.
Run them continuously or intermittently?
The apex fan is easy. At this time of the year it only makes sense to run it for a couple of hours around midday, when temperatures in sunny weather may reach the high teens or even low ’20’s (Degrees C). Ideally, and for the future, I shall look into a temperature operated switch to control this function. This should avoid the crazy scenario of having the auto Bayliss roof vents opening, even slightly on a sunny day, and allowing hot air to exit our cedar framed Woodpecker joinery built greenhouse.
The timing for the lower fan is more tricky. After a bit of fiddling I’ve settled on having it running continuously overnight, and then from late afternoon to mid morning. In between these 2 times I have it on, then off, for about 20 minutes alternately (the minimum setting on this cheap timer control).
So both of these fans together will run for less than 400 watt hours per 24 hours, and some of this daytime use will be covered by our own PV generated electricity. So the actual fan running costs with our Economy 7 electricity tariff will be only about 4p per day. Apart from hopefully moving heat around, the other great benefit is that the fans create air movement in an otherwise enclosed, potentially dank and damp environment. A huge plus for healthy plants in reducing fungal or mould issues.
I finished my report in the previous post, with a compost temperature of 2.5 degrees C, taken the day after filling up the compost bed. Through the first week this temperature, taken at the top of the bed under the insulated cover, climbed promisingly into the 30’s but I was still only getting about 6 degrees C at the exit of the pipe into the inner zone. Why so low? What a failure. Ever impatient, I pulled the top of the heap apart and discovered that whereas the compost was indeed pretty uniformly warm, the central ‘Reactor’ core filled with the 2 litre water bottles was only 13 degrees C.
Notice the steam, and the white structures on the surface to the left are newly forming mushrooms.
So rather than creating a heat store in the water bottles (which was what I’d thought would happen), I’d actually created a cool zone next to the inner half of the air carrying spiral pipe. This was a pretty basic design flaw!
Fortunately after removing all the bottles, I discovered that the inner core was wide enough to accommodate vertically, two 40 litre plastic whitewash tubs, and after years of white washing our buildings we have plenty of these to spare. One on top of the other, with some simple wire handles added to aid lifting in and out of ‘The Reactor’. So after drilling a few holes in their sides for aeration I now had an easily removable compost containing core to the reactor. I filled the tubs with already hot compost from the top of the pile and lowered them into place.
On lifting the bed’s insulated covering lids I’d also noticed that as with my earlier trial with big bags, the overall compost level had settled a fair bit. So I topped up the heap with 6 tubs of shredded leaf material and 1 of fresh poultry coop manure. Some pee was added for good measure over the compost surface, as a nitrogen source and for added moisture, and also onto the top whitewash tub.
As yet no compost was falling from the raised base of the heap, and for now I’m adopting a wait and see approach here. A quick vigorous wiggle of my aeration tubes, and back on with the covers. I also decided to insulate with bubble wrap both the entry and exit pipes into the inner zone inside the greenhouse. And waited.
The base of the compost heap, where little material has so far fallen through. But after 2 weeks, white fungal mycelia are obvious as shown below, between the metal bars of the grids.
Within 24 hours of removing the bottles and switching to compost filled tubs, I could see that I was on the right track. The exit air into the greenhouse from ‘The Reactor’ had now risen up to 13 degrees C, and during the week it peaked at 19 degrees C, before dropping slightly after 7 days to 17 degrees C again.
I’d already planned on a weekly top up to the bed as being an easy to plan routine, so on Sunday, 2 weeks after set up, I emptied the core plastic tubs onto one side of the heap (which by now had cooled a bit to 32 degrees C), and refilled them again with some of this top of the heap, hot compost.
Then, I again made up the whole heap with almost exactly the same amount of material as last week -.i.e. 0.75 tub of poultry coop manure, 5 tubs of leaf material, and 1 tub of wet loosely torn cardboard. With some more pee (which had also been added on 2 other occasions through the week – well it seems a shame to waste it).
2 days later, and the top of the compost bed has risen to just over 40 degrees C, and within hours of changing the tub compost for ‘fresh’ material, the inner zone pipe was again reading 19 degrees C. After all the effort that’s gone into this, it’s a considerable relief to this blogger. (Thanks again for Fiona for producing this early graph):
A maximum/minimum thermometer arrived 3 days ago so that for all the interested readers, in due course I can create another graph of how the system is performing over the medium to long term.
It’s been placed towards the end of the inner zone, furthest from the warm air inflow. Inevitably this will be cooler than the area close to the warm air inlet, and so far it’s registered an apparently stable range of minimum of 8 degrees C, and a maximum of 12 degrees C. I also suspect that my digital thermometer may be reading at least a couple of degrees on the cold side, since a few days after set up, when the greenhouse in the morning looked like this from the outside:
And this on the inside:
I’d got a night time reading on the ground close by of:
When the forecast was minus 5 degrees C only. Inside, at dawn the inner zone was still free of any evidence of frost or sub zero temperatures.
To add a bit of spice to the challenge, a couple of lemon bushes (Meyer’s lemon and Four Seasons variety) arrived, just as I got the system working. These are to be my ‘canaries in the mine’, in case modern thermometer equipment does let me down.
Healthy looking plants from Cross Common Nursery in Cornwall, with the Meyer’s lemon with flower buds just about to open. I was assured that they were hardy to 3 degrees C, and could cope with the odd touch of zero temperatures. We shall see. But I’d love to be able to grow a Welsh lemon to match our Welsh nectarines in due course. And in addition, the hope is that we can over winter in their pots a very few tender shrubs, like Ageratina ligustrina, shown below.
Even more importantly, that we can start our tomatoes and peppers off earlier, so that we get some fruit before late July. Finally, I hope to grow a few early vegetables under cover to avoid ‘the hungry gap’ which this year lasted into July. So apart from pak choi, winter lettuce and some salad kale, (which I’d started off before the idea for ‘The Reactor’ had even germinated), I’ve also sown some beetroot, early carrots and Oregon sugar pod mange-tout peas. In all 3 cases I’ve pre-germinated the seed inside, until the first roots are well formed, and then planted them up. In addition I’m trialling a system for pre-germinating small seed like carrots on wet kitchen towel, covered with black plastic, in the warm inglenook area by our stove. The reason being that handling such small seed when wet is almost impossible – they stick to your fingers, and anything else for that matter.
I can now just lift the moist kitchen towel off the tray when the seed have germinated as above, place on the soil surface and cover with compost. Thus the whole greenhouse heating palava and experiment does have a utilitarian aspect, and isn’t just an excuse for me to practice some pseudo science. (Actually I’m intrigued by the potential of a similar compost bed to heat other structures, or to be used as a link with an air source heat pump).
All of this push to raise temperatures through the winter to a point where plant growth might be able to continue, albeit slowly, got me thinking about the other factors which will probably limit growth in this environment. Nutrients and moisture won’t be an issue I think, but light almost certainly will be. Last week, like much of the UK, we had persistent heavy rain, (153 mm in 7 days), and the PV readings confirm an appropriately gloomy scene. Barely 11 KW Hours in a week (the equivalent of about half a sunny day in April). So I figured that adding a bit of extra light, might be worth trying.
Researching greenhouse lighting took me to the fascinating commercial site of Philips Green Power red and blue LED side strip lights, recommended by several commercial tomato growers for year round production, including one from winter light deprived Finland. Sadly I couldn’t quickly find a UK distributor for what is no doubt way beyond our budget.
But what I did inadvertently drift into, during this search, was the murky world of UK hydroponics culture, clearly aimed at all those closet cannabis growers, where the fact that LED lights emit little measurable heat was promoted as a huge bonus. So back to the outbuildings where I knew I had 2 possible redundant light source options. Firstly a now rarely used moth light, which I’d actually acquired from a local back street hydroponics shop in Bristol, years ago.
“So you’re going to use it for catching moths, are you?” (Pull the other one).
And when I returned to buy 2 more for friends who I’d introduced to the joys of ‘mothing’.
“So it’s for a friend to use to catch Moths, is it?” (Yeah, Yeah)
But this moth light was a bit delicate, and high wattage, so in the end I opted for my old light box designed to fend off SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) which afflicted me in earlier years, before I was able to spend more time outside. With its two 55 watt Osram daylight fluorescent tubes, I now have this coming on through a timer for 3 early morning hours ending at dawn, and another 2 hour boost around lunchtime, at the Northern end of the greenhouse. As a bonus, it does of course emit a little extra warmth into the inner zone. So this adds about another 4.5 p to the daily spend. So, we’re now up to about 8.5 p per day.
But a few other interesting technical pieces and thoughts have surfaced from all this activity:
- There have been real advantages in having a wooden framed and half timber clad structure. Fixings are easy to make, and the structure has a better in built insulation than all glass, or aluminium framing. In addition, my insulation of the lower timber clad section with Celotex off cuts has had a huge benefit in raising light levels through greater reflection of what little light is available at this time of the year, from the foil outer layer of the Celotex sheet.
- At other times of the year, carbon dioxide can be the limiting factor for plant growth in greenhouses. Sometimes by mid morning, vigorous plants will have ‘consumed’ all the CO2 in the greenhouse air during photosynthesis. After all there is only 0.037% atmospheric CO2, and even though the world is seriously concerned about its rising level, growth will slow or cease if it’s exhausted in an enclosed and unventilated greenhouse. Click here for a fascinating video on how the largest commercial British greenhouse tomato grower has overcome this issue. And how amazing is it, that with so little CO2 in the atmosphere, a mature oak tree weighing about 14 tons, and containing about 8 tons of dry matter contains how much carbon? 50% of the total dry mass, or 4 tons! So you can see why there are big concerns about global deforestation and releasing all this carbon back into the atmosphere very quickly.
- There are sites for calculating estimates of (conventional) heating requirements for greenhouses. (There are of course a huge number of variables affecting such estimates). Using the calculator on the Hartley botanic greenhouse website, I arrived at a very rough required wattage of about 3 KW for the whole of our 14 foot by 8 foot greenhouse, or about 1 KW for my inner zone (10 foot by 7 foot), to protect to an inner minimum of plus 3 degrees C if the external temperatures fell to minus 15 degrees C – which is about the worst we can expect. This wattage, if supplied as electricity, would cost about 45 p per hour (3KW), or 15 p per hour (1KW) respectively (obviously less if you have a night time tariff) – to put my endeavours, and costings into some kind of relative context.
- Using water filled bottles around the inner perimeter of the greenhouse, between the insulated wooden cladding, and the insulated inner zone, will provide an additional thermal buffer, should temperatures get really low outside, thanks to the marvellous, and for me difficult to grasp, concept of latent heat of fusion released when a liquid freezes.
This is one of our Tomcot apricots, which requires winter chilling to allow fruit buds to develop, so it’s outside the warmed greenhouse inner zone. I might return to the subject of ‘chilling hours’ at a later date. (Inner zone polycarbonate sheet to the left, and Celotex insulation on the outer greenhouse wooden cladding to the right).
As water cools its temperature will fall in a linear fashion until it starts to freeze. But the actual act of freezing releases a considerable amount of ‘latent heat’ as the water changes from liquid to solid. How much heat is released?
Well, 44 BTU per pound of water. But what’s a BTU? 1 watt is 3.41 BTU/hour. So a 2 litre or 2Kg water bottle will give out 633 BTU during freezing or 184.6 Watt Hours. So 100 such bottles equates to 18.4 KW hours, (or the equivalent of running a 2 KW heater for about 9 hours, which would cost about £2.70). Now this latent heat WON’T raise the surrounding greenhouse air temperature, but it should help delay the air temperature falling much below freezing until all this bottled water has frozen, and in turn will protect the slightly warmer insulated inner zone from ever falling below zero – or at least that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it
- If the weekly top up maintains at the current level, it will obviously be sensible to have filled back up stores of mulched leaves, or soaked cardboard to ease a speedy top up, and be able to cope with lying snow, or frozen conditions for a few weeks. I reckon perhaps 3 or 4 more big bags should nearly get us to March. And having filled another 2 already, I don’t anticipate any shortage of material. The lawnmower is equally adept at mulching most herbaceous foliage which normally dies back and becomes soggy around now, and its particularly effective at dealing with Hellebore leaves. And returning to the example of the oak, a single oak tree will annually produce about 250 Kg dry weight of leaves per year.
Lawnmower mulched leaves awaiting ‘The Reactor’.
- With already filled bags and tubs to hand, the whole process of topping up the bed, aerating and changing ‘The Reactor’ core fuel took less than a quarter of an hour.
- I’ve yet to address the issue of whether material will need raking out from the base, or whether it will naturally, or through worm action, fall out. Already there is significant bottom fungal mycelium growth, and indeed top mushroom formation after just 2 weeks, as I’ve shown above. I also may be being lulled into a false sense that this process will just chug along in a similar and predictable vein to the progress so far. Many folk find compost heaps cool irreversibly with time. Will mine be any different, with its regular top ups, and slight compost movement ?
- The idea of chopped leaves as a ‘fuel’ for the ‘Reactor’ is intriguing to me. I looked up the calorific value of dry logs for burning as a fuel, and the general figure is about 18 Mega Joules (MJ) per Kg dry Weight. But I then found that dry Miscanthus X giganteus stems (a 9 foot tall ‘Elephant Grass’ crop increasingly grown in the UK for burning in biomass power stations, is also about 17 MJ per KG of dry weight – so virtually the same as the wood. Finally I found that in China a study into the calorific value of Mangrove leaves gave an almost identical range of calorific values of 19.6 – 21.5 MJ per Kg dry weight. Composting is in some ways similar to burning in that much of this potential calorific value is released, as the composting, or indeed burning process progresses, and carbon dioxide is released. Clearly composting is much more drawn out than burning, and stops a bit short of ash production. Or I hope it does, since spontaneous combustion of compost heaps that are too dry can occur, which would be a disaster next to a wooden framed greenhouse! Indeed in this application one really doesn’t want to produce finished compost quickly – say within 18 days, with temperatures up to 65 degrees C (Click here for this method). A slower, slightly cooler approach is called for, to give an extended period of heat generation. But this is where my understanding of physics is poor. A joule or megajoule (MJ – a million joules) is a unit of energy. A watt or kilowatt (a thousand watts) is a unit of power, which by definition is a unit of energy used, per unit of time. So 1,000 joules per second is a 1,000 watt seconds, or a kilowatt second. So what power does a Kg of dry wood release, if say, it burned within an hour? The maths would be 18(MJ/Kg) divided by 60 (minutes) divided by 60 (seconds), which would give you a figure of 4722 watts per hour – or the more familiar 4.77 KW Hour. Turning this thought process around, I calculate that if Hartley greenhouses reckon I would need about 1 KW Hour to heat my inner zone, what weight of Miscanthus, at 17 MJ/Kg would that require, over a 7 day week? My maths was.1 Kg would heat for 4.72 hours, so 24/4.72 = 5.08 Kg would be needed for 24 hours, or (7 x 5.08) about 35 Kg to heat the greenhouse for a week. By burning. But by composting? Interestingly, weighing the full buckets of moist cardboard, and moist leaves needed to replenish the compost bed once a week, gave me figures of 7 Kg for the leaves (x 5 tubs), 8.4 Kg for the cardboard (1 tub), and about 7 Kg (1 tub) for the chicken coop manure. So a total of 35 Kg + 8.4 Kg + 7 Kg = 50.4 Kg moist compostable material to heat the greenhouse for a week. Which looks like about 800 Kg material for a 16 week winter. Quite a lot of plant debris. But easily available in a modest mature, and tidied up, autumnal garden. Now obviously this isn’t heating to the same Hartley temperature criteria of minus 15 outside and plus 3 inside. But unless I’ve gone seriously awry with my thinking or maths, this figure isn’t a million miles from the amount required to release the energy by burning the material. Now this material would be added as a top up to a much bigger overall mass, but I reckon for me it confirms the simple point that all this carbon rich plant material sitting around in the environment at the end of the growing season, waiting to quietly decompose and release the carbon back into the atmosphere, and the trapped photosynthetic derived energy which it still contains, can really be viewed as having significant ‘fuel’ potential. For now, thank goodness, I rest my case, until knowledgeable readers rip me apart over my simplistic logic.
Finally a few more garden pictures including, to cheer the spirits, the first snowdrop photo of the year. This variety is called ‘Three Ships’, as in the Christmas carol line “ I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas day in the morning“.