Walking with my friend Rick on his island property is an education. On a granite bluff overlooking the north end of Georgia Strait, a major water and wind channel on British Columbia’s inner coast, we are examining Rick’s inventive use of the recycled and reapplied detritus of our material culture. When we crest a small rise, Rick gestures overhead. Thirty feet above us, the yellow-tipped propeller blades of a Canadian Forces Argo radar plane are turning slowly in a light air.
“This is my wind generator. I’m still adjusting the pitch of the blades and I need to tinker with the alternator to have it accept the irregular wind speeds. But when the tinkering is done, the generator will supply up to 30% of our household power and charge batteries… Eventually even charging an electric vehicle I call my ‘wind powered truck’.”
Environmental consultant, architect, author and ‘gumboot technologist’, “from away back”, Rick is an accomplished friend of the earth. With soul restoring creativity, he is also turning his ideas and concerns to practical purpose, in his own backyard.
In fact, our local recycling centre was the scene for my first conversation with Rick about these important matters. I’d found two old doors that I saw as a potential worktable and a door for my studio. Rick offered to transport my ‘treasures’. “If I can help put these doors back to work, I’m all for it,” he said.
As we loaded the doors into his pick-up, I noticed at least a dozen buckets filled with something that looked like used motor oil. “What on earth are you doing with those?” The unabashed answer, “I’m converting used oil to diesel for my tractor.” This sounds interesting.
I tell Rick that sounds like gumboot technology at work! I’m a fan of what I’ve begun to call gumboot technology, a term to which I’d been introduced by another islander.
Rick is a bit hesitant though about applying the term gumboot technology to his own endeavors. ‘Appropriate technology’, ‘sustainable’, ‘medium’ or ‘low technology’, those are terms with which Rick is more familiar, and prefers. But I like ‘gumboot’.
Its simplicity first caught my ear when I heard that term used at a casual social evening of island ‘in comers’ and ‘old timers’. ‘Old timers’ being folks of the 70’s back-to-the-land influx. ‘In-comers’ are folks who have made the leap to ‘island life’ in more recent history, and just learning old-timer wisdom.
In a cozy room we in-comers were hunkered down on the floor helping the kids make paper airplanes and snow flakes. Dull scissors were frustrating our efforts.
Henry, old-timer, checked our progress. “What you need is some gumboot technology.” He wandered off and returned with a canning jar. He placed the pair of scissors over the rim, a blade on either side, and dragged the blades out against the glass edge a couple of times.
“There you go, gumboot technology in action,” Henry said handing me a sharper instrument.
Gumboot technology? Why not? I’ve been lost in all the ways that writers, thinkers and doers have tried to describe that which runs counter to the latest, and said-to-be greatest, modern technology. Gumboot technology? Sustainable? Earth friendly? Simple? Appropriate? Minimal? Yes, absolutely.
It’s the image of a gumboot that really catches my eye and ear. The gumboot (wellington, welligog, beach boot) is a simple, common utilitarian item of coastal footwear with a minimum of moving parts, generally worn by those with more interest in function than fashion.
I agree that Rick’s enterprises are decidedly more complex, and rely on more elaborate technologies. Still, for Rick it is function over fashion. It’s about arranging for the needs of daily living with sheer grit, ingenuity, creativity and minimal reliance on systems that may endanger the planet.
Up on the windy bluff Rick describes the various components that make up his ‘wind machine’. “You’ll notice that I’ve used a Ford pick-up axle for the propeller shaft. The brake drum is still on.” I’m offered a demonstration of the braking still available to slow the propeller blade, if needed.
Rick continues. “The tower, that was a lucky find. I happened to pass a crew dismantling an electrical tower that had to come down. It didn’t take much, a couple hundred bucks to get a ton of galvanized framework into my truck, enough to build two towers. Now take a look at that alternator. It’s out of an old light plant, but I’m thinking of using a large truck alternator instead. In this project,” Rick reveals, “the only new part is the gear box.”
What of the propeller? How did a radar plane propeller find its way from the far north to a wind generator on a west coast bluff?
Rick grins. “Finding the stuff is half the fun. I picked that up from my favourite military surplus. It was a spare part in the original propeller kit for the Argo. It even came with x-rays of the blades and a balancing report. The blades weigh within a few grains of each other.” What Rick is telling me is that he has some very finely balanced generator blades, with credentials, and they came via military surplus. Turning the tools of war to a peaceful cause gives Rick special satisfaction.
We continue to watch the blades turn lazily. I know this end of the island well and it’s not always so calm. Winter storms can build up winds of 50 - 70 kilometers, occasionally rising into the 80’s or even more. Rick can count on over 100 days a year of winds exceeding 20km, sufficient to generate 2 to 4 kilowatts of power. In Rick’s insulated, energy-efficient and conservation-minded home that can almost supply all his electrical needs.
Moving away from the bluff, we follow the flow of energy downhill to the house. Here, individual components that direct and manage the electrical flow are also recycled.
The inverter, salvaged from an administrative office ‘downsizing’, is a computer at heart. Rick has modified the inverter, actually reprogrammed it, to shunt electricity into his household grid, according to which source of power is presently available. If there is a brisk wind and the battery array is topped up, the inverter switches the household to that source. If the batteries are low, the inverter will switch to the commercial electrical grid.
The materials and skills needed to assemble the electrical components and get them working together is quite ‘high-tech’ in my book. What is gumboot about it is the creativity and ingenuity of producing a personal solution beyond off-the-shelf components and reliance on the larger, industrialized and bureaucracy-ridden system.
Rick is vehement on this point. “There is so much out there that can be used, ...the sheer volume of waste, the sheer volume of good discarded materials that we throw away.” This appalls him. He shakes his head. It feels good, to practice on his own terms, on his own farmstead, the healthful and earth friendly concepts he’s been extolling for two decades. “I call it my therapy.”
‘Therapy’ is, after all, an antidote to the mental and physical pollution of living in a world where we can rarely meet our own practical needs, where we believe we can afford to waste.
There’s more “therapy” inside the house. In a corner of the main floor, I discover a new, yes new washing machine! My surprise is short lived. This new machine operates on about 60% less water than a conventional agitator model. Nearby, and somewhat hidden by a rack of drying clothes, a large dark masonry structure of about six feet (2 meters) high by 3 feet (1 meter) wide. This behemoth is the wood furnace. In keeping with Rick’s approach, it’s constructed of firebrick and, wait for it, discarded kiln shelving.
Kiln shelving? “From a toilet factory kiln,” Rick enlightens me. “A very large kiln with large high tempered shelves. Very convenient for my wood furnace”.
As I move closer I note that the furnace still radiates a modicum of heat eight hours after the morning fire has gone out. Wood heat can consume a lot of forest, but Rick’s two story R2000 home uses about four cords a year. In a home designed to retain and circulate heat efficiently, the furnace does quadruple duty. In addition to direct heat, clothes can be dryed, as noted, there’s always plenty of domestic hot water including hot water for in-floor radiant heating and, “provides a great oven for baking!”
Rick opens a second metal door above the stove box, and puts a hand forward. “It’s still warm from this morning’s fire,” he gestures for me to test the oven. I put my hand out and it’s enveloped in gentle heat. Images of buttery baking powder biscuits and roasted potatoes make my mouth water.
“And in here,” Rick points to the interior of the lower fire box, “I have two old metal radiators.” Two discarded cast iron radiators of the classic molded style are affixed along each side of the box, and tipped slightly forward to form an open ended inverted ‘V’ over the fire.
“As the water in the radiators is heated it moves to these exchangers.” Rick points to two polished steel cylinders mounted on top of the furnace. “The water is actually so hot coming out of the fire that I have to step it down a degree or two before it goes into the floor pipes.” The spacecraft-like heat exchangers are recycled from a computer cooling system, “when computers were large and hot affairs”.
Beneath our feet, I am taken by what I mistake for a tile floor. “No, it’s coloured concrete,” Rick says, “in which I’ve embedded coils of plastic tubing for in-floor heating.” This in-floor system has high heat retention too, holding heat for as long as 20 hours in winter. I can imagine the comfort of warm floors and the convenience of coming home to a house that is still warm after hours away.
In this house there is no end to adventurous concepts. A work in progress, I find new experiments at every turn. A roof top solar collector, synthesized from recycled pulp mill steel pipe, percolates unattended; cycling additional heated water into the house.
On an earthier level, Rick is exploring the use of composting toilets and natural waste water systems. In this case, Rick bought basic manufactured composting toilets, and made his own adjustments to improve efficiency. The toilets have been up and functioning well for four years. “I actually had some dialogue with the manufacturer who was initially interested in my improvements, but I guess I went too far. I’m on my own again.”
The two household toilets are built on outside walls and empty into a peat filled bin accessible from outdoors. About every six weeks, the bin is dumped into a dedicated compost pile. Internal temperatures in the pile can reach a bacteria-frying 145 degrees centigrade, producing garden humus in twelve months.
Within the farms two acres of alder bottom and built-up raised beds there are vegetables, flowers, and a recently planted and fenced orchard, “down about where those deer are roaming,” Rick points out. All to be irrigated with household wastewater.
Household wastewater or ‘gray water’ is kitchen and laundry water, the “rice and noodles”, as Rick calls it. “The waste water system will eventually provide for most of our ornamental and tree fruit gardening needs. But I’m still working on that one,” Rick admits. A recent addition, a rock walled rainwater cistern, collects surface run-off for food crops.
Rick has had some frustrations and the occasional ‘failed’ experiment. One such endeavor -- how to restore household ‘gray’ water to usable purity for irrigation -- has not succeeded. A glass walled enclosure of plants and bubbling tanks isn’t working to its full potential... Rick is disappointed but not deterred.
For me, that’s gumboot technology… a willingness to experiment, appropriate cast-offs, re-design, and try and try again. Gumboot technologists are the new alchemists… challenged by mysteries -- intrigued by quirks and inspired by ‘good finds’. Gumboot technologists solve mysteries, integrate systems, turn tools to other tasks, reduce waste, and create comfort and health in their lives with their own hands and hearts. “It’s my therapy,” Rick says. It’s a therapy that has immediate, practical applications and outcomes for Rick, for his family, for me and… for the whole planet.