Closing an Earthbag: In Reply to Questions

We’ve had a few questions as to how we closed our sandbags after filling them with scoria, so here are a few photos we hope will help.

We generally used two 2-1/2″ nails to close the bags, folding the ends like an envelope.

A note about the nails, at first we used Dipped Galvanized, which was a pain because the majority of nails in a 5 pound box didn’t have sharp pointed tips, some were like duck bills which made pushing them through the bags a nightmare. We ended up using “Bright Common” box nails, which seemed like a dream afterward. And stay away from “Big Box” stores when buying your nails. Mom & Pop hardware stores often sell them in bulk for a lot less.

Sometimes we used three 2-1/2″ nails if the folds didn’t seem like they were going to stay closed, or if we added a bit more scoria than the previous bags. Even though the 3/4″ scoria was mostly the same size, there were times when digging through the pile we came across larger and smaller pieces, so we had to compensate. The average amount of scoria per bag was about 7 gallons. (Your amount may differ).

We folded in the bottom of the bags before we filled them. (You don’t have to turn the bag inside out to do it). You place your right hand inside the bottom of the bag to catch the corner as your left thumb pushes it in. Try it a few times… you’ll get the hang of it.

Before we actually started building, we tested out a few bags by filling them with scoria, and then built a form that would make the bags uniform in size.

The form was made out of scrap 1″ x 6″ with the back and sides as one piece. The front panel was removable and held into place using two C-clamps. Once we filled the bag and closed it with nails, we removed the C-clamps and dropped the front panel down, which allowed the filled bag to lay flat… and this made it easier to pick up. The bags weighed an average of 40-50 lb each.

Since we didn’t have scaffolding, we filled the bags on the back bed of the truck as we got higher in the building process. We still had to heave the bags into place, which was tricky when you have a height of 17′, but it’s doable… and you’ll have a great set of biceps after you’re finished.

Here was the first bagging station we used for the first 40 cubic yards of scoria. We actually sifted the scoria before we filled the bags, because the scoria we had delivered had a lot of dust in it, and we were concerned that this would inhibit the insulation property. But we discovered that this took too much time if we were going to finish before the first snow. Insulation is only good if the building is closed… so after the second scoria delivery, we just filled the bags directly. We ended up filling a lot more bags faster by doing it this way.

Also notice our “Frankentamper” in the photo.  We used a yogurt container for the cement mold which fit inside the form beautifully. This one tamper (along with a lot of Gorilla Tape) lasted through 2000 bags. (We plan on donating it to the Smithsonian.)

If we were going to do it again, we would have made three or four tampers beforehand since making another one would have broke our rhythm, and at the end of the day we could barely make dinner let alone a new tamper.

Note: We found out  just in the nick of time before ordering that here in Montana scoria is a non-porous stone completely different from lava rock. So when you order your scoria, make sure it is what you think it is. Here in Montana, scoria and lava rock are two different beasts.

Earthbag Dome Living

Well, it’s been 5 months since we moved into our Earthbag dome. So we decided to update you on how we are progressing. Work-wise, (i.e. finish mudding the interior and finishing the exterior) it’s been a really cold and snowy winter, so we haven’t made much progress in these areas. And the soil we’re using for the process, even though it’s under a tarp, is still frozen solid.

But we are happy to report that we haven’t been cold this winter due to the fantastic properties of using scoria in our sandbags. And we are also 3-4 feet below ground level.

Our potbelly stove heats the dome really well, but unfortunately, our Vogelzang Railroad Potbelly Stove is a piece of poorly manufactured junk. If we may rant for a moment… it should be called a “Pot Metal” stove,  made in China. It started to fall apart after the first 3 months. This isn’t a post about the stove, but we feel we should mention the poor craftsmanship for anyone considering buying a Vogelzang stove for themselves… DON’T DO IT!

The Ash Door was the first part to break off at the hinge…

No way to get this welded back together… pot metal.

There is no seal around the Feed Door. We bought a length of fiberglass gasket to cement around the door, but then the door wouldn’t close properly. So we skipped this.

Next item that broke was the Shaker Grate. This broke at the hinge.  So we have it resting over the middle hole.

The first thing we noticed when we used the stove was… a gap between the Feed and Burn Chambers. Seems it wasn’t sealed before being packaged and shipped. Annoying, but it wasn’t critical that a little stove cement couldn’t take care of. Notice the change in color also? Don’t know what that’s all about.

All in all, it heats our dome, and we hope it holds up until Spring. We plan on buying a new stove for next winter, and use this one somewhere else. We don’t recommend this product to anyone. I sent an email to Vogelzang’s customer service and, of course, received no reply. Must be the shame of an inferior product, I guess.

And, we bought this online, so we didn’t have the opportunity to look it over in person… lesson learned.

Okay, enough ranting.

Our solar panel setup is functioning well. We were fortunate enough to find 12 Volt 100 AMP batteries in excellent condition for $45 each. As opposed to spending $250 each. Our set up is simple, but we’ll have to expand when we get the addition two solar panels sometime this year.

We’ve been able to cook using the potbelly stove and our Coleman Camp oven on our Camp Chef Explorer Two-Burner Stove. We acquired another three burner stove with an oven, but we haven’t hooked that up yet until the kitchen is complete.

And eventually we’ll be using Biogas instead of Propane. The Biogas digester will be set up this summer. We’ll keep you posted on this experiment.

My wife has perfected her Batter Bread recipe…

Delicious Oatmeal Raisin Bread! We pulled out the Wheat Grinder and attached it to a makeshift stand to grind our own wheat.

So, after 5 months of living in our Earthbag Dome, we love every minute of it. And it’s only the beginning. Once it warms up, we’ll be able to finish the final coating, plus we’ll have time to build our Pit Greenhouse a few yards away. We got our seed order and plan on having a great garden now that we don’t have to spend the entire summer building the house, like we did last summer. We’ll be building our pit Greenhouse with our own lumber on the property using a chainsaw and an Alaskan Mill… but that’s another post.

Insulated Honda EU2000i Generator Box

As there is always room for improvements, we added some bubble foil insulation inside and out to our Honda EU2000i Generator Box.

Our elevation is 4300 feet, and we get temperatures down to -20 so even though this seems like a waste, it isn’t. We’ve noticed a big improvement in running the generator when it’s really cold outside. The bubble foil insulation is fairly inexpensive, and adds some insulation protection and sound-proofing (which is nice where we live with nothing to hear but the wind through the trees).

We added bubble foil to the interior lid and three sides. The back side opening where the exhaust is isn’t insulated because it keeps pretty warm in that area.

A shot with the lid closed.

The exhaust side not insulated. But again it stays fairly warm by itself.

If you’re curious about our maintenance program, we’re pretty rigorous since we run the generator an average of 8 hours in the evenings… (when the days are overcast and the solar panels don’t get enough sun juice).

OIL CHANGES: We change the oil every week using 5w-30 during winter. We have a bottle that has mL measurements on the outside, so we fill the bottle to 400mL which is the correct amount of oil to use, so this takes the guess work out, and makes oil changes a snap… basically under two minutes.

FUEL: We use a 1 Gallon fuel can instead of lugging and heaving the 5 Gallon can. We add 2 Tablespoons of SeaFoam per every 1 gallon of gas once a week the keep the generator running smoothly. (It makes a big difference, we suggest you buy some at your local auto parts store.)

AIR/OIL FILTER: We check these about every 2 months.

SPARK PLUG: We change this when the plug bottom is grungy and when we notice that the generator performance is sluggish. We just put in a new spark plug today.

Hope some of this information helps you in keeping your generator warm and protected during the winter months, and healthy running for years to come.