What works: 98.6 degrees

Tue, Mar 30, 2010


Along with securing potable water and edible food, any strategy for thriving during the post-carbon era will include maintaining body temperature at about 98.6 F (if you speak Celsius, that’s 37 C). There are several ways to accomplish this goal, even if you spend most of your time traveling. In this essay, I will describe the structures and processes we use to maintain body temperature at a comfortable level. I will ignore clothing because it’s such an obvious means of dealing with the elements.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I invested a lot of time into finding our post-carbon landing pad. I tend to side with realtors on this one: location, location, location. For somebody my age, this place is not my first choice in the world (Belize) or the United States (Hawaii) or even the continental United States (extreme north-coastal California). But it meets the criterion of being within a tank of gas from the doomed Tucson sloburbs. And, within that large area, it falls at an elevation that experiences temperatures only rarely in the category of life-threateningly hot or life-threateningly cold. As indicated previously, we’re at 4,600 ft (1,300 m). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’ve inadvertently landed into an astonishing human community filled with self-reliant economic doomers. I’ll have more to write about that issue with my next post. For now, onto the issue of body temperature.

When I work outside, which is often, I like to have shade nearby. So I’ve built several of the easiest type of structure to build: awnings. In a classic case of obsessive-compulsive behavior, I’ve constructed nine awnings within the last year. One of my former students indicated I might be over-awninged at this point. But shade is nice to have, and awnings are easy and cheap, even for those of us who can barely distinguish between a screwdriver and a zucchini. My first awning was attached to the west end of the mobile home, and it dramatically cooled summer temperatures inside the mobile home. But it didn’t have quite enough pitch, so rainwater ponds atop it; all subsequent awnings has at least 1:12 pitch.

A second-generation awning is shown below. It’s the dining room I attached to the outdoor kitchen. Like all my awnings, it uses pressure-treated 4 x 6 posts nailed to concrete piers and buried at least a foot below ground. Aboveground lumber is 2 x 6 construction, with plenty of lag bolts and a few hundred pounds of nails. And, for each nail, a few whacks to my left thumb with the hammer. Winds here often exceed 30 mph, and last week we had winds in excess of 60 mph … there was no damage to any of my awnings.

I also designed and built a simple outdoor shower. Evaporative cooling can be used to bring down body temperature in a hurry, and our well-constructed water-delivery system provides water to every corner of the property.

We had the luxury of designing our house, and then had it built by an artist. No, really. He’s an artist, complete with MFA. Like most artists, he needs a job to pay the bills. I can assure you there is one less starving artist in the world, now that we’ve paid him. If you do not have the option of building your own house, now’s the time to invest in insulation, which is inexpensive relative to the cost of fossil fuels. Insulation becomes especially important when those fossil fuels are no longer available at any price.

The four adults who share the property drew up the original plan on a napkin at the dinner table. Then we transferred it to graph paper and gave it to the artist. He turned it into a straw-bale duplex, with the two, 750-square-foot living quarters divided by a 600-square-foot breezeway. My wife and I share one side, and our partners-in-property on the property and their six-year-old son share the other side. In addition to these private accommodations, the five of us share the 15-year-old mobile home, which is used primarily as guest quarters, storage for books and clothes, and for the winter kitchen while we still have electricity. And we share the 600-square-foot outdoor kitchen, the size of which doubled last year when I added an awning to the existing structure. But back to the straw-bale house, where we spend most of our indoor time.

Outdoor kitchen

As with any house, orientation is key. The long axis runs east-west, to reduce energy needs. This places large windows facing south, and the two-foot eave ensures full sun striking the floor during the winter and no direct sun in the summer.

South side of straw-bale house. Note large windows and overhanging eaves.

The large double-pane windows on the south wall allow the sun’s rays to soak into the acid-stained concrete floor, which serves as the thermal mass for passive-solar heating. The straw-bale walls, with their R-51 insulation, provide plenty of resistance against the elements. The south wall uses 2 x 6 construction with added rigid foam for R-37 insulation that matches the insulative capacity of the ceiling. We used recycled denim insulation to forgo the off-gassing associated with fiberglass.

Kitchenette in straw-bale house. Acid-stained concrete floor serves as thermal mass.

The first night we occupied the house showed us how well the house works. We did not heat with anything except passive solar and the outdoor temperature on a late-November night dropped to 18 F (if you speak Celsius, that’s damned cold). The temperature in the house, according to my digital thermometer, dropped from 64.8 F to 63.9 F. We can live with that.

We occasionally fire up the extremely efficient wood stoves in each side of the house, primarily for the primordial entertainment of watching a fire. While the flames are burning in the stove, Rome is burning outside. I get a warm feeling from both fires.

The house is cooled by opening windows at strategic times of day. We routinely experience 50 F diurnal temperature swings, so the house stays comfortable even during the brutish heat of 105 F (if you speak Celsius, that’s damned hot).

As a back-up to opening windows to cool the interior, we installed geothermal cooling by sinking four-inch-diameter PVC pipes several feet below ground. One end of each pipe terminates at a small fan in the ceiling of the living quarters. The other end terminates in a nearby mesquite bosque, with a screen over the end of the pipe. From house to bosque, the PVC runs about 100 feet (30 m). If I were to do it over again, I would stack several pipes atop one another to increase the volume of air being cooled by the Earth. Digging the trench is the difficult and expensive part, after all.

In retrospect, we have designed and built a decent set of structures. The house is well-designed and well-built, and the breezeway is a superb addition. And I’m about done building awnings, primarily because I’ve run out of structures to which another awning could be attached. Since awnings are my forte, running out of places to build them leaves me with a bittersweet feeling.


This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin.

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26 Responses to “What works: 98.6 degrees”

  1. K Klein Says:

    Great post here and nice article on ya’ at:

    Will you have another post (and photos) on your awnings? We need to construct some here, but they would have to be very well engineered because we get some pretty serious wind occasionally.

    Any awning tips would be appreciated – such as your suggestion about the multiple pipes for the cooling system.

  2. Joe Says:

    Nice digs, Guy. I am enjoying this series of essays and appreciate your sharing your successes and challenges at the Mud Hut.

    Also, I enjoyed attending your lecture in Goodyear. It was a real privilege to meet in person one of my main doomer mentors. The live performance really spotlights your ability to temper our dire circumstances with good humor.

    It was also good to find that, despite all your book-learnin’, you’re a real down-to-earth guy. Thanks for letting me hang out.


  3. Guy McPherson Says:

    K Klein, thanks for the link and the question. The link is on-again, off-again, so I’ve been unable to access the article, but I assume it announces the presentation I’ll be giving in Sedona, Arizona next week (details here). I’ve updated the post to include a photo of awning #2 and a brief description of awning construction. Please let me know if it’s doesn’t suffice.

    Joe, thanks for your kind commentary, and for taking the time to post it here. The privilege was all mine, and I look forward to seeing you again.

  4. Frank Mezek Says:

    Big News:

    CNBC is now worried about oil prices.The house idiot, Larry Kudlow,is saying he is not worried about crude prices,so you know Peak Oil is now
    mainstream,and is now a hot topic.

    I just got Jeff Rubin’s book,”Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller”.As Guy told me (at his lecture in Goodyear,AZ) he is the world’s best oil expert,whose predictions on oil prices have been the
    world’s most accurate.

    Frank Mezek

  5. Guy McPherson Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Frank Mezek. Jeff Rubin’s latest forecast came out today. The most entertaining part of his article is the comments, which reflect an industrial world in denial about peak oil even as neocon Barack Obama is promoting the long-time neocon strategy of drill, baby, drill. If you do the math, using the administration’s fudged numbers regarding the volume of oil, you’ll realize a couple things: (1) Between now and 2019, we’ll extract a two-day supply of oil; (2) If the oil companies sell it all to the U.S. — and they need not, since we haven’t nationalized the oil companies, yet — it’ll keep us powered up for about a week; and (3) Between 2019 and 2057, if we’re not well into the post-industrial Stone Age, we’ll extract enough to satisfy current demand for about six months. This, of course, is well worth further trashing the oceans.

  6. Marguerite Daisy Says:

    Hi, Doc. I happen to think that a shade structure is one of the most vital and useful, as well as most underused piece of building construction on the home and business fronts in the Southwest (gutters and insulation, too). It’s relatively inexpensive to build, and I wonder if you’d please expand on your design considerations, as well as materials selection for the awnings at the muddy hut. Wood or metal (looks like you favor wood)? Boxers or briefs? Wait…..kidding, please!!!!!!!!! ;)

    For my own prep work, I’ve acquired shade cloth with shading factors of 35, 50, and 90%, and yet I like the permanence of a solid structure that can withstand springtime and stormy windy conditions, as well as here comes the sun. Shade cloth, then, is saved for gardening projects.

    Do you agree that the thoughtful design and building of shade structures in, say, the urban setting (even considering how you feel about Urbana, AZ) and using as many recycled components as possible would make for a fine cottage industry (designs/DYI/construction) in support of our many homes that are not oriented to the sun properly? For that matter, so would building simple yet sturdy trellis-type contraptions to grow some considerably less expensive shading vines (did you look into using those?). I sure would like to see the quest for shade (including well-informed, judicious tree plantings) become a part of a $well-funded$ robust home retrofitting program in my Big City community. I’d really like to see a concentration of effort on flushing out and elevating by promoting use and availability of the simpler and least expensive yet rewarding retrofitting solutions that work on the home front (which is why for me new windows, for example, are not yet on top of the retrofit list).

    Lastly, from 2 posts ago, do you really use 3,000 gallons of water a week? For people, garden, critters, and pre-established perennials? Just seems high to someone like me who embraces water conservation.

    That’s all for now.

    Keep hammering it up, please!!

    Merry Marguerite

  7. Guy McPherson Says:

    Marguerite Daisy, thanks for weighing in. I use durable materials for the awnings. The frame is comprised of 2 x 6 lumber on 24″ centers atop 4 x 6 pressure-treated posts. The roof then has a layer of plywood or chipboard (OSB), whatever is handy and inexpensive. That’s topped by a layer of tar paper and finally by corrugated roofing tin. Much of this material is salvaged, which supports your idea for a DIY cottage industry.

    I agree about using trees for shade, and we do a bit of that on the mobile home. There’s no need, though, to shade the straw-bale house.

    We use 3,000 gallons of water every week (or maybe ten days — we don’t really track it well) during the summer months, when the garden is in full swing. During winter, it’s more like 3,000 gallons every two or three weeks. There are five people living here, an orchard with three dozen trees, plenty of landscape plants (i.e., shade), and gardens galore. Our water “right” covers us draining the 3,000-gallon tank every 1.5 days or so … obviously, we don’t come close to that.

  8. Robin Datta Says:

    “the sun’s rays to soak into the acid-stained concrete floor, which serves as the thermal mass for passive-solar heating” – why acid-stained, and which acid?

    “While the flames are burning in the stove, Rome is burning outside. I get a warm feeling from both fires”. Taking up violin might further enrich the experience.

  9. Guy McPherson Says:

    Robin Datta — Excellent question. Which, of course, means I have no idea what acid is used to stain the floor. The acid allows the stain to permeate the concrete, though, so it’s more durable than merely a layer of dark paint. Violin would be a great idea. But, sadly, I learned at the age of 16 that I have no inherent talent for music. Guess I’ll have to find me a fiddler who’ll work for the warmth of an indoor fire.

  10. Robin Datta Says:

    If you have broadband – an interesting fiddler:

  11. bubbleboy Says:

    The IBM commercial that follows the Gupta segment could not be more perfect for our purposes!

    But, yes, it is important to recognize that music is no more about talent than, say, blogs. Expression has to happen some way or another.

    However, a fiddle is not exactly a violin:!v=5voqaCXPt_M&feature=related

    (Steel strings forever!)

  12. Susan Says:

    Dear Guy,

    I’m loving these practical, informative essays. You have created a little Eden, though I know it’s damned hard work.

    I have some questions: What is the temperature of your well water and I assume that’s also the ground (earth) temperature–the temperature in your root cellars and also the cooled air you bring in through the subterranean pipes?

    Here in Tucson, the water department reports our water temperatures as being around 78. That seems pretty warm to me. If that’s also the ground temperature, it doesn’t seem like it would lend itself well to the type of geothermal cooling you’re using. How did your cooling scheme feel last summer? What kind of internal temperature did you achieve?

    About the root cellars: How deep did you dig and how do you store the food in the humid cellar, i.e., what type of containers do you use? Which foods go in the humid cellar?

    For your canning, do you use a wood stove? What type of wood stove do you have for cooking? Where do you obtain all your wood?

    You’ve done a prodigious amount of work in a relatively short time…it is awe-inspiring. I don’t see how you find the time to do this blog and travel and still do all the work to keep your place going.

    It is amazing and wonderful!

  13. Emma Says:

    Rome’s a wasting time, its fire’s ablaze!
    with fool-proof awnings, durability awakes.
    Bearings newly washed, paused with a yawn
    A grip for leverage through the shit storm.
    Here fire-waxed pillars are more than happenstance,
    and wooden-built blunt tools bang with a happiness.
    The Impending imperial doom clouds overhead
    sending infuriated vexatious endeavors
    to hammer away modern bullshit
    as tool belts guide us,
    like healing harnesses,
    safely back to Earth.

  14. Guy McPherson Says:

    Susan — So many good questions, and with compliments, too. I’ll attempt to do your questions justice. The water and ground here are about 55 F. I agree that 78 F is hot, and I’m surprised the subsurface temperature in Tucson is that warm. Our geothermal system has not been used b/c we’ve had no need, so far — simply opening windows at strategic times has worked well so far. The “dry” root cellar is a steel cargo container with 2-3 feet of soil on top. Temperature stays between 55 and 65 F. High-humidity cellars are two, so far. The first is a construction-lumber “box” surrounded with hardware cloth, about 4 x 4 x 5 feet, buried and covered with straw bales and a tarp. We store potatoes in it, interleaved with straw, in cardboard boxes. And we have a couple small snap traps for mice. The second is not quite finished, but it is constructed of pressure-treated lumber belowground and topped with an R-30 roof (and that’s overlain with plywood, tar paper, and tin — it’s awning #8. Low-humidity cellars are used for canned goods, rice, beans, grains, and so on. High-humidity cellars are used for root crops and apples, among other vegetables and fruits. The best book I’ve found on this topic is Root Cellaring, the 1979 classic by Mike Bubel and Nancy Bubel.

    We use a wood-fired cook stove for canning. It’s a Heartland Oval, from Lehman’s non-electric store. A local non-profit organization harvests small-diameter timber from the local national forest under the auspices of forest health, and they sell various products at reasonable prices. So we bought a several cords of split firewood, along with chips, mulch, and compost. At some point, we’ll be using wood from the local mesquite and juniper trees. We have a two-person cross-cut saw.

  15. Alex Smith Says:

    Good article on sustainable building.

    You and your readers would be interested in the “Passivhaus” design, and Net Zero construction, described in my latest radio program.

    Download that 1 hour special at

    [audio src="" /]

    I’ve also posted two recorded workshops on super low energy construction techniques on this page:

    Alex Smith
    Radio Ecoshock

  16. Frank Mezek Says:

    Well once again they’ve lied to us:telling us the Iranians could never close the Strait of Hormuz !!

    The last tic I saw on crude oil was $2.37 per barrel with a retail price of $7-$8 per gallon.

    How long are the lines at your local gas station ??

    Frank Mezek

  17. Guy McPherson Says:

    Alex Smith, thanks for the first-time comment, and for the links to your show. I look forward to listening.

    Frank Mezek, looks like I called this one, about a year ago: “Any evidence of economic growth will be viewed by oil traders as an opportunity to jack up the price of oil.”

  18. Frank Mezek Says:

    The US Navy just denied their ships were fired on in the Persian Gulf.

    Frank Mezek

  19. Frank Mezek Says:

    What day is this ??

    Frank Mezek

  20. Guy McPherson Says:

    Frank Mezek, every day is fool’s day here in the empire of illusion. The price of oil is up on economic lies (i.e., “green shoots”). Triple-digit oil later this year might bring down the empire. But, if Jeff Rubin is correct on his forecast of oil priced at >$147/bbl next year, that’ll certainly do the trick.

  21. Wendy Says:

    This last series of “What Works” essays has made great reading/studying during this week while laying on the couch trapped in a body that insists on maintaining well over 98.6. Thanks, Guy.

  22. Jan Steinman Says:

    Argh! Pressure treated posts!

    You get nearly the same life time by charring cedar posts, but without putting poison in your ground — or supporting the poison industry by purchasing their products.


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