“Sustainability” is a word that is often abused and overused, and I’m trying to think of a new, more accurate word to describe the COMET (who was the wordsmith that came up with DYMAXION for Bucky Fuller? I need his input!). Until then, here are some of the key features that make the COMET ecologically and economically conscious.
1. First off, it begins with PERSONAL ACTION. I am a PRODUCER. We can all choose to be producers instead of consumers. Every time I make something out of nothing, or build something useful out of something I found in the trash, I am a producer. In any circumstance, I ask myself if I’m being a producer or a consumer in this situation, and I try to be the former!
2. “Sustainability” (for lack of a better word) is about moving away from wasteful LINEAR systems towards more effective, efficient CYCLICAL systems. In my designs for the COMET, I diverted wastes back into the system wherever possible, to eliminate unwanted byproducts. Remember, nature produces NO WASTE.
3. Energy + Resource Conservation:
This comes before all else. Before you look at Photovoltaic systems, before you decide what you will “need”, you must focus on conserving energy first.
My advice: Going without, lighten the load:
Choose a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner. Have a clothesline instead of an electric drier. Use a solar-cooker instead of the microwave (the solar cooker is also the perfect replacement for an electric slow-cooker). Ditch the hairdryer. Have a simple solar shower for the summer months. These are little things you can do in your daily routine to cut down on energy usage. In addition, here’s what I did in the COMET:
Solar Shower: Solar heated water is perfect for quick showers (use all natural, biodegradable soaps + shampoos) and is also good for washing dishes in warm water when it’s nice out.
Hand Pump Faucet: This was an easy decision, as the Rocket Pump faucets were original to the 1960’s campers. But anyone trying to save electricity can use this option in place of an electric pump, and save some energy. If I had to do it again I would go with a foot pump faucet, which is still manually powered but you don’t have to pump with one hand while you wash the other.
LED light bulbs: These are energy saving alternatives to traditional lightbulbs. The 60 watt equivalent uses about 7 watts. They have the same energy usage as the CFL lightbulbs, but last 10x longer – which means less waste in the landfill.
Waterless toilet: Conserves water by not using any! Flush toilets take 3 really valuable resources – fresh drinking water, urine, and humanure, and turns it into sewage, which needs to be treated with harsh chemicals to be water again. You can avoid this wasteful system by having a composting toilet that diverts urine, so all 3 resources can be used more effectively.
Good Insulation: People always talk about getting more efficient boilers, heaters, and appliances. But the real savings comes not in the newest technology, but in minimizing waste. In this case, you need to minimize wasted heat before thinking about buying a new “green” heat source. Increasing insulation and air-tightness will save you money and energy. In the COMET, I replaced old fiberglass with UltraTouch Denim insulation. If you were building from scratch, you could use any number of insulations. Consider super-insulation techniques if you are building from scratch, and this will save you energy and money.
Reduce your needs and you won’t have to spend a lot of money on heat and electricity systems.
4. Solar power: Photovoltaics
Solar power can be grid tied or off-the-grid, depending on your circumstance. In the COMET, you will find an off-grid system, which utilizes deep-cycle batteries for energy storage. The most efficient solar power system is entirely DC powered. This type of system is good for small, off-grid applications, like tiny houses or campers. The COMET has 555 watts of solar power (3 185-watt monochrystalline panels) – more than is really necessary. I chose to have extra power so that the batteries would charge quickly on sunny days and so that I had enough power to operate video equipment in addition to my every day uses. The solar panels will be on an a-frame, separate from the camper so that they can be in the sun while the COMET is in the shade.
5. Rainwater Collection:
You can collect about 6 gallons of water in 100 square feet of roof space on average in one month where I live. This isn’t enough to be my entire water supply, and drinking roof-collected rainwater would require a filter system that I just didn’t have room for. So the water that collects on the roof will be directly diverted, via gutters and spouts, to the bumper garden.
6. Composting Toilet:
Now you can shit where you eat! Custom urine-diverting toilet separates liquids from solids. Liquids collect in a removable vessel that gets emptied every day. Urine diluted with clean water can be sprinkled on plants or at the base of trees (for more on the proper use of urine as fertilizer, read “Liquid Gold” by Carol Steinfeld). Solids, called “humanure”, collect in a square 5 gallon bucket until it is full. Biodegradable toilet paper can be used in the composting toilet. After each “deposit”, we sprinkle sawdust or peat moss in layers to remove any moisture. Urine diversion is the key to small-space, indoor composting of humanure. The less moisture there is in the toilet, the less chance there is for odors. The composting toilet vents to the outside via a PVC pipe and a tiny solar powered vent fan on the roof.
The best indoor-composting solution. You can’t have an open compost pile in a tiny house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recycle your food scraps. A worm bin (vermicompost or “vermiculture”) uses red wrigglers to turn your food wastes into fertile soil and the perfect organic super-charged fertilizer. This method is small in scale and odorless. A worm bin can be made from plastic containers, and you just put your table scraps in with the worm bin every few days and they make short work of it. In no time you have a container full of brown gold, so put it on your plants (in the bumper garden in my case) and start again. In the COMET, the worm bin will live underneath the dinette bench in the front. Talk about CYCLICAL systems! My food scraps make the fertilizer that I use to create more food, meaning more food scraps – and it goes on and on.
8. Bumper garden:
This could be called a glorified window box mounted onto the rear of the trailer, above the bumper. I’m planning for ever-bearing strawberries, herbs, maybe a tomato and some salad greens. It’s important to think about systems as CYCLICAL instead of LINEAR, so the bumper garden will be fertilized by the compost produced in the worm bin out of table scraps that came from the bumper garden! The Bumper Garden will have a cover made of polycarbonate, a double walled plastic material used in greenhouse construction, so that it can act as a small cold frame for starting seeds and keeping plants warm. I was inspired by the Flying Tortoise mobile home, which has a beautiful bumper garden.
9. Biodegradable Products and Greywater:
If you are diligent about what goes down your drain and use all natural, biodegradable products, you can recycle your greywater to some extent. At any rate, I didn’t want to be holding greywater in a tank inside the trailer and dumping it all the time, so my simple solution was to have the sink drain go right outside under the trailer, and catch the water in a 5 gallon bucket. When the bucket is full, the contents can be emptied at the base of a tree or on non-edible plants (just don’t risk it unless you’re filtering the greywater). Some tips for biodegradable solutions? Clean with tea (it’s acidic enough to wipe down surfaces). Use natural toothpaste and biodegradable camp soap. Vinegar is also a natural antibacterial, but you of course don’t want to put too much vinegar in soil.
Throughout the process of renovating the COMET, I learned about many different types of building materials and interior materials. I figured out that, wherever it is safe, it is better to use re-used materials than to buy new (even if the new materials are “green”, it’s easier to recycle something local to you). That being said, it’s difficult to find enough salvage material to build an entire trailer, so where I couldn’t find enough materials secondhand, I bought something that was good for indoor air quality and good for the environment. By choosing to use certain salvaged materials mixed with new materials, I kept the feeling of the original 1960’s trailers.
Insulation: UltraTouch Denim Insulation from GreenBuildingSupply.com
Floors: Marmoleum Click and Marmoleum Sheet Good from GreenBuildingSupply.com
Wood/Lumber: FSC Certified plywood and dimensional lumber, or salvaged
Counters: Marmoleum Laminate Sheet
Fabric: Organic Fabrics from Sew Fine Fabrics
Paint: No-VOC paint (Acrylic based)
Countertop trim: salvaged from old 1950’s Formica table. Formica was salvaged and used as writing desk.