Blog 18 of the Romancing our Way series.

January was slow on the house building front due to the passing of our father. He taught me so much about taking on projects with gusto. There’ll be no end of projects this year. February has already been busy. See if you knew (or want to know) him.  

With Rammed Earth (RE) construction we need to know what our soil mix is made of. The best soils for wall construction are about 30% clay and 70% sand. The clay needs to break up well when it’s dry (it’ll stay in lumps if too wet) and the sand is best if it has both fines that will go through a 1/4″ sieve and course stone that will go through a 3/4″ sieve. The soil that came out of our hill, is quite fine – like beach sand, some of it. If the natural mix is not sufficiently ideal we’ll need to add stone and possibly also cement.  

So we test. I first made a chunk of wall in the 2×4 frame above. The result looked good, so I made four cylinders (4″ across and 8″ deep) each with different ratios of clay, sand, stone and a couple with cement. I needed some help with this so Emmitt who was visiting with his parents became my right hand man. A couple weeks ago I took the samples to the UofM Alternative Village lab headed by Kris Dick of the Engineering Dept. He and his right hand man Peter will put the cylinders under load stress and then we’ll know – at least more than we do now. I’m cheering for the natural earth – no additives.

The other major project is fine-tuning our solar power system.

How much power do you use in your home and yard? If you had to live according to what the sun offers, how much power could you manage with? These two questions yield very different results. The answer to the second question is our base load – what we feel we absolutely need. Because we don’t want to over-purchase there will be days when we need to conserve and to be especially observant of what the sun is offering. Self restraint and timing are key. If you could start over and outfit your home with the most energy efficient appliances, bulbs, tools, etc., how much solar capacity would you require? These questions are real for not only Maggie and I, as we create an opportunity to start over, but for us all as our grid hydro power soars in cost and as the water and land sources of our every day electricity come increasingly into question. 

We went to visit a rural couple near Pleasant Valley who’ve installed a thermal heating system in both their home and work shop. Our question for them was, is it more efficient to have the sun heat glycol (an antifreeze liquid) that heats water which is then circulated through their floors (called a solar thermal system), or would it be more efficient to have the sun generate electricity that is used to heat water that then is circulated to heat our floors? This couple is very happy with their thermal system. 

We then went over to Will (centre, top) and Bev Eerts (who you may remember we visited last year) along with Marc Loewen (left) of Copperman Electric who we’re contracting with to install our solar system. Will (a Power Engineer) and Marc speak the same language, and I had done enough research to follow along fairly well. The Eerts do not use thermal solar. They’ve added enough solar panels to ensure they can heat their floors with electrically heated hot water through even the cloudiest winter. Will strongly encourages against adding a thermal heat system to our home – due to added costs and potential breakdown. So we’re designing with no thermal for now, but we’re very aware of the added solar power capacity this requires. Electricity even from the sun is not free.

If you need books or website references, please feel free to contact me at or call 204.534.2303.

Blessings as you ponder.