Earthships – By Rick Butler
Begin with used car tires, add sand, some solar panels, one small wind turbine, lots of live plants; splash in a sprinkling of rain and snow and you have the recipe for an “Earthship”. What’s an Earthship you ask?
Just west of Taos, New Mexico on Highway 64 lies a community consisting of 130 of these magnificent architectural marvels. They are snuggled into Mother Earth so strategically that if you didn’t know they were there, you would pass by without seeing them. Earthships village is a collection of uniquely designed homes totally “off the grid”.
Earthships are made out of natural and recycled materials. The primary component in the outer walls are used car tires packed with sand, then covered with earth berms (raised banks of earth) on the east, north and west sides insuring superb insulation. After spending 35 years at the “Tire” (Canadian Tire) as an Associate Dealer, I am well aware of the millions of used tires clogging our land fills. Used tires also end up in the ditches and along road ways as people do not want to pay the tire shop the disposal fee, so they dispose of them themselves. Since tires never degrade and are very dangerous and toxic if a fire breaks out, industry has been trying for years to find a use for these polluting doughnuts of rubber and steel.
The three-foot-thick massive walls and the method of incorporating them into the earth create living spaces that remain a constant temperature. The earth mass walls store radiant heat which is released as the building cools. In addition, warmth in winter is provided by a wall of south facing windows. During the heat of summer special insulating blinds and sky lights for ventilation are combined with the naturally occurring coolness from the earth berms to keep the living space cool.
Energy to power the electrical needs of the Earthship is acquired from solar panels and a small wind turbine which maintain the charge in a bank of batteries. Some homes are equipped with a propane tank in case of emergency power needs, such as for your refrigerator and stove. Everything about the home is energy efficient, from the 12 volt DC lighting using super-efficient light bulbs, to the superbly insulated 12 volt upright fridge.
Water is trapped on the roof of the house and channelled into a 3,000 gallon cistern which can be inside your home transforming this utility into a restful trickling waterfall. The first treatment of this water is for drinking and personal use, with the water being heated by the sun or by on demand propane heat. After your first use water is drained from the sink, laundry, and shower, this grey water is not just discarded. After a natural cleansing the next use is to water the live plants lining the inside of the wall of windows. Your greenhouse garden can be as vivid as your imagination. Bananas trees, exotic blooms and thick green leafy foliage were the delightful medley in the Taos show home, but you might incorporate a year round veggie garden. The plants are to provide oxygen as well as a tranquil, soothing environment. The unused water from this point is once again naturally treated and used in your low volume flush toilet. After flushing, the waste is routed outside to a black water contained treatment centre to once again naturally cleanse the waste water which can then be used for watering outside plants.
The Earthship utilizes nature’s elements in a clean efficient manner and makes use of a very polluting oil product – tires. The interior of the home can be decorated in many ways; however, you would not want to do anything detracting from the insulating properties of the walls. This unique home can be built and be functional in any climate as it is built from materials indigenous to the area.
Click on www.earthship.com for more information about these proficient, self-contained, off the grid homes.
Still excited about the wonderful concept of “Earthships”, seeing the opposite side of the equation is all the more disturbing. Driving west toward Flagstaff, AZ on Highway 40, we noticed great volumes of grey smoke billowing out of two stacks. As we approached Joseph city, we discovered the source as Cholla Electrical Generating Plant, producing electricity by means of a coal-fired steam generator. In 1999 the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality found this plant to be contaminating ground and surface water as a result of the disposal of fly and bottom ash in the area. Just think what this plant is doing to the air quality and green house emissions. Hopefully great strides have been made in the past years to insure this coal smoke is much cleaner than in times past; however, no matter how you fire it, green house gasses and particulates just cannot be eliminated when burning fossil fuels.
It is, therefore, thrilling and encouraging finding evidence of people using small power to reduce pollution. An exciting development in this realm was recently being notified by Rick West of Westech Energy, advising he is about 6 months away from manufacturing his small vertical axis wind turbine. My hat is off to Rick West and innovative communities like Earthships helping to provide a much cleaner environment for us all.