Imagine Simpler Living – Visit our Yurt This Summer

Our sedentary culture seems to nurse a love of thick-walled boxes that makes us leery of impermanent housing. Who hasn’t sneered at the man who lives in a van down by the river? But river guides will attest to the freedom and joy of transitioning from a stuffy winter box every spring into an airy, riverside bedroom. Ditching moldy roofs for translucent tarps stretched over wooden frames, and linoleum and carpet for leaf-strewn platforms, we set up house by stringing a few thrift store sheets up for privacy and hanging up a pair of board shorts. The more domestic of us arrange a few potted plants in front of the sheet-door and call it good.

This simplicity, self-sufficiency, and connection to the natural world embodies the spirit of the yurt, a lovely example of which has now arrived at Mother Lode. With no corners for the wind to catch, the earliest yurts were built to endure the wind-raw steppes of Central Asia, and yet their basic elements – circular lattice walls, cone shaped roof, and rafters that meet in a central ring – could be assembled in thirty minutes and taken down just as quickly. Two or three camels can comfortably carry a medium sized yurt and all of its household goods, just as one beat-up Subaru Legacy can carry a river guide’s wordly possessions with a kayak strapped to the top. (All this info on yurts, and more besides, can be found in the book Yurts: Living in the Round, by Becky Kemery)

Guides don’t get to live in yurts for the summer at Mother Lode –yet. But guests and guides alike can enjoy the spacious, 20-foot diameter yurt as a space to imagine a lighter, less cumbersome existence, and ponder the following quote: “If in our lifetime we suppress nomads, we shall have done by human harshness what natural harshness could not do. To abolish nomads because they have other skills, know other things, hold other aspirations, and live by other customs than ours – in short, because they are different – is as unwise as it is unworthy… There is a place for nomads in the world, often enough a place we cannot use without them. We must not steal it from them, for if we do, we reduce the richness of human life – we rob ourselves.”

Neville Dyson-Hudson

Sorting Through the “Green” Stuff at MaLode

There is a lot to learn about making your home, business or lifestyle “Green”. Here at the River Center we have discovered that if you want to learn how to save money and reduce fossil fuel consumption most cost effectively, it pays to stop listening and start thinking. Yes, more information is good, but so much of it consists of confusing “infomercials” for a new kind of “Green Consumerism”.

Take energy for instance. In 2007 when we drew up our Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GAP) we were aware that most folks associated solar energy with photovoltaic (PV) panels. In fact, our neighbor had recently installed a fancy new set of PV panels that made us, quite frankly, envious. We heard there were tax credits and good deals to be had, and dreams of PV panels began dancing in our heads.

Then we did the math. Once we ranked the sources of our greenhouse gas emissions in the GAP, we discovered that not only was our use of electricity comparatively low, it largely came from pre-existing hydroelectric sources which produced very little new greenhouse gas to operate. In fact, most of our greenhouse gases were coming out of the tailpipes of our vehicles, not from our electric pole. This led to the EcoBus and our fleet of vehicles powered by waste vegetable oil (WVO), a fuel that produces 80% less carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuel.

Furthermore, we discovered that after vehicle fuel, our next largest producer of greenhouse gases was the heating of hot water with the fossil fuel, propane. Alan Carrozza, our solar expert, then suggested that after insulation, solar hot water heating was our next logical energy investment and that it would be much more cost efficient than PV electricity.

This motivated our first solar water heater, a simple “passive” system that cost approximately $1500 and which produced 28,750 BTUs of energy daily. To compare this system to PV we convert BTUs, a measure of thermal energy, into to kilowatt-hours by multiplying by the factor .0002931, resulting in 8.43 kilowatts. An 8.4 KW photovoltaic system would cost approximately $1000 per kilowatt or $84,000. Bottom line, the solar hot water heater produces the same energy 56 times more cost efficiently than the PV panels!

Just for a point of reference, we asked our neighbor if they had installed a solar hot water heater since, like the average American homeowner, over 33% of their energy is used to heat water. Predictably, the answer was no.

How could this be? These folks are not dumb; on the contrary, they are very smart, idealistic, and trying to do the right thing. What we realized, however, was that they were just like us, at risk of becoming victims of “Green Consumerism”. Like other forms of consumerism, the green variety claims that if it costs a lot, is fashionable, and or looks green, it must be green. Clearly, this isn’t true. BP and its “beyond petroleum” advertising campaign are a great example of “green consumerism” and it is no coincidence that they are the largest seller of PV panels in the US, yet they don’t sell solar hot water heaters at all. Why? Less profit!

We learned several things from this experience. One is that the mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is actually very logically sequenced. Unless we Reduce what we consume first, the Reuse and Recycle have a hard time reducing the net impact on the planet. As the video “The Story of Stuff” points out, the stuff we already produce would require 5 planet Earths to be sustainable. Furthermore, when we produce stuff, it is always “Toxins in, Toxins out” and those toxins always end up somewhere. Since toxins concentrate in biological systems, it turns out that human breast milk has the highest concentration of toxins of any food we consume. Wait a minute, can that be right? Check it out at Once you do, you will probably agree that we should all take the advice of Daniel Goleman who proposes in his book, Ecological Intelligence, that we do the math and determine the total ecological cost of everything we buy, and let these numbers guide our purchases.

So what does this all mean at MaLode? No doubt it won’t surprise you that we now heat all our hot water at MaLode with solar energy. This requires three separate solar heaters of two basic types: active and passive. Each system “pre-heats” the water from the well with solar energy before it goes into a propane water heater. This ensures that the hot water is at the desired temperature and neither too cold (it is warmed up with propane to the target temperature), or too hot (it is cooled down by being mixed with more cold water). The passive system is best suited for a lower volume use such as the kitchens. Both types of system reduce propane use by approximately 70%.

We are particularly proud of the “active” system that powers the showers and which was designed by Alan Carrozza (pictured on the left) and completed last winter by our tenant, Cornelius (on the right). In this case an electronic brain senses the temperature in the solar hot water heating panels. If the temperature is higher than the water stored in the solar hot water reservoir tank, an electric pump is activated to circulate the water from the panels to the solar reservoir. This system can produce more hot water than the passive system, which is why we chose it for the showers where we encounter our highest volume of hot water use.

So ends another happy chapter at MaLode. We are excited about moving forward, albeit deliberately, toward energy independence and ecological sustainability. This season one of our guests suggested that we use a super efficient steam engine he has invented, which derives its energy from solar thermal panels, to turn an electric generator that would produce our electricity. Hmmm, Stay tuned. In the meantime, we look forward to your next visit and, by the way, use all the hot water you want. That is, if you can wring it out of the low flow showerheads donated to us by PG&E!

See you on the River,
Scott and the MaLode Crew

“Solar for Oil” Barter: It’s very Cool

by Scott Underwood

Short on cash? Wouldn’t you like to find a way to reduce your utility bills, decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil, and do a favor to the environment by decreasing your use of fossil fuels? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should be interested in what the Mother Lode River Center has been up to recently in nearby Cool, California.

The basic idea is simple. First, we construct a homemade “box” hot water heater from a sheet of plywood, an old retired propane water heater, a cast off shower door and some fittings from the hardware store. We plumb it all together with simple hand tools using plans available for free on the Internet. We then install it as a “pre-heater” to feed into the existing water heater at one of our favorite restaurants in nearby Cool, Ca.  This reduces the restaurant’s use of propane to heat water by 70%. Since over 33% of the energy consumed by an average household is to heat water, this cost savings and major reduction in carbon footprint is available to you too. I hope you agree that we have closed a Cool deal.  But hey, it gets better!

This restaurant uses vegetable oil to fry its food and normally pays to get it hauled off. We then barter the hot water heater for the restaurant’s waste vegetable oil (WVO).  Barter is “the exchange of goods or services without money” and is definitely a good thing because it keeps trade close to home.  Mother Lode is one of the few companies in California that runs its diesel vehicles on 100% WVO. This has several advantages. First, it produces 80% less carbon dioxide than conventional fossil fuel diesel and therefore vastly reduces our carbon footprint. Second, using WVO also reduces the particulates (the greatest disadvantage of diesel engines) by 45% and hydrocarbons by a comparable amount. Amazingly, it also reduces carcinogens by 90%. Bottom line, it is one of the cleanest and ecologically responsible fuels on planet Earth.

That’s it, “Solar for Oil”! We have created Green Collar employment for our staff, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and spared the planet’s ecosystems, helped reduce the concentration of chemicals in the air that cause asthma and cancer, and refused to ride with Osama Bin Laden. Do you support this idea? Write us a note and let us know what you think.

Mother Lode's 100% WVO Fleet

Many thanks to Alan Carrozza for his inspiration and great idea, Greg Hawkins for his construction skills, Ray and Lorrie for their patience and Emily for her photos.

Protecting America’s Wild Places – Hooray!

Perhaps sensing America’s need for an inspiring national pick-me-up – maybe a nice long hike on a beautiful trail in a national park, or a whitewater rafting trip on a scenic river — President Obama unrolled his Great Outdoors Initiative last week. The initiative will build on existing, successful conservation efforts through out the country by local and state governments, tribes, and private groups, like the American River Conservancy and the Mother Lode River Center. Recognizing that Americans, and children especially, are “losing our connection to the parks, wild places, and open spaces we grew up with and cherish,” a main focus of the initiative is to help families and young people get outside more. President Obama launched the Administration’s effort to promote national land conservation with a tribute to the importance of land to America’s soul. In our land, the President said, we have reason to rejoice, to “understand what an incredible bounty we have been given.” Protecting and appreciating American land protects our essential values. During the Civil War, for instance, Abraham Lincoln set aside the land that is now Yosemite. During the Great Depression, FDR formed the CCC and built many of our nations hiking trails, parks and campgrounds. We at the Mother Lode River Center applaud President Obama’s mission to protect and increase access to America’s rivers, forests, wilderness areas, parks and many natural wonders. We agree that reconnecting to, and protecting America’s wild places is vitally important to creating jobs, saving our environment, and helping our children lead healthier, happier lives. If we protect them, wild places are antidotes to human troubles. They restore our spirits and give us the fresh air and perspective we need to thrive.