Joules to Dollars March 9-10, 2018

Trip Prep

ZK: This past Friday, the class traveled upstate to experience first hand, the energy systems used at the Maine Huts and Trails.  Although my field trip experience is limited to the field work I conducted in Ecology my junior fall, this trip was definitely near the top of my explorations (it was actually number 1).  This lab experience embodied all the things I love, outdoor exercise, removal from social media, playing banana grams, receiving an awesome education experience, and getting to hang out with two of my favorite professors.  One of the major takeaways I had from this trip was in fact my own carbon footprint.  While I have always been somewhat aware of my trash output, my food waste, and human dejecta (not as important as I should be), this experience taught me the amount I actually contribute, consciously and unconsciously,  to excess energy waste. I think the area of the hut I was most impressed by, and most appalled at the rest of the world, was the amount of waste that is produced from flushing a standard toilet. Although I was initially skeptical using a composting toilet, I was surprisingly comfortable with entire the system, even the compost pile located in the basement (however, I probably would not stick my hand in the chamber).  While it makes sense that human dejecta is decomposable, I mean… all animals shit right?  I never considered that chemical composition of human dejecta.  While I feel like my entire take away was my fascinated with poop, I promise, my experience was much more rounded…

CG: We left Colby around 1 and began our venture up to Sugar Loaf. Joules2Dollars was on the way to Strattonbrook hut. This was the first time I would be snowshoeing, I wasn’t nervous but I was anxious, I was ready for the adventure to begin. It had snowed the day before so conditions for snowshoeing were optimal! The walk up the hill was beautiful (although Newton definitely did get his revenge). The hut reminded me of a nice cabin in the Rocky Mountains. We learned about the sustainable energy of the hut and its systems. We toured the energy systems and learned about how the hut runs in the different seasons. The food was delicious and the staff was extremely friendly. It was an amazing experience. Often, when people hear about clean energy living they don’t imagine something very luxurious but this hut shows that clean energy can allow for comfortable living. The only down side of the trip were the blisters that I got, they really hurt!

AM: The Stratton Brook Hut, fixated atop of Oak Knoll, is a beautiful, giant machine.  Though it was a cloudy and snowy a large part of the time we spent commuting to and from the hut, and my attempted sunrise hike saw no sunrise, it nevertheless lived up to the descriptions. There was a sense of stillness throughout the trip despite the fact that the wind was whipping outside and many systems were hard at work on the inside. The first thing I noticed to be hard at work was the staff at Stratton Brook. They catered to our every question and need from the second we tromped up to the door from showing us how to use the toilets to serving us a delicious family style dinner which was incomparable to dining hall food.  Other systems we were able to see hard at work were the Clivus composting toilet system, the Tarm Biomass heating system, and the solar array (although it was dark by time we were checking out the systems in greater detail). I found the purpose of the composting toilet system to be interesting. With a commitment to being eco friendly and off the grid, it makes sense as to why the toilet system is an essential. However, I found it interesting that an emphasis was put on the 3 ounces of water used per flush as opposed to a traditional toilet which uses anywhere between 1.5 and 3 gallons, when in reality their water consumption is not a huge concern since it comes from an off the grid well. Instead, the main necessity for this system is that it allows the hut to produce zero black water waste. An additional, shocking, part about this composing system is that, since the hut has been open, the system has not needed emptying. 5 years, of thousands of people per year, of decomposing waste is contained in a tank in the basement of the hut. Across the room in the basement, there is a machine that looks very similar to a wood burning stove, except slightly larger than the space heating, wood burning stoves on the main floor. Inside the Tarm is where the biomass fuel is placed, the fuel that heats the water tanks which then heat the infrastructure of the building through radiant floor heating. I was very surprised at how often the Hut staff has to stoke or check on the fire to keep the hut warm. They mentioned that on cold and busy days, they’re checking the Tarm every 30 minutes. The last machine that does a lot of work for the hut is the solar array and, uniquely at the Stratton Brook hut, the grid. Due to circumstance of existing power lines when building the hut and the low cost of extending the lines and connecting the hut to the grid, it is connected to the Central Maine Power grid. Whatever solar energy they do not use during the day is sent back onto the grid, which theoretically makes up for having battery banks like all the other huts have. I appreciate that feature because of the strategic and smart economic decision, and although they are on the grid, they are still doing the things they can to support renewable energy by having their own solar array. Overall, this visit to the Stratton Brook hut was a valuable experience to not only bond with my professors and classmates, learn about the economics and sustainability in a real-life situation, and spend some time skiing in the beautiful snowy Maine woods, but it gave me an amazing excuse to disconnect from the fast-paced lives we call being students at Colby. If the huts offer guests nothing else, they offer them an opportunity to disconnect from the whirlwind we call life and connect with a more calm and simple part of themselves.

KL-O: Now back on campus, I have time to reflect on our journey to the Stratton Brook Hut. This was my second trip to the hut, and I was thoroughly pleased to return. The fresh blanket of snow provided a picturesque hike up the mountain. After arriving, we were greeted with a delicious dinner of chicken potpie, kale salad, and roasted root vegetables, followed by a berry crisp overflowing with vanilla ice cream. After my third cup of hot cocoa, we began the tour of the sustainability and design features of the hut.

The hut utilized radiant floor heating, which used tubes in the concrete to carry hot water underneath the shale floors. This provided a comfortable temperature for the floor, while also heating the sub-structure of the building. Rather than heat the air in the buildings, the water heated the building itself, so there was a uniform, stable source of heat that didn’t become greatly diminished if a door was opened. I was surprised that there were no air vents in the main living area of the hut. Was there enough airflow through natural gaps in the windows or doors? The windows were triple-layered with argon in order to allow UV solar radiation in, but prevent infrared radiation from leaving the hut. Did the bathroom and kitchen vents facilitate enough ventilation throughout the hut to eliminate the need for air vents in the living room? These are important questions to address in order to determine areas of improvement for the insulation and methods to decrease energy costs. The building is oriented facing north south, which maximizes daylighting from the south and provides an optimal direction for solar panels. Also, to the north, there is a great view of the Bigelow Mountains.

The Clivus composting system was remarkable! From the five years existence of Stratton Brook Hut, the compost hasn’t needed to be emptied yet! A mixture of sod, woodchips, and redworms break down the organic material of the compost, which produces carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen gas. Only about 5% of inorganic material is leftover in the compost bin due to the aerobic decomposition. No blackwater is produced by the hut, which saves money and the need to sterilize the waste! Also, don’t put trash in the composting toilets, as it cannot be broken down and it needs to be removed from the system!

In terms of heat production, a two chamber wood gasifier was used. The top chamber burned logs similarly to a wood fireplace. There were water pipes around this chamber, which fed into the water storage tank: this acted as a thermal battery. There was a slit in the bottom of the top chamber, which allowed hot ashes to drop into the second chamber. The ashes fell into a ceramic half-pipe, where the temperature reached 2000°F. The oxygen was very limited in the bottom chamber, so be careful when opening the door! This gas combustion chamber achieves around 85% efficiency, which is much more efficient than a typical household boiler system.

Our class discussed potential ways to further improve the sustainable methods of the hut. We mentioned increasing the capacity of the solar water heater to decrease the amount of wood needed to heat the water tank. Also, a large portion of the carbon emissions related to the hut actually comes from the travel to get to the trailhead. Continuing to promote local ecotourism within the state of Maine and the surrounding communities would decrease the carbon footprint associated with the Maine Huts and Trails system due to long-distance travel decreases. Further insulating the windows and doors could help improve the heating costs of the buildings. Potential research in the future could analyze the consumption and production of electrical, solar, and fossil fuel energy from the hut in order to determine if improvements to individual systems would be economically viable and wise. Overall, I had another excellent trip at Stratton Brook, and I would like to thank the hospitable staff for the delicious food, informative tour, and friendly atmosphere!

PS: Ah, Maine! Last week, it was becoming sunnier and warmer by the day when we filed our requests for snowshoe gear. But just as the snow began to melt, a pressure system began forming, and the sky readied an idyllic squall of snowfall. The fresh snow helped frame this trip to Stratton Brook as one of my most memorable weekends in Maine. After an in-class discussion of Tarm gasification boilers and an analysis of operations across the Maine Huts and Trails locations, on Friday we headed up Route 27 toward Carrabassett Valley armed with our snowshoes and sleeping bags for the trip.

Upon arrival at the trailhead, which was just north of the iconic Sugarloaf sign, we were surrounded by snow-laden trees surrounding a sizable parking lot. My first ever snowshoe ended up being a 3.1-mile success! We made our way on trails of packed powder winding up Oak Knoll, and the hike proved to be an interesting and new way to take in winter; the more deliberate pace of snowshoeing allowed me to dwell on every step. As the trail became vertical, and the tree cover thinner, a grid of windows peaked out over the branches, and we had made it to Stratton Brook.

Immediately, I was struck by the quality of the building itself. The sturdy and durable construction of the facility challenged any preconceptions suggested by the organization’s name–Maine Huts and Trails. The tall ceilings and wooden interior were beyond comfortable, almost implying a level of luxury. I was excited to learn about the locally crafted furniture as well as the slate floor sourced from a nearby quarry. In fact, the slate floor felt pleasant under my feet thanks to the Hut’s radiant floor heating system, which was one element of their unorthodox approach to heating and cooling. While most central air systems and other residential HVAC solutions target the temperature of the air in the room, MH&T’s design focused on maintaining a well-heated ‘thermal battery’ around the building, so that the core structure remained a comfortable temperature. This approach makes sense to me on a crude, chemical level, since the strategy focuses on heating the core structure of the building, which is a more reliable thermal battery (solid, always present) than the air inside the rooms (gaseous, can escape).

Regarding the energy systems tour of the basement, it was exciting to see a full-fledged Tarm system in operation after tracing the models out in class on Thursday. The scale of the actual operation struck me in a couple of different ways: the Tarm gasification boiler itself was a lot smaller and more modest than I expected, while the heat storage tank was bigger than anticipated. Noting this, the Tarm system may not be the most feasible option for residential settings, especially in urban areas, since the heat storage tank requires some substantial volume not common to every household basement. Additionally, the foam-compost toilet system in place seemed to be problem-free and very effective; the fact that they have not emptied the compost tank since they’ve opened is still extremely surprising to me. I think that Clivus really nailed it with this one; the foaming toilets are not only intriguing and efficient but (dare I say it!) borderline fun.

Thank you, Stratton Brook, for an unforgettable adventure.

CC: The trip up to the hut was a great exposure to what a relatively off-grid living system could look like. The main highlight was getting to learn more about the energy systems and waste management systems in the huts.
The heating systems in the hut were slightly different from what I’ve seen at the biomass plant and the geothermal systems at SSW. We looked at how the huts can be heated using only about 12 cords of wood a year. Compare this to an average 4 person home which uses about 5-6 but the hut has a capacity of about 50. This is a great difference in heating costs and energy requirements in per capita costs. This is mainly attributed to the well insulated building and big South facing windows. The use of radiant floor heating is a great way to prevent the loss of building heat. In the case of the passively ventilated hut, this helps to keep the hut occupants warm and comfortable even though there’s air escaping from vents. This enables the lower heating fuel needs but likely means that construction costs are higher upfront.

Another very interesting system at the hut was the human waste system. The system produces no black water and only gray water. The lack of black water means that there doesn’t need to be a septic system for the huts. The composting system and the foam flushing toilets were excellent in terms of saving water and reducing waste. It was very surprising to learn that the compost from the system only needs to be emptied about once a year, and not at all for the first 5 or so years!

Overall, the hut system is a great system and I would love to see how we can help to make it a more financially sustainable project that can run without the need of donors.

CZ: Today we finally paid a visit to one of the huts in Stratton Brook. This activity has been on our plan for this class all the time and finally we got a chance to visit and see the energy systems adopted in the hut.

To be totally honest, the condition of the hut is way better than I had imagined before I arrive. The hut was built on a mountain and in winter times only snow mobiles can send necessities up the hill, so I thought it would be a small hut. And because the mission of Maine H&T is to reduce their carbon foot print, I thought the living condition will not be too comfortable. But it turned out to be a cozy hut. The hut uses radiating floor as the prime source of keeping the room warm and foams are used on the walls and roof so the heat will stay in the building. The hut uses water to heat its subsystems in the way so that people in there will be warm even if the doors or windows are left open for a while. By burning the wood to heat the water up and sending the steam to all the rooms, they can monitor the condition of the room by looking at the room temperature and decide whether they have to burn more wood or not. Burning wood also enables them to reduce cost as wood is very accessible in Maine. We also looked at their compost toilet. It really fit the hut as this reduces their need to deal with black water and reduces water use by a large amount.

I think in terms of applying the energy saving methods, Maine H&T had made quite a lot of effort in their energy systems and water usage.

But after visiting the huts, I had some doubts about this kind of business model that is said to promote low-carbon footprint tourism. I had no idea about the payback period and return of the investment the huts. But the cost of the system including the system itself and all the human and transportation cost, will be much bigger as it is on a mountain with limited connection to the outside. Considering the hut is on the grid, whether the system they adopted can save money or not is not clear. Also, the carbon and other emissions caused by building them into the hut does not make this less ecological friendly.

These kind of huts & trails business is still growing in Maine. On one hand, this kind of tourism is a great tourism model that Maine can offer, but on the other hand, it will lead to even more carbon footprint. As we mentioned in our discussion, people traveling from places afar to enjoy the trails here will bun a lot of fossil fuels. And growing number of tourists will lead to more tourists and more landscape will be turned into these huts and trials.

PR: This past weekend I had the really cool opportunity to tour the Stratton Brook Hut of Maine Huts and Trails. Although the trek was exhausting (Newton’s Revenge is a real killer), the relatively warm weather and recent snowfall made for a beautiful 3 mile hike up the mountain. The great food and all around relaxing trip at the eco-tourism hut made the hike up well worth it. For the most part, I thought the design of the hut was really cool both on the inside and out. The first thing that caught my eye was this beautiful triptych painting of a mountain located on one of the hut’s walls. I really liked how well decorated the inside of the hut was and the cozy it space it created. I also quickly noticed how many windows the hut had on both sides of the living room. I thought this was interesting given how easy it would be for the cool mountain air to flow into the building. The hut is able to maintain its heat through a radiant floor heating system and a heavily insulated interior. One of the things that I found the most interesting was that the roof of the hut had an insulation R value of 62, which is much higher than most. While at the hut we were also given a tour of their sustainable energy systems including Clivus compost toilets and a Tarm boiler. I thought the compost toilets were especially interesting and I was amazed at how clean the hut’s bathrooms were for basically being an outhouse. I. I think the Clivus system is a smart way to reduce waste and save water. I wouldn’t want a composting toilet system in my home, but I think more commercial buildings should look into using the Clivus system in order to decrease water comsumption. My major takeaway from the hut was that it was very well designed in the sense that it restricted energy consumption, but still was a very relaxing and comfortable environment. I found this to be interesting because I think sustainability and comfort are two things that do not necessarily go hand in hand, yet Maine Huts and Trails were able to find the right balance between the two.