Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Return of the Pissoir?

 Humans, all 7.8 billion of us as of 2020, comprise an outsized portion of the world's mammals. We and our livestock equal roughly twenty times the biomass of all remaining mammals, and are still increasing.


We have become the unlimited apex predator, and consume a huge portion of the annual world photosynthetic productivity. This trend can't continue, but for now, there it is.


Population overshoot and our impact on the world is the start for myriad topics of discussion, but this post is about pee.

Our population trend is only made possible through the energy utilization of fossil fuels. This energy base enables easy access to all the other many resources we consume. Industrial agriculture relies not just on fuel to run tractors and harvest equipment, it is used to create or mine the fertilizers that have enabled the green revolution.

So as we begin the downward glide of fossil energy use, what will agriculture look like? I think it inevitably will slowly return to the closed cycle nutrient scheme that was the way for millions of years.

Currently, agricultural soils are mostly worked to death, and are often treated as a physical matrix for root anchorage, with all plant nutrients supplied annually by the farmer, shipped in from thousands of miles away by truck and pipeline.

As this scheme unwinds, how will we maintain soil fertility as we continue to harvest crops, even if by muscle power?

Human urine is an excellent source of phosphorus and nitrogen. getting it back to the field and garden will need to be central practice of agriculture. Many have heard about the Chinese farmers of forty centuries and their night soil practice ( it wasn't THAT sustainable, there was still soil loss, but it was better than relying on chemicals that won't last forever)

But the general descriptions I've heard don't mention whether they used both the feces and the urine. Organic content is good for building soil, but our urine actually contains most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that we excrete. To separate and target the most impactful nutrients makes a lot of sense.

Which brings us to pissoirs. 


I think we know that as humans built larger and larger cities, the issue of waste build up was poorly dealt with. Disease and a simply unpleasant environment was becoming too much.

One conjures up visions of drunk men staggering home from pubs, stopping to piss on the sidewalk as the urge overcame them. ( What were women to do? We'll leave that question and its various implications right there)

Makes for unpleasant smells. 

Leave it to the city of light to attempt a higher level of civilized behavior and deal with the problem.

Paris began installing pissoirs to solve the problem, but these all drained into the slowly developing sewer system. The concept spread to other European cities, and over time, large cities became a bit more pleasant to saunter in. Now we are all modern, and there are a range of public restroom designs out there. There are even unisex or separate female accommodations!

One of the original pissoirs in Paris

A modern version- but where does it go?

On our little homestead, I have two composting toilet setups, one at the house, and one in the barn. I don't do all my business in them, as the house plumbing is so convenient, but a good share. The one in the barn is a simple lovable loo bucket system as described in "The Humanure Handbook" by Joe Jenkins. 

The one at the house has separation, provided by a special seat modification.


I can say it is amazing how much pee one generates when you actually collect it and see the resulting volume. There are questions on how much to dilute before application, and how to minimize loss of nitrogen from ammonia volatilization, so I'm still looking for the best science based practices.

Anyway, for the vast majority of people, be they urban or suburban, this scheme might be hard or impossible to utilize. Mores the pity.

But I can imagine a future entrepreneur starting a business that collected from neighborhoods and delivers to local farmers to give needed nitrogen and phosphorus inputs, as what else can they do as commercial fertilizers become scarce or very expensive?

Or a new network of pissoirs in dense city centers where the pissoirs are NOT hooked to the city sewers, but to storage tanks that periodically ship off to the farms.

It's hight time to get over the ick factor and close the circle.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

pressing concerns

 This fall, after harvesting hazelnuts, I saved some back to hand husk and shell, to experiment with. I made some nut butter and some homemade "Nutella", but that's another post.

Hazelnut oil is another way to made an added value product, or just one more way to be self reliant instead of buying GMO soybean oil for cooking.

I've known about the hand cranked oil press made by Piteba for a while, but till now, had no justification to buy one. 


I could have bought through Amazon, but Piteba sells direct, and get more of my money.

Some observations/learnings

Piteba makes a product that works, and fabrication quality is ok, but seems like it should go through one more product improvement cycle.

soot, wick length- The little oil lamp heats the area where the nuts get crushed, to reduce viscosity and get better expelling of oil. I tried to make the wick short, but it still got soot all over the barrel. No problem functionally, just messy. Also, the little jar and wick holder have no retaining ring to hold the cover in place- it just lays there. The bottle is threaded, so it's bizarre that they don't include a retaining ring. An accident waiting to happen.

cleaning end cap- The info I read on line cautioned about getting the cap off and cleaned out before it cooled and the retained nut meat hardened. Bullshit- it's hard as soon as you stop, and just has to be soaked in water for several hours to loosen and clean. Plan on it.

end cap settings- for hazels, the cap worked best for me with the nut meal holes set to full open. 

fastening down press- It takes a pretty good force to turn the crank for the hazelnuts I was pressing, and the press will shift and wobble if the hold down bolts are not pretty darn tight. They sell a hold down attachment kit, but I did not buy.

catching the oil- the barrel has a slot cut in in halfway between the end and the fill hopper. Oil flows back toward the slot, and drips out. However, it sometimes moves along the barrel before dripping. Piteba has put a couple bumps on the underside to stop and encourage dripping, but it's still tricky to get under the drips. I may design a collection attachment to improve this.

feed hopper- is too small and is fastened to the barrel with a rubber band. Kind of cheesy.

oil settling- The oil looks pretty cloudy right out of the press, but clears up real nice, just gotta wait.

chopping hazels- I chopped the hazels by hand a bit to help them feed into the screw, but I guess one could pulse them a bit in a food processor. I just don't like those things.

I'm still refining my technique- crank speed, prechop size, etc., but so far am pleased. This is not for large production, but fine for home use. Next is to process the expelled nut meat to get it edible for the chickens( or us!). It's very hard coming out of the press. I will soak in water for a bit to soften up.

The setup- I had already built this frame for clamping to the kitchen table for my grain mill, bolts can be seen at the other end. Just drilled and countersunk a couple more holes on this end, and ready to go. Press needs a pretty sturdy support- don't think you can just quick clamp it to the edge of a card table.

View of the heating lamp and the receiving bottle. Note the soot on the barrel. It is hard to find a bottle the right size to fit and catch the oil dripping, these spice bottles we had saved were just right. Only a little missed the opening.