Saturday, September 02, 2006

Housing of the Future

As we move into the new century, we need to change our paradigms about energy and water. The question in my mind is, can we change these these paradigms, and, at the same time, improve quality of life?

I believe we can, and the way we can do so, is by changing the design of the home, to reduce the waste streams.

Right now, homes, or, more accurately, the people in them, produce undrinkable water, carbon dioxide, waste heat, and organic garbage.

Should we produce any of this? I don't believe it is necessary. And I believe the waste level can soon be drastically reduced by taking a new approach to home design.

The first, and most elusive feature so such a house is thermal converter. Waste organics can be turned into a slurry and fed into the thermal converter until it is half-full. The thermal converter then must be heated. To make it easier to heat the thermal converter, a supply of hot water is required. A vacuum can be applied to the hot water, to turn it into water vapor. The water vapor, injected into the thermal converter, will increase the pressure and therefore the heat. In short order, the heat inside the thermal converter can be brought to a temperature well above 451 farenheit, so that all organic matter is broken down. After that, it will be time to cool the thermal converter. The heat removed from the converter can be used to distill water, recharging the distilled hot water supply.

After the thermal converter is cooled, it must be degassed. There will be methane inside, due to the breakdown of organics. So, an outlet for the gas is made at the top, and then the converter is filled with cool water until all the gas is collected.

After the gas is removed, there will also be some oils and carbon solids produced as well. And of course, there will be water.

This type of technology does exist, but today, it is only used on a large scale, it's a plant in carthage that breaks down turkey guts. Scaling it down for home use will be an interesting but not insurmountable task.

The water coming out of the thermal convertor will not be fit to drink, but will be ideal for watering plants, or using to top off the thermal converter next time. Which brings us to the most prominent feature of this futuristic house: A rooftop greenhouse. Instead of wasting water, the water is used to grow plants. The water may be too acidic, so, it way require an adjustment before use on some plants. An automated process can titrate the water with lime, which is a common chemical.

The greenhouse will generate large amounts of heat and humidity most of the year. The heat can be stored in hot water if hot water reserves are not optimal. Thus, waste heat will only be allowed to escape if it is not needed. When the hot water reserves are full, however, the heat and humidity meet the third feature of this futuristic house: A tall, two-chamber chimney. A wet chamber, and a dry chamber.

The chimney creates a stack effect, the hot, humid air will enter the chimney to move to the colder height. If the chimney is tall enough, the humidity will condense and fall back down the chimney into a collection basin. This water, will need minimal filtration before being safe to drink.

So, the house produces lots of hot water, and some ambient temperature water. That's a lot of heat, but what about cold? For human comfort, people need air conditioning and ice.

Well, normal air conditioners vent the hot air outside, at ground level. This one will vent the hot air up the dry chimney chamber, so that the condensation that occurs in the wet chamber is not hindered by excessive hot air, and the waste heat does not bother people at ground level. The indoor air will be vented to the greenhouse so that the plants can scavenge the additional carbon dioxide humans exhaled indoors, and the indoor air can be replaced with filtered outdoor air greenhouse air goes up the chimney.

The dry chimney may not get used much, in a wintery climate, because in additon to having a large storage unit for hot water, the house will also have a large storage unit for cold water.

The amount of cold water stored up over the winter might be enough to cheap air condition the house the whole summer, and the hot water might be enough to heat the house for the whole winter.

If this housing design works, no water will leave the house via a pipe. in hotter dry climates, there will be enough water lost in the greenhouse to justify having water piped in, but colder climates should be able to make up and water lost with rainwater.

All would-be wastewater is distilled. laundry washwater is run through a heat exchanger, being heated by the house's hot water reserves under a vacuum. the water produced is sent right back into the system to distill the rest of the increasingly concentrated wastewaster. The distiller's heating chamber will surely scale up, I think a simple ceramic bowl, that can be sent to a recycling center when half-filled with scale and dirt, will make cleanup easy.

The house will require energy, and lots of it. However, by storing heat in hot water, and cold in cold water, the house can ramp up and down it's energy requirements based on grid availabity. Such a house could be serviced comfortably by solar energy to assist the required heat transfers whenever enough sun is available, and draw more from the grid and not use as much energy when the sun is not available. Washwater and shower water, for instance, can wait in a storage tank for several days before being distilled, as long as there's plenty of hot water.

The hot water supply will dwindle over the winter with less solar input, however, the house can have a natural gas-powered generator, and store some methane for the winter.

So what is going on with this home's waste streams?
1. no undrinkable water leaves the house -- instead, scale-and-dirt filled cemeric bowls will be sent to a recyling center.
2. carbon dioxide produced in the home is vented first through a greenhouse, so less of it reaches the outdoor atmosphere.
3. waste heat is intensively managed-- heat is lost in the winter, but very little heat escapes in the summer, and what heat does escape is vented higher up.
4. organic waste is compressed and sterilized. The greenhouse recieves nutrient-dense water, and only a small amount of carbon solids and oils need to be disposed.

There are massive engineering challenges to be worked out with such a house. However, because the house has needs very little access to the grid, it is less vulnerable to any problems which would afflict a centralized system, like a power outage, water contamination, or price fluctuations. The rooftop greenhouse will require significant labor to maintain, especially depending on the plants grown, but many people enjoy gardening, and the savings from growing your own food are nice.

The drawback is, of course costs. Luckily, one part of the cost, the large underground storage tanks for hot and cold water, will need no maintenence if properly designed--even if a hurricane or tornado destroyed the rest of the house, a new, better house can be built right on top of the water tanks and still use them. Most of the other components of the house's heat management system can be layed out so as to be easily upgraded and replaced.

However, thanks to the intensive heat and water management, such a house could work pratically anywhere, and will be particularly cost effective in areas where water is scarce. The quality of life for the owner will be excellent despite the very low ecological footprint.

There are many other ideas out there that manage water and energy better than the world does today. This is just one approach to a better future.

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