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An Energy Optimist Builds a Pain Mound
by Gaelan Brown
It's common knowledge among farmers and gardeners that compost heaps get warm, often warm enough to melt all the snow that falls on them. And over the years, many barns have actually burned because of hay or corn silage that had the right conditions (a lot of moisture) to cause the bacterial digestion process (composting) to get hot enough to spontaneously combust the material around it.
None of this is really news, right?
Here's the news: It is possible to heat your house and all your domestic hot water by capturing heat from a composting mound of biomass in your yard, without burning anything. And we actually built a working prototype of a "Pain Mound" at my house last autumn, which a year later continues to generate 110-plus-degree water from the waterlines we buried inside it. I can get more than 500 gallons of 110-degree water per day from this system.
Like many innovations, this concept is based on old knowledge revived. More than 30 years ago a French farmer named Jean Pain figured out how to generate hot water and methane from a specially designed mound of composting wood shreds. His goal was to build up the soils of his farm with effective composting, but he was also able to power his entire farm and home from the methane (natural gas) and the hot water that he collected as he made his innovative compost out of shredded woody biomass.
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All of this energy came without burning anything, using a local, abundant, renewable resource, and the byproduct at the end: high-yield, soil-building compost.
The "Jean Pain Method" is a two-part concept. Heat is generated from the anaerobic digestion of a specially designed mound of soaked wood shreds (mulch). The heat is collected by passing water through the pipes that are coiled throughout the inside of the mound. There is also a sealed inner-chamber placed in the center of the mound as it is being built, which is then filled with a manure-slurry, sealed and used to generate methane-gas.
The heat from the mound creates the ideal conditions for methane production inside the sealed inner barrel. Jean Pain pumped the methane out of the inner barrel through a tube in the top, and compressed and stored it to be used later. He and his wife, Ida, captured enough natural gas to fuel all of their farm equipment, vehicles, and a generator (the engines having been converted to natural gas), as well as all of their gas for household cooking.
Jean kept careful records regarding the amount of fuel it took to harvest and shred all the brush to create each of his mounds. He claimed that his energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI) was more than 85 percent, meaning that if he spent the equivalent of 15 gallons of gasoline to run his truck, chainsaws, and chipper to produce the shredded biomass, he would get the energy equivalent of 85 gallons of gasoline as a result (energy from the hot water and the methane).
Aside from achieving energy self-sufficiency, Jean and Ida wrote a book and had a few years of fanfare in Europe based on the strong crop-yield results achieved with compost made this way. This composting concept defies conventional thinking that compost must be created with a lot of nitrogen-rich material mixed in. He proved that low-nitrogen woody biomass can make exceptional compost when it is fully digested by bacteria in this way. Oh, and by the way, you can heat and power your entire home too. Sadly, in the early 1980s Jean died, cheap oil came back, and like other sustainability solutions of the era, the "Jean Pain Method" seems to have withered on the vine.
About a year ago, Ben Falk (Vermont Commons' "Homestead Security" columnist) sent me a link to a YouTube documentary that showed exactly how Jean Pain built his "Mound de Pain," including in-depth interviews with him. It was a fascinating story, and I said, "I gotta have one of those!" Then a local arborist told me he had lots of woodchips to get rid of from his tree-service work, and that I could have as many truckloads as I wanted.
At that point there was no turning back for me. I had to see if we could make this work. So my wife, Jasna, and I reached out and got help building our Pain Mound from our friends at the Carbon Shredders, Vermont Commons, the Valley Futures Network, SunWood Systems, and Whitney Tree Service.
Based on what we learned from our research, we figured out how to coil 400 feet of 1-inch waterline inside a large mound of soaked/packed wood chips. And it worked! The buried water loop – going from our basement, to our mound, and back to the household plumbing – could bring our 48-degree well water up to 110-plus degrees, at about one-half a gallon per minute, continuously.
A couple of days after we completed our mound, its interior had heated up to 90-plus degrees. Within 10 days it reached 110-plus degrees. The woodchip mound we built was 14 feet wide at the base and eight feet tall. I can still get half a gallon per minute of 110-115-degree water continuously, 24/7, without the mound cooling off. This equates to more than 700 gallons per day of virtually free hot water. This flow rate, if maintained in the winter, could generate enough Btu-value to heat about 1,000 square feet with a radiant-floor heating system, since radiant-floor systems work best with a slow but steady flow rate and temperature of 110-120 degrees. This is assuming an average Vermont winter and a home with average insulation, according to several radiant-floor experts I spoke with. It would be simple to set up a few storage tanks in the basement, and circulate water through the mound at a slow but constant rate into the tanks, ensuring that we would always have a large amount of hot water on hand.
We did place a 50-gallon drum in the middle of the mound as a potential methane chamber, but we never loaded it with manure. I wasn't comfortable experimenting with natural gas, and we were more focused on making hot water.
The internal temperature of our mound held steady for the first five months, but then we learned why Jean Pain insisted that it was essential to use finely shredded material (mulch) as opposed to the 1-inch-diameter woodchips that we used. Woodchips don't have enough surface area for the bacteria to sustain a high level of activity. So after four or five months and winter weather kicked in, the digestion process in our mound slowed down and it cooled to 65 degrees by the spring. By early summer the temperature was back up to 115-degrees. Jean Pain had several documented successes using finely shredded mulch in which the temperature held steady at 130-plus degrees for between 18 and 24 months. That means one mound the size of ours could provide two winters' worth of heat and hot water, replacing around $5,000 worth of fuel cost.
We are looking forward to rebuilding our mound, using shredded mulch from a local processor who supplies garden stores and landscapers. Yestermorrow Design/Build School will offer courses periodically in which several lucky students will get a hands-on learning experience of how to build a "Mound de Pain," with myself as the instructor. Check out Yestermorrow.org for more information.
I believe that the opportunities for these kinds of "innovations" are all around us, but that we must stop waiting for someone else to solve our problems. Will BP, the Bank of America, or Halliburton provide us this kind of energy solution that creates local jobs and uses our local renewable resources? Probably not. So let's get moving and realize that we can and must come up with our own solutions, ourselves. I'm not willing to sit and wait for someone else to solve our problems.
Shred, Don't Dread. Update as of August, 2010
The sad news was that during the winter, the mound had cooled off to around 65 degrees. According to Jean Pain's book (which I got after we had built the first prototype), this was because we used wood-chips, instead of shredded material (mulch). Wood-chips don't have enough surface area for the bacterial digestion process to get hot enough to withstand the winter temperatures.
But, this summer, our pain mound is back up to 115-degrees, and can sustain a 1/2-gallon per minute flow rate bringing 48-degree well water up to 115-degrees, constantly, around the clock, without cooling off.
That means I could be getting 700 gallons of 115-degree water per day, without burning anything, a year after we built it. Jean Pain claimed that each mound would last 18 to 24 months if built properly.
I guess I now know for sure that this concept works. To make this work through the winter, we either need to get the system hotter by using shredded mulch instead of larger wood-chips, or we need to make the mound big enough so the inner-core where the water lines are stays hot in the winter. I'll do both on the next prototype. Either way, I am getting closer to my goal of proving that you can heat enough water for your entire house, (including a hot tub, of course), and potentially even heat your entire house, without burning anything.
Imagine if we could heat our homes, and our hot water, using abundant, local, renewable resources (brush and waste-wood), without burning anything, and with a by-product of high-value compost to help us build up our soils to improve our agriculture. Jean Pain claimed the energy in to harvest and process the mulch amounted to about 10% of the energy he could get out of each mound (spend 1 gallon of gas to make 9, a pretty good ratio).
The only way this will happen, is if we just do it. No corporation or government is going to do this for us.
So what are we waiting for? Well, I'm done waiting.
This material appeared originally, and is used by permission of, Vermont Commons, Voices of Independence. For information on joining, go to VtCommons.org. Gaelan Brown is a regular contributor to Vermont Commons. He offers courses on building Pain Mounds periodically at Yestermorrow Design/Build School.
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