Sunday, March 10, 2019

in summary

I realized when I sat down to write this that we had crossed a Rubicon of sorts with this article.  It was March of 2014 that we first began construction on the original Floating Empire and began to document things in this blog.  I had another article in mind for this time around, and you'll get that one, I promise, but I thought it might be useful to look back on the last five years we have spent on the water.
The shantyboat Floating Empire under construction in our backyard in Westminster Md, 2014.
Five years on the water.  Five years of experiments and writing and artwork, five years of sunrises and sunsets on the river and nearly 400 blog posts and thousands of photographs.  In the process, we built or re-built three boats, I published a novel, a how-to booklet on composting marine toilets, and Gail has done literally hundreds of pieces of artwork.

The electric paddlewheel drive has been just one of our projects on the water.
We've done dozens of projects and experiments, from drive systems to wheelhouse glazing to brewing to food preservation.  We've done scads of reviews of products for the boat and for living, and made evening after evening of spectacular meals, our single burner stove notwithstanding.

Good food is a passion.

Let me make this clear:  virtually none of this would have been possible had we not made our move to the water.  Had we stayed ashore, renting an apartment, driving to and from work, we would simply never have had the time nor the inspiration to do most of these things.

It's amazing all the things we've learned how to do.
Once we made the water our home, the sheer number of possibilities that opened up for us was truly astounding.  This spring will be a big one for us:  I have a new novel coming out, Gail is prepping for a big art show at the Lirodendron mansion (in Bel Air, MD), and we're planning on doing quite a bit of water travel, but little of that would have presented itself had we not, some five years ago, sat in the living room with graph paper and a laptop and worked out that, yes, we could indeed do this. . .

. . .and so can you.  We hear so many people saying "you guys have such a great life, but I could never do that".  Why?  You have no money (neither did we)?  You're too old (we were both in our 60's before we started this mess)?  You have kids (there are lots of livaboards here in the marina with children, and they love it)?  Lets be honest, the only thing that is likely stopping you is you.

So take the leap, dammit!  Build the shantyboat, go get a cheap hull and make a home of it, build the vardo wagon or the tiny home, buy the land and start the homestead.  If it doesn't work out, you'll do something else, you'll have learned lots, gained a bunch of confidence, and you'll have some great stories.

And isn't that what it's all about?

This is where we live.  Enough said.

Don and Gail Elwell
and First Cat Magellan
Aboard the EV Paddlewheeler Tesla's Revenge.

Monday, March 4, 2019

By Popular Demand

By Popular demand, we've collected all the materials on the blog regarding composting toilets, including some new material, and put it into an Ebook available on Amazon for the Kindle reader.  A number of folks have written me lately requesting we put all that information in one place and the interest in the DIY Urine Diverter remains astonishingly strong. The booklet is 21 pages of photos, drawings and text.  If you have Kindle unlimited, it's a freebie. If not, it'll set you back $.99 (of which you'll be giving us $.35 to help further our work with this stuff).

Interested?  Just click the image below 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Playing Catch-Up

Okay, apologies for not posting for a bit, but we had an issue with our wireless router here at the Marina and it's put us a bit behind.  More stuff in the pipeline soon, so stay tuned.  In the meanwhile :  Cat Tax.
Just get on with it, humans.

Friday, February 8, 2019


You may recall back in December or so of 2017 we tried an experiment to enclose our wheelhouse, using a plastic material glazing called FlexOGlass.  If you're interested, that thread is about here. We used stainless steel snaps and gorilla tape edging to put together the panels and affix them to our wheelhouse structure.

setting snaps in the FlexOGlass panels.
We were quite impressed with the FlexOglass.  The stuff was incredibly clear and seemed quite strong.  In fact, the first month the panels were up--in face we didn't even have them all installed--the things endured 50kt winds without a hitch.  They provided a sun-warmed, wind-free space through the winter and helped keep the rain from blowing in during the summer.  That part worked well.

As we've lived with the panels, though, we began to notice some problems.  First, using the Gorilla tape as edging was quick and easy, and worked fine on those panels that didn't ever have to be removed.  But when the doorway panels were rolled up, the tape bunched, having the effect of shortening the spaces between the snaps and making them an absolute bear to attatch.  The tape adhesive may also have deteriorated the vinyl of the glazing, causing it to crack or tear at the attachment point.  In addition, summer heat made the tape crawl and slip.  Less than optimal. 

Still, the material continued to endure direct sunlight without yellowing and stood up to deep cold and high winds without a complaint.

Until this winter, when it got both at once.

A brief period of single digit temps, coupled with high winds absolutely destroyed the FlexOglass.  The cold apparently made it brittle enough that the gusty winds--50kts at times--made it virtually shatter into strips.  Literally, there was just about nothing left.

In retrospect, the FlexOGlass is most often used for enclosing porches that are already screened, and that screening would supply a good degree of support for the vinyl.  Unsupported, the stuff was fine until the temperatures got down in to the  6 degree F. range.  At that point, all bets were off with the wind.

So, for next time:  The FlexOGlass is a fine material.  It's rugged and inexpensive and VERY clear and I'd use it again in a heartbeat.  I would, however, stitch a cloth edging in place rather than relying on an adhesive like the Gorilla tape, and I will probably use grommets and ties instead of snaps so the expansion and contraction of the material may be compensated for easily.  The FlexOglass comes in 4 and 10 mil thicknesses, so we'll probably go with the heavier 10 mil in the future.

Sigh.  Live and learn.

We've had an amazingly beautiful couple of days here on the river, Temperatures in the 60's some days (F of course), and sunny and clear.  Rather weird for February, but I'm not complaining.  The ice is gone from the river and now we can begin to think about the drive and travel again.

Much more Later


Saturday, January 19, 2019

an unexpected benefit

If you read the last post, you'll know we've recently added a compact dehumidifier to the mix, and we just encountered a rather unthought of benefit there.  Yes, the boat is slowly drying out, but that's not it.

One of the pains in the butt in winter is:  the dock water is shut off to keep the pipes from freezing.  That means I have to drag containers of water down to the boat to refill the water tank by hand, not my fave.  For the last few weeks or so, though, the tank has been getting empty less often, and we couldn't figure out why.  I mean, we're using the same amount of water to do dishes, etc., right?
Eurgreen compact compressor dehumidifier

The difference has been that we'd taken to dumping the water bin of the dehumidifier into the washwater basin.  The water may have a bit of dust, but it's essentially distilled water, and fine for washing stuff.  Tallying up how much that amounted to, it's been around a gallon a day, all told, which has made a significant difference in how much water I've had to drag down an icy dock.

So, for winter at least, my plans of just piping the condensate into the sink or the bilge have been changed.  That water is too valuable to waste.

Just another little lesson learned.

more shortly


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mungo and the Tropical Rainforest

or:  the Condensation follies.

I was in one of the big box hardware stores the other day, and I saw a couple wrangling over what humidifier to buy.  I found myself wanting to go grab them and say "Are you out of your minds?  That thing puts water IN the air!!!"

Okay, so we've lived on a boat for a bit.  It's kind of odd, when normal homeowners are looking to put water INTO the air, we're looking to take it out.

In winter, the air outside is bone dry.  Inside, not so much.

For those of you ignorant of the joys of living aboard (and I kid, there are many), if it's a modern vessel you are living in an impermeable shell of fiberglass.  The purpose is, of course, to keep water out, which it does admirably. One of the side-effects, though, is that it also keeps moisture in the boat.  You exhale, the moisture goes into the air.  You make dinner and reduce an inch of soup stock, that inch of moisture goes into the air.  You turn on a Propane heater, it pumps moisture into the air as well.  You use the composting toilet, some of the moisture goes into the air.  No big deal, of course.

Until it's winter and the outside air chills the hull and the deck house.  Then the moisture condenses. .

. . .in the main berth. . .

. . .right over your heads.  The long and the short of it is, it can literally rain inside.  It can do it on some of the coldest, most unpleasant days of the year, and it can make your bedding and clothes sodden even though you have refrained from using the squirt guns in the boat all year like your wife told you she'd leave you if you didn't do....

Nuff said

Over our five years aboard, we've tried a number of solutions with varying success, so I thought I would detail a few of them to help get you guys into spring without your bedding rotting or you contracting pnumonia.

First and foremost--and this is a simple one--occasionally vent the boat.  Just open everything up, even if it's cold outside.  You shouldn't leave it open long enough for surfaces to cool off (which you would then have to heat back up again) but enough to flush out the warm, wet air with dry, cooler air from outside.  Doing this periodically really helps, but obviously you can't do it too often or you'll wind up with a heating bill approaching the national debt.

Adding more insulation helps quite a bit as well, preventing  the creation of cold surfaces on which water may condense and has the side advantage of making your vessel warmer and lots more cosy.  This doesn't, however, remove any water from the air, and in a lot of vessels there just isn't the room to add a lot of new insulation.  Things like ecofoil (metalized bubblewrap) are a decent option for oddly shaped, hard to get at spaces.

Small solid fuel stoves can really help dry out the air, but their mere presence alarms a lot of Marina owners.
Solid fuel stoves--Charcoal, wood, wood pellets and the like--are great at drying out the air.  They pump a lot of damp interior air up their chimneys and draw in dryer outside air to replace it, and that works.  The times we've used a wood burner aboard the air has been pretty much bone dry.  The problem is: a lot of Marinas and insurance providers are terrified of wood burners, fearing the sparks (frankly, I think propane is far more dangerous) and won't allow them.

Small USB fans are great for drying surfaces prone to condensation.  Plus they help when it's hot too.
Next up--and this one surprised us--fans.  This last winter we tried pointing a few low wattage usb fans at the places that were condensing the worst and, lo and behold, they dried off.  For such a low cost, low power alternative, they have been amazingly effective.  Presumably the water condenses elsewhere, like in the hull, but at least it's not over the bed.

Lofting your bedding so some air can get underneath the mattress can really help keeping the bottom of your cushions from getting drenched.  It doesn't have to be much, just a few millimeters, just enough so any water under there can evaporate and escape.  The water is coming from you, and it can eventually utterly saturate your mattress.  Caveat.

Chemical dehumidifiers like DampRid do work and pull a surprising amount of water out of the air, but they're disposable, fill up quickly, and are expensive over time (and often rather messy to deal with).  Not our fave.

Small, compressor-less Peltier device dehumidifiers are a low power option for small spaces.

They don't however, remove a huge amount of moisture.  Here's the removable water tank.  Not large.

We have also used a couple of small, Peltier device dehumidifiers currently on the market.  The things are very small,  have no compressor, and consume very little juice, but they only can remove a very small amount of water from the air.  They're ideal for small, enclosed spaces like lockers, but not really terribly well suited for larger, wetter spaces.

In the past, true compressor based dehumidifiers were kind of out of the running for a lot of vessels.  They were too big and ate too much power (a 40 pint dehumidifier is almost the size of a small refrigerator and uses a lot more juice.)  Lately, though, we've seen a number of 20 pint or less units hit the market.  These gizmos are very quiet, small enough to sit on a counter, and can pull the same amount of water out of the air in a couple of hours as one of the Peltier device units can do in a month.  They do, however, consume a fair amount of electricity.

New, 20 pint and less compressor dehumidifiers can sit on a counter.
In a few months, the weather will turn, the air will warm, and condensation won't be an issue.  We'll forget all about it until the first frost of next fall, when our own little rain forest will trigger a mad scramble to dig up one of the above solutions.  Living aboard a boat, you live with nature, good and bad, and have to adapt as best you can.  It's a small price to pay to wake up on the water.  Wouldn't have it any other way.

More shortly.  Enjoy the coming spring.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Year, Folks

May this one be your favorite of the ones so far!
The dock at Marshy Point Nature Center, Dundee Creek.
LOTS more shortly.

Friday, December 21, 2018

And now, a brief historic interlude. . . .

Well, over the last couple of days I've been dealing with having a wisdom tooth removed (not a recreational activity I recommend, btw), so that's rather put the squelch on boat work while I get to play the sympathy card, whining piteously, and, in general, getting out of things I normally have to do.

Still and all, not worth it.  Get your teeth cleaned, kids.

At any rate, I've spent a bit of the time surfing mindlessly and came to realize just how many new viewers this blog has acquired over the last year.  Welcome, guys, and thanks for stopping by.  I also realized that, unless you've been riding with us on this trip for a bit you might not know who we are, so I thought I'd take a moment of my recovery time to tip you off.  Let's see. . . .

We're Don and Gail Elwell (and, of course, first cat Magellan).  We're long time artists and teachers, both retired college professors, and active experimenters, creators, re-enactors, larpers, and geeks in general.  Gail, my companion for (ulp) near 35 years, is a teacher, sculptor, amazing chef, and collage artist.  You can find her work on Facebook and at her blog at life, art, water. Her most recent works are some rather amazing collages, beautifully painterly works, that I highly recommend you check out.

Emergence, collage, Gail Elwell 2018
For myself, I've been a writer and theatre geek for most of my life, have started a couple of very successful theatre companies, including the Greylight theatre of Illinois and the Grindlebone Arts Collective in Baltimore, taught at a number of institutions, and in general made a public spectacle of myself.  In recent years, I've mostly been a writer and editor, publishing a number of novels and play anthologies through Wild Shore Press (created as Grindlebone's in-house publisher).

Rather proud of this one.  Available hardcopy or Ebook here.
At any rate, as part of the work with Grindlebone Arts, we set up a thing called the "Center for Bypassed Technologies" on the Grindlebone site.  It was the confluence of our working as historic re-enactors, our love of history (and science fiction, futurism, and general oddness), and my own geeky fascination with the technologies that were bypassed because of cheap energy.  This led directly to the creation of this blog, and of the original shantyboat Floating Empire. If you're interested in the rational that started this whole thing, give a click here and see how and why we started this voyage all the way back in '14.

In the intervening years, we've built ( or re-built) three vessels, Experimented with solar power systems, electric drives, paddlewheels, composting toilets, new construction materials, brewing, food preservation, wood gasification, kerosene stoves, vertical gardening, and a host of other things, all while continuing to write and do artwork and, in general, get ourselves in trouble at every opportunity.

2019 should be a really interesting year for us.  We'll (hopefully, FINALLY) get the drive working well enough to travel in our electric cruiser Tesla's Revenge, we'll be doing more brewing, lots more elaborate cooking, and I'll have two new novels (Zarabeth's World and the sequel to my novel The Ganymeade Protocol --which people have been bugging me to do-- titled The Flood Tarot) out and a poetry compilation of the real and virtual worlds called called Virtually Poetic (I'm editing that one) featuring real world poets and poets from the Second Life virtual environment.
I've got the sequel to this coming out in 2019, so you should probably pick up a copy and catch up.
We've noticed of late a huge amount of interest in things like our diy composting toilet (with diy urine diverter) and the electric paddlewheel drive.  I promise we'll be putting up more details, designs, upgrades, updates, warnings, and ideas about those in the coming weeks--I feel like we're on a roll with that--as well as all sorts of other useful and interesting things.  I just wanted to say thanks so much for all of you who have joined us in this trip.  Your comments are always appreciated, or you can reach us at

Stay tuned,
More to come

my mouf hurtz


Lordie, the man is a wimp.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Notes on DIY Urine Diverter

This thing is surprisingly simple and effective.
Having lived with our DIY Urine Diverter in our DIY Composting Toilet for near on a year now, I thought it might be a good time to address the "what worked" and "what didn't" of the thing.  For the initial posts on construction, you can go have a look here.

In general, the thing has worked really well, and with very few problems.  It extends to nearly two weeks the time between needing to empty the solid waste from the toilet, and makes that job less arduous because the mass is far lighter without being chocked full of pee.   Not having liquid pooling in the compost bucket means far less chance of insects or odor.  We use a spray bottle with a weak bleach solution and spray the diverter after every couple of uses, which keeps the smell virtually nonexistent, and the bottle (a disused 1 1/2 gallon cat litter container) is far simpler to empty than dumping the entire composting bucket, I can tell you.

There, however, a few things that we might have done differently (and which we will do differently in subsequent versions) that we thought we'd impart.

First and foremost, we used 1/2" (about 13 mm) tubing for the drain.  The interior diameter of this hose is only about 3/8"  (about 9.5mm), which is fine for drainage.  From the beginning, however, we've used mostly wood chips and wood stove pellets for mass in the composter, and dropping even a single pellet into the diverter can plug the thing (happens about twice a month)  necessitating using a piece of wire or something to dislodge it.  Not a deal breaker, certainly, but irritating.  In future iterations, we'll endeavor to use a wider diameter tube, which should solve that instantly.

Since this was a retrofit to a composting toilet we'd already built, we had to get a bit creative with routing the tube to the bottle.  Because it looks a bit like a novelty drinking straw, it's rather easy to kink it when pulling or replacing the compost bucket.  In designing a new housing, we would opt for a much more straightforward (and shorter) route for the hose.

Since the initial install, we've had to play a bit with both the height and the depth of the diverter to keep it from hitting your bum on the toilet.  This was pretty easy, and involved screwing the thing in place half an inch lower and using a pocket knife to cut the curve of the top of the diverter a bit more deeply to keep it out of the way.  Neither affected the efficacy of the unit.

By the way, rotating the compost buckets is a plus.  Even with a liner, the plastic still manages to pick up some stink (though it isn't evident until you go to dump them). Being able to leave one out to air while the other is in use keeps that down .  I'm curious if a stainless steel bucket might be more resistant to retaining odor.

When choosing your diverter bottle, virtually anything will work, but as unattractive as it may be, I'd strongly recommend getting one in which you can easily see the liquid level.  Humans produce a surprising amount of pee, and though we've only overtopped it once, it wasn't a pleasant experience cleaning it up.  There are a bunch of other fixes for this, including possibly sealing the hose into the bottle while providing an air vent of some kind, but the simplest is just to be able to see just how much of the smelly amber stuff with which you're dealing so you can empty it in a timely fashion.

Lastly, note that, if you're in a non-mobile situation, routing the urine hose permanently into a dry well or into a garden or flower bed (urine being a major source of nitrogen) can mean you NEVER have to empty the thing and your flowers or lawn can reap the benefits.

All in all, I'm really happy we built the thing and rather wish we'd done so sooner.

Hiking at Marshy Point Nature Center on a sunny December day.
The late fall has been as erratic as the rest of the year here on the Chesapeake.  Two days ago it was sunny and 60 degrees F.  Today, it's barely above freezing.  Still, we did get in a lovely hike at one of our favorite places here (Marshy Point Nature Center) and managed to finish getting our stuff into the storage space.  Now we've got a couple of chilly days, suitable for finishing the first draft of the novel at which I've been working.  Close now. 

Fortunately, the solution to chilly feet is ALWAYS a well padded ship's cat.
So it's a couple of days of writing and artwork, and then maybe we can re-address the electric drive controller.

Stay Tuned.


A lot of folks have asked us to put all the blog articles on composting toilet construction and care and feeding in one place, so we've consolidated all those pages along with some additional material and created a little Ebook.  The thing is available by the below link on Amazon for Kindle.  It's free if you have Kindle Unlimited, otherwise it will set you back a massive .$.99.  It was the easiest way to put the thing together and distribute the information, and if you do download, you'll be giving us grand total of $.35 to help us further the stuff we're doing here.  If you're interested, just click the picture or link below:

Thursday, November 15, 2018

AAAAAANNNNNDDDDD Life gets in the way....

No, we haven't forgotten about you.  We've had to do a bit of necessary repair work on our cockpit enclosure (winter coming on) and have had to move our storage from the Marina building basement to a private storage facility further ashore (they're doing some renovations and we're kinda in the way). 

The wheel is in place, at the proper depth, and wired in.
Last week, we got the support lines replaced with chain and rerouted our wiring to connect the motor.  We booted up the sysem, turned the rheostat and, low and behold it turned.  It turned both forward and back.  We were ecstatic. . . .

. . .or were until the NEW motor controller--from the same company--went *pop* fizzzzzzz and quit. 

I checked the motor load and our wiring, and that doesn't appear to be the problem.  I just think the stats provided with these cheap Chinese controllers really don't match their capabilities.  So we're in process of getting and installing a more robust unit.  As soon as the current ice storm is over, we'll give it a go and give you a full report.

Winter finally caught up with us today:  snow and ice and rain.  We were bright enough to do our shopping yesterday so we have a day hunkered down in the boat, drinking tea, doing artwork, writing, and in general, having a quiet day of it. 

In coming days we'll be testing the new motor controller, installing an electric water pump for the galley (finally giving up on these crappy marine galley pumps....they either seem to be utter plastic junk or way more than we can afford), and doing a review on our flexoglass wheelhouse enclosure at a year of use, wind, and sun exposure, so stay tuned.

More very shortly.