Personal Biochar Kilns, Portable Factories, DiY Septic Tank Cleaning, and Guerrilla Grafting

I’m currently busy trying to finish this month’s (and the inaugural) issue of the Resilient Communities newsletter.*

It’s coming together nicely, I think you’ll love it.

While the economic depression grinds on and the BIG financial reset gets closer, there are lots of great things going on at the ground level, where it counts.  So, in the meantime, here are some things that will get you thinking.

Biochar Kilns and Portable Factories

The first is a portable factory project by a team called re:char.  This team is working on ways to help farmers in Kenya produce biochar from sugar cane stalks, rather than simply burning them.

NOTE:  Biochar is organically inert solid that is produced by smoldering (low heat) biomass.  Why should you produce it?  Biochar is an amazing soil amendment that can last thousands of years. When mixed with existing soil, it improves water and nutrient retention as well as increasing the population and activity levels of beneficial microbes.

To do this, the team came up with a design for a biochar kiln (it is technically a low cost pyrolizer) that uses a 55 gallon oil drum.  They sell their “climate kiln” in the US for $290 (including shipping) if you are interested.

NOTE:  Each purchase donates a kiln to a Kenyan farmer.

They didn’t stop there.  The re:char team found that the tools and equipment they needed to quickly make “climate kilns” wasn’t available in the farming communities that needed the kilns.   So, to scratch their itch, they came up with a portable factory that fits into a shipping container.  Field testing has proven it to be successful (here it is in Kenya).

This entrepreneurial team has packaged this factory for sale at $50,000 (including training and shipping).  Or, you can build your own (here’s a list of parts they used).    What’s in it? See the list of tools it has built into it below.


DiY Septic Tank Maintenance

I recently had my septic tank pumped (my town was settled in the 1600s, so no sewage system).

Since I have a lot of people living in my home, I typically need to get it pumped once a year (and it’s expensive, ouch!).

While it was being pumped, I took the opportunity to hang out with the septic technician and ask a lot of questions.   This in turn led me to do more research on the topic.

The best book I found on how to maintain a septic system is the Septic Systems Owner’s Manual by Lloyd Kahn.  It’s a nice addition to any DiY library.

Here’s what a healthy septic system looks like and a clogged one.

It includes two tanks and a leach field (not pictured).  There are three layers to the sewage in the septic tank:  scum, liquids, and sludge.

The system gets clogged when either the scum layer at the top or the sludge layer at the bottom gets too thick.  Needless to say, you DON’T want a clogged system.

If you can’t get it pumped (can’t afford it, not available, etc.) and you aren’t squeamish (I’m not, I’ve shoveled quite a bunch of manure while cleaning cow stalls), you’ll need to be able to measure when it needs to be cleaned.  Here are two tools you can make to do that.

Based on my research, the layer that will cause you a problem is the scum layer (particularly if you use pumps to get to your leach field).  That layer gets thicker faster.  Fortunately, it’s also the layer that is the easiest to remove.  So, if you measure it and it needs to be removed, you can pull it off in sections as a mat (it floats).

Again, this is only if you have the stomach for it and you can’t afford to get it done for you.

Guerrilla Grafters

How can you improve the productivity of your community even if the officials are against it?

One way is through resilient disobedience.   For example, there’s a group of gardeners in San Francisco that are spreading organic graffiti across the city.  How?  By grafting branches from fruit trees onto ornamental trees that have been planted along sidewalks and in parks.

They are using a very simple tongue in groove splice that’s held together with annotated electrical tape.  Good luck to them.

Well, that’s all for today.  Get ready for the newsletter.  It’s going to be amazing.


Resiliently yours,




PS:  Here’s what is currently included in the re:char’s shop in a box:

  • A CNC table, working envelope 4’x4’x6”, capable of running a plasma torch or wood-cutting router.
  • Solar panels + batteries / inverters adequate to power the shop during prototyping / design (computers + 1-2 hand tools).
  • Generator adequate to power the shop during production (usage of welders, plasma CNC, etc.).
  • Transformers capable of scrubbing irregular grid power to a state where it is safe for use with shop-in-a-box.
  • 2 plasma torches, one for CNC use and another for hand operation. Each is capable of severance cuts up to 3/4? and sustained cutting in any thickness metal from 1/2? down to 22-gauge.
  • Full MIG, TIG, and oxyacetylene welding setups for joining a wide variety of metals.
  • Electronics prototyping, centered around through-hole components and arduino microcontrollers.
  • Desktop 3d printer.
  • desktop, aluminum-capable CNC router.
  • A wide variety of smaller tools: hand, power, and pretty much everything else you’d expect in a well-outfitted garage.
  • DVR with 4 cameras, mounted to easily capture and share all details of project builds.
  • All computers and software necessary to support the shop.

Further, the goal of the team is to build an API for the factory.  That means that once a design has been built in one of the factories, it can easily be build in all of them.


* For those that are interested, in one of my earlier careers I was a fairly successful technology analyst (after I was doing tier one special ops and before I started to build companies and write books).  As a measure of success, the research I wrote for Forrester sold $5 million in the first year of publication.  A better measure of success was that my clients loved it and it was so influential that Bill Gates personally tried to get me fired once (to the extant that success is sometimes measured by the enemies you make along the way).


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  • Marcus Wynne

    I’m all about resilient disobedience. What we do is seed vacant lots, abandoned/foreclosed/vacant house yards, edges of parks with hardy vegetables, seedlings, etc. Essentially leave them to grow on their own, and from time to time drop in and forage. Some guerrilla plots will do quite well, others not so much. It’s also a fun training project to go out and forage from the guerrilla plots and local plant life. It’s like geocaching with vegetables.

  • Jan Steinman

    I sorta giggle derisively when I hear of $290 biochar kilns.

    Most rural people who live in colder climates already have a biochar kiln. Better yet, their biochar kiln also produces organic fertilizer! And here’s the best part: they capture the “waste heat” from their biochar kiln to heat their house with — and even to cook with!

    It’s called a “wood stove,” folks.

    We solicit wood stove ash from around our locale, even offering to pick it up. Then we sift it, and then grind the charcoal bits into ~0.5 cm chunks. These get pre-charged with anthropogenic organic liquid urea, and then added to our soil-blocking mix.

    Meanwhile, the “ash” part that was sifted out of the biochar part is put in 20 litre buckets, mixed with water (we use an electric drill and a paint stirrer), and the water filtered off and added with more anthropogenic organic liquid urea, then diluted with five parts water, then pumped into dripline in our greenhouse. You should see the corn and tomatoes react to that!

    The remaining wood ash cake is then carefully mixed with our compost, or carefully spread on acid soil — it is a strong base, but unlike lime, it contains significant amounts of phosphorous, potassium, and trace nutrients.

    Urine and wood stove ash complement each other nicely for fertigation: urine is mostly nitrogen (although some potassium), whereas wood stove ash has no nitrogen, but lots of phosphorous and potassium — and also trace nutrients.

    The soil blocks get seeded, then transplanted into the field, where the “biochar” builds the soil.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Jan. Nice detail your production process. Got pictures you can send me? systemdisruption-web

      Woodstoves do produce biochar/charcoal, but inadvertently (during a shutdown process). The benefits of a kiln is that you can get the volume you want and you can use stuff you typically wouldn’t burn in your woodstove. JR

      • Jan Steinman

        Capice. I didn’t mean to be confrontational. But to me, a big part of resilience is avoiding the temptation to spend money on bright shiny new tekky things if you can achieve the same results with what you already have.

        My point is that there are more Permaculture-like ways of integrating biochar into your systems — stacking functions to get multiple benefits. Going out and buying a biochar processor smacks of the reductionist thinking that got us into this mess.

        I don’t think the native Amazonians set out to produce biochar — it was a happy side-benefit of other activity! The terra pretta soils of the Amazon basin were produced over centuries, not weeks.

        I think that should be our goal — improving things over centuries — but our individualistic nature makes us focus on four-score years — or next quarter’s earnings.

        A good airtight wood stove can be made to produce large quantities of biochar if you interrupt the combustion process, if you make that your goal. But should biochar be an end to itself, or simply a happy side-benefit of heat and fertilizer production? If you have to heat your house all winter anyway, does it matter if you can make a ton of biochar in a week using some new contraption that will require storage and maintenance, or if you can accumulate a ton of biochar over a heating season? “Slow and small solutions” is the Permaculture way!

        (Your point about using materials unsuitable for a wood stove is well taken. We may in fact do that with some of the Scotch Broom that conservation-types bring us for our goats. Currently, we chip and spread it, but if we could make biochar with it and heat our greenhouse at the same time…)

        Also, be aware that introducing unaltered biochar into soil will initially decrease soil fertility, because the activated charcoal soaks up nutrients and must become saturated before eventually releasing nutrients. This is why we pre-charge it with urine.

        • John Robb


          No problem at all. Understand your points and I really love your contributions.

          In terms of how I approach problems, I do believe that using the right tool for the job can be the difference between success and failure. I also love dual/tri/quad use tech.

          I also believe that resilience doesn’t mean zero technology. Why? Even simple tools like a hammer and nail are a form of technology. Tech is simply the use of found materials from the environment in novel ways.


      • Jan Steinman

        Is there something I need to do besides remove the space from that email address? Yahoo didn’t like it:

        “host[] said: 554 delivery error: dd This user doesn’t have a account”

        • John Robb

          Sorry, try it again w/o the space: systemdisruption-web


      thanks for the tip on the urine/biochar Jan, it makes perfect sense when you think about it. don’t know if you know about EM (effective microorganisms), but this might be a nice little addition to your recipe. been adding a tiny bit to urine (1:50) with an equal amount of sugar/molasses to ferment the urine in milk cartons until i’m ready to use it. supposedly, the EM loves biochar as it can live in its micropores.

      how frequently do you fertigate? do you find that different veggies respond to higher/lower ratios or do you stick to the 5:1?

    • El

      “anthropogenic organic liquid urea”

      Nice way of putting it 😉

      Anyway I’m interested in seeing the effects of biochar on non-tropical soils. Will it be as effective for growing a wide variety of temperate crops? My gut says yes, but that needs to be verified.

      • Jan Steinman

        “anthropogenic organic liquid urea”

        Nice way of putting it

        I tried that on our local organic certification examiner. “No dice,” she said.

        So we call ourselves “beyond organic,” and when people ask why we aren’t certified, we tell them organic certification standards are non-sustainable until they allow — indeed, require — closing the nutrient loop.

        Until then, we’re all just soil miners.

    • kunkmiester

      We had a bald circle in the back yard around a tree the previous occupants chained dogs to. Told my dad to spread the ash from the charcoal grill around there since he had a pile of it, it bloomed in a couple of years into weeds and has been green since.

  • Jan Steinman

    We have played with EM a bit. It seem a bit like a solution seeking a problem — or maybe the problem it solves is how to make revenue off the wild lactobacillus that thrive everywhere.

    We do use raw cheese whey in our compost and compost tea. It seems to work as well as EM, and costs $30/bottle less.

    We fertigate primarily based on supply. When I was the only one willing to pee in a bottle, it was very limited, but as others saw the benefits, the use went up.

    We don’t play with the ratio much, sticking to roughly 1 : 1 : 8 urine : ash : water, although if we want to put on greenery (say at the beginning of transplanting), we’ll just do 1 : 9 urine : water. Later, when things are fruiting, we might do 1 : 9 ash : water — but only if we have it.

    At 1 : 1 : 8, our final NPK is about 1 : 0.5 : 1, and I would have no trouble using that continuously — if we had the supply.

    Our goal is “no external inputs,” and between urine, wood ash, and goat manure, we are input-bound at present. So we just use as much of it as we have!


      thanks Jan. definitely agree with not buying the “EM” when it can be found everywhere. this guy Gil Carandang in the Phillipines has an e-book that teaches people how to grow/harvest their own:

      beyond the lacto-cultures, it seems that the key ingredient is purple non-sulfur bacteria (PNSB) which incidentally can be found in pond scum. one can make this themselves on a small scale by throwing some finished compost, biochar & some molasses in a 5 gal bucket, add water, cover and let sit in the sun until there is a reddish ring right under the surface of the water.

      the benefits of the micro-critters is that it helps break down the trace minerals into a collodial state so that the plant roots can “digest” them easier. they help make the soil more alive. this may not a problem for those who have already healed their soil over many years, but it may be very beneficial for those whose soils are sick after many years of neglect, erosion or bad practices.

      also agree that homeopathic doses over many years is a wise approach. i believe we must begin to retune ourselves into the way the earth actually operates vs. how we may want it to operate.

  • Lex

    Funny story: Last fall I was involved in a project that removed a small (25 MW) turbine from a decommissioned power plant. The unit was purchased by a Guatemalan sugar company. They use them during the harvest season to run the processing.

    If you’ve ever been near a coal plant, you know that they are foul, dirty places. The two forms of ash make their way into various products like concrete and have levels of all sorts of things you don’t want to be exposed to. In the sugar plantation plants, steam is generated by burning sugar cane. Jose told me that his plant is quite dirty too, except it springs to life when it gets wet. And instead of having a toxic waste product, the bottom and fly ash is minimally processed and then just spread back on the cane fields.

    I’ve contemplated biocharring in the yard, and farmer friends have contemplated it for addition into their fish viscera (local fishery and timber products) compost … Which already heats up enough to char the hard wood chips. $290 is steep for home use – not wood heat – but the charitable contribution balances that.

    • John Robb

      Thanks for the story Lex.

  • Mark

    Anyone know if biochar can be used in a high pH soil?

    • John Robb

      It’s a liming agent. So not unless you add to it.

  • Josh Kearns

    Hi John et al.

    I am researcher at Univ. of CO-Boulder and Director of Science for Aqueous Solutions, a small non-profit that develops sustainable and locally-self-reliant systems in water, sanitation, and hygiene (

    I am also probably the world’s current expert on the use of biochar materials in water treatment and eco-sanitation.

    Most recently I’m part of a team awarded a Reinvent The Toilet Challenge Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore the production and use of biochar in low-cost eco-santiation.

    I would invite you and others interested in this blog to view some materials on the production and use of high quality water filter biochar at:

    and contact me if you are interested to discuss further.



    • John Robb




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