Community Gardens: The Beginnings

Through the past few years The Gaia-Movement has had a small community garden outside of their warehouse and office facility. During this time we have become experienced with organic and permaculture gardening. We have also learned about the issues with the current food production and distribution system. It is only logical that we reach out farther into the community to spread the knowledge.

As we freeze through this winter we have to think about the warm spring and summer to come and start planning for planting in the spring. This year Gaia will work with different community groups to start and maintain community gardens, and promote local, healthy, and organic foods. Gaia will provide planning and advice, materials, and volunteers to make some great gardens with our partners.

7844 S Morgan Gaia will work with the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation ( to revamp this garden. This will be a community worked and maintained garden. It is an area where affordable fresh vegetables are rare. The garden will provide residents with healthy food, and Gaia will provide knowledge on healthy gardening.

First UMC Chicago Lawn Food Pantry The church will organize a summer camp for local youth. Gaia will create a garden that will be run by the campers and volunteers. It will be way to show local kids that they can grow their own food and eat healthy, while having a positive impact on the environment. Each week Gaia will teach lessons to the kids and teens as we are maintaining the garden. The vegetables will go to the food pantry and kids.

Clarendon Park Gaia is working with the Clarendon Park Advisory Council to start a garden at the park. Area residents will be able to use plots to grow their own organic vegetables. Gaia will advise and provide help to build the garden. We will also give lessons on different aspects of organic and permaculture gardening. If you live in the area and are interested in growing your own vegetables in a plot please contact me.

SEED Gaia will work with the community group SEED Inc ( to create a community garden in the area. SEED has been doing great things in Alabama, and is currently looking for a location for a garden in the Chicago area. Gaia will provide knowledge to create the garden, and give lessons to promote and teach permaculture to the community. SEED uses gardens not only to provide healthy food, but also to create more community involvement and unity.

Green Street The garden at Gaia’s warehouse and office will also be planted again this year. The garden is maintained by volunteers and Gaia employees. The food goes to the volunteers, employees, and a local food pantry. This year the garden will be rearranged to make room for the solar PV panels that will take up part of the garden. The fruit trees will be have to be moved, but this will allow us to create more of a forest garden setting, which is a permaculture technique.

We are at the beginning stages of The Gaia-Movement’s Garden Project that will be sustained and expanded over many years. Each garden started this year will be worked on to increase yield in the next years. Area residents will be trained to maintain the gardens; so we can start new gardens in the future. We will also keep all of the gardens and organizations connected to share ideas, and work together on projects like co-op’s and seed banks.

We know our partnerships will promote healthy, organic growing and eating habits; and provide many people with fresh, local foods that aren’t otherwise available.


Solar Space Heating: Working out a Design

The Gaia-Movement’s effort to create an Environmentally Sustatinable Warehouse will include installing a system to harvest and store the sun’s heat. This system will be used to heat the offices in the warehouse in a way that uses much fewer fossil fuels.

Many people have used many different techniques to harvest the sun’s energy, and have put their plans online. This allowed us to find the best system for our needs. We looked through many designs and found the basic one we thought was best for our situation. We then looked at other designs to get tips and features to improve and adapt our design.

Before we began planning our system it was helpful to know what we wanted to do, and our situation; then we could design a system that was right for us. We know we want to reduce our fossil fuel use to zero, or as close as we could get it, not just supplement our current heat sources. Our situation is to heat offices; which are larger than most rooms, but smaller than a home. So we decided to start with a system that was designed for a home, but could be adapted for our smaller need. Also, our situation in Chicago means long cold winters. So we have to have a system that works in the very cold, and doesn’t freeze. Because we know exactly what we want and need it was easier for us to choose a design that was just what we needed.

We have two offices in the warehouse; they are about 100 feet from each other. We quickly decided to have a heater for each office; otherwise we would have had to transfer the heat over a long distance from a central heat source to the offices. Neither office is very large; just large open rooms. We have natural gas furnaces that heat both of the rooms now.

We considered flat plate collector air heaters that use glass and metal to heat the air in a room. The flat plate collector uses sunlight magnified through glass to heat the metal which heats the air and sends it into the room. These heaters are inexpensive and good to heat a room. They have even been adapted for whole home heat. The downside is that there is no way to store the heat. If there is no sun there is no heat.

We also considered using a flat plate air collector to heat air that is sent into the furnace. This would reduce how much gas the furnace would have to burn to get the air warm, but it still has the problem of not having heat storage.

We then considered systems that use the sun to heat water, which is then used to heat the air in the room. The system will use a flat plate collector for water, it is similar to the one for air, but has pipes running along the metal sheet. Water can absorb more heat than air; this will compensate for any heat lost during the transfer to the room, and should actually be more efficient than an air heating system. Also, because water stays warmer longer than air, we are able to store heat in the water.

A Flat Plate Air Heater uses a metal plate under glass to heat air.
A Flat Plate Air Heater uses a metal plate under glass to heat the air.
A Flat Plate Water Heater with water pipes running back and forth to absorb the heat.
A Flat Plate Water Heater with water pipes running back and forth to absorb the heat.









The basic design of a solar hot water system has a collector on the roof that heats the water. The hot water then goes to the sinks and showers or to a back-up water heater that heats the water when the sun is not out. This basic system is adapted to suit the needs in the building, and the climate.

Deciding on a solar heating system that uses water comes with different design and building challenges. The two most important are that we have to make sure the system doesn’t leak, and that it doesn’t freeze during the winter. With regards to the former, the solution is to take care while we are building and assembling. Certain parts of the system will be made by us, so it is important to take our time and make sure there are no leaks.

People have used many different techniques to prevent their solar hot water systems from freezing. Two freeze protection designs we considered but did not use were a simple pump system, and an antifreeze system. The pump system has a timer or temperature sensor that turns a pump to circulate water when it gets near freezing. This is a very simple system, but if part of the system breaks, or we lose electricity the pump won’t turn on and we would lose the freeze protection. The antifreeze system is completely freeze protected, but had major downsides in the maintenance area. Every year or two the antifreeze would have to be changed. This not only takes time, but it can damage the environment with the chemicals in the antifreeze.

Finally, we decided on one of the more popular systems, a simple drain down system. We will store water in a large tank. When the sun is out a pump will turn on and pump the water through the collector, and back into the tank. When the sun is not out (and the pump is not on) the water will drain back into the tank. Because the tank and pipes are not pressurized we don’t have to worry about them bursting from ice in the pipes. This system solves our heat storage problem; the water in the tank will store some heat, which can be used if there is a cloudy day. This system is a little more complicated than some systems, but it is 100% freeze protected, and is less maintenance than other systems.

The hot water that is stored in the tank will be circulated through radiators in the room for space heat. We have designed a system that can store heat in the water tank for 2 or 3 days. We will keep our gas furnace as a back-up, but we hope never to use it again.

We examined and planned many systems before deciding on the drain-down solar hot water system. With advice from others and thorough design we are confident the system will greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the Gaia-Movement.


Water HeaterThe plan for Gaia’s Solar Heating system. The temperature control will turn the pump on when it is hotter at the collector than in the tank. The hot water in the tank will go to radiators in the offices. When the pump is not on all of the water will drain back into the tank.

The sun is the oldest form of heat, and we have been trying to optimize how much heat we can get from it for hundreds or thousands or years. But there has not been a lot of study of how to optimize heat gain, or a standard way to do so. The solar heater project at Gaia will be a challenge for us, and a learning experience. Future blog post will talk about our experience as we build the system, and how it performs once it is complete. My next post will get further into the specifics of the system and sizing.

We got information and advice from many others, it is only fair that we pass our experiences on to others.

New Windows to Hold in Heat

In an old warehouse, like the one that houses The Gaia-Movement’s operations, there are air leaks everywhere. The largest source of the leaks is from the windows. They are old; the caulking and sealing around them is cracking and missing; some panes are cracked, and fixed only with tape. All this adds up to lots of warm air from the inside going out.

Most of the windows are on the warehouse’s south face, which gives us a great opportunity to harvest the sun’s energy. Windows are one of the simplest and oldest forms of solar energy. Good clear windows will radiate the sun’s heat as it passes through, and the air in the room will become warm. Windows on south facing walls radiate the most heat, but you can get heat from windows on eastern and western walls also (it is opposite for the southern hemisphere).

The warehouse has another benefit with a concrete slab foundation. Concrete is denser than wood, and much denser than air. Because of this concrete will stay warm longer than the air; as the air temperature goes down the heat stored in the concrete will be released. Any of the concrete that the sun shines on through the window will store the heat, then if the sun goes away that energy will be released.

Energy Star estimates an average home can save 20% of heating and cooling costs with proper sealing and insulation. Can this happen at Gaia’s warehouse? Probably not, because in the past the staff at Gaia were reluctant to use the old heaters that were inefficient. However, the warehouse will now keep more heat in and be comfortable for volunteers and staff. New windows are just a part of a larger project to reduce heat loss that will also include adding weatherstripping, and sealing holes.

When replacing windows it is important to get windows that are proper for each application. Most windows are rated in different categories. The two most important are the U-Factor and the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC). The U-Factor is equal to 1 / R-Value (insulation value), so a lower U-Factor means the window has better insulating properties. Generally, it is best to get windows with the lowest U-Factors, but anything less than 0.4 is good. A low-e coating may be used to reduce the U-Factor farther by reducing the emittance of some light.

The SHGC is the fraction of the sun’s heat that is allowed through the window; a high SHGC will let a large proportion of heat through. The optimal SHGC varies depending on climate and placement. In warm climates it is important to get windows with a low SHGC so that most of the heat is not let into the building; in cooler climates it is just the opposite. In mild climates it gets harder to decide on the proper SHGC. For windows that are on north facing walls or are shaded the SHGC does not matter because very little of the sun’s heat actually reaches the windows.

Here is a good, simple table of the U-Factor and SHGC requirements by Energy Star.

Because of the cold climate in Chicago the new windows at Gaia’s warehouse have a low U-Factor, and a high SHGC. None of the windows face north, so all will have a large amount of the sun’s heat reach them. Also, the warehouse can be opened to allow for good ventilation in the summer, alleviating the effects from the added heat through the windows. Overall the new windows and the extra sealing will make the warehouse more comfortable during all seasons.

What is Photovoltaic Solar Electricity?

Usually when someone talks about solar energy they are referring to photovoltaics, shortened to PV. Photovoltaics use sun particles to create electricity. Since the sun will be shining for billions of years we can get infinite energy from the sun; unlike using fossil fuels that took billions of years to be created, but have been nearly used up in little more than 100 years. Photovoltaic electricity is also a clean energy because no pollution is created during the production of electricity.

In the U.S. almost 70% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas. These fuels are becoming harder to get, and the capture of them is becoming very dangerous from human and environmental health; this is why we are seeing a rise in fracking and capture from oil sands. Another 20% of our electricity is nuclear, which produces waste that is not safe for humans to even be near, and will not be safe for millions of years.

Only 10% of electricity in the U.S. is from renewable sources, and not even 1% is from solar power. Two-thirds of renewable electricity is hydropower, which affects the environment worse than solar or wind electricity. By using clean renewables, like photovoltaic and wind energy, we can have great impacts on the health of the environment we live in. However the amount of renewable energy we use has only increased a few percentage points. At the Energy Information Administration you can the amount of total energy we use by type, and the amount of renewable energy we use by type.

How Do Photovoltaics Work? Here comes the technical science stuff, but I will try to keep it to a minimum. If you want more of a explanation How Stuff Works has a good one that is not too technical. Almost all PV panels are made of cells made from silicon crystals. The crystals are grown in labs, and then sliced into paper thin wafers. As the crystals are grown they are infused with metals to create a crystal that has a slight charge, either positive or negative. A positive and negative wafer are placed on top of each other with a small gap left between them. Because of the charges, the protons (on the negative wafer) and electrons (on the positive wafer) line up along the face of the wafers next to the gap; this forms a barrier that electrons cannot cross. When a sun particle (photon) hits the positively charged wafer it knocks an electronPV Panel1 over the gap onto the negatively charged wafer. Because the electron does not have enough energy to jump back across the gap, the electron must go through the wires, and anything connected to the wires, to get back to where it wants to be, on the positively charged wafer.

PV cells are connected to make a panel, and panels are connected to make an array that provides power to a house, business, or utility. Because each cell only produces a little energy, many cells and panels are connected together for electrical production. Each cell only produces electricity when the sun is shining on it. When installing a system for a home it is common to install enough panels to provide for the electricity that is used in a year on the whole. So at night or if there are overcast skies no electricity is being produced, but when the sun is out more electricity is being produced than is being used at that time. The extra electricity is sold to the utility or stored in car batteries.

Silicon Crystal
A Silicon Crystal Bar
A Photovoltaic Cell

Although photovoltaic electricity is produced without emitting greenhouse gasses, or polluting our land and water, the PV panels have an environmental impact. The production and transportation of the panels uses resources and produces pollution waste. The panels are designed to last 30 years or more; at the end of their life they need to be disposed of properly. Many panels use lead to connect the PV cells, and may contain other harmful materials; improper disposal can contaminate our water, air, and land. Also, large scale solar farms affect the ecosystems where they are built, and can have a negative impact on the plants and animals living nearby. However, the negative impact of using photovoltaics is much less than the negative impact of using fossil or nuclear fuels. Therefore, it is important that we switch from these heavy polluters to more cleaner electricity sources, like solar PV. But, even when using clean energy we should not waste it in order to reduce the small impact clean energy has on the environment.

While there are many ways to harness the sun’s energy PV is the one most people think of first. However it is not the most widely used; anyone who has sat by a warm window on a cold winter’s day has used solar energy; anyone who has eaten fruits or vegetables grown outside has used solar energy. There are many ways to use clean solar energy. Gaia will be installing heaters that use the sun’s heat to heat office space.

Photovoltaics are a great way to provide electricity, with a minimal impact on the environment.  Clean, renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, are what is needed to curb climate change, and keep the Earth a clean, sustainable system. Follow Gaia as we install a photovoltaic system at our warehouse. Solar Electricity.

Gaia Will Install a Solar PV System

Over the next year Gaia will install a solar photovoltaic(PV) system for electricity. The suns energy is free, clean, and nearly infinite. By harvesting the energy Gaia will reduce our use of carbon and nuclear fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and become more sustainable.

The system will produce 11,500 kW’s of energy every year, covering about two-thirds of the electricity needed at Gaia’s facility. It will be mounted on raised racks outside of Gaia’s warehouse, near the community garden. This trellis system will provide shade when volunteers in the garden need a break, or when we, at Gaia, are eating lunch.

Gaia has worked with a great company, Microgrid Solar, on this project. The have designed and will install the system. Microgrid will also get funding for the project by applying for grants. The grants will cover most of the cost for the PV system; the rest of the cost will be paid back through reduced electricity bills. Visit Microgrid’s website,

While we want to get all of our energy for renewable sources it is not feasible right now. Our roof is not strong enough for panels, and we only have so much space outside. But the current system will go a long way to reducing Gaia’s carbon footprint. And, as Gaia learns about new technology we will be able to reduce our footprint further; our goal is to have an no carbon impact, and eventually to reverse the impact all humans have.

The entire process from first assessment to finally turning on the system will be long, but most of that time is waiting for grant approval or building permits. The installation time will be short. The current plan is to have the system finished, and the electric meters running backwards, in September 2015. As solar energy becomes more popular not only will system costs go down, but so should time waiting for approvals from organizations and government agencies. I know we all can’t wait until that happens. And we at Gaia can’t wait for September 2015.

What exactly is a solar photovoltaic system? . . . What are the advantages? . . . You’ll have to wait for the next post to find out.

Heating the Warehouse

Since beginning at our Green St location it has been impossible to keep the warehouse warm through the cold Chicago winters without burning a huge amount of gas. Now Gaia has installed heaters that will keep the staff warm, but not use more energy than is needed.

Anyone who has spent much time in warehouses knows that large open building spaces feel cold, no matter how much heat is used; anyone who has spent much time in old buildings knows that new air leaks are always found, regardless of how much sealing and caulking is done. With these two challenges it is no wonder why people can’t get warm at Gaia’s warehouse.

The gas heaters that Gaia had been using are holdovers from the previous owners of the building. There were two blower heaters that were meant to heat the whole warehouse; except they didn’t. They are large, old, and horribly inefficient. The only way the heaters would keep the warehouse warm was if they ran full blast, all day long.

Unpacking the new heaters

Because of the inefficiency of the heaters, and because the staff at Gaia are concerned about their environmental impact the heaters were only used when the temperature was extremely cold; even then the warehouse would still be cold, and much of the heat produced would be lost in the large area. Even if you are environmentally conscious it is hard to work if you are frozen; and it makes having volunteer projects impossible.

Rather than trying to heat the entire warehouse Gaia installed the new heaters to heat only the areas where staff is working, when they are working. Much of the space is use for storage, so it is a waste to heat the storage areas. Gaia has installed four radiant tube heaters in areas where work is being done. The old blower heaters spread the heat widely, with much of it being lost and spread too thin. The new heaters focus the heat below, where people are actually working. When work is being done in one area the heater for that area will be turned on, and a thermostat will control the temperature. When work is done in that area the heater is turned off. In the new system the heat is absorbed by the people, not the big, open, empty space.

The heater installed.

Not only do the heaters provide heat only where it is needed, they are much more energy efficient. Even if all four new radiant tube heaters were turned on they would use only half as much energy as one of the old blower heaters. We expect to use only 10 to 15% of the energy that would be used with the old blower heaters.

This new heat system at Gaia looked at the problem from a different angle, and found a solution that was common sense. Where previously the heating problem was only considered on a global, warehouse wide level, it was a more local, concentrated system that was the best option. We will learn from this, and now look at problems from more angles to find the best solution.

Education Center Put to Use

Last Saturday the remade education and recycling area was put into use for the first time. Volunteers initiated it by sorting toys and books to be given to kids in need this winter. The great group prepared 500 items for the kids. The toys and books will be given out all over the area in December.

See all of the photos at Flickr.

You can help. Come and prepare toys and books with us. Saturday, November 22, 9am – Noon. Sign up on volunteermatch.