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Permaculture, a Step by Step Change, Part II – Further Steps: Solar Heating, Easy and Cheap

The most important step

Maybe the most important step in the permaculture change is mindset. The day you get motivated to follow into a life of change towards freedom from the grid, the system and advertising; that day you will have taken the first and most important step in the permaculture change process.

When your mind settles into the permaculture mode, you will begin to see things differently. You will start to question every action you take and everything that happens in your surroundings. It is thrilling. You begin to learn that there is another way of doing things. You rise out of the bubble, let yourself look behind the petroleum revolution and understand that before oil, gasoline, fertilizers and plastics, there was a civilization going on, and it didn’t need great quantities of energy to function.

Some say that countries in the third world are 200 years behind in development from the first world ones. You can look at these places. They have whole lives with food, transport and internet. They just pollute less; use a fraction of the energy developed countries use, and are closer to green living. If they have to change abruptly, it may be easier; since they’re accustomed to living with less.

So, our change of mindset must begin with learning that we must not waste. Everything you waste exacerbates the problem. If you go to a restaurant and order food for two people and leave half of what you paid for, even though you paid for it, it is waste. Someone had to plant it, harvest it, transport it, store it, cook it and serve it on a fancy plate. After that, someone else will have to deal with garbage and its consequences.

Sure, it is nice to press down the accelerator of your guttural and raw V8. G forces mount up, the speed rapidly rises and your heart pumps with adrenaline. Nice feeling. The thing is that we haven’t had our hangover yet, but surely it will come. Sooner or later… maybe sooner than you think.

A change of mindset, as with everything, is a step by step process. I am not implying that you should change your car to a Smart ForTwo Electric and get rid of your microwave oven the next morning. No. It might be somewhere down the road, after you have taken a few more steps on the transitional path.

The idea is that, if you have a permaculture mindset, then you will start to change small things, one after another and when time has passed, you will look back and see that you have changed a lot of things in your life… and maybe you will be driving an electric car, or you may have found a way to not need a car and travel by bicycle instead…. No one ever knows.

Your change must suit you. You must feel whole, happy and content with your change. No one can impose their change scheme on you. You should be aware of the changes you want to apply in your life, and when you do, you must feel happy.

Let’s then move on to our further steps.

In this edition, I will guide with you a small change that you can implement at home (or better, when you build your home), that will give you savings in energy bills.

Solar heating made easy and cheap

Even if you live in the desert with scorching temperatures at noon, at night you will always experience lower temperatures.

Depending on your location in the world, your system will be simpler or may require a few more steps.

The beauty of permaculture is that it encompasses knowledge from every discipline. Here I will describe how I converted some patches of garden into solar heaters in order to regulate temperature in my home — a home that is located at 5,600 feet above sea level, here in Guatemala.

Even though we live at quite high altitudes, we are located in the tropics, therefore our temperature fluctuations are not that wild. We have our coldest nights at 3°C and our hottest days at 27°C, so no one will die of hypothermia or heatstroke. Nevertheless, if you can invest some time and thought in making your temperature variations less noticeable, it will be very much appreciated.

So, if you wish to heat your home a little bit without energy costs, then you could consider following the next steps and making a solar heating system for you and your loved ones.

Step one: Find out the sun’s angle on the coldest day

Observe where the trajectory of the sun is. On colder days, the sun will be more oblique and it will hit your home from a different angle than on hotter days. If you want to calculate the angle of the sun at the shortest day or the longest day, you can use the following simple formula:

  1. Find your latitude.
  2. Add 23.5° to your latitude and then subtract the result from 90°, the result is the angle at which the sun will be at the shortest day of the year — on the winter solstice.
  3. To find the angle at which it will be on the summer solstice, subtract 23.5° from your latitude and the result you must subtract from 90°.


Guatemala is at an average of latitude 16° north. On winter solstice, the sun will be at 23.5+16= 39.5; 90-39.5=50.5° over the horizon.

Peru is at an average of latitude 10° south. On winter solstice, the sun will be at 23.5+10=33.5; 90-33.5=56.5° over the horizon.

The interesting thing is that while in the northern hemisphere we have winter by December, in the southern hemisphere they´re having hot days, in mid-summer. Talk about a white, white Christmas….

So, you already know where the sun passes on the coldest days of the year. This should be your guide for where to place your sun collectors.

Step two: Find the right spot

Decide where in your house you can collect full sunlight when the angle of the sun is near the number you calculated with the formula in step one.

You shall then close this area with transparent material. You can use glass, polyethylene, PET or polycarbonate. If you find recycled PET in large sheets, this may be the best as the carbon footprint may be lower.

Step three: Transfer heat

If you collect heat, you should use it. You’re using the greenhouse effect to heat up your home. You can build an external small room to collect the sun’s heat, or you can use an inner garden.

If it is an inner garden, then you can let the heat transfer through the house when you open the windows. This is how we did it at my home. Look at the pictures of before and after.



The images won’t make sense to you yet, until you see the shot below, which shows the top of our miniature courtyard (the courtyard you can see through the window in the ‘before’ shot above):

This is the view from the top

We have had a temperature balance that has kept my wife happier on the coldest days.

If you use an outside greenhouse, you can transfer heat with large tubes that can carry high volumes of air. You can use sheet metal tubes, PVC or other materials. Just make sure you insulate them so heat is not lost when you move the hot air from the greenhouse.

Depending on your need of heat, you can use a larger area and blowers. We do not need this, since our temperatures are not that extreme, but with freezing temperatures you might want to use everything that is at hand.

Step four: Modulate

Depending on your needs, you should take further steps in order to modulate your heating.

Since we have hotter days, we need to leave small windows that can be opened for ventilation on these high temperature days; otherwise we could use it as a sauna. If you are in the same situation, provide for fresh air ventilation or for shade when the hot days come.

You can see in the picture of our sun-closet that we have a piece of cloth working as shade, since days are very hot lately.


For colder days, you shall be able to close your ventilation opening hermetically. Any small amount of cold air could lower your temperature drastically. You may even want to put double transparent ceiling and walls (in the case of a greenhouse).

Step five: Other uses

As I said in the last paragraph, you may find other uses for your system. I will build another one to be used as a sauna, since we love to have a nice sauna bath every now and then.

You can also use your area as a solar clothes dryer, as we have done. You may see our picture below. We haven’t found the need to close it on the front, as you can see. This is because it is very efficient and we barely use our clothes dryer. Maybe two to four days a year (when there is too much rain and our children’s school uniforms do not dry out).

Solar Clothes Dryer

Other steps: Your ingenuity

You may find lots of uses for this kind of system. You can make it smaller to dry food, or larger for other uses like planting your tomatoes. The main idea is that you, with your new mindset, can use nature’s free resources for your benefit.

I hope this is helpful and that you happily get your hands at work.

Please share your experiences, either good or not so good.


  1. Solar clothes dryer!!!! I have been thinking about just that and you have helped put a good picture to what to set up!

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