Enter the House of Pain

Jean Pain that is.  Until Ed posted some links a few days ago in the Hoop House Comment-palooza I had never heard about Jean and his wife Ida.  Wow am I glad he tipped me off.  Thanks Ed!

Jean Pain worked during the late 60’s and through the 70’s in the Provence region of France caretaking a large track of dry land forest.  This forest, as much of the Mediterranean rim was very prone to fire and Jean worked to remove brush to cut down the risk of catastrophic fire events.  Leaving the brush piles in the forests here in temperate Wisconsin would allow it to decompose readily, but in the very dry conditions in his area, carbon is cycled more readily by fire than biological decomposers.  Being a tinkerer and rogue spirit, he then sought ways to use that “waste” wood for something useful and began experimenting with methane gas production and composting.

Jean would make MASSIVE compost piles – up to 80 cu meters! – of water soaked shredded brush built around a 10′  tank filled with a slurry of compost and water that he would use to produce methane gas.   Temperature in the methane digester was regulated by wrapping coils of tubing around it and then another several hundred feet of tubing laid in coils throughout the pile.   Water would be pumped through the tubing cooling the tank, with the “waste” heat being used for space heating of the Pain’s home, greenhouses, and for their household hot water – average temps in these massive piles was 140 degrees!  These piles would then produce methane gas and 140 degree water for up to 18 months – in enough quantity for him to heat his 1000 sq ft home for 2 winters and produce enough methane gas for all their cooking and transportation needs.

I am still digging for more information on the Pains, and it seems you can get 90% of the availible information digested in about 90 minutes.  If anyone has a line on Jean Pain’s 88 page handbook “Another Kind of Garden”  you have found a buyer…

Start with the You Tube videos which are  low on quality due to their age, but super high on content:

Part 1

Part 2

Then go to my perrenial favorite storehouse of Information to Save the World:

Journey to Forever

And end up at:

The Permaculture ActivistMother Earth News

and finally Wikipedia.

Put it all together and it is no wonder why I am so in love with this guy: using waste wood to save the world by a beautiful mix of applied forestry, some Grade A tinkering, gardening, commercial scale composting, methane digestion, wrap it all up in a permaculture design 10 years before the word was coined, and add a healthy mix of military surplus trucks and wheel barrows for good measure.  Jean tracked his methods with a true scientific rigor – measuring inputs of petrol, liters of water and the rate, size and weight of the compost piles, and constantly worked to improve his designs.

Here are some questions that I hope to answer in my studies and through those that know more about Jean’s work:

  • How the heck did he get a pile to heat to 140 that has a C:N ration of 80:1?
  • How the heck did he keep it there for up to 18 months?
  • Why doesn’t the pile go anaerobic due to its size?
  • Where can I get a truck like the one in the opening shot of Part 1?

Is one of these in my future?  I think we found yet another reason that a commercial grade chipper may be making it into the Hoop House Business Plan…

Be the Change!


18 Responses

  1. # How the heck did he get a pile to heat to 140 that has a C:N ration of 80:1?

    I had 20 cubic yards of fresh wood chips delivered to my house once. They got extremely hot, even though they were mostly wood chips, with just a bit of green leaves. Size matters with compost. They didn’t stay hot for long, but I spread most of them immediately because I was afraid they would catch fire.

    # Why doesn’t the pile go anaerobic due to its size?

    I tried to smother a fire once with wood chips, as part of a biochar experiment. You would be amazed how much oxygen gets through three feet of wood chips.

    Here is a youtube link titled “500 hot showers from a small compost pile” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Jm-c9B2_ew

    • After rewatching the footage like 8 more times, it dawned on me that they are cutting the brush green – that is a significant nitrogen load as anyone who has walked through a brushy understory knows. That would explain #1 – the C:N is likely much closer to 40:1 or lower.

      For #3 I agree – and the (relatively) large particle size would also explain why the piles I’ve seen at Growing Power and similar sites seem to stay aerobic in piles far larger than one would think. Pockets of anaerobic digestion would increase as the piles, ad there for particle size, break down, but given the “build and forget” maintenance regime it seems like a fair trade off for 12-18 months of heat and gas.

  2. I am so very glad you are researching this! I know it is for you, but my local high school is getting back into FFA and the agricultural part of FFA. They decided in the early part of the 00’s to get rid of actual animal husbandry and launched the whole program into IT. Now they are realizing that actually knowing how to raise livestock, how to garden and farm, and how to do those things sustainably are the necessary skills our rural children need.

    I am reading with great interest your research as the school hopes to put together a tilapia/greenhouse/composting/fill in the blank set up as you are also hoping to do. They tried raising tilapia several years ago but didn’t do their research enough to realize that being a tropical fish, they wouldn’t survive our winters without heat.

    We are having trouble keeping an Ag teacher, but I am considering getting involved as a volunteer/teaching assistant merely because I’ve invested so much time and energy into this myself, and I firmly believe our children need to have these skills, and soon. I spent many years as a TA at the high school level before my current career so I know I can do it from the interacting/tutoring aspect.

    • TFHS – glad to hear you’re excited! I rally hope that we move forward with this – financing seems to be falling in to place, we are just firming up site selection from a short list of 2-3.

      That FFA sounds really great – do you have room on your plate for anything else?! Your energy and experience would be a great addition.

      Will keep you posted!

  3. Here’s a design for a compost based water heater in a wheelie bin (home trash can). The original purpose was to heat an aquaponic fish tank.

    In my experience, compost in plastic bins becomes anaerobic and vile. The climate in new South Wales is dry; perhaps low humidity helps.

    Ecofilms makes awesome permaculture DVDs

  4. As far as a copy of “Another Kind of Garden” you download a pdf of it from a link on Build it Solar.


    It’s down near the bottom of the page with more links/articles on Jean Pain.

    Keep up the great work.

  5. […] since heated the water up to as high as 110 degrees, and is still at 102.  If you have read any Jean Pain, you will be thinking what we are – if you can get 55 gallons of water to 100-105 degrees, […]

  6. […] up 20 degrees in one week back to 95 degrees.  I am certain we can make methane in this system. Jean Pain’s work WILL live […]

  7. […] Posted on May 11, 2010 by onestraw I’ve posted before about my infatuation with Jean Pain’s work and my desire to try to recreate his experiments here in Wisconsin.   Actually, when you break […]

  8. […] are several really unique things that Jean Pain did in his methods, most of which I will try to capture.  First – he used brush.  At first […]

  9. […] Methane Midden: Epic Shit & Jean Pain Composting Posted on May 20, 2010 by onestraw Jean Pain was a visionary in the Provance region of  France during the 1970′s.  He was charged with […]

  10. […] proud owner of a dump truck of green wood chips [Onestraw] went about building his own version of Jean Pain’s thermal compost pile. The idea is to produce and store methane generated from the compost pile but in order to do so, […]

  11. […] proud owner of a dump truck of green wood chips [Onestraw] went about building his own version of Jean Pain’s thermal compost pile. The idea is to produce and store methane generated from the compost pile but in order to do so, […]

  12. […] summer I built the Methane Midden which was inspired by Jean Pain’s epic work in 1970 France.    It was big, it was a little insane, and ultimately it didn’t […]

  13. Does anyone have the PDF of “Another Kind of Garden” by Jean and Ida Pain? All links to d/l or buy this book are either broken or the book is not available for sale. I found one used copy on Amazon for $200.
    Please email me if you have a PDF file you can send.
    French or English version, either will work.
    I am an arborist in NW Washington, and am very interested in trying Pain’s method. Thanks!

    • Emailed. Straying far from Jean’s methods results in failure or significantly reduced results. Use small trunk (.5-.75″) green, leafy material. Soak the material for days. Make the piles HUGE. Still have only had mixed success – my brush was too woody last time. Good luck!

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