A 1970s Pioneer in Self-Sufficient Living

Living in southern France, Jean Pain developed a self-sustaining ecosystem in the 1970s that supplied his home with 100% of the energy needed.

He built a 50 tons compost mound from chipped wood – brushwood that had to be cleaned out to lower the risk of forest fires. Heat exchanger pipes were buried in the heap while it was built. According to the book written by his wife Ida Pain about their experiments this pile was able to heat water at a rate of 4 liters per minute from 10°C to 60°C, and its power did not degrade within 6 months. The life time of one mound was about 18 months.

This translates to a power of about:

(60 – 10)K . 4,19 kJ/kgK . 4kg / (60 seconds) ~ 14kW

or an energy of

14kW . (6 . 30 . 8)h ~ 20,2kWh (in 6 months)

… equivalent to our yearly energy demands for room heating and hot water.

Jean Pain’s ideas seem to have ‘gone viral’ in the past 5-10 years. Since I have read about his compost pile the first time a few years ago several epigones have popularized his ideas. Here is a German and an American initiative.

That’s how it looks like, and how the pile is built (demo video by Ben Falk from www.wholesystemsdesign.com):

Video thumbnail: Compost heater built by Ben Falk.

Jean Pain also generated gas for cooking, and as fuel for his car motor and his electrical generator: A sealed vessel filled with pre-fermented compost was buried in the mound in order to produce gas. Jean Pain stored the gas in tire tubes.

The final remainder of the mound  was used as manure and mulch in his garden – he was able to grow vegetables like eggplants without watering.

Pain was an autodidact and he developed and built many machines himself, as the chipper that was required to generate very fine-grained chips of wood (he was awarded a prize at an agricultural trade fair for this invention), the electrical  generator, or the compressor used to fill the tubes.

According to these videos about Jean Pain it takes 1 hectare of forest 8 years to produce that much brushwood.

Jean Pain, The Power of Compost, Part 1. Video preview.

Jean Pain, The Power of Compost, Part 2. Video Preview.

So 8 ha would be required per home. A group of people worked for a few days to collect the wood, and 500 liters of fuel are burnt when chipping the wood. The pile needed 20 tons of water to get going.

Given today’s building standards, one might conclude that you better use the fuel burnt on chipping directly. Looking at that group of hard-working people, I think of aging home owners who want to replace their biomass-fuelled heaters by something more convenient. But these are not the essential points in my opinion.

Jean Pain’s method perfectly matched his era – after the oil crisis – and the heating demands of a standard house in Southern France at that time. It matched his personal convictions and talents, and his profession as a forester. And his wood was for free.

I can relate to this although or because our own solution is very different. But I know what it means to be driven by the quest for self-consistency in your life-style choices, your hobbies, and in the way you work.

Our ‘water-tank-powered’ heat pump system seems to be natural fit for those living fairly close to renewable sources of energy, such as wind power in Eastern Austria or Northern Germany, and whose premises don’t allow for building traditional heat sources for heat pumps easily. In contrast to Jean Pain’s pile a heat pump is attractive for those who just don’t want to deal with processing and storing wood logs or pellets. This is a personal choice, but the more rational, the less wood is available within a certain distance from your home.


Edit 2022: Fixed dead links, added preview images for videos.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Coincidentally I discovered last week that one of the buildings at Memorial’s Corner Brook campus is heated in a manner similar to the one you describe. In a somewhat-related way I spent about an hour yesterday reading all about the US glut of plutonium, It has a lot of it lying around with no particular user for it, so it seems, and is in quite a quandary about what to do with it. While one variant can be used as a heat energy source–238Pu produces around 1kW from a 2kg source–it’s simply not practical or safe to do so. I do believe, though, that some long-lasting space probes are powered this way. For the forseeable future I imagine it will just be left in storage.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks – so it seems that compost pile idea has really gone viral!

      In Austria there had been a referendum on nuclear energy about 35 years ago – *after* the first nuclear power plant had been built. But it never went live as the people decided against. A few years ago the “ruin” (and nuclear saftey training center) had been turned into a PV solar power plant.

  2. Fantastic article and close to my heart as we do similar home activities such as aquaponics (veg & fish), planted a small orchid (~45 trees and adding to them each year), soil rejuvenation, chickens, renewable energy (solar and wind).

    1. elkement says:

      Wow – in particular aquaponics is something I really admire!

  3. Yup … all of this is certainly possible. We had a large number of trees come down in a storm a few years ago. We cut much of the downed wood to be used in our stoves but there was also lots that was too small to he be used in this way. To take care of the small material we rented a chipper. When we were done we had quite a large pile … perhaps 20 x 10 x 4′. After a week of so of moderate temperatures I put my hand down, deep, into the pile … hot … hot … hot! Bacterial metabolism is an amazing thing! What may people don’t so to realize is that if you’re going to live your life the way Jean Pain does … it’s a full-time-job. Living sustainably is ‘what you do.’ It takes time, effort, and lots and lots of dedication. I suppose what most of us should hope for is that we can contribute in our own, comparatively small, way. D

    1. elkement says:

      I agree – I have once seen a Youtube video about a family in California who lived off their garden … that seemed incredibly tiny to me in relation to the number of people. They had a shower in the garden, using rain water, and such a water-free ‘washing machine’, and basically no electrical appliances in their kitchen. (But they weren’t Amish or something… there was no special philosophy behind it than trying to live most self-sufficiently.) They had PV panels for generating the absolutely necessary electricity, and they also sold some food to restaurants to cover the costs of things and services they cannot produce.
      As you said, this was their full-time job and a very different life – especially feeling the dependency on nature… e.g. when a hail storm damages your crop.

      1. Certainly one is at the mercy of nature when one chooses to live so close to it. Crop failures and very wet or very dry conditions can spell the difference between success and failure. And what happens when there isn’t any safety net? Also … I just took another look at my initial comment to you … and it was FULL of typos. Please forgive me, I need to think and type more slowly … or, at the very least, I need to proof read what I write! D

        1. elkement says:

          I would also wish for an an option to edit typos… WP adds so many features all the time – why not this one ;-) ?

    2. Joseph Nebus says:

      We’ve been using the wood from a neighbor’s tree that fell down in an ice storm years ago for our occasional fireplace fire since. But that’s really more an affectation than a serious means of heating, or we’d have used the wood up a long time ago. But for a couple winters’ free wood supply that’s hard to beat especially as the tree might well have smashed the garage in a second time or worse.

      1. Hey there Joseph. We’ve been heating exclusively with wood for nearly twenty years. We’ve always appreciated wood heat but, as we get older, the equation that has always, on balance, leaned toward wood is beginning to shift, just a little bit, the other way. The cutting, splitting, stacking, and hauling is lots of work for just the two of us. We use a cook stove in the kitchen from September through May. We use the really big stove in the living room when the weather really turns bitter. Both stoves heat the second floor via vents in the ceiling – there is no other source of heat upstairs but the two stoves keep the bedrooms nice and warm. To this point, the economy of wood heat has kept us burning wood. Here in Pennsylvania we can purchase enough pole wood for our seasonal needs for about $800. Granted, there’s lots of work that goes into cutting and splitting but we spend lots less on heat than many of our neighbors. And, as Joanna says, there’s nothing quite like wood heat. I’m not a real fan of the particulates that our stoves produce but I believe the carbon footprint of our domestic heating is much smaller than it would be if we were to turn to fossil fuel alternatives. D PS: I write this reply by the warmth of our cookstove. It is 70F in the kitchen and it feels rather nice. It’s 35F and falling outside.

        1. elkement says:

          Local building code required us to have an “emergency chimney”, so we made the best of that and installed a stove whose design is a bit unusual (cylindrical, looks a bit like a steampunk motor). It’s used to get rid of the wood which is a remainder of rebuilding the attic and turn it to a second storey – and some abandoned trees. Not so different from your approach, Joseph ;-)

          Here in Austria new heating systems picked by “biomass enthusiasts” are typically wood pellets stoves: for convenience reasons (fully automated) and because their quality, humidity etc. is tightly controlled and thus efficiency is optimized and emission of particulates is minimized. In addition to that, ceramic stoves are quite popular – for heating a single room and as beautifully designed objects (in the area were I live there are many artisans building those), but not as a central heating system as pellets furnaces are.

  4. M. Hatzel says:

    Interesting post. I’d certainly enjoy more like this if you are inclined to ever write more. I’ve encountered stories of dairy farms converting the manure ponds into heat sources that provide for the barns. As the waste breaks down it is later spread on the hay fields to give nutrients back to the cattle’s food sources. I like these self-sustaining business models, and the creative use of resources. What is most interesting about any of these stories is what you also observe about Pain–that what he did fitted who he was.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michelle, I’m glad you liked it! I am very interested in self-sufficient living viewed from a holisitic perspective, so I hope I will keep writing about such ideas. I try not to get attracted too much by some geeky / engineering aspects only and keep an eye on the big picture. Actually, I found this story when random googling about compost a long time ago – marvelling about the heat delivered by our very small compost pile and how to integrate it with out other ideas :-) I think it is very hard to live self-sufficiently, but even more to live “self-consistently” – e.g. scrutinizing and picking employers or clients accordingly.

      I have read about edible plants recently, tasted what my lawn has to offer, and was delighted – even in late October! So I might venture into some realms I am really not qualified for in next spring, just reporting on trial and error. My dream is to plant eggplants (as Jean Pain) as I like these so much – but they are more the holy grail of gardening if you don’t want to plant them inside a green house. But my first “science” experiment ever as a kid was ot grow beans (and pollinate them myself, using a pencil!) – so I might have some hidden penchant for agriculture. I admire those pioneers of sustainable living who consider the full circle of live. This is in stark contrast to those who “want to get rich fast” by running biogas-powered generators. You get gov. subsidies for that in Austria as you are rewarded by electrical energy fed into the grid, but it motivates people to collect all kinds of biological waste, carting it around for too much kilometers than it is ecologically sound, and finally create residues that are actually toxic. I agree – you should process your own waste and distribute it again on the same land you use for growing what you need.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.