Thursday 24 August 2023

Taking the plunge


Every year as summer digs its heels in and the temperature sits in the high 30's (°C) day after day with barely a cloud to be seen, we fantasize about the relief that having a pool would bring us. As it is currently, the best way of coping is to sit indoors with the shutters closed and artificial light on from when the sun hits us mid-morning until the sun finally drops below the hills opposite, an hour before official sunset. 

Last year (2022) the summer here was BRUTAL in central Italy. We had three months without a single drop of rain, quite high humidity and temps approaching 40°C for the entire time. It was an ordeal that impacts my depression. On top of this I am a self confessed collapsenik and follow avidly the current unravelling of our current civilisation and the ongoing derangement of the climate. As such I've been reading about the increasing danger of wet bulb temperatures as the climate worsens and throw into the mix the return of El Nino this year it made me seriously consider finding some way of cooling down at home without any further delay.

One of the main obstacles to us turning this idea into a reality has been the land we have around us. Italy is 41% hillside, 23% plains and the rest mountain. We occupy a tiny bit of the 41% and as such there is very little flat land here other than a small lawn in fron of the house, which is practically our dog's. Neither is it very big. 

I forget now what series of thoughts lead to the lightbulb moment but I was soon searching the internet for 'IBC pools' as a space saving alternative.

For the uninitiated, IBCs or 'intermediate bulk containers' are plastic containers inside a metal cage mounted on a pallet and are roughly a metre cubed in size and can hold 1000 litres of liquid and can be stacked for transport. Other sizes are available but these are the most common. Note that they come on three types of pallet. Wood, Plastic or metal. I strongly recommend either of the latter as in the picture below as the wood ones tend to rot after 3-4 years.
Cisterna IBC 1000 Litri in plastica, rigenerata con otre NUOVA, coperchio 150 mm, valvola di scarico 2", pallet in metallo, colore neutro, Tipologia: Otre Nuova e Gabbia Rigenerata, Capacità: 1000 Lt, Tipo Pallet: Metallo, Ø Coperchio (mm): 150, Omologazione ADR: NO, Colore: Neutro vendita, produzione, prezzi e offerte

We've already acquired more than 20 of these, used so far as growing containers in the garden having had the tops cut off and for harvesting rainwater from the house roof. As such I already knew of two suppliers selling them second-hand for very little money, around €30 each.

IBC raised bed
However (WARNING) you can't be sure what was sitting in them before you get hold of them. It could have been an innocuous food product or something incredibly caustic. While I have carefully pressure washed every container we've previosuly bought I wanted to be doubly sure that if  we were going to spend hours sitting in one filled with water there was no danger. After some searching I found suppliers of new IBCs but then also stumbled across a company nearby selling second hand cages with brand new food grade plastic containers inserted for half the price of a new unit. We paid €130 per IBC. 

We decided the site them at the north side of the house so that they would be mostly shaded during the day so as not to warm the water too much. It was also a small dead space between the rainwater harvesting IBCs and the fish pond. Seemed ideal! We had space for three IBCs so we bought three of them.

Having already found a few posts online of people making their own plunge pools I had a vague plan of how to proceed but the most helpful was this one on Instructables, although this plan included a heating element for using during colder months, not something we wanted.
We prepared the tanks by marking a level line around the cage and plastic tanks. Removed the plastic containers, cut the cages with a grinder and the plastic tanks with a jigsaw.

So with the tricky items sourced it's time to consider the rest of the bits and pieces and for that you need to consider water hygiene. 
With a small paddling pool you can simply dispose of the water and refill regularly. But with anything of a considerable size that amounts to a lot of water wasted. Given that when cut down to size we would use around 750 litres in each tank (total 2250 litres) then we needed to consider maintaining the water for the entire season.

There are two weapons in our armoury here: Chlorine and Filtered pumps.

Chlorine is excellent at keeping pathogens at bay and the water safe for sitting in but it's not without inherent issues that need monitoring. It will gradually reduce the PH of the water and soon it will become too acidic if not kept in check. So if using chlorine you need a means of testing the PH. Whether a digital tester or some simple strips that work like litmus paper.

With that in hand you need a way of amending the PH. Given that chlorine reduces it we have found we only needed to increase it this year, which we did by adding Bicarbonate of soda a tablespoon per day and re-testing until it sat in the sweet spot between 6-8PH. You can buy crystals for this exact purpose that I suspect would be a quicker solution. Equally you can buy crytals to lower the PH. I guess if you over dose one way you can counter it with the latter.

So, now we have chlorine in the water using floaters (pictured below) and slow release chlorine tablets inside them which last around one week.

Next you should consider a pump and filter combination. If chlorine left sitting in 'still' water it can quickly form Hyrdochloric acid. Even with my pathetic level of Chemistry knowledge I understand this is far from ideal for sitting in.

The way you combat this is to have a pump circulating the water keeping it moving, it stops the free chlorine bonding with water to form the aforementioned acid.

There are many types of pumps, some with and some without filters. If they have filters either they are sand or cartridge. Also pumps are rated at cycling a certain amount of water per hour.

We chose a pump that could pump a little more per hour than we had in total in the tanks and with a sand filter as these are low maintenance and the sand apparently lasts seven years before becoming less effective and needing replacing.

Not having too large a pump is important as this negatively impacts electricity consumption.

Once you have your 'pool' and pump/filter you need to connect them.

This is somewhat easier if you only have one 'pool' or IBC but not much more difficult with two or three.

Each pool needs an inlet and and outlet and for these you can find the 'jets' available online as you can with all the fittings needed. It seems here in europe there are two principle manufacturers, Intec and Bestway and from my experience their parts seem interchangeable.
NOTE: at this stage of planning you need to make sure that the pump, jets, taps and tube all have the same diameter. We used 38mm but 34mm would work fine in this setup.

You will need to cut a hole of the appropriate size into the plastic containers to accept these jets and make sure they sit in a position where there are no cage bars. So with the plastic containers inside their cages take a rubber washer from one of the jets and mark the holes by drawing around the inside of the washer while holding it against the plastic container. I installed the inlet jet higher up the wall and the outlet a little lower. This seems to be the standard with purchased pools and i guess and floating matter that needs filtering gradully sinks so this makes sense.

With the holes marker you can cut them either with a jigsaw, holesaw or with a steady hand a stanley knife works by pushing the blade through the plastic. I did the latter but be careful about mistakes, they would be tricky to remedy.

With the jets installed, you can connect the pump using the correct sizee tubing (either 34mm or 38mm) directly to the rear of these jets or you can add a tap so that you can close the pools off from the pump for any maintenance without draining the pools down, we did this and have already been thankful we did. I recommend the type of tubing below that has a cut point every metre that leaves you a collar either side of the cut to fit a jubliee clip.

If you have just one IBC you're ready to go. If not then you need to connect them in series using T pieces of the correct diameter.

If you have two IBCs then you will need two T pieces, for every IBC in addition you need two more T pieces. Having three IBCs we needed four T pieces.


38mm T connectors with jubilee clips

With the pools in place and LEVEL and the pump connected and filter filled with sand we filled everything with water, primed the pump (as per instruction booklet), opened the taps and switched on the pump.

After fixing a couple of leaky joints, it was ready for use and what a relief it's been this summer. We put in a couple of robust plastic stools so that you can comfortably sit inside with water up to chest height. You can see from the photo below that it's possible to drop in from the deck onto the stools. Depends how agile one is of course and this setup is purely because the deck is on top of the adjacent rainwater catchment tanks.

Next year I will most likely fit a ladder such as this to allow easy access into one of the pools for any visitors unable to clamber in and out without one. This will fix to the deck and descend into an IBC nicely.
If you are installing the IBC in a more freestanding setting the an even cheaper option for easy access could be standard pool ladder such as this below.


The water has ranged from 20-27°C this summer, entirely weather dependent and seems the night time temps are the largest factor. Even at the high end it's still very much cooling given that normal body temperature is 36-37°C. At 20°C it takes a little more commitment to sit into (a large pool you can simply jump in, these you need to sit down which is a whole other thing) but the benefits of cold water immersion are now becoming well documented so I'm embracing my inner Wim Hoff. Although he'd laugh at the 'warmth' of these pools, he prefers ice in his.
Fever - What you need to know - Rossmax | Your total ...

Once this season is over I'll leave the water to stand for three days or more to allow the Chlorine to gas off leaving the water safe for watering plants or storing for next spring in other IBCs that we will have below in the garden. I'll cover them over for winter and winterise the pump before freezing temps arrive. When spring arrives i'll give them a thorough clean and refill.

So what has this project cost?

The IBC tanks were €130 each
The pump €180
Pump grade sand €25
The jets (one pair) €25
The taps for the jets (one pair) €50
The T pieces (one pair) €12
The tubing €25
TOTAL €435 for one pool, each extra pool adds around €180

I must add that these costs excluded a little concrete so that i could make 8 level pads for the IBCs to sit on and the decking on the photo from you descend. Next year i'll probably clad the in reclaimed pallet wood and fix boards around the top edges as per the instructables article above.
SO...Worth it? Unequivocally. Why? Well, in the coming years these little pools could literally be a lifesaver as the climate deranges further. Deaths from heat in the exceed deaths from shootings (trying to remember where I read this, will update blog when I've found it), and there are around two mass shootings per day on average in the U.S. but i'm digressing slightly.
As I've already said at the top of the post. Prior to this year, summers were a case of putting the house into complete darkness during the day and sitting indoors. When this scenario is three months long it makes the summer a season to dread. This year however these pools have changed that. We still need to put the house into darkness of course, but we need not fear going outside and getting hot. We can consider doing some small activities knowing we can instantly cool down. Activites that we would otherwise have avoided as we had no convenient way of cooling quickly. The summer has just become less dreadful. Sitting in the pools with a book, enjoyable even. 

Any questions of clarifications then comment below please and i'll aim to improve the post.

Saturday 14 August 2021

Melting moments

As  I sit down to write this blog post the temperature gauge is reading 40.3C outside, and we have yet to reach the hottest point of the day. In the last week we've had a run of particularly hot weather, and the temperature has already exceeded 40C at least twice in the last couple of days. We barely know what to do with ourselves. From about 10am every day the house is plunged into darkness as we go around closing all the windows, the shutters, and doors to keep both the sunshine and the hot air out, and it stays like that until about 8pm when the evening air just starts to cool down slightly and we rush around the house throwing open all windows and doors to capitalise on the temperature differential. So, for the best part of 10 hours each day we've been hiding indoors in what feels like a cave through lack of natural daylight - yet it isn't anywhere near as cool as a cave should be or would be! 

Of course, looking around at the rest of the world we know we are not alone in this extreme heat, and in fact we realise we should be grateful that the mercury has "only" hit 40C. This week in Sicily the temperature reached a record (for Europe) 48.8C. I simply cannot imagine how uncomfortable that must feel - even earlier this week when we took a trip into Pescia for some shopping it almost felt as if my eyeballs were burning. Thankfully, here in our area we have not been affected by forest fires this summer (so far at least - and long may it continue that way), whereas so many other places around the world have not been so fortunate.

So it's a Saturday afternoon and we are stuck indoors - having spent Saturday morning driving around in the car with the air conditioning on (not something we usually treat ourselves to - usually having the windows open in the car suffices, but today we gave up on that after 10 hot and sweaty minutes and resorted to the A/C - that is with the exception of when we came to one particularly steep hill at which point we had to turn the A/C off in order to give the struggling car a fighting chance to make it to the top of the hill!). Our mission this morning was to try to find a small fan (mission accomplished, and in a blissfully air-conditioned electricals shop to boot) so that this afternoon, Stuart can attempt to make a DIY swamp cooler.

Last week Stuart successfully made a DIY air con unit that runs by blowing air over a block of ice inside a coolbox; this weekend it is the turn of a swamp cooler, which uses water evaporation to cool the air, rather than needing to rely on blocks of ice (which only remain blocks of ice for a limited period). Here's the theory:

And here's how the coolbox air con unit was made:

One cool box.

A cool box, a fan and a piece of plastic pipe.

Hole cut in the lid for the fan.

And a hole cut in the lid for the pipe outlet.

Fan and pipe inserted

Ice added to the cool box.

Cooling air.

We are thankful that, while the temperature has been high for many weeks now, it is only really the last week that has been a really significant struggle to cope with. Up until this week we had been managing to keep the house at a reasonably comfortable temperature, and although outdoor temperatures have regularly hit the mid 30s they haven't (until now) been so extreme that we haven't been able to do anything. Having said that, the mid to high 30s is still pretty hot and our work rate always slows significantly in these hot summer months; in part due to a higher work load for me in the office, in part due to the weather not being conducive to physical work, and in part due to there being fewer necessary tasks to get done. The main jobs that still need doing are the cutting of the grass on the terraces and getting the winter firewood ready and under cover.

Strimming the terraces has been slightly different this year.

To start with, there was the small issue of a broken rib. Having had undiagnosed vague aches and pains in my left-hand side for a few months, everything fell into (or more precisely out of) place one night when, during the night I turned over in bed and felt (heard, even) a crunch and crack and something that rather exceeded the amount of pain I'd previously been experiencing. It was obvious to me that I'd done some damage to my rib/ligaments/cartilage/, but I couldn't quite believe that breaking a rib could be, well, so easy. Over the next 4 or 5 days it was extremely uncomfortable, but it was 10 days before I could get to see the doctor, and another 4 days before I was able to have an x-ray, by which time the pain was subsiding.

Since the x-ray wasn't classed as urgent, I had to go all the way to a medical centre on the outskirts of Florence for it (nowhere closer had an availability for a non-urgent case) - a long and tiring drive on the motorway in rush-hour traffic for Stuart and I could barely look him in the eye when I came out of the medical centre to tell him that I would need to go back again two days later to collect the results (on CD-ROM!). I felt somewhat vindicated when I did pick up the results though:

Your guess is as good as mine. Good job the experts know what they are looking at.

It seems strange to say I felt relieved to have a broken rib, but I was relieved that the hassle of the journey to Florence and back had been justified and relieved to have an explanation for the vague aches I'd been having for a while, and relieved to have a cast iron, concrete "excuse" for having taken things easy for a short while.

Of course the rib episode happened just at the point at which the terraces were needing another strim and I had been planning to do them that week. With the grass and other vegetation growing like crazy, Stuart called in a favour from a friend who he'd been doing some work for and who had promised to repay him by doing a day's work for us, so Cristian came and cut the grass one day, and the following day our friends Paul & Kathy gallantly came to finish the job off. We were truly grateful to them all, and I can't tell you how frustrated I felt seeing other people work without being able to get stuck in myself! 

Thankfully, the pain subsided considerably after a few days, and a few weeks later I was back up to speed, back cutting the grass on the terraces with a new, much lighter weight strimmer bought thanks to some very generous help from my Dad.

Back in the game!!

The other, more significant, difference in strimming this year is that we made the decision back in the spring not to cut the vegetation on the banks, instead only cutting the flat parts of the terraces. We did this for two reasons, one is that the banks have been becoming increasingly unstable in recent years, and constantly cutting the grass/plants growing on them does some considerable damage, whereas leaving the vegetation intact helps to stabilise the banks as the roots of the plants hold the soil together. The other reason was to leave all the flowering plants on the banks for the bees and other insects to feed from. 

The decision not to cut the banks has had a couple of effects. First, it has made the whole strimming process so much quicker, easier and less arduous. Whereas it last year (when we cut the banks as well as the flat terraces themselves) it had been taking around 17 person-hours to do the whole lot each time, this year it hasn't taken much more than 10 person-hours each time. Secondly, we have been thrilled to see the changes in nature itself - the succession of beautiful wild flowers, the increase in insect life and even the return of one wild flower (an orange lily) that we last saw in the year that we moved here, but had not seen on our property since then. So it seems it's a win, win!

Pretty in pink centaury.

Lilium bulbiferum var croceum (Orange lily) - it's six years since we last saw one here.

Nature creates such beautiful colour combinations - centaury, sheep's bit scabious, st John's wort and more. 

The morning sun gives everything a beautiful summery meadowy feel.

Sheep's bit scabious.

This month (last week, in fact) we finished the other big job of the summer, that of moving all the winter firewood down from the storage area by the gate to the winter woodpile near the house. We had delayed bringing it down this year because we are still hosting 36 bee hives on the small flat piece of land next to the gate. Usually the beekeeper brings them here in the spring and leaves them for roughly 3-6 weeks, purely for the flowering season of the acacia (robinia) trees. This year, the acacia flowering season (and thus the acacia honey season) was disastrous. No sooner had all the flowers opened than we had a period of very wet, very windy weather and all the blossoms were knocked off the trees. It was so bad, that local beekeepers have not been able to produce any of the highly prized acacia honey this year.

Unlike in previous years when Alain, the beekeeper, has moved his hives on to another location for the sweet chestnut flowering season, this time he decided to keep them here at our property for the whole summer - we guess he will be producing millefiori (a thousand flowers - essentially a generic honey that isn't a specific flower type) during this period, but he has said he wants to leave the hives here for the ivy flowering season, which may well result in him (or rather his bees) being able to produce a monofloral honey (ivy).

So usually we would wait until the bees had gone before doing any work in the area close to the hives, but with time ticking away we decided to brave it and tackle the wood pile. It felt like a particularly brave decision for me after having suffered a particularly nasty bee sting a few weeks previously, followed by 4-days of a very (very) puffy face, but after Stuart had done the first few tractor loads alone and reported back that the bees were calm and not bothering him, I joined in, and after approximately 20 loads (over the course of a few days) we had brought down all the wood for the winter.

Aside from those large jobs, we have of course been tending to the veg garden - including Stuart brewing up some 'actively aerated compost tea', or AACT, with which to fertilise our crops.

The recipe is: one kilo of worm castings with four tablespoons of molasses, aerated for 36 hours. This acts to increase the microbial life of the (already incredibly rich) worm castings fourfold. 

(The dog is not not an essential part of the process or recipe).

And we've had some decent crops from our veg garden already: tomatoes, soya beans, snake beans, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers, squashed, garlic, onions, chillis, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and more!

In these warm months we've really been enjoying the pond we built last autumn - we jokingly refer to it as the "Zen garden", but it really is relaxing sitting next to it in the shade, listening to the trickle of the water in the fountain and watching the fishes.

On the subject of fishes, we appear to have created a very healthy environment for them - having added to the pond six goldfish and two Koi carp back in October... we now have hundreds of baby fish. It has been fascinating watching the young fish develop and grow. At first they were so tiny it took a double check to see that they really were little fish. We were convinced the numbers would dwindle significantly through natural selection, predation, etc., but over the months a very large number of them have continued to grow and develop. There are fish that are still dark brown/black, and others that are well on their way to developing their orange and golden colourings. Quite what we'll do when they reach full size we're not sure!

Our garden flowers have been particularly beautiful this year - nurturing them (some from seed, others bought as plants) has proved to be a wise investment of time and effort.

And as always, we are fascinated by the nature that surrounds us and we try at every opportunity to record it!

Yet another stinkhorn fungus (and yes, they do stink).

Aesculapian snake, constricting a mole.

Lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus).

Male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa).

A type of bee-fly (Exoprosopa).

Wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi),

Peacock fly (Callopistromyia annulipes).

Aside from tending the land and hiding from the heat, we've had lots of opportunities over these summer months to catch up with friends and neighbours at various outdoor social evenings, made lots of use of our pizza oven and rocket stove for outdoor cooking (another attempt at keeping heat out of the house as well as being an enjoyable way to cook and socialise), we've had enjoyable treats in the form of a meal out for our anniversary in June and a meal out on my birthday in August (complete with flashback to ~5 years ago after finding ourselves stuck in the blazing sun in a car park with a car that wouldn't move - although thankfully on this occasion we were quickly rescued by kind strangers and quickly identified (and later fixed) the problem), oh and we have both had our first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, with second doses due for us both in the next 10 days.

This is a sight you don't often see - both of us scrubbed up for a lovely anniversary meal.

Normal service resumed.

And not forgetting our boy.