Reflections on our tire press

We’ve been getting emailed questions about our tire press, so I thought I would attempt to recap our experiences with it.

As described in an earlier posting we built the press out of materials we had on hand. The press design is quite simple.  The unit consists of:

  • a stubby hydraulic cylinder,
  • two rounded steel plates welded at either end of the cylinder,
  • a control valve to extend and retract the cylinder,
  • hydraulic hose plus fittings,
  • and a portable hydraulic pump that plugs into a standard 120 volt wall outlet.

The hydraulic cylinder is approximately 1′ retracted length (including the attached steel plates) and extends out another 3-4″ at full extension. The steel plates are 5/16″ thick and were cut from steel pipe that was approximately 16 inches in diameter.  The photo shows the initial plates that I used that came close to packing an entire tire in one pass.  These plates were impractical … it was too hard to place the packer in a tire, and it simply did not pack well.  We settled on much smaller plates that were only about 6″ wide.

As shown in the video (below this paragraph) the size of the packer is dictated by the inside diameter of the tires being filled.  The packer is dropped into a previously hand packed tire that is still hollow in the middle.  With the packer fully retracted, dirt is then shoveled into the tire so that when the packer cylinder is extended the new and existing dirt is packed into the tire.  The packer is rotated and this process is repeated until the tire is sufficiently packed.

After the tire is sufficiently packed, the packer is removed.  The tamper is then used to fill and compact the centre of the tire.
Our tamper was simply an old sprocket welded to a five foot length of steel pipe.  The whole
unit weighs significantly more and has a much wider packing head (approximately 8″ diameter) than a sledge hammer.  It was very effective at packing the centre of the tires.
Many thanks to Mike Casey for building and lending this packer to us!

Tamping requires a person to straddle the tire and compact the dirt by pounding the tamper up and down while periodically adding dirt until the tire is filled and compacted.
Care needs to be taken to not stand on the edges of the tire being tamped initially, as you run the risk of reducing the compaction of the tire by collapsing the dirt in the rim.  You also do no want to strike the side walls of the tire with the packer as this will also reduce the compaction of the tire.

Our packer was fairly small and portable.  We mounted the hydraulic pump and electric motor combination on a wheel barrow so that it could be moved easily from tire to tire.  We ran a 50′ extension cord to an available electrical outlet.  (We also ran the unit off of a 3500 watt gas generator during a power failure.)  The hoses were long enough such that the packer could be used at the top of an eight foot wall with the packer at the base of the wall.
As the walls got higher the packer stayed inside the building, and we brought dirt to the tires from the outside of the building and backfilled as we went.  This meant that moving the dirt was done at ground level and the operator of the packer stood on a ladder as the walls got higher.  We had to extend the lever controlling the cylinder so that the person operating it could still extend and retract the ram.

I guess the important question is was it worth it?  Was the packer effective? Did we save time, money or labour?

In terms of cost our packer was essentially free.  I had all of the parts needed to make this unit, although I did cannibalize one piece of equipment that will have to be put back together.  Also, I did all of the welding and assembly, and it went together surprisingly quickly.  So, there was very little cost in building this unit. I suspect you could pay a few thousand dollars buying and scrounging the parts needed.

The packer proved to be very effective in packing the tires, it did a very consistent job of filling and compacting the rims of the tires.  I can only compare the effectiveness of the packer to tires we filled with sledge hammers on our first tier and tires I have seen in finished buildings.  Both methods seem equally effective at compacting dirt in a tire.  One advantage of the packer is that it did not get tired, and loose oomph as the day went on.  Quality control was critical regardless of the method used, and we were careful to consistently inspect finished tires.

We definitely saved a lot of hard labour using the packer.  We were exhausted after a day of hand packing the tires.  The hydraulic press eliminated the physically demanding effort of packing with the sledge hammer.  The tamping was still done by hand (and generated lots of complaints) but was far easier than the alternative.

I also think that the packer saved us time.  A crew of three was very efficient when filling tires; one to operate the packer, one to shovel dirt and one to tamp tires and supply dirt to the shoveler.  I am estimating (guessing?) that we could easily have done half a row of tires a day (approximately 40) and finished the main tire wall in under a month with a dedicated crew of three to four people.  It took us three months, we did not work steadily, and our crew of volunteers changed constantly.  I suspect that either method can be very efficient.  The bigger issue with either method is keeping people busy packing tires.  A lot of time and effort goes into moving, supplying and preparing material (dirt, tires, water and cardboard).  More than once we stopped working to scrounge tires, move dirt or cut cardboard!

Ultimately, at the end of the day using a hydraulic packer meant that the crew was as happy at the end of the day as at the beginning!

Fall and the Building Site

Cooler temperatures arrived around here right at the beginning of September. We no longer have the oppressive heat of July and August, and we have had a significant amount of rain that we were sorely lacking over the last two months.

Sandra and I have been working away on the eighth round of tires since the beginning of the month, and we are now a third of the way done. We hope to be done this round of tires by early next week. The kids had their first full day of school today, and we packed 18 tires while they were gone.

We used up all of our tires today, so hopefully Gary (Sandra’s dad) has some luck in Kamloops today and brings back lots of tires. Thanks Gary!

Because we are now bringing in tires as we are using them the last two courses of tires have been layed out slightly differently. I am mixing different sizes of 235’s much more as I lay them down. I started doing this for the simple reason that I do not have tires all of one size to do an entire row anymore. The results have been amazing! I have eliminated most of the spacer blocks that I used in courses four and five. Had I thought this through at the beginning I would have used multiple tire sizes in every course. Using multiple sizes makes getting everything to fit MUCH easier.

Most of the last week has been a write off due to the Barriere fall fair last week end. The kids showed their sheep. This did not go as well as hoped for, the kid’s Suffolk meat sheep did not compare well against other breeds at the fair. There are three weeks left before we go to the Kamloops Winter Fair and the kids sell their sheep. We are increasing the food for the sheep and the kids are exercising them more. Hopefully, this will improve the sheep’s finishing, and lead to better results and prices!

We also had some really positive results at the fair! Stephen entered a trio of laying pullets (chickens) and got a first! Sandra and the girls entered baked goods ranging from cakes to rustic bread, and walked away with a number of ribbons for their efforts. Sandra was most pleased with a first for her rustic bread, and the girls both got ribbons for the cakes they baked.

There are some ominous clouds on the horizon. The dump truck has been running poorly the last couple of times I used it; it is backfiring, has no power and is belching white smoke. Some discussion with Gary and Mike Casey leads me to believe that one of the cylinders may not be firing or compressing. I borrowed a compression tester from Mike Casey, and popped the hood this evening to see if I could track the problem. I’ve got problems …

The white smoke I saw last time I ran the truck was obviously more than smoke. There was a fire in the engine compartment. The oil and sawdust mixture glued to everything in the compartment (not something I recommend having on you engine, but it is an occupational hazard) ignited and burned off. I am assuming this happened after I parked the truck as there were no obvious signs of an on-going engine-fire when I stopped the truck.

Fortunately the fire did not spread, and went out on its own. The bad news is that the covering on a number of wires was burned off, and some hoses are burned through. These will all need to be replaced. The worst damage seems to be an aluminum housing attached to the engine that is now a puddle of aluminum (three puddles actually). I do not know how significant this housing is (or more importantly what it housed), and will have to dig around over the next couple of days. This is a very common engine (a 427 V8) so parts should be easy to track down. Amazingly, I turned the ignition on and the engine cranked over … that is a very good sign! I spend my days cursing the old equipment I use, but it sure takes a lot to put it down for the count.

If the truck is unavailable for a while we will have to figure out an alternative for moving more gravel to the building site. A problem for tomorrow …

More supply shopping

Tuesday found us on the way into Kamloops with a list of supplies we needed to complete the perimeter drain for the building, the thermal wrap and the rest of the materials to do the tire walls. We are now on our third row of tires. Sean and Anna left last Saturday on errands in the lower mainland. We sure miss their help! Things go slower without them!

As our tire walls increase in height, we need to start backfilling so that we have a same-level surface to work on. That meant putting in the perimeter drain and starting the thermal wrap. On Monday evening we sat down and made an extensive list of supplies that we needed for Wednesday, which is when we asked Alvin to return and do some trench digging. On our way into Kamloops Tuesday morning Chris hit the cell phone and started to get some prices.

Our biggest learning curve was on what kind of rigid insulation to buy for the thermal wrap. The thermal wrap is the layer of rigid insulation that is buried around the house (to the height of the roof) that contains the heat around the house and prevents any thermal heat we acquire in the house from seeping slowly out into the ground. For a better explanation of this go to Earthship Biotecture at:

Rigid insulation differs in kind and price. The blue kind is the one more generally accepted for burial. However, we found a white brand that was half the price. Most sales people told us that it was not acceptable for burial. However, we saw a little bit of text on the promotional material that indicated otherwise. Sharon Donchi (who used to arrange log home shows and now works at Home Depot) called the technical rep for this company and it turns out that it can indeed be buried. We however, wanted to achieve an R12 value, which is generally accepted by Code for a traditional basement wall. This less expensive brand was only R8. By the time we ran the numbers the blue brand was still more expensive but probably by only 10-20 per cent. Using the white brand may have been less expensive, but it did have a lower compression value AND it is not generally viewed by traditional building authorities as a product that can be buried. When all was said and done we decided on the blue brand.

Generally perimeter drains are constructed using a product called Big O. This is a black, perforated, flexible pipe that is laid in a slightly sloped drainage ditch around the building. The pipe is accompanied by filter cloth and drainage rock and then buried. The idea is that if water accumulates around and in the ground surrounding the house, it will drain into the pipe and be passed around and beyond the house. However, our family and friends had had issues with Big O collapsing over time so we decided to use perforated 4″ PVC. We also decided to install three vertical cleanouts should we ever get a plug up. For us, digging through 10 feet of bermed earth is a bigger issue than with a traditional home! More pictures of the finished drain in a few days!

The PVC pipe was a lesson in going to the specialists. We priced this product at all the big box hardware stores and there was up to a $5 difference in a 10′ piece (ranging from $20 locally to $15 at Rona Hardware). As we were driving past Andrew Sheret, I pulled in and Chris came back with a quote of $11.10 per piece. With savings in hand, we started loading up.

Today another volunteer earthship builder arrived. James is from Newfoundland but is moving to Victoria and decided that before he got a job there, he wanted to do a few things, inlcuding help us for a few days. We are glad to have his help and look forward to Friday when Sean and Anna return with their “mate” Josh.

The photos are fairly straight forward but I’m having trouble manipulating them and being able to put captions on them. The trailer shot is of 30 of our 140 pieces of rigid insulation. There are several shots of the drainage ditch and because I’m always behind the camera, Katie took some pictures of me, doing what I do best, apparently: sitting and supervising!