What a long long long super long winter. But Spring has finally come and we are gearing up for an exciting season this year. More experiments, more workshops, a boat tug, a residency program for urban sustainability projects and who knows really what else we’ll get into. But here’s some hints on what is in the works:

Jerko The Gowanus Water Vacuum gets a new home!

After almost two years of amazing Gowanus fun and adventure, Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum is headed south…to Marina 59 in Rockaway. We are sad to leave the amazing and inspiring Gowanus, but also really excited for some of the opportunities that await us in Rockaway: like finally having a floating dock to tie to, a location that is easily accessed by the public, and the beginnings of what hopes to be an amazing floating community of  sustainable houseboats, artist studios, greenbuilders, movers and shakers. Stay tuned for information on workshops and events in the new location.


Rainwater Harvesting 101: We will have two RWH workshops this summer. One in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn (at the headquarters of the Bed-Stuy CSA) and one at Marina 59 in Far Rockaway (the new home of Jerko). Both will have hands on components. Dates TBA on the blog and mailing list.

DIY Solar Energy: Learn basics in PV solar and build your own solar panel (Dates TBA)

Floating Islands

With Jerko gone, our trash island experiments need a new home. Email us to find out who will be helping take it over, where it will be going and how you can get involved


pictures by Sam Horine

The Maiden Voyage was a complete success!

we left early in the morning with the retreating tide. the bridge operator was pretty grumpy that we were late to arrive at the bridge, but when we finally got rowing and passed under he relented and said “it was like something from a fairy tale”

our all-star crew included folks from the Empty Vessel Project, the 79th St Boat Basin (the original owner of the boat!), Mare Liberum, Swimming Cities, a sea chanty band playing original songs of the Gowanus, and a fleet of canoes rowboats and kayaks filled with our friends!

by noon the tide had shifted and we followed it back up to 2nd st

where we were greeted by friends, family and people from the Sustainability Street Fair.  We busted open some champagne and gave tours of the boat and its systems the rest of the day. Thanks to everyone who came out. Thanks especially to the Jerko Crew and GreenHomes NYC! We are taking a hiatus for the winter while we figure out whats next. Stay tuned. In the mean time, you can see a really great account of the day (with video and the music of the sea chanty band) at Eliz’s blog   www.elizabethweinberg.com/blog/?p=1314

Thanks to Sam Horine for these shots. We’ll post more from some other folks, and some Super8 footage, as we organize it all.

picture by maria sputnik http://www.mariasputnik.com

maiden voyage of

Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum

Surrounded in a constructed wetland and powered by vikings, ‘Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum’ is a salvaged houseboat that has been transformed into a laboratory and showspace for do-it-yourself sustainability projects.

From its parabolic solar tea maker (created from broken mirrors and a dumpstered satellite dish) to its living machine (made out of pickle buckets, wetland plants and pvc), this rough and ready design collective marries do-it-yourself garage engineering with sustainable design principles.

On October 2, 2010, join Green Homes NYC, the Sustainability Street Fair and the crew of Jerko The Gowanus Water Vacuum as they set out on a maiden voyagethrough New York’s most legendary canal.

Come early to pre-register for limited on-board tours, experience the Gowanus Canal’s first home-made boat convergence, attend the Sustainability Street Fair and listen to the brass madness of The Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Come late to see an empty canal.

When: Saturday October 2nd, 2010.                                                          1:30pm:         The fleet arrives/christening celebration and pre-registration (first come first serve basis) for an on-board tour

3-5pm:  Jerko onboard tours                                                                                10am-6pm:    Green Homes NYC’s Sustainability Street Fair at 3rd St b/w Bond and Hoyt  www.greenhomenyc.org/thenewnewyork

Where: Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum:              2nd St b/w Bond and the Canal

Green Homes NYC Sustaibility Street Fair:        3rd St b/w Bond and Hoyt email expeditiongowanus@gmail.com for more information

We finished the structure for the floating wetlands and took the boat for its first float. It was the first time the boat has moved on its own accord in over  20 years! It took about half hour and a lot of rowing but we made it one block with a skeleton crew.


these amazing pictures were taken by our friend SAM HORINE


check out Jerko’s new oars! Made by Ben from scraps of 2×4 from the Gowanus Studio Space’s wood shop.

Our floating wetlands was inspired by a project done on a polluted canal in Fuzhou, China. The 600 meter canal, named Baima, had extreme problems with odors and floating solids created by the daily influx of some 750,000 gallons of untreated domestic sewage. Rather then re-piping the sewage to a remote treatment plant, the city sought a more affordable way of treating the sewage within the canal itself. In 2002, John Todd Ecological Designs/Ocean Arks international designed and built a “Canal Restoration Device” that utilized a floating walkway planted with over 12,000 native plants as a way of biologically treating the waste.The plant root zones provided the biophysically diverse surface areas needed for biological treatment. An anoxic zone at the top of the canal allows for denitrification. A centrally located barge provided additional aeration, and helped circulate the water past biologically active zones. Two areas were designed to innoculate the system with bacteria known for their abilities to digest sludge and grease, as well as remove nitrogen. And it worked! You can read more about the results here: http://toddecological.com/files/case-studies/china.pdf

So the plants digest/recycle nutrients in the waste and a greenway is created in an area that was once an eyesore. The Canal Restorer not only is functional as a way of remediating sewage, but it also brings much needed attention to an environmentally disturbed area.

So we wanted to bring some of those same ideas to the boat. We wanted to create a floating wetland that ran its entire circumference. Not only could it function as a microhabitat for some of the fish, crabs, jelly fish and water birds that are already in the Gowanus, but it could also add biodiversity and aesthetics. And theoretically, the boat, at its core, would  not only be a self sustaining structure, but  additionally, it would help remediate the sewage strewn waters that it passed through.

Not only did our Canal Restorer (we call it a ‘floating wetlands’) have to act as a structure to hold the wetland plants, but it also had to act as a walkway (for maintenance/viewing) and a platform from which we could row the boat (the boat has no engine and was not mobile otherwise). Ben Cohen and Stephan Von Muelen enlisted to help build/design the physical structure (you can see some of the design ideas in an earlier post). There were lots of ideas, lots of plans, and a prototype. Here’s a picture of us down in Jaimaca Bay messing around to see how well the barrels we got actually floated. This one was a little too tippy for a Gowanus adventure, but we were able to glean a lot of information that was used in the final construction.

And here’s shots of the work party where we built the dock that the plants will be fastened to. Ours is a lot more ‘low-tech’ then the John Todd Canal Restorer in China. Its made from 100% salvaged materials and the plants are donated from two native plant nurseries: Pineland Native Plant Center in New Jersey and GreenBelt Native Plant Center in Staten Island. We are also planting phragmites, which will be collected from different sites in the area.

After the workshop last weekend we gave Scott and Stacey (and the trash island) a rowboat tour of the Gowanus Canal. Here’s some footage of that was taken along the way, along with a quick interview with Scott that was put together by our good friend Blake McDowell

And here’s an exclusive sneak peak of their tour on ‘Jerko The Gowanus Water Vacuum’ with a little bit about how constructed wetlands* work

*while Scott refers to it as a ‘living machine’ in the video, we have been informed that we can’t use that term cause its trademarked, so we are calling it a ‘constructed wetlands’. Don’t be confused

Thanks Blake!

Here’s some shots from the “Phytoremediation and Trash Island” workshop last weekend.  There was a great turnout, and we actually had more people sign up then we could fit, so sorry to those of you we couldn’t squeeze in.  Much more to come we promise.

After an hour presentation on phytoremediation we got  to build a ‘floating trash island’ and plant it with wetland plants. We used three different plants on this go around; Spartina (cordgrass), Typha (cattails), and Phragmites. The Spartina and Typha are native plants to the Gowanus, and were donated by GreenBelt Native Plant Center in Staten Island. It is debated wether or not Phragmites is considered a native plant, but we used it because a) it already grows along the Gowanus and has proven it is hardy enough to survive the challenge and b) it is known for its ability to pull toxins from water and is commonly used in phytoremediation projects.

And then we took the island for a tour of its new home!

So far everything looks good. The tops of the phragmites died back (as expected) but its rhizomes are already starting to push up some new shoots. All other plants look good. They’ve even gotten their fist dose of fertilizer (aka sewage) with the rain the other day. The island wont’ really go into full effect until next spring though.

For us, the trash island is a way of experimenting with different plants, growing mediums and planting techniques, to see what does and does not work. We’ll then take what we learn from observing this first trash island and apply it to the plantings we do on the floating wetland that will surround the boat.  More to come on that in the next week.

While not presented as a ‘cure’ for the Gowanus, phytoremediation and floating wetlands are a great way of creating micro habitats, recycling nutrients/waste, pulling toxins from water, and bringing attention and a sense of aesthetics to environmentally disturbed waters.

Here’s a link to a project that inspired the floating wetland (they call it a ‘canal restorer’) that will surround the boat. Its the same concepts that the trash island is based on. This project took place on a very polluted canal in China.


Here is our ‘no effort, no-tech, solar thermal hot water’ system. Once built, it collects, heats and distributes hot water without any pumps, heating elements, energy consumption or moving parts. Can’t get any simpler. Can’t get any lazier. In this experimental design, water is caught, stored, and heated on the roof, before being gravity fed down to a super low flow shower head. Interestingly, when we did the calculations to figure out how much surface area would be needed to keep a modest supply of hot rainwater on demand for showers (1″ of rain on 1sq/ft of roof space produces 0.6 gallons of water), it was the same surface area as the solar panels (the PV panels used for electricity).

So a gutter off the solar panels was built to feed rain directly into a maze of PVC pipes that have been sized to hold the recquired amount of water and keep it hot. In an ideal situation everything is sized so that the pipes never go empty in between rain storms.
The good news is that the calculations seemed to work and so far (even in this dry summer) there is always shower water ready. The bad news is that its hardly more than luke warm most of the time.

There are plenty of ways of making DIY solar thermal panels. Some of the best seem to include sending water through the grill you find on the back of any junked refridgerator. Our PVC system was really just an experiment. The next phase will make hotter water, and also address the obvious problems of winter.

So the wastewater system on the boat goes like this: rainwater falls on the roof and is diverted to an indoor cistern. From there it is purified, pumped, and used for domestic use (drinking, cleaning, cooking, etc). This use renders it dirty again (a.k.a. greywater) so it is then sent from the sink to our constructed wetland to be remediated. The constructed wetland (pictured below) cleans the water and discharges it to a mini aquaculture system, where it is fertilized by fish manure before being sent out to irrigate the living wall. We tried to make the water carry out as many uses as possible once we’ve brought it inside, and assuming the living wall can keep up with the irrigation its a zero discharge system! Important considering that rainwater and wastewater both contribute to the Combined Sewage Overflows that send raw sewage floating past our doorstep in rainstorms. Here’s a picture
Our constructed wetland was made with salvaged materials. Each pickle bucket hosts a different micro-ecosystem that acts and reacts to the wastewater differently; its a biological filter. More to come on how this thing actually works, but for now wanted to get a picture up!

Want to help us make a video on how the constructed wetland (or anything else on here) works? Email expeditiongowanus@gmail.com