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Composting > Oxygen in Compost Piles

Oxygen in Compost Piles

All desirable organisms of decomposition are oxygen breathers or "aerobes. There must be an adequate movement of air through the pile to supply their needs. If air supply is choked off, aerobic microorganisms die off and are replaced by anaerobic organisms. These do not run by burning carbohydrates, but derive energy from other kinds of chemical reactions not requiring oxygen. Anaerobic chemistry is slow and does not generate much heat, so a pile that suddenly cools off is giving a strong indication that the core may lack air. The primary waste products of aerobes are water and carbon dioxide gas, inoffensive substances. When most people think of putrefaction they are actually picturing decomposition by anaerobic bacteria. With insufficient oxygen, foul-smelling materials are created. Instead of humus being formed, black, tarlike substances develop that are much less useful in soil. Under airless conditions much nitrate is permanently lost. The odiferous wastes of anaerobes also includes hydrogen sulfide (smells like rotten eggs), as well as other toxic substances with very unpleasant qualities.

Heaps built with significant amounts of coarse, strong, irregular materials tend to retain large pore spaces, encourage airflow and remain aerobic. Heat generated in the pile causes hot air in the pile's center to rise and exit the pile by convection. This automatically draws in a supply of fresh, cool air. But heaps made exclusively of large particles not only present little surface area to microorganisms, they permit so much airflow that they are rapidly cooled. This is one reason that a wet firewood rick or a pile of damp wood chips does not heat up. At the opposite extreme, piles made of finely ground or soft, wet materials tend to compact, ending convective air exchanges and bringing aerobic decomposition to a halt. In the center of an airless heap, anaerobic organisms immediately take over.

Composters use several strategies to maintain airflow. The most basic one is to blend an assortment of components so that coarse, stiff materials maintain a loose texture while soft, flexible stuff tends to partially fill in the spaces. However, even if the heap starts out fluffy enough to permit adequate airflow, as the materials decompose they soften and tend to slump together into an airless mass.

Periodically turning the pile, tearing it apart with a fork and restacking it, will reestablish a looser texture and temporarily recharge the pore spaces with fresh air. Since the outer surfaces of a compost pile do not get hot, tend to completely dry out, and fail to decompose, turning the pile also rotates the unrotted skin to the core and then insulates it with more-decomposed material taken from the center of the original pile. A heap that has cooled because it has gone anaerobic can be quickly remedied by turning.

Piles can also be constructed with a base layer of fine sticks, smaller tree prunings, and dry brushy material. This porous base tends to enhance the inflow of air from beneath the pile. One powerful aeration technique is to build the pile atop a low platform made of slats or strong hardware cloth.

Larger piles can have air channels built into them much as light wells and courtyards illuminate inner rooms of tall buildings. As the pile is being constructed, vertical heavy wooden fence posts, 4 x 4's, or large-diameter plastic pipes with numerous quarter-inch holes drilled in them are spaced every three or four feet. Once the pile has been formed and begins to heat, the wooden posts are wiggled around and then lifted out, making a slightly conical airway from top to bottom. Perforated plastic vent pipes can be left in the heap. With the help of these airways, no part of the pile is more than a couple of feet from oxygen

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