Friday, April 03, 2009

utility-free weekend follow up

Last Friday night I turned of the electricity to our house. I also turned off our water at the meter buried in a box in front of our house. My family and I normally use natural gas to cook with and to heat our water. We used it for neither last weekend. I want to give more specific information about what our weekend without utilities was like in this post. Rather than wait and try to come up with something a bit more poetic I'm just going to dump out information and let you pick through it for items you find useful, interesting or humorous. There's likely a little of all of that.

My wife was skeptical about the idea of a utility-free weekend. Nonetheless she went along with it and I can report that we are in fact still married and the weekend went smoothly for the most part. The case for her sainthood is growing.

As a family we made several observations that we think are useful.

1) Not all bathtubs hold water. The government amount others is fond of saying that in the event of an emergency you can use your tub to store up to 40 gallons of water were your source to be contaminated. That is true... if your tub will hold water for more than a few hours. Neither of our two tubs will do that on their own. One of them has a built in stopper that obviously leaks. It drains out in about 6 hours. The guest bathroom does not have a built in stopper but I have a rubber one I used to hold back the water... or so I thought until it too began to drain. I used plastic wrap to stop the drainage of water in the guest tub. Had I not been paying attention the water in this second tub would also have drained out. The lesson we took away from this is that widespread information about how to cope in a crisis is not very useful unless you test it in your own home. Will your tub hold water in an emergency? There's only one way to find out.

By the way we used about 40 gallons of city water stored in the guest room tub, stoppered with plastic wrap for most of our water needs for the weekend. We have a Berkey Filter and used that to clean the water for drinking and cooking. I also used water captured in our rainwater harvesting system (4 barrels in our backyard connected by old hose) to clean with.

2) It's much harder to cook without the stove top and oven. Part of this was an experiment to see how we would do without out precious utilities with thoughts towards reducing our consumption in a permanent way. Part of this was about what we would do in an emergency situation if we were suddenly without out utilities. I cooked with camp stoves as if we were suddenly unable to use our natural gas range and oven. It worked alright. It took much longer to prepare meals. No doubt I would get better at this with practice but for the most part cooking took longer. I did it on a stainless steel table we have in our laundry room for safety reasons. Starting camp stoves and running them indoors is more dangerous though. I lost most of the hair on my right hand though the weekend ended without any burns. If cooking could no longer be done on a stable stove top or in an oven for long periods of time it would be a good idea to set up the safest possible long term setup. I felt safe about our weekend but I can also see why kitchen fires were more prevalent in the past.

Also I was able to vent the cooking room by opening a window. In the winter or the summer this would come at the expense of making the house colder or hotter or cooking would have to be done outdoors.

I also missed coffee ( I know you don't need electricity to make coffee but I'm not set how to do it without) and I missed the ease of flipping a switch to heat the kettle for tea; something I do all day long.

3) We had to be careful with candles. We carefully considered the candles we used and their placement throughout our house. We have small children so we did some education about fire but we also made sure to keep them out of reach. We got prepared each evening before it got dark and went to bed earlier than normal. I'm not sure why this part went as smoothly as it did. Perhaps we just intuitively understood that we needed to be prepared for darkness and be careful with candles. We also have a small stock of headlamps which are an awesome invention. We use rechargeable batteries in them. We do have a solar charger but often use the grid for doing that work. More on that later. I will say I slept better. I enjoyed the more natural rhythm of winding down my day as the sun went down and getting up as it got light.

4) We got dirty. Yesterday my wife was wiping away black stains left in a few places presumably by me having gotten it on my hands while cooking. Like I said, camp stove cooking was dirty. It was also harder to get the dishes clean. I had to boil water specifically for this purpose. Sure I got some dishes clean without hot water but some required it to get really clean. We didn't wash any clothes during these two days but we would have had to if the experiment had continued. I understand "wash day" much better now. Boiling a pot of hot water in the backyard one day a week to get all the clothes, linens and dishes clean would be helpful if it's harder to do that work throughout the week. We also didn't bathe during these two days. Well actually that's not entirely true. I boiled water on Saturday before we went to a dinner party and used a hand towel to wipe down and clean up. I call this technique "Sink Showering" when I do it after a bicycle commute but in this case the hot water came from a pot on the camp stove. Good hygiene is quite possible without running hot water but it would take more of an effort than it does now. Having said that I regularly skip showers from day to day so just because one has access to running water doesn't mean one will shower daily.

5) We missed music. By far the most traumatic part of this experiment for Keaton, our three year old daughter, was the lack of prerecorded music. She was upset at not having it when she wanted it, especially at bedtime. My wife plays the piano and signs sings. I play a hand drum. We both have dabbled with the guitar at points in our life and we have one of those but not having access to music on demand was definitely sad. This is something we're thinking about for our future. We want a way to play prerecorded music that relies as little as possible on electricity from the grid.

We did listen to the radio. I have a hand crank radio that also runs on rechargeable batteries. It's good for news and for listening to sports but commercial music radio is awful. By the end of the weekend Keaton told us she would ask Santa Claus for music electricity for Christmas.

6) I had to ride in the rain. I didn't drive all weekend. I'm used to riding to work in the rain on my bicycle and then drying off and maybe having to ride home in it again but it rained all weekend and every time I wanted to go anywhere I got wet. It was not especially cold so it wasn't dangerous just uncomfortable. I realized I do need to install the fenders I've been meaning to put on my bike and I don't have a good rain jacket that would make short bike trips or just being outside when it's raining much more pleasant.

Things that didn't come into play.

We didn't do any laundry as I mentioned and we didn't do a lot of bathing. We put most of that off until the weekend was over. This would not work, of course, as a long term strategy. Our cell phones held a charge for the whole weekend. I didn't need to run any machinery like a tiller or a power saw. This work can be done by hand of course but one of the things we noticed during the course of the weekend is that while much can be done by hand it takes longer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I felt more involved with tasks that I did by hand on this particular weekend but that are usually done using fossil fuel energy. But I don't think many of us planning for a future with less energy have a sense of how much less work can be done and how much more of our time will be needed to address household stuff.

We have about 1000 gallons of rainwater harvesting capacity. It was already full and it rained all weekend filling our tanks faster than we could use the water. For a long period of time without water from our municipality we would need more storage capacity and a great filtration system.

The temperature got down to 35 on Sunday night but it had been warm the previous few days. Our central heating system would not have turned on even if it had been powered. However this experiment would have been different if carried out in January or August.


We left one electrical circuit on. It only powers a chest freezer and the small 6 cubic foot refrigerator we have in our kitchen. We did try to use more dried and canned food for the weekend. Mostly this cheat was to keep from spoiling the food we have stored and wasting that savings but we recognize that if we had been without electricity for longer we would have to come up with an alternative.

Jennifer drove. She took the girls to gym on Saturday morning and from there to a birthday party. 15 miles on a bike in the rain with 2 children would not have been feasible or fun. She showered and got ready for the birthday party at the gym. She got ready for church at her parents house which is a half mile from our home. She did turn down an invitation to stay there on Sunday night and we all enjoyed another night of quiet and the slow darkening of our home before bed.

On Saturday we went to a dinner party at a neighbor's house. It was potluck and we took a bean and corn and tomato dish. We got in ready in a crock pot and took it to our neighbor's house several hours early and plugged it in to use their electricity. This prompted interesting conversation at the party. We also used the last of our frozen corn.

Resulting thoughts.

The dialog that occurred between me and my wife and our neighbors will continue and I think will serve us well. I'll end with an example. For whatever reason I've always thought about adding photovoltaic capacity to our house as an all or nothing proposal. It has seemed beyond financial reach to do that- to switch over to producing all of our electricity needs. This weekend helped me realize two things. First we can build upon past energy reductions strategies to make even less energy necessary for household operation. Second we could add a small amount of PV to power items such as cell phone and other battery chargers or a small refrigeration unit. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. This idea grew out of our experience this past weekend and has a real world feel to it.

This weekend was never intended to be either a tortuous experience or the end all and be all of post peak carbon planning for our family. It was meant to give us a greater appreciation of the energy and convenience that we take for granted. It was also intended to help us identify ways we can live more conservatively and recognize potential changes we should make in advance of decreasing access to energy and resource availability. It has bolstered our confidence about meeting our needs in an uncertain world and has opened up questions about changes we might make.


helwen said...

Interesting weekend! Good discovery on the bath tubs -- although you might think about getting some tubs or buckets that you could sit in the bathtub, to hold water? That way you can still temporarily store water in a more out-of-the way space. And you can take them out to still use the tub as a tub if you want.

On stove use indoors -- good point about having the window for ventilation. In addition, if you can't cook outdoors, find a way to curtain off the cooking area -- help slow down the spread or loss of heat as needed. Even a sheet does quite a lot to help.

Also, invest in some good thermoses -- I like the stainless steel vacuum ones. They keep water or coffee or whatever hot all day. When we remember, we do that in the morning after making tea, and then we can have tea later in the day or night without having to go through the whole process again.

Candles and headlamps, great! We also have some oil lamps. Although the fuel oil is usually petroleum based (as are many candles and/or the processes used to make them), you can also use veg oils if need be.

PHONE: For true emergency preparedness, find an old-style phone that you can plug in, if you have a landline of some sort. When we got hit with an ice storm this past winter, cell phones, spotty at best in our area, didn't work at all because power to the cell towers was down. Old-fashioned phones that didn't require batteries were the only thing that worked, because the phone lines were still up and the old phones can get just enough power off of the telephone line to operate.

My husband and I need to think more on the cooking without power bit ourselves. We might have a cook stove somewhere, but we don't have fuel. We do have a hibachi and charcoal (outdoor only of course), as well as a couple of other grills people gave us. We also have a wood stove but it's primarily for heating, so not great for cooking. During the ice storm if we got desperate for cooked food we went downstairs and used the in-laws' gas stove. On the plus side, we always had hot water for this and that ;)

Heather G

helwen said...

Sorry, just wanted to add that the hot water my husband Lyle and I had we used for drinking mostly. When the road opened we 'cheated' and went down the hill a couple of towns over and showered at a friend's place. But my father-in-law heated water for a bath on their wood stove -- yes, they have a wood stove and a gas stove -- the wood one's closer to the bathroom and is big enough you can put several pots on it at once.

Daphne said...

I've spent a lit of time out in the woods in the past (backpacking, camping, rafting). If you want a warm shower and have no power, the sun showers work really well. Of course you need sun :/ and you didn't have any. I suppose you could fill one with warm water. Off grid cooking is done well in a rocket stove. I've never made one. I've always figured if I really needed to I could take the bricks from my garden edging and make one in less than 5 mins. It is powered with sticks. Or if I didn't mind using a small battery, a Zip stove works pretty well. It also uses small sticks and works about as well as other backpacking stoves, but really needs to be constantly tended. It looks like you had an interesting experiment. I confess I really want solar on my house. I haven't since we are thinking of moving and I'd like to get my investment back. Our next house for sure. I'll probably tie it into the grid though. Everything I've seen about isolated systems say they are much more inefficient. That means when the power goes out so does my house even if it is sunny.

ashley @ twentysixcats said...

Hi, I came here from Amy's Humble Musings. This is a really interesting experiment. It reminded me a lot of when we used to live in Florida and we'd get hit by hurricanes. We were fortunate to have a huge screened-in porch, and we used the grill to cook our food outside on the porch. (We often grilled out, anyway, in the summer to avoid warming up the house with the stove/oven.) The most challenging thing at the time was figuring out how to cool ourselves in the hot Florida August heat.

Another commenter mentioned cell phones - we had trouble with this, too, because many cell towers had been damaged from the hurricane, and those that were still working were overloaded. Fortunately we had a landline and a non-electric phone at the time.

Wacky Hermit said...

Your wife must be truly amazing, to be able to play the piano and sign. Even if I knew more than a few signs, it's all my two poor hands can do to just play the piano! ;)

gaiasdaughter said...

Aaron wrote, "I also missed coffee ( I know you don't need electricity to make coffee but I'm not set how to do it without)"

Aaron, I'm not a coffee drinker, so I've never tried this, but I remembered seeing cold brewed coffee awhile back and found this simple way to make it yourself:

Anonymous said...

If you use pressure cookers you cut down on energy use and cooking time.

Anonymous said...

With regard to making coffee, here is a good page about travel coffee makers. It talks about a number of different ways to make coffee without electricity.

Tara said...

We have a non-electric percolator to make coffee. We typically make it on our stove top, which is electric, but if we're without power, we can use the percolator on pretty much any heat source - camp stove, BBQ grill, the top of our wood stove, whatever. You can also make coffee in a French press without electricity. Basically you just need the means to boil water.

I'm glad you mentioned the bathtub thing - I KNOW ours doesn't hold water.

Christy said...

We tried this experiment about a month ago when we got a freak snow storm and didn't have power or water for 3 days. We did pretty well but definitely found some holes we need to fill. Heat was a huge problem, it got down to 45 in the house and was cold! We don't have a wood stove, so we're looking into a kerosene heater or pellet stove. Long term, water will be a major problem.

Stace' said...

This is a very inspiring post. It has me thinking...

Anonymous said...

We do alot of camping so for us cooking on campstove is normalfor us. For coffee we bought a used campstove coffee pot. Takes longer than flipping on power but the wait is worth it. We use that pot when we know bad weather is approaching. Simply because we know our power could go at any time. We also fill up the tea pot. A carafe helps keep stuff warm once made but thermos works better.

We also use a solar power radio/flashlight. has a crank on it.

I never thought of checking to see how long our tub holds water! I'll have to check it out!

Sounds like you had a intresting weekend w/out power!

WILDBLUESbysus said...

Liked your comment that it doesn't have to be all or nothing.
Great post.

berkey filter said...

Nice to see you're using the berkey water filters. I use a big berkey filter in the same exact way.

Larry said...

Congrats, Aaron!

Commercial radio music, you're really going beyond the call! On no-electricity days, I'll actually allow myself to use a CD player powered by solar recharged batteries. We've got a hand crank radio but the charge on the crank is getting weak. We hold water in our shower stall in a plastic bin. We've used a rocket stove for cooking and it's worked real well. We're trying to build a bunch more of them. We're planning to try to go totally off the electric grid this summer. Gas and water will have to come later.

Keep up the good work!


PocketsoftheFuture said...

Great post. We live on a small homestead with six homeschooled children. Not only does our bathtub also not hold water effectively but we are gradually trying to do more and more by hand. Your point that doing every day tasks by hand takes much longer (although it is often more satisfying) is very true and has to be experienced to truly comprehend. We use crosscut saws, for instance, and hand wash our laundry. Great team building activities but not exactly speedy.

One other point about the cooking - we are huge fans of cook box cooking. Bring a dish to a boil for a few minutes and that is all the fuel you need. We have posted about all of these subjects, or videoed our family doing them and are so gung ho about cook box cooking that I am just finishing writing an e-book on the subject. Gotta find a way to keep the computer humming, though! Great experiment. I look forward to reading more. Leslie