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Monday, April 27, 2009

Utility Free Weekend followup

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.


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