Friday, March 30, 2012

Life with part-time electricity

What would it be like to live with eight hours of electrical power per day, in a first world country?
John Robb is thinking about it, especially in terms of national decline and collapse scenarios.

What would it mean for us, up on our little mountain?

So much of our life, even the way we homestead, is based on steady access to electricity.  Our water supply is a well, and its pump draws on household current.  Electrical light is crucial to doing work and being relatively sane during our long, dark winters.  And so many appliances require Edison's trickle: the clotheswasher, the refrigerator, and of course the modern world of digital communications: laptops, modems, X-box, etc.

One hopes that the eight hours of electricity are predictable and they coincide with the evening need for electricity. Say 3:00 PM until 11:00PM or 4:00 until Midnight. This way, the dark days of autumn and winter wouldn't become completely intolerable.

A brief peek into an unspecified future, as imagined by Ceredwyn:

So, winter: Electricity turns on in the afternoon, after the kids come back from school. Which is good, because it gets dark at 4:00. Husband has been running his computer (and the all important Internet connection) from battery power. The batteries were the best we could afford, deep cycle marine batteries that charge on a small solar panel. Failing that, we charge the Lithium batteries on our devices from the wall sockets at 4:00.

The gas stove usually works without electricity, but the oven does not, because it has an electric ignition. If we want to bake, now's the time.

It's also the time for showers and filling up our water containers. Fortunately for us, our septic is downslope from the house, thus we only have to pour greywater into the toilet to flush it. If the septic required an electric pump, we'd have quite a predicament.

We heat with wood, so we're pretty cozy. It's tough for the neighbors who have electric or gas heat. They both require electricity to run.  The fire dept has more alarms these days for people using makeshift heat sources.

The refrigerator gets plugged in, the melted snow that's been keeping it cold gets replaced. Of course, the food that needs to be frozen is in a locked freezer out back, packed with snow.

With the power being off 16 hours out of 24, I'm more inclined to can things than freeze them, and, of course, there's the stuff in the root cellar. Not telling you where we built that, it's well covered to discourage the casual thief.

In the evening, we indulge ourselves in those 20th Century pleasures, movies, music that we don't make ourselves or video games. The lights also make reading much easier. We power up whatever devices have rechargeable batteries.

Clothes are washed in the washer and hung to dry. Dishes for the day are done, no leaving anything for the next morning.

11:00 comes all too soon, and there's no real point to staying up once the power's off.

Summer's a little different because we don't rely so much on the electric lightbulb. There's also the fridge and freezers to consider. Basically, we use the freezer and fridge like one might use an ice box. When the electric comes on, we put the cold packs (We have quite a few large ones, we used to use for camping) in the freezer to freeze. Before bed, we put them back in the fridge.

Bedtime is when the electric shuts off. The electricity turns on at 3, the hottest part of the day, and shuts down at 10:00.

This is when living up north in a rural area pays off, our house doesn't need much in the way of air conditioning. We also moved our bedroom to the basement from the top floor. I'd like to install a sleeping porch if we ever get the money.

If one is lucky, one has some sort of solar panel or wind power set up. This can often supply electricity for the 16 hours of the day when the grid is off, but solar and wind are both prohibitively expensive to get started. One can also use gasoline generators, but again, very expensive, especially if the gas is expensive.

Expense is a problem in another way; the electricity we do get isn't  $0.11/KWh anymore. And it just keeps going up.


Wandering Manda said...

One of the things that was common in Jamaica (a place where electricity is common but unreliable at best) was gravity fed water systems. These worked by having tanks up on the roof or on a structure above the house, which could then flow naturally down through the pipes when water was needed. An electric pump was used to carry the water from the rain catchment cisterns to the roof tanks. So when power was out for a long period of time, like just after Hurricane Dean, water would have to be hauled from the cistern by hand. However if power was rationed to 8 hours a day a system like this might work well. The trick would be designing a roof tank that was well-insulated against the bitter January temperatures and winds. Might be possible though, and is certainly something to think about.

Bryan Alexander said...

That's definitely something I'm interested in. The trick would be to weather-proof it.
Maybe we could attach one to our eventual barn.

Joe said...

Excellent post. The sentence "The fire dept has more alarms these days..." gave me chills.

Bill Bryson would quibble with the idea that the power going out means bedtime, though. In "At Home" he documents that Victorians stayed up late into the night with oil lamps and candles (and, for the rich, gaslight). Of course, I don't have enough candles to do that for very long today, but in a long-term situation I imagine we'd rebuild that capacity.

The difference, of course, is that the Victorians weren't thinking about what they could be doing, if only there were power. Could we return to such thinking in an intermittent power situation?

Ceredwyn said...


The going to bed early is a personal preference. I hate reading by lamplight or candlight.

On the other hand, social occasions are perfectly fine by candlelight. Many people around here already include large bonfires in their parties, even or perhaps especially, winter occasions.

Some of this is based in my experience in Haiti and also our experiences up here, when we lose power for days.

I think it would be much harder for the city dwellers. Most city and suburban people have forgotten (or just don't know) what "dark" really looks like. I know I had forgotten. On a moonless night with nothing but a candle between oneself and the dark, one suddenly realizes why there are ghost stories and monster myths.