Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Email by Lamplight
The other morning, I awakened to the sound of incessant beeping. Groggy from a good nights sleep, it took me a bit to focus on the sound and determine its origin. Finally, it came to me. The beeping was coming from our bathroom, or more specifically, our inverter mounted on the bathroom wall. It was an alarm warning us our battery voltage was low and complete power shutdown was imminent.
I stumbled into the bathroom in time to shut the inverter down and was immediately plunged into quiet darkness. As I made my way to the kitchen I mentally took note of which oil lamps were full and accessible. I fumbled around in the dark locating my lighter and finally managed to light an oil lamp and place it on the wood cookstove so that I could go about heating water for a pot of tea. While the water was heating, I cozied up in the love seat in the kitchen, grabbed my phone and checked my email.
As I sat in my kitchen, listening to the gentle hiss of a propane flame, illuminated only by a single oil lamp, I marveled at the marriage of modern technology and primitive living. Here I was, in the 21st Century, checking email on my smart phone while bathed in the muted light of a kerosene lamp.
We have lived off-grid for 12 years. The first two years where primitive to say the least, but the last 10 years have been a hybrid of alternative energy. Having lived with grid power, been completely non-electric and currently in an alternative energy powered home, I have come to a number of conclusions.
1. Grid power is easy. When we lived in a "normal" house, I never thought twice about flushing the toilet, tossing a load of laundry into the washing machine or drawing a bath. I would grumble when the power bill showed up in the mail, mumble something about someday having the freedom of living "off the grid" under my breath and go grab an ice cold drink out of the fridge. On the few occasions the power would go out, I would light an oil lamp, build a fire in the wood stove and wax poetic about how wonderful it would be to live "the simple life" - and then the power would come back on and I would go make sure the electric stock tank heater was plugged in so that I wouldn't have to chop ice for the critters.
2. Being completely non-electric is a lot of work. Hauling water may sound romantic but I gotta tell you - it isn't. The reality of how much water we require for our everyday activities is phenomenal! And oil lamps are romantic, beautiful and provide a warm, soft glow, but did you know they stink? Oil smells less than kerosene, but when you have a house full of lamps just so you can have a modicum of illumination, you will have a definite odor. They require constant filling (which can be a messy job) and the light they give is never as good as a simple 60 watt electric light bulb. Because water is carefully guarded, flushing the toilet becomes optional rather than compulsory. When you begin calling your bathroom "the indoor outhouse", you know you are truly non-electric.
3. Hybrids are always high maintenance. If you choose to graduate from "non-electric" to "alternative energy" prepare for a whole new way of life. Now, rather than worrying about filling your oil lamps once a week, you will become obsessed with "ghost loads" and what appliances are actually viable on your system. You will judge the weather not by how nice it is, but whether or not you made any power. The longer you run your system, you will learn that the price of running a hybrid system is constant maintenance. When you were non-electric, you got by with little. Now that you have alternative energy, you can't settle for less. You must keep it running. And alternative energy is a hard taskmaster. When you make your own power you essentially run your own, miniature power substation. You make the power (generator, solar panels, wind turbine), control where it goes (charge controllers), convert it (inverters) from DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current) making it compatible for standard household use and store it (battery bank). Keep in mind that power companies employ full-time electricians to keep their plants up and running. Although your plant is smaller in scale, it is still a full-fledged power plant. YOU will become the full-time electrician.
So, where does that leave us? If it were up to me, I would choose either grid power (it is easy) or a completely non-electric system (supplemented only by 12 volt DC electric (solar) lights). Here's the deal - an alternative energy system is challenging. It is not a matter of IF something goes wrong, it's a matter of WHEN. If any portion of your system fails (generator, charge controller, inverter, battery) then your whole system fails. Alternative energy systems get old and wear out. The batteries need maintenance and the electronics are fallible. Essentially, I love having an alternative energy system, but only as a non-essential supplement to a completely non-electric system. Only non-electric systems are truly sustainable. An outhouse never fails. It doesn't freeze in the winter, require 5 gallons of water to flush or become a bastion of bacteria when the power goes out. A flushing toilet is nice but an outhouse is practical. I love my refrigerator, but it is a power hog. A root cellar is by far a better option. It is huge, can hold an entire harvest and isn't subject to power outages.
If you are in search of honest-to-goodness, long-term, off-grid sustainability, consider becoming completely non-electric. All it takes is a little pre-planning and a lot of ingenuity, but the benefits will be incalculable.