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.


  1. Enola,

    My water bill just went up last year when we got wonderful blue recycle bins (that the serfs in my city have to pay for) The water bill went up another ten dollars last month and it will go up again in December so we can have money to fix roads (we give the lords millions already to fix roads, wheres the money going)

    (the water bills down here includes, waste water, recycling program, and now road maintence)

    I dont recycle becouse I dont want my lord (of this city) to profit anymore from my labors than they already do.

    My electric bill is about $100.00 a month.
    My Water bill was about $70.00 a month when I moved here in 2005, now its about $100.00 (soon to be $110.00 a month)

    I also have to live with the fact that if the city sewage backed up into my house and ruined my house, I would have no recourse to sue the local lords in this city.

    The "King" in the white house and the EPA are now shutting down many coal fired powerplants and pushing wind and solar production which is nice as a backup, but what if there is no wind and its night outside, what will they do?

    Yeah' I dream of a septic system, water well, and solar panels.

    My ancestors left Scotland for Ireland becouse of the British. A short time later they left for the Colonies trying to escape the old world.
    In 1776, one of my ancestors that left Ireland earlier made muskets and his two sons fought with the Continental Army.

    (thats the family story, I have no real solid verification, most records were lost and dont pick up just until before the cival war.

    Now we are doing the same thing that was done in the old world and now I feel as if I am living under a monarchy (run by corporations,goverments and giant banks)

  2. We have finally just installed our off-grid system on our smallholding. It is, with careful management, providing us with enough energy to be more than comfortable, and is supplemented with a wood cook stove in winter, and a solar oven and barbecues in summer.

    Providing that one ensures that the "ghost" consumers of power are not plugged in, and that one purchases appliances with minimal power requirements, and that one also has a charge controller which can tell you the state of your batteries, one should be able to provide enough power for your requirements.

    Have to agree about the smell of kerosene lamps :)

    I'm loving the freedom from grid power, and it's expense... :)

    1. Dani'

      I have quality surge protectors all over the house. When the "device" on that panel is not in use, I flip the power off. I also unplug other devices too. I know it sounds nuts, but a watt here and watt there, it starts to add up.

      The best off the grid set up I've seen (next to Enola's) is the field lab in South Brewster County (West Texas) thefieldlab.blogspot

  3. I know what you mean about meshing the modern with primitive. Our homestead did without electricity, water and septic for quite a while also. In fact, one morning I went out to the outhouse for my morning routine and found a copperhead snake inside the outhouse. Of course, I dispatched the snake with a hoe. But then I had run an errand to the big city at an office supply store. There I am, surrounded by the latest and greatest electronic gadgets, thinking "these people have no clue that I just killed a copperhead in my outhouse"! It made me smile.

    However, I did a happy dance on the day that I figured out that I could make my washing machine work by pumping water into the washer (we hauled water in a pickup bed tank) and then plug it into the welder/generator to run it! Oh my! No wonder the pioneers only had one or two sets of clothes! Who wanted to wash all of those loads by hand!

    And you're right. It is a ton of work and very time consuming! Reminds me of the "Frontier House" tv show several years ago. While the husbands we basking in getting away from it all, one of the wives said she felt like she had been sentenanced to 6 months of hard labor!

  4. My latest experiment is to use LED Christmas tree lights for room illumination. We already have our back porch lit with three 100 lamp strings of white LEDs. It gives plenty of light, and since the lamps are strung around the edges of the porch the light is very diffuse. No hot spots or glare. The power consumption (measured with a Kil-A-Watt meter) is just 7 watts for those 300 LEDs.

    I told my wife I wanted to try the same thing indoors because we will have company over for Christmas. The other big reason is that a _lot_ of these lights could be run from a single 200 watt inverter from our micro-solar setup. So not only do we have a neat look for Christmas, but we also have a very low power drain backup lighting system that is "grand-kid safe". We have lanterns for backup lighting, but I don't want to leave a lantern unattended with the grand-kids in the house.

    Ideal would be similar LED light strings that ran directly on 12 Volt DC, but these lights are available cheap from Costco, and I already have the 200 watt inverter.

    Hope this gives someone a useful idea.

  5. I plan to have a split system, with "spot inverters"-that is, a 12 volt system for lights and small electronics,and small inverters for things I can't find in 12 volts(or propane). I have an LED flashlight that ran non stop for 4 days(I got under the house with it, and forgot about it)and the light was still on(I saw light coming from under the house one night)!On three "AAA" batteries-current consumption has to be just a few milliamps. I bought a couple 12 volt white LED marker lights to experiment with and they are surprisingly bright. Even those dollar store solar yard lights are bright-I built a very simple "solar chandelier"-total cost ? Four dollars and an hour's time. Backup lighting, for me, will be beeswax candles-they store well, no fuel to go stale,leak out,or blow up,and they're easy enough to make(and smell good). My system will be small-just for me and my fat cat-my energy demands are low, but I like having those moving electrons around. I have charged my smartphone and netbook off my gas scooter's electrical system,and a tiny solar panel I got at Harbor Freight(it's slow, though).
    Hauling water/coal/whatever in buckets is good exercise, but just plain sucks when it's raining and 40 degrees. Your blog is a great read, and seems to confirm the "Keep It Simple" philosophy.

  6. Well gurl, I have to agree and disagree about this topic.

    I have been off grid for 25 years and only the last 12 have I had electric power. Originally I set up the house fully non-electric, though I did the rough wiring for a code electrical system. I do have a few oil lamps, but mostly they sit on the shelf. When I built I plumbed the house for gas lights so in every strategic place where light is needed, a gas light is waiting. Like you, I brought in a Pioneer Maid, installed the coil in the firebox, and all winter long heat my water with the cookstove using a passive thermosiphon system simply because the stove is hot. Much later I installed an active solar power pumped hot water system using solar water panels recycled from an installation elsewhere. Now I have hot water year round and never have to fire off the propane water heater.

    Then somewhere along the way I got married and my bride insisted on electricity. I bought 4 24 volt 175 watt panels, a Blue Sky MPPT controller, a Trace 2424 inverter, 8 golf cart batteries, and a Link 10 meter. Once set up and operational, the system has been operating nonstop for 12 years. The ONLY issue I have experienced has been the monthly watering of batteries. No failures, no problems. We light using compact fluorescent bulbs for years but later graduated to LED bulbs. Chasing down the ghost loads once done is no longer an issue.

    Every kitchen tool desired gets used in its turn. Ditto TV and stereo. The principal restrictions are on large power users like electric heaters, air conditioners, and such. But with more panels and a second inverter to "stack" them and make 220 volt power, even deep well pumps can be operated.

    Regarding appliances, the older ones are indeed power hogs. At one point I bought a 24 V DC electric freezer thinking it would do the job. Only cooled to +10 F. NOT cold enough to keep your food longer than 6 months and I don't eat a side of beef that quickly. Solution? A new energy efficient freezer operates on 120 V AC and power usage for the year is paid with 1 and 1/2 solar panels. Such freezers and refrigerators today are widely available and not excessive in cost. Plus they keep the cold...mine freezes to -10 F.

    So, alternative power choices are available and they can solve many issues. My own system was built using premium equipment and has offered no problems in the 12 years operating. New energy efficient appliances are widely available that do the job well. And I have to admit the addition of the solar electric system IS indeed a major step up in comfortable living. The alternative for me was in excess of $50,000 for the local power company to bring me a monthly bill. I solved that problem much much cheaper than that.

    MANY times in the past 12 years I have gone down my hill only to discover my neighbors in the dark and wondering if their power would come back on before their freezers thawed. And I never knew there was a power outage.


  7. it is a good thing to have at least two or three alternative sources of power so that when one goes down you are not left in the dark and helpless. i do not have solar powered anything although my house is situated to take advantage of passive solar energy. i have electricity but it is not used much and is not missed when it goes out. i also have propane-although the cost of propane has gone up (like everything else) it takes very little of it to actually heat my home or cook a meal. many of the things that i do to work and take care of my homestead require nothing more than human power. no matter what a person does with their energy needs, be it solar, wind, gas, electric, etc...there is gonna be an upside and a downside...and living well with those one must be prepared.

  8. It's good to have multiple choices, non-electric isn't "better" than off grid. Lamps can break and you probably can't create your own oil or wicks.
    A good Photo-Voltaic and battery system should be able to run LED lamps for many years before the batteries need replaced (it depends a bit on the batteries you have but 5 to 10 is reasonable). The PV panels and LED lamps should outlast you.
    With electricity you're less likely to burn yourself or the house down, you won't create soot stains on the ceiling, you can turn LED lamps on and off in an instant and remotely (important if you think you have a prowler) which you can't do with an oil lamp.

  9. What kind of fuel do you use in your lamps? I have heard that Klean-Heat is pretty good.