Thursday, July 19, 2012

Back to Normal, or What Passes for It, and Thinking About Things

When we arrived home this evening, the lights were on! Yay! Except that we had left one window air conditioner turned on, forgetting about it while we opened all the windows to keep the house cool. So the AC was running for who knows how long, trying to cool the great outdoors. Ah well.

I have thought a lot about this summer's electrical ups and downs. We are not big power consumers; we're conscientious about what we use and how much. For example, the AC doesn't get turned on until the temps are over 90 or the humidity is unbearable. Both have been frequent occurrences this summer. We've only had AC for the past 10 years, getting a few window units when my elderly parents were coming to visit. Often we run them only for a few hours a day, unless we have visitors who are more used to the comfort of central air. We have gas for cooking, hot water, the dryer, the fridge and heat.

While we don't use much, we do rely on the electrical appliances we do use. The well pump, the washer, the freezer are our main uses. I have wondered, can we do without them? And I know the answer is yes, we could. The alternatives, however, do not represent a savings in energy use, with the possible exception of the freezer. Without the well pump, we'd be buying and hauling water because we have no other source, unless we built a cistern. In this hot, dry summer, we'd have been buying water anyway. Our gardens would not be watered so we'd have less produce. Without the washer, I'd be washing by hand (been there and done that and I'm here to tell you that is hard work) or taking things to the laundromat. The first option means I would have less time for other more productive pursuits. The second means more expense and use of resources.

The freezer is really the only expendable in the list of major electrical needs. I used to can, smoke or dry all of the food we put up. I still can a lot, but there is no arguing with freezing being a better way to preserve most meats and many vegetables and fruits. We use other small appliances and equipment too, but these I do not consider necessities. The big three, however, those are important to our quality of life. So doing without them is not on my list of changes we could make to reduce our reliance on electricity.

I lived for 15 years without electricity on this farm and while it was a fun challenge when I was young, I realize that today I am not prepared to return to that style of living. It was work, all day and every day, to maintain a reasonable level of comfort. Lamps had to washed and filled weekly; kerosene had to be bought; a generator had to run twice a week to provide water; laundry was washed by hand, in the old hand-cranked washer or hauled to the laundromat. Batteries had to be bought for the radio; the tiny gas fridge made miniscule amounts of ice and often had to be coaxed into working. We had to haul in tanks of bottled gas for the hot water heater and the cookstove and hook up the tanks ourselves. This was not pioneer-level living; those women worked much harder than we did, but with four children I had all I could do to keep up. When I began working away from home, the work got even more intense. Thank goodness for those strong boys to help!

So I wonder in the quest for self-sufficiency, just what is a person willing to give up? What level of self-reliance is "best"? Does it vary from person to person, from age to age? What is, after all, a necessity and what is a luxury in the quest for a self reliant life? My point of view has shifted over the years; instead of independence of "the grid," I look to a life with thoughtful use of resources and a lifestyle that is simple, comfortable and sustainable for us as we look to our aging years.

Perhaps the goal is sustainability, not self-sufficiency. Looking at where we are now I think we have a sustainable life if we add the natural gas generator we want for backup when the power goes out. This summer has made me reflect and evaluate how we live, and realize how lucky we are to have this place and the resources available to us here. I can complain with the best of them but in the end, this is where I want to be at this time of my life. That means accepting the difficulties of living in a place far from the madding crowds.

Copyright 2007 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Country Whispers said...

Interesting thoughts!
Since I live in the city there are lots of things that we just take for granted like city water, gas and electric that are already here.
I love the comforts that they give us but hate paying the price for them so I often wonder what it would be like to live in the country and live a more self sufficient lifestyle.

JJM said...

Even had I a green thumb, like my mother, I'm in no shape now to grow my own food, much less preserve it (canning, etc.) -- it's just not a tradition I come from, and I lack the skills and the knowledge as well as the energy. Worse, I'd be trying to do all that all by myself. ... Although I guess it would be one quick way to lose weight -- hard labour, followed by periods of starvation. [wry grin]

Beyond that, though: my minimal requirements at this point in the mod cons department are electricity and running water. (*Hot* running water is optional.) I want enough power for the icebox, for the 'puter and modem / router, for a heater in wintertime (if nothing else, to protect the pipes; my fireplace is nowhere near the plumbing) and the fans in the summer, and to recharge the cell phone. I'm perfectly happy with kerosene and oil lamps, and can cook perfectly well on and in the hearth.

I should tell you about my great-aunt Katrien sometime. She of the coal stove, the kerosene and oil lamps, and the outhouse with a pipe straight down into the sewer. In the 1970s. In the middle of a city. Instant time travel to a 19th century lifestyle, that was.--Mario R.

Carolyn H said...

I finally broke down and bought my first air conditioner in early June. Climate change and being older mean it's hotter now than when I moved to my cabin, and I'm no longer a spring chicken who didn't mind the hotter weather. This was the right year to buy it, but I can't say that it makes me happy. I can't hear the forest outside when it's on. Like you, I don't turn it on until it's 90 or so and humid. I guess I'm starting to view it as a necessary evil, at least for this summer. I need electric for my well pump and refrigerator. Well, the stove, too, but at least I can use my backpacking stove during power outages. Doing without electricity in a house that's designed for it to work is a hassle. A house that never had electricity is designed for that lack, and I barely notice it's not around when I'm in those.

Larry Eiss said...

Thanks for this thoughtful article. As we contemplate our retirement in WV these are very pertinent lines of thinking and have been in the forefront of our minds for a while now.

Larry Eiss said...

Thanks for this excellent and thoughtful article. As we contemplate our lifestyle in WV during retirement, we have had this topic at top of mind for some time. Your perspective is helpful.

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