Monday, December 6, 2010


When Deus Ex Machina and I were in the grocery store this past weekend, I overheard a customer talking to the kid in the produce section.

Customer: Where are the strawberries?
Produce Kid (with an embarrassed lilt to his voice): We don't have any right now. The ones that we received were no good.
Customer (as he walked away): Grumble, grumble. Mumble, mumble ....

Strawberries are a summer crop. Here in the US, in December, it's not "summer" anywhere, and if strawberries are being grown, it is more likely than not under unsustainable and energy intensive conditions.

The price per barrel for oil has been hovering around $89 for the past couple of days. The price per gallon for gasoline is between $2.99 and $3.09 here in southern Maine.

How many more times will our local grocery store buy strawberries that are not suitable for selling before they stop stocking strawberries in December? And if my grocery store stops buying strawberries, how long before those growers stop expending the energy to grow them? And if the price of oil continues to rise, how much longer before we stop having the smorgasbord of grocery store products that we have today - never mind the produce section offerings of out-of-season fruits and vegetables, but how about things we take for granted like ice cream and Eggo waffles?

Is this a sign of things to come?

Deus Ex Machina and I were looking at bike generators last night. The average adult can produce a sustained 80 to 150 watts of power. A vigorous half hour ride could charge a deep-cycle battery that would provide enough power to operate my tankless water heater for about ten 5-minute showers per week.

Generating all of the electricity we would like to use from our own muscles would not be ideal - at least for us (maybe when our girls get a bit older and can help with the pedaling :), but as we continue to lower our overall usage, powering some parts of our house with a bicycle generator starts to look like a real possibility.

And, really, having spent the last decade working as a "virtual assistant", I'm starting to notice that secretary spread, which is very annoying and rather concerning. The problem is that I've never been an exercise-for-the-sake-of-exercise kind of person.

I have no aversion to hard work.

Over the holiday weekend, in fact, Deus Ex Machina and I moved a half-cord of wood from our neighbor's yard, and we'll move another half-cord the next time we have a free weekend.

I'll turn over, dig out and build raised garden beds (and plant strawberries :).

I'll shovel snow.

I'll walk two miles to the library.

And while all of those things could be considered "exercise", they're activities that need to be done and have the added benefit of also using and toning my muscles.

Unfortunately, there just aren't enough of those types of activities to really keep me in the shape I want to be in.

Having a bike generator to power our water heater so that I can take a hot shower would be so satisfying on so many levels.

We've talked for years about installing some sort of system, and we've hemmed and hawed about what would be best for our particular situation. All things considered - cost, reliability, maintenance and upkeep, ease of use - the bicycle generator seems a very good choice. I'm not considering a whole-house human-powered system (which would be cost prohibitive and would require more time and energy than either Deus Ex Machina or I could supply), neither could we afford a whole-house solar or wind system (which is why our goal has been to reduce our usage).

There is no one-size-fits-all system that would be completely ideal 100% of the time, and the best solution would be for each of us to explore the different options and choose a couple that would work for our, individual, situation.

For me and Deus Ex Machina, we would be limited in the amount of energy we could produce with a bike-powered generator (especially initially ... as we build those bike-riding muscles :), but pound-for-pound, the bike generator is less expensive than solar and wind generation equipment (mostly because of the huge DIY potential and the fact that it uses readily available materials) and would be (potentially) more reliable.

If we're making our own power (even if it's only enough for hot water), we're not (as) dependent on conditions over which we have absolutely no control - like the price of oil per barrel or the weather. A bike-generator would be the ultimate in empowering us to make our own power, dependent only on my willingness to jump on the bike and give it a whirl.


  1. That's why the pioneers didn't have "gyms." I can't stand the concept. ;-)
    Dr. MS keeps hounding me to buy asparagus for Thanksgiving/Xmas dinner. I feel weird buying it. It's not spring!

  2. All that pedaling to produce energy would have the added benefit of warming you up as you pedaled, thus allowing you to turn down your furnace a degree or two (or throw one less log into the wood stove), resulting in even more energy savings.

  3. I might have mentioned this before, but the Amish run a lot of appliances on compressed air. I wonder if it would be more efficient to pedal an air compressor than a gennie.

    IIRC, a lot of winter produce comes from South America. They ship theirs north, we ship ours south, everyone gets "fresh" produce year-round. If we can't get fresh produce, maybe we'll start seeing more canned/frozen stuff through the winter. We'll deal. Personally, I think it would be good to have a "strawberry season," and so on.

  4. Kaye - I'm so with you. I hate the idea of a "gym". Ugh! I even hated "gym" when I was in school. And about the asparagus ... um, no. I would tell Dr. MS "no" ... unless it was frozen from my spring garden ;).

    Darcy - absolutely! We could probably put off lighting the stove for an extra couple of weeks in the fall and then just light the fire on the coldest nights in the spring. If we started to feel a little too chilly, we could just hop on the bike and make electricity :). Great idea!

    FARf - Deus Ex Machina mentioned something about compressed air the other night. I guess the bike generator on one of the sites we were looking at used an air compressor or something. It certainly bears looking into. Yes, having fresh produce "in season" is so different (and so much better!) than having it when it's been shipped from some far off place. That said, we eat so many strawberries during strawberry season my kids actually get sick of them, but then, by the next June, they're very excited for strawberry season again ;).

  5. love the idea of a bike generator. living in lowest-rates-in-the-nation KY, I have a hard time convincing Hubby to worry about electricity. working on that. re: the Amish: on travels last summer came across an Amish store that had solar panels outside running into a battery that powered the fan, etc. & light tubes in the ceiling--using daylight for the only light. they are so enviably GREEN!

  6. Some folks posted a video on YouTube about their experiments with using a bike generator. You can check it out here:

  7. dmarie - I've heard about the Amish efficiency before, although I've never had the pleasure of visiting one of their communities. Eric Brende wrote a great book about his experience living in an Amish community. The book is called "Better Off", and I highly recommend it for anyone who thinks they "need" modern technology (but can't go visit the Amish in person ;).

    Ollamha Anne - thank you for the link. Great video - and it has certainly increased my interest in pursuing the human-powered option :).