Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Keeping Clean Without the Grid

This time, the weather spared us. The electricity did not go off. We didn't have any downed trees. There was no damage to our home or those of our close neighbors.

But that has not always been true. There have been many times in the nearly decade and a half that Deus Ex Machina and I have lived in our house that we have been left, literally, in the dark when storms have knocked out our electricity.

In my book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, I talk a lot about how fragile the delivery system is here in our country, how fragile the grid is. I explain that, for my family, the electricity is delivered through lines that are strung from pole to pole along the roadways.

One time we lost power because a drunken driver hit the pole. It didn't take long to correct, but that event planted the seed, for me. Another time, we had a wind storm - just wind ... no rain, no snow, no ice ... just wind, and not even hurricane force or even tropical storm force winds. The wind storm knocked out power for tens of thousands of southern Mainers, but it was incredibly selective. My neighbors, across the main road, had electricity (I could see their lights), but no one on my street had electricity.

And it was just my street - seven houses on a dirt road. We were the last on the priority list. Three days later, we had electricity again.

After that event the little seed took root and the seedling poked its little head out of the soil. It didn't grow very well or very big, because I didn't give it much attention.

In 2008, that changed, and the event that firmly established my little seed as the tree it has become was the ice storm that knocked out power for a significant number of Mainers, including us. It was in early December, and luckily, we had just installed our super efficient woodstove. We had already planned to heat our house with wood, and so we had the woodstove and plenty of fuel. Not having power didn't make us cold.

We also had plenty of food, because it was winter, and it had been a busy canning season :). We had the woodstove for heat, but also for cooking. So, we didn't worry about being hungry, or needing to spend extra money eating out or going to the grocery store for non-perishable food. It was cold, and so the items in our refrigerator went outside (planting the seed for a cold closet ;).

And we were lucky enough to still have water-on-tap ... although our on-demand, propane hot waterheater has an electric igniter, and so we had water, but not "hot" water.

I have never been a fan of cold showers, and, frankly, during the winter if my choice is cold shower or no shower, as much as I value having a clean body, I'm likely to choose the latter. But since we still had running water in the house, and since there are numerous ways to heat water that don't require electricity, not bathing because we didn't have electricity was simply not an option for me.

I got creative. During the 2008 Ice-Storm-Power-Outage, we heated water on the woodstove in my largest stock pot, which gave us about four gallons of nearly boiling water.

I also have a sixteen gallon wash tub, and if anyone has seen pictures of the "old" days when kids were washed in the kitchen in a big tub, that's what I have. I put that wash tub in our stand-up shower stall, and dumped the boiling water into it, and then, I added enough cold water from the tap to make it bearable. Then, I stepped right into the tub-in-the-shower-stall, closed the door, and had a bath. My girls LOVED it! They called it the "farm girl" bath. I made Deus Ex Machina take a bath, too.

I had the wash tub, and we had hot water on the woodstove, but if neither of those two options were true for us, I would have needed to have come up with a different solution.

If we had lost power during Irene, having a fire in our woodstove wouldn't have been my first choice, because it's simply too warm out right now to have a fire hot enough to get the woodstove hot enough to heat the water, but I'd still want to take shower or a bath.

Luckily, there are a lot of options out there. If I had a little cash, I might head over to the camping store. Coleman makes a camp shower bag sort of thingy that can be filled with water and put in the sun to warm the water. It doesn't have to be an outdoor shower. Once the water is warm, the shower could be moved into the house and suspended in the shower stall or bath enclosure.

There are also battery powered showers, and this nifty little propane camp shower.

The simplest option, however, would be to use what I already have on hand and make my own. If one can cook, one can heat water. I'd either build a fire outside, or put a stock pot on the grill to heat up water - and it doesn't take long for the water to get warm enough for a shower. It doesn't have to be boiling hot.

Taking one of the many five gallon buckets we have around our yard, I'd drill a small hole - making sure that I have a screw (or a cork would work) that will fit in the hole. Then, I would hang the bucket in my shower or bath enclosure and pour the hot water into the bucket. Remove the screw to get wet, put it back to soap up, take it out to rinse off. Instant, hot shower - no electricity required.

If I wanted to spend a couple of dollars, instead of using a screw or cork, I could actually purchase a faucet or a shower head to attach to the bucket.

It doesn't have to be a bucket, either. An old bleach bottle or an old milk jug would work just as well. With those, one could put holes in the lid and tip the bottles over when one needs the water.

Not having electricity does not have to be a tragedy, and we don't have to sit around in the dark getting grungy waiting for CMP to bring us back our lights. Hot showers don't have to be luxuries that are limited only to those who are fortunate enough to have electricity. In fact, even someone who lives in a remote mountain shack, completely off the grid, can have a hot shower. As long as there is water and a way to heat it, there can be hot showers.

Last night, Deus Ex Machina was cleaning out our old receipt drawer. He found our CMP statements from as far back as 2004. It was really interesting to see how much our electricity usage has changed over the last seven years. Back then, on average, during the warm months (when the furnace was not running), we used 28 kwh per day. When the furnance was running, during the winter, we used almost 40 kwh per day. Today our average usage, per day, is 12 kwh - still a lot, but less than half our average from back then.

Our life was not better in 2004 than it is now. Our life was not easier, either, and certainly things weren't more simple than they are now. In fact, if I had to compare, I'd say that life, especially without all of that electric energy we used to consume, is a lot more simple and easy, and, yes, enjoyable, now than it was then.

There are many aspect of our modern lives that I enjoy and that do require electricity - the freezer, the washing machine, computers/the Internet - but there are also a lot of things about our modern lives that are readily available without megawatts of power ... and when we recognize the difference, we become empowered to weather even the worst storms - whatever they may be.


  1. Fantastic post! We are coming to a point in our lives where buying our own place is actually on the horizon now. Not close enough to see details, but the vision is becoming clear. To be able to be more self sufficient is such an exciting thing to me. I wish we could do it here, now. but until then, we do what we can! Reading about your life has definitely inspired mine.

  2. Have just discovered your blog, and have spent a very enjoyable hour or so, reading. Am looking forward to reading and absorbing more.
    Best wishes from Tasmania, Australia!

  3. @ Herbs 'n' Chocolate - thank you. I don't know what your personal situation is, but even in a rental there's a lot that can be done. Chris Keith, who writes a lot for the website viewshound.com lives in a trailer park and is working toward self-sufficiency ... and writing about it. She has a lot of great advice, too.

    @ Jenny - Thank you. I'm so glad that you're finding some useful information here. I hope you'll stick around. Welcome to Surviving the Suburbs.

  4. For me the best thing for a portable shower if you have enough sun is four one gallon milk jugs filled maybe two thirds full...heat in sun and add 1/3 of cool water and enjoy. It is just so easy to pour over your head using the milk jug...I can actually do it with three is necessary...use the first one to get wet...soap up and the last two to rinse...

  5. Wet wipes for the win!

    But seriously, being able to get or stay clean during an evacuation or other crisis can be a huge morale-booster. Ice storms can (and have) left us without power for over a week. Being able to get to the office during those times is wonderful for me — not only because I can get away from the in-laws and their Olympic-level squabbling competitions, but because I can get a shower.

  6. Hi Wendy - I enjoyed your podcast chat with Gavin, it's nice to hear you as well as read what you write. I have a huge issue with water costs here, so I only have one shower a week. It costs £5 for every cubic metre of water/1000 litres and I also think it's shocking that we bath and flush the loo with pure drinking water! I really need to sort out water collection! I wash in the sink. I fill a bowl with hot water from the kettle, cool it with some cold, start at the top of my body and work down. I then flush the loo with the water. Husband cycles the 14 miles each way to work and then back each day so he needs a shower, I don't work up a sweat. I think people wash way too much and a wash top to toe will do. I grew up with a Rayburn that we cooked on and heated the water and was our only source of heat in a 6 bedroom house and we managed fine. BTW, I wash my hair mid week as well as shower day, with two bucket full of water and I rinse with tepid water, again, I save the water and flush the loo with it. In fact, we never use 1st water but only 2nd water for the loo as well as bucketing in rain water from the butts. Thanks again for the chat with Gavin - Froogs/Frugal Queen