Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Getting "off-grid"
For most people, paying the monthly utility bills is a time of frustration and worry. We all would like to see our utility bills cut in half or even more so. The fact is that most people are taking seriously their use of electric power and some of them are producing a part or all of their own energy. Well, this is where the concepts of energy sustainability and “getting off-grid" come from. By going off-grid or reducing our dependence on it, we can live more independent lives while limiting our reliance on the use of fossil fuels.

Remember the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was not an act of God – it was the expression of reckless risk-taking in order to get colossal profits for shareholders while answering the self-serving oil addiction that is part of the "main-stream" U.S. life-style. (Of course, some of the population of the rest of the world also has the addiction, but just because there are a lot of people around who lie, cheat and steal doesn’t add up to our being blameless when we do these things.)

Your green lifestyle
So, most people would agree that it’s time for greening our way of life. What we need is better public transportation, one gas-efficient family vehicle (if absolutely necessary), bicycles, and a resolution to get off-grid or at least reduce our dependence on it. Well, it helps if you live in a rural or low-density suburban area because you will have more space and resources to help you. But did you know that a man and his family went off-grid in a high-rise apartment building in New York City? He wrote a book about his experience living for 12 months without a vehicle and no electric appliances, and almost no electronics. His only electric source came from a single portable solar unit on the roof of his apartment building, and this was used principally for his laptop computer. Check out the “no-impact man” on the Internet. If he could do it, so can all of us – with the willingness to change our life-styles, some soul-searching, and a big effort.

So, if you're excited about changing your life-style and going off-grid, here’s what you might need – a bicycle, a cistern, rain barrels, a wood-burning stove (for heat and cooking), a couple of solar panels or a wind generator, and a septic tank (in some areas, a well and an outhouse are still basic options). But, if you’re living in an urban area, have no yard at all, or don’t have the money for all this investment, there’s still hope. The important thing to consider in all this comes down to the question: Are you ready to make tough decisions about your lifestyle in regards to your use of fossil fuels?

First of all, to live a greener life – and with or without home-produced solar and/or wind power - you still have to limit your use of electric power in all the ways that you can think of. You need to make decisions. You must choose among your electric appliances and electronic devices and maintain only those that are absolutely essential. Get rid of the rest. This will probably be an uncomfortable process, and you have to get the whole family to understand the reasons for the discomfort.

Here are some of the essential rules for your new life-style. Use low energy appliances and electronics (Energy Star appliances ones are energy efficient). Change out to energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs. Make good use of daylight by opening the curtains as soon as there is daylight. Also, low-wattage area lamps give good light for most purposes and help cutback on the use of higher-wattage ceiling lights. Switch off your lights when you leave a room. Put a timer on your fridge to switch off at night - or remember to do it yourself. (Your food won’t spoil in a closed refrigerator for up to eight hours.) Don’t keep electronic devices on standby. Keep them on a power-control bridge that can be turned off when they are not needed. And, remember thermostats up in summer and down in winter. Close off the heat in all little-used rooms in winter.

The next step is to make an inventory of the electric usage in your house. This will help you select what things you absolutely need. Gadgetry is to be avoided – most of it just takes up space, gathers dust, and doesn’t work very well.) So, do your inventory. Once you’re sure of what you simply have to keep for your physical and mental health, this will be your baseline for minimal energy use. You can give away or sell the rest.

What you probably need
1 water-heater (There are relatively inexpensive, window solar units that supply the energy for this kind of heater. You may not need one at all in the hot, summer months.)

1 or 2 TVs and DVD-players (Make those small, regular TVs – you don’t need even one energy-hungry screen. You don’t need a TiVo box, either.)

A laptop computer (Unless you need a desktop computer for work purposes, get rid of it. It’s a lot more energy-hungry than a laptop and takes up valuable desk space. For safety sake, children should always use the family computer, and not have their own (and this only in areas of the house where they can be continually monitored.) That would go with an energy-efficient scanner and printer

A cook stove (This could be substituted with a wood or solar stove. Propane or coal will get you off-grid, but still is fossil fuel. Topped, cast-iron cooking pots can be used for baking needs.)

1 small fridge (This, with or without a freezer component, depending on your needs. You’ll need to rethink your food buying and storage customs.)

Overhead fans or a whole house fan for the warm months (Unless your home is virtually windowless or you have a health problem, you can always open your windows, run around the house in your underwear and shorts, and live without air-conditioning.)

A home heating source - to be used with as low a temperature as possible in winter (You may substitute a fossil-fuel burning furnace with a wood-stove or small space heaters instead of trying to heat up the whole house. You should combine these greener alternatives for home heating along with the following tried and true measures: layering a lot of clothes, wearing insulated underwear, sleeping 2 to a bed, and using heavy comforters and sleeping bags.)

You may need so many gadgets, after all
If you’re really serious about cutting back your home energy use, you’ve got to pare down as far as possible on the total number of appliances and electric devices– even if it causes some anxiety and pain. Now make a list of the other things that you now have and might be able to do without. These probably include:

Clothes washer (Even if you decide to keep your clothes washer, you can still use it less by only washing when you have enough clothes for a full cycle, hand-washing the lighter items in the sink. Take the big items like covers, rugs and heavy bedspreads to a commercial wash and dry place.

Clothes dryer (This is a no-brainer. You can easily dry your clothes on a line or a rack. Get your children involved in hanging up clothes. )

Floor, wall, and table lamps (No regular–sized room needs more than 2 additional lights, and inexpensive solar lamps are available.)

Vacuum cleaner (A good mechanical carpet sweepers, broom and mop can do a lot to keep the floors clean. Wall-to-wall carpeting is not the best option, anyway. Area rugs will do fine in winter and can be cleaned and stored in summer.)

A telephone (There are still some home phones that do not need to be plugged in at all, just look for them, or use a computer phone.)

Home freezer unit (Store-bought cans and home canning and drying methods are really just as good for storage, and food won’t spoil if the power goes out for a couple of days.)

Clock radio and CD-player (Laptops can substitute for a radio and CD-player. Cell phones can wake you up. There are inexpensive solar-powered clocks.)

All types of electric cookers. (A microwave oven is optional and is more energy-efficient than heating up a stove unit or conventional oven.)

Blenders, food processors, hand-mixers, and the like. (Maybe you'll need a few thatyou use a lot of the time. Those that are of little use to you need to be given away.)

Electric dishwasher (- probably no so important as you think. Everyone in the family can take turns with simple chores like clearing the table, scraping plates and hand washing dishes.)

Electric garbage compacter (This item is the antithesis of green thinking. What you really need to be doing with your garbage is classifying it, making compost or feeding animals with the food scraps, and further sorting and recycling the inorganic stuff.)

Power tools (Obviously some of these are extremely useful, so choose among them carefully.)

Electric can-opener (In the long-run, these gadgets have a very short functional life, aren’t very convenient to use, and a lot harder to keep clean than a good hand-operated can opener.)

Fax machine (You can almost always scan and send whatever you need as an attachment to an email address.)

Video games (For anyone, and especially for children and teens, these take away valuable time that needs to be used for more constructive activities.)

If you’re still worried about needing any of these things, store them well out of sight, or for big items, unplug them for one month. Make a promise to your self not to use them for thirty days. Get the rest of the family on the program, too. If you didn’t have to get them out in the next month, they probably weren’t that important, anyway.

Do your home electric-use inventory
You’ve got the idea. Now get out pen and paper and make your home electric use inventory. If you make some eco-friendly changes right now, you’ll be rewarded by a great deal of personal satisfaction and a smaller utility bill as early as next month. And, after you’ve gained confidence in your greener life-style, begin brainstorming some ways that you can actually go off-grid sometime in the future, as a permanent way of life or at least for some period of time during the year.

I know of families who go to camp every summer, living for 2 or 3 months in the backwoods with no electricity. It’s their family vacation, and they love getting back to nature and living off-grid for a part of the year. For them, it’s an opportunity to let go of the complexities of their usual lives and a test of their wits, patience and spirit. If you’ve got a camp or backwoods cabin somewhere that's sitting empty (or know someone who has one), plan to use it this summer or offer it to another family for a rent - or, better yet, offer it free if they promise to make some minor improvements in the property during their stay.

Speaking for myself, I have never lived off-grid for more than a couple of months at a time, but, with some effort and the cooperation of my dear husband, I’ve permanently reduced my dependence on it. And, yes, I’d like to try living off-grid again if I can get together the money for some basic investments. To do so, I’d definitely like some home-based solar or wind energy for a minimum of household electrical use, including a few lights, a small fridge, my laptop, and some water heating and shower system. I remember the challenging experience of living one summer in a rustic farmhouse with a well, an outhouse, and a propane stove. I bathed in the small lake behind the farmhouse. The lake water was cool and relatively clean – at least it seemed to be, but the major problem was when the cattle from the neighbor’s farm also decided to bathe while I was still in the water. Lake bathing, alone or with a friend, may be fun - and at least minimally hygienic - but it isn’t even tolerable when accompanied by 20 noisy cattle.

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