Chapter 6 – Light and Heat
Copyright 2009 Michael Bunker
When the excitement of rural electrification began sweeping the country in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it would have been hard to imagine that one day, turning off a light might be a revolutionary act. In 1925, less than half of the 6.3 million American farms were receiving centralized electric services. By the late 30’s a large majority of the remaining farms had electricity; and by the early 1970’s, fully 98% of American farms and homesteads were “on-grid”.
As you can see, moving away from grid electricity, or from any electricity at all, is certainly a move against an enormous tide. As a philosophy, de-electrification is Contra Mundum (against the world). When rural electrification programs multiplied during the early and middle decades of the 20th Century, very few people ever even stopped to ask themselves whether or not it was a good idea. The world said it was good; the government said it was good; the flesh said it was good, so it must be good. Electricity = Good became an unquestionable and unassailable maxim in the minds of the developed world, and as the generations passed, this presupposition became “hard wired” into new young brains being raised completely on-grid. The brain works very similarly to the wiring in a house. In an on-grid house, so long as there is not some devastating disaster, some horrible accident, an electrical short, or some purposeful re-wiring, the electricity tends to always make the same route through the house. It doesn’t just decide to re-route itself through the studs or the sheetrock. If no change is made or nothing radical happens, it always does what it always has done. Therefore each generation is raised in a world where electrification is automatically considered good by default (or it isn’t even considered, because it is always there and never in question). Where electricity is ubiquitous, somewhat affordable, and necessary to maintain the world’s preferred lifestyle, the juice just keeps running down the line, and nobody ever questions if their might be another way.
Decolonization is Re-wiring
Generally, in order for some change to be made in the way things have always been done, something radical, subversive, or revolutionary has to happen. Some event has to cause the entire system to be questioned. When remodeling is done on a house, or if there is some short or wiring problem that demands that the wiring be examined or re-considered, only then does the whole system fall under scrutiny. There are many such “shorts” and wiring problems going on in the world today. There is a lot of remodeling going on too. The world seems like an old house whose wiring has become frayed and dangerous. Perennial warfare, terrorism, statism, pervasive government spying on the people, the destruction of the food supply, the slow death of the petroleum based economy, recession, depression, globalism, etc., are causing many people to go through a wholesale reassessment of modern life and living. The whole system is being re-examined, and a lot of people are coming to the conclusion that something is horribly wrong, and that the accepted ways of the past may not be sustainable or even desirable.
The problem is that when electrification as gospel has been so hard-wired into the system (and into the brain) for so long, the concept of just pulling out the wires altogether to save the house does not usually ever occur to most people. So, the default response is: “If grid power is the problem, or is unreliable, then I might consider going ‘off-grid’”, but by that they usually mean, “I will consider having my own alternative power”. There is usually not a question as to the manner or foundation of living; the question is usually only about what source is to be used to maintain the current way of living. Therefore, alternative power becomes the next unchallenged gospel.
Alternative Power is NOT the Solution. It is an Alternative Problem
When most people begin thinking about living off-grid, they automatically think about electricity, and how in the world anyone could possibly live without it. This is not at all to say that electricity (or a dependence on it) is our greatest weakness as a people, or that the electrical grid is the system that is solely responsible for our mental colonization and slavery. In fact, many different but complementary systems (such as the petroleum products system, or the just-in-time philosophy of provisioning) are just as potentially dangerous, and could possibly be even more addictive. I have started our discussion with electricity in order to exemplify the nature and tendencies of “the grid” as a whole; because electricity is the most illustrative and the easiest to understand portion of the varied systems that make up the larger industrial and consumer driven grid. However, it would be an error to think that the electrical grid is the only (or even always the primary) system that makes up the grid.
The electrical grid is not the whole grid; but, it is often the most ubiquitous of the varied grid components, so we interact with it more completely, and become dependent on it at a younger age, than we do with other parts. My explanations of the differences between Off-Grid and Off Off-Grid living in the first chapter go a long way towards explaining how these smaller but sometimes more pervasive and addictive systems can become just as dangerous and poisonous as the mainstream electrical grid system. For example, if in “going off-grid” someone were to just replace all electricity and all electrical grid components with a substitute grid system made of non-electric machines running entirely on petroleum based fuels (say… propane, gasoline, or diesel), has the problem really been solved? During a widespread disruption or disaster, or even in the very likely situation where the price of oil skyrockets again, anyone dependent petroleum based fuels would quickly (or eventually) find themselves in an unviable and unsustainable situation. They would eventually be in precisely the same situation as those who choose to remain on the mainstream electrical grid. Our dependence and addiction to petroleum based fuels is just as debilitating as our dependence on cheap and readily available grid electricity, but when the mind of modern man wrestles with what it considers to be the impossibility (or difficulty) of living life off of the grid, it focuses initially on the benefits and the “necessity” of electricity (or “power”), and only secondarily, if ever, does it consider adopting a life without the machines that use that power.
It is automatically assumed by some people that by having an alternative power system, or redundant, or “backup” systems, we are immune or protected from disruptions or the loss of critical systems. But, this is only true in the short run. Let me give you some examples:
Example #1: On-Grid with Alternative Power Backup
A man I know lives his life using regular grid power; but he has prepared his whole house to also run on alternative power in an emergency: in this case he has gas generators for lights, refrigeration, cooling, etc., and he has a large reserve propane system for heating and cooking. His assumption is that by having redundant systems, if the electrical power grid fails, he will still be able to maintain most of his “critical” systems using the alternative grid he has developed; and, this is true, at some level. He will be able to operate for longer than those who are solely dependent on the grid, but, if the disruption lasts long enough, or is serious enough, his private grid will also eventually fail. His plan is better than no plan at all, but in the long run it is also unsustainable. Alternative power systems are also quite expensive. So, we have to ask, “How much did the alternative power back-up system in this example cost?” Well, in this case it was probably somewhere in the $5000-$7000 range, and that was many years ago. How much time did it buy? Without a pretty serious storage system for gasoline, even with rationing, the generators will likely only be useful for a couple of months. This means that all of the systems that currently require electricity will be unusable after the gas runs out. In this case that means that, since this is the primary means of food preservation and storage, the food and water supply will be questionable after only a few months of service disruption. The propane storage system will provide a bigger cushion. If all things remain equal (meaning there are no system failures, no accidents, leaks, or disasters, and no added needs that cause the propane to be used at a faster rate) this man would have a few years of heating and cooking utility, If his propane tanks are full when the failure or emergency happens. This plan, though better than a purely on-grid lifestyle, is quite expensive for what it actually delivers, and in the event of an extended emergency, this system will likely be a failure. And, my analysis does not take into account that a long-term emergency is likely to be preceded by huge and rapid increases in the price of fuels and parts, which are likely to weaken the overall survival plan. This philosophy relies too much on services and materials that are unsustainable and unreliable.
Example #2: Alternative Power with Preparedness Backup
In this example, a man and his family actually do go “off-grid”. They build a rural cabin and they power their off-grid life using solar (or photovoltaic) panels and wind generators. They have a gasoline generator for back-up power or for support when there are long periods without sun or adequate wind, but the generator is not considered “mission critical”, so the system will function without it. The family has electric lights with kerosene lamps as backup, and also uses their off-grid electricity to power a freezer and a refrigerator. Now, this family has also done some research, and they have stored up supplies in case they lose the utility of their off-grid electrical system. They have a woodburning stove in storage, and have stocked up on canning supplies, candles, dehydrated foods, and other emergency essentials. How good is this plan? Well, it is much better than the situation in the first example, but again, this is a very, very, expensive plan; and it has many weaknesses. Altogether, in this situation, you would likely be looking at an initial “getting off-grid” cost of well over $20,000 (not counting structure construction) and probably much more than that. And the lifestyle is still dependent on a system that is susceptible to breakdowns, interruptions, and scarcity of parts and supplies.
Most people who are not already living an off-grid life, but who are considering one, believe that solar or wind power is some miracle way to receive “free” electricity. This is hardly the case, as we have mentioned before. These systems require batteries, and even if one is able to afford large, long-life, high-capacity batteries, they are susceptible to problems and failures. These batteries do have to be replaced eventually, and they are capable of failing long before their usual expected life span. On my off-grid solar power system, I had two of the twenty original batteries fail within months of initiating the system; and my story is not unique. Quite often, when you are new at utilizing an alternative power system, user error can cause failures in batteries and other components. It is an unhappy fact that, when one you have one of these batteries fail, if it is not identified and replaced, it usually will cause a cascading problem of failures in the other batteries in the system. One or two weak or ineffective batteries will usually ruin the rest of the batteries in the system in short order. I know people who have had to replace their entire battery bank after this type of cascading battery failure. So, what if their failure happened after some game-changing disaster or crisis?
While it is true that the family in our example #2 has made emergency plans for living off of their alternative power grid, if they are not regularly practicing how to use and do these things effectively, then they could end up in real trouble trying to do so in an emergency situation. We have learned from our experiences that everything we do takes trial and error, practice, practice, and more practice. If people do not learn by real, hands-on experience, what works and what does not work, then all the survival equipment and supplies in the world may not account for much in the long run. It is much harder to go completely off off-grid by necessity, immediately, in a crisis, than it is to do so deliberately and methodically before the crisis. And, if a drastic situation catches the family unawares, it is likely that they will have invested a lot of money and resources in a questionable system that they may lose the use of in a long emergency.
Could those resources have been better spent? Would it be better if this family had spent even a portion of that money going completely off-grid to begin with? Would it have been wiser to start living that life almost immediately; to follow a deliberate and methodical plan, so that their lives would not be so radically altered after a major disruption? Almost no one ever considers the fact that, massively changing a lifestyle and manner of living while under stress and while in possible danger, is always an endeavor fraught with peril. Would you ever say, “I’ll learn to swim when I fall out of the boat?”
Here is a shocking fact: Starting and living a life without these alternative power systems is much cheaper, and, in the long-term, much safer than any of the alternatives. I would say that one of the comments I hear the most from people who contact me for counsel or advice is this: “I want to move off-grid and live a simpler, plainer, and more deliberate way of life… but I cannot afford to do it now.” It seems ridiculous to have to say, but it is easier and cheaper to not have electricity at all, than it is to purchase and operate an alternative energy system and then have to abandon it or bypass it when it becomes unusable or unsustainable. Most people are only looking at the problem as an “A” or “B” choice:
a) Remain on the grid, which is expensive but means no expensive start-up costs; or,
b) Move into an “off-grid” (and by this they mean “alternative power”) lifestyle which can be very expensive at start-up.
It is NOT an “A” or “B” choice!
This will take some explaining and illustration, but our solution (Option “C”, or, “None of the Above”) could very well be the right choice.
Unhappily, many folks from every conceivable location on the spectrum of political and social opinion have focused on the wrong things when it comes to going Off-Grid. Many environmentally conscious liberals have focused their energies on alternative electricity solutions as a solution to global and individual problems. They push electric cars and focus on maintaining a smaller carbon footprint, as if reducing our dependence on petroleum products and shifting that dependence onto electrical power (which is generally, but not always, somewhere along the line, produced with petroleum products) will fix every problem. Even if we say we have created our electricity with solar power or wind power, it is very likely that the components of our alternative power systems are all made using grid electricity and petroleum products, and many of those components themselves are manufactured in a way that, in the long term, is unviable or destructive. Let’s look at a prime example.
Whenever off-grid living is mentioned in conversation, or in magazines, or on most internet sites, virtually every bit of the conversation revolves around alternative energy sources. In fact, I do not think it would be unfair to say that for most people, the phrase “off-grid” merely means “alternative energy”. The accepted “off-grid” wisdom is that if you find a newer and better source of power (to do all of the things you already do), then you are on your way to viability, sustainability, and off-grid bliss. Because this has been the accepted wisdom, much time and energy is now focused on alternative ways of capturing and storing electricity for off-grid use. Of late, a lot of that energy and focus has been on the recent advancements in battery technology, particularly Lithium batteries.
Lithium has been promoted by many environmentalists and by corporations as the miracle element that is going to save the planet. Most modern hybrid and electric vehicles utilize Lithium batteries for the storage of electricity. In fact, many off-grid homes and businesses use Lithium batteries for storing the electricity captured via solar panels or wind generators. Lithium is supposed to be the miracle solution to our unhealthy and destructive dependence on a dwindling supply of oil in the world. When you see a Hollywood star driving around in a hybrid vehicle and pontificating about how they are “minimizing their carbon footprint”, and how they are saving the planet by using “alternative energy”, you have found someone who has been brainwashed by the new Lithium cult. Here is another little tidbit for you to consider when you are looking into these things. When someone is selling you something, always question their statistics. The old saying is that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”; which is to say that salesmen are very good at making the numbers say whatever they like. The truth is that Lithium is maybe a worse bet than is oil for the future, and it has many of the same problems as petroleum… only, there is less of it.
As an element, Lithium is relatively rare – which ought to surprise you if you listen to the mainstream Off-Grid and alternative energy people. Most of the world’s Lithium is unusable because it exists in rocks and in ocean water at very, very low parts per million (ppm); and most of that Lithium is of very low grade. Fully half of the world’s usable reserves of Lithium are in the Salar de Uyuni area of Bolivia; historically an unstable country with a long history of revolutions and civil wars. The next largest reserves of Lithium are found in Chile and China. Lithium is not only a comparatively rare element, but access to most of it could be cut off at any time. In every respect, Lithium is rarer and a more unstable element of energy storage system than is oil: Lithium just doesn’t get as much bad press because it doesn’t have a tailpipe with black smoke coming out of it.
As I was writing this chapter, General Motors announced that it will soon begin selling its Chevy Volt hybrid vehicle, and the announcement perfectly illustrates my point. The car manufacturer shocked the world when it announced that the Volt was preliminarily rated at 230 miles per gallon! I have watched with interest as the press feeding frenzy ensued. But is the Volt a solution to the problems it is meant to address? I don’t think so. The car will reportedly cost close to $40,000, which means that almost every customer who buys one will be accepting as much as twice the amount of debt than that which they would have otherwise adopted if they had purchased a conventional vehicle of the same size and class. Think about that. That means that people will have to work even harder, and it will take many more years of payments to service that debt in order to afford the car. Every one of these “invisible” elements is not considered when the salesmen and their statisticians compute energy consumption, by the way. These cars have to be plugged in to an outlet every night; meaning that they will be drawing electricity from the power grid, which will increase both the burden on an already over-burdened power grid, and the amount of money that these consumers will have to pay on their power bills each month. The statisticians say, “Yes, but this is cheaper and more plentiful “off-peak” power!”, but that is only true if the cars don’t “catch on” with the public. When the salesman or statistician makes that claim, he is acting like he assumes he will fail, because clearly if their sales scheme succeeds, then everyone will be plugging their car in at night… right? All of this means even more work and more debt for the customer, and in some cases, more fuel consumption by the power companies, many of which use coal and petroleum products to create power.
And what about the Lithium-Ion battery?
In a recent interview, one of the Vice-Presidents of General Motors claimed that the battery would be expected to last “10 years”, but when he was subsequently asked what it would cost to replace the battery, he refused to say. One reason he might be reticent to give a price, is because the Volt uses Lithium-Ion batteries, and it is hard to say whether anyone will be able to acquire or afford a replacement Lithium-Ion battery in ten years. And, these are only the beginnings of the possible problems with this shell-game. In an interview with the Seattle Times, then Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz admitted that the first-generation Volt was not expected to generate a profit for GM. GM, due to the recent bailout mess, is primarily owned by the United States government, meaning that it is likely that more taxpayer money will be required to keep this company in business… so that they can sell more unprofitable cars, to more people, engaging them in more debt, engendering more consumption, which will put more strain on the grid system, which will raise the prices of grid electricity! If you are a taxpayer and you use grid power, you will likely be paying for the Chevy Volt, even if you don’t ever get to drive one!
My point here, of course, is to illustrate how our problem is not one little element of the system (like petroleum or grid electricity) that we need to work around. Those who think that electricity is the solution to our oil dependency have not really seen the scope of the problem. Here is a clue… when you admit that we (or you particularly) have a dependence on something; whether it be oil, electricity, or donuts for that matter; the next step is to admit that the problem is dependency, not oil, electricity, or donuts.
The Problem is Dependency
This is going to sound shocking, so you might have to take a moment to let it soak in… Dependence is the opposite of Independence. Seriously. Think about it.
But the problem does not just run one way. Just as there are those who have declared war on oil and so-called “fossil fuels”, and have insisted that alternatively derived electricity is the answer, there are a whole lot of people who have gone precisely in the other direction. Many survivalists, “preppers”, and Off-Grid folks have eschewed and rejected the electrical grid system only to replace that system with petroleum consuming generators and other non-electric energy hogs that are just as likely to ensnare us to our own comforts and lusts; and just as likely to leave us dependent on things and systems that are undependable. You see, our answer is not going to be found by focusing on the power source. The solution is not in finding new or better ways to feed some really bad and destructive habits. The solution is not in finding safer and more sustainable ways to keep our families and communities addicted to consumption and entertainment. The solution will be found by focusing on how the decisions we make really and truly affect us and our loved ones and our progeny. We have become slaves, not to products or to energy sources, but to our dependence on those energy sources. Dependency and slavery are not new things.
Option “C” – None of the Above.
For centuries, indeed for millennia, mankind lived and thrived without any kind of power grid. Just as the wild pigs of the swamp once lived freely without fences or bags of corn; man once lived freely by the sweat of his brow and by his intelligence and God’s grace. Electrical dependency is a relatively new phenomenon, and it is only the historical ignorance, covetousness, and slavish colonized mind of the worldling that has convinced him that it will be difficult or impossible to leave the system. It would be fascinating and illustrative if we could hear one of today’s sad, anemic, industrially raised, commercial pigs tell one of the wild and free pigs of the Okefenokee Swamp that it is impossible to live free; or that somehow his slavish life is better than the life of freedom.
Sometimes a semblance of the truth even escapes through the modern media. George Clooney’s character in the movie Oh, Brother Where art Thou?, which takes place in the 1930’s, had this to say about the soon to come electrical grid:
“Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin’ basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways (author’s note: “spiritual mumbo-jumbo” and “superstitions” means Christianity, and “backwards ways” means Agrarianism… just so you know). We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes, sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon if you ask me.”
Of course those of us who know history know what the Age of Reason in France produced… a little thing called The Reign of Terror, which claimed 40,000 victims (almost half by guillotine) in about a year. You see, it was a slippery slide, as human sin always is. Men who insist on living contrarily to the commands of God always see regression as progress, and always believe that the next, newest, “age” will solve all of their problems. During the Dark Ages, it was believed that all knowledge could be apprehended via the Pope and the “church” alone. Next to come was the Age of Reason which held that all knowledge could be gained via reason alone, which proved to be a grievous error, since reason is always limited by finite knowledge, and by the natural depravity of man. Next came the Age of Enlightenment, which held that all knowledge could be gained by the use of reason subjected to the five senses; which led to some nice music and art, but a lot of scientific quackery and junk philosophy. Next came the Age of Rebellion, which held that reason and the senses were useless unless they existed at the right end of a gun. Next came the Age of Industry, which said that reason and knowledge were only useful in the pursuit of gain and growth… of riches, esteem, property, “leisure time”, etc. Next came the Age of Information, which holds that all of the benefits of all the previous ages can be had at 1/2 price and with little or no work if everyone will just log on and sign in; shop at the same stores, wear the same clothes, watch the same shows, and bow to the same false “gods”. Coming next, of course, will be the Age of Judgment, where all of these ideas and all those who succumbed to them will stand before a righteous God, who gave men freedom, intelligence, and abundant resources and commanded them to live benevolently and lightly on the earth, and to be good stewards of His gifts.
Abandoning the grid is possible, and, in fact, our survival may depend on it. Again, the immediate tendency of those who do have the desire to move Off-Grid, is to find a way to keep doing all of the same things, only without being attached to the public utility grid. I must continue to protest that, although going Off-Grid in this way can be a meaningful intermediate step, in the long run it only moves us one step further from danger and from the overall problem of dependency; and it leaves us susceptible to long term outages, and exposes us to disaster if (more likely, when) the resources and materials necessary to maintain our own off-grid “grid” disappear or become impossible to get. Neither is moving Off-Grid in the traditional way inexpensive or easily manageable by most people.
If we are going to free ourselves, we must be willing to look further than our first instincts. We must study alternate methods of doing everyday tasks, and understand that sometimes we may only reach a good and final solution by means of trial and error, as well as by the use of intermediate means. Realize that you are on an adventure, and that “off-grid” is not a destination: it is just part of the journey out.
Your journey can start like ours did. We were ignorant of what to do, and there wasn’t a whole lot of information available when we first got started. In the very beginning, we simply decided to turn off the lights and use them as little as possible. Then we bought oil lanterns and began to use them when it would grow dark. Sitting in the flickering light of our oil lanterns actually helped us to better imagine ourselves moving closer to a simpler, more traditional, and more deliberate way of life. Utilizing oil lanterns, especially when the oil is petroleum based oil (like Kerosene), can only properly be seen as an intermediate step, so here would be a good place for me to review the philosophy of “intermediate means”. Hopefully this is a helpful digression:
Any solution that requires that you continue indefinitely to buy something that you cannot make or produce on your own, is only a temporary or stop-gap solution. We refer to it as an “intermediate means” or an “intermediate step.” Ask yourself what would happen if some type of long-term disaster or world changing event were to occur. How long would you be able to keep doing some of the things you are doing now if the world was never again going to revert back to what you now consider normal? “Intermediate means” are those things we may use for a short time, recognizing that they can not be our final and lasting solution.
An intermediate step could be anything from, say, selling your house and furniture and moving into an inexpensive apartment or camper, to getting a part time job that allows you more time to work on developing your homestead. Intermediate steps can be a propane freezer on your way to an icehouse, a refrigerator on your way to a root cellar, or a propane heater on your way to a wood burner. It is often both inevitable and necessary that we make use of intermediate means towards our ultimate goal. This is why my blog is entitled The Process Driven Life, since we confess that obedience to God, and our work here on earth, is a process not a destination. We, as Christians, are to be process driven and not purpose driven. Ultimate purposes and results belong to God, but obedience is ours.
Moving from grid electricity to some intermediate means (like propane, kerosene lamps, generators, solar power, etc.) is not only acceptable, but sometimes it may be necessary. It would always be preferable, of course, in a perfect world, for us to intelligently and deliberately move directly to a life with no reliance on unsustainable means. But we must confess that this is not usually possible for most people. Intermediate means are often necessary; and, so long as we recognize the inherent weaknesses in being dependent on intermediate means; and, so long as we take steps to mitigate that dependence, and the ultimate damage that could occur when (and if) our ability to use these means is lost, then we may use them to help us separate from the world system. An example: There is nothing inherently wrong with my using a battery operated drill, so long as I recognize the inherent weaknesses in the dependence on battery power; and so long as I recognize that this battery powered drill may not always be available to me. If I make plans for being able to continue my work if battery powered drills become useless or unavailable to me, etc.; and if I practice and become sufficiently skilled in using non-electric means, then I am in a better, more survivable situation, and I am not operating from a position of weakness. This same philosophy, then, should be applied to everything we do.
With all that said, let me issue you a warning: There is no greater danger to our well-being and our eventual freedom from the grid system than to rely inordinately on, or to trust in, intermediate means.
It may be hard to get your mind around what I am saying, because I am not condemning intermediate means. I am not even saying that you absolutely must move past them to some perfect, idyllic, pre-industrial/agrarian life, and that the use of any of them after that is heresy. Some of us will likely always be using some intermediate means. I am saying a right survival mindset requires that you be able to see things rightly, and to recognize your natural proclivity to not do things all the way; and your likelihood to rely inordinately on intermediate means.
The basic point is that we must employ our reason during the process of going off-grid. Let’s don’t get too focused on not paying an electric bill and forget the real reasons we want to be independent from the system. Besides, if you pay $20,000 to $30,000 or more to go off of the electrical grid, and eventually end up in precisely the same place or situation as those who stayed on the grid, haven’t you just pre-paid your electric bill, only at a much higher price?
What Would Great-Great-Grandad Do?
It is not a permanent or final solution to replace electric lights with kerosene lanterns for lighting unless you can make, or have an endless supply of, kerosene. Unless you can produce kerosene or some other type of burnable, safe, oil – like maybe olive oil – then lanterns may not be your solution. Sure, you can store kerosene, but you can’t store enough, and eventually, if the emergency lasts long enough, you will run out. This is doubly important to realize when you know what is going on with our petroleum supplies in this world. You cannot depend on having ANY petroleum product in the future. Period. So kerosene lanterns are not a permanent survival solution. They can be considered an intermediate step as you disconnect from the power grid, but they ought not to be considered a permanent or long-term solution.
So how do we come up with good answers? Remember, I told you this is more of a “why to” than a “how to” book. We might even say it is a “how to think” book, instead of a “how to” book. So… how do we think about these things?
A good way to find solutions to these types of questions is to ask yourself what your forefathers did. How did our ancestors solve this problem 100 or 200 years ago? Do some research and keep going backwards until you find a solution that worked in the past, because those solutions will usually still work today.
Every aspect of your life has to be looked at from this point of view. It is good to be off-grid and to be able to live separate from the system using intermediate means, like propane, diesel, kerosene, solar power, etc. But in the long run we can become enslaved to those things just as easily as we were enslaved to the grid, and, if our lifestyle doesn’t change; if we don’t become more obedient and different from the world, then we will have merely delayed the inevitable.
Start the process now by thinking about water, heat, light, cooling, and food production, preservation, and storage; and do so using the same methodology I have described in this chapter. Research the past and ask yourself, “How did my ancestors do this?” Think of all of these things and come up with a system (a road map) that will get you where you need to be. Ask for help. Ask questions. Listen. Learn.
What do we do with electricity anyway?
When people first consider going completely off the electrical grid, a few categories of perceived needs come to mind (I say “perceived”, because we are going to rethink these all quite a bit):
4. Refrigeration/Food Preservation (Ice!)
5. Tools and Appliances
In the remainder of this chapter, we will discuss the first two categories: Light and Heat. In the next chapter, we will discuss the remaining three categories.
How did your ancestors handled the lighting issue? I am going to give you the most obvious, yet shocking answer right up front…
When it got dark, most of our forefathers (and foremothers) went to bed.
That’s an intriguing thought, and one that most people will never consider. Although there were folks in previous generations who wrote, studied, laughed, loved, and lived by candlelight or lanterns; for most of history, when darkness fell, the regular folk just went to bed. Not everyone could afford to buy, or had the materials to make, an endless supply of candles. There is something to be said for the natural tides of night and day, light and darkness. God created these contrasting periods for a reason. In the Bible, we are exhorted to work while it is day, for the “night cometh, when no man can work”, which seems me to hint that maybe our work should be done during the day. I suspect that there are many unrealized benefits to regulating our lives by God’s natural seasons of light and darkness.
Candles are an option, if you can make them and if you can continue to produce the “stuff” from which they are made. Natural candles (such as beeswax candles) could also be a very good solution for those people who, for some reason or other, are not willing to utilize animal by-products for lighting. If you don’t want to raise cows or pigs, maybe raising bees can be a workable solution for you.
On our ranch, we raise pure Texas Longhorn cattle, and we raise pigs, so we can make tallow and fat candles. Candles made from animal fat are a great, renewable solution, but we also need to realize that, in a long-term crisis, they will be precious and we will not want to burn them all up every night. When it is dark, going to bed is a good option, and it was the option used most often by the working-class people who tilled the land.
For lighting, in my family, we are currently still straddling the passage between intermediate means, and being totally off off-grid. As I am writing this, we use a mixture of solar power, kerosene lanterns, and fat lamps or candles. As you can see, we have moved from a completely unsustainable source (grid electricity), to an unsustainable, but better, off-grid intermediate step (solar power and kerosene lanterns); and we are currently experimenting with a more sustainable, inexpensive, and readily available source (animal fat). Several of the families here in our off-grid community will be making a more substantial foray into using fat lamps and candles this year, on our way to going totally off off-grid as soon as we are able. It is also our goal to begin raising bees and making candles from the beeswax, both for personal use and perhaps for sale as well.
As I have said often in this chapter, solar power can be a very good intermediate solution, but it is not a permanent one. In order for solar power to be good for powering lights at night there must be some form of battery storage; and, as we have already discussed, batteries are an iffy proposition. In the future, they may be virtually impossible to get. As I mentioned in the discussion on Lithium, the promise and sustainability of long-term battery storage is a very deceptive con and ought not to be trusted. If you have solar power now, or if you anticipate getting solar power, do like I do and think of it as a 1-5 year head start on making yourself candle rich.
Currently, I do use small AA or AAA rechargeable batteries, and I use several different methods to recharge them. This allows me to do most of my work without having to go back and forth to town. In a crisis, the things I use batteries for are not mission critical, so I will not be at a loss to live without them. Small batteries are a good intermediate solution, and they help us to do a lot of things we need to do right now as we are on our journey out of the system. I have several very low power LED lamps, as well as a few reading lights and flashlights. Usually, I try to buy items that take AA batteries, but some of the items use AAA. I buy NiMH rechargeable batteries in bulk, and I recharge them using several different methods. I own a couple of small solar rechargers that recharge the batteries directly from the sun. I also have some regular AC (plug in) rechargers that I can plug into my power system which is currently maintained by solar power. This way, I always have batteries that are ready to go. We use AA batteries to power our radios and communication devices as well. There are literally dozens of new lighting ideas and sources out there that are inexpensive, and that require very low wattage to power them. Shop around and begin to store up and make use these things. Remember, especially in the fall, winter, and spring – kerosene lighting is a good intermediate solution as well. As long as this type of energy source is available and affordable we can use them as we come out of the industrial system. Our journey always involves a two-step thinking process. We ask ourselves “where do we want to end up, and what means will be valuable in getting us there?” These questions constantly remind us that our final solution must be sustainable and viable; but it also doesn’t overly bias us against the use of appropriate, valuable, intermediate means.
I have found several very good small flashlights that use LED bulbs and produce a very strong beam. When I very first started off-grid, I bought the very expensive flashlights that require “D” batteries or 3V Lithium batteries, but it turned out that these are very, very expensive solutions because the batteries are pricey. The small flashlight that I use predominantly today uses three AAA rechargeable batteries and has turned out to be a better and more affordable solution than the bigger, more expensive to operate flashlights. We also have several 18V rechargeable flashlights that came with some power tool sets we have purchased throughout the years. I will talk about the tools more in the next chapter, but the flashlights that come with these sets are rechargeable, are very handy, and are quite bright. We use these flashlights when we are milking the cow in the dark early mornings.
Consider buying several (many, if possible) of the flashlights that are available now which (they say) don’t require batteries. Now, truth be told, all of these flashlights actually do require batteries, but they usually are more of a permanent, built-in rechargeable battery, so they are still advertised as if they do not require batteries. The point is that the customer charges the battery through some behavior, rather than having to constantly open up the flashlight to replace the batteries. The first of these flashlights that we bought were the ones that have a large magnet that moves up and down the shaft of the battery grip, through a wire coil. A current is created that charges a small built-in battery. We call these “shake lights” since you have to shake them to charge them up, but there are hand crank flashlights available as well. These “self-powered” lights are an irritant if you need immediate (and/or silent) light, but they work great after about 30-60 seconds of shaking or cranking. In the outhouse we have a kerosene lantern, but we have also used lights that are powered by rechargeable AA batteries. Harbor Freight and Home Depot sell solar powered night lights that charge during the day and stay on all night. We use these in the root cellar, but you could use these just about anywhere there is light needed at night.
I have a couple of reading lights I purchased at the Harbor Freight store in Abilene, Texas. I have one mounted over my bed for night reading. Harbor Freight also sells dozens of different low power or hand powered lighting items including hand crank spotlights, solar powered lights, floodlights, flashlights, lanterns, etc., LED lights, etc.
Oil lamps and Betty Lamps
Lehman’s sells parts for olive oil lamps, or you can make them yourselves using wire and any wicking material (we use rope from actual rope mops, which are inexpensive). These are “do-it-yourself” lamps and candles you can make that burn olive or other vegetable oils. Basically, they are pieces of twisted wire that hold cotton wicks. You can drop these handmade wicks down into any jar or large mouth bottle to create an oil or fat lamp. We use canning jars and other glass jars we find cheap at garage sales or flea markets for this purpose. Do some reading and checking around. There are many DIY (Do-It-Yourself) type lamps available that burn olive oil or any other type of bulk cooking oil. Olive oil works great, but you most likely will not have an endless supply of it and it isn’t cheap. Be careful that whatever method you use won’t easily start a fire. Olive oil is very safe, doesn’t stink, and will not start a fire. Usually, other oils and greases are fairly safe because the temperature does not get hot enough for the oil to burst into flame; but you should always be very careful. It would be good to have a large supply of these inexpensive or homemade parts (wicks and wick holders) for emergencies. I also keep a large supply of thin, flexible, wire around in case we need to make a lot of these lamps. It generally requires less than ten inches of wire to make the wick for a single lamp.
From colonial times up through electrification in the early 20th Century, one of the primary sources of lighting was the “Betty Lamp”, which was a fat burning lamp. Fat lamps were what people used before coal oil (kerosene) and petroleum-based fuel lamps. The old “genie” lamps; those fancy lamps that are always being shown in the old movies or cartoons, which are rubbed to supposedly get a genie to come out of them, were usually Arabian fat lamps. Betty Lamps used rendered tallow from cows or lard from pigs for fuel, a perfect solution for cattle or pig raisers. Fat lamps also do not require other store bought materials. Wicks can be made from cloth, wool, flax, or almost any other fibrous material.
One of our more interesting experiences while experimenting with fat lamps was the “bacon fat lamp”. We raise pigs, so we often have large amounts of pig fat available. My wife likes to trim the excess fat off of any particularly fatty bacon before cooking it, and she renders this bacon fat down, just as you would render regular pig fat. From our reading, we learned that when the pioneers used bacon fat in their fat lamps, the burning fat would make the whole house smell like bacon. Now, that may be something you might like, but as much as I like the smell of freshly cooked bacon, I was not looking forward to smelling bacon all winter long, every night. The solution? When burning the bacon fat in the fat lamps, I put in just two or three drops of cinnamon oil. We were shocked and pleasantly surprised upon burning the lamps that the resulting smell was all cinnamon and no bacon. Who would have guessed?
We try not to use kerosene lanterns for most of the year, except when it is cold outside, because they produce a lot of heat, which is a great by-product when it is cold, but not so great when it is not. One or two kerosene lanterns burning all night will keep the chilly edge off in a small cabin or camper, but they can really heat up a room or building during the spring or summer. Always, always, always make sure your sleeping quarters are vented if you have any type of flame burning overnight. You will die if you do not. Also, as you move forward in this new life, since you will likely have all manner of fires and flames going on inside your off-grid home from time-to-time, please always stay safety minded. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility. Procure several fire-extinguishers and learn what to do in case of different kinds of fires. Our society has had a half-century without most of the indoor fire hazards that were so prevalent in earlier generations; we need to be more diligent and take the time to learn how to live safely off-grid. Learning to live without power, means learning to live deliberately and responsibly again.
**An interesting side-note. I am writing this chapter in a hotel room in a thunderstorm. The power has gone out! So I have written a good bit of this chapter in the dark! I am always prepared, but it is interesting to type this particular chapter on lighting while in darkened hotel room, in a city, with the power out. I also try to store up large quantities of irony… just for emergencies.
Heating and Cooking
Depending on where you live in the country, heating can be one of the most important issues you will face, or it may not be very important to you at all. Where your homestead is will often dictate the hierarchy of needs for you and your family. We live in an area more renowned for summer heat than for winter cold, so heat, while important, is not on our minds for most of the year… unless it is winter! If, however, you live in a place that is in the deep freeze for seven or eight months a year, it would probably be a good idea to focus on this topic.
Most people, because they have read books, or because they watched The Walton’s when they were children, or because they have seen any number of old Westerns, will generally have a very loose idea of how our ancestors cooked and kept warm. It should be remembered that creating heat uses more energy and resources than anything else you can do. You cannot afford to create heat using alternate electricity, and even if you could, it would heavily tax your power storage system to produce heat in this way. The smallest electric space heaters can use 1500 watts or more just to heat a very small space. It is an unworkable situation to have to produce this much power through off-grid electrical generation to heat any good sized area. On my alternative power system, I can run two (and maybe three) freezers and a refrigerator with the same amount of watts that it takes to run a hair dryer. Heat is expensive.
Utilizing propane or other fuels to produce heat is not a very good long-term solution either. While propane can be a good intermediate method, and small but very powerful propane space-heaters can be affordable and easy to install and use, in the long run we still run into the problem of scarcity. There is no promise that there will be a constant and readily available supply of propane in the future.
For many millennia, heat for dwellings has been provided almost exclusively by fire. For the most part, this heat was provided by burning wood from felled trees, or by burning other dried organic materials that could be harvested or gathered from the land. Different types of coal have been in use for heating and cooking for thousands of years, and as early as 1748 there was a working coal mine near Richmond, Virginia. Early American colonists, however, were standing on the shoreline of a continent virtually carpeted with trees, and many of those trees would have to be removed to make way for farms and villages. Wood in colonial America was often considered a waste product, so it was the primary means of heating until the Industrial Revolution, particularly the revolution in transportation, thrust coal into the spotlight as the primary means of creating heat and energy.
In the prairies where trees were scarce, pioneers often burned dried cow or buffalo “chips”, or they made “hay ties”, which were cleverly twisted strands of hay that would often burn for up to four hours. Before long, as the forces of the Industrial Revolution steamed across the continent, trainloads of coal made it much simpler to populate the vast treeless prairies.
For most of our ancestors, heat has come from the burning of wood; perhaps in a fireplace, an earthen oven, a wood burning stove, or some other type of cook stove. Early colonists in the American colonies often had open fires in their structures that would be vented through holes in or near the roof. This, of course, often led to structure fires, since most of the roofs were made of grass or straw. Once the colonists had achieved a level of survivability, and had acquired the basic means to sustain life somewhat more comfortably, they would have the time and resources to begin building substantial stone or brick fireplaces and chimneys. Later, with industrial advancements in metalworking, wood burning stoves and cook stoves became the prevalent means of utilizing biomass energy for heating dwellings and cooking food.
Today, advances in heating technology allow the wise homesteader to choose from several different options in home heating. For some people, the simple boxwood stove, or an old railroad style stove may be sufficient. Others, because of ready access to corn or other high-energy crops, may choose to go with a specialized corn (or other biomass) burning unit.
Most homesteaders, especially those with small and simple home structures, and those who have ready access to renewable sources of firewood (such as a woodlot or forest), opt for a combination heating/cooking stove that allows them to make dual use of the wood resources they have. Wood cook stoves can range from the simple and affordable, to the expensive and very ornate heirloom pieces, like those used prior to rural electrification in many homes in America. I looked at wood stoves for many years, and I was very disappointed at how expensive a new “antique syle” cook stove would cost. We really wanted one of these old-style cook stoves, but I could not rationalize spending $3500 for a cook stove, no matter how nice and traditional it looked. So, I started to look at flea-markets and antique stories for the actual used antique stoves of yesteryear, but found that they were often even more expensive, because upwardly mobile “yuppies” were buying them up for display in their cracker box, look-alike, show-houses in suburbia.
I knew there had to be a good solution for people like me; people who don’t have a lot of money, but who need a plain, but sufficient, cook stove for real world use. After a lot of research, I was able to purchase a new, affordable, and utilitarian cook stove imported from Serbia. This was the plain style of stove still used today throughout Eastern Europe, where a wood burning stove is still an absolutely necessary tool. This was not eye-candy adopted for display by suburban frauds, but a real appliance for daily survival. After finding the importer who shipped the stoves out of Cleveland, Ohio (Sopka, Inc.), I learned that he also sold imperfect or slightly banged-up units on Ebay for a substantial discount. I was able to purchase the perfect stove for us at an affordable price, and we have been very pleased with it, and with the amount of heat it provides for our cabin.
We live in an area of Texas that is completely covered with very fast growing Mesquite trees, along with stands of oaks and cedars. Mesquite is an invasive hardwood not indigenous to our area, but it has become ubiquitous on most Central Texas ranches and homesteads, so it is a perfect solution for an energy source. Mesquite will also grow back quite quickly when it has been cut to the ground, making it a renewable source of energy. Based on all of these factors, the wood burning cook stove has been a good solution for us. You will have to do some research in your own area to find out what the local ordinances are for wood or other biomass burning, and what options are available to you for off-grid heating.
When you are studying your homestead heating options, also consider what alternative building methods or structural add-ons might now be available to you. For example: underground structures, partially underground structures, or “banked earth” structures can be built. Although they can be considered cool and damp, these buildings were often used by pioneers and homesteaders precisely because they were quite temperature stable. This means that, depending on the structure and how much of it is buried, a stable temperature in the fifties or sixties (degrees Fahrenheit) can often be maintained year-round, without any burning or consumption of energy at all. Some “low-impact” homesteaders are focusing on this type of building philosophy, sometimes augmented with passive solar heating to solve their heating concerns. The point is that we need to spend some time researching what is available out there, and how it will apply to us in our area.
For those of you who are just getting started, it is quite a bit cheaper to build your structure with your heating and cooling needs in mind, than it is to retrofit an existing structure to fix or address issues later. I will speak more about that subject in the chapter on Building.
The basic premise that we will use throughout this book, is that which I have really focused on from the beginning. We need to have a new philosophy of survival. We need to always think about simplicity, survivability, and sustainability as we make our moves off of the world’s grid system.
In the next chapter, we are going to talk about the big stumbling blocks in the minds of people who begin to consider Off Off-Grid homesteading: Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration; and we will also briefly discuss tools and other appliances.
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