Saturday, March 27, 2010

When the simple life isn't



When I first moved to this part of the mountain, I rented a great house that was off the grid. This was right up my/our alley, as our intention was always to build some sort of alternative home and be responsible for making our own power.

The four years I lived in that house were quite the education, to say the least. I had a small group of solar panels that were so high up on the roof, only Santa Claus or Spiderman could have gotten up there to clear the snow in winter so I could get power. The batteries were probably on their death beds when I moved in, and my first winter there, I quickly learned that the generator the landlord had so generously left for me had a broken pull cord on it. Oh...and did I mention the home made 12v refrigerator that had an interior temperature of about 50F and no freezer?

There are lots of stories that go with that house. For now, I just want to say that having that experience was the basis for making sure when we planned our own system so that we would have ample power, plenty of backup, and no single point of failure. It all worked pretty well until the years slowly filled our home with the trappings of the power world...freezers, flat panel televisions, computers, printers, and so on. It's funny now to look back and to think I originally returned the top of my stove to be exchanged for a more traditional warming oven like you'd find on a wood cook stove, so we'd have no more phantom electrical loads from the fan and light and clock (if you're not on to phantom loads...this is all the electricity things like your television use when you're not using them and you think they're not using electricity).

This past fall we had an additional set of panels installed and an entirely new inverter system. We now have the ability to produce electricity to feed back to the cooperative. Instead of those small batteries we had before, we now have batteries that weigh a hefty 1,200 lbs. each. The inverters live in a cupboard on the outside wall of our house (thank heavens...I am weary of electrical noises and buzzing). It was all just great, for a while.

It appears now there is trouble in River City. Something didn't get hooked up properly and the batteries are always in recharge mode. It's causing a smell to leak into our house (think: crates of rotten eggs). Thank heavens Mr. Sunflower is an electrical engineer and has the ability to trouble shoot and work with the team who did the installation to try to find a way to make this all work as it should. If I lived here with this alone...well...I think I wouldn't want the bother.

We're still getting power (from the grid instead of our own system), but it's causing me to really think about how (and why) we do these things to ourselves. We look for some level of simplicity in our lives, and end up creating the same mazes we left behind. Do I love having a freezer after living without one for 4 years? You bet. Do I love using my microwave for reheating my coffee? Yepper! Would I want to have no surplus electricity and not be able to use this computer? No way. Oh...and ask me how passionate I am about my clothes dryer, after tromping through mud and snow to bring in clothes from the line for those 4 years!

So, here I am, conflicted. Sometimes I think maybe it was just fine when I had limited batteries, one 12v light bulb and used a kerosene lamp at dinner time. I ate a far healthier diet with little refrigeration. Now that I think about it, I read a lot more in those days, too. Oh...and in retrospect, those 4.5 years without a land line telephone we're so bad, either.

So I think what I'm concluding is that the simple life is something I need to create in my head more than relying on my surroundings to give me that feeling. Maybe I should start there and work from the inside out?

7 comments:

swamericana said...

Martie: What a piece! Classic. But, you have tried and are trying the simple life. I admire you and your husband for what you are doing. My friends out in Utah are doing the same thing. Then, of course, you deconstruct the simple life: hanging clothes outdoors, refrigeration, etc. This is really good post. I've got more to say. Thanks, Jack.

Taos Sunflower said...

Jack: Thanks. I almost deleted the posting last night because it sounded like whining, then I decided to see if others were experiencing the same conflicts. I have always struggled with the idea that the more "man" has done to try to improve our lives, the more problems it has caused. For every action, a reaction, right?

swamericana said...

No, don't delete this! I've put it on my blog as a direct link and Caralee Woods (Kanab, UT, with sun panels, batteries) wrote me an email that she could really have a chat with you about off the grid. Yes, the struggle to improve. Problems come out of trying to improve. But, there's a positive side of the yellow pad of analysis on what you do: You and your husband burn less coal in the generator of the power company when you use solar! You give back some energy! And, your blog on this issue reaches out to me and Caralee and I've already had nearly 200 connections in the last 24 hours and many of them are going to come back and read of your work in Arroyo Seco. The energy you save will sustain progeny in the future that has issued from you and your husband and my family. Downside: at the moment, other than the commitment to make it work and time spent, there is no other downside. I wish we could accomplish what you have done. BTW, I didn't think I would see another in-depth post for awhile, since you are heading west. What a surprise! What a sunflower at the end of winter, beginning of spring. Your friend, Jack.

caraleew said...

We live off-grid east of Kanab, Utah. I could trade stories of inconvenience with you for days, I bet. We're solar, but I am glad that up front we spent a lot of money on our system. We put in enough panels and batteries to run everything we want whenever we want. There's a backup generator, the big kind, that comes on automatically if the batteries run low. It works beautifully. Good thing, because otherwise I'd be gone, I'm sure of it. What was supposed to take a few years at most to build our strawbale home (www.builtbyhandstrawbale.com) is now in its fifth year. And we're not really that close to finishing. We meanwhile live in a wood-rotted, too-small, leaky, poorly insulated 1975 manufactured home that I want to give to the fire department to practice on when we're finished with it. I'm not joking about that; it's about all it's worth at this point. All our things that I love to have around me--especially the aesthetic, non-essential things--are in storage. Buying a pretty dish towel is a thrill anymore. Winters are awful when it snows because the house leaks and that red mud stops being pretty, fast.

Like you, I try to not complain too much. It's sunny now, after a long horrible winter, and healthcare reform passed Congress, so my mood has improved. But I know another winter looms. What keeps me going is knowing that our home, when finished, will be *spectacular.* That, and knowing we're doing the right thing. But I'll tell you one thing: if I were to do it over again, I'd start a lot younger and buy a much, much better temporary place to live. Cheers to the pioneers! Hah!

Teresa Evangeline said...

I'm always grateful for and a wee bit jealous of folks who have made the commitment to an off-the-grid lifestyle. I have friends in Carson, NM who have done so and I love visiting them and their little community of like-minded folks. I have friends who have built earthships in Minnesota and it's definitely not for everyone, but I sure do admire their willingness to make this choice. I would love to create a more self-reliant lifestyle, but I know I wouldn't last long if it didn't include hot water coming out of the wall pretty much on demand. : ) I love that, in a very concise way, you showed us the pros and cons. Kudos to you for hanging in there. BTW: I think Arroyo Seco is one of the coolest little towns on the map. I can taste that lavender home made ice cream at the cafe now...

Kittie Howard said...

Sunshine, I really enjoyed your blog and am delighted Jack posted the link. First, I applaud your enormous efforts and successes with the off-grid life. Second, I thank you for your sacrifices to help return this planet to a healthier eco system. Third, my husband and I lived overseas several times in Emergining Nations where the housing structure was sound but not the electrical infrastructure. It took time to adjust to life without a telephone or freezer or television and unreliable electricity that forced shopping for groceries every day and often using candles at night. (Computers hadn't become a Must then.) Warm climates didn't affect winter heat except in one country where we used the buda-gas (portable gas heaters) system, but not too much because of limited propane/refill capabilities. I washed clothes in the bathtub (with a toilet plunger for help) and had the sun for a dryer. No dry cleaning facilities. Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're not whining. There are definite challenges, and in your situation, far more than I experienced, so I can only imagine. But it is a basic premise of Buddhism that 'for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.' I learned that living the simple life is in one's attitude, one's head, and that progress should be accommodated but in a manner respectful to the environment. Could I live in a bale house? Yes, but with a computer.

Taos Sunflower said...

Jack: Thanks, as always, for your encouragement and support. I am overwhelmed by the thoughtful responses of not only you, but Caralee, Teresa, and Kittie, as well. Rather than write a long reply to each of you, I will do a second posting here in a bit, when I've had enough coffee to be cognizant. Best, Martie