Totally Off-Grid

     It’s a dream come true, the desire to live completely off-grid and independent of the electric power company.  Last week’s Tropical Storm Irene gave me just that…though not in the way I’d planned. 

     As I type this up, I have been back “on grid” since last Wednesday, losing power early Sunday morning and being without it for 3 whole days.   It’s been a busy week ever since trying to charge up the cell phone, get the laundry washed–as the local laundromat was without power even longer than I was–and replacing the food that was lost to the defrosted refrigerator.  This is another instance where people will continue to look at this from inside the modern lifestyle box and view electricity as a necessity.  Maybe for some.  But, when you get right down to basics, it’s not.  We’ve simply tailored our lifestyles around the convenience of electric power.  But there are always alternatives.  And Irene has made me more determined than ever to work towards a life completely independent of the power grid.

     The first and most dire consideration for me is water.  I live in an early-1900’s colonial that still uses a well and requires a well-pump to get water into the house.  For three days, I was unable to shower, flush or even fill a bowl of water for the dogs.  Fortunately, I had bottled water under the sink but that didn’t last very long with 17 chickens, 4 ducks, 3 rabbits, 2 dogs, 6 cats, 2 guinea pigs and a cockatiel all needing replenishments.  The ducks were beside themselves without their “kiddie” pool for 2 days (rain from the previous night had filled it for their use the first day but, after they’d played in it and backwashed feed into it all day on Monday, it had to be emptied Monday night; no ifs, ands or buts).  It has been proven that one can last up to 60 days without food.  Not so with water.  Water is essential.  So this is not something I can “do without” as I have forsaken other modern conveniences such as television or a microwave.  There are three alternatives that I can see.  The first is to be hooked up to town water.  Considering the amount of chlorine and, in the most modern municipalities, fluoride that goes into town water supplies, I think I’ll pass on that one.  One of my favorite catalogs, Lehman’s, has kits for hooking up a hand-pump on your well.  This isn’t a bad idea; you’d never have to worry about power outages at all, being able to draw enough water to drink and wash with manually.  Granted, it’s a bit more labor intensive but, if Laura Ingalls Wilder could do it, so can I.  That doesn’t solve the problem with flushing but today there are composting toilets and there’s always the outhouse (not something I would relish in the dead of winter but it’s a viable option…).  However, I can be modern and still not rely on the power grid.  At some point in my future, I hope to install either wind or solar power.  I use very little electricity; the well-pump would be my biggest concern, my biggest power usage and I doubt it would require an enormous system to operate. 

     Then there’s food preservation.  I lost food last week.  Everyone did.  We’ve become dependent on the electric refrigerator to keep our food cold and fresh.  As the garden grows and my canning skills improve, my reliance on the refrigerator should decrease to where I won’t require as big of a refrigerator for food storage, though there are always perishables.  It really wasn’t all that labor intensive to store essential perishables in a cooler with some ice but the ice becomes an added expense that would exceed my current electric bill if I had to replace a bag each day.  And then there are the plastic bags it comes in that would end up in the landfill.  Not exactly eco-friendly.  Some simple solutions present themselves: again, wind or solar power to negate being on the grid or a liquid propane refrigerator.  I have seen them in Lehman’s catalog and they would be more than worth the expense.  Of course, the propane would have to be replenished, too, but not everyday as would store-bought ice. 

     Had this storm and subsequent power outage hit us in winter, I would have fared better.  The food would likely have survived in the snow and I could’ve used the woodstove to cook and/or bake.  Another still-modern factor in my house is the electric range.  The house was outfitted with such when I moved in.  Without power, I couldn’t even boil water for tea.  Ideally, in addition to the woodstove, an outdoor cob oven and also a hearth, much like you see at picnic and campsites, would work to resolve this. 

     The cell phone is an issue.  And I’m finding it’s probably a bigger liability than a house phone.  I cancelled my house phone service a couple of years ago.  Cell phone bills, especially if you’re using the most basic plan, as I am, are lower.  Almost everyone I know is a long distance call.  My mother is in Missouri, my brother in Germany, I have family in Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi and, mostly, in Rhode Island.  Though a short drive from home to the Connecticut/Rhode Island border, phone calls to RI get pricey.  Yes, phone lines get knocked out the same as electric lines in a storm.  But there were an equal number of cell phone towers unable to provide service after this storm.  I discovered after a trip to Verizon that car chargers were practically flying off the shelves last week. These are devices that plug into your car cigarette lighter and will charge your cell phone that way but, from what I’ve ascertained from everyone who has used them, they did not charge their phones completely.  Despite the convenience of having a line should you get “stuck” on the road somewhere, more than once I have considered going back to the house phone and getting rid of the cell phone altogether.  I will have to weigh the benefits versus the liabilities in regard.  After all, we got along just fine without cell phones up until the last decade or so; we can certainly survive without them today.

     As I write this, I am mindful of my own modern electrical reliance: the PC.  I use the Internet for business, for my website, for email, for my writing–this blog is a perfect example.  Internet service costs are even pricier than long distance bills.  I have searched for an alternative to this service.  Most libraries have PC’s with Internet hooked up to them but I’m not sure how reliable this would be for email submissions to an editor as I hope to use my writing as another source of home-based income.  The electricity needed to power the PC can be augmented using wind or solar power but the Internet has become a heavy yoke.  And, despite my own intentions to live as free and back-to-basics as I can, this may be one area I can’t do away with as the publishing world is driven by this modern technology. 

      But, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  And I’m sure I’ll find it eventually.  In the meantime, my goal is to find a solution for my water supply so that the next tropical storm or hurricane–due in before the end of this week–doesn’t leave us high and dry again…no pun intended.