Sharon April 8th, 2008
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.” - Henry David Thoreau
My kitchen is old fashioned. I’m not talking about the wooden cabinets, the open shelving of grains and stored foods, the home canned jams, or the lack of a refrigerator in my main cooking space. I’m talking about the electric stove and the fridge itself. That is, these appliances are archaic residues of a life in which energy was cheap and abundant and our whole lifestyle was created around that abundance. These energy sucking appliances may have a place in our future or they may not, but they are fundamentally a product of a day when energy sucking appliances with 5-10 year lifespans could be made, replaced and disposed of. Those days are as over as the days of the Crimean War, and my kitchen has a growingly retro look to me – I bet yours does too.
A poll of her Crunchy Goodness’s got me thinking about the question of appliances, and the problems they solve – and create. Her Poultriness asked which of a host of appliances we felt like we couldn’t live without, and a number of people, me included, mentioned that we really could do without all of them. Now of course, this was Crunchy’s point too – she was writing about the psychological hold our equipment has on us. For example, she talked about Greenpa’s fridgelessness, and the way that idea eventually came to seem possible for her. For us, it was a similar process – we first heard about the unnecessity of the fridge and thought it sounded crazy – but gradually we came over, seduced by the vision of hitting our electricity energy targets. We honestly haven’t missed our fridge much (although unlike Greenpa, we’re still running a freezer, since we sell our poultry frozen). It takes a bit, as I wrote in “The Familiarity of an Idea” (although about a different idea, one that Miss Crunch was ahead of me on), to get your mind wrapped around the fact that just because your house has something, it isn’t an inevitability.
What struck me about this, however, was the number of people who truly were aware that they didn’t need their appliances. This, I thought, is a heartening thing. Perhaps even a growing movement. As it becomes more and more necessary that we reduce our usage of fossil fuels and as more and more people want to live an environmentally sound lifestyle, perhaps we’ll change our kitchens. But here’s a question – if we do get over the big psychological hump that tells us we desperately need a house full of energy sucking appliances, what do we do (or if we get to the rapidly approaching moment when we can’t afford to run them) what do we do with these houses, built for a world of cheap energy and accessible appliances? What do we do with the appliances?
Getting to the point of not needing appliance can be hard if you have a cheap-energy house. The truth is that the appliances themselves often create their own necessity. For example, the poll didn’t even mention the vacuum cleaner – the classic example of an appliance that actually creates more problems than it solves. In _The Overworked American_ Juliet Schor observes that vacuum cleaners saved women exactly 0 minutes per day on cleaning floors – in fact, peak floor cleaning time was hit in the 1980s, when vacuums had made it to every house. Because with vacuums came the possibility of wall to wall carpeting, and new, higher standards of floor cleanliness. And now, if you have one of those houses filled with wall to wall, it really does seem impossible to get buy with a manual carpet cleaner. And ripping out the carpet and replacing it with something else is vastly more expensive than leaving the nylon, outgassing crap in place and vacuuming it. So when we say we need our vacuums, in some senses, we’re right – it is damned hard to turn a cheap energy house into a low energy house sometimes.
So while a bunch of us pedants pointed out that we technically could live without things, I understand the perspective that answers “umm…no way” to those questions. When someone asks you whether you can live without your cooktop, which came with your house and which comes with an energy infrastructure that pipes right out of the wall, in order to change your mind, you have to go looking. It takes time and research and thought – things we don’t often devote to our kitchens – to figure out how to get a kitchen that actually meets 21st century realities. The solar oven is a mature technology and a wonderful thing – but people can be forgiven for not knowing they exist, or how to get a hold of one.
Plus, if you ever finally do get to wanting to/having to live without all this stuff, what do you even do with it? In a perfect world, we’d all have the money and not need to worry about waste, so we could pull it out and remake our kitchen in the image of the non-electric fantasy kitchens in our head. In truth, however, by the time most of us get to that point, we’ll have either less money or or less time to worry about how the dishwasher goes with the outdoor masonry oven in the yard.
But waste not, want not, and no environmentalist wants to haul those appliances to the dump. So how do you turn the 20th century, cheap oil retro kitchen into a kitchen that meets modern, low energy needs?
Now you can sell your appliances to someone else, or if they are completely unsalvageable, send them to the dump. But I’m going to assume that you want to do something else with them.
Fortunately, my side job as the Design Consultant at the fine magazine _Better Homesteads and Rat Holes_ gives me every qualification to offer suggestions for how to make use of those old appliances, now that you’ve shaken off the past and moved on to the low-energy future. So here are some suggestions for post-electric uses for common appliances.
Dryer: We actually bought one of these about 5 years ago, because my husband’s grandmother insisted. And it was used, mostly by her, until her death, and once in a great while by me until we started Rioting. Now it is sitting in my laundry room, waiting to be pulled out and put in the garage as permanent storage for apples or potatoes (pulling it out involves removing the washer and some other stuff, and I’m a slug). With a small piece of wire over the dryer vent, it will be rodent proof, provide a nice surface to set things on, and a measure of insulation on the coldest nights. Other possible uses: manual compost tumbler (would require a bit of adaptation, but I bet there are some handy folks out there with ideas).
Washer: I have heard several people mention the possibility of hooking a regular washing machine up to a bicycle to power it. I’ve not found plans for this, but it is a compelling idea for me, since I’m still dealing with two kids using cloth diapers some of the time. In the meantime, I have one of those small, no power washers that can handle a couple of shirts, and I do some laundry with the soak and hang method described in _The Plain Reader_. If I couldn’t bicycle power my washer, I might still fill and hand agitate it for washing wool if/when we get sheep. I once met a small farmer who used his for washing large quantities of greens for sale. But I’m leaning towards the bicycle method, if I can find a set of plans that are moron proof enough for me.
Electric/Gas Stove and Oven: If you already have a flat top cookstove, you’ve got a perfect counter, and it isn’t worth messing with. For gas ranges, a piece of sheet metal or thick butcher block cut to fit would probably serve the same purpose. Most of us home cooks and gardeners never have enough counter space, so I’d keep the stovetop for that. We have two electric stoves in our house – one was for the grandparents, and since we’re not using that kitchen, we’ve unplugged it. The oven, it turns out, makes a large, superb bread box – it is airtight enough to keep baked goods remarkably fresh for a good long time. So we use it for that.
Dishwasher: Now there is a case to be made for not getting over the dishwasher. People who hand wash generally use more water than a dishwasher will – and in water scarce areas, this is a real virtue. Of course, they also use more electricity, since hand washers can usually use cold water. Depending on where you live, it might be better to use the dishwasher to save water, or to hand wash to save electricity – for me, electricity is by far the bigger concern. So what to do with the dishwasher -like the oven, the odds are you can’t take it out without creating an unsightly mess.
Well, you could do what we used to do with it – use it to hide the dirty dishes – most dishwashers are right next to the sink, and they work fine as mess concealment, even when you haven’t run it. Or you could use the racks as storage for clean dishes, freeing up your cabinet to hold food or your collection of canning jars. Or, use them for the canning jars.
Refrigerator: Right now, we use our fridge about 7 months a year as an ice box. Because we still have a freezer, what we do is freeze several large jugs of water and ice packs, and simply rotate them in the fridge. I put the jugs in, and when they are wholly melted, take them out and replace them with other ones and put them back in the freezer. This keep us with a functional refrigerator, maybe not quite as cold as a regular fridge, but cold enough that you can feel it if you open the door. Keeps food just fine. The other 5 months a year, we don’t bother with this because we have natural refrigeration outside.
So one possibility is simply to convert your fridge to an icebox, particularly if you were thinking of keeping a freezer. They also make decent storage for jars and tools – those bins and things would work very well. The most creative use I’ve seen for both old fridges and even better, chest freezers, is to dig a big hole in the ground, bury them, and use them as a root cellar.
Freezer: This is the next appliance we’re going to look into – the problem is that we do sell meat off the farm, and customers want it frozen. And there are some foods we like to store in there – greens, for example, are better frozen than dehydrated. But they are better still season extended and fresh, and we’re planning on putting up a hoophouse in order to achieve that, so we may yet be able to lose the freezer.
Old freezers make great root cellars either buried as above, or simply set in a place that stays cold over winter. The other possibility is that if you need a fridge, you could turn your chest freezer into one. There are plans all over the web for converting chest freezers into low-energy fridges, and they work quite well. My own take on this is that if I have to have one device (and I manifestly do not) I’d rather have the freezer, which effectively also gives me refrigeration.
Microwave: This is a point of some pride to me – I probably am not the first person ever to come up with this idea, but as far as I can find, I might be, and I am a little proud of it. I turn black microwaves into solar ovens. Now depending on your perspective, microwaves are either great energy saving tools or nutrient destroyers. I’m kind of agnostic on this subject – I’ve read some research for, some against, and I occasionally use the microwave we inherited from Eric’s grandmother to warm something up – once in a great while my kind MIL brings us take-out Thai from New York City, and the microwave has its uses for that. But if you don’t want a microwave, or run into a cheapie old one at a yard sale, my best use for it is to hack the cord off, make a set of reflectors out of tinfoil and cardboard, cover up the vents, and point the thing at the sun. It won’t heat up as well as a commercial oven, or even the best of the homemade ones, but it is perfectly adequate for heating water, cooking beans and rice, etc…
Vacuum Cleaner: Ok, you got me. I have no idea what to do with this when you don’t need it anymore.
I recently got a copy of this year’s _Old Farmer’s Almanac_ and it had a discussion of future technological advances that we can expect any day now in our houses. My favorite was a toilet that umm…measures your output and tests it for health problems, then discusses it with you. Ignoring the larger question of who in the Holy Name of George Washington Carver would ever want such a thing, all I can say is that they clearly have no idea what the new hot appliance trends of the 21st century really are – composting toilets, hand pumps in the kitchen, and the hot new appliance – the wood cookstove . The other stuff is just so last century!