Utility-Free Boot Camp

Sharon April 23rd, 2009

At the end of our Adapting-In-Place class,  Aaron and I asked students to consider disconnecting from all of grid and city services for a weekend, to discover what it is really like to do so.  Because while all the discussion and speculation we do here on this blog, and elsewhere is great, all of us will learn more in a couple of days – or longer if you can do it – without power and services than we ever could from reading.  Even the teachers learned things from testing - here’s Aaron’s account.

Only when the power is actually out do you discover that your backup plans had problems and defects.  Only when the power is actually out do you remember that you need enough stored water for the dogs, or that your daughter is scared of the dark and needs a light at night, or that Mom can’t go out to use the hastily made latrine.  Only when you really rely on your preparations do you discover where you need redundancies, spare parts, more consideration or investment of time, money or energy. 

Now in the past year, people in 11 states endured power outages that lasted more than 1 week.  In Kentucky, Houston and parts of New England, people were out for several weeks.  If you were one of them, you now know a lot more about what it is like to live without power.  And quite honestly, I think that two days is really much too short a test - for two days, you can drink stored water, but odds are, if you are out for two weeks, you’ll have to find a water source.  For two days, you can do without almost anything – but if the crisis lasts two weeks, you’ll find yourself really struggling to keep things going.  For two days, you won’t need to do laundry, get to work, and some people can even skip medication (not everyone, and don’t try this at home without checking with a doctor). 

So I’m tempted to say “ok, everyone has to practice doing without grid services for two full weeks.”  But since I’d like more than two people to do it, I’m trying to be realistic here ;-) .  But you should know that the experience will be a lot more authentic if you act like you actually have to live a daily life over an extended period when you do this.  That is, of course it will make your practice a lot easier if you don’t do laundry and rely on stored water.  But this will not help you in any way be ready for a more extended power outage – the easier you make it on yourself, the harder the reality will be when (and I don’t mean if, I mean when) you face it. 

And that’s why we all ought to do these practices fairly often, under different conditions.  Again, the idea is to discover the gaps in your preparations *now* – while you still can purchase something you need, get the parts to fix what didn’t work, or figure out how to make it less painful.  That means it isn’t enough to do it once in the spring warm weather, when the climate is comfortable – you should try it in the heat of summer, and make sure you have enough water and a plan for cooking and sleeping comfortably; and in the cold of winter, and be sure you have a way to keep warm.  You should imagine the most adverse conditions imaginaable – all the water is contaminated has to be boiled (this is not that unlikely in a hurricane or flooding emergency), that the roads are blocked by ice or downed trees (happens all the time), that the hotels are packed, that the gas stations are without power, that the supermarket shelves are empty, that you are sick…because unfortunately, these are precisely the kinds of things that happen.  The point is not torture, it is to remind yourself that these things rarely happen at the most convenient possible moment – they happen on the hottest day of summer, on the day your father needs to go to the doctor, during a bitter cold spell.  And people do actually get sick, seriously injured or die because they are not prepared for these events.  I don’t want any of you to be among them.

So I’m proposing that all of us consider scheduling utility-free weekends during the course of this year.  With climate change raising the number of natural disasters, the odds are very good that sooner or later your family is going to get to know what it is like to do without utilities and city services for a period of time – almost certainly much longer than you’d like.  So utility-free boot camp is simply good for all of us. 

 I’m going to schedule a couple of weekends over the year – I’ll be doing it too.  I’d love it if you’d join the utility-boot camp challenge.  But even if you don’t, try and plan on doing this with your family.  No, they may not like it – but they’ll be happy on the day you wake up with the power out, and are warm, fed and safe and have met most of your basic needs.

Sharon

30 Responses to “Utility-Free Boot Camp”

  1. Heather says:

    Good idea! We’ve already done our winter test ;)

    We’ve also been debating doing a partial test of trying a week without regular lighting. Candles, lamps, battery lantern, and a couple of flashlights are the backups, but obviously we wouldn’t want to use the flashlights too often (the lantern at least is a crank one). The thought is that we need to try harder to get certain types of necessary things done during daylight hours. At this point, where we use regular lighting but try to have as few lights on as possible, it’s a good thing that I know where a lot of stuff is by memory and/or feel. But I know we could do better, so this might be the way to figure it out.

    If we can get used to not using the lights and learn to reschedule some of our daily/weekly tasks, we’ll use less electricity. I think we’re more miserly of the candles and lamps because it’s so visually obvious that the resource is being used, unlike electric lights.

    Also if we get used to that, then it’s one less thing to think about during a power outage. We did really well with it during the ice storm (our outage started in the dark), but it did require thinking about, and really, there are plenty of other things to be thinking about during a power outage.

    QUESTION: If I wanted to minimize how much fuel I used for cooking rice and lentils (separately I guess, but I want to be able to have them together in a meal), how long do I have to soak each of them before cooking? Or is that even possible?

    We’re going to be trying out open fire cooking this summer and I don’t want to have to burn wood for hours.

    Thanks to anyone who can help with this!

  2. Sharon says:

    Well, over the summer, you should be able to use a solar oven for beans and rice and such – they are really easy to do that way. The other possibility is an insulated or hay box cooker, which you heat everything up to a fast boil, then put the pot into a container (styrofoam cookers are good if you can find a used one – obviously, not good if you buy a new one ;-) .

    I usually soak beans overnight.

    Sharon

  3. Heather says:

    Thanks Sharon. I’ll think about the solar possibilities first I think.

    The haybox we’ve talked about too and want to try it out too, but I want to be able to do this while camping, which means using something that can fold up small and doesn’t weigh much (although we’ve also just gotten a dutch oven, for when we’re sharing a fire with other folks).

    And of course if we can get any of these to work nicely, that’ll be another savings on various types of fuel.

    I’ve soaked larger beans overnight, but lentils too? Okay, thanks. And, sounds like you wouldn’t soak the rice, just cook it.

    Thanks!

  4. Sharon says:

    I don’t soak rice – and haven’t tried it. I often wash it, to remove extra starch, but I think it would get soggy if I soaked it. Red lentils don’t need soaking, brown ones much less time. Oh, one thought on the beans is that you can take cooked beans and dehydrate them and make “instant” beans.

    Sharon

  5. Chile Chews has a good post on improvising insulated cookers to cut way down on cooking time.

  6. Emily says:

    Yes, you can soak rice. Especially brown rice. Just soak it overnight in the quantity of water you’d cook it in (e.g., soak 2 c rice in 4c water). Soaked lentils only take 15-20 minutes to cook.

    And even without a haybox, you can pour boiling water on beans or rice and soak them for a couple hours; this helps cut down soaking time on beans, especially.

    Re: water. We’re having a new well drilled this summer, and we plan to put on a hand pump. This type http://simplepump.com/ is installed alongside the electric pump, and can actually feed into our pressure tank, so water will come out the taps in the house. I know we can get up to 15 gallons of water out of a fully pressurized tank before the water pressure gets too low to bother, and going outside and pumping a few minutes to charge up the tank beats carrying water. It’ll also be as clean as the water we’ve got now, with no worries about storage.

    That’s the theory, anyway. Has anyone done this in practice?

  7. Susan says:

    If you have a grain mill, you can run the lentils/beans through the mill on coarse. They will be smaller and therefore cook even faster.

  8. ~debra~ says:

    the kids and i have discussed having some practice runs before hurricane season gets here. we fared alright last year but i’d rather be better prepared… we lost nearly everything in the freezer and spent way too much money running to the one open grocery store over the week.

  9. dogear6 says:

    Last summer we had a pipe break between the water main and our house. For 24 hours, we had to do without water at all. There was not even time to prepare – when the break happened, we lost all water pressure immediately.

    It was good insight into what worked and what did not. Yes, I had groceries in the house, but I was not about to waste precious water trying to maintain hygiene handling raw meat. The RO waters tanks for my husband’s orchids was mostly full, so we dipped into that for flushing the toilets.

    We bought more water to store afterwards, are doing more storage of non-potable water, and most of what is in the freezer now can be thawed and served. I keep very little raw meat around unless I am cooking it that week. I also have a small stash of disposable plates and more hand wipes.

    Since then we have expanded it to how would we cook (propane grill, solar, eat it cold from the can or jar), light the house (kerosene lanterns), stay warm (flannel sheets, down comforter, dogs applied liberally), stay cool (still working on that) and do with the food in the freezer (electric generator, starting to can more, leave dehydrated items to use last).

    I had given thought to trying the weekend off the grid. I think it would help us identify further weaknesses. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. Shamba says:

    I second Peak Oil Hausfraus’ comment on chile’s haybox cooking ideas. Chile also has an excellent post about doing laundry without the washer and dryer. This woman could write her own book with her ideas!

    Alas, went to look for the links but I couldn’t find them and don’t have the time right now to look more.

    peace to all, shamba

  11. risa b says:

    Our longest test was a two-week ice storm, in Northwest Georgia, around ’74 or so. We were at a commune, population 22, on 320 acres. There were two houses. The new one had all kinds of electric services, and most of the residents, and the old one had been built before the Civil War, and had a hand-dug well on the back porch. We would not have made it without the well! Routine, every day: fire up the old Dodge pickup, drive slowly across the thick ice to the old house and around to the back (carefully, as there was a hill available for some not-fun truck sledding), fill two 55 gallon drums from the well bucket, drive back. We kept the fireplaces going in both houses (risky in the old one) and cooked in Dutch ovens. Learned a LOT.

    At Stony Run there are two wells, and we put a hand pump on one of them last year.

  12. Diane says:

    I have been interested solar cooking for a long time but after a lot of research I have come to doubt its utility in this climate. Box cookers don’t get very hot, take a long time to cook, have to be shifted. Parabolic cookers seem to take only a small pot and it is usually enclosed in a special plastic bag. The sun doesn’t shine enough in Rhode Island to make these reliable. Instead I am planning to make a test version of a rocket stove which uses very small bits of fuel, ie. twigs, and supposedly gets hot enough to cook quickly. If it works as advertised I can make a second or a “two burner” version. This might even be used to start the cooking before transferring to a hay box. In the meantime we have a Coleman camping stove and a backpacking stove that we have used in extended power outages.

  13. Sharon says:

    Diane, I’m north of you, and I don’t think that’s really true – they don’t have to be shifted often, and unless you are cooking large chunks of meat or baking, if you don’t shift them, usually things will work out just fine. In our climate, most solar cookers work about like crock pots – they are very good from May to October (with some good cooking days in November and April) at cooking things slowly. The rocket stove is great, but I don’t think it is really an either/or thing – the rocket stove, perhaps with the haybox cooker, is good for some things, and the crockpot for others.

    Is the solar cooker a perfect solution in the north? No, but I think you overstate their disadvantages.

    Sharon

  14. (: Sunshine :) says:

    For Heather: Although they don’t fold down for camping, I have a few Thermos “shuttle chefs” (different sizes, different locations) – smaller, sleeker versions of haybox cookers & I LOVE them.

    I use one AT LEAST five days out of seven (I eat a LOT of rice, beans, chili, boiled potatoes, soup, etc.)

    There are versions w & w/o carrying handles – the ones w are great for transporting meals from one place to another (such as a potluck event), or even from the fire pit outside to inside the house.

    A good link is:

    http://www.forumappliances.com/search.html?sfield=&search=shuttle+chef

    These have been part of my basic off-grid/emergency/green living preps forever & in case of the house burning down, would be one of the items grabbed first.

    PS – depending on what you like to cook, you might be interested in the 3 + 3 l version. I recently purchased it, have used it, but not enough to fully test all the possibilities.

    If you are thinking about it, know you should always have something hot in both pots – if you only have one pot with food, have the other pot full of hot water to help retain heat in the entire unit.

    You can use it for washing up afterward. :)

    Otherwise, stick with one of the single-pot units.

    Hope this helps!

    His in JOY

    (: Sunshine :)

  15. Sara: in northern rural Alabama says:

    We love our solar cooker here in Alabama. We cook with it nearly everyday that we have sun, year-round. We cook chicken, lamb, fish, rice, greens, soup, all kinds of dried beans, baked goods, etc. Now most of our neighbors have one and one neighbor became a distributor and is selling them to others around here.

    We did away with our indoor gas cook stove many years ago (we found we were using it for warmth and the gas gave us headaches). Actually we put it out on our front screened porch, since it had an oven. The only thing I have used the oven for recently is a turkey, which won’t fit into our solar oven. But this past year, a neighbor cooked our turkey for us, in a smoker outside.

    We pulled our on-demand gas hot water heater out of our bathroom 2 years ago and gave it to someone in North Carolina. We hadn’t used it in sometime because we had installed a solar hot water system (first on the ground to see if it would work, and then later we hoisted it up on the roof). We got the panels cheap from someone who had them on their roof in the 70s back when they were popular but not well-designed (hence they froze and burst) and they had to re-roof. My beloved re-welded them and re-engineered them and whallah! So we didn’t need the gas hot water heater anymore. There *are* times when it is not sunny for extended periods of time and our 2 -120 gallon water tanks are exhausted of hot water. That’s when I heat up the water on the wood stove. If it’s summer, we just take cold showers. We’ve had this system up on the roof now for 3-4 years without any problems.

    The other fun thing we discovered was when our gas heater in the bathroom died. We plugged in a 250 watt light bulb and aimed it at the bathtub, and used it for it’s by-product — heat! It’s the only incandescent light bulb in our whole home! Our cost went dramatically down. This will not be useful in the power-out situation you are describing, but is a useful tidbit anyway.

    Definitely, another world is possible.

  16. Adrienne says:

    I want to try this after I move this summer. (If it happened now, I’d be screwed and I know it, which is part of why I’m moving.)

    You’ve made me wonder what would happen to my job in case of a large power outage in the area…I’m guessing the state would (temporarily?) lay off most people, which is a whole other problem.

  17. Wendy says:

    My kids would actually LOVE this exercise. They’re always asking about “power outs” – which are almost an annual occurence here during the winter. Of course, getting their dad to agree to voluntarily cut our utilities … that’s something altogether different.

    That said, we are one of the lucky ones who experienced a four-day outage this past winter – and thanks in a large part to my participation in the IDC (*grin*), we were just fine. We even had some friends over for a kind of impromptu dinner party, and we had homemade soup and bread, which I cooked on the woodstove.

    We did fine in the winter, but it would be interesting to see how well we’d do in the summer, when we couldn’t move our perishables outside, and we didn’t have the woodstove to cook on.

  18. j.c.w. says:

    i’m in houston and my family and i made it through ike. we were in an area that was largely unharmed by the storm, but we were without electricity for 10 days. it was a real treat.

    the cold front that followed the storm was great for about 4 of those 10 days, but when the heat and humidity of houston came rolling back in, life with a 1 year old became a lot less comfortable (a 1 year old…no laundry…cloth diapers…think about that). none of the water was safe to drink without boiling it and food and fuel were difficult to come by for any number of reasons. we were fortunate enough to have a natural gas stove and uninterrupted gas. this was all very good.

    what went well? we’re avid outdoors-folk. we camp a lot and that really saved us. we dehydrate food and keep it on hand for quick weekends in the field and those items really came in handy. in fact, our little family of 3 was well stocked. we could have made it several weeks without having to worry about food supplies. we also had plenty of gear for relocating to the back yard (once the rain stopped) to stay a little closer to cool.

    now for the less than fun parts that were alluded to in the post (the things you don’t expect). my dad and stepmom had to come stay with us because their roof caved in during the storm. that added an extra drain to our supplies. again, the weather was quite comfortable for 4 days in a row, but when that was over it was OVER. i honestly have to say that days 5 through 7 were when emotional limits were reached. all of the planning in the world won’t account for that. moving from a world where fresh water is just a tap away to a significant process of boiling and cooling can be fun for a weekend “test” but living with it is something you really need to psyche yourself up for and i’m not sure there’s a good way to do that for most folks.

    what we really learned is that surviving something like this in suburbia is far more difficult in terms of logistics. we live in a place that is inhospitable to anything other than car-centered life (ever seen people bike to work in houston? yeah…me too…they’re both great guys!). there are no neighborhood stores. FEMA was a joke. fuel was hard to come by (amusing since so much of it is refined RIGHT HERE!). neighbors were friendly, but most shuttered themselves in with generators running 24/7. it was amusing to hear them seize up and die in the night after being run for 100 hours straight with no oil change.

    i don’t think that the people who really suffered in the aftermath of ike would have learned much from a weekend without the grid. there’s a mindset that’s missing and while i agree that many holes will be identified by testing the waters for a weekend, it’s just not the same. figuring out where you stand with regard to food, water and shelter is incredibly important, but really knowing where you stand in terms of how prepared you are mentally when it really comes down will truly make or break you. i don’t know how you prepare for that.

  19. Anna Marie says:

    We heat by wood stove and can cook on it, so we’re OK there. Our gas stove is also connected to free standing propane tanks, and we have about a 6-month supply. We have three water butts and lots of rain in the UK, so we could boil water. Septic tank for waste. Solar hot water for showers and laundry, but we are connected to the mains for water and electricity. This is good reminder to put in a greywater tank and to get that wind turbine up for the electrics, and check the food stocks. Thanks Sharon.

  20. Sharon says:

    JCW – I completely agree that there are some things you won’t know until it happens. The goal is to make as few of these as possible. And yes, I agree that a weekend really isn’t enough, but I think that’s likely all most people will do – and it will help.

    Sharon

  21. MEA says:

    I suggested that my parents (who live 10 mins walk away) and their comment was — we’d use the comode toliet, and you’d come and dig it in for us; we’d get up with the sun and go to bed with the night, read in between, and eat cold tinned bean for three days, and drink up the water in the basement. And if it’s too cold to get up, we’ll just stay in bed. So, why bother.

    What about cups of tea, I asked.

    Oh, you can make a large pot at your house with your camp stove and bring it to us in a thermos. We can manage without milk for a few days.

    I don’t know if I’m going to laugh or cry. Actuallly, I think they’d manage quiet well.

  22. Caryn says:

    I’ve had a hard time addressing issues of peak oil and this challenge made me realize why. My five year old daughter is dependent on electricity for medical reasons… she’s tube fed and can’t go without anti-rejection medication. I’ve always imagined that in a short-term emergency I would sit with a syringe and administer fluids by hand, but long-term that’s not realistic. Although she does drink orally, it is impossible for her to stay hydrate without the feeds (we’re tried multiple times). A child with the same medical condition that we were a foster care resource family for was stuck in the Super Dome during Katrina. By the time they got her out she was in multiple organ failure. She lived for awhile after, but ultimately the damage was too great. The fear that my child would be unable to survive has been a huge emotional block that is preventing me from preparing effectively for all of us (we’re a family of 8).

    If you have suggestions I’d appreciate it. With thanks, Caryn (a long time reader)

  23. MEA says:

    Caryn,

    It’s a horrible situation to be in, but you are right, you can’t let worrying abouy what to do for your daughter stop all other plans.

    Just of the top of my mind (and the situtation I deal with is very different, so I’m sure I’m missing things) I’d

    1) ask your doctor about stock piling the medication she needs — I think with your experience over the Super Bowl the doctor would be willing to do this for you piece of mind if nothing else — and find out how to store them.

    2) Go over the feeding/hydration routine to see if it can be simplifed at all, and for how long, and then think about who you can get to help. It seems to me that in a serious crash, finding some to trade nursing care in return for room and board might not be that hard. Also, think about what other work someone else could do to free you to have more time to care for your daughter. You mention that you are a family of 8 — I don’t how how old your other children are (or indeed if I’m wrong in assumeing it’s you, and adult partner and 6 children), but older children might be a help, esp. in freeing up more time for you.

    3) If they are prepared feeds, see if there is anything that can be subsitituted from foods you can stockpile, even it’s only a small part of her died.

    4) I expect you’ve thought of this, but I’ve found it’s the nurses and therapist who often have the practical answers rather than the doctors who think in terms of treatment rather than day to day coping.

    5) Think about other issued aside from feeding — extra chanings of beding, etc. and what you could do now to make that easier in a lower tech world — hand powered washers, extra clothes lines, an indoor drying space. It’s wonderful to have money to throw at these kinds of problems.

    6) Obviously, I don’t know if this is possble with your daughter, but she might have some ideas. I don’t mean suggest that you tell her the end of the world is coming and that she’ll die is she doesn’t come up with the right answers, but it you put it to her in terms practcing for a black out or traveling away from home, she might think of something that’s obvious from her perspect and never crossed your mind.

    Good luck. It’s a very difficult situtation to be in, and I hope I’ve been a little help. I epxect you seen Sharon’s post of adadpting with special needs children.

    MEA

  24. BettyJane says:

    In some areas, people with elevated temps and or other signs/symptoms of the flue are being quarrantined. If we are told to stay home and limit our public interactions, our supplies and plans are going to be essential. We also need someone checking up on us. We can get really sick real fast and not know it.

  25. Caryn says:

    MEA, Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I’m not sure how I missed Sharon’s post on special needs children. She has addressed one aspect of my concerns. You were right, I have six kids. We’ve built our family both through birth and through foster/adoption of medically fragile infants. In addition to my five year old, I have two other little girls with global developmental delays, sensory issues, prenatal exposure issues, etc. We’re just now coming down from the whirlwind of adding five children to our family in 3 1/2 years. So while I am under-prepared and overwhelmed, I’m also cutting myself some slack. :)

    Looking at your list and Sharon’s I do realize that I’m not in as bad of shape with my E, five year old as I thought. I do have a good supply of medication and almost a month of sterile 1/2 normal saline (added to her tube feeds to aid absorption). My big lack is Neocate, the formula used in her feeds. It’s expensive and insurance will only allow us to carry about a weeks surplus. My other option is enteral pedisure with fiber. She about two cans/day diluted with equal parts water. We’re trying to work her up to three cans (her ability to handle even broken down dairy protein is compromised) and I have a good two weeks surplus at all times. While this is also provided by insurance, it would be easier for us to slowly build our supply out of our own funds. Obviously, transitioning her as far as possible off the Neocate towards the Pediasure would help in the long term.

    My real area of lack is figuring out how to manage feeding supplies and her pump. I have five small children (my kids are 13, 5, 3, 2, 15 mons, 11 mons), one, E, immunosuppressed and two immunocompromised due to extreme prematurity… It might not be a bad idea for us to consider a back up generator. It’s minor illnesses that get us, so being able to sanitize and maintain health is key. I asked my husband yesterday what we’d do if there was an outbreak of illness in our community. His response was that if there is even one case, we go into quarantine. I asked how he thought we’d manage that and his face dropped. I’m lucky that I have an ally who agrees that this is an important next step to provide stability for our family.

    Anyway, I’m kind of rambling now. I’ve spent the last couple of days with my browser opened here so I could read whenever I’ve had a free moment. I think that I need to set an hour a day to take some action in this area. I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the project, so I need to take a deep breath, break it down into steps and dig in!

    Thank you so much for your kindness!
    Caryn

  26. Caryn says:

    I forgot to add… Your suggestion that we trade help for room and board really rang home with me. When I was in college I lived with and provided care for an elderly couple (he had post-polio muscle degeneration and she had Alzheimer’s) in exchange for room, board and a small stipend. I can’t believe that I didn’t think of something like this for our family! This idea could make a real difference in our ability to deal with a long-term crisis situation.

    Again, thanks.
    Caryn

  27. Heather says:

    Hi Sunshine,

    Thanks for the link for the thermal cookers.

  28. MEA says:

    Hi, Caryn. Glad I could help a bit. Rather than trying to communiate via this post, would you like to email me at rekniter at yahoo dot com?

    Best,

    MEA

  29. Cindy says:

    My husband and I just turned on our A/C yesterday after a week of 80-something weather and a few days of 90+ days (the heat index yesterday was 90). We cheated some and had a dehumidifier running the last few days, which sort of helped. Although only part of being off the grid, figuring out how to live in such strong Nebraska heat, was interesting. I honestly am not sure how we’d cope in the long run, except just to deal with it. Another thing that came up, how would we keep our books from getting mildew in the humidity? I really don’t know, but it’s something to research…

  30. Vickey says:

    @ Caryn
    Re electricity: what about storage batteries that are re-charged by stationery bicycle pedaling? I don’t know how feasible that is for your situation, but pedaling is something the kids could help with. A generator long-term would require fuel, oil changes, etc.
    I think “A Human Powered Home” is one title that addresses this approach.

    Bless you for your compassionate, open heart!

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