Archive for August 14th, 2008

What To Do First: Triaging Your Adapting In Place Strategy

Sharon August 14th, 2008

We’ve talked a lot about various particular problems, but of course, in your life, dealing with water and toilets, laundry, food storage, clothing and heating and cooling is really all just one problem - how do you adapt your life from high fossil energy use - either because you want to or because you have to - to low.  Most of my posts list a range of options, but it can be hard to prioritize and deal with all that information.

So where do you start?  You need to triage your situation and start from there.

The first thing we all need to do is get ready to deal with the kind of short term crisis that affects almost everyone sooner or later - and that is increasingly likely, given the fragility of our systems.  That is, a medium range systems problem - something that can be caused by a host of things - ice storms, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, geopolitical crisis, blackout… you name it.  That is, we need to be ready to get along for a few weeks to a month in a very messed up short term situation.  This is useful even if what we face is a very messed up long term situation. 

So the first step is to get your basic needs met - a reserve of food built up.  Lots of warm clothing and blankets if cold is a potential problem.  Stored water and ideally a backup source of water, even if only rainbarrels or hauling by hand from a creek a ways away.  A way to cook food, even if temporary.  Some basic lighting.  A way to manage toileting and hygiene issues, clean bodies and clothes - again, these don’t necessarily have to be long term solutions, although it would be nicest if they were.  But at a minimum get them.

Other than the food, medications and water, the emergency measures could be quite cheap, because they don’t have to be comfortable and pleasant - for a few weeks, you can winter camp in your house, for a few weeks you can crap in a bucket, for a few weeks you can do laundry infrequently in another plastic bucket, light your evening with your headlamp and rechargeable batteries .  That is, you can be uncomfortable and inconvenienced for the short term, in most cases.  If you can’t be - because of health problems, age, etc… then you will need to move up a little in the list.  But for most of us, these inconvenient but survivable solutions get us part of the way there, and many of them could be used longer than the short term.

But we all know that short term isn’t everything.  What happens if we can’t afford electricity or gas anymore?  What happens if we’re in the long emergency, not the short one.  Well, the preparations you’ve made for a short term crisis will get old really fast  - but most of them will still serve you.  That is, you will not like lighting your house with only a headlamp and two flashlights, and you will not like going to bed when it gets dark in December (4pm), but you can do it if you have no choice.  The next level of preparations are partly about survival, but more about creating a life you can live with.  If you have money, these are easy changes to make - and some older people with more money than tolerance for inconvenience and physical stress might want to go here first.  If you don’t have money, it will take time, and saving and scavenging to manage these systems - and you may be stuck with the backups, even if they are unpleasant.

This is where you begin going, step by step, through the systems you depend on, figuring out what you can do to allow you to live decently and comfortably without the other stuff, and step by step replacing, adding or converting to sustainable systems.  For those without much money, it is much easier to convert to the alternatives in many cases - that is, it is hard, if you are poor, to afford solar lanterns - unless, of course, you use them as a lighting source and save money on your electric bill (and it might still be hard, I realize).   Sometimes if things seem to costly, the problem may be that you are imagining them as a backup, not a conversion to a new way of life.  You may prefer the old way, but if you are serious enough about your concern for the future, converting early isn’t the end of the world - that’s one of the things we’re finding.

And some of the choices are easy and cheap - turning your lawn into a landscape of edibles can be quite inexpensive, if you can get slips and starts and divisions from people and buy cheap plants from your cooperative extension.  Converting to a composting toilet is inexpensive and can save you a lot of money on your water bill.  Switching to eating out of your food storage can save a lot on your food budget. 

There are two good ways to prioritize, and honestly it makes sense to do both simultaneously. Prioritize by urgency, and by availability.  That is, you should concentrate on the things that will matter to your happiness and comfort the most - for one person, this might be not having to do laundry in a bucket, for another who is always cold, a good heat source.  But don’t also forget to the extent you can (and this is a great chore to delegate to elderly relatives, friends who want to barter or teenagers) to keep an eye on craigslist, freecycle, garage sales, etc…  Try and have a list of all the stuff you’d like to do, so that when that old handwasher or treadle sewing machine shows up, you can cross that off  your priority list.

And while you are finding comfortable ways to keep cool, refrigerate food, keep safe, go to the bathroom and etc…, we can also begin thinking about the long term sustainability and availability to our community of these projects - it sounds as though this is the third step - really it is the second, though, but you do have to know what systems you’ll be using first. 

That is, if you are going to burn wood, you need to be planting trees, and  looking for ways to get your neighbors to plant them.  If you want your kids to be cool in your house without a/c, now is the time to plant those live oaks.  Remember, what you do now may be what your children inherit - so think in those terms.

Stored food runs out - you will need to grow your own.  It isn’t enough for you to have a source of water - if no one else in town has any, your source will rapidly be exhausted.  So we need community systems for essentials like food and water, with an emphasis on the long term sustainability of those systems - transport, food, energy, water, heating, cooling, etc…  

And many basic needs will have to be met by local business people -  and you are going to need to earn a living.  So thinking in terms of sustainable economies as well -your own home economy is one part of that, but there will probably always be a money economy of some sort and you and others will want to meet real, local needs with your work.  So think in those terms as well - how will you sustain yourself, not just in terms of direct, biological needs, but in terms of economic ones.

Finally, you should practice.  That doesn’t just mean trying the solar battery charger once, or making sure you know how to cook on your woodstove - try living with these systems routinely, and turning off the ones you’ve depended on up until now. Consider a test run, when you turn everything off in the winter, or where you live only on your stored and garden food for a month - these tests will tell you really basic things you need to know, and show you the holes in your system while you still have a chance to plug them.



Potty Time - Toileting, Bathing, Laundry in a low Power Situation

Sharon August 14th, 2008

Ok, time to discuss with perfect strangers stuff you normally do behind closed doors.  Because hygeine is so tremendously important to survival, this is another one of those “everyone needs to know their options and have a plan” thing.  While living with no or little fossil fuels won’t kill you, a whole lot of the potential health consequences of inadequate hand washing, unsafe human manure handling and other things will kill you.  It is easy to get caught up in other stuff, and forget about the importance of this.

Ok, toileting.  If you have some water, and the sewers/septic aren’t backed up, you can keep flushing with a bucket occasionally (and I do mean occasionally).  But eventually your septic will fill and you may want that water for something else, particularly if you have to laboriously hauled it by hand from somewhere.  And except for tightly packed urban environments, the best choice is composting anyway.

Now everyone with a garden can use their urine to fertilize their garden.  This is safe - to be paranoid, you shouldn’t harvest from the plants for a week (or until after a rainstorm), but this is actually almost certainly over-paranoia.  Don’t do it if you have tularemia - of course, if you do, you have much bigger problems than where to put your urine.  Dilute the urine 1 part pee to 10 parts water (you can use 1-7 if you drink a lot, but just in case, if your urine is very concentrated, more dilution is better), and pour it over a plant you love.  In fact, IMHO, it would be crazy not to do this - free nitrogen in a world where fertilizer is increasingly expensive.

Poop is a bigger deal, and needs to be properly composted at fairly high temperatures.  If you live in an urban place and have limited space, this will have to be a neighborhood affair, since you can’t do it too near water, and you must do it safely - since the whole neighborhood’s health will depend on it (do you really need me to make a list of the diseases you can get from not finding an appropriate and safe way to deal with human wastes in an extended emergency - let’s just say it would be a long, long list and have very unpleasant things on it).  The bible on this subject is John Jenkins’ wonderful _Humanure Handbook_ - this is a very important book - there’s a review here and a link to his site, and the book is also available as a free download.  If you can afford it, though I’d buy a copy directly from him, as thanks for a serious service to humanity.

The basis of humanure composting is pretty simple - you poop in a bucket, add some carbonaceous material, and compost it carefully.  You then have something that is not a health risk, but an asset.  This is important, and the world as a whole is going to have to deal with this concept if we are all to continue living.

For very short term problems, those in very urban places can use plastic bags over buckets and dispose of their poop that way, but this creates methane in landfills and warms the planet. You can also go out in the woods and bury (more than 4 inches deep) your wastes), or dig an outhouse.  But if you’ve got any decent space at all for composting, these options are less good - and less pleasant in bad weather - than a simple composting toilet.  The compost can then be used on ornamental plants, fruit trees, etc…

Make sure you have hand washing facilities in an emergency - hand sanitizer is ok if water is really restricted (alcohol based, not antibacterial), but what you want is water and soap.  Store soap, or learn to make it, and teach everyone in your house to wash their hands properly every single time, especially before they eat.  Those religions (among them Jews and Moslems) who wash before eating had much lower death rates in ancient times than those that don’t wash (of course, if we actually regress to ancient times, we’ll go back to people burning those who don’t get diseases for being witches, so it would be nicer all round if everyone would consider handwashing a sacrament).

The next problem is toilet paper - several people have told me that toilet paper was worth its weight in gold during a crisis.  You need an option there.  One option is to use waste paper, but don’t flush it (most systems can’t handle anything but tp), and dispose of it seperately.  But eventually you will run out of old phone books and Danielle Steel novels, and be confronted with a deep and urgent question - what can I do besides wiping my ass with the works of Dickens?

The answer to this is cloth toilet paper - the reusable tp.  This is especially accessible for pee - if you don’t want to wash poopy cloth (although those of us dealing with diapers might have a lower freak out level than others), use it for pee only (for them that use anything when peeing).  But if you need it for poop, segregate it from the rest of the laundry and wash it well, maybe a tiny bit of hydrogen peroxide or bleach, and dry in the sun. 

I’ve got more information on cloth toilet paper, cloth menstrual pads, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, diva cups/keepers, etc… right here: and I did a whole meditation on cloth toilet paper (and the idea of it) here:  Crunchy Chicken is the goddess of reusable menstrual supplies and has tons of info at her site on this subject (and some on cloth tp and peeing in the garden - she’s a very diversified woman.)

If you are using all these things, you will need to wash them.  Thus, you need a way to do laundry.  Lehmans offers a wide selection of non-electric laundry washing, drying, etc… tools here: with stuff for everyone from those who have lots of dirt to those who don’t.

Soap is nice, but you can make your own laundry detergent with a recipe here - this is worth doing even if the world never ends ;-) , because it is very cheap.  I have tried this and it works well, but don’t know if it is safe for my newer, high efficiency front loader - anyone know?

You can also use the soak and scrub method - water, bucket, a tiny bit of detergent, and soak a long time, then rub the cloth together to get the stains.  If you can set a bar up over the tub or it is warm enough to be outside, you don’t need a wringer - just hang and drip. But if you want it faster, you can use a mop wringer to get most of the water out, or stomp it out in the tub.

Most things do not need hot water to wash even now - you can use cold.  But boiling things on the stove is one way to get them clean and not a bad strategy to get humidity into the air if you have a heating source going anyway.  Small amounts of bleach are not a bad thing to store for a host of reasons (dry bleach stores better than the liquid - store and use it carefully, and only when necessary, because it is not good for your waterways). You can segregate people’s laundry to keep from cross-contamination if you are sick, and don’t want to boil/use bleach or can’t hang things in the sun for natural disinfectant.

If you are going to be doing lots of laundry by hand, much of what will have to change is your attitude - you will not want to throw everything straight in the wash - reuse anything that can be reused (and remember, most workday clothes in the past were not that clean), air it out rather than wash it (ie, hang it outside), remove work or dress clothes immediately and change to play clothes, wear an apron or other covering, etc…. Towels and sheets can be washed less often than we do now.  But do make sure they get washed regularly - lice and fleas can carry disease if there are a lot of unwashed bodies, particularly if you have pets and no access to current controls.  Baking clothes in the oven, or hanging them out in the freezing cold will kill insects and their eggs.

I assume you all know how to dry laundry ;-) - and no, not with a dryer.  Clotheslines, clotheslines, clotheslines - and drying racks.  Outside works great all year round (although it is very slow in winter - but winter line-dried clothes smell terrific!), and drying racks near the heat source are great in cold weather.  You can iron with “sad irons” heated up on a stove (if you cut the cord off, I think most conventional irons will work on a stove also, but be careful of plastic parts, and I haven’t tested this), but my own preference is to pretend wrinkles don’t exist (Simon once took a developmental test where he had to identify pictures.  He did great, and the examiner mentioned that the only picture he’d missed, well past age level, was one of an ironing board - my rather embarassed observation was that I was pretty sure he’d never seen one ;-) ).

Finally, you’ll want to wash you.  You can certainly get by with helmet baths and sponge baths, but you’d probably like to bathe now and again.  There are a couple of good choices - if you have an existing cistern and you can put a pump in your bathroom, you could fill your tub and haul hot water from the stove.  If you have  a big washtub in the kitchen, you could bathe in that (a plastic sheet over the parts of you that are exposed will keep the warmth of the water and your body next to you).  Our low energy solution is the solar shower bag - we hang them outside during the summer and inside near the woodstove during the winter to heat up - instant shower. 

Other thoughts?  Suggestions?


How Not To Fry: Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning (or not much)

Sharon August 14th, 2008

There are a lot of parallels between dealing with extreme heat and extreme cold in a difficult situation.  The first and most important one is understanding the likely victims of each crisis.  The most likely victims are people in extremely hot places (duh), often extremely hot places that haven’t been that hot - for example, during heat waves there are often more victims in Chicago than Houston.  Why?  Because people who live in Houston are both physiologically and pragmatically better prepared for hot weather, becuase they have hot weather more often.  Now global warming means that people in hot places are likely to see more extreme heat, and thus bear the brunt of the weather, but it also means that those of us in cooler places need to know this stuff too - since we’re probably not as well prepared.

And the most likely victims are people who are already vulnerable, without a lot of community and social supports, whether we are talking about heat or cold. In fact, most of the people who die are elderly, disabled or ill, and they live ALONE - it might actually be more accurate to say they die, not from heat or cold, but from isolation and lack of support.  So as we talk about this stuff, both for winter and summer, start thinking about your community and neighborhood.  Are there people who are potential victims?  Well, now would be the time to get to know them, start checking on them occasionally, build a relationship so that no one in your neighborhood dies from lack of other people’s support.  If you think of heat and cold related deaths as caused by isolation, at least as much as temperature, then we find ourselves having some responsibility to keep one another alive.  This is, I think, important.

Anyone who has trouble perceiving their body temperature or changes will have difficulty handling extreme heat.  For example, Eric’s grandfather, in his 90s, felt cold pretty much all the time.  It took some persuasion to get him to drink sufficiently and give up his wool sweater on the hottest days - and without this small, simple, easy, low tech attention, he could easily have been a victim.  Children are vulnerable as well, because they don’t necessarily know enough to stop running around - parents need to keep an eye on this.

So let’s go, as we have been, from internal systems outwards, in opposition to the traditional model, that suggests that you heat or cool a whole house, let’s start from inside you, as we talk about keeping cool.

Just as it is possible to live without heat if you have sufficient food to keep you warm, it is possible to live without cooling in the worst hot weather for most people, but not without WATER.  Without water, you will die - and a lot faster in hot weather than in cold. Add to the fact that the most likely times to experience widespread power outages that affect water availability, or heavy storm backlash that contaminates water in warm times, and you have a recipe for being in a very hot period, often having to do strenuous things to adapt, with no water.  This is very bad.  This is why you should store water, have a good filter system and work with your community to have back up water systems - because dehydration kills, and most heat mitigation strategies involve water.

How do you know if you are drinking enough?  Well, if it is really hot, you should pretty much always have water around.  If you are working hard in hot weather, you should be drinking pretty constantly - and some of what you drink (assuming you aren’t eating things that fit this) should have a little bit of sugar or fruit juice in it. has information in making rehydration syrups and also what the best things to drink when you are dehydrated are - everyone needs to know this, not just people in hot places, since dehydration is common when ill - but don’t get dehydrated to begin with if at all possible.  You urine should be light colored, not dark.  If it is dark, get drinking.  Make sure that babies nurse often - yes, nursing in the heat sucks, sweaty body against sweaty body, but don’t let your child go too long without nursing in really hot weather.  And nurse if at all possible - in a crisis, if safe water isn’t available, breast milk can save lives!

Ok, dress for the weather.  There are essentially two theories of how to dress for hot weather.  The first is to wear something roughly like the Indian selvar kemise - loose fitting, light colored cotton clothing that covers your whole body, keeps the sun off you and allows you to breathe.  Add a natural fiber hat that also breathes (remember, covering your head will keep in heat if it doesn’t), and you are well set.  The other possibility is “as little as possible” - this will depend also on where you live and how much time you spend in the sun and a host of other factors.  I personally think the former has a lot of advantages, but there are many people who prefer the latter. 

Ok, once you are dressed, how to deal with the heat - again, we come back to lots and lots of water.  If you don’t have to sit in a board meeting, you might be able to sit in a pool - even a kiddie pool can do a lot.  If you don’t have that much water, how about a pan of water to put your feet in?  Soak a bandana and put it over your head, or around your neck.  Take a shower.  Or if the power isn’t on or you can’t, fill a bucket and pour it over your head or dip it over. Sponge bathe.

Get outside in the shade - and if you don’t have shade, make some, both in and out of your house.  If you live somewhere hot, you need trees, lots of them.  Plant trees that will shade your house and minimize your cooling costs and need for air conditioning (and to enable you to live without it).  Vines can provide quick shade over your windows - you can plant them in containers and trellis them up over windows if you don’t have dirt.  The more green stuff around you, generally, the cooler you will be.  Urban dwellers with flat roofs might look into green roofs, which help reduce heating and cooling costs. 

Use awning, blinds and shade screens to keep sun from warming the house.   Open windows at night and close them during the day.  If your heat is dry, hang wet laundry or sheets up in the house to reduce the temperature.  Swamp coolers use less electricity than a/c.   Just as insulation is the key to minimizing heat usage, it is also the key to cooling - just make sure you do it well and keep good air quality and ventilation in mind.  Use common sense, and keep doors closed if one area gets more sun/heat than another.

Stay outside as much as you can, if outside has a breeze and the air quality isn’t too horrible.   Sleep there - this is what people did before air conditioning - they slept outside, if the house didn’t cool down enough.  City folks slept on balconies and even fire escapes (latter is probably not legal or safe), others got out in their backyards.  Certainly do all cooking outside, or if you must cook inside, cook everything that needs heating the night before or early in the morning and don’t cook again.  Part of our problem is that we are such an indoor people - both for acclimation and comfort, we need to recognize that life can be moved outside, to the porch, the yard, etc… when time requires.

Once, farm families had summer kitchens screened or outdoor cooking areas designed for dealing with summer and keeping the heat out of the house.   A simple screen house could provide eating and sleeping shaded areas, while a nearby firepit, earth oven, grill or sun oven (and probably better yet a combination) provides food preparation.  Others might move a wood cookstove outside, or get fancier with some permanent structure - the more summer you have, the more this might be wise - having a way to simply keep most activities outdoors seems to be a fairly basic strategy.

If you can, shift your work times - get up very early, stay up late, sleep or rest or work quietly during the hottest periods.  Get a headlamp so you can do chores outside at night.  Don’t exercise much during the worst weather, if you can avoid it (many people have no choice). 

Now we come to the fly in the ointment - air quality. While pure heat can be dealt with, there are many people who simply can’t tolerate the air outside during the hottest weather.  For those who are ill, or vulnerable to air quality (and while we vary in sensitivity, poor air quality affects everyone), and those who have to do strenuous stuff are screwed. 

If there’s power in your area, you can go to a/c shelters.  If nothing else has power, your local hospital may, and might allow someone with severe health issues to sit in their lobby.  If there is no a/c around, go near water - even a small lake will have slightly better air quality over it, as well as cooler temperatures.  You can also soak a bandana, piece of muslin or cheesecloth and tie it over mouth and nose to reduce pollutants and cool the air into your lungs.  For those who have to be working outside, move slowly, take it easy, and again, drink.

If you have a serious health problem that means that the air quality and temperatures in your area are intolerable to you during routine summer temperatures, you may have to think about relocation.  The statement that no one needs to die from cold is not quite true for heat - that is, as long as we pollute air as heavily as we do, there are going to be people who suffer from that.  If your life depends on adequate heat or cooling or air cleaning being provided by grid systems, I really don’t like saying this, but you would be smart to seriously consider living in a place where you are not endangered - or less often endangered.  Because fossil fuels may not be available, even if your life depends on it.