Archive for March 10th, 2009

Utility Issue Scenarios

Sharon March 10th, 2009

It always is helpful to know what you are planning for – and this is particularly an issue when speaking of creating systems to live without fossil fuels.  What are you likely to run into?  How long could the power be off?  Is it really an issue at all?

Now I’m on record as saying the most likely utility scenario is this – you can’t afford to pay your bills, and they shut you off.  This happens all the time to poor people, and the number of utility shut-offs is dramatically up.  So that’s scenario number 1 – that your gas or phone or electric bill rises up to the point that you can no longer pay it, and eventually, you have to give up that service. 

But what about other possibilities.  Here’s my take in order of likelihood:

 1. Regular blackout/brownouts during hot weather.  With increased heat waves, we’re likely to see more and more strained power plants, and poweroutages during high summer.  Besides the heavy drains on resources during hot weather, this may happen because of drought – both coal and nuclear plants require copious water for cooling, and in very dry periods, can shut down.  One study suggested the Southwest may eventually struggle to produce sufficient electric simply because there won’t be enough water to keep the plants going.

2. More and more extended power outages.  Hmmm…this year we had Houston with a Hurricane, Kentucky with an ice storm, large chunks of the Northeast with same, parts of the Midwest with flooding….yeah.

The odds are good that sooner or later, due to some major issue, you’ll find yourself going a couple of weeks without power – maybe longer.  It took 3 weeks to get everyone back in Houston, and more in Kentucky.  And if you live in ice or hurricane or blizzard or wind or flood or fire prone areas, you can expect it to happen more often.

 3. Intermittency – remember Enron and the rolling blackouts?  There are a lot of grid and power consumption issues with our electrical system.  Some of them may be managed in the coming years with more cyclical intermittency – ie, the power is out a couple of hours every night or every weekend. 

4. Major infrastructure failure.  Remember the 2004 blackout in the northeast?  This would be grid infrastructure failure.  So would the gas pressure falling at the end of gas lines, which was threatened several winters ago in the US.  While I don’t think massive grid failure is super likely, I do think that we may see plenty of localized – or even not so localized interruptions.

6. Stuff breaks, never gets fixed, particularly in the outer regions.  There may come a point at which it simply isn’t economically feasible to really maintain infrastructure for areas outside large population centers.  We may see that repair trucks stop coming out, or take a long, long time to do so.

7. Catastrophic constraint in supply.  We’ve already seen this with the European gas situation this winter, where geopolitical situations constrained European consumers of natural gas and left them without heat.  Canada is in the situation of being obligated to sell their natural gas to the US disproportionately – they may renegotiate if they find themselves with insufficient gas for their own heating needs.  We certainly could see geopolitical constraints on access to heating oil.

I think none of these situations is tremendously unlikely, and to me, this means that none of us should be completely complacent that what we hope we’ll get from our utility companies will always keep coming as we’d like it.  Everyone needs a backup plan for life without them.


Home Systems Round Up

Sharon March 10th, 2009

This is actually a set of links to pieces I’ve written in the past about how to deal with different issues at home.  Many of them come from the previous Adapting in Place class, but I thought they might be useful to people, before I move on to new content.  I encourage people to read the comments as well, which often have more detail or correctives to my mistakes.

 Home Heating and Cooling:

Thinking about heating and cooling in different ways than we have been:

Cooling without A/C (I’m hoping Aaron, who actually lives in a hot climate will have more to say about this):

An overview of heating and insulation:

Living without heat in a cold climate:


How to Capture it from Above and Below:

Toileting, Bathing and Laundry:


What to do when you’ve got no working stove:


This is my two part series on the application of permaculture to housecleaning

Ok, that should keep you busy while I write the next post ;-) .


Home Systems: Beauty and Utility

Sharon March 10th, 2009

This week’s AIP class will focus on home systems – heating, cooling, cooking, hygeine, cleaning, water etc…  I’ve written about most of these systems in the last class.  So today I wanted to start with something that doesn’t usually get classed as an essential home system, but, IMHO, might be if you are planning on staying in place – beauty.

I realize that this may sound nuts to some people, who are trying simply to get to the basics in place – the idea that I might suggest you make it aesthetically pleasing, when you are just trying to get the landlord to agree to a compost pile might seem a little nuts.

And yet, think about how you react to beautiful spaces – the deep release of breath that beauty brings to most of us.  Think about how much of what we’re doing involves going home and staying there – shouldn’t we also enjoy it?  Moreover, I think that beauty is one of the ways we have of selling the “simple life” (a term I loathe, but ok) – that is, many of our aesthetic visions for our homes are based upon functional ideas of beauty – the Shaker or country aesthetic, for example.  They mimic lives of great functionality that are beautiful precisely because they are functional – only the design elements are empty – because they do not contain the basic utility that underlied the real Shaker’s aesthetics, or the real country kitchen.

The problem with beauty is that we’ve been told for a long, long time that aesthetics are the product of our “personal style” which involves the project of putting together mass produced commercial objects in such a way as to articulate our personal, tiny variation on the range of mass produced aesthetics available to us.  That is, we can be “country” or we can be “modern” or “shaker” or “retro” but one way or another, we have a limited range of options, ones carefully dictated to us by tv, books, design magazines.  And again, these have nothing to do with our actual lives as they are lived. 

Now despite being an innate slob, I’m not at all immune to this – I find the pretty pictures in magazines as enticing as anyone else.  When we were working on the house addition, I found myself gravitating to the design books in the library.  But while I was whisked away by certain visions, I also noticed some things about them.  For example, have you noticed that unless they are showing a modernist media room, there’s never, ever a tv in the pictures of fancy household spaces?  Again, unless you are seeing a super modernist or explicitly retro kitchen, or an ad for a particular small appliance, have you noticed that there’s never a regular plastic toaster or blender on the counter of the dream kitchens?  If a toaster does show up, it will be a fancy stainless steel one, or a 1950s original in perfect condition, and either way, cost as much as a cross-country flight.

This, of course, is because plastic is ugly, and so are many of the accoutrements of modern life.  That is, there’s no way to make a tv beautiful, so you don’t have them in pictures of beautiful homes.  Toasters mostly aren’t pretty, so when the people come to shoot the fancy home (of wealthy people with no children, generally ;-) ), the toaster goes under the sink, where it does not ordinarily reside.  And this isn’t just cleaning up for the photographers – the net effect of everyone hiding the actual realities of daily living (how often do bathroom spreads even show a toilet ;-) ) is that we are given an image of beauty at home that most of us could never achieve.  Not only does it require wealth, but it requires that you not live in your house – even the fossil fueled version of our lives are rendered beautiful by never having any actual needs met by the home.  The home becomes, then, merely a repository of your cash.  It never returns anything but beauty – and that only if you don’t go the bathroom, eat or sleep and mess up the forty layers of decorative pillows on the bed (What on earth do people do with these when they actually sleep?  Where do they go without making a giant mess?  I’m just asking ;-) .)

But what if we could come up with a vision of beauty that actually didn’t require us to hide the realities of our lives in the closet whenever anyone comes over?  That’s the beauty I long for – one that doesn’t disappear the first time I make breakfast or the kids tromp into the house – lasting beauty that lasts more than two seconds, and feeds our need for grace and peace all the time, rather than once in a while.

And that means a new relationship to our stuff.   Because most of the stuff we own and use isn’t beautiful – and it can’t be made beautiful.  Try and look at a parking lot full of cars and say “oh, how breathtaking!”  Yeah, right.  Seriously, there is no such thing as a pretty car (although a some are uglier than others) – because a sweep of them is nothing but butt ugly.  Yes, manufacturers can try and make one car look ok, with a half-naked woman and an expanse of mountains, but it is the woman and the mountains that are attractive.  And when the photographers come to take pictures of your yard, bet you a million bucks they want the car out of the driveway to make things look pretty.  If it doesn’t show up often in magazine photos, you can bet it is probably ugly.

Which means that a beautiful home means making sure that your daily tasks are done with things that look nice to you – not with hiding the evidence of your actual life before people come over.  And for me, and my personal aesthetics (others may differ) the shift to a human-powered, manual life does a lot improve my aesthetic situation.  Old things that are well made enough to have survived to be passed down to me are more beautiful than newer ones, and if they were well made, will often last a lot longer, which is another factor in beauty.  Things made of natural materials are often more beautiful than things made of plastic.  Good tools look beautiful in many cases, as well as being beautiful.

Moreover, this life I live requires that I not have to hunt under the sink every time I want a piece of toast.  Beautiful isn’t a picture you take once – it is something you want to live in, like a fish in water.  No one invites guests over and says “here, come look at the one moment the house was pretty.” 

The tools I’m finding for a beauty I can live with are cleanliness (not my strong suit, but I’m working on it), space for the reality of our lives (ie, finding a way to either reduce our clutter or increase our organization or both, so that things fit into the spaces for them), and tools that are both beautiful and useful.  If I can’t find a beautiful version of something, perhaps that’s clue to me that maybe I should begin thinking of ways to replace it with something that is beautiful.

The more my life moves towards utility, the more my home becomes the space in which I work and live, and thus, the space that serves my present and actual needs, the better I like it.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things about my house I think are ugly (the pink tile in one bathroom’s days are numbered, since I manage to scavenge some less hideous tile), or that I wouldn’t change, or things that aren’t better fixed with a can of paint (that’s worth doing while you can too – nothing worse than walking into a room and thinking “gack!” every day), but gradually I’m finding that as a consequence of designing a home to work with less or no power, and to meet the actual needs of my family, it looks more beautiful.

We took the fridge out of my kitchen. I’m not perfectly immune to the lure of those all-steel ones, but since we didn’t use it anymore, we simply took it out, and used the space to build in shelves and a permanent place for my grain grinder.  It looks a lot better than the plastic-sheathed white fridge used to.  Again, I noticed when I read design magazines at the doctor’s office that the only fridges I saw were those stainless ones in the perfect modernist kitchens, all white, all pure, all perfect.  But I only know one person who actually owns one of those – so most of us start hosed when it comes to meeting standard conceptions of beauty.  The only hope is to change them altogether.

I suspect that difficult times may put my family in our home even more than we live in it now, that our options for pleasure activities may become more and more “visiting people in their homes and them coming to us” – which to me means that it is important to consider aesthetics – I do not mean this in the sense of investing lots of money in expensive beauty.  But cheap beauty is cheap.  A can of paint is not so terribly expensive.  Old things, used things, free things are often beautiful – or can be made that way with small investments.  A functional home, designed for work and pleasure, tidy but lived in, is beautiful in many cases simply because it is.  And that’s something we can work towards – the unification of our forms and our new and necessary functions.