Archive for August 13th, 2009

Let There Be Light!

Sharon August 13th, 2009

This is week two of the AIP course, and I’ve mostly covered, in past classes, the range of options for heating, cooking, water, toileting, etc…  One subject I haven’t written about is light – and I think it is one that bears some attention, because even though light isn’t necessary for life, you’ll be awfully sad, particularly if you live in extreme northern or southern latitudes, if you have to go to bed when it gets dark all year ;-) .  Not to mention that high cost in broken toes of tripping over things.

One of the funny things about generating light, unlike a lot of other non-fossil fueled alternatives, is that most of the homemade, seemingly lower impact models are actually *higher* impact – that is, the petroleum based candles you buy at the store are probably of greater impact than simply running a Compact Flourescent lightbulb.  So is your kerosene lamp.  Even beeswax candles may be a bigger impact, depending on where you are getting them from.  That’s because electricity isn’t a bad way to generate light.

That said, however, plastic and battery based things break.  I find that my best solutions are a mix of all of these – candles and kerosene lamps, solar lanterns and rechargeable batteries. 

 Now preparations need to have two functions – first, they meet your needs in a crisis.  But second, they allow you to live the kind of life you want even when you aren’t in crisis, and presuming that most of us want our light sources to be ethical ones, and to provide the most for the least, that means sorting out some options.  Let’s talk options. 

Actually, first, let’s talk not setting your house, child, cat or ferret on fire.  Many of these solutions involve open flames, or slightly enclosed flames.  If you are going to use them, use them very carefully.  Have a good smoke detector around and batteries, keep fire extinguishers and know how to use them, and never leave them unattended where kids or pets could get at them.  If you have children or pets, stable candles with solid bases are better than tall candles with candlesticks, and hurricanes or other containment, or wall sconces are safer than the table where the kids can reach or the dog can bump into things while hoping someone will drop something.  I have several wall sconces with hurricane glasses that I found at a yard sale.  Mirrored sconces will nearly double the amount of light in a room as as side benefit.

 If you really desperately needed light, and wanted to be outside, you could make rushlights or flaming torches – dip cattails in oil or set a stick on fire.  You do not want to do this in your house, just in case you were wondering ;-) .  But this is not the most carbon-efficient option, nor is it terrifically convenient (although flaming torches have their place in driving monsters out of the local ruined castle, I suppose).

You could also burn olive oil, in a homemade lamp, with a wick made from a shoelace (cotton only, pull off the plastic ends).  This is not cheap, but it is clean burning.  It won’t give tons of light, but if you have olives where you live, you can make a simple lamp. Here’s a variation that uses a mason jar:

Next possibility are candles.  Most candles are petroleum based, and some have lead wicks, which are not good to breathe, so be careful when buying cheap candles.  I think scented candles are generally disgusting, and they can cause problems for people with allergies or scent sensitivities, so I avoid those as well (is there anyone who thinks those Yankee candle stores smell *good* ;-P).  Soy, beeswax and bayberry candles are much nicer and better for you.  Tallow candles don’t smell so hot when burning, and you really can’t buy them, but you could make them out of leftover animal fats.  If you plan to use candles, think about where your candles will come from – get to know your local beekeeper, plant some bayberry bushes if you’ve got sandy soil, or get your own hive and candle molds.

 Kerosene is not environmentally more sound, but lamp oil does store well, and kerosene lamps can provide a good backup lighting source.  Make sure you know how to use them, and how to trim wicks and clean them.  Lamp oil stores pretty much indefinitely, but make sure you store it in a fire proof container.  These oils are byproducts of coal production, so not likely to run entirely out, but also not real environmentally cool.

You can get lights that will run on propane or on natural gas – try - these are used by the Amish, and if, for example, you have a natural gas well or use propane for other things, are another possibility.  Again, they aren’t necessarily a huge improvement over grid electric (depending on how your electric is generated), but they may allow you to rely on more stable supplies.

Flashlights, battery powered lamps, booklights and headlamps make a lot of sense when combined with rechargeable batteries and solar powered battery chargers.  Set these in your window, have several sets of each battery type to rotate, and these can give excellent light for extended periods.  Headlamps are especially nice for a host of purposes – going out to the barn with stuff in your hands, washing dishes, etc…  Book lights clip to your book and allow you to read with tiny quantities of light.  These are also a great mix with LED nightlights for kids. 

If you are going to get flashlights, get at least one serious, heavy duty, police-officer style flashlight, or a floodlight LED type.  The reason is that sooner or later you are bound to have to help track the dog through the woods, find out what’s making that noise under the house, or otherwise do something with a light with *power* – little flashlights are adequate for most jobs, but once in a while, these are useful.  They are also an excellent security device – most people prowling about will stop, blinded when you shine one on them, and many pesty critters will run away ;-) .

Hand crank flashlights are good, but usually not super powerful.  Plus you might have something to do besides crank.  I have some, but I also recommend some battery powered ones, although the crank type are great for kids.   Although not at all sustainable, for bugout bags and such, I also see the value of chemical lightsticks for little kids, who need something to be secure.

Solar lights are also great – and the kind designed for gardens are very cheap these days.  Buy a bunch, plant them outside, and then simply stick one in a bucket of sand in rooms where you need light.  Unlike many of the other options here, they are quite pleasant to read by. I also have a couple of solar lanterns, which are very nice, especially when children and pets are about.  The lanterns are easy to carry about with you, as are the outdoor lights, if you keep buckets about.  Plus, the outdoor types can be used, well, outdoors ;-) .

You can, of course, put in a solar, wind or microhydro system and use it to power lights and a few other things.  A small system that can run your computer, your lights and your CD player won’t be too expensive.  I recommend this generally, however, only for people who either aren’t grid tied to begin with or who have done most of their other preps – because it is perfectly possible to run those things on rechargeable batteries for much lower cost.

The most important think you can do about alternate lighting is change your attitude towards it – that is, instead of assuming that everyone needs their own lighted room, you all congregate together.  One person can read alound near the light, or perhaps everyone can do something like handwork that is done in low light conditions, to conserve energy.  If you can keep things mostly in the same places, there’s no reason why lights are needed for basic things like trips to the bathroom at night or to latch on an infant.  You can get up earlier and go to bed earlier.  There are lots of ways to adapt to lower light conditions that are less about what you have than what you do.  Of course, that’s true for all of this.