OK, so the following dilemma we are trying to solve may sound weird to some people that read this blog. The answer, according to some of you will probably be, but of course you should. And the answer, according to some of you, will probably be, but of course you shouldn't. But I don't know.
You see, currently we live in a small (950 sq ft) cabin. We built this as a temporary home until we could get our house built. Since then, we have been vacillating back and forth over whether to actually build the real house, or just figure out a way to add on to the cabin, but we are right now leaning towards building the house. The cabin just was not built with the idea of making it last the rest of our lives, and it likely won't.
So now, the current debate is, if we build the house, should we plan on wiring and plumbing the house for modern utilities. We have already decided that we are going to continue to heat solely with wood, so that is not at issue currently. What is at issue is cooking, water, and electricity.
- Electricity. Right now, we have no electricity, although the cabin was wired for it. We use LED lanterns and a propane lantern for lighting. This is not an issue in the summer, when we don't even need a light if we wake up in the middle of the night. But in the deep part of winter, it is a bit challenging, and we went through 2 or 3 12-packs of D batteries and 2 or 3 small tanks of propane this winter. This also means that we don't have a fridge. We have been keeping things that have to stay cold in the arctic entry, which actually has been working very well. But that doesn't work in the summer, and last summer, we had a cooler outside that we kept full of ice from the store. The electric company wants $25,000 to get electricity to our property line, and our house will sit at least 150 feet back from the road. It would be extremely expensive to get traditional electricity to our home. In addition, solar power would probably not be a terrific option, since there are only a few short hours of light in the winter, and the sun stays extremely low in the sky. It would be great in the summer, though. We don't have a steady enough wind in our spot to make a windmill feasible, and we have no little stream for microhydro power. So, what do we do? Do we spend a fortune on electricity, or do we find alternative ways of living so that it is not necessary? There are ways to do that. For example, we have a north facing hill at the back of our property. We could dig into that, and make an ice house, where we could make ice all winter long, and pack it in straw or sawdust, that would likely stay frozen all summer if we insulate the door well, and keep the door closed. We could then store anything that has to stay cold in that. For me, light is the biggie. I really don't want to resort to candles or oil lamps, and I hate using so many batteries. The biggest benefit of electricity to me is to be able to flip a switch and have safe, sufficient light. If we could get LED or compact flourescent lighting, and were diligent about only having one or two lights on at a time, I don't know if we could generate enough solar power to run them. Also, in the summer, with solar panels, we could certainly generate enough electricity to run a high efficiency washer, but what about in the winter? Would I be washing clothes by hand? We currently use a laundromat, but that is certainly not a permanent, sustainable solution.
- Water. The only running water is into and out of our kitchen sink. We have no hot water except what we heat on the stove. We have been planning to dig a well for our water supply. Luckily, this area has plentiful water, but because we are on the top of a hill, our well will have to be about 110 feet deep. Without electricity, that is a lot of distance to pump water by hand. In addition, it gets very cold in the winter. It got down to -35 this winter. We would have to find a way to keep the wellhead/pump from freezing. I know they have frost proof hand pumps, but will it work at -35? I don't know. The other option is to collect rainwater in a cistern. It rains a lot in Alaska in the summer, but would we be able to collect enough water from runoff on our roof to supply us all year? I think we would have to be extremely water conscious, and a dry year could be disasterous. Of course, if we get electricity, we can have an electric, underground pump for our well, and this would all be moot. The other water issue is waste. Right now, we are doing an impromtu composting toilet (such as desribed in the Humanure Handbook)Even though Alaska has plentiful water, it bothers me that we use so much perfectly clean drinking water to get rid of poop. We either have to figure out a way to use greywater to flush with, or consider composting toilets, also a great source of fertilizer, if you are careful.
- Cooking. Cooking is currently managed by propane. We have a gas range converted to propane and it works quite well, including the oven, without any electricity. In fact, I like it better than an electric range. However, I am concerned about the supply of propane. I have said before that I think we are coming to a crisis point in the oil supply. Right now, it doesn't seem like much of a threat, because this economic collapse has lessened the demand for oil to a point that there is currently a supply surplus. But, as production inevitably declines, and demand gradually increases again, prices will go up, and availability will go down. I don't expect to be able to acquire or afford propane to cook with indefinitely. SO... do I put an electric range in the new house? Or, do I put a wood cookstove in the new house? I guess that all goes back to whether we get electricity or not.
So, all in all, it seems like electricity is a good thing. But again, I worry about future availability. As the economy continues to collapse, and resources become increasing scarce, what will happen? I think remote areas will gradually lose services, as it becomes more cost prohibitive to provide services to them. Already this is happening in rural villages across Alaska that never got a sufficient fuel or food supply for the winter. And what has the government been able to do to help? Talk about it in the state legislature saying what a shame it is. That sure gets people warm and fed. I don't want that to happen to my family. That is why I advocate growing a garden and that is why I am considering other ways of meeting our needs besides relying on the grid longterm.
So, yes, I am actually considering a wood cookstove, and yes, I am considering building an ice house, and yes, I heat solely with wood. And I have a supply of stored food, and I am trying a garden again this year.
Comments, ideas, critiques, PLEASE. And if I do opt to put in the electricity, what backups would be most workable? What do you think?