Monday, January 31, 2011

Solar Decathlon in DC Brings Back Memories

I love the idea of the competition for off the grid housing at the Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC ( Last winter we were without power from Dec. 18 - Dec 28, without phone access for much of the time, and because the main pumps work on electricity, we were without water, too. We had no way of knowing where/if/when relief supplies were coming and it wasn't until we had our services back that we watched the news and discovered that water and propane had been delivered several times within two miles of our home. A lot of good it did us!

My son freaked out and proclaimed our imminent demise as the night temperatures dipped well below freezing that first night, and demanded, "What are we going to do? We can't get out of here." My husband and I just smiled and said, "We'll just do what we used to do every winter when we were growing up." And he always teased me for keeping a lot of candles, kerosene lamps, propane, etc., on hand, "just in case!" That old five-gallon bucket in the laundry room saw a lot of use as a water-carrier from the creek to the house to flush the toilet. We managed to keep the living room warm with a propane space heater (make sure a window is cracked a hair if you use open flame for heat) and piled on a lot of covers plus woolly hats at night. My son discovered the joys of reading by kerosene lamp, which incidentally heated the small bedroom he slept in very nicely as long as he dressed in layers during the day and wrapped in a goose-down quilt at night. I was reminded of my childhood every morning, seeing those magical frosted shapes iced onto the insides of the windows by the bed. But you can bet that as soon as we could travel, we went to visit my cousin in the next town and I got a long, hot bath! Those quick, ice-cold, stand-up baths aren't all that pleasant.

But I do miss the days in my youth when we didn't have to worry about depending on faceless corporate culture for our comfort and survival. If the power went out, did we even notice? We heated and cooked with wood and coal. Our water was gravity fed from an artesian well; before that, our wellbox was built into the back porch and covered by its roof; many school mornings we broke the ice to wash and brush our teeth at a little washstand at the edge of the porch. The chlorine-scrubbed toilet was over by the barnyard and we certainly didn't want it in the house! The phone was an 8-party line that we couldn't use most of the time anyway - the other people on the line kept it busy. TV was allotted to an hour after homework was done, if the power was on and the ladder wire to the top of the hill was still in one piece or hadn't been twisted. Things haven't gotten simpler; they've become more complicated since then.

But, it's nice to get up to a warm house, to flip a lever and the lights come on or the john flushes. To "zap" a quick snack in the microwave, to have a special water heater for cups of tea, to know there's food in the fridge and everything doesn't have to be homegrown and canned if you aren't able to do that. If I could have all that and not depend on being hooked into corporations' wires and pipes, well, that would be fantastic independence.

Thanks to all the entrants for what they are doing. I just wish the Appalachian State University's Solar Homestead design didn't look so much like my grandfather's chicken house that just grew by modules into a mismatched group of shapes, wooden storage boxes, and a cookstove under a lean-to attached to a storage shed, that my grandmother used to can on. At first, I thought the design was a gas station, then noticed that it looked more like a conglomeration of second-thought additions onto a storage building.

Maybe they'll work on aesthetics next time.