Monday, January 11, 2016

Utility Usage: Off Grid Alaska vs. India and South America

Because we live in Bush Alaska with limited power and few modern conveniences, most Americans of our acquaintance think our lifestyle difficult or at least odd. But after reflecting on our past five winter visits to India and South America, we have concluded that our modest carbon/utility footprint is not that much different than homes we visited in India, Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru (some affluent and others very modest). Many readers have read that the average U.S. Household produces about 3 times the carbon of European homes and 10 times those of India. The examples below may indicate how they do that, and how readers can live well with lower utility bills and expectations.

We rely on an outhouse and interior chamber pot, which is certainly more primitive than all but one home we stayed in (on an island in Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia). In fact, that part of the world is “decorated” with identical colorful metal outhouses, gifts of the government. But even in Peruvian urban areas, with populations of 500,000 to 12 million, each bathroom with flush toilets instructs users not to put ANY paper down the toilet, but to deposit the noisome tissues in an adjacent trash can. In this way, presumably, old sewage systems can accommodate burgeoning populations.  (I did not encounter this in Ecuador or Chile.)  Each wash area usually has a much used cloth towel hanging on a nail for use by one and all.  

Throughout India, one needs to carry one's own toilet paper into most public facilities or pay a person kneeling outside. Inside, some offer western style toilets, usually with a bidet wand instead of toilet paper, but many offer instead a tiled floor, with an oblong hole surrounded by textured foot markings and a bucket of water nearby for rinsing the hole and floor (no flushing mechanism). Increasing numbers of U.S. homes and restaurants are starting to install low water toilets, particularly in water starved and high cost areas.  To encourage such proactivity, my parents' suburb in San Francisco publishes and distributes a “wall of shame” list naming “water hog” property owners. 

 As a side note, Indians who have visited the U.S. are startled by the lack of privacy in our public stalls. I can see their point! Our “peekaboo” panels are indeed much less private than the floor to ceiling walls and doors common throughout India, but found only in the better restaurants and clubs in the U.S.
Our annual gasoline usage:  90 gallons
In the poor villages dotting the beautiful tea and cardamom plantations around Munnar, India, locals make clever use of the waterfalls. Every day, we saw cabbies (driving tuk tuks) and others washing their vehicles in the spray of a waterfall next to the road! In addition, residents in some tiny communities string long hoses from waterfalls to their woodsy homes. In one instance, I counted 20 hoses, bunched together like giant fiber optic cable, strung from tree to tree. More affluent, urban and suburban homes receive their potable and non-potable water by trucks (not by an integrated municipal water system). Each home has a pump/hose on the front corner of the house, which delivers water to the 300 gallon tank on the roof.  Gravity delivers the H2O to showers, sinks, and toilets. Potable water is delivered separately, in glass carboys, as in many Americans' homes, and stored in the kitchen.

Most of the homes we lived in abroad had indoor plumbing and fresh water (as delivered above), but in Munnar, a row of one room shacks lined the road below our balcony. Those homes rely on a communal spigot of cold water, from which the women carry buckets home. Inside, they boil the water to drink and to cook rice and beans. Outside, they wash the little gray school uniforms of their children, beating them on a large flat rock presumably transported to the yard for that purpose. All laundry, in any home, school, hostel or modest hotel we visited in any of these countries, is line dried on the roof or in the yard.

At our home in Alaska, we relied on a lake pump and filters for several years and now have a 61 foot water well in the yard. In summer, each system delivers running water to the kitchen and to a low water washing machine in the wash house. However, running water in winter remains a challenge. We finally may have conquered some aspects this year. Like the South American and Indian homes we visited, we rely on a hose system to fill a 55 gallon drum in the kitchen, which we fill once or twice a week from the well. When warm weather thaws the plumbing lines in the yard and we no longer have to measure usage so carefully for washing and drinking, I feel like I leap through a time warp. 

 Side notes: our well water is hard and, of course, has no fluoride or chemicals. My dentist and I have noticed less plaque on my teeth, and greater sensitivity to cold foods. Anchorage, AK offers free water testing for many minerals and chemicals and a private company charges $40 to test for arsenic.

KITCHENS: In the homes/ apartments we visited and/or rented in each country, ALL lack dishwashers and clothing dryers (just as we do at our home). Dishes are dried by hand and clothes are line dried. In some cases, this is due to low labor costs – day maids are common. In other cases, space is at a premium, as in a pretty apartment we rented in Buenos Aires (true in tiny NYC apartments, too). However, even in the most impressive homes we lived in, in Asuncion and Hyderabad, with large, marbled kitchens – I saw no dishwasher. For price sensitive homeowners abroad, imported appliances have high tariffs and are therefore more expensive than the same machine in the U.S. Besides, electricity rates are often quite high – particularly since any appliance that generates heat is always a “power guzzler.” 

Throughout India, we saw something I don't recall in South America:  individual circuit breakers next to every power hungry appliance in homes and offices, such as a window air conditioner or microwave oven. A user would flick this switch as well as the appliance's on and off switch. Perhaps the extra step ensures safety during power surges and the frequent, brief outages we experienced.  Perhaps, too,  Indians are more aware than many Americans that plugged in appliances can draw electricity even if not switched on.  You pay for the convenience when it is dormant. Since our modest electrical needs are met by solar and wind power, backed up by an occasional hour or two of a generator, we unplug lamps and computers when not in use.  

Propane is the ubiquitous choice for cookstoves, in every country we visited, so most kitchens have a little nook next to the stove to store a portable 20, 50, or 100 lb propane tank. (Our 100 lb propane tank for cooking and heating water lasts 3 months). One home stay in southern India (with four guest rooms) had no oven at all and cooked meals for guests on a two burner gas stove with a separate rice cooker!

Many American kitchen counters are cluttered with myriad specialty electric devices like toasters, can openers, knife sharpeners, bread makers, mixers, coffee machines, and the ubiquitous microwave oven. Other households around the world utilize manual devices (and time) to accomplish the same tasks. The only electric device I routinely see in all of these places is a blender, for the daily pleasure of fresh fruit juice and the frequent chore of smoothing a chunky soup or bean dish.

Without electronic appliances, our hosts and friends around the world prepared fresh foods like flavorful coffee in drip cone pots or French presses, and ground spice seeds with a mortar and pestle (and then heated in a pan to bring out the flavor). One host in India scraped out coconuts while sitting on a stool like a cobbler's bench to which a spiky looking rounded knife was nailed. Except for the coconut, I use these hand kitchen tools, too, along with two clever gizmos my father-in-law found in some rural second hand store. They are simply jars with different plungers for chopping a hand full of nuts and for churning a meal's worth of fresh mayonnaise or aioli.

I routinely make bread and baked goods and have NEVER owned a bulky Sunbeam type mixer or bread machine. Why allocate the storage space to either one? Besides, how hard is it, really, to mix by hand a family's volume of home made cake or brownie batter or pizza or bread dough ? The fact is... it isn't. And clean up is easier and quicker, too. I create a double or triple batch at a time and put the uncooked dough in the refrigerator or freezer for fresh baked goods at a moment's notice.

HOME HEATING: Of the places we visited, only those in the high mountains of Peru were cold enough to warrant home heating... which they lacked. In Cusco (elevation 11,000) feet, the family we lived with just piled on the blankets and sweaters... and offered a portable space heater for their tenderfooted guests. The large rambling house had no central or room heating. Period. Ditto at Lake Titicaca, the highest lake on the planet... but we saw lots of cozy knitted and woven llama goods.

Here in Alaska, we heat our little log cabin all winter long with a wood stove (about 3000 logs) and have hung quilted fabric "storm doors" over the lintels of our two drafty doors.  Very effective. For night time warmth we depend on a heavy down comforter and the heat rising up our central, spiral staircase. We don't stoke the fire very often at night, so the interior temperature on cold mornings routinely drops to the low 50s. To me, perfect bedtime temperatures allow for a cold nose and a warm torso, so I like this (while in bed). When I dress, I wear two pairs of socks since hot air rises and the floor remains cool.  I used to also wear two shirts inside, all winter, but I have acclimated to the colder interior and have become uncomfortable in homes that now strike me as stultifyingly hot, like my parents' beloved 72 degrees. 

For homes that use powered heat to warm people, instead of clothing and blankets, the bills can be astronomical. I recently read that Fairbanks homes “average” $8000 in heating bills during a winter. Clearly those 1970's/ 1980s houses with two story great rooms and open stairways relied on much cheaper utility rates. Off-grid homes and communities that rely on fuel oil pay as much as $10/gallon and have to pay to transport it, too.  

I wonder what the cost differential is between building a house with an integrated HVAC system and building one without, like the large, rambling home we stayed in in Cusco or any log cabin that has been added onto by each generation?  It must be faster, easier, and cheaper to add rooms if you don't have to connect all those ducts and resize a furnace.

HOME COOLING: A relative who moved to Arizona was astonished by her summer utility bill – about $1000/mo (not much different than the winter bill and duration in Fairbanks). Certainly homes, offices, and classrooms designed without an artificial cooling system are constructed differently than those that rely from A/C. Many incorporate some of the following elements: windows that open are placed opposite each other to make use of prevailing breezes; high ceilings and staircases allow hot air to rise, sometimes aided by an “attic fan” to draw the air up and out; floors are surfaced with cool marble or stone; walls are thick; and verandas and windows are shaded, particularly on the south and west sides of the building.

Air movement from fans or open windows can move unwanted flying insects up and out of the way, too, but the temptation of a sleeping human is too great for many mosquitoes.  Even in Alaska, we sleep under a mosquito net in summer. In a lovely, three story, four bedroom home in Hyderabad, India where we lived for a month this year, only the bedrooms had air conditioners. This reminded me of my parents' AC arrangement in the early 1970's. Similarly, to cool the rest of the house, we opened the windows early in the morning to bring in cool night air, and then shut them and drew the curtains before exterior temperatures rose. A large exterior wall fan sat in the landing of a wide stairwell, beneath a window and across a large, marble room from the front door.  What clever positioning to draw a breeze through the lower rooms, across cool stone, up, and out. 

My overall impression, from these travels and my own household choices, is that it can be pretty easy to “do without” many consumer purchases choices. Let's face it, many older Americans remember growing up without air conditioning and myriad electric gadgets. On the other hand, those older houses and kitchens were often designed differently to make use of natural ventilation and elbow grease to get things done. Perhaps judicious assessment of one's own home, utility rates, and household gizmos can save a few thousand dollars a year, free up space, and afford some hand and body exercise, too. Otherwise, dust off that bread maker and cook something tasty!

What are your plans to lower your carbon footprint (whether you think you will need to or not)?

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