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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Preparing for Power Outages: What I Learned From the Amish

This past week brought our first snowfall of the season and also some extremely heavy winds which caused our electricity to flicker off and on several times during the night.  Our past experience has shown us that the flickering is a precursor to a full-blown loss of electricity for several hours or even several days.  Living in the country and up on the side of a mountain means at least half a dozen power outages a year, with many of them occurring during the winter when it's freezing outside.  Sometimes summer thunderstorms bring them on as well, but those are a little easier to deal with since it stays light longer and a cold house isn't an issue.

In the nine years we have lived in this house, our only "next door neighbors" have been Old-Order Amish.  That means they have absolutely no electricity, telephones, or even indoor plumbing.  It is truly like living back in the mid-nineteenth century except that they do allow gasoline powered ringer washing machines and chainsaws.  I learned that it is possible to live without electricity, computers, running water, and appliances.  Life certainly isn't as easy or as comfortable, but our family has gradually learned enough and purchased enough essentials to be able to sit out any storms or blizzards that might wipe out electrical or phone lines for a time.  The above book, Living Without Electricity, and Lehman's Company have been extremely helpful in our pursuits to prepare for periods of time when we would be living off the grid.

For some reason, about nine times out of ten, our power goes out at night.  That means we need to have alternative light sources all over the house.  We have a total of five oil lamps, a couple of lanterns, numerous flashlights and headlights stashed all over the house, and too many candles to count.  When you have to be concerned with starting a fire or making some coffee in the wee hours of early morning, and it's still dark everywhere, you don't want to be stumbling around an old farmhouse trying to find a flashlight that works.  Some of our oil lamps and candle holders actually have little handles to hook a finger through so you can carry them around wherever you go.  

Of course, those candles and flashlights are useless if there are no working batteries, lighters, or matches.  I try to keep us stocked up on those at all times.  We used to have a crank-up flashlight that worked for brief periods of time, and those are nifty to have around as well.

The same goes for lamp oil for the oil lamps.  I keep about half a dozen bottles stashed in the basement at all times.  The colored oils are beautiful in the clear-bottom lamps that can be located all through your house.

I have learned that not all oil lamps are of great quality though.  The two I have pictured in this post are my favorites because they give off a ton of light.  The one in this photo has this reflector attached to the wall which helps brighten a room.  The brass one shown in the other picture is a ship lamp which can be carried around because it always stays upright and doesn't spill.  It also creates lots of light.  With just those two lamps lit in my kitchen, we can see well enough to cook and eat.  Sometimes even if we haven't lost power, the children ask to eat by lamplight.  It makes us feel like we're in Little House in the Prairie.

We even keep this covered candle hanging on a wall near the top of the stairs.  My husband made the wooden candle holder in his junior-high shop class.  This can be such a help during a power outage for little ones who need to make their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

I think my main concern during a snowstorm is that if we lose electricity, we'll lose our electric heat and hot water.  Out here a wood-burning stove or coal stove is a necessity.  Our Harman stove burns both wood and coal.  Coal definitely burns hotter, doesn't create creosote in the chimney, only needs to be added about twice a day, and keeps our entire farmhouse toasty warm.  However, we don't always have coal on hand, and once our mountain lane gets covered in snow or ice, the coal truck can't make it up here, so we sometimes have to burn wood.  Our stove gets hot enough to easily boil water, and it is equipped with a motorized fan to blow the hot air out the front of the stove, making it even more efficient at warming the house.  The problem is that the fan requires electricity.  So some friends of ours gave us the fan above that sits on top of the stove and moves once the stove gets hot.  The hotter the temperature of the stovetop, the faster the fan runs.  My boys are awestruck by this.  While this stove is not the most attractive thing in my kitchen, it can be spiffed up by applying black stove polish, and when it's below freezing outside and we lose power, I am so grateful that we have it even if it is an eyesore.

Insulated curtains are another huge help to maintaining a comfortable temperature in this house.  When closed in the winter, they really keep out the cold air that seeps in through the windows and chills those sitting nearby.  In the summer, they're great at blocking out sunlight and trapping the heat behind the curtains.  This means we're not using air conditioning or as much heat.

Other important items to have on hand in the winter are lots of wool or polartec blankets and down comforters.  Hot water bottles and long underwear can be quite useful too.

After lighting and heating concerns have been addressed, I know it's only a matter of time before I have to deal with feeding our big brood without an electric stove, oven, or microwave.  I try to keep some of our pantry shelves in the basement stocked with canned fruits, vegetables, sauces, soups, and meats.  We also have dried beans and fruits that we've dehydrated ourselves.  I usually keep several bags of rice and a few other assorted items as well.  If the electricity stays out for quite awhile, then refrigerated items get used up first, especially in the summer.  If it's winter, we actually have less of a problem because our basement is as cold as the refrigerator or even colder.  We've successfully kept items from our freezer in coolers kept outside in the winter or even packed in snow.  I have seen our Amish neighbors keep dairy products from spoiling by setting them in spring water all day, which is something I wouldn't have thought of on my own.  Because we grow some of our own food in our gardens and greenhouse, and we keep dairy goats and laying chickens, having enough food on hand isn't usually our problem...

...Cooking/baking the food is more of an issue.  Fortunately, our coal stove is hot enough to warm up almost anything and can be made hot enough to boil or fry things as well.  You can't use just any cookware on top of this stove, however.  We keep several cast iron skillets, dutch ovens, and other items around that can be used either on the coal stove, a campfire, or on our charcoal grill.  They're versatile enough to be used indoors in the winter and outside in the summer.  This can be a lifesaver if the electricity is out for more than a few meals.  Sandwiches and snacks get old fast when it's cold and our bodies want something hot and nutritious and comforting.  We've made all kinds of meals this way.  It sometimes takes a bit longer to cook (especially in the Dutch ovens), but it is worth the wait.

We also have a propane burner used for camping and extra bottles of propane.  If we have to, we set this up outside, and we can cook something small on it or make coffee.  I also have this French coffee press that only requires hot water to make two cups of coffee.  These things have been stored in the basement, so forgive the spiderwebs and dust on them.  This leads me to the one extremely important thing I forgot to mention that I must have first thing in the morning...

...Coffee!  If I use the French press, then we simply heat water in our enamel tea kettle.  But I prefer freshly perked coffee that is rich and steaming hot.  The coffee maker above is actually the one we have used every day since our last electric coffee maker bit the dust.  In the nearly 16 years we've been married, we have gone through at least five or six coffee makers.  When the last one broke, my husband dug out this one from his camping supplies in the garage, and we decided we like the taste of the coffee made in it better than any other coffee.  When we have electricity, we just heat it on our electric stove, but when the power goes out, we make it on the little propane burner.  If we have fire in our coal stove, we keep the coffee pot warm on top of the stove.  The same goes for keeping hot water in the tea kettle for cups of tea or cocoa throughout the day.  The steam also puts some moisture back into the dry winter air.

While we're talking about coffee and tea, I need to mention the trickiest part of living without electricity in the mountains, and that's water.  Our water comes from our well.  It is treated with a UV light to kill any bacteria.  The UV light runs on electricity.  The water is pumped from the well into our house using electricity.  Our hot water heater is an electric one.  When the power goes out, we no longer have indoor plumping. Actually, I should say that no water comes into the house via plumbing.  Technically, water can still leave the house through the pipes because our septic system is down hill from the house, so gravity still pulls it to where it needs to go.  I am so grateful for that. 

We keep bottled water around for drinking because our well water smells and tastes like sulphur.  We also fill the above 6 gallon plastic, food-grade container with fresh spring water from up the mountain.  In the middle of winter, we can't usually drive up there due to the lane being iced over, but so far this winter, that hasn't been a problem.  When the electricity is out, this water is used for drinking, boiling, making coffee or tea, washing dishes, and brushing teeth.  For washing hands and bodies and hair, we have used freshly fallen snow or rainwater that we brought inside in 50 or 100 pound empty chlorine containers that we buy for our swimming pool.  We then pour that into stock pots that can be heated on the coal stove so we're not washing with ice cold water.  For flushing toilets, we fill five gallon buckets with water from our swimming pool if the cover hasn't frozen over.  In a bind, we have gone down to the creek below and hauled up water for flushing.  I have learned that each flush requires a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of water.  If there is laundry to be done, I say a prayer that the power returns soon because I have washed loads of laundry before by our bathtub...with many, many pots of water heated on the coal stove...rung out by hand...and hung on Amish drying racks in my bedroom.   And!

Before I leave the subject of cleaning up, when water is at a premium, bottles of hand sanitizer are a must.  Fortunately, our 13 year-old daughter seems to have a fetish for various fragrances of these, so there always seem to be an abundance on hand in our house.  It's also imperative that toiletries are stocked up because if a storm has created a power outage, there's a good chance that our local roads will be covered in snow until the snowplows finally make their way to the outlying country roads.  Even if the roads are plowed, that doesn't mean our lane will be, so it could be awhile before we can make it out to the stores.  In the spring and summer when a snowstorm isn't the problem, we do get flooding.  There have been a number of times that every road leading anywhere involves a one-lane bridge over creeks.  Typically if one bridge is flooded, they are all flooded, and we are stuck at home until the waters recede.  Let me tell you, there is nothing worse than being stuck at home without power, and your family has run out of toilet paper, and tissues, and baby wipes, and even paper towels.  And your mind is desperately trying to think about what the pioneers did when there was no toilet tissue.  And you just don't want to go there.

There are a few other items that are great to have around in case of power outages that we have purchased.  The wind-up/solar radio above has been great to keep connected with the outside world even if you have dead batteries.  I also love my portable charger, which itself can be charged in our SUV, therefore, not needing electricity.  We use this to power cell phones, laptops, cameras, and other technical things.  Unfortunately, when we lose power, we lose our Wifi.  If our cell phones get service, we can access Internet that way, but our experience has been that if our electricity is out, we don't get enough cell phone service to go on the Internet or make/receive calls or texts.  Of course, that also means our cordless home phones don't work either.  This is why we still keep on hand an old fashioned, land-line telephone that we plug into a phone jack.  There are times that the phone lines are down as well, but this has been rare.  This phone and the handcranked radio are what keeps us from feeling that we are completely shut off from communicating with the rest of the world.

Believe it or not, I do have some other alternative appliances.  This non-electric vacuum cleaner doesn't work as well as the "real" ones with all the attachments, but it will do in a bind.  When the power is out, I don't want to think about cleaning, but sometimes it's a necessity, so this is good to have around.  It's stored in the attic which, ironically, has never been vacuumed since we moved in here.  Do people actually vacuum their attics, I wonder?  We also have an old fashioned hand mixer, meat grinder, ice crusher, food mill, and probably a bunch of other items I've forgotten about that are stashed in the dark corners of our basement.  I'm pretty sure that even if we lost power for an extended period of time, there isn't any food preparation or cleaning that I couldn't do with the variety of non-electric gadgets I have on hand.  Except for maybe making smoothies...because I don't have a blender alternative.

Here's hoping none of us have to worry about a power outage any time in the near future, but in case if we do, we'll be prepared.  It can even be fun pretending to be like the Ingalls family in the big woods or out on the prairie.  At least, maybe for a little while.

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