Wednesday, August 17, 2005

10 days without fossil fuels

I'm fresh off my stint of experimental fossil-fuel-free living, and here's a report-back on what it involved. I'm adding footnotes throughout for certain products or concepts with URLs for more info.

My basic premise was to eliminate active use of fossil fuels, meaning no electricity, petroleum, or natural gas use. As this was an excercise in preparation for rising energy costs and potential disruption of energy supplies, I did not attempt the impossible feat of living without using anything made of fossil fuels or manufactured & transported by fossil fuel energy. Two other exceptions I made up front were:

  • Not limiting my food preservation activities (drying food in an electric dehydrator, since we don't have a solar dehydrator (1) constructed yet, and canning produce on a propane burner for which I have no good ideas for

  • Not avoiding meetings or places simply because they had lights on (Portland Peak Oil meetings, the library, etc)


This was easy for me, since I rarely need to go anywhere and already bike when I do venture out. (See exception under "Cheats" section.)

Washing Dishes / Bathing / Laundry

The house in which I live has the fascinating feature of a garden hose fully exposed to sun on the exterior south wall of the house, providing an easy way to kill any plants you dislike. The setup has the added benefit of providing water too hot for immersion of your hand. This became my source of hot water for bathing, laundry, and for washing dishes/canning jars/storage buckets/etc.

I took sponge baths which used about 1.5 gallons of hot water per bath (and I could probably further reduce that usage). In the words of my housemate, I "don't stink too much!" which I guess means the baths were a success.

I did laundry with the Wonder Wash pressure washer (2), a device I've had since last fall. You add hot water, detergent, and clothes, then screw the top down to create an airtight seal and manually rotate the laundry drum for about 2 minutes. The high pressure environment inside forces the water and detergent through the clothes. Water and detergent usage is minimal, and the clothes smell clean to me. It doesn't do well at removing stains; perhaps by applying special stain removal stuff I could take care of that too, but I've never cared about stains in my clothes so I haven't bothered to experiment with that.

Clothes of course were dried on a drying rack, outside.


I carried my bike front headlight in my pocket wherever I went, to use during the daytime in dark basements/garages, and to use at night as needed. The light's batteries were charged using a solar battery charger (3).

I tried unsuccessfully to get on a sleeping schedule of 10 PM - 7 AM, to make near maximum use of daylight hours while accomodating Portland Peak Oil meetings and other occasional night activities. I had a very hard time falling asleep each night, mostly due (I think) to environmental factors of an overheated bedroom with no shades on the west facing window and the window facing directly into a noisy neighborhood. Yesterday evening I finally wedged a towel across the window which did wonders for
blocking the evening sun and allowing me to close the window at bedtime to block out the noise. This should make it a lot easier to fall into a sensible sleep schedule minimizing the need to turn on lights.

Other Electricity

This barely warrants mention, but the wireless phone used by our household requires electricity, so with the blessing of Pete (Leah was out of town) I added an older non-electric phone.

I don't watch any TV and only the occasional movie, so it wasn't difficult to do without those. I do frequently listen to recorded music, and at times wished I could turn on the stereo while working on other things...but not so much that I ever got around to finding my portable CD player and solar charging a couple more batteries.

Going without computer use (mostly--see "Cheats" section below) was somewhat difficult, though also hugely relieving in some ways. I lose a *lot* of time to email and reading up on news which is really irrelevant since I already know that I need to spend my time learning as many useful skills as I can and getting as much sustainable infrastructure into place as I can. There were a few projects on which I was working where internet access would have been helpful, and I mostly just made sure I researched what I needed before I began the fossil fuel fast, or postponed the
projects rather than waste time muddling through them without the info I felt I needed. It helps that suddenly it looks like I'll be moving to a new place in a month or so, making the planting of seeds at my current location mostly pointless and eliminating the need for me to research details of every seed I had intended to plant.

Cooking / Food

This was absolutely the hardest aspect of the experiment for me, dependent as I am (and presumably as most of us are) on refrigeration and the ability to cook food at will with an electric or gas stove. Most of my diet is based on dumpster-dived (4) food which generally needs to be refrigerated to remain fresh for more than a couple of days, and I do not have a cool root cellar. I tried to manage temperatures by moving a few foods back and forth between the basement and the house as temperatures fluctuated through the day, but it was still too warm for optimum food storage.

I learned how to sprout seeds for raw consumption, doing a few batches of adzuki beans and one batch of wheat. These made good snacks on their own or additionns to salads, sandwiches, and meals of rice & beans.

I ate a lot of stale dumpster-dived bread (which works much better when rejuvinated with a little toasting) with Earth Balance (butter substitute which holds up reasonably well without refrigeration) and jars of preserves, fruit butters, and jams which I could eat through within 2-3 days. Some sandwiches consisted of Earth Balance, arugula, tomatoes, and whatever sprouts or solar cooked beans were on hand.

I built a parabolic solar reflector oven (5) for cooking. It worked great with the very first experiment, cooking nearly two cups of dried beans. I also had great success cooking rice and beans together. I experimented with other configurations to allow for easier cooking or larger batches and to find the optimum setup. This was a big help in allowing me to eat at least some cooked meals, and I think a much better option (when the sun is shining, at least) than cutting down trees to burn wood.

Since our community garden had no success in growing proper lettuce, I ate two weed salads comprised mostly of volunteer amaranths and dwarf mallow. Dumpster-dived tomatoes and/or sprouts and a good dosage of salad dressing helped make the salads palatable, but obviously not so desirable as to wean me away from dependence on stale bread and into healthier daily salads as I had originally envisioned. :/

Difficulties / Cheats

Three times I went online to deal with email/internet tasks requiring immediate attention, and each time was easily distracted by other emails, checking news, etc. It's a big challenge for me when online to focus on specific tasks and not waste time on other non-critical clicks. There's too much valuable info online for me to seriouly consider cutting myself off completely, but I need to find ways to keep myself focused and efficient so I can do the necessary research but then get back to the most important piece: action on the ground.

I did use a car once, to pick up a special order of beans from the food coop half a mile away. That could have been avoided with multiple trips on Theressa's bike, which is outfitted with a basket, or with a bike trailer, which I have not yet researched. For now I decided to just do the time-efficient thing and drive, knowing that a bike upgrade & bike trailer is high on the list of to-do projects.

I went out to eat several times and participated in two potlucks, all undermining the food portion of the experiment. (For one of the potlucks I brought a dish with beans cooked in the solar funnel, but corn steamed via propane and some ingredients which had been refrigerated.) I ate out so often not because I was actively avoiding figuring out something at home, but rather because of several invitations to go out. No matter the intention, it had a very real impact on my food situation and my diet
would have been even harder without those "cheats."

And of course there's the general issue of dependence on infrastructure based on cheap fossil fuels...the aluminum foil I bought at the store to make the solar funnel, the duct tape and super glue I bought to patch up my clothes drying rack, the black spray paint for the glass jars and pots used with the solar funnel, and the many items I already own but which have finite lifespans and may or may not be easily replaceable in the future. Lots to think about and plan for there...


This was an excellent experiment for me, and a great incentive to finally implement some of the projects I've had on my list, especially the solar funnel, learning to sprout seeds for consumption, learning to sponge bathe, and experimenting more with the laundry pressure washer (shelved since last fall, when I discovered it wasn't much fun to hand-wring water from clothes in 50 degree weather).

I did not do as well as I'd hoped in finding ways to eat enjoyable raw foods, as so far I'm not crazy about sprouts, and the salads I made weren't great. The solar cooking thing is wonderful, but has limited applicability most of the year in our cloudy Pacific Northwest climate. In general, food production, storage, and preparation, which are the most important pieces of sustainability, promise to be the hardest aspects for me to disentangle from dependency on modern appliances and fossil fuels. The rest of my life has already been largely pared down to the basics, but
it turns out that, no matter what, I still need to eat!

I intend to integrate many of the practices of the last 10 days into my regular life now, and to focus on the challenges (especially around food) and keep working on ways to reduce energy usage and dependency without feeling like I'm sacrificing my standard of living (or losing weight!) Perhaps by this time next year I'll be living fossil-fuel-free routinely in the summer, and ready to embark on the even larger challenge of going without fossil fuels through the winter!

(1) Solar Dehydrator: I'll start with the easiest design I've found, at

(2) Wonder Wash pressure washer: about $50 with shipping

(3) $15 Solar battery charger

I also recommend some way to check the charge on your rechargeable
batteries...I purchased the $15 Digital Battery Checker from the same
website to get free shipping on the two items, but I'm not too impressed
with it, as it requires a AAA battery to function and seems to have a hard
time sometimes making terminal contacts to display the charge.

(4) For more on the subject, read The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving
by John Hoffman

(5) Parabolic solar reflector: Easiest design I could find is at


Anonymous said...

i bet you still used the toilet.
come on , honey . admit it.
try your courage out on no water
from your city for ten days...
or two weeks to a month .
such as it is in florida or the gulf states .
as usual , you and all other city slicker idiots do not have a CLUE .
suffer away yuppies !

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a coward that last poster is.

But to the important stuff. I really admire you for doing this experiment. some thoughts.

I have a bike trailer that I really don't like to use. I'm thinking of getting a FreeRadical for my mountain bike. I think it's a better idea than the burley trailer (which my partner found in good condition for $20 at a yard sale).

You won't have water when the power goes out. At least not water that comes from the city. If you can, put rain barrels under your downspouts. When I did this, the water made me sick unless I treated it. If you own your house you could build a cistern instead.

Depending on how things go, you may not be able to dumpster dive if food gets scarce. I have stocked up on some bulk food that doesn't require refrigeration. Of course this only lasts so long. Like you, I'm trying to grow more food and I'm learning to preserve it.

Look forward to hearing more from you. Great blog.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading about other peoples experiments with different aspects of energy descent, deconsumption, etc. I believe through these shared (blogged about) experiments, it creates a synergistic effect that other people feed off and run with, creating new solutions to these mounting problems.

Hello...commentor #1...that's what this is about. Getting people to wake up and realize we may be facing a Katrina type crisis on a global scale and if we don't start thinking in terms of "what to do in the event of scarce oil", we'll wake up too late to take action, regardless if you're a "city slicker idiot" or a "rural country bumpkin" or maybe in your case, an "uprooted coastal dweller". Maybe, anonymous commentor #1, instead of making generalized statements about groups of people, you could take some of your apparent first hand knowlege about living without water for days on end and organize and teach other people about the importance of preparing for such disasters. In addition, leave the URL of your site when you comment in order for other people to find your information so they might better prepare themselves. Otherwise, you just may find yourself one day, marauded by city slicker idiots in search of food and water.

Anonymous said...

I went through Katrina myself, for me it was "Boot Camp" for Peak Oil. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about human nature. I saw examples all around me of both wonderful compassion and terrible selfishness and callousness. One thing to keep in mind about what's coming: you will find that if you help those around you, you will receive help in return. You cannot do this alone, no matter how many cans of pork and beans are in your basement. I feel sorry for anyone who finds themselves needing help from commentor #1.

For a simple, low tech and low cost solution to the sewage issue, read The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins.

Thanks for the interesting post and good luck with your experiments. I'm busy doing the same stuff in my new home: (high and dry) upsate NY. ~peace

FarmerScrub said...

Hello all,

Thanks for visiting and thanks for the comments!

poster #2: thanks for the link to the FreeRadical; it looks very convenient! I've got a monster of a bike trailer for heavy loads--"The Hauler" made by Human Powered Machines, capable of hauling 500 pounds (though I think *I'm* only capable of hauling 400 pounds!) I've used it to haul firewood, plants, and bags of harvested walnuts. The weight capacity is amazing, but it's certainly not the most convenient thing to lock up at a store or maneuver into storage at home. The FreeRadical looks like a great option for a permanent attachment for smaller loads.

As you and poster #1 pointed out, water is a huge concern. Fortunately, my understanding is that here in Portland OR in that the water for residents (with the exception of those in the higher elevation hills of the city) is gravity-fed, so that little or no fossil-fuel driven pumping is required. The quantity of water available is also supposedly enough that if half the households in Portland decided one summer to grow irrigated vegetables that the city would still have no trouble meeting its water needs. So, my conclusion for planning is that limited amounts of water catchment are sensible for temporary outages and for use during the billing period in which sewer charges are calculated (the less tap water you use in that time, the lower your bills are year-round). But we're not going to try to cache the 10,000+ gallons that would be required for true self-sufficiency through our 3-5 rainless summer months. If the city gets to the point where the water system has broken down at-large, then city living is going to be impossible anyway.

Dumpster diving is definitely a short-term resource recycling, not a long-term strategy. And at this point I'm hardly getting any of my food in that manner--I rarely leave the property to have the convenient opportunity to check a dumpster, plus I'm now avoiding wheat (bread was one of my main dumpstered staples) and generally moving towards more of a paleodiet. For my long-term thoughts on diet from a homestead with more land available, see my recent post.

poster #4, thanks for sharing your experience in Katrina. The fact of survival as a community or not at all is crucial! And I heartily second your recommendation of The Humanure Handbook. (For poster #1, in case you were honestly asking vs being rhetorical: no, I wasn't using the toilet at the time of the fossil-fuel-free experiment. I was and still am composting humanure, though more for the nutrient cycling and to not dump my shit into our river when our overtaxed sewers overflow than to conserve water.) Poster #4, good luck in your new place!