Monday, January 23, 2012

Off-Grid Living: Part I - Sustainable Living

How many times do we think about where our water comes from when we turn on the faucet in our kitchens or where it goes after we flush the toilet? How often do we think about what happens to the water when it leaves our homes? I never really gave our water supply much thought until recently. Since I’ve been living off-grid for the last two months, I’ve given water a lot of thought.

Moving to Durango has made my life a bit of an experiment, so with this and my next few blog entries, I’d like to share with my readers what I’ve learned since I arrived in Colorado.

I’ve been staying with a friend who lives in an Earthship that she and her two sons built with the help of some contracted labor. With great anticipation, they moved into their new house over the Thanksgiving holiday and welcomed me into their home shortly thereafter. I consider myself fortunate not only for having a place to stay until I get settled, but also for the opportunity to participate in the off-grid lifestyle.

This beautiful house is completely self-sustaining. It has a composting toilet, a cistern for collecting water from the roof (rain water and snow melt-off), and it utilizes a gray water system to nourish what grows in the indoor garden. Overflow from the gray water system irrigates the outdoor gardens. It operates on solar powered energy, and the sunshine that streams through the windows on the south wall helps keep the home warm. The retaining wall on the north side of the house is made with earth-filled tires that are plastered over for a beautiful adobe finish on the interior. This building is not just their home, it is a work of art that’s been hand-crafted with love.

So what exactly is an off-grid lifestyle? It doesn’t just refer to the type of building and it doesn’t mean that you barely survive without any of the creature comforts to which we've all become accustomed. Living off-grid literally becomes a way of life. Most of the activities that many of us take for granted – such as spending hours on the computer or the Internet, watching movies on television all evening, or even just bathing in a tub full of water – become something we think about on a conscious level every day.

Living in such a home one becomes aware of just how much energy is required to run all of the household appliances and how much water can be used before running out. Battery and water levels are checked daily, solar panels are swept clear of snow, and food scraps are composted. There is no electrical dish washing appliance, only able-bodied hands willing to complete the task in a sink full of water. Children read books and play instead of watching television or engrossing themselves in endless hours of video games. Imagine playing Solitaire using a real deck of cards! Clothes are hung to dry on a line instead of tumbled in an electricity-gobbling machine. Excess and scrap paper is used to start fires in the wood-burning stove. What can’t be used gets recycled. Nothing is wasted.

In general, people tend to be oblivious to what they waste. I have always believed that we as a society are extremely wasteful, but I was recently astounded to discover just how wasteful we truly are, specifically regarding our natural resources. For instance, simply flushing the toilet is one of the ways in which we are accelerating the depletion of our water supply, yet no one thinks twice about doing it. In his book, The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Joseph Jenkins cites some mind-boggling statistics. Here is an excerpt that aptly depicts just how much water Americans waste:

“Of 143 countries ranked for per capita water usage by the World Resources Institute, America came in at #2 using 188 gallons per person per day (Bahrain was #1). Water use in the U.S. increased by a factor of 10 between 1900 and 1990, increasing from 40 billion gallons per day to 409 billion gallons per day. The amount of water we Americans require overall, used in the finished products each of us consumes, plus washing and drinking water, amounts to a staggering 1,565 gallons per person per day, which three times the rate of Germany or France. This amount of water is equivalent to flushing our toilets 313 times every day, about once every minute and a half for eight hours straight. By some estimates, it takes one to two thousand tons of water to flush one ton of human waste. Not surprisingly, the use of groundwater in the United States exceeds replacement rates by 21 billion gallons per day.”

Think about those statistics the next time you flush your toilet, take an extra-long shower, run your dishwasher when it’s only half full, or wash a small load of clothes. Composting toilets make sense to me now and I actually feel guilty whenever I flush gallons of water down a traditional toilet. Composting toilets not only create a rich fertilizer for the gardens, but are a much more efficient means of safely disposing of human excrement, despite the acceptance of the deceptively “civilized” septic tank systems and traditional sewer water treatment systems.

Living off-grid is in sharp contrast to mainstream America and I can’t help but feel that it’s how we’re really meant to live. Life is not uncomfortable in an Earthship; it’s actually quite the opposite. In fact, the only thing that has been a real challenge for me over the last two months has been the inability to connect to the Internet; however, that’s only due to the location of the house instead of being cut off from the grid (utility providers). Once I move into town, I’ll no longer face that problem; however, I will probably have to flush a traditional toilet again.

Quote from:

Jenkins, Joseph. The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, 3rd edition, Grove City, PA: Joseph Jenkins, Inc., 2005.

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