Trying to live one day without electricity was no picnic

October 08, 1998

I failed. Even though I gave myself a handicap, and I cheated, I still failed. I'm a pretty lame excuse for an environmentalist.

--cont. from lifestyle--

It's all because of the thunderstorms that swept through Washington County Sept. 19 and left me without power for more than two hours. It was no big hardship, but when the lights came back on, I felt very grateful to the repair men and women at Allegheny Power. It never ceases to amaze me how they leave the comfort of their homes in the most awful weather to restore power to softies like me.

This incident was no big deal, but it did get me thinking about how dependent I am on electric power, not only for essentials but also for recreation and luxuries. As an environmentalist who rants and raves about how we burn too much fuel and pollute the air, I decided to call my own bluff. I'd go one whole day without using any electricity.


I knew I'd have to move fast, before cold weather hit and I needed to heat the house. I have propane gas and wood as well as electric heat, but even they require electric blowers to circulate the hot air.

I had to pick a day when there was nothing special on TV, and make sure I didn't have an unwatched rental video due the next morning. I was glad I get The Morning Herald delivered, since I couldn't even turn on the radio for news. It also had to be a day when I didn't need to drive anywhere. I didn't even want to use the battery in my car.

I granted myself two exceptions - the refrigerator and freezer. I'd leave those on, but I wouldn't open the door of either one. That meant I'd have to plan my menu the day before. The food would have to be pre-cooked or edible raw. I couldn't use the microwave, and though I have a gas stove, it has an electric pilot. The food also would have to be things that wouldn't spoil being left out overnight.

I could unplug the clocks, since I have a wind-up model with an alarm. But I couldn't use the computer, so I warned my friends not to send me any urgent e-mail that day. I unplugged the answering machine, and though the telephone doesn't plug into an electric outlet, I know it's powered by electricity somehow, so I vowed not to use it.

My biggest concern was water, since I have well water powered by an electric pump. I wouldn't disconnect the pump, but I promised not to turn on any taps. Since I wasn't going anywhere, I figured it didn't matter that I couldn't shower. I filled buckets with water to wash my hands and refill the toilet after flushing. I'd leave dirty dishes until the next day.

I thought I had all the bases covered, but I was wrong. I'd waited too late in the season, and it got dark long before bedtime. I didn't want to use flashlights, except for one dynamo model that's hand-powered, so I stocked up on candles. But my eyes are old enough that I was afraid I'd hurt them reading by candlelight, and I don't have lanterns that produce enough light to read.

I sat in the dark for a while and tried to meditate on my dependence on electricity. But I couldn't take it for long, so finally I cried "uncle" and turned on one lamp. I tried to alleviate my guilt by reading the latest copy of Sierra magazine. But it was no good. I'd seen the light, and I knew I was in the dark without it.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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