Water, Glorious Water

I’d like you to take a moment to consider water in the context of a normal day at your house.  Just mentally walk through your day and note all the times you use water. Washing your face, flushing the toilet, pouring your morning cup of coffee, wiping down the counter, washing breakfast dishes and so on throughout the day.  Even if you don’t bathe or shower every day and it’s not laundry day (41 gallons on average per load), the amount of water you and your family uses on a daily basis adds up.

Now imagine if each and every drop of that water had to be hauled by hand in order for you to use it.  This is the case for people in many developing nations where up to 750 million people lack access to clean water. In these areas women and children spend many hours everyday collecting water for drinking, cleaning and cooking.

So as a social science experiment, in order to see just how much time and energy it would take to procure water by hand, and to see how many innovative ways I could develop to conserve the hard won water, we have spent the past month (or more) without any running water in our house.

We filled up gallon jugs at my relative’s house (where we showered once a week) almost daily, and bought bottled water (in 5 gallon containers) for drinking and cooking. We perfected the water conservation method of dish washing – first heat a gallon of water on the stove, pour about 1/3 of the water into a large bowl, wash everything starting with the cleanest dishes and ending with pots and pans, setting aside the soapy clean dishes for a mass rinse.  Once dishes are rinsed the rinse water goes into a bucket for use in flushing a toilet later on.  When you have to haul water you try not to waste any.

water runAs you might have guessed this wasn’t really a social science experiment to learn how people in third world countries cope.  This was just life in our somewhat off grid setting where we capture rainwater from the roof of our barn and funnel it first into a 280 gallon tote and then into a 1,000 gallon cistern.  Sometimes we don’t have enough rain.  So we cope.

Coping became more difficult as the weeks turned into a month and winter took its toll. The severe cold cracked our water pump and froze the output in our sewer pipe so that any water that was poured down the drain eventually came back up – flooding the bathtub with disgusting brown water.  That meant resorting to a do-it-yourself composting toilet and making sure that all the water that we used for cooking or cleaning went out the door, not down the drain.

I’m happy to say our experiment came to an end today – we had some nice snow melt followed by rain and have at least a couple hundred gallons of water in the cistern (and more rain in the forecast for  Friday).  The pump was repaired and the frozen clog in the sewer pipe has melted with the warming weather.  We have water, glorious water!

By the way, the USGS has a survey you can complete to get an idea just how much water you use in total gallons per day if you are curious about your water use.  Since it was down this afternoon when I was writing this post I will share that according to the EPA a typical U.S. household uses 260 gallons of water a day. We (family of five with pets) found we could make it on about 12-15 gallons on week days (so away from home most of the day) without bathing or doing laundry and by being less than finicky about how often the toilet had to be flushed!

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We had been having a very mild winter with the exception of brief visits by the polar vortex.  It was so mild that winter break seemed more like fall break – the landscape was brown and dull, bare trees and drying grasses.  My kids’ schools were only out once or twice due to weather and my own school had no snow days at all.  We watched with fascination as Boston was pummeled by winter storms and ‘thanked our lucky stars’ that we’d escaped winter.  Not strong believers in the prognostication power of groundhogs we pooh-poohed Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of another six weeks of winter.  Seed catalogs were arriving daily and we were pretty sure that spring was just around the corner.

So when I bid the students goodbye on Valentine’s eve and told them I’d see them after the weekend, I didn’t expect there to be a week of snow days plus two sets of weekends before I saw them again! Apparently winter was only delayed, not cancelled!

goats and greens

Mind you, I like winter in general.  I find it easier to keep warm in the cold than cool off in the heat, it’s pretty and nicely delineates the year, providing a clean, icy break between green seasons.

snowy farmBut winter in a ramshackle rural setting definitely adds to the challenges.  We’ve been out of water for some weeks already – a bit of a hassle to haul jugs of water, heat water for washing dishes and flush manually by pouring into the toilet bowl from two gallon jugs at the same time – but nothing we can’t handle.  Add wind chills in the double digits below zero, snow that defies 4-wheel drive and frozen septic pipes and winter becomes significantly more of a headache.

water runGranted it is easier to haul water bottles on a sled over snow but the septic issue is really annoying!  The house has begun to take on a “eau de porta potty” smell and we have to make sure that the water we use (to wash dishes for example) is tossed out of the back door rather than disposed of down the sink.  Any water added to the system will eventually back up in the tubs and we’ll have fetid pools of disgusting liquid.  I don’t know of any answer to this issue other than a thaw! Unfortunately it looks like we’ll continue with below freezing temperatures for the next week.

Posted in cold, septic, snow, water, winter | 2 Comments

I blame the lady at the BMV for Old Blue’s demise

Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.

Hunter S. Thompson


Old Blue, some of you will recall, is our 2003 Dodge Caravan, our little engine that could, the used mini-van that I picked up to replace my Honda Accord when our family grew to five back in 2006. It came to us with 60,000 miles on it, originally from Florida it had been traded in at a strip mall auto place in California, and we gave it a real run around – to Colorado, back to California, then across country, pulling a U-Haul trailer behind it to Indiana.  We were even thinking about a trip down to Florida at some point.  We put another 160,000 miles on it and had our share of minor, and not so minor issues over the years but it’s been a good car.  Yes, the paint was a little faded, it had a rusty dent where the tree had fallen on it and the right rear bumper wasn’t as rounded as it once had been but all those blemishes, along with the self-designed Woman on the Verge bumper sticker just gave it character and made it easier to spot in the parking lot of the grocery store.  It had seen a lot of life changes and even sheltered us for a time when our world collapsed around us. My teenage learned to drive in that car.  It was a member of the family.

Then in January I accompanied my teenager to the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles) for her driving test.  I chatted with the woman behind the counter, remarking on the lovely mild winter we were having and told her that thanks to the pleasant weather my daughter had been able to get in extra practice.  I wouldn’t let her drive, I said, if we were having a lot of snow like last year.  She said, “Honey, she lives in Indiana.  You aren’t doing her any favors not letting her drive in snow.”  So today, the kids having been home for the entire week due first to snow and then today to bone chilling cold and being stricken by a bad case of cabin fever, I said yes, when my daughter asked if she could drive over to her friend’s house for the afternoon.  We’d been to town the day before and the highway was clear and dry so I cautioned her about the local roads, reminded her that ice forms on bridges and said to give herself extra time to slow down. Text me when you get there, I said.

She called half an hour later, crying.  My heart stopped when I heard “Mom, I crashed!”  When she calmed down she told me she was making her turn off the highway onto the local road, when she hit ice and slid straight into the guardrail. The airbags deployed (I think that was the worst of it – shocking and painful – her face is sore and abraded) and the guardrail did its job.  She was lucky that she was already going slow – if she’d gone through the guardrail there was a steep drop into a v-shaped gulley and the car might have rolled.  As it was, due to the age and miles on the car, more than the actual injuries to it, the insurance company appears likely to ‘total’ it.  The insurance will cover a rental for a couple of weeks but with a blue book value of about $1200 and a deductible of $1000 it looks like we will be hard pressed to replace Old Blue!IMAG2242

The important thing is my daughter is okay.  She was worried that I would be angry but I told her that I was just sorry that she had to go through such a traumatic experience. I reassured her that like with everything else we would just roll with it.  Hey – I already have my next emergency all lined up – we still don’t have water and now the septic system appears to be frozen and is backing up! Onward!

Posted in breakdown, car, driving, winter | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments