Mobile Home

I’ve decided that “mobile” home refers not only to the fact that the house is on wheels and can be moved, but also to the way it endlessly moves after it’s put in place! It shudders and sways in strong winds and I can clearly see how tornados could pluck a mobile home up and send it spinning end over end.  Those sorts of winds are reasonably rare so while alarming at the time – especially if they come in the wee hours of the night- they are not a day to day concern.

What is a day to day concern is the way the house, perched on its concrete block pillars, settles, sinking first on one side, then on an opposite corner, then on the other side.  This shifting creates cracks in the drywall, causes doors to refuse to latch, and floor boards to separate. Leaks appear around window edges on one side of the house during rainstorms and the windows on the other side are stuck shut. It’s like residing inside a living creature that isn’t any too keen on playing host.

The most recent victim of the current settling seems to be the plumbing. The valve inside the toilet no longer sits flat so it doesn’t produce a seal.  This is not the minor inconvenience it might seem to be as we discovered when the entire amount of water stored in the cistern cycled into the house, through the running toilet and out to the septic system one day when we were away from home! We had at least 200 gallons stored in the morning, by evening the pipes were dry.

Turning on and off the water to the toilet is just one more of the many ‘eccentricities’ to our living situation.  It’s a real struggle to feel at home in this house.

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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.

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