3 years without running water and with minimal electricity taught me a lot about keeping a house clean. Here’s how to apply what I learned in your on-grid home.
Can I tell you a secret? Come closer. I’ve never been a great housekeeper. And I still hate doing it.
I mean, really, there are so many other great things to do. Not even my mom likes cleaning behind the toilet, after all, and you can eat off her floors.
Okay, so why would I be telling everyone that I’ve figured this out?
If you’re like me, you’re struggling with the same issues, right?
Well, it started with two back-to-back storms that stranded me IN TOWN for a week. Why is that significant? Well, we have spent three years living 100% off-grid without running hot water, so being stranded in town, in a friend’s completely on-grid home, was quite a contrast to our daily life. Keep reading to find out all the details.
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Those who read here regularly (or who have read the About page) know that we spent three years living partway up an old, low Nova Scotian mountain. The cabin is off-grid – solar power, wood heat and a propane stove that’s older than I am – and our nearest neighbours were almost five miles away. The nearest power lines are down there with the neighbours and we relied totally on what our three solar panels could create.
We lived in the cabin for nearly three years, and generally managed well. Due to health and other serious issues, we are moving to another home, on-grid and in a little village, in September 2016. That story and the reasons can be found here. We still own the cabin and property and will be reworking it as a retreat instead of a full-time home.
This post was written in late January while we were still living in the off-grid cabin, with four children, full-time.
When we need hot water, we plan ahead and make sure it’s heating on the stove. In the winter, that might mean turning on the water main or bringing in water to thaw. And that also means planning ahead to have dry firewood and a hot fire.
Everything that requires hot water requires a lot of planning and careful timing.
When we need drinking water, we plan ahead and make sure to fill the water storage containers at the community spring. Or, if the water is running in the pipes, we plan ahead and boil water in the kettle, on the stovetop.
If you’re wondering about the toilet – we use a composting toilet. I kind of hate it, a lot, but we’re learning to live with it, and at least it doesn’t require water. That is handy since our pipes invariably freeze in the winter. It does, however, need emptying. Maybe carrying water would be easier.
I confess that I do not try to hand wash clothes inside in the winter. We have a wonderful friend in town who lets us “rent” her washer and dryer until we get a proper wash house built.
Of course when we get that, it will require having a fire going in the wash house so that I can do laundry without freezing! My washing machine is a refurbished Maytag wringer. Yes, they’re still available, but unless you have an Amish appliance refurbisher handy, you will likely need to hunt through second hand sites to find one.
More planning ahead, more carrying wood and water.
Even Meals Take Work!
Since we spent several years without a refrigerator or freezer, meals were also an exercise in planning ahead, making do and doing without.
Living off grid, without a fridge, you can’t just reach in and pull out leftovers, or take out some frozen fries that you bought a few weeks ago. At the cabin, our meat was generally pressure canned, unless one of us was in town and brought something fresh home, and meals had to be made from scratch by necessity.
That wasn’t a bad thing – we learned a lot about storing food and enjoying food in season.
When you are living off grid, everything requires planning, usually hauling something heavy and awkward, and careful timing.
One night, we were both sick with a head cold and feeling miserable, so we forgot to turn off the water main. Our pipes freeze if the temperature drops below –10C and guess how cold it got that night?
If we didn’t plan ahead, bad things were sure to happen and there was no one to bail us out.
- Pipes freeze and can burst. (They didn’t burst that night but I had NO running water at all for three days.)
- The fire goes out and the wood is fifty feet away in the woodshed. At 5 a.m.
- Firewood gets buried in snow.
- Animal feed runs out (never happened because we were so careful about that).
- Children pee in their last clean pyjamas (but that certainly did)
- People get hungry because scratch cooking takes some time.
- Propane runs out when the roads are unplowed and the trucks won’t come.
- Dishes are undone because of a lack of hot water.
- Batteries are depleted, so no electricity.
No, these aren’t regular occurrences, but they are things that we needed to worry about. May I point out again that, with all of this, my house was never what you would call clean.
At any particular moment, I could see sawdust around the indoor woodpile, some dirty dishes on the counter, and a pile of clothes that needed to get put away. Walk into the cabin’s kitchen (it didn’t have a proper entry) and you’d see all of the craziness involved in having six people and multiple animals out in the boonies.
What, you mean you don’t haul buckets of ice inside to thaw for the animals?
You don’t have bins of sawdust drying above the stove for the composting toilet?
Giant chore boots beside the stove?
Large pots of water heating up for dishes?
Yes, I had all of that and more, and it all contributed to the mess.
So why in the world would I say that living off grid for three years made a better homemaker? Even my mother agrees, so you know it’s true.
Getting Stuck In Town … On-Grid For A Week
As I said, it started when I was in town visiting my sweet young friend who has the washing machine.
While we were there, a snowstorm hit … and then another … and I was rather trapped in town since the plow didn’t get near our place until Wednesday. In the meantime, my friend was given sulpha drugs for a bad infection – and took an even worse reaction to the medication.
Have you ever had a bad reaction to medication? It can be really bad, and my sweet-tempered, wonderful friend turned cranky, fidgety and irritable. This was so not her that I felt bad and wanted to help out.
And so while she napped, I did the housework and caught up on some things for her. I remember what it’s like to be a young mom with a toddler, after all.
An important side note: If you ever step in and help a young, overwhelmed parent catch up on their housework, then please do it with love and kindness and understanding. Even if you were never overwhelmed by housework, you have your own failings, things that you have found difficult at some point. Act and speak with grace and love – or don’t bother. Helping someone without grace and love is going to make them feel angry, not loved.
Remember that, for almost three years, I lived in a backwoods cabin that had minimal electricity, fairly dim LED lights in the main rooms (none in the bedrooms and bathroom), cold running water (and none at all in the winter), a composting toilet and no refrigerator.
Staying at my friend’s house, getting things caught up for her, wasn’t work. Having access to unlimited public utilities was a vacation. And that really surprised me because I generally struggled to keep the cabin clean!
Let me make this clear – none of this is an attack on anyone. I promise. Perhaps, if anything, it is a letter to myself twenty years ago. If you have multiple little ones, or do not have a dishwasher, or if you have disabilities or work outside the home …. in other words, all sorts of exceptions … you are going to have more difficulties and things will take longer.
How do you tackle an overwhelming pile of dishes and laundry while still getting the family fed? You simplify, delegate and streamline. No one person in the house should be doing it all.