Living Conservatively

I’ve been seeing a lot of talk on the Net recently about living simply, and making sacrifices in our daily routines to cut costs and consumption of resources (see here and here), or making drastic lifestyle changes (see here, here, and here). During yesterday’s speech in Indianapolis, Barack Obama even said something about it:

Now, make no mistake: the change we need won’t come easy or without cost. We will all need to tighten our belts, we will all need to sacrifice and we will all need to pull our weight because now more than ever, we are all in this together.

Having made a drastic change in my lifestyle recently, I’d like to catalogue the myriad of differences between my old life and the new one I’m currently living.

First, some amount of description of my old and new lives. My old life was in Bloomington, Indiana. I lived in a different house or apartment almost every year of my 13 years there, trying to find the perfect place. From 3-bedroom townhouses, to a country house in Brown County (20 miles away), to a 1 room apartment downtown, I tried it all. I worked for Indiana University, doing technology support. I also took classes part time.

My new life is in Alaska, living 8 miles from the nearest store and 15 miles from the nearest town. My wife, Skippy, and I have a 2-room cabin with no plumbing (the outhouse is included on the deal!), where we live rent-free in exchange for working as dog handlers for Libby Riddles. I also run my own technology support business, and Skippy works 4 days a week for the behavioral health department.

On to the differences (and some similarities).

Old: Central heat/air. Summer thermostat set to ~68° 75°F, with outside temps ranging from 80 to 100+°F. Winter thermostat set to ~65°F, with outside temps ranging from 40 to -5°F. We also often had ceiling fans going, blowing down in the summer and up in the winter.

New: Small fuel oil heater, no air conditioner. Summer outside temps ranging from 50 to 70°F. Winter thermostat set to 60°F during the day, 54°F at night, with outside temps ranging from 30 to -20°F. If the sun is out during the winter, the heater is turned off, as large, south-facing windows generate enough heat for much of the day (short though it may be).

Old: Daily showers, several filled sinks for doing dishes. We turned off the water when brushing teeth, shaving, etc.

New: We now shower once every 5 or 6 days, with washcloth rinses every couple of days (mild or cold temps means not a whole lot of sweating, fortunately). With no plumbing, our water comes from a 35 gallon tank mounted in our loft, with a gravity feed to a spigot over the kitchen sink. That tank is filled from a Rubbermaid tub and a sump pump. That Rubbermaid tub is filled by us hauling 5-gallon buckets of water from Libby’s house. If you want to conserve water, only use water you’ve placed in a big bucket and carried 50 yards. To do dishes, we heat some water, put it in a small tub, and wash until they’re done. Rinsing is done with a trickle of water. On average, 35 gallons seems to last us 3 to 4 days. Since the average person uses 80 to 100 gallons a day, we’re doing pretty well on that.

Old: The last place we lived, a beautiful 2 room apartment, used recessed lighting with spotlight bulbs, an electric stove and oven, electric heat and air, and an electric water heater. We turned off lights when we weren’t in a particular room, used compact florescent bulbs as much as possible, and tried to use as much window light as possible, with most of the windows facing north. We both had laptops, plus an LCD TV hooked up to a media computer (Mac mini) with speakers.

New: We have a total of 5 lightbulbs in the cabin, though they are all full-spectrum bulbs, since we might get the crazies during the dark winters here without them. We usually only have one on at a time, since that provides most of the light we need. I’ve replaced the TV and laptop with a single iMac. I do have a laser printer, scanner, and several external hard disks, but I only turn those on as needed: hard drives once a week for routine backups, printer only when I need to print, scanner when I need to scan. I also have an APC UPS that automatically turns off a specific set of plugs when the computer is powered down or in sleep mode, which means the external speakers and USB hub are only on when the computer is on. We currently use a single-burner electric burner for our food, and boil water in an electric kettle. Our baking is done in a small toaster oven.

Old: We typically only flushed for No. 2 and company.

New: We have an outhouse, and put all toilet paper and wet-wipes in a trash can. We also pee outside. Fun fact: when the wind blows, it comes through some holes in the bottom of the outhouse, and up through the seat hole. Now that’s brisk!

Old: Depending on where I’ve lived and worked, I’ve driven, walked, and ridden a bicycle to work. Most of the last year I rode a bike. Almost all shopping was done by car. I drove somewhere almost daily.

New: Skippy has to drive into town 4 times a week for her job. I sometimes have to go in for my work, though before she got her job, we’d gone an entire week without starting a car. We also have about 3 friends up here, and they’re all busy, so we’re not exactly the social butterflies we were in Bloomington. I miss our friends.

Old: We made a conscious effort to fix every meal. Unfortunately, Bloomington is home to far too many good restaurants, and we ate out probably once or twice a week, more if we were tired. Grocery shopping happened ad hoc, since we were only a few blocks from several stores. Sometimes we would make 3-4 grocery runs in a week, as a desire for a particular meal might strike us at any time.

New: Here, there are a few good restaurants, but they’re all outrageously expensive. Even a McDonalds value meal averages $7. We eat out once or twice a month now, and it’s usually fast food or pizza by the slice. We buy groceries once a week, sometimes once every 2 weeks. Meals are planned around getting the most out of whatever we’ve purchased.

Looking back, I see areas in which we could have done better in our old life. Less water, less fuel, better planning…

Look at this list. Do you see anything you can cut back on, or plan better? You don’t have to move to Alaska to do your part.

New(ish) Bigwoofs Technology site

I spent most of this afternoon revamping the Bigwoofs Technology site, trying out a tool called RapidWeaver. I did the last iteration by hand, and it was okay, but I didn’t put any effort into making it IE6 compatible, and boy did it look bad on IE6.

The newer version looks much better. The design is pretty plain, but I’m okay with that for now. I used a couple of plugins called Accordian and PlusKit to make everything work.

Next step: advertising. I’ll buy some adspace in the two local newspapers tomorrow, and see what comes of it.

Consumeritis in Alaska

So yesterday, Skippy, Tiffany, and I drove to Soldotna and Kenai to do our pre-winter shopping spree. They are 80 and 91 miles away, respectively, and contain the peninsula’s only discount stores. “Discount” being an Alaskan relative term for “only 40% more expensive than anything in the lower 48.” Okay, I exaggerate, as I found a couple good deals that were less than I would have paid back in Indiana. But overall, goods, especially fresh goods, are very expensive here.

I had just gotten paid on Friday. Yesterday we burned through about 3/4 of that money, but the food should last us for at least another month, and the clothing well beyond that.

I’ve noticed, at least in Homer and the surrounding area, that the secondary market for items is very small. The local Salvation Army has one sparse rack of men’s clothing, and there seems to be about one yard/garage sale every few weeks, if you’re paying attention. I think it has a lot to do with what appears to be an overarching Alaskan mentality that everything might someday be useful, therefore getting rid of anything is a terrible idea. In this area, it’s even more exaggerated by being at “the end of the road,” where Alaskan Highway 1 literally peters out about 5 miles beyond our driveway.

People here hold onto things, whether they use them or not, until the tattered remains crumble at the slightest touch. Then they put them up for sale, or just add it all to the growing pile of junk that surrounds so many of the houses here.

I know many people travel to Anchorage, 230 miles away, just to shop at the second-hand shops there. Anchorage’s population density allows for some secondary markets, but the discount is not as steep as might be expected. Skippy’s first attempt to buy a vehicle after arriving almost landed her a 1985 Toyota, but it blew up when she started it to drive out of the owner’s driveway. That 23 year old truck with obvious issues was selling for $2500.

A matter of perspective

While taking the dogs out for their walk the other night, I glanced at the thermometer, to gauge what how many layers to put on. Outside, I told Skippy “At least it’s warm tonight, I don’t have to wear a hat!”

The thermometer read 35°F.

Back in Indiana, near-freezing temperatures meant at least a couple of layers and a coat. When I was going outside only a couple of times a day for as long as it took to get to work, 35 seemed pretty cold. Now, I spend 3-4 hours outside a day, and temperatures for the past 3 weeks have mostly hovered in the mid to upper 20’s. So no wonder I can go outside at 35° in just some sweatpants and a sweatshirt (my “cabinwear” most of the time), and feel like it’s a heat wave. I can only assume that, as the winter progresses, I will be frolicking in the snow wearing only a pair of boxer-briefs and a scarf.

To remove that mental image, here are a couple of shots I didn’t post from the sunrise the other morning.