Utilities: Heat, Light, Water, and Oil

If the worst case scenario occurs, it is likely that we will face rationing of utilities.  There may be brown outs. Public water systems may fail. In short, you might be without the basic utilities you’ve come to take for granted. Especially if you can’t pay for them and they cut you off.


Getting off the grid isn’t a simple task, and in a dangerous new world, where people will kill for a cup of gasoline, it can be deadly. The easy answer in simpler times would be to get a generator. Not so simple if the country is plunged into a depression. First of all, generators need fuel and fuel will be scarce and costly. Secondly, a generator makes noise and will attract those who will be happy to take it from you.

A perfect example of generators posing a threat in a hostile environment comes to mind. Our parish sponsored a mission at a school in Haiti, one of the poorest and violent places to live in the Western Hemisphere. Our well-meaning former pastor sent them many computers that, of course, needed electricity. Before long, the tiny school became a target for thieves and the sisters had to build a higher wall with barbed wire around the school and hire armed guards with shot guns which presented a significant cost. I guess our pastor wasn’t thinking about the fuel needed to run a generator and how much it would cost. Well, before too long, the parish began to receive desperate pleas for food and money to purchase dry milk. I think you get the picture: the novelty of electricity to run computers they didn’t need resulted in a misuse of precious resources.  I keep asking myself why no one thought of using solar panels?

Don’t think for a minute that it can’t happen to you. We are addicted to electricity in more ways than I can count. Having a generator can present more problems than you’d ever imagine, and it can even create a lot of dissent among the people you’re living with who may disagree on when to use it or not. And, of course, if there’s no fuel, a generator will be useless.

If you think you really need a generator, there are lots of options. Shop around for the best deal.  Compact Appliance has lots of discounts, free shipping offers and some refurbished models.

There may be cases when refrigeration is absolutely necessary: if there are life-saving medications that need to be kept cold.  Again, take a look at Compact Appliance for portable 12 volt freezers and refrigerators that can actually be hooked up to a cigarette lighter in a vehicle.  If you couple the battery with solar power, you will have a fuel free source of cooling that can save lives.

Breaking the Wattage Habit

Perhaps your best bet for now is to carefully watch your electrical consumption. Turn off and unplug all of the myriad appliances that keep that meter whirling day and night: the stereo, the microwave oven, the coffee maker, and even your computer. Shut it off at the power strip. Plug them in when you need them. Turn out every light when you leave the room. Stop using electronic devices as much as possible. You will probably see an immediate savings in your utility bills, and it will begin to get you accustomed to using less when there is less to use.

Try the Smart Strip. This device help stop the idle current drawn from your outlets when electronics aren’t in use. Smart Strips get their name because they have outlets that perform different functions. They allow you to have appliances “always on” – for things like your cordless phone or fax machine. You can plug your television or computer into the “Control” outlet and when this appliance is turned off, the peripheral appliances, like your monitor or DVD player, automatically turn off as well. This saves you money by reducing your electricity consumption and conserves energy. Find them at Green And More 

Solar Power

Solar power is a silent option, but one that can present a steep initial cost. And again, you’ll need to be a little stealthy about it.

Consider solar lighting that you can charge outdoors and bring indoors at night. Beware of inexpensive solar pathway lights. We’ve owned them and found that the batteries do not last for long – and replacements are very costly. The light shown at the right is a powerful spotlight with solar panel. Look at your options and think about setting up the panel outside a window with the light inside. Use the link below to view products and get free shipping if you decide to use them. Type the word “solar” in the search box.  

Outdoor Lighting –Free Shipping

In the shorter run, do look into acquiring rechargeable batteries that can be plugged in and also charged in sun light. Look at solar car battery chargers and converters to use that power in a pinch. And don’t forget solar and crank powered radios. Get some solar power for your laptop. The internet will survive. You’ll just need to work at finding WIFI.

Solar charging panels are a great option, especially if you live in an area where you have access to the sun. For less than $50 you can find a charger like the one on the left that will power your vehicle’s battery. You might also want to explore the Solio charger at the right.  Use it with the power of the sun or plug into a wall outlet – at work or a public place – for enough energy to fully charge a cell phone twice. Solio works well with other devices like iPods and GPS devices. 

The Weza Portable Charger is foot powered and will generate the juice at up to a 40-watt rate to charge its own internal battery for direct 12-volt power – enough to jump start a car. Find similar products at Green And More by entering the word SOLAR in the search box. Use coupon code GIVEGREEN to get 5% off any order.

This section will be developed further as we find more solutions and resources

Appliances – Small and Large

If you can afford to, get an efficient hot water heater and upgrade your appliances to the new energy efficient models. If you can afford one, a tankless water heater is a good option that will increase the value of your home when things settle down. With a regular water heater, you are probably paying $50 or more just to maintain heat in your conventional water heater due to standby heat loss while you’re sleeping or at work. A tankless heater uses energy only when you need hot water. Here is one model: Infinion Tankless Water Heater and you’ll find some with free shipping at Compact Appliances

If, by some miracle, there is no economic chastisement, no recession, no depression, any improvements you make to improve energy efficiency in your home will make it more valuable when you decide to sell.

Get scratch and dent models if you have to. You can always save by replacing damaged parts. We purchased a floor model stove with convection oven and lots of other bells and whistles. A grilled vent on the front was cracked. The selling price was close to $2,000. We got it for $400 and replaced the cracked vent for less than $25.

Get used to being hot. Air conditioning may soon be a thing of the past. Jesus didn’t have one. Get used to being cold. Put on thermals and an extra blanket. Snuggle up to your family and read together.

Figure out what you can live without and do it now. If your home is full of convenience appliances, get used to doing things by hand.  Wash your dishes by hand and use a dish pan. Pour the gray water into the garden. If you use a food processor, try chopping and slicing by hand. Put up a clothes line and hang your clothing outdoors instead of using the dryer. And for goodness sake, get a manual can opener! If you have a fireplace, try cooking in it with a Dutch oven. Go to sleep earlier so you’re not burning the lights.

If you’re not reading or working in the evening, learn to use an oil lamp for softer light. Learn how to use a variety of oils to fuel them and be certain you have enough wicks. (Visit The Wick Shop run by our friend Miles) Take faster showers at a temperature a little colder than you’re accustomed to. Just in case, get a camping shower bag that heats water in the sun.


More to come on this topic


The single most important – in fact, essential – part of any preparedness plan is water. You can live for weeks without food, but only three days without water. Water storage and conservation is critical.

Don’t assume that municipal water supplies will continue without a hitch. If there is a major disaster whether it is a nuclear strike, a dirty bomb or a hurricane or earthquake, or even in the event of a municipal water shut down, water can become scarce and unsafe to drink. All water sources should be considered unsafe and undrinkable without treatment.

Even without a disaster, you can expect water and sewer services to cost a whole lot more than the already bloated fees you’ve been paying. If there is a serious environmental situation – a drought or flooding that contaminates the supply – clean water may be rationed.

The average person uses 111 gallons a day. Shocking, isn’t it?  We use about 78 gallons for laundry, showering, toilet flushing, etc.  Military personnel use about 14.5 gallons a day per person with only 2 gallons used for direct consumption and cooking. All things considered, you will be minimally prepared if you keep 2 gallons per person per day on hand for at least three days. A two week supply is much better, as recommended by civil defense authorities.

A family of 4 would require 120 gallons – or four 30-gallon containers or to be on the safe side, four 55-gallon containers.

Don’t even consider using water from a pool, spa or water bed for drinking. The accumulation of acids, algae and chemicals can be very harmful. Keep stored water away from gasoline and kerosene, as the plastic can breathe and absorb fumes.

So what is the best way to store water? If it is in your budget Nitro Pak offers a variety of family water storage systems. Just fill with tap water, add the 5 year stabilizer, and seal the caps with the included bung wrench. That’s it! For businesses, this package can also supply water for up to 3 days for 36 people. This unit uses 30 gallon size containers that will supply a family of four for 2 weeks. They also offer a 55 gallon size container unit which will provide up to 4 weeks of water for the same family.

Even seemingly crystal clear steams and lakes contain microorganisms that can make you sick and even kill you.  The EPA estimates that 905 of the world’s fresh water is contaminated. Recently we learned that much of the water supplies of municipalities are contaminated with pharmaceuticals. Whether you’re drinking water in the wilderness or even water in the suburbs when disaster hits, you can be exposed to dangerous bacteria, protozoa and even viruses. There’s not much you can do about that except to use a water filtration system or purification system. The Katadyn ceramic micro filter is considered to be among the best for emergency filtration. They also offer desalination filters – which is a water safety concern for those of us who live in coastal areas.

To be on the safe side, you will want to acquire water decontamination tablets.  In a pinch, you can use a couple of drops of bleach or iodine. Keep bottles on hand in case you need to secure a supply immediately. Even old juice and soda bottles will do. Wash well and add a couple of drops of bleach.

Don’t waste a drop. Fix leaky faucets and toilets now.

If you are going to grow a garden, you won’t want to run the sprinkler for hours on end.  It’s too costly, even now. We like the rain catcher barrel from Yardiac Garden Center precisely because it has wheels and a hose. Water weighs 8 lbs a gallon and even if you manage to capture some from your downspout, it will be a task getting it to where you need it most. While an item like this represents a little bit of an investment you’ll be very glad to have it when you start looking at the skyrocketing cost of water. In our municipality, we pay fees for sewer use that is equal to the cost of water. It doesn’t matter that the water is going into the garden. That savings alone will pay for this device.

 Green And More offers a Save The Rain device that easily captures rain from gutters and downspouts and directs it to holding tanks or directly to a garden bed.

They also offer other models of tanks to compare.


Get some buckets – the type used for storing food or fishing. You can get them for free from bakeries if you keep your eye open. The ones used for storing butter cream icing will need a lot of scrubbing. Use them to recycle water from bathing (put one in the shower to catch the run off), dish washing (use a plastic basin), and whatever other household uses you can drain off. We recently started doing this in our home, and I will admit that I am feeling sort of like a pioneer woman – and half hoping that no one discovers what I’m up to!  Our former neighbor had a washing machine that somehow never got hooked up to the sewer line. The gray water poured out into a dry well. What a waste! You can also catch rain water, but be certain to keep it protected from the growth of mosquito larvae. You may wish to get two portable rain buckets: one for grey water and one for rainwater that can be used for cooking and drinking. At least it doesn’t have pharmaceuticals in it. If you don’t have a watering can, get one at a garage sale.

Gasoline and Oil

Oil is a big part of what got us into this mess and oil is a big part of what will keep us there.  Most of our homes are heated with gas or oil. And, of course, our cars are fueled with it. Even the expensive new  hybrids.  Use as little of it as you can. Jesus didn’t use gas. You don’t have to use too much of it either.

Use public transportation whenever possible or carpool. If you can, consider getting a job that doesn’t entail quite so much travel. At this writing, gasoline is over $5.00 a gallon in California and it now costs $10 to drive across a bridge in New York City. It will get worse. Even the price of public transportation has gone through the roof. In New York and on Long Island, a bus ride costs $2.00 each way. Buy a bicycle. Start walking. Pick up one of those grocery carts like your mother or grandmother used to have to help with errands.

Do whatever you can to insulate your house against the cold in winter. In the early part of the 20th century, folks used to pile hay bales around the base of their homes to keep in the heat. If you have them, use them and then recycle them into your garden – or do the same with tightly bundled stacks of newspapers.

Wood Fires

Again, get used to being a little bit colder in the winter. If you have a fireplace, be sure it is clean and there are no obstructions to block the flow of air. Start stocking up on dry firewood. Don’t attempt to burn fresh wood in your fireplace. It will make a smoky mess. You can tell if wood is dry enough by the cracks that will appear across the grain when you split it. And yes, you’ll have to split your logs. Keep away from sap filled evergreens that can cause some nasty problems with flying sparks and tar build up in chimneys.

What kind of wood should you burn?  This old English rhyme sums it all up, although the author seemed particularly inclined to using ashwood. Despite the reference below, do not use wet or green wood.

Fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year.
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for long ’tis laid away.
But Ash new or Ash old
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold.
Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last.
It is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
Even the very flames are cold.
But Ash green or Ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown.
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke.
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense like perfume.
Oaken logs, if dry and old.
Keep away the winter’s cold.
But Ash wet or Ash dry
A king shall warm his slippers by.

Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter’s cold
Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes, and makes you choke
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould
Even the very flames are cold
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread –
Or so it is in Ireland said,
Applewood will scent the room,
Pearwood smells like flowers in bloom,
But Ashwood wet and Ashwood dry,
A King can warm his slippers by.

Beechwood logs burn bright and clear,
If the wood is kept a year
Store your Beech for Christmas-tide,
With new-cut holly laid aside
Chestnut’s only good, they say
If for years it’s stored away
Birch and Fir wood burn too fast,
Blaze too bright, and do not last
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
And dangerously the sparks will fly…
But Ashwood green,
And Ashwood brown
Are fit for Queen with golden crown.

Learn about programs in state parks nearby your home that allow you to collect wood from fallen trees. For example, New York State issues permits that allow residents to enter areas where wood has been stacked. You’ll have to bring your own chainsaw or manual saw. And if you don’t have a two man saw, get one.

Collect pallets. They’re made of untreated wood, although there is the extra work of pulling out nails – which can be either a bonus or a burden depending on how you look at it. Be sure to keep your wood off the ground to avoid infestation by bugs and keep it covered to protect it from rain and prying eyes.  Yardiac Garden Center offers several products to help keep your wood safe. Look in their discount section and check back for weekly deals and free shipping.

Build a fire pit from bricks so you can cook outdoors with a wood fire. If you live in a municipality where old brick streets are being repaired, ask if they are willing to dump a load on your property. The older bricks are very hard and heavy and you’ll avoid problems with shattering. Of course, don’t place your fire it too close to anything that can ignite. Like your house. A good gust of wind is all you need to carry a spark that can destroy your home. If you can afford to, a safe pre-fabricated fire pit that is designed for cooking is your best bet. Yardiac Garden Center offers affordable outdoor cooking firepits like the one at the top right that is made of enamel coated cast iron for easy clean up and durability and, more importantly, contain all sparks. The one below sells for well under $100 folds up and comes with a cooking screen.

Get a push mower. Before things get bad, you’ll be able to pick one up at a garage sale for next to nothing. Although we doubt that the luxury of growing grass rather than food on limited land will last for long. Trash the gas powered leaf blower and buy a rake. Get an ergonomic shovel in lieu of a snow blower.   

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Christine Hirschfeld

I never intended to run a Catholic antiquities and book business. Not in a million years. As a cradle Catholic, I grew up in a house that was filled with Catholic images and sacramentals not to mention an abundance of excellent books provided by family members who worked in publishing houses famous for their Catholic catalogues. The beautiful images and concepts presented in those books certainly had their effect in enhancing my identity as a Catholic. As the years passed, even in the midst of very un-Catholic settings, I became a repository for my friends’ Catholic “found objects.” Eventually, I had a family of my own. We’re a small family. There are just three of us. And two of us were born with the “junk collecting gene.” Garage sales attracted us like a magnet.
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