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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Right to Look

From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat.  No sooner had I thrilled at my surprising, and free!, doubling of battery capacity, than I lost it.  Well, OK, I didn’t lose all the increase from 2 days to 4.  But now, somehow, I only had 3 days. 

At 8PM Tuesday, I smelled something wrong.  The Mate3 displayed 99% battery capacity at 8PM, only 3 hours after the last drop of sunlight-produced electricity filled the batteries.   Now a 1% drop might not sound like much too you, but it made me nervous.   And when I descended the cellar stairs Wednesday morning and read 94%, I wanted to vomit.  It’s supposed to be 96%.  Still a recovering statistician, I understood the ramifications.  96% remaining equates to 4 days of electricity with no sunlight, while 94% equated to 3 days.   I’d lost a day of my newly gained capacity.  How? 

The answer lay only 2 lines down in the Mate3 display.  The house, according to the Mate3, was drawing 100 watts.    That’s not so bad, I thought, until I turned off all the basement lights.  Still 100 watts.  I know my house.  That should say 0 watts.   Something, somewhere is sucking too much power. 

I scurried out to the shed, wondering if I left the lights on as I sometimes do.  But upon opening the door, all was dark.   With rising anxiety I searched every room, inspected every light source, in Home the Land Built.   All off.  Now maybe I’m the only one who does this, but I started to imagine I smelled something acrid and smoky, like a sizzling wire.    When I actually started sniffing the entry wall, I suspected it was my agitated mind that was filling with smoke.   I had to back off for awhile.  As the saying goes, if you want to find something, stop looking for it. 

And so it went for me.  I was outside, stuffing hay into the bottom of buckets at the Humanure Hacienda,  when suddenly I slapped my head.  Of course!  I dashed around the house to the little garden shed, the one beneath the yoga loft porch and above the root cellar.  I opened the door, looked overhead and there it was.

A light bulb.  A single burning light bulb.  The only non-LED, incandescent bulb in the whole house, and I’d left it on Tuesday morning after I entered to get a spare bucket.  With a proud smile, I flipped off the light switch, hurried down into the cellar and saw just what I expected on the Mate3 display.  0 Watts!    We had 4 days of capacity again.  Like the lifting of a thousand butterflies, anxiety fluttered away from my chest.     And as I sprung lightly up the stairs and gazed out at the solar panels, the magnitude of what happened washed over me like waves upon a beach.

In-wave.   A 75 watt light bulb increased our power consumption 50%!  

Out-wave.  Back in Minneapolis I had no idea what my power consumption was, nor what percentage any light or appliance accounted for.  However much we used, it was far, far more than we use now.

In-wave.  I actually noticed a 75 watt increase in power! 

Out-wave.  In Minneapolis, I might have noticed a 750 watt increase in power.  Maybe, when my next electric bill came.  But since I didn’t know how much I normally used, how would I have noticed a change?

In-wave.  I was able to find and fix the source of the problem within 24 hours. 

Out-wave.  In Minneapolis, I never found or fixed a single issue related to power.

In-wave.   I succeeded because of one over-arching principle we asked Architect Paul to apply when designing our home:  transparency.  The performance of any system, or any change to a system, should be immediately obvious.           

Out-wave.  The Grid, from which we obtained everything in Minneapolis---electricity, water, food, education, health care---was all about not looking.   Not only was The Grid too big and complex to “see”, but I had signed-up for The Grid principle: “I don’t want to know”.    Ignorance washed my hands of a host of Grid crimes:  sweat shop cruelty, corn-poisoned cows, climate-altering burps. 

In-wave.   Off-grid, or better put, community-tied is all about transparency.  Isn’t that what a community is:  where everybody knows everybody, where I can see what’s going on, good or bad?   
Seven years ago, Linda championed our first step off The Grid, the food grid, after reading Michael Pollan’s prophetic words in the Omnivore’s Dilemma.   If there’s a new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one:  the right, I mean, to look. 

What surprised Linda was the difficulty in trying to “look”.  Eventually she walked away from the supermarket’s organic produce and found, ta-dah!, the Dietz’s, our Land neighbors, with whom she started a CSA, delivering boxes of their beautiful veggies to Minneapolis.  Now she could “look” at our food from seed to supper.  And looking, it turned out, felt engaging if not downright fun. 

And so it is with our electricity.  Yes the light bulb incident was frustrating, even anxiety producing at times, but it was real and right there in front of me.  Not some phantom photon floating in some far-off power farm.  I looked.  I reacted.  I solved.    No longer am I like the queen in the fantasy novel Bitterblue who in frustration exclaims, “How can I correct problems I don’t even know about?”

If I could offer any light-bulb-inspired wisdom to poor queen Bitterblue it would be this:  your inability to see the problem IS the problem.  Become community-tied.  Not only can you see the problem---and at least have a chance of doing something about it---but a community is a lot more fun than either going it alone or a big hairy Grid.

P.S. to my old continuous improvement colleagues (you know who you are!).  I’m sorry if I’ve presented such a “slim” view of what you try so hard to do every day.    And also for any confusing terminology.  If it helps, substitute visual management (or ability to detect normal from abnormal) for transparency.   Substitute ad-hoc system for The Grid.  Substitute principle-based cell-operating system for community-tied.   And thank you for teaching me so much!   You’re partly to blame for all this you know J


  1. No translation necessary! BTY we started cooking on the wood stove last night :-) Miss you!

    1. Susan How can you get more transparent than cooking with wood? While we like how our gas stove works, I truly have no idea where the LP comes from (and what harm it creates). We'd like to stop in for a demo (translate dinner) some day :)