Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day

Courtesy: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

Today is
Earth Day. I've been meaning for several days now to post again about our lifestyle here aboard Odyssey and how full-timing has permanently changed some of our habits, and today is a perfect day to do it, in keeping with the day's theme.

As I write this, I am looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, and I am seated perhaps 30 yards from the water. If this little plot of land could be bought (it can't), then surely there would be a half-million dollar house upon it. No doubt that house would be air conditioned, with unending supplies of hot and cold running water, perhaps even a swimming pool.

There is no running water, sewer system, or electricity in our little plot of paradise here, yet we give up virtually none of the modern comforts of that beach-front home (well, OK, no swimming pool). How comfortable we are, and how long we can remain in one place, are largely a matter of timing, and, to a lesser extent, some changes in our habits.

When we first arrive at a new location, we generally come with full batteries, plenty of hot water, and even some "thermal mass" for household heat when needed. That's because our batteries are very efficiently charged by our main engine, and we capture the waste heat from the engine in our hydronic system to heat water and, if needed, the living space.

One of the habits we've developed is to shower and do dishes at the end of the day when we've been driving. The water remains hot for many hours, and we have plenty for those purposes in the evening, but if we wait until morning, there will not be enough heat left.

Another habit, which conserves both hot water and our limited supply of water altogether, is the "navy shower." With the way our shower is designed, this is not a hardship of any kind, and does not feel to us like any kind of sacrifice, yet it goes a long way toward making us utility-independent. (For the uninitiated, a "navy shower" involves turning the water on, adjusting the temperature, getting thoroughly wet, then turning the water off while soaping up, scrubbing, shampooing, etc.. The water is turned back on one or more times as needed to rinse off. Our shower valve, which is the turn-to-adjust, pull-on, push-off type, allows us to turn the water on and off at will without having to readjust the temperature setting.)

While our shower will easily accommodate a "standard" overhead shower head of any design, we use one of those handheld units on a hose. A bracket holds it in the overhead position, handy for washing hair, but we find that grabbing it and moving it around as needed means we use less rinse water than with a fixed head. I find that it just feels better, too, and the one we have has two massage settings as well for those times when my bad back acts up.

Single-handle faucets in the kitchen and bath allow the same adjust-once, on-off action for washing up or doing dishes. Brushing teeth is done with the dedicated drinking-water supply system, which uses a spring-loaded lever-operated spigot.

I've recently started shaving again, after fifteen years of a full beard that required only trimming and periodic adjustment. I alternate between a rechargeable electric and a regular blade, for which I use a small dish filled with water I heat in the microwave. A far cry from the way I did it in my callow youth, wherein I ran the hot water until I was done.

Now that we've been parked for over a day, the water is ambient temperature. The dishes will accumulate in the sink now until we need to shower tonight. Since we don't need any heat here on the temperate gulf coast, we'll start the generator this evening and run it for 30-45 minutes. The 12-gallon electric water heater will make enough hot water in that time for both of us to shower and for me to do all the day's dishes, with enough left over to rinse out the coffee pot in the morning.

While running the massive generator for that long will burn half a gallon or so of diesel fuel, which seems like a lot to heat water, the fact is that we've also depleted around four kWh out of our battery system, and so the generator will also be working hard to replace that energy. The limits of the battery charger mean that we will only replace about half that amount in the short run time -- if we stay parked for many days on end, we would eventually need to run the generator for a few hours to catch up. Often, we pack up and start driving before we get to that point.

To make more efficient use of the generator while it's running, we might run it before dinner and use our electric cooktop rather than the propane stove. We can also run an air conditioner or two during that time to dry out from the 95% humidity we are experiencing here along the gulf.

When we are parked in colder climes, perhaps 50° or below, we will run the diesel-fired boiler for heat. Again, we'll use the waste heat from driving for as long as it lasts, but that may only be a few hours in really cold weather. The boiler uses about a quart of diesel every hour to heat the same hydronic fluid that the main engine would heat, which then circulates through the coach for home heating. This also heats the water heater, so we have hot water on demand when the heaters are on. Of course, all of that depletes the batteries faster, and we need to run the generator even more often in the cold weather unless we are driving.

As I wrote in this extensive post for Blog Action Day last year, our overall water consumption here aboard Odyssey works out to about ten gallons a day. That compares extremely favorably to the average American, and yet we no longer think about it, nor do we feel in any way inconvenienced. I had occasion to reflect on this a few days ago at Mustang Island, which prompted me to write today's essay.

I showered before bed particularly late one night, and was thinking to myself that, even though we really did not need a power hookup in this climate, it was nice to have fully hot water any time of the day or night. That caused me to "pay more attention" while I was showering, and I realized that, right in that place, we could go hog-wild with the water, but we didn't. We had a 50-amp electrical hookup, AND a dedicated water spigot, and so only the size of our gray tank would be a limit, and, even so, there was a dump station right in the park, so we could easily rid ourselves of our 20-gallon-apiece showers on our way out, if need be.

The simple fact is, though, that we don't even hook up to water when it's available. We'll look at our tank level, and maybe connect the hose for 15 minutes to fill up if we need to, but we don't ever leave the hose connected. Navy showers and hot-water management are just such an ingrained part of our lives now that we don't even think about it. Even if I think about it consciously, I just can't bring myself to leave the faucet running while I wash the dishes, or shave.

Likewise, when we are connected to a power outlet, even the 50-amp ones, we don't change our habits to, for example, leave more lights on. About the only luxury we ever indulge when on full power is to run the air conditioners even if it's only 80 degrees out, and, even then, if there is a breeze we prefer the fresh air.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this, other than to reiterate my Blog Action Day theme, that it's possible to live in a giant diesel-guzzling bus and still have some sense of stewardship of the environment. It's easy to look out our window here at the four families staying in tents and think that they are communing more deeply with nature than we, but we then remember that they will soon return to their 2,000 square-foot house (where the water heater, and maybe the air conditioning, has likely been running the whole time they've been here) and all the hustle and bustle and consumerism of the average American lifestyle. We feel truly blessed to be allowed here in this sacred place, and we feel good about treading lightly.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!