Give It Up, Part 3

‘Way back in November I threw out this question: If you could keep only one piece of modern technology, which one would it be? As I wrote the post, though, it became clear how much of our technology today relies on a functioning electrical grid. Without the grid, it would be almost impossible to keep any one device or technology. Modern batteries need the grid to be constructed, but keeping even primitive batteries around to power something else would violate the terms of the question by adding a second retained technology.

OK, so maybe that was an interesting thought problem, but not even close to realistic. Here’s a different scenario that might even slide into the realm of realism. Let’s suppose that the electrical grid remained just barely intact, but power was extremely limited: you or your household could use only one electrical device. Not one at a time; just one, period.

Electrical towers
Photo by Luis Relampago, via

Given that limitation, which one would you keep?

“I know,” you say. “I’ll use battery-powered devices that were made before the crisis and don’t require any power from the grid! That way, I can get around the problem.”

Yes, you can. For a while, until the battery supply runs out. Even the best batteries don’t last forever, and if you use rechargeable ones in this scenario, you can’t use anything else that connects to the grid, so they’re out. Also, batteries won’t operate most of the light fixtures in a home, for example, or the microwave oven, unless you have a system like the Tesla PowerWall™, powered by solar panels, already installed. So I’m going to take that away from you: no home-scale battery system. Now what?

“A generator!” Your glee is obvious. “What a great solution!”

Not if there isn’t enough power to keep refineries running, and the pumps in the pipelines to keep the gas flowing to distributors, so the trucks can deliver it to the gas stations that rely on the grid to power their pumps.

Nope. No generators. Now what?

Now we start whittling down the list of powered devices. First to go: HVAC. Yes, air conditioning makes life a lot more pleasant during the summer, but folks lived without it for millennia. Gas or electric heat can be replaced by fire… in some places, anyway. Until the wood runs out.

Ovens and microwaves go next. Stoves too. Cooking over a fire is still an option… again until the wood runs out. There are solar cookers. They’re slow, and they need sunshine (obviously), but if you have one already, I’ll allow that. Or you can make one out of existing materials easily enough.

Hot water heaters; gone. Now hot showers are something I’d miss, but there are other ways to heat water.

Dishwashers. Clothes washers and driers. Hello washboards and clothes lines, so long as they were made before the shortage hit.

Television. Seriously? There are these things called books. Maybe you’ve heard of them. They’re printed on paper. No power required, so long as there’s sufficient light. (Which reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”) *grins*

Speaking of light: electric lights? Don’t need ‘em, really. Candles did OK for thousands of years. And they can be made without electricity.

Computers, including game systems? Telephones, “smart” and otherwise? Sayonara. They largely rely on other people having decided to keep them too in order for them to have any value. When push comes to shove, would a phone be the one and only thing you’d keep. I don’t really think so.

OK, maybe some people would. For a while.

All the various and sundry small electrical appliances that fill our homes: can openers, coffee makers, hair driers, blenders, mixers, fans (ceiling, box, and desk), clocks and clock/radios, home security systems… that list just keeps growing, doesn’t it?

What have I missed? There’s one thing. Have you noticed it? Hint: take a tour around your kitchen. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back. What did you see? I’ll bet you walked right by it. No, it wasn’t the trash compactor.

Your refrigerator. I think that’s what I’d keep. (Not yours, mine.) Food refrigeration saves energy used in other ways (fewer shopping trips) and keeps food safe to eat longer, which means fewer trips to the doctor or hospital. They might not have much in the way of medication left anyway, so the longer you can stay away from them, the better.

As long as there’s still a water distribution system, which I think would get a high priority at the national, state, and local level if available power was limited, I don’t think I have to worry so much about that. And water can be boiled over a fire and filtered to remove the worst of the contaminants, if it comes to that. Rainwater is plentiful, most places, and free. Snowmelt, too. They’re where all that river and reservoir water that comes out of our taps comes from, anyway.

So if the electrical grid was running but limited, food refrigeration is the one technology I’d keep.

What about you? The comment box hasn’t been turned off (yet).

2 comments to Give It Up, Part 3

  • msbmw72  says:

    Okay – now I am nervous. What do you know, Ross, that we do not? I was happily, sort of, going along with the recent winter storm and stocking up for a forecasted temporary, I surely hoped, power outage, due to the ice on the power lines..and I stress “temporary”. I have to go into deep hiding to think more seriously about this and, believe it, I am looking at my refrigerator differently!

    • Ross B Lampert  says:

      LOL! Just coincidental that I FINALLY got around to publishing this as NASTY weather is headed your way (if not there already). Stay warm!

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