We have a hard time even thinking about living without electrical power. We use it for everything, from powering our cell phones to running our factories. Without it, modern life, as we know it, would cease to exist.
That’s why the loss of the electrical grid is one of the most challenging survival scenarios that we as a society face. While electricity is not normally considered a survival priority on an individual level, it is for society as a whole.
Quite literally, the entire infrastructure breaks down without electrical power. Besides all the obvious things that would stop working in such a situation, we would also lose the entire distribution system. Without electrical power to run the computers and the machines, getting products from manufacturers and distributors to stores comes to a screeching halt.
But we’ll feel the pinch of losing electrical power long before things get to that point. Without our appliances, society would be set back by over a century. Actually, it would be worse than that, because our great-grandparents knew how to live without electricity … and we don’t.
Of all the domestic uses of electricity, the single most important one is refrigeration. We depend on it to keep fresh food fresh and frozen food frozen. Without that capability, those foods would spoil fast.
Yet refrigeration, in one form or another, existed long before electric power and the modern refrigerator. If we are going to keep foods fresh, once the grid goes out, we’re going to have to rediscover those methods and put them to use.
Here’s five ways to do that:
1. Go underground
Long before refrigerators or even ice boxes, people discovered that they could keep food cool by keeping it underground. Those who had caves on their property would use them for food storage. But even people who didn’t have a cave would take advantage of things being cooler underground, if they had a well.
Pitchers of milk, cheese, sides of meat and other foods could be kept cool, helping them to last longer. The further down in the well the item was hung, the cooler it would be. So, it wasn’t uncommon to see a number of ropes going down into a well, with each one holding something that the owner wanted to keep from spoiling.
This idea evolved into the root cellar, which was extremely common in the pioneering days of our country. Root cellars are nothing more than man-made caves, carved out of the ground to provide a cool place to keep food — especially root vegetables like potatoes and carrots – cool.
The home I grew up in had a concrete bomb shelter attached to it, a leftover from World War II. That became our family’s root cellar, giving us space that we could use when our refrigerator was already full.
2. Running water
There’s nothing better than fresh water from a cool stream, especially if it is fresh runoff from melting snow. While that might be a bit cool to bathe in, it’s great for keeping food cool. This is a trick that’s been used by campers and backpackers for years. But it’s one that we need to add to our survival arsenal.
Running groundwater stays cool due to evaporation. That’s why running water is usually cooler than standing water. The movement of the water exposes more of it to the air, increasing the amount of evaporation. In cases of whitewater, where the water is being thrown into the air by rocks and other obstacles, evaporation increases even more, making the water even cooler.
The one problem with using running water to keep food cool is that there is a chance of fish and aquatic animals eating your food. So, if you’re going to do this, you need the food in a container to protect it.
3. Evaporative cooling
Since evaporation cools water, we can use evaporation to cool food, as well. All we need is some means of putting the food in a place where it is surrounded by evaporating water. This is easily accomplished by wrapping fabric around a shelving unit and wetting it down. Food placed on the shelves will be nice and cool. Of course, you’ll need to add water from time to time.
A makeshift evaporative refrigerator like this works best if it is placed where a breeze is hitting it. The breeze increases the amount of air flowing over the wet fabric, thereby increasing the amount of evaporation.
Of course, for evaporative cooling to work, you need to be in a relatively dry climate. High humidity lowers the amount of evaporation you can expect, which in turn lowers the effectiveness of these methods of keeping food cool.
4. The zeer pot
The zeer pot is a primitive, but quite effective, evaporative cooler that is still in use in parts of the world today. It consists of two unglazed clay pots, one larger than the other. The small pot is placed inside the larger one and the space between the two filled with sand. Food is placed inside the inner pot and the sand is filled with water.
Since the pots are unglazed, the water will soak through them, making the clay wet. Water on the surface of the outer pot will then evaporate, cooling the pots and their contents. Covering the top with a wet cloth will increase the overall cooling, helping to keep the food inside fresh.
In tests, produce kept in a zeer pot will last four times as long as comparable produce kept at room temperature. These tests were done in a hot climate, so it’s possible that in a cooler climate, the zeer pot would be even more effective.
5. The ice box
The most recent means of keeping food cool, before the refrigerator came on the scene, was the ice box. I’m not talking about an ice chest that you’d use on a picnic here, but rather something that was in the kitchen and used to keep food cool.
An ice box, obviously, requires ice. This was delivered every few days by the ice man, who brought it from a warehouse called an “ice house.” This ice would have been harvested from lakes in the wintertime and stored in a well-insulated area – using straw and sawdust — until warmer weather. Anyone who has seen the movie Frozen should be familiar with this concept, as the movie shows workers harvesting ice and storing it away in an ice house.
While it would be difficult, you could build an ice house and harvest ice in the wintertime, for use when the weather is warmer. The best ice houses, of course, are underground.