When the Only One Left to Blame is You

When your cable-TV goes out, sure, it’s an inconvenience because you’re going to miss your favorite TV show, but the blame is easy to assign, “Those fraking cable guys screwed up again”. You’re blameless, and all you really need to do is call them — since they’re the ones who screwed up. The blame is squarely on them, and you’re safely in the role of complaining righteous customer. The entire episode is inconvenient, but ultimately easy.

Same thing goes when your power goes out, when your phone stops working, or pretty much anything else. Now, with extended car warranties, and extended warranties and service plans on just about anything you buy, there’s not much blame for you for anything that ever breaks or fails.

I’m here to tell you that this balance of “complain to blame” changes dramatically when you live the way we do here at Cielito Lindo Ranch – at least for now. As our community grows this will improve, but right now when something goes wrong, there really isn’t anyone to call – never the less blame.

Two nights ago we experienced a surprise low temperature. The weather report predicted 41 degrees Fahrenheit, we got 16. I woke up to a frozen water pump and an alert coming from our off-the-grid power system. I’d like to think that if I had KNOWN that it was going to freeze I could have and indeed would have prepared, but I didn’t, so things went wrong.

The good news on the water pump is that it thawed out after a few hours and worked fine. Whew! The bad news was that the Solar Charge Controller seemed completely dead. No Charge Controller, no power – it’s as simple as that. Right now we have sufficient deep-cycle batteries for about two days without charging, but that’s not much time really. Sure, this will all change when we have ALL of the solar panels installed and all of the wind-turbines, but, now is now and the problems need to be dealt with NOW.

I tried resetting the Charge Controller, I tried everything I could think of, but it just laid there with a blank screen staring back at me. My mind started reeling – “Should I order a replacement charge controller?”, “How long will it take for one to arrive?”, “Should I finally break-down and buy a dreaded gasoline generator just for emergencies like this?”… my mind was in a blur of panic. Remember, I’m the one who engineered and built this thing – the fact that it was not working was completely my fault.

Just as I was resigning myself to failure and telling everyone else on the ranch that there would be no power in just a few precious hours, I glanced one last time at the blank screen. If I glanced at it at just the right angle, I could make out a faint display. Squinting I finally made it out “Batteries 100% charged” the first line said, “Charging Normally” said the second.

ZOMG! The thing was still working fine, but for some reason the display had become so dim you could barely read it! Waves of relief washed over me.

The lesson, though, was learned. The reason that episode was so difficult, was because I was the only one to blame. There was no company I could call whose fault it was. I couldn’t indignantly blurt into a phone “You’d better fix this soon before I’ll this or that”. In fact, there was no company or individual I could call PERIOD to fix a PV system that I had engineered and built myself. All the blame was squarely on MY shoulders. This burden was heavy indeed.

I learned a few things. Keep spares of everything. I now have a second charge controller wending its way here. Train other people on how to you engineer and build everything. If you’re sick or away, someone else needs to be able to fix it. And keep back-up systems for your back-up systems.

Sure, you can rationalize and justify, “This is just my first”, “I’ll fix it later”, “My new system will be better”, etc. But the fact is that no matter how far along a process you are, you are running NOW, and you need to be able to function AND RECOVER from failure. And failure is sure to come. Components fail, the weather surprises you, and people are incapable of assisting for various reasons.

The further our society gets from being able to service their own goods, to repair their own belongings, to live without being “connected” the more worried I get. Sure, doing what we’re doing here is on the edge – its real frontier living. But there are lessons here for everyone.

All systems fail or collapse, and that includes the ones YOU rely on. What happens when there’s an earthquake, a flood, or a tornado? Can you fix your own toilet? How will you keep your food fresh when the power goes out for several days or weeks? How will you get from one place to another if you can’t repair your own car or make your own fuel? If fresh water stopped flowing from your pipes would you know where to get more?

I like to think that the little bumps a frontiersman (frontiersperson?) feels are obstacles that strengthen us. I just hope that we can change our ways so that when the everyday person is faced with catastrophic systems failures, they can still survive… because in the final analysis YOU are the only person who is ultimately responsible for your life and all the blame will be placed at your feet perhaps when you’re least expecting it.

Good luck.

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