Tamara Dean, author of The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors, doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Creating one’s own power is not an easy undertaking. But it can be very energizing.
The bicycle is the real hero in the book. There are photos and descriptions of dozens of jury-rigged devices, built to do everything from wash clothes to make soap to power laptops.
“In places where electricity is either scarce or intermittent, pedal power can fill a real void,” says Dean by phone from her rural Wisconsin home.
Building a workshop for that home got Dean intrigued by human power. She and her partner David were using straw-bale construction, an economic way to create highly insulated walls. But it’s a physical challenge without power tools.
“We had been mixing the clay and sand together in a big old horse trough, and it just took so long,” she says. Since both are “pretty mechanically inclined,” she says, they came up with a simple contraption to speed the process along. They connected a discarded exercise bike found in someone’s front yard with a cement mixer.
“And it worked!” she says. The old bike had never had such a workout, and it didn’t last beyond that project. But it got them experimenting with other devices, and got Dean in touch with people all over the world to research the book.
There are meticulous instructions on how to build a bike-powered blender, or a treadle-powered water pump. But neither the building nor the operation of these devices is for the faint of heart. The blender conversion has 60 detailed steps, and you’d better know a hacksaw from a hex-head socket driver before you get started.
While it’s a thorough guide for confident do-it-yourselfers, the book also details how pedal and treadle power can make life-changing differences globally. The World Bank estimates 1.6 billion people still live without electricity.
Dean (who has degrees in engineering and fiction writing) interviewed creative minds like Amy Smith at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology D-Lab. The lab designs human-powered machines for the developing world. In Central America, these “bicimaquinas”, or bike-powered machines, include washing machines, coffee depulpers and metal tool sharpeners.
On the other side of the world, David Sowerwine has created a pedal-powered electrical generator for communities in Nepal. “It’s really interesting what he has done; he’s envisioned electricity as something that can be transported like a bottle of milk,” Dean says. Sowerwine sets up a pedal-powered generator in a town square. Villagers arrive with portable six-volt batteries. Once charged, those small batteries can power LED lights in their homes for a couple of weeks. “This is actually good for their health, too,” Dean says. “Otherwise they would be burning kerosene inside for their kids to do their homework,” she says.
Whether the experts were in academia or simply dabbled in human power as a hobby, Dean found a readiness to share information. “I think it’s a lot like the open source movement in software. I was amazed how generous people were with their ideas and insights. Nobody refused to do an interview, or share their opinions,” says Dean.
Dean practices what she preaches. She says it takes her about five minutes to “human grind” enough coffee for a full pot. “There’s a sense of empowerment in the physical activity,” she says. “I grind my own grain in the dining room. It feels good. It takes about 45 minutes to grind four cups of flour. You really feel pumped up,” she says.
Dean also uses a scythe, not a weed-whacker to trim her yard; a hand cranked corn sheller to shell corn, and a cider press to make fruit cider. She has also built an eco-friendly home, “in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin,” she says.
Dean doesn’t expect all her readers to build bike-powered blenders in their studio apartments. But she does hope the success stories in remote parts of the world take the idea of human power beyond the novelty stage. Or, at the very least, gets people thinking about how much work it takes to make energy.
“In America we take mechanized devices for granted. It’s our default setting to rely on it,” explains Dean. “We need to remember what we are capable of without it,” she says.
For more information, visit The Human-Powered Home online.