Choosing Muscles Over Motors

By Jen Risley, Published in the Monadnock Shopper News, 5/27/09

Bicycle Pump
Jen helps with the dishes by bicycling at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Fox Island Study Center. The bike powers the water pump that makes washing dishes possible.

I’d like to bike to work.  I mean, I’d like to bike to do work.  I’d like to use my muscles, instead of motors, to get things done.  Could I use pedal power instead of using fossil fuels to accomplish the day’s work?

Starting with breakfast, I could make a smoothie via a Bicilicuadora (pedal-powered blender).  Water for dishwashing could be delivered with a bicycle powered water pump (see photo).  Hours spent sitting at my desk could be broken up with bursts of exercise to recharge my laptop battery.  Back at home, I could mow the lawn with a pedal-powered recumbent lawn mower and wash my laundry with a Bicilavadora.  Even a snack of macadamia nuts could be shelled using a Bicimacadamia (you guessed it, a bike-powered macadamia nut-sheller).

While generating my own energy is possible, how practical is it?  According to Mother Earth News, one hour of pedaling can power a 100-watt incandescent bulb for one hour or a 20-watt compact fluorescent bulb for five hours.  That’s just to power one light bulb — what about the blender, washing machine, and laptop I just mentioned?  The average household uses 300 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day.  That means 300,000 watts or 300 hours of biking a day! While biking my way through all my work is not practical, nor possible, I could supplement some of the energy I use with pedal power.  Employees of Jones Soda of Seattle used nine stationary bikes to power their lights, computers, printers and fax machines for Earth Day.

There is another reason for me to choose muscle power over motors — to improve my health.  For two years David Butcher used his Pedal Powered Prime Mover to operate his electric razor, cell phone, computer monitor, air compressor, and water pump for his backyard fishpond.  Over two years, he lost 30 pounds.  Last summer, Green Microgym opened in Portland, Oregon with exercise equipment that generates power, instead of using power, giving its members an opportunity to workout that’s healthy for the individual and the environment.

Generating my own power, like growing my own food, helps me understand and appreciate just how much work goes into running the appliances and gadgets I use daily. “[By] using human power, our exertion makes visceral what we take for granted from the grid,” said Tamara Dean, author of The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors.  One hour of pedaling turns into 100 watt-hours.  What to do with those 100 watt-hours?  I can power a clock radio for 10 hours or my laptop for 2 hours.  Or I could run a toaster for 7 ½ minutes or an iron for just 3 ½ minutes.

While biking is more efficient at producing energy than hand-cranking (up to four times more power can be generated through leg muscles than arm muscles), there are new emerging technologies even more efficient: energy harvesting boots that generate energy with each strike of the heel, a knee brace called a “Biomechanical Energy Harvester” that uses joint movement to produce energy, thermal powered wristwatches, and a power generating see-saw.  Perhaps my question should have been: Can I use see-saw power to accomplish the day’s work?  Now, that would be an interesting way to power my laptop.

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