Michael and Stephanie Rapp sat in their living room last July listening to President Carter tell Americans that they must sacrifice to help solve the nations energy crisis. Bah, thought the Rapps.
They weren't being unpatriotic. The family of four living in the northern Chicago suburb of Glenview had already done more than many Americans: the Rapps spent one week in June using virtually no electricity or gasoline. And they plan to repeat that for another week soon.
"The first neat revelation was the first evening," Rapp recalled. "We sat on the back porch by candlelight. Normally, we'd all be in different rooms. We realized how close the family was. It was very warm," he said in a quiet voice. Three-year-old Melissa played with her blocks, 10-year-old Christopher read a book, and Michael and Stephanie talked.
Seven nights later, Rapp concluded: "It made us conscious of how painless it is to conserve."
The Rapps didn't intend to plunge totally into a world without appliances. They didn't intend to make it a cause. The idea for trying it at all came in late March -- in a suburban movie theater where Stephanie was watching "The China Syndrome."
Three Mile Island had entered the American vocabulary just two days earlier, and Stephanie was gasping with the rest of the audience when one of the movie characters said that a nuclear disaster could wipe out a state the size of Pennsylvania. The Chicago area draws 60 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. "I wondered if we could get by with 60 percent less electricity," Stephanie said. That's what set the family thinking. They discussed it in the spring, and the neighbors told them it sounded challenging. Summer approached. Christopher would be out of school, Stephanie would be finished with teaching at a local church, and Michael would have a lighter load at Northwestern University, where he is an education instructor. They would try it, they decided.
As the week drew near, Stephanie prepared lists of what they wouldn't use: the clothes dryer and washer, the electric typewriter, stero, television set, radio, hair dryer, lights, yogurt maker and the coffeemaker.
"Think of all that gadgetry," Michael mused.
But his musing became nervousness as he began thinking about taking cold showers (they eventually kept the pilot light on but turned the heat down on the hot water heater), cooking each night on the outdoor grill, and not using a car.
"I'd have to depend on a damn bus and somebody else's schedule," he recalled. "And I thought I'd have to give up reading at night."
On the night before the experiment, Stephanie plugged in the vacuum cleaner for the final time and washed all the clothes. They went to the store to buy heavy items, including a 25-pound package of dog food.
They did leave their sump pump on, though no rain fell during the week. "We weren't trying to stop everything," Michael said. "The purpose was not to survive totally without energy -- people go camping all the time. We wanted to see if a family like ours could live in the 20th century suburban environment and not be martyrs or have to live without so many devices, and still live a normal life."
They turned down the refrigerator, and turned down the hot water heater to its lowest setting. They couldn't turn off the automatic garage door opener after Michael discovered he couldn't raise the door manually because the mechanical device prevented that. They taped the light switches, which bothered Melissa.
And they began.
They would play board games, play piano and read, all by candlelight. Michael and Stephanie sat at the dining room table and made entries in their journals for the week. "You could hear the pens scratching," Michael said.
And they noticed another, bigger difference.
"The busy active everyday life ended at sundown," Stephanie said. Instead of a fast rush through daily life, the days moved busily in daylight and eased with darkness. "It's the difference between pace and rhythm," she said. "Our lives had moved at a fast pace. Now, there were ups and downs, a rhythm to it."
Michael echoed that. He looked around and remembered, "It felt great to be free from gagetry. You felt like you had control of decisions that meant something. And it was nice to feel that a day was over, to calm down."
They used their bicycles frequently. "We used to drive, and arrive late. We took our bikes and we were on time," Stephanie said. Friends, though, were sometimes surprised, and insisted on driving the Rapps home at the end of the evening.
Some friends thought the Rapps were trying to save money. Some "started looking for cheating." But the Rapps were on no crusade. "If people look at what we've done and can do a few things themselves, that's fine," Stephanie said.
At the end of the week, Melissa flipped the light switch. "We have energy," she told her parents. "The first day back we felt guilty turning on lights," Stephanie said. "It's like quitting smoking," Michael added.
Michael went to a hallway and removed three 75-watt bulbs from ceiling globes and replaced them with 25-watt bulbs. He asked the gas company to turn off the pilot light on the stove.
His only aggravation had been taking a bus. He caught it one block from his house, but taking the inter-suburban bus meant waits of more than an hour between buses. "The freedom that a car provides is really nice," he said.
Now he leaves his car home once each week, a minor inconvenience to him. He grew angry watching the Tokyo summit conference on television.
"We finished our week and the world's leaders were in Tokyo with 142 limousines waiting for them. Why weren't they in three Greyhound scenic cruisers?"
He felt puzzlement watching President Carter's energy speech. "Carter talked about the crisis of confidence and all the sacrifices we have to make. If people only knew how few sacrifices they would have to make," Michael said.
But they realized how little electricity they had needed, though Michael added, "I realize I'm talking about a suburban community and not the inner city." The Rapps live in a one-story ranch house with a big back yard. The screened-in back porch provides a cool spot for late afternoon and early evening sitting, without need for air conditioning. In the winter, the southern exposure offers added warmth.
It all makes them realize how style and design affect the consumption of energy. "You need a vacuum cleaner because you have wall-to-wall carpets," Stephenie pointed out.
The high school in Glenview has no windows, Michael added, because it was "cheaper to air condition than replace broken windows." He remembers breezes from open windows and doors in the Chicago classrooms of his elementary school days. "You can't tell a community to tear down its high schools because they're energy inefficient. But maybe they'll do it differently next time," he said.
Next time the only thing the Rapps plan to do differently is to measure how much electricity they're saving. They were lucky with cool weather in June, but workers came over using electric floor sanders and other machines, thwarting their measurements. So they plan to spend another week taking a more accurate reading of their savings.
They acknowledge that it would be hard to try the experiment during winter when they couldn't cook outside.
As the couple talked about their last experiment, dusk descended around the back porch. Christopher lit a candle. The children continued playing.
"We didn't give up a lot," Michael repeated. "The shocking thing is that we felt more independent."