What You Take for Granted

What You Take for Granted

       Kerosene to Electricity

In the early days of lighthouses all lighthing was by kerosene lamps with wicks. When electricity first came to the lights, it was only for running the main light and occassionally for operation of the foghorn solenoids. Sometimes a knowledgeable principal keeper would wire in a light to his house – a single cable hanging from the ceiling with a small wattage bulb – usually in the kitchen. 

Later came large generators and a bit more power. I say a ‘bit’ more. My first station at Pulteney Point  had a 5 KW Kato generator run by a two-cylinder Lister diesel engine which supplied power to the main light, radio, and foghorn controls. The rest of the available current was left to be split between the three keeper’s houses. In 1969 our house was only one year old but had one electrical outlet per room and only two circuits per house. To have boiled eggs and toast for breakfast we had to wait until the principal keeper had finished cooking his breakfast – or cook before he got up – remember, we were on shifts. We would plug the hotplate in one outlet

Savoy oil stove

in the kitchen to boil the eggs (oil stove was so-o-o-o-o slow for boiling water) and the toaster in an outlet in the back bedroom (different circuit). That way both would be ready at same time! I remember the wives comparing times when they would be doing ironing. If you overloaded the circuits the engine would shut down and the main light would go out. This was a no-no! 

Later the Coast Guard increased the size of the generators so that we had forty (40) amps (amperes) per house for electrical current but compared to a modern house in town running 100 amps minimum we still had to be careful. We generated 220 volts at 60 cycles but depending on the length of run of cable to the house, this could drop to 210 volts and 57 cycles. We could never run an electric clock on any lighthouse as the cycles were so erratic. You could lose 5 minutes or more in a day! By the time I left in 2001 the maximum we had was 60 amp breaker boxes in each house but if you didn’t watch it you could still overload the engines and shut them down. 


Lister diesels C. 1990s

Unfortunately overloading was not the only problem. In the early days we had two 5KW (kilowatt) engines coupled to two-cylinder diesel engines. We would run one for a week, shut it down, do an oil and filter change and start it up again. If it had too many hours on it we waited for a replacement and ran the standby, praying for a ship to deliver the new engine. This worked very well. We checked them hourly for oil leaks and opened and closed windows for ventilation depending on room temeprature and weather. 

Later, when the government got it into its head to try automating everything, they attached all kinds of sensors to our trusty diesels. Well the engines worked great but the sensors were always malfunctioning and shutting down the engines. We had oil temperature and pressure sensors, high and low voltage sensors, air temperature sensors and battery voltage sensors plus . . . I’ve forgotten all the reasons that a sensor could shut down an engine, but they did. We had an alarm in the house which sensed when the power went off (usually at night when we were sleeping) and rang a loud bell. Up we got from bed, dressed and headed up to the engine room. Hopefully the standby engine had started but usually it did not. If the sensor shut down the engine it usually shut down the control panel. Once we reset the panel, fired up the standby engine (just in case it was the poor main engine’s fault), checked out the problem engine, switched engines and wrote our log books and notified Coast Guard Radio that our light had been off it was usually time to start getting ready for our first weather of the morning at 3 AM (0300). 

The other problem when the engines went down (shut off), we had to first assume that maybe it was because we had put too large a load on them, so it was a run around the houses to unplug anything that drew heavy amperage such as kettles, hotplates, heaters, washers, dryers, etc. Then when all was working normally again, we would go around and plug them in again. This made for an easier load on the engine after it started. Also, in later years things like TVs and computers didn’t fare too well if left on when starting up an engine because the moment the power started to flow produced a surge in the lines which could explode electronic devices – something like a lightning strike! So, we ran around unplugging those devices also.

We even tried to conserve on energy when microwave ovens first came out. I had read that they used half the power of a normal cooking appliance like a hotplate or electric kettle, so I and the assistant ordered one each. Unfortunately the managers at Coast Guard had not read the same news and confiscated the appliances pending a study! I finally told them that they would have to pay our credit charges while they decided what to do and so they released them to us to use. The microwave ovens were a dream! Consider that most of our supplies in the 70s to 90s came frozen. The microwave was great boon to quick defrosting and reheating. We still had the old oil stove for slow cooking and keeping the coffee water hot, but the microwave made us modern! 

Another problem we had was washing machines. The only Coast Guard approved machine was an old-fashioned wringer washer! What the heck! We had the power. We had the water. So what was the problem? I have no idea. First of all Coast Guard supplied us in the mid 1960s with all heavy appliances – fridge, freezer, washer, and stove. This made it easier for them to transfer us to another station as they did not have to move these appliances. The problem with the washing machine was that they had no idea about living on a lighthouse. Of course we collected rainwater for drinking and washing. Of course it was limited but we were in control of that. The first washing machines supplied were these apartment-sized combination washer spin/dryer machines – not even big enough to take one double bedsheet let alone dirty clothes from two kids. When ours arrived on station I immediately sent it back on the same helicopter and bought our own machine. This wasn’t confiscated but it was a lot of paperwork getting it shipped out as it used ‘too much water’! 

      Water from the Sky (fresh and salt!)
But what about water, showers, washing you say? Well, rainwater was collected from the roof via the gutters and downspouts in the rainy season and was stored in a cistern built in half of the house cellar. In the earlier days our roofs were cedar shingles painted with Coast Guard approved oil-based red paint containing lead. Good for the ships and metal but not too healthy for us. The rain ran down over this paint into cedar wood gutters (more colour and flavouring) and then through solid lead elbows into galvanized steel pipe and then into the cistern. This combination of lead, steel, and wood didn’t seem to flavour the water too much but probably was not too healthy by today’s standards. Later the Coast Guard changed to Duroid shingles and plastic gutters and down pipes.

The water was collected from the roof where it flowed into the gutters, down the downpipes into the cellar cistern where it either passed through a sand and rock filter2 first, or the filter was on the other end and filtered the water coming out to the house pump. I preferred the latter as it required less maintenance but we had to trap all the needles and leaves, bugs, birds, and other stuff that landed on the roof before it entered the cistern. By the use of external traps which usually had to be emptied daily in rainy season we managed to keep the water relatively debris-free. Usually once a month a cup or two of chlorine bleach was thrown in to the cistern tank (depending on rainfall and amount of water in the tank) to kill algae and bugs. That was fresh water falling into the cistern – fresh water with salt flavouring! In a storm sheets of salt water would be flying through the air and hitting the houses. I don’t know where the salt went but we didn’t really taste it too much but it did crystallize out in the pots and kettles as a scale and cause a bit of green colour on the copper fittings, etc. 

In the pre-electricity days this water was hand pumped to a forty (40) gallon (182 litre) galvanized hot water tank laid horizontal in the attic. The hand pump was in the bathroom next to the toilet and in many cases an overflow pipe was situated just outside the bathroom window. When doing your “sit down thing” on the toilet, you would pump the handle of the wig-wag pump mounted to the wall until the water came out of the overflow pipe showing the tank was full. By gravity, the toilet was flushed, the shower was operated and water for washing dishes was available too. Dishes were washed by hand as was the laundry. 


Water heating diagram. Foto: Enterprise-Fawcett company

Hot water came from the oil stove (or wood/coal stove in the earlier days). Water circulated through copper coils in the firepot of the stove and by convection filled another galvanized forty (40) gallon hot water tank in close proximity to the stove. It was always a priority before a shower to feel the outside of the hot water tank to see if there was going to be enough hot water for the shower. On winter days, when the wind was howling outside, the flame in the stove would flatten itself in the bottom of the firepot and not give enough heat to the coils. Of course one could turn up the oil flow to produce a bigger flame but occassionally this produced more work as the inside of the stove sooted up with fluffy black carbon and prevented anything from getting hot. The best time was on a calm day when the wife was baking bread. Everybody had a shower and all the clothes were washed. 

Remember also that this oil stove also heated the house in many cases. Like all old city and farm houses the kitchens were large and became the community meeting place, eating place, and study room for school-aged children. It was the warmest room in the house in more ways than one! 

Well we survived! We survived on 4500 gallons (20,450 litres)1 for sometimes 4 to 5 months in the summer dry season with a family of four. We sometimes used saltwater for the toilets, recycled wash-water for the garden and cut down on the washing but we survived. In many a lightkeeper’s house was a sign in the bathroom that stated “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; If it’s brown, flush it down!” and the kids used to say “Many pees to a push!” It was not a problem. 

The only problem came when and if the cistern leaked, or we had an extremely dry winter, or a large cement project was taking place on station and demanded a lot of water. At these times we were forced to ask the Coast Guard to bring us water. They were very accomodating but after one refill you did not want to try it again! The water came from steel holding tanks on the ships and then into aluminum barges which were then coupled to rubber hoses and pumped up on to the station and into the cisterns. The water was brown and foamy with rust and other “flavours” and could not be drunk for weeks. 

If we were lucky and still had a third house (leftover from the days of three-man stations) we usually pumped the water from it’s cistern into ours and filled the spare house cistern with the ship’s water. After a few weeks we could pump it over to our cisterns and hopefully all the rust had settled out. It was pretty grim and was not suitable for washing clothes because of the colour. After the first refill of ship’s water we usually did not call on the office unless we got down to the last few inches of water. 

Think of us next time you turn on a tap and crystal clear water runs out without having to pump it up to the attic first, or hearing the sound of the water pump thumping away every time you turn on the tap. 


Polar Bear Club by Hallmark artist John Wagner

Speaking of the water pump, it was fun having a shower with one of these. The early pumps were belt-driven electric pumps that pumped water into a small pressure tank and then shut off. You could then use the water until the pressure dropped and the pump came on again. This was the cold water line that it was pumping up first so when you were in the shower the pressure would drop and the water get hotter and the pump would kick in and you’d get a cold blast. We learned to get wet, turn off the water (letting the pressure build up), soap up, then rinse off when pressure was higher. We NEVER flushed the toilet at this time (see the “Maxine” cartoon at the left!). The easiest way was to have a bath but we rarely had enough water except in winter, and then you didn’t have enough hot water because of the wind effect on the oil stove. By the time I left we had a few jet pumps on stations which kept pressure pretty constant. 

1 – the average water consumption for a household in British Columbia was 0.5 cubic meter (500 litres) per person per day in 1999. For a four member family that is 2 cubic meters or 2000 litres. At that rate our cistern, if it was full, would have lasted ten days, not 4 to 5 months! 

2 – I had a note from a former lighthouse keeper the other day who is into “enviro-friendly housing”. He asked if I had heard the German word “schmutzedecke”. He said “It seems that the sand filter we used on the lights not only caught bird crap, insects etc. coming off the roof but it also caught pathogens, bacteria, and some bad oxidized stuff from the ocean that landed on the roof too. The schmutzdecke was a biological zone that broke that material down . Adding chlorine bleach, as we were instructed to do, did not kill the pathogens but did kill off the schmutzdecke. I remember being told to fill the filter right up with sand but in fact long hydraulic retention of water above the filter permits development of a substantial biological community (in the schmutzdecke). Also, I was always told to regularly scrape off the top layer of the filter, which actually removed that essential part of the system.” Read more on it here from Wikipedia. 

– John Coldwell (Lightkeeper on Pulteney, Kains, Pachena, Green and McInnes 1969 – 2001)

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Retired (2001) British Columbia lighthouse keeper after 32 years on the lights.

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