Amish use electric power selectively

amish lampThe Amish approach to electricity is somewhat complicated.  Almost all Amish groups forgo using power from the public grid.   But the Amish do rely on a variety of other sources to generate electric power.

Why do Amish avoid public power?

Amish do not use power from the public electric grid due to a belief that too much reliance on public power ties one too close to the world.  Amish are cautious about worldly influences and ideas which may run counter to Christian values.  Amish are careful about what they let into their homes, a fundamental sphere of Amish existence.

While Amish do not see much to fear in an electric iron or vacuum cleaner in and of itself, with electric sockets in the home, any of a variety of devices could be plugged in and used.  Electricity does not discriminate, and eliminating public power from the home prevents the temptation of using television, radio, and the internet in the home.  Additionally, too much reliance on labor-saving devices, Amish feel, may deprive children of character-building opportunities to work.

In Lancaster County, Amish had banned public power by 1920.  Leaders saw public power as a threat for a number of reasons.  Public power was considered a worldly luxury.  Acceptance of public electricity was associated with a more liberal local group, the Peachey Amish, who had previously adopted it.   Additionally, use of public power was also seen as a physical and symbolic connection to the non-Amish world.  The decision to abstain from public power in the home, which has held strong for nearly a century, is a strong statement of Amish desire to remain separate (Riddle, Kraybill pp 198-202).

What do Amish use electricity for?

Though Amish abstain from using public power, most Amish do not see problems with using electric power in limited ways.  Taking a practical approach, Amish use electricity for a variety of purposes, including:

  • home lighting-Amish use a variety of means including lamps powered by batteries and natural gas
  • operating appliances such as washing machines-Amish women rely on some time-saving appliances
  • powering equipment in a business-Amish produce electricity and other forms of power using diesel generators
  • providing light while traveling by buggy-lighting at night is crucial for buggy safety

How do Amish generate power?

amish gas lighting

Many Amish illuminate their homes with gas lights

Amish generate power in various ways.  First, lighting.  Some may imagine Amish relying on candles and oil lamps.  In fact, most modern-day Amish have left these forms of lighting behind.

Gas is a common means of providing lighting or for powering other appliances.  While many Amish use more sophisticated gas fixtures to light their homes, others rely on battery powered lamps to generate light.  Flame lighting is not commonly used outside of more conservative Amish homes.

amish solar power

Some Amish make use of solar power

A common piece of furniture in an Amish home is a rollable lamp, with a gas tank concealed in a square wooden cabinet on wheels.  This allows the lamp to be wheeled to where it is most needed.  In the evening, Amish typically gather together to read and spend family time in the living room, often with one or two lamps providing all the light that is needed for a large family.

One drawback in the summertime, however, is the high heat generated by such lighting.  The Ordnung of a given church district will dictate what type of lighting is acceptable.

Interestingly, when purchasing a non-Amish home, some Amish churches allow a “grace period” (commonly, of 6 months to a year) during which the Amish family may continue to use electric power.  This is in recognition of the high cost of adapting a non-Amish home to Amish standards.

Other means of generating power

Amish often make use of electricity provided by diesel generators to power certain appliances.  A device called an inverter converts 12V current into the 110V current that many devices run on.

Amish typically make use of various batteries for devices such as flashlights, and will recharge them using a diesel generator.  Some Amish, though not all, also accept the use of solar panels to generate energy to charge batteries, power an electric fence for livestock, or heat water.  Donald Kraybill has called this form of electricity tapping into “God’s grid”.  All of these forms of power serve a practical purpose, but are limited in scope, thus restricting the type of technology that can be used.

Most Amish do not use more archaic means of generating power, such as windmills or water wheels.  Amish will use wind power to pump water out of a well, however, and roof-mounted wind turbines have become popular in some communities.  Most Amish in-home plumbing relies on air pressure.

Powering appliances

Amish use electricity provided by a diesel generator to power equipment such as washing machines.  The same power source may be used to run a vaporizer to help a sick child, for example. Some Amish may use limited mixers or blender type appliances in the kitchen, but generally larger labor-saving devices such as dishwashers or microwaves are not used.

Amish value work for the social aspect of it, and also in teaching children a strong work ethic.  Amish do appreciate some tools that help them get things done faster, but with too many unnecessary labor-saving devices, Amish feel that they would be depriving their children of the character-building aspects of manual labor.

How do Amish keep their food cold?

Amish cool food in a variety of ways, but most commonly through the use of gas-powered refrigerators.  These may be specially made or adapted from standard refrigerators.

More conservative Amish may rely on an old-fashioned icebox.  They may receive a delivery of ice, or in some cases, cut it from frozen ponds in winter.  Amish also use coolers to preserve products they are selling from the heat, such as pies and cakes, and also to carry lunch, for example children going to school or day laborers to the jobsite.

Electricity is used in some businesses

Some Amish do in fact use electricity in their businesses.  The owner of a market stand business may make use of the electrical capacity provided in the stand.  The use of electricity in this case is allowed as the stand itself is not owned by the Amish person, only rented by him.

amish electricity

Lighting in a New Order Amish business

Other Amish may generate electricity for various devices as described above, by making use of a generator and inverter.  In addition to electricity, many Amish make use of both hydraulic (oil) and pneumatic (air) forms of power, referred to as “Amish electricity” (see Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture, pp. 208-210).  A diesel engine will be used to drive these devices.

Amish may operate air hammers or a variety of tools using these means of power.  Some Amish may have electric forms of lighting installed in shops, especially if working with flammable chemicals (ie, furniture finishing).  Generally, Amish allow a greater degree of technology in places of business than in the home or schoolhouse.

Some more conservative Amish, such as Swartzentruber Amish, will not permit these means of powering equipment, however.  In such cases they may rely on a line shaft attached to a number of belts which drive various pieces of equipment in a shop.

Electricity while also be used to varying degrees on the farm, as in powering welders or electric fences to confine livestock.  Gas engines are also used to power lawnmowers or weed whackers in some Amish church districts, though they would be off-limits in others.

Buggy lighting

Amish also need lighting while traveling by carriage.  While kerosene lantern lighting was used for a while in the early 20th century, some Amish in fact adopted electric lighting on buggies as early as the 1920s and into the 1930s, when its usage became widespread in Lancaster County (Riddle, Kraybill, p. 77-78).

amish buggy lights

Electric buggy lights in a carriage shop in Big Valley, PA

Electric lighting is widespread today, with some buggies sporting fairly elaborate turn signals and even strobe flashing lights, all designed to get the attention of motorists and prevent accidents.

However, some of the more conservative Amish, such as the Nebraska Amish and Swartzentruber Amish groups, forgo electric lighting in favor of one or two kerosene lamps hung on the sides of the carriage.

Yet most Amish, being safety conscious, take advantage of electric lighting and attempt to make their buggies as visible as possible.  They are powered by an onboard battery, that may be located in the buggy itself, or in a newer innovation, hung below the chassis in order to prevent battery acid spilling inside the carriage in the event of an accident.  Recently, an Amishman even developed an alternator to help keep the on-board buggy battery charged and prevent loss of lighting on roads at night.

Amish use electricity selectively

The Amish are not against use of electric power and acknowledge its usefulness.  They seek to remain off the public grid in order to prevent worldly influences from entering the home, and as a symbolic means of remaining separate from the world.

At the same time, they see value in limited use of electric power, and thus generate it by various means, making use of diesel generators, batteries, inverters, and solar panels, among other technologies.  Amish use of electricity is another example of the measured Amish approach to technology, one that acknowledges practical needs while maintaining caution in adopting the innovations of the dominant society.

For further information, see:

The Riddle of Amish Culture, Donald B. Kraybill

Living Without Electricity, Stephen E. Scott and Kenneth Pellman

Amish Online Encyclopedia: Do all Amish use the Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) triangle?

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