Lessons from five days without electricity

A week ago tonight big clumps of heavy wet snow were falling from the sky, weakening tree limbs that would eventually fall onto electrical wires and leave us in cold and darkness for five days. I’ve already shared my opinion on why it took so long to restore power. Tonight I wanted to take inventory of some of the more practical lessons learned from that experience.

1. If you’ve converted your garage into a storage unit, make room for your car when a storm approaches. Moving your stuff is less work than getting a broken car window repaired after a tree limb falls upon it;

2. Speaking of the garage, learn how to disconnect the door from the automatic opener before the power goes out;

3. With a gas stove, you can always light the burners with a match which allows you to do some cooking and heat water. An electric stove is of no use in a blackout.

4. Having municipal water that flows because of pressure and doesn’t need a pump ensures you have plenty of fresh water for drinking, cooking and flushing the toilet. No need to turn your bathtub into a cistern.

5. If you own an iPad and you like to read, be sure to charge it up and download a few books (using the Kindle app, for instance). Because the iPad screen is illuminated, you don’t strain your eyes reading by candle or lantern light.

6. Having a cell phone charger that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter is essential. By conserving battery strength by shutting down the phone periodically and using the car battery to charge the phone, you have internet access via your cell phone even when there’s no electricity.

7. In a world of digital devices, there’s nothing like local AM radio to keep you informed during a local emergency – thank you WCAP

8. Twitter once again proved its usefulness. Using a cell phone to tweet and to read the tweets of others, was an important supplement to AM radio news during the blackout. And with a max of 140 characters per message, Twitter doesn’t tax your cell phone battery.

9. The old fashioned land line telephone, brought to you by the progeny of American Telephone and Telegraph, still works without electricity (assuming the trees that took down the electric wires didn’t do the same with the phone wires. Of course, you have to have a telephone that’s powered by the phone line, not one that relies on electricity.

10. Having your refrigerator, microwave, and coffee brewer out of action require you to modify your shopping list. Things like instant coffee, instant oatmeal, pasta, peanut butter, canned veggies and tuna are all good as are bananas, tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables that don’t require refrigeration.

11. The biggest challenge to me was heat. A couple of nights during this stretch, the outside temperature slipped just below freezing and the inside temperature slid from 70 to 40 by the time it was over. That was uncomfortably cold but not dangerously cold. If this had happened in January rather than October, it would have been a different story. Sure you can go some place else, but that’s tougher to do if you have a pet like we do. Plus, you can’t bring your water pipes to an emergency shelter. Five days without power in sub-freezing temperatures could cause a lot of expensive damage. So what to do?

12. A portable generator is one option. You might get one for about $1000 that would be sufficient to run your refrigerator, hot water tank, a few lights and your boiler. It would be impractical to run a generator throughout the outage, but you really wouldn’t need to. A few hours of operation late in the afternoon and into the evening would be sufficient to keep your home above freezing. Keeping the thing filled with gasoline would be a challenge as would connecting any devices that don’t simply plug in. Unless you’re an electrician, messing around with copper wiring is risky.

13. Quite a few folks who suffered through this outage are talking about installing built-in natural gas generators. As I understand it, these things are hard wired into your electrical system, sit outside your foundation like a central air conditioning unit, and are powered by your existing natural gas service. When the electrical power goes out, this unit immediately turns on and keeps your home powered up indefinitely. That’s the upside. The downside is they are very expensive – anywhere from $5K to $10K for hardware and installation from what I’m told. Plus, if everyone gets one of these units, it takes the pressure off of National Grid: our electrical power would be out for five weeks, never mind five days.

So those are some of my observations of life without electricity. The list is by no means complete, so your suggested additions are welcome.

3 Responses to Lessons from five days without electricity

  1. kad barma says:

    The natural gas generator I purchased many years ago when I lived “in the country” was set up with a carburetor that worked with both natural gas as well as gasoline. (Just in case the natural gas flow was interrupted). These are not that much more expensive than the only-gasoline kind, (not the price difference you’re estimating here for like-sized models), and they would attach to your home’s electrical system in the exact same way a gasoline-only generator would. We chose hard-wiring it to our circuit panel via a (relatively expensive) switching system so we could swap sources all at once, which is also an option for a gasoline-only model, but you can run extension cords to specific appliances just the same. The advantage of a permanent switched connection is that you never need to plug and unplug things–just start the generator and go. Getting something to power the whole house is expensive, but if you pick only the circuits with the essentials on them (refrigerator, well pump if any, stove, etc.) it doesn’t have to be that big. Not sure what inflation has done to prices, but all-in should be less than $5000 for a modest setup, even with a plumber and electrician to do the direct connection to the natural gas supply and your home circuit panel. The $10000 option would surely cover the whole house. Given the downside risk of pipes freezing, not to mention the quality of life during an outage, it’s short money. Throw in another few thousand for a wood stove setup and you won’t be inconvenienced at all. Or, you could move to a downtown mill condo and skip the worries all around. ;-)

  2. DickH says:

    Thanks for fleshing out the generator options. My minimum appliances needing power would be the boiler and hot water tank (both natural gas fueled but both needing electricity to work) and probably the refrigerator, although you could live without that for a while, especially if you don’t store a lot of expensive stuff in your freezer. One or two interior lights would be good, too, since dim lighting and long nights takes a psychological toll. Maybe the cable modem and router to allow internet access and a power strip to charge the cell phone and laptop.

    Given the toll an extended winter outage could extract, the generator with the already-installed switch to the electrical does indeed sounds like a wise option – just call it a one-time insurance premium. Still, I suspect that as more people adopt that kind of setup, the responsiveness of National Grid will erode even more.

  3. kad barma says:

    National Grid is not as bad as many, but municipal power companies are always better in both price and service. Like the internet’s strength being it’s many-node approach, rather than concentrating on a single trunk which becomes a potential single point of failure, our power generation must always be better the more capacity we have closer to where it’s used. Personal private generators are just the higher expression of the ideal. Some folks at MIT have even created “hybrid” home heating power plants that let the furnace pump electricity back for use elsewhere. I sometimes miss being out in the sticks where I could remain part of that game, but, as I tell everyone who will listen, there is no more efficient way to live than in a mill building condo.