The following is an after-action report.
We are a couple in our mid-sixties living in our retirement (retreat) home in the south central U. S. We retired and moved from a very “blue” northern state with an eye toward living more safely in uncertain times. As a result, our house was built with some features that could help us when living gets “interesting. “
We live in a rural area, on a dead-end road with about nine neighbors. We have occasionally experienced power outages but to this point they have only been short term, one to four hours in duration.
The house is equipped with a dual-fuel generator that could power the entire house. It is regularly maintained and I have oil, filters and spark plugs stocked for long term use. A 350 gallon propane tank is dedicated for use with the generator. When the electricity stops, the generator runs two refrigerators and a large freezer, a heat pump, the well pump, and some lights.
Coming from a more northern location, we were used to getting “snowed in.” Our preparations include stored food and water. A gas fire place can adequately heat our living room and other rooms can be closed off to conserve heat. We invested in a rechargeable, battery-powered blanket can warm the bed before we sleep. We had a couple of battery lanterns, flashlights, candles and Cyalume light sticks for lighting. Five different cooking sources are available to us without electricity.
Early March brought a snowstorm of unusual intensity for this part of the country. The heavy, wet snow followed by cold temperatures bowed trees, closed roads and snapped power lines resulting in a widespread power outage. This time, when the power went out, it stayed out for 36 hours. Not a devastatingly long time without electricity but as it turned out it was a good practical test of our preparations.
Roads were unplowed and remained closed but our four-wheel drive truck or even our UTV could get us to help if we needed it. Both vehicle’s gasoline tanks were parked on full and I keep several additional gallons of treated gasoline stored.
When the weather forecast indicated a large winter storm, our phones and other devices were fully charged. Chainsaws and other equipment were checked and readied.
Not knowing how long the power outage would last, I thought it best to limit using the generator for one hour every four hours when we were awake. During this hour period, we were able to run the heat pump, heat food and water and retrieve what we needed from the refrigerator or freezer. Phones and other devices were charged then also. Since we have a well with an electric pump, we also refilled our water containers then. We ran the generator just before going to bed and then right away In the morning, and then started the four hour interval schedule. By using the generator at intervals, I was impressed by the minimal propane use by the generator.
The storm brought daytime temperatures of around 20 degrees, which is fairly cold for this part of the country. Our gas fire place kept the chill off but it didn’t radiate heat like usual as the battery power unit for the fan did not work. I could not find the reason for the problem. That issue will be addressed by the person who inspects and cleans the unit yearly.
We opened cupboard and vanity doors under all the sinks to keep the pipes as warm as we could to avoid freezing a water pipe. I had previously insulated these areas, especially those located against an outside wall.
For other cooking and heating water for coffee or tea, I opted to utilize our camp stove and placed it on a side porch that was somewhat sheltered from the wind. Battery-powered lanterns were our best source of light. I had made the mistake of keeping batteries in the lanterns and one lantern had batteries that had started to corrode the connections. I was able to clean the damage with baking soda and an old toothbrush with favorable results.
My wife makes soups and chili and then freezes everything in sealable plastic bags, flat in the freezer. When they freeze, the bags can then be slid into free spaces in the freezer and don’t take up much room. These were great for the power outage as we retrieved what we needed at the start of the generator cycle, reaching in quickly and then closing the freezer so it could regain its proper temperature. Heating the soup kept energy use to a minimum also.
Outside the house, we only had some small trees and limbs broken and nothing blocked our path to the yet unplowed road. Thankfully, no chainsaw work or major cleanup was necessary. The sunshine warmed the metal roofs on the house and my shop building, creating good-sized icicles. On day two, I decided to knock down the largest icicles on the edge of the shop roof.
I wear safety glasses every time I go into the shop and work on a project. Really, every time! I’m a fanatic about it. In my wisdom, I did not wear them when I was knocking down icicles. Sure enough, an ice chunk hit me in one eye resulting in blood vessel rupture. Stupid! Luckily, the injury looked worse than it was. Rather than risk the travel on unplowed roads, I decided to flush and ice my eye and wait a couple of days before being examined by an eye doctor. Thankfully there was no permanent injury.
We continued our generator schedule and our new routine until power was restored.
We should have conducted a test of our preparations by throwing the breakers and living without electricity for at least a couple of days and nights, preferably when it was a bit warmer.
We did not have enough battery lanterns for convenience sake. One in each room would be best.
We stored the needed batteries in each piece of equipment. It would be better to store them with the equipment but not install them, in case of corrosion.
There was no battery-powered backup fan for the fireplace. A couple of battery fans would be useful in summer as well.
Use safety equipment always, especially when medical care may be difficult to access. My neglect in forgetting my safety glasses and my decision that those icicles just had to come down were two mistakes that could have been very bad. Think about your use of vehicles, fire, chainsaws, axes, propane tanks, heat sources in a similar situation and weigh the risk versus the reward. Remember if you can’t get to help, help may not be able to get to you.
No traditional thermometer. The thermostat goes out with the electricity so we didn’t know how cold the interior of the house was getting until we started the generator.
No mechanical timer to help regulate generator cycles and cooking. We had to keep checking our phones.
An auxiliary heat source would have been nice to have between heat pump cycles to maintain a more stable temperature.
- Our basic preparations were good and came in handy. Food and water were covered.
- We had plenty of batteries for the equipment we had.
- We had no frozen water pipes.
- The rechargeable blanket worked great for warming the bed before sleeping. It was a valuable luxury.
- Though not needed, our vehicles were fully fueled and capable of transporting us over unplowed roads to get help if we needed it.
- The generator schedule worked well, we were able to stay somewhat comfortable and did not have to use that much propane.
- The camp stove worked well and was very handy to have. If you do not have one, get one!
The frozen soups were also handy and saved energy and cooking time.
We took this opportunity to make sure we checked with our neighbors to see if they needed extra firewood, lights, or other necessities. None of them did but the offer was made. Nice to be kind to the neighbors and good neighborly relations can pay dividends in the future.
Post-Event Actions Taken
I prepared a shopping list and purchased more lanterns, a couple of fans, a thermometer, a timer and fresh replacement batteries of various sizes. Everything on the list totaled less than a hundred dollars.
The new supplies were organized and placed in a marked box for the next power outage. I made a few operational notes and placed them in the box as well. A headlamp and appropriate batteries were placed in the box last so they could be used first.
I researched kerosene heaters and checked several reviews of popular models and purchased one. There is a learning curve for these so I did several tests, all with good results. (Check out www.milesstair.com) Some kerosene was purchased and subsequently stored. Extra wicks were purchased as well.
A small microwave oven was also purchased. This can be plugged into a circuit that is powered by the generator.
Camp stove fuel was purchased to replace what was used and the generator propane tank was refilled.
In summary, this 36-hour period was a good small-scale test of how we would live without electricity in the wintertime, at least in the short term. It tested our preparations and our equipment and made us think of different solutions to different problems. Also important were our shortcomings which become very obvious, very quickly. Most important were the immediate improvements to those problems so we can be more confident in future situations.