Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handling a power outage

It is that time of year here in New England when heavy snow fall and ice storms are a real threat. Each year I expect us to lose power a few times, at least one of which will be for a day or more. The year before we moved into our current house, the area was without power for 2 weeks due to ice, so we know long term power loss is a reality we might face. In classic Yankee style, people here cope. This is true in many parts of the country for various reasons. Let's talk about how to do it.

Depending on where you are in the US when you lose power, this can be your biggest concern. While areas in places like Texas and California can experience power outages during very hot months, living without AC is primarily a concern to the elderly and very young. This can be dangerous and something I will briefly touch on as well. However, if it's below freezing out, EVERYONE is in danger, so we'll focus there.

The best option is to have a heat source not dependent on electricity. Many homes in the north have either a primary or secondary heat source not tied to the grid. Of course, those in apartment complexes or many more modern homes may have nothing but electric baseboard or forced hot air, both of which are useless without power. Let's talk first about the large options, then dive into heating without them.

Wood -
Fireplaces are pretty common in many older homes and are still built in modern houses for appearance and ambiance. The problem with a fire place, especially in new construction, is that our homes are now not built in a fashion to take advantage of the way they work. room layouts have changed, insulation methods have improved, and people are less used to waking up in a cold house. Round the clock warmth is a fairly new thing in the scope of human history. Still, a fireplace might be your best bet in an emergency, but there are dangers and caveats to keep in mind.

With ANY wood burning option, you'll have a chimney with which to deal. This means maintenance in the form of regular cleanings. Many people neglect this important need, especially if they only use the fireplace on occasion. In an unlined chimney, soot and residue build up pretty quickly. Even in a lined one, getting a chimney sweep (yes, they're really out there, and no, they don't sing and dance like Dick Van Dyke) in once a year to clean it out is a good idea. If you use the fireplace a lot, get it lined. A metal tube is put inside the brick chimney to prevent residue building as quickly. Also, NEVER burn pine in your fireplace as the creosote will cling to the chimney walls more quickly, catching more soot along the way. Stick to burning hardwoods, they provide more heat anyway.

Many people have opted to replace or supplement their fireplace with a wood stove or fireplace insert. This may be less aesthetically pleasing, but provides much better heat production. We put an insert into our old fireplace within a year of moving in and couldn't be happier. The insert takes up a lot less room than a wood stove and provides a glass front for viewing the fire. A blower helps move the heat out of the insert and into the room while the large amount of iron in the insert holds the heat and radiates it back into the house. Even when there is no fire, it helps to prevent the warm air in the house from going up the chimney. The downsides are needing a lot of firewood to keep it going, and the overall dirt and detritus that goes with handling wood a lot. That and keeping it stocked. Since our primary heat in the house is oil, we do use it very regularly to help keep our oil bill down. When the power goes out, it is our only heat source, though the blower doesn't work without power. I'll talk about how that gets handled in a bit.

Pellet stoves -
These have become hugely popular in the last few decades. Using compressed sawdust or cherry pits, they make use of fuel sources that would otherwise be wasted. They do require a chimney and stick out from the wall, but many have found they can place one in their basement, especially with a large feed hopper, and forget about them when there is power. Their biggest drawback in an outage is that they use electricity for both their blower and the auger that feeds the fire. This is something to consider if this is to be your backup heat sorce.

As we're starting to see, electricity is everywhere in our heat! Oil and gas heat sources primarily rely on electricity to power the blowers that move heat from the furnace throughout the house. This is not true of old gas systems, but most of those have been removed from modern homes for safety concerns. If you don't have a wood option, you're going to need something to keep you going. Let's look at a few alternate, short term solutions.

Kerosene and propane heaters -
These are very popular short-term choices. They are relatively small and portable and kick out a lot of heat for their size. The danger is partially caused by that high heat output - they can quickly use up the oxygen in an area and/or produce carbon monoxide. As such, they need ventilation to avoid serious risk. There are some designed to burn slower and longer which provide less risk, but it is generally wise to use them in only short bursts indoors and try to keep them ventilated. NEVER go to sleep with one burning in the house, as there is a serious risk that you won't wake up! Do your research when purchasing, and follow the warnings.

Gas -
Without electricity, your big gas furnace may not be working, but all may not be lost! Gas stoves and ovens are often put into service as heaters. In fact, many have a heating element on the side of the stove. These are a good way to heat the kitchen and surrounding rooms, but may not get into bedrooms too easily. This leads us to the smartest, first thing to do when you expect a large power outage where heat (or cool!) will be a concern. Think small!

Other options -
One reason older homes could get by with central fireplaces is that they used less space than we do today. Even large colonial homes would shut off rooms during the winter. Our modern, open-style homes require heat everywhere. When faced with a power outage, it is wise to quickly shrink your living space to the bare essentials. This may mean moving out of bedrooms into the living room, using tarps and blankets in open doorways, and covering large windows when the sun goes down to better trap heat in the area. If you have kids, make this a fun thing, a family camping trip to the living room, and you might come out of it all with some great memories!

If you're stuck without heat sources for your new, smaller living space, I recently saw a great idea floating out on the interwebs. Using just a few flower pots and tea light candles, you can make a small heater. I have yet to try it out, but shall be doing so shortly and will report back. You can learn about it HERE. If it works as well as stated, you should be able to keep toasty with just a little prep.

Food storage
My first concern whenever we lose power is less about our heat (since the house will take a while to get too cold) but instead out our food storage. While a modern fridge is insulated and acts as a cooler, it tends to get opened a lot, more so by kids. The freezer, especially the "up top" versions, will lose their cool into the fridge, so have limited time as well. I usually figure I have about 24 hours before everything needs a new home, and plan accordingly.

Coolers -
Pretty evident, move your food into a cooler. Of course, you'll need ice for this, and a cooler is only a few day solution for the most part. It will help significantly if you have some ice stored up - storing frozen bottles of water (which thaw into drinking water) is a big help - and pack it with the coldest stuff you have. We own a few coolers of various sizes that do OK for a few days. I also recently decided to take the plunge and get a Pelican cooler. I'll telly you, I've never encountered a more impressive cooler. I recently went away for a weekend and packed it with beer and a few Blue Ice packs. I intended to add more ice to it but never did, yet the beer stayed cool for 3 days. The plan is to use that one for frozen meat that I want to make sure doesn't defrost if we have an outage more than a day or 2.

Cooking -
This is a good plan for things in the fridge. Make meals that use the items you're most worried about loosing. Prioritize. Things like bacon, certain sandwich meats, cheeses, juices, and even eggs can last for longer than milk, meats, and the like. I recommend taking a quick picture first thing after an outage of what is in the fridge so you can plan accordingly. Oh, and eat the ice cream quickly, it is probably calorie free in the circumstances.

Throw it out -
No, I don't mean get rid of it. If, like often is the case in the north, you lose power in the winter, put your food outside! Put it in plastic bins and tubs and put it right in a snow drift. Keep an eye on the outside temps to make sure you won't have major thaws that cause you to lose the food, but otherwise enjoy nature's cooler.

For thousands of years, mankind lived with the idea that the sun going down was the end of the productive part of our day. Eventually we developed candles, then gas lights, and, yet again, electricity. This last step fundamentally changed how we work and live in the developed world. No longer were we limited to daylight hours for work and entertainment. But when the power goes out, we experience more of what our ancestors did. Chances are good that your biology will kick in and cause you to get tired sooner than you normally would. Don't fight it, but you still will need some light, especially during the winter months where darkness comes so early.

Candles -
These are great for reading and general lighting, but they don't put out a ton of (wait for it) candlepower. They're also pretty cheap, and can fuel that heat lamp above. You can up the illumination by putting them in front of mirrors and reflective surfaces. Make certain you protect surfaces from dripping wax and keep them away from pets and small children. And pre-teen boys, trust me on the last one.

Oil lamps -
You can lump other lamps, like lanterns and kerosene lamps in this category as well. As they can be refilled, they'll last a lot longer than candles will, making them a decent investment. The fire hazard is a potential risk, but people figured out how to live with them for years, so you should get by for a day or 3. The ability to adjust the flame size is a big benefit in my book.

Battery operated electric light -
A broad category, there are a lot of great options here. handheld flashlights are nice for getting around, but generally suck for lighting up a room. Some can convert into more of a lamp or lantern style. You also have to weigh rechargeable versus disposable battery, too. I like to have a few dedicated lantern types charged and ready to go, then have standard flashlights where I know how to find them. One always needs to live at the top of any stairs you might have as a safety precaution. Having dedicated power failure lights that come on when the power dies can be a huge help, just make sure you check them once in a while as they can die from constant charging.

Like folks anywhere in the first world today, electricity has become a matter of dependence, not just convenience. We're used to light on demand, constant entertainment, and running any and every kitchen appliance we can imagine. Then Mother Nature comes along and puts the brakes on our fun!

Generators -
OK, yes, you can run a generator. I'll admit it, I do. But if you're going to make that much noise and suck down the gas, make it worth while. In our house, we use a large portable generator, not the wired in propane style. This means I need to plan for when and what we will run. We set about 3 hours a day to handle it, during which time the fridge and deep freezer run constantly. A power strip is used to charge up all the vital electronics, like cell phones, so that we have constant communication with the outside world. The TV used to go on to check on the outside world, but smart phones have made that less vital in our house. Your needs may very.

The critical thing, and I can't stress this enough, is to do everything you can to be able to shut the generator off overnight. First off, leaving it unattended while asleep is a bad idea. Secondly, nothing seems quieter than a neighborhood without electricity. Don't be that one house keeping people up with their noisy power generation at a time when you aren't even using it!

Battery Backups -
While many are familiar with UPS systems for computers, you may not realize you can build or buy a battery system to use for the house and car. There are instructions all over the web for building a system, like this one on Instructables, but I opted for a more portable option that generally lives in our cars. The Power Dome can recharge in the car or through AC current, making it very flexible, but it is remarkably compact. When we need to run the blower for our heat, this is what I turn to. The draw of a blower is fairly low, allowing this to run a long time. It will also recharge in my generator window with no difficulty. This could also power a fan should you need to keep cool during hot months.

What do you do to entertain yourself without power? This should be an easy one to figure out. Pull out those old board games or cards, tell stories, sing songs, or read books by candlelight. If you need to, run the laptop battery down to nothing watching a DVD, but maybe now is a time to do all those things you've been planning to do, as long as they don't take electricity. Otherwise, test the battery life on your iPad.

So, some general thoughts here on dealing with power outages. They really aren't a big deal with a bit of planning. In fact, they can be a bit of a vacation, assuming you aren't shivering and wishing you'd been better prepared! Share your thoughts and plans below, I'd love to hear them!