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5 Smart Ways to Respond To a Blackout!

Here are five ways to stay resilient when facing a prolonged blackout.  This list is a little more advanced than buying candles and flashlights.

NUMBER 1

Stay informed on the loss of power in your area.  A great way to do that is through an outage map.  Many “modern” utility companies have them.  You can find a link to one on their website.  Bookmark it so it’s handy.

Here’s the one for my area.  It’s charting the spread of the outage in real-time, with the number of customers in each town and the number affected by the outage.

It’s also interactive, since you can report an outage in your town.  Nicely done.

 

NUMBER 2

Report your blackout to the power company.  Make sure the 1-800 number of the power company is written down and in a handy place.

What’s the advantage to this?

With many companies, if you report the outage, they will also keep you informed on the progress to return power.  They are usually very good at this (they are able to automate it, so it’s really easy for them to do it).

NOTE:  To take advantage of this, you need to have a traditional handset for your phone.  Traditional handsets run off a trick of power from the telephone line.  I’m continuously surprised how many people don’t know that wireless base stations don’t work during a power outage unless they are plugged into a battery backup system.

 

NUMBER 3

Put yourself on your town’s reverse 911 call list.

Many towns now have access to inexpensive systems that let them inexpensively robocall everyone in town with important messages (school is cancelled, etc.).

However, you might not get these messages unless you put yourself on the town’s “to call” list.

 

NUMBER 4

Buy and install a backup generator.  There are more than a few ways to do this.

Here’s what we did in my home.   We installed 20,000 watt whole house generator.

Here’s what it looks like.  I’d take a picture of mine, but it’s raining pretty hard outside.

Why is this system resilient?

  • It comes on automatically when power is lost.
  • It produces all of the power we need to run the entire house.  We can now produce all of the electricity we use on premises.
  • It produces power continuously, at nearly the same price as we buy it from the electric company, from natural gas (which seldom suffers an outage).  That means we don’t have to refuel it in the storm.

There is one hidden benefit I didn’t include on this list.  Now that we can produce our own power, we’ve become an asset to our community rather than a debit.

Our home is now a refuge for family members and close friends in need of warm bed.  It’s also a benefit to our neighbors.  We can provide hot food or a hot shower when needed.

Over time, as we add more production to our home and community, events like this will fail to have a meaningful impact in anything other than in the most extreme and rare case.

NOTE:  Generators like this are in high demand.  There’s a long, eight month waiting list.   I’m glad we got on the list right after the storms last year.  So, if you want a system like this before next year’s storm season, order it now.

NOTE:  This generator can run on natural gas, propane, and biogas/methane.  It makes my home an energy omnivore.

NUMBER 5

Live in a town that has a well run municipal power grid.  Experience shows that locally managed grids get back up and running MUCH faster than larger, regional grids.

For example, the August and October blackouts of 2011, lasted nearly a week each.  In contrast, local power companies were able to get back to 100% in a couple of days.

One of the reasons the power outage lasted so long:  the regional power company was being managed to make itself more attractive for buy-out by a larger firm (it’s one of the few ways a management team can get rich in a regulated industry that is guaranteed profits).  To accomplish this, these intrepid managerial “risk takers” cut the tree trimming budget by 30%.  Of course, that proved to be a pretty dumb thing to do.

Local ownership of the power system is also a great way to accelerate the local production of energy.  New “microgrid” systems make it possible for local providers to offer many more features than the regional power company, including micro-markets for local providers.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to buy back infrastructure from the big utility companies.  Boulder, CO is trying to do this right now and it has proven to be very difficult.

 

____

Hope to have more tomorrow.  The wind is picking up and the power has flickered a couple of times already.

Resiliently Yours,

 

JOHN ROBB

 

PS:  If there is a prolonged period of political and economic failure like we are seeing in Greece and Spain, power production will suffer.  What will happen?  You will experience a continuous series of brownouts and rolling blackouts as the power company runs out of funds to buy and produce energy.  You’ll also get sudden blackouts as thieves down power lines to steal valuable copper or guerrillas disrupt services.  When that happens, ad hoc grids usually spring up.  They use a rat’s nest of local generators and newly strung wires.  These shoddy systems can get very large (multi-megawatt).  These systems are both dangerous and toxic (fumes).   It’s much better to have a resilient local microgrid in place, run by a municipal power company, before the regional utility companies run into problems.

 

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • If you can’t afford a generator, I’d look into a UPS for your computer and modem/router, because John’s “NUMBER 1″ won’t work if you suddenly find yourself without power.

    Another thing to look into is if your utility has an RSS feed. Here in British Columbia, BC Hydro provides RSS info that at this moment tells me that nine customers in the 900 block of Preston Way in Langford are without power.

    (For those who don’t know, “RSS” means “Really Simple Syndication,” and it’s a way that you can have websites “push” updates to your computer without your having to check their website. Apple Safari has a built-in RSS reader, but there are lots of free ones available for various platforms. You can make them put updates in your menu bar, “crawl” them across the bottom of your screen, or pop up a notifier. I use “RSS Menu,” a freebie for Mac OS.)

    I’m sure John’s 20 kW backup generator is simply wonderful… at probably a five-figure cost!

    If you have some basic knowledge of electricity, you can “patch” any ordinary ~$300 generator into your house via your dryer or oven range outlet. You will have to make a cord with a 220 VAC plug on either end. PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS DEADLY DANGEROUS IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING

    When you power goes out, first, throw the main breaker, so that your generator isn’t trying to power the entire grid. Then turn off the circuit breakers to high-current things like baseboard heaters and water heaters. Then plug your “patch cord” into an accessible, high-current 220 VAC outlet — I used the dryer because it is accessible and near a window. Be sure it is connected to both ends before starting the generator.

    When the power comes back on, do things in reverse: turn off the generator, unplug the “patch cord,” turn on you breaker, finally turning on the main breaker.

    Here’s our procedure written up a bit more formally.

    Another thing I didn’t see John mention was emergency water. Even if you’re on a gravity-feed water system, flooding or other disasters may make that water unsafe. So you should keep emergency water on hand. We have five gallons in one-gallon jugs. We boil the water before it goes in, then we date the jug with a grease pencil. Every now and then, we use the oldest one for cat water (the boiled water doesn’t get slimy as quickly in their 2-litre-bottle waterer).

    Finally, I’m a fan of gasoline camping lanterns and cookstoves. Propane may be unavailable in an extended emergency, whereas gasoline is generally only a siphon away from the nearest vehicle.

  • Nuclear plant alert as 26 facilities in Sandy’s path
    http://rt.com/usa/news/sandy-nuclear-power-plant-500/

    “You’ll hear in the next two days, ‘we’ve shut down the plant,’” he says, “but what that means is they stopped the chain reaction. But what Fukushima taught us was that that doesn’t stop the decay heat. There is still as much as 5 percent of the power from the power plant that doesn’t go away when the plant shuts down, and for that you need the diesels to keep the plant cool,” referring to the diesel-powered generators that will control the reservoirs.

    “Some of these plants have two diesels, and some of these have three diesels, and they are designed so that if one of these fails then they can still get by,” he says. “As the plant operator, as the people running the plant, it’s a little bit of a nervous time to realize that you’re on your last fall-back,” he warns. “You just hope that’s your last fall-back.”

    http://emergentbydesign.com/2010/03/16/an-idea-worth-spreading-the-future-is-networks/

  • Dan

    One handy and cheaper way of doing it is installing an electrical subpanel next to the main panel then moving critical circuits to it. Then you can have the generators transfer switch disconnect the sub panel from the main panel and supply power to it.

    A smaller generator will use less fuel, or conversely run longer on a given amount of fuel. It also costs less to install and maintain. Speaking of maintenance, beware of models that require proprietary parts. Generac is the king of proprietary parts. They only work with a Generac transfer switch and most repairs require Generac parts witch can be hard to come by when you really need them and are outrageously expensive. However, the generator is generally the cheapest. Caveat emptor!

    On the sub pannel you would want things like lights, refrigerator, freezer, etc. If you have a gas furnace be sure to put the blower on the sub panel or it will not work even if you have gas. Also be sure to put at least one outlet on it for medical appliances, rechargeable flashlights, and communications. I would also put a heavy duty red outlet on that so it is easy to find when things aren’t going well. Heavy duty because the 99¢ outlets don’t have much metal in them and will not stand up to constant plugging and unplugging.

    For home use I would consider getting one of Honda’s EU series. They produce plenty of power to run the fridge, furnace blower or a fan and some lights. They are quiet, efficient, portable. Since they are popular with RVers there are kits available to convert them to tri-fuel, gasoline, propane and natural gas. However you would need a manual transfer switch and a cord/outlet for “shore power”

    • John Robb

      Thanks Dan. I like ability to run the home off of natural gas/propane/methane as needed, indefinitely. I’m pretty sure I can find a way to grey market generac parts.

      JR

  • Boomushroom

    How well did your generator fare when it was underwater?

    • John Robb

      It wasn’t underwater. I put it in a safe spot. A place that gets great drainage. What was the point of the comment? Was it merely a troll? JR

  • Boomushroom

    No, not a troll, an honest question, albeit more sharply worded than necessary. That unit pictured looks like something you would bolt to the pad, and have major trouble moving, even if it wasn’t so bolted.

    Here where I live, theft of anything substantial made of metal is a daily occurance. Something inherently valuable like this even more so. Even bolted down.

    After I saw the ConEd substation video, I thought many people with generators would see theirs suffer a similar fate.

  • Jonathan Marks

    Mentioned this site in a blogpost today on storm surge barriers and the media. http://criticaldistance.blogspot.nl/2012/11/learning-from-each-other-media-must-be.html

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