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How to Bounce Back From a Blackout that Lasts

Sandy the third major blackout in the northeastern US in less than two years.  Unfortunately, it’s a sign of things to come.

We can expect many more in the future as environmental and economic conditions worsen.

Toronto ON 2003 Blackout

Fortunately, we have a great community building here, willing to ask the right questions and share insights and experience.

Here’s two reader letters that address how to bounce back from a blackout that lasts a week or more.

Reader Question

Hi John,

I am one of those New Yorkers that’s been without power for 11 days now. It’s still going to take a while to get back online b/c a utility pole on our property went down and the power company would not deal with just one customer until the whole grid is back. So even though our neighborhood may be back soon we will still be in the dark (and cold).

I am looking to get the Generac whole house generator you recommended b/c we have natural gas. I do not want to go through this experience again of having no power for so long. We have a 2-year-old girl and it’s been tough to keep her cozy and warm.

Someone told me that the cost of installing an NG generator is astronomical. Since I am looking at purchasing the same 20,000 watt one you have could you tell me what a fair installation price would be?

Oh, we already have NG in the house for our oven, hot water heat and clothes dryer so no cost to run the pipe to the house.

Thanks for teaching me so many interesting and useful things!

P

Dear P,

Installation and equipment on a generator of that size will likely run you 50% of the purchase cost.  That’s likely to be about $3,000 in the New York area.

It’s pricey, but it allows you lots of flexibility.  In the short-term, it allows you to generate electricity a) continuously, b) in large quantities, and c) at a rate that isn’t that much more than what you pay right now.

Longer term, the ability to produce electricity from natural gas, propane, and treated methane may be critical to maintaining a normal life and the ability to make an income from your home.

On another note, even in today’s world, I suspect that homes with generators will sell at a premium to those that don’t.   How much of a premium?  I suspect the premium will be a function of how recently there was a big blackout.  My gut suggests the return will be 200% of the install cost.  That’s not a bad return on investment, out of the box.

However, even if you have the capacity to make the investment today, there’s a problem with the availability of home sized generators.  They are in short supply, due to Sandy.  As a result, it’s going to take nearly a year to get a generator that you order today.

In terms of staying warm.  Another option, you might want to investigate is a stand alone stove or a stove insert for a chimney.

Options include standard wood, biomass pellet, and natural gas.  I’ve got a chart in the most recent (November) issue of Resilient Strategies that will help you evaluate alternatives.  These stoves can keep a standard home warm, save you money, improve your resilience, and substantially improve your home’s warmth during the winter months (you actually feel warmer).   However, some of these advanced systems require outlet power to operate, so back them up!

Stay Resilient,

John Robb

 

Sandy’s Introduction to A Life w/o Electricity

Hi John.

I just had the lights come back on and relatives move out in time for another storm.  I live on the water in New Jersey and my neighborhood was hit very hard by Sandy.  I wanted to share some of my observations but first, crisis is tough and many of my friends lost their homes or businesses or were displaced for a week or more.  Some still do not have power.  That said, there were things I really liked about having no electricity and very few things I disliked.

In no particular order:

Life with the sun.  Life was physically draining and we generally went to bed with the sun and got up with the sun.  The clock did not matter.  We did know what meal was next and when it was time to get the kids ready for bed before the sun went down.  If there were things that needed to be done we did them in the dark and made sure to do them earlier the next day.

Ritual Necessity.  There were daily things that needed to be done for our little group (four adults and four children) to make it through.  The house had to be warmed up in the morning. Breakfast, lunch and dinner had to be planned out in advance, based on food supplies.  Generator use was planned and all cell phones needed to be plugged in or you had to wait until the next running.  All flashlights had to be gathered and put in their place for use that evening.  The adults went out into the wider community to gather news and contribute food, labor, clothes or comfort.  We all got into a survival groove that was simple and, frankly, nice.

Togetherness.  Instead of being spread all throughout the house, each in his or her own room, we were all together for meal preparation, eating, clean up and playing games afterward.  Having the heat centralized around the kitchen helped, but so did the limits of electricity.  We all stayed and talked or played until we were tired and went to bed. This crisis brought my family closer but also added another family to the mix, giving us a double dose of closeness.  It was fine, but boundaries between “public” and “private” space does need to be reviewed.

Skills.  When the children were with the adults they generally wanted to help.  We made soup, learned how to crochet, hung sheets in the doorways, tried out a bicycle generator and experimented with improving daily life. It was trial and error but the learning was real, and necessary.

Food.  The focus on food was really wonderful.  We were lucky enough to have a reasonable store of dry goods and a fully stocked chest freezer (thanks Costco).  We usually freeze juice bottles filled with water for the summer and had several in the freezer.  My wife had the good sense to add two cases of bottled water into the cracks as well so our freezer was fine a week after the power went out with selective harvesting.  I really did appreciate the ritual of cooking and eating though.  It took so much time to cook, eat and clean that it was probably close to 50% of our day.

I’ll share more as I can.  It has really been an eye opener for me even though I’ve been thinking about these things for quite some time.  

Keep working at it John!

Dan

 

Thanks so much for the letter Dan!

Resiliently Yours,

John Robb

 

PS:  Thanks to everyone that joined Resilient Strategies last week.  It’s already an amazing community with a great deal of expertise.   Some quick notes: If you haven’t gotten your first letter from Resilient Strategies yet, please contact us immediately.  Second, there were some problems with the list of electricity outage maps in the US.  We’ve fixed it.  All the links should work now.  Finally, we’re working on the best way to collaborate and discuss resilient solutions and projects.  We’ve got quite a few amazing DiY prototypes in backlog, so the pressure is on us to make a decision on the best way to share them with the RS community.

For everyone not in the RS community, don’t despair.  I’ll continue the free Resilient Communities newsletter. 

 

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rob Patwrson

    Our insert wood burner will be installed this week. Wood us plentiful where we live and is an ideal back up.

    • John Robb

      Enjoy!

  • David Jacobs

    John,

    I find your posts very usefull, thank you for your efforts. My stategies for resliance have been a bit different. We missed any dammage from Sandy, but things worked out well for us with Irene, when we lost power for 5 days.

    We do not have a generator, I have been useing small solar pannel kits – both sunforce 60 watt or harbor freight 45 watt with portable power packs and some deep cycle batteries. The power packs can be moved from room to room as needed to provice light, and charge appliances or run fans. We re-connect them to the PV pannels as needed.

    We have a DC powered fridge ( designed for RV crowd) that the heavier deep cycle batteries power, its small and we have to run it intermeittanly but it gets the job done. We have also aquired a variety of DC powered appliances (TV,fan , radio, power supply to laptops, lights etc) that we can run from either the power packs or deep cycle batteries.

    We have added additional insulation to the house and one room in particular is very well insualted. For heat we have Mr. Heater that can use either 1 lb or 15 lb tanks and is designed for inside use.

    I have left out the details, but the total costs have been about 2,000 ( excluding the insulation). The system is scaleable, can be added to as finances permit and silent.
    If/when we get a generator, can either augment or act as backup.

    Keep up the good work

    • John Robb

      David,

      Thanks much for the detail on your thrifty emergency power/heat set-up.

      JR

  • mike

    John thanks for your work.

    i lived in a camp for 2 years with a woodstove as the only source of heat and no electricity except a generator. one of the most important things i learned is backup your electrical grid. you are talking about putting in a generac and they are good… but dont use it as your main source of power ie, making it run all the time to produce electricity. the generator should be looked at as a source of power to charge batteries, and a battery bank as your main source of power for the house/camp. i am comparing the idea to an uninterrupted power source for a cpu when the power goes out. instead a battery bank if done correctly should be able to last 48 hours fully charged to supply all the electrical needs for a home. and if you are hooked to a power grid in normal times use the grid to re charge the battery bank as it draws down, but always draw your energy from the battery bank, and when a power grid goes down you wont lose power. you have juice all the time and the generator will take the place of the grid to charge your battery bank. a well thought out battery bank is the missing key to energy independence.

    ps. i got this idea from reading about solar setups for houses completely off the grid and discovered it to be the missing piece in daily grid living.

    • John Robb

      Mike,

      Thanks much. Battery bank is definitely a great option, thanks for bringing that up.

      JR

  • andy

    “… don’t use it as your main source of power ie, making it run all the time to produce electricity. the generator should be looked at as a source of power to charge batteries, and a battery bank as your main source of power for the house…”

    BINGO ! ……this poster has the right way to use a generator !

    Not only can you get by with a far smaller one, since the batteries/inverter will buffer temporary loads beyond the generator’s output, BUT you don’t waste fuel running a generator for small loads ( middle of the night kind of thing ), and you can run it far less often, stretching out your fuel a lot more.

    Once the generator/battery bank and inverter(s) are in place, it’s a small transition to solar input to keep the batteries topped off, or as a main source of power with enough PV watts.

  • sunguy

    I would urge folks to look at the option of going with a ‘less-than-whole-house’ genni!
    The cost and efficiency is much better to use other forms of energy for many needs.
    After this summers doreco (sp?), I bought a Generac 6000 LP fueled genni with 3250W output [~$630]- a bit more than my well pump requires. We have a 1000G LP tank for our heat [with wood stove backup] in the form of 3 direct-vent room heaters [sealed combustion chamber, uses outside air for combustion, no El. input required!], and cook stove. Plan to change to a gas clothes dryer and DHW heater. We have a whole-house HP, but only use it for A/C. The genni isn’t sized to run the HP. We have ceiling fans [which WILL run off the genni] to help us survive heat when the grid is down.
    Check with http://www.electricgeneratorsdirect.com where I bought mine – good people!
    I’ve found that connecting the genni is costing about a bit more than the genni itself.
    -30A twistlock conx for the gen.
    -80′ of cable to conx to the hse
    -renting a ditcher to bury the cable
    -conduit and fittings to protect cable above ground
    -TWO transfer switches [more on that later]
    -2 neutral transfer relay kits
    -2 pole ckt brkr for my load center to feed the xfer sw
    -6 brkr sub-panel for extra ckts on back-up service
    -brkrs for sub-panel
    -professional gas-line hook-up [I DON’T have the skills/tools/certification to do it myself]

    In spite of the cost, the xfer sw. is absolutely necessary! Any ‘temporary’ make-shift hook up is dangerous [to you, your genni and power Co. line workers!] as well as being very illegal! So plan for the additional cost!

    I have, and plan to install PV panels and an inverter later. The 2nd xfer sw is to select between the genni and inverter to feed aux. power to the primary line/aux xfer sw.

    LP or NG is much better for fueling a genni than gasoline! Gasoline spoils, and will gum up your genni if left for long. LP starts much easier [already in gaseous form], and you have your own supply on site – no runs [under possible difficult or near impossible conditions] to find refills of gasoline!

    After the genni is finished, my next project is to solarize our well. I have 2-50W PV panels, a 24V DC slo submersible pump, 1100G storage tank and 24VDC pressure pump waiting for time and $ to install. The well pump will fill the tank whenever there is enough sun to run it. The pressure pump will run from batt.s in the main PV system [yet to buy!]. Interim setup will be to relocate the current submersible pump to the tank for pressure.
    Solar DHW is also planned in the future.

    Being 77 [retired] and the care-giver for my wife, who is disabled with post polio syndrome, with the knowledge & skills to self-install the genni hook-up, I must trade my [limited] energy for [even more limited $ & time] to accomplish the install. Professional installation would increase the cost even more.

    Sunguy,
    near Charlottesville, VA

  • James

    John,
    Have you heard of any projects to harvest the waste heat of a NG generator for use in the house? (domestic water or whole-house heating? greenhouse or pool heating?)

    This could tip the economic balance in favor of home co-generation!

    James

    • sunguy

      James,
      CHP [Combined Heat & Power] has long been an interest of mine.
      Your post seems to ask about buy-it/use-it setups.
      To the best of my knowledge, It is a DIY project. There are/may be commercial interests pursuing CHP, but getting to a product which can be marketed [with all the liabilities involved] is very costly and therefore WAY out of reach for most of us.
      [>=$100K, and probably too large capacity for home use.]

      Using a commercial gennie for a DIY project also has problems. Almost all household sized gennies are air cooled. NOT capturing the engine cooling heat ‘wastes’ at least 1/2 the ‘available’ heat [maybe 2/3]. Trying to capture it [1. by routing cooling air thru an air/water radiator involves shrouds, add-on fans, voided warranties and poor efficiencies; 2. adding cooling coils between the fins would immediately void the warranty and possibly not adequately cool the engine] is quite problematic; basically impractical.

      Going the ‘from scratch’ DIY way leads to ‘why stop with using an off-site fuel’?
      Wood gassification>liquid cooled engine w/ exhaust heat recovery can do quite well at this. One route uses slow-speed ‘Listeroid’ [modern knock-offs of the out-of-mfg. Lister engines] belt coupled to slow speed alternators. Engine>200-250RPM, Gen 450>1800 RPM 1800 RPM gens are avail. new; slower speed ones would probably be old/used or also DIY. Advantages: durable! These engines last for years under constant use; Simple, =easy to maintain/repair with simple machine shop tools. Cons: LARGE [~5′ tall]; HEAVY [~1000 lbs]; imported >inconvenient & costly [=>$2500 for 2-5 HP].
      Another route is to use modern, off-the-shelf liquid cooled engines and alternators with DIY assembly. There is at least one group working to optimize a design which others can copy for an integrated gassifier/ Gennie with complete heat recovery/utilization.
      Either way, costs run AT LEAST $10k-15k with on-hand machine shop not included – and considerable DIY labor.

      There are several on-line discussion groups RE gassification w/ considerable content on CHP. See:To subscribe or unsubscribe via the World Wide Web, visit
      http://lists.bioenergylists.org/mailman/listinfo/gasification_lists.bioenergylists.org

      also:Yahoo.groups look for ‘woodgas’

      Good luck,
      Sunguy

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