By January 19, 2009

Lessons learned from nine hours without power

My home lost power last Saturday in the middle of the night. It was unusually cold for this part of Virginia, and I think the cold plus everyone cranking their heat crushed the power network. I woke up to my home network’s uninterruptible power supply screeching at 2AM. I shut the computers down and went back to bed. I was confident my mutant ability to resist cold and my three dogs would keep me warm. The power came on and went off again twice more, finally taking a long nap at about 3:30AM.

By the time I woke up the house was about 52°F downstairs. My friend Stilts was visiting, and we were both hungry. I used my mobile phone to call our favorite breakfast place, and they had power. Stilts headed home after breakfast, and I settled in to play a little game. That little game was “how well could I handle a minor power outage in the winter?”

The first thing I did was consider what food, if any, I should take out of the fridge and prepare immediately. I figured my food would be okay as long as I kept the door shut and I got power back within twelve hours.

I knew I didn’t need my portable propane heater, but damn I wanted some coffee. I put my tea kettle on the side burner on my propane grill outside:

I learned something: the flame on the grill isn’t concentrated like a traditional natural gas burner. It took FOREVER to heat the water up so I could make coffee. I wonder if it would be better to put a metal plate of some kind between the burner and the kettle next time. I made a really nice cup of coffee, though.

I learned something else: keeping coffee in bean form until you’re ready to brew maximizes taste, but puts you at risk when you run out of power. My coffee mill is great, but doesn’t work for shit when the lights are out. I had just enough coffee to make my single cup; after that I was going to have to leave the house. Keeping morale up is important during a disruption of service, and having a warm cup of tea or coffee on a cold day may go a long way.

I also learned that one of my neighbors has a generator. There is conflicting theory among the preparedness community about how much you tip your readiness hand to your neighbors. One school of thought is that the more help in a crisis the merrier, so even if your neighbors show up empty-handed you can have them do something. The other train of thought is that those who are not prepared will become envious of those who are, and in times of extreme crisis someone with stockpiled food and water would be a tempting target. I am not sure if I would have kicked off the generator for a half-day power outage. However, now I know that someone else in the area has some disaster preparedness capabilities, too. I should probably go introduce myself.

There was plenty of food in the house, especially for such a short disruption. The water still worked, so that makes everything a lot easier. I have several weeks of food in the house that just takes heat and water to prepare. I wasn’t even hungry by the time the power came back on at about 1:30PM.

So really, it wasn’t a big deal at all. However, it was a nice opportunity to see how I’d fare in a longer disruption of service. It also helped me realize a few shortcomings. I now grind a full day’s worth of coffee if I’m low. While I haven’t figured out the best way to efficiently heat the tea kettle, my experience gives me an idea of what to expect next time.

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7 Comments on "Lessons learned from nine hours without power"

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  1. Starbuck says:

    CONGRATS on the coffee!!!! 🙂

  2. drfaulken says:

    Not a bad idea, but open burning is not allowed in my part of the county. I am not even sure if those braziers for sale at Target, etc are technically legal out here.

  3. Gremlin says:

    Enough generator to run the home heating or a low tech source of heat (wood burning stove) is required to protect piping in cold weather. Food for a week per person is my personal choice. There are a lot of books on the subject, the world just seems to me that it is becoming less stable. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

  4. configures says:

    Your yard has room for a fire pit … any way to lay in supplies to take advantage of that, without being a pain / unsafe storage?

  5. GK says:

    I had a pretty serious test of my preparedness last winter out here in OK. We got hit with a severe ice storm, my house/neighborhood/city was without power for 19days. Luckily the water never stopped flowing and I still had an older standing pilot gas water heater.. I could take warm showers, cook on the gas range and use it for a bit of quick heat. All 4 burners will knock the chill off a room in just a few minutes, but its definitely not safe for any longer duration. I did my best to heat the place with my fireplace, but many a morning I woke up with the dog snuggled close and the inside temp in the 40’s.

    There were about 150,000 people that lost power for some duration, so the grocery stores that had power were picked clean of about everything you could make without power. Generator theft was high, so in an attempt to outsmart the thieves people would run their generators in their garage, or in an enclosed porch. Not smart, there were numerous deaths resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning. So in your preparedness planning, make sure to think of a safe way to secure your generator if you have one.

  6. BushPutin says:

    Seems like you need a UPS for your mill….

  7. Configures says:

    Preparedness: A really bad solar storm like the one in 1859 might blow a lot of transformers. There’s a bad solar storm year coming up in 2012.