Power Outage Preparedness
August 15, 2014 5:48 AM   Subscribe

I live in Atlantic Canada, and in the past year significant, long lasting power outages have become extremely common. We can't afford a generator. What other things would may family and I most benefit from, and what is the best/most reliable ways to power devices? I have a limited budget so we're talking bang for your buck.

Due to the Ice Storm over Christmas (resulting in some people losing power for 2+ weeks) and the Hurricane this summer (again, long and irritating power outages) it is now a running joke that power outages are just part of life. Frankly I think our infrastructure is pretty effed up and weakened at this point. We are increasingly having power outages during good weather (sunny, no wind), and when any sort of bad weather hits... well, it is raining today - not windy, just raining - and the power went off while I was in the shower, hair full of shampoo. I've about hit my breaking point, as you can imagine, but I am also dreading this winter. A power outage or two that lasts at most a day is pretty normal for the wintertime, but based upon what we've been dealing with lately I'm thinking it is going to be a lot worse. We have electric heaters but pretty much only use our wood stove for heat. We don't need to worry about heating our home in the wintertime without power. We have a well and when the power goes out we can't run the faucets. In the winter we can melt snow on our wood stove to use for cleaning/toilet flushing.

We cannot afford a generator, nor can we afford to have a separate panel wired up, which we would need to do in order to use our water pump. (It is hardwired in.) The thought is that there is no point in getting a generator unless it can power our waterpump.

Things I already have/am going to get:
- a couple carboys of water in the laundry room for emergencies (ie. toilet flushing) and whack of bottled water for drinking.
- Some mediocre flashlights, tons of AA batteries (which are the size the flashlights use).
- 3 hand-crank LED lanterns (they give off a surprisingly good amount of light too!)
- 1 LED emergency light bulb. Works as a normal light bulb but also has a battery that charges while it is on. Gives off awesome light during outages.
- some emergency food (almond milk, protein powder, "Easy Mac" type stuff that can be made without a microwave, meal replacement bars, some canned goods etc).
- a BBQ with a side burner, and always at least 1 spare propane tank at the ready.
- paper plates/bowls/cups/cutlery (since we can't do dishes with no power)
- a pack of super strong army-grade glow sticks, just because
- board games etc. to entertain us.

So the main issue I am trying to solve is charging/recharging things, and some comfort and quality of life things. Having normal-ish light is important to my peace of mind (especially since I am scared of the dark). And being about to use the tablets (even without internet) would give a lot in terms of things feeling sort of normal. For basic charging/recharding (our phones, our tablets, my kid's tablet, etc) I was thinking of something like THIS, but I am concerned it isn't going to work anywhere near as well as I would hope. I have also considered something like THIS but if the power outage goes on for too too long that may run out (hence my interest in the solar one). What is my best bet in this regard?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Read this article by tech writer Andy Ihnatko

I went and bought 2 UPS's
posted by prk60091 at 6:10 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A small transistor radio I found in the closet was a godsend after Sandy. I used to fall asleep listening to WCBS, it was the only news source we had. If you know of a good hand-cranked version, that would free up some batteries.

You've probably taken this into account already but the water needs to be rotated.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:23 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Man, I feel you -- I spent Christmas 2013 in the same place.

For charging, do you have a car? If so, you have a low-wattage generator already! Buy a power inverter for your car and you can charge cell phones or rechargeable batteries for lamps. Like this -- I have the Energizer version.

LED lanterns and headlamps are great for light -- way better battery life. Headlamps are task lighting, lanterns are ambient lighting. Seriously, the headlamps are SO MUCH BETTER than regular flashlights, especially if you need your hands free to cook or something, and they're cheap.

Radios are good. I just keep a cheap handheld with extra batteries and headphones but for a family you might want a bigger battery-powered/rechargeable one.

I would look into stockpiling as much water as possible. Melting ice suuuuuucks, and isn't even an option in the summer. They make bathtub bags, which are a good option if you have a bathtub and advance warning that you may have an outage (aka fill it up when you have a known storm). If you have a large enough lot, you could also set up rain barrels, which are good sources of flushing water in the summer.

Moist towelettes (both the cleaning-surfaces kind and the cleaning-humans kind) are huge at helping with sanitation and feeling clean enough to be human.
posted by pie ninja at 6:28 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have something like this car jump starter and it's very nice to have, not just for jump starting! Mine has an air compressor, a couple of USB ports and a couple of three prong power outlets. You can't run, like, a refrigerator off of it, but you can certainly charge a phone and, at least briefly, you can run anything with a normal wall plug from it. The one I linked to can also be charged through your car's cigarette lighter, so you can also charge it in the car if you really need to (you can also, of course, charge your electronics in the car). I really wish I'd had this when I was without power for three straight days a few years ago!

For food, I would find the most delicious, treat-like shelf-stable food you can. When I've been out of power for more than a day or two, I get SO BORED of the food I have. So make it some dumb, unhealthy treat. For me, I'd like to have a secret stash of chili and fritos and maybe some oreos. Who wants to eat meal replacement bars when they're bored and frustrated and out of sorts from having no power?

Also, can you typically get out of the house during these power outages? If you ever decide to go to a mall or local business or whatever to charge your devices, bring a power strip! Everyone is happy to see the person with the power strip. The more outlets, the better. A powered USB hub could also make you very popular at the local coffee shop.
posted by mskyle at 6:30 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Haven't tried it myself but the biolite camp stove might work for your electronics. link
posted by dstopps at 6:30 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

LED headlamps. The lanterns are nice, but it's also good to be able to see where you're going or be able to work in dark places hands-free.

Do you have a car? If you have a car you have a generator. I got an inverter (just an example, there are many). With that and a long-ish extension cord / power strip you can start the car and have power for enough time to charge things. If your car battery is solid enough you actually only need to start the car once in a while to recharge the battery.

I know you said that the water pump is hardwired in, but that's not as permanent as you might think. I'm not sure how many amps it draws, but if it's within the range of the inverter's output a reasonably competent electrician should be able to change it outlet/plug in in an hour or so (assuming that's allowed by code where you live). Once that's done, if you get a powerful enough inverter you can just unplug it from the mains and plug the pump into the inverter during an outage. I did something similar with a boiler to power the ignition switch and radiator pumps, made a huge difference during a ~3 day power outage.
posted by true at 6:33 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

can you typically get out of the house during these power outages?

In the wintertime there are times that we get snowed/iced in. We live within 10 minutes of the city, but it is far enough to have some pretty poorly maintained (and often unplowed) roads. Last winter the weather kept us stuck in our house a number of different times. Our plans need to be based around having everything we need already with us.

a reasonably competent electrician should be able to change it outlet/plug in in an hour or so

I DID NOT KNOW THIS! I will definitely be investigating that, because really the reason we haven't made an effort to find money for a generator is because we can't power our pump. If we CAN power our pump with a generator then holy crap!
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:12 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get LED flashlights. The batteries last so much longer, it pays for the new flashlights. Headlamps are incredibly useful.

I have an LED lantern, solar/ crank/ battery radio/ flashlight that will charge my mobile, a small wood stove and adequate wood supply - I can cook on it, several kerosene lamps - they give enough light to read comfortably and they produce a little heat, candles and safe holders for them. Save any 1- or 2-liter sodapop bottles, clean them, and store water. Water lasts quite well, but you can add a drop of bleach if you choose. I don't have large containers of water for flushing, as I live near a lake, but a rain barrel collecting water from the roof would be useful. I make sure I have lots of canned soups/beans, granola bars, and other easy food. I also keep the wine rack stocked, and several bottles of soda. When foul weather is predicted, I make sure there's beer. I have lots of books. I have had several multi-day power outages, and the dog and I have been cozy, neighbors have taken shelter, and the pipes have not frozen. The woodstove was used, found on craigslist, and with installation, maybe 500US all together. I have a small inverter in the car which could recharge my phone and laptop faster. I plan to get a solar panel and battery to take on road/ car-camping trips, because keeping the laptop and phone charged a priority.

The kerosene lamps and the emergency radio are the only things I bought just for power outages. I enjoy having a fire going in the stove, and it's more efficient to really heat just the space I'm using. Foe me, one of the most unpleasant parts of a power outage is the noise of all the neighbors' generators running.
posted by theora55 at 7:40 AM on August 15, 2014

Also, chocolate.
posted by theora55 at 7:41 AM on August 15, 2014

Yes to headlamps! Mine have been a lifesaver during our power outages here in NL. Costco does have them three for $10 sometimes. I keep one hung on my coat rack so I can always find it.

My car is pretty much my backup charger for devices. It's not ideal, but I wouldn't trust anything solar powered to do the job here. A couple of years ago I bought some solar powered patio lanterns and they were barely lit at night. I was ready to return them for being defective when we finally had a truly sunny day and that night, they lit up like a Christmas tree! So yeah, solar powered is not ideal for us since we have so many overcast days, especially during our long, dark winters.
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:42 AM on August 15, 2014

Oil lamps & lanterns are pretty cheap and, I find, way way nicer than messing with flashlights and candles.
posted by kmennie at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2014

Can you get a rain barrel or two? Keep it/them outside in the non-snowy months of course, then in the winter bring them into a mudroom or garage or other similar above-freezing-but-out-of-the-way room and just keep them full either of meltwater or just tap water. You can use that for toilet flushing and dish washing. You can also use it for bathing, possibly with a little extra treatment depending on your local water quality.
posted by Urban Winter at 8:17 AM on August 15, 2014

This is very specific to my needs, but here ya go. My job requires that I be able to work during a power outage because it's extremely deadline intensive and I work in the middle of the night (so who's going to cover for me?). I work from home, so here are the things I have to ensure I can still do my job:

Rayovac Sportsman LED Lantern: This lights a whole room for a lot of hours.
2 USB and 2 outlet car charger: I can power my phone and computer while I work in the car. Not very comfortable, but gets the job done.
External battery charger: If my laptop is fully powered, I just use this to keep my phone charged since I'm draining it by turning it into a mobile hotspot.

This keeps me working, but I think any of these could be nice to have during a power outage, even if it just means you can continue playing games on your phone because you're bored.
posted by rawralphadawg at 8:29 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just a note about using the car for power. I was in Ottawa during the several day power outage in the summer several years back. The major problem that we encountered with using the car was that gas was really hard to get. Most gas stations were closed, as they couldn't pump gas without power. Many people were stranded at work and couldn't commute back home since their tanks were empty. We used our car briefly to get access to radio, but the battery got low very quickly and we didn't want to use up any more gas than necessary in case we had to drive somewhere in an emergency.
Maybe someone can answer the question if gas can be safely stored in a jerry can in the garage for long periods of time or if this is not advisable. I would think that would be a good addition to your emergency kit.
posted by photoexplorer at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

a reasonably competent electrician should be able to change it outlet/plug in in an hour or so

I DID NOT KNOW THIS! I will definitely be investigating that, because really the reason we haven't made an effort to find money for a generator is because we can't power our pump. If we CAN power our pump with a generator then holy crap!

This is totally a thing, and is in fact what my family members ended up doing for their well pump. It was game-changing and if you can afford it, highly recommended.

I would suggest doing the electrical work first and having the electrician weigh in on your choice of generators, because your well pump may require a fairly large generator to run (i.e. not a Harbor Freight special). That was the case for my family's well pump (a car inverter wouldn't do it either, it's pulling 240v or something).

One other suggestion if you do end up going this route: make sure you have the right cord BEFORE the storm hits. (My family had both generator and re-wired well pump plug before the Christmas storm hit last year... but not the cord to connect the two. And of course the cord in question sells out the minute a storm hits, there wasn't one for sale for 80 miles.)
posted by pie ninja at 10:17 AM on August 15, 2014

The biolite camp stove linked above is extremely interesting but this other product at the same site sounds like it might be better suited to your needs. They are not much different in price.
posted by Michele in California at 10:25 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is a installing hand pump a possibility? My parent's off-grid cottage had one, and it worked fairly well. An outdoor fireplace could be nice when the weather's not awful, even in winter. If you have the inclination, you could make a garden to have some fresh food in the summer, and maybe build a root cellar so you have plenty of carrots, potatoes and turnips in the winter. Add canned meat/fish and you can make some decent meals.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:47 AM on August 15, 2014

PuppetMcSockerson: "If we CAN power our pump with a generator then holy crap!"

This is definitely possible without installing a whole house transfer switch and therefor much cheaper. I'm hard pressed to think of a hard wire installation that couldn't be converted to generator ready in a few hours and a couple hundred dollars in material (probably less).

Also I'm guessing you have neither natural gas nor fuel oil but if you do you can get generators that run on those fuels and that negates the need to store a large volume of gas that requires rotation.

Also, IMO, I'd rather store large quantities of propane than gas. It doesn't need rotation and doesn't contaminate soil like gas does when it leaks. And I feel safer with a very durable propane cylinder near my home than a bunch of gasoline jerry cans.
posted by Mitheral at 11:46 AM on August 15, 2014

LED bulbs are fantastic. They're very low energy use and last for literally years. However, they can be a very focused, direct beam, and they're not always the brightest. They can be, but it's not immediately obvious whether they are or not (hint: most consumer grade stuff isn't, but CREE is a well regarded brand). As an adjunct, look into 12v CFL bulbs. They're not the cheapest or the most commonly found, but where they excel is at spreading light over a large area, like a normal incandescent bulb. An LED will give you light, but only generally in a narrow beam. A 12v CFL will use a little more electricity but give you a much bigger spread of energy. In an absolute pinch, you can take the battery out of your car and run a 12v CFL from it. That's very much not an ideal thing to do though, so don't so it unless you're literally desperate. If your car won't start, you can't charge that battery up again. And you need that battery to start your car.

Don't use electricity for heating unless absolutely necessary. Electrical heating is resistive. The heat comes from the electrons not being able to travel along the wire properly. It's quite inefficient. It's clean at point of use, and can be controlled very easily (think of how an electric kettle will turn itself off when it boils - you can't do that with a gas kettle), which makes it popular, but using gas to create electricity to boil water introduces wastage of energy. All of which isn't really relevant unless you're drawing your electricity from a battery.

The first thing I think you should do the next time you go somewhere with a dollar store (or Canadian equivalent) is get hold of some solar lights. Put them in your garden and let the sun charge them up, then they'll turn on when the sun goes down. When buying them, look for those that have the little solar panel on the top at an angle, so you can angle them towards the sun. These, for example, have the solar panel flat on the top and will do the job, but these will do the job better. Solar panels work best when the sun is at a 90 degree angle to them. If the sun is low on the horizon (like it is in the Winter at northern latitudes), a horizontal panel won't work nearly as well. Garden solar lights are cheap and they charge themselves up. You can put them outside and forget about them until you need them. They're also very cheap.

Or, you could spend a little more and buy something like this. I bought that particular model several months ago and it has lit up every single night since then, irrespective of how sunny it was or wasn't during the day. It's lovely and bright and covers a decent area. Again, put it outside and forget about it until you need it. You can also get strings of solar fairy lights. I have a set of 500 that cost less than the lamp at the previous link. They don't offer spot lighting, but they do look very effective in a darkened room, and you could use something like that to light the way from the kitchen, up the stairs, across the landing and into the bathroom, all from one battery. If you do get some solar lights, get those that take AA batteries and you can use them as battery chargers. Or, you can just put normal AA's in if they're not charged up enough.

As others have said, headlamps are amazing. Petzl seems to be the go-to brand, but I'm too cheap to shell out the money for one. So I bought this instead. It runs on three AAA batteries, which you likely have in the remote control for your TV, in a pinch, and has three light settings. It leaves your hands free to shovel snow or grab something from the car or do whatever, and the light is always focused at what you're looking at. Plus, kids (and some grown men) seem to love wearing them for some reason

On this subject, get a torch for every family member, plus one. Someone is guaranteed to put their torch down somewhere and lose it. This model of dynamo torch has a spring loaded handle that you squeeze to generate electricity. Even if the batteries inside it are dead, you can squeeze the handle to make it light up. I own one of these wind up types, which does the same thing but you need two hands to generate the electricity. With both models, the energy gets stored in internal batteries, so you don't have to wind/squeeze when you want light unless you've let the batteries run down. A bonus is that you don't need electricity to charge them. There's also the shake torch, which you just shake to generate electricity, which might be fun for kids to use. I haven't used one myself, so this isn't a recommendation. I can, however, recommend these 72 LED torches. They have magnets and a hook on the back and are plenty bright. A tip: look for actual details of how much light a device throws out. If it doesn't say, it's likely to not be enough.

Lanterns are great at throwing light around, but there are a lot out there that won't do a very good job, especially cheap ones. There's only so much that a plastic diffuser can do to spread the light out, especially if the LEDs aren't that bright to begin with. Spend a little more on these, in my experience.

Is your shower electrically powered too? You might consider a camping shower. Pumping the handle gives you pressure which makes the water flow. Using this calculator, you need 1 litre of boiling water to 7 litres of 20°C water to give you a water temperature of 30°C. It's no power shower but it will help keep you clean, which is a big boost to morale. You can get various products that enable you to keep clean without water too. Or use baby wipes, which last forever. Even if they dry out, you can splash a little water on them to make them useful again.

Depending on your water pipe set up, you might be able to have an inline tank. Water would be pumped from the well into the tank, which would be pressurised, but you could also get water from it via a tap if the need arose. I have no idea if this is feasible or a good idea, so speak to an expert. It would give you a buffer of water, though. If it was set up high in the house, you could potentially use gravity to feed water to the taps.

Do you have a car? If you do, you can use it to charge your small electrical devices. Adapters are dirt cheap from ebay or Amazon. Don't just plug them in and turn the ignition on, though, unless you want to come back to a flat battery. It's unlikely, but possible, that that could happen, and if it does, it's guaranteed to be at the worst possible time. If you're snowed in, you're unlikely to be going anywhere, and running a car causes it to give off fumes like carbon monoxide. Usually you're driving away from these fumes, so it's safe, but if the car is by the house, it's not really an ideal thing to be doing. If you know bad weather is coming, fill the tank on your vehicle. If the roads are iced up, delivery trucks won't be able to reach the gas stations.

Re keeping fuel, be very careful if you do this. Petrol will explode merely from the fumes it gives off. (OTOH, I've heard that you can drop a lit match into diesel and it will go out. I've no idea if this is true or not, and I'm not going to test it to find out!). Someone having a cigarette outside could make a bad situation very much worse. Personally, I wouldn't risk it. There are safer ways to store energy.

You mention a wood burning stove. Can you cook on this? Also, consider an Ecofan if you don't have one. They use heat energy from the stove to work and will blow warm air around the room. I figure you already know this, but have a store of warm dry wood inside so you don't have to traipse through snow to get at it.

The Biolite stove mentioned upthread will work better if you keep the cooking pan full of cold water. It's the difference in temperatures that makes it work.

Solar power is great for keeping things charged up, but it won't work on snowy or dull days very well. What you need is a solar set up that charges a battery, likely 12v, which will store that energy until you need it. A kit is likely to be the best way to achieve this, as it will come with a charge controller and other such gubbins. Other than that, I have seen devices that you can put a few AA batteries into which you can then plug your phone into to charge it from. I haven't ever used one, as I have a battery pack of the sort you linked to, which I keep charged up. I would definitely get a solar charger, but get one that comes with its own battery, and the larger the solar collector the better. For preference, go for a monocrystalline panel, rather than a polycrystalline one, as they're more efficient. Anything is better than nothing, though.

I can recommend this wind up/solar radio. It handles FM, AM & SW radios, operates as a flashlight and can even charge a phone. I've never really had much luck with using a hand crank to charge a phone, despite several devices. YMMV. If I was going to use a hand crank, I think I'd get something like this.

When buying a battery pack, check the Ah value. This is the size of the tank, figuratively speaking. Bigger is better. If you have a phone with a 2000 Ah battery, then you can charge it about 4 times from a 10,000 Ah battery pack (allow 20-30% energy loss). To make the battery on your phone last longer, disable 3G data, wifi, bluetooth, GPS and NFC, then turn the brightness down low and disable any apps that are running in the background. Look into backup batteries specifically for your devices, and keep them charged up. Maybe get an ereader too, if one of you likes to read a lot. They don't use much battery and can help you escape from a stressful situation.

Do you have any hobbies that you can do without electricity? Last time we had a power outage, my mom continued knitting a jumper by the light of the moon coming in through the window, until I got the solar lights in. She's been knitting for years, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that she could actually do it with her eyes closed. Crochet is fun and simple and has the added benefit of letting you create a shawl which will keep you warm. Card games, board games, reading, audiobooks, ping pong, etc, can all help prevent you from climbing the walls. Find out ahead of time what you enjoy and don't enjoy. Don't leave yourself in the position of finding out in the middle of a storm that you don't actually like playing chess. A joke book can be an invaluable thing.

Now, on to the important stuff: food! Anything with a use-by date will not keep. Anything with a best before date might. Things in tins or dried in packets will likely keep for longer than the best before date. Stuff in your freezer is not to be relied on during a powercut. Move your freezer to the coldest room in the house and cover it with blankets to keep the heat out if the power goes down. Obviously do not do this while it's working, unless you make VERY sure to keep the radiator coils clear so that they can throw off all of the heat that they're pulling from inside. A full freezer will stay cold much longer than an empty one. If you have to, put bottles of water in there to increase the mass. If there's snow on the ground outside, compact some of it down and make yourself a "fridge" to keep your perishables in. Throw stuff out of your fridge before it rots, though, or eat it up quickly. If you're replacing the freezer at any point, consider a chest freezer rather than an upright. A chest freezer will hold the cold air inside it, where one with the door on the front will allow the cold air to fall out. You can test this by standing in front of your freezer with no socks on, and opening the door.

What can you cook and how can you cook it? If your electricity goes off, are you going to be stuck using the barbecue? Can you maybe cook on your stove somehow? Do you have a way to boil water so you can reconstitute some dried potato or couscous? Something like pasta that you have to keep boiling (keep adding energy to) is less ideal than something like a Pot Noodle that you only need boiling water for (you boil the water then turn the gas off, saving energy). Also, if you have a thermos flask, you can cook in that too, even making scrambled eggs. There are loads of vids on Youtube about it. It's great for things like rice, and potatoes too, if you cut them up small enough. Depending on your set up, you might have some success with a pressure cooker. It cooks food more quickly using less gas.

Get some food in that will keep and that your family enjoys. Dehydrated potato, couscous, dried vegetables, bratwurst, tinned spaghetti, tinned tomatoes, some crispy fried onions, etc. Don't forget herbs and spices too. Then practise cooking with them and serving them to your family, until you can find some recipes that will go down well. Also, think of morale boosting foods like hot chocolate with marshmallows. Perfect in the Winter when you've been running around outside to get some exercise and keep the cabin fever at bay. Maybe get fancy with some flavoured hot chocolate, like mint or orange.

Try having a day where you flip the breaker in the fuseboard, and see what flags up as being A Thing That Causes Problems. Do you need a light on the stairs at night? Is it difficult to light the barbecue with a lighter, so you need some matches? Will your gadget battery die at totally the wrong moment? It's best to find these things out now, than in the middle of a blizzard. Right now, you have time to prepare and solve problems before they get out of hand.
posted by Solomon at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I asked my kids to give me a propane fueled camp stove. It really makes cooking easier than using a wood fire.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:13 PM on August 15, 2014

Re running the pump from a generator, be sure to get one that can handle the start-up current draw from the pump. Most things with motors require a boost right when the motor starts up, to actually get the motor moving, then they drop down to their normal working current. This start-up current can be significantly higher than the normal working load. Your pump should have details on it somewhere telling you what this load is. If/when you get a generator, ensure that it is rated to a higher output than the start-up draw. If your pump requires 100 amps to start, get a generator that can output 120 amps to ensure that it can handle the load. Talk to the person who installs the plug about this.

Bit more info here.
posted by Solomon at 3:45 AM on August 19, 2014

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