How we coped with a 3 day power outage
Home Emergency Preparedness Wish List
On Christmas day 2012 an ice storm knocked out our power for 3 days. Some homes in Saline and Pulaski county Arkansas were without power for twice that long. This is not our first ice storm, so we were better prepared than some. Our way of coping with the power outage was to run our portable generator during much of the day. The generator was able to run everything but the electric hot water heater. The dish washer did not work, but that is probably because it shuts down when it detects that the water is not hot. We heated pots of water on the gas stove in the kitchen and poured the hot water into the bathtub for a hot bath. Our DSL internet always worked when the generator was running. We were able to watch TV from our outside antenna as usual as long as the TV transmitters were on, and they usually were. When we finished watching TV and using the computer for the evening, we turned the generator off and used our battery operated LED lights. The refrigerator and freezer were off for about 10 hours per night, but that was not a problem. Our kerosene heater kept the house warm.
We have VOIP phone service that works over the internet. It worked when the generator was running, and calls automatically failed over to a Sprint cell phone otherwise. Sprint seemed to be having some trouble with bad call quality which surprised me as Sprint calls are normally excellent quality. Some friends said that even after their power came back on, they still had no cable TV, cable internet, or cable phone service. It seems that DSL is more reliable -- at least in our area where the phone lines are buried.
Even without a generator we could have survived fairly well in a warm house even though some of the food in the fridge might have been lost. Mike Jezierski says "For our fridge, we packed our items into coolers, and shoveled snow into grocery sacks and filled the coolers up. The freezer was fine." With some planning and preparation, you too can probably have a little easier time surviving the next extended power outage.
Heat - There are many options for heating your home without electricity, and you may want to have more than one heat source available. Many homes have fireplaces or gas logs, and some have wood burning stoves. If you are not so fortunate, I recommend kerosene heaters because they are simple, relatively inexpensive, and kerosene is usually available. Unlike a fireplace, you don't have to get up during the night to put more wood on the fire -- our kerosene heater will run at least 9 hours before it has to be refilled. I prefer the heaters that have a removable tank. I take just the tank outside to fill it, so if I spill some kerosene, it is not a big deal. Kerosene heaters do not require a vent or chimney and are safe to use indoors except they should not be used in a small bathroom with the door closed. Be sure to read and observe any warnings that come with your heater. There is a kerosene smell when the heater is first lit, and when it is extinguished.
Lights - For many years our emergency lights included
Flashlights - OK for walking around
Candles - dim and dangerous, and
Kerosene (coal oil) Lamps - not very bright and somewhat dangerous.
Recently we have upgraded to LED flashlights and lanterns, some of which are relatively cheap. LEDs use much less power than the old incandescent bulbs and even fluorescent tubes, so the lights will stay on longer with less money spent on batteries (or more time between recharges). I recommend these
LED flashlights for about $5 each, and these
LED area lights for about $6 each. Both items are sometimes on sale for less.
If you do not already have a set of solar powered driveway / yard lights, buy a set and leave them outside during the day. At night bring them inside to shed a bit of light wherever you put them. They will give you enough light to keep from bumping into the furniture. Mike Jezierski suggests putting them in mason jars, and putting the mason jars on a mirror.
For brighter (and more expensive) lights, I like the Coleman CPX 6 LED lanterns - pictured top left. The cheapest CPX 6 lantern I have found comes with a battery case that holds 4 D batteries, and cost about $25. For about double that price you can buy one that comes with a rechargeable battery pack. Or you can buy the cheap version and buy the rechargeable pack later. All CPX 6 lanterns come with the case that holds 4 regular batteries, so if your rechargeable pack runs out of power, just switch to regular batteries. Brighter and more expensive CPX 6 lanterns are also available. You can buy them at Walmart, and several online stores.
If you want a very bright long-lasting light, I recommend the
Coleman LED Quad Lantern that uses 8 D batteries pictured bottom left. It is pricey at about $80.
I put together some really cheap rechargeable LED lights. See my
DIY lights project.
Cell Phones - A rechargeable external battery for your cell phone is handy for power outages and for times that you will be using your phone so much that it needs a recharge during the day. Charge it in your car or take it to work to charge, and then use it to charge your phone at night even if your power is off. For longer term cell phone charging, see my
DIY cell phone charger project.
A Generator may make sense for you depending on your needs and budget. If you cannot afford a generator, perhaps you could afford an automotive inverter from
Harbor Freight. You plug it into your car cigarette lighter or connect it to the car battery while the engine is running, and it will run a small TV, a computer, or some lights depending on how powerful the inverter is (and how powerful your car's electrical system is).
Generators are available in a wide range of prices and features. Almost everyone knows that a generator can provide electricity, but there is more to it:
A portable home generator set consists of a gasoline engine (similar to a lawnmower engine) coupled to a generator (similar to an electric motor).
An automatic whole-home generator is a larger and more expensive version of the portable generator. It can automatically start and switch over to generator power when the electricity goes off. The engine may run on natural gas or diesel rather than gasoline.
The simplest way to connect to a portable generator is to run extension cords from it to the devices you want to power, but there are better options:
Hire an electricianhave to install a generator transfer switch.
Some electric utility companies will install an
automatic switch for you. The switch connects your house wiring to the generator so that every light and outlet in your house has power. At the same time it prevents you from accidentally sending power out of your house down the electric line and possibly killing someone. I am told that Entergy does not do this, but many other companies do.
Because having a transfer switch installed may cost as much or more than the cost of a generator, people often figure out a way to connect a generator to their entire house cheaply without an approved switch. This is not recommended, and may be illegal. If you are going to do it anyway, you must make sure that you are connecting only to your house wiring -- not to the outside world.
What can a generator run?
If you purchase a large enough system, it can run everything in your house. If you can live without central air, and do not need to run an electric hot water heater, then you may choose a less expensive generator.
A portable generator with a 220 volt output connection could be connected to your house wiring, and can likely run a natural gas or propane central heat system. Generators 3,000 watts or greater can run lights and most appliances, although probably not everything in your house at one time. You might have to take turns with things like the refrigerator, freezer, coffee pot, microwave oven, and hair dryer.
Some uninterruptable power supplies do not work with smaller generators -- probably due to the frequency not always being exactly correct. While you are running on generator power, you will have to bypass those and my advice is to never buy another UPS like it. The trouble is that no company that I know about will tell you if their UPS is compatible with a portable generator.
How Long will a generator run on a tank of gas?
A medium size portable generator will run several hours -- maybe 7 to 10 hours depending on the tank size and the amount of power that the generator has to supply.
A whole house generator may run several days on a tank of fuel -- it has a much larger fuel tank.
Are Generators safe?
Properly connected and operated generators are safe. However, all internal combustion engines emit deadly carbon monoxide. Do not run a generator inside a garage or in an area where exhaust fumes can get into the house.
What features are important when buying a portable generator?
If you do not want to pull a rope to start the engine, buy a generator with electric start.
I recommend buying a generator that includes a 220 volt outlet so that you will have the option of connecting to your house wiring, even if you do not plan on doing that right away.
DIY cell phone charger
Running a generator or inverter at night to charge your cell phone is a waste of energy. Instead, use a rechargeable UPS battery to charge your cell phone for several days or maybe a few weeks. Here is how:
You could use the other female connector and a second battery to make another one just like it. Now you can power other 12 volt devices such as small automotive fans without running a generator or inverter.
Buy a 12 volt 7 AH UPS battery from your local battery store and ask if you can have several of those old batteries like it that are destined for battery recycle heaven, or just ask for old batteries. If the old batteries have smooth sides, then you have a better than 50% chance that they will work fine to charge your cell phone.
To charge your batteries find a 12 volt DC wall wart that puts out 15 or 16 volts with no load. 300 to 500 Ma current rating should work fine. Or purchase a
Buy a car
cigarette lighter Y adapter.
Cut the wires to one of the two female connectors and connect the wire to your rechargeble UPS battery using terminal connectors, or just solder the wires to the battery terminals. The center pin connects to the + (red) battery terminal.
Get your cell phone charger from your car, plug it into your UPS battery, and charge your phone whenever and wherever you want.
DIY lights cheap
If you like to do it yourself and can solder, you can put together some really cheap emergency LED lights. The first two steps are a repeat of the
cell phone charger project:
My wife says these homemade lights are ugly, but they are cheap, put out a nice amount of light, and run on rechargeable batteries. I like them even if they are ugly. The lights I put together will run for two nights (about 20 hours total) on a charge. I leave them on in the bathroom all night, so I do not have to search for a switch to turn them on. I am fortunate that I do not have to beg for old batteries. I am the one who usually replaces UPS batteries at work, so I bring the promising ones home and try charging them. If they are bad, I recycle them, but if they are good for low-power use, I use them. The reason bad UPS batteries can sometimes have a longer life is because running a 5 watt light is much easier on a battery than running a 300 or more watt UPS. If I can get another couple of extra years use of a battery running low-power lights, why not do it?
Buy a 12 volt 7 AH UPS battery from your local battery store and ask if you can have several of those old batteries like it that are destined for battery recycle heaven, or just ask for old batteries. If the old batteries have smooth sides, then you have a better than 50% chance that they will work fine to power a small light.
To charge your batteries find a 12 volt DC wall wart that puts out 15 or 16 volts with no load. 300 to 500 Ma current rating should work fine. Or purchase a float charger.
Buy some 12 volt automotive LED lights. 4 or 5 watt versions might be more than adequate, or less wattage if you want the light to last longer. It does not matter what type of socket the light has as long as you can solder wires to it. Some choices for lights include
Super Bright Leds, and
Cut the top off of a clear plastic water or juice bottle, and make a hole in the bottom.
Pull a wire (small speaker wire works) through the hole and solder the wire to a 12 volt LED light.
Pull the wire and the LED light with it into the bottle.
Tie a knot in the wire to keep the LED light from falling out of the open end of the bottle, or maybe wait until you see that it works before doing this.
Solder a male connector to the other end of the wire. You only need a 2 pin connector, but you could use some 4 pin molex connectors from an old computer power supply and old computer case fans. Alternately you can purchase 2 pin molex. Fortunately I had purchased several of them from MCM Electronics before they disappeared.
Find some terminal connectors that will fit the terminals on the batteries, or just solder a short wire from the battery terminals to a female connector.
Hook the two connectors together, and you should have light.
If it does not work, you may have to reverse the wires on the bulb.
I recently purchased some under-counter LED light bars from "Super Bright LEDs" which look nicer than my DIY headlight LED lights. I opted for the yellow (warm white) color which emit light that is very similar to the yellow light emitted by incadescent bulbs.
HEAT from LED lights is much less than from other light sources. 120 volt LED lights still generate a fair amount of heat -- I suspect mostly from the process of converting 120 V AC to a lower DC voltage. 12 volt DC LED lights seem to generate less heat than their 120 V AC cousins. The under-counter light bars barely get warm -- probably partly due to the heat dissipation from the aluminum bar they are mounted in.
You can contact
Charles Young at email@example.com