What Should I Do? The Basics of Resilience (Part 6 – Heat, Power, & Communications)
Note: This article is part of a series on personal preparation to help you answer the question, "What should I do?" Our goal is to provide a safe, rational, relatively comfortable experience for those who are just coming to the realization that it would be prudent to take precautionary steps against an uncertain future. Those who have already taken these basic steps (and more) are invited to help us improve what is offered here by contributing comments, as this content is meant to be dynamic and improve over time.
Heat, Power, and Communications
Being warm, having instant access to electricity, and being able to connect with anyone anytime, anywhere, are so integrated in present-day life that we often forget just how much value these luxuries offer us. My town has experienced four weather- and usage-related power outages in the past year (for a total of eleven power-free days), which provided a useful reminder of just how dependent we are on the miracle of steady, uninterrupted energy.
Being able to see when it is dark, cook food, and heat your space should an outage occur in the winter are first-level needs to prepare for. Remaining in touch with those you depend on (and those who depend on you) is also a primary need, especially in any prolonged outage situation.
Even more significantly than with food and water, there are major cost differences between preparing in an ideal or long-term sort of way using totally self-sufficient alternate energy systems and preparing in a good-enough stop-gap way for temporary outages. There is certainly value in planning and investing to accomplish both, but do not let concerns that you will not have the perfect long-term system impede you from preparing for some of the more likely problematic wrinkles that may come your way.
Think of it this way: The difference between having 3% of the electricity you desire and having 0% is literally like day and night. This also goes for heat, communications, and every other system you rely on in your day-to-day life. So even if you can only move your total preparation from 0% to 3%, you will still have significantly improved your situation.
In this post, I will discuss a little bit about both forms of preparing and will make recommendations for lower-cost, emergency backup systems as well as long-term alternative energy systems. With this, I want to mention the caveat that the intricacies and variety of options in the long-term arena are quite substantial, perhaps more so than with previous posts in this series, so please consider the advice here as a basic jumping-off point for a more detailed discussion. You can explore these ideas further in the comments section below, in our community forums, and/or through your own research with respect to your unique energy needs in the climate in which you live.
Emergency Cooking, Heating, Lighting, and Communications
Power and Fuel Sources
All the tips, tricks, and recommendations for handling backup power and heating start with the need for alternative sources of energy. Our recommendations here revolve around two principles:
- Standardize around as few energy sources as possible.
- Use the sun as a backup power source whenever possible.
In our recommendations, the two non-sun power sources we focus on are rechargeable batteries and propane fuel (available at your local hardware store; residents of apartment buildings should be particularly careful when handling propane).
I struggled with finding good rechargeable batteries, trying out various brands of metal-hydride and cadmium types. But I came away frustrated that most did not seem to hold the charge capacity they claimed, and all of them eventually lost their charge over time, even without a load on them. That’s just how rechargeables work—or so I thought. Then I found Powerex Imedion batteries. These batteries hold up to 85% of their charge for a year while in storage, making them completely unlike any of the other rechargeable batteries I tried.
The Imedions only come in AAA and AA sizes right now (no C, D, or 9-volts yet). At this point, I have almost completely standardized around the AA size, because they are the most common size (followed by AAA) and are used by the widest range of useful implements. I use them in my preferred headlamps, radios, and even some illuminated optics that I use at the range. When I buy electronics these days, I begin by looking preferentially for those that accept AA batteries.
In an emergency, rechargeables can be charged with a solar charging station. But for more typical purposes, or for those who have other solar charging options, I highly recommend the Powerex WizardOne charger, which maximizes the lifespan and charge of your batteries by detecting if they need a simple recharge or a deep cycle to refresh and enhance their capacity. This charger plugs into normal 110v household current, but its transformer steps that down to 12v, which means that if you are even a little bit handy, it’s easy enough to strip the wires and connect them to a solar panel or a car battery (or other battery system – watch the voltage!) to allow battery recharging even when the power is out. I simply hook mine up to my solar PV system.
An additional, versatile way to accomplish both of the above and more is to use a power adapter that runs off of a car battery. The adapter can only be used to power small items (don’t try to plug in your refrigerator!), but it can also be used to charge batteries without modifying the plug in any way. Some might consider keeping a spare car battery in the house, remembering to trickle-charge it occasionally just to have some extra capacity around.
By having a backup store of rechargeable batteries, the number of secondary appliances you can use (e.g., flashlights, fans, alarm clocks) is substantial. Consider how to invest in those after covering the basic needs articulated below.
For countless reasons, being able to cook, even in an emergency, is non-negotiable. Covering the basics in terms of cooking means being able to boil water and thoroughly heat perishable foods. Boiling water is the easiest and most convenient way to tap into long-term food stores such as rice, pasta, and beans. Even in short-term situations, being able to cook food and heat water makes life better.
For those of you with gas ranges, you may be able to cook on your stovetop during an electrical outage just by turning on the gas and using a match or grill lighter, but for those with an electric range, or in more severe emergency situations, a backup option will be necessary.
For cooking, we recommend:
• Solid performance – works fine for everyday family outdoor grilling needs
• Easily transportable
• Propane-fueled; takes both small 14/16 oz canisters or traditional 20 lb. tanks
• Customizable with many accessories
• Can be used to boil water
Click here for smaller, travel-sized camping stoves. We especially like the MSR WhisperLite because it can and will burn anything from gasoline to white gas to diesel fuel in a severe pinch. It’s a true multi-fuel stove, and this flexibility is valuable. Whatever you choose to use, be sure to stock up on reserve fuel for your stove(s).
There is also a wealth of advice about alternative cooking methods in our forums.
The absence of electrical light is one of the most noticeable differences when you are experiencing a power outage. It’s amazing how dark it gets when your house, your neighbors' houses, and the streetlamps are all without electricity. Having some charged flashlights or a headlamp handy will be a huge relief during that first “uh oh” moment of a power outage, especially if it happens at night. I strongly prefer LED lights for illumination because they are extremely battery-efficient (some will last 60 hours or more of continuous use on a single battery charge), the light is strong and useful (easy to read by), and there’s zero fire danger because they emit light but almost no heat. As a result, they are very safe for children and the elderly to use without any worries about fire or burns.
Having a store of oil lamps to place in different rooms in your house is another approach to lighting preparation and one that we happen to use. Be sure to keep matches where you can easily find them.
We realize the lamp oil that we will suggest here is a third fuel type, after solar and batteries, but we feel that this option is more versatile (for camping, outdoor dinners, etc.) and the lighting quality is superior in some respects to battery lanterns or other options that you might come across. The light is warmer and more pleasant than LED lighting, and some will therefore find it more appealing. You will need to assess whether the benefits of oil lamps outweigh the fire risks and the hassle of procuring another lighting type and fuel source, but since we happen to use them around our house, I’m including them here.
For lighting, we recommend:
We recommend stocking up on lamp oil. It burns much more cleanly than kerosene, so more light is given off because lamp globes stay cleaner. Lamp oil also has no noxious fumes, unlike kerosene. Lamp oil is more expensive than kerosene, but if you are in an enclosed space (as in winter with the windows closed), you will appreciate the difference.
Click here for additional backup lighting options. We recommend that you build a robust reserve of fuel/batteries (at least several months worth) for your back-up light sources.
Heating & Warmth
The extent to which not having access to a heat source presents a risk for you depends on your location and climate. Power outages in areas with cold winters, where damage to power lines is common during ice storms and blizzards, mean that electrically-controlled furnaces will not operate.
Having a woodstove can be a good and relatively inexpensive backup heating (and cooking) option that also provides a pleasant supplementary heat source in cold winter months. I strongly encourage everyone to own a woodstove, if that’s an option, at least if you are accustomed to heating your home for any part of the year. But for many people, a woodstove installation is not feasible or would require extensive remodeling to make possible. The propane heater below is an excellent alternative; it’s versatile and heats a sizable area. Keep in mind that a degree of caution is needed when using any kind of space heater, especially varieties that use fuel. Be sure to carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions.
If a power outage occurs in freezing temperatures, it can lead to frozen pipes. Even if you do have a reasonable supplementary heat source for space heating, it’s important to remember to shut off the water valve at the water service entrance in your house and to turn on all the faucets in order to drain remaining water from them to prevent damage to the pipes. One convenience of a winter power outage, as opposed to a summertime outage, is that refrigerated and sometimes frozen foods can be preserved outdoors if the temperature is cold enough.
Blankets, comforters, sweaters, hats, and sleeping bags are very useful items to stock up on when preparing for a potential winter outage. It is helpful to learn how to maintain core body heat by utilizing layers and covering up areas where body warmth typically escapes (head, neck, hands, feet). Insulating garments are also terrific money savers, as their use can help you inch your thermostat lower when fuel costs rise.
For more information on how to stay warm and survive a winter power outage, our excellent copyeditor, Amanda, wrote this account of an outage she experienced and provided lots of recommendations that can be useful even on a shoestring budget. Our forums are filled with similarly informative discussions.
For heating and warmth, we recommend:
• Heats up to 1,000 square feet (at least several rooms in most houses)
• Free-standing or wall-mounted
• Connects to a standard 20lb propane cylinder (comes with hose + regulator for doing so)
• Safety features for indoor use including automatic shut-off
- Woolen blankets from local wool farmers
• Wool farmers' associations in several states now offer blankets that officially use wool from local growers. These blankets are beautiful, natural, and help support sheep farming in your local area. We know of blankets in Connecticut, Michigan, Vermont, and Rhode Island. They may also be available in other areas; if you find them, let us know.
"Anytime, anywhere" communication is an incredible enabler, and you should do all you can to preserve your access to it. Keeping touch with the outside world, either by tuning in to the radio or being able to contact loved ones by phone, can make a world of difference in how informed your decisions are with regard to the situation you are experiencing, and can also improve how you fare psychologically.
For mobile phones, in addition to stocking a few backup batteries for your device, we advise investing in a solar battery charger to keep your phone’s juice topped off. The car adapter mentioned above is also a convenient, versatile option.
We also advise keeping a landline phone in service as an emergency backup. In some circumstances, landline service will still be up and running when the cell tower communications network is down. Please note that landline phone service provided through some cable companies will lose service after several hours (six in our area). Check with your local phone company to be sure.
Finally, self-powered radios (e.g., solar, crank) have reached a state of dependable utility where we feel comfortable recommending them. In times of emergency, especially if communications networks are also down, a self-powered radio can easily become your primary source of important information about the world around you.
For communications, we recommend:
- A percentage of every sale of this authorized model is donated to the American Red Cross
- AM/FM w/ 7 NOAA channels
- Hand crank power from built-in rechargeable Ni-MH battery and built-in solar panel
- Built-in 3 white LED light source
- USB cell phone charger (USB cable not included)
- 3.5 mm headphone output
Much more can be learned about how to expand your resiliency in cooking, heating, and lighting in our community forums.
Long-Term Heat & Power Resilience
Once you have covered your emergency and short-term needs, you can focus on making investments in alternative energy systems in your home. As with our garden, this is an area where we felt that having the time to be able to set up and invest in these systems was more important than waiting for housing prices to fall further. Many of the investments recommended below require owning the space in which you live, but renters may be able to work with their landlords to implement positive changes in their homes.
The primary goal in meeting the need for shelter and warmth is to make your house as efficient and self-sustaining in energy as possible, so that you are not completely reliant on imported energy to function—energy that may be either very expensive or only intermittently available in the future.
For us, this means maintaining three ways of heating our house and heating water: We have an oil furnace, we have a woodstove, and, as of this year, we have a solar hot-water system. Our goal here is to cut our oil use by 50 percent in the first year of using the solar hot-water system.
However, our very first priority after buying our house was to ensure that the house was as well-insulated and airtight as possible. With the number of states offering tax credits, grants, and other forms of assistance to help make houses more energy-efficient, there is little excuse not to button up your home if you own it yourself. Some of these options are also available to renters who are working with their landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. Check out available programs and get busy, if you haven't already done so (you can also Google "weatherization assistance" and the name of your state for income-eligible support). When it comes to energy, saving it is far easier and cheaper than procuring more of it, so you might as well invest first in conservation.
When it comes to selecting systems and components, I have learned to insist that they be as simple as possible. I will gladly give up some efficiency or pay a little more if the system has fewer moving parts and could conceivably be fixed without flying in a Swedish engineer. Unless someone local can service and fix the system, I want no part of it. Simplicity is now a very high priority in my decision-making process when it comes to improving systems in my home.
Now that our house is in good shape with respect to energy, I anticipate enjoying utility bills that are half of what they used to be, a less drafty and more comfortable house, and the security of knowing that hot water will always be a part of our lives. All of these improvements are worth my effort today, no matter what might come to pass in the future.
Next, we also have solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays to create a modest amount of electricity and a battery bank for limited storage. The primary purpose of this system is to provide a 100-percent fail-safe source of electricity to run our 25-cubic-foot freezer, the failure of which would result in a devastating food loss if the power went out in the early fall, when it is most packed with food.
Our PV array provides about 2 kilowatts, which is far more than the freezer needs, but far less than our house uses. Still, in a pinch, this amount would be sufficient to recharge batteries, run a laptop computer, and drive a solar pump on our shallow well.
Our home remains on the grid, but I am comfortable knowing that we have at least a partial source of electricity on the property that could serve a wide range of purposes if necessary. Again, the difference between being zero-percent self-sufficient and slightly self-sufficient is simply enormous.
If you’d like to learn more about alternative ways to power and heat your home, this thread in our forums is a great place to start.
If you haven’t personally experienced a major power outage, carefully thinking about your daily needs in terms of heat, energy, and communications is a necessary step in anticipating what best to invest in to be prepared. Having a decent understanding of the systems in your house and the visible and invisible ways electricity comes into play is essential in developing an action plan.
As for the longer-term options, it’s important to note that getting the money together to make them happen is more a form of investing than saving. Given the prognosis for our energy situation in the coming years, sustainable energy purchases that may have relatively slow ROIs at the moment are capable of doubling or tripling that rate of return in the not-too-distant future.
Making decisions about where to allocate your resources at the home level is an important way of visualizing and keeping in mind the deep inextricability of two of the big three E’s. It’s helpful for remembering where these otherwise seemingly theoretical topics actually live—quite close to home.
If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series on resilience, you can find them here:
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