Becca encouraged me to share this here, and I finally found
some free moments to do it. For background, there are six of us - myself,
my husband, and four kids ages ten and under. We live in northern New
England where winter temperatures often stay below freezing for days or weeks.
We experienced a power outage earlier this winter that, for
us, lasted three days. (Many people in our area were without power for up
to two weeks.) Lots of people went to
emergency shelters or left their homes to stay with friends or family, but we
stayed put. It was a fantastic
opportunity to try out the ideas we have had for how we might live without
electricity or heating oil. (I realize this isn't a complete solution to what we are facing, but it's a start.)
We use an oil furnace and hot water heater that require
electricity, so we had no central heat or hot water for the duration.
Our only reasonable option was to heat with our fireplace. We typically
keep about a cord of wood in store - it is more than we need for recreational
fireplace use, but, thankfully, it proved more than enough for a three-day
emergency. Still, we went through a surprising
amount of wood in three days.
Our kitchen stove is also electric. We own a propane grill
and a camping stove, but both, unfortunately, needed repair at the time of the
outage. Keep your equipment in good
Our biggest inconvenience was
not having a woodstove; we own two of them, but one is disconnected and the
other needed repair at the time. A woodstove would have helped significantly
with our heating and cooking challenges, and I think the whole experience would
have been much more relaxed.
So, instead, we cooked on the hearth. We own some
cast-iron pans, including a large dutch oven, which we placed right in the
fireplace. It would have been useful to also have a smaller dutch
oven. We set up some bricks and cinder
blocks right in front of the fireplace, where we kept a pot of water warming
constantly. There was a great article on hearth-cooking in a recent
Mother Earth News that I found timely and helpful.
We keep our pantry fairly well-stocked and did not lack for
any food. Good thing, because we are ten
miles from town and many roads were impassible due to fallen trees. I regularly fill
empty spaces in the freezer with plastic jugs of water (ice) to keep the
freezer at max capacity, and our freezer food fared fine. (If needed, we could have used that frozen
water for washing).
Our well pump is also electric, which means that we could
not run water or flush the toilet. We had plenty of stored drinking and
washing water. We keep several five-gallon jugs of water and a stand
dispenser that we use only in emergencies.
I would still like to get a small version of
the Big Berkey system so that we can filter unlimited water in an emergency
instead of storing it. I don't think I will feel we have "water
security" until we have one of those.
We borrowed a large, insulated drink
cooler with a spout dispenser, and used it for holding warm water for washing hands and
dishes. That was a tremendous convenience - the spout just hangs over the
sink; you use it as needed and refill with hot water when more is
available. Very nice when the house is cold and you need to wash your
hands. I definitely want to get one of our own to
keep for this use.
After a previous storm, we set
up a portable 5-gallon-bucket sawdust toilet, along with a dedicated composting
structure behind the shed, and it was extremely convenient to have this option
available (when not in use, we keep it in storage). We keep a big bag of pine shavings on hand for
this. The Humanure Handbook is a good source of info about simple sawdust toilets. I was amused at how fast the compost
structure filled up in the freezing cold weather (apparently we need a larger one). Our family
of six fills about one five-gallon bucket a day. Once outside, it never had time to heat up and start to
break down; it was completely full in three days and probably froze solid
within hours of being dumped.
The indoor temperature in our fireplace-heated
living room hovered around 50F. It was colder in the mornings, as we did not
keep the fire flaming all night. The cold
really bothered my husband, but the kids and I were fine in woolens and
layers. We bought everyone woolen long johns, socks, and balaclavas this
year as part of our preparedness plan, and they were well worth the
investment. We have plenty of extra
blankets for the beds (we otherwise never use them and I was so glad I had
them). Our woolen balaclavas were really wonderful for keeping
necks/ears/cheeks warm at night.
We had the kids share beds for warmth (two kids fit foot-to-foot in a
twin bed), and slept with the bedroom doors closed to conserve body heat.
Another stupid inconvenience was
in our house design (2400sf 1969 split-level). It's a terrible design for energy
conservation, as we learned the hard way. Two major complaints - there
is no way to block off the main room to keep the heat in, and the bathroom
doesn't have natural lighting. Will fix those when we build our next
house. Also, our water pipes run around the perimeter of the
house, so we took care to shut them off and drain them so they wouldn't
freeze. We got lucky with our heating
pipes - we didn't drain them (need to figure out how) and thankfully those
didn't freeze. If I were to buy or build a house now, I
would choose a two-story box-shaped house with a nice masonry stove in the
center and the water pipes right up the center as well.
As for nighttime lighting, our
Aladdin lamp was fantastic. It's as good as or better than incandescent
light. We had plenty of bright evening light because of it, almost as if
we had electric light in the living room. We also had two other oil lamps and plenty of
lamp oil, along with a good stash of
utility candles placed in canning jars, and everyone in the family has
their own rechargeable "shake" flashlight. (We love those!)
My one unfulfilled wish, other than for a woodstove, was for a non-electric
CD player. Since that storm, we have purchased a set of speakers that
plug in the headphones jack on a Sony Discman, and the speakers do not require
batteries, though the CD player uses two AAs. I set up two
solar battery chargers (they each charge two batteries at a time), but the winter light from even our brightest windows didn't seem to be strong enough. A crank-charge CD player would be even better (if they exist - does anyone
know?), assuming the charge holds for a decently long
We learned the hard way that our
digital phone line requires electricity.
It has a backup battery that lasts for six hours, but after that, you're
out of luck. I am considering switching
back to traditional phone service to avoid this inconvenience. My parents and sister were also without power
and it was hard not knowing how they were faring. We do not have a cell phone, but if we did, we'd have needed some way to charge it.
If we had had a longer power
outage, I would have needed a plan for bathing and some basic equipment for
washing laundry (a clean toilet plunger and a wringer mop bucket, perhaps).
If anyone is reading this and
thinking they can't possibly afford to outfit themselves with the equipment
that I describe here, let me tell you that nearly all the "things" I mention
were secondhand, and most of them were free or very cheap. Freecycle is your friend, as are Craigslist,
thrift shops, free "swap shops," and simply letting friends and
family know what you're looking for.
One of the very best things to
see come out of this "short emergency" - which felt long to many cold
and inconvenienced people - was that many of our neighbors went visiting and
had some great exchanges that otherwise would not have occurred. People offered and shared resources, swapped
stories, traded complaints, and gave encouragement. I was glad to see that my neighborhood passed
that particular "test."
I hope this is helpful to
someone. If you have "short emergency" stories or tips of your own
to add, please share them! For us, being somewhat prepared made a huge difference in our experience.
Great story - full of tips! Gives me more things to think about. Thank you so much for sharing.
Great post Amanda and thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.
Amanda, there is a version of the Big Berkey called the American Berkefeld now. It is $149 and comes with 2 7" ceramic filters, which will make up to about 2 quarts of water per hour. It's a plastic version of the stainless steel filter, but uses the same ceramic filters. For $50 more, you can get the 4-filter model, which will make up to a gallon of water per hour.
For those not familiar with these filters, they use long-lasting (cleanable) ceramic filters to remove bacteria, sediment and some chemicals from water (rainwater, river water, puddles, etc.). They've been around for about 160 years.
If you want to save more, for $99, you can buy 2 10" ceramic filters and a spigot and make your own filter from two 5-gallon plastic buckets. Same quality water but at a lower cost. Detailed instructions for making the bucket filter can be downloaded from my website at www.stpaulmercantile.com/filter.htm
Rather than hearth cooking, try using a kerosene stove. Kerosene is great because it can be safely stored for decades for cooking use. Cooking stoves start at $25 and a good one costs less than $60. There is an oven available that fits on top of the stove so you can bake dinner or bread.
I make my living selling this stuff, so I shamelessly point you to my website where you can see all these products. It is www.stpaulmercantile.com I don't come to this website trying to drum up business, as business is quite good thank you, but when someone discusses these products, I am compelled to post because 1) I know a lot about the topic, and 2) I have some good, low-cost solutions for people like you.
Heating, cooking, baking and making clean water to drink are the essentials of life. All can be done easily and cheaply, without electricity.
Thank you for posting your link. Considering how we are all looking for ways to become more self-sufficient, I think it is well within reasonable boundaries for you to draw our attention to the very tools we will need in the future - no matter whose website it is!
I've been selling emergency preparedness items since 10/98 when I started doing my own prep for Y2K. The market for the items died in 2000, and stayed dead for many years. Then in 2007 it started to pick up. Then it doubled in 2008 and 2009 has started off strong as well. I think the market is "here to stay" this time, so I am changing my business plan to focus more on the emergency items and also work out affiliate relationships with other websites. My main business has been heaters and fireplaces (LP or natural gas), but in December, preparedness items actually outsold heaters and fireplaces for the first month ever.
When I took the Crash Course several months ago, I decided it was time to take my personal preparations even more seriously. My wife and I are actually in pretty good shape - we left St. Paul, MN suburbs 7 years ago and bought 10 acres in the mountains of western Maryland. We switched from oil heat to wood heat, we have a well and a spring, and I sell preparedness products, so I have a lot of items that would be good in a barter economy. Our 3500 sq ft house can easily be cut back to 1500, then again to about 1000 by installing a single insulated door in our hallway, to reduce the space that needed to be heated in a long-lasting emergency. I keep 12 full cords of wood at hand at all times, plus propane for the ventfree propane heaters (which require no electricity).
I have written the first draft of our personal family preparedness plan, which includes our food storage plan, explanations about the various ways we have to heat our home, lighting without electricity, protection, water, investment goals, etc. My wife and I each have assigned tasks to move us closer to our goals. With 10 acres, we have plenty of room for gardening, so we will be having our first garden this spring. I am working on plans for a home-attached greenhouse to extend the growing season by several months.
We're even going to get chickens this year - a first for us, and the wife wasn't very keen about the idea, but as luck would have it, we went to a church spaghetti dinner tonight and sat with a couple from our local church - as it turns out, they have chickens and just love them. They had such enthusiasm about how easy they are to raise, and how much fun it is to watch them that the wife has no excuses left. So there are eggs and meat in our future.
Taking the time to write the emergency plan was well worth the time spent. It provided focus. I think it was Chris who said that you don't need to worry about not being 100% prepared. Few people are. But if you're 50% prepared when trouble hits, that's a lot better than starting from scratch. Those words were comforting for me.
My one unfulfilled wish, other than for a woodstove, was for a non-electric
CD player. ... A crank-charge CD player would be even better (if they exist - does anyone
know?), assuming the charge holds for a decently long
... We do not have a cell phone, but if we did, we'd have needed some way to charge it.
Well, it's not quite a CD player, but it DOES solve both of these problems -
I bought an Eton brand American Red Cross emergency hand crank radio this year
You crank it up for a few minutes and it plays for a surprisingly long time - at least an hour. You can hear the news and music on AM and FM radio and most models also have NOAA weather stations. There is an outlet on the back so that you can plug your cell phone in and turn the crank to charge it. There is also a built-in LED flashlight. I believe mine was about $40, and totally worth every penny. It's also great for camping, if you're into that kind of thing. Also, it can take regular batteries or be plugged in if you don't want to crank it.
- another Amanda
Another nice radio is the Kaito KA009R. I have it on my website, and you can find it on other websites as well.
It has AM and FM, but also Shortwave, Weather, Emergency bands and VHF TV bands (until TV goes digital). It has built-in rechargeable batteries that can be charged by turning the crank, or using the built-in solar panel. When you have AC power, you can charge the batteries with the included AC adapter.
The radio also has an LED light built-in, plus it can be used to charge most cell phones with the included adapters.
Wow - I am in awe! Makes my meager preparations look like none! I'm especially impressed with "..the first draft of our personal family preparedness plan..". Good on you guys for being so astute and planning so well.
Are oil lamps better than candles (brighter) for light? If so, can anyone recommend a good type/brand?
Great story and thread! Thanks for sharing.
I bought a 5KW generator years ago, but still haven't wired up a connection to the well pump here - something I need to do. I also picked up a Honda 2KW inverter style generator, that is great for running computer and TV/Stereo and use very little fuel. I think judicious use of gasoline powered generators could make things easier - run the biggie an hour or two a day for the water pump and heater (everyone gets showers then) and run the freezer once or twice a day to keep everything nice and frozen in there. Run the little one as needed to fulfill communications and entertainment needs. It's not too hard to store even a month's supply of gas for a year or so with Stabil, at those consumption rates. I presently store around 60 gallons, Stabilized, and recycle with new fuel at the end of each summer. Do exercise safe storage principles for gasoline (grounded metal tanks, no plastic containers, sparkless pumps, etc.).
This is a good thread. It inspired me to finally join and post instead of "guesting" it all the time..lol.
The Berkey filters are awesome. I've got 2 systems already, a Royal Berkey in use and a Berkey Light in storage for backup. I use the black berkey filter elements though, not the ceramics. I've heard great things about the ceramic filters but have never used them. From what I understand, the black berkey's filter to an even higher purity(99.999999%) and I think that's why they're a little more expensive. Either way, I highly reccommend them. Good luck.
Also, I just ordered seeds from getseeds.com. They're running a bulk deal on seeds that I couldn't pass up. The only issue is that demand is so high they told me I gotta wait 6 weeks for delivery...ugh.
Some notes on wood stoves:
We put our wood stove in ourselves. One thing I learned is get a big stove so it doesn't get cold at night. (We learned this the hard way in our old house).
The other is use a metalbestos flue and do your own sweeping of it so have the brush and fiberglass poles or rope on hand. This type of flue can withstand an enormous amount of heat, it is very safe, it can be put within a few inches of the wall (of course check code in your area first).
We also have a dedicated galvanized trash pale with cover for the ashes, an old friend realized the spent ash stays lit for days and in the winter most spigots are off and most hoses are frozen so when your woods catch fire.... We empty this pale only when the ground is wet.
Also, my wife is an ex-insurance underwriter, remember to get a permit and C of O for the stove and to let your insurance company know yah got it.
A generator transfer switch is also something to look into during that generator purchase.
I think the last stove and flue ran about 4-5k when it was all said and done. The soap stone stoves are really great, and I think safer if you have kids under age 5, they run a few bucks more.
Hope that helps, a lot of this wasn't covered in the one or two good books I could find on wood stoves, and if you don't grow up with one you might attend the shcool of hard knocks we did.
PS We did have our flue inspected one time by an old chimney sweep, we won't do that again. He saw a hole in the pipe, I called the wood stove store, they said impossible, I took apart the chimney, there was no hole, it was his mirror reflecting when he shone the flashlight against it. Ergo the do your owns sweeping yourself reccomendation.
Oil lamps are brighter than candles. Oil lamps can be purchased as the Dietz-type (railroad lanterns) in at least 3 sizes. The wider the wick, the more light they produce. You can buy inexpensive Lamplighter brand oil lamps at Walmart for $10 or so.
Kosmos makes a nice line of brass or copper decorative lamps that anyone would be proud to display in their home. These are around 14 candlepower - that's enough to read a book by, or to light a dinner table. I'm going to be adding this brand of lamps to my website in the next couple weeks, as I've had a lot of requests for them.
The brightest oil lamps are made by Aladdin. They put out about the same light as a 40-watt incandescent bulb. The downsides to Aladdin are 1) expensive, 2) chimneys are very fragile, 3) they use wicks plus mantles, and the mantles require frequent replacement. So there is a tradeoff for the brighter light.
For really big lighting jobs, kerosene pressure-lanterns are the answer. You can get the nickel-plated brass Petromax for around $140, or the chrome-plated steel copy made by Butterfly for $68. Both will produce between 300 and 400 watts (compared to incandescent) of light. Not really for indoor use unless you have a very large room. The high output happens because the lantern heats the kerosene (not all of it, just the tiny amount that is traveling up the center of the lamp) to the boiling point, then the kerosene vapor mixes with air as it enters the mantle. Extremely bright. I've been selling these for 10 years.
If you've read any of my posts, you know that I've been writing our family's Emergency Preparedness Plan over the last several weeks. Taking the time to document what I know, what I've done to prepare, and what still needs to be done, has been a helpful experience for me.
One of my concerns was fuel storage - what type, how much, how to store it, safety, cost, longevity, etc. I know that we're heading for a time when we won't have fossil fuels, but I'll be dead before that happens, so I'm not trying to live a life without energy - just trying to prepare for a time when energy might be harder to find and much more expensive.
Gasoline is expensive, it's explosive (dangerous to store) and it is highly formulated, so it breaks down more quickly. For those reasons, I do not plan to store gasoline.
Kerosene is a requirement in my emergency plan because we will be cooking primarily on kerosene stoves, plus will use kerosene lamps for lighting. When the electricity is off, or extremely expensive, kerosene heaters are one of our backup heat sources for the house. Kerosene costs about $2.79/gallon where I live (when purchased in bulk), it is not explosive, and it can be stored for a decade or two if kept at a stable temperature. It does take on water from the atmosphere, so you'll need a way to remove the water (I use and sell the Mr. Funnel fuel filters - ingenious invention that instantly removes water from fuels as you pour the fuel through the filter).
I also have a diesel tractor, and a tractor would be a nice thing to have when TSHTF. Diesel fuel is very close to kerosene, though not identical.
I have a gas-fired generator. But I don't want to store gasoline, so this is a problem in my current plan.
While I heat primarily with wood (I use an 85% efficient Greenwood gasification boiler to heat water for our baseboard heat in the house), the boiler requires an electric circulation pump, plus a second pump in the house, plus electrically-operated thermostats. So, I need electricity for heat. My backups are two wood stoves in the house plus several kerosene heaters. I also sell propane and natural gas ventfree heaters on my website, and I have a couple in my home. These do not require any electricity, they are 99.9% efficient, and very safe to use. I have a 500 gallon propane tank that is kept filled ("filled" means it has 400 gallons, as the rest of the volume is empty for expansion on hot days). A gallon of propane has around 91,200 btus in it, so 400 gallons has over 36 million btus. That's enough energy to operate a 30,000 btu ventfree heater for 1,216 hours. In a true emergency, that would last a full winter, with proper rationing.
Discovery - I've been scouring the Internet looking for fuels that might fill multiple purposes. After all, kerosene, fuel oil, diesel, stove oil, jet fuel, etc. are all very similar. There is a relatively new fuel on the market called NRLM that most fuel companies sell in bulk. It can be used as fuel oil for your oil furnace (which I also have), plus it can be used in diesel-powered tractors and vehicles (cannot legally be used on-road because it is dyed and the road tax is not charged - heavy fines). It lacks some of the lubricating properties of diesel fuel, so it requires an additive (Enertech makes a product called Complete Fuel Treatment) to make it safe for tractors and vehicles.
The great news is that where I live, NRLM is $1.93 a gallon (large quantity), while fuel oil is $2.74 and kerosene is $2.79. And I just happen to have a 1000 gallon underground tank that is currently empty (it won't be empty next week). So this is a great answer to my requirements.
This fuel can therefore be used for multiple purposes:
So this single fuel can provide me with heat, light, cooking, electricity, and a working tractor. The additive costs about $40 to treat 1000 gallons of fuel, and it also increases the longevity of the fuel.
That takes care of everything except the generator, which requires gasoline. So, I'm going to sell that and buy a generator that attaches to the PTO (power take off) of the tractor. In an extended power outage, the tractor can be hooked up to the home's electric panel using a transfer switch, and we can have full power about 4 hours a day to run the refrigerators, pumps, battery chargers, etc. I think the tractor will run about 2 hours on a gallon, but will have to measure that once I get the new generator.
If the numbers hold up, 1000 gallons of NRLM and 400 gallons of propane would provide my total energy needs for an entire year, in the event we had NO electric power. And if the electricity stays on, the home would be heated with wood all the time, so the propane would not be used, plus the tractor would not be used to generate electricity, in which case the NRLM would last for many years.
I just offer this as food for thought. Some of you are probably wondering about some of these same issues, so this is how I solved them. Feedback is always appreciated. If you want to ask question anonymously, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I continue to be impressed with your organization and planning skills!
You are so far in front of so many of us that we'll never catch up. Mind you, I don't expect too many of us have a diesel tractor and a 1000 gallon fuel tank available to capitalize on your ideas.
Nevertheless, your knowledge sharing is much appreciated by me and, I'm sure, many others.
Thanks for the insights.
And, it's underground, hidden from view, and kept at a fairly steady temperature! I used to live in St. Paul and worked as an IT Manager for a large Insurance company. I had a hobby website on the side and decided to quit my job in 2001 and try to build the website. Then it occured to me that a website business did not require living in a suburb of St. Paul. So we bought a place in the mountains. Here are pics from our backyard.
Thanks Amanda and everyone for the great info.
We had a power outage here too. Only for one night but I was by myself and it got me re-motivated to get replacement wicks for the oil lamps (lucky to have my grandmothers). Lighed the gas stove with a match when the electric start didn't work and already had the wood stove going. In responce to SkylightMT - I prefer lamps to candles. Feel the lamps are safer (flame = fire potential) especially if you have animals, wind, or want to have light in rooms where you aren't present. They also don't drip on your furniture. I've read that candles are the more expensive too. Someone else on the site recomended the bogo solar flash light - looks like my next purchase.
WOW! OK - that's it - I'm packing my bags just as soon as you tell me exactly where you're hiding out! (I hope my drooling isn't too obvious! )
It has been a year and a half since I wrote the original post, and, in the spirit of Chris' latest blog series on the basics of resilience, I wanted to offer an update. For me, accumulating the "stuff" and the know-how has gone a long way toward ensuring my family's comfort during power outages, and by extension my own calm enjoyment of what would otherwise feel like a crisis situation.
We have not had another multi-day power outage since I posted, but we have had several that lasted around 24 hours, both in winter and summer.
The most recent one, in July, prompted us to purchase a small generator. We have a lot of food stored in an extra fridge and freezer and do not want to lose the security of that stockpile. Of course, the power went back on as soon as we returned home with the generator, but we know that if it happens again, we could also use it to run our well pump to bathe sparingly or refill our water supply. (Please note that the best time to buy a generator is not during an area-wide power outage...) I believe that a solar panel setup would be an even better option, but the price is out of reach for us, and the generator was significantly more affordable. Still, we managed for seven years in this location without a generator, and I did not consider it a priority until many other smaller preparations were in place.
We have increased our collection of cast-iron hearth-cooking implements, and in summer we used them outside in a portable fire bowl with good success. We have since repaired our camping stove and obtained a small gas grill. I am reminded that we still need to replenish our wood supply, get repairs done on our "emergency woodstove," and get our chimney swept.
We also now have a Berkey water filtration system, which we are putting to general use in our kitchen on a limited basis. When we need it, it will already be set up and in use. And it makes our water taste better. I still have water stored, probably around 40 gallons, because it's not enough to simply have a filter - you have to have water to run through it.
As far as lighting goes, I cannot say enough good things about the Aladdin lamp. It is the one lighting tool that makes it almost possible for us to forget we are having a power outage. It is bright and warm and does not feel like a traditional oil lamp. We were lucky and got ours secondhand for almost nothing, but even at retail price I believe it is worth it to have one.
About my wish for a CD player, we have found that a CD walkman (uses two AA batteries) and a passive speaker system like this one are adequate for our needs. Things feel much more normal for our family with music in the air.
I now also own a wringer mop bucket (something like this) and a laundry plunger stored away in case we need to do laundry without power. With four active kids, you can imagine how this might come in handy. It gives me peace of mind knowing that we have it, even though I hope never to need it. I would have found it even more essential when the kids were in cloth diapers.
The sawdust toilet we use is similar to this one. During a recent emergency when there was no sawdust available, we discovered that it works well with any biodegradable absorbent material (we used paper towels, as we happened upon a hefty supply of them at the time.) I still would like to improve our dump location, but I'm still thinking about where best to put it. (If you do this, you should not locate your toilet compost uphill from your well.) I have learned to keep the sawdust toilet, a bucket of clean sawdust, and a battery lantern conveniently stashed in our bathroom cabinet for those times when one discovers an outage in the middle of the night on the way to the toilet.
We are also now in the process of "weatherizing" our house, which was made possible through an income-dependent state program. Our walls have been better insulated, cracks have been sealed, doors have been weatherstripped, and moisture problems have been addressed. We are also moving some pipes so that they are located in a less freeze-prone position. I am a firm believer in making the most of what you have, wherever you are. For several years we had planned to move to a more energy-sustainable situation, but economic challenges prevented it and convinced us that we will need to stay put for a while. So we are making the most of our current situation.
I hope that this information will be helpful to others.
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