Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

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  • Sat, Feb 07, 2009 - 08:25pm

    #1

    Amanda Witman

    Status Silver Member (Offline)

    Joined: Mar 17 2008

    Posts: 153

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    Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

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
repair! 

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
time. 

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.

  • Sat, Feb 07, 2009 - 11:26pm

    #2
    AnOregonian

    AnOregonian

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 10 2008

    Posts: 289

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    Re: Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

Amanda,

Great story – full of tips! Gives me more things to think about. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 12:14am

    #3

    Michael Höhne

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Nov 16 2008

    Posts: 57

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    Re: Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

Great post Amanda and thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.

Michael

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 01:09am

    #4

    stpaulmercantile

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Nov 20 2008

    Posts: 17

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    Water filter solution

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 http://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 http://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.

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 01:27am

    #5
    AnOregonian

    AnOregonian

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 10 2008

    Posts: 289

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    Re: Water filter solution

[quote=stpaulmercantile]

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 http://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 http://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.

[/quote]

stpaulmercantile,

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! Wink

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 02:06am

    #6

    stpaulmercantile

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Nov 20 2008

    Posts: 17

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    Re: Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

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.

 

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 02:15am

    #7

    propamanda

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Sep 17 2008

    Posts: 19

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    Re: Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

[quote=Amanda]

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
time. 

  
…  We do not have a cell phone, but if we did, we’d have needed some way to charge it.

[/quote]

 

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

http://www.etoncorp.com/American_Red_Cross

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

 

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 02:40am

    #8

    stpaulmercantile

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Nov 20 2008

    Posts: 17

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    Kaito KA009R – solar and crank radio and cellphone charger

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.

http://www.stpaulmercantile.com/KA009kit.jpg (picture)

 

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 03:29am

    #9
    AnOregonian

    AnOregonian

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 10 2008

    Posts: 289

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    Re: Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

[quote=stpaulmercantile]

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.

[/quote]

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.

  • Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - 04:15am

    #10

    SkylightMT

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Sep 30 2008

    Posts: 37

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    Re: Lessons Learned from a Power Outage

Are oil lamps better than candles (brighter) for light? If so, can anyone recommend a good type/brand?

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