Power, Light and Electricity

One of the downfalls with heading up this emergency prep project is every time I send out an e-mail, it is underscored with gloom and doom. I really don’t want to instill unnecessary fear in anybody, but at the same time, somebody has to be the constant reminder that “what if” scenarios will always exist. So with this, I want to talk about one of our most depended upon, yet most fragile resources: our grid system.

While our ancestors lived for thousands of years without electricity, transitioning back to that lifestyle would be very difficult for most. Nights would be darker, winters would be colder, summers, would be hotter, clothes would be dirtier, work would be harder, life in general would be more difficult. But if needed, we could do it, with a little perparation beforehand. In order to mitigate the threats that could cause a grid down situation, we first need to identify those threats. Here are some of the more common possibilities.

Grid Down Situation:

There are several things that could shut down our power grid. Lets consider a few possibilities:

  • Weather such as storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, wind, heat, ice, etc.

  • Attacks such as cyber attacks and EMP’s

  • Natural disasters such as solar flares and earthquakes

  • Human error and disasters such as aging infrastructure, software errors, and local accidents

10 of the worst power outages in US history were caused by:

  1. Northeast Blackout of 1965: Human Error

  2. New York City Blackout of 1977: Lightning Strike

  3. West Coast Blackout of 1982: High Winds

  4. Western North America Blackout of 1996: Excessively high demand during extreme heat

  5. North Central US blackout of 1998: Lightning Strike

  6. Northeast Blackout of 2003: Software bug

  7. Southwest Blackout of 2011: Human error

  8. Derecho Blackout of 2012: Derecho Storm

  9. Hurricane Sandy in 2012: Storm

  10. Central Canadian/US Blackout of 2013: Ice Storm

Below is a satellite image taken during the 2013 ice storm in the Northeast:

The biggest solar storm on record happened in 1859 and is referred to as the Carrington Event. During this event, northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago Chile. The flares were so powerful that people in the northeastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora. In addition, the geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment—some bad enough to set fires. But in 1859, this was considered more of a curiosity. If something similar happened today, the world’s high-tech infrastructure would most likely grind to a halt. Given the fragile nature of our power grid, it’s not a matter of if the power will go out, but when and for how long. And this is what I want the focus of this month’s module to be: How to prepare for a short to mid-term power outage.

In 2015, PBS News Hour interviewed Ted Koppel, an American journalist, former news anchor for “Nightline” and author of “Lights Out”, about the vulnerability or our countries power grid. It’s an interesting interview and he even talks a bit about the Mormons. It’s about 7 minutes long.

Light

One of the immediate issues you might be faced with immediately following a power outage, depending on the time of day of course, is the consideration for light. If it is night, you might have to scramble for light in the dark. I suggest keeping a light for each occupant of each room. I have a light for each of my kids in their sock drawer, and each kid knows where theirs is and how to use it. Likewise, my wife and I each keep one in our nightstand drawers. Under the bed in your bed kit is a great place to keep your light as well. It doesn’t really matter where you choose to keep your lights as long as you have one for each person in your house and that each person knows where theirs is. There are hundreds of flashlight options out there and in my opinion the best light is the one you have when you need it (provided it works). But some ask me which lights I prefer, and while I have several go-to lights, I’ve really liked the collapsible LED lantern style lights. They are easy for kids to use, very bright, last a long time, run off of 3 AA batteries, have handles to hold on to or hang by as well as magnets in the base which are handy when working on a car, and the best part, they are cheap. You can get 4 of them for around $30, and if you look around long enough, you’ll find them on sale for even less. Here are the ones I use: Etekcity Portable LED Camping Lantern Flashlights. There are many manufacturers of these lights and most of them seem equally good. Just look over the reviews.

As I just mentioned, at a bare minimum, I suggest having a light immediately accessible for each person in your family. Remember the Bed kit module? That solves this basic problem. Beyond that, the sky is the limit when it comes to additional lights, as you’ll probably want more than just your Bed kit light. You decide how many you want to have around the house. I recommend sticking with LED lights as they are incredibly bright and last a long time on a set of batteries. In addition to the LED lanterns mentioned above, I always make sure I have a few LED headlamps on hand as they allow you the use of both hands while you’re working on stuff. You may also want to consider Glow Sticks. A glow stick is a self-contained, short-term light-source that consists of a translucent plastic tube containing isolated substances that, when combined, make light through chemiluminescence, so it does not require an external power source. Once activated, the light cannot be turned off and can only be used once, but they will last up to 12 hours. And, they are cheap. Plus, the kids love them. You can get 50 of them for $10 to $22, depending on the color of the glow stick. Click Here for the Amazon Link. Candles are also an option, but give consideration to the open flames. These may not be the best option for families with younger kids.

Make sure you keep your lights in working order. I keep batteries installed in all of our bed kit lights and I make sure I check/rotate those batteries every 6 or so months. I keep all of our additional backup lights, such as headlamps and hand flashlights, together in a known location such as an emergency drawer, and I keep batteries co-located with them, but not installed in them. Even when off, a flashlight will produce an ever slight draw, eventually depleting the batteries completely. And once a battery is completely depleted, it runs the risk of corroding and damaging the device it is stalled in. Be sure you routinely check or rotate your batteries. There is nothing worse than scrambling for a light just to find out it is dead. If you use primary (non-rechargeable) batteries, make sure you have plenty on hand. I use secondary (rechargeable) batteries in all of our “emergency” lights, and every 6 or so months, I pull them out and recharge them. If you opt to use rechargeable batteries, you need to have a way to recharge them…even when the power is out. I have a USB charger that can be charged by any USB source. This may be a power outlet, a vehicle cigarette lighter or USB slot, a generator, or one of my favorites (great for camping as well), a small foldout solar charger that will recharge or power your devices just by sitting in the sun. The one I have is similar to This One Here.

Generators

Another consideration when dealing with power outages is a generator. Generators come in many different sizes, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. You can get smaller portable generators that are very quite and fuel efficient, yet still provide plenty of power. These are great for camping, or if needed to run individual devices such as an electric heater, a light source, or simply to provide a few power outlets. Or you can get larger generators that are capable of powering your entire house, including your refrigerator, freezer, and furnace fan. Generators such as the ones produced by Generac are able to sense when the power goes out, automatically activate a transfer switch (disconnecting you from the grid), and then automatically turn on, usually running off of natural gas. While very convenient, these come with a big price tag.

Size

So what size generator is right for you? Well, that depends on how much of your house you want to power, and of course, how much you want to spend. In general, there are 4 generator sizes to consider:

  • Micro Generators: 900-2000 watts

  • Small Generators: 3000-4000 watts

  • Medium Generators: 6000-7500 watts

  • Large Generators: 7500-15,000 watts

When deciding what size generator is best for you, you need to determine what you are trying to accomplish. Unless you're a hospital or essential business, you probably don't NEED constant power 24/7, and therefore, probably don't need a large generator, but they are nice. For most, a medium generator will probably be sufficient to power an isolated portion (and in some cases, all) of your house.

When determining how big of a generator is required for your needs, take a look at the data plate on all the items you plan on running. This is why it's nice to isolate part of your house; it's easier to tally your wattage usage. Reference the table below for estimated wattage of some of the more common appliances. Of course, your individual appliance wattage will vary, so you should check the lables on your devices, especially your refrigerator and freezer. Click Here for a more detailed wattage estimate in PDF form (Compliments of HouseNspect Inc).

Wattage Estimates

*Appliances and tools with induction motors (marked * in tables) may require from 3 to 7 times the listed wattage when starting. The start-up load of the appliance or tool determines whether an inverter has the capability to power it. Be sure to check the specific wattage requirements and operating instructions for appliances / tools to be used. Also, air conditioners are a very difficult load because of the high start-up surge. Use the Locked Rotor Amps to determine the start up surge requirement.

Here is what I have do as far as my generator setup goes. I have two generators; a micro generator and also a medium generator. And here is why: The micro generator is very portable and is nice for camping or when you need to power just a couple small appliances, or maybe one larger appliance, depending on the wattage of that appliance. For example, during one of our short term power outages (<24 hrs), our kitchen sink wouldn't drain...because the disposal had some stuff in it. So, instead of taping the sink off as "inop", we just started our micro generator, plugged in the disposal via an extension chord, and within 5 seconds, our sink was working again. Also, it will run enough lights and heaters to keep my springbar tent comfortable, if we're ever displaced outside of our house. This micro generator is more a function of portability and convenience, and it wasn't that expensive.

The medium generator will theoretically power my entire house (as long as I don't use the high draw items all at once). But I don't intend on doing this. If I needed to run my medium generator during an extended power outage, I would designate a section of my house as living area (including a room with a fire place if available). I already know which section I will be using, and have listed the essential breakers required to power that section in my Home Manual. I include the refrigerator and freezer along with the chest freezer. My main priority is to keep our food from spoiling, and depending on the time of year, I give consideration to the furnace fan. If running the furnace, I would make sure I ran the thermostat manually and close off the vents not associated with our new living section. I would not plan on running my central air conditioning unit, although with our reduced living space, my generator would probably handle it just fine. Back in the days of halogen light bulbs, at 60 watts each, lights were a big consideration. But all of the lights in my house are now LED, drawing jsut a few watts each, so I am not really worried about light usage as a considerable draw on the generator. But of course, I'll still turn them off when not in use. I would not use my electric dryer as it would dominate the draw on my generator. And then we would just use flashlights in any area of the house that is left without power.

Now that my house is set up to be run off of my generator, I would connect the generator to the house. The most convenient way to connect your generator to your house is via a transfer or interlock switch. I will not discuss transfer or interlock switches here, other than they are switches that will allow you to isolate your house from the grid so you can power your house from a generator. If you have a decent sized generator, it is a great way to connect to that generator power, without running a bunch of extention cords through windows and doors. Contact a licensed electrician. They will be able to help you out with this.

I would then run the generator periodically as needed, not constantly. Some say twice a day for a couple hours at a time is enough to allow your refrigerator and freezer to maintain temperature. As mentioned in the Water Module, I keep several frozen water containers in my extra freezer, and when the power goes out, I’ll distribute them to help keep my refrigerator and freezer cold. However, once this ice melts, I'll remove it from my freezers so they don't have to work as hard to re-freeze it.

Fuel

If you decide to go the generator route, make sure you have the necessary supply of fuel. Many generators these days are tri-fuel generators, meaning they will burn gasoline, propane, and natural gas. Natural gas generators are definitely preferred as they have a constant supply of fuel…provided the gas lines aren’t compromised. If your generator runs off of gasoline, make sure you store enough and rotate it periodically. Gasoline does not store very well. I store 25 gallons and I rotate it out every 6 months. Also, it's a good idea to have some extra cords on hand.


There are many other considerations when it comes to power outages. This touches on just a few of them as they pertain to short and mid-term power outages ranging from a few hours up to a couple of weeks. Long-term power outages, such as those that could follow a major earthquake, a solar flare or an EMP, will literally require a lifestyle change. Living without power would not be easy, but it is doable. After all, we did it for thousands of years.

Page updated: 11/22/20