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:
Northeast Blackout of 1965: Human Error
New York City Blackout of 1977: Lightning Strike
West Coast Blackout of 1982: High Winds
Western North America Blackout of 1996: Excessively high demand during extreme heat
North Central US blackout of 1998: Lightning Strike
Northeast Blackout of 2003: Software bug
Southwest Blackout of 2011: Human error
Derecho Blackout of 2012: Derecho Storm
Hurricane Sandy in 2012: Storm
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.
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 do not want to scramble for light in the dark. I suggest keeping a light for each occupant of each room either next to their bed, in maybe the nightstand, or under their bed, in their Bed Kit. Each of my kids knows exactly where their light is and how to use it. And they actually use them all the time. Likewise, my wife and I each keep one in our nightstand drawers. 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. And keep these lights in a "ready state," which is to say, make sure they have batteries installed, so it is ready to go at any moment. The only consideration to the "ready state" is, make sure you change out the batteries periodically. If batteries are left in a device, they will eventually drain all the way down and die. But the isn't the worst part. If left there long enough, they will leak and corrode, possibly damaging the device they are installed in. You've all seen this before; that white gunk that renders your device useless and is hard to get out.
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 what I call a "Dark Box", because it is the box I'll be looking for when it is dark. I do not keep these lights in a "Ready State," which is to say, I do not keep batteries installed in these lights as these lights are being stored longer term. Even when off, a flashlight (or any device) will produce an ever slight draw, eventually depleting the batteries completely. And once a battery is completely depleted, it runs the risk of leaking and corroding, and damaging the device it is installed in. But, I do keep batteries, such as a Costco pack, co-located with these lights (in the same container), and I make sure I store enough to provide enough batteries for each light about two times. If you use primary (non-rechargeable) batteries, make sure you have plenty on hand. I store enough in my dark box to supply each light with 2 rounds of batteries. I use secondary (rechargeable) batteries in all of our “emergency” lights, and every 6 months or so, 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.
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 quiet 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 refrigerators, freezers, 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, and all you notice is a slight flicker as the transfer takes place. While very convenient, these come with a big price tag.
In general, there are 4 sizes of generators to consider:
Micro Generators: 900-2000 watts
Small Generators: 3000-4000 watts
Medium Generators: 6000-7500 watts
Large Generators (Home Standby): 7500-15,000 watts
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. When deciding what size generator is best for you, you need to determine what you are trying to accomplish. If you lose power once a year or so, you can probably get away with saving some money by buying a smaller generator and plan to just run essential items in your house until the power is restored. If you lose power many times a year, and for longer periods of time, then you may want to spend the extra money and get a generator that can handle the entire load of your house. For me, I don't NEED constant power 24/7, and therefore, probably don't need a large home standby generator, but they are nice. For most, a medium generator will probably be sufficient to power an isolated portion 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 (or amperage) usage.
Watts, Volts, and Amps... What???
Generator output is measured in Watts. So how do I make sense of all these watts, volts, and amps?
Well, there is a relationship between Watts, Volts, and Amps. Electrical power is measured in Watts and that is why generators are rated in watts, so you know how much power (or how many watts) your generator is capable of. Watts and Amps are merely different units used to calculate total power consumed. Most electrical appliances sold in the US adhere to the 120 volt standard. Electrical dryers, stoves, welders, and other appliances sometimes run off of a 240 volt system, which is basically 2 - 120 volt lines. All of your electrical appliances have a voltage and a wattage or amperage rating (usually written somewhere on them). Your refrigerators usage, for example, is usually written somewhere in the door jam of the fridge or freezer door. My refrigerators below display their amperage usage in amps. See below:
As long as you know any two of the voltage (almost always 115-120), the amperage, or the wattage, you can figure out the one you don't know. There are formulas to covert between amps (A), watts (W), and volts (V):
V = W / A
W = A x V
A = W / V
So the Sub-Zero fridge/freezer on the left draws 11 amps at 115 volts, which is V x A = W or 115 x 11 = 1265 watts. The GE fridge/freezer draws 6.5 amps at 110-127 volts (I'll use 120), which is again, V x A = W or 120 x 6.5 = 780 watts. My furnace (it's old) shows a max draw of 12 amps at 115 volts, so that's V x A = W or 115 x 12 = 1380 watts. My deep freezer is very efficient at 1.4 amps at 115 volts, which is only 1.4 x 115 = 161 watts. I can work it the other way as well. Remember the old incandescent light bulbs? If I had a 60 watt bulb and wanted to know how many amps it drew, I would reference the formula W / V = A and we would get 60 / 120 = .5 amps. Likewise, if I know how many running watts (see below for an explanation on starting vs running) my generator is capable of, I can determine how many amps I can run. So lets say my generator is capable of only 5500 running watts. I would again use the formula to find Amps, or A = W / V, which 7500 / 120 = 62.5, or about 62 amps.
So, for me to run my 4 essential items (2 fridge/freezer combos, a deep freezer, and my furnace), I would need a generator that is capable of at least 3586 watts or 29.5 amps. So my 7500 watt (9400 starting) generator is more than enough to run these items, plus more if necessary. My LED can lights each require 23 watts, so I can do the math on them as well and include them into the capable load of my generator. Point of interest, my electric dryer is 240 volts and draws 24 amps, which if you do the math (240 x 24) is 5760 watts. That is a ton of wattage. While my generator would handle this alone, I could not run my 4 essential items as well as run my dryer (3586 + 5760 = 9346). So if I had to run my dryer for whatever reason, I would have to make sure I load shed enough 'draw' off of the generator to ensure it had enough power to run the items connected to it.
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).
Starting Watts vs Running Watts
Whenever you buy a generator, it is going to give you two numbers: starting wattage and running wattage. It is important to understand the difference between these two numbers and what they are telling you. When an appliance, let's say your furnace fan, first cycles, it draws more power than is required to keep it running. Many electrical devices (motors in particular) work this way. So eventhough your furnace may only draw 6-8 amps continuously, it may require 12 amps on initial startup (or each time it cycles). It is kind of like pushing a car. Getting that car moving is hard at first, but once it's moving, it doesn't take near the effort to keep it moving. This is why generators have "starting" and "running" wattages. And since you don't know when your devices are going to cycle on and off, it is necessary to choose a generator that has the capability of handling a max load under the generators "running" limitation. Put another way, add up the max amps or watts of all the appliances you want your generator to run and make sure those numbers all fall below the generators "running" limitation.
And a final note on generator load: Much like anything else, just because your generator is capable of producing X amount of watts doesn't mean you should run that many. Just because my car can do 6000 rpm doesn't mean I should do it. It will eventually ruin the engine. It is always best to run your generator somewhat below it's max running wattage. Running your generator at it's max will shorten it's life span, require more fuel, and generate a lot more noise. Choose a generator that is somewhat larger than the load you plan on carrying. Take care of your generator and it will take care of you.
My Generator Setup
Here is what I have 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 power the my entire house (as long as I don't use the high draw items). But I don't intend on doing this. If I need 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. 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 just 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. These are switches that 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 extension cords through windows and doors. Contact a licensed electrician for help 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. This will also allow your furnace to bring your house back up to temp. 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.
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. In the event of a moderate to big earthquake, the city will probably shut off the gas as a precaution. 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, but 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.