At 4:30 a.m. on this past Labor Day morning, I woke up to the sound of beeping. “Power’s out,” I mumbled to my husband. The beeping was the sound of his desktop computer’s emergency backup, which provides a short window for him to power down the machine. However the electricity came back on within one minute, and we both drifted back to sleep.
At 6:30 a.m., the power went off again, and this time it stayed off.
Our normal morning routine is to make coffee (him) or tea (me) using the kettle on the propane kitchen stove. Then we boot up our respective computers (located just a few feet apart), and catch up on the news while drinking our hot beverages, commenting to each other over the state of the world. Then we walk the dog and start the day’s tasks. (We both work from home.)
On this particular morning – since we had no electricity – I lit our kitchen propane stove with a barbeque lighter, heated the water as normal, made our morning beverages, and then we settled outside in the porch rockers while we listened to a neighbor attempting to get his generator started. For once we didn’t start the day marinating in national and international news, which was kinda refreshing.
During the time it took to drink our coffee/tea, we did a mental exercise: What if the power didn’t come back on? What would be the next step?
When we first moved to our new (to us) home almost three years ago, it was late December and we quickly discovered the power grid in this area is fragile at best. Anything seems to bring it down: a snowfall, a light wind, a Tuesday. Our house was all-electric (except for a propane range in the kitchen, and even that has an electronic ignition), so going without power was an uncomfortable experience, especially in winter. The longest stretch the power was out was four days.
When that first winter ended, we went about preparing ourselves to be comfortable without electricity so we wouldn’t be as vulnerable. We installed a wood cookstove. We stored 200 gallons of water. We purchased a hand pump for our well (still waiting to be installed). We bought a small solar battery system to run the chest freezer in the absence of electricity (it also powers my laptop when I’m working). For lighting, we have an array of both solar-charged lamps and kerosene lamps. We can answer the call of nature by “manually flushing” the toilet (following the “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” rule).
I even wrote the entirety of this column during the outage using my AlphaSmart, a battery-powered portable keyboard popular with writers during the early 2000s. I also took the time to outline some other writing projects on my prized little keyboard.
In short, we are now comfortably situated for extended power outages. Meanwhile, it took our neighbor a good two hours of tinkering to get his generator up and running.
Of course, not everything can be done without power. Our daughter’s woodcraft business uses electric power tools. She used the downtime to clean her shop, but otherwise was unable to progress on her current production run.
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My husband, similarly unable to use his power tools, gave his own shop a much-needed cleaning. We also teamed up to stack some hay bales in the barn, and worked on constructing some additional garden beds. There is never a shortage of projects on a homestead that can be done without electricity.
By the time the power was restored in the evening, I was just filling some shower bags with hot water from the kettle so we could wash off the day’s grime. Instead, we were all able to take regular showers. Just like that, life was back to normal.
So there we go. Currently, our lifestyle is a blend of conventional and off-grid, of low-tech and high-tech. We prefer either hand-operated options or solid-state technology to provide for our needs. As our neighbor’s struggles with his generator illustrate, things with a lot of moving parts can cause problems at inconvenient times.
In its push to make everything electric – from vehicles to home appliances – the Biden administration refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely what happens when the power goes out. Everything from international disputes (EMPs) to weather conditions to accidents to sabotage can take down the grid, leaving millions vulnerable.
Additionally, loading more electric vehicles and appliances onto an already-strained grid is just asking for trouble. As Rep. Thomas Massie (an electrical engineer) pointed out, “Twenty-five refrigerators. That’s how much the additional electricity consumption per household would be if the average U.S. home adopted electric vehicles.”
This is why our approach is to be able to separate ourselves from the grid. We don’t have (nor can we afford) a full solar array and vast banks of batteries. Instead, we choose to target specific weaknesses (such as running the chest freezer and powering my computer on work days) and purchased what is necessary to prevent those failures from ruining the freezer contents or crippling my job.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in America don’t have the option of installing a hand pump on their well or cooking on a wood cookstove. Neither option is available in apartments or even most suburban homes. Power outages quickly move from inconvenient to dangerous.
But even in urban and suburban environments, there’s a lot that can be done to mitigate power outages, assuming the grid hasn’t entirely collapsed (in which case we’ll all have far more serious issues to contend with). Everyone should have food, water, lighting and toilet options (i.e. five-gallon bucket with a seat) on standby. Everyone. No exceptions. If you live in a cold climate, consider what methods you can use to stay warm, everything from bundling up in blankets to rigging up a propane heater (making sure it’s designed for indoor use).
Power outages are always a useful reminder to test one’s contingency plans. You don’t want to wait until you’re out of options to make a decision. Make those decisions while more options are available.
Right now, the power grid is (mostly) stable, and resources are (mostly) available and affordable. It’s time to push past the normalcy bias and engage in the mental exercise of how you would handle a prolonged power outage. As the saying goes, better 10 years too early than 10 minutes too late.
The occasional power outage can be instructive, an opportunity to assess weaknesses. However, most people won’t learn from the experience. Instead they’ll moan and complain until the power is restored, and otherwise do nothing to make their next experience easier. C’mon, folks, you can do better.
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