Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Staying warm when the electricity is out

About 200,000 people in the DC Metro area got a crash course in staying warm when the power goes out in the middle of the winter. Montgomery County MD was particularly hard hit, residents were without power for several days. I was without power for 35 hours and thought I would share with you some of the lessons learned.

Evaluate the risks.
I've lived in this area my whole life and this is the first time I have had an extended winter power outage. Every major snow or ice storm brings at least scattered outages but your chances of being affected aren't that high. Older areas with above bound power lines and mature trees are most at risk.

Evaluate the consequences.
So the power goes out, so what? How is it going to impact you? How much are you willing to spend to ameliorate it? Maybe all you really need to do is throw on some more clothes or snuggle in bed with someone. Here are some things to evaluate:
  • Cooking: If you have a gas stove stove you can probably still cook. Don't count on the oven working and you may need matches to start the burners (If you have a pilot light you don't, if when you turn the burner on you hear a 'click, click, click' then you have an electric start and will need matches). You can also buy a camping stove to have for emergencies or use your gas grill.
  • Hot water: and water in general. Around here almost everyone is on county water and it works fine when the power is out. If you had a well you would have to worry about that. If you have a natural gas hot water heater it will probably work, check to see if there are any electric wires going to it, no electric, it works when the power is out.
  • Kids: If you have an infant or young kids you need to prepare a bit better, as they get older they get better at adjusting
  • Medical needs: Do you have any special medical needs that require electricity? Do you have any medical conditions that will be made worse by prolonged exposure to cold?
  • Pipes freezing: After a couple of days without heat you have to start worrying about your pipes freezing. You can reduce the risk by leaving the faucets open a tiny bit. It costs water, but that is cheaper than replacing pipes.
  • Comfort: Hey, some people like being warm and watching DVDs, maybe you are one of them.
Plan appropriately.
Winter power outages are a bit different from summer ones. Because of snow and ice, it can take them longer to get to and fix power problems than it does in the summer. It is also more likely that you will not be able to get out of your neighborhood and get to someplace that does have power. There were several of my neighbors who had places they could go but couldn't get their cars out to the main road.

Know your options.
  • Dress warm: As everyone says, dress in layers, it really helps. Here are some specific dress warm ideas: Slippers and wool socks will keep your toes warm. A hat keeps your head warm, if the only hat you have is the hood of your jacket, go out and grab a cheap knit hat. Thermal underwear are cheap and really warms you up, especially your legs.
  • Portable heater: A few years ago I got a portable propane heater. For the most part it has languished in my basement but it came in handy for this. You want one that is indoor safe and those cost a bit more. Indoor safe ones turn off if the flame goes out, if it tips over, or if oxygen levels get to low. You can get ones that operate off of disposable one pound propane cylinders. I have the Mr Heater "Portable Buddy" heater (see picture below) New versions look slightly different but operate the same. It is a bit hotter than the portable electric heaters and on high will warm up a bedroom (slowly). A propane cylinder lasts about 3 hours so be sure you have enough spares. You can also get adapters to refill them from a 20lb propane tank like a gas grill uses (not sure about the safety implications of that). If I were to do it over, I would buy the Mr Heater "Big Buddy" which puts out twice the heat (and uses propane twice as fast), and, importantly, has a battery operated fan to distribute the heat better.
  • Gas fireplace insert: I don't have one of these but many of my neighbors do. One neighbor has gas fireplace logs and they didn't help much at all, but several with inserts say it did keep one room warm. I am going to look into getting one.
  • Kerosene heater: Kerosene heaters are great if you use them regularly, people use them to keep one or two rooms warm then lower the heat in the rest of the house. However, they do take maintenance and you have to keep the fuel fresh. I wouldn't get one of these just for emergency use.
  • Generator: Wonderful things, they let you keep the refrigerator, tv, and lights on. If you have a natural gas furnace they can power the blower and you can have sweet heat. I have one of these and will go into more detail below.

Above: the Mr Heater "Portable Buddy" indoor-safe propane heater runs off of disposable one pound propane cylinders.
I have a generator I got after Hurricane Isabel a number of years ago. I got a medium sized one, two circuits, 3,500 watts. I had a vague idea that if there were a winter power outage I could wire it in to the furnace but didn't go beyond that. This past winter when we were without power I turned the circuit breaker off and un-wired the switch on the side of the furnace. I then connected the wires to a power cord I had. (Use a heavy duty one, I used one from an old computer, one of my neighbors used one from a surge supressor) If you are considering getting a generator, please keep the following in mind:
  • Generators require maintance. Twice a year I run mine for a while to make sure it keeps working. I also put fuel stabilizer in the gas I keep for it. Every year I replace the stored gas (putting the old gas in my car). If you don't do this then it may not start when you need it. One of my neighbors had a friend bring a generator over and they couldn't get it going.
  • Generators are noisy. Honda make some small (1500 watt) ones that are very quiet and very expensive (around $2,000) cheaper ones are noisier and the bigger they are the noisier they are. The least expensive ones for a given wattage are the noisiest. Mine is about as loud as a lawnmower, I don't run it overnight because the only thing worse than being without power is being without power and having someone elses generator keep you awake.
  • Size appropriately. They start around 1500 watts. These are enough to run a single circuit, like the furnace or the fridge but not both (you should be able to run some lights too). 3,000 watt generators can run two ciruits which is great but that means they are bigger, louder and use more fuel. For most people, a small generator will be sufficient. I have a 3,500 watt one but could easily work with a smaller one.
  • Get the right extension cords (and enough of them). The more power you draw, the thicker the cord needs to be. The longer the cord the thicker it needs to be too. Lightweight cords are fine for running the weedwacker but I would hesitate to use one to run the fridge all day. I use 12 gauge cords, they also make 10 gauge ones if you want to be safe. Keep in mind where you will be running the generator and make sure the cord is long enough, when there is two feet of snow you won't want to drag the generator so it is close enough to the house. If you have multiple circuits, make sure you have multiple extension cords. I only had one heavy duty one so couldn't even use the second circuit until I borrowed a cord from a neighbor.
  • Don't run the generator inside. I feel like I am insulting your intelligence by even mentioning this, but people sometimes do. That means don't run them in the garage or by an open window too.
Hopefully this helps you plan for next winter. These observations hold for Maryland and surrounding areas, as you go further north it gets colder and probably has different requirements (being without power when it is zero degrees is different that being without power when it is 30 degrees). As you go south it becomes less of an issue.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post here, Edward. Some good info and tips for how to survive the power outages. 35 hours is certainly above and beyond the call of duty!