Header image


I listened to more radio than typical after the last big local storm of Oct 2012... radio uses less power than TV... although we watched some TV when the power budget allowed. Many radio programs featured call-ins from listeners. Most callers fell into one of two groups: (a) the whiners who complained that it is taking too long to restore everything and (b) the ones who complained about the whiners. Unfortunately there were many senior citizens out there from "The Great Generation" who were cold and low on food who were too proud to ask for help while the whiners complained about not being able to charge their cell phones and get online.

As you know from this site, my baking and cooking classes fill to capacity quickly, typically within a few days. Several years ago I offered an emergency preparedness class in West Hartford's LifeLearn continuing ed program. Not one person signed up. The fire chief and the principal at Hall High School (CO of CT's National Guard medical unit) were planning to address my class and both were surprised and disappointed by the lack of interest.

So, here's the deal. After the storm we were in a warm house, had hot food in our bellies, hot coffee in the thermos, operational high-def TV, internet access, refrigerator with un-thawed frozen food, and a reserve of canned and shelf-stable food to last another 2 weeks after we used up what's in the fridge. Meanwhile, 99% of the rest of the town was cold, in the dark, cut off from communications, and spending a disproportionate amount of time complaining about their situation. All it takes is (a) an emergency plan and (b) implementation of the steps necessary to be prepared. For less than the cost of one weekend of skiing families could have been better prepared... if they cared enough to do so. If you're reading this, chances are you care... now!

You may ask about my qualifications to write such a treatise. Long before moving to West Hartford I was a first responder, volunteer firefighter, rescue technician, and ambulance corpsman. I was certified as an EMT by Pennsylvania and New York. I was also certified by the American Red Cross to teach first aid at all levels from beginner through advanced to instructor trainer and completed Civil Defense "self help" disaster training. As an Extra Class amateur radio operator (call sign WV1W) I was an active participant in several annual disaster drills and emergency communications exercises. As an engineer, I'm what you call a "belt and suspenders" type.

Lessons from 8.5 days off-the-grid
1. Food
You should have 3 days of food that does not require any energy to prepare. Examples include dry cereals, granola and fruit/nut bars, peanut butter & crackers, dried fruit, and/or MREs. My friend John calls this "boat food" because it will last almost indefinitely on-board. You should have a minimum of 1 week of canned food that requires very low amounts of energy to prepare. Examples include canned soups, stews, beans, and vegetables (canned corn is actually quite good). You should have another week of food that can be prepared with a modest energy budget. Examples include rolled oats, rice and pasta. I have 1 box of quick-cook rice on hand just for emergency use. All food should have a long shelf life and uncomplicated storage issues. Obviously, a hand-powered can opener is essential equipment.

While I'm talking about food, let me mention refrigeration. When I replaced our fridge, I paid particular attention to the electricity requirement. I wanted a side-by-side, but we chose a smaller one without the typical space-hogging, energy-using external ice and water dispenser. This lets me run both the fridge AND boiler on a very small generator... at the same time! Ours is a Sears Kenmore, and I think they're the only source for a fridge like this.

Eat the most perishable food first. This may seem obvious, but you should use expiration dates on food as a guide for the "order of battle" in your kitchen. If it is cold outside or if there is snow on the ground, consider putting some food into a cooler so you don't have to open your refrigerator as often. Even if you have a generator, this may cut the fridge's energy budget in half. Keep thermometers in the fridge and freezer. They will help determine how much generator time you need to allot to this appliance. Keep the fridge under 40˚F and the freezer under 20˚F. If the house is warm and the fridge is cold you can use the extra power to watch TV or give your generator a rest to conserve fuel and save it for when it's really needed.

If you have a deep freezer you may find that it uses even less energy than your fridge. If so, you can use the deep freeze to make ice for a cooler and unplug the fridge to save power.

2. Water
You should have the recommended amount of clean drinking water and replace it every year. This is something like 5 gallons/person. Use approved containers and sanitize with 16 drops of un-scented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon (1 teaspoon for 5 gallons). You may also have 30-50 gallons stored automatically for you in your water heater tank. To access this reservoir you need a short potable water hose connected to the drain valve. A good place to find such a hose is the RV (recreational vehicle) section at your local Walmart. Store this hose in a sealed plastic bag near the heater where you'll know where to find it. This hose should have a shut-off on the end since the valve on the water heater will likely fail once opened. The shut-off will also make it easier to fill smaller containers from the tank. To get the water out, turn off the cold fill valve, open an upstairs hot water faucet (to let air in), and open the drain valve.

You should have another 10 gallons/person for washing, hygiene, etc. This does not need to be good enough to drink.... meaning you can store it in the jugs that laundry detergents come in. In an extreme emergency, you can line a toilet with a garbage bag that can be sealed and taken outside so you don't need to waste large amounts of water for flushing. See "Sanitation" below for more tips.

3. Cooking
You need a primary and secondary way to heat food. Hands down, the best primary solution is a gas (natural or propane) kitchen range. The oven typically won't work without electricity, but you should be able to ignite the surface burners manually with a stick lighter (essential equipment, by the way). The next-best solution is a propane camp stove or portable butane stove with an adequate supply of fuel. You can use an adapter (available at Walmart) that connects a 2-burner propane camp stove to a 20# gas grill tank so you can cook for a very long time compared to small 1# tanks. You should not use a camp stove indoors unless approved by the manufacturer. Note that propane and butane are heavier than air and leaking gas could end up in your basement and be ignited by a boiler, furnace, or water heater. For this reason, never store propane or butane tanks indoors.

Liquid fuel camp stoves work economically and many models can also burn unleaded gasoline, but these should never be used indoors. There is simply too much danger of a fire or explosion. If you have a Coleman liquid fuel stove you can adapt it to propane with an inexpensive converter (available at Walmart).

The secondary or backup heat source can be a gas grill. Mine is connected to natural gas. If yours is powered by propane you need two 20# tanks: one that's in-use and a full backup tank. A tip for cooking on a gas grill: if you take the grates off a Weber or similar grill, you can put a kettle or pot right on the "flavorizer bars" for cooking. Because you're closer to the burners this works much better than placing a cooking vessel on the grilling grate. Be sure to use oven mitts or heavy pot holders. Never use any grill designed for outdoor use (charcoal or gas) indoors or in any enclosed place. They produce carbon monoxide and this colorless and odorless gas can kill you and your whole family without you even realizing it.

Don't overlook the simple Sterno stove. These cans of jelled alcohol won't cook a large feast but are sufficient for heating canned food or making coffee. They are very low cost and have a nearly infinite shelf life. Some Sterno stoves fold flat for compact storage.

I recommend non-stick cookware to make cleanup easier and with a lot less hot water. They are also better at preventing food from scorching when cooking over an uneven heat source.

For me, good hot coffee is more of a necessity than a luxury. Your electric coffee maker will be next to useless in a power outage. You don't want something that's a pain to clean, either, like a French press. The simple and elegant solution is a Mellita cone with filters to fit. A folded paper towel even works quite well in a pinch. Boil water on the stove and pour it over the grounds in the filter to make superb coffee. If you brew into a thermal carafe you'll have another cup or two for later in the day.

4. Lighting
One of the few things that make life tolerable without power is light. You can't have too much of this. I recommend 2 action plans here. One is for battery-powered lighting. I recommend standardizing on one battery size. This makes batteries interchangeable for flashlights, area lighting, and radios. I have standardized on the AA battery. At a minimum you should have one set of "primary" batteries and one set of rechargeable batteries for each device. The primary batteries should be Energizer lithium cells. They have a 10-year shelf life, don't leak, and work well in the cold. The rechargeable cells can be Ni-Cad or Ni-Mh, but the new ones that come pre-charged and mention they have an extended shelf life will make maintenance of these cells much simpler. Regular Ni-Cad and Ni-Mh batteries self-discharge at up to 1% per day. This means they are 1/3 drained in a month and dead in 3 months! The battery charger should come with two power cords: one for charging from A/C mains and one for charging from the 12-volt DC outlet in your car.

I always have one flashlight in each car plus several at home. I recommend a minimum of one flashlight for each person you plan on hosting (which might be more than your own family) plus at least two area lights (aka lanterns) for use in the kitchen, dining room, and/or bathroom. Headlights are geeky but free both hands for fueling the generator or performing other tasks. I prefer a small flashlight with a pocket clip to attach it to a hat brim. The light source of choice for both flashlights and area lights is LED... not incandescent or fluorescent because these use too much power and kill batteries quickly. One thing to keep in mind is how many cells each device uses. Most chargers only work on batteries in pairs. If you buy a flashlight or lantern that needs 3 batteries you'll need a charger that works with an odd number of cells. That's what I have. Check stores that cater to camping like Cabela's, REI and Eastern Mountain Sports for lights and on-line reviews. Models with a low-power setting will help conserve battery life when full-brightness isn't necessary.

The other action plan is for generator-powered lighting. I have installed task lighting under the cabinets in our kitchen and behind/over the range. This lets me prep food and cook with plenty of light within a very low energy budget. I have a well-lit kitchen using less than 40 watts. I've also replaced all the incandescent bulbs in our home with LEDs. During an emergency situation, we light up one room, usually our den, to "normal" for hanging out after dinner using two 15-watt LED lamps. This is equivalent to 200 watts of incandescent lighting. It is essential that you have enough light to read by comfortably as this is a great way to pass time in the evening before bedtime. LEDs make this possible. Check Ocean State Job Lot for inexpensive LED bulbs.

Several years ago I bought cordless drill and impact driver kits. Each came with 2 batteries and charger, but the drill also came with a very good flashlight. I used it during the recent storm to light up the bathroom for a shower or to light up the generator area during refueling. With a total of 4 batteries, this light will run for many hours and the batteries recharge in about an hour each. When you replace your cordless drill, look for one that comes with a flashlight or lantern or buy a light as an accessory at the same time so it will be able to utilize the same type battery. If you wait a few years the manufacturer will be using a different battery type and the accessories will no longer be readily available. Models with lithium-ion batteries will hold a charge much longer than Ni-Cad or Ni-Mh batteries.

Don't overlook the simple candle for light. They are very low cost and have an infinite shelf life in proper storage (NOT in your attic where they might melt). Good choices are thick (long-burning) and dripless. Never use a candle over or near anything flammable, under a kitchen cabinet, where children can get near them, or in a room where flammable fuels are stored or used.

Kerosene lamps may seem like an obvious choice for light. They used to be a favorite of mine, but they have several drawbacks that need to be considered. First off, they are much more of a fire hazard than a candle. They burn hotter, and if you have an accident and the fuel canister breaks or leaks you will have a real problem on your hands, especially if you have another ignition source nearby. Be sure to refill lanterns outdoors so if you have a spill it won't create a problem. Kerosene lamps can also give off noxious fumes. If you go the kerosene route, use only good 1-K fuel appropriate for indoor use. My recommendation is to use them outdoors if at all possible. The brightest ones can shine a fair amount of light into the house through a window if positioned or hung properly outside.

Remember, the fire department may not be able to respond as fast during or following a storm so extra precautions are in order. It's always best to meet firemen during "Open House" at their place, not yours!

5. Communications
You need at least one AM/FM radio that can run from either A/C or battery power. It should be large/loud enough for the whole family to listen to at the same time. Understand that it will be used for both vital information and also entertainment. Mine has a detachable A/C power cord. When connected to power, the batteries are disconnected and it works off the mains. When disconnected from the mains, it switches to the batteries. Ideally, the batteries should be the same size as your lighting so they are interchangeable. There is one cute trick to make this happen: battery adapters. These hold a AA battery and make it fit where a C or D cell would be used. These adapters let you use AA batteries in a wider range of radios and appliances. It is important to NOT keep batteries in the radio during normal use and storage as they might be accidentally drained by the appliance and won't work when you need them. Beware that most battery types including carbon-zinc, zinc-chloride (aka "heavy duty"), and alkaline can leak and corrode the battery terminals rendering the device unusable with batteries.

You may be tempted to purchase a crank-powered radio or flashlight. I've been disappointed with them and caution you to avoid them unless you find one that has been reviewed favorably.

The ideal radio can also receive NOAA weather broadcasts. Since we sail, I use our hand-held marine VHF to get NOAA alerts. If you live in a storm-prone area you should have a weather alert radio. This will sound an alarm if your area is in the warning zone for severe weather including tornados and severe thunderstorms.

You also need a way to charge your cell phones from DC power. This is as simple as a car cord. A small inverter is also an option. That's what I have and is highly recommended. It plugs into the 12-volt outlet in the car and provides 95 watts of A/C power... plenty to charge a cell phone and laptop computer from the car battery. You don't want a big inverter as it will draw more power from the car battery than you need for charging stuff up.

Regarding internet access... if you have DSL or cable internet, you might be able to get online if you can power up the modem. You can live without the WiFi router, but the modem is required. I was originally powering the modem from our generator. I noticed that mine uses 12-volts DC. This is the same as a car battery, which we have a spare for the boat. I made up a cord for the modem to power it from the 12-volt battery, and this keeps my netbook on-line even when the generator is not running. The modem is connected directly to the netbook with an ethernet patch cable. The wireless router is simply bypassed.

Your cordless telephones won't work when the power is out. You should have a POTS (plain old telephone service) phone on each floor of your house. Wired phones are powered entirely by the phone network and will work without electricity. You should not have to run up/down stairs just to answer the phone, especially in a dark house!

Probably the one thing most people forget when planning for an emergency is having a family communication plan. This means having a person or family in a separate part of the country to communicate through and/or rendezvous at after a severe emergency. They should be far enough away so as to be unaffected by the same weather events as you.

6. Power
A generator is a simple way to provide electricity but its care and feeding can be complex. It doesn't need to be huge, just large enough to power essentials: either heat OR fridge OR well pump AND the sump pump if you live in an area with a high water table (like I do). Mine is only 1400 watts rated, 1750 watts surge (like this one). By careful planning this is large enough to run essentials for 5 hours on a filling of only 1 gallon of gasoline. Storage is CRITICAL. I used to keep it fueled and tested it monthly. This was OK when gas was stable. Now, with MTBE added to all gasoline, you can't store fuel for more than a month or two. The solution is to store it "dry." I drain the tank and even the carb after each use. Mine is 19 years old and it started on the very first pull.

You also need a supply of fuel. I recommend having 2 sources. The primary source should be 3 days worth in portable containers. For me, this is one 4-gallon tank and two 1-gallon tanks. You should keep at least one of these containers full all the time. This is easy if you also use it for your lawn mower in summer and snow blower in winter. It is essential to keep the fuel "fresh." When you know a storm is coming, you should fill all your portable containers and your cars. The secondary source should be a siphon kit that works with your car. This makes the gas in your car tank available to the generator if you can't get gas to refill the portable containers. Be sure to test the siphon kit to make sure it works with your car; some cars have fuel filler pipes that don't work with siphons.

You need to have some means of connecting your boiler or furnace to your generator. I replaced the cover plate on the boiler junction box with an outlet. There is a 1-foot pigtail that comes out of the side of the junction box that powers the boiler. This is normally plugged into the outlet. In an emergency, I unplug the boiler from its dedicated outlet and plug it into a heavy duty extension cord that runs directly to the generator. This cord gets transferred to the fridge when the house gets up to temp and back to the boiler when the house drops to 65F. You need to have a couple of heavy duty extension cords for running power in from your generator. I have two 100-foot long contractor-grade cords. One is 12-gage for running the boiler and/or fridge. The secondary cable is 14-gage for running the sump pump and kitchen lighting.

Obviously, the best solution might be a natural gas powered generator that's connected into your breaker panel with a transfer switch. This could power your whole house with minimal effort. Unfortunately, this is an expensive solution that was outside my budget. If your budget permits, look at solutions from Kohler and Onan.

7. Power Distribution
I have several pre-installed feed-throughs into and out of the basement using heavy-duty cords and connectors. These feed-throughs keep the house from being cluttered with extension cords. The emergency wiring is basically pre-installed in the basement ceiling where it is out of the way.

One feed-through goes through a basement window so I can locate the generator outside the house in the back yard and get power into the house. That window was replaced with a piece of plexiglas which I drilled a hole through just large enough to accommodate a heavy duty cable. The plug is right outside the window. The other end is connected to a duplex outlet mounted directly above the boiler. This makes the switchover from the grid to generator a very quick and easy task.

A second feed-through goes from the basement to the den. This was originally installed to power the "radio shack" during emergency communication exercises. During an outage it can be plugged into the duplex outlet over the boiler. This makes lighting the den, charging the computer and cell phones, and even powering the HDTV very easy.

The third feed-through goes from the basement to the kitchen between the last cabinet and fridge. This cable powers the fridge and kitchen lighting.

8. Heat
You need to have a primary and secondary source for heat. Primary is typically your home furnace or boiler. These can be huge users of electricity, but with some planning their electricity usage can be cut way down. If you have a hydronic system (hot water radiators) begin by checking your circulator pumps. If they are more than a few years old, they are typically the size of a half gallon of milk and use 1/3 to 1/6 HP. Mine are the size of a can of soda and use 1/25 HP. Simply by changing my circulators I was able to cut my heating system's electricity usage considerably. If you buy a new boiler, you might want to choose one with natural draft. Mine has forced draft and needs slightly more power to run the blower. When you replace your boiler or furnace you should pay particular attention to electricity requirements. I replaced our windows with energy-effecient high-e models and was able to replace our boiler with a smaller model that uses much less electricity.

Your secondary heat source can be a fireplace or wood stove if you maintain a 2-week supply of wood for it. Another good solution is a gas fireplace insert. These can put out a lot of heat. Just make sure you get one that does not require electricity to use. They sell models for either natural gas or propane.

Take extra care to keep heat in and cold out. Keep windows and doors closed. Use "draft dodgers" at doors with leaky space under them. If you have storm windows, make sure they are set in the correct position.

9. Hot Water
Nothing can consume energy like that required to heat water. You need hot water for washing dishes and personal hygiene. If you have natural gas or propane at your house the solution is extremely simple. I have a 40-gallon gas water heater that does not use any electricity to operate. Sure, it has an old-fashioned pilot light, but the energy running the pilot is also going into the water so it isn't completely wasted. The pilot light works without power; the models with solid state ignition and/or a flue blower both need A/C power and should be avoided.

10. Useful Tools
Usually the emergency that will test your action plan will also create a mess in your yard and driveway. You'll need to clear this mess so you can leave to get food and more gasoline for your generator. That means having equipment for debris removal. The normal tool of choice is a gasoline-powered chain saw, but maintaining 2-stroke engines and the safety issues so associated make this a poor choice for many people. That said, you should have a minimum of a bow saw (and sturdy work gloves), a pruning saw, and a lopper to remove the branches from fallen trees. An axe is a poor choice for felling trees unless you are a competition lumberjack. They are also very dangerous and can easily cause an injury which might necessitate a trip to the ER.

11. Meds
You may not be able to refill prescription drugs during an emergency. You should have a minimum of 1 week supply of critical meds. If you wear disposable contacts, you should also have an adequate supply of lenses. Make sure your eyeglasses are up to date... you don't want the prescriptions on your lenses running out during an emergency! (just kidding)

12. First Aid
If someone gets hurt, which is more likely simply because of the activities that may be required (clearing debris, for instance), you should have a well-stocked first aid kit. This is even more important if roads are closed or dangerous to use. Someone in your household ideally should have first aid training. A good first aid manual may be a viable alternative.

13. Cash
With power out and banking networks down, ATMs will be hideously useless. You need to have cash on hand to pay for gasoline and food.

14. Sanitation
You should have a backup supply of toilet paper. I have a sealed pack of 12 double rolls in the attic. If you can't get to the store this is something you don't want to run out of. No shit! If you have more than one bathroom you can designate one for #1 and the other for #2. You don't need to flush the #1 toilet nearly as often which will save a lot of water.

15. Ammo
This isn't for everyone or within city limits, but in a really ugly long-term scenario one might need to do some critter control and/or hunting. Nuff said.

16. Entertainment
This may seem obvious, but we often have significant warning before a weather-related emergency. This can provide ample opportunity to get some books and/or magazines to read during an extended stay at home. For example, I stopped by our town library on the way home from getting gasoline for the generator before the recent storm. Your AM/FM radio can also provide entertainment using a miniscule amount of your energy budget.

17. Practice
If you wait for a disaster to see how well you prepared, things are not likely to go smoothly. Disasters are not the best time to learn how to cope with them! I highly recommend you practice with a "dry run." Many people do this for recreation... it is called "camping." You can do it right at home, and especially if you have kids you can even make it fun!

Camping gives you the opportunity to learn how to cook on a portable stove, figure out how to make do with flashlight trips to the bathroom, and how to use your canopener, among other things. You should minimize your reliance on the internet since this will likely be unavailable during a real emergency.

18. Preventative Maintenance
During a storm, many outages (power, phone, cable) are caused by trees contacting and/or damaging the wires between the pole and house. You can minimize the likelihood of this happening at your home by having trees near your wires trimmed by a professional tree service. Diseased trees overhanging wires may warrant removal before they become a serious liability.

Remember Murphy's Law: if it can go wrong it will. Unfortunately it will often pick the worst possible time. Plan for redundancy. My friend George says, "2 is 1, 1 is none, and the 3rd is a spare."

© 2017 by D. K. Dickey - All Rights Reserved