How to be prepared without being a crazy survivalist

by Ben N on December 22, 2014

Recently, I read a thread on a web forum where the poster commented on how well prepared he was, or not, for a temporary black-out.

While the power was briefly out, he took stock of what he did and didn’t have, and in his case, he realized he had no communications during a power outage. That got me thinking – what does one really need during a temporary lack of grid electricity?

Now, I’m not talking about survivalism, underground bunkers, or moving to the mountains to shoot and skin animals. I have a more or less typical American home. Like many people, I’m in the suburbs, and more or less dependent on modern infrastructure, including grid electricity and piped natural gas.

So, I thought I would take quick stock of how prepared I am for a temporary power outage, and come up with some simple and cost-effective measures for typical folks, perhaps with a little DIY skill. Frankly, most people have the barest essentials covered – flashlight and candles, some canned food, blankets, etc. But lets take a look at living just a little, instead of only surviving.

When considering typical living requirements, there’s usually a few broad categories that we all find it hard to get along without. These include: shelter, drinking water, heating/cooling, lighting, food storage and preparation, communications, and sanitation.

SHELTER:
Shelter always shows up as one of the most important items in survival guides. However, when talking a about a simple blackout, we are assuming that I happen to be at home, and already in my shelter. Heaven forbid the roof of my house blows off (it could happen, we get tornados in my area) I do have other options – a detached garage, a camping trailer, and a tent.

DRINKING WATER
Our house has a well. The well pump won’t work without electricity, but there is still some water in the system, and the pressure tank will provide several gallons of water before it runs out. My wife happens to not like the taste of our well water, so we always have a few gallon jugs of drinking water from the grocery store.

HEATING/COOLING
Our house has a natural gas furnace (piped city gas) and we have a central air-conditioning system (240VAC) and electric ceiling fan in the main living area. Without electricity, none of these work. For the furnace, the igniter and blower are both electric. We have NEVER had a disruption of natural gas, and consider it extremely reliable, but it’s still a good idea to have a backup for that as well. In our living room, we have a small wood stove. It’s pleasant to simply have a fire on a winter evening, but it’s nice to know that we have backup heat if we need it. As for cooling, where we live, cooling is a luxury, not a necessity. In a power outage, we can certainly do without it.

LIGHTING
We have a couple of flashlights handy, and I know where to find them. My wife also likes candles, so those are always out anyways, along with a lighter. Care has to be taken with open flame. It’s very common for the rate of house-fires to sky-rocket during power outages. During the day, we have good lighting through our windows and two skylights.

FOOD – STORAGE AND PREPARATION
We have a pretty good pantry – plenty of canned goods and dried items like rice and beans. Items in the refrigerator or freezer won’t last all that long without electricity. Just keeping the door shut helps a lot in terms of preservation time. In the winter, refrigerated items could be set outside (possibly in the garage, to protect it from animals.) To prepare food, canned goods could be eaten cold, but dried goods need to be boiled or otherwise cooked. In the winter, a pot of rice or spaghetti could be easily made on my wood stove. Our oven and range are natural gas, but the oven has electronic controls and uses a “glow-bar” electric ignitor. The range has piezo-electric start (sparker), but the gas valves are fully manual. I could still use the range burners as a match-light system.

COMMUNICATIONS
Both my wife and I have cell phones. Those run on batteries, which are always charged up, and phones have better battery life than ever. We also have a land-line, and I own an old-school corded telephone (out of nostalgia – it’s the exact same one that was at my Grandmother’s when I was a small child.) Traditional corded phones do NOT rely on electricity – they get power and signal over the same lines from the phone company. Just a warning – some people now use telephones with service through a computer router or through their cable TV 0r satellite provider. In a blackout, those phones DO NOT WORK.

SANITATION
Not something that everyone likes to talk about, but in a blackout, we still have to use the bathroom. Without my electric well pump moving water and creating pressure, the toilet tank will not automatically be refilled. Still, most toilets can be flushed simply have pouring water down them. I have a 210 gallon aquarium, which would be easy to scoop water out of and pour down the toilet for flushing. Oddly enough, I also have an odd water source in my front-yard. Technically, it’s an artesian well, but mostly it’s part of my yard that is just muddy and hard to mow around. However, it is a steady small water source, which is available even in a drought and does not freeze over in the winter. Water could be transported from there by bucket to be used for toilet flushing, or could be boiled and used for drinking and food preparation.

Am I Ready?
So, how ready is my family for a temporary black-out? I’d say not bad. We could certainly improve. Checking my flashlights, I find that we have three in one location – all with bad batteries. Perhaps a person should check their flashlights twice a year when they change the batteries on their smoke-detectors. As for food, we aren’t bad, but it would be nice to have some more home canned goods. Those don’t go bad when the power goes out, and I’d really like to get more into gardening and canning anyways.

That said, it would also be nice to have at least SOME electricity for lighting and communications. Things like heating and cooking can take a large amount of energy, but are also pretty easy to do with an energy source besides electricity.

In my case, I have a solar panel, a home-built electric motorcycle, and a system I created to power my house from that motorcycle in an emergency. The Poor-Man’s Smart Grid worked well for me a while back when we had a power outage. We were able to run the refrigerator, lights, radio, a ceiling fan (it was a summer heat wave 100+ degrees on a Sunday NIGHT) and pretty much anything else we wanted, short of the central air conditioner. I also had power to my well pump and furnace blower. I used what I had – equipment I already used for transportation, along with the skills I learned working on those projects.

Now what about you? Perhaps you are less of a tinkerer than I am, but still want a little electricity during that blackout? Here’s a list of some handy devices and technology that makes a temporary blackout a little easier.

1) POWER BANK
A power bank is simply a small lithium battery with a USB charging circuit. Charge it from your computer or a wall charger. Not only can you recharge your phone from it, but also other 5V USB-based devices, such as a GoPro video camera. This small device is also handy for travel, outdoor sports, and camping, so it’s something you will make use of even when there isn’t a blackout. Some also have a tiny flash-light built in. Even if not, there are also very affordable USB LED lights available. These small batteries also pair well with USB solar panels, allowing you to have a nice emergency micro-system.

2) TINY SOLAR SYSTEM IN A BOX
There are several turn-key solar systems available that provide a solar panel, a battery, charger, light, and USB charging all in one system. I have a Fenix International ReadySet system that I won in a competition. The internal battery can be charged by the solar panel or a wall wart power supply. It includes a pretty powerful 12V LED light bulb on a cord. Two USB ports let you charge at 1 and 2 amps, so I can plug my iPad into it. (That’s right, I have an off-grid iPad…) The 12V DC cigarette lighter plug lets you use pretty much any type of automotive accessory you would like.

3) UPS
While most people think of an Uninterruptible Power Supply as a computer accessory, they can be great if properly used as temporary emergency power. The nice thing about them is that they always keep a battery charged while there is grid power, and then CREATE AC power during a blackout. They create excellent quality electricity (as they are designed for computers) but more importantly, AC power is what comes out of your electric outlets. So, you can plug anything your want into a UPS – a lamp, a radio, or even your refrigerator. The main disadvantage is that most UPS’s don’t have a particularly large battery built in, and the more energy you pull, the faster it’s going to drain.

If you ARE just a little handy, a power inverter hooked up to a large lead-acid battery will provide more power, for longer, for less money. If you have a car, connect an inverter in the car to an extension cord that you can run in to the house. If that battery runs low, just start the engine to recharge it.

4) A GENERATOR
Of course, the classic item to have for a blackout is a traditional gasoline generator. The main downsides of these are that you have to buy one (there’s a broad range of prices out there!), you need to have/store/keep fresh fuel for it, it’s noisy, and can produce life-threatening carbon monoxide. Generators MUST be used outdoors. Put it on your back porch and run an extension cord inside. Some people LOVE portable generators! I’ve always hated carburetors, and having to store fresh, flammable fuel. But they sure can be handy in the right situation. Generators have the ability to run heavy AC loads for long amounts of time. For example, a generator would be a great way to run a blower fan on a furnace. If you store gasoline for a lawn mower anyways, and don’t find the maintenance a bother, perhaps a small generator is the right thing for you.

See, there’s plenty of options out there for being prepared for a temporary power outage that DON’T require you to be a survivalist OR cost a fortune.
Do you have a good tip on simple on affordable emergency preparedness? Let us know, we would love to hear it!

Til next time, stay charged up!

-Ben

P.S. As to what it takes to be prepared for a LONG-TERM power outage, that’s a topic for another day!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 AC_Hacker January 8, 2015 at 8:40 am

> I read a thread on a web forum where the
> poster commented on how well prepared
> he was, or not

Ben, if you are going to mine EcoRenovator for ideas, the very least you could do is cross link back to the original.

It’s not only good manners, it reduces the appearance that you are exploiting someone else’s work.

-AC_Hacker

2 Ben N January 8, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Sorry AC, not harm intended. I’m on a lot of different forums, and your post really did get me thinking about some of this stuff. That original post was located at: http://ecorenovator.org/forum/conservation/3999-preparing-infrastructure-lapses.html

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