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Disasters to prepare for: Part 2 – Power Outage

Power outage prepping

There are two base cases for a power outage. One is a local power outage that only lasts up to a few days (maybe weeks) and apart from being a nuisance it is hardly dangerous for anybody. Should the power outage occur more widespread or even globally things will look different though.

When the power is cut locally because some component failed it will have to be fixed or replaced by contractors. Communication with those contractors requires power, and there will be computers involved in the stock management of spare parts. Also, many components do have to come from overseas and local stocks will likely be limited. Now imagine an entire region, or the whole world went dark. There would simple be too many parts that need to be fixed while at the same time communication would be severely impacted. And don’t expect any shipments of spare parts anytime soon. In a nutshell everybody would be thrown back to the level of technology of the 19th century. Apart from the fact that there are no more steam engines available. And most people don’t have the skillset that your grandma’s grandmother had. Meaning we would be thrown back somewhere between the stone age and the medieval times. Just without all the knowledge that people back then had, and your degree in art will probably not help you in such a situation.

But it gets worse. Look at the supply of things that keep you alive day to day and how dependent you are to power.

How do you heat your house? Even if you have a wood burner where do you expect to get your next batch of firewood? Your gas heater will require gas. Good luck trying to refill that bottle.

Water? Running water in your house will very likely require a pump somewhere, that requires power.

With regards to food things will get really bad though. First of all, you will not be able to buy groceries with EFTPOS anymore. At the same time all the refrigerators in the supermarkets will have stopped (or will stop as soon as the emergency generators run out of fuel). But that is not a problem as supermarkets will not be able to refill their (limited) stocks anyway. Because refilling their stock involves computers, communication and transport. It can safely be assumed that they will be stripped bare after 3 days. Maybe, some occasional shipments of emergency supplies will come in, but god knows how well the distribution will work and I would not bet on it, if all the power is gone.

The longer the power outage lasts the grimmer the situation will become. I mentioned that we would be thrown back to the 19th century technology (and actually much further). Today global industrialized agriculture produces food for roughly 10 to 11 billion people (and we throw a lot of it away, and do a terrible job of distributing it, so that millions die of starvation each year). The world’s population before the 19th century was less than 1 billion (and that was what the low-tech agriculture at that time could sustain). So how do we feed the nearly 8 billion people that we have now? The sad but simple answer is that if there is a prolonged global power outage, we won’t.

Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on machinery, chemicals and transport infrastructure to ship seeds and the produce. Even keeping livestock will likely require power to make sure all animals have access to drinking water (pumps). Many animals require drugs to keep them healthy especially if they are overstocked. The output of grazing paddocks is increased by applying fertilizer, so if that stops the grass will simply not be able to sustain that many animals.

The US did a simulation trying to assess what damage a widespread long-lasting power outage would do. They figured out that more than 90% of the American people would die in such a scenario. The German government did a similar analysis and stated that only after 3 days grocery stores would be looted and after 5 days private dwellings.

A sudden and unexpected power outage could also wreck further havoc. As we have learned during the Fukushima disaster in Japan, nuclear power plants have cooling systems embedded that are required to keep running to prevent stuff from overheating and blowing up. These systems rely on cooling pumps to keep a constant flow of coolant. If there is a power outage, emergency diesel generators will kick in and make sure the pumps continue to run. In 2011 in Fukushima a Tsunami took out the generators of the nuclear power plant there. If there is a widespread and long-lasting power outage, they would run out of fuel. Nuclear catastrophes might occur in some nuclear power plants in that case. Without power, organizing an emergency response, the attempt to contain such disasters will be impossible. Luckily in New Zealand we are far away from any nuclear reactors. However, radiation from a long-lasting leak might eventually find its way here with the ocean currents.

I sincerely do believe that a widespread (global) power outage that lasts more than a few weeks would be one of the deadliest disasters while still being relatively likely comparet to other severe disasters.

After all, severe geomagnetic storms can take out a power grid for good. What basically happens is that the Sun occasionally spews out big amounts of mass. This so-called Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) can, if it hits the earth’s magnetic field induce strong fluctuating magnetic fields in the upper atmosphere. Strong magnetic fields of that scale will induce strong currents in all long power transmission lines, which would fry key components of the power grid. CMEs are a natural event and happen randomly. Luckily though they only influence us if such a CME was to strike the earth on its path around the sun. The last severe one happened in 1859 (Carrington event), but there was nothing vital to be taken out back then. In 2012 a Carrington Event size CME narrowly missed earth. Luckily no Geomagnetic Storm of any magnitude will damage smaller electronic devices as long as they are not plugged in. Smaller localized power grids without long transmission lines might also remain intact. That means that any emergency generators and off grid appliances should continue to function.

Earthquakes, storms and floods too can cause power outages, those are usually localized or at least regional and thus only temporary, with outside help coming in.

Apart from natural events, a very high-altitude nuclear explosion (EMP) will fry every microprocessor in a vast area (Continent). Apart from the implications that this could likely start World War 3, sufficiently equipped terrorists could potentially pull this one off too. Such an event would even be worse as it would not only take out the power grid but also everything electrical that is not sufficiently protected during the event. That means that no car, no computer, no generator, and probably not even flashlights would work anymore. Welcome back to the stone age.

So, what can you do to prepare against a power outage?

For short duration power outages which are the most likely, many kiwis will already have experienced such an event and be prepared accordingly. If you are completely off grid you can basically skip ahead now until we get to the preparation for an EMP event (if you want to prepare that far).

Generator and Fuel

A (small) generator and a jerry can full of fuel is a very good idea to have anyway and does not break the bank. Keep in mind that you do not have to power all your devices at the same time. Fridges and Freezers will keep cool inside for a few days if you keep them closed. If you have a water pump that pumps water to an elevated water tank, that tank is probably going to last for a day or two too. So, we can assume you only have to run the generator every second day for a few hours. This will give you the opportunity, to one after the other plug in your fridges, freezers, pumps and charge your battery driven gadgets at the same time. This way you will easily make your fuel supply last for a few weeks. Anyway, after a few days you will have a much clearer picture of what is happening and if you can afford to have the generator run continuously for more luxury. After all, if the power outage is only local, fuel stations outside the region will continue to operate.

Bigger generators will be able to power more devices at the same time but also use up more fuel. If you definitely have the need to run more devices at the same time, and not one after another it is a wiser choice to have multiple smaller generators. That way you can plug in what devices you need and only run the generators that you have. Also, this will give you redundancy in case of one generator failing. A smaller generator could also potentially be taken along if you have to leave. The more and bigger generators you have the more fuel you will want to stock up on as well. Keep in mind that fuel does deteriorate over time as well and should be swapped out regularly. Therefore it makes sense that your generator runs on the same fuel as your car.

One very important thing to consider as well, is the noise level of the generator. If there’s a longer blackout and you are the only one running that loud generator what do you think your (unprepared) neighbors are going to do? Try and find a spot to put it where it will be hard to see and more importantly hear. Test run it during a calm evening and figure out how far away you still can hear it. The problem with fuel-driven generators is that you cannot run them indoors.

The best thing to have would be an emergency solar system (or be completely off grid) that consists of solar panels, batteries and an inverter. That way you will continuously have power without having to worry about fuel. And the whole setup makes zero noise. However this is going to cast more than a small generator.

Heating

You certainly and absolutely want a means of heating your house without the use of power. A wood burner, especially with a wetback is an ideal solution for this and some models will even allow you to do cooking. If you rely on a heat pump or electrical heating to keep you warm you will have to rely on your generator much more often and thus greatly limiting the time you can make it without power.

Light Supply

You also want to have a good supply of candles (put them somewhere without setting the house on fire) and flashlights. Keep in mind that most flashlights require batteries or need to be charged (so charge them up). In my opinion it is advisable to also have 1 or 2 flashlights that are dynamo driven, or can be charged by such means. That way apart from having to do a bit of a workout you are 100% independent of any power source or spare batteries. Personally I have some great hand cranked spotlights, with a nice work light included and can be charged by an included dynamo crank. I got them quite cheap from goodtohave.co.nz

Cooking

An independent means of cooking not relying on power is a very good idea too. That could be your kitchen gas stove for example. Keep in mind that some modern kitchen gas stoves will not work without power due to some included safety features. Try running your gas stove with the mains switched off to find out for sure. Apart from that, many gas BBQs have a small gas stove included as well which will enable you to cook meals if you have to. Camping stoves are another good idea for cooking. Wood fired cooking stoves probably are the most low tech (and in my opinion best) means of cooking without power. In a longer grid down scenario you will likely not be able to get spare gas bottles anyway. That said especially in the city’s firewood will get scarce too.

Information/News

If your primary source of information (internet, TV) is down you will want to have a battery powered radio. I’ve got this small Radio-Torch (also from goodtohave or trademe) with an included lithium battery that can be charged via USB, the inbuilt solar panel or dynamo hand crank. It has the big advantage of not requiring additional spare batteries that deteriorate over time, and I will be able to run it indefinately. It also comes with a small flashlight and USB power outlet to charge your phone and thus serves 3 purposes.

Water and Water Filter

Next, water will be your main concern. If you are on town water, don’t expect it to continue running for long if there is a widespread power outage. It might make sense to try and fill every container and if you have a bathtub that one as well to store as much clean drinking water as possible. Having some drinking water stored for you and your family is also a very good idea. After that you will have to look for an alternative means to get water. Collecting rainwater certainly is a good and low tech means of doing so, and many rural households are on a rainwater system, including ours. Rainwater can be contaminated by nasty pesticides if you have any horticulture nearby though. Rivers and creeks could get contaminated by agricultural products or sewage if they haven’t already. Natural springs can occasionally get contaminated by agriculture as well but probably would be your best bet. Some rural places have a borehole and a pump system which gives them very clean water.

You definitely want to filter your water before drinking. For daily use we have an under sink reverse osmosis filtration system in place that will filter out everything. I absolutely love it and our water tastes great. Like most under sink systems it depends on a high pressure though, and we need a 12V booster pump to run it. In case of a power outage we would have to use the generator or a car battery to filter our water. That means that you definitely should have a secondary, non-power dependent filtration system. In our case that is a sawyer filter, that we also use on our hunting trips. Those life straw type filter will not protect from viruses, and chemicals though. Many preppers seem to like the Berkey water filter. However, I could not find any scientifically approved tests done by a neutral third party or any certifications. All the tests that I could find were done by Berkey themselves… It is up to you whether you trust these or not.

Food

Food will likely not be your immediate concern and only becomes a problem if there is a widespread and long-lasting blackout. Your food stores will last you at least a few weeks (or maybe even months). After that however all you are ever going to eat, you will either have to grow, hunt or barter for yourself. Just be aware that there are going to be a lot of hungry mouths, so public hunting will probably be much more dangerous than it is now. And if you grow stuff, hope your starving neighbors will not find out. We will discuss growing your own food in an SHTF scenario at a later time. But in a nutshell, if you think that as soon as the power goes out, you’ll simply buy a few packs of seeds at bunnings or mitre10 and start your own vegetable garden in your backyard you’re screwed.

 

What to do when the electricity is gone?

First of all, try to find out what is happening and how long it will take until the power comes back. As long as it is unknown how long the power outage will last it is best to assume that it will take longer for the power to come back. Set up your candles or flashlight or whatever you have prepared and get your generator ready. Murphy’s law states that after you have prepared everything, power will switch back on. If your communications (internet) are still working that is a good indication that it is only a local outage. Watching the power distributors Facebook page or ringing them will get you more information about what is happening. If your Internet, Phone and TV are dark, things get a little bit more interesting. Get your emergency battery radio running and see what you can receive. The radio broadcast might be as usual, which in turn will suggest that it is only local or you might get some emergency broadcast of some kind. If the power outage is only temporary within a few hours to days you should be able to confirm this. If not, and in the worst case you will get nothing at all, it is probably because everything has gone dark.

As long as you have not received any information showing otherwise, assume that the power is off for good. Always expect the worst and hope for the best. You don’t want to start your generator straight away to keep all your (non-essential) lights on. In theory just flicking on your generator and continuing life as normal would be possible but you will likely not be able to obtain more fuel. What you got is all you will ever have in a long time. And you certainly want to keep some fuel for your car in case you have to get away from where you are.

Your fridge and freezers will stay cool for a few days if you keep them closed. That means that you will get away with only powering them intermittently. Make sure you’ll use up the food from your fridge and freezer first, before you start opening things from your long term food storage. The same will likely be true for any water pumps that pump water into an elevated or pressurized tank and other appliances.

So, to keep you able to run your generator for as long as possible only turn it on every couple of days. Try and make it as many days without it as you can. And then only run it for as long as you have to, until all your water is pumped, your fridge and freezers have stopped cooling and your batteries have charged. That said try and empty your fridge and freezers as quickly as possible either by consuming or processing all the perishable goods. The less appliances you need to power the longer your fuel supplies will last.

If you have kids, they’ll probably ask you to keep the generator running so they can plug in their PlayStation. They will have to adapt too, or perish. One word of advice though. In the long term running your generator might become a very dangerous thing to do. What do you think your starving neighbors will do when they hear that you have emergency power up and running? The big drawback of fuel driven generators is that you cannot run them indoors.

You will want to set up alternate means of cooking. Any gas driven cookers will eventually run out of gas too however. When cooking, focus on perishable goods first, try and empty your fridge and freezers, before opening your cans and mylar bags.

Just as people did before, we had electric lights adjust your daily routine to utilize the daylight as best as you can. That means get up at first light and go to bed as soon as it gets dark, that way you will minimize the number of candles or batteries that you are going to use up. Don’t keep any parts of the house lit for no reason.

If it gets cold you will have to heat your house if you can. Wood burners likely are the most reliable source of heat in a situation like this (and some models will enable you to cook on them as well). Still try to use as little wood as possible unless you have an independent and sustainable source of firewood in the long term. Good insulated houses will be an advantage.

Medium term the biggest threat for you will be other people. Some of them will become very desperate because their family is freezing, starving or ran out of water. Guess what they will do if they figure out that you have food, fuel and power? That means keeping a low profile from the start will be imperative for your family’s survival. We will delve into this further in the future but for now, the less people know how prepared you are the better. That said, it definitely will be a good idea to keep your neighbours at good terms. Of course, the more remote you are living in a situation like this the better it will be for you as well

With regards to food, at the beginning everything should be fine as you have plenty of stores, and you certainly don’t want to be anywhere near any of the places that will get looted. Long term the stuff you will eat will be what you have grown yourself or what you could barter for. That means you will want to ramp up your gardening (if you listened to this blog and stored away enough seeds you will be able to do so). You will also have to grow your bartering network and eventually you will know where to barter for what, and the safety risks involved in doing so. At least as from now on every meal will involve serious physical activity, obesity will not be a problem anymore.

1 thought on “Disasters to prepare for: Part 2 – Power Outage”

  1. A Dakota fire pit is a great way to cook food and due to the way it is set up it does not give out much smoke so people cannot see it. And you can dig and make it yourself very quickly.
    “The Dakota fire pit is an efficient, simple fire design that produces little to no smoke, two small holes are dug in the ground: one for the firewood and the other to provide a draft of air. Small twigs are packed into the fire hole and readily combustible material is set on top and lit. The fire burns from the top downward, drawing a steady, laminar stream of fresh air from the air hole as it burns. Because the air passes freely around the fuel, near complete combustion is achieved, the result being a fire that burns strongly and brightly and with little or no seen smoke.”

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