Blackouts Won’t Get Any Shorter, So Be Ready

Now that we (temporarily) have a large audience for this site and Facebook page, it’s time to get some facts straight about long-duration blackouts and what can be done about them. Sit down, you’re not going to like this.

First of all,  if Met-Ed committed TODAY to radical changes to how our area is wired to make it more storm-resistant, it would take YEARS to implement the needed upgrades, and it would cost tens of millions of dollars, meaning higher electric rates.  Additionally, it would mean serious tree-clearing along scenic routes like River Road plus re-routing transmission lines through many back yards – possibly yours. Burying lines in a flood plain is a very bad idea (water+buried wires = huge repair challenges).  And we haven’t even seen the beginning of a plan to change some of the more egregious flaws in how the wiring in our area is set up.

Secondly, storm frequency and severity is increasing. We’ve had 5 river floods from 2010-2012 – that’s more in the first 2 years of this decade than have happened in any previous decade – ever.

Finally, the problems we have with our electrical infrastructure are not unique to our area. This storm affected millions and millions of people, and it’s simply unrealistic to think that there are enough people, trucks and supplies to restore power in a day or two after a major storm.

So, our stance here at the Bridgeton Township Emergency Management Agency is simple:

You are primarily responsible for your well-being in a long-term blackout.

What does that mean? Well, for starters, if you don’t have a plan to endure a 7 day blackout, it’s time to make one. In this post, we’re going to suggest solutions that range from simple and cheap to complex and expensive.

First, a few basic concepts.

1. Everyone Needs Emergency Supplies.

You’re not a kooky survivalist if you keep and maintain a cache of emergency supplies and equipment,  you’re a responsible, rational human being.  Stuff happens, and when it does, if you’re equipped properly, emergencies like power outages and floods can be annoyances, not disasters.

2. Emergency Supplies are for Emergencies Only. 

One of the most important concepts in emergency planning is the idea of a dedicated cache of supplies that is NEVER touched unless there is no other supply available. For example, if you stock up on batteries “just in case” and use them during non-emergency times, you’re doing it wrong. When you make  your emergency supplies kit, with one exception (which we’ll note below), you need to make sure that those supplies are literally off-limits to day-to-day use.

3. Emergency Supplies Don’t Take Care of Themselves. 

In addition to maintaining a supply of emergency items, there is also the need to maintain them. For example, if you have a baby in the house, you should always have a supply of diapers in your emergency kit. But kids grow so fast that you’ll have to implement a “rotation” plan – move a larger size into storage and use up the smaller size BEFORE your kid outgrows the old ones. Similarly, batteries have expiration dates and so do medicines. So every month you’ll need to check in on your supplies and make sure everything’s still ok to use.

Power

Although there are other emergency supplies you should have, we’re going to talk first about electricity, since that’s the topic that triggered this article. You should have your own source of electricity for a week-long blackout. It’s that simple.

At minimum, you should have a good LED lantern and one of those “Jump Start” style battery packs and a car lighter cable charger for your mobile phone. You can recharge these boxes weekly or leave them on maintenance charge all the time and they last a long time for charging devices and keeping some lights on.  They won’t run a refrigerator or furnace, but buy a few LED Light bulbs and you’ll have plenty of light. Amazon had a large selection. They are all out of stock at the moment, there will be more.

Portable Generators

Portable generators are simple, relatively cheap and easy to use devices that cost a fortune to run and will fail to operate when you need them most if you don’t take very good care of them for the majority of the times when you don’t need them.

They can also kill you and your family if you use them incorrectly.

The vast majority of them are gas-powered, and you have to manage a gas supply. Also, you’ll need to change your house wiring if you really want to have the best use of them.  So why get one? Because they are, by far, the best choice around here for keeping your house running (or at least the basics of your house).

The easiest way to use a generator is to put it outside – in a sheltered area where it can’t get wet – and run heavy-duty extension cords to the things you want to plug in.

You will very quickly learn that your furnace and water well pump  DO NOT have plugs – they are “hard wired” into the electrical system of the house and don’t have a place to be plugged in. There’s a solution…read on.

Additionally many well pumps are 220 Volt, and the smaller generators can’t supply this voltage. A Generator with 220 volt output is more expensive than a 120 volt generator.  Further, you’ll also see that if you have electric hot water and/or an electric stove and oven, you’ll need a generator that’s rated for larger loads (8,000 watts to 12,000 watts) if you want to use those appliances.

So when purchasing a generator, you have to look at your house systems and really understand what your “core” needs are and then you’ll need to buy accordingly.

A “Transfer Switch” is absolutely critical if you’re going to connect your furnace or other hard-wired appliances to your generator.

A transfer switch allows your portable generator to be hooked up to your permanent household wiring without the risk of “back-feeding” your generator power up and out of your home and into the electrical wiring on the poles, which would be bad. There are small transfer switches for a furnace or other similar appliance and there are large, complex multi-circuit transfer switches as well.

The ultimate generator solution is the automatic whole-house system, which can actually be fairly cost-effective compared to the cost of a large portable generator, transfer switch and heavy-duty electrical cords.  These are best run on propane – and they are VERY fuel-hungry. You’ll need a fairly large propane tank on your property, but you’ll be able to go about your business as “normal” in a power failure.

Managing Stored Gasoline

Speaking of FUEL – here’s the awful truth about gasoline powered generators: You need to keep a FRESH supply of fuel at the ready and ROTATE YOUR FUEL STOCK. Here’s what that means, in practical terms.

Let’s say you think your generator will burn 5 gallons a day if you run it 4 to 6 hours a day (you won’t really know what this burn rate is until you actually test it. It could be much higher.) Your stored fuel cache should be no less than 3x your daily burn rate, or in this case, 15 gallons (3 five-gallon containers).

Buy a big container of “Sta-Bil” gas stabilizer from the store to go with your gas cans. Put stabilizer in your gas can before you fill it. Line up your three gas cans so that the OLDEST gas is the FIRST gas you use. The first time you load up on gas, pick any of your cans and call that “oldest.”

EVERY SINGLE MONTH – you need to pull your OLDEST fuel from storage, dump it into your car or truck, add stabilizer to the can, and refill the fuel can with fresh gas, and put that gas can to the back of the line.  While you’re going to the gas station to refill your gas can, start up your generator, put some of the gas into it, and hook up something to it – a space heater is a good, high-drain load – and let it run for a while.

AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR – you need to change the oil in your generator. More often if you run it for a real power failure.

Communications

In the emergency management service, we have a number of ways to communicate with the community. We have a reverse 911 system that we can use to call all the landline phones in Bridgeton – that’s those “robo-calls” you get now and then about shelters and ice and outages. We try to limit our use of that system as much as possible because we want you to take those notifications seriously. That system can also send text messages and emails to you – but only if you register your mobile phone and email address with the system. But if you’re reading this, you know that we use the internet a great deal – and this site is also optimized for mobile internet access.

But sadly, we also know that there are a great number of people in our area who have mobile phones that look like this:

We’re going to say this plainly: We think everyone should be carrying a phone that can access and display information from the internet on a large screen – a smart or at least clever phone.  It does not have to be an expensive phone – for example, the LG 800G, sold by Tracfone as a prepaid device (no phone bill, just pay for minutes used) is $30, and is a good, basic semi-smart phone. Any number of Android phones are also good, and you can get them on really cheap monthly plans. A phone with a keyboard (virtual on-screen or physical) is great for texting – and texting is a fantastic way to communicate with us here at the EMA – in fact we prefer it to all other communications mediums because it’s reliable, it allows us to have a “written” record of things and it’s faster than voicemail.  Even better, with a smarter phone, you can help us help you. For example, you have a pole number where the wires are down? Send us the number.  You need to know what a “weatherhead” is – look it up on Google.

We also use radio now and then. WDVR – 89.7 – is a reliable broadcaster of information when we need it, and a battery-powered Radio is a must for your emergency kit. We don’t really send much information out by TV, but if you want to watch TV when the lines are down, consider a decent outdoor TV antenna. There’s a nice strong signal from WFMZ in Allentown and this antenna (installed at the home of the author of this very article) is a small, cheap and amazing device that pulls in wonderful HD images – just point it in the general direction of Allentown.

Heat

This is a tricky one, because the safest indoor heating is the system you already have installed. If that’s an oil furnace or a gas furnace, your generator will do just fine keeping it running. If you have electric heat or a heat pump…well that’s another story. Those kinds of systems draw a huge amount of electricity, and the size of the generator needed to keep up with those loads makes for a very expensive generator and fuel cost. If you can install a wood stove to augment your electric heat, do it. Wood is easy to get and a wood stove can do a good job of keeping some or all of your house warm if needed. If a wood stove is impractical, your next choices aren’t so great.

Basically, your only choices after a wood stove involve something that burns fossil fuels indoors. The dangers of doing this are many, starting with carbon monoxide poisoning and going to house fires. Your choices are basically Kerosene heaters and Propane Heaters. Kerosene heaters are cheap and use relatively cheap fuel. We are of the opinion that Kerosene heaters are intrinsically dangerous and simply should not be used at all. Refilling with liquid fuels can be dangerous and messy, and the news is full of reports of accidental fires and horrific injuries from these devices.  We prefer indoor-safe & vent-free propane heaters, such as the “Mr Heater” brand devices. These use simple screw-on propane canisters that are easy to store and use. These can get expensive to run, but we feel that the expense is offset by their more effective design – which includes an oxygen sensor and a tip-over sensor.

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Comments

  • Gerard dutka  On 09/11/2012 at 9:54 PM

    Thanks to you all for this site, it helped to keep my sanity while our power was out. Great instructions for being prepared for the next outage. Keep up the good work!

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