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First Winter Storm and the Tough Lessons Learned at the K9ZW QTH 20 - December - 2010

Posted by k9zw in Amateur Radio, Freecom, K9ZW, K9ZW Just Rambled.
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A week ago we would have had power back on for only a few hours, and we were still facing a huge task of digging out. Even now a week plus later not everything is back running.

Here are some of the lessons learned:  (Many are NOT amateur radio, but more general preparedness)

Power & Water

Though I have a Generator, it is still in the factory box and I haven’t completed the switch-over/isolation wiring to run the essentials in the house. In our case we need to have control power for everything running on natural gas, except the gas fireplace. Needing fan & pump power are the gas furnace and the gas boiler/hot-water heater. Found that our kitchen gas cook stove has to have power to work, so need that added to the emergency power circuit.

We need to complete the wiring, put our stored fuel on a rotated used & stabilized storage system and set up a dedicated generator spot. The way it was snowing & sleeting a casual “outside” simply wouldn’t work.

Much of our house is plumbed differently than many homes, as we used circulating service loops with small pumps. This way when you turn on hot or cold water you have it RIGHT now and circulating water is much more robust resisting freeze-ups in the deep cold snaps that “bleed” cold even through insulated areas. These pumps all go still with the power out. We need to add them to the items supplied by emergency power and add check-valves to convert them to regular service-supply feeds if we want to run pumps off. I also should add isolation valves and drain-cocks if we want to discontinue use of an area due to cold. Most of this is PEX, so adding/altering is no big deal. Will need a chart to help someone unfamiliar deal with the system.

Some of areas of heat are also run by pumps feeding in-floor water pipes. I am told there are one-way check valves that can be added to help heat alone force some circulation and these pumps should be added to the emergency circuits.

Our house has an extensive inter-connected hardwired Smoke/Fire/Carbon-monoxied alarm system with battery back up. We’ve learned that after 2-3 hours of no power the very slight initial drop in battery is sensed as an all system alert setting the audible part off (think LOUD) but not the strobes. Pulling enough batteries to drop the system voltage below the minimum run level is the only silencing, which ends our protection. A couple things need to happen here – need to add stand alone battery only alarms at the most critical places and need to add the wired system to the emergency circuit if we run by generator for a while.

So highlights of power & water:

  • Finish the emergency circuit wiring
  • Create a Generator Spot
  • Set Up and Test the Generator
  • Add battery-only Smoke/Fire/CO alarms
  • Do some plumbing modifications

Lights, Flashlights & Communications

We lost internet as the small UPS we have didn’t keep it up. We lost cable and it turns out the cable service itself was down for 24 hours. I never bothered to pull out the line-powered phones we had, as we had put them in storage off-site – so we had no land-line. Ditto with my battery Shortwave Grundig which is stored with the camping gear. It also turns out that two of the local radio stations were dark (off-air) and the only ones running were remote streaming feed garbage (no real information). I didn’t bother with my HTs (2 meter hand held radios) as the one working repeater (the other was obviously down as it doesn’t have back-up power) would be heavily tasked for emergency use, and I wouldn’t even consider going out unless part of a team with a snow-plow.

My ham station was down as the remote antenna switch would require some power to lift the grounding shunts, but with the antennas covered in massive ice they were not usable in the first place. All the SDR (Computer Controlled Software Defined Radio) gear needs mains power, though we have adequate field gear that can run on about anything 12v DC. My go-kit antennas were also useless with 40 mph winds, below zero windchills, and icy-snow that would collapse what ever went up in moments. That there was lightening we could see (many snow storms are electrically very active) meant it was a “really bad idea” to play winter antennas.

So we had nearly no communications, except our 3G phones were working. We’ve a Blackberry and two Androids in the house, so we did have basic net access and emergency phone, but no way to recharge the batteries if we used them up.

I am keen on Surefire flashlights, which run on 3v CR123A Lithium batteries. Found that we had worked our way through a 75 battery backup pack and had only a handful left. Ditto on AAA, AA, D and 9v batteries. My two-bin discipline (buy more when we break into the bulk pack that takes us below our expected emergency reserves) had broken down through household misunderstanding and forgetfulness (to even tell me!), leaving us with diddle for reserves. Not an issue for this short outage, but we’d go dark in a few days rather than in a month. We similarly had depleted our candle stocks. I didn’t break into my Propane lanterns & camp gear, which is my back-up to the back-ups, though we’d have to in a day or two if the storm had stayed on.

Also found that the non-aircraft landing light power level flashlights had become victims of “let lay where last used” and were mostly “tubes to store dead batteries” or broken.

So highlights of lights, flashlights and communications:

  • Have already replenished the battery stocks and will placard the drawer with two-bin instructions. Will also add to a monthly checklist.
  • Bought two e-cheapo Sony AM/FM radios which will run on about anything 3v (meant for two AAs but a pigtail would let use run one on a single CR123A or a pair of just about any common batteries.
  • Will build several Joule-Thief Lights – a design that will milk the last power out of a battery often giving hours of reading light from cell too dead to power anything else.
  • Have replenished the low-power flashlight supply.
  • Bought a camping candle lantern with 16 9-hour candles. Will add to that stock down the road.
  • Bought an old-fashion oil-lamp, as the lamp oil we have on hand really needed a lamp to use.
  • Will put at least some sort of foul weather antenna system up. This is going to be tough and need some thought.
  • Also making a list of back-up supplies we need for these items and will relocate the camping stores to at home, rather than our storage unit.

Food and Drink

It is hard to go into this one without being crabby. I am a full larder sort of person and my English better half is accustomed to shopping nearly every day for fresh foods like they do in Europe. This storm was VERY announced, though it was several times worse than predicted. She simply blew off the stock-up shopping we made a shopping list for. This cross cultural misunderstanding of the severity of the situation left us with perhaps 48 hours of ready-to-eat foods before we would either need to get some sort of stove running and/or dig into emergency stocks. I simply don’t want to eat MREs or dig into my 30 day plus full-family freeze-dry food stores – which really need to have a stove to become something decent.

We did happen to have six cases of oranges & pears from a fund raiser on hand, so we’d do ok as long as they didn’t freeze solid.

Basically we lacked a way to cook unless I broke out the camping propane stove mentioned above. Using the outdoor grill in near gale winds wasn’t happening.

Water pressure never varied. I have learned that the sort of infrastructure power outage we had would cause water problems eventually. We basically haven’t addressed this other than having dry-containers on hand from camping.

So highlights of food and drink:

  • The pre-event shopping list WILL be adhered to. Think this storm did make an impression that we could be facing more than convenience issues by not keeping a storm season larder full.
  • Setting up a Minimum Larder list – not just for this, but because I am too often crabby when I cook because we’ve run out of something important, or have some Euro-Micro-Package on hand instead of a real supply.
  • Adding a dutch oven sized to fit in our wood fireplace as an addition to the camping gear for cooking.
  • Adding some water purification supplies (simple bleach works too) as we can always melt snow (it takes a HUGE amount of snow to make much water though – but if we are stuck here, it isn’t like we have too much else to do.
  • Adding more MRE type rations that can be eaten cold in a pinch.

Additional Heat & Warmth Items:

We have several full cords of wood on hand, though we’ve learned we cannot run the wood and gas fireplaces at the same time. This needs to be corrected. Our wood fireplace throws heat, but is very lossy in terms of net heat gain and use of exchange air. We could make it roughly 3-4 weeks on wood alone as it is.

Fuel for the camping gear was limited to the case of throw away tanks I had on hand. Simple not enough. My two 20 Lb tanks were 1/2 full and nearly empty (they are used for our Mosquito Magnets) and the charcoal starter tank on the grill was empty. No way to move between tank sizes anyway. This has to be fixed.

Our front Entry area is COLD! Single portal and while fashionable an energy pig. Every time someone had to go in or out we had a huge cold blow into the house that could be felt everywhere. This will change at our next remodeling phase.

We have several large glass sliding doors which give us Glass Heat Loss that is expensive at best and unacceptable in an emergency. Options are to have insulation panels on hand or swap them out for something else.

Hindsight we lacked a way to warm someone with hypothermia or frostbite. Only the gas fireplace and what hot water was in the system that might flow without pumps running. Bad oversight.

Also lack back-ups to the main systems. Electric space heaters are useless without power. Need some kerosene and LP heaters.

Summary of additional Heat & Warmth Items:

  • Put in a wood shed with another large supply.
  • Sort out the draft/draw issues, including replacing the wood fireplace with something efficient if need be.
  • Get the adaptors to use any propane for any use, and keep extra tanks full. (BTW propane is not a cold weather savior if it is cold enough – simply won’t vaporize fast enough).
  • Sort out the front door area. Have had it in plans for several years. On a interim basis create a blanket portal (people sized cat-flaps) that can be put up if needed.
  • The large glass will also be replaced at remodel. For now create & store “energy panels” to insulate & protect them. These can double a security closures.
  • Put in a supply of heat packs for emergency use to treat hypothermia or frostbite. These are cheap after hunting season when bought by the case-lot and store forever.
  • Buy a couple fuel-burning portable heaters. The type that can run self-contained in an occupied room would be best. Put in a stock of fuel for them.

Additional Logistic Items:

We found that our Garage Doors disconnects were impossible to reach with the vehicles in the garage without climbing over vehicles to get the cords. Simple fix to add a “cheater” to the side.

Stuck Vehicles were an issue – I stuck my 4×4 Suburban with the wet snow building up & lifting the weight off. With two inches of glaze ice under the snow I was beached! Found that we hadn’t enough Carpet Scraps & or Pails of Sand to do any good.

Went to fix some things that the wind had started to tear up and ended up asking family “Where are my Tools?” The same use it and leave it lay had happened to my tool box. Working 70+ hours a week I hadn’t even been in my box for a while, and while grateful that they take initiative to do household fit-it jobs, the leave it lay is not going to work. Have to change the family culture on this.

As we talked we realized we really don’t we have Charity Stocks to aid our neighbors – what provisions we put up were scaled for five. Believing we do have a moral obligation to help in time of need, we had left ourselves ill equipped to live to our goals.

You put my boots where??!! Yes we had put up some winter gear in cupboards that couldn’t be opened until vehicles were out of the garage, which needed the huge snowfall to be cleared, which was a task you should wear your winter weather gear – including boots – for safety, but they were blocked in the cupboard which …..

Thoughts on additional logistical items:

  • Extend the garage disconnects with paracord. This can be done pretty easy. BTW if you have disconnects your garage is NOT secure. Ten Seconds with a long stiff wire and your door is open in most cases.
  • Putting up a half-dozen pails of winter sand. Could have used all the expensive sweeping compounds and gardening bag stuff, but good old sand is best. Will scrounge scraps to have on hand (better half dumped the ones I had, her thinking they were clutter & junk).
  • Change the Tool Culture here at home, or will lock up a basic supply. Can get crabby in under two seconds thinking about this one.
  • Charity Stocks is a BIG DEAL that we will start to address with additions to our supplies. Big priority!
  • Do a dry-run on things like accessing winter gear. Never thought of the conflict with the vehicles in the way. Had spares elsewhere, but the best winter gear should have been handy.

If you’ve stuck with me in this self-assesment and laundry list of “to do items” you are likely thinking of some more things – yes our first aid kits needs refilling and out of date stuff pitched out, and one of the vehicles didn’t get its fuel tank filled before the storm.

And you might be thinking of items that apply for your situation.

We have based our planning on:

  • 100% basic self-sufficency for very short term periods (less than 72 hours).
  • Basic self-sufficiency for a month on a basically self-contained basis for 30 days using stores I have in a storage unit (never put all your eggs in one basket – this way if the house were to burn we would not loose all our preparedness stores).
  • Adequate Charity Stocks to help an family/neighbor in that 72-hour to short term time frame, even if it meant cutting into our 30-day reserves quicker.
  • A long term goal of having longer self-contained supplies and enough information/tools/supplies to be able to help out others in a bigger way.

We’re not scaling to be longterm survivalists or to go off-grid in the city. And that would be a separate discussion and plan if we were.

73

Steve
K9ZW

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Comments»

1. Bob VE3MPG - 20 - December - 2010

Very comprehensive article. I live in the country and keep a month’s supply of food, winter and summer. I get teased because of the hoard of foodstuff I keep. Have stores of drinking water and a few cords of wood for my 2 airtight stoves that can heat the entire house for extended periods. Have kerosene lamps for lighting and propane lighting along with LED flashlights. Have a Honda gen set and sufficient gas for a week’s run. I rotate my gas supply and use fuel conditioner. I also keep a supply of oil for the gen set and my diesel tractor in case they need oil changes. I have a Coleman naptha stove and lamps and they got my inlaws through the big ice storm in the north east several years ago. And I do help the neighbours in case they are in need; though out here in the country the larders are always full and most neighbours now have gas or diesel gen sets to get through the inevitable blackouts we’ve come to expect. I keep a spare set of wire antennas in case ice or wind take out my permanent antennas and my station switches to 12 volts batteries charged by 2 – 100 watt solar panels if needed. Thanks again for the great article – some good practical ideas for suburbanites and country folk.

2. Kevin Sanders K0KDS - 20 - December - 2010

Wow, this is a very good assessment. Very well done. If only everyone puts themselves through such a survey after every power outage…

I’m an apartment-dweller so my knowledge of home preparation for power outages is limited. But it’s something I think about frequently now, as I recently started a job in working in the claims department of a national insurance firm. Although a lot of my thoughts are amateur-radio related.

Don’t discount attic antennas. I don’t ignore possible indoor antenna setups, since I have to use them since I’m in an apartment. A nice high-gain dual-band antenna in the attic or even in a windowsill works fine and isn’t affected by ice or wind. I can hit any repeaters I want within mobile distance using a 36″ NMO-mount antenna on a mag mount on a coffee can in the window sill. Same can be said for HF. I’ll be using an MFJ Hi-Q Magnetic Loop indoors for HF, which actually works really well.

I’m becoming obsessed with backup power. I am one of those people that needs to stay informed during a storm. UPS units are nice, and they can be had for reasonable prices on sites like newegg. For amateur radio, using a RigRunner in conjunction with a PWRgate, both from West Mountain Radio, work well in a disaster. I wouldn’t rely on HT’s in a disaster. This way, I can use a mobile radio. Ask around and see if someone might have a free battery for you to use with the PWRgate. A little secret: NWS offices are required to discard the batteries they use for their UPS systems after a certain period of time. If you time it right, you might be able to get one from them since you are a ham. Just explain to them what you’re going to do with them and promise them that you won’t resell it, and they’ll understand and hopefully give you some nice batteries.

MRE’s aren’t too bad — I’ve eaten some while on long-term assignments in disaster-ravaged areas when I was a news photographer. But they certainly do get old after a while. If you eat the military-style (cheap and non-fancy) MRE’s, beware of the cheese. In the military-style meals, the cheese is designed to stop-up your digestive system for about 48-72 hours (then you’re supposed to chew the laxative gum when you’re ready to “go”). Just a thing to be aware of. The fancier, more elaborate/expensive meals are way better. Get some meals with the heaters, but make sure your area is well-ventilated.

Also, beyond all that, check to see if your homeowner’s insurance policy has coverage for Loss of Use for your home. If a tree branch damages your home, you lose water or power, or if for some other reason your house is uninhabitable, your insurance policy could pay for evacuation to a hotel. Although it may have been difficult to get out of the house during the last storm, it’s still something to consider.

3. Todd KE7KXI - 20 - December - 2010

Hey Steve, great post. I’m working on my preparedness “list” as well. In my research about storing and purifying water, I came across some information you may like to know concerning water purification and storage. Except for boiling, few methods, like chemical or filtration really make water 100% safe. Water that is contaminated by oil or gasoline can’t be cleaned for drinking in any reasonable fashion. I found my info over at the CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/travel/backcountry_water_treatment.html

Thanks. Keep the posts coming.

Todd. KE7KXI

k9zw - 21 - December - 2010

Hi Todd KE7KXI

Thank you for the kind words and the sage advice on water safety.

The conundrum here is storage (which can freeze, wrecking the containers) vs winter sources for treatable water.

Leaning towards having collapsable containers on hand for a fairly significant number of gallons per person, to be part filled when things go down.

We’re all so used to fully potable “Grade-A” for every use, and another strategy will be to divide our available stocks into Potable, Clean-non-potable, and grey (recycle for last usage) water. Just like camping we hardly need to bath & clean non-food surfaces with the best of water – just with decent stuff that doesn’t make us ill handling it.

Appreciate everyone’s comments and thank you for the Water Reminder,

73

Steve
K9ZW

4. Jeff, KE9V - 22 - December - 2010

Comprehensive lists Steve. Don’t discount having cash on hand. It may sound silly, but when we had that “once in a lifetime” ice storm down here that took all the power lines down for eight days we found that when the stores began to gradually come back to life (generators) they would only accept cash since most of the phone/Internet lines needed for credit card or check approval were still down.

And of course the ATMs were down too…

It was about three days into that when I suddenly realized that my Dad’s Great Recession training about always keeping a hunk of cash on hand wasn’t such a silly idea… We’re like everyone else I suppose, fifty bucks in the wallet and always headed to the ATM for a little more.

Just something else to consider.

73, Jeff

k9zw - 22 - December - 2010

Good Point on cash Jeff. Again my European better half is culturally quite willing to live “cashlessly” where I am the sort who had a weekend’s worth of fun money in each of five different currencies top shelf in my barracks wall locker as a GI stationed in Europe!

Good reminder!

73

Steve
K9ZW

5. Ralph Dahlstrom - 22 - December - 2010

Good summary. A few years back our rural area in NM was hit by an ice storm which took out virtually every power pole for several miles. It took two weeks to get back up. We managed by using a generator in the barn twice or three times per day. It could be configured in several ways, so first I ran it 240V. I used a breaker slot (actually 2) in the barn panel to get the power into the system. The power was run long enough to keep the fridge cold, and to allow the ladies to clean and arrange whatever was needed – generally about 45 minutes or until the fridge went off. I did whatever I needed electrically in the barn.

Then I switched to 208 3 phase to run the well pump. In those days we had a better reserve than we do now, so a few minutes gave enough water for the day. During this phase, we turned off the master breaker at the house so that power could not be inadvertently go to the fridge or to other equipment in the house. The barn and pump each has its own breaker box, and this is the way it should be done.

For all of this, we have one transformer from the power co-op. It is illegal to tamper with the meter, but in this sort of emergency I cut the seal and removed it. This way one is not putting 8KV out into the wire some tech may be trying to repair a mile away. They did not criticize my thinking when I asked them to replace the meter when their part of the work was done. They plugged it in, re-sealed it and shook my hand.

Nowadays automatic natural gas or propane fired generators are probably a better way to go. Nevertheless, my system was not well planned ahead of time but it worked very well. We lost no food (actually ate it all, and thanked a few geese and ducks etc for their contribution as well.

Now to antennae, I spent a lot of time in apartments, military housing, and dorms during my student and Navy days. For reception there is nothing to equal an active antenna in the attic. It works under several feet of snow. I never tried one of those little magnetic loops, but other stealth antennae have been a good success for me, and I have never had more than 100W to offer, preferring QRP. I have to say that, during emergencies, I have occasionally listened as fellow hams made a difference. I personally have always been tied up in the emergency in some way that prevented me from helping out as a ham. In the country, if the phones are working, everyone will get the help he needs. If they are not working, it is better to be about knocking on doors once your own people are cared for. Showing one’s ugly face in the place has a pretty great effect on neighbors who are isolated, and a bit anxious about their circumstances. If your XYL makes a plate of cookies to take with you, it makes things seem even more normal. (or, you could actually bake them yourself – just kidding) Help rendered in a calm, familiar way is real help.

Finally, regarding the presence of electric cells in snow storms: Excellent point. Damage occurs in several ways but generally via the power line or phone line. In many older rural settings no attempt was made to ground long runs of phone lines underground. I have lost hundreds of dollars in equipment because of surges over the phone lines. I never knew whether the lines were hit by ground strikes or via nearby trees. Usually a strike will blow the wall wart rather than the equipment itself as far as modems and other phone-connected devices are concerned. That is weird, but the good ground is in the power line, so that is where the surge goes. Old fashioned phones ding once and keep on working. New fangled electronic phones croak but check the wall wart first.

The only real solution to this is a new line with intermittent grounds. You can get a surge protector that will handle phone lines as well, but generally each location for equipment will require its own surge protector.

As for antennae, they are an invitation to trouble also. During a storm I like to have a grounded connector into which I can insert the connection from each antenna so that radials and the driven parts are all directly grounded. I leave them that way when I am not using them. I have seen corona on antennae, but i have not experienced a strike. I promise that where I have lived, lightning does not fail to eventually hit everything sticking up into the air. If it did hit my antenna, I like to think I might have to replace the coax but little more. Any antenna with a remote matching unit offers a bit more challenge. Depending on the antenna, I might just arrange a bypass of the matching unit when the equipment is not in use.

73
Ralph
K5RD

k9zw - 22 - December - 2010

Hi Ralph K5RD

Many thanks for your first have accounts – and I understand why you were thanked for putting safety first, rather than energizing a line expected to be dead.

How you used LOTO (Lock-Out/Tag-Out) ideas to run different power for different uses makes a person think what they could do.

Talking with a electrical contractor friend, an unexpected “hot” that is worrying people who give safety a priority is the DC output of Photovoltaic arrays. PV arrays are live when the sun shines, quietly pushing enough power to do some damage. Not certain how many have been hurt because of the with-sun PV power production, though it seems to be a focus of installation certification programs.

Thank you again for sharing your experiences,

73

Steve
K9ZW

Ralph - 22 - December - 2010

Hi Steve,

I have given that PV power business thought also. In some places solar is becoming commonplace enough that I think repair folks know that either end of a severed HV line may be hot. With poles lying on the ground after a storm, hopefully they have, by now, gotten into habits which keep them out of trouble, but the assumptions could well be different. It’s what we ASSUME, you know, that makes an ASS of U & ME.
Merry Christmas
73,
Ralph, K5RD

6. k9zw - 22 - December - 2010

As a moment of clarification, my list is about what I looked at, and came up wanting. There is a lot more to consider if you are interested in Preparedness. First Aid, Self-Defense, Tools, Self-Education & Non-Net-based References, Logistics, Barterable Skills, Emergency Shelter….

Some fantastic resources out on the web to do some background reading.

Recommend http://www.survivalblog.com as a start. Alternate direct URL is 64.92.111.122 (enter as http://64.92.111.122 ) in case DNS is down.

Survival Blog features a solid moral values-driven basis, a correct grounding which for me makes it a preferred resource. It is also largely contributed and moderated by people who “walk the walk” in their real daily lives, rather than armchair advice.

73

Steve
K9ZW

7. Chris, N0RZT - 23 - December - 2010

Nice article. We have a similar list down here in hurricane country. Our emergency larder has nothing but long-shelf-life items. At the end of the season, we go through it and remove (for consumption) and log anything that’ll expire before the end of the next hurricane season. Before the start of the next hurricane season, we use the log to replace the removed items.

Water – we keep a few ice-filled 2-liter bottle in the deep freeze. Serves three purposes. It’ll extend the life of the frozen perishables by a couple of days. They’ll serve as a supplemental supply of water after that. And pulling one from the freezer is handy when we need to transport food in a cooler during “normal” life (naturally it goes back in the freezer afterwards).

Cash – ditto on keeping cash handy. I’d add to it by suggesting you keep on hand a supply of “small” bills (1s and 5s, and maybe a few 10s). Imagine that all you have is a wad of 20s that you got from the ATM. Now imagine that the quickie-mart down the street has exhausted its supply of small bills as change for other people who also only had 20s. How much do you think that gallon of milk is going to cost you if you walk in with a 20 and the cashier can’t make change for you?

A thought on your charity stock – great idea, but a suggestion. I wouldn’t *plan* on being able to get to your remote storage unit in those first 72 hours, so don’t use that as part of your charity stock plan.

k9zw - 23 - December - 2010

Hi Chris N0RZT

Thank you for your thoughts and kind words!

Water here is a tricky one, as keeping the stored water from freezing (“self-liberating as ice” as one friend describes it) is our issue. A small amount is easy, but a longer supply a challenge.

Point well taken on reserves. We’re fortunate to have storage near by (a mile) and more again a couple hours away. Never the best to have everything in exactly one spot (and we don’t have room).

Thank you again!

73

Steve
K9ZW

8. Be it Resolved | Smoke Curls - 2 - January - 2011

[...] read about some tough lessons learned by Steve, K9ZW I plan to carefully assess the back-up power situation here at my own QTH and make [...]


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