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.