Lessons From Two Recent Power Cuts

We take so much for granted and simultaneously become ever more dependent on electricity.

This is the first in a series of articles about how to deal with a “first world problem” – how to respond when/if you lose power.

Our lives have become so dependent on electricity, and most of us work on an assumption that the power will always be there when we flip a switch.

Happily that assumption is seldom tested, but unhappily, when it is tested, and the power is out, we can find ourselves ill-prepared and inconvenienced.

This article series will help minimize your problems when your next power cut occurs.

Read More in the Rest of our Series on Solving Power Cut Problems.

Articles still to be published

  • Generators
  • UPS units
  • External Batteries
  • Your Car Can Help
  • Solar Power

Judging the Extent of Your Needs

You’ll get to know, over time, how reliable your power is.  Are there windstorms or other occasional/seasonal issues that see you losing power, and if so, are outages typically brief or sometimes do they run for an extended period of time?

Most of us can manage a brief power outage with the only problem being how patient we are.  But as the minutes stretch into hours, and into days or even weeks, more than patience is required.  The adage PPPPPPP applies.  Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance.

This article series helps you with the proper prior planning.

I’m writing it after suffering two power cuts in the last couple of weeks.  One as a result of a car knocking down a pole, and the other explained vaguely as “equipment failure”.

I discovered, when responding to the first one, that my generator needs to be stripped and cleaned.  I fear some old fuel has clogged up a fuel line or something, and it is overdue for an oil change too.  Because the first cut was during the day, I simply packed up my computer gear and went to the local library and happily worked there until the power was restored, making a mental note to do some work on the generator soonish but not urgently.

Alas, a punishment for my lackadaisical response to my failed generator arrived swiftly.  A second power cut came hard on the heels of the first, and I’d not yet had a chance to repair the generator.  This cut was at 6pm on a Sunday, the library was closed, and as the daylight faded, and the ETA for return of power extended out every time I checked, I started to wonder what to do in the dark.  The power – originally promised to be restored by 8.30pm, finally came on again just before 2am.

More to the point, if you had an extended power cut overnight, what would you do?

As it was, I enjoyed watching an HD movie in a not-dark room, read a book for a while, and eventually went to bed.  Could you do the same?

Identify and Classify Your Power Needs

The first part of ensuring that your answer to this question will be yes, is to inventory the essential things that need power during an outage and then understand how you can continue to power them.  There’ll be a mix of “must have”, “would be nice to have” and “can live without” entries on that list.

For each item identified, you should make a note of its power requirements – both the watts it consumes, and also its “duty cycle” – is it on all the time (like a light) or just some of the time (like a fridge/freezer compressor).

There will also be some seasonal changes (heating/cooling) and some things that are not needed for a short outage (fridge/freezer) or which are not needed during the day (lighting).

You further should categorize items that you can not have unpowered for any period of time, those you will need at some time within about 4 – 8 hours, and those you won’t need for a day or two or more.

Find Your Hidden Power Needs Too

Be sure to include “hidden” things that you might take for granted or not realize need power.  For example, do you have an electric or gas hot water supply?  If it is gas, does it use an electronic ignition (which means you need power) or a pilot light (which makes it fully independent)?  And keep in mind that gas fired central heating will almost certainly need electricity for the fan/blower system, and probably for electronic ignition and circuit controls and thermostats, too.

Do you have a water pump or a septic system pump?

Also keep in mind that if you wish to have internet or phone or cable service, there may be things you’re not aware of that also need power.  We’ve fiber and there’s an external unit on the outside and inside of our house that needs power as well as, of course, a router inside the house; if you have cable, there’ll be a cable box that needs to be powered, probably in addition to a router, too. 

We suggest doing this in a formal manner, perhaps on a spreadsheet so you can quickly calculate total wattages and shift things around into various different what-if type scenarios.

We’ve prepared a possible spreadsheet that helps do some of this automatically for you, as you can see from the image above.  The image excerpt from the spreadsheet probably gives you some ideas about how to do this yourself, too.

We also provide this spreadsheet, in Excel and PDF formats, to our kind and generous Travel Insider Supporters.  If you’d like to access this, and be able to more confidently and conveniently do an emergency power survey to plan and prepare for a power outage, please consider joining us as a Supporter too.  Instant access to this and plenty of other premium content is granted as soon as you’ve joined.

Note – if you are a supporter already, you need to be on our website and logged in to read this section.  It doesn’t appear in the emailed copy of the article.

The next section is visible only to logged in supporter members.

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Special Supporter Only Content

Thank you for your kind and generous support.  We hope you find this extra section helpful.

Here is a link to the Excel spreadsheet and a printed out PDF of the spreadsheet.

The “magic” in the sheet is not only the discipline of getting you to work through your home and identify what you have that needs power, and how pressing the power need is for each item, but also the way you can use it to help you then create a set of layers of solutions for your power needs.

At line 105 you’ll see a box in which you can list up to ten different emergency power sources.  You don’t need to create all ten, and most of us will only come up with a few on the list.  But go through your list of power needs and then assign each one to one of your solutions, so you can see how much power each solution will need.

In our case, we have several UPS units, we have external batteries to use to charge USB type electronics, we have a generator, and we have some solar panels.  We could split the generator into two halves, so that if for example, you’ve a fridge, freezer, stove and oven, a/c unit, and other units that use large amounts of power, but only for intermittent periods, you could switch between using one combination of units up to the generator max, then turn them off and switch over to another combination of units during their duty cycle, and back again.  That’s not as convenient as having a larger generator (or two small ones) but it is more affordable.  We discuss this in the section on generators that we’ll be writing subsequently.

Note also that there are two different measures for power needs.  The first is how much power you need when they are running – how many Watts or Kilowatts of power.  The second measure is for how long you’ll need that power.

With a generator, and assuming sufficient fuel to run it, there isn’t much concern for how long you’ll need the power.  We suggest you keep a legal amount of fuel on hand for say a 12 hour outage – smaller generators use as little as 1/10th of a gallon an hour, so a 5 gallon tank of gas is probably going to be sufficient for small and medium generators.

But for things like batteries, the power they store is limited of course, and once it has been used up, it has gone until you can somehow recharge them.

We discuss this further in the appropriate sections of the additional articles in this series.

Is there anything more you’d like us to add or explain on this spreadsheet?  Let me know if there is, and, as always, thanks for your support.

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We now return to the main part of this article.

Our Example

In our case, for an overnight outage, we identified

Must Have

  • Light to see by
  • Cell Phone

Would be Nice to Have

  • Internet
  • Computers and Screens
  • Light to read by
  • Entertainment

Can Live Without

  • Heating/Cooling (we’re in mild Seattle, never too hot, never too cold)
  • Cooking (We have a gas stove-top so a box of matches enables us to still use the burners on that if necessary)
  • Fridge/Freezer (but don’t open the door, the temperature seems to rise 1 1/2 – 2°F/hour)
  • Landline Phones
  • Hopefully Everything Else

Now that you’ve identified what you need to provide power to, the next step is how to provide the power needed. 

There are five main ways to plan for power outages.

Well – there’s a sixth – candles, warm blankets, cold showers, and not much else – but you don’t need to read this article if that’s your strategy!  There’s also a very grim seventh strategy – evacuation – and that’s something that has to be kept in mind when really severe outages happen.

Future articles in this series will look at each of these power sources/solutions.

2 thoughts on “Lessons From Two Recent Power Cuts”

  1. Modern Computers, internet connections, and lights at this point are low power and are not problems for large batteries or similar.
    Where problems with power load calcs for gen or battery sizing is with inrush current and heating elements.. These appliances (HVAC, Washer/Dryers, and Electric Stoves, heat/Hot water)
    Gas stoves and BBQ’s are great in power outages.

    Most gasoline generators fail because people do not understand that fuel has a shelf life like veggies. If you rotate your fuel, or make sure at the end of their cycle that they’re full of stabilized alcohol free gas – they’ll run forever and start on the first try 95% of the time.

    1. Hi, Dan

      Thanks for your good points.

      My laptop requires a 130W power supply (even though I’m sure its actual power draw is very much less), and its external screens draw I’m not quite sure how much more. It takes a large battery to keep that happy once the built in battery is spent. Of course, tablets and that type of truly low current device are much more reasonable.

      You’re completely correct about the starting surge on such appliances as you mention. On the other hand, most generators have a steady load and a surge rating that is higher so as to “automatically” cover those brief peaks.

      Your point about stabilized fuel is also very true. I guess I’m just in the 5%.

      I’ll mention these points in the article on generators.

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