Stuff You Learn When the Power Goes Out

What our weekend looked like.

What our weekend looked like.

On this past sweltering Saturday, Kelly and I holed up in our bedroom, the only room of the house graced with any kind of air-conditioning. Around 4 pm the power sputtered and went out. Sprawled across the bed with the cats, we opened the window hoping to cool the room down. Instead, the unrelenting bright sunshine, palm trees, the police helicopter hovering over an adjacent street and our lack of electricity lent a Baghdad-like vibe to what remained of the afternoon. But Armageddon is not without its charms. It turns out that when the power goes out you learn a lot about yourself and the things you depend on.

The good things about losing power

  • I felt a sudden feeling of peace. Why? We had no internet. Since we don’t have a smart phone we had no way of checking email, Twitter, Facebook etc. All we had was our always reliable land line. If you wanted to reach us you had to call us. It’s funny how all this connectivity that’s supposed to improve our lives ends up being a burden. I made a mental note to consider pulling the plug on the wi-fi more often.
  • I was also thankful to have friendly neighbors. I walked over and chatted. We joked about pulling out the candles and banjos. They told me what was going on, that the power company would not be able to restore power until 1 a.m. the following day. Our friends on an adjoining street that we don’t see enough, came over with their dogs and we chatted.

The bad things about losing power

  • I discovered that when the power goes out we have a transportation problem. This is due to our quirky garage, a concrete bunker in the side of the hill our house sits on. When the power goes out the only way to open the garage doors is with a key. The problem is that you can’t close and lock them unless there is electricity. So I could access our car and bikes, but I had no way of securing the garage which is right on the street. I didn’t want to leave it open, so if we wanted to go anywhere we’d have to take the bus. Clearly, I need to fix this.
  • While I enjoyed our break from the interwebs, I also realized that a lot of information I depend on is now stored in the cloud. If the power had been out for longer I would have had problems. It was a reminder that I might need to print out and store a few vital documents and phone numbers.
  • I also realized that we should keep a few convenient dry goods in addition to the rice and beans in the pantry. I didn’t want to open the refrigerator and freezer. It would have been nice to have some trashy and easily prepared items such as mac and cheese.
  • One of the first things I did when the power went out was to pull out my 2 meter ham radio to see if I could figure out if something serious was going on. From the lack of chatter I could tell that the power outage was likely small. But I also realized that I need to periodically use the radio if I plan on using it in a real emergency.

I suppose the final lesson is the realization of just how privileged we are in the US. Most of the world’s people have to get by with unreliable power.

What have you learned when the power goes out?

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  1. Last Wednesday, we had a scheduled 8AM-4PM outage that ended up lasting until after 7PM. I’d completely forgotten about it so I learned I need to make more careful note of these things! And if such hot weather is forecast, I will get some dry ice for the freezer. Obviously that’s only useful for planned outages.
    I did have a chance to try out my emergency hand-cranked and solar powered radios, so that was good practice. Also fun to watch my cats heads circling in unison as they watched me crank the radio!

  2. Imagination! When your well pump is electric, stockpile a few buckets of water when the forecast gets “interesting”. We were snowed in and electricity-free for about 3 days one March. I was in the middle of making maple syrup, so we drank sap (tasty!), but melting snow for flushing water takes a loooong time. If it’s summer, keep a full rain barrel around.
    In another storm, I cooked a Solstice dinner in a dutch oven in the fireplace. Master those camping skills!

  3. We keep canned soup, veggies and fruit on hand for power outages. Also our camp stove and Dutch oven out in the storage. Oil lamps for light, and a closet full of board games. We were just talking about our emergency prep, and where the holes in our plan are.

  4. After Hurricane Katrina, I stayed with my elderly mother who had no electric power for a few weeks. My own home had no power for more than 4 months! You learn to adapt.

    Let me be very clear: I live in Mississippi, NOT New Orleans. The hurricane hit here; their mess was man-made. Yes, we are still a little bitter about the misplaced media attention.

    To keep cool, we employed a very old-school notion remembered from stories about a relative who was born in the 1850’s. I never thought it would work but it did: open every window all night then close and shutter everything tight immediately when the sun comes up and do not open up until the sun goes down. Despite temperatures of over 100 and humidity of more than 90%, it was surprisingly effective. Temps in the house still reached about 80 degrees but given what it was like outside, that was tolerable.

    Because the house had a well with an electric pump, we had no running water. So we learned a lot about the goodness of neighbors–one gave us access to their artesian well for drinking water and another used his generator to fill a barrel of washing water for us three times a week. We heated the water by putting it in gallon jugs and leaving them in the trunk of the car for a few hours–it got really, really hot. We took sponge baths and then used the water to scrub clothes in a tub out in the yard. Keeping clean took a little extra work but it wasn’t problematic.

    When the local radio station came back on air, we were warned to be very careful because there would be no support available–no ambulances, no police, no fire department. There was no way to call for help anyway because phone lines were out and cell towers were down. Most roads were impassable. We were on our own. So we became cautious about what we did, and we looked out for one another and for our neighbors carefully. When the roads were cleared enough for us to leave home there were no traffic lights, so we became scrupulously polite about taking turns at intersections.

    We had some very frustrating moments–like going to a food distribution only to be given 20 pounds of uncooked frozen chicken that we could neither cook nor eat. When we realized that the distribution was, horrifyingly, to empty the cooled semi for use as a morgue, our frustration faded away into nothing. We gave the chicken to a neighbor who had a barbecue; he happily cooked and fed several families.

    We cultivated a deep sense of gratitude, even and perhaps most especially when things were not quite perfect. Going without a hot meal for five days is disheartening, so when we heard that a charity had come to town and was dishing up, we got in line. The only option was chicken and dumplings. Problem: We were both long-term vegetarians for health reasons. We smiled, said thank you, took the helping we were given, scraped off the gravy and chicken, and thoroughly enjoyed those dumplings. (The cat, by the way, was more than happy to help us with our leavings. Nothing wasted.)

    So here’s what I learned about being without electricity for months:
    -listen to your elders and those in authority
    -cooperate whenever possible
    -help out wherever you can
    -be kind
    -realize that others may be more pain than you are
    -remember to laugh
    -exercise gratitude always and in all ways

    Life is good if we remember that we have the power to make it good. Having learned that is worth more than all the electricity ever generated.

    • Bravo, Sidney! On this 10th anniversary of Katrina, your story and the lessons you learned from it are inspirational. Thank you.

      And all these posts are inspiring me to do some disaster drill with DH this fall. We’ve gotten a bit soft and lazy since a Labor Day storm 17 years ago left us without power here in Upstate NY for 3 days.

  5. Two important words: Camping Gear! It covers a multitude of utility outage sins. Ice chests are important for food storage if you don’t have a cellar etc. I’m also curious (but not overanxious 😉 to try the technique where you nestle one clay pot inside of a larger one. Put sand between the pots, then add water to the sand. Cover the pots with a cloth . Effective for keeping food cold.

    A few things for temperature management:

    In cold weather, hang blankets or thick curtains up over windows/between rooms.

    In hot weather and if in a dry climate and there’s at least a breeze, hang up a wet sheet over a window for a diy swamp cooler effect. (There’s a fabulous scene in “Like Water for Chocolate” where the ladies are all sleeping outside on a porch strung with the wet sheets to keep cool. I’m guessing that is out of the question for you all, though, unless/until you have dealt with the all-you-can-eat-grape-rat-buffet on your arbor LOL).

    Lastly, a wonderful herbalist told me of her years living in Van Nuys when she and would tie up her hair in a top knot on her head with an ice cube tucked inside and feel the lovely cool water trickling down as it melted. I’m sure one could manage similar with a headscarf if naturally long locks aren’t your current ‘do 😉

  6. We often had power cuts when I was a girl. My mum had a paraffin stove that she used to heat up food. Now I live in the city and we rarely get power cuts but last year our freezer broke down. We lost so much food because it took so long to get a new one. This year I will be bottling / canning our surplus apple sauce instead of freezing it!

  7. One of the first things I did when I moved into my mid-century tract home was disconnect the electric garage door opener. It’s a tilt-up door so I adjusted the springs to counterbalance the door nicely. Despite being a bit rickety it works easily and is much quieter to use late at night. Not to mention it works fine when the power is out. Even modern roll-up doors should have a counterbalance spring that handles most of the weight. This might allow you to open it without the motorized lift if you want to ditch it.

  8. These days a power cut-off is like a blessing to me and my family. We all leave our phones, pc’s and tablets and go outside in the garden for a family dinner near the fireplace. We bake potatoes and sandwiches with goat cheese in foil and we have a great time together. We have a chance to talk to each other again… Power shortages aren’t a bad thing.

  9. The only thing that stresses me about power outages is the risk of losing everything in the deep freeze. Working on using more canning and other methods instead.

  10. Do you have a phone charger that fits into the “cigarette lighter” port in your car? Helping colleagues remotely after the Haiti earthquake, this was the number one small lesson for me – they all had dying phones and cars parked in their driveways and very few could connect the two. With a 99 cents gizmo, you have a 4-wheeled phone/device charger. (Many modern cars have USB ports, even better.)

  11. We live in a neighborhood with lots of beautiful, tall, but older trees, so we lose power frequently. I’ve learned that when the weather looks even a bit risky, absolutely do not start a load of towels in the washer or their smelly remains will be fodder for the cat shelter the next time we visit. Also, you can survive and do quite well with some minimal gear, but earplugs are a must to drown out your whiney kids who lose it when the internet is down. And, I’m reminded why I hate generators so much…our neighbor’s LOUD generator kicks on as soon as the lights blink and the droning sound makes opening up the windows at night to sleep nearly impossible. (This neighbor also happens to have the loudest mower, weed eater, and leaf blower within a half-mile radius!)

  12. I concur with the camping gear, takes care of business. I’ve always liked how quite the neighborhoods become during an outage, noise from fans or AC systems stop. Also my electronics cooling fans aren’t running. But to cover my MacPro, a 900w UPC prevents the HDs from being damaged by the sudden power loss. Once all systems shutdown properly, the UPC’s battery allows charging of portable electronics for hours.

  13. I second the “Master those camping skills!” sentiment. Our ancestors did not call it camping, just, living!

  14. I’ve always thought it would be a good idea to make going off grid a fun little challenge. The basic idea is to take yourself off of municipal water and power supplies, but not permanently, maybe for a week or even just a couple days.

    Why wait for disaster to strike? It shouldn’t be too hard for most folks to shut off their own power and water for a few days. Most homes have water shut off valves and electrical breaker boxes located near where these services enter the building.

    Even apartment dwellers can use the water shut off valves under their sinks and toilet and most units should have their own electrical breaker boxes. The tub and shower might be a little harder, but with a little will-power those could be made “off-limits”.

    Same thing for the gas stations, bank ATM’s, and supermarkets that will still be there and calling their siren-song, but can also be made “off-limits”, even if for only a few days.

    Take the off-grid challenge! Turn off your own power and water for a week and find out how prepared you are to stay clean, dry, warm (or cool) well hydrated and well fed without the modern conveniences we take for granted.

  15. Always keep containers of ice in the freezer – if the power is only off for a day to two you’re usually covered. Have a solar shower handy. Have a generator and a fan. Keep some bleach. Fill the bathtub. Keep at least one flashlight per room, have some extras, for yourself and neighbors. Camping stoves come in handy. Dry goods. Cell phone (if there are towers working). Get contact information for all your neighbors, including next of kin – it is hell, wondering wondering wondering, are they okay, did everyone make it, is someone helping them? Make sure your vehicles have plenty of gas. Have bottled water in case the water is foul (see bleach above). Make sure you have enough food to share – new neighbors don’t always think about this though old neighbors do. Hug your neighbors, at least a few times a week. Hug your honey every day, all the time. We do live in New Orleans, and were fortunate to have friends in Mississippi, who helped us. Hug them whenever the opportunity comes around. Don’t count on any government support, nor corporate (i.e. a particular phone conglomerate). Call all your out of town people and let them know you’re fine. Enjoy life to its fullest, ’cause the only way to get past the pain is by heaping as much joy on top of it as possible.

  16. My husband installed a small off grid solar system that will run a fan and the refrigerator! We are in a rural part of the desert and have a well. No power- no water, no AC. We rely on camping equipment and our small solar system. And we take the dog to work with us! Can’t leave him home without AC!

  17. Several years ago a blizzard came through Chicago one February day. The power was off for a couple of days. No electric–no gas furnace heat. The blower works on electricity. Also no oven. We did have a wood stove in the family room which heated several rooms in the house even without the fan. We closed off rooms that were unnecessary. I lit the spark ignition range with a lighter, used my Lodge dutch oven to make bread on top of the range. Interestingly the water still worked. Many of our neighbors were using their cars to have periodic heat. Some stopped by and warmed up, and sweet bread and tea was served.

    Long ago I was the recipient of my grandparents gas Servel refrigerator. During power outages we are fortunate to have a refrigerator.

    If the power is off for a long period of time, we decided that we’d start canning food. Meat needs 90 minutes so this would be quite a project.

    I also recommend solar lanterns that I purchased through Grommet. They are LEDs and hold their power for up to two months per charge. What is cool about these lanterns is that they have a tab to hang the light from your fixture, patio umbrella, whatever. They can provide light upwards or down.

  18. During Hurricane Ike, I learned that a screened porch is your greatest asset in Houston – it makes a great sleeping porch, but it’s also a great gathering place for impromptu porch band sessions. We were without power for 14 days and I really missed lettuce, it was very difficult to find fresh produce – this is when my latent gardener raised its head. Also, a gas stove (or a grill) is absolutely crucial as is having bags of basmati rice and dried beans, flour for tortillas, peanut butter and boxed curries. I was already living without A/C, TV and a car at that point, so it cemented my beliefs in my own ability to get around and live simply. It was a happy two weeks.

  19. During ‘snowmageddon’ in the Midwest a few years ago our power was out for 14 hours during what was a very severe blizzard. It was awesome. We pulled the drapes to keep the heat in and the cold out, dispersed our supply of candles-in-jars to various rooms – which was enough to keep the rooms surprising well-lit and keep the temperature warm. We all bundled up. The kids made a blanket fort, which was actually toasty inside, and read ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie by flashlight. We had our land line to be able to keep in touch with the outside world. Thanks to a gas stove, we were still able to heat soup and water. And, thanks to a manual bistro coffee press – we were able to make coffee in the morning for ourselves and our neighbors. We checked on the more frail members of our neighborhood to make sure everyone was well and warm. We all survived just fine, had fun in the process, and years later it’s still a good memory.

  20. Kind of miss the chronic outages we used to have in Topanga. Reminds you of how simple life can be – how quiet – how you can manage (at least for a few hours or days)with little. the earthquake of 73 reminded us of vulnerability when we were out of power for 5 days, and thus water (yes, water has to be pumped up hill, to flow by gravity). Camping stove is always at the ready, and neighbors in Topanga, accustomed to crises, are always ready to share, and look after each other. Everyone should have a vegetable bed to eat from.

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