Monday, June 13, 2011

Power Outage

Friday night we had a line of particularly nasty storms roll through.  This is the first really bad one that has hit us this year, and we lost power.  We have either a power outage or a propane outage about once a year.  We used to lose power every time the winds got over 30 mph (which is a lot here), but the power company  put in a new substation down the road from us and this is the first time we've lost power since they did that.

Last year we bought a propane tank rather than lease, and we had to wait for it to be installed for about 5 weeks after we emptied the old tank (we have an in-ground tank). When I was a teenager, an ice storm came through and we didn't have power for 2 weeks.  Outages of a day or two were pretty common for us a couple years ago.  So, I have a lot of experience living creatively when basic utilities aren't available.  When we have no electric, we have no oven and no water.  When we have no propane with have no stove, no hot water, and no central heat. 

Generally, when a really bad storm is coming up I store water.  Of course, I wasn't paying attention when this storm came up and didn't purposefully store any water.  I had made strawberry jam and hadn't dumped the water out of the canner yet, so I was able to wash dishes from dinner.  That got me thinking--maybe I should share what we keep for the event of an outage.

Prepare for a power outage

If you live out in the country, a power outage isn't just no A/C and lights.  It means no water, too.  We have a well, and I love not having a water bill, but we have to use electric from the house to pump our water.  I've thought of installing an outside hand pump, but it would mean widening the well (which is about 200 feet deep), so that's pretty expensive.  I plan on installing solar when we build the sheepshed.  So, you've got to be ready for no water, no sanitation, no lights, no refrigeration, no heat, and potentially no way to cook.

The first main step to preparation is to assess your needs.  How many people live in your home?    Do any of them have special needs, such as babies, the handicapped, or the elderly?  Think of things like needing to heat bottles, charge wheelchair batteries, generate oxygen, etc.  I'm going to assume that everyone in your household has no special needs and that if you have a baby, you are nursing and not using cloth diapers.  If you're outside that, plan accordingly.

Then, there are the farm-specific preparation considerations.  How many and what type of animals do you have?  Do you have young or pregnant animals that need special care?  What point are you at in your farm's process cycle?  Think of things like brooding, shearing,  lambing, calving, etc.  Butchering could also be a consideration, but generally that's something that can be moved back a bit if necessary.  Do you have produce that's ready to process for food preservation?  Is it planting time?

As part of this assessment, look at your assets.  Do you have a fireplace?  A gas oven?  A woodstove?  A grill?  A fire pit?  Rain barrels? Any of these can be useful in an outage.  If you are building, remodeling, or buying new appliances take these things into consideration.

Finally, the preparation will look different depending on the time of year.  What's important in the winter and the summer are completely different.  In the winter I recommend preparing for a minimum of one week and in the summer a minimum of 1 day.  It's much more likely in the winter that you will be snowed or iced in and unable to travel to town for supplies. 

Prepare for a propane or natural gas outage

In many ways, this one is easier.  You'll still have your fridge and your well in operation.  The three biggest considerations here are cooking, bathing, and heat.  This is also the less likely scenario (unless you forget to track your propane tank level or experience a major financial setback that prevents you from getting your next fill).  If you are on natural gas lines, you could experience an outage similar to an electric outage, but most of us country living types are too far out for that.  So, this one is one to be aware of, but I'd put preparing for it below preparing for an electric outage. Most of your electric preparations will apply here as well.

Our list

Here's what we keep on hand at all times, it represents at least one day's worth of supplies for our family of five.  We generally have more than this, but this is the minimum we don't let ourselves get down past.

  • A five gallon military water can, treated with bleach (4 drops from an eye dropper per gallon).  We change this out every 6 months and it sits in the laundry room.
  • Our animals' waterers are filled daily with at least 2 days worth of water.
  • 4 oil lamps, 5 charged flashlights, 2 candle lanterns, 1/2 gallon lamp oil, 6 candles, 12 tea lights, 4 extra lamp wicks.  I recommend getting your oil lamps from Lehman's.  I specifically recommend this model.  It puts out at least as much light as a 60 watt light bulb.  Tea lights are nice for bathrooms because they are small enough to sit on a sink and are self-contained.  (Remember to keep an eye on any open flame, especially if you have children or pets.)
  • 1/4 cord wood (can be used in our fireplace or fire pit).  We keep this much wood at all times, even in the summer.
  • A tea kettle, for heating small amounts of water quickly.
  • A boiling water bath canner, for heating large amounts of water for dishes, laundry, bathing, etc.
  • A gallon of bleach for sanitation.
  • Fireplace matches, for lighting fires/stove and for transferring flame from lamp to lamp.
  • Cast iron skillets and dutch ovens.  A fire grate.
  • A plastic container of cleaning wipes.
  • A plastic container of hand sanitizer (be aware that hand sanitizer kills the beneficial bacteria on your skin along with germs, so use sparingly).
  • Games, books, and craft projects that don't require power.
  • A cooler and a full ice bin in the freezer.
  • An AC adapter for the car (allows charging of phones and laptops).
  • A list of locations that sell dry ice.
  • A battery powered radio that gets weather bands.
I recommend preparing for mid (1-2 weeks), long (over 2 weeks), and extremely long (like months) term outages as well.  Our long-term goal is to be able to live completely off -grid.  At our current level of preparation, we are prepared for outages in the 2 week range.  Our main issues are water and food preservation.  The next thing we intend to do is install rain barrels to catch run off from the house.  That will take care of most of our needs for around a month, but that would not be potable water, so we would need to purify it for cooking and drinking.  We would also need to can, smoke or dehydrate all our frozen food if we were in a long term outage, but that's doable, even over a fire.  I did all my canning last year during our no-propane time and was able to safely can with both a pressure and water bath canner over a fire.

Which brings me to my last suggestion.  Whatever your plan is, test it.  Tell the kids you are going to have a "pioneer adventure night."  (Or whatever gets them excited.)  What skills do you need?  Can you bake in a dutch oven?  Do you know how to heat water and sanitize dishes?  Can you brew coffee without your coffee maker?  Can you water your garden without waste?  Can your kids cope without their electronics?  Better to find out the gaps in your plan now than when you are in a stressful situation or really depending on it.

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