Winter Power Outages –
Getting Ready for the New Normal
Perhaps you’ve noticed the alarming increase in the frequency and length of power outages in the U.S. If not, you soon will.
Here’s what’s happening, and why I’m deeply concerned…
The number of major, non-storm related blackouts more than doubled between the 1990s and the last decade, and the number is on track to double again this decade.
As aptly stated by the same highly regarded IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) energy expert who coined the term smart grid, the U.S. is “operating the most advanced economy in the world with 1960s and 70s technology.”
Until we update our grid (something that would be a significant investment and which is unlikely to happen with current budget shortages at the municipal, state, and federal level), power outages will continue to be not only an inconvenience, but also a potentially life-threatening danger during the worst of circumstances.
Power outages are not just a danger during sweltering summer heat waves. The most deadly power outages often happen in the winter, often leading to carbon monoxide poisoning or house fires when people use improper back-up heat sources or when people drive onto dangerous roads in search of warm hotels or emergency shelters.
You can protect yourself by preparing now to stay warm in your own home during a winter power outage.
The Clothes on Your Back – Your First Line of Defense
Before we even discuss how to heat your home during a winter power outage, I want to address the type of clothing you should have available to keep you warm. If ever you can’t get access to a heat source, the clothes you wear could save you.
When it comes to staying warm, natural fibers are usually best. Wool clothing is an excellent choice because it will keep you warm even if it gets wet. Down-filled coats are also a good option for keeping you insulated and toasty.
While natural fibers are often best, there are some really good synthetics available that you shouldn’t overlook. Fleece jackets and tights paired with wool pants and a good coat will keep the cold out in all but the coldest temperatures.
At the very least, you should have a good base layer-fleece tights and a heavyweight undershirt – plus a durable pair of wool pants and a fleece jacket or lined flannel shirt. Top it off with a down coat. In addition to these items, invest in a warm hat (fleece or wool), a pair of wool gloves with a pair of wind-proof mittens you can pull over the top of them, and several pairs of wool socks. I personally like Smartwools or Kirkland brand wool socks. They’re warm, but they don’t get itchy. Finally, get a good pair of water-resistant hiking or work boots. In this ensemble, you can stay plenty warm even if you have no way to heat your house.
You can put the whole outfit together in a couple of hours of online shopping or by visiting a major sporting goods retailer such as Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, or Gander Mountain.
Catalogers from cold-weather parts of the country can also fill these needs – e.g. Lands’ End or LL Bean. For price-conscious shopping, don’t overlook discount retailers like Wal-Mart, your local Army-Navy surplus store, or off-price catalog merchants like Sportsman’s Guide www.sportsmansguide.com and Cheaper Than Dirt (www.cheaperthandirt.net). And if you look around, you can still find some great independent merchants that can fill all your cold-weather outfitting needs, like Reeds Sports in Walker, Minnesota (www.reedssports.com).
Safely Heat a Single Room
In a previous issue, I told you about the benefits of investing in a portable indoor propane heater. With a 1-pound canister of propane, these heaters can safely heat a single room in your home for hours. There are safety concerns, but if you follow the instructions and keep a window cracked while using such a heater, they are very safe. Today’s models come with built in oxygen monitors and will switch off automatically should the oxygen levels in your space start to drop.
For a little less than $100, you can have the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can stay comfortable and warm during a power outage.
But what if you run out of propane? Or what if you just don’t feel safe using a propane heater inside? If that’s the case, I have a backup system that can work well for you and that is very safe. You can use this no matter where you live, as long as you have at least a balcony with room for a barbeque.
What you need are a fireproof blanket and gloves – you can purchase them through most outdoor stores; several large rocks, but not so large that you can’t lift them easily; a shovel; and fuel for your barbeque.
To protect your flooring, place the fireproof blanket on the floor of the room you’re planning to heat (or if you have a hearth, place your heated rocks there and skip the fireproof blanket). Using your barbeque or grill, heat the rocks for 45 minutes over low heat or coals. Then use the shovel to transfer the rocks to the fireproof blanket. The rocks will radiate heat for hours without emitting any fumes and without creating a fire hazard.
If you don’t have a rock collection handy, stockpile a few dozen bricks, which you can pick up at a home center or often on Craigslist. Heated bricks and rocks can present a burn hazard, though, so walk carefully around them. Avoid using shale-type rocks, which can crack and fall apart when heated.
More Helpful Items to Have on Hand This Winter
With proper clothing and a plan for heating your home, you and your family will be able to safely weather a power outage in the comfort of your home without having to venture out onto icy roads or pay expensive hotel room fees. To make yourselves even more comfortable, keep these items on hand:
Chemical warming packs. Tuck these into pockets to give everyone a little extra warmth for their hands. Find them in any sporting goods store.
A carbon-monoxide alarmto ensure your safety when using an indoor propane heater. Found next to the smoke alarms in any home center.
Wool blankets. Even when you’re dressed warm, you can start to feel the chill if you’re not moving around much. Wool blankets to snuggle under can make a big difference. Cheap and plentiful from the merchants listed above.
Warm sleeping bags– look for ones that backpackers would use. They are light weight and will have the best performance against the cold.
Insulation sleeves for your water pipes. When the heat goes out, your pipes are more susceptible to freezing, which could cut you off from your home’s water supply and result in an expensive repair job once the cold weather passes. They’re inexpensive and easy to install in just minutes. Ask for them at your nearest home center.
With power outage frequency on the rise, being prepared to stay home and stay warm is no joke. And if you heat with oil, gas, or wood, these precautions can protect you from interruption of those fuel supplies, too.
It doesn’t take a big investment of time or money to get ready, so don’t wait. Make sure you and your loved ones are ready for anything.