Sunday, 25 August 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 11: coping with power outages, the basics

Storm moving in off Lake Huron, August 2019

In my last post I talked about some of the problems with using "for profit" companies to provide infrastructure services and went on to look at how one major part of our infrastructure—the power grid—is likely to gradually fail over the coming years. I ended up looking at the effects of power outages, but ran out of space to cover how you can mitigate those effects and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid. I'll start talking about that today, but it looks like it's going to take three or four posts to cover this subject in the detail it deserves.

If you're following or considering following the suggestions I've been making in this series of posts, you're probably receptive to the idea of making preparations for collapse—possibly quite eager to get at it. The endgame here is the end of industrial civilization, with the grid shut down completely and the wells, mines, farms and factories it supports no longer running. So, you might think it would be a good idea to just dive in right now and go off grid.

In general, though, when preparing for any of the effects of collapse, it is important to remember kollapsniks like me have a pretty bad track record when it comes to attaching dates to our predictions. So the shape of your preparations should be such as to not squander your resources and leave you broke or in debt when the apocalypse doesn't happen a week from Tuesday. Ideally your preparations should enhance your life as BAU (business as usual) continues to gradually wind down, as well as making it possible to get by when BAU is finally gone. Which may be quite a way down the road as yet.

When most people talk about going off grid, they are talking not about doing without electricity but about generating some of their own, in order to maintain a certain level of modernity in their lifestyle. To do this requires access to two things: an energy source or sources and technology that can convert that energy into electricity. It is also helpful to be able to store the electricity you generate if your energy source is intermittent.

Today's consumer society makes energy sources, generating equipment and batteries readily available. This, unfortunately, will involve a significant upfront investment, the electricity you produce is likely to be more expensive than the electricity you can buy from the grid, and you won't have really gained any long term degree of independence from BAU. If you can afford it, this may be one way of setting up to weather power outages with a good degree of comfort and convenience. I suspect, though, that many of my readers are not wealthy enough to spend many thousands of dollars on an off grid power system.

It is probably true that at some point, as grid power increases in cost and decreases in reliability, home generated power becomes a winner. But at that point you'd also like to become much more independent of BAU, so a different approach will be required, and whether you can arrange to have electricity at all without relying on BAU for fuel, equipment or spare parts is a serious question. Which I'll get into in a post just a little way down the road.

But first, let's get back to the issue of coping with power outages. The effects of such outages, especially longer ones, are so far reaching that it is overwhelming to think of coping with them all. So I'll just concentrate on the most immediately impactful: lighting, cooking, refrigeration, food, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications and transportation. Not necessarily in that order.

I'm going to divide the rest of this into four sections, each of which deals with a different sort of response to the challenge of power outages, roughly speaking in increasing order of expense and personal commitment. The first of those sections will be covered in the rest of this post and the final three in my next few posts.

I am assuming that many of my readers are convinced enough of the inevitability of collapse that they already have or are seriously considering moving to a remote small town and are eager to do some preparation, but they may be limited in their financial resources and practical skills. Sections 1 and 2 will cater to those limits.

1) Short Outages, minimal response

In the case of short outages, you can simply do without for a few hours, and experience little more than minor inconvenience. Indeed, the most important technique I can recommend for coping with any of the effects of collapse is to be ready to cheerfully accept some loss of comfort and convenience.

Around here, minor outages used to last from 2 to 4 hours. Now it's more like 4 to 8 hours, which is almost entirely due to power companies trying to save money on staffing. Most of us have lived through a few of these, especially in rural areas where power is distributed via overhead lines strung on wooden poles. This is, realistically, part of living in an industrial civilization—the cost of eliminating all outages would be too high.

So kick back, read a book and wait for the power to come on. Of course, if the power is still off after sunset that book is going to be hard to read, and it sure would be nice to have a flashlight and/or some candles. A little more thought and you'll soon realize that there are a few things that aren't terribly expensive and which would make short power outages much less of a nuisance.

Even people who don't accept the "collapse narrative" will benefit from some basic preparation of this sort. At this point (August 2019) all the resources of BAU are still available to consumers, so everything you'll need can be had very easily.


Flashlights and batteries

In the short run, the lost of electric lighting is one of the main things to prepare for and also one of the easiest. You don't want to be stumbling around in the dark as you do the things you'll want to do to cope with an outage. And once that's out of the way, you're going to find it pretty boring without all the electronic entertainment you're used to. It takes light even to enjoy books and board games. At this basic level, you'll use flashlights and/or candles to provide light.

Flashlights have improved a lot in the last few years. LEDs have replaced incandescent bulbs, increasing battery life and making flashlights much sturdier. These days the best batteries have a shelf life of around 10 years, so that you can leave your flashlight sitting on a shelf for a long time and not end up with dead batteries or a corroded mess. And I guess if you plan on using a flashlight a lot, one with rechargeable batteries would be a good idea. One useful variation on that idea is a flashlight with rechargeable batteries and a built in hand cranked generator.

In emergency situations, a flashlight is especially handy when you need to move around in the dark. They also don't present a fire hazard the way candles do.

In the photo on the right are the flashlights found around our house and car, all of which were purchased at Canadian Tire. (Canadian tire is a chain of automotive/hardware/houseware/sports and garden stores here in Canada. If you live outside Canada don't know what you are missing.) At the back is a worklight that takes 4 AA cells and produces a startling amount of light for along time. Comes with a hook to hang it by and magnets in the base to stick to any iron or steel surface. In the middle is a Garrity handcranked flashlight. Thirty seconds of vugorous cranking gives you 3 to 5 minutes of light, depending on how dim you're willing to let it get before cranking it up again. At the front on the left is the Maglite single AAA flashlight that I carry on my keychain. Put out 47 lumens. Second from the left at the front is the Maglite 2 AA flashlight that we keep in the glove box of our car. Puts out 97 lumens. On the front right is a cheap 3 AAA flashlight that only puts out 60 lumens.

Candles and holders, matches and lighter

Candles are good too, especially as a stationary source of illumination. Unfortunately most candles don't come with built in holders and being tall and skinny, don't stand up very well on their own. So it is a good idea to have a few candle holders around the house, sized to fit whatever kind of candle you keep in stock. In the front right of the photo to the right is a tea light, which comes with a built in holder and doesn't take up much space. Useful in emergency bags.

Since candles don't light themselves, you'll need matches or a lighter of some sort. Nobody smokes in our family, so the lighter we have is made for lighting barbeques, but works fine for lighting candles and our woodstove as well. The long nose keeps you hand back a bit from whatever you're trying to light.


Water storage in the cold room at our house

Water is your next most urgent need. And while the municipal water supply or your own pressure system may continue to supply enough water for drinking and washing for a short period, it is wise to have a few gallons of potable water stored away. It is usually recommended that you have one gallon per person per day just for drink and washing.

Water from a chlorinated municipal water supply does not need further treatment when stored in clean, food-grade containers. Non-chlorinated water should be treated with bleach. Add 8 drops of liquid household chlorine bleach (5 to 6% sodium hypochlorite) for every 4 litres (one gallon) of water. More details can be found here and here.

I'm not, by the way suggesting you go out and get a few cases of bottled water in single use 500 ml plastic bottles. First off, if you can't drink your tap water, you're living in the wrong place. Second, bottled water is an expense you should avoid. Third, those bottles are a serious waste problem. If you're strapped for cash, save food grade plastic containers that you would otherwise throw out, wash them and use them to store water. Things like 2 litre beverage bottles, juice bottles, and so forth. And if you can afford a relatively small investment, you can easily get sturdy purpose built water bottles that hold 20 litres (5 gallons) and have a built in spigot. In the photo above there is also a blue 2.5 gallon water container from Canadian Tire that we use when travelling.

Our 60 gallon
electric water heater

Another source of water is your water heater which probably holds 40 or 60 gallons of potable water. If it's never been flushed then the water at the bottom, which will come out first, will probably be rusty. The drain valve is also probably very close to the floor, and you likely need a screwdriver or wrench to operate that valve. Best to check this out in advance and make sure you have the required tools and a pan that will fit under the valve to catch the water. In any case it's also a good idea to flush your water tank annually.


Safe handling of human waste is an important public health issue. And when you gotta go, you gotta go—it really is an emergency. Even during a short power outage, the odds are that someone in your home will need to use the facilities.

You probably have a flush toilet hooked up to a septic tank and weeping bed or to municipal sewers. The septic tank and weeping bed is likely gravity fed, so it is OK to use the toilet even when the power is off. Municipal sewers may be gravity fed, but it is likely that some parts of town are downhill from the sewage processing plant and rely on electrically powered pumps to make things flow in the right direction. I live in such a location and the town used to show up with a vacuum truck during outages and use it to make sure that our sewers didn't back up. Recently they installed some upgrades, including backup generators for critical sewage pumps. It wouldn't hurt to check into the situation in your town.

Your toilet is good for one flush using the water in its tank. If you've made no other preparations, you need to make the most of that flush, and not waste it when there is nothing more than urine in the bowl. Then you need to be looking for a source of flushing water, which you can just pour into the bowl to make the toilet flush. Many sources of water that you wouldn't want to drink are fine for flushing a toilet. The rusty water from the bottom of your water heater is certainly OK, as is rain water and surface water from streams and ponds. A five gallon (20 litre) bucket is useful to have if you are reduced to scrounging flush water from such sources.

Emergency bucket toilet
with waste bags

People like me, who grew up on farms and have spent some time in the bush, are not above finding a secluded spot outdoors to urinate, and in a pinch even to defecate. Though it is important to realize that feces are a health hazard to other people using the area. This brings us to the idea of emergency toilets which you can put together quickly. Here are several good articles on the subject:
How to create an emergency toilet
Make and use an emergency toilet

Amazon will be glad to sell you a bucket, seat, lid and waste bags, all ready to go. Or you can buy just the seat, lid and waste bags, and supply your own bucket.
Portable Toilet Bucket with Seat and Lid Attachment

I would recommend having one of those emergency bucket toilets on hand. I don't have one because I have a Jenkins style sawdust toilet made up and ready to go for emergency use. These are often called composting toilets, but only because when the bucket gets full you can dump it in your compost pile. The legality of doing that with human waste varies from place to place, so it is best to be discreet.

Food and Cooking

During short outages you can either go hungry for a few hours (it won't kill you) or have some food on hand that can be eaten without cooking.


Your concern here will be that food in your refrigerator don't spoil and frozen food in your freezer doesn't thaw.

Food in your refrigerator should be OK for up to about 4 hours provided you don't open the door too often and let the cold air out. If you freezer is full, food should be safe in it for about 48 hours, 24 hours if it is half full. If your freezer isn't full, it is a good idea keep some ice in it for increased thermal mass. I use several jugs of water, which freeze after they are put in the freezer. It might also be a good idea to open the door of your refrigerator just once and put in a jug or two of ice from your freezer.

Some good advice on keeping food safe during an emergency can be found here.

Frozen food that still has ice crystals and feels cold is usually safe to refreeze. Frozen food that has thawed out, and food that normally requires refrigeration, and has been above 40 degrees F. for more than 2 hours, should be discarded.

Heating and Cooling

If you've chosen your location carefully, you should be able to get by without air conditioning, and just suffer through the few hottest days in summer. Shade and ventilation will help, as will moving heat generating activities like cooking outdoors. And believe it or not, if you stay out of air conditioned spaces for a few days, you will get used to the heat. Try to take it easy though, until you've adapted.

Here's some good advice on how to stay comfortable and safe during hot weather.

The same careful choice of location will, unfortunately, put you in some pretty cold weather in the winter. If your home is well insulated and well sealed it shouldn't cool things off more than a few degrees during a short outage.

But just in case things get worse than that, here's some good advice on keeping warm in a winter weather emergency. The basic idea is to limit the spaces you're trying to heat, and whenever possible to heat humans, not spaces.


Handcranked and battery operated radios

You may want to call the power company to let them know about the outage and to contact family and friends to see if they need help. Your cell phone, if it is charged up, will probably work through a short outage as will your land line phone. But if your landline phone is a cordless one, it won't work unless there is power to the base station, so get at least one old fashioned directly wired phone and make sure it works if it is not connected to a power source.

A battery operated radio is also a good idea, for both information and entertainment. The handcranked radio on the left (a Grundig FR-200) in the photo to the right inlcudes a flashlight and receives AM, FM and 2 shortwave bandsworks. It work off 3 AA cells as well as the buildin rechargable battery. Sadly, the quality of the souond is poor, and it doesn;t discriminate between closely adjacent stations very well. The small Sony boom box onthe right takes 6 D cells and works just fine off them or 120VAC. The sound quality is great and it plays cassette tapes and CDs as well as AM and FM radio.


Personally, I would advise staying off the roads during a short outage. Traffic lights aren't likely to be working and those who are on the roads may be panicky and not thinking straight. But just in case you do have to go somewhere, it's a good idea to keep your fuel tank at least half full. That's a good idea in any case, really.


If you work at home using a computer losing unsaved work in the event of a power outage can be expensive. Of course a laptop with a good battery will allow you to save your work before shutting down. If, like me, you are still using a desktop computer, a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is a really good idea.

When the power comes back on the voltage is likely to be quite low due to heavy loading. This can cause problems for voltage sensitive equipment like motors and electronics. You can do your part to help with this problem by turning off heavy loads such as your electric furnace or baseboard heaters in cold weather or air conditioners in hot weather, and also your water heater, stove and clothes dryer. And to be safe, disconnect sensitive equipment like refrigerators, freezers, computers and televisions.

In Closing

You can make these few, simple preparations even if you're living in an apartment where you can't make big changes to the infrastructure. And it won't cost you very much, either. Everyone should have these basics under control.

But I would guess that along with a few short outages the immediate future holds the possibility of one or more substantially longer outages, which will do much to change our complacent attitudes and render us eager to be more prepared.

In my next post I'll cover a higher level of preparation, still achievable on a tight budget and still relying on BAU for supplies and equipment, but suited to coping with longer and more frequent outages.

Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:


Don Hayward said...

Good read, good reminders. A small affordable generator is nice for short outages. I use mine to power half of my bus, although your advice Irv I can try the whole thing next time.
The humanure system is the way everyone will need to go post-collapse. Latrines and throwing it the street won't be good ideas. :)
I lik that you ahve pointed out that post-collapse we will certainly have to adopt a much less energy rich lifestyle. We will end up being more in tune with natural cycles and working with nature in many ways.

Bev said...

Good advice as usual, Irv, with a reminder that I must get a couple of small torches. I have a large flashlight, with a rechargeable battery, which I bought for spotting wildlife outdoors, but it's not exactly pocket sized! I have a varied collection of large candles as well. I'm lucky with water, in that I have 3 water tanks collecting roof water, and holding 18,000 litres when full. Also lucky with cooking, since as well as electricity, I have 2 48 litre gas bottles connected to the stove, so can still cook food and boil water. A single bottle lasts about a year, and as well as the stove top, feeds an instant gas hot water system. Only drawback here is that the gas ignition is electric and in a power outage I can't use the unit for hot water.

I also have a composting toilet. I bought Jenkins book years ago, but thanks for the link to his site which I hadn't seen before. Regarding cooking, how about providing links to how to build a simple small rocket stove? I've been meaning to have a go at one for some time now. I note you're going to do another post about surviving without power for longer periods, so maybe it could go in that post. Freezers and refrigerators are the problem in an extended grid failure, so I'll be interested in what you recommend for those.

Amazing how much we've come to depend on electricity without even thinking about it. Even when the power's out, I still find myself picking up the electric jug to make a cuppa!

Joe Clarkson said...

Nice post. Good advice for those who don't have an off-grid system, but I do disagree that with an off-grid electrical supply "you won't have really gained any long term degree of independence from BAU". It just depends on what you mean by "long term".

Since all the components of off-grid electricity are product of industrial civilization, once that civilization gets into real trouble there won't be any way to buy any more repair parts or components (not to mention batteries). But a solid PV system with long-lived batteries and plenty of spare parts could be made to operate for a few decades. I consider that amount of time "long term".

We will all eventually live without electricity, but until that time my old muscles need all the help they can get. I have carried all our water to the house in buckets when I lived without electricity in the Peace Corps. It can be done, but running a DC pump from a catchment tank is a lot easier. I have one pump in service and two more on the shelf just in case. I would rather have a water pump than a refrigerator.

By the way, I signed up to "Follow", but got no notice of this post.

Irv Mills said...

@ Don Hayward
I'm glad you enjoyed this post. What I covered was of course only the most rudimentary stuff. Next time I'll be devoting quite a bit of space to generators and to naphtha fueled appliances. Again, still dependent on BAU for fuel, but the kind of stuff that will see you through an outage that last a few days, or even a week or two.
In the post after that I'll be looking at how some of the durable goods produced by BAU can be used to give us independence on a time scale of years. And after that I'll look at what a community might do to set itself up with sustainable energy, a small amount of it in the form of electric generation.

Irv Mills said...

@ Bev
Nice to have a different viewpoint on this subject. I tend to talk about the things I actually know something about. Given the alternative, I guess that is a good thing. And here in Ontario catching rainwater and storing water is just not something that people do. This may change as climate change progresses, but for now we have abundant ground water, and lots of surface water in the form of rivers and lakes.

In my next post I'll be looking at generators and naphtha fueled appliances. And thanks to you, I think I'll add something about gas fueled appliances as well. I presume you are talking about propane gas for your stove. That is fairly common around here. The only rub is that propane appliances often need electricity for their controls and ignition. That's OK if you've got a generator though, since the amount of power required is quite small.

I'll be covering various sorts of wood stoves in a post down the road a way, including things like rocket stoves which people can build for themselves. And yes, some links to how to articles would be a good idea.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson
You're right Joe, I'll was thinking of a different time scale than you. I have a post planned where I'll be talking about systems like yours, using durable equipment (and generous supplies of spare parts) from BAU. Which can keep you going for quite a few years, if not decades.

That post will be followed by one about what can be done on a much longer time scale. And I think there will be some areas where we maybe able to generate small amounts of electricity on an on-going, sustainable basis. Early in my career as a power maintenance electrician I worked in some water powered generating stations that dated from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Pretty simple stuff, no solid state controls or plastic insulation required.

I'd appreciate talking to you more about this sort of thing.