Thursday, 19 September 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 12: coping with longer power outages

Volunteer butternut squash and gourds
that grew from one of our compost bins this year.


Dealing with power outages, Section 2

This is the second of the four sections I promised in my last post where I talked about the most basic preparations you should make for short power outages.

Today we'll talk about some further preparations that you can make that aren't (for the most part) terribly expensive and which will help see you through longer outages. There are some pieces of camping equipment that can be quite useful when the grid temporarily lets you down, and useful for camping, as well. This still comes under the classification of coping with a failing BAU (Business as Usual), rather than adapting to a failed BAU.

Because camping often takes you out of contact with the power grid there is a range of camping equipment that uses energy sources other than electricity or allows you to generate your own electricity. When camping, or during an outage, you want to use as little electricity as possible, so that the equipment you need to generate it is as small, simple and inexpensive as possible. Electrical appliances that turn electricity into heat are the first thing you want to get rid of in favour of using some sort of fuel directly to produce that heat. Things like furnaces, heaters, stoves, toasters, and so forth.

Two different type of small propane cylinders
and a can of Coleman fuel

The fuels you'll most likely use are either propane gas or white gasoline (also known as naphtha or Coleman fuel). You can easily store enough of these fuels to get you through an outage a few day to a couple of weeks in length. There is quite a bit of discussion on the internet as to which is better, liquid fuel or propane. All the camping equipment I have uses liquid fuel, which costs less, is less bulky, is safer to store, handle and move in a vehicle, and works better in the cold. It is a bit more complex to use. I do have a propane barbeque and a propane torch for soldering and such.

I keep two or three cans of Coleman fuel on hand, and I've read that as long as the can hasn't been opened it stores quite well. I've left fuel in partly empty cans (with the cap closed) for years and then used it with no problems, so I'm not sure how much of an issue stale fuel really is.

The choice between liquid fuel and propane gas is largely a matter of personal preference. If you go with liquid fuel, have a funnel on hand for filling and a spare set of guts for the air pump. And the one thing you must not do is to fill Coleman appliances with liquid fuel indoors. That's asking for a fire. Make sure you go outside to a well ventilated area with no nearby sources of ignition.

There is also a lot of discussion on whether it is safe to use this equipment indoors, much of which is pure bunk. For safety's sake crack a couple of windows to get some ventilation and have a carbon monoxide detector in the area where you'll be using the equipment. I have found when using even a small appliance like a mantle lantern indoor in the winter that it generates enough heat to make up for the loss from windows that are slightly open.

At this point I should address the issue of natural gas. Many of you probably have a natural gas supply connected to your house. You'd think that this supply would be unaffected by electrical outages. Sadly this is unlikely to be true. In the majority of cases, that natural gas supply is pressurized by electrical pumps that won't be working during a power outage. Some large trunk lines are pressurized using pumps powered by natural gas, and I am told they will probably continue to work during a power outage. But their controls are probably electrical, and unless they have battery backup and/or a backup generator, they won't work either. So I wouldn't rely on your natural gas supply to be impervious to power outages. In any case, most of your natural gas appliance have electrical control and ignition, so they won't work during an outage. Unless you have a generator (see more below).

Perhaps some of you have propane appliances supplied from a large tank that the propane company installed next to your house, and which they fill regularly. This is a source of energy that may well carry you through a power outage. As with natural gas appliances, most propane appliance have electrical controls and ignition, so you need a generator, or a way of hooking you camping style propane appliances up to that big tank. There are a couple of other concerns. Most propane companies work on just in time delivery and if your tank is almost empty when an outage happens, your propane supply won't last long. Perhaps you can talk you propane supplier into a different delivery arrangement. And during high use periods like cold snaps the local supply of propane may run out and you won't be getting any deliveries, even if the power is on.

At this stage you probably still don't want to make majors changes to your lifestyle—when the power is out, you'd like to be able to have some electricity, for a variety of uses that aren't easy to power with other energy sources, or to provide control power to appliances that burn natural gas, propane or even fuel oil.

If you just want a small amount of power, there are small battery banks which store enough power to recharge your phone, tablet or even your laptop. The simplest ones can only be recharged from 120V AC, but the more sophisticated ones (know as solar generators) can be recharged from a solar panel, 12V car outlet, or 120VAC, and they sell foldable, portable solar panels which will charge these battery banks. They have power outputs at 120V AC, 12 VDC and powered USB ports for phones and such like.

I don't have one of these devices, so I can't speak from personal experience, but while they do appear to offer a certain degree of convenience, they are quite expensive and they really don't store very much power—a few amp hours at the most. Certainly not enough to run typical refrigerators or freezers, for instance. If you want to go with solar power, you might be better to consider the full fledged solar panel, inverter-charger and battery system that I'll be discussing in my next post.

Generators

Our Generator

The obvious thing here is to get a generator. I finally gave in and bought a generator a couple of years ago, and last fall we installed a wood stove. We have electric heat and it just isn't practical to have a large enough generator to run our electric furnace, so the two decisions went together.

Our generator is a gasoline fueled, 5500W model made by Champion Global Power Equipment that we got on sale at Canadian Tire for less than $1000 Canadian. (Canadian tire is a chain of automotive/hardware/houseware/sports/garden stores here in Canada. If you live outside Canada don't know what you are missing.) If I had deeper pockets I would have gotten a Honda generator—in my experience Honda power equipment starts more easily, is more reliable and lasts longer, but also costs a lot more. So far the Champion has started easily and run well, even in the winter. This was the smallest generator I could find with a 240V output, needed to run our furnace fan and some of my woodworking equipment.

Some may wonder why I didn't get an "inverter-generator", which uses a DC generator and solid state invert to produce AC. They offer better fuel economy if you want to run your generator pretty much continuously and under light loads most of the time. And they usually are set up to run quite quietly for use in campgrounds. But they are more expensive and more complicated. I intend to run my generator only when there is really something for it to do, and I needed to get the most bang for my buck.

Draining stale fuel form generator
into spare jerry can.

On the left, two jerry cans full of gasoline.


Generators do require some on-going effort to keep them in good condition. I start ours once a month and run it for a short while, then shut off the fuel valve and let it run dry so as to stop fuel from leaving deposits in the carburetor. Fresh fuel is also very important. I have three 20 l. (5 gallon) jerry cans, two of which I keep full of fuel. Before running the generator each month, I drain its fuel tank into the third jerry can and empty that can into my car's fuel tank. The other two cans are labelled "odd" and "even" and in odd numbered months I empty the "odd" can into the generator and then fill it with fresh fuel at the gas station. Same for the "even" can in even numbered months.

Like most generators, this one will run about 8 hours at 50% load. My jerry cans hold the same amount of fuel as the generator's fuel tank, so I'm good for 24 hours at half load. Of course, most of the time I'll to be running the generator at less than 50% power and I have no need to run the generator round the clock, especially with the wood stove and Coleman equipment. I expect that during an outage I would run the generator for an hour or so morning and evening to cool down our freezers and fridge, and do anything else that I need power for at those times. So I hope to be good for outages up to a couple of weeks long.

I got a gasoline fueled generator because my car uses gasoline and I can rotate stale fuel into the car rather than throwing it away. And during an outage, if I desperately have to go somewhere and gas stations aren't operating, I have some spare transportation fuel on hand. If you have a diesel vehicle or you live on a farm with diesel equipment and have a big tank of diesel fuel in your equipment shed, you should consider a diesel generator. If you have propane appliances already and a large tank of propane that your supplier fills regularly, you might want to consider a propane fueled generator.

I just googled "does diesel fuel get stale" and apparently it does after a few months, so you'll still need to rotate your diesel fuel. This will be much less of an issue with propane.

There are a few other complications with owning and using a generator that we should discuss.

Some maintenance will be required, such as changing the oil regularly (check the owner's manual for how often) and cleaning or changing the spark plug. And eventually you'll want to take that generator to your local small engine place for a complete overhaul.

Because the gas tank is full of fuel, a generator is a fire hazard and you shouldn't keep it in your house. I keep mine in my backyard tool shed.

When it is running, the exhaust is a problem (carbon monoxide and so forth), so it should be run outdoors or the exhaust vented outdoors, and not upwind of any ventilation intakes.

Because this is a piece of electrical equipment it needs to be kept dry, and this includes keeping it dry when it is running outdoors in the rain. A leanto made with a trap and some 2X4's would do in a pinch. Or you might want to build a very well ventilated shed to both store and run the generator.

Hooking your generator up to the electrical system in your house in a way that is safe and meets the requirements of the electrical code is a job for an electrician. Until that job is done, you can hook up individual loads to the generator with extension cords. Using a cord with two male ends to plug your generator into the house system is dangerous and illegal. The main concern is that if you leave your main breaker or switch closed, you'll be livening up the whole grid and the people who are working on it trying to restore power. It is no exaggeration to say that that deaths can result from this.

My generator is quite noisy and I don't plan on running it through the night. You can get generators that run fairly quietly, but they are more expensive and usually come in smaller sizes, so I chose not to get one. During an outage, that noise is going to attract attention. In the little town where I live, I expect my neighbours to drop by and see if I have power. When outages become more common, I expect we'll develop a tradition of generator parties, and I'd be pleased to host one.

I hear American survivalists and preppers talking about noisy generators attracting unwanted and possibly dangerous company. They'll probably shake their heads and laugh at my idea of a generator party, but things really are different here in Canada. As my American daughter-in-law, who grew up in Camden, New Jersey, and lived in Jacksonville, Florida, before coming here, says, "it's like moving to a different planet."

Single Mantle
Coleman Lantern
Spare mantles on the right.

OK, having covered all that information, now let's run through our list of services with all this in mind.

Lighting

You can get battery operated lanterns that are quite effective, but I would advise getting a Coleman mantle lantern. They generate a bright white light that is barely distinguishable from the electric light we are all used to and give off a fair bit of heat as well. The mantles are fairly fragile when in use, so keep a couple of spare mantles on hand. Kits of repair parts for the air pump on Coleman appliances are available and you should have one.

Water

Additional water storage would be a good idea, enough for a week or two, at minimum of a gallon per person per day. For two people for a week that's 14 gallons. The next step after storing more water is to have a water filter that can make surface water safe to drink. If you live near a lake, pond or stream, this will prove usefull.

Google will give you links to many types of water filters, but if you are looking for a tabletop filter that will turn the most unsavory surface water into something drinkable, Berkey or Doulton are the brands you want.

Filter elements
inside the upper bucket
Our homemade water filter

They are a little pricey, though, and it is possible (I have done it myself) to put together a much less expensive DIY filter using a pair of plastic buckets that is functionally equivalent to the factory made filters, and uses the same filter cartridges. Here are a couple of links to instructions: 1, 2.

It is also a good idea to keep some 5 gallon plastic buckets on hand for carrying water. You'll find they actually come in handy for a great many purposes.

There are a variety of water treatment/filtration systems for use when camping or backpacking. I'm not really up to speed on these, so I'll include this link to a review of Best Backpacking Water Filters & Purifiers of 2019 to start you on your own research if you are interested.

Of course there are filters you can make at home using charcoal and sand, but I'm going to leave those for my next post.

If you have a well and a generator, best call your electrician and see what is going to be involved in powering your water pump from the generator. Many water pumps have a 240V motor, so you'll need a generator with a 240V outlet, a suitable extension cord, and some wiring at the pump to make it safe and easy to hook the generator up to it.

"Jenkins" Style Sawdust Toilet
with bale of wood shavings in front

Sewage

What I said in my last post applies here as well. Keep an emergency bucket toilet on hand, or go for a Jenkins style sawdust toilet . I have one of them tucked away in a secluded corner of my basement woodworking shop. If we were going to use it regularly, some ventilation to the outdoors would be needed.

I can recommend a couple of books on the subject of humanure: The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, and The Scoop on Poop by Dan Chiras.

Food

I'm going to leave the issue of storing large quantities of food for a post in the near future where I'll discuss the ongoing availability of diesel fuel and its effect on supply chains. But it is a good idea to have enough food on hand to last two weeks at a bare minimum, assuming that many stores won't be open and regular deliveries won't be happening during an outage. The idea here is to store what you eat and eat what you store. Don't get taken in by those people who are selling expensive freeze dried emergency food.

Some of that food may end up getting served at a generator party, so plan accordingly.

Two burner liquid fuel Coleman stove, and large kettle

If you are in the habit of always eating out and don't normally keep much food in the house, you need to break that habit and learn how to cook as part of your collapse preparations. It is likely that most restaurants won't be operating during an outage.

The first long outage will catch a lot of people, both consumers and those working in the supply chain, by surprise. A rude awakening, but one that may lead to better preparation for future such problems.

Cooking

You won't want to subsist for very long on food that doesn't need to be cooked. I would recommend a two burner Coleman stove to use when your electric range isn't working. If you have a propane stove that will work without power you're in luck. Propane barbeques can also be useful when the power is out.

Spare parts for Coleman pumps

I recently acquired some spare parts for the pumps of my Colman lantern and stove. The cup on the right is made of leather and will work at much lower temperatures than the usual rubber cup, which stiffens up in the cold.

A big kettle for heating water for washing is also handy.

Refrigeration

At this level of preparation, refrigeration is a tough issue. My own response was to get a generator and plan to run it for short periods a few times a day to keep our fridge and freezer cold. Freezers will stay cold for a day or two without power (especially if they are full), but refrigerators only stay cold for about 4 hours without power and I expect to keep several bags or plastic bottles of ice in my fridge to extend that time (so I can get a full night's sleep if nothing else). I'm also shopping around for a "fridge thermometer" so I can tell how that's working.

There are refrigerators intended for off grid situations that are better insulated and take less power than typical fridges. And there are propane powered refrigerators of the type used in RVs. Both are pretty expensive, so I'm not seriously suggesting you get one at this point.

It is possible to turn a horizontal chest freezer into a refrigerator that takes very little power and stays cool longer. When you open the door, the cold air doesn't fall out, and they have thicker insulation than a regular fridge, so they stay cold longer and use less power. This would be particularly useful if you are setting up an off grid solar power system and need to keep your power usage to an absolute minimum but still want to have refrigeration.

Here are some links to instructions: 1, 2.

The only criticism I would make of these instructions is that it is pretty dumb to run the capillary tube for the sensor bulb under the door seal—hard on the door seal, and leaky. Instead, you can get the temperature sensing bulb in into the fridge through the drain valve and put some duct seal (industrial strength plasticine) around it for a good seal. The "old school" mechanical temperature controller shown in both those articles is definitely the way to go since it uses no power itself. Sometime ago I read another article where the author had gone to a lot of trouble to build an electronic controller that used less power than the fridge. It still used a bit of power, though—better to stick with the simple mechanical controller.

Awnings on the south side of our house

Cooling

As I said in Part 1, 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, 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.

Shade can be provided by trees and/or awnings. Trees take a while to grow, so it's best to look for a place that already has shade from tall deciduous tree, definitely on the south side and if possible on the west side. Or plant quick growing trees like mullberries, and wait patiently.

My house has lots of south facing windows from solar gain in the winter, but that's not a good thing in the summer. And it is in a location without trees and where planting trees isn't really practical. So I made up awnings to shade the windows that were picking up the most heat in the summer. They have to be put up in the spring and taken down in the fall, but it's worth the effort.

Guts of attic vent,
based on salvaged furnace blower
Attic Vent Grill

A well designed house can get quite a bit of cooling from natural ventilation, especially from cool breezes in the evening. It helps to have windows that open. This still just wasn't enough for our house, so I put in an attic fan which draws air in through the windows and pushes it out through the attic vents, cooling both the house and the attic in the process. This works best when it cools down after dark, which it usually does in our area.

Our wood stove

Heating

We have an electric forced air furnace, so when the power is out, we have no heat. We do have a catalytic tent heater that uses liquid Coleman fuel. It works pretty nicely in a tent and does OK in the house in a pinch, but it would be best to do the initial lighting outside and you really have to open some windows for ventilation.

There are space heaters that burn propane or kerosene and apparently are safe to use indoors and don't use electricity, or at least work OK on batteries, and aren't terribly expensive. Something to look into if you really don't want to get a woodstove, or simply can't afford one.

But perhaps it would be best to just get a wood stove. Especially if wood heating is common in your area, and there are people making a business of installing wood stoves and supplying firewood.

We did that last fall, and while it was a major expense (especially the chimney—we have a tall house), wood is still cheaper than electricity, so it will pay itself back over a number of years. Of course, there is a bit of work involved in tending a wood stove, but it seems worth it to me. Though I must admit that I am retired and often looking for something to do in the winter.

Our very tall chimney
Ten cords of firewood ready for this winter

Communications

You should make arrangements for communicating with your family (and other house mates) who may be away at the start of an outage. Cell phone will be working for 2 to 4 hours and landlines for quite a bit longer than that.

It appears that CB radio is no longer a big thing, but amateur (ham) radio is. For those who are so inclined I would suggest taking up ham radio and joining a group who use their two way radios for emergency response co-ordination. Not for everybody, clearly, but a fun hobby for techies who like to talk to strangers.

Transportation

I don't have much more to say here than in the first section. Keep you vehicle's tank at least half full, and in a pinch you can use some of your stock of generator fuel in your car.

Bicycles are useful, even when the power is on. I have to admit that living in a hilly town I lust after a bicycle with electric assist, which could be charged by generator or maybe even by a solar panel if you don't plan to use it too much.

And of course, in a small town, walking is quite practical and something we should all get more accustomed to doing.

In Closing

Quite a bit of what I've advised here is not expensive and can be done even by apartment dwellers or if you are renting a house. Much of it would probably be a good idea even if you aren't preparing for collapse. And it will allow you to get through longer and more frequent power outages with relatively little suffering. But best not to kid yourself that this will give you much in the way of long term independence from BAU. We tackle that sort of preparation in my next post.


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

9 comments:

Don Hayward said...

I would suggest a can of spray ether "quick start" on hand for the generator if it becomes cranky to start.
From experience, I don't think you need to worry about undue odour from a Jenkens sawdust bucket toilet. If you think so, use the bucket lid instead of closing the seat lid, but in a few years of use, I never had any smell issues.
Nice detail Irv.

Joe Clarkson said...

Good advice, particularly for medium term power outages.

I have had some experience with saving diesel fuel and have found that if it is filtered prior to being used after a long time in storage it still works fine. I have been using some diesel that my father-in-law purchased for Y2K with no problem. I have about 75 gallons left and at the rate I use my backup generator it will probably last for another decade.

It is true that diesel stored in drums will pick up water from condensation and bacterial residue from the water/diesel interface, but a water absorbing filter removes both contaminants. I think that diesel is far easier to store for long periods than gasoline.

I used a chest freezer as a refrigerator back in the 1970s. I can't remember how I got the bulb for the mechanical thermostat into the interior, but it worked well. The only disadvantage with a chest refrigerator is the lack of shelves makes things hard to find. We used milk crates to help organize things but it was still hard to dig stuff out of the bottom.

Too bad that Sunfrost has stopped making their hyper-efficient refrigerators. We are still using our 24 V Sunfrost, but it is about 30 years old and showing some wear and tear. A Canadian firm (Unique) makes DC refrigerators for off-grid use. We will probably switch to that brand when our Sunfrost fails.

Joe Clarkson said...

One more thing...Coleman lamps are quite bright but they make a little noise. People may want to consider an Aladdin lamp, which is bright enough to read by and is absolutely silent. It uses kerosene instead of the white gas that the Coleman uses. The Aladdin is not as bright as the Coleman but still works well. Both lamps have mantles that light up bright white.

Irv Mills said...

@ Don Hayward
Thanks for the suggestion of keeping some ether on hand. I will defintely do this before the cold weather sets in.

My concern about odour problems with the Jenkins toilet comes from personal experience. I did a trial run of a few months after I built our s. In the winter when our heat exchanging ventilator was running, there was no hint of odour. But when the warm weather came and we shut off he ventilator, there was actually a lot less ventilation in the basement and odours started to accumulate noticably. I have plans for a small fan and ductwork to the outdoors, but I think your idea is better--just put the lid on the pail when the toilet is not being used. May require a little enlargement in the hole in the top of the box, but it is sitting in my wood shop...

I'd be interested in hearing more about your experience with the Jenkins toilet.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson

I've no doubt you're right in what you say about the "storability" of diesel duel. I'd say diesel engines are sturdier and longer lasting than gas engines in general. Probably ideal for that timeframe we've been disagreeing on a name for, immediatley following the demise of the grid, especially if you can stock up on a few hundred gallons of diesel, as your father-in-law did.

The down side of chest refrigerators in definitely the "standing on your head" problem, but when power is short, that's nicely offset by their other advantages, I would guess.

Coleman lantern do make a hissing noise. Which has never bothered me, possibly because of my poor hearing. I hadn't heard of those Aladdin lamps, thanks for mentioning them.

When I was a kid we'd only had power on the farm for 10 years or so, and had a number of things left over from the pre-electricity era, including coal oil (kerosene) lamps. They used a regular wick instead of mantles, and gave off a light much like a candle, and as bright as maybe three of four candles together. Smelled badly of kerosene, though.

My daughter is having a baby any day now, so I am going to be away for about a week. I hope to get an email off to you before I go asking for help with my next post. Part of it will be about setting up a system similar to what you have, if you are willing to share details.

Bev said...

All good advice again, Irv. Many thanks for taking the trouble. I'm fine with water, have 18,000 litres in 3 tanks. Bottled gas.....2 x 45 kg cylinders for the kitchen stove, so cooking is OK. A bottle is lasting 13 months at the moment. Only drawback is the instant gas hot water which has an electric ignition, so in an outage I don't have hot water, but I can heat water on the gas stove so not a real problem. No hot showers though. In our bottled gas system here, its normal to have 2 bottles, so as soon as you empty one, you switch over to the other and phone up for a delivery which usually takes a day or two. So when I said one bottle lasts 13 months, it's actually between that and twice that, depending on when I changed over.

You commented on the smell from the composting toilet...are you covering each deposit with sawdust as Jenkins advises? I do that and find there's no smell. There's an electric fan built into my system, but even if the power is off, I never notice any smell.

Charging the mobile phone is a problem I hadn't thought of and I won't have a landline in a power outage, because in the stupid broadband internet system the govt made us hook up to, the home phone is now connected to the grid so no power, no home phone. A mobile is a necessity now.

What I think I will do is take a trip to the excellent camping equipment store we have in our town and have a look around at what could be useful items to have in stock, lights, torches, battery chargers, etc. There's probably a lot of stuff I don't know exists!

Thanks for all the useful advice.

Russ said...

Irv - Good post. We've been preparing for this for a long time. We have pv and hot water solar + batteries and a generator for the latter. The well pump is hooked up[ to the solar and has functioned well in past outages. Sewage goes into the septic tank in the backyard. In addition to the solar we have solar flashlights. Cooking options include two solar cookers and a coleman camp stove + a charcoal cooker out on the patio. We have a stock of food. Communications include ham radio hooked to the local repeater, etc. This has been a long time in coming but it will happen. Keep up the good fight. Thanks for all your advice. Russ

Irv Mills said...

@ Bev

That is a good approach for the bottled gas. Most of our local suppliers only want to give you one bottle and only show up to fill it when it is nearly empty, or if you call them because it is already empty. Less than ideal.

I was using wood shavings, which are more readily available than sawdust. But I suspect they don't work as well as sawdust in the Jenkins toilet. Jenkins recommends slightly damp sawdust from a sawmill, which I would probably switch to if I was using the toilet full time.

The one phone/internet company around here that offers service via fiberoptic cable provides a battery backup as part of the system they install in your house. I wonder if there may be a battery in the system you have.

There is indeed a plethora of useful gadgets. I have to be careful or they start to have a very negative effect on my bank balance...

Irv Mills said...

@ Russ

It is always nice to hear what other people are doing to prepare. In my next post I'll be talking about solar PV, featuring a system built by one of my readers. Actually he is writing the majority of the post.