Friday, August 26, 2005

When the Lights Go Out

Another in the series of primers on threats one might consider preparing for ...

Localized power failures are not unusual. Wide-scale, far-reaching blackouts do happen as well.

Any power void of more than a few minutes changes everything. Once upon a time, folks might have thought they were ready for a power failure if they had a flashlight in the desk drawer. Of course, whether the batteries were going to work when needed was a big question mark. But most people today realize that a flashlight is barely a start.

The Big One

On August 14, 2003, the largest blackout in North American history impacted 50-million people in the northeastern US and eastern Canada. That same year, an even larger blackout struck Europe, affecting 56-million people in Italy and Switzerland.

Potential causes of power grid failure are numerous. The important thing to realize is that the right circumstances CAN bring about a fast-spreading, cascading power outage, with serious and immediate implications for the areas affected. In the space of three minutes, in 2003, 21 power plants in the US alone shut down, including nuclear plants. Restoring the power took days in some locales.

Think "paralysis" in any metropolitan blackout. People being trapped or stuck on subways, elevators, trains, highways, and in airports. Communications and commerce grinding to a halt. Security and law enforcement largely negated. Gas stations being rendered inoperable. Life-sustaining services interrupted or hindered.

Sometimes, it can get bad in a real hurry. In Cleveland, 1.5 million people quickly found themselves at risk of being without water because it couldn't be pumped out of Lake Erie.

Easy to Counter

The good news is that, on a personal or household level, it's reasonably easy to be ready to offset short-term power outages. Acquiring a suitably sized back-up generator and the installation of a transfer switch in your home is about all it takes. Most of us could get that done in modest fashion for not much more than $1000. Would the payback be worth it? If done properly, it would allow for you to continue to run your major appliances, including a furnace or air conditioner and your refrigerator/freezer. You have to decide what that could be worth.

There ARE levels of backup power readiness that are incrementally lower (or higher, depending upon your ambition) in cost as well, to include 12-volt batteries (charged in a variety of ways such as solar, hydro, or wind) coupled with an inverter. Depending upon the type and size of the charging source and the battery bank, this will allow for you to run such household items as a computer, battery chargers, TV, radio, lights, etc., without having a generator running continuously.

Steps To A Practical Emergency Power System

1. Install a Quality Backup Generator
... for short power outages, and for longer ones, assuming you have fuel. Propane is a good choice. It is delivered in bulk to your site, it doesn't deteriorate or evaporate with age, and it's piped to the generator, so you never need to handle it. Generators live longer on propane because there is less carbon buildup. An electrician will need to install the transfer switch between the utility and the generator, so your generator doesn't try to run the neighborhood, and doesn't threaten utility workers.

2. Add Batteries and an Inverter/Charger
... because the generator only supplies power when it's running, and it isn't practical or economical to run it all the time. Running just 200 watts is particularly expensive with a generator. They're happiest running at about 80% of full rated wattage. This keeps carbon build-up to a minimum, and is the most efficient in terms of watts delivered per fuel consumed. Adding batteries and an inverter/charger allows the best use of your generator. Whenever the generator runs, it will automatically charge the batteries. This means the generator is working harder, building up less carbon, and delivering more energy for the fuel consumed. Energy stored in the batteries can be used later to run lights, entertainment equipment, and smaller loads without starting the generator.

3. Add Solar, Hydro, or Wind Power for Battery Charging
... since a generator has the lowest initial cost for power back up, but they're expensive and noisy to operate, and fuel supplies could be questionable in the long run. If you anticipate power outages lasting longer than a few weeks, then solar, hydro, or wind power will save you money in the long run, and deliver a reliable long-term energy supply.

It's well worth mentioning that, beyond preparing to supply electrical power to your home, it's prudent to investigate two other utility providers. Some folks are surprised to realize that their water supply could fail in a power outage, whether it comes from a municipal system or from a well with an electric pump. Be sure to make proper accommodations such as storing adequate quantities of water or installing a hand pump for your well.

Further, if you are in a northern region and your furnace runs on natural gas, don't assume it will work for you sans electicity or even with your generator operating. You should consider that local pumping stations in the pipeline could be out of commission and therefore your gas applicances and furnace would not have the necessary fuel to continue to operate. Know that there are alternative-source furnaces or modification kits available, and there is always the old reliable wood stove that could help heat an area of your home if you have the foresight to have one installed before it is needed. Furthermore, assuming you have a generator ... electric heaters can supplement the wood stove. Without an adequate heat source, cold weather can cancel out all your best-laid plans.

Next up: Biological/chemical accidents or attacks

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