Adapted from the Solar Living Sourcebook
Power grid failures, disastrous storms and fires, fuel price spikes…we all know that our society has become vulnerable to disruption of the various infrastructures on which most of us depend in our daily lives.
Short of living completely off the grid, most of us are likely to experience infrastructure disruptions and breakdowns in the foreseeable future. You will rest easier knowing that you’ve taken steps to protect yourself and your family from events beyond your control that threaten to undermine your ability to meet your basic needs.
Refrigeration, heat, drinking water, lights, cooking equipment, and communications/Internet are on the typical short list of what you really need in an emergency. Let’s take a quick look at each of these necessities and see how they can best be supplied when disaster strikes and the grids go down.
Refrigerators and freezers
Refrigeration is a major concern for most emergency or backup systems. The fridge will probably be your major power consumer, typically using 3-4 kWh of energy per day. It’s going to require a 1,500-watt generator or a robust 1,000-watt inverter, at the very least, to start and run a home refrigerator or freezer.
If your refrigerator is 1993 vintage or older, strongly consider getting a new one. Refrigerators have made enormous advances in energy efficiency over the past decade. The average new 22-cubic-foot fridge will use half the power of one produced before 1993. If you’re shopping, look for the EnergyStar label and those yellow EnergyGuide tags. They really level the playing field. All models are compared to the same standard, which happens to be a pessimistic 90°F (32°C) ambient temperature.
Any fridge model sporting a tag for under 500 kWh per year will serve you well and drop energy use to near 1.5 kWh per day. The very best mass-produced fridges will have ratings for 400 kWh/year or less. Top-and-bottom units have a slight energy advantage over side-by-side units.
If you expect power to be out for more than a few weeks, then a propane-powered fridge might be a better choice. Although small by usual [North] American standards (about 7-8 cubic feet), they’ll handle the real necessities for about 1.5 gallons (5.7 litres) of propane per week. Propane freezers are also available.
If a natural disaster happens in winter, keeping warm suddenly may become overwhelmingly important, while keeping the food from spoiling is of no concern at all. Anyone with a passive solar house, a wood stove and a supply of firewood will be sitting pretty when the next ice storm hits. Obviously, any heating solution that doesn’t involve electricity will keep you warm more effectively following a natural disaster. Beyond wood stoves, other nonelectric solutions may include gas-fired wall heaters or portable gas or kerosene heaters. Make sure you get one with a standing pilot instead of electric ignition or you’ll be out of luck. Also be aware that if your thermostat is electric, it won’t work in an extended power outage and you’ll need to use manual controls.
Wall heaters are preferable, because they’re vented to the outside. Use extreme caution with portable heaters or any other “ventless” heater that uses room oxygen and puts its waste products into the air you’re breathing. Combustion waste products combined with depleted oxygen levels are a dangerous and potentially deadly combination – neither brain damage nor freezing are acceptable choices.
If a central furnace or boiler is your only heat choice, you’ll need some electricity to run it. If your generator- or inverter/battery-based emergency power system is already sized to run a fridge, it probably will be able to pick up heating chores instead of the fridge during cold weather. (Put the food outside; Mother Nature will keep it cold.)
Furnaces, which use an air blower to distribute heat, will generally use a bit more power than the average refrigerator. Boilers, which use a water pump or pumps to distribute heat, will generally use a bit less power than a fridge. Depending on the capabilities of your emergency power system, you might need to limit other uses while the heater is running.
Pellet stoves are a very poor choice for emergency heating. Although the fuel is compact and stores nicely, pellet stoves require a steady supply of power to operate. These machines have blowers for combustion air, other blowers for circulation of room air, and pellet-fed motors.
If you’re hooked up to a city-supplied water system, you may have a problem that an emergency power system can’t solve. Most cities use a water tower or other elevated storage to provide water pressure. They can continue to supply water for only a few days, or maybe just a few hours, when the power fails. Other than filling the bathtub or draining the water heater tank, which can get you by for a few days, you may want to provide yourself with some emergency water storage. Water storage tanks are available from any farm supply store and some larger building and home supply stores. There are “utility” and “drinking water” grade tanks. Make sure you buy the drinking water grade with an FDA-approved non-leaching coating.
If you have your own well or other private water supply that requires a pump for water delivery, you’ll need some kind of power system that can run your water pump. AC water pumps require a large surge current to start, the size of the surge depending on pump type and horsepower. Submersible pumps require more starting power than surface-mounted pumps of similar horsepower.
For short-term backup, the easiest and cheapest solution is to use a generator to run the pump once or twice a day to fill a storage or large pressure tank. While the generator is running, you can also catch a little battery charging for later use to run more modest power needs that can be supplied by an inverter/battery system.
Longer-term solutions will require either a bigger inverter and battery bank to run the water pump on demand, or a smaller pump that can run more easily on solar or battery power.
Water quality (is it safe to drink?)
Natural disasters often leave municipal water sources polluted and unsafe to drink, sometimes for weeks. So even though you may have water, you’d better think twice before drinking it. Disease carried by polluted drinking water does far more human harm than natural disasters themselves.
With just a little preparation, and at surprisingly low cost, you can be ready to treat your drinking water. And considering how truly miserable, long-lasting and even life-threatening many waterborne diseases are, an ounce of prevention is worth many tons of cure. You can boil, which is time- and energy-intensive; you can treat with iodine, which is cheap and effective but distasteful; or you can filter, which is quick and effective with the right equipment. The “right equipment” usually means either ultrafine ceramic filtration or a reverse osmosis system.
If you use compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) instead of common incandescent lights, you’ll get four to five times as much light for your power expenditure. You’ll do even better with LED lights, which put out more lumens per watt and last three times as long as CFLs. Because power is valuable and expensive in an emergency or backup situation, these efficient lights are a must.
Since CFLs will outlast 10-13 normal incandescents and will use 75 percent less energy (and LEDs will outlast more than 30 incandescents), they’ll end up paying for themselves by putting hundreds of dollars back in your pocket over their lifetime. CFLs and LEDs are a great investment, both for everyday living and for energy-efficient emergency backup.
Smaller battery-powered, solar recharged lanterns and flashlights can be extremely helpful during short-term outages and can easily be carried to wherever light is needed. Reliable flashlights are important for emergency preparation.
Cooking is one of the easier problems to tackle in a power failure. Let’s start by looking at what you’re using to cook and bake with now.
Electric stoves and ovens
These use massive amounts of electricity. It’s not going to be practical to run your electric burners or oven with a backup system, or even with a generator. Break out the camping gear! Camp stoves running on white gas or propane are a good alternative and widely available at modest cost. Charcoal barbecues can be used as well, but only outdoors! They produce carbon monoxide, which is odorless and deadly if allowed to accumulate indoors. Want a longer-term solution? Consider a gas stove.
Gas stoves and ovens
These can be fired by either propane or natural gas. Propane, which depends only on a small locally installed tank, may be more dependable in a major emergency, particularly an earthquake. Major earthquakes break buried natural gas lines, though these systems won’t be affected by electrical outages. In either case, a power failure will put your modern spark-ignition burner lighters out of commission. Just use a match or camping-type stove igniter for the burners. Older stoves use a pilot light for ignition, which will work as normal with or without electricity.
Your gas oven probably won’t work without electricity. Older stoves, using a standing pilot light, will be unaffected; all others use either a “glow bulb” or a “spark igniter”. Spark igniters, like those used on stovetop burners, will allow you to light the oven with a match. This is good. On the other hand, glow bulbs require 200-300 watts of electrical power all the time the oven is on and will not allow match lighting. This is a problem. You can tell which type of igniter you have by opening the bottom broiler door and then turning on the oven. You’ll hear or see the spark igniter, and the unit will light up quickly. Glow bulbs take 30 seconds or longer to light up, and you’ll probably see the glowing orange-red bulb once it gets warmed up.
If the weather allows, solar ovens do a great job at zero operational cost. They do require full sunlight and are excellent for anything, including a cup of rice, a batch of muffins, or a pot of stew.
Simple communication could well be your biggest concern in the aftermath of a disaster. Being able to call your friends and family can provide a little relief and normality in tough situations. And even in countries where food is scarce 365 days a year, let alone after a disaster, communication and power are a priority.
Ensuring you have a means to charge a smart phone in the wake of a power outage can be as simple as having a backup battery. Typical smart phones require about 7-10 watts for a full charge, so pick a battery with the appropriate power capacity. For added convenience, you can purchase a solar panel to charge up your backup battery or your phone directly from the sun.
Keeping larger electronics like laptops and tablets charged means increasing the size of your backup battery source. Tablets can take anywhere from 25-40 watts for a full recharge; average laptops take around 50 watts. Keeping the power requirements of your devices in mind, it’ll be easier to pick a suitable backup battery.
An ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we have been thoroughly cursed with interesting times. We can make the best of it with some modest preparation, or we can dally, do nothing and wait to see what gets dealt to us and how much it hurts.
When you’re shopping for emergency preparedness, choose the level of protection that feels comfortable to you. After you’re prepared, you can sit back feeling secure, knowing that you’re independent from the grid – at least for a while.