Power Outage: Lessons Learned

On Tuesday afternoon (5/4/2010), while I was engaged in my weekly biology class with a group of homeschoolers, the wind suddenly kicked up out of nowhere with a single strong gust.  Looking out the window, all eight of us were struck by what looked like a yellow cloud lifting up over the nearest ridge about a mile away.

It wasn't a yellow cloud; it was soil, lifted violently from the fields in the valley below, its color highlighted by the dark clouds above.  Suddenly, the tree tops on the ridge to our west all bent over in unison, as if brushed by a giant invisible hand.  There was a pause, and then we got hit with a blast of gritty air, probably in the vicinity of 50 mph, that toppled trees in our yard and turned out the lights.  Boom.  Just like that.  We had about 2 minutes to react and prepare, from start to finish.

The Tree That Ate My Electricity


We got hit by a squall line, which would have been a "white squall" if we'd been on the water; the kind of storm that routinely flips sailboats because it catches them in an awkward position with too much canvas on the mast.

And it wasn't just us; towns up and down the CT river got hit just as bad or even worse, and power crews had to contend with thousands of outages, including at the area hospital.  By Wednesday morning, it was pretty clear that we weren't going to be getting our power back for a while.  Reports were drifting in of widespread damage and serious outages, and rumors surfaced that it might be a couple of days until we got our power back.  Information was sketchy and hard to come by. 

At first I was thinking, "No big deal; we're pretty well covered."  But I soon discovered that we had some pretty big holes in our preparations and thereby learned a number of important lessons.

To my great chagrin, I discovered that the propane tank that feeds our gas stove was only 1% full, and we soon depleted it.  Oops.  It's my job to keep track of it and call the propane company when it gets to 30%, and I'd somehow let that slip by.  And just to really rub it in, our outdoor grill was also nearly out of gas, making cooking and heating water more of a chore than it needed to be.

Worse, we hadn't yet gotten around to having any rain barrels set up, so we were very soon scrambling to obtain water to use to flush toilets and wash dishes.  Luckily, we have plenty of water containers.  Unfortunately none of them were full at the time, so off we trundled to places where we could get water.

Our flashlights operate on rechargeable batteries, and only a few were sufficiently charged.  So we turned to hurricane lanterns (the kind with wicks that burn oil), which were great to have and reminded all of us of our summers in Maine, where these devices supply most of our lighting needs.  But it would have been nice to have at least one flashlight per family member (plus one for the guest staying with us at the time).

Of course, I lost contact with the Internet and this site, as my computers and Internet access are all tied to the power grid.  Fortunately, I have a backup plan for accessing the Internet and maintaining contact with this site, but in this case it did not work very well.  In the past, such as when on vacation or traveling, I've maintained contact by using my Blackberry as an antenna and tethering it to my laptop.  While all of that worked, and I had electricity from the solar array to run everything, the problem was that my cell reception was degraded to the point that I could not manage to post comments.  I could read everything fine, but I couldn't post anything.

I think the explanation for this is that the cell towers were overloaded with other people who were relying on their cell phones, and so mine could not operate above the critical threshold required to handle posting.  So as a result, I am now developing back-up plans for my back-up plans.

The good news was that our solar PV system did its job perfectly, and also supplied our freezer with electricity, preventing a pretty expensive melt-down that would have cost us hundreds of dollars.

Finally, at 11:00 last night, our power was returned, 30 hours after it had gone off.  Water once again came out of the taps like magic, the refrigerator busily hummed away, and all our electronics beeped back to life.

Lessons Learned

Keep things topped off.  I thought I had already learned this lesson some years back.  Apparently such lessons wear off.  This week I will be installing rain barrels (or even buckets), filling all the propane tanks, and making sure all my batteries are charged and ready.

Sometimes things happen with almost no warning.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always assumed that I'd have warning for nearly any event.  Weather usually comes with a fair bit of warning.  This event did not.  Okay.  Lesson learned.  And I don't mean just about weather related phenomenon.  Perhaps there's a "white squall" lurking out there in the economic sphere as well. 

The essentials.  Being without refrigeration and water is just not fun, so I am going to focus on getting the rest of our solar panels installed and hooked to a larger battery array as a next matter of business.  With our solar hot water going in, we'll be living large in almost any situation as long as we can run our well pump.  Solving the energy pig that is our refrigerator is a different matter, and I am still not sure how to handle that one, but we'll work something out.

Without electricity, life changes radically.  I know this, but knowing and experiencing are two different things.  One thing I had not purposely done in the past was to cut off our power for a period of time to see how we'd do.  That's the only way to really know.  Now I plan to apply these learned lessons and then cut our power for a longer duration just to find out where the kinks are.


I am thankful for this mini dress-rehearsal that nature delivered to our doorstep.  By having our power cut off for more than a day, many weaknesses were exposed.  We got to know a few neighbors a little better.  All in all, it was a very good thing.

Being cut off from this site was a challenge, especially since so many enormously important market events are happening right now.  It's extremely important to me that I be able to remain connected with this community during such exciting times.

For anyone wondering where I went during these past few exciting days, I was reduced to lurker status, but now I'm back.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/power-outage-lessons-learned-2/

We had a 2 day blackout event here last month in Westchester and boy was I glad to have landline and a hoarder’s collection of self charging lights. Still, had it been dead of winter we would have froze. And I had just used up most of my water stockpile so the inevitable post blackout water contamination proved “problematic”. As psychiatrist Gordon Livingston said in his bestseller Too Soon Old Too Late Smart, “bad things happen fast”. Glad you got through ok. It is a lesson for us all.

Wow Chris! that’s a great wake-up call!
Great idea to turn off the power to see where the kinks are…I’m going to do that!




There’s nothing like the real thing for “practicing” on…  We lost power for 4+ days during the last big storm of Winter.  It illuminated where we were strong (heating, cooking, non-potable water) and where we’re weak (drinking water, electricity).  It certainly bumped a few items up my “to do” list.
Glad you’re back.  I’m dying to hear your thoughts on the events of this (rather dramatic) week.

Viva – Sager

We have regular outages up in our mountain valley and last year we purchased a couple of super efficient “Rocket Stoves” for cooking during these times. They use them by the millions in China and India and elsewhere and they only require twigs or kindling to operate. We boil a large stew that feeds 4, plus boil water for tea afterwards, and only use the equivalent of 1/2 of 1 log that goes into our woodstove! We’ve been very grateful to have it around. Just Google “Rocket Stove” to see how to make your own, or to find a place to purchase one. They can also be used to boil unclean water for drinking in a pinch!

I learned a lesson this past winter about propane. We have a 100gal tank for cooking and to make up whatever heat we don’t get from solar. We get it filled a few times a year. We had 2 100G tanks but they said we didn’t use enough and took one away. Well in December  we got hit by all the snow, cold and cloudy weather and depleted our tank in one month, just as we got hit by the second and third snows so that they couldn’t deliver. Finally got plowed out and convinced them to deliver - the bill was $5.25 / Gal ! Lesson learned:  I need a big enough tank to get through the entire winter. I need a big enough tank so I can purchase propane on MY terms. I need to own my tank so I can shop around.  So I’m going to buy a 500gal tank and make it more accesible to the truck. It’s a big expense now, but can pay for itself in savings and feeling of being prepared. I did not like running out of propane with two feet of snow on the ground and depending on electric backup
Chris, I also keep two small propane backups in addition to what’s on the grill. Cheap insurance. I always have at least two full tanks.

I wish I had a good backup for internet. We are on FIOS so if power goes out I lose ethernet, TV, and phone, so I can’t even go back to a modem.

And solar PV is being installed to complete my solar trifecta (passive solar heat, active solar hot water, solar PV). Then I’ll build my solar cooker!




Great post Dr. M!
I remember how the Ice Storm of Dec 1997 - Jan 1998 completely paralyzed Montreal.  In the winter months I still hang quilts in the doorways to prevent draughs and keep warmth in the living areas. 

I’ve been through the same thing with a 20kw backup generator on liquid propane.  When the hurricane was off shore 200 miles, no propane company in the county would come out to fill up the tank which was at 10% full.  When that ran out in the 12 days of no electricity that followed the 2 days of storm, I got to sit in the dark and read the manual of my 20kw generator by candlelight.  We also had nothing to run the stove with as an added irony.  Needless to say, my wife and I exchanged several suggestions for future improvement as we sweated in the dark.
In the weeks that followed I bought and installed another 250 gallon propane tank that is now full time connected to the generator.  Normal household needs are met with the first 250 gallon tank.

As John Rawles points out, the best lists are made by candlelight.

I was tested by 5 to 7 day power outages at my house each of the last two winter seasons. With no additional advance preparations me and my family did fine.  In contrast, some of my neighbors had to leave their homes.  I think the key is to build a low dependence/highly resilient lifestyle into your your normal routine and not just when you have to.
Food - I have months stored, no problem if can’t get to store due to trees across the road.  Cold foods kept fine outside in winter.  Even picked fresh spinach and claytonia from my cold frames.

Frozen foods - I learned to only store what I can eat within a week, and keep most stored food canned or dried.  Then no generator or solar power supply needed.

Water -municipal supply is pretty reliable since they have backup power, but I keep a few days of drinking water in filled containers just in case. 

Heat - I burn wood all the time anyway and have two seasons worth stored.  House will keep above freezing just by passive solar.

Cooking - propane range, wood, camping stove, and charcoal grill are routinely used alternatives.

Light - My bicycle lights, headlamps, and camping lights are used regulary all the time so they’re always in order when needed and can recharge off my truck inverter.  Candles and lanterns for long term backup.

Phone - I refuse to own anything but a basic phone that runs only off the phone line.

Internet - Play lots of board games with my kids instead.




Have been without the internet and phone for 1 week.  I asked my wife ‘what would we have done had it been electric’? (I’m working towards getting her buy-in into solar).  Still no buy-in.
Our oats were bailed yesterday and the farmer (HS education-brighter and better read than most PhD’s I know) said what separates the US from the 3rd world is electricity.  He fears for his safety when TSHTF.  Can we really prepare when others around us are hungry and simply want to feed their kids?


I got a useful idea regarding refrigeration from the story ‘Lights Out’ by David Crawford. http://www.frugalsquirrels.com/fiction/lightsout1-10.pdf
The main character kept a number of plastic lemonade bottles of water in his freezer while he ran his generator in the evening. When these were frozen, he put them in the fridge to cool it over the subsequent twenty hours. This meant he was able to have constant refrigeration for only four hours of generation.

Another big lesson I’m learning now - maintain alternate transportation.  An alleged bomb has shutdown the parking garage in Portsmouth; I can look out my office window at the police barricades; hundreds of folks working downtown here can’t get their vehicles.  Plus the stock market fun today - Expect the unexpected!


I recommend the crank flashlights from walmart - around $15 in stores or you can pick them up from here.  I have a couple and they work great.  I also picked up a couple that have a solar panel on them from costco and I leave them sitting in a sunny room.

I have  friend who has one of these solar burners, and uses it regularly.  At thanksgiving he cooked potatos and gravy on it.  Said it boiled the water quicker than his stove. 

On a great note, today my circuits in my house were rearranged for my <a href=/comment/73451#comment-73451" target=“_blank” rel=“nofollow”>solar critical panel.  It was great to see my fridge running without an attachment to the grid!


Get a good standby diesel generator and at least a manual transfer switch wired into your subpanel.

Hi Chris,  to lower your refrigerator’s power requirements you could get a chest type refrigerator. They use 10% of the power of an upright (0.1 kWh per day vs 1 kWh per day)   With a PV system a DC fridge, like a SunDanzer, would work well.  They will set you back about $1000.

A lower cost, but probably not as efficient, option would be to convert an A/C chest freezer to a chest refrigerator by replacing the thermostat as shown on this site.


www.bogolight.com   (buy one, get one)  solar lights
More expensive than Costco but excellent and they also send one to poor folks. Their batteries are excellent and hold a charge forever. I have used their lights daily for several years.



Chris - try a propane or LP gas refrigerator.

We are pretty much your neighbors and had pretty much the same experience.  Thanks to your suggestion at Rowe last fall I had installed a solar array powering batteries.  Unlike you, however, I have my computer and internet hooked up to that array as well as my freezer.  :slight_smile:

A couple of years ago I bought my husband one of those LED headlamps for camping and fell in love with it.  Since then I’ve bought one for every member of my family.  I keep my headlamp in my purse because… get this… at the age of 45 I’ve realized it gets dark EVERY SINGLE NIGHT!  I use it all the time!  :slight_smile:


Also, about rainbarrels:  I have a couple of the New England Rain Barrels from when they delivered to a town near me: check them out at:  http://nerainbarrel.com/Store.html


We had a power outage the other night luckily I picked up these night light slash rechargeable flashlights a few nights before.  They worked great.

Thanks for this post, I know I have a propane tank that needs to get filled.  I’m sure there’s lots of people doing a gut-check right now on their preps.

I second the hand crank LED “human powered” flashlights.  As long as they are of decent quality and durability, you never have to worry about buying/recharging and disposal of batteries.  Been meaning to pick up one of the hand cranked AM/FM radios as well as a source of news/info in the absence of internet access.