Winter in the mountains means a strong possibility of a power outage. When the winds blow or a heavy, wet snow falls trees tend to topple. Our power company does a great job of trying to keep the utility right-of-ways clear enough to prevent wires being brought down by tree limbs, but there is a limit to what they can do. Yesterday we had one such incident.
It had been raining. The ground was wet, making the hold trees have on the earth less secure. Then it snowed a heavy wet sloppy snow. I took the dogs out to play in the snow that morning and could hear trees cracking and toppling all around.
One came down quite close to our garage and dog pens: close, but no damage was done. When I put the dogs up and went inside, I found the house without power. I wasn’t at all surprised.
Fortunately we are prepared for brief power outages.
Our home has a wood-burning fireplace that does a fine job of keeping one end of our home quite warm and cozy. The bedrooms can get chilly, but we have several quilts on the bed, and we can sleep in hooded sweaters or sweatshirts if need be.
Bathroom runs can be a bear though!
My mom has a house of her own on our property. Like ours, hers has all electric appliances. But then, a gas (central) furnace is of little use if the blower motor won’t run. Wall-mounted gas furnaces are handy, but not as aesthetic as warm air delivered through ducts in the floor.
When the power had been out a couple of hours I figured Mom was getting mighty chilly down there. So I took the 4WD pick-up truck over to my workshop and loaded up a propane furnace and a 40-pound cylinder and took them to her house. This is one of those wall-mounted propane furnaces, except I mounted it to a stand so I could move it around in my workshop to add heat where it was needed instead of running the ancient (inefficient, energy gobbling) electric central furnace in the shop at a setting to keep the whole 1,300 square feet of not-very-well-insulated work space at a comfortable temperature. This rig is a bit bulky, and heavy, but that’s what the pick-up is for.
I took that in and set it up for her. Of course, the power came back on 15 minutes later; but that’s how life works, right?
We can cook (and have cooked) in our fireplace. We even have some specialty utensils for doing just that. We also have a Webber Kettle grill, but the fireplace is more convenient in inclement weather. Mom has a small propane grill that could be pressed into service if need be. These little grills or a camp stove are handy to have as emergency equipment – and can also be used for camping or tailgating.
We have a refrigerator and a deep freeze. In a winter power outage, these aren’t big concerns because if the fridge gets too warm in the house to keep the food, we can just take it outside where it’s cold. Generally speaking.
We help the freezer get through long power outages all year through by filling any empty space as we use the food with plastic milk jugs of water. These blocks of ice add thermal mass to the freezer to help it stay cold even in a summer outage.
I have shelves of canned goods in glass mason jars stored in the office of my workshop. If freezing temperatures exist for long periods – and there is no heat – I’d need to move them home to prevent them from freezing and bursting.
Our major concern here is that when the electricity goes out so does our well pump. No water. We can compensate by keeping jugs of water on hand for emergency use in cooking, drinking and personal care. But toilet flushing becomes a problem. Water in the toilet tank will do it once each. Water in the pressure tank under the workshop will fill two toilets once.
I’ve often thought about building some sort of water tower at the workshop, which is the well pump is, but concerns of water quality have kept me from pursuing that.
If we were to find ourselves in a days-long power outage, there is a steam 1/4 mile from here where we could get buckets of water for flushing toilets. It would not be drinkable. At least not for us: the cattle seem to like it though.
When we built our home we used Pex plumbing: a form of reinforced plastic tubing that expands a certain amount so that even if it freezes solid it won’t burst. The workshop and my mom’s house both use the old-style gray plastic tubing, which will burst if frozen, so precautions need to be taken in winter.
When cold weather comes, I make sure all hoses are removed from exterior water spigots so they can drain and will not burst. Frost-free faucets are great, but they must be allowed to drain or they too will burst. (Please don’t ask me how I know that.)
A portable electric generator has been on my wish list for some time now. That wish has not been fulfilled because power outages have always been brief: typically 30 to 60 minutes. A few times, like yesterday, it can stretch on for several hours. We are fortunate: Some residents in the more remote areas of these mountains have endured power outages lasting several days. They have generators.
For us, the lack of a generator is a matter of allocating funds. There always seems to be something more immediately pressing than a generator that may or may not be used in the coming winter.
A smallish, affordable generator can run a few lights, the fridge and a small appliance or two (toaster oven, coffee maker, etc.), but not much more. A generator capable of powering our 1 1/2-horse, industrial strength, 220-volt well pump is quite expensive.
Add to that the fact that we have people and equipment spread out all over the property. A generator at the shop could power the well pump and the deep freeze, but would be of no help to our home or to Mom’s house. Each building has its own power service, so even installing a mega-buck diesel whole-house generator to power the compound would be very complex because of restrictions about putting our generated power out into the electric company’s lines (which could kill a service worker somewhere else).
It is necessary here to keep at least one reliable chainsaw, with a supply of gas-oil mix, bar oil, and a spare chain on hand. It's also a good idea to have a length of heavy chain and a four-wheel drive vehicle to help move tree chunks.
When trees fall in the woods, we hear them, but they don't affect us. When one falls on our power lines or a driveway or road, or a building, we need to be able to deal with it quickly.
For us, power outages are not normally long or particularly inconvenient. We have equipment and processes in place to deal with these situations. Should terrorists take out the power grid, we might regret not spending tens of thousands of dollars on generating equipment. Or solar cells – which don’t work in a snow storm anyway. But we’ve successfully lived in these mountains for almost 16 years: I suspect we’ll be OK for a few more.