Build Energy Security Into Your Winter Preparedness

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by Mary Murray
chicken coop in snow

I’ve always loved winter for its many days of peaceful, silent beauty. There’s nothing like the sight of swirling snowflakes falling against a brilliant blue sky or the happy chatter of birds at the feeder. 

Over the last few weeks, our part of the Midwest could be found knee-deep in snow drifts, battling single-digit temperatures, and wind chills below zero — all signs that Old Man Winter still  has these months firmly in his grasp. Each day after sunset, the temperature plummeted as chilly winds blew across the open fields. Tree limbs and power lines sagged under the weight of an icy glaze, and stepping outside to do chores was done with caution.

Farm Preparations for Harsh Winter

Like our farming neighbors, we’ve made plans for whatever Mother Nature may bring: We’ve store extra hay and poultry feed, added a deep layer of bedding to the chicken coop, hung heated water buckets, and made any repairs to barns where cold winds could find their way in. We’ve stacked wood, double-checked food and water storage, bought gasoline for the generator, and prepped power tools.

Years ago, I took a great hands-on hearth-cooking class, so if the power goes out, we can prepare soups, roasts, breads, and pies in the fireplace. And by the way, there’s nothing like the flavor of a turkey that’s been roasted in front of the fire in a tin kitchen (reflector oven)!

How does that saying go? “You’re never too young to learn, or too old to learn something new.” Wise words, because this particular winter, I’ve learned that no matter how well prepared we think we are, something may just throw a wrench into our plans.

Trouble Securing Propane for Heat

In January, I ordered propane for our tank; however, as time passed and I watched the level in the tank drop to 15% and then 10%, I began to get concerned. When the tank eventually reached 5%, I again reminded the supplier of our level, and that now there was a winter storm warning in place. The promise was made that deliveries were ongoing throughout the night to ensure customers received propane before the winter storm arrived. I stayed up throughout the night and into the morning waiting for a delivery which never arrived.

Whether the propane company was unable to keep up with customer demand or had a shortage of drivers, we’ll never know. When I called to ask why they didn’t make the promised delivery, I was told “Customers are driving us crazy!” I reminded them of our contract for fuel delivery, which resulted in a few choice words from them, followed by a deadline. Yes, we are changing suppliers. 

I’m sharing this experience because it made me reevaluate our family emergency preparedness plan, and I’m hoping our story will help someone else.

Wood Heat is a Source of Security

While we feel confident knowing what’s needed going into a typical winter, have we really anticipated situations that might arise out of our control? With the propane tank well below 5%, our only option was to turn the furnace off. Now I love old houses and living in one built in 1864 has many wonderful perks, but modern insulation such as fiberglass or spray foam are not among them.

Out came the space heaters and the propane heater, along with a carbon monoxide detector. Additional wood was moved closer to the house, and rooms we don’t need to use were closed off. The lowest temperature in those closed rooms was 37 degrees. Brrr! With outdoor temperatures in the single digits, the kitchen fireplace worked overtime to keep the kitchen warm and water pipes safe from the freezing.

In this kind of icy, snowy weather, a new propane supplier could only install their tank after the weather improved; our misadventure lasted three weeks. Believe me when I say,  I’m already planning ahead for what might happen next winter.

How to Prepare for Winter Energy and Heat Emergencies

Whether it’s a power failure, a slow supply chain for replacement parts, the neglect of a supplier to provide propane or fuel oil, or damage to a natural gas line, what preparations need to be made?

Wood

If your home has a fireplace, wood will be needed for both warmth and cooking. It’s generally considered a good rule of thumb that a 1,000-square-foot home will go through about three cords of wood in a typical winter. Because we can’t know if any given winter will be “typical” or not, it’s best to buy extra firewood. Add firestarters and matches or lighters to the list.

Generator

Whether it’s a portable generator or a whole house generator, do the research to find the best option for your family. Portable generators should have a long run time at half load, meaning the longer it can run, the less often it will need refueled.

Count the number of outlets and the type of outlets. Whole-house generators come in various sizes, need a fuel source such as natural gas or propane, and a transfer switch so that they can begin working as soon as it detects an outage.

Light

Flashlights. Keep a supply of batteries on hand, or use a solar battery charger and rechargeable batteries.

Candles. Any type of candle needs to sit on a stable, heat-resistant surface, and an open flame means always keeping them in sight. For extra safety, place candles in a container that won’t leak, catch fire, or crack. Glass canning jars are good choices because they’re designed to withstand high heat.

Oil lamps. Again, an open flame means extra caution, never leave them unattended. Clear lamp oil is the best for filling oil lamps…never use gasoline, mineral spirits, alcohol, or any other type of fuel. To help prevent leaks, only fill 80% of the lantern with oil and always cover the flame with the chimney made for the lamp. Read instructions for your particular lamp on how to fill, adjust/replace the wick, and how to extinguish the flame.

Communication Disruption

Solar cell phone chargers will allow important access to weather, news, and communication with family. Even on an overcast day, solar chargers are designed to capture light rays, no matter how small, and can provide energy for phone use.

Supply Chain Disruption

Gasoline Storage

Even if it’s possible to reach a gas station, often during emergencies they can run out of available fuel. Easy to find and carry, 5-gallon gas cans are the right size to refill a portable generator, but only once. If possible, storing gas in a larger 25 to 30 gallon fuel tank will be more beneficial during an emergency.

Food Storage

Having a basic supply of food and water is essential if winter weather prevents easy access to grocery stores, if supply trucks are unable to deliver goods, or panic buying leaves store shelves empty.

To keep food storage more affordable, buy in bulk and buy only what your family will eat. Stock up on items that need no cooking or refrigeration such as peanut butter, trail mix, dried fruit, cereal, nuts, powdered milk, canned meat, soup, vegetables, fruit, packaged granola bars and crackers.

Remember to check expiration dates and rotate food supplies to keep them fresh.

Water

When it comes to water, keep enough on hand for drinking, cooking, washing, and manual toilet flushing (should you have a well).

There are many different options for emergency preparedness and each family needs to decide what works best for them. Looking ahead, there are definitely adjustments our family will make.

When the snow and ice return, and they will, I want to be sure we’re ready — and not in a “barely surviving” kind of way. After we turned the furnace off, we decided it was best to make a family event out of those three weeks with no heat! We roasted s’mores and hotdogs over the fire, played board games, watched favorite movies, and made snow ice cream. The winter of 2022 will always be one we remember!

Mary is a goat wrangler, chicken whisperer, bee maven, and farmers’ market baker renovating an 1864 Ohio farmhouse. She will tell you she loves anything old and living the simple life – gardening, preserving, cooking from scratch, and all things home. If you’re living in the country, or want a look at the many stories that come from farm living, she hopes you’ll stop by to read her GRIT posts here, , or visit her farm blog Windy Meadows Farm.

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