Being Prepared

On Friday, October 18th Redmond starts a two day disaster drill to test the systems we’ve readied to support the city of Redmond in case of a disaster. This has prompted me to write a paper on being prepared.

Billions of people all over the world live their lives from day-to-day without electrical power to their homes. Billions. I expect that some percentage of rural America also does not have electricity despite the work of Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration (the REA) in the 1930’s which stretched the electric system out to most of the poorest, most remote parts of the country.

Over the decades since, most of us have grown overly dependent on (and spoiled by) the luxury of continuous power available in every room of our homes, offices, stores, and factories–and even in our cars and RVs. Given what’s currently happening in California, 800,000 residents of the state now realize how much they really depend on the region’s electrical backbone. The rest of us from coast to coast need to come to understand and prepare for this new reality. No, our local power companies are not about to cut us off to prevent fires—at least not here in Redmond, but our disaster planners are actively (and furtively) planning for just that contingency. I work with them as a volunteer. We have cataloged a number of very real, very likely circumstances which would mean there would be no power available in our homes–anywhere in the region. These include:

  • A storm which takes down the high-tension feeder lines that cross over from Eastern Washington. In my thirty years here in Redmond I’ve seen more than one wind storms take out lesser distribution circuits–at least one lasted for over a week.
  • An earthquake that damages that same feeder line or local substations and distribution circuits. A large (9.0) earthquake is expected at any time. Earthquakes can make gas and electric distribution very difficult, and the damage is not easily remedied.
  • A catastrophic or wide-spread fire. We had a reminder of this contingency recently with a (relatively minor) brush fire at the base of the power corridor running through the center of King County. A larger fire could mean a far wider loss of power.
  • A volcanic eruption. Folks, here in Redmond we live in the shadow of Mount Rainier, an active (virtually unmonitored) volcano. Much of the west coast is similarly threatened.
  • And the unexpected, unpredicted, unplanned-for events which have the same effect.

Many of us are totally unprepared to live without power. When the lights go out during the Super Bowl, most of us don’t have automatic backup generators sitting idle at the side of the house for just this contingency. No, I don’t either. Most of us just do nothing and hope that the problem is quickly found. That’s our first mistake.

When the power fails in your home, use the Puget Sound Energy app on your smartphone or the telephone to report the outage. It lets the power company know the extent and triangulate the circuits and components that have failed.

If we’re suffering a real disaster, calling 911 to report your power failure is not a good idea. These dispatchers will be inundated with frightened people and the real emergencies will be harder to handle.

If you have life-critical medical equipment (such as an oxygen generator), it should always be connected to an uninterruptible power supply (a UPS). Its capacity should be large enough to keep the pump working long enough for you to take secondary measures, like switching to backup bottled O2, or transporting the patient to a facility that can restore the supply of O2. In this case, it might be prudent to call 911 for help. As to medication that needs to be refrigerated, keep a separate (small) cooler and an artificial ice pack to store and keep it cool in the interim. I do.

As to your home telephone (I’ll deal with your cellphone in a minute), if it’s like mine, its tied to the fiber systems that run to our homes. Those also require power to work both in the home and in the central office and all along the way there. While some (most) are battery backed up, these can be run on supplemental power from a UPS. (Mine is) That might keep both phone and Internet access up for a few more hours. However, consider that the cell towers your cell phone uses require power and might fail making cellphones useless. Even most land-lines which we thought were not dependent on power, have been quietly rewired into this more-reliable fiber system. They are more reliable until they too lose power. Your in-house cordless phones are battery powered so they will work, but the base station which connects to the RJ11 wire in the wall is powered from an AC adapter. Again, another place where a UPS can keep that system up until the remote phone batteries die. I also have an old-fashioned hard-wired phones both upstairs and down which work without the wireless connectivity required by the cordless phones. Pick one up in a garage sale.

Of course, your TV requires power. While mine is also on a UPS to protect it from surges, it does not stay up long. I can use it to receive over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts for awhile. I expect we’ll be without TV for the duration. Unfortunately, the TV stations still think we can see them smiling and giving us critical information–that no one can hear or see.

For most reliable news and information can be found with a portable radio–again most of these are battery-powered or hand-cranked. These can be used to listen to public service announcements and the news (or the game). But you’ll find they don’t work when your kids are nearby. That’s because AM radios are easily overpowered by the radios in cellphones. Either take the radio away from all cellphones or turn them off.

Unfortunately in my experience, the hand-crank radios are (there’s a technical word for it) “crap.” They use rechargeable batteries that wear out just sitting idle in a few short years. Don’t depend on them.

Hand-crank Radios are… crap.

I have several battery chargers and rotate a stock of AA and AAA batteries for use in my flashlights and other devices.

As to your cellphone, it might work fine in a short-term disaster, but there are any number of scenarios where cellphones go down or become overloaded. In any case, when your cellphone can’t connect to a nearby cell tower, it increases its transmit power and tries again, and again, and again, quickly draining your battery. If you don’t have an immediate need for your cellphone or if you have no bars, it’s best to turn it off. Set up a plan with your family that you will turn it on every half-hour to try to connect with them. And yes, you need to plan. You need a plan about what you will need if you have to evacuate. A plan to pass on to the family nearby and on the other side of the country to let them know you’re safe or Aunt Sally is hurt and is going to need prayers. Once you make contact, stay off the phone. The service will be heavily loaded with real (and imaginary) emergencies.

If you have a serious need to communicate something vital, you can go to the nearest fire station here in Redmond. As a ham radio operator, I’m part of the team that’s prepared them to help with their communications needs. There you should find CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) volunteers who have been trained to deal with your immediate needs—even do first aid. The CERT team can pass messages to me to forward on to first-responders both locally in remote parts of the country. Yes, it’s easy to get your ham radio license and install an antenna in your attic so you can also be part of the solution.

Emergency communications

If you are thinking about a generator, consider that it’s not going to be a simple task of just waiting for it to kick in as they do in TV shows. Generators must be run outdoors—and no, the garage or breezeway is not outdoors; that would be a fatal mistake. Generators also have a limited capacity (the Wattage they can deliver). Some big appliances you plug in have both a start-up and continuous wattage they require to operate. While older freezers and refrigerators are typically very power-hungry modern models only draw less than 100 watts so they don’t require a very large generator. However, an electric stove or furnace is another matter which is why we rarely try to run these on a generator. LED lights use very little power but incandescent bulbs can use upwards of 150 watts/bulb.

A “3 KW” generator (about $1000) can deliver something LESS than 3,000 watts of power for about 8 hours (not under full load). That means it’s overcapacity for most household applications. Consider you have to store the gas somewhere. That means you’ll need to have enough gas to last. Storing gas in your home is (frankly) dangerous. Some generators use liquefied petroleum (LP) or “natural” gas piped to your home. These are typically several thousand dollars and require professional installation and certification. A gas-powered solution will require that the gas stations have power to run their pumps. They might. Ours didn’t during the last long-term storm. Siphoning gas from your car is dangerous but possible.

I have a small 1 KW camping generator and I only use it to keep the freezer working for a few hours a day. The neighbors are thankful.

Another approach is battery-based power systems. These are generally smaller capacity but are safe to use indoors but once they’re dead, you need to find somewhere to recharge them. I also have some of these. I keep a “Jump and Carry” battery/jump-start system in my and my wife’s cars. These have USB ports to charge phones and are safer than running your car battery down listening to the game.

I haven’t mentioned solar or wind power because I don’t really have any systems in place (I wish I did). I have some friends who do and they swear by them. Their solar panels can power quite a few appliances directly during the day. If these systems also have battery systems (as supplied by Tesla), these “PowerWall” systems can run entire homes 24/7 when there is no power coming into the electric panel. When they produce excess power (more power than your home is consuming) it pushed the power back into the electrical system for others to use. Ask me for a referral code if you’re interested in the Tesla PowerWall system.

No, this is not my house. I have a Model X. 😉

We also use power to heat and cool our homes. In milder weather and in the hottest summer days we could survive without suffering too badly. However, in the winter if the pipes freeze we’re pooched. Powering the gas furnace with a generator would be a challenge but doable. I would probably drain the home’s water system before trying that. That’s fairly easy, but it means you won’t have a supply of potable water if you need it. You have 30-50 gallons in the hot water heater. If you lose power, but still have gas pressure (which is likely in many scenarios), you can drain everything BUT the hot water heater and let the gas flame keep it from freezing. Yeah, I would probably hot-wire the furnace to the generator, but I’m kinda handy (read dangerous) with electricity. I do not advise this without professional help.

As to gas, if there is an earthquake, you’ll need to shut off your gas. Sure. You’re going to remember to go outside when everyone is screaming and running around and find the tool and your meter and shut it off. That’s why I had an earthquake shutoff valve on my gas line at the meter. (About $400). One less thing to worry about.

Do you know how to shut off your gas and water?

In an earthquake, you’ll also want to cut off the water to your house if it’s spraying out from the upstairs fixtures. Do you know where your water meter and the cut-off valve are located? Do you have the right tool? I do.

And another thing. In an emergency, we have to remain calm and not make ourselves part of the problem. Emergency workers are going to be VERY busy so don’t call them to ask if they know what’s going on or to help turn off your gas. No, you can’t depend on them to show up in four minutes when you call–no matter how loud you scream. We all need to learn how to take care of ourselves for days to weeks at a time without help. That means learning first aid, how and when (and if) to evacuate people from a damaged building, how to fight fires, how to use fire extinguishers, which fires to fight and which to flee.

The city of Redmon plans to provide emergency information on their radio station at AM 1650. Perhaps you’ll hear me make some of those announcements that will tell you where to go, or to shelter in place and plan to stay there for a couple of weeks.

Oh, have you thought about what you and your family are going to eat if you can’t get to the store and can’t use an electric can opener or a microwave, or your electric range, or the toaster oven? And no, don’t drag that BBQ into the garage and fire it up to BBQ some steaks. We have several weeks of canned food, rice, beans, sugar, flour, cooking oil, yeast, and a host of other food stocks to help us get through disasters. We cycle these stocks into our regular menus or donate unexpired excess to the local food bank.

Be smart people. Those that are will survive.

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