Friday, April 23, 2010

What are the effects of a blackout on your home?

What are the effects of a blackout on your home? After a few hours or a few days?

The first thing is that without heat or air conditioning your home will match the outside ambient temperature within a few hours, depending on your homes insulation. Since blackouts tend to happen on the hottest and coldest days of the year, this can be a problem. 

If it happens on the hottest day of the year you need to worry about cooling, mainly the food in your refrigerator, and anybody who might have troubles in the heat like the very young or old, or the disabled. Having a small window air conditioner run by a generator that you can put in the coolest room, usually the one in the northeast corner, of your house could be a life saver. If you have a basement that will stay near 55°F because of all the earth around it.

After a few hours the food in your frig will warm up to the Danger Zone (40°F-140°F) where bacteria will start growing at an exponential rate. The food in the freezer will take about a day or so to thaw, depending on how good the insulation in your freezer is and what the ambient temperature is. 
Keep the refrigerator doors closed as much as possible. If you have a probe thermometer you can keep an eye on the temperature from the outside.
If you can get ice you can keep your food out of the Danger Zone a lot longer. A few partially filled bottles of water in the freezer would help. If the blackout is local to just your neighborhood or town you might be able to drive to a store that still has ice. Get block ice if you can it melts slower. Putting the ice in a tub or bowl that can hold the melt water will keep your kitchen from getting all wet. Putting it on the top shelf is best as cold air is heavier then warm air.
The reason that many refrigerators still have the freezer on top is because of the old ice boxes from the late 19th and early 20th Century put the ice on top to cool the whole box. 
If you have some ice, some coolers and a basement you can keep food out of the Danger Zone a lot longer because the room temperature is a lot cooler in the basement and will melt the ice more slowly.

On the coldest day keeping your food cold is not a problem, a few bowls of snow in the frig will do fine or just bury it in snow on the north side of your house. If you're worried about something getting to your food, you can put it in a cooler on the north side of your house, you don't want the sun to shine on it or the cooler will get too warm inside. 

The real problem is keeping yourself and your family warm. 

Most furnaces need electricity for the blower and control circuitry. A generator or other alternative energy source will work for that. A generator needs to go outside with the exhaust pointed away from the house, the garage doesn't count, even with the door open, there are too many coroners reports on that mistake. If you are worried about people stealing it chain it to your car on the drivers side blocking the door so you won't forget about it when you need to go somewhere.

Cooking can be done on a backyard propane grill, again that has to stay outside, the garage still doesn't count as outside, even with the door open. You can also put some bricks on the grill to heat up while your at it, you can then wrap them in towels and use them as bedwarmers. 

If you don't have a generator or runout of fuel you can bring everyone into one room and keep the door closed to heat the room with body heat and a few candles or oil lamps, make sure they are placed so they can tip over safely.
You can setup a tent in the living room or basement that everyone can pile in. A tent will concentrate body heat, and with a blanket over the top will insulate pretty well. That is similar to what the Victorians did, the classic four-poster bed has heavy bedcurtains and a top making a nice tent that you heated with your own body heat. 

Our electrical system, among others, is getting very fragile because of consumer pressure to cut costs. 

It is possible for a single wire brushing against an overgrown tree to knock out power to 50 million people. That is what happen in 2003 in the Northeast. A similar thing happened in the West in the late 1990s. So it does happen here. For a few years they'll be diligent to keep the trees trimmed but eventually some bean-counter will say, "We haven't have a black out in ages, we can make more profit if we cut back on tree trimming expenses." And a couple of years will pass, because it takes a while for trees to grow. Then massive blackouts occur costing huge amounts in overtime because they stopped trimming the trees. 

It doesn't matter why, but we are without power and that is a problem. Powering your whole home on your own is pretty expensive, but do you have to power everything all at once? Not really, you never actually have everything on all at once anyway, but there are some things that are more important then others.

So what are the most important things that you need to power in your home? Refrigerator, furnace, a few lights, maybe a computer. How about medical equipment?

So what are the alternatives? A generator is nice, it is small and portable and will run for a long time on a tank of gas. The problem is that it takes a steady supply of fuel. You'll be using fuel wether you are using electricity or not. A refrigerator only runs for 10 or so minutes per hour, a furnace might run for 2o minutes or so. 

You can get around this a bit by instead of powering everything directly, you charge up a bank of batteries and then use the batteries to power your house on the intermittent basis your home actually uses.

Once you have a battery bank you can easily add other alternative energy forms like solar, wind or micro-hydro.