Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lessons Learned When the Lights Went Out

The herb garden on July 7.

Living here in the Midwest, we expect the occasional severe thunderstorm to roll through. Their effects depend on how much power they pack and on conditions on the ground. Our street is lined with large pin oak and silver maple trees, both of which have an annoying tendency to throw good-sized limbs during high winds. During 2004, 2005, and 2006 severe thunderstorms each summer led to loss of electrical service for us and others on our street for a day or more. In 2006 our street was in the path of two severe thunderstorms within a thirty hour period that caused at least 750,000 customers across our electric utility’s service area to lose electric service for a period of time, a few for close to two weeks. Our service was out for six days after the second storm. In 2006 we also experienced an ice storm followed by windy weather that threw overloaded tree branches on electric service lines, leading to loss of electric service for us and others in the iced area. So Mike and I have some experience with going without electricity for a few days. Still, we hadn’t been tested since the 2006 ice storm, until a tornado cut a 32 mile long path through the St. Louis metro area last May 31. Our street is a few blocks north of the tornado’s path according to the St. Louis NWS office and the tornado was not at its most intense in our area. However, tornadoes do not have sharp edges to their destruction. The winds were strong enough to drop good-sized tree limbs on yards, roofs, and electric service lines along our street. Having received warning from both the tornado sirens and the St. Louis NWS weather radio station, and hearing our community’s name listed among those in the path of the storm, Mike and I sat in the basement as the storm approached us. The lights went out, came back on again, then went out again as the winds became more intense. Around 8:25 p.m. a series of odd sounds combined with the winds. Mike wondered what they were. I guessed they might be due to the tarpaulin that shades our patio being tossed about by the wind though I was not sure I really wanted to know what the sounds were. After a few minutes the odd sounds ended and the wind noise reduced. When the weather radio, now powered by its back-up battery, confirmed that the storm was past us, we went back upstairs by the light of our flashlights. A few minutes later our neighbor knocked on the door, checking to see if we were OK. It wasn’t until he told us about the limbs that had come down in his yard that I realized that the tornado had in fact passed close to us. We lit the oil lamps in the living room and sat down to listen to KMOX-FM radio’s storm coverage on the hand-cranked radio. It wasn’t until the afternoon of June 3 that electrical service was restored to our street. At its peak about 60,000 or so of our electric utility’s customers lost service. Luckily, even though the tornado reached EF-3 intensity at spots along its path (not near us however), no one was killed or seriously injured by it, though there was considerable property damage and plenty of tree debris to be cleaned up. For us personally, other than some limbs from trees next door falling on our yard to clean up, we suffered no damage, not even to the tarpaulin. Nor were we inconvenienced in a major way by not having electric service for a few days. I thought it might be useful to discuss what works for us, and a few things we can improve on, as I suspect we and many other people will be living with intermittent or permanent loss of electrical service in the years to come. Already storms cause longer disruptions in service for more people than they used to as utilities cut costs by reducing repair crews, instead relying on calling in crews from neighboring regions in the case of widespread outages. As Sharon Astyk and John Michael Greer among others in the peak oil community have discussed, we can expect increasing unreliability in electrical service as utilities can no longer maintain service to all areas at all times. The most likely consequences include rolling blackouts during peak demand periods, shedding of the farthest-out customers, slower responses to service calls and reduced maintenance leading to more-frequent and longer loss of service, and later on service reduced to certain days or hours. In addition more people will find they lack the money to pay for electrical service as the economic effects of passing peak fossil fuel energy accumulate. Perhaps our experience and what we learned from it may help some of you become more resilient to storms (wind and economic) and reliability issues.

Cultivating a non-electric mindset

For many of us the first hurdle to handling electrical outages well is a mindset of dependence on electrical services for basic needs. For those of you who are dependent on electrically-powered machinery to maintain life, please note that I’m not talking about you! My words are directed to myself and all the rest of us for whom electricity is a convenience. Yes, refrigeration is a convenience, not a necessity, though I admit that for Mike and me it is a major convenience. But all the adjustments will become easier to make once you remember that for the vast majority of human history humans have lived and thrived everywhere, from the Arctic Circle to the hottest tropical climates, without electricity. Mike and I are old enough that some of our grandparents were born in the 1880s, before widespread electric service existed. My paternal grandfather homesteaded a property in South Dakota in the early 1900s, long before electricity made it to the area. Electricity is a recent arrival to the scene. For most of us, again excepting those who depend on electrical machinery to maintain life, we can adjust to doing without electricity. Advance preparation as well as attitude adjustment helps to make living without electricity easier and may make it cheaper as well.

During the recent outage I noticed that the use of electric generators during an electrical outage has become rather common on our street. An electrical generator can keep some useful electrical appliances such as refrigerators, fans, lights, radios, and cell phones operating during an electrical outage. However, generators come with their own costs and issues that are significant enough to make them unappealing if not prohibitive to those of us who are living low. For one thing, the generator costs money to purchase that you may not have or may have better uses for. (Mike and I can find much better uses for that money.) For another, cheap generators require gasoline to power the generator that produces the electricity, gasoline that may be unavailable or in short supply just when you need it. The unavailability could stem from the gasoline stations themselves lacking the electrical service to run the gas pumps during an outage, as happened here after the July 2006 severe thunderstorms and last fall in some of the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. In addition, gasoline deliveries into the area may be disrupted if the storm damage is widespread enough, as it was after Sandy hit. If you can’t get gasoline for it, the generator is just dead weight. The gasoline itself costs money, of course, and more so the longer you need it. Cheap generators cannot produce sufficient wattage to run air conditioning or certain other appliances. Generators have to be located outside living quarters because burning gasoline produces carbon monoxide, a deadly poisonous gas, as well as other pollutants. They are also obnoxiously noisy. Finally, as with any other appliance, they need to be properly maintained so they will be in working order when they are needed, and gasoline to run them needs to be on hand. For all these reasons, if you and those you live with don’t need a generator to power life-support machinery, I suggest learning how to do without one. Below is how we do well without a generator, and some ways we can improve our resilience based on our experience following the tornado’s passage.


The tornado hit at a time when our refrigerator/freezer was as crammed full of food as it ever is. Besides the usual leftovers, dairy products and eggs, baked goods, various fruits and vegetables, and condiments, it held several pounds of fresh strawberries (it was the height of strawberry season), 11 pints of frozen strawberries, quart jars of sauerkraut, fermented turnips, and pickled beets, and a fresh ham and other foods for a dinner party with another couple we had planned for the next day. Without a stove to cook on (our stove is electric), we had to cancel the dinner party. We did not, however, lose any of the food to spoilage. Our non-electric alternative to refrigeration is plenty of cooler space, ice to keep the cooler contents cold if the outage happens in other than winter, and neighbors to help us eat foods that won’t fit into the coolers.

I gave some of the strawberries to the neighbors since there were more on the plants to pick and we kept the eggs, cheeses, butter, some of the condiments, and the baked goods in separate coolers without ice as they did not need refrigerator temperatures to stay fresh for a few days (the condiments actually didn’t need refrigeration in the first place). Otherwise we fit everything into several large coolers and kept them iced, thus preserving all the food. While large coolers are quite expensive if you need to purchase them new, they are still cheaper than generators, especially since a cooler won’t need any further maintenance after its purchase beyond finding a place to store it. However, you may be able to trash-pick some coolers or find them in yard or estate sales or thrift shops, or you could ask for a cooler as a gift if those who give gifts to you are accepting of that, or you could purchase new ones when they come on sale. A few of our coolers have been given to us, a few were trash-picked, and we purchased a few of them new.

I am not claiming that coolers are a perfect solution to refrigeration during electric outages. Producing, distributing, storing, and selling ice all come with a substantial cost in energy and therefore pollution. It’s also true that ice may be as difficult to find as gasoline in the aftermath of a large storm. In 2006 we had to drive a half hour or more to find an open retail store with ice on hand because the area the storms affected was so large. This year we had to go less than a mile to find a convenience store with electrical service intact and plenty of ice on hand. I can imagine a situation where someone with a working generator and a supply of gasoline on hand has more success keeping food cold during a short-term electrical outage than someone relying on coolers who cannot get ice. And ice costs money. We spent about $13 on ice during the outage. Still, for those of us who want or have to live low, we’ll do better to minimize the need for refrigeration than we will to rely on a generator, with coolers and ice as a backup for short-term outages.

How can we minimize the need for refrigeration? I could have canned or dried the strawberries rather than froze them for preservation. I do have a water-bath canner but Mike and I don’t use jam and we both prefer the taste of frozen to canned strawberries. I would have dried rather than frozen the strawberries to preserve them but our food dryer relies on sun rather than electricity to dry food, and we’d not had the needed two sunny days in a row before the storm, nor did we have them while the electricity was out. We could have kept the fermented foods in a crock rather than kept them in bottles in the fridge (we could have canned the fermented foods too but we both like them better fresh). Normally we wouldn’t have had all those pickled beets in the fridge, but we’d been given a 50 pound bag of beets and didn’t want to waste them, so Mike pickled them and we were holding on to them till various friends could pick up their jars. It was our bad luck to have most of them on hand when the tornado occurred. 

Mike and I have gone camping without taking a cooler in the past, so we have minimal experience at living without refrigeration. On those trips we’ve taken foods such as pasta, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and baked goods that don’t need refrigeration, and cooked only as much as we could eat at each meal. Imagining life without refrigeration, we’d keep our fermented foods in the crock and take out only what we need to eat at each meal, cook smaller amounts more often to avoid leftovers during the warm months, dry or can the foods that I now freeze, rearrange the garden to avoid gluts of perishable food to the extent possible, and use natural refrigeration in the winter (coolers kept in the root cellar). Perhaps ice boxes and ice storage and delivery would make a comeback if electricity became unreliable enough for enough people. It wouldn’t be as convenient as having refrigeration, but it could be done.


As I mentioned, we have an electric stove and an electric oven. We also have a number of different non-electric means of cooking, such as a two-burner camp stove, a larger stove that can heat a stock pot, a Weber kettle, a hibachi, and a fire pit in the back yard. The first two require bottled propane, which we have on hand; the next two use charcoal which we also keep on hand; and the third burns wood. We have a solar oven as well. Of all these means to cook the one we used during the outage was the hibachi. We had a lot of leftovers to eat and we chose to eat those cold rather than do much cooking. I think the only cooking Mike did was for breakfast since we nearly always eat eggs and drink coffee and tea then. If it had been sunny we might have used the solar oven to reheat leftovers, but it wasn’t sunny enough for that. If we’d had a means to roast the ham we could have had our friends over for dinner since we could have cooked the corn on one of the propane stoves, but without a way to roast the ham we and our friends agreed it was better to postpone dinner. Our wood pile is uncovered and May brought us an excess of rain, so the wood we had on hand was too wet to burn.

One thing we learned from this experience was that a larger charcoal grill could provide us with more cooking options during an electrical outage. Since then we have bought a larger grill that has room for a 13x9 inch baking pan under half of the grill surface. A week or so later Mike successfully roasted the ham by putting it above the 13x9 pan and placing the charcoal in a basket next to the 13x9 pan, so the ham roasted in the indirect heat. It worked so well that he’s repeated the technique with roasting chickens, to rave reviews. Mike reuses charcoal pieces that did not completely burn so a large bag of charcoal lasts a long time. We also realized we need to build a proper woodshed so that we have dry wood for building cooking fires, and we should have on hand a large number of matches as well as Mike’s refillable lighter and the non-electric fire-starting kits that we keep with our camping supplies. Finally, a sturdy awning roof extending out from the north side of the house would provide a larger, shadier space for cooking and living outside that would be useful if we had no electric service for extended periods of time. We have this planned for next year.


We have a landline with four old-fashioned corded telephones as I discussed in this post. The phone company’s lines power our phones and since the phone lines stayed operational, our phones did as well. For those of us who live low I think this is the best arrangement, though a living-low friend of ours posted a comment about the Magic Jack phone system. That requires a computer as I understand it; see the discussion of computers below for why we stick to the landline. However those of you who plan to keep an operational computer during electric outages might look into it.

Since I wrote that post we were given a small cell phone for which we buy $10 worth of minutes every 90 days. We only use the phone when we are away from home and only turn it on if we need to make a call. If we used it at all during the outage it was only briefly so we did not need to concern ourselves with keeping it charged. If one of the reasons you want a generator is to power your cell phone, consider one of the hand-crank radios that includes provisions for charging small electronics to see if it would suffice to charge your phone. You can find one such radio here; there are most likely others but I haven’t researched it since we don’t need one.

Speaking of radios, as I mentioned we have a tiny, very cheap hand-cranked radio that includes AM, FM, and weather bands. We’ve found this sufficient for our needs, and the weather band provides backup for our larger weather radio (the larger radio has a battery backup but if I leave it on the 9 volt battery drains rapidly, and I often forget to turn it off when the electric service goes out). Retail outlets such as Lehmans carry a number of hand-cranked radio options. If our hand-cranked radio quits working we’ll purchase another one as I think it’s a good idea to be able to hear radio announcements in emergencies.

I suppose you could call television a form of communication, though I don’t care for what it is communicating. In fact we dislike it enough that we don’t have any televisions. Clearly we didn’t miss it since we don’t have it in the first place.

The computer I’m writing this on is a twelve year old desktop computer and we don’t have wireless service, thus we had no computer or internet access during the outage. For those few days it was easy to be without it. Since we had a working radio we had access to any official communications that would need to be made, and we didn’t need to know anything else that passes for news. If we’d wanted to access the internet badly enough we could have gone to any library branch to use their computers. The library computers are our backup strategy for both internet access and general computer use, and not just during an electrical outage. We envision the day, perhaps not too many years from now, that we no longer have internet access, either because our ancient computer’s browser can’t read enough web sites to make internet access useful or because we no longer have a working computer at home. I’ll explain more about this in a future post. For those of you who want to keep a laptop computer battery charged during an electrical outage, it might be worth researching solar or hand-crank charging options.


We must be among the few baby boomers who still have and use the stereo system that we purchased in the 1980s. It requires electricity and thus is unavailable to us when we don’t have electrical service. We don’t consider that a problem, as we both play multiple non-electric musical instruments and can entertain ourselves musically any time we wish. We are also about the only two people in the US who don’t have an eye-device for listening to downloaded tunes. If we want to listen to music on the radio, the hand-cranked radio works for that.


In this post I discussed our system for hand-washing and line-drying clothes. If the electric outage had continued for a few more days I might have hand-washed a load of clothes. But we have enough clothes that we could have gone another week or two before either of us would have needed to wash something to have enough clean clothes to be decent. For as long as clothes are cheap this will work for us and other people. But I’m glad to have the non-electric options for the day when clothing becomes more expensive and harder to get, if that should happen during my lifetime, or if electric service becomes unreliable and/or too expensive.

Heating and cooling

Neither of these was an issue during this outage as temperatures were in the range when we use neither heat nor air conditioning. In this post I offer suggestions on living without air conditioning, many of which work without electricity. If it were hot enough, we’d spend more time in the basement or in a shady place outside if we didn’t have electricity for air conditioning or fan use. At this time our non-electric backups for heating are extra blankets and a kerosene heater with a few gallons of kerosene kept on hand. The kerosene heater would get us through a short-term electrical outage during heating season. Later this year we plan to shop for and have installed a wood stove, as this would provide us with a non-electric means to both heat and cook during cold weather.


We both have multiple flashlights of different sizes and brightnesses. The flashlight I used the most during this outage was a hand-crank LED flashlight that is old enough that one of the LEDs burned out. It’s not my favorite flashlight but it has lasted for several years (good thing as the battery is not user-serviceable). I prefer the metal flashlight that uses two AA batteries, for which I obtained an LED replacement bulb some years ago. The light is really bright and the flashlight itself is very sturdy. But it wasn’t working when the tornado happened. I thought the LED bulb had died, but as it turned out corrosion on the interior of the flashlight had caused electrical problems. I wish I’d asked Mike to check it out before we’d ordered a replacement LED bulb. He cleaned off the corrosion and now the flashlight works again, to my delight. On the other hand, I do have the replacement bulb if it’s ever needed. Of course, this flashlight and others like it that we both have require batteries; that’s fine as long as batteries are easy to get, not good otherwise.

For larger-scale lighting we have the two oil lamps that I mentioned above in the living room, plus several more oil lamps that could be put into service if an electrical outage went long enough or electric service becomes unreliable. We keep some lamp oil on hand, more than enough for a short-term outage. As long as lamp oil is available, we could use these for enough lighting for cooking and such tasks, but our lamps aren’t bright enough to read by. So far we haven’t been without electric service long enough in the winter to want brighter light for reading after sunset, but that’s something we need to consider when electric service reliability becomes more of an issue for us than it is now. I don’t think either of us would be happy to spend several hours each winter evening without being able to read. (No, we don’t have e-readers, and neither of us wants one.)

We also have a camping lantern that is solar-powered. For anyone who doesn’t want to fuss with oil lamps, these are good choices for emergency lighting, so long as the battery is kept charged up. Our lantern hangs from a post in the bathroom, which is quite bright since it has an east-facing window. The lantern stays reasonably well charged and we used it to light the bathroom during the outage, but it might be better if we remembered to put the lantern outside in brighter sunlight on occasion. As a long-term light source I don’t think I’d want to rely on a camping lantern. Batteries don’t last forever, and neither do the compact fluorescent bulbs that ours uses or the LEDs that newer ones use. I think lamp oil and wicks will be available for longer than spare batteries and bulbs for electric lanterns, but I could be wrong about that.

We have candles but did not use them. I tend to think of candles as more of a mood light than a working light. But it might be that farther down the decline curve, beeswax candles take on a bigger role. Beeswax is a renewable energy source that eventually may be more widely available than lamp oil from petroleum (vegetable oils will be needed for cooking). During my lifetime, however, I’m guessing that oil lamps will be a better choice for emergency lighting than candles.

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