Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The 47 hour learning experience



The weather headlines this summer have been about heat, heat, and more heat. But it hasn’t been hot everywhere, and one of the places where it hasn’t been particularly hot is where I live. Which is not to say that summer weather has been uneventful.


We often found ourselves on the northern periphery of the heat bubble that affected the southern tier of states during most of the summer. At times the mixing of hot and moist air with cooler, drier air resulted in outbreaks of severe thunderstorms along portions of the periphery. We’ve experienced four of them so far, on June 1, July 1, July 14, and July 29. Each time we lost electrical service as a result of downed electrical lines. Living in an area with overhead lines and many large old trees, any episode of high winds brings down limbs and sometimes entire trees onto the lines, cutting off electrical service for some people. We’ve become accustomed to losing electrical service during severe thunderstorms. Usually it remain off for a few hours, and we have a routine established for such short-term outages. But the damages in our area from the July 14th storm were so severe that it took our electrical utility 47 hours to restore our electrical service. We were without electricity from about 7:30pm on the 14th to about 6:30pm on the 16th. The photo above shows one reason for our loss of electricity: two houses up the street to the west, a trunk of a silver maple tree fell on the overhead electrical lines and across the full width of our narrow, two lane, low traffic street.


The last time our electricity had been out for so long was in 2006, following two severe thunderstorms about 36 hours apart. We had no electricity for 6 days after the second storm. What we learned then had already been incorporated into our power-out routine. To make things easier, our nearest grocery store and some of the local gas stations installed generators as a result of the 2006 storms, so we could readily obtain ice and groceries after this storm. But I hadn’t fully accounted for another change since 2006, which came to the forefront during this 47 hour outage.


In this post I’ll discuss how we fared during the recent outage and what we learned for the next one – because there will be a next one, and another, and another. That’s what decline looks like. I hope you can learn something from our experience that helps you the next time an electrical outage happens to you.


Air conditioning


Most of the people we told about our 47 hour outage expressed the most discomfort about not having air conditioning during that time. For us, that was the least of our concerns.


Granted, the few days before and including the day of the storm featured some of the hottest and most humid weather we’ve had this summer. We had our air conditioning on, set at 80F as we prefer, when the storm hit. Along with the high winds, we received about 2.3 inches of rain.


Rain cools the air. Immediately following the thunderstorm, the temperature dropped from the upper 80sF to the low 70sF. We responded by opening the windows to let in the cooler air. It was more humid air than the air in the house, but by living our lives in the house, we raise the humidity just by breathing. With all of the windows open wide, we cooled the house enough to sleep comfortably that night.


As we always do in the summer to minimize air conditioner usage, we left the windows open the next two mornings until the temperature rose outside to above the interior temperature, then closed them. In the evenings, after the outside temperature dropped below the inside temperature, we opened the windows again. Two other improvements to the house that we’ve made over the years, sealing against air leaks and adding insulation in 2005 and new windows last year, combined with the strategic opening and closing of the windows, kept the temperature inside the house at 76 to 78F. It helped that the weather cooled off as well, with highs of 89F and 92F on the 15th and the 16th. Even if we hadn’t lost electricity, we would not have run the air conditioner after the rain cooled the air, nor did we turn it back on after our electrical service was restored. We spent most of the two days of the outage, as we do during the warmer months of the year, on the roomy and breezy back porch rather than in the house.




We have collected quite a few sources of off the grid lighting over the years, which we employed during the hour or so we were awake in the evenings after the sun went down. Among these are two oil lamps that sit on the low shelf separating the two largest rooms in the house; multiple flashlights, including the one on a headband that I use for reading and seeing my way around the house during outages; and a candle for light in the bathroom. We have two battery-powered lanterns as well (we keep their batteries sitting next to them so they don’t corrode and install the batteries only when we put them to use), but with it being summer the days were long enough that we didn’t need to employ them. We ate meals on the back porch instead of in the kitchen as we usually do, because it was brighter on the porch.




With scattered severe thunderstorms predicted for the evening of the 14th, we chose to eat dinner earlier than usual so that any leftovers would be in the refrigerator and cooling down if not already cooled before a storm hit. After the storm, we implemented our don’t-open-the-fridge rule to keep the contents cool enough that we wouldn’t need to worry about them until the next morning.


I know that “experts” claim that the food in refrigerators only stays cool enough for safety for 4 hours. Let me unpack what I think are the factors that go into that advice.


First, it seems likely that the “experts” expect someone in the house to open the refrigerator door at least once, if not more than once, during that four hours. Opening the door lets some of the cold air out, replacing it with room-temperature air. If no one opens the door, this exchange of air takes place much more slowly, allowing the contents to stay safely cool for a longer period, especially if the contents are all at refrigerator temperature at the time the electricity goes out. That’s why we keep aware of our local weather and the local NWS weather radar when severe weather is predicted, and why we always eat any meal that we would normally eat around the time of expected severe weather well before that time, so that we can keep the refrigerator closed for several hours in case of an electrical outage.


Second, the “experts” most likely have lawyers advising them. Lawyers are paid to be risk-averse and advise their clients accordingly. I am NOT advising you to do what we do! We are willing to take some risks as long as careful thought suggests that for us the risk is minimal. All readers need to assess their own situations carefully and act accordingly.


The next morning, the electricity was still off. I checked for news about the outage on the emergency radio because we don’t have internet service when the electricity is out and neither Mike nor I have a data plan on our cell phones (more on this in the communications section). The brief local news report on the major local FM station didn’t mention the outage, suggesting it was restricted to a relatively small area, but a look at our street showed that nothing had changed since the night before. We began to suspect that we might not have electricity for at least several more hours and that it was time to get some ice and transfer the contents of the fridge to coolers. After visiting a local donut store for donuts and hot coffee and tea, allowing us to add some charge to our cell phones (see the communications section), we bought ice and transferred all the food that needed continued cooling into coolers with ice. We left cheese, butter, and the garden vegetables in the fridge since they didn’t require being cooled to stay safe. We transferred the food in the freezer compartment to the chest freezer along with another bag of ice to keep the food in it from thawing. Having done this, we could eat from the foods in the cooler as well as the various canned foods and the pretzels and crackers that we keep for eating during shorter-term outages when we aren’t opening the refrigerator.


On the 16th, when electrical service still hadn’t been restored, we emptied the bag of ice in the chest freezer into the coolers and bought two more bags of ice, which we put in the freezer unopened to keep it cool. If the electricity hadn’t been restored by the morning of the 17th, we would have considered getting dry ice for the freezer, but we hoped that wouldn’t be necessary. We would have then used the ice in the freezer for the coolers. After the electricity came on in the evening of the 16th, the bags of ice in the freezer became available for future electrical outages – and we used one of them during the outage on the 29th, because the electricity had already been out for about 5 hours before we went to bed. The second bag is still in the chest freezer, ready for whenever we next need ice.




We have an electric stove so we couldn’t use it during the outage, but we also have several means to cook food without electricity. Had the weather been sunny I would have employed the sun oven to heat water for tea and coffee and to heat foods from the cooler as desired, but conditions were too cloudy for its use. We could have heated water or leftovers or cooked on the propane grill or the charcoal grill, but as it turned out, we didn’t do this. Instead, we got tea and coffee from the donut store and a local gas station, ate out the evening of the 15th, and got a rotisserie chicken the late afternoon of the 16th from the local grocery store because I wanted to eat hot rather than cold food for dinner. Otherwise we ate leftovers out of the coolers.


Next time, we’ll do more to employ non-electric sources of heat for cooking, as I am not fond of a continued diet of cold foods, and meals out are increasingly expensive.




This was our biggest challenge during this outage.


In 2006, while we lost internet service once the battery backup lost charge, we retained landline service because the phone was hard-wired into the phone network. Neither of us had cell phones then. Not having internet service wasn’t a big issue, as our service was slow and used primarily for email, which we could check on the computers at the library.


For several years our battery backup module for internet service has been inoperable, probably due to failure of the battery inside. We knew where we could take our unit to get the battery replaced. We just hadn’t done it and accepted the loss of internet during electrical outages, knowing that if we really want or need service, we can take our computers to the library to read and respond to email and to read some of the websites we frequent. I’m a reader rather than a video watcher and I always have multiple projects in progress that don’t depend on the internet, so I’m never bored. Mike likes to watch short videos on the net but he likes to read as well, and we play our own music rather than listen to others play music. In short, we enjoy internet but don’t require it to make our lives bearable, and we have more than enough to do when it isn’t available.


On the other hand, since most of our electrical outages are for less than 8 hours, and because our electrical utility forces us to stay abreast with information on outages through its website, it would be good to have the battery backup module working again. I’ll take our old module in for battery replacement soon.


We still have the landline phone but now it’s connected to the fiberoptic system and we supply the electricity to run it, so it is inoperative during electrical outages. Our cell phones work during outages – as long as they are charged. Our standard procedure when severe weather threatens is to charge up our cell phones well before severe weather hits. But I neglected to charge my phone before this storm. That was a mistake, as I had less than two days’ worth of charge on my phone when the electricity went out.


Mike wasn’t as affected by the lack of electricity for charging his phone, because he could take advantage of one of our alternative means to charge the phones, via an adapter to charge it from the car battery. He had two events at the Zen center he belongs to, and it’s far enough from us that he could get a good charge on his phone by driving to and from the Zen center. However, the only riding in the car that I did was on much shorter drives that did little to charge my phone. My only alternative was to limit phone time. Even then, my phone dropped to near zero charge before the electricity came back on.


Our other alternative means to charge the phone is from our emergency radio, which has three different ways to power its internal rechargeable batteries: solar cells, a hand-cranking system, and an AC adapter to charge it from our electrical service. It has an adapter with a USB port on one end and a jack into the radio on the other for charging cell phones. It also accepts three AA batteries, so it doesn’t need to use the rechargeable batteries for radio service. We got the radio in 2016, when we were still relying more on the landline phone than our cell phones, primarily for its function as a receiver of FM, AM, and weather broadcasts when we don’t have electricity. While I knew it could be used to charge our cell phones, I hadn’t tried to do so.


When I realized that my cell phone didn’t have enough reserve charge to remain usable through the expected length of this outage, I remembered that in theory I could charge it from the radio. But I didn’t remember where I had stored the adapter for that purpose, and I began to fear I’d lost it. Even if I had found it, the rechargeable batteries would not have had enough charge to add much charge to my cell phone.


Earlier this month, I consulted the website for the radio’s manufacturer and discovered, much to my relief, that the cell phone charging adapter was offered for sale as a replacement part. I promptly ordered one. Then, before it arrived, I got it in mind to look again for the adapter and discovered it in the tray of a desk drawer, hidden under a pile of rubber bands. So now we have two adapters. In the meantime, I found the manual for the radio and read it more closely, learning that the AC adapter would charge the rechargeable batteries more quickly than either the solar cells or the hand crank. The AC adapter doesn’t come with the radio but it can be purchased from the same website. After checking our collection of spare AC adapters and not finding a suitable version, I ordered the AC adapter from the website. It’s arrived and I’ve charged the internal battery with it. I also found a small cloth bag to keep the cell phone adapters and the AC adapter in and put the bag next to the radio, so we can find them the next time we want them. When the cell phone next needs charging, I’ll try charging it from the radio.


The other issue I may address is the lack of a data plan on both of our cell phones. Mike has an Android smartphone but doesn’t have a data plan with it, so he can only talk or text during electrical outages. I have a flip phone that doesn’t have a data plan option, so I can also only talk or text in that situation. I’m considering upgrading to the smartphone and data plan that my provider offers, because it would be helpful to have the ability to access our electrical utility’s website during electrical outages.


I hope you all enjoy the rest of summer (or winter if you are reading from the southern hemisphere)! I expect the next post to be a quick update on this year’s garden.


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