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Just a little while ago, the utility gods smiled upon my house, renewing the electricity, telephone, and internet. Hurricane Irene provided many people an opportunity to examine our cultural commitment to the systems of technology we depend on. Clearly, some people got it worse than others.  We were without our modern amenities for about 48 hours, long enough to regain a healthy appreciation, but not in a way that was actually dangerous.

Thinking back upon my family’s little unplanned techno-vacation, it occurs to me that more things fell into the “Works Fine” category than the “Doesn’t Work” category. There’s also the “Works, but…” category of things that only require adjustments and workarounds. Having things stop functioning provides a great view into the systems that we depend on, how they work, how they fail, and what we can do to either prevent failure or deal with it when it comes our way.

While my wife is thrilled that the freezer full of food will not continue to go soft and squishy, I enjoyed the adventure of rigging the hot water heater to the 12 volt AC inverter in the car and making the shower run hot. I have also had a good time building the road-scored firewood pile that will heat the house on some cold days in the future. My daughter wasn’t so fazed by it, just concerned that her phone’s battery was getting charged each time we went off on some fools’ errand like getting ice to keep our drinks cold.

I’d love you hear how you fared through the storm and what you’ve discovered about your systems. Please post in the comments. Here’s a rundown of what worked and what didn’t in my neck of the woods. :

thesinkworks Hurricane Irene: What Worked, What Didn't?

Worked fine:
The house – It didn’t blow over, get washed away, or otherwise vaporize. This may seem superficial, but there was a lot that worked within the house and its various systems. The design of the house easily withstood the wind and rain. We were safe inside, the windows kept the weather out, while letting light in during the day. We got plenty of ventilation through the various screens. We were able to lock the doors when we left, open them when we returned. The roof kept the water off, and the gutters and downspouts moved it away from the foundation.

The car – Before the storm, I filled the gas tank. It started each time, and the electrical system was extremely useful for charging electronics and powering other things. Good windshield wiper blades and tires were rather handy.

The stove and oven – This is a natural gas range with pilot lights. Its operation was 100 percent normal. It cooked food just like it was supposed to. Over at my parents’ house, they were lighting the burners by hand because the electric igniters had no juice. My neighbors have an electric range, so they were heating the coffee water on the grill.

Utilities that come to the house underground

Running water – We had fresh potable water from every faucet with plenty of pressure. The toilets worked, the shower ran, but was cold. If we wanted to, we could have watered the lawn, but there’s no sense encouraging the lawnmonster.

Natural gas – The stove and oven provided a batch of chocolate chip cookies, coffee, tea, toast, chicken parmesan and a toasted marshmallow or two. With some modifications, we even had hot showers.

Communications systems delivered over the air

Broadcast TV – It probably worked, but there didn’t seem much interest in bringing power to animate that box. The digital TV signal converter runs on 5 volts, so that would have been the easy part. We used to have a 12 volt TV, but that died a while ago. If we really wanted to watch some centrally programmed video, we could have.

Cellphones – Coverage was either pretty good or spotty, depending on what provider and level of service. Voice and SMS seemed to work well on the two carriers we use. Data worked fine on one service, but was completely out for my phone for about six hours in several parts of town that normally have data service. Eventually, it returned and I got to catch up on email.

Radio – FM radio worked throughout the storm both in the car and on portable radio. We didn’t try AM radio. There was one commercial radio announcer who said he was stranded at the station with no relief in sight and was expecting to be on the air for about 20 hours. It sounded like some of my college radio adventures.

The police and municipal radio systems appeared to be working properly each time I saw people depending on it.

Systems that depend on gravity, solar and other natural systems

Solar – The solar hot water heater is sitting in the yard warming up as I write.

Water – Municipal water systems get their pressure by having water stored at a high elevation, charging the system so it flows when we turn on the tap.

Things with batteries

LED flashlights and tea candles – There are a lot of things that run on LEDs these days. The older ones seem to need higher voltage than the newer ones.

Battery powered clocks – Does anybody plug clocks in anymore? Most of ours run on a single AA battery for each timepiece.

Hand cranked radio – We got a fair amount of use from a FreePlay radio that gets its’ electricity source from a crank that tensions a spring which turns a dc motor acting as a generator as the spring unwinds. It’s also got a solar panel, but that doesn’t provide a whole lot of juice. After a decade or so of use, the thing still works surprisingly well.

Solar powered flashlight- Ours sits in the kitchen window waiting for its turn during times like these.

nogrindingcoffee Hurricane Irene: What Worked, What Didn't?

Didn’t work:

Anything that plugs in to the wall outlets.

Anything that is hard wired to the house, especially utilities that run on poles down the street

We had lots of wind damage, and as the trees fell, they got all tangled up in the wires. The utility poles in my area carry electricity, telephone, cable TV and fiber optic lines. When you drop a big old tree across all these systems, they just don’t work the same. Many people are now getting their telephone bundled with their cable and fiber, so there are now three ways to break the phone system.

Telephone and internet – Both of these failed after the storm passed. During the storm, the phone had dial tone and we could call out over an old school phone we keep for power outages. Eventually that stopped functioning, possibly because of the exhaustion of the battery backup that came with the service. Since there was no dial tone and they both come in over fiber optic, I figured the internet was also done for.

Cellphone chargers generally don’t work if you can’t plug them into a live outlet, but several of ours share the same USB port type. One of them only has a plug in charger, which we eventually plugged into the AC inverter in the car.

Laundry machines – These need a combination of electricity, natural gas and heated water. Some of that was available, but not enough to get the clothes clean. There was no trouble drying the towels in the sun, though. We don’t generally do laundry every day anyway.

washingdishes Hurricane Irene: What Worked, What Didn't?

Worked…but:
Keep the fridge closed! Refrigerators and freezers are basically insulated boxes with some cooling systems that run on electricity. Ours doesn’t run on propane like some do, so we kept them closed. The shape of the appliance makes a difference. The fridge and freezer in the kitchen open on the front face. This allows the cold air inside to ‘fall out’ of the interior. While it’s more convenient to get at the things you need, the interior will warm up faster as the cold falls out. The chest freezer in the basement opens on the top, so more of the cold stays in while you hunt for the thing you need. None of this matters much if the walls are not well insulated, though.

The dishwasher turned out to be a pretty good drying rack for the hand washed dishes washed in stove heated water.

The laptops run, but only as long as the batteries work, and only if what you want is on the hard drive. Unfortunately, the one that had the music on it also had the least battery life. The external hard drive I transferred the tunes to is powered by the USB port, so it didn’t need to be plugged in to the wall.

While the shower ran just fine, cold showers are not exactly my cup of tea. There turned out to be two options for a hot shower. Proper planning and a sunny day is handy when using the solar shower. We’ve got one for camping, and it doesn’t see much off vacation use. A full bag of water is just a little awkward to handle, so it’s on a piece of plywood on the wheelbarrow. This lets you move it around to get the best sun. Hoisting it to the height you need for a stand up gravity fed shower requires either a bit of mechanical advantage like a block and tackle or a smooth approach to a retaining wall. The other option was much more entertaining, and required me to replace the AC inverter plug with a new one from the auto parts store. Those guys know how to survive a state of emergency, they even gave me cash back on my purchase.

Don’t drive too far, because the gas stations need electricity to run the pumps and credit card machines. Most of the gas stations were out during and for a day or so after the storm. While I was fully loaded during the storm, after a bit of adventuring, it was time to fill up. The first station that I found had a line, and when I got my turn, the underground storage ran out as I managed to pump 3 1/2 gallons, plenty for my purposes. The next day, I was able to choose between stations and filled up easily.

The most reliable phone charger turned out to be in the car, so we charged while driving.

If the data on my phone had been more consistent, I would definitely have written this on the laptop while getting network access through my tethered phone.

Is that all there is to a disaster?

All in all, the power outage of the past couple of days provided a bit of entertainment and some perspective on which systems we need, and those we use without considering their impact. Generally, we don’t get quite so many power outages as we seemed to have had when I was a kid. It was nice to see what worked and what didn’t. There are many people around the world who don’t have access to sparkling clean drinking water, safe and stable electricity, natural gas piped in, septic systems to take our waste and safe, secure structures to live in. It is also striking that a few dozen well placed falling trees managed to take out the electrical system for so many people in my town. There were a lot of things that could have stopped working that kept on going.

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


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