Like many people in Southern New England, we were hit pretty hard by the Blizzard of 2013. Not only did we lose power for three days, but our road was blocked by fallen trees (cutting our supply lines), and our natural gas heater won’t fire without power, so we had to figure out how to get through those three days. Kind of a mess, but an exciting challenge.
Multi-day power outages are not unusual here, so we’re fairly well prepared. We’ve got a wood stove, 84 watts worth of solar panels (24W of which sat on the roof under a couple feet of snow), and lots of rechargeable batteries.
Keeping Our Dialtone
When the power goes out in our area, cell service becomes a little spotty, but generally works. Still, we’re old-fashioned enough to want to keep a landline, so we don’t like losing our dialtone. Some time ago, we switched to Verizon FIOS, which means that our dialtone is dependent on a constant source of power. Verizon includes a 7.2 Ah 12V battery with the system. Our installer was kind enough to provide us with a couple extra, and I rotate them through the unit once or twice a month so they are topped off. If you don’t have spares, you can find them cheaply enough.
It’s very hard to get Verizon to tell you how long these batteries will last. They say 8 hours, and depending on who you talk to there, that 8 hours is talk time or backup time. For us, each battery lasted a little more than 12 hours on a full charge. That wasn’t going to get us through three days. Fortunately, though these batteries are a little smaller than what you’d use in a normal solar installation, they work just fine with a typical solar charge controller. As you’ll see, the FIOS batteries played a role in our ad-hoc solar power system.
Heating and Cooking
Our stove is electric (note to self: look into a gas stove), so it was out. And our gas furnace won’t fire without electricity. So if it wasn’t for our wood stove, we would have been very cold (at one point during the outage, the temperature outside dropped to 10 degrees F overnight).
The wood stove made it possible to stay home and stay somewhat comfortable. By the middle of each day, we were able to get the house up to 61 degrees F, which is respectable, even if a multiple sweater situation.
To keep that wood stove going, we had to get to the wood shed (we’d stacked a bunch of wood on the porch as the storm was approaching, but we went through it fast). And since our road was blocked, shoveling the driveway wasn’t the top priority… shoveling a path to the wood shed was:
For cooking, we had set up our camping stove, but quickly realized that our wood stove was plenty hot for our cooking needs. Our cast iron pans worked great on top of it. I could even boil water for coffee on it. Unfortunately, I had run out of filters for my Chemex (old school pourover coffee maker), so I poured the hot water into my drip maker (though I probably would have been happy with some freeze-dried Taster’s Choice).
Keeping Those Gadgets Charged
Many years ago, I bought a modest solar power system—a small panel and portable power pack—and installed it on my roof. I’ve since replaced the Xantrex power pack with a Duracell one, but it worked well: we managed to fully charge a laptop and each of our two phones at least once on the power that was sitting in the power pack. Unfortunately, the panel was buried under a couple feet of snow. Given how cold the house was, we didn’t want to open up the window to reach out onto the roof to shovel it off until it warmed up on Monday, which turned out to be the last day of the outage.
After Hurricane Irene, where we lost power for two and a half days, I bought a 60 watt solar charging kit from Amazon for around $250. I thought about deploying it during Hurricane Sandy, but we were one of the lucky few to not lose power. But with my FIOS batteries, cell phones, and computers all draining, I figured this was the right time to set it up:
The frame; there are four panels in all
The kit included four panels, a PVC frame, a generous supply of wiring (including a 12 foot extension cable for the panel power connection), a charge controller, and an inverter.
It wasn’t too hard to assemble. Most of the work was putting together the PVC frame, and running the wires. I decided to put the battery, charge controller, and inverter on the back deck, and snaked the wire out through a cat door:
In through the cat door
It worked great; I had to go out periodically and rotate the panels to point at the sun, though. The system gave us enough power to keep the FIOS batteries topped off and our cell phones charged. It took at least a day to charge a depleted battery—I kept it hooked up overnight and let it top off through part of the next day just to be sure. And we were able to charge cell phones while it was charging the battery. I eventually switched to the most efficient charger I had, and it was during this time that I learned about the efficiency protocols for chargers (PDF warning). I found I had a Level V micro USB charger and started using that one instead of the one shown in the photo. If I could find (or make) a good ~12V->5V adapter, I could probably get some more efficiency by eliminating the inverter.
The cavalry has arrived!
And just a noisily as the storm had arrived, the end of the saga came to a close with a lot of activity Monday evening. Four or five bucket trucks from National Grid and other electric companies were lined up along our street. Our power outage couldn’t be solved by replacing a feeder line or restringing a wire. Our utility pole had been split, and our transformer was down and leaking oil. So our repair was a complicated affair: they had to remove the old pole, drill out the hole, install a new pole and transformer, and hook up all the lines.
As much fun as it was to figure out how to keep warm, fed, and charged up during the outage, we were happy and grateful when our power was restored!
That’s how we made it through the storm and its aftermath. I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.