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long_way_to_go

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:

Made it to the woodshed
Achievement unlocked

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:

making_the_panels
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:

charger
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.

help
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.

Brian Jepson

I’m a tinkerer and finally reached the point where I fix more things than I break. When I’m not tinkering, I’m probably editing a book for Maker Media.


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Comments

  1. David says:

    Landlines normally provide their own power, one of their advantages (such as audio clarity and reliability). Providing your own power for a land line phone is weird news.

    1. Brian Jepson says:

      Yeah, that was one reason we held off on getting a cable-based or fiber landline replacement for so long. The voice service we get with Verizon FIOS is fiber optic, not copper, so there’s no power on it at all.

    2. ka1axy says:

      If you insist, Verizon has to leave the copper phone line intact. They do everything they can to convince you that’s not the case, but if you force the issue, they have to leave it.

      1. Brian Jepson says:

        It’s true, and we started down that road with them, but the pricing (and spare batteries) won us over. But they sure do push fiber hard—they don’t have to give the CLECs access to that, do they?

  2. Colin says:

    If you have a car charger for your phones you could use it with something like this http://www.amazon.com/Roadpro-Battery-Clip-On-Cigarette-Lighter/dp/B00065L2D8/ and you would be all set to charge your phone without the alternator.

    1. Brian Jepson says:

      Thanks, Colin! It looks like my charger kit actually came with a connector like that one, and I have a charger that should work. It was under my nose the whole time!

  3. Hey. It is very interesting to see how you cope with these blizzards. How cold was it outside? Did you have a big insulation? Greetings from not so cold germany.

    1. Brian Jepson says:

      If I’m doing my math right, the coldest it got outdoors was -12C (10F), and indoors, the coldest it got for us overnight was about 54F (12C).

  4. James says:

    Up in Somerville, we were lucky not to lose power, and over at Artisan’s Asylum we had a huge snow party. Nevertheless, I was ready at my apartment with one of my backpacking stoves, my emergency automotive jumpstarter battery, which is charged and has a 200W inverter.
    You mention that you have natural gas service to your home; an expensive option that would provide lots of stability in these situations would be a natural-gas powered generator. I believe they’ll also run on propane, and so you could have a canister on hand for gas service outages.
    I’m frequently tickled by the idea of rocket mass heaters and stoves, and if you wanted to take the hit for the rest of us and wade through the regulatory challenges of putting such a thing in an existing southern new england home, I would be thrilled to read about it. ;)

    1. Brian Jepson says:

      My neighbor was thinking about the generator option. It’s very tempting, though as you say, it’s not cheap. Still, I wonder hot it compares to cleaning up water damage from a burst pipe.

      I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle the regulatory fun that would come with a rocket mass heater, but it looks very cool. I’m reminded of Jon Udell’s experience putting a wood gasification boiler into his home in New Hampshire, which might prove instructive to anyone contemplating something unusual. Took some work, but he got his permit: http://blog.makezine.com/2009/02/03/central-heating-with-a-wood-gasific.

      1. Jerry Carter says:

        Regarding the potential for burst pipes, whenever we travel in the winter, I shut off the water and open the tap in a sink or two. This allows water to escape should freezing occur and reduces strain on pipes. It also ensures that if you have a pipe burst (which is much less likely with escape provided) it won’t damage your house with serious flood damage.

        1. David says:

          Water pipes in cold country should all tilt to the lowest level and have a drain valve. Toilet bowls can be sponged out as much as possible then flushed with a non-toxic, non-freezing liquid, Turn off power to water heater before draining.

  5. Wes Camp says:

    I feel your pain. I lost power, and heat during Sandy, and was forced to find way to keep every thing going. We were with out for 9 long days. Now not sure how cold it got up in NE but it was in the 30s after that storm. I used every bit of my camping gear, and got a Kerosene heater. Now we keep stock of these items, and all times. The solar panel and power inverter is a great idea, and will look into that.

  6. For the price of a decent solar charging system, you can get a small gas powered generator. Yes, you have to make sure you have gas, but the upside is no need rely on the sun, clear weather, or a clean roof. Plus, if you’ve got gas heat, the generator should have more than enough capacity to run your fan and furnace electronics….and let’s not forget that ultimate first world luxury of hot water.

    I spent about $500 on a 5000 W system and also bought a couple of large gas cans. At 50% load, I could probably run 36 hours straight. If I were to just use what’s necessary to periodically heat the house, make hot water, keep the fridge cold (not necessary in this weather!), and charge things like my FiOS battery and cell phone, I could probably extend that out to a week before I had to worry.