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How the Unprepared Survival Council Prepares for Power Outages
How our panel of preparedness experts are preparing for an increasingly unstable power grid.
We warned you back in May that power outages would be rampant this summer, and we weren’t kidding! Thousands have been without power in the Midwest this week, thousands more without power in Texas, and thousands in North Dakota. Washington Governor Jay Inslee is warning of “blackouts, destruction, and death.”
We’ve covered ways to prepare for power outages, like building a cheap blackout kit, but we decided to put the question to our Summer Survival Council this week, and they gave us some unique answers. How about taking a day per year to live without power? Or installing a solar water heater? Read for their innovative solutions.
But before we introduce this week’s panel, I’d like to take a minute to ask you to support Unprepared. We gave you a heads up on this summer’s electricity crisis. We warned you that the war in Ukraine was going to jack up your food and fuel bills. Whatever’s coming down the pike, we’re on top of it, and more importantly, we tell you how to get ready. We’re here to help you through the hard times, but we can’t do it without your support:
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Catch up with other entries in this series:
This Week’s Panelists
Ashley Colby is an environmental sociologist who lives with her family on a homestead in Colonia, Uruguay where she runs study abroad programs for Rizoma Field School. She also organizes online classes for adults like Homesteading 101 and Homeschooling 101 via her Rizoma School Gumroad. Ashley co-founded Doomer Optimism, a podcast and Substack that explores topics like homesteading, regeneration work, and preparedness. You can follow her on Twitter @rizomaschool.
Dave is a former Navy SEAL (but not the kind who thinks that makes him cool) and aspiring homesteader. He and his family live in an old schoolhouse in the Pacific Northwest where they garden, care for a small orchard, and raise chickens. Say hi to Dave on Twitter, where he is @aspiringpeasant.
Hamilton is a tradesman, father of three, and homesteader in the Missouri Ozarks. With over a decade of vegetable-gardening experience, he recently expanded to a broad-acre farm operation with animals including chickens, geese, and pigs. Follow him on Twitter @Watchman_motto.
Joseph (Homestead Padre) has been homesteading for over a decade and specializes in small-space homesteading and intensive gardening systems. He is married with three children, one grown, and is co-owner of The Smith Homestead with his wife Melody. He also owns a cottage food bakery out of his home, servicing his local community with homemade and artesian breads.
Nicole Sauce of LivingFreeinTennessee.com has run a homestead for a decade and a half, roasts great coffee at HollerRoast.com, and runs workshops on self-reliance and homesteading (SelfRelianceFestival.com). Her book Cook With What You Have helps folks learn to do just that, and she coaches people through development of a step-wise plan for building an independent, stable lifestyle including income generation, choosing the city or the country, preparedness, and lifestyle balance.
Patrick Fitzgerald: Patrick is an American teacher from a city who now lives in a rural area of western Uruguay in South America. With wife/sociologist Ashley, he started Rizoma Field School in 2017 to promote and study resilient, sustainable practices and livelihoods. He is particularly interested in agroecology, disaster preparedness, and informal community building (aka being a good friend and neighbor). You can follow him on Twitter @RizomaAt.
Tom Rader was the Managing Editor for The Prepared and former Editor in Chief of The Firearm Blog. He travels all over the country in a self-sufficient overland vehicle teaching wilderness medicine, tactical things, off-road recovery and driving, and other outdoor-related subjects. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram.
Answers from the Panel
Here’s how our panel prepares for power outages.
Two winters ago we had one of the Pacific Northwest’s worst ice storms in living memory. We live 30+ minutes from the city in a low-density rural area (our neighbors are horses and an old dairy). When the power went out and we were on the absolute bottom of the priority list, we learned how unprepared we were.
We’re on a well, which needs a pump, which needs electricity. No electricity meant no running water. I could live the rest of my life without electricity, but having to melt pots of snow on the wood stove in order to flush toilets was not super fun. We had plenty of drinking water stocked up (two 55-gallon barrels in the basement), so we were never in any danger, but running water would’ve turned the whole thing from “ordeal” into “vacation from email”.
We also had two chest-freezers full of meat we had to keep frozen. Luckily I had a small Goal-Zero solar/battery setup that could keep one freezer running at a time. So I alternated which freezer was hooked up to the battery.
This is a good time to point out that if our freezers had been upright units instead of chest freezers I think we would have been in far worse shape. The fact that I could leave a chest freezer unpowered for two days and not have anything thaw was key.
After the ice storm we made some real improvements for the next time. Helpful context for why we made the choices we did: we are not staying in this house for much longer. I made decisions based on a 2-3 year timeline and not a 10 or 50 year timeline.
We got the best portable tri-fuel generator available at Costco. We upgraded our electrical panels to accept a generator and put a generator hookup outside. We also split the existing natural gas line and put a hookup for that next to the generator hookup.
We picked a tri-fuel generator because I already had a natural gas line, but also wanted the flexibility to run the house on propane if we needed to.
I did a test run and could run the freezers, the refrigerator, some lights, the well pump, and (hooray!) the hot water heater. Win.
If this was our forever home, however, I would have gone about this differently:
I would have built a small water tower (for gravity-fed water pressure) and filled it using a small wind turbine pump.
I would put in a manual pump on the well just in case — because I’m uncomfortable relying on any external energy for life’s most important resource.
I’d build in redundancies for hot water: solar hot water, copper coils around the wood-stove, etc.
I’d have composting toilets (not flush) because flush toilets are a scam that only makes sense in a strictly urban setting. In every other setting, they take two resources (manure and fresh water) and turn them into a biohazard.
But since we’re planning to move ASAP, it made more sense to do the slightly more normal thing. I’m pretty sure that we won’t have a near-term catastrophic failure of both the electrical grid and the natural gas supply here *at the same time* so this seems like a reasonable compromise.
Eventually, though, that could happen. And at our final place we’ll be ready for it.
A couple of years ago, on New Year's Day, we woke up to no electricity. So we decided to make it a tradition that every New Year's Day we spend the day without power.
And for years before we had kids, we would go on some long backpacking and canoeing trips, where you definitely don't have power, and you have to adjust to your environment while carrying everything you need on your back.
As far as preps go, we don't have much for dealing with life without electricity. It's always a bottom priority with everything else we need first. However, we do have a case of some crazy 72-hour-long burn candles. We keep plenty of salt for meat preservation, we have a manual clothes washer, and we heat primarily with firewood, but that's about it.
If our budget was endless, I would outfit the house with enough solar to power the fridge, freezer, dryer, and lights. We currently cook with a manual gas stove, so no power is required, but I would definitely get one of these hybrid wood/electric stoves if I had the means.
When there's a power outage, being without electricity always seems strange and hard to adjust to… for maybe 2 hours. By then, I usually stop trying to turn on the lights. And if it's after dark, we light some candles and enjoy conversation, cards, board games, booze, etc.
It's all in your mindset. And I've always said it's not necessarily the quality or amount of your preps that counts, but your ability to adjust to circumstance. Learning, as we did, how to sleep on the ground in a tent in the snow, how to handle drying all your clothes after walking through the rain for 8 hours, or how to get enough protein when raccoons get to your food bag at night, it all counts toward preparing for a powerless world.
I don't think I would ever be able to live in that way without missing the convenience that I've known my whole life. But honestly, I would sincerely enjoy the challenge.
May one day the lights go out forever. (After we all are ready, of course)
Joseph (Homestead Padre)
Here at our farm, the only solar panel we have is for our electric fence and a few hiking panels that clip to a backpack to recharge our phones.
While we are saving for a solar-powered generator, we aren't quite there yet and a standard generator is very expensive down here. Hurricane country makes that a high-demand item.
So we’ve added two more 275-gallon IBC totes to the farm. One for drinking water and one for sanitation needs. Keeping those full and treated keeps a 550-gallon reserve on hand.
Other than for air conditioning and our well pump, we do not have much need for electricity and have already been in the practice of lighting by candlelight after dark.
On top of that, we always maintain 3/4 or more in the gas tanks for hurricane preparedness so pumps being down isn't a huge deal for us, at least not for about a week.
We also keep four tanks of propane at all times. Again, hurricane preparedness. That easily covers our cooking needs and if we run out, I have plenty of hardwood stocked up, I can fire up the grill or smoker and cook that way.
My advice for anyone starting out or trying to find a routine would be to begin reducing your need for electricity while you have it, and it won't be that big of a deal when it's gone.
(Picture is of my living room on any given night)
Rumors of rolling brownouts have not made us adjust our blackout kits or plans. This is merely a result of living so rurally that the power goes out regularly which means we already have them.
Here is a three-level approach to preparing for power outages.
1. Do free/cheap things first:
Go in cold (or warm) — In summer, having your fridges, freezers, and home cool before an outage will help make a temporary outage more pleasant.
Go in full — Make sure your car is topped off (portable ac anyone?), and other fuel stores are also at the ready. There are many uses for propane, cellphone batteries or battery backups, gasoline, and even lamp oil that you may find useful in longer power outages.
Have cash available — ATM machines, credit card processors and the like will not work without power. 'Nuff said.
Create thermal batteries in your refrigerators and freezers — Your fridge and freezer will stay cool a long time if you do not open them, fill empty spaces with jugs of water to make thermal batteries, and use blankets to insulate them. It is quite important, however, to remove any insulative items when the power comes back on as blocking the vents can cause the appliance to break. The jugs of water in the freezer's empty spaces will help keep the rest of your items at or around 32 degrees if the freezer is without power.
One thing that we do here in an outage is use a separate cooler to keep things that we use all day like half and half, cheese, etc. I will plan what to remove from the fridge, open the door and grab the item quickly, then eat from the cooler throughout the day leaving the fridge door securely closed so that fewer items go bad.
Have 101-level blackout kits ready — You probably already have flashlights and perhaps even a camping lantern. Keep your flashlights in places that are easy to get to throughout the house in case of a sudden nighttime outage. With a flashlight in hand, you can easily take any other steps necessary to weather a brownout.
Know your alternative cooking, heating, cooling, and recharging options — Nothing is sadder than watching Holler Roast customers bemoan the lack of coffee on a power-free morning. I will often comment to them: "How do you make coffee when camping?" More than one has happily posted their morning mug shortly thereafter. Most homes have multiple ways to cook: an outdoor grill, camp stove, or firepit. Know what you have and plan meals, cleaning water, etc., around what you already have the capacity to do. This is another reason to keep your fuel sources, like propane, topped off.
Have alternative ways to heat or cool yourself — Like a wood stove, kerosene heaters, propane heaters, a cooling creek nearby, a kiddie pool, use the car as a portable air conditioner, etc.
2. Expand plans to cover longer outages — learn to power things off-grid:
You can add an inverter to your car to make it function like a generator for about $150.
Off brand-name generators are cheap and they go on sale. If you buy one, test it once a month and learn how to maintain it or it will not be there for you when you need it.
Fridges and freezers need only be turned on a few hours per day if you use a generator. While generators are running, top off all device batteries and battery backup bricks. At the Holler Homestead, our water systems do not work without power so we will fire up the genny and take a daily shower while cooling all the fridges, pulling food for the “daily cooler,” charging devices, and handling Internet things.
Did you know there are lightbulbs that function as normal but have a built-in battery backup, which makes things function as normal when electricity is off?
Also important: write a family or community standard operating procedure for power outages and test it out.
One thing that we do well in the Holler is handle outages as a community. If the power goes out, we find out why. If we think it will be a long-term outage, we center operations at my house (meals, etc.). I begin insulating the fridges and freezers, while my neighbors bring out the generator and runs cords to various things. Next, we meet to plan out when we will run the generator so that everyone can get showers, we can plan and pull food for meals, dishes can be washed with running water, devices charged, communications handled, etc. If it looks like a very long-term outage, we will set up the outdoor camping kitchen in the summer, or move meal cooking to the woodstove in winter.
3. Get off-grid — this may sound flippant but it’s not meant to be so. My friends with off-grid homes don't notice brownouts. What that means for we normal folks is to begin thinking of ways to have what we want off-grid. Some examples:
A. I added a solar water heater to my system to save on propane costs. In summer, in a power outage, I have hot water from 11-4 pm or so without adding propane.
B. If you have a gas stove, consider adding a solar panel to run the computer in it. In an outage, you can then use the oven during daylight.
C. There are many battery-powered devices that can make you more comfortable. Fans come to mind for summertime — just keep them charged.
Power outages are — across the board — one of the most likely things to happen throughout the year. Most power outages last a few hours, some a few days, and very rarely will a power outage last a few weeks or months. Start by preparing for a few hours, a day, a few days, and you will be ready for a longer one should it happen.
Power outages are far more common in our area [Uruguay] than in much of the United States but that may not be the case this summer! We also have the added detail of having our transformer beyond a creek that sometimes floods when there are powerful storms. so even though the power company came to restore our service, they could not physically reach the connection point, and so we had to wait 50 hours for the lights to come back on. Luckily, our first line of defense — a gas generator — almost always gives us enough slack to keep the fridge and freezer going, and let us be able to see at night.
If you leave a generator on for 90 minutes, you can then turn it off for around 3-4 hours without detrimental effects on your frozen and refrigerated goods.
I strongly recommend learning how to perform basic maintenance on generators as some problems are common and near-certain: old fuel, gunked-up carburetors, old spark plug, dirty air filters, and low or old oil.
Having a switch that can easily change your home's service from grid to generator is one thing that I feel very fortunate to have. This requires a professional electrician to install but I think it is well worth it if you don't already have it.
Additionally, bottling your own backup tap water is a good idea if your water comes from an electrically pumped well, though even municipal water can have issues when there are power outages.
And finally, it probably goes without saying but I'm gonna say it anyway: Candles, candles, candles, flashlights, flashlights, flashlights, batteries, batteries, batteries. Not to mention solar-powered lamps, emergency radios with cranks, and LED USB rechargeable lamps/light strips.
GOOD LUCK OUT THERE IN THE DARK YA'LL
Patrick covered a lot of our plan in his response, so I will just add this: consider having a non-electrical version of essential systems. For example, we do not require electricity to heat our home. We have a wood stove that can heat the whole house, even on the coldest nights. We have a backup split ac/heater, but we do not need to use it to stay warm. We also have a solar water heater with a backup electrical heater on days where we lack sun. If our power is out, we can heat up water on the gas range stove or on top of the wood stove and take a bucket shower if we need to. When we first moved into our home we went six weeks without any power or water, so in that time we built out a few systems we can fall back on when power fails. It might help to run such a simulation for yourself. You'd be surprised by the psychological resilience you gain from going without, you learn that it's not so difficult to live without many of the comforts and conveniences as much as you once thought.
Once again, my overlanding setup is uniquely set up for this eventuality. I maintain a separate solar power system which charges accessory batteries (two Odyessy Extreme deep cycles, and a Goal Zero Yeti 1000X) in my truck. This allows me to run a 12v fridge/freezer, and charge any number of devices. In New Mexico, we have plenty of sun which aids this.
Additionally, I maintain a couple of ALP Next Gen Propane Generators. This allows me to run our house chest freezer for quite some time on 20-pound propane tanks (we have a few since we use them with our trailer and at home).
I honestly haven't had to beef up anything beyond my normal kit since, when off-road, I live the “blackout” life anyway. Most of my electronic gear has been selected for energy efficiency and I can easily cut out luxury electronics in favor of food storage and necessities.