adapting to winter power outage

Adapting To Winter Power Outage When Away From Home At Another House

A short story of adapting to the situation of a power outage while visiting and overnighting at another home for a few days. Maybe some lessons learned…

Mrs. J and I spent several days leading up to Christmas at the home of a good friend. As many of you know (and likely experienced), there was a major storm that blew in for much of the country with extreme cold, very high winds, and snow. Well, when it finally reached us here in New Hampshire, the worst part for us was the wind (and subsequent cold). It was wild. Very high winds. Trees down. And, yes as expected, the power went out. And stayed out.

The house is heated by an oil fueled furnace / forced-air system. The power went out, so there was no heat. And it’s wicked cold outside.

The home is located on the edge of a lake, which is the water supply – via a pump and inline filtration. The power went out, so there would be no water pressure once the pressure-tank emptied.

There were four adults, two kids, and one dog in the house. The essentials? Somehow we all needed to keep relatively warm, we needed to eat and drink, and we needed to use ‘the facilities’ from time to time.

So, what to do?

First, the assessment. How long might the power be out? The storm was widely publicized and forecast all over the country, so I knew the damage was far-and-wide (the winds!). A huge number of people were being affected. Therefore, logically, it would likely be some time before power would be restored. The cell towers were still functioning, so having checked the power company outage map, it was quite apparent as to the major extent. Time to hunker down and adapt to the necessities.

I vocalized that no one should open the refrigerator or freezer doors. And at least for now, no one flush the toilet. If you need to go #1, that’s fine for now, but don’t flush. Hold off on #2 unless absolutely necessary (and yes, flush it down). However there’s probably only a number of flushes available, given the holding capacity of a typical well holding tank.

I went outside and entered the (bend over) crawl space under the house to have a look at the water pump situation. I couldn’t believe my eyes… Luckily (and unusually) the pump was 120-volt (usually they’re 240 and direct wired into the electrical system). And, the power cord was simply plugged in to a standard receptacle – meaning that I could potentially use the generator to recharge the pressure tank when needed (got lucky on that one!). Later, I discovered the pressure tank and hi/low set-point adjustments were apparently not set right (or malfunctioning) – with only enough water capacity/pressure for maybe two flushes per charge cycle.

Drinking water. There’s a Travel Berkey on the counter filled with water (because it’s from the lake – albeit filtered at the pump). There’s a lake full of water if we need it, and it’s right there (though we didn’t need to collect any). A case of bottled water on hand, sodas and various drinks, as well as a supply of adult beverages (grin).

Food. Being the Christmas season, there were plenty of various sweets and baked goods on hand! Bread and peanut butter too (grin). A pantry with a typical supply of various snacks/foods to eat – heavy on the snacks because there are kids in the house :=) But what about when it’s dinner time? PB & J? Nah… How about some real food? What about using the grill out on the deck? Are you kidding me? It’s blowing 60 mph out there and freezing cold! Instead, we’ll get something else figured out.

Lights. On hand there was a nice LED lantern, a bright LED MAG-LITE, and a decent headlamp. Plenty of spare batteries. I had a flashlight with me too as part of what I always take with me on a trip.

Portable generator. Fortunately she has a 5,000 watt Generac on wheels in the garage. Fortunately and coincidentally, I had checked it out for her when we visited last. It was empty at the time, as well as the gas can. I had gotten some gas and ran the generator to be sure it worked. Found a decent heavy duty extension cord at the ready. Now, a number of weeks later, it’s a good thing we had some gas and a functioning generator at the ready!

So, what could I use the generator for? There’s no transfer switch at the house. So we’re talking about strictly an extension cord through a window to whatever appliance(s) may accept it. Wheeled the unit down to the house near the kitchen window. Ran extension cord through the slightly opened window and stuffed a bath towel in the crack to keep the wind and cold out.

Since it was getting colder inside, we all put on warm clothes, sweaters, etc.. A portable indoor propane-fueled ‘Buddy Heater’ would have been perfect for this emergency. However, lets put on our thinking caps. There’s a toaster oven on the counter. So I plugged it into the genny, opened the toaster oven door, and set to ‘Bake’ at 350. Surprisingly, it did slow down the rate of temperature drop, and we could go over and put our hands in front to warm them a bit. (I did unplug it when we went to bed for the night, along with the generator).

So, what’s for dinner? Hmmm… There was a bag of frozen chicken nuggets in the freezer. That sounds pretty good… But how to cook them (the house has an electric stove, so that’s not going to work). Well, she’s got an Air Fryer, so let’s plug it into the generator extension cord too! Though likely at the cord’s limit along with the toaster oven, the Generac barely moaned upon the additional load. Those chicken nuggets tasted extra good – just like camping.

It was Friday night, and we had planned to all open presents together, given our varying schedules for Christmas. We found a decent power-strip and household extension cords, so I plugged in a portable lamp by the Christmas tree. Between that and flashlights, we all opened our presents. It was fun – the kids probably won’t forget this particular Christmas, given we were ‘camping’ indoors.

Eventually it was time for bed… In addition to as many blankets we could muster, she had three sleeping bags which were added to the ‘keep warm’ pile. After the adults played cards till about midnight, the generator was shut down and we hoped for the best by morning.

The household woke up around 6:30AM. Still no power. It was cccold. Was it 49 or was it 50 inside? Well outside it was about 10 and still wildly windy – so what’s to complain about, right? Time to fire up the generator and toaster oven again! And, more importantly, plug in the coffee maker and get some brew going!

We pulled out the refrigerator/freezer from its enclosure and plugged it in to the generator for an hour or thereabouts.

Okay I could go on with the story, or elaborate more, but that’s not really the point I want to make. I thought I would present this (true) story in order to preface a few general recommendations for preparedness.

Lessons Learned

Things I could have done better. I knew there was a potentially very windy storm coming (before I left home). And that there was a pretty good chance we could lose power at some point. I also knew that our friend wasn’t particularly prepared beyond what most people are (no blame, it’s just how it is for most). So, I should have taken a few minutes and brought a few additional items with me in the back of the truck for ‘just in case’.

These things are also items that anyone may consider to have on hand for just in case the power goes out longer than expected – and when it’s winter outside.

I should have brought my portable ‘Buddy Heater’. It provides a significant amount of heat and is considered safe for indoors. Although it will run for many hours with the 1-lb bottle tanks, I also have an adapter for it to hook up to a standard 20-lb BBQ grill tank too (which was full and setting on the deck outside). This would have made a huge difference, given the cold! There was a dog in the house so I would have put it up on a counter or table, rather than the floor.

I could have brought one of my portable butane cooking stoves. These little stoves are great. You sure can cook a lot with just one little tank of fuel too. Maybe we could have boiled up some pasta and sauce, or whatever else. Although the chicken nuggets were pretty good!

Additionally, I keep a coffee percolator on hand, which could brew a nice cup of hot coffee on that portable cook stove I just mentioned!

I knew she had a generator, but it would have been helpful if I had also brought another long extension cord or two. Would have been easier to deal with the water pump.

Toilet and Water. This is one of the very big issues if a house is on a well pump. Unless there’s a proper generator interface, you’re only getting a handful of flushes before the pressure holding tank empties. And you can only ‘hold it’ for so long… In the experience above, I got lucky with that pump. And we could have used a bucket to collect water down at the lake to pour into the toilet tank for subsequent flushing. However what if the lake was frozen over already? With that said, what else might someone do in this case?

Fill the bathtub with water to use for flushing. A typical bathtub might hold 60 – 80 gallons of water. A modern toilet might only use about 2 gallons per flush. But you need to fill it BEFORE the power goes out. You could simply fill several buckets too (better than nothing!). So when to fill is a judgement call based on the forecast and your experience with power outages at the particular location.

Okay, what else might someone do ahead of time? Well, having enough food to eat for at least several days would be a good start. The thing is, in most ordinary power outage situations, you could drive out of it and find/buy what you need somewhere. The bigger the event, the wider the outages. It’s all a matter of one’s tolerance thresholds as to how far to go with preparedness.

Anyway, that’s the story. I’m sure many of you have your own, given this recent winter storm. We always learn something from it.

[ Read: Portable Indoor Buddy Heater ]

[ Read: Butane Stove For Indoor Use ]

33 Comments

  1. 3 1-gallon milk bottles next to each toilet in my house. Probably more later, but that’s what I have right now.

    Bring in wood before the storm.

    Temperatures in the house got down to 58 in a period of a few hours. I finally checked the door into the crawl-space–of course it was open. Once I closed it, the temperature stabilized. Getting it back up to 68 was more complicated. For a while we were using the oven, since the power hadn’t gone out.

    -25 windchill is COLD! The only reason I went out was to change the water in the chicken coop–it was freezing solid about every two hours. There was snow inside the coop.

    Something to think about–if you have someone in your house who has a hard time regulating their core temperature, you’ve got a tricky situation if the power does go out, or if the house temperature drops for any other reason.

    1. Lauren,
      Your snow inside the coop…with 25+ mph winds and snow even one open nail hole will let in enough snow to cover everything in a few hours. Let that go on in an unheated building and you will have drifts after a couple of weeks. Another use for duct tape.

      1. Wow! did not know that one nail hole can result in snow covering everything!. Will take another look at our outbuildings at the cabin.

        1. High wind driven snow will come in every crack or nail hole it can find….ask people who live in Wyoming, lol. I always get a chuckle out of people building sheds with “used” metal siding they “got for free”, as if they got a deal.

          1. Minerjim:
            Dang it all to heck Jim.
            STOP making fun of my ventilated shed LOLOL
            But it was cheap Cheap CHEAP.
            🐣🐤🐦

          2. NRP & Blue,
            if that is the same shed you make your “parts cleaner” in, i would keep it well ventilated to.
            we don’t wan’t to see any mushroom clouds over Lightning Point. : )

    2. ken,
      that is what we call ‘making memories’ : )
      glad you all came through OK.

  2. Ken,
    Sounds like an interesting Christmas. Only suggestion I would make is a penny stove. Easily made from two soda/beer cans. Almost everyone has a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the bathroom cabinet. I encourage you to youtube at your leisure. Numerous liquid fuels will work. A little ingenuity and ya have a truly useful one burner stove. Safe indoors, but I’d definitely watch it, especially with a pet. Oh, ya do need one pre-1982 penny.

    Everyone in our family has one in their ‘bag’. Along with a squeeze bottle of fuel. Light weight and fuel is available in most homes.

  3. re water for the toilet: thanks to our friendly utility companies having started many fires in the golden state due to non maintained equipment, they now shut down the power regularly in high wind or adverse weather conditions as a public safety precaution. We keep two 10 gallon water jerry cans in the pantry along with two battery operated terrpump gan can fluid pumps (available on amazon) that we have marked for water use only. When the power is out, the jerry can goes into the bathroom, the pump is installed on the jerry can and the top is taken off the toilet tank. A user (a la my 96 year old father) can refull the toilet by pressing the power button and using the hose to refill the tank without having to lift a heavy bucket of water. its also easier for me :)

    1. Good idea on the terrapump for the water. I just received one for my gas cans. Now I need to order a couple for the bathrooms.

  4. Only one empty gas can on your previous trip? Must be doing something right as I have about six or seven. Plus another dozen filled. Lost power where I spent Christmas due to the “vandalism” of the substations. Got home later that day to a howling rainstorm. Power was out for 9-1/2 hours on Boxing Day due to trees falling across the lines and road during the night. Spent most of it outside on chores so wasn’t much affected, except no water in the hoses. Fortunately, the buckets that are scattered around awaiting repurposing had collected the water I needed.

  5. After our 5 days of no power and no water in far north Wisconsin, we are keeping 2 5 gallon buckets of water on hand for the toilets. Whoever had the hint of taking showers and doing laundry pre-storm is also right on point.

  6. MamaLark,
    people in the gulf coast area’s know the drill on showers, laundry and other things. we know it’s coming through our a area a week before it happens, it’s on the news three times a day if not more. social media, and some people still act surprised when it happens. it’s amazing.

    1. You mean I actually need to pay attention to news and social media?

      Only reason I knew about the storm was because my friend mentioned it.

      1. Lauren
        Had I known that, I would have sent you a note about this coming your way. Figured Anony Mee had given you a heads on this coming your way.
        Figured you & the little birds were all set with in coming change.
        On the underneath passage way, when it is past the freezing point you may want to install slide locking implements on that crawl opening.
        Rest shall ship to you for your need to know on the house.

  7. We are below sewer grade, found out the hard way, now there is a sewage lift pump. That’s going to be a problem. The holding tank is small so external power must be connected at all times to use any plumbing in the house, except for the dog bath out back. If the power goes out, that’s where I’ll be showering. … guess I’ll be using the dog’s toilet too… hmm.

    I have two old, single fuel generators and one really old propane unit. They are put away where I can’t see them. I could really have my choice of any generator – I just can’t stand to look at them, at home, for some reason.

    Ken, your load profile was nearly perfect, half to an inductive load on the pump and half to a resistive load on the toaster oven. And I’ll bet you put them on separate outlets to balance the load on two legs back to neutral.

    Fun fact – Dueling GFCI’s won’t work. If you have GFCI outlets on the generator and GFCI on the plug (hair dryer, etc.) it won’t work, one of them will pop open. Same thing with neutral bond when connecting to a panel, you need to float the neutral on the generator.

  8. I keep a few gallons of water freezing on the deck. Northern NH so it’s usually cold. When the power went out the other day I put the frozen gallons in the fridge.

    I keep 15-20 gallons usually for flushing the toilet during outages. I get 2 flushes also from water in the system once the power goes out. I live alone so that’ll last me awhile in an outage and buy me time. If that runs out it’s either lug some water from the brook down the street or the 5 gallon bucket/plastic bag/kitty litter, 5 gallon bucket seat from Walmart.

    I have an alcohol stove/heater made for boats (discontinued). Runs on denatured alcohol. I made coffee on it then a little later some hot dogs for lunch. Then I put the metal top on it and put it in heater mode. I didn’t expect much out of it, only puts out a few thousand BTUs, but surprisingly it stopped the temperature drop and even reversed it a few degrees for a few hours. The low that night was single digits, high was teens. It would’ve probably warmed up my small guest room nicely if I decided to do that. Not sure how much alcohol I used but it was under a quart for sure. Ran for maybe 5 hours? I put in less than a quart and it was still running when I turned it off. No fuel gauge. That stove/heater made things a lot more tolerable for me. After the storm I got a kerosene heater and the alcohol heater will be used for cooking again but also as a space heater in the basement to keep the pipes from freezing. I should be good for heat and pipe protection then. Got everything else that I can think of tolerably covered.

    Good job, Ken, on adapting to the situation. And your story is a good reminder to keep some gear in my vehicle. I used to drive a van that was basically fitted out like a bug out vehicle but I normally drive a car now and have gotten complacent. I definitely need to add some more gear and supplies to my vehicles and if I overnight somewhere I’ll go prepared for myself and the hosts.

    1. Cold Brian,
      good thinking on the frozen water jugs in the fridge. as far as alcohol stoves, have you ever tried the cans of sterno? i have been a big fan of them ever since my days in scouting. now i keep some in my BOB’s and GHB’s. no smoke and easy to carry. i hope i never need em !
      best of luck

      1. Hi In My Own World,
        no, never tried Sterno. If I am going light or small like a Sterno can, I just bring one of my backpacking stoves. Got several of them — gas, wood, alcohol. Maybe I’ll grab a few Sternos to play around with next time I see them. Thanks for the tip.

        My alcohol stove/heater for the outage was the Origo Heat Pal 5100 in case anybody is interested. It’s discontinued but they and older models pop up online occasionally.

    2. Cold Brian, you’re exactly right – keeping some supplies in the vehicle too – and tailored towards the season – especially if travelling for an overnight stay. I too was complacent in that regard. Lessons learned! Given that you also live in northern NH, we know how nasty cold it can get around here – the next 2-3 months ought to be fun ;)

    3. Cold Brian,
      Take a look at penny stoves on youtube. You obviously have experience with alcohol stoves. That’s what a penny stove is. Works amazingly well for zero money. Well, it takes a penny (pre-1982), but ya get to keep the penny. Well worth your time to look at these. I too was dubious, but now …………..

      1. Plainsmedic,

        I’ve seen them before, just been too lazy to make one. Thanks for the tip though.

  9. i was glad to see Fox news have a story on winter preparedness.
    —Winter weather ‘go bag’ could save lives, say safety preparedness experts
    it’s not even January yet.

    1. Good to be reminded from time to time. Didn’t even realize how complacent I had become until Ken reminded me.

      Up until 2 plus years ago I was in an apartment so I had my vehicle ready to survive a Donner Party type experience. lol. It was just more convenient to have gear and preps in the vehicle. It had everything. And I’d go camping or traveling in the vehicle semi regularly so I had experience and practice with my gear. I remember doing a week in NC, a week in VA, a month in FL, and had fun and was comfortable each time.

      Then I bought a hatchback a few years ago to save on gas and now I have little with me. I didn’t stop prepping, it just slipped my mind. I have more gear and supplies but it’s in the house. I need to start working on the car.

  10. Maybe you should have stayed home since you knew about the storm that was coming. You are definitely prepared for such a storm. They could have come to your house for Christmas and learned about what preparing really is.

  11. I run a furnace from a generator without a transfer switch. You need a male and a female plug like on an extension cord.
    After the house wires go into the furnace, cut them and install the plugs. The male goes on the furnace side. When the power goes out, disconnect the plugs and plug the furnace side into your generator. Just make sure your generator has enough capacity. You can look for the furnace load requirements on the tags of the furnace.

    1. That’s exactly one way to do it. Good tip.

      My propane-fueled furnace is 120VAC, so it would be easy to do. However I have integrated a solar-powered (with battery bank) system with transfer switches – so that would be redundant in my particular case. But that’s good practical advice for someone out there who has the “know-how” to do such things.

      Regarding my trip, it wasn’t my house, so, wasn’t going to start cutting wires :=)

    2. Most all larger furnaces require 240v for the air handler motor. If doing this, be sure your generator can output 240v (it will have a 240v receptacle if it can), and make up the required 240v extension cord with the correct plug and cord-mount receptacle.

  12. In regards to electric water pumps for the lakeside home: We had many farmers and ranchers evacuate from their homesteads to the fairgrounds during the Late Summer/Fall when we were hit by Labor Day fires of 2020. It was unknown if these folks had above ground or water storage tanks in general. When the power goes out, the water must still be pumped in order to do any good. A landowner that lives on a lakefront property will witness the helicopters filling their dump-buckets with water from the lake during a fire.
    A generator would be used to pump water to an above ground tank and some electricity would have to be used to keep the water from freezing in the winter. One could buy an electric water pump to spray the house if you have a generator in place already. Lots of reasons to get and maintain a good generator on rural property.
    Off grid in the Western Slope of the Sierras, we set up canvas water tanks on level ground next to a source of water. These were in place for use by helicopter dump buckets and would get refilled as fast as we could. In locations next to a creek or small water course, we used either a fire engine or a mark 4 pump. 2 cycle engine that pumped water after being primed. Air cooled and backpack portable. They were more difficult to keep running than a chainsaw or generator.
    When I returned home from fighting fires in the Fall, I was recommending the creation of defensible space in the form of a “cat line” (Caterpillar bulldozer) around homes and outbuilding complexes that made up our family farms. This was 8-10 foot wide path of plowed up ground around properties to be the non-burnable line of defense where you stand your ground. These days, sounds like the power is going out before the fire reaches your outer perimeter in California. These are new concepts up in my new AO of Oregon.

  13. Over the summer I was finally able to purchase an inverter generator with push button start. My old generator was 35 years old and all but impossible to start with the strength needed to pull the cord. My son and son-in-law were the only two people that had the strength to start it. Then had a generator plug installed. So this past storm like so many other people, we lost power. The generator kept all three refrigerators running as well as the furnace for heat and hot water. The only problem we had was we would have to shut off everything in order to run the water pump. A minor inconvenience as at least we didn’t have to move around 5 gallon jugs of water.
    I never really wanted a whole house generator as I felt everyone wouldn’t truly appreciate things if they still had everything at their fingertips.
    Another thing we used is oil lamps as they gave off heat as well as light. One oil lamp actually kept the bathroom warmer than the bedroom.

    1. Peanut,
      good for you. sounds like you made it just fine. i collect old oil lamps as a hobby from yard sales, the coleman lanterns generate a LOT of heat. not something you want inside during the summer but great backups for winter : )

  14. Knew storms were coming yesterday. As usual made sure the laundry was done up and the coops were clean and tight, with extra food and water. Time to shower in case the power were to go out (it was likely). Just after my hair was full of shampoo, we got our first tornado warning. If I had not spent fifteen minutes talking our kitten out of a tree, I might have had dry hair. Tornado split and missed us, but our last hometown was hit. Many are without power and it is cold. One friend had a huge tree land on her propane tank and crush it. Last year, we asked about getting an additional propane tank and were told that they are hard to come by. There is a waiting list. I also like to make up big pots of food when bad weather looks pretty promising. I could can or freeze it if we don’t need it all.

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