The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

2011 summer power outage

Deer damageWe had a 22 hour power outage Monday and Tuesday, and we lost:

A few sweet potato leaves to marauding deer.  (More proof that Mark's deer deterrents really long as they're running.)

Twenty hard to find Light Sussex eggs when the battery pack didn't last long enough to keep the incubator up to temperature.

Sleep.  I fretted over the eggs far too much, waking up multiple times in the night, but Battery packMark was worse off since he can't sleep without the white noise of a fan and didn't want to wake me up by coming in to get a flashlight to read himself to sleep.

Every time the power goes out, I think I've learned my lesson and I'll have backups on hand next time.  And every time, the ease of flicking that switch lulls me into a false sense of security after a few weeks.

That said, we are slowly improving by tweaking our life so that normal habits can go on if the grid shuts down for a few days.  Even though we need electricity to pump water out of Sitting in the shadeour well and treat it with UV light, I keep at least a few of jugs of drinking water under the sink in case of emergencies.  I always leave my solar flashlight charging on the windowsill since I use it if we come home after dark or if I want to go out at night to check on the chickens, so the flashlight is also ready for power outages.  And after our extended winter power outage, we deleted the exterior wood furnace and replaced it with fan-less wood stoves, so we will now stay warm no matter what. 

On the other hand, we've still got a ways to go, especially in the Mark comfort department.  Luckily, it was a mild enough day that hosing down with creek water and sitting in the shade kept him cool, but I'm not sure how he would have handled a power outage if the highs had been in the mid nineties instead of the mid eighties.  Let's see if I can remember to ponder this problem now that the wide world of electricity is once again at my finger tips.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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another way to keep temps up in incubators is to put a cup in the incubator with boiling water in the cup and cover the incubator with a blanket. This can keep the temps warm enough for a few hours
Comment by Anonymous Wed Jul 13 10:38:49 2011

One way to get through an outage is to have backup power in the form of a battery pack or a generator set.

Depending on the average power that you want to have available and the outage time you want to cover, it is a pretty simple calculation to determine the battery capacity you need. If you need alternating current, don't forget to include convertor losses. Problem is, it will probably take more than you think. And batteries have a limited service life. You'll need to replace them after several years, which you need to factor into the cost.

There are generators based on Lister clone Diesel engines that will run on almost any kind of oil, even things like straight vegetable oil or used fryer fat.

But whatever you do, it will be a significant investment I think.

Unfortunately, things like air conditioners are real power hogs. Using the relatively cold water from the creek as a coolant medium (as we've discussed earlier) could save a lot of power there.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Jul 13 12:22:31 2011

We're trying not to go into high cost systems that are only used for backup and are instead tweaking our lives so that the real necessities can be had without constant electricity. Our drinking water system and wood stove are the kind of direction we want to go in --- systems that we use all the time and that will last at least a few days with no input of energy.

For cooling, what I'm actually thinking of is getting around to making our porch sometime in the next year or two. It's amazing how a screened in porch will cool down on a summer night in our area --- without pavement to hold the heat, it's never too hot to sleep outside here.

What I would like a high tech solution to is a simple fan. Any ideas for a fan that works without electricity? I know we could just plan a battery pack specifically for a fan, but that seems like a high tech solution that depends on me remembering to charge the battery pack --- doesn't seem to happen unless I use it in my daily life.

Comment by anna Wed Jul 13 13:11:53 2011

Anonymous --- I considered various ways of keeping the eggs up to temperature (in addition to wrapping them in the blanket, which I did right away.) The problem is that I didn't want to have to get up every hour in the night to check on them and the power outage started at 10 pm.

In the long run, my plan is to have a broody hen do the work for me. Maybe next year!

Comment by anna Wed Jul 13 13:13:48 2011

We have the same battery pack and noticed an AC fan will drain it fast because of the inverter, but if you can get a DC fan that plugs into a cigarette lighter it ends up using less power and lasts much longer. The fan can be used in your vehicle as well if you don't have A/C.

I wonder if something similar to the stream powered generators could be made cheaply.

Comment by Brian Wed Jul 13 15:28:31 2011

If you want a fan, or more specifically a cooling breeze, you'll need a power source one way or another.

A 12V battery permanently hooked up to the mains via a trickle charger is a relatively low-tech solution, though. And you cannot forget to charge it.

Hooking the fan up to a solar panel is another option.

If you don't want to depend on electricity, think about passive cooling like a cooling tower.

Another way to keep cool is to have a big thermal mass inside the house. A tank of water would do the trick.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Jul 13 17:22:10 2011

Brian --- Great idea to go straight for a DC fan if we decide to use one with the power pack. I'm glad you decided to share your experience!

We've looked into hydropower and concluded neither of our creeks were appropriate, unfortunately.

Roland --- I like your distinction of "a cooling breeze" vs. a fan. That is a better way to look at it, and makes me lean more toward our screened in porch, separating out Mark's need for white noise into something separate. (He did dig up a little, battery-powered white noise generator, so that problem seems to be relatively solved.)

Good point about both the cooling tower and the thermal mass. I was thinking of trying to make the porch have a concrete slab for that reason, but Mark pointed out that the area we'd put the porch in would need a lot of drainage to put the porch directly on the ground. On the other hand, a 55 gallon drum, perhaps filled with rainwater somehow, would not only keep the porch cool, but would also make a good backup water source since we want that porch to be a summer kitchen too.

Comment by anna Wed Jul 13 19:14:46 2011

We had a long power outage last week, after some really strong winds - we lost power about 6pm, and got it back about 10am the next day. I know that probably doesn't sound like much to you guys, but that's the longest power outage I can remember in my life! And I've mostly lived in small rural towns.

We had all the usual stuff on hand - candles, matches, water bottle, torches, etc. Our kitchen stove runs off gas, so we were still able to cook dinner and make coffee etc. Our water supply comes from our rainwater tanks, though, so no power meant no water (no pump!). We filled buckets from the tap on the side of the tanks for flushing the toilets, and filled a drinking water bottle to keep in the kitchen.

I also put blankets over the chest freezers to keep them cool. My nearby father-in-law has a generator for when he goes away in his caravan, so if the outage went for much longer I was going to go and pick that up.

We did learn, though, that the candles we had were designed for ornamental use, not illumination. The water bottle was a bit small, too, meaning several trips out into the wind to fill it. So the next day I bought a 20 litre water container and some proper candles and holders. I also got some small LED torches for the kids.

There's nothing like a night without power to check that you have what you need for an emergency!

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Wed Jul 13 22:28:39 2011
Oh, and like you, we have wood heating so that wasn't a problem. We sent the kids to bed with hot water bottles for extra cosiness.
Comment by Darren (Green Change) Wed Jul 13 22:30:09 2011

I'm shocked that that's the longest power outage you've ever had! Of course, "small rural towns" are probably a lot more likely to keep their power than an isolated farm, I guess, but we seem to have two or three power outages like that every year, and often some longer ones too. It probably has a lot to do with heavy tree limbs, and maybe eucalyptus tend to be lighter? (That's your dominant tree genus, right?)

We've found that our chest freezer is fine in power outages of 24 hours in the summer and 48 hours in the winter as long as we don't open it at all. And I highly recommend the solar flashlight option --- I got one on sale at the dollar store for a dollar about three years ago and it's been plugging along ever since!

Great point about power outages being good for checking over your emergency supplies! I always mean to run a simulated power outage, but can't get my act together to do it. :-)

Comment by anna Thu Jul 14 06:32:05 2011
It sounds like small rural towns are more likely to keep their power than suburbia as well. we routinely lose power for 2-10 hours for thunderstorms and bigger storms can be several days. It takes a snow storm though for us to lose power for 3 or more days. (we live in DC suburbs with pepco which is notorius for not maintaining lines) They also don;t keep good records of which addresses they serve leading to a 2 day poweroutage in our new house when pepco told us our account was in good standing and BGE actually was the supplier for the house and cut the power for the good reason that we had not set up an account with them.
Comment by Anonymous Fri Jul 15 14:14:27 2011
I suspect the difference could be nation, not rural/urban/suburban. Darren lives in Australia, and perhaps they're more serious about preventing power outages there. I wonder if they have buried power lines? Our phone lines are buried and we always have service there!
Comment by anna Fri Jul 15 21:23:28 2011

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