Sunday, May 21, 2023

Preparing for power outages

Recently Don attended a meeting in a nearby town during which, among other things, a representative from the regional power company warned about power outages next summer.

Intentional power outages.

What the power company rep was referring to was preventative power shutdowns, famously practiced by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the power supplier for a large portion of California. After the devastating Dixie Fire in 2021, the blame for the fire was pinned on PG&E after some trees fell across power lines. PG&E has been blamed for earlier wildfires as well. As a result of all the fallout, litigation, and massive payouts, PG&E began practicing planned power outages in specific areas when conditions were ripe for another repeat of hazardous circumstances (i.e. high heat, strong winds, dry conditions). These planned outages can affect millions of people, sometimes for days on end.

Anyway, the local power company rep said they would be engaging in similar planned outages starting in the summer of 2024 when conditions are ripe for wildfires. Based on what happened with PG&E, I can't really blame them.

But why next summer? Why not this summer?

Aside from political considerations, apparently planned shutdowns aren't something that can be implemented without a proper notification system in place. Obviously there are people for whom a power outage can be life threatening, so the power company wants to make sure all customers are adequately notified in advance if those outages are deliberate.

However it means we must be ready for them.

We're pretty much ready to handle winter power outages. Since we have a woodstove and our chest freezer is outside, winter outages never really bother us. We can crack open our chest freezer at night and close it during the day and everything stays frozen. We can empty the refrigerator into coolers outside and not have any food go bad.

But extended summer outages are potentially more troublesome. Our biggest vulnerabilities during summer power outages are water (since our well pump is electric, and we need more than we have stored to handle livestock and garden), refrigeration, and keeping the contents of the chest freezer frozen.

Well, these are issues we're already addressing anyway. This just puts a fire under us to move quicker. Besides, with the increasing strain on the U.S. power grid in general, having more backups in place is, we feel, wise.

More projects to plan!


  1. That is why when we had our house built we also put in solar panels. It is enough for us to make it fine in the summer time, but we have problems in the winter because we have so little sun hours those months. Currently we are on solar, but we have found we have a new electric hog, starlink. We love that we were able to get rid of cable and only stream shows we like (Mountain Men, Homestead Rescue and some old crime shows) but the heater on the starlink to prevent it from gathering snow in the winter, eats up power, a lot of power. This winter we are going to try putting it in vacation mode and turning it off for the night and limiting our time online. There are many other things we can be doing, reading or even watching TV (hubby is not able to read any more due to medical issues, but he can still watch TV and listen to music or to me reading out loud.) I made sure that I have enough canning jars on hand to can everything I have in the freezers if push comes to shove. We dehydrate what we can in the summer months also. But we have gotten lazy in the winter and just switched to the local Avista. The power companies would be better off if they could properly clear around their lines. Cali is a hard place to do that. I am thankful that where I live in Eastern WA they do allow clearing around the lines.

  2. " with the increasing strain on the U.S. power grid"

    " with the intentional increasing strain on the U.S. power grid"

  3. Years ago I invested in a 7500 watt 3pt generator for my tractor.
    Use it mostly for freezer and refrigerator during a power outage.
    Only need to run it a couple of hours per day.

  4. That is unfortunate to hear, Patrice. Once the planned shutdown is an established practice, it seems to get overused - the least risk of potential issue and the grid comes down, sometimes (as you rightly say) for a longer period of time than anyone expects. Planned outages required notice, but the unplanned ones can happen very quickly.

  5. This is coming nationwide, along with unplanned rolling blackouts. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) officials are publicly stating this. The Chairperson of my state PUC (Public Utilities Commission) said the same thing. I watch the power prices, fuel mix, and markets and have seen wholesale power prices hit as much as $5000/MW in Texas and close to $3000 in other areas of the country in the past year (they are in the mid $20's today). Planning for such an event - even if it is rotating through a few days of stored drinking water, is a start. Natokadn

    1. This is why blogs like this are great! Thank you, Patrice. While I have some ideas of what I plan to do, ideas of your readers help that. I hope to add a porch for night sleeping. The idea of putting no-seeum netting up inside of the screens is solid where I live. Natokadan

  6. It seems that clearing trees so that they cannot fall on lines in high winds would be the most pragmatic and certainly a lot more disruptive that fires or blackouts. But, I do agree that being prepared is best for each person.

    1. I am served by a co-op. Twice a year they have a company come through and clear out under power lines (I think it is 20' on each side. And they trim out any limbs or trees that interfere with their lines. We get straight line winds but don't lose power very often. Actually more so than when we moved here 20 years ago.
      What gets me is to listen to Memphis recounting the power outages after a good thunderstorm and some wind. We mostly get the same stuff but I just wind up picking up tree trash. Some limbs come down but not the ones on my power line.
      kathy in MS

  7. My grandmother had a small, woodburning stove on the back porch she cooked on in the summer. They didn't have electricity yet, but I don't remember if she kept it after getting electricity.
    I'm really thankful to have experienced living " off grid " going to visit them as a child. It was really close to our house and I could just ride the school bus there and spend the night sometimes. A lot of people back then didn't have electricity in the country. I remember it not being a big deal. So it really gave me that mindset as a child, though I must say, power is way preferable.
    Power outages in summer can be miserably hot. I've been thinking of getting a large tent or screened " room" to set up a cot and table in. Sleeping in a screened in porch or tent room in the summer heat is quite comfortable after the sun goes down.
    I really want a solar generator for the fridge and freezer a couple hours each every day. They have expandable plug and play set ups now that can charge a bunch of different ways, so you don't have to depend on the sun.

  8. I keep tracking my power usage and costs. Last night while filling in numbers in a chart I realized my costs are 1/3 higher than last year per kw. Part of this is from cutting usage so far back. Their basic usage fee before you use power at all brings my percentages for usage up. But it's time to call again and get nuts and bolts on actual costs. Last year what they told me didn't jive with the bills. The bills were almost $25 per month higher. The costumer service rep was probably using an older guideline.

    One thing that reduced my consumption is turn the hot water heater way down, and even wound up turning it off when it got hot. Back then I still used the dishwasher some and it has a button for heating water. Now I don't use the dishwasher. I boil water to wash dishes and have a sterilization rinse. And I reduce cooking and eating things that create dishwashing. Fruit and wraps help. Things like tilapia or salmon that come in shrink wrap in the freezer section, can poach just fine in that shrink wrap in boiling water. So can veggies.

    In the winter I always use plastic behind the curtains and in front of the blinds as another layer of insulation from cold. This year when we got unseasonably warm weather way early, I was taking it down and got almost knocked down by the heat pouring in, and stopped removing it. Hmm. I really don't like the plastic in the summer. Old timers used to have lace drapes inside their curtains. There are plastic lace counterparts sold for tablecloths in fabric stores. It's time to make my own fake lace window coverings as an interior to curtains that will help keep heat out. Maybe shades.
    Last year I started using ac exclusively at night after the sun goes down. The temps outside drop and help cool the house down pretty fast, perfect for sleeping. Also, just running a window unit set to dehumidify only uses half the watts because the compressor never is on.
    I try to use mostly natural light during the day, but don't uncover windows where the sun is beating through. White or light covered Cafe curtains help with that.
    And years ago I ordered and installed solar film on windows myself. This wouldn't work well to do alone on picture windows or sliding glass doors. One reason I knew I could do it was professionals came in to do a building I worked in years ago. They do make things look easy, that's why they're pros. But they also make sure things are done right. So part of what I witnessed were some process repeats to get it done right when mistakes were made. Solar film helps.
    This year solar no-see-um screening is going on the porch to replace the old holey screening. Love love love metroscreenworks !!!
    Am also thinking of hanging shade cloth on the side of house the sun beats up in the summer all day long. Also maybe across the porch. It would help keep the inside cooler still, then can come down when summer extremes are over.
    My power usage is 1/3 to 1/5 what it used to be and has saved me $thousands this past year alone. That's project money. All this preparedness stuff is expensive to put in place.
    Something else we all have to plan for. They are going to stick it to us all by running utility costs up so we need to keep that in mind too.

  9. Was this Idaho Power or another company? Just wondering if they'll do the same for other half of the state... like you said, winter is easy to use the 'outdoor' freezer method but summer is another challenge.

  10. might i suggest a backup generator. another reader has a tractor driven unit that might fill your needs since you have a tractor. if not then a stand alone unit large enough to power your well pump and your 'fridge and your freezer. if you can find one, get a propane fueled unit. a tank of propane is "good" for years without needing fuel stabilizers. and propane may be available at some refilling stations, even if the power is out.

  11. I think my next water investment will be an above ground pool, not too big, but big enough to do water walking in. My knees aren't always happy with walking. Even a little swelling makes walking uncomfortable. Water walking will keep the weight off those joints, maintain using them and strengthening them, and keep the body cool, which wll prevent swelling.

    Also, a small above ground pool is a good place to store water for medium term, but not years on end. Cost per gallon for water storage tanks is pretty high, plus installation after shipping, and maintenance.
    If I had livestock I would look into creating a pond. With a liner. An old farmer that used to have this place, dug out around a spring which created a self replenishing watering hole for his cows. He did this on the side of a hill and bermed up the low side really thick from the clay he'd dug out. I don't know if a way could be figured to catch rain run off.
    Maybe stock tanks would work some sort of way. I've seen stock tanks with hula hoops covered in plastic floating around to help stop evaporation. Pool noodles, or pieces of noodles, can help them float.
    This may sound silly, but one of my plans in case of emergency is an old 10x10 top to an outdoor shade tent that's decades old. The tarp seems indestructible. Anyway, with the top pointing down instead of up, and legs shortened, it should funnel rain water into a kiddie pool below.

  12. To Anon 5:26AM - I just installed roller style sun shades for my frontwindow. That window faces due west. The shades have a noticeable effect on the temperature of that room. I bought the style that is manually raised and lowered so that the cost was lower.

    I remember visiting my auntie in southern california as a child and sleeping out on a screened sleeping porch. The entire family slept there year round.

    I too am looking at backups to the electric grid. I have a portable room AC unit and need to find something that will power it when the grid goes down. I have a medical condition that is made worse with any kind of extreme heat. I'm renting so my options are limited. Any suggestions would be welcome. SJ now in California

  13. Suggest getting a used propane RV generator and connecting it to your large household propane tank. Building a small shed around it will keep it out of the weather. 3kw will keep your freezer cold and plenty more. A lithium battery back up pack will charge quickly (much faster than lead acid batteries) and provide you with point of use power for small loads in between running the generator for the freezer/fridge. If your well pump is 220, you'll want to find a generator that will generate 2 legs of 110 and one 220 socket.

  14. I wonder what effect this will have on businesses, especially the small ones?

    1. It will depend on how prepared they are. We had a local restaurant stay open during a week long power outage 20 years ago. A farmer loaned them a large generator. They made an absolute killing money wise. The whole town ate out for a week and power crews pretty much camped there.
      Afterward, some key businesses bought generators to kick on automatically. And a lot of people now have propane generators in addition to gas generators they already had for wells. There have been too many storms to not prepare for more.
      My concern is availability of various fuels. Propane gets used up fast if you're running your house as usual. Fuel pumps run out fast too.

  15. Simple pump. No fuel for the generator you still have water.

  16. A lot of these power concerns were behind our rural property purchase. Our new-to-us home is small (we hope to enlarge given sufficient time and money) and easily heated by the wood stove installed by the original builder. Our many treed acres will provide ample firewood far beyond my lifetime. The second owner, during his brief tenure, bought and installed a very large propane tank and a wired-in large Generac.

    We are more concerned with the summer heat. The whole house generator is only part of our solution. We also have a number of smaller solar generators and portable panels (a modest and permanent installation is planned - again, given sufficient time and money). Plus a few portable air conditioners (thank you, Aldi!).

    What we consider a big plus is something usually advised against - our house faces north. Our front porch is always shaded and there is generally a breeze at our elevation. There is still room on the property for a south-facing solar array, a moderate-sized greenhouse (another future plan), and fruit trees.

    We also plan to install exterior roll-down metal shutters within the year. Although quite costly, they will protect against wind and hail, provide privacy, blackout light when necessary, and give us better summer and winter insulation than new windows would. We feel they are worth saving and spending for.

    We are more comfortable with our multi-pronged approach than investing all our time and funds in an expensive whole-house solar system or preparing to live in the late 1800s (a washing machine does not use an extreme amount of electricity and can be run by one of our generators - the dryer is the power hog and we can more easily hang to dry than hand or crank wash). We can only hope to have the time and funds to complete our plans, but we feel so much more secure and content where we now live than we did in our suburban 'macmansion' in a diverse area.