Saturday, November 29, 2014

Surviving a major snowstorm and power outage in Maine

 On the day before Thanksgiving a snowstorm swept through the Northeast dumping 6 to 8 inches of very heavy wet snow in our region.  This caused the Birch trees to bend over all the way to the ground under the weight of the snow on them.  The power failed after 6 PM and our automatic generator kicked in, but it stopped working after 3 hours.  We called the guy who services it and he was running around like a madman trying to service all kinds of problems with generators.  He got to us by 12:30 AM and left us a voicemail saying that the electronics controls were fried and he could not repair it for almost a week.  For the first time in many years we were stuck without electricity with our niece visiting from Boston for Thanksgiving.  Here in rural Maine most people are used to dealing with loss of power for extended periods of time during heavy winter storms, but we have been spoiled by having the automatic generator.  Unfortunately I am learning the hard way that the inexpensive Generac generator that I purchased from Home Depot is unreliable and has let us down many times over the years due to various failures.  I can in no way recommend Generac generators for anyone considering an automatic emergency backup generator.

The first thing we did was find our LED flashlights so that we could light all of our candles and kerosene lamps.  The next step was to light up the big wood stove in the basement that has the capacity to heat the entire house.   Throughout the outage we kept that woodstove fully stocked and the house remained quite comfortably warm.  Our other heaters are all propane/electric that do not operate in an outage. 

Then we started thinking about water and how we would flush the toilets.  The pressure tank from our well holds up to 50 gallons, but we knew we needed to conserve that for drinking water and dish washing.   We still had a little water pressure after three days by conserving every drop.  We started out by placing a big pan on top of the stove so that we could melt snow.   This worked but it was very slow and it takes A LOT of snow to get just a few gallons of water.  So I started thinking about other ways to get water.

The following morning the sun came up and the temperatures rose a little above freezing and I noticed that the downspout that I had rigged to feed a rain barrel in the summer was dripping.  So I set up 5 gallon buckets under the spout and we were able to put 3 to 4 gallons in each of five buckets throughout the day, this works really well, but the following day the temperatures remained below freezing.   Fortunately, we had enough water to get us through the total of three days of power outage.   We only used this water for flushing number two in the toilet and reminded our niece: "If it's yellow let it mellow".  
We left one of the buckets under the downspout overnight and in the morning it was filled with water but lined with ice and the top had iced over. 
After breaking out the ice on the top we were able to pour some of that water into another bucket.  By this time we realized we could use our propane stove to melt snow and warm water up for dish washing etc.  Shown at right is the ice lining from the 5 gallon bucket before my wife dropped it in the pot to melt.  Amazing!

After every snow storm, the first thing I do is clear all my solar panels and collectors.  The collectors have pumps that run on solar panels - so they could store hot water as soon as we got sun.  My workshop building heating system stores heated water in an 80 gallon tank, but I could not use that stored heat until the utility power was restored because the circulation pumps are AC powered.   But it is good to clear the collectors early in order to gain the benefit of free solar heat for when we can use it. 
Because  our solar power system is grid tied, the inverters shut down in the absence of utility power.   It is good to clear the snow off as early as practical so that it does not freeze hard onto the panels.   As soon as any part of the collectors or panels are exposed the suns heat helps to melt and clear the rest of the snow.
My niece, Gaia helped out by raking the snow off the solar array.  It is kind of fun - almost like playing Tetris or something because you have to use some strategy to clear off the snow and she enjoyed herself.   This heavy wet snow comes shooting off the roof making a loud "thump" as it hits the ground and you have to stand well clear as it comes down.   We were fortunate that she was staying with us because I am still recovering from major surgery three weeks ago and was not fully up to the task of heavy physical work like this.

It was an interesting Thanksgiving, because our propane oven does not work without electricity, although we were able to light the flames on the stove top manually.  We were able to take our small turkey over to our neighbors early on Thanksgiving morning to use their stove before they put their bird in the oven.  These guys bought their automatic backup generator after they saw mine, but I had already warned them not to get a Generac brand.  They purchased a Kohler that so far has been perfectly reliable.  Kohler units are significantly more expensive, but in hindsight I would have spent the money if I had known how badly made the Generac units are.  The three of us had a nice quiet Thanksgiving dinner without the distractions of television or even the sound of a refrigerator running in the house, it was really quiet.

In the evening, I remembered that I have a 40 amp hour lead acid battery that I use to power my solar lawnmower conversion in the summer.

I charge it up before I store it in my workshop for the winter and remembered that I also have a small 300 W inverter.  So I brought them both over to the house to use for charging our cell phones.  We were also able to run one of the LED lights in our home so that we could all have enough light to read and play board games.  The battery lasted over seven hours and really boosted our spirits by providing a bright light. 

When the power finally returned late in the day after Thanksgiving, we were so used to not having lights or being able to use the faucets that it took a while to adapt.   Of course we all took a nice long hot shower the following morning!

In some ways, this experience was a wake-up call to remind us all what life would be like without the conveniences of electric power and running water.   It is so easy to take all of this infrastructure for granted.