When the Lights Go Out: Two Tales of Preparedness

Tale One: The Good Tale

My sister-in-law, Roberta, and her family lives in Alaska.  She sent me an email.  The power had been out for three days at 28 below zero.  They live about ten miles out of Fairbanks and it’s dark most of the time in the winter.

They did just fine.  Her daughter and kids came up.  They hunkered down, stayed warm, and had fun. 

They cranked up a generator.  They stoked up the wood stove.  They had heat, lights, and running water.  They played games, they ate well, and in the evening, they watched movies. 

No big deal.  Kind of a fun adventure.

Tale Two: The Not-So-Good Tale

On Wednesday, the power went out a 5:00AM in our little valley.  It affected over 50,000 people, everywhere but downtown Idaho Falls.  It was 8 below zero.

I don’t have a generator.  We stumbled around in the dark finding flashlights with dead batteries.  Then we used the lights on the cell phones to find candles and get them lit.

We couldn’t cook breakfast and the house was cooling off.

I had the bright idea, “Let’s go to Idaho Falls and catch breakfast.”  It would be warm and we would find plumbing that worked.

Unfortunately, 50,000 other people had the same bright idea.  The parking lot was full at Perkins.  We didn’t even try getting in the restaurant.  We found another restaurant where we could at least get in and wait our turn.  Of course, half their staff didn’t show up for work and it was a zoo with long waits and poorly prepared food.  There were lines in the restrooms.

We went home to wait it out in the cold.  The power came back on about 2:00 in the afternoon.  What if the power had been off for three days?

The Conclusion

By 7:00PM, Merri Ann was shopping for a generator and watching related videos on the internet.  She says that we’re buying a generator.  This is what we learned:

  • If you want a generator that will run your house, plan on spending at least $2,000 for a generator.  If you want just enough for limited service, say heat, the refrigerator, and lights, you can get by for $1,000 or less.  You won’t be able to cook. 
  • You can buy a whole house, stand-by units that will automatically switch on for less than $5,000.  They’ll run off natural gas and turn on and off automatically.  There are tons of advantages; you just spend a lot more.  Learn more about standby units here.
  • You can find charts on line that will tell you how many watts you will need to run which appliances.  You can add the watts and decide what size generator you’ll need.   See the chart we used here (scroll half way down the page to the chart). 
  • You have to be able to plug the generator into your electrical system and you need a means of selecting which circuits you want to run.  That takes a separate distribution box.  We watched a video on how it’s done and it doesn’t look too complicated but unless you’re the handy type, you’ll probably want an electrician.  See the video we watched here. 
  • I contacted my friend Kay Stucki who is an expert on such matters.  He reminded me that the generator actually has to start at 8 below.  He recommended starting the generator every month to make sure everything is workable and to run some of the gas through the carburetor.  (I’ll probably do well to start it once a quarter.)  I’m not sure how often you would need to start and check a whole house standby unit—maybe not at all. 
  • Unless you’re going to use a standby unit, you’ll need a supply of gas.  The larger model that we were looking at was going ten to fifteen gallons per day.

If you are serious about this, here is an excellent buyer’s guide with a ton of information. 

We haven’t decided what to buy.  I’m holding out for a standby unit.  I’m not too excited about keeping gas on hand, starting the unit periodically, and playing mechanic at 8 below if it doesn’t start.

What does this have to do with food?  Not much.  One of the ladies in Marketing said that she and her husband lived on Oreos and chips on Wednesday.  So maybe a lot.

And if you’re tempted to go warm up in the car . . .

Understand these important safety tips regarding carbon monoxide poisoning.  Every year hundreds of people die from carbon monoxide poisoning.  More die in the winter and most of them can be prevented with three simple precautions.

  1. Never idle a car in a closed space such asMan with broken car in winter your garage. The colorless, odorless carbon monoxide from the running engine can drift back into the house and quickly kill occupants.   We recently read of a family that was overcome because of a car idling in the garage–and some of those family members were on the second floor of the home.  If you leave a car idling in the carport (which probably isn’t a good idea), make sure the doors into the house are closed.
  2. If your car is noisy or you suspect that your exhaust is faulty, get it fixed.  Now. Fumes trapped under the car can rise up into the car and overcome the occupants.  It is not safe to use a car with a faulty exhaust system.
  3. Make sure there is nothing obstructing your tailpipe.  That late winter storm that is going to blow through next Thursday may pile snow up against the back of the car.  Take a few moments to make sure that the tailpipe is not obstructed with snow before starting the car.  The life you save could be your own.  And if you slide off the road or get stuck, always make sure that you haven’t pounded snow into the tailpipe if you keep running the car.
  4. One final note, make sure that your teenagers understand the danger of sitting in parked and idling cars.  One county coroner said that, over the years, he had seen four or five couples die in parked cars.

You May Also Be Interested in This

A long time ago, we wrote a little e-book, An Emergency Bread Handbook. You’re welcome to read it or download if you would like without submitting an email address.