Four years ago, we installed a net-metered photovoltaic system on our barn roof. Photovoltaics, or simply PV, is a term that means “light electricity” or solar energy.
On sunny days solar powers our energy needs.
We appreciate our PV system. On sunny days, when our system produces more electricity than we use, it runs our meter backward as power flows out into the energy grid. At night and on cloudy days, when we’re using more power than we’re producing, we draw electricity in from Alliant Energy, our utility. At the end of each month, we pay the “net” so it’s called a Net-Metered System. This eliminates the need to have storage batteries. We’ve had a monthly bill as low as $5!
But what happens when the grid goes down? It did on August 10, 2020, when a derecho roared through Iowa with 140 mile an hour winds. Hundreds of miles of wires were torn down as trees crashed into them. We joined thousands of other homes without power.
Solar chargers help keep people connected when the power goes out.
So, did our PV system power our lights, computers, and television? Nope. We used candles and lanterns when it got dark and couldn’t power our computer, television, or any other electric appliance for about two weeks.
Net-metered systems, like ours, have an automatic switch built into them so they don’t export electricity back to the grid when it’s down. It’s a safety mechanism designed to prevent a utility employee working to restore power from getting a shock. Our system produced electricity during the blackout, but it just dissipated. As soon as our power was restored the PV system again sent power outward.
An Important PV Safety Tip
Our PV system survived the wind intact but others were ripped from roofs and tumbled to the ground. A PV panel laying on the ground upright makes electricity. Grabbing wires or the panel can give someone a tremendous shock. If a PV panel is on the ground stay away……or cover it with a tarp to darken it so it doesn’t produce electricity. It’s safest to wait until after dark to flip it.
Note: The below references to companies are Winding Pathways’ own experiences with quality products.
What Are Common Causes of Power Outages?
Usually, people lose electric power because of a tornado, hurricane, blizzard, or a windstorm that blows down trees. We were surprised that Pacific Gas and Electric planned a deliberate outage to prevent sparks from igniting a forest fire like the terrible one that destroyed the town of Paradise. CA, last year.
Interviews with impacted residents on the national news made us realize how unprepared many people are for the loss of electricity. Californians flocked to gas stations and grocery stores to stock up on fuel and food.
Preparation is Best
This powerful lantern runs several hours on the battery.
Humans are addicted to the flow of electrons we call electricity. Winding Pathways encourages everyone to prepare for times when power is not there. Several previous blogs detail how families can prepare to ride out an outage in relative comfort
Preparation is neither hard nor expensive. Check our past blogs for detail but here’s the short list of simple items to keep on hand in case the power goes off for a few days:
Basic Items to Consider
Food: A few days’ worth of non-perishable food beats not eating. Dehydrated meals keep nearly forever and canned goods also have a high storage life. When a blizzard approaches people flock to grocery stores to buy milk and bread. Neither is needed. And, milk will spoil if not kept cold. Keep powdered milk and crackers on hand just in case.
Light: Flashlights help people find their way around on dark nights, but they’re not too useful when lots of light is needed for reading or preparing a meal. Modern LED lanterns are ideal for general lighting. Our Milwaukee lamp was made for construction workers but throws out plenty of light and runs all night on one rechargeable battery. We keep a few batteries always charged. Many brands of lanterns are on the market. We recommend that people keep one in the closet to help on dark nights.
Fuel and backup heat: Rather than waiting in line at a gas station when power might go out, simply keep some gas in storage in the garage. Be sure to add a gas stabilizer to it. We rotate our gas in spring and fall by simply pouring the old gas into the car’s tank and then filling the can with fresh gas. We keep ten gallons in storage. Anyone living in a cold climate needs to have a backup plan in case the power goes off. Keeping pipes from freezing is important. See our earlier blogs for tips.
Water: Usually municipal water still flows even if the power goes off but it’s always a good idea to keep several gallons of clean water in storage just in case.
My daily labyrinth walk on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, in the middle of the Polar Vortex coughed up several lessons.
In spite of the bitterly cold morning, the snowshoes strap that slipped off and glasses that fogged up, it was a great walk! Nothing I want to repeat, though.
Here are some lessons:
(Think ahead.) Just like a little kid is reminded, it is better to use the bathroom before donning the multiple layers of clothes.
(Before starting out, make sure your equipment is ready and working. Think ahead number two.) Pulling the snowshoes down from the hooks in the unheated garage, I realized the straps were frozen. “Oh well, I can make this work.” Ha! At -25 degrees? Not. Gloves were too bulky to fix on the straps, so I took them off. Within seconds my fingers were numb.
(Be ready for consequences. Think ahead number three.) Not only were my fingers numb but also because I hurried putting the snowshoes on, one strap slipped off partway through the walk causing me to stumble. Additionally, when I wrapped my scarf around my nose and breathed out, my glasses fogged up. Between the two, I pitched off the packed trail into the deep snow. I regained balance and came back on the path. It was kind of scary even though I knew my husband was monitoring my adventure from the house.
(Have a back-up plan. Think ahead number four.) Oh, I could have done the finger labyrinth, or “walked” the outdoor labyrinth from the upstairs window. I also love a challenge. Yet, how much was just showing off for those who live in warmer climates and marvel at how the northerners survive?
(Turning back is OK!) A few times I thought about cutting off the path back to the beginning and just coming inside. That would have been OK.
(Persevering is also OK.) So, “keeping on keeping on” is valuable. Just be aware and safe in our pursuits. When a situation is hard, ask, “Why?” And, then make decisions from there. Move into a growth attitude of “I can do this.”
(Be of Growth Mindset) Learn from missteps. Just like my shortcut crossing on the industrial pipe above the dam and jagged rocks as a little kid, this adventure was good to do. Maybe not one to repeat. Get back on the path.
(Be grateful.) Always a valuable lesson. From small to large gratitudes express them many times each day. This changes everything.
Note: Our comments are personal observations. We have not been paid by any company to review their products.
Wildfires in California. Hurricanes along the coast. Blizzards and tornadoes everywhere. In this era of climate change every household should prepare for long stretches without electrical power or even the possibility of evacuating at short notice. And the recent earthquake in Alaska reminds us of the importance of being prepared especially in cold months when food, water, and shelter are critical.
Fortunately, many families have assembled emergency kits that include a mix of essential items useful when the lights go out. For detail see the Winding Pathways article on important items to stock in the kit. Emergency kits can be quickly grabbed if evacuation is needed and the contents help make life more comfortable should there be no need to leave but the house has no electricity.
Two items often are forgotten but become critically important during a widespread emergency. Be sure to keep these on hand:
When the power goes out credit and debit cards probably won’t work. Cash always works. Keeping a couple of hundred dollars in small bills makes buying necessary items during a power outage possible. It’s a good idea to hide money somewhere in the emergency preparedness kit.
When Hurricane Sandy left millions of people without electrical power for weeks a critical problem was the inability to charge cell phones and other electronic devices. The cell network was operating since companies have backup generators. But most people’s phone batteries discharged, and they had no ready way to recharge them. Fortunately, there are several options for charging. Here are two that work well:
Solar chargers help keep people connected when the power goes out.
Solar chargers:Small inexpensive solar powered devices charge phones when placed in the sun. These are sold in camping and electronic stores. They will work on cloudy days, although charging will be slower than when the sun shines.
Battery chargers: For many years we’ve used Milwaukee brand drills and saws for projects around the house. The company recently sent us an ideal product to solve two problems posed by power failures. It is a light powered by the same lithium-ion batteries that run power tools. The light has a port enabling connection with cell phones. It charges them up quickly. We always keep four batteries fully charged, and each battery will run the light for many hours and recharge a phone several times. The light is surprisingly bright, and we’ll bring it on future camping trips instead of our old gasoline lantern. This device fills two emergency needs-light and charging.
The lantern throws excellent light after dark.
When buying cordless power tools and other accessories it’s a good idea to purchase ones that can both run the tools and charge a phone.
There is a third item that’s also often forgotten. That’s drinking water. We keep in storage 25 gallons of clean water in five-gallon containers. Should that run out we have two backpacker style filters that remove bacteria and viruses from water. If we need even more water, we keep a few tiny jars of water purification pills in our emergency bin. Water filters and purification tablets are sold in camping stores and are usually marketed to backpackers. These enable purifying water from nearby ponds and streams.
Hopefully, the power won’t ever go out, but the reality is that storms are increasing. Along with them comes higher odds that the power will go out. It’s best to be ready.
Blizzards, ice storms, and powerful winds will strike this winter. It’s impossible to predict just where they’ll hit, but anyone might need to endure cold nights without electricity until utility workers restore power.
Don’t be caught in the cold.
People can survive a few cold days in relative comfort by piling on layers of clothes or snuggling under thick quilts at night. But, even the most well insulated house will gradually cool as soon as a power outage shuts down the furnace. Eventually pipes will freeze, causing enormous damage as water squirts on carpet, furniture, books and electronics. In fact everywhere!
Will your heating system work without electricity? Find out before a blizzard leaves your family in the cold.
If your heating system depends on electricity, now is a good time to install back up heat.
Two ways determine whether the furnace will work. The best is to call your local heating company and ask. Or, turn off the circuit breaker that feeds power to the furnace and give it a try. It probably won’t work. So, get to work protecting your home, furnishings and family.
Winding Pathways encourages homeowners to eliminate the risk of freezing pipes by taking precautions before cold weather arrives. Probably the best strategy is to invest in insulation and to replace old windows that leak cold air. A well-insulated home cools more slowly than a poorly insulated one. But having a backup heat source that doesn’t require electricity is important even in thickly insulated homes.
Electric wires are stretched between poles above ground where they are vulnerable to storms. In contrast natural gas lines are buried in the ground and are immune to storms but vulnerable to earthquakes. The chance of losing electricity is higher than losing gas.
Most modern gas and oil furnaces need electricity to work. It powers blowers that distribute warm air through ducts or circulates hot water to radiators. When a storm knocks out power the furnace shuts down.
Winding Pathways is in frigid Iowa where it can be 25 below zero with high wind for a week or more. A traditional furnace heats our home but won’t work without electricity so we’ve done two things that will keep us, and our pipes, warm.
We hired a professional to install a woodstove downstairs. And all spring and summer we cut, cured and stacked a few cords of wood. We enjoy its cozy heat even when the power works. It reduces our natural gas bill and would keep the house warm without electricity. Woodstoves aren’t for everyone. They require work to cut and stack the wood and maintain the fire. Firewood takes lots of storage space and stoves bring dust and smoke into the house. For those who don’t want to deal with wood heat there’s a better option.
We also hired a company to install two natural gas heaters. One is a fireplace insert. The other is a simple gas heater at the other end of the house. Their blowers won’t work when the power goes off but unlike the furnace they continue to provide heat without the blower. They’ll keep our home relatively warm even without electricity. Similar heaters can be fueled by propane and would be a good choice for homeowners who don’t have a natural gas line nearby. Most heating supply companies sell gas heaters that work without electricity.
When the wind howls, ice pellets rattle against the windows and the thermometer plummets it’s comforting to know that a house has a heat source that will work without electricity.