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Keeping warm when the power goes out

How to survive the loss of services

This topic seems very apropos in light of recent news articles about those hit by Sandy who still have no electricity or heat. Depending on the government to save you is a great way to end up cold and dark and alone. (Some complained that rich people had generators and that was not fair. It’s not fair Obama is sitting in the warm White House either and I think sending him to live without services seems like it would make things “more fair”, don’t you?)

Let me begin by saying if you are of similar mind to a blogger I encountered recently, you may stop at the end of this paragraph. I said people need to get a wood stove (and not a pellet stove), gather up wood, or have propane and a propane heater to be ready for an emergency. The blog commenter asked me how many people I want to get killed with that suggestion. He had woodlands behind his house and thought people would steal wood if I made that suggestion. If you believe that telling people to be prepared will cause a frenzied response similar to the panic the actual disaster will produce, this column will only unnecessarily alarm you.

First, realize that emergency responders’ idea that 72 hours worth of food, water and heat are what you need are blatantly overly optimistic. As noted above, it’s been month and those hit by Sandy still are without power in some places. It’s obvious you cannot rely on the government to fix you after a disaster. The power had just returned and was lost when a snow storm hit. Your governor may ban skilled craftsmen and the national guard from helping. It is being done.

First, let’s look at heating without electricity. Even if you use a propane furnace, electricity is required to run the fan and probably to ignite the propane. Pilot lights are disappearing rapidly. So when the electricity goes out, no more furnace. If you have a backup generator or a portable generator you can provide the power needed to keep your furnace going. A backup generator wired directly into your home is simplest, but generally quite costly. At the present time, unless you have frequent outages, the cost can be prohibitive. The less expensive alternative is a portable generator. These are noisier than the backup generator and must remain outside the home due to carbon monoxide poisoning if left running inside. You will also need a heavy extension cord rated for the whole house and a way to get the extension cord into the house. If you come in through a window, you will need to seal the open part of the window to keep warmer. If you purchase a new generator, be sure to test if it is sufficient for your needs and how long it will run on a tank of gas. This last item is very important. People in New York apparently did not plan for how much gasoline would be needed. If you own a car, you can keep the tank full and get and inexpensive siphon kit to move the gas to a can for the generator. Many apartments will not allow gasoline store indoors, so the car is your only option, if you can use the generator in your building (keeping in mind it has to stay outdoors).

Another possibility mentioned above is a wood stove (but not a pellet stove). You may be able to gather wood—not stealing it, of course, and have enough wood to last a week or two comfortably. Again, you need to know how much wood is required to stay warm. With enough storage room, you can go a month or more using the wood stove.

There are propane heaters that can be used indoors, if your building permits. Again, storage of the propane may be an issue. Check the rules where you live and make sure you know how much propane you need. Generally, you will need to leave a window cracked so you don’t run out of oxygen. Also, the manufacturers of the heaters state they are not to be used while sleeping. People are used to furnaces, etc, that vent the carbon monoxide outside. In the past, people knew to leave a window partly open so there would be enough oxygen. If you use in a heater not in accordance with the manufacturers recommendations, be sure you understand the need for venting. Many of these heaters have low oxygen sensors that shut them off if the oxygen level drops too low. They may not restart for some time after that and you can get quite cold waiting for the heater to restart.

If you cannot obtain a generator or heater, then you will need to go low-tech. Get sleeping bags rated for below zero. Pile up lots of blankets, down or similar coats and mittens. Sure, it’s a depressing thing to have to wear coats inside (I did meet one guy who kept his thermostat at 45 degrees and went with the coats, but I don’t see that being popular.) but it’s better than frostbite.

People can and do live in cold areas without a lot of heat and adapt. You can survive even very cold weather if you are prepared.

Note: My furnace seller made a comment to me that I needed the furnace serviced (at $90/year or more cost) because if my furnace went out in a blizzard, what would I do? I replied I had plenty of backup heating. She was very startled by that answer. It’s the norm to just believe that furnace will always come on.

Next: Lights and food in emergencies


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Wandering Words


“We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert”. - J Robert Oppenheimer.

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