A study by Northern Illinois University scientists in 2008 revealed the danger of nighttime tornadoes, especially in the southern part of the USA, which is where we live. In fact, our great state of North Carolina ranks first in the nation for the percentage of people killed by nighttime tornadoes: since 1950, 82% of all tornado-related fatalities in North Carolina occurred at night. Most (but not all) of these deaths occurred when people were either outdoors, or in cars, or in mobile homes. My concern is that I may be sound asleep when a killer tornado comes knocking on my door. So I set out to figure out a way to prepare for this possibility. Here’s what I learned, in a nutshell.
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is a branch of the US government that “enriches life through science.” Through their National Weather Service, they are the agency that issues alerts about dangerous weather. This includes severe storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, extreme heat, winter storms, fire threats, tsunamis and solar flares. Working with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Alert System, the NOAA broadcasts official severe weather warnings through the NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) service, a nationwide network of 1,000 radio stations covering all 50 states, using seven distinct frequencies in the VHF public service band. NWR requires a special receiver to pick up these frequencies.
These “special receivers” are known as weather radios. You can do a Google or eBay search to see many examples of these radios. After exploring what they can do, I have decided to purchase a Kaito KA450 weather radio. It solves my problem.
I can leave it plugged in, in a silent standby mode. If any of the severe weather conditions I mentioned above were to happen in my area, the radio would automatically turn on (a key feature of NWR/weather radios) and start broadcasting the emergency warning at whatever volume I had previously set. In this way, it could wake me up and warn me of a tornado in the middle of the night!
If the weather emergency were to include a power outage, no problem. The radio’s rechargeable battery would have been charged by electricity before the power went out! This particular radio can also be charged by hand crank, by regular batteries, and by solar power, allowing additional uses in other disaster situations.
I’ll sleep a little easier at night, especially on those nights when the weather is already suspicious!
I was thinking about the most important things to consider in the case of a major disaster. I think at the top of the list are water, food, clothing and shelter. I will definitely make a plan for those things, but today I’ll try to tackle a bigger project, the loss of energy/power. What would I do if in a disaster we lost electricity, and maybe even natural gas? What if it was for longer than a few hours or days? What if we lost power for many days, weeks, or in a major catastrophe, months? My planning will be with the more prolonged outages in mind, though I recognize that the more practical advantages of prepping for this will be for the usual power outages that last only minutes, hours or a few days.
My research has taken me deep into the multitude of options regarding alternate power sources. Replacing ALL the electricity we use every day is possible, using a natural gas-powered generator that would kick in automatically if the electricity went out. This would be the ideal solution for the situation of pure electricity loss, but this option is very costly, about 4 to 8 thousand dollars, and would require installation by an electrician. And if in a major catastrophe we also lost natural gas at the same time, then we would be totally frakked! Here are samples of these generators and their cost, and here is a picture:
A better option for us will be to replace not all of our usual electricity use, but just what is required for the more critical needs. These will include the fan for our gas furnace, lights in the kitchen, family room, bedroom and bathroom, the refrigerator, washing machine, cable/internet and the alarm system. I’ll probably come up with others. This opens up several options for replacing that smaller amount of electricity. I could use a gasoline, diesel or propane generator. (Check out examples here.) I’d have to have an electrician set it up for me, but other people might actually be willing to learn how to do that themselves. Then, if the lights went out, all I’d have to do is turn on the generator and manually flip a switch, off of the electric company power grid and onto the home generator. The cost of this is more reasonable. It could be set up to turn on automatically, but this adds greatly to the cost.
Of course, a generator could be used as a stand alone, not wired into the house, and one would simply plug things into it.
Another option is to have a series of batteries that are kept charged by the normally working electricity. Then if the power went out, the batteries would take over, again for the more critical circuits. We’d have electricity for a couple of days, until the batteries would run dry. The cost of this is also more reasonable. See examples here. And a picture of a battery power system:
Of note, solar power can also charge these batteries.
Simplest of all is the idea of using candles, battery powered flashlights or lanterns for light, and an efficient wood burning stove or propane space heater for heat, when the power goes out. Sure, that’s enough for most power outages lasting only minutes or a few hours. But if one were to last days, these solutions won’t help keep the food in your refrigerator from spoiling, or to maintain your internet access, or to get beautiful with your hair blower, etc. But I will admit it doesn’t get much cheaper than that.
I’ll talk about solar, wind and geothermal power, and the idea of self-sufficiency, in a minute. But before I do, I’ll mention that deploying any alternate source of electricity is made a lot easier (and cheaper) if our usage of electricity is efficient in the first place. The less electricity we have to replace the better. I found an excellent article here that is a good starting point if you want to learn more about making your home more energy efficient.
As I was learning about this stuff I realized it will be important for me to know exactly how much electricity we actually use. I took a look at our electric bill with new eyes. Now I have a good idea of how many kilowatts of electricity we use. At least that is a starting point as I begin to examine the power output of various alternate power source options.
But what if we really did have a major catastrophe and not only did we lose electricity, but we lost natural gas, AND access to gasoline, diesel and propane? What if our local government resources were shut down and couldn’t help you in time? Would you be a victim or a survivor? Would you be a big baby and cry about why FEMA didn’t respond to your whining faster, or would you be able to take care of yourself? What would it take to become self-sufficient?
Well, in terms of energy production, self-sufficiency goes way beyond chopping your own wood for the stove and fireplace! Today we are talking about harvesting the energy in sunlight, wind and from the heat in the ground. In coastal areas, energy can also be harvested from the force of ocean waves. For most people, solar and wind power are the most practical of these cutting edge options.
Solar power technologies have gotten much better. The photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight to electricity have gotten smaller, lighter, more efficient, and cheaper. But even so, the cost of electricity obtained this way is far more expensive than getting it from your electric company. Same goes for wind power. It is easy enough to figure out how many solar panels you would need to satisfy your current usage. You have to know how much you use (check you electric bill), how much is produced by each solar panel, and divide. Then you have to have a space for all those solar panels, usually on your roof. So you have to know the area of your roof, the area of a solar panel, and divide to see how many cells will fit on your roof. Then, of course, you have to pay for them. You have already figured out the number of solar panels you would need, so then you take the price per solar panel, and multiply. And then there are the installation and maintenance costs. We’re talking a total of tens of thousands of dollars! But I’m certain that prices will go down as time goes by. And the government has been giving tax rebates for people adopting solar power technologies. That helps.
So at this point in time, some people are using solar power to either provide all of their electricity needs (most of them live in the sunny southwest USA,) or to replace just a portion of their needs, or simply to heat water.
The idea of solar and wind power appeals to me because of the idea of self-sufficiency. In a major catastrophe like I described, with the loss of all services, when the DHTO (defecation hits the oscillator) 🙂 , I would love knowing I can produce even a little electricity for light and heat, completely on my own. Of course, the likelihood of that kind of major catastrophe is small, so a big investment in this direction is probably not going to happen right now. But I will keep informed on new developments, I’ll watch prices go down, and I will jump in at some point.
Meanwhile, I have seen inexpensive solar panels that you can roll up and carry with you, that can recharge your small electronic gadgets including phones and computers. At the very least I will do that. It might come in handy some day, and it will increase my hands-on awareness of this technology.
So now I just have to think, consider my options, do some math, and decide. I’ll post again, or add to this post in the future, when I have decided what I’m going to do to prepare for a disaster that includes a prolonged loss of electric power.