Two Letters Re: Hurricane Irene Lessons Learned

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Jim,
I thought I'd share with you some thoughts and experience I've had with Hurricane [later Tropical Storm] Irene. I live in southwest Connecticut in a city slightly less than 100,000 population.  We are about 50-65 miles from New York City. As of this evening, I am still running my generator five days after being hit by Tropical Storm Irene on Saturday evening.  As of this evening, the power company said they will restore power "by middle of next week".  If that ends up happening, we will be without power for around 10 days.  We shall see. 

A few details about our setup.  I think it's pretty typical for around here.

  • Well with 1/2 HP 220 VAC submersible pump.  The well is approximately 250 feet deep.
  • Septic tank
  • Oil heat boiler
  • Oil hot water heater
  • Generator - 6,500 Watt gasoline unit converted to propane many years ago. 

Overall the wind could have been much worse.  I've read some recent articles that said the hurricane was over-hyped by the media.   Although there is probably some truth to this, most of the articles don't mention how vast the power outages are in Connecticut.   Connecticut ended up having a record number of power outages from this storm (50-60% homes just  after the storm).    Parts of upstate Connecticut, New York and Vermont were hit with very heavy rain and flooding.  Some covered bridges which stood for over 130 years were washed away.  Sounds like it wasn't hyped too much to me!

I converted my generator to propane years ago for less than $200.  Its a rather simple setup which I can remove and run with gasoline without much work. I have 50 lbs tanks which hold holds 12gallons of propane.  I also have a few 20lbs grill tanks which hold 4.7 gallons each.  One thing you have to be careful with regarding small propane tanks is that they don't allow the propane to turn to gas quick enough to supply the generator with enough gas.This also depends on the size of the generator.  I find that the grill tanks never empty because about half way through, they start to frost on the outside.  Obviously, this is a bigger problem in the winter when it's cold outside.  This is why I use the bigger tanks because they have more surface area of liquid propane to convert to gas.  With the 50lb tanks, I can get them close to empty with my genny.  Also, a 50 lb tank is about 72 lbs full.   Anything larger than this for me is harder to move around and handle.   

I get about 12-to-24 hours off a 50 lb tank.  This depends on my electrical load and how often I turn it off to save fuel.   I have two tanks, so every morning I head down to the propane dealer to fill up the empty one.  The system isn't great but it works.   I asked the propane dealer and they said their filling station is run on a generator so it should be available.    A majority of people have gas generators so in theory I should have an easier time to get fuel. Another surprising observation is that the oil in the genny doesn't get dirty.   I have about 100 hrs on the oil and it still looks new.   Propane burns so clean that there is no carbon deposited in the oil   I'm not sure if the oil still breaks down and I should change the oil regardless of what color it is.  I plan to research this. 

Some of my friend who were also hit hard in Eastern Connecticut coast said that a few days after Irene hit, it was very difficult to find gas.   Long lines at stations and/or driving far away was required to get gas.   I didn't wait in any line.  Most of the time, I was the only person there filling my propane.

Generators were darn near impossible to get around here the day after Irene hit.  It was also very difficult to get extension cords and plastic gas cans.   Everyone was sold out.  Thankfully, I had everything I needed and got to listen to everyone complain.  It's nice knowing I had prepared my family long ago for days like this.  Sure does give me options.

My wife and I saw a lot of people jumping for bottled water at Wal-Mart as the worked rolled out bottled water on carts from the back.  The carts were emptied in minutes.    Grocery shelves were still empty in a Target store, four days after. I've read about these situations before, but it sure hits home to see it in person.  God forbid something big ever happens some day.   Grocery stores will be empty in no time.  After seeing this weekend, I really believe this now.  Scary stuff.

A 6,500 watt generator does everything you need to live comfortably.   I can't run my central AC but who cares.  I saved a window AC unit in the attic for days like this.  We can cool one room with window unit with no problem for the Genny.  I have no problem running my well, oil blower, hot water heater, refrigerator, lights, attic fan to keep attic cool.    In a similar situation in the winter, I can also run the blower on my oil boiler to heat the house.  One problem with my genny is that it runs pretty much full out all the time.  If you are only running a refrigerator at the time, it consumes a lot of fuel to keep it running.     I plan to look at the Honda Inverters to just run the refrigerator so that I can shut down the 6,500 watt unit for large portions of the day.  I could turn it on only at dinner time or bath time for the kids.  It doesn't take long before the drone the generator will drive you crazy.   I would shut the thing off once in a while just to relax.   The white noise really does wear on you.   Also, everyone on the street knows you have one because it is so loud.  

The biggest problem for me with power is the well.   You start to respect how much power they consume to when you have to "provide" it instead of the local power plant.   I'd love to find a way to consume less power to get water to flush toilets etc.   Still research to do here. 

The other thing you'll learn really fast is how inefficient generators are compared to buying electricity.   I figure my house typically cost $3 per day in electricity.   When I have to make my own power, it costs me $30-60 per day in propane!   Another reason to investigate the Honda Inverters because of their efficiency. 

People should plan on hosting friends and families with them.   Even in our case, we had friend living with us who were evacuated from a house on the river.   I am grateful we could help them but one should plan on extra supplies and time to have others join your safe haven.  It doesn't take long for the word to get out who has a generator, gas cans, power cords, chain saws etc. 

One more thing:  Cell phones have been terribly unreliable.   I guess some towers went down due to the outages or they are overloaded because no one has wired phones anymore at home.  When the power goes out, all their wireless phones don't work!    Text got through but regular phone calls were very hard to place for days.

Overall, it has  gone well because I read your site and was prepared.   My wife is very grateful that we and our friends have a safe comfortable place to stay.    She is now interested in getting a wood stove because if this had happened in the winter, we would burn even more fuel to keep the boiler running.   If I had a wood stove and stored wood, all I would need electricity for is the refrigerator and well.  This would make a big difference and make us even more independent.

Thanks for what you do. - Joe from Connecticut

 

Dear JWR:
I really enjoy your blog. I’m fairly new to the whole “survivalist” thing, I look at it as more of a “common sense” thing. I’m in central Massachusetts and we knew we were really in for it with Irene. I’m a weather nut and I know what to look for and what sources to follow. We are always fairly well prepared for anything and my wife is just as much a “be prepared” person as I am. We always have batteries and such on hand so that was not an issue. Battery powered radio? Check! Lots of bottles of water frozen in the freezer? All set thanks to my wife! I went the additional step of filling the bathtub full of water to flush toilets in case we lost power. Despite having no supply of MREs we had plenty of food ready to go. My biggest concern was my basement flooding and us losing power. My generator is only a 2,400 watt model but it’s enough to handle my sump pump. It was ready to go with a 220 capable extension cord running to the house right to where the cord for the pump plugs in. The generator is kept in my 20’x12’ shed 120 feet from the house. Later the afternoon before the storm the cashier at the general store up the road and I had a good laugh at all the people panicking buying milk, bread, batteries and anything else not clamped down. One guy bought seven huge bags of ice and we wondered aloud what he was going to do with all that ice.
 
That night I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and went to bed knowing I was ready. I woke up at 6am to it raining cats, dogs, and bears. My sump pump was already firing off every 25 seconds. As the storm got closer this increased to a maximum of every 15 seconds before it started going down as the morning progressed. The lights flickered 4 or 5 times but the power never went out. You see, there was a reason for that. We survived the ice storm of December 2008. With temps never above 20 degrees we roughed it out for seven long days without power. The night of the storm my generator died and my wife and I bailed that sump pump well for 8 hours straight before we finally gave up but we saved our furnace and hot water heater. I went through 2 face cords of wood that week but we stayed in the house and it never got below 54 degrees. The trees and branches that came down during that incredibly devastating storm saved us during Irene. Earlier this year National Grid came through and took out any of the dying or bad trees along the power lines. All of this saved us from losing power. Many other towns in Massachusetts were not as lucky, but as I remind them, at least it’s not December.
 
Next step is to stock up on MREs and more importantly get an auto-standby generator to replace my small one, which will run off my propane tanks that power my furnace and other things. Thanks for all the tips and looking forward to following your blog. - P.R.C. in Massachusetts

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Rawles published on September 3, 2011 6:33 PM.

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