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Letter Re: Emergency Lighting

Good afternoon, Hugh,

Two recent experiences drive me to write– a recent overnight house guest and a link today on Instapundit about surviving disaster (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150128-how-to-survive-a-disaster).

My house guest commented on the number of my night lights and the fact that I have a floor lamp powered by a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply), which is a “battery backup” typically used for computers.

First, the night lights are what I prefer to call “target identification lights”. They’re not used just in the bathrooms; they are positioned to ensure anyone moving through the house must either cast a shadow or be silhouetted. This is convenient for the residents (and guests), because it allows easy navigation as well as aiding in identifying potential threats without requiring hand-held lighting that will tell an intruder where you are. (Note: I keep a high-intensity light– a 500 lumen Surefire– on the nightstand just for that purpose as well as wall-mounted 3 D-cell LED Maglites next to each exterior door, in each bedroom, and at each end of the house. Rule 4 of gun safety is “always be sure of your target”, and gun-mounted lights should not be used for that. Additionally, a bright white light can be a powerful weapon in the dark.)

I use two types of 115-volt receptacle replacement LED night lights– Pass and Seymour and Cooper Wiring. (Leviton also makes similar LED nightlight outlets, but I have no experience with them.) Pass and Seymour make several types. The one I use is a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) double receptacle with a built-in LED nightlight. When I moved into the house I now occupy, I discovered all the bathroom receptacles were on the same circuit and protected by one GFCI breaker in the electrical panel; should an event in one bathroom cause the breaker to trip, it meant all the bathrooms lost power, and it required a trip to the breaker panel in the garage to reset. I replaced all the bathroom receptacles with the P&S night light GFCI receptacles and the GFCI breaker with a standard breaker, making each bathroom outlet electrically independent while still providing GFCI protection (required by electrical and building codes, as well as just common sense).

I also bought a few extra GFCI nightlight receptacles from Home Depot and installed them in several outlets around the house as well as a couple outlets in the kitchen, which also required GFCI protection. While Pass and Seymour have non-GFCI nightlight receptacles, I picked the GFCI for a reason. The other P&S nightlight receptacles have either one non-GFCI outlet and an LED nightlight, a non-GFCI double outlet and nightlight, or a larger nightlight that replaces the entire outlet, or another half-and-half that incorporates a nightlight and a switch to control whatever electrical device one wishes, allowing the incorporation of a nightlight where one now has only a switch, which is a handy option. Unfortunately, none of these configurations allow turning off the night light. Pressing the “test” button on the GFCI nightlight outlet does, affording the ability to “go dark” if one needs to. (Of course, it also turns off power to that entire receptacle as well.)

Some time later I discovered Cooper Wiring manufactured similar outlets with similar configurations and a significant difference– the nightlight portion could be simply programmed for off, low, medium, or bright intensity, and no matter what level one programs to, the nightlight can be turned off and back on by simply pressing the night light lens. (I have not found a non-GFCI double receptacle with LED nightlight from Cooper Wiring that allows turning off the nightlight, but they do have a GFCI version similar to the P&S.)

All the Pass and Seymour and Cooper Wiring lights I have found are controlled by photocells, so they turn on and off automatically in daylight and at night.

Were I fortunate enough to either build a new house or perform a major remodel on this one, I would install some of the Cooper Wiring “full box” (night light only, no outlet or switch) in the ceilings, one in each bathroom, two in the hallway, and one each in the kitchen and family room to provide a wider spread of light than is possible with a wall-mounted light. I’d also put them all on one circuit, so even though they can be turned off and on individually I would have the option of turning all off at once. Since the LEDs draw only one watt each, they would be a “natural” for having a medium-size UPS power them, so one would have minimal light in emergencies if house power were to be lost.

Speaking of UPSes, my UPS-powered floorlamp has a purpose. Some “bad guys” have figured out that modern house construction often puts the main power breaker in the same outside box where the electrical meter is. This allows them to turn the power off to the entire house, then perform a home invasion in the dark while the residents are disoriented.

Having one lamp that is powered by a UPS ensures there will be at least some light should the power be cut. Mine is positioned to cast light down the bedroom hallway and into the family room and part of the kitchen, and it also illuminates all entrance doors through light reflected off walls and the ceiling. It uses a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb that consumes 9 watts and is controlled by a timer plugged into the UPS that turns it on about an hour before dark and off an hour after sunrise. There is also a “Failed Circuit Alarm” ($28 at Amazon) plugged into the same outlet; a FCA is commonly used with freezers so an audible alarm is sounded if power to that receptacle fails, and they are about as loud as a smoke detector; if house power fails, the floor lamp will stay on, so I needed a way to know that power was out.

Side note: One can lock the outside electrical box to prevent tampering with the main breaker, but there needs to be a way to very quickly access the breaker in emergencies. I have equipped my box with the flimsiest luggage lock I could find, and just inside the garage door I keep a medium bolt cutter. The flimsy lock will reduce the possibility of tampering, although it certainly won’t stop a dedicated criminal, and the bolt cutter allows me access it in seconds without having to fumble with even a simple combination. The tools that firefighters routinely carry on their turnout coats will allow them to quickly break the lock as well.

Second side note: Do you have natural gas or propane? Do you need any special tools to shut off those valves in the event of an emergency? Hang those tools adjacent to the electrical panel or the garage door. Also, teach all family members how to use them.

Having a lamp on battery backup also will help should there be an emergency, such as a fire, so that residents and guests can quickly find their way out. The UPS I use will keep that lamp on for about 12 hours, which is way more than I need, but I happened to have that UPS available.

A word about the Maglites: they’re in wall brackets, aimed up at the ceiling, adjacent to all exterior doors, at each end of the house next to the fire extinguishers, and one in each bedroom. They can be removed from the brackets for use, or turned on to reflect light off the ceiling to provide general illumination.

Pro tip: get white or yellow reflective tape and put a couple 2-inch bands around each flashlight. If you set it down in the dark, especially if it’s a black flashlight, the reflective tape makes it easier to find. – N.K.