AAR: Winter Storm Uri, by Rocket J. Squirrel

Editor’s Introductory Note: The following is the third After-Action Report (AAR) that we’ve posted in SurvivalBlog about the recent severe winter weather in Texas. Anyone who lives in a temperate region should read these AARs closely, and learn from their experiences. Make adjustments to your home/retreat’s backup power system, water system, heating sources, and insulation. If nothing else, these AARs illustrate that you need to now how to repair copper, PVC, and PEX pipe, and keep the requisite tools and repair pie and fittings on hand.

I live in a suburb south of downtown Houston, Texas. We woke up on February 15th with about 1” of snow on the ground and the power to our home was out. Power outages are common for Houston. An inch of snow is not too unusual for Houston; it may happen once every few years or every decade. What was unusual was the length of time which the temperature was below freezing and how far below freezing the temperature dropped. A “typical” winter on the Gulf Coast might have overnight temperatures dropping to 25°F but daytime temperatures hovering near or going back up over 32°F during the day. I looked at some historical weather data and an average year has 62 hours of temperatures observed below 30°F but those instances of cold temperatures would typically be spread across all of the cold winter months, not 62 hours in a row.

Our home was without power for 42 hours straight including the time when it was 11°F overnight Monday night. I estimate that temperatures were sub-freezing for about 56 hours straight. I didn’t turn on our generator. The interior of the house was down to 47°F when the power first came back on. Jackets were sufficient. Our natural gas supply was still operational but we had to break out the matches to light up the burner on the stove for cooking because normal operation is spark ignition.

Even though I grew up and lived most of my life in Southern California, I am familiar with cold weather. I spent one winter in Michigan commissioning a newly constructed power plant. I tell people that we spent the six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day going from one spot to another thawing out frozen pipes in the power plant. The plant had started operations but the insulation of various pipes was not yet complete.

The Achilles heel for homes in the Houston area turned out to be the water piping. The pipes run through the uninsulated attic space. For information, my home has PEX piping with insulation on most of the piping. From my winter experience at the power plant in Michigan, I implemented a strategy of running the water in every faucet in the house every 4 hours to displace the water in the pipes with fresh, less cold water. There were three occurrences when I opened a faucet and the water dribbled out, then stopped completely. After waiting with the faucet open for about 30 seconds, the water started flowing again in each instance. An ice plug had started to form in the piping somewhere. What was happening was the water pressure was sufficient to push out/melt the ice plugs which were starting to form. If I had let the ice plug grow then the piping might have been damaged.

The water pressure dropped to almost zero for several hours during the second day without power. If the water had been out the whole time then my strategy would have been different and I would have shut off the water at the street and drain all of the piping in the house. That strategy would not have been ideal as there would have remained some water in low points as the plumbing was not designed with drain valves.

My home survived without freeze damage but I helped two friends deal with the broken pipes and the water damage which occurred after the ambient temperature rose above freezing. My friends who incurred damage had copper pipes that were uninsulated. I came to the conclusion that the local building code requirements only anticipate freezing temperatures overnight with warming during daylight hours. I expect that people up north in the Texas panhandle survived just fine because the construction techniques anticipate sub-freezing weather for multiple days in a row every winter. I went up in the attic of my 2-year-old home and found very poor workmanship with respect to the application of insulation to the water pipes. I observed many gaps and large sections (~10’) of insulation had fallen off. I have some work to do to get things properly insulated.

One friend who had a leak didn’t have any plumbing tools. I went back to my house and got my tubing cutter and copper pipe soldering kit. When I went to the big-box hardware store to get parts to repair my friend’s plumbing, I took back roads to avoid the highway where the power was still out to the traffic signals. When I arrived at the store, most lights were without power but they had a few lights on and the cash registers were operational. The store had very few people – until I arrived at the plumbing aisle where it was shoulder-to-shoulder humanity. I waded in and headed to the SharkBite fittings as suggested by one of the other guys helping my friend. I found a 4-pack of ½” fittings (there were no single fittings left) and a 10’ length of ½” pipe. I got 4 copper couplings just in case. I went to get a bottle of propane for my soldering torch just in case – they were sold out.

As to the sky-high spot power prices all over Texas, some people were on contracts which were tied directly to spot electricity prices. I would never have a market price contract for my household electricity service just as I would never have an adjustable-rate mortgage. You may get a little savings most of the time but the risk is to great in my opinion. I built power plants for a living for many years and lived in/observed the California energy crisis of 2001 and am familiar with the spikes in wholesale electricity spot prices when demand is up and generation capability is down. Unfortunately, those people who signed up for contracts tied directly to spot prices did just that, they signed a contract, and need to keep their commitment or declare bankruptcy. It is sad that the person who will get a $10,000 electricity bill is likely someone who can’t afford to pay the bill and still pay for food or much of anything else.

The Texas power system did not work well in this situation. Do we need to modify the system so uninformed people are not allowed to take this risk? The current Texas wholesale electricity system is payments for energy only, in contrast to other parts of the country where utilities will pay generators for “capacity” which is to say that generators are paid a specified amount to sit idle at times and be ready to generate electricity during high demand periods if called upon. If power prices are not allowed to rise to the market price during high-demand periods then no investors will ever build a power plant because there is no economic incentive to do so. Texas will become a Third World country with rolling blackouts every summer afternoon if our electric grid does not have sufficient and reliable generating capability. Does this event demonstrate that the Texas power generating system is already akin to a Third World country?

What went well?  What did I learn?

• When the storm was predicted, I topped off the charge on our 20 ampere-hour Anker battery pack. That kept our phones charged for two days. I did not have to start the car and use it to charge phones.
• Our land-based fiber optic internet was not operational when the power was out. We were still able to access the internet via cell phone service.
• I did not install a telephone landline in my new home. I would have been without all telephone service if the cell towers had been out.
• When the storm was predicted, I also got the box of headlamps (that I bought on sale several Christmases ago) out of the garage. The batteries that came with the headlamps were corroded. Fortunately, I had not installed them so there was no damage to the headlamps themselves. I got out fresh batteries and installed them. The headlamps were very handy.
• The biggest problem was the damage to the pipes from the freeze and subsequent water damage after the thaw.
• It was really cold, but nothing extra jackets and extra blankets on the bed couldn’t solve.
• The water supply was on for all but a few hours. The back-up water stored in 55-gallon drums did not need to be called into use.
• Our fireplace is a natural gas-only insert with a remote control solenoid for the gas valve. With the power out, I could not turn the gas fireplace on. I helped a neighbor turn on their manual gas log (no electric solenoid valve) because they did not know-how. Their gas valve key had been lost. My locking pliers did the trick. Another neighbor was helping and came over to my house later as he had the same fireplace insert as me and he figured out that there is a battery back-up for solenoid operation. It was nice to have the fireplace turned on the second day.
• I need to get a few spare bottles of propane for my soldering torch. I never replaced them after my recent move.
• I should get an assortment of plumbing fittings to have on hand for emergencies. I have plenty of copper from my previous house but I need to stock up for the PEX system in my new home.
• Some people left their homes and stayed with family/friends due to the power outage. Those who stayed in their home during the incident were present to shut off the water when the pipes started leaking thereby limiting damage. One friend stayed home and his family had piping repairs complete and most of the mess cleaned up in four hours with the help of six friends. Another friend stayed with family and returned home Thursday to find the carpeting completely soaked and cabinet bases soaking up the water standing on the floors. There was a team of a dozen of us from church that spent several hours pulling out carpeting and carpet padding. They are still not back in their home.
• I should bite the bullet and set up my breaker panel with an interlock device and a hard-wired generator plug so I can connect my generator to the whole house.
• Things in our area came back up slowly after the power was restored. Thursday evening a local sandwich shop had only a tiny supply of bread. The grocery store shelves were empty in the deli/meat and dairy section. I am not certain if they sold out or had to trash their inventory due to lack of refrigeration during the power outage. Resupply was slow because the roads were impacted over the entire state; they got behind on the normal delivery schedule. Fresh produce is what I was there for and it was picked over but there were still a few things available.
• I lost access to my bank’s Internet portal. The bank is in California, but I learned that their server is located in Texas.
• The refrigerator was 37°F and the freezer was 23°F when the power came back on. We threw away some refrigerator contents with which my beautiful bride was uncomfortable keeping. Although I chose not to do so, I could have just placed some of the food outside on the porch when the outside temperature was below freezing.
• I understand that some people are still out of their homes three weeks after the event due to the water damage incurred.

In conclusion: God keeps giving hints and lessons to those of us who will pay attention. Do a dry run and test your preparations by turning your power off for the weekend. Pay attention to disasters that occur in other parts of the country and the world. Learn from their pain and implement additional preparations in your life as appropriate.

Editor’s Closing Note:  I’ve been a strong believer in PEX pipe for the past 10 years. I do all my new construction with it, and I’m gradually replacing the copper pipes in my home with PEX. The key advantages of PEX are that it is flexible to route, easier to work with than PVC, and it has enough flexibility to allow it to expand when it freezes. Thus, the chances of a burst pipe are very low, compared to using copper or PVC pipe.