Providing For Your Family During Power Outages – Part 1, by B.S.V.

For the last several months I have been thinking of writing an article for SurvivalBlog, but there have been so many great articles by so many knowledgeable people that I have spent most of my time learning from SurvivalBlog rather than writing for it.

That changed last week (as I write this). I live in North Texas and was impacted by the storms that came through. A lot of news has, rightfully, focused on those areas where tornadoes caused damage – and there were enough of those to keep the news cycles busy. However, the news coverage was virtually non-existent for what impacted my little rural community. It wasn’t the flooding, of which there was plenty. It was the power outages, of which there were over 100,000 reported outage locations with more than 640,000 customers out of service.

So, what was the basically overlooked cause of damage? Straight-line winds…and these aren’t the breezes that dry your clothes on a nice Spring day. Nope, these winds were clocked at 65 miles per hour, gusting to 95 miles per hour. That is Category One hurricane territory. In my area, those winds were sustained for about three hours.

Around me, we had massive oak trees topple all over the place. Limbs from other trees dropped – and some were blown several feet. These got tangled in power lines, snapping them or ripping them down. Power poles and telephone poles were literally snapped off, two feet from the ground, dragging their lines to the ground. Transformers were ruptured and even struck by lightning. Roofs were blown off houses and barns, contributing to the chaos and damage. All in all, it was quite a display of nature’s raw power. Thankfully few people were injured and even fewer fatally. In the last report I heard, only one person had died.

I was fortunate, on my  property. We weren’t directly impacted very much. We have a few limbs down, our pond (around here they are ‘stock tanks’) overflowed, but it drains down a creek, so no real concern for flooding. All-in-all, we were safe, but we were highly inconvenienced. Though we were spared the brunt of the damage, we suffered with everyone else when power went out at about 6:00AM, at the height of the storm.

By the way, hats off to the utility workers who dedicated so much effort to power restoration – it took about three days for the power to be restored in my area of Texas (only about 30 hours for my house), but that is over a landmass about the size of Connecticut, with a population about that of Philadelphia – so we’re talking about a good bit of space between houses and line breaks. For any readers here who do that work or are family members of those folks and support them so they can do it – thank you.

Being in rural Texas, especially over these last several years, we’ve gotten somewhat accustomed to power outages. Usually, though, they have been due to temperature-related events. The deep freeze several years ago knocked out the power. It was out for only about ten hours. A heat wave a few years ago caused usage-based brown-outs and black-outs. They were intermittent for us – an hour here, thirty minutes there. Growing up I was taught that “Texas” came from the Native American (Caddo) word ‘tejas‘, which means “friend”. I’m beginning to think we were lied to in school and it really means ‘the land of bad weather’.

So, the difference between those outages and this was that we were still in the path of danger when the power went out. We had a Severe Thunderstorm Warning, a Flash Flood Warning and were under a Tornado Warning. For those unfamiliar, a ‘Watch’ is when conditions are favorable for something to happen. A ‘Warning” is when it is happening. The National Weather Service was kind enough to let us know that we had a Severe Thunderstorm going on (which our windows verified) and that was leading to Flash Flooding – which we could also see, but were not impacted by. The issue that most concerned us however, was the Tornado Warning. Just at that moment, something happened that I had never had happen during any previous power outages: my cell phone lost signal.

I’ve been involved in telecom on many levels over my career and have a pretty good understanding of how it works, both on the wire-line and wireless sides. (By the way, again for those who are unfamiliar, it takes a lot of wires to make your “wireless” phones work.) So I assume that either the antennae pointing my direction became misaligned or the backhaul from my ‘local’ tower was disrupted. By local, I mean the only tower pointing in my direction, about six miles away and gives spotty service on the best of days. By backhaul, I mean the series of towers, cables, radios, and microwave communications systems that lead from my tower to the central office where data is processed and directed to the next stop on the path to the rest of the world. Whatever the cause, it meant I was in an information void and that is not a good thing when a whirling tube of low pressure destruction is out there, lurking in the semi-dark.

Luckily, there is a reason I hang out on this site – I’m one of the gang. I think about these kinds of things and prepare for them.

What follows is what I did as well as the equipment I used. I mention brand names and models so you can research them and see if they will suit your needs. I am not affiliated with any of the companies in any way other than being a customer – and in the case of the generator, I bought it second-hand, so I’m not even their direct customer.

I have a multi-pronged plan when it comes to power outages. Usually, the first phase is all that is needed. This time around, I needed all three.

My first need was to fill the information gap.

With power out there was no Wi-Fi connection for the phone. Additionally, the internet was down. I don’t have an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) for my Internet, because my telecom knowledge includes a good deal of knowledge around the Internet and how it is powered. If power is out in your area, you may still get cell service, but you will be unlikely to get Internet service (unless your internet is provided by a cellular provider or a satellite service like Hughes or Starlink). Just to test the theory though, I did power up my Internet components and it was, in fact, out of service.

With the Internet down, I have two communications options. I have a battery-powered transistor radio that I can tune to a local AM station and get weather reports or, alternately, for breaking the monotony and providing entertainment in the form of music. Considering a tornado is localized and the news weather reports are generalized, I wanted something I could see – weather radar.

This is when Power Phase One kicks in. It covers the first four hours of an outage. The strategy is to use small, portable power boxes to supply electricity for critical systems.

I used a Bluetti EB70S to power my television – a relatively modern 55″ flat screen. Since analog signals for television were phased out for all practical purposes in 2009, I have a flat-panel digital antenna tucked away. I set that up in my window and within about 15 minutes of lights out, we were watching a live weather report from our local station over the air. In addition to getting the much-needed information, you may be surprised what a positive psychological impact the light and sound have.

I checked the power consumption and did the math. The EB70S would be able to power the television for about sixteen hours. At that point, I hoped the situation would be resolved. It turns out that I’m an optimist. No one who knows me would have guessed that.

Phase Two of the power plan kicked in as we passed hour four. Strategy: Use larger power box for longer duration power to refrigerator and deep freezer.

After about four hours, depending on your specific refrigerator or freezer, you may be at risk of temperatures rising too high. While the freezer likely won’t risk spoilage for quite a while longer, if you have the option of preventing thawing, you may as well exercise that option. The refrigerator on the other hand, potential food spoilage can happen much quicker. We limited accessing the fridge, and the temperature was still in the upper thirties on the shelves to low 40’s in the door. Prolonged exposure to temps over 45 degrees Fahrenheit (about 7 Celsius) can lead to spoilage. This means we had time to take action, but it also meant it was time to take action.

For this, I went to my workshop where I use my Bluetti AC500 controller module coupled with the B300S battery for powering tools for my projects. I got this as part of the Bluetti crowd sourcing initiative when it first came, out. This means I got it for a pretty good price ($3,200) versus its original sales price ($4,800), but I see that it is now about $3,400. As they release new models, the older models reduce in price. Patience can really pay off!

This combination gives us a 5,000-watt inverter and a battery with 3,072 watt hours (Wh). I plugged in my fridge and freezer, and both started humming away. The freezer peaked with a power draw of over 1kw for just about long enough for it to register on the AC500, and then settled down – that must have been the initial start up of the compressor. With both the fridge and freezer plugged in, the draw was around 150 watts. I could provide that level of power for over 20 hours. However, refrigerators and freezers cycle off once they get to temp. After about three hours, they had reached that magical time and consumption dropped to 0 watts for most of the hour. Since they cycled at different times, the consumption ranged from about 50 watts to about 100 watts for a few minutes about every fifteen or twenty minutes. At that level, given a good level of sunlight, I could sustain the refrigerator and freezer indefinitely.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)