Hurricane Preparedness Experience- Part 2, by N.K.

I had drinking water because my subdivision was on the county water system which never went down, nor was there any boil water alert for our area. Part of the reason for this was the emergency planning done by county government to ensure water got delivered at full volume and pressure to fire hydrants during weather emergencies, and there’s backup power for pumps to accomplish this. Since hydrants and houses are on the same system, we coasted on local government’s emergency preps. Life and planning really is different in hurricane country.

If water ran short, I had some options. Half the houses in my neighborhood had swimming pools, so a supply of buckets could provide toilet flushing water. Drinking and cooking water was another story. (Pool water plus filtration by something like a Berkey system could produce drinking water, especially if aeration was performed to reduce chlorine content.) I always kept several cases of bottled water on hand, usually 6-8 cases each with 15 one-liter bottles; however, that would go quickly in the heat, especially when also used for cooking and dish washing. I quickly added disposable plates, cups, and utensils to my preps.

Because Florida is flat, gravity flow for sewage is a problem, making underground sanitary pumping stations, called lift stations, common. My 460-home subdivision is served by a pair of 4,000 gallon underground tanks, which pump along with others to a county sewage treatment station about five miles away. The pumps are electric, which don’t operate without power, so the county emergency plan called for a septic tank service company to pump out those underground tanks until electrical power was restored. I spoke with the driver who said their trucks had 2,000 gallon tanks and they were figuring on two or three trips a day to keep our underground tanks from overflowing. His outfit was also contracted to service other subdivisions, so he was planning on 18-hour days. The county did not issue any requests to limit water use, although with no power for TV or radios, it would not have been heard everywhere, so it appears the septic pumping truck strategy is a successful one.

Of the six houses immediately adjacent to mine, only one had a generator when Charlie struck; when Jean hit seven weeks later, only one did not have a generator. I actually had two– a 3000 watt Honda EU3000i and a 6500 watt Honda ES6500. The 6500 was a leftover from living in a more rural area where it was needed to run the well pump during occasional power outages. I loaned the 6500 to a neighbor, and it wound up powering refrigerators and a few fans in hers and two adjacent houses.

The lesson here is how valuable long, large gauge extension cords can be. I have a pair of custom made 125-foot long cords made with 8-4 SO cord (rated at 40 amps) equipped with the correct 4-pin locking plug (NEMA L14-30P) for the ES6500, and custom adapters to convert the 230 volts from the generator to a pair of 115 volt circuits using NEMA 5-20R standard household receptacles. (Amazon has commercially manufactured adapters to do the same thing, about $42.) The ES6500 also has two 20 amp NEMA 5-20R receptacles that will take standard household plugs of 15 amp (NEMA 5-15P) or 20 amp (NEMA 5-20P) capacity. I also have commercially available 100-foot extension cords– one in 12 gauge and one in 10 gauge, and multi-outlet adapters for each, allowing up to eight connections. In NEMA specs, the “R” means female receptacle, the “P” means male plug. 20 amp rated plugs are different from 15 amp rated ones; the 20 amp plugs have the oversized neutral prong rotated 90 degrees to prevent overloading a 15 amp circuit by connecting a device requiring 20 amps to a 15 amp rated outlet; 15 amp plugs will fit into a 20 amp outlet but not the reverse. Standard 3-prong 15 amp male plugs (NEMA 5-15P) are also polarized by having oversized neutral prongs to prevent connecting a device in a manner that puts the hot current on the neutral side; this assumes the outlet is also wired correctly.

I built the custom multi-outlet adapters using 4-gang steel receptacle boxes to hold four duplex (double outlet) receptacles and connect with 25 feet of 10-3 SO cord (30 amp rating); the input cord has a standard 15 amp male plug (NEMA 5-15P) so it can be used anywhere there are standard 15 amp-rated outlets, and the receptacle box has three standard duplex 20 amp receptacles and one 20 amp GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) receptacle in the box. I oversized the cord and outlet capacity for extra safety, but I did not put a 20-amp circuit breaker into the receptacle box because if it started causing problems I didn’t want to deal with rewiring the box when I really needed to keep it in use. The GFCI supplies power to itself and one duplex receptacle, and two receptacles are wired to not have GFCI protection. If you assemble multi-outlet boxes this way, make sure the non-GFCI-protected receptacles are very clearly identified. I used white receptacles for the GFCI and GFCI-protected ones, and red for the non-protected, plus ¾-inch wide orange stick-on labels from my label maker. I put the 4-gang box on a piece of ¾ plywood about 6” longer and wider than the steel box to make it more stable and less likely to be turned over and added an LED pilot light so you can tell with a glance if the box is powered; several manufacturers now make a two-outlet GFCI receptacle with an LED night light, which would replace the pilot light and also provide some dim but useful area lighting. A 7/16” hole in each corner of the plywood allows using one or two 3/8” landscape spikes to anchor it, and a 1” hole in the center of the end opposite the input cable allows hanging it. Commercial heavy-duty multi-outlet units are available, but I haven’t seen any that are split between GFCI and non-GFCI receptacles. The key here is to plan how you’ll safely distribute power from your generator, especially if it’s being used outdoors.

My 3000 watt Honda (an ultra quiet EU3000i) met all my power needs: refrigerator, chest freezer, whole house fan and night time window air conditioner. I had already tested the refrigerator and chest freezer to see how long they could go without power. I adjusted the refrigerator/freezer control to maximum and adjusted daily the refrigerator section control to see how cold you can get it without freezing food and gave the fridge 12-24 hours between adjustments without opening the door(s) to get good measurements. A handy tool is a $24 Accurite wireless refrigerator/freezer thermometer from Amazon. I learned I could leave my refrigerator unplugged for 6 ½ hours before internal temperatures rose enough to jeopardize food storage; the freezer section, which settled in at -15F, never rose above +12F, and the fridge, which settled in at +33F reached +49F. When plugged back in it will take 30-45 minutes to start cooling down again, and temperatures will continue to rise a couple degrees until then, so keep the “fragile foods” in the coldest part of the fridge. Move the temperature sensor around during testing to see where the coldest and warmest spots are. Opening the fridge door once will cost almost two hours of unpowered cold time, so keep the door closed. When re-powering them, the fridge ran for about 2 ½ hours before reaching its minimum set temperature; the chest freezer ran a little over an hour. I’ve thought about getting some 1”-2” thick foam insulation panels and cutting them to fit against the outside of the fridge and freezer to add another hour or two to the “off” time; foil-faced R-Max brand, which is polyisocyanurate with an R value of about 6.4 per inch, is easily available locally, as is polystyrene which has about half the R value. If you do this, make sure you don’t block air flow to the compressor area when the fridge is powered on; temporary use is probably okay, but foam insulation is highly flammable and permanent installs require covering with fire resistant wallboard.

There are a few makers of ultra high efficiency freezers and refrigerators. SunDanzer is one that I’ve seen at a preparedness Expo. They are hyper-insulated and designed to run from photovoltaic solar systems. They’re small, about 8 cubic feet, and expensive, around $1100 plus shipping, but they never need connection to the power grid. RVs use propane-powered refrigerators, and a couple companies are still making propane fridges for residential use, more common decades ago before the U.S. rural electrification got underway in the 1930s. I’m in the “thinking” stages for a major remodel, and solar panels and batteries will be part of that, as will replacing my 115 volt freezer with a 12-volt ultra efficient one, like a SunDanzer, to be run entirely from solar. A propane fridge is also an option but would require permanent certified gas plumbing in the walls.

A tip: a Kill-A-Watt is a measurement tool that will allow you to determine actual wattage draw of your appliances. It costs about $20 at Amazon, or check with your public library. Mine offers them on a free two week loan, just like a book. You’ll find that the very brief (1-3 seconds) starting current draw on appliances with motors, called “locked rotor current”, will be about 4-5 times running current. This may require a slightly larger generator, or at least disconnecting some loads to allow an appliance to start more easily. Belkin makes a similar unit that is in two parts. The plug and the display are separated by a 3-foot cable, making it easier to use in tight spaces where the Kill-A-Watt might not fit or the display might not be visible. (One trick is to plug the Kill-A-Watt between two extension cords.) They present the same data but in slightly different format. I own both and other than not having to use an extension cord in tight spaces with the Belkin, I haven’t seen a significant difference between them.

My EU3000 could run the fridge, the freezer, and a 550 watt whole house fan easily, along with a couple oscillating fans to help dry the carpeting. At night I closed the house up for security, set a 5,000 BTU air conditioner in the window of a back bedroom, plugged in a dehumidifier to help dry the carpets, and the “night watch duty schedule” included alternating power distribution between the fridge and freezer, with the oscillating fans left running. I ran the 3000 for about 15 hours a day on three gallons of gasoline. That consumption was low because it’s a small generator and wasn’t loaded over half load except for the brief seconds when the compressor in the fridge, freezer, or window AC kicked on. I kept a Kill-A-Watt plugged into the connection to the generator to monitor current draw and make sure I wasn’t overloading the generator.

People tend to buy larger generators than they really need, which means they need more fuel. Three gallons per day still meant carrying two 5-gallon cans to a working gas station every third day. For 5½ days without power it wasn’t a big deal, but for a prolonged powerless period it would have been. Check the maintenance schedule for your generator. Most specify oil changes every 24 operating hours. I changed the oil in the EU3000 every third, about 30 operating hours, using Amsoil synthetic oil. For generator size planning, total up the wattage of those electrical devices you need to operate. Remember, need is not want.

The whole house fan was a used 30-inch industrial exhaust fan bought from a dry cleaner going out of business. I equipped it with a 25 foot cord, safety screening, and some adjustable brackets to secure it to one of the bedroom windows. It moved about 7500 CFM (cubic feet per minute) so when it was on there was always plenty of air moving through the house.

About that air conditioner, do not underestimate the value of having one cool room in which to get 6-8 hours of restful sleep. Yes, there will be grumbling when the whole family has to sleep in one room, but a few folding cots and sleeping bag pads will help with that. Nighttime August temps in Central and South Florida are often still 80F as late as 11PM, with humidity to match. One room with a temperature of 70-72F and low humidity is worth its weight in gold.

It’s a good idea to establish a nighttime watch schedule; everyone in one closed room with an air conditioner running won’t hear break in attempts; two hours on watch is about right, shared among responsible family members, and a watch schedule allows managing power distribution from the generator. With power out, it’s really dark, alarm systems don’t work, and there are some people who seek to take advantage of those conditions. Secure your generator with heavy chains or cables and locks. Quite a few got stolen because with widespread power outages generators became very valuable. Thieves often substituted a cheap lawnmower, so the residents still heard a running gas engine. I put a failed circuit alarm, which cost about $35 at Amazon, in the extension cord to the air conditioner; cutting the power would produce a smoke detector-like screech to alert and wake whomever wasn’t on watch. One advantage to an ultra quiet generator was the EU3000 couldn’t be heard over any of our neighbor’s generators, so it was less likely to attract thieves’ attention, and the AC was in a window not visible or audible from the street.

Why didn’t I keep the AC running during the day? We had the whole house fan to move air when the generator was running to cool the fridge and freezer, and controlling which windows were open created good breezes through the house. With no electricity, life shifted to up-at-dawn, bed-at-dark mode. During daylight hours everyone was working on cleanup and repair, either at home or helping a neighbor.

For after dark lighting there were flashlights, a couple old style wick kerosene lanterns, a couple of headlamps, candles that didn’t get used, and two Aladdin mantle lamps, which are terrific lamps. I’ve since bought two more Aladdin mantle lamps plus spare mantles, wicks, and chimneys. They’re expensive, but Aladdins are worth it. I’ve since also added extra headlamps, equipped each vehicle with them, and placed a few in strategic locations around the house.

When you’re dealing with the prospect of several days of involuntary darkness, move some furniture out of the way so people moving around in the dark won’t bump into it. Make sure you don’t block or hinder access to windows or doors.