Cooking was interesting. I had a propane gas grill with two spare 20-lb cylinders, a dual-fuel Coleman camp stove, a couple of single-burner butane units, and the ability to build a fire in the backyard. The gas grill got used, because it was easiest. It did take a couple of days to learn how to cook more than simple camping meals on it. We have an old style coffee percolator for camping, and getting the heat to it correctly on the grill took some learning. Cooking on the grill was something we should have practiced before we needed it. A tip: The standard size propane tank for grills holds 20 lbs of propane, which is about 4½ gallons. Many exchange tanks are filled only to 15 lbs; it’s faster and easier to swap out an empty tank for a filled one, but I’ve found it less expensive to take the time to get them refilled to the full 20 lbs rather than exchanged for one with 25% less propane. The cost is nearly the same; you’re paying more for the convenience of a quick exchange. So, buying an empty spare tank for about $45 and refilling it will pay for itself quickly, if you use a grill a lot.
We put as much of our neighbors’ food in our fridge and freezer as would fit, and everyone fired up gas and charcoal grills to cook the rest and share the food before it spoiled. The neighborhood ate very well for the first couple of days. Steak or hamburgers for breakfast is a common occurrence when the power goes out.
Cleaning wasn’t much of an issue since county water service was uninterrupted, but most Florida houses have an electric water heater. In August, cold water in Florida isn’t really cold. It’s about 82F out of the spigot, but if you’re used to real hot showers that can be a shock. I had a single burner Zodi camping hot water shower, which adds about 30F to water. (I’ve since bought a spare, since two is one and one is none. This way we could have 105-108F showers, though it’s more like a lightly pressurized rinse; however, it does work. Don’t forget extra D-cell batteries for it.) The Zodi uses one pound propane cylinders to heat the water, so it must be used outdoors; we used it on the back porch, drawing water from a 5-gallon bucket. It’s been used on camping trips, so everyone was already experienced with it. I had enough spare 16-ounce propane cylinders to loan it to neighbors, each of whom I let develop their own solution for outdoor shower privacy. Depending on your circumstances, that’s something to include on your prep planning, along with extra cylinders or an adapter to refill 16-ounce cylinders from a 20 pound grill tank. Some 24-inch-long 1” PVC pipes stuck in the ground will accept lengths of ½-inch EMT (Electrical Metallic Tubing); some spring clamps, costing about $1 at Home Depot, will hold solar screening fabric or even bedsheets to the EMT to provide privacy.
I’ve recently added a rechargeable hand-held shower unit, purchased on an Amazon Lightning Deal, to backup the two Zodis, and a 21-watt solar panel for recharging it. A 30-quart aluminum turkey frying pot can be used to heat water on the gas grill or even over a fire, if necessary. The big advantage is in winter a pot of water can be heated outdoors and then carried inside to be used in the tub with the rechargeable hand-held shower unit. Even in Florida, there are a few chilly days. Now that I’m no longer living in Florida, winter is a consideration.
With no electricity, garage door openers didn’t work, so during the day everyone left their garage doors up. That’s a security concern, but there were more than enough neighbors around helping each other that it wasn’t much of a concern. Almost all of my neighbors were gun owners and security-minded, so there wasn’t much worry about looting. In some areas there was, and had our neighborhood been so afflicted we would have had to come up with some sort of security plan.
Reviewing What We Learned From This Experience
Power came back on Thursday, and half a day was spent shifting back into “normal” mode. Here’s what we learned from the whole experience:
Organization is critical. Having all the tools and supplies is great but only if you can find them quickly and easily. I was pretty well organized but not nearly well enough. Flashlights, batteries, candles, and matches all in one large box was wrong. Trying to find and dig out what I needed was frustrating, and in some cases it got done in the dark, which was even more frustrating. We needed more headlamps. (BTW, using headlamps requires some practice. One develops a sort of “head twitch” to point the light where you’re looking; the habit of just moving your eyes doesn’t work too well.) Smaller latch-lid plastic boxes that you can see into, each with only one type of equipment in it and well labeled is the way to go. My extension cords, rarely used but suddenly needed immediately, were hanging behind garden tools that had to be moved, then put back out of the way when the cords were retrieved. That was poor planning there.
Practice your preps. The first couple of meals cooked on the gas grill were quite edible, and we quickly got better. However, cooking techniques and tools are different, especially coffee with a “cowboy percolator”. Camping experience helped a lot, but it would have been beneficial to practice occasionally by cooking a “regular” meal on the grill with pots and pans now and then. Showers with the Zodi were easy; alternatives to it might have been useful, but they hadn’t been planned for or practiced.
There’s a transition period no matter how much you practice; by the end of day three, we were experts in non-electric living, but we could have reached that point by the end of day one if we had practiced for it.
Contractor contacts need to be developed and cultivated. Roof replacements may come only every 20 years, but it’s a good idea to get to know a couple roofers and stay in contact, because sometimes repairs are needed urgently. The same applies to plumbers, electricians, carpenters, fence builders, et cetera who have expertise you may suddenly need. My fence was the only one still standing. It was 6X6 and 4X6 posts set three feet deep in concrete. Everyone else was scrambling to get their fences repaired ASAP, because Florida law requires swimming pools be in an enclosure.
Information about governmental services needed to be developed, maintained, and updated periodically. We never had a problem with water, but if county water stopped, I didn’t know where I could get potable water in quantity or how to transport it other than the 5-gallon jugs used for camping. By the time hurricane Jean hit, I had ten 7-gallon Aquatainers, a 150-gallon bladder for the pickup bed, and a list of places to get potable water in quantity. I also added a 50-foot hose rated for potable water that I obtained from an RV supply house, and a couple universal sill cock keys to operate any water faucet I found. In Florida, I was surrounded by neighbors with swimming pools. In my new location I’m not, so every three months I buy a 1-lb bag of calcium hypochlorite, also called pool shock, to make chlorine water treatment. It doesn’t store well over long periods and is very corrosive to metals, so with each new bag I give the old bag to a friend to use in his pool; that way the bag doesn’t deteriorate, and it’s $3 locally, which is inexpensive to have the ability to make enough chlorine to treat thousands of gallons of water.
Have disposable dinner ware products to minimize impact on limited water supplies. You don’t want to use valuable drinking and cooking water to clean plates and silverware.
Simplify your lifestyle. Kitchen (or bathroom) counters cluttered with stuff are a real pain in the dark. You’ll find yourself operating very differently without electricity, and neatness everywhere counts. Develop storage/usage techniques to make using stuff easy while keeping it out out the way. A particular peeve: having only one manual can opener in the kitchen without a very firm rule to always put it back in the same drawer. Now, every drawer has a manual can opener. They’re inexpensive. Also, whenever I get a case or three of Mountain House from Safecastle (a Survivalblog affiliate), I tape a couple P-51 GI-style openers (which are larger than the P-38) inside the box lids and keep a couple P-51s in each personal and vehicle emergency kit. A bag of 100 is about $30+shipping from Sportsman’s Guide and is almost a lifetime supply.
Mental diversions. Games, especially card games, help give everyone a short “mental vacation” from the stress. It’s difficult to read much with only limited light, but board games and playing cards work well. Scrabble is very well suited to semi-dark entertainment. (No, it didn’t seem at all strange to see people wearing headlamps playing Scrabble and Monopoly, at least not by day four.)
Neighborhood planning and sharing. We all came together, as did thousands of neighborhoods across Central and South Florida after Charlie, and we worked well together. We needed to communicate more before the hurricane and develop skill sharing and better plans. Monthly backyard “pot luck” barbecues are great ways to get everyone together.
Outdoor lighting. With no street or porch lights doing anything outside after dark, outdoor lighting was nearly impossible. I had a couple 500-watt halogen flood lamps and some 1/2” and 3/4” EMT (Electrical Metallic Tubing), which comes in 10-foot lengths. “Beam clamps” from your home center’s electrical department are threaded for attaching lights with bolts and allow clamping the floodlight(s) to the 1/2” EMT, which can be placed over a steel stake driven into the ground, to get the lights 10 feet up, or higher if you insert the 1/2” EMT into the 3/4” and drill and bolt them together. The EU3000 watt Honda weighs about 150 pounds without fuel, so carrying it around wasn’t an option. When hurricane Frances was forecast, I bought a 24 inch X 48 inch 4-wheeled garden cart from Lowe’s (about $65 then) so I could more easily roll it into the garage for security. It still took two hefty people to put it on the cart, though. (Honda now has EU3000 models that come with wheels and a handle to make them more portable.) Without good wheels under it for portability, think good extension cords, not cheapies. Higher amperage rated cords– 12 gauge (20 amps) and 10 gauge (30 amps)– will be expensive, but they’re very much worth it to avoid voltage drop over distance. I’ve since added a Honda 2000 watt generator* as an “unlimited distance extension cord.” Weighing just 50 pounds, I can carry it one handed, plus Honda has a wiring kit to link two generators together to double output; check RV (recreational vehicle) forums for info on how to make your own wiring kit and external fuel tanks to extend running time. Knowing what I know now, I would have gotten a pair of EU2000s instead of the EU3000; it’s about the same cost, just as quiet, more portable, and a pair lines up with the “two is one, one is none” prepper philosophy.
I’ve since replaced the 500 watt halogen flood lamps with 60 watt LED flood lamps. (Thank you, Amazon Gold Box sales!) They’re about the same physical size, the same light (about 4,000 lumens) and almost 90% less wattage draw. I kept several spare bulbs for the halogen units, because they’re fragile; a couple spare LED lights are more expensive than the bulbs but worth it, I think. You’ll have to make your custom cords for either. I used inexpensive 3-wire 25-foot 16 gauge extension cords, cut the female connector off, and wired them up myself.