To paraphrase an old saying, prepping is not a destination but a journey, or rather it’s a lifestyle. In this article I would like to share some highlights of our family’s journey to preparing for an extended grid down event, including what we found works and didn’t work for us. Hopefully, this might help some folks avoid the mistakes we made and stir some ideas for others.
When I was a youngster, I joined the Boy Scouts. It was there that I was first bit by the prepping bug. I took to the Boy Scouts motto of “Be Prepared” like a duck to water. As I was growing up, we experienced very few power outages. When the power did go out, it usually returned in under 20 minutes. During this time of my life, my uncle worked for the local utility company, and he shared with me how the local power grid worked and all of the safeguards built in to it. As a result I didn’t really give any thought to what to do in an extended grid down event. The extent of my preps for a power outage at that time consisted of a couple of flashlights, spare batteries, and a battery-operated radio. This level of preps served me well for many years.
Years later, I ended up moving to another town that was served by a different utility company. I soon learned that not all utility companies are created equal. Power outages seemed to happen quite a bit more often, and when they did the outages typically lasted for two or more hours. The longest outage I recall lasted over eight hours, when the power grid became overwhelmed one summer during a record heat wave. During this period I really didn’t make any adjustments to our preps, except to increase the amount of spare batteries I kept on hand.
Up to this point in my life, things had been good. I had gotten married, my wife and I had bought our dream home in suburbia, and power from the local utility company was plentiful and inexpensive. Power outages were still relatively rare, and when they did happen the duration was manageable.
That all changed in the year 2000. California had just deregulated the electrical utilities under the promise of reducing the rates for electricity. Little did we know at the time, but that opened the door for market manipulations in the cost and supply of electricity. During 2000 and 2001, California experienced an unprecedented electricity crisis. At one point we were notified by our local utility company that all Californians would be subjected to mandatory rolling blackouts.
Talk about a game changer. At the time, I was working from home and my work required the use of computers. If the power was down, I couldn’t work. While I had an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system for the computers, it only had 20 minutes of battery backup. Yikes!
As I was familiar with data centers and high availability power systems, I quickly set about designing a solution that would provide power during an extended blackout, allowing me to continue working. My solution was pretty simple. It consisted of a generator that fed into a transfer switch. The transfer switch fed the power outlets that fed the computers. During grid up, the computer outlets were fed from the power grid. During a blackout, the UPS would operate the computers for 20 minutes. This gave me plenty of time to change the transfer switch to be supplied from the generator and to fire up the generator.
With the design done, the next step was to purchase all of the components and wire it up. This proved to be problematic. It seems that I wasn’t the only one spurred into action by the threat of rolling blackouts. Generators were flying off the shelves, and prices were going into the stratosphere. Prices were quickly rising out of our reach. Then one day I happened to by walking through a local big box store, and they were having a close out on some generators. I couldn’t believe my luck. I quickly purchased the last one they had in stock. Years later I would discover the reason for the fire sale. It seems the manufacturer had just been sold and the new owners were discontinuing that product line. The stores were quickly dumping their stock of the affected models.
I then set about wiring up the transfer switch. Since I had done electrical work earlier in my career, this was straight forward for me. (I should mention that installing a transfer switch involves making changes to the wiring in your home, and you should consult a professional electrician, unless you absolutely know what you are doing.)
As luck would have it, about the time I got the transfer switch installed, we received notice from our local utility company that our neighborhood would be exempt from the rolling blackouts. It turns out that our neighborhood is serviced by the same power feed that serves the hospital down the road. Who knew? So I placed the generator in a corner of the garage with six gallons of gas, just in case. We never ended up needing the generator during the crisis.
With the electricity crisis came huge spikes in electricity prices. Over the next few years we watched our monthly electric bill skyrocket from $100 a month to over $600 per month. We tried everything we could think of to conserve, but it just didn’t seem to make a dent. We embarked on an aggressive mission to cut our electric usage that we didn’t know at the time but would later feature prominently in our grid down strategy.
The crux of the problem was to understand where the electricity was going. While on a month to month basis our overall usage did not increase by very much, the cost was going up due to the never-ending price increases by the local utility company. We needed data. I purchased a “kill a watt” meter to measure the energy usage of various appliances. While somewhat helpful, it was slow and tedious, and we only got data for one device at a time. I purchased some other commercial meter solutions with data logging, et cetera. However, these proved to be only marginally better. I still wasn’t able to see the “big picture” of what was consuming all of the power. That brought me to a solution from Powerhouse Dynamics called Sitesage. I purchased a system from Smarthome.
Sitesage is a whole house monitoring solution that involves installing small current transformer (CT) sensors on each electrical circuit in the main electrical panel. These sensors are then connected to a main unit that collects the usage data in real time. The data is sent to the Sitesage servers where we can access it and view all kinds of detailed usage analysis. While I was able to install the system myself, you should seek the assistance of a professional electrician, unless you absolutely know what you are doing. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have no affiliation with any product or company mentioned, other than that I am a customer.)
Finally, we had data. One last wrinkle was that we now could see usage on individual plug and light circuits, as they were labeled in the main electrical panel, but we didn’t know where they went. I purchased a circuit tracer from the local big box store and spent the following Saturday drawing a map of the entire house with every outlet and light, then mapping out each circuit from the main panel. In the end, we had a detailed map so when we wanted to see what was on plug and light circuit #6, we knew which outlets and light were involved. Now we were ready to begin the hunt. We systematically began going circuit by circuit, with the goal of reducing the usage to 0. On each circuit, we identified what was using power and then looked at ways to reduce the usage. I won’t bore you with the details, but here are some of our major findings:
a) When we purchased our home, we bought new appliances, including a frost-free refrigerator. It turns out that the way they made it frost free was to run a 200-watt heater coil 24×7. While the refrigerator still ran great, we decided to replace it with a more modern energy-efficient model.
b) We had an older Sony LCD big screen TV that, while it played great, consumed over 250 watts when it was on. We replaced it with a more modern, power-efficient model.
c) The pool pump was another place where we replaced the pump with a more modern variable speed, energy-efficient model.
d) We replaced our HVAC system with a more modern energy-efficient model.
We continued to hammer each and every circuit, eliminating wall warts (small power adapters) and replacing or finding alternatives to each and every device that was drawing utility power. In the end, we were able to reduce our power bill to the $100 per month range again.
Life was good again…until Katrina happened. Katrina was another game changer, both professionally and personally (more on the professional later). Up until Katrina, the most we worried about was having to do without power for half a day. Was it inconvenient? Yes, but it hadn’t been catastrophic. However, after Katrina, we realized this was a real possibility. With no power for days, we now had to deal with the loss of refrigeration, spoiled food, no stove (ours was electric), and (gasp) no coffee in the morning. PANIC!!