Katrina was one of those life-changing moments, when we awoke and realized how unprepared we really were. Katrina caused us to completely overhaul and step up our prepping. We changed many things, but for purposes of this article I will focus on the power aspects.
We began to ask ourselves what would we do if we had no power for weeks. We answered that question by taking an inventory of everything electrical in the house. Due to the work we previously did with reducing our electrical usage, we had a complete inventory. Additionally, as an unanticipated benefit, we had already optimized our electrical needs to the minimum. From that inventory we came up with a list and then decided how we were going to mitigate the loss of power. Here is what we came up with. Your milage may very.
Cooking: Our range is electric and not practical to power from a generator. While technically possible, there are better solutions. We opted to purchase a propane grill. This allows us to use it during the summer for backyard BBQs, as well as use it during power failures for cooking and heating water. As a backup, we have a supply of wood and pellets we can burn in our fireplace for cooking.
Heating: Our HVAC is electric/natural gas. As long as the natural gas is working, the electrical portion can be run from the generator. We incorporated the electrical circuit into the transfer switch previously installed. As a backup, we have a supply of wood and pellets we can burn in our fireplace.
Cooling: This is not really an issue. We have small, battery-powered, personal fans. In a worst case situation, we can just take a dip in the swimming pool.
Lighting: We decided that we would use portable, battery-powered LED lanterns and flashlights for lighting. We purchased a quantity that all run on AA batteries. We chose this route additionally as part of our light management strategy.
Refrigeration: We decided to add the refrigerator to the existing transfer switch. Our plan is to run the generator periodically to keep the refrigerator cold. We would then prioritize using the food from the refrigerator, then the freezer, then the pantry, and then finally from the larder.
Water: We are on city water, so we are in a tight spot. It’s lots of bottled water and water storage for us with the swimming pool as backup for washing, toilets, et cetera. I did install a separate transfer switch for the pool pump, so we can circulate the water using the generator.
Sanitation: We are on city sewer, so again we are in a tight spot. We can use pool water for toilets, and we have a camping portable toilet for backup.
Communications: Our main phone is a traditional landline phone. Our everyday handsets are cordless, so we keep a traditional 2500 style phone to plug-in, in the event of a power failure. For TV, we have a 12-volt TV that we can bring in from the RV and run from a jump pack with rabbit ears. Everything else, including radios, cell phones, et cetera can be run from rechargeable batteries and recharged from the 12-volt power system. (I have more on that in a moment.) For Internet, we power the DSL modem using the generator. We also have Internet via our cell phones.
For 120-volt systems, it really came down to needing to run the refrigerator/freezer (until the food is used up), the heater portion of the HVAC (only during winter), occasional Internet access, and occasionally charging batteries (when solar is overwhelmed). The generator could easily handle this and only needs to be run for a couple of hours a day. I ordered a tri-fuel conversion kit for our generator from U.S. Carburetion. This allows us to run the generator from natural gas, propane, or gas. Based on our usage, I set up a schedule to run the generator a couple of hours a day, and we have enough propane stored to get us through 60 days without power.
For 12-volt systems, it really came down to charging batteries/devices and running the Ham shack. What I eventually came up with is a completely solar powered design. I started with 500 watts of 12-volt solar panels, which is fed to a charge controller in the garage. The charge controller is connected to 210 amp hours of 12-volt glass matt batteries. The batteries are then connected to a 12-volt distribution system, where I have installed 12-volt powerpole outlets throughout the house (http://www. powerwerx.com). This forms the basis of our home 12-volt system. This system supports a continuous draw of 1 amp 24/7. This is sufficient to run our family’s repeater 24×7. It also supports the occasional running of various Ham radios. The system also is used to charge our various gadgets (phones, iPods, iPads, HT’s, et cetera). The system also has the capacity to charge various batteries using a collection of battery trays. I have two favorites– a Tenergy TN160 12 slot charger, and an Energizer CHFC2 8 slot charger. These come with AC adapters with 12-volt outputs; however, I made 12-volt powerpole cables so I can use these trays directly with the 12-volt house system. We now use the 12-volt system for our everyday living, and the best part is it is completely solar powered. Since this part of our life is already off grid, in the event of a prolonged power failure we would only need to supplement our power with the generator as mentioned above, for a couple of hours a day.
That brings us to where we are today. I have applied the learnings from this journey to our RV and retreat as well with similar success. The following are some tips gleaned from our experiences:
- Not all utility companies are created equal.
- Don’t assume that because the electrical grid has worked reliably for years that it will continue to do so.
- Don’t wait for a crisis to go generator shopping.
- Inventory your existing power use, look for opportunities to reduce usage, and know what is critical to have during grid down.
- Don’t try to power everything with a generator. Be selective. The benefit is reduced expense in genset sizing and reduced fuel storage requirements.
- Use solar power for battery/gadget charging.
- Having a battery as part of the solar charging solution is important for cell phones, as you tend to come home and charge the phones overnight when there is no sun.
- When charging battery trays, do so during the day. The excess power from the solar panels can charge the trays without depleting any power from the main batteries. Charging battery trays at night depletes power from the main battery bank and it may take a couple of days for the system to recover and come back to 100%.
- I used an app from the Apple app store called “Boat Battery” to assist in my solar calculations.
In closing I wanted to share some professional “learnings” from Katrina.
Prior to Katrina, the SOP for data center disaster recovery was to perform regular backups of key systems, then store those backups in a secure offsite location. Then in the event that the data center was obliterated off the face of the earth, you had a contract with a DR company that would stand up a predefined list of hardware in their datacenter, retrieve your backups, and restore the backups to the new hardware. In a relativity short period of time, you would be back up and on the air again.
Then Katrina happened, and when it did it exposed a fatal flaw in that SOP. The SOP had been designed with the needs of a single company in mind. The idea was that if company XYZ lost a datacenter they would call up the DR company and execute their DR plan. The issue with Katrina was that it impacted such a large geographic area that it impacted numerous companies at the same time, taking out numerous data centers. These companies all had contracts with the same DR company it turned out, so when they all called the DR company, the DR company quickly ran out of hardware. So the end result was this:
The first companies to call the DR company got their hardware, then very quickly the biggest clients of the DR company got dibs on the remaining hardware. Everybody else got placed on a waiting list for equipment. With the just-in-time delivery model, it literally took months to get hardware and for systems to come back up, though it was expected to be just hours or days. So many companies got blindsided by this.
After Katrina, companies began to consume all available data center capacity as they began to build out their own DR facilities. This created other issues….
The moral to this story is always have a backup plan to your backup plan. Cheers.