Prepping For Power Outages

When the mains power goes, we are abruptly brought face-to-face with how many of the devices and services we take for granted rely upon it. Telephones for instance, where once they were attached to the wall by a cable, now they are a cordless device with a mains-powered base station. Your cellphone can fill that gap, but a modern smartphone with a battery life of under a day is hardly a reliable long-term solution. Meanwhile modern heating systems may still burn gas or fuel oil, but rely on an electric pump for circulation. Your kitchen is full of electrically-powered white goods, your food is preserved by an electric refrigerator, even your gas cooker if you have one will probably expect a mains supply.

When the power goes out we might say that we instantaneously travel back a couple of centuries, but the reality is that our ancestors in 1817 wouldn’t have been in the same mess we are, they had appropriate solutions to surviving a wickedly cold winter when electricity was still something of a gleam in [Michael Faraday]’s eye. In short, they were prepared in a way most of us are not. That’s a shame, so let’s take a closer look sensible modern preparedness.

The City Versus the Countryside

If Hackaday did Christmas cards, this might be one of them.
If Hackaday did Christmas cards, this might be one of them.

This is being written from a very small English village, one that lost its electricity for a significant time a few days ago in a snowstorm. Overnight we had a modest fall of several inches of damp heavy snow that lay thickly in windless conditions, bringing down plenty of tree branches, and the 11kV supply to our transformer. Readers from colder countries are free to exercise their mirth at this point. (But your weekend’s Hackaday stories might have been in jeopardy, had we not fairly speedily set up the necessary backup systems to continue.) You can spot the people who’ve not lived in our village for long on snowy mornings: theirs are the houses with no lights on.

Take a drive away from town down a few snow-bound country lanes if you’re not cowed by a few inches of the white stuff, and you’ll find the farming community safe and warm with the lights on, we’d like to think checking Hackaday over an ADSL line that temporarily has a 1:1 contention ratio.This isn’t because they’re the type of people who keep a basement room full of rifles and tins of beans in readiness for the Apocalypse, instead years of experience living at the end of very long chains of power lines have taught them what it’s necessary to keep handy for the inevitable power cuts.

The most basic requirement of heating without electricity is something you’ll inevitably find satisfied among the farming community with a wood burning stove of some kind. At Chez [List] it’s a room heater filling a large fireplace, but the stereotypical British farm kitchen has an Aga or similar solid-fuel cooker drying the Wellington boots and thick socks as it cooks the midday meal. If you’re a long-time rural dweller without an Aga then there will be a couple of orange propane cylinders at the back of the house for the gas range that performs the same function.

Just a few of the bits and pieces that come out to fight the power cut.
Just a few of the bits and pieces that come out to fight the power cut.

Wood and gas heaters and cookers are invariable, used whether electricity is at hand or not. To adequately replace the lost electricity for everything else requires a diverse collection of equipment, bits and piece amassed over the decades and kept in storage just for these moments. A wired phone from the 1980s that takes the place of our DECT base station, a battery radio, a variety of lighting devices, a pile of mains extension leads and multiway adaptors, a deep-cycle accumulator, a pair of solid-state inverters, and a small two-stroke generator. An hour after the power has gone, and we’re well-lit, our fridge is keeping the Christmas turkey frozen, and the Internet is back. Hackaday’s scheduling is saved!

From a Bit of Wax and Some String to Lithium Ions

The simplest power-cut lighting device is the humble candle, of which we keep a box or two in the cupboard just in case. Unless you are after a Dickensian vibe though it’s fair to say that better alternatives exist. A variety of sturdy farmer’s lanterns ranging from an older model with a lead-acid gel-cell and a car headlight to a lightweight modern lithium-ion LED model are first to be pulled out, swiftly followed by the usual array of LED flashlights. Bright light and long battery life still seems magical, for someone raised in the days of dim incandescent flashlights with zinc-carbon cells.

In the first instance when it comes to lower-power mains devices, we have a couple of mains inverters ready. Not particularly high-quality ones, cheap sandcastle-waveform 300 and 600 watt units. They are hooked up to things like the ADSL router, my laptop, and the family TV. A small farm has deep-cycle lead-acid accumulators charged and to hand for electric fencers, that happily supply these loads and can be readily recharged with the right charger from the car or the tractor.

Appliance Power

Get warm on cold days, by starting a tiny two-stroke that hasn't seen action since the summer!
Get warm on cold days, by starting a tiny two-stroke that hasn’t seen action since the summer!

Running a fridge or a deep freezer from a cheap inverter is not a sensible course, so if the power cut starts to stretch into several hours, out will come the generator. As luck would have it a faulty carburettor stopped us using our primary choice this time, so out came my cheap-and-nasty 800W two-stroke machine and a festoon of extension leads. It’s great for the occasional camping trip in the summer, but not my first choice because its voltage regulation can be a bit haywire. You soon learn to ensure it has a light bulb plugged in as a load before you connect any appliance you care about, and a plug-in mains voltmeter becomes an essential accessory as you watch the voltage sail past the 300V mark when nothing is connected to it.

Our telephone exchange is in a neigbouring village, and like all such buildings it has a back-up power system to maintain an essential service during power cuts. It must have some form of power management preservation schedule, because a few hours after the start of any power cut it turns off the ADSL service and we lose our internet connection. Thus the final part of our power cut coping strategy involves a mobile phone temporarily fitted with a data SIM and placed as a wireless hotspot in the one upstairs windows that gets a decent quality signal. We can fix our power problems, but the parlous state of British rural wireless coverage is beyond us.

Tell Us How You Have Prepared for Power Outage

So, you’ve had a description of life in a typical British village in a damp and cold December, and yes, you’ll have raised a grin at our lack of weather-resilience as a nation. Farming and rural communities everywhere have the same we-can-fix-this mentality though, so once you’ve replaced our 230V mains electricity and BS1363s with your local variant maybe there could be something in our power-cut-readiness that could still be of use. More to the point, what do you do when the power goes out in the middle of winter where you are? It’s a constant of life as a Hackaday scribe, that whatever we do is instantly eclipsed by far more amazing work by our readers, so some of you will have this situation completely sorted. The comments are open, tell us how you did it.

268 thoughts on “Prepping For Power Outages

  1. In Silicon Valley, such a threat is pretty remote, but there have been a couple of very interesting segments on Ask This Old House about backup power. In one case they installed a quite sophisticated natural gas powered backup generator with an automatic transfer switch system. The power would “blink” in an outage, but critical circuits would get backup power even unattended.

    Seemed like it would be really expensive.

    A less costly alternative was a transfer switch mounted on the main panel fed by a NEMA 4-50 inlet mounted on the back of the house. In an outage, a portable generator would be connected and critical circuits could get power. This was in Alaska, where an additional seismic threat made relying on natural gas supplies unacceptable.

    We have Solar, but the grid-tied inverter won’t work without grid power. This is necessary to insure safety for the workers trying to restore power. Newer versions of the inverter offer a single isolated emergency circuit rated for about a kilowatt for use only when the grid is down. Of course, it would only work during the day.

    1. I always thought, if such a grid tie inverter (my father also has such a system) could be tricked into operation with a small pure sinewave inverter, perhaps with some parallel load of some 10 Watts and or a capacitor or some combination. But probably it shuts of, if it can not pump all the power out what is delivered from the panels.

      1. Quite possibly.

        I don’t remember gas problems in our neighborhood after Loma Prieta, and I can see that peak from my back yard.

        The really bad place to be in an earthquake is the marina district in SF. It astonishes me to no end that it falls down and burns up every time, and then the hipsters clean it all up and rebuild the exact same buildings again. They need to just give up and turn it into a park.

          1. To a great extent the building codes have dramatically improved since then. And every time there is a quake, more of the old not-to-modern-code stuff fails and is replaced, so every quake to a large extent gets less and less impactful. From 1906 to 1986 the death toll was at least two orders of magnitude less.

            But then, there’s the remaining problem of poor urban planning. They KNOW the Marina district is shitty landfill, but they still allow people to build houses there. It’s damn stupid.

  2. build the hackaday ultra bunker off grid, with all modern connectivity and every feature you could want in an apocalypse
    Keep the blog going through the nukes, zombies and anarchy
    This is a legit serious idea

    1. I was looking at buying a missle silo at one time. Seemed more cost effective to build something with intermodule shipping containers, rammed earth and even ferro-cement. For some reason I have this vision of carbon fiber wrapped ferro-cement structures also. Maybe on springs or maybe on active counter measure attentuators. with the springs in case the resonance on the structure is annoying.

        1. Right, I thought the silo’s were rather gross. I toured one and the idea wasn’t inspiring afterwards. I do recall that we need more times of “peace” during the presentation and that is what the aggressive kinetic assault devices were for… not perpetual warfare looking all false pretense cute sweet and innocent poisonous acting like nothing illegal will come into the country and we can’t death sentence anything openly much. What happened to public review or is everything encrypted since so illegal now with black or grey PSYOPS facades???

  3. What do I do in case of a power outage? Not very much. :-)
    My apartment is in a big city in central Europe. Here the power is “rock-stable”, everything buried underground and you can measure power outages in seconds per year on average.
    If I am in the garden I can not experience a mains power outage at all – there I don’t have a power connection which can fail. Therefore I rely on a combination of batteries, a solar panel and a generator anyway. So if the mains drop out I probably have more light than the neighbor who lives there permanently :-)

  4. For the freezers and fridges, I have a Generac LP5500 5.5kW generator which runs off propane cylinders, and a reliant Protran transfer switch which is hard wired into critical circuits in the house. Propane is an excellent choice as it does not go stale, and cylinders can be exchanged for pre-filled ones if there’s no power.

    For the computers, I have a UPS which uses 4 200Ah 12V AGM cells, an IOTA engineering AC charger, Samtec inverter, 4 220W solar panels, and a Midnight Solar charge controller which keep the batteries charged during sunny days. I have a circuit from the garage where the inverter and batteries are to my computers in the lab and my wifes PC in her office. All the networking equipment is powered off this dedicated circuit as well. If the power is out for a prolonged period, I can charge the UPS from the generator.

    1. Wrong thinking. Use them on separate loads, or for one bigger load, a bigger generator. Getting non-interfering frequency and phase control is a big task. Ain’t gonna happen without a lot of serious hacking. Hmmm. Buncha hackers here. Hmmm.

      1. I was thinking the same. Especially, after reading up on phase has been re-enforced to me on here recently. I like for say the cooling and freezing… the ability to use a smaller generator or charge source for the batteries and invert since the duty cycle is shorter for the cooler and freezer.

        Another interesting hack we all can perform is super insulating our coolers and freezers. I think I’ve read about this being done more with the Earthrships or those New Mexico geothermal designs. Basically, line another layer of 2″ insulation around the device noting to either remove and relocated or at least work around the heat exchanger.

        I sometimes wonder about placing another closed loop coil on those and running to radiant heating to tap the heat to a lower place like the floor or below windows away from what you want cool or frozen. Maybe in a hot environment you’d want that going up a vent to the outside.

        1. ” Basically, line another layer of 2″ insulation around the device noting to either remove and relocated or at least work around the heat exchanger.”
          The problem with (chest type) freezers, is the outer skin is often the cooling surface for the condenser.
          Really expensive refrigerators still use the “old” design of putting the condenser on top, instead under the unit,
          other mfgr’s seem to have forgotten that “heat rises”, and it will rise from under the ‘fridge into the cooled space every time the door is open.

          1. Not on all uprights. Many self-defrosting units have fan-cooled condensers mounted underneath, because this allows them to be a little deeper. But still, I don’t know of any uprights that have them within the case like the chest freezers mentioned.

        1. I’m now curious what signals are on the interconnecting leads in the various generator-parallel kits. Might there actually be a small 3-phase winding that’s used for the parallelling, in there behind the main single-phase winding for loads?

          1. Hi Nate B. In a quick search for generator parallel kits, all of the generators that had such kits available were inverter-based generators, so all they need is a reference clock.

    1. Some freezer mfgr’s have a heating element in the compressor to heat the lubricant which can be thick if the freezer needs to start in cold weather. They see a need for it, probably for when the garage is below freezing but above the internal temperature of the freezer.

      1. Worst case is if the compressor is colder. Then liquid refrigerant condenses in the oil of the compressor. This can make it to thin or even cause it foaming when the compressor starts. Both is very bad for it’s ability to lubricate. This is an issue with airconditioners which have to run during the winter, e.g. for server rooms.

        With combined fridge freezers with only one refrigeration circuit you can get another problem if the ambient temperature is below the desired fridge temperature. The thermostat – which is in the fridge compartment – sees this as cold enough and does not start the compressor and the freezer thaws. The solution to this problem is sometimes a switch which bridges the door operated light switch. The 15W bulb is on all the time and the compressor has to run until the freezer compartment is cold enough. This is achieved by a very big hysteresis of the thermostat. It cut’s in at the set fridge temperature and cut’s out somewhere at -17°C when cold refrigerant from the freezer compartment reaches the evaporator in the fridge.

  5. We use 12v lighting etc on our small boat, so we have a deep-cycle battery or two around, as well as a ~1kW true sine inverter. We also have a 12v backup pump on our sump system, so there’s that battery available as well.

    I bought a factory remanufactured 900W inverter generator, a few years back, and it’s hanging in there. I pull it out and run it maybe 4 times a year. I also swear by ethanol-free gas (with Seafoam or other stabilizer) for small engines that don’t get used that often, and any gas that’s over a year old gets burnt in my beater truck.

    We have a nat gas range and fireplace, and both of those work without AC.

    And flashlights, battery-powered radios, canned food, etc. All told, we’re pretty well covered for city-folk. I would definitely have more fallbacks if we were out in the country.

  6. During the 1987 great storm we didn’t have telephone or power for weeks. The small Sussex lane I lived down was criss crossed with fallen trees, indeed, our own drive was trashed by toppled trees. We always had hand torches close by, a good stock of candles and spare butane powered cooking facilities, and a chain saw in the out house. The only thing that changed in later years, was the battery life of our hand torches. Power outages and brown outs were common, so when we got internet… a UPS was purchased for the computer. The earlier 8 bit computers didn’t seem to mind random power cuts as much. So far we have come!!

  7. We installed a 22kw system last summer. As long as we have natural gas, we can run the whole house, including two HVAC units for both winter and summer comfort. We don’t live in an area with extreme weather conditions (normally), but we are now better prepared to survive the potential hack of the grid, and the occasional dolt that runs into our neighborhood transformer. Just in the event we lose NG, we are well stocked with alternative cooking and heating; propane, fuel disk, and solar. Being a Mormon, we have backup plans for our backup plans, from food to supplies. Whether you are LDS or not, there are some great resources at to help you with your family and neighborhood emergency planning, food storage, and comfort.

  8. Bottle of wine and a wood fire in the fireplace. If it is out for a longer period, I will gather up my furkids and head for the RV. Heat, power and running water.
    And yes the generator will be running adding to the global CO2 levels.

  9. Living in an rv you get used to managing power in funny ways, like running the micro off the inverter all the time so you don’t have to turn off the ac… or so you can use a 800 watt generator instead of a 2k one, you start to miss electric coffee pots – toasters – electric skillets and space heaters real fast though

  10. I grew up on a ‘hobby’ farm (~10 acres). We lost power in a snowstorm in the early 1960s for a few days. My dad (an engineer) had designed the ducting to work reasonably well as gravity feed, so he took the filters out from the wood/coal furnace, brought in an antique 2-burner kerosene stove and fired up an Aladdin kerosene lamp (about 40 watt incandescant equivalent). Heat, light and hot food – what more could you ask for? (I think we had some battery powered radios)

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