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Sunday, January 30, 2011

48 Hours in the Dark: Misery or Inconvenience?

Updated September 2017, February 2022, December 2022. Changes are preserved at archive.org.

During one of the many winter storms to hit the US this month (January 2011), one of my online friends (whom I won’t name to protect the innocent) lost power for nearly 48 hours.

Power outages in the summer are mostly inconvenient. Mostly—people with certain health issues would say different. During winter, they can be miserable and even deadly. We’ve had winter storms here on Planet Georgia that knocked our power out for over a week. The first one (The Blizzard of ’93) was horrid, because we had nothing in the way of emergency supplies. The next big one (“Ice2K” in January 2000), we rode out in relative comfort. We’ve been through others since then, the most recent in 2018. It was a hassle, but we had learned our lesson.

Both FAR Future and White Pickups are stories of survival, at their base. Indeed, Johnny Latimer made the basic needs explicit in one episode of White Pickups: food, fuel, water, shelter. For now, let’s assume shelter isn’t an issue — you’re safe in your house or apartment, but the power’s out. It’s probably cold outside. Since you’re at home, you (usually) have food… just make sure you have things you can fix without needing to cook. So now you’re down to needing two essentials, fuel (heat) and water… and hey, maybe the waterworks has backup power? Maybe the pipes aren’t frozen? Maybe not. The thing is, winter storms and tropical storms usually give you some warning, and a day or so to get ready. Don’t waste it.

Unless you live in a rural area like around FAR Manor, chances are the power won’t be out for nine days after a storm. Unless it’s a really big one. But for now, assume two or three days. Your food and shelter are intact; all you need to worry about is fuel (heat, light) and water. With a few inexpensive items, you can turn a miserable two or three days into a mere hassle.

Water is self-explanatory. You need it for drinking, washing, and cooking. Figure on a gallon (or 4 liters) per person per day for drinking, and another for washing and cooking. Either buy enough for two or three days at the grocery store, or wash out a couple of containers and fill ’em up. Change out the water every couple of weeks if you fill your own containers; water your plants with it or drink it then refill. A really good idea I heard is to fill large freezer bags with water and put them in the freezer. You can pull them out to thaw overnight, or they’ll help keep your freezer food cold. Camping stores have collapsable 5-gallon (20 l) water jugs. Fill your bathtub to use for flushing the toilets. One or two packs of wet-wipes are useful for cleaning hands and faces (and other body parts as needed).

Fuel can be a little more difficult. If you have a gas stove, no problem — open the oven and set it on low, that’s a trick the old-timers know about. You can also cook on a gas stove with or without electricity. If you have a pilotless stove, you’ll need matches or a lighter to take the place of the electric igniter. But if you have all-electric appliances, you need to break out a grill or camp stove. The unfortunate thing with those is, you don’t want to use them indoors. Cooking on a gas stove means any wasted heat warms up at least your kitchen.

Speaking of kitchens… canned food can be a godsend during an extended blackout, but only if you can open the cans. I heard a story about the 2021 Texass blackout, where a survivalist had a ton of canned goods and electric can openers. If you can work a hand-cranked can opener, spend the extra money on a good one (I have a KitchenAid, no regrets). I always rinse off my hand-cranked can openers after use, to keep them clean. Even a super-cheap one can last a long time if they stay clean. If you have trouble with hand tools, there are battery-operated openers. Just make sure you have spare batteries on hand, and make sure they’re working before you need them.

Depending on your ability to cope with the situation, you can get by with very little or require a lot. But fuel isn’t just heat, it’s light. “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness,” and that goes double for when the power’s out. The nice thing about candles is that they’re portable and can be decorative as well — meaning you can have them out on display instead of stashing them in a closet. A candle holder with a glass chimney is good because it lets you carry it around without dripping hot wax on your hand. Just keep matches or a lighter handy. Oil lamps or kerosene lanterns are nice to have, especially for reading, since they’re brighter. To get more light in a certain direction, put a mirror or square of aluminum foil behind the candle or lamp. They all provide both light and a little heat.

You can also go with a wind-up flashlight; I bought one for $8 a couple years back and I used it for years. In these modern times, you can get electric lanterns that can charge on a USB port and even provide a USB charger. Some have a hand crank, if you don’t have any other way to charge them.

Mobile electronic gadgets are a lifeline for lots of people these days, and not just in urban or suburban locations. How do you keep your phone going, when the outlets aren’t cooperating?

Besides the USB lantern, you can get portable battery packs to keep your phone going for one more day They aren’t terribly expensive, but you do need to make sure they’re charged up before the storm hits. If you have a car, you can use its battery to charge your devices. If you have a need, drive around some to keep the car battery from wheezing.

Apartment dwellers might not have this option, or would be severely limited, but having a backup generator could be a lifesaver. A 12KW generator can run pretty much anything you need in the aftermath of a winter storm, including the water pump and hot water heater (if you start them one at a time, anyway). A 4KW generator can run a gas furnace, refrigerator, and lights. Even a tiny 1KW “camp” generator can run lights, chargers, and a small space heater.

An inexpensive camp stove can be a big help for warming soup or heating water for coffee (or for washing). It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel with a cup of hot coffee (or tea) and a clean face! Choose a model that uses sealed propane or butane canisters, they're safer and burn cleaner. Put it near a window and open the window a crack while in use, to keep a healthy level of oxygen in your dwelling. The older models that use “white gas” or “Coleman fuel” need to sit outside. If you have a sheltered porch, or (in apartments) an outside hallway, that should be fine.

When the sun is shining in your windows, open the curtains and let it in. Hang blankets over windows in shadow to keep more heat in. Wearing layers inside can keep you warm, especially if you’re active (walking around). Kerosene heaters can be used safely, but if you have curious pets or children who can knock it over… not a great idea. The fumes from a heater give the wife a headache, so they may not be for you in any case. The “Buddy” line of camping heaters run on small propane cylinders; many are rated for indoor use. Just make sure you have spare cylinders available for 2 or 3 day outages (mine would use 3 per day, if running 24/7).

If you have a bunch of snow on your balcony or porch, it can help to keep your refrigerated items from spoiling. Pack snow into a pot and put it in the fridge, or pack snow and your necessities into a cooler and let it stay out in (shaded) sub-freezing weather. You can melt snow for washing if needed; if you heat it over a stove, stir it to prevent a scorched smell.

Finally, develop a routine — it will help a lot with the psychological part of things. Adjust the curtains, get snow, read, exercise, fix meals, check on your neighbors, call friends or relatives. It gives you a feeling of control over the situation, instead of waiting for the power trucks to show up.

Additions? Corrections? Leave a comment…


  1. One year one of my girls was given a "dessert fondue" maker for Christmas. The "fondue pot" (which is to hold melted chocolate chips) is ceramic and is suspended over a tealight candle. It does get hot enough to melt the chocolate, and if one is not careful, hot enough to burn the chocolate. Granted, chocolate doesn't need a lot of heat to melt, but using that same "technology" one could heat soups or things like canned beans over a simple candle flame.

    Awesome advice, by the way - and I completely agree with you that we're headed into a future in which many of the things we take for granted will be unavailable or simply too expensive :).

  2. Oh, that's good — I've heard of chafing dishes that are supposed to have a similar function, but have never seen them.

    Thanks for the thought and the thumbs-up!

  3. Thanks for the post, Farf!

    I neglected to mention I had good, clean water - I use a 5 gallon dispenser for drinking water and had plenty on hand.

    One thing I'm buying is MATCHES. I could've cooked if I'd had them. I do have a gas stove, but it's got electric starters.

    the not-so-innocent Maria

  4. Hey Maria!

    Not only could you have cooked, you could have kept the place a little warmer (see the oven thing). Those pilot-less stoves are nice, until something like that happens.

  5. Hiya FAR,

    I'm always one for being prepared. Unfortunately, I'm far from it now. I'm living in an all electric home, but it has two fireplaces and one has an insert. The chimneys haven't been cleaned in awhile so I'm a little afraid of using them. Plus since we haven't used them in awhile we haven't stocked up on any wood. Hopefully the electricity will keep going and the heater will keep working.

    Hope you and the family are doing fine and take care.


  6. Hey FM, you really ought to get the chimney with the insert cleaned out and get a little stack of firewood. You could even store the wood in the insert until you're ready to actually use it. Are you getting any of the current storm? Here's it's windy and partly sunny, and above freezing, so there's not much to worry about. I suppose the wind to knock a tree into the power lines, but we've had much stiffer wind recently so I figure that would have already happened if it was going to.

    Stay warm!

  7. And this is why I'm grateful my building is on the same circuit/switch as a major hospital... we don't lose power often, and when we do, it's restored quickly.

    Makes me think about solar & wind though -- and the masses of empty rooftop I can see via Google maps on top of my building. Decentralizating the grid must be a help for bad weather. It's frustrating to lose power over a tree branch falling five kilometres away.


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