Guest post by Bill Tolbert, COVOAD
Snow and winds common during this part of the year can cause power outages, and Colorado’s varied terrain can make it more difficult to restore power. Without some form of backup power, your cell phone is good for only the first day, your access to the web is gone, your food starts to spoil, your furnace won’t run and your pipes will freeze in the cold weather.
There are some simple tools you can have ready for an extended power outage. They range from simple, inexpensive items, to more expensive and complicated systems.
Solar powered phone chargers are at the simple end of this spectrum. You can buy a cell phone-sized solar charger for under $20, which can ensure you have at least a couple of hours of cell phone charge every day, regardless of how long it takes the local power to come back on. Yes, the cell phone systems might be overloaded or down, but text messages are “store and send,” meaning they will be sent when a cell system is even momentarily up.
There are some larger “book-size” solar kits that will generate one-to-two amps of power from the sun to charge up your cell phones, tablets and laptops. They cost more, and their capacity will be based on their efficiencies and storage capabilities—but they can do more than the smaller cell phone chargers.
Next on the “costs more, but provides more power” continuum are mobile gasoline-fired generators. They can be purchased locally in three to eight Kilowatt (KW) size units capable of running everything from lighting to a small microwave and power tools. They will cost about $300-$500 depending on size and features. The limitations to these portable units are that unless you have installed a special “diversion/connection panel” on your house electrical system, everything will be connected to them by extension cords connected to a couple of outlets on the generator units.
The limiting factor for portable generators is the availability of the gasoline needed to run them. That is what makes “dual fuel” back-up generators popular. These are permanently mounted to your home as back-up systems that run on natural gas and propane. They are sold locally and online by a variety of stores. They are permanently wired to your home so that in a power outage, they will automatically switch from the local power grid to generator supplied power. These units come in various sizes, typically between seven and 18 KW. Buying and installing one commercially will cost about $3,000 Or more.
If you have some good skills, or a smart family member, you can also buy small solar panel kits locally that can be put together with automotive batteries and a “solar controller” to create a “solar generator” system big enough to keep your furnace running, light your home, recharge your small devices and even run a microwave for cooking. A 100-200 watt solar system like this will cost you about $500 if you purchase the components wisely, and put them together in a small system correctly. You can also buy them commercially as a complete system, but they are much more expensive.
But let’s go back to your refrigerator for a minute, and your fear of having to teach your kids how to search trash bins. If you lose power for an extended period and don’t have an emergency power system like the ones described above, there is little you can do to protect refrigerated foods in the long haul. However, you can give yourself (and your food) many extra hours of extended life by taking a few precautions and simple actions.
Be Proactive with your Refrigerator/Freezer:
- Turn the temperature down in your refrigerator before a major event impacts your area (if you think it may). Everything in your refrigerator and freezer will get colder and take longer to warm back up. A really cold freezer can stay frozen for up to two days if you don’t open it.
- Make Ice, use any coolers you have to store the ice and make more ice. You can use chilled coolers to help store your refrigerator foods—and some of your neighbors’ if they need help.
- Consider buying some “dry ice” at your local store before the storm hits. Ten pounds of dry ice can keep a fully stocked 18 cubic food freezer cold for 10-12 hours
- A full refrigerator lasts longer than one that is empty. Having cold stuff packed together makes it more difficult to lose heat. If you have a day or two notice before a major storm, pack your freezer to help keep everything cold.
- Keep small thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer. They will help you check the temperature inside when the power comes back on.
React Carefully in a Power Outage:
- Note the time when the power goes out. It will help you track the viability of the foods in your refrigerator and freezer. Foods can become unsafe if they spend time at temperatures above 40 degrees.
- Do not open the refrigerator or freezer if you can help it. Refrigerated foods can safely last up to six hours in a shut refrigerator. If family members go “foraging” in the refrigerator, it will shorten that margin. The freezer can stay frozen for up to two days as stated above—if you keep it shut.
- Once the power comes back on, check your refrigerator’s thermometer. If it is 50 degrees or higher, throw everything away—particularly egg and milk products–except for fresh produce, high sugar items (i.e. jams).
In summary, power outages can be a major disaster in and of themselves. Extended power outages can cause more than just discomfort. They can directly impact your safety and your ability to “ride out” the storm or disaster.