6 Tips to Survive This Winter’s Next Power Outage
Rolling blackouts and power failures can be scary, but prepare your larder, your heating system and your building, and you’ll be ready for a shutdown.
Whether your community faces rolling blackouts this winter or a heavy storm is coming that could knock out your power, it pays to be prepared. While you may be tempted to crank up the heat and hope it keeps your toes toasty during the power outage, there are other steps that can help you stay comfortable and safe no matter what winter brings.
Stock Your Supplies
Before a blackout hits, be sure you have the essentials such as shelf-stable food, bottled water, medicines, flashlights, batteries, a battery-powered radio, and a first aid kit, recommends Mallory Micetich, a Denver-based home expert at Angi
“Homeowners can also take steps to keep the home more insulated by sealing up windows and doors and placing towels in door jams to stop drafts,” Micetich suggests. “If you have a wood-burning fireplace, it’s wise to make sure you have a good supply of firewood. You might want to bring some indoors during the outage.”
Weatherize Your Home
Unless the storm is imminent, there are numerous steps you can take to improve its resilience to power outages and get it winter ready.
“The first step to weatherizing your home is to conduct a home energy audit,” says Greg Fasullo, CEO of Elevation in Phoenix, a residential energy technology company.
He recommends adding insulation, and sealing windows, doors, and leaky ductwork to keep warm air in during winter. In addition, you’ll want to improve your ventilation with fans and range hoods to control moisture levels in the house.
Turn Up the Heat
Carefully plan how you’ll use your power when a blackout is impending.
“It’s ok to set the temperature higher or lower in your house,” says Fasullo. “The warmer or cooler it is to start, the longer it will take to cool or retain the heat. This process is called super cooling or preheating your home. It’s necessary to warm or cool normally unused spaces in your home to create more thermal mass.”
Turning up the heat a few degrees could be critically important if no other means of producing heat is available, says Ben Kolo, owner of Mr. Electric of Central Iowa and Omaha, a Neighborly company.
“Taking care to utilize critical appliances ahead of an outage can make things much easier,” Kolo says. “Keep exterior doors and windows tightly closed, keep refrigerators and freezers closed, and seal up obvious air gaps around the home.”
Insulation is Your Friend
Failure to insulate your attic is likely to allow your house to get colder faster during a power outage and results in wasted energy and lost air, which is expensive for homeowners, says Fasullo.
“Without proper insulation, warm air from a home’s heating system will flow directly to the house’s colder areas, like attics, garages, mudrooms and basements,” says Fasullo. “In fact, nearly 40% of the heat in your home is lost through the attic. Without proper insulation in the attic floor, you’ll find that rooms in the upper levels of a home will become colder quicker, making for a long, uncomfortable winter. With an insulated attic floor, the temperatures in the house’s upper levels are heated evenly and much less warmth is lost through the attic.”
When selecting insulation, you’re looking at several factors, including cost and R-value. But don’t overlook other important considerations such as air infiltration. The amount of unwanted air leakage could have a major impact on your ability to keep warm or prevent pipes from freezing.
In older homes especially, it’s sometimes difficult to insulate walls effectively. One of the best products for this purpose is spray applied cellulose, which is made from recycled paper products.
It tends to pack in very densely, when installed properly, and not only plugs most leaks, but adds a lot of soundproofing to your walls. Greenfiber has a product called Sanctuary that is specially treated to resist insects and fire, and has a good environmental story.
How much help insulation provides during a power outage or at any other time depends on several factors, says Kevin Busch, VP of Operations for Mr. Handyman in Ann Arbor, a Neighborly company.
“Those factors include the type and thickness of the insulation, how air-tight a home is (or isn’t), the differences between interior and exterior temperatures, the quality of your windows and doors and more,” says Busch. “Increasing the protection your insulation provides, while typically a good idea, is only one part of the puzzle. Well insulated homes are not only more comfortable, but they are typically more cost effective.
While this too can depend on several factors, many homeowners can save between 15-20% of their current home heating and cooling costs by upgrading their home’s insulation. Similar results may be obtained by adding insulation to uninsulated areas or reducing air movement from leaky parts of your home.”
Keep Your Boiler Running
If your heat source is a natural gas or propane boiler, it will likely shut off during a power outage and you’ll need an external power source to keep it running.
“Most propane and natural gas boilers do not require a lot of power to operate,” says Kolo. “The only thing that requires power is the control panel that operates the unit. The important heat supply is supplied by the fuel. Most control panels for boilers in a home draw less power than a single 60-watt traditional light bulb. A battery backup could supply power for quite a while depending on its amp hour rating.”
That’s where battery “generators” make sense. The battery storage doesn’t have to be solar powered. It can be grid tied.
Depending on the battery, it may be able to power your home for days or weeks, says Micetich.
“During a power outage a solar battery back-up can vary depending on which appliances you are running,” says Fasullo. “Typically, a home with batteries that operate basic operations of a home such as lights, refrigerator and internet can run between 10 to12 hours but can last longer with careful monitoring of your home’s energy. You need to understand your battery storage capacity because the amount of energy your battery can store will influence how long your battery can power your home.”
Large backup solar batteries that can power entire homes tend to be expensive, Micetich says.
“If you have a smaller backup battery, you may have to choose a few important things to power to make the battery last as long as possible,” she says. “If you want to power your entire home for days or weeks, you may need to combine the solar battery with a gas-powered portable generator.”
To estimate the size of battery backup you need, determine the worst case scenario for a power outage in your area. Could the power go out for days, or will you be facing a few hours at most? Which essential systems do you need to keep running? Here’s a helpful site to help you size the battery capacity you need.
Whole house battery systems can be expensive, of course, but some systems are modular and can be upsized later, such as Panasonic Solar’s EverVolt 2 Home Battery Storage System. If you want to try to run electric heat pumps, you’ll need significant battery storage like the EverVolt, and high-performance equipment. For example, a 22 SEER, 12,000 Btu heat pump may operate at about 500 watts for cooling, 900-1200 watts for heating.
A Veissman wall-mounted natural gas boiler with three zones operates at 800 watts with all three zones pumping hot water, less when zones have differing demand times. This is what’s considered an “inductive load.” It may run for long periods, and require up to 40% more than its rated demand. We got the 800-watt figure, however, by actually hooking up a Kill-a-Watt device to the boiler to measure power use in real time, so that should be accurate.
To play it safe, you’ll want at least a 1200-watt inverter to convert DC current into AC power for your boiler. The simplest and more affordable approach is to plug the boiler in manually during an outage, but you could also pay more for an inverter/charger with an automatic transfer switch that kicks over to batteries when the power goes out. That’s a discussion for another article, however.
Protect Your Pipes
If your heat doesn’t work during a power outage, a major side effect could be frozen pipes.
“If you’re worried about your pipes, open any cabinets with exposed pipes, and think about exposed pipes that you could wrap in insulation ahead of time,” says Micetich. “This is particularly important in unheated areas, like basements, attics and garages.”
The simplest way to protect water supply pipes is to run the faucet slightly and continuously, since moving water is less likely to freeze, says Doyle James, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing, a Neighborly company in Waco, Texas.
“If a house will be vacant, draining the lines and blowing them out with compressed air is another option, something that people will sometimes do for irrigation lines as well,” James says.
If you lose power in freezing temperatures, turn off your main water shut-off valve, Micetich recommends.
“Open all drain valves and faucets and let them run until the pipes are empty,” she says. “Flush all your toilets and drain your water heater. Pour denatured alcohol or plumbing-safe antifreeze into your toilets, sinks and showers to prevent water in the traps from freezing.”
Planning ahead with a well-insulated house, alternative sources of power and protection in place can make it much easier to withstand the worst of a winter power outage.
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