Preparing for a Grinchy Christmas

Many of us were getting things ready for Christmas, shopping both food and gift, making travel plans or keeping track of others', sending cards, wrapping, cleaning, packing, decorating - all the usual hubbub before the busiest holiday of the year.  Meanwhile, meteorologist were tracking a major storm. Sometimes their predictions fizzle out as it gets closer, but this one just kept getting worse. So we started turning our thoughts to emergency planning.

We were going to be getting ridiculously strong winds and torrential rain, so our first concern was what to do if the power went out. The forecasts predicted hundreds of thousands of outages; the odds were not good for just hoping it wouldn't be us, and they were equally bad for hoping our power would be restored in a few hours.


Our well pump needs electricity to work, so we had to gather and store potable water for drinking and cooking and reasonably clean water for flushing toilets. We dug deep into the back of the cabinets for the largest cooking pots. One stock pot was for making a huge pot of soup, and the bigger one for water. We also filled every pitcher, thermos, tea pot, and empty jug with clean tap water. This turned out to be enough for three people for three days with about five gallons left over.

The two large canning pots and the bucket were reserved for toilet flushing. Since it was supposed to rain hard, we got out our large trash can that had only been used for (washed) recycling and positioned it under a gutter that would be protected from the expected 30 mph winds, gusting up to 60 or 70. The plan was to use that water for the toilets. (It's been a little droughty around here and why drain the well when we'd be getting water for free?)

The weakness in this plan was that temperatures were supposed to plummet as the rain ended. The barrel would be way too heavy to bring inside when full. We then crossed our fingers that it would take a really long time for it to freeze solid. Indeed, it did not. We have a big fire poker, a rod about five feet long with a loop handle and the end bent over into a four or five inch long spike, that made short work of the layer of ice on top so we could refill the canning pots. We filled the bucket and pots during the rain storm, and the barrel quickly filled to overflowing again. And then we refilled the pots as they were emptied during the power outage. (I say "we" but Dave did all of the ice water refills.) When the power came back, we still had one full pot inside and the barrel was half full, although a good bit of that was ice.

We saved a lot of water by just not washing dishes. We put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and then stacked them as neatly as we could manage when it was full, fondly thinking of when there would be hot water and electricity to run it. We re-used our coffee and tea mugs since we don't put milk or sugar in them.  We didn't run out of dishes, but we had some paper plates in case we did.


The refrigerator also does not work without electricity. Although the temperatures were ridiculously warm for the first part of the storm, forecasts said that temperatures would plunge into single digits (Fahrenheit) as the wind died down. So we hauled out our two chest coolers and put them on the porch, along with all the freezer packs we could round up. After the power went out, we didn't open the fridge doors until the temperature dropped and the coolers got cold. We then loaded up one chest with everything that had to stay frozen, keeping it on the porch. The other chest we used to store beer inside, after letting it get super cold (but not frozen) outside. The fridge then became a big ice chest. We used the freezer compartment, with lots of ice packs, to store things that shouldn't freeze but had to be kept cold. The main compartment we used for things that we usually keep in the fridge but only need to be kept refrigerated to prolong shelf-life.

This part of the plan worked great. Nothing got warm that had to be kept cold (and therefore nothing had to be thrown out!) and we had access to all of our perishables. It would need some tweaking if it hadn't been so cold out, though.


But speaking of cold, our biggest problem was going to be heat. We need electricity for the ignition on our propane-fueled furnace and for the pump for the radiant floor heat. We had plenty of propane, having checked a few days earlier after hearing the early forecasts, but no way for the furnace to use it. We don't have a wood or pellet stove, and our outdoor fireplace wouldn't be of much use.  We thought briefly of running out to the hardware store to get a generator, but we felt that we needed to know a lot more about what options there were and how you actually use them.  We had a few regrets as we were serenaded from all sides by the low roar of neighbors' generators and seeing their well-lit windows, but also thinking we would be driven to distraction having that sound right outside our windows.  Our closest neighbor, in distance and socially, had a wood stove and had an open invitation to come get warm, so our big concern was making sure the pipes didn't freeze.

As the storm got closer, we cranked up the heat in the house to get it as warm as we could, and ran portable heaters to help it along. We kept a big pot of soup simmering most of the day to add even more heat as well as some humidity (not to mention dinner.) We have large southeast-facing windows, so we hoped that we would get some morning sun to help out - that part of the plan didn't pan out as the most direct sun over the next few days was in the afternoon when it didn't help much. Just not a good weekend for weather luck!

As the power outage continued, with no useful information from Versant about how long we would have to wait for restoration (any minute now, or maybe not until Wednesday is not that helpful) the key consideration was keeping what warmth we had inside. So the first order of business was to not be going in and out all the time. The beer in the cooler instead of on the porch helped.  All three of us leaving and coming back from the neighbor's didn't help. Even when doing it at the same time, the door was open longer than you would think. And our doors are exceptionally tall. What we needed was a little tunnel entrance like for an igloo - a human "cat" door?

The oven needs electricity to regulate when the gas comes on and for ignition, so we weren't tempted to asphyxiate ourselves that way. But we could use the cooktop by lighting the burners with matches. Simmering the soup in its tall stock pot acted like a small radiator, adding some warmth.  When the soup was gone, we heated up our cast iron cookware and left it on the stove as fin-type radiators. That didn't seem as effective other than a place to warm up our hands, so we put the other stock pot, with potable water, on to boil and turned off the burner until it cooled, and repeating.  Whenever we boiled water for tea and coffee, we filled it so the remaining water would add another degree or two (or fraction thereof? We forgot to bring an engineer with us to calculate it.) The good news about the door is that it brought in fresh air, which lessened propane-burning pollution building up in the house.

Mind you, this did not warm the house. We were just trying to stave off having to drain the pipes.  Without the solar boost of morning sun, we were losing about 10F degrees a day. We could always put on more clothes and blankets on the bed or go next door, but we needed to be sure to stay above 32F since we couldn't leave the faucets dripping since the well pump was not functioning. On the third day, a bank of clouds rolled in to cover the rising sun and the house was in the 40s, and we realized that the unheated basement (where the most pipes are) was probably colder.  Versant had hinted that our power would be back by 10pm the night before, but that turned out to be a cruel jest.

So we sent a text to Matt, who had built our house: "The house here has been holding its heat pretty well, but if we don't get power back today, we're thinking we should drain the pipes. But we have never done that before. Would you be available today to give us some advice?" He called us back almost instantly because he's that kinda guy. He said his power just came back so maybe ours would be back soon, too. But if not, he had a propane generator he didn't need now and he could get Bobby to come by and hook it to our propane tanks.  It was just a small one, but would be enough for the heating system.  And then about three hours later, the refrigerator roared back to life and all the lights that had been on were suddenly shining again. We let him know right away, thanking him for his offer, and he wrote back, "Happy to do it but also happy not to." Exactly.


On the topic of lights, they were not on our critical-to-life list. But we knew where all the flashlights, batteries, and candles were, and we had a Luci light all charged up. Our phones were fully charged, too, and we found ourselves grateful that we had gotten heavier models with long-lasting batteries the last time around.  Something we thought of too late was that we should have charged the battery packs for our chain saw and lawn mower: they have USB ports we could have used for recharging devices.

Our restoration

When the power came back, there was great rejoicing! But all was not as it was before. We love our radiant floor heating, but it takes forever to get the house warm again. The slab the pipes are imbedded in has to warm up, and then the floor can start to warm the air above it, but that heat is quickly sucked up by all the cold furniture and walls. We plugged the space heaters back in to give it a boost. In the meantime, we had to reverse our refrigerator modifications so the cold stuff didn't freeze, and also so things would be where they were supposed to be.

We continued to used the potable water we had stockpiled until it was gone: it seemed criminal to dump good water down the drain. But we did dump the leftover rainwater in the bathroom after a day. We waited almost a week before dumping the outside rain barrel … just in case the power winked out again.

Our hot water didn't get hot until the house had warmed up. By the next morning it was almost hot enough for a shower, but it took until later until it was hot enough for the dishwasher. In the meantime, all the pots and pans from cooking and storing water got scoured and put away. It took two loads to get all the stockpiled dirty dishes washed. After a full day with power, there was also enough hot water for all the showers you would want to take.

Next time…

Although we were quite pleased with our preparations, there a few things we should do to be better prepared next time.

  • Remember to charge all the USB battery back-ups.

  • Get some USB-powered LED lights.

  • Get some back-up power. Our choices seem to be propane generator (easy and not that expensive, but loud), wind or solar (no fossil fuels, but reliability is expensive), or propane fuel cell (pricey, but quiet and emissions are just oxygen and carbon dioxide), with battery back-up optional except for the solar/wind. As Jon's 90-something uncle pointed out, we're getting old, which means power outages start becoming dangerous rather than just inconvenient, so we'll be doing some more in-depth research.