Shelter Me Column: How to cope with power loss during wildfire season
If the constant threat of wildfire is our new normal, so is the worry that our lights may go out at any time.
Summer heat always increases pressure on the electrical grid, but power utilities will now shut down parts of the grid whenever conditions for wildfires are high, such as during periods of high wind or when the National Weather Service posts a Red Flag warning.
The state’s investor-owned utilities are taking part in the Public Safety Power Shutoff program, and PG&E says that more than 5 million of its customers could be affected. (Note that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is not part of the program. ) The process is coyly called “de-energization,” and it will definitely put a cramp in your plans to Netflix and chill.
You can prepare today for a powerless tomorrow. Some of our tips are simple, requiring only a trip to the ATM. Others require time and investment, but may ultimately make those de-energized hours more palatable — and safer.
1. Sign up for the power alerts. This is an easy one. The companies are keen for customers to know about shutdowns beforehand and will attempt to make early notifications by phone, text and email. For links to local utilities’ sign-up pages, go to prepareforpowerdown.com.
2. Learn how to open your garage without electricity. Electric garage doors won’t work in an outage. “During the wine country fires of 2017, several people became trapped in their homes because they didn’t know how to open their garages,” said Scott McLean, deputy chief of communications at Cal Fire. “That rope with the red handle is not for decoration.”
Go into your garage and locate the emergency manual release — typically a rope hanging from the trolley mechanism. Make sure the door is already down. (Warning: The doors are heavy and can slam down if there is a mechanical issue.) Pull it and you’ll feel the hinge mechanically disconnect, allowing the door to be opened manually. (You know that owner’s manual you threw in the back of a drawer? Find it and read up.) Get a feel for the level of effort.
“On any given day, there’s no reason why you can’t practice how you’re going to get that door up,” said McLean.And if there is a Red Flag warning at a given time, McLean suggests proactively pulling your vehicle out of the garage, facing the street. “It can save you important moments in an evacuation,” he said.
3. Water is key. If you lose juice, you may also lose water. We will go into much greater depth about water storage and filtration methods in a future column. But in any type of emergency, water should be one of the foremost things on your mind.
“Of all the emergency preparation tips we recommend, putting away water is both one of the most affordable and most important,” said Jarrett Tomás Barrios, CEO of the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region. “In terms of prioritizing, this should be one of your first steps.”
If you’ve got room in the garage or other interior space, consider filling a BPA-free 55-gallon water barrel with potable water. You can buy the drums at some big box stores and online.
4. Keep that food cold. To heck with it: Eat the ice cream. You and the family will feel better after demolishing the rocky road.
But in the longer term, you’ll want to keep food as cold as possible.
A packed freezer is better than a half-empty one. According to FEMA, a full freezer will maintain a safe temperature for 48 hours; a half-empty one will stay cold for half that time.
Meats and cheeses in your fridge are a bigger issue, as food can spoil if it is exposed to temps higher than 40 degrees for two hours. Your fridge will likely maintain cool temps for only about four hours.
“Diabetics and people who have to keep medications cool really need to plan ahead,” advises Cal Fire’s McLean.
Which is where new-age coolers come in. Brands like Yeti, Coleman, and Pelican sell coolers that can maintain ice for up to a week. Note that these coolers function best when they have been pre-cooled, are opened rarely, and are stored in a cool place.
5. During a shutoff, cash is king. Forget about using credit or debit cards during a power failure. Take out some cash and break it into small bills — including singles, fives, and tens. Tuck it in an envelope and put it away, so you’re not tempted to spend it on a pizza run.
“A lot of people in L.A. don’t even touch cash anymore,” Barrios says. “They use Venmo or Zelle or a debit card. But none of those things are going to work in a disaster, so you really need cash. And make sure you have small denominations, because you won’t be able to get change.”
If times are tight, start with a small amount and add a bit to it biweekly or monthly until you’ve got enough to get you by for a week or so.
6. You say you don’t want to go to the bathroom in the dark? When it comes to keeping at least some lights on, the outdoor retail world has you covered. The same lanterns that outdoorspeople use in their campsites work wonderfully at home — in particular those that don’t take up much storage space.
Search online for solar-powered lanterns and you’ll find products such as MPOWERD’s Luci Base, a lantern that inflates like a beach ball and gives off a flattering glow. On its lowest setting it will last up to a claimed 50 hours. You can recharge it via a USB port or by using the integrated solar panel. Another model, the EMRG, is smaller and lacks the ability to recharge a phone, but costs only $15.
And while flashlights are essential, also consider buying several headlamps, which keep your hands free when you’re doing tasks around a dark house.
7. Create your own nano-grid. At a minimum you’ll need to recharge your cell phone so you can continue to receive emergency alerts. The market is flooded with decent cellphone battery packs no larger than a pack of playing cards; the key is to actually recharge the packs themselves on a regular basis. Put it on your monthly calendar. Keep one at work, too.
For more intensive household needs, the go-to solution has traditionally been a portable or standby generator. The upside of a portable generator is they are relatively inexpensive but must be used outside because of the danger of carbon monoxide, said McLean. And if misused, there is the potential for fires.
“You can’t just take a Honda EU2200i and plug it into a wall socket,” said Mclean. “You need to talk to a licensed electrician to see how your home can be set up to receive a generator to matter the type, portable or fixed.”
Standby generators have more power capability, but prices are steep. Either type are limited by the amount of fuel on hand, and they’re awfully noisy.
“Personally, I’m bullish on solar systems,” said the Red Cross’ Barrios. “In coming years these lithium-ion battery and solar systems are an obvious choice for Californians.”
You can find portable power stations and solar kits from companies like Renogy and Goal Zero. Goal Zero sells a home energy storage system that uses a lithium-ion battery pack (either the Yeti 1400 Lithium or 3000), a home integration kit, and optional lead-acid batteries that can be daisy-chained for extra storage.
You’ll still need an electrician to install a transfer switch. During an outage, the homeowner flips that switch, allowing up to four separate electrical circuits to be powered. For instance, you could potentially power up the fridge, some lights and small electronics, but not air conditioning. Designer and YouTuber Ben Uyeda installed the Goal Zero system at a vacation home in Joshua Tree.
“After you install the transfer switch, it works seamlessly,” he said of the system. “Unlike most hard-wired systems, you can unplug the main battery pack and take it with you. If there was an earthquake or wildfire situation, I could just load it into my vehicle and have power when I need it. I really like that flexibility.”
Jason H. Harper is a longtime journalist and the founder of Preparation Concierge, a site dedicated to giving emergency preparation advice for those living in urban areas, the suburbs and the coasts. Jason@preparationconcierge.com.
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