Winter-snowy trees

It's always in the cold when things break

The power went out yesterday evening, with the outside temperature at -27F (that's -33C). It was, for awhile, cozy and quiet - we read for awhile by an LED lantern (while the dog paced anxiously because Things Are Terrible and Why Are The Humans Doing Nothing) and then decided it might be a good idea to take a drive and find out if it was just us. Since our neighbor died a few years back, we're the only ones on our road, which means it would be good to know if we should call it in or if it was the whole area.

But it was the whole area -- the whole valley, the whole north of town. Eerie to see everything completely and totally dark, the roadsides and the hills. We drove down to the crossroads a mile from us, where normally there's an all-night gas station and a weigh station and some street lights, now just pitch blackness, and turned around to come back. Presumably they knew about it and were working as hard as they could to get it back on, with that many people out of power in these bitterly cold temperatures.

Meanwhile the temperature in the house was dropping, from 70 to 63 in about 2 hours, so we discussed emergency heating solutions. There are only two things in the entire system that need power to keep the house warm: the electrical parts on the boiler (which is oil fueled, but needs electricity to start up), and the pump that circulates hot water in the house. Orion already has a battery backup for the pump; it's just a large car battery in the crawl space that can run it for a few hours if need be (in theory; we've never tried it). The boiler is harder, and it's outside. We didn't previously have a battery backup for the boiler because it ran on coal and was (almost) completely non-electric. Last summer we switched to an oil heater which is VASTLY better in EVERY way (no more buckets of coal! no more filth and mess! no more having to go outside 5 times a day in -40 weather and get up in the middle of the night to feed it!) ... but it needs electricity to run.

We have a very old car with no functional heater and really, no functional anything, but the engine still runs, and last fall Orion parked it near the boiler in the thought that we could run the boiler off the car's alternator. The problem we hadn't thought of until last night is that there is no way we would be able to start a cold car at -27. Nothing will start in this weather if it doesn't have its engine block/battery heater plugged in for awhile first ... which you can't do with no electricity! Orion said he thinks he can warm it up with a flamethrower (this is what I'm married to, I'm just saying), but his flamethrower is not currently working because he used up all the propane in his portable propane tank trying to set a pile of wet brush on fire last fall.


One reason, in fact, why I wanted to drive around in the Subaru a little bit before bed was to start it up and warm it up so we would still be able to start it later if we needed to. There's no way it would start after being outside all night, but we set the alarm for 3 a.m. because it should still start after about 4 hours (that's probably getting close to the top of how long you can leave a car outside at 30 below and still be able to get it started), so we could run it again and (Orion thinks) use alligator clips to hook the battery into the boiler's electrical system.

... but we didn't have to, because the power clicked on about an hour later. Go GVEA! \o/ (Golden Valley Electric; Fairbanks is isolated enough that it has its own local power plant and utility company.) In about 3.5 hours the temperature had fallen to around 60 in the house, so it wasn't even really that uncomfortable; we had just gone to bed.

But it did really drive home how quickly you lose heat at -30. I mean, we were never in any sort of danger; even if our car-based emergency heating solution failed, we could easily have driven to town and gotten warm, as long as we were vigilant about not leaving the car un-run for so long that it wouldn't start. (There's also a car in the garage, and theoretically you can still open the garage door by hand without power, but again, we're not completely confident about that, especially since the garage door has a tendency to freeze shut in this weather.) The gas cookstove still works without power (though you need to hand-light the burners) and we usually keep a filled 5-gallon can of water on hand, since there's no way to get water into the house without power to run the well pump and we've had outages as long as 8-12 hours before. But never when it was this cold; this would have been basically the worst-case scenario if it'd lasted overnight or longer.

Technically we have an emergency generator -- new, in the box, in the attic. But generators come with their own set of problems: once they're set up, they have to have gas and oil in them (and you can't just leave that sitting around for years or it won't work when you need it to), they need to be kept dry and warm enough to start up, etc. A generator that'd been sitting outside at -27 would have been as hard to start as the car. We talked about maybe building a generator shed next summer and getting the whole thing set up and wired in. So far, in the going-on-15 years we've lived out here, we have never had a power outage long enough that we'd have needed it. But last night would have been, if it'd lasted a few hours longer. So. It does get you thinking. A lot of people have wood stoves, not as their main source of heat but as a backup, for precisely this reason.

So that was our little adventure. And this morning it's still -24. Bleh. But at least there's power and the house is warm.

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Oh dear *hugs* Thank goodness that the power came back on - and that the flamethrower was out of order, because I shudder to think what might have happened if not!!

Might be time for that generator shed after all!
I know!! There's nothing like actually being in that situation to make you realize how unprepared you are.
Oh wow, I'm glad the power came back on when it did. What a hassle otherwise!

Even in our warm climate (which, ironically, often gets colder than at least coastal Alaska in the wintertime, if not the interior and extreme north), we decided a generator is a must have, because often it's big ice storms that can knock out power for weeks if they're bad enough (2007--our power was out for 2 weeks). Hubby now has the house wired so we can switch to a generator-only electric panel to ensure it doesn't backfeed into the power lines and electrocute the line workers, so all he has to do is run a cord from the generator shed to an outlet on the side of the house, flip the panel over, and hey presto, heat, refrigeration and water (we're on a well). It's good peace of mind to have a generator available, even if we've only used it once since 2007.
That sounds scary! I'm glad you got power back. I think a generator shed would be a good idea.

I was more than a little surprised to realize that "flamethrower" was not the kind of random, theoretical solution my husband throws out but something to which you might normally have access!
I would sooooo love to give you some of out heat - on Tuesday it was 40C from 2pm to 7.30...

(ps - and in the 'I need to remember there are people worse off than me', during last year's heatwave ALL of South Australia lost power for a full day...)

Edited at 2018-01-25 09:11 am (UTC)