Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lights out! Then what?

The lights have just gone out in your house. How can you find out what caused the problem? It's important to have some idea what the situation is.

If the problem is with only your house, you can't just wait around assuming someone is going to fix it. You are that someone. If the neighbor's are all fine, it's time to get busying fixing your problem. If you are knowledgeable about electricity, you'd best get your flashlight and get busy. If not, maybe it's time to call the electrician.

Let's say you've checked and the neighbors are in the dark too. Fine, it's not just you. Can you see lights in another part of town? The houses across the lake from me are on a totally different circuit than my side of the lake. If my side is dark but they still have lights across the lake, then the problem is limited in scope. If both sides are dark, then it's at least a regional outage. If you can't see any house lights anywhere in your town, it's a sizable outage.

It might be obvious why the power's out. There's no mystery when power goes out during hurricanes, earthquakes, and ice storms. It's to be expected. You can assume the people who run the gird know what's going on. They'll get crews on it as soon as they can.

Once in a while there are large major outages that don't have obvious causes. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 had no visible cause to the vast majority of people. It wasn't a storm event. It happened during generally nice weather in the middle of August. Those are the sort of blackouts that cause me concern. At the time, speculation ran wild that it was a terrorist attack. Was it a cyber attack? Was it an act of war?

Most phone service remained up. Some cell phone towers failed to handle the heavy load, but most people had at least some phone service. Most radio and television stations went to backup power and continued to broadcast. If you had a regular corded phone that didn't rely on electric power, you could make phone calls. If you had a battery powered radio or TV, you could tune into new broadcasts and keep up to date with what was going on. Many people had to use their car radio to tune into broadcasts because they didn't own a battery powered unit.

My solar electric system functioned fine. I had dial-up Internet connection that worked. I could use my TV and home radios to listen to the news.

There are things that can take down just about everything. A massive electro magnetic pulse (EMP) caused by an air burst atomic weapon or even something like huge solar flare could actually destroy key parts of the grid. Should that happen, power won't be coming back for an extra special long time.

It's possible that an event could take down the grid, yet leave most home alternative energy systems alone. At least that's what my research leads me to believe. Then there's the other end of the scale. Some EMP type events could not only fry home energy systems, they could cook your TV and all your radios. Car electrics would not work. Most vehicles would be dead. Now not only is the grid down, you have no way of knowing what the heck happened. Travel is reduced to human or animal power.

You would know the problem goes well beyond a simple electrical grid malfunction. If the power's down, and all your electronics are inoperative, it's a huge deal. You know that power's not coming back and that you are on your own. You have to take care of all your needs yourself for the indefinite future. No one's going to turn the lights back on. It's harsh knowledge, but the sooner you understand what's going on, the sooner you can take action.

Not much you can do about a sneak EMP attack from an atomic weapon. However, we may get a day or two's warning that the sun is doing something weird. If a solar event looked likely, I'd throw all the disconnects on my solar electric system. Every major component can be switched off from every other component. It's possible that would prevent a power surge from destroying my system. Once the even is over, then I'd cautiously turn the breakers on and see if my system survived. It might be possible to save most of the national grid by disconnecting and shutting it down. I've no control over that, but I've control over my own system.

Should such a major event happen, I'd want to know what's going on. My last ditch ace in the hole is a Grundig shortwave radio with a hand crank generator. It's sealed in a metal ammo can and stored in the basement for greater EMP protection. It may be possible to tune in something like Radio Australia and learn of an atomic attack on the US. Darn useful information.

Woe to anyone caught in a major city should something like an EMP happen. I can heat my house with wood. There's food in the pantry or garden and game in the woods. My well has an overflow. All I need is a bucket. Of course, that level of preparation is good for a whole range of problems. Best yet, it give me a good quality of life right now. Live is good out here in the woods.

So if your power goes down, it's essential to learn what the problem is. Is it local and minor, or is it the proverbial the end of life as we know it? Do you wait it out by reading a good book with a flashlight, or do you load your rifle?


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