I had just sat down to watch a movie. A few minutes into the opening chase scene, the room went pitch dark and the only sound was the wind pelting rain and ice against the windows. An ice storm was raging outside and at 11:30 PM EST on Thursday, December 11th, 2008, my home in Exeter, New Hampshire (FN42MX), lost commercial electric power and was “off the grid” for the next eighty hours.
I made my way over to the “shack” or amateur (ham) radio room, grabbed a flashlight and headed off to bed. I figured the lights would be back on by morning. In the backyard, from high up in the pines, came the unnerving sound of limbs cracking then a roar as they crashed to the ground. In the distance I could hear the rumble of trees collapsing under the weight of ice. I peered through the darkness outside my window towards the sounds I heard, hoping to see something. The night sky would occasionally be lit with brilliant blue-green flashes as power lines, struck by falling debris, arced then failed. After a night of fitful sleep, I awoke to a gray morning and made my way outside to survey the icy landscape. Thankfully, our home had come through the storm with only minor damage. The only casualty was my amateur radio antenna, a 140′ long dipole in the backyard. It had been strung up almost 60 feet between two pines but had been pulled apart, cleaved into several smaller lengths of wire by a large tree limb lying broken on the ground.
By mid-morning we still had no electricity and initial reports on the car radio said it could be as long as a week before power was restored. An estimated 1.25 million people across New England were in the dark.
Days before the storm reached us, the weather models indicated a high probability of an ice storm. We had had ice storms before, and I was hoping that this one would be a non-event. I felt confident that I was adequately prepared to deal with the situation. I’m an ARES member with SKYWARN training, I told myself. And I had a ‘go-kit’. Naïve thinking, I admit. By the morning of December 10th, the weather reports made it clear we would see significant sleet and freezing rain across the region.
From the perspective of a ham radio operator, let me share how I prepare before a winter snow or ice storm hits, discuss what I learned during a power outage and how I’ll prepare for future storms.
This is my usual winter storm preparation routine:
- Fill gas tank in car
- Fill windshield wiper fluid in car
- Put car in the garage
- Fill snow thrower with gas and check oil
- Fill portable generator with gas and check oil
- Fill two gallon gas can (for snow thrower and generator)
- Make sure to have extra oil for snow thrower and generator
- Have sufficient ice melter (salt) and sand
- Plenty of food and water in the pantry to last a couple of days
- Flashlights at the ready (for the kids too)
- Extra batteries stocked
- First aid kit stocked
- Fire extinguishers at the ready (you don’t want to search for one in the dark)
- ARES ‘go-kit’ ready (I won’t go into details of this kit. A quick Google search will pull up many useful resources.)
- Amateur radio Handie Talkies (HTs) fully charged
- Listen to local repeaters to determine ARES status, when nets might be activated, etc.
But there are a several additional tasks I like to complete before a significant storm hits:
- Charge up the cell phones. Find the cell phone car charger. Keep it handy.
- Charge up the kids’ electronic gadgets, portable DVD player, etc. (If you have kids, you’ll understand this one.)
- Do this dishes. Nothing is worse than a pile of dishes in the sink or a dishwasher full of dirty plates when the power goes out. If you have no hot water, be prepared to deal with the odor.
- Do the laundry. First, I don’t want wet clothes sitting in the washer for several days in a power outage. Mold grows quickly. Second, I want to make sure any clothing I’ll need (cold weather gear, items used in an ARES deployment, etc.) are clean and dry.
- Clean out the refrigerator. Toss out anything that has already expired. Throw out left-overs. I recall hearing on the news that food poisoning is one of the leading reasons for emergency room visits during a prolonged power outage. I believe it. Food rots quickly after a few days in a warm fridge and you are of no help to your family, ARES, or anyone else if you are curled up in the fetal position from eating spoiled food.
- Make ice. We have an automatic ice maker inside the freezer. Before the storm, I ran it for hours to fill the ice hopper. The extra ice extends the time the freezer keeps its cool when the power goes out.
- Get out the ice chest/cooler. We have a large camping cooler and it would be cold enough outside to place the cooler on our back deck to store food from the refrigerator.
- Contact family and close friends. If you know ahead of time that a potentially damaging storm is on the way, let others know the best way to contact you (and vice-versa) in an emergency.
The morning after the storm it occurred to me that, with the sun setting shortly after 4 PM, I had a minimal amount of daylight by which to work. The top priority was to set up the generator and get some lights running in the house. In the spring, I had purchased a 3500 watt, gasoline powered generator. I had started it up back then, made sure it worked and tucked it away in the backyard shed when I was finished. But when it came time to use it in an emergency, here’s what I learned:
- Store the generator so that it’s easily accessible. My generator was lost in the shed. My shed is about 100 square feet and you could barely see the tarp covering the generator in the corner. The lawn mower, bags of fertilizer, various rakes, a leaf blower, a weed trimmer, all the tools of summer, had succeeded in preventing me from easily moving the generator out of the shed and into the yard. After nearly 45 minutes of clearing things out, I finally freed the generator and positioned it about 30 feet from the house.
- Check the oil. You’ll be running your generator long and hard. Make sure the oil level is kept up and change it per the manufacturer’s service schedule.
- Make sure you know how to use the generator. RTFM. Read the “fine” manual, understand the safety issues, determine what you’ll be able to power given the generator’s size (which you should of calculated before you bought it), know the sequence for connecting and disconnecting the power cord(s) from the generator to your home. Above all, make sure you know how to start the darn thing. Embarrassingly, I had forgotten to flip the toggle switch to ‘ON’ before starting. After several failed pulls of the starter cord, I discovered my error.
- Make sure you have the correct type and gauge power cord. When I attempted to run a power cord from the generator to the house, all I could find initially was a flimsy, 18 gauge cord that was not meant for use with a 28 amp generator. The dog had also used a section of the cord as a chew toy so I cut it into several pieces and threw it in the trash. I was able to find a heavy gauge, outdoor-rated extension cord in the garage, and I’ve since purchased an additional 50 foot, 10 gauge, outdoor-rated, 30 amp, 120 volt, 3 conductor cord. This is a handy cord to have around for Field Day as well.
- Protect the generator. My generator was placed on the lawn which was quickly turning from ice to mud as the temperature rose. To protect both the lawn and keep the generator from settling into the muck, I placed it on a 4′ x 8′ piece of plywood. Another 4′ x 8′ piece of plywood placed over saw horses along side the generator made an ideal cover. Over this I placed a plastic tarp to shield the generator from the elements. Refueling and handling power cords is a lot safer when rain and snow are not dripping on everything. You don’t want to starve the generator for air and you certainly don’t want to block the exhaust, so be careful how you place any covering.
- While I didn’t have any issues with this myself (I am alive and writing this), it bears repeating: do not use a generator in an enclosed space, your garage, a shed, the basement, the car, etc. The carbon monoxide produced by a running generator will kill you quickly. Keep the generator in a well ventilated, outdoor area and away from your home, RV, tent, etc.
With the generator now up and running, I was able to power several lamps, a small 13″ television (unbelievably, cable TV still worked), the cell phone charger, the charger for my HT, and the heating pad under the tank holding my children’s pet gecko. Every few hours I would do the ‘generator dance’ as we called it and power off appliances in order to power on the hot water heater (for hot showers and washing dishes), the sump-pump, and my amateur radio.
One of the first questions I’m asked by people who are not amateur radio operators is, “Why do you use radio? Just pick up the phone if you need to talk to someone.” Putting aside the multitude of reasons for participating in ham radio, I simply and politely explain that cell phones, landline phones, and other commercial communications systems can and do fail. This usually draws a slight chuckle and then the response, “I may not have a cell phone signal in some parts of town but I can use my home phone or send email.” But during the power outage, the cell towers, which rely on commercial power to operate effectively, had reduced signal strength. From my home, where normally I had a strong cell phone signal, I now had extremely sporadic service. The Internet connection was out and the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system had ceased functioning. Amateur radio provided a completely reliable and durable means of communication.
My VX-6, a handheld radio or HT, worked well, and I used it constantly to monitor our local repeater, W1WQM, during the power outage. The W1WQM repeater is a wind and solar powered repeater, 100% off the grid, and it suffered no damage from the storm. I couldn’t reach a few other functioning repeaters from my HT so I would turn to my Icom 2200 radio which serves as a base unit in the shack. My 2m antenna, on the roof about 30′, survived the storm unscathed. I would power up the IC-2200 and find out from others on our local repeater what was going on: did anyone need help clearing trees, fixing an antenna or getting their generator working? More importantly, we passed along information about roads closed due to downed trees or power lines, and which gas stations and grocery stores were open. Watching the news on TV was helpful but it was not nearly as reassuring as speaking with my fellow hams and getting realtime, tactical information about our immediate area. I knew if I had any problems, I could count on them to help me out.
My only high frequency (HF) antenna, the storm damaged 140′ dipole, was out of commission so I was unable to listen to the state HF net handling traffic related to the power outage. The generator could easily power my HF radio so I was disappointed that I was unable to communicate with amateurs in other parts of New England regarding the storm.
As the power outage dragged into day two, I needed more gas for the generator. Based on news reports and information over our 2m nets, I was planning for another five days without power. Few local gas stations had power so I took a trip up the road to a gas station I heard was open. Along the way, I planned to stop by a big box home store for extra supplies. The drive normally takes 20 minutes but on this day, it took over an hour. The roads were jammed with cars, people out searching for gas and food, and with the traffic lights out, intersections were clogged with frustrated drivers. I stopped at the home store intending to purchase a 5-gallon gas can. The only problem was that nearly every storm-related product was sold out. No flashlights, no batteries, no generators, no heaters and power cords. I ended up leaving with a single, 1-gallon gas container and waiting in a 30-minute line up the road to fill it. Should you find yourself inadequately prepared or needing to replenish your supplies, keep this in mind: get out as soon as possible to purchase what you need. Don’t wait. Beating the rush to the hardware or grocery store can mean the difference between finding the supplies you need or returning home empty-handed.
Early on the morning of day four, after 80 hours, commercial power was restored to my home. A few critical necessities, alongside the generator and ham radio, made riding out the power outage at home, versus evacuating to a shelter, possible:
- Heat. We have a natural gas powered fireplace. My wife turned it on within minutes of the power going out and it fired right up and stayed running for the duration of the outage. This kept much of the house around 65 degrees (18C). Of course a wood stove, a pellet stove, or a traditional fireplace would work just as well.
- Water. We have town water and not well water so we are not dependent on an electromechanical system to pump water into the house. With well water and no power, you’ll only have water until the pressure in the well system is drained. Of course, you could have a well system on generator or emergency power but my reliance on town water made this one less issue I had to deal with.
- Our natural gas kitchen stove allowed us to prepare hot meals. A grill or camping stove (used outdoors of course) would also work.
My list of things to purchase for the next major storm are the following:
- A five gallon gas can (or two.) Nothing is more annoying than running out every day to fill a few 1-gallon containers. If possible, try and store your gas in a safe place outside of your basement or garage.
- An additional HF antenna. I purchased a new 140′ dipole and it’s already up higher than its predecessor. I’m considering a Buddipole as a backup, but for now I’ll repair the broken dipole and keep it as a spare.
- Flashlights. LED flashlights are my new favorite tool and my relatively inexpensive LED model performed well. It has a wide spread so it was ideal for reading a book in bed or making my way through the dark garage. But it was not very good outdoors when I needed a focused beam. My next LED flashlight will be a Fenix model.
- A 2 meter radio for the car. I currently use my HT in the car with a small mag mount antenna and it provides adequate coverage. I have a spare FT-7800 that would be ideal when I need the extra power and plan on installing this in the spring.
- A higher wattage generator that I can connect directly to the house. It’s possible to directly connect a portable generator to your home electrical system, thus avoiding the use of heavy gauge electrical cords. Suffice it to say, you’ll want a certified, professional electrician to do this. This can be expensive and I’ll be researching this further before investing in a system.
Many people suffered much worse and went far longer than my eighty hours without power. Some went a week or more, others lost their homes due to burst pipes or fallen trees, and still others perished as a result of the storm. My “off the grid” time was certainly no hardship but it did serve as a valuable learning experience. With even more preparation, the next time a storm leaves my family in the dark, we’ll be ready.