Emergency Preparedness Part 9: Power Sources in a Disaster

[Posted July 16, 2021]


Contributed by Robin Jensen and Patrick Pangburn for Hillsdale NET


This is the ninth in a series of articles brought to you by the Hillsdale Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) and the Hillsdale News. To read earlier installments, click here.


The articles will help you prepare your family and our community for a major natural disaster, as well as share information on Hillsdale NET and what it does. We hope you will stay tuned over the coming months and that you find the content helpful and informative.


To learn more about the NET program or sign up for NET training, visit the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management NET website. There are also many auxiliary volunteer opportunities available with our Hillsdale NET team. Email hillsdaleornet@gmail.com to find out how you can help.

Despite the initial tendency to panic, most people do just fine when the power goes out for a short while. In the event of a disaster, however, we may be left without power for days, weeks or longer. During the last power outage in our area the most common concern was not home heating, room lighting or cooking. “How can I charge my phone?” was the question of the day.


Alternatives to household power delivered from transmission lines include disposable batteries, battery back-ups (small and large), generators and whole-house battery power.

Backup power sources can include gas-powered generators, alkaline batteries, and rechargeable phone battery packs.

Batteries

There are various types of smaller, home use batteries including alkaline, NiCAD, NiMH, lithium and others. Some batteries are single use while others can be recharged. Never attempt to recharge a battery that is intended for single use.


Most experts recommend simple alkaline batteries for your disaster cache. They are relatively inexpensive and come with an expiration date. Unused alkaline batteries hold an effective charge for 10 years or more. For your disaster cache, experts recommend storing batteries outside of the device and in a container that keeps the electrodes from touching and losing their charge.


Your disaster cache may include two-way radios, which most often have rechargeable batteries. These devices should be recharged after each use, but when in storage, remove the battery pack from the radio. Failure to do so my damage your radio with corrosion.


Battery Backups

There are small and large backup/charging options for such things as charging your phone and other devices.

An example of a solar-charged phone charger.

Battery backup/charging devices should be kept fully charged so when disaster strikes you have plenty of power to charge your phone. You may get a few phone charges from the backup but it, too, will need to be recharged occasionally. Some battery backup options recharge by a hand crank or with built-in solar cells. Many trained NET volunteers use and highly recommend a solar backup device (about $30). Most keep this unit in a bright window so it is always charged. Larger battery backup units hold more power on a charge, but the price goes up with more power holding capacity.


Generators

Many homes in parts of the country with unreliable power rely on generators as a backup to the electrical power grid. If you are considering a backup generator for your home, work with a licensed electrical contractor. Critical points to consider when choosing a generator:


  • Do you want to power your whole house continuously during a power outage or only a few critical circuits (heating, refrigerator/freezer, microwave, router/computer/TV, enough lights for safety, some plugs, etc.)? You might choose a less powerful generator that you will power up just a few times a day to keep the fridge/freezer cold and check email and then power back off to save fuel.

  • What fuel will your generator use? The most common fuel sources are gasoline, diesel, propane, or natural gas. Natural gas is a great source if you are confident of an uninterruptable source that will not be damaged in a disaster (for example, by broken delivery pipes). Propane can be stored for a long time without problems but may be difficult to obtain immediately post-disaster. Gas and diesel, even with the addition of a stabilizing agent, degrade over time and must be changed out for a fresh supply every year or so.

  • What are the maintenance and periodic testing requirements for the generator? Some high-end generators initiate self-tests every month and alert the homeowner when fuel is low or maintenance is required. See your instruction manual for any generator to see care and maintenance requirements.


VERY IMPORTANT: If you plan to use a home generator, have your contractor install a transfer switch to connect to your electrical system. Simply attaching the generator to your electrical system will backfill power to your electrical transmission lines. The electrical line workers that come to repair downed power lines after a disaster could be killed or injured if the lines are hot because you did not install a transfer switch. Do your part to protect their lives.


Whole-house Battery Power

Larger deep cycle batteries look more like automotive batteries and are becoming more common in electric vehicles, marine applications and in homes with solar panels. Unlike regular auto batteries they are designed to provide longer continuous use rather than for short bursts. For home use these batteries may be recharged with solar power and provide power during the night and low light days. They are at present very costly, but still worthy of consideration if you have a large budget or a loved one at home on a critical medical device.


As with all of your disaster preparedness systems, make a plan to maintain and test your power backups: Charge your phone from your backup device and see how that process goes, especially if you have a solar-charged backup; every once in a while ask yourself, How long have those batteries been in my under-bed cache? Or, When is the last time I tested my generator? What would I do right now if my power went out?

Hillsdale NET wants to know how you connect with your neighbors, as well the geographic boundaries of your local community networks.

Email hillsdaleornet@gmail.com to share information about the “how” and the “where” of the networks in your immediate neighborhood so we can help ensure that everyone is in the communication loop in an emergency.