Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Back in the Loving Arms of the Grid


The freak Halloween storm that visited the northeastern US left us without power for most of the weekend and Monday.  On Saturday we watched as heavy flakes of snow fell, and kept falling all day.  This came just two days after the first light frost of the year, which came more than three weeks later than the historical average first frost date.  We hadn't even had a hard frost yet in this incredibly mild autumn season.  That meant that most of the trees were still fully garbed in their own leaves.  And that meant a large snowfall was a big problem.

On Saturday afternoon we went around outside trying to keep the worst of the snow off our fruit trees, young and old, and also off the plastic sheeting of the still unfinished hoop house.  This was accomplished with brooms and poles.  That went well; we had no damage to those trees or the little hoop house.  But the taller trees were much harder to protect, especially the very large shade trees close to the house.  All through the afternoon we could hear trees and tree limbs all around the neighborhood snapping and cracking; it was like a pan of popcorn popping, so frequent and regular were the sounds.  By noon we had lost power, and the phone went dead a couple hours later.  Outside we watched the occasional flash of electrical transformers exploding, waiting just a moment for the sound to reach us.  The audio-visual show continued well into the evening as the snow continued to fall.  After each nearby crack! I checked in anxiously with my husband to make sure he hadn't been hurt by a limb coming down.


I have to admit that even though we had advanced warning of this storm and its likely consequences, I prepared less well than I did for the hurricanes of August and September.  We skated through those storms with barely a blip.  Not so much this time.  I did make sure the dishes were done and that we had water on hand to flush toilets and for drinking.  I showered on Friday night and even filled our large thermos with hot water so we could wash our faces.  But I didn't gather our oil lamps, matches, and flashlights, and didn't fill the empty space in the chest freezer with bottles of water to move to our refrigerator.  Now we keep plenty of stored water on hand all the time anyway, and we did have everything we needed to weather such a storm and power loss.  The large chest cooler got cleaned on Sunday, loaded up with plenty of snow, and placed on the porch to accept the contents of our fridge and house freezer.  We had heat from the gas fireplace insert that I had carefully laid away batteries for in case of power loss; we had our gas stovetop range to cook on; and we were well supplied with tanks of propane to keep those going for quite a while.  All in all we were fine.  But I still felt as though I'd been caught flat-footed.

The funny thing is that just Saturday, after listening to Nicole Foss's description of how she prepared her family for life after peak oil, I had talked with my husband about getting some deep cycle marine batteries to carry us through a few days of power outage.  Or rather to support the truly essential functions of the house through a power outage.  We had talked about installing some PV panels a while back, and part of that project was to include a battery backup so that we would have power in the event the grid went down.  Given our budgetary constraints we decided that solar thermal was a higher priority, so the PV system could wait.  And when the grid went down this weekend, so did all the benefits of our solar thermal system.  It made sense to me on Saturday morning that we should ensure at least a few days' supply of electricity to at least keep our chest freezer working, to keep water moving through our radiant heat floors, out through the sump pumps in the basement, and also out of our taps.  Everything else we could do without, I thought.  And after 48 hours or so without electricity, I still think so.  Flashlights and oil lamps were no big deal.  It was an inconvenience not to have a working oven, because we were out of bread and couldn't make any more.  But everything else in the kitchen was manageable with no electricity and a limited supply of water and light.  Even if we never scrape up the money for a PV installation, the batteries themselves would provide a large benefit in the case of future power outages.


Although the fallen limbs caused no damage to the house, the garden or the hoop house, that's not to say we came through completely unscathed.  Far from it.  The entrance to our house was a scene of devastation.  The driveway was blocked by two large limbs, with another heavy limb resting too much weight on our split rail fence.  The fence in the backyard fared even worse.  One half of a large split mulberry came down across the corner of the fence, taking out four panels.  At least it spared our newly planted Ashmead's Kernel apple tree.  The trellising for all our black raspberries took the brunt of the fall and is almost certainly toast, but the canes themselves probably don't care about any damage suffered during this time of the year.  We needed to revamp those trellises anyway.  On the other hand, the poultry schooner caved in completely from the weight of the snow.  It was waiting in the garden for the tilling power of the chickens.  Somehow as we were knocking snow off other structures we just didn't pay attention to it sitting out in the open there.  Still, we think it's mostly salvageable, and should be good as new with a few new pieces of lumber.

The thing that struck real fear into my heart during this storm was the massive tulip poplar tree that stands where our driveway meets the road.  This tree towers over our house.  If it had lost even one major limb, chances were good that either the road would be blocked, or our house would be very seriously damaged.  Fortunately I recognized that there was really nothing I could do about it and managed mostly not to worry about it.  We've had the tree checked by an arborist who pronounced it in excellent condition, so we'd done due diligence.  More fortunately still, it took almost no damage at all.  It's rather stunning to compare the damage the magnolia, which stands right next to it, took.  We'll be cleaning up the debris from the storm for the next few weeks at least.

Since I'm currently in a glass-half-full state of mind, I see all the fallen trees as material for a hugelkultur mound or two (something I've mulled before, but we didn't have enough wood until now), and as more sunlight next year in our front yard and the garden too.  We have a WWOOF volunteer arriving this evening who will be able to help us deal with the additional work load.   And we had already planned to replace a good portion of the fence anyway, in pursuit of a slow-moving hedgerow project.  It may be that due to the storm damage, we get a little bit of money towards that effort from our homeowner's insurance.  And of course, the storm gave me a valuable lesson in living in this home without electricity.  No thought experiment or advance preparations were quite the same as actually dealing with no power. 

I hope all my readers in the path of this storm came through without any harm.  If you were affected by it, please let me know how it went for you in the comments.

15 comments:

Hazel said...

Glad you were essentially ok; we've had news footage of the storm over here, but I wasn't sure who would be affected.
We've had an exceptionally warm autumn too, with only 1 or 2 light frosts in my area. I even have nasturtiums flowering in the garden, though the ones at the allotment are mush.
Snow is forecast later this month though...

Wendy said...

I'm sorry to hear about all of the damage. There was no damage to our property here, and mostly it was just snow, which is mostly gone now.

With regard to the batteries, have you seen those "jumpstart" batteries? You can charge them on a wall outlet, and they allow you to plug some things in. It's like a miniature generator. It would give you some electricity - not a lot, but sometimes you only need a little. They cost around $100.

The downside is if your power isn't restored quickly, and you've run out of charge, there's no power, but it might be good for the start to your off-grid system. You could, eventually, add a bicycle generator, solar panels or an RV-sized windmill to charge the battery.

Dea-chan said...

Wow, that's a lot of damage for the one storm -- and it wasn't even an ice storm!

In Somerville we got... hmm... 1/2" of snow and it melted by Sunday morning. Although we did have the first plows of the season Saturday night!

Dea-chan said...

Oh, and my peppers survived the snow and are NOW happily in my kitchen. As further indication that we had different storms practically. :-P

eatclosetohome said...

Glad to hear you are ok! Sounds like your preparations stood you in good stead, even if they were not 100% complete. Wish others would do at least as much as you do!

agwh said...

Glad to hear that you are essentially OK. We have a tiny solar "system" that helps get us through blackouts, but it's hilariously small. We have a panel that's about the size of my computer monitor on the roof, hooked up to the appropriate charge converter and battery, with a wire that runs into the kitchen where it powers one LED bulb. There is an inverter, too, so we can charge things like our cell phones and iPods. We figured it was a start ...

Laura @ Laura Williams' Musings said...

Glad to hear y'all are physically ok. Sorry that you have had to deal with storm damage.

Kate said...

Hazel, thanks. It's strange to be in the position of being the ones affected by so much weather this year. Usually we're only reading about events and how others are coping with them. Hope the forecast snow treats you well over there.

Wendy, thanks. We can deal with damaged fences. No one was hurt and the house is fine. Thanks for the suggestion on batteries. We'll certainly look into the various possibilities when we get serious about the project.

Dea-chan, glad you were spared the worst of the storm. Our peppers, and various other garden denizens are definitely kaput after the snow.

eatclosetohome, maybe the key to getting other people to prepare themselves is the good feeling that comes when you know you're fine and can help other people. Even being able to offer a friend or family member a shower and a hot meal, maybe some frozen bottles of water for their refrigerator, is a fantastic feeling. We did this for some people who were out of power longer than we were. Sometimes people will do better by others than they do by themselves. We should figure out a way to exploit that to motivate people to prepare better.

agwh, I'm a firm believer in starting small, and then doing one more thing. We have a similar panel that trickle charges the battery for our seldom-used pickup truck. So I can relate.

Laura, thanks. We're trying hard to look on the positive side. It's mostly working.

Fletch said...

From my understanding, we only live a couple of counties apart. We fared just about as well as you did. We have a lot of maple trees....well had. What wasn't totally destroyed will need to come down in the next few weeks due to instability. We were with out power for about 36 hours, but had a generator and gas fireplace. My son thought it was the coolest night having candles in the rooms we were using. We have friends that are due to get their power back today, Thursday. Their excitement help to add humor to this week. Glad you guys were ok and other then minor fixable things, you came through good.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Gosh, that's quite some snow. Glad you and your people managed to stay safe. Hoping that the clean-up isn't too dismal.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Glad no one was hurt and no serious damage was done. We escaped scot-free out here on Cape Cod.

Since we have wood for heat, propane for cooking, and a 110-acre water supply in our backyard, I tend to be sanguine about emergencies. The only thing we really need to keep powered up is our freezers, and I'm thinking we're going to just buy a generator. Easy way out, I guess.

Kewball said...

We had one of those Halloween snows in Nebraska in 1997: Lots of damage and power outages all over town. There was an up-side, though. Two to five days of blessed silence due to lack of power and free wood chips for the next couple of years!

~ Janis said...

We got just enough snow to piss off the cows. I moved them to a new field so they could continue to "snow graze." They had other ideas of getting some hay instead.
We got hit hard here in Vermont during Irene, so we were relieved that we didn't suffer too much with the storm. Come visit the herd when you have a chance:
www.tailgait.blogspot.com

kathy said...

As you may have read in blog, We ended up with storm refuges. What I needed more prep for was the sheer number of bodies.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

I'm glad that you came through this okay. Friends of ours were without power and heat for a week -- with a baby and a toddler.

I have to go look at our battery supply, now that I think of it.