Après moi le déluge: or, the 40:40 geek’s guide to power outages

Picture of a stormy sky

Uh oh. Time to think like a geek.

Hindsight might be 40:40, once you’ve been inconvenienced by a power outage. Hurricane Irene made for a long and trying weekend this past week, and I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been. I was one among 750,000+ people in New Jersey who found themselves without power during the storm. I decided to jot down some “dids” and “wish-I’d-dones” having to do with technology while they are still fresh in my memory.

Fortunately, this was a mild one. I had only an electrical outage for 24 hours; the water and gas lines weren’t disrupted.

I grew up in a rural location where outages can last for a week or more, and no electricity means NO household water at all– unless you are lucky enough to have a standby generator that can run the pump in your well. Some people in my region are still without power today, five days after the storm.  I know from experience that spoiled food, the lack of sanitary facilities, and damage caused by wind and water can quickly turn what started as a minor bother into a dangerous mess.

With that in mind, I’d like to stress that this post is not intended for ACTUAL emergency scenarios. Those include following sensible guidelines such as filling bathtubs and buckets for emergency utility water. Stockpiling 5 gallons a day, per person, of potable water. Keeping a store of batteries, food that doesn’t require refrigeration, duct tape, plastic sheeting, a full tank of gas, blankets, candles,  a packed suitcase in case of evacuation, an emergency radio with a crank . . . this is adult-level, common-sense preparation that I’ll leave to your inner scout, or other, more expert bloggers to explain.

This post is for shallow, twitchy types like me who like to know exactly where their next KB of data is coming from. And when they might expect it, even if it needs to be rationed.

But before I begin, I recommend that you introduce your inner-resourceful-scout to your inner-meretricious-data-hog by remembering this: if your phone/answering machine/remote handset needs to be plugged in, and/or is cordless, it will turn into a brick during a power outage. Mine refuses to make phone calls, preferring instead to use its reserve battery to beep at annoying intervals for several hours. In case I ever forget (while I sit in the dark) that there IS NO POWER, this reminder might come in very handy.

Photo of an old phone

A colleague of mine said his 9-year-old assumed that you used one of these by sticking your fingers in the holes and pressing down on the numbers. Although that's excellent UI logic and mostly true now, be prepared to give your children a demo if you find an old drag-to-dial phone.

Tip One: Keep at least one corded phone in your house.

A corded phone has a handset, a keypad, and . . . cords, which may or may not be curly, and if they are, can be an amusement onto themselves for cats and twitchy people. The cords are used to plug the phone into a phone jack and to connect the handset to the phone. That’s about it. Although many people seem to have forgotten that such simple things exist, you can actually still purchase one of these for around $10 at Amazon, Target, Walmart, RadioShack . . .  and many other retail outlets. Some models have extra-large buttons, lighted keypads and other senior- and storm- friendly features. You could also spring for a more expensive retro model of phone, either new or refurbished, (if you don’t happen to have one tucked in the attic), and prepare for an emergency while also making a design statement.

Since you are now thinking about telephony, it’s also worthwhile checking out your digital phone connection before the power fails again. Verizon FIOS in my area includes a large connection box with a backup battery. The battery lasted for about 8 hours after the power went out, and included a live phone jack on the front of the box. (There are indicator lights on the box to indicate what is working, and a “silence alarm” button – this backup box is another frequent “beeper”—although in this case, it’s actually is trying to tell you something useful.) If you need to summon help during an outage, a working phone that doesn’t need charging and that has a solid signal could be a lifesaver.

Photo of a cell tower

One of the things you hope still works in a power outage.

Tip Two: Make an inventory of ALL devices you have that have cellular capabilities.

1. Cell phones are the no-brainer in this category. However, if you’re like me, you don’t often use your cell phone in your own house because you still uphold the quaint tradition of having a land line. My cell signal only works in a few spots at home, and is otherwise abysmal. So, make sure you know where in your house the signal is strongest. In this, as in other storms, the unfortunate deaths were made more tragic in that they happened to those, who, against all advice, went out in the storm and were drowned in flash floods, or killed by flying debris. Seeking more bars is not a great reason to go wandering around in severe weather.

2. Devices with opt-in, no-contract data plans. Some laptop computers, tablets, or other mobile devices come with the option of a built-in 3G or 4G adapter. You may even have forgotten that your particular device has this capability built-in. You can usually activate these short-term data plans for periods of one day, or one month, with no obligation to continue. Check the terms of your device carrier’s plan for details. You usually have to be pro-active to cancel such contracts so they don’t auto-renew. For example, the iPad with 3G will remind you at the end of each billing period, but continue to bill you unless you act. Plans start at $20 for the Verizon iPad. AT&T iPad plans starts at $15; other tablets and cards have similar deals. If your laptop did not ship with one, you can add a 3G or 4g network adapter, network stick, etc., to any computer post-purchase. Some are external, and use a PC slot or USB port. Others are internal cards. You can buy them at a retailer or from your cellular data provider. You always need to buy some kind of plan to make them work.

A less-common consumer device is a  3G or 4G mobile hotspot. These are external devices whose charms may not be immediately obvious — they look like a cell phone without a screen or keypad, and that’s pretty much what they are. Their advantage is that they can be purchased without a contract, and, most importantly, are device agnostic. A mobile hotspot creates a short-range wireless network that can support up to five wi-fi devices. You can share the signal with family, friends, or nice strangers in airports – a person can join your network by being in range, and knowing the security key. Almost all cell-phone carriers offer these devices, with various plans. If you have more than one device at home needing a connection, these hotspots can be more versatile and economical than a card or stick that only allows one computer to connect to the internet. Plans are priced similarly to single-connection plans. A shared hotspot may not last as long as a single-connection device, but they can also be recharged more easily if you have an alternative source of A/C power. Travel warriors should consider one of these.

Remember to activate your no-contract data plans before the storm hits. If you don’t have a wi-fi connection, you may not be able to get to the page you need to activate your cellular plan, and the process involves some form-filling to set up for the first time. If your power never goes out, you will have spent money on data you didn’t need. Getting through a long power outage with a device that “could-have” if only you “had-done” can make that savings of $20-$50 look like false economy in retrospect

3. Devices with free cellular connections included.

This weekend, this storm, the connectivity and reliability superstar in my house was – - an e-reader!

The Kindle Wi-Fi +3G has an experimental browser built in, and buried in the menu. It’s what makes it possible to buy books when you aren’t in wi-fi range. It is also ideal for getting to mobile websites — I used mine to stay tuned to Twitter and the outage and emergency notices from my workplace and power company. I also used the mobile version of Gmail to keep up with outside contacts. The Kindle battery has an extraordinary lifespan for a mobile device – up to a month on a single charge in the latest version. Using the wireless connection drains the battery much more quickly than reading does,  but the battery life is still measured in days, rather than hours.

My biggest regret during Irene? I just got a new Chromebook for testing. Then, I forgot it in my office the Friday before the storm.

The newest Google Chromebooks (made by Acer and Samsung,  $300-$400) now come with the option of wi-fi AND free 3G — 100MB of free data from Verizon per month (promised to be free for the next two years), with the option to buy more in daily or monthly increments. One day’s worth of unlimited data costs $10. Monthly plans range from an additional 1-5 GB of data, and cost between $20 and $50. The Chromebook is a unique concept in a mobile device – it gives you access to Google’s Chrome Browser and your Google account data. That means you can use Gmail for email, Google Talk for text, voice and video chats, iGoogle or Google Reader for RSS feeds and Google+ for your social network. There are extensions for Google Books and the Kindle reader. Any web-based cloud service where you have accounts will also work: Facebook or Twitter, Dropbox, WordPress . . . whatever you are accustomed to do on the web. The Chromebook is designed to switch to the cellular connection only when a wi-fi network is not available, so you don’t waste your precious bandwidth. You can also deactivate the 3G connection, so that your use of it is always intentional.

In the case of all devices in this category, be sure to turn off wireless connections when you don’t need them to conserve battery life. The Chromebook (with the Kindle app) and the Kindle both allow you to read books without using any sort of network connection. Google has also just announced an offline beta for Gmail. (So, next power outage, you can ponder which among your emails deserve to be tied up in virtual silk ribbons, while composing your own ribbon-worthy replies.) The Chromebook battery is rated for about 10 hours of life. I haven’t put this to the test yet, what with earthquakes and hurricanes this past week, but there will soon be an ETC post devoted to the Chromebook.

4. Consider diversifying carriers

My cell phone is AT&T. My older Kindle uses Sprint. My iPad has Verizon. AT&T has barely one bar at home; Sprint has full bars. When I travel the three miles to work, that situation reverses. Don’t put all your communication channels in one basket unless you are sure that your carrier is absolutely reliable everywhere you normally go. With some devices, you get the carrier the manufacturer has contracted with, with others, you have a choice. Every area seems to have pockets that favor one carrier signal over another.

Reading is a good way to pass the time until the power comes back on, so let’s talk about lighting. One reason the Kindle has such a phenomenal battery life is that it is not back-lit. For a reader like the Kindle, or for a paper book, you need a good quality light so you can get immersed in your book. Open flames are dangerous, and not so easy to read by, but there are some high-tech alternatives to candles.

Photo of a bare light bulb showing the lighted filiment

Don't be a dim bulb

Tip Three: Discover safe, new, long-lasted emergency lights — LED lights that run on batteries.

I love LED task lighting under any conditions. The light is pure white, bright, and has no flicker. The bulbs last for years. Some LED lamps are architect-designed and look amazing as sculptural objects. They are very energy-conscious; they stay cool to the touch, and produce the perfect light for reading. A great designer lamp can cost a bundle, however the basic technology is ideal for emergency lighting. Why? Because they consume so little power, LED lamps can run on batteries. They don’t have flames, they don’t require smelly fuel, and they give the same high-quality light as their snooty designer cousins.

My home arsenal consists of the following:

1. Small task lamps that can clip onto books, e-reader covers, or a laptop computer screen:

I have a couple of these, both with clips and one with a detachable magnetic base and a USB connection. Both take 3 AAA batteries (or run off a computer via USB) and have a row of bright lights that are arranged in a tubular housing. Both provide an even sweep of light that is perfect for illuminating the entire page of a paper book or an e-book reader. The ones I have can also sit up on their own, and make great little table lamps. They cost $10 or less. I find them to be more versatile and brighter than the lights marketed specifically for e-readers.

2. LED nightlights that plug into house sockets and come on automatically as emergency lights when the power fails.

The emergency lights I chose have two lights – a standard, low-wattage nightlight that turns itself on when the room gets dark. The second light is a very bright LED that comes on if the power fails. The emergency light is enough to light hallways and small rooms, and the on-board charge lasts about 10 hours. Mine also have a battery compartment so that you can extend the emergency lights if you go without power for more than one night. Under any conditions, unplugging the light from an electrical outlet activates the bright LED for a hand-held light source–these lights can double as spare flashlights. There are many of these on the market, and some come in multi-packs at a reduced price. Good for many locations, particularly to light exits and bathrooms.

3. A high-quality LED lantern, capable of lighting a room.

Mine is large, red, has a handle, and detachable LED panels so that family members can go to other parts of the house, taking some of the light source without taking the whole lamp. This particular version is made to light a campsite, and has no difficulty lighting a large room. It takes 8 D cells, and I’ve used it for about 4 power outages so far (maybe an hour or two total each time.) Other companies make similar products.

Everything I’ve mentioned so far works great during a power outage – as long as the internal batteries hold up. The life of these devices depends upon how much power each consumes – bright lights, big color screens, and bandwidth consumption are all expensive items in terms of battery life. What do you do when you need a recharge – and the power is STILL out?

photo of wind mills in a wind farm

Think about alternative forms of power.

Tip Four: Backup charging options

1. Batteries, batteries, batteries.

My house eats AAA  and AA batteries. These small cells power my wireless headsets, my remote controls, my e-book light, my pepper mill, my fake candles, my flashlights, my essential oil diffuser. . . and a whole bunch more things that make life pretty, convenient, and pleasant. When the power goes out, everything changes. Remote control carcasses are fair game for battery evisceration. Cute mood lighting? –forget it. After more than 3 days without power, bleach is a more welcome smell than clary sage and lemon.

A couple of years ago, I decided to give up on disposable batteries. Over the past 2 years, I’ve finally replaced and recycled all the AA and AAA alkaline cells at home and switched to NiMH rechargeables. I have the capacity to charge 30 batteries at a time – with 30 in “the field.” I currently have three large-capacity battery chargers for NiMH rechargeable batteries. Each charger can hold up to 10 AAA or AA batteries in any combination. The batteries can also be purchased in quantity to save money, and some come with storage boxes. Once charged, they have a shelf life similar to regular fresh batteries. The chargers are “smart,”, to maximize battery life (i.e. once the battery is fully charged, the charger stops powering that cell.) Buy rechargeable NiMH batteries from a reliable maker—cheap batteries can have trouble holding a charge. Amazon has many options to buy rechargeable batteries in discount and in bulk.

What about the odd-sized batteries? Until lately, the only “old-fashioned” batteries I kept in stock were C and D cells needed for wireless holiday decorations and my 3-cell flashlights. (My smoke detectors are wired to a security system with backup, so I don’t need to keep 9 v batteries in any format.) But, the emergency camp lantern I mentioned above takes 8 D-cells at a time. My old battery-powered radio takes 8 C- cells. Add two flashlights, and that’s 6 more Ds . . . Replacing the batteries in just one of these devices can deplete my entire supply backup supply. Rechargeable Cs and Ds are expensive compared to the “A” sizes, and the chargers that fit them tend to hold only 2 or 4 at a time. I’ve recently discovered a solution that helps with this problem.

2. Battery spacers.

Battery spacers look like C and D cell batteries, but are actually empty shells. Why? Because you can put a rechargeable AAA or AA battery inside to power the cell, and the case will fit in any device requiring the larger batteries. All of the cylindrical batteries from AAA to D supply 1.5 volts of power. In a traditional battery, the larger the cell, the more the reserved power, and that may be true for rechargeables as well. However, I don’t use Cs and Ds that often, and I start fresh every time, so I really can’t tell the difference. I already have a surplus of fully charged AAAs and AAs on hand – so this is a real worry-saver for me. Your needs may be different.

3. Power inverters –or, how to take advantage of dormant battery power.

You know that large 4-wheeled thing that you can’t get out of the garage during a power outage because the garage door opener has stopped working? Don’t pull the cord to release the automotive hounds unless you really need to get out. For the moment, look at your car as an enormous reserve battery with a steering wheel. Power inverters transform DC current from your car’s battery into a power source you can use to recharge portable devices.

You may have device-specific chargers for this purpose, ones you bought for a specific phone or laptop. Those work great, but tend to be single-purpose. Keep in mind that there are some more generic solutions for power inversion that can power any kind of device.

I’m on my fourth or so iDevice, and have found that Apple tends to use a new chip to prevent older, weaker, chargers from attempting to power newer devices. I gave up trying to keep ahead of the obsolescence curve. Instead of providing the right charger, I now try to provide the right amount of current– in the form of a power inverter that can be plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter.

Power inverters commonly have at least one USB port and at least one A/C outlet that you can use with your existing device charger. They come in various output strengths, so be sure to buy one that accommodates your most needy device. You can get very powerful inverters that attach directly to a car or RV battery. These are intended to power kitchen appliances and power tools. However, I’m assuming you want to charge a laptop computer or a 10” tablet – not power your hair dryer. My inverter is rated for 150V, with a 2.1A USB port, and plugs into the cigarette lighter. Charging is really fast using the car battery.

4. Portable power-pack devices – price point $100 and up

You often see these things on construction sites, blaring out loud music. They are similar to car batteries with a handle, and are meant to power corded hand tools for short periods of time.

This device is all of the above, and can also jump-start my V8 engine. It can be charged, stored, and kept ready in case of emergency. It can be recharged from a car battery when an A/C outlet is not available. This is coming home to me with my next Amazon order. I began researching this story the Saturday before the storm, when this particular power-pack cost around $100. The day after Irene, the price jumped to nearly $150.

An extreme version of a power pack can be found in this large, roll-able version from Xantrex. It has three large cells inside, and its power can be extended by adding more cells. According to the company product sheet, the device can run a 25-watt laptop for 27.5 hours and a 6-watt wireless router for nearly 5 days! In both price and function, this is halfway towards a gas- or propane-powered generator. It’s very expensive, and not very renewable, yet for apartment dwellers, or where reliable emergency power is needed where fumes might be an issue, this unit can be just the thing. It can be used and stored indoors without any danger.

Both of these units can be recharged from a car battery, an A/C outlet, or an external solar panel.

5. Alternative emergency power sources

Emergency radios, which I mentioned earlier as part of a home safety kit, operate either by human power (via a crank) or solar power. It’s notable that most of these devices now include a USB port for mobile charging. Realistically, the crank can’t generate enough energy to power a cell phone for any reasonable amount of time – your arm will wear out before you achieve a couple of minutes’ charge on a bare-bones phone, and the output could damage a sophisticated smart phone. The crank also can’t charge any electronic device once the battery is completely dead. The solar panels on some of the larger emergency radios, though, do have the ability to make a real contribution to a flagging battery. Both methods, crank and solar, work well for the primary functions of this device: a flashlight and a radio. The radio is tuned to get AM, FM and NOAA weather broadcasts.

Devoted solar-cell phone chargers can generate some serious juice for handhelds—that is, once the storm abates and the sun starts shining again. The fan-like Solio charger maximizes the area of the solar panels into a pocket-sized unit; other panels depend on surface area for efficiency and output.

photo of electronic devices on a shelf, charging

Three Kindles, one Nook, one iPad, an iRiver Story, a laptop and a Chromebook, charging.

Powered phone cases and backpacks not only tote and protect your devices, but some can extend their battery life. The cases tend to be device-specific (search for your phone model), and generally double the battery capacity of a phone while adding minimal thickness; solar backpacks are ideal for generating power while hiking, biking, or spending a day at the beach. They can be used as backup power in an emergency.

Tip Five: Set up a home charging station

Being prepared can be half the battle in case of an emergency. This is the way I sort out my power options and communication devices every day: In my house and office, I keep all of my rechargeables together, so that I can see at a glance which devices are currently charging. I use an office shelf intended to store file folders, which is an idea size for many portable devices. Here’s a picture of the station I have in my office:

I have the same rack at home, also full of a couple of e-readers, Bluetooth headsets, a tablet, and on the bottom racks, my battery charger trays, and stored boxes of charged batteries.

At home, where outlet space is at a premium, I use outlet extenders that include USB ports . (This particular one rotates at the wall plug, so you don’t block other useable electrical outlets.) A device such as this helps me to extend the available outlets for charging multiple devices. The power is split between the ports so that some USB devices may take longer to charge, or not charge at all. If you are careful to use these for low power consumers, such as e-paper-based e-readers, you can save other dedicated outlets for your more power-hungry devices, and the chargers designed for them. It allows you to have more charging options without having to buy proprietary device charges for multiple locations.

Multimedia entertainment

Tip Six: Books. Board Games. Cards. Conversations. Story-telling.

Power outage? What power outage?

In a few weeks, all I’m going to remember about Hurricane Irene is the experience of reading all three books in the The Hunger Games trilogy, two of which were purchased in the eye of the storm. Good stuff.

While I still do remember Irene, I’ll continue thinking about how to prepare for the next storm.

See you after the flood!




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