Seasonal Reminder-Power Outages: Part 1

November 19, 2016

By human nature; we do not appreciate certain things until they are gone.

The blizzard conditions in the central west area this week reminded me of being prepared for the weather as it begins to change. Hopefully you have not already been effected by these conditions. But, it serves as a reminder that good preparation can ease the difficulty. The items mentioned don’t even come close for those that might be caught in the direct path of devastating weather conditions, but can help the rest of us that may be near the areas.

If you have suffered issues of direct impact, look at  the Disaster Safety site mentioned below as well as the Red Cross for assistance as well as a way to pitch in and help.

Regardless of the weather condition, it most common for it to impact the power grid.  Many times, these conditions can be related to tornado’s, hurricanes, thunderstorms, snow, ice and the list goes on. Several of these type disasters can be devastating especially if you experience a direct impact. Look at the Disaster Safety site for concerns of direct impact. Statistically, secondary effect outages has a broader impact but is typically resolved in a short time frame. A loss of power will impact your life immediately, and you do not have a lot of control on the time or day it will occur.  According to the IEEE standard 1366-1998, the median outage in North America is 1.36 hours per year per household.  In other words, half the households in the U.S. will experience  power outages totaling 1.36 hours or greater. That could be in small segments or one event.   For the purpose of this article I will break down preparedness by duration of loss, 1) 8 hours or less, 2) 72 hours or less,  3) 7 days or less, and 4) Long term. Granted, knowing how long the event will last is the biggest question that none of us really know. However, shorter outages are usually related to severe storms. The greater the coverage of the storm will impact the length of time for restoration. More severe conditions such as hurricanes, tornadoes and long duration storms will all impact the length of restoration.

8 hours or less: An outage of 8 hours can pass pretty quick but having a few essentials will smooth out most issues.

  1. Where is my flashlight? I have dozens of normal flashlights (the kind with no batteries) and one large rechargeable unit. But if an outage were to go beyond a couple of hours I might be in trouble. Use candles for stationary locations throughout the house and save your flashlight for moving around or going outside but keep candles away for other combustible items (curtains, cloth, paper, etc.)  As for flashlights, there has been a recent revolution in small lighting. It’s the LED bulb. The LED uses less than a 1/10 the power of a normal resistance (incandescent) type bulb.   Due to the low power requirements of LED bulbs they can be powered by different sources such as wind up flywheels, super capacitors or rechargeable batteries. radiolightchargerThe American Red Cross has endorsed several, but I like the RF150  that combines an LED Flashlight, radio and cell phone charger. It’s a bit pricey at $30 and up but it is truly an emergency tool that will last for years with little maintenance. This one unit will cover item #1, 4 and 5  all in one unit allowing you to find it quickly or lose everything all at one time. Pretty cool, wind it for a minute and get an hour of service. There are several other choice on the market that cover the requirement.  If you have one or plan to get one, storing it near a window with lots of sun will keep it well charged. Look for my review of this product under techy things.
  2.  Where is the phone number to the Utility?  This sounds simple, but if you don’t have number 1 covered it makes #2 that much harder. If you live in a state where electricity and natural gas  is deregulated, knowing the name or number of your utility companies could be a 15 minute discussion. Locate your phone bill, electricity bill, gas bill, and etc. they should have a number posted; “In case of an outage call this number“.  Make a label, sticker or note and place it on your new emergency flashlight. TIP: You need to call them and report the outage even if you know your neighbor has already reported it. Utilities will increase the severity of the condition by the number of reports (phone calls) logged against the outage. Most utilities can provide you a reasonable status of the condition. The smaller the problem, the easier it is for them to estimate the length of the outage. If you know the outage is wide spread and they continue to be vague on how long, you may need to prepare for a longer outage than 8 hours. Also, continue to check the news on the radio.
  3. I need heat!! In the winter this can be critical, not only for you but your house.  If you have forced air central heating, you’re screwed as you will need both electricity and natural gas  to make the system work. Having a fire-place, oven or bathroom heater  with natural gas will get you through an 8 hour period unless you live in the northern climates.  These little camp heaters have hit the mainstream. With a small propane bottle, you can get about 6 hours of heat on the low setting. For longer duration, with an added hose, you can adapt the propane tank off your gas grill. These units are clean, safe, don’t smell and can be stored for a very long time.  portable-heaterTIP: In the winter, crack open the water faucets to a slow drip in the kitchen and bathrooms (especially those based on the exterior walls) to ensure they do not freeze. Also make sure you have a source of fresh air when using these heating devices as they can consume the oxygen. Even with these devices, the house is going to be cold, so the likelihood of freezing a pipe is greater.
  4. My phone does not work! If you still have a traditional telephone (land line) plugged in the wall it should still work assuming your phone does not require power from a wall outlet, this includes cordless phones. TIP: Always have at least one telephone that is like the one your mother had. Just plugged in the wall, no features,  lights, caller id, just a phone (aka POTS, plain old telephone set). The phone company does a great job of ensuring traditional dial tone, but this does not include Internet service, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) or any other non-traditional, non-regulated services.
  5. Where is my cell phone? Cell phone service is becoming more reliable as the consumer is becoming more dependent on it.  In many cases, the cell phone has taken the place of the POTS.  For the most part, if you use your cell phone sparingly, you can make 8 hours. Besides the unit mentioned in item 1, there are many solar phone chargers on the market, or you can use your car for short duration’s as well assuming you have a car adapter. Since most people keep their phone nearby, you can use a flashlight app to find your flashlight when you first loose power. Don’t use the phone long term for light as it will quickly kill the battery.
  6. Do I have a radio that works? Probably not other than the car. Mine has a battery that will protect the memory of stations and time setting but that’s about it.  You will need a radio like a flash light that does not require an electric cord. Weather specific radios are great, but some music sure passes the time. The radio (news) will help you gauge your needs beyond 8 hours. See item 1.
  7. We have no hot water! Maybe, maybe not. If you have an 1)electric water heater, 2)gas-fired tank-less water heater or 3) some pilotless gas water heaters, you could have limited or no hot water. I have a tank-less water heater so for me its a big NO for hot water. However, I have a gas stove so I can cover the small requirements. With an 8 hour failure, a 50 gallon water heater can cover your immediate needs.

You probably already recognized some items are missing. The list is based on an 8 hour or less outage. For longer outages look at my post for Electrical Power Outages Part II, as  things start to get more interesting as time goes on.

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Product Review Eton FR150 Radio/Flashlight

January 30, 2010

radiolightcharger

On average, electrical consumers experience 120 minutes of power outage per year.

 If you read my post on Power Outages you already know about dealing with short power outages. I mentioned the Eton FR150 Microlink combination Radio/Flashlight cell phone charger device. I decided to invest the $30 to have something dedicated to emergencies only. If you follow the policies of the American Red Cross, you need more than a radio as they recommend assembling a kit of supplies to be stored for such emergencies. The FR150 was my first step. I purchased mine from REI, but have seen them at Electronics stores as well as various on-line sources for about the same money. 

I liked what I read about the unit and figured it should meet most of my needs. The FR150 will  provide you a AM/FM/Weather-Band radio, LED flashlight, a generic plug-in for a cell phone adapter and solar charging cell on the top of the unit.  In concept, I like the fact that it uses a long life  NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride)  battery that can be charged in 3 different ways; 1) A USB plug, 2) solar cell, or 3) hand crank. The NiMH batteries are used to hold the charge.

Fit, Finish & Look: The product comes in several colors (Redcross red, black, yellow and green). The FR150 has a fresh look and a bit techy. In green and yellow it is translucent allowing you to see some of the electronics beneath the cover.

Size: The product was a bit smaller than I expected and later found this to be a disadvantage.  I took this picture by a soda can so you can get perspective. The good news is that it can be easily stored. I keep mine in a drawer next to my PC, where I leave it plugged in to the USB port for constant charging. Even though the PC is not on all the time, it should keep it100_0417 well charged. The dial and labels are easy to read with light but nearly impossible to see in the dark. I found the knobs (tuning and volume) slightly small and it may be difficult to tune in a weak station as the frequency dial to knob-turn-ratio is a bit quick causing you to pass through the frequencies even while turning the knob slow. 

Battery Characteristics:NiMH batteries are rechargeable and are typically known for their quick recharge time, ability to hold a charge and expected life cycle.  It should last for at least 3 years assuming you keep the unit in-doors in conditioned space (air-conditioned). If you keep it in a garage, attic or the glove box of your car, expect the battery to go bad twice as fast. If you live in colder climates, they could last longer. TIP: Most battery technologies baseline performance expectations using  77F.  In other-words, if a battery product claims a life expectancy of 1 year from date of purchase, its all based on the battery remaining  (on average) at 77F.

Performance: The manual recommend the unit to be initially charged for 8 hours. 

  • Radio & Flashlight: I ran the radio with the volume at level 5, after 8 hours the reception became scratchy, I turned the radio off and the flashlight on and found it continuously usable for 11 more hours for a total of 19 hours of continued use without any additional charging.  Since the flashlight uses LED bulbs, it consumes very little electricity. During  a recent outage I got to use it in a real life situation. Even thought it wasnt totally dark, I found it difficult to distinguish the volume from the turner. So without thinking I could change the station in lieu of adjusting the volume.
  • Flashlight Only: With the LED bulbs, the flashlight will produce usable light for over 20 hours before needing a charge. But remember, you can easily wind the charger and regain the light strength. I could easily see using the light for some limited room illumination by reflecting off the ceiling, however, with the charge connectors and a less than flat surface on the back, it doesn’t really want to sit flat with the light aimed at the ceiling.  It was still usable in that position, but a little movement or bumping it could cause it to fall over.
  • Cell Phone Charger: I did not test this feature

After an event, plug it in or set it in the sun to regain the full charge.

Accessories: Not really, but I didn’t know what else to call them.

  • The FR150 includes a wrist strap that allows you to carry the unit much like a hand held camera.
  • USB outlet. You will need to supply the cord. USB on one end with digital camera plug on the other. I had an extra one, so I just keep the cord/FR150 plugged in all the time.  
  • The unit includes a patch cord that provides a generic power plug for a cell phone charging adaptor. Eton provides you a mail-in card to order, at no charge, for you to order one connector. This is a pain in the butt. I got lucky as I uncovered a cheap little AA battery cell charger I picked up at a trade show that had every adapter known to man as part of the package. If you are like the rest of us, within your household you probably have multiple different charger needs. If I were you, I would hold out until you run across a similar opportunity or find something at a dollar store for adapters otherwise additional adaptors may cost you about $10 each.

Overall Impression:I found the product to deliver as promised as a good product for use in emergencies and non-powered applications, such as camping or hiking. I liked the styling and choice of colors. The radio performance is about like the little pocket radios we used as kids, so beyond an emergency, I will stick with an Ipod for music. However, the flashlight performance was great. This is primarily due to the LED bulbs and its ability to be recharged without a plug. Just for that fact alone, having one in your car as well might not be a bad idea either.  The biggest disappointment was recognized during a power failure. All the radio features were difficult to distinguish in the dark. Since the flashlight and the radio is in the same unit, you just have to feel your way through it. So on a simple 1-10 scale, I’ll give it a 5.  If I were buy another one today, I would look for a  unit with large control knobs and possibly  illuminated dials.

Take a look at my recent article on Power Outages Part II for additional hints and tips.