Monday, January 6, 2014

Keeping the Lights On

Over the course of the last few weeks nearly a half million Canadians have lost their power and some for more than a week. The ice storm that blanketed large swaths of central and eastern Canada caused more than minor disruptions; this was major. Power crews were worked past the breaking point to restore electricity to customers in an almost war-like movement of men and equipment. Meanwhile, in an attempt to stay warm, cook or keep the refrigerator running, people perished from carbon monoxide poisoning. Burning fossil fuels inside or near the house proved to be as dangerous as the equipment labels said.

This entry is not going to be about d├ęcor or the best countertops for your kitchen. Its going to be about how to prepare your home for a prolonged power outage and how to keep you and your family warm, safe and fed. If this weather is the new normal then we need to prepare.

First, lets deal with electricity. There are appliances in your home that can only be without power for 24 hours before things start getting bad. Specifically, these would be your refrigerator, your deep freeze and if you have one, your well pump. With your food, the Red Cross states that after 24 hours, some refrigerated foods start to develop bacteria harmful to human health. With the prolonged outages that we’ve just experienced, refrigerated food would need to be disposed of entirely. 

A simple solution is to simply purchase a generator and run your refrigeration units off of it. However, running your well pump off of a generator involves opening up your electrical panel. This is a real no-no for a homeowner. Even if you think you know what you are doing a problem may still result. If that problem involves a fire, your insurance company is going to thank you politely for your business and you’ll be stuck for the bill for any resulting damages. 

Let me suggest a more civilized solution. Consider a Transfer Switch. Very simply put, an electrician installs this unit beside your existing electrical panel. It looks like a normal electrical panel but it does so much more. Into this panel he wires in the circuits that really matter in your house. I’ll provide a list:

  • Refrigerator
  • Deep freeze
  • Internet router
  • Well pump
  • Oil furnace
  • Lighting
  • Essential receptacles
  • TV! 

When the power goes out you simply go to the panel and flip a switch. This isolates these essential circuits from others in your home. So, how do you get power to these isolated circuits? The answer is, of course, a generator. For this you have many options. There are too many brands out there to list but if you stick to the recognizable ones like Honda, Husqavarna, Kawasaki, etc, you will have great luck. The key feature you’ll need to consider when choosing a generator is wattage. You can get a generator that will power just your TV or you can get one that will power your whole house or neighbourhood! If you are considering a transfer panel for your home the very lowest wattage rating you’ll get away with is 4000. This will run the items on the list above with just a little bit of headroom. If you want to power your electric hot water tank you’ll need to add at least another 2000 watts to your generator’s output capacity. A nice touch for prolonged outages. 

Once you have flipped the switch you simply plug your generator into a special plug on the outside of your house and then start your generator. Voila! You are up and running. The cable that runs from your generator to the outdoor receptacle will be provided by the electrician who installs the panel. A standard extension cord must not be used here. This heavy gauge cord should be of adequate length to keep it well away from your home and others. Preferably down-wind. These units generate carbon monoxide so correct placement of these units is paramount. Note: You will notice that aside from providing a little power to operate your oil furnace, there is no mention of electric heat or cooking appliances on the above list. The reason for this is that the requirements for adding even one electric baseboard to this list would swamp your 4000 watt generator. We’ll cover this heating challenge next in… 


As we Canadians know, if there is going to be a power outage its likely going to be in the winter time. Therefore, our ability to heat our homes is compromised with most types of heat. Obviously electric baseboard heat is not going to work but neither is the blower on your oil-fired furnace. Forced electric air heat is also out of commission.  

Many Atlantic Canadians heat their homes with a wood stove. If you’ve got one of these and a stack of wood then you’ve obviously got the heating thing covered! Wood stoves are the ultimate off-grid heat solution. However, many people don’t like the hassle and mess that wood brings. It is a messy endeavour and labourious to say the least. I’d like to propose a nice solution that has benefits even when the power is on. A propane stove! While not economical as your sole heating source it will heat a large portion of your home when the power is out. And when the power is on it can be used for romantic TV watching! For those who haven’t the room to store wood or posses the will to lug it, a propane stove is a great option. A tank sits outside of your home. Unfortunately, they do not generate enough heat on their tops to cook on. For that, consider the barbecue outside or a small camp stove that you can run near an indoor area that is vented to the outside like a window or even your range hood if it is wired to your fancy new panel. 

Another option is a pellet stove, also requiring power to run the pellet-feeding auger and fan. Of course you’ll need to store the pellets in a dry area. 

So what is this going to cost you ask? Let me break it down: 

Installed transfer panel:  1-2000 dollars. Depending on load capacity and other factors like ease of installation . 

Generator: $1700 and up. Consider the Honda super quiet model so as to avoid angering neighbours. It’s a bit spendy but you can run it at night and no one will even notice. They are that quiet. You can also get models that run on propane, in tandem with your stove. 

Propane Stove: $4000 and up installed.

So, for $6700 you can essentially run your home indefinitely without grid power. That’s a good feeling to have for a one-time investment. Obviously, the solutions I’m providing here are of an entry-level nature. If you want to spend more on things like automatic switching or whole home generation you can, but this is the solution that I feel fits the bill for keeping homeowners safe, warm and happy during a power outage. 

Again, these are not DIY jobs. You’ll need get an electrician and a licensed propane appliance installer for these items. No exceptions!

I hope this inspires you to think about what you can do to prepare for the next outage. Its coming sometime, so be prepared.


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