As you know the northeast was hit by Hurricane Sandy last week. New Jersey, which is my primary base of operations was hit pretty badly leaving thousands of residents without power. If you follow me on Twitter you have probably seen me whining about the ineptitude of my power company, and generally making pitiful sounds of anguish. I get cranky when half of my brain gets rudely disconnected. This disaster made me think about the fragility of our civilization as a whole.
As a futurist and science nut I like to think of humanity as an unstoppable steamroller of progress. Living in our cozy homes with networked minds, it is easy to think of ourselves as demigods, and absolute masters of the physical universe. But the truth is that we are still just a bunch of hairless apes. A sizable tropical storm is enough to make our local infrastructure to collapse like a house of cards. Few trees fall over, few power lines are interrupted and suddenly we are back to huddling around candles and reading paper books by candle light. We have a long way to go until we attain our rightfully deserved godhood.
One of the things I learned during the storm was that you should have a contingency plan for emergencies. My household had none. We have never lost power for longer than a few hours, so when the lights went out we had to scramble to figure out how to get things done in the next few days. It’s not like we were not prepared – we did stock up on flashlights, candles and batteries ahead of time. What we did not plan for was an extended outage. Our lack of planning became evident only the next day.
For example, I wanted to make myself some coffee in the morning and I realized it could not be done. On most days I use a Keurig coffee brewer to accomplish this task, but naturally the device was more than useless to me without the electricity. So I went to boil some water, only to realize that the only kettle I own is an electric one. Pretty much my entire week was full of such realizations. My simple daily tasks and routines were wholly dependent on the availability of electricity.
So I figured I put together a handy survival kit list of things you should have in your house, if a natural disaster should befell on your area.
First things first, we are all technologists here, we frequently talk about backups and redundancy. But how many of you have a redundant power source in our houses. It stands to reason that we should equip our houses with some sort of emergency power source to keep the necessary appliances running. And by necessary appliances I of course mean the modem, the router and maybe the fridge.
Most power generators cost about as much as a new laptop or a tablet. Unlike electronic devices, generators are not subject to Moore’s Law. In fact, it is almost the inverse – household appliances become more power efficient as our technology improves. So a generator can easily last you a few decades provided you give it some rudimentary maintenance every now and then. Even if you never have to use it, it provides you with a peace of mind.
I happen to have a gas stove in my house, so boiling water was not an issue for me. A lot of my friends and co-workers had fancy new kitchens with electric stoves and they had to scramble to figure out ways to cook and heat up their meals. So if you have a stove that ceases to work when the power is out you should have an alternate cooking device. There is a lot of portable camping gear out there – propane cookers and the like. Make sure you have something like that stowed away somewhere in your house for emergencies.
I can’t emphasize this enough – you need to own a French Press. Instant coffee tastes like shit, and can be lethal under large dosages. Living without coffee is not really an option, so this hipster device is the only way of obtaining drinkable coffee during prolonged power outages. Big thanks to un4scene for cluing me onto the existence of this wondrous device.
LED flashlights are better than regular flashlights. The strength and quality of light they emit is above and beyond anything you can get with regular devices. You want to buy yourself pocket sized devices powered by AA batteries – they are bright and portable enough to be adequate for most scenarios. Why AA batteries? Well, because those were the only batteries you could reliably buy in New Jersey after the storm. All the local stores I visited were completely out of DD and larger batteries commonly used by bulkier flashlights, lamps and portable radios. They still had plenty of AA, AAA and 9V batteries – so these are the kind of devices you want to get.
Regardless of how many flashlights you might have, what you really need are battery powered lamps. Flashlights need to be held in your hands, but when you are dealing with an extended power outage you really want something you can just plop on the table as you prepare food, or attempt to read a book. You want something as bright as possible and as power efficient as you can get. If you find LED style lamps that operate on AA or 9V batteries you should be all set. If not, make sure you have a backlog of DD batteries to power these things.
This was one of the things we realized only about a day into the power outage. We had plenty of flashlights to go around, but only about 3 lamps that were bright enough to read with, and not nearly enough batteries to keep them running at all times.
I’m actually serious about this. Out of all of my devices the iPad proved to be most power efficient out of all of them. I used it every evening for a few hours to read a book with my Kindle app and my battery wend down to 89%. That’s five days of moderate, non-networked use and it only ate up 11% of the total battery capacity.
The added bonus is that unlike paper books, or the low end Kindle devices the iPad screen is self illuminated. This means you can comfortably read your book with only a dim non-LED lamp in your room.
During an extended power outage your only link to the outside world is likely to be your smart phone and a radio. Out of the two, the latter is usually more power efficient. If you can find a small portable radio that operates on AA or 9V batteries you can listen to music and/or local news wile preserving your phone battery. Anyone who has ever used their iPhone as a music player or a Pandora client knows full well that this sort of activity can potentially drain the battery down to zero in mere hours. So save those charges for your Facebook, Twitter and email, and use the radio waves for entertainment instead.
Alternate way to charge your phone
One of the most robust infrastructures in your neighborhood is your cellular network. It is also the first thing that is likely to come back after the major storm, as communication networks are high on priority list for the emergency crews. The storm knocked out quite a few cell towers in my area, and immediately after it my 3G coverage was spotty, but I still had connectivity (albeit slow) over Verizon’s EDGE fallback network. Full 3G coverage returned almost immediately in the first day or two after the storm.
In absence of a power generator, my cell phone became my only window to the world. Unfortunately, most modern smart phones have terribly shitty battery life. The only way I could stretch my iPhone 4 life for an entire day was if I rationed its use throughout the day. I noticed that about 15 minutes with Facebook or Twitter app would drain close to 10% of my total charge (with no other suspended apps or background processes). This is usually not a problem – I usually charge my phone every evening, and sometimes even twice per day if needed – but during power outage it is a terrible waste.
So you must have an alternate way of charging your phone. My brother prepared for the power outage by purchasing two spare batteries for his Android phone, and charge them up at work and then swap them around to keep his phone going. I would similarly charge my phone at work, and then hope it will last me throughout the evening. On Saturday it would have died on me if I did not have a car charger.
Ironically, NJ is currently also having a gas shortage so using your car to charge your phone is less than optimal solution during emergencies. I charged my phone while waiting in the 3 hour line waiting to refuel my car so I guess the net loss here was zero. Still, an alternate method of charging your device would be nice.
The other day I ordered the Opteka BP-SC4000 Solar Powered Charger. Chances are this thing is a piece of crap, but at $27 I don’t think it is going to bankrupt me. If it actually works, being able to get a single free phone charge per day without expending any scarce resources such as gasoline would be an incredible help during a prolonged outage.
Speaking of alternate power sources, the best contingency scenario would be to have an alternate power circuit for your home network. Has anyone here ever tried to hook up their modem/router to solar cell or wind turbine? These appliances are usually low powered, so I could easily see them running on such alternate power sources. Debian developer Joey Hess is probably a tad extreme example of this, but he claims to run all of his electronics on solar power. His setup is probably not the most practical one for most of us, but it shows that it can be done. An ultra low-powered environment like his would be perfect for emergency use during extended power outages.
Oh, one more thing – due to the power outage I didn’t really queue up any posts for the rest of this week. So unless I feel especially productive I don’t think I will put anything up Wednesday and Friday.