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Living and Writing Off the Grid

How old and new technologies are helping one writer survive the power outage

Today is Day 2.5 of the massive power outage that has affected 700,000 people in Northern California, and we are living off the grid. In an effort to reduce wildfire events, and in anticipation of high winds and dry conditions that would send the region into the “red flag alert” phase, PG&E began announcing that they would selectively cut power, starting around midnight on Monday night.

On Monday, as I drove around Santa Rosa looking for supplies that would help me weather this outage—which PG&E said it anticipated might last five days—I spoke to a number of people who seemed oblivious to what it might mean if their power got cut off. One guy at REI, the camping goods’ store where I bought a portable solar panel and inverter (to charge my electronics) said, “Oh, yeah. I guess me and my wife can cook on my backpacking stove.” He’d made no other preparations and didn’t even know if the store would open the following day.

Disaster Preparedness

Actually, a power outage is a good drill for what might potentially happen if an earthquake strikes. Having grown up in the Bay Area and lived through the massive fires that swept through Northern California a year ago, I knew that disaster could strike any time. One reason I joined KQED, San Francisco’s premier public radio station, was to get their sign-on bonus, a “disaster preparedness” kit. However, when I actually looked inside it, I found five foil-wrapped dinner packets, a tiny box of matches, a box of candles, an orange plastic whistle (to blow in case you’re trapped in rubble), and a tiny first-aid kit. Worthless, in general; however, the kit did contain one crucial item—a portable radio that can either recharge from solar power or by turning a hand crank.

Crank-solar-radio

This cheap, little Chinese-made radio has proven to be one of my most essential survival tools. It came with my disaster preparedness kit, but there’s no brand name on it. Its key feature is a crank on the back that let’s you recharge the battery, and the solar panel on top that allows you to charge the radio during daylight hours.

A radio, turns out, is a necessity. I’ve been listening to the local Sonoma County public radio station KRCB. They are doing a great job—a yeoman’s job—of keeping listeners updated with accurate information. They did the same thing last year during the Santa Rosa fire, and their service was invaluable. This year, with the PG&E outage, they are providing information about resumption of service. PG&E’s own site can’t do that because it’s down—overwhelmed with too many people seeking information. And, the other way that residents here are urged to get accurate information, NIXLE, an emergency alert system that sends text messages to your cell phone, is alternately annoying and terrifying. That’s because it relentlessly sends announcements like the following:

“NAPA COUNTY OES: Red Flag warning extended through 5 pm today. Wind advisory in effect till 3 pm. NIXLE.us/BCMJC Reply with a friend’s # to forward.”

SONOMA COUNTY SHERIFF Advisory: Important public safety information and resources. NIXLE.US/BCMYJ Reply with a friend’s # to forward.

Come on, people! This information is not clear. What action am I supposed to take? What does it mean? Why would I forward this to a friend? How does it tell me when or if my power will get turned back on? Meanwhile, I am sitting out on my patio, where there is just the teeniest, tiniest little breeze, and thinking this is the first time I’ve felt wind of any kind in the past 2.5 days.

Survival Gear

So, here’s my setup. I’m cooking on my old Coleman car-camping stove. I like it because it has two burners and two propane bottles, and it can blast heat under a pan of water and have it boiling in no time.

Coleman-stove

The big urn is for filtered drinking water. Prior to the outage, PG&E was saying that drinking water might be interrupted for people in the East Bay, and I wasn’t sure whether Sonoma County would be affected or not. With one pot of boiling water, I can use Gevalia’s pour-over, single-cup coffee packets and have enough hot water left to wash my breakfast dishes.

It turns out that Sonoma County does have water. However, I don’t have hot water. My house has a tankless, on-demand water heater, and the morning shower is pretty bracing. Turns out the water heater needs an electrically-fired spark before it starts producing hot water.

To my surprise, the 80-year-old floor furnace is unaffected by the power outage. The thermostat has two AA batteries, and that’s enough to tell the furnace that the house has dropped below an acceptable temperature. If there had been an earthquake, however, I would have turned off the main gas line outside, simply to avoid the danger of a house fire.

Solar Panels and an Inverter

Apart from the radio and the stove, the most useful survival tool I’ve found has been a YETI 400 battery pack/inverter. This device connects to two collapsible solar panels. There’s even a handy carrying case. The solar panels have a cord that attaches to the battery pack and recharges it, even while I’m drawing current with my computer.

Yeti-400

This YETI 400 battery pack/inverter can be charged by plugging it into the wall or attaching it to solar panels.

Solar-panels

Two collapsible solar panels have their own carrying case. It takes 2 to 3 hours to fully charge the inverter.

Laptop-connected-solar-panels

Here’s my off-the-grid office. I must charge the inverter during daylight hours, but it’s a snap to plug the solar panels into the inverter and let the sun create electricity.

The model I have (roughly $600, plus the cost of the panels) will do 3 to 5 laptop recharges before it must be recharged itself. During the power outage, I had a laptop, iPad, and cell phone plugged in at the same time. The battery pack fully charged them and still had 76% of its capacity left. The inverter is so easy to set up that a child could do it. (The battery pack can also be charged by plugging it into a working electrical outlet. Before the power outage, I made sure the inverter was fully charged because I wasn’t sure how the whole solar panel thing would work.)

What Have I Learned?

I’ve learned how dependent I am on the internet. The power outage means my home WiFi doesn’t work—no power to the router. Hence, the only way I can connect is by my iPad or cell phone. And, today, I had a further thought about this. If the disaster-response folks are primarily using the internet to keep their customers informed, the lack of access to charging stations is a big problem. Santa Rosa did set up charging facilities at the Veterans’ Building across from the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, but the center was only open during the day, and you can imagine the lines.

Apart from the above measures, designed to help me cope with the immediate challenges of food, water, and electricity, I’ve found that there’s nothing I could do about the food in my refrigerator. After two days, the refrigerator compartment was almost at room temperature. Prior to the power outage, I froze water in empty milk containers, hoping these blocks of ice would keep the food in the freezer from going bad. When the power came back on tomorrow, I saw that these solidly frozen blocks of ice had been effective. Meanwhile, in anticipation of a future disaster, I will make sure I have canned or freeze-dried staples. In a true disaster, it’s likely I’d be without power for more than two or three days, and it’s impossible to restock the larder. Grocery stores were closed. You couldn’t refill your gas tank because gas stations had no power. Also, none of the traffic lights were working. NIXLE was warning people to stay off the road.

On the positive side, my neighborhood was very quiet. I heard almost no noise from passing traffic. I learned to adjust my daily schedule to the sunlight. I slept until after dawn and went to bed with a book on my Kindle. I ate dinner to the light of my grandmother’s old oil lamp. (FYI, you’d be well advised to buy an oil lamp and lamp oil prior to a disaster. Lamp oil is hard to find, and luckily, I was able to grab a couple quarts at Friedman’s, my local garden/home improvement store.

Though there’s much to be said for the ambiance of lamplight, it’s hard on the eyes.
And, as far as the writing was concerned, I did as much editing as I could on paper. I was very glad that before the power outage, I had taken the time to print out full manuscripts. In the long run, this period of quiet and lack of distraction, may have proven to be a boon to the creative process.

2 Comments

  1. Nancy Poling says:

    I was wondering how you’re doing out there. I’m fascinated by how you’ve adapted.

    1. Marylee says:

      Last night my bed began shaking, and I think there must have been a minor tremor. After the “experiment” with the power thing, I feel much more prepared to deal with a disaster, but honestly, I am so grateful to be able to flip a light switch. Oddly, the outage made me even more conscious of my carbon footprint. I no longer take for granted that the power is going to be there when I need it.

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