I live up in the Philadelphia area, and these last few weeks have plagued us with nor’easters. For those playing the home game that aren’t from the US northeast or atlantic coast, a nor’easter is a cyclone of cold frozen hatred that hits from the northeast, hence the name. Usually such a storm takes its sweet time spinning in circles fueled by low pressure systems and dancing air masses dropping any form of frozen precipitation on the land that has the poor fortune of being below it. I’m in the middle of one now, with various spots around my house clocking in at just a shade over 13″ of snow, and that was preceded by sleet and other icy noise. A lot of times this freezes and downs trees and power lines, leading to a tech nerd’s nightmare – the dreaded power outage. Luckily right now (finding wood to knock on), I don’t have to contend with that, but we had another one last week that dumped a foot of snow and separated me from my electricity. Being a cub scout as a lad, I was thankfully well prepared, but I realized that there were probably more than a few of you out there that weren’t, so I decided to make this survival guide for you to bookmark and save your life forever.
The best solution here is also the most expensive. You can get your home rigged with a built in generator, so it will take over the load when your main power goes out. If that’s not in the cards then you can get portable propane or gasoline-powered backup generators anywhere from $150 to $3000 based on what kind of wattage you’re looking for. That’s still a heavy chunk of change and in an emergency, they will sell out fast at your local hardware stores. I’m listing it here because while it may be pricey it is still a viable option for those who’ve got the scratch, and pretty much solves everything all in one go. If you’re not one of those folks, then the next sections are special just for you.
I. Let there be light
One of the more annoying parts of a power outage doesn’t happen until nightfall, when naturally, you my friend, are shrouded in darkness. Unfortunately this is real life, so trying to throw up a lumos charm isn’t going to do much for you. What will, on the other hand, is being equipped with some LED lanterns around your place. They run off of very little power, and can illuminate for quite a long time since LED’s consume so much less power than a traditional bulb. The uses of these are threefold – the first is turning them on and keeping them in dark areas like staircases or near desks or tables so you don’t trip and hurt yourself trying to find your way. The second is having some light to read, as you and analog entertainment might have to become better friends. The third, and more important really, is that they’re portable and able to be carried with you wherever you need to go. Not having to go to the bathroom or cut up vegetables in the dark is definitely a big plus for a number of reasons. One of them being that it doesn’t burn your phone battery that you’ll need to extend as long as possible by saving you from using your power-vampire flashlight app.
If you’re looking at using no power instead of low power, I have a couple of shake flashlights that I keep for such an occasion. They don’t rely on batteries, but rather on human power instead. You shake the flashlight, which runs a magnet back and forth through a coil, storing the charge in a capacitor, and voila! A powered light. They’re a great low cost option, and if nothing else give you a reason to thank the world’s lucky stars for Michael Faraday and his legendary work in electromagnetics.
Next on the list is something that’s a bit more old school – the candle. It may not sound so helpful but come on, just having one on you got you an extra heart container in The Legend of Zelda back in the NES days. Having candles (and of course, matches or lighters) can again light a path for you wherever you need to go. Granted, it is you know, fire, so you’ll have to pay attention to them unlike no-fuss LED lanterns, but they’re cheap, burn for a while, and i dare say provide some ambiance to the occasion.
For those that have a fireplace, building a fire is an easy and cheap way to light your living room, den, great room, or whatever room your fireplace is in. I try to keep a cord of firewood on hand at all times during the winter, and try to have kindling or starter cubes in my inventory. If you don’t happen to have kindling, starting a fire sometimes proves difficult. One easy solution is to stop throwing away your paper phone books. You may use the internet to look up numbers and addresses for everything you need, but the thin pages from phone books make for great kindling, especially if you store your firewood outside and it’s not totally dried out yet.
That’s right, keep the phone book in business for alternate uses. Look at that. I’m a jobs creator.
Another great thing about fireplaces is that it will provide you with heat. If your place runs on gas or oil this isn’t a big thing since you will likely still have heat, but for homes that run on electric heat and a heat pump, this is a lifesaver. Because when the power drops, so does the heat pump.
II. Protect your Electronics
A lot of folks may say I’m a little paranoid and over-cautious when it comes to my computers and other electronics, but there’s really no reason not to be. I’ve spent the majority of my life in IT and have seen boxes fry for next to no apparent reason. No matter how much you store in cloud services, your computer houses a lot of your data – pictures, documents, important stuff. There’s also the cost of the machine if it’s out of warranty, and most importantly, people will ask me to fix it. So let’s nip this in the bud right off the bat.
Power spikes happen. In rough weather power lines can fall from the weight of ice and snow, trees can take down a lot of stuff in their path and transformers can pop in a glittering array of sparks. When that happens, that $5.99 surge protector you bought and plugged all of your computer stuff or TV/entertainment stuff means absolutely zip. It can fry, and in turn so can your electronics. Instead of cheap surge protectors, I strongly urge most people and my professional clients as well to use battery backup / UPS units to protect those systems. What a UPS does that a surge protector will not is that it in addition to surge protection, it will pick up the load for everything plugged into it when power drops and keep it all turned on. This gives you time to shut down your computer or TV or game consoles properly without the risk of them frying in a power spike. In IT we use massive ones to make sure servers and other large-scale devices stay up during power issues. You can buy smaller home models on the cheap to do the same. For a standard user’s computer system (plus monitor and printer), a 450VA or 650VA UPS unit should do just fine, and will set you back south of $100. The more stuff you plug into it, the higher VA rating you want to go for.
III. The Juice must Flow
That takes care of the operational stuff, for lack of a better word. But this is the section that will really hit geeks hard – and that’s your mobile tech. Your mobile phone is probably the most important piece you have in your arsenal, since it can still get internet and data on your 4G network. You can also make calls with it since your landline, no matter how insignificant to you, will be out. The other things you may use your phone for is to turn on a wireless hotspot, so that laptops or tablets you may want to use can get to the web through WiFi. That is a seriously power draining feature. And without electricity, those tablets will start running out of juice soon too. My solution to this is simple – portable chargers. Keep them charged up and when your mobile juice is running low, just plug in for a boost. I prefer using Jackery and Mophie for my stuff, but it’s become commoditized enough that other brands will still work perfectly well. One thing to make sure you check before you buy these units and cables is what kind of power connections do your devices have. For the most part I imagine they would be MicroUSB, but newer devices, especially Android units, are starting to make the shift to USB-C. Those of you that run Apple products will probably need lightning cables instead. It’s very important you look before you buy, because as this section title states, the juice must flow. You can get larger units that you can use for tablets or multiple phone charges.
In addition to your mobile phone and keeping that precious internet, your mobile gaming devices can pick up juice from your mobile power bricks, like a Nintendo Switch or PS Vita. For the Switch, the Power Pak from Nyko seems to get the job done. For the Vita, your best bet is likely the Sony branded PS Vita portable charger. You can use this device to charge other USB devices as well. All said, you can still be prepared to keep on gaming for well south of $50.
If you want to spend more on a larger multi-use power brick that can run your Switch and also charge other things you need, look for something like the Jackery SuperCharge or Titan that can deliver 5V/3A through direct USB-C connection.
IV. Fuel the Body
We’ve talked about fueling your tech, now let’s talk about fueling your body. Like heat, if your place runs on electric, you probably won’t have a stove to cook on, so you’re going to have to find some other options. I always keep a few cans of soup and other food on hand in the pantry – they become an on-demand meals when the ability to cook is gone. Sure you likely have chips and crackers and all other sorts of snacks in there, but that’s not a meal. You have no idea how long this is going to last – and have some self respect! Other things to keep in the pantry are bread and sandwich materials – PB&J or otherwise. There’s not really much point to keeping your home lit and your games and tech going if you’re in zombie mode because you haven’t eaten. If your home is electric and you have a penchant for cooking and are super picky about you know, having hot food, then a small propane or charcoal camping/tailgate grill should be in your inventory as well. You can procure a small portable charcoal grill for as low as $50. I’d say go outside and use your full size grill, but we’re shielding ourselves from the elements, remember?
And let’s be real everyone, I am not the only one here that’s eaten cold food right out of a can.
This guide isn’t by any means complete, but it is after all the Geek’s guide, so the focus here was a bit different. It will protect your tech, keep you warm and lit, and make sure you still have food, the internet, and portable power. Other things you should also have prepared are blankets to keep warm, pots filled with water or bottled water to stay hydrated, and a first aid kit, just in case. Have more suggestions? Anything I missed? Blackout gear you’ve used in your own experience? Drop a line in the comments! Otherwise stay warm and power on.